Monthly Archives: October 2014

School Days

It’s not surprising that education causes such a raucous political debate; next to healthcare, it’s probably the thing that matters most to most people.  If you’re a parent, there’s a good chance it’ll be number one on your list of public policy preoccupations.

When I’m not at my computer, one of the things I do is act as chair to the governing body of a local primary school. Being a governor is a great way to find out what’s really going on in your child’s school and I have to say that I personally have learned a vast amount about current educational practice as a result.

Keen to learn

Keen to learn

What soon becomes very apparent is that the information about school results published in league tables will only give you a very partial view of a school’s capabilities, not least because many schools are adept at making sure their results look as good as possible, even if it means preventing less able pupils from taking exams they might very well have passed. To me, that’s the opposite of what a school should be doing.

In contrast, the school where I’m governor has devoted hours and hours to ensuring that a small number of children from chaotic backgrounds have been able to stay in mainstream education. The chances are that such children will only pull down the school’s average attainment levels. But nevertheless, for some individual children, having adults in their lives that care enough and are skilled enough to provide the support they need to stay on track at school is literally a life-saver.

Neither the school, nor the teachers will get much credit for it and parents looking at the raw data will only see that a certain cohort has undergone a dip in its results. All the same, as far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly what I want our schools to be doing.  Of course exam results are important, but they’re only a part of the picture.

School children in Afghanistan

School children in Afghanistan

The education of our children matters hugely to society at large. The ultimate well-being of all of us depends on well educated, well socialised young people emerging from the school system. For individuals, education is the one thing that no-one can take away from you. I’ve never ever regretted the time I’ve spent learning new things and the ability to analyse and think is probably the single thing I value most. Education is what sets us free.

It’s easy to grumble about the education system in this country. All the same, things could be very much worse.

This is what a superhero looks like...

This is what a superhero looks like…

I was hugely delighted that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who was shot by Taliban militants for insisting on her right to go to school. To me, she’s one of the greatest beacons of hope in the world today. If humanity is serious about tackling the very many problems we face – from fundamentalism and superstition to climate change and incurable diseases like Ebola, we need as many people as possible to have access to good quality education. For girls, this is particularly important if they’re ever to achieve real equality. Three cheers for Malala and her campaign to ensure that every child on the planet can go to school; you definitely have my vote!

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Green Fingers

Where has the year gone? I can’t believe it’s October already and the time has come to plant spring bulbs, mow the lawn for the last time this season and generally put the garden to bed. Having said that, there’s still plenty of colour – magenta and orange dahlias, plumbago, Michaelmas daisies and a few late flowering roses.

Roses in my garden

Roses in my garden

A few days ago, we went to visit Christopher Lloyd’s garden at Great Dixter in East Sussex. The garden was created during the early part of the last century and was steadily built up over the succeeding decades, a true labour of love. It really is magnificent at this time of year – the proverbial riot of colour – and we spent a very happy couple of hours admiring it. The exotic garden, replete with banana plants, clematis, cannas and purple verbena bonariensis, was my particular favourite. Afterwards, we strolled around the nursery, and I couldn’t help indulging myself with a few acquisitions for my own small plot.

The exotic garden at Great Dixter

The exotic garden at Great Dixter

I find the garden a great source of consolation amid the stresses and anxieties of daily life. When my writing isn’t going too well, it’s wonderful to be able to step outside with a cup of coffee for a five minute break. Very often, I find myself stopping to do a little bit of pruning or weeding and before you know it, an hour has passed. Although we live at the edge of the city, we have a multitude of birds that visit us and their songs give a profound sense that the natural world is near at hand, and that I too am part of it.

When I was growing up, on Friday nights my mother would always make a point of stopping whatever she was doing and sitting down on the sofa in time for Gardeners’ World. It’s definitely from her that I get my love of all things green. Moreover, gardening has given us a life-long common interest.

Monty Don - presenter of Gardeners' World

Monty Don – presenter of Gardeners’ World

As a youngster, I used to think Gardeners’ World was painfully old-fashioned and uncool, but now I find I’m an increasingly avid convert. There’s something timeless and comforting about Gardeners’ World. It’s a place where you can easily convince yourself that nothing truly terrible could ever happen. It’s always gentle and unhurried, a real bastion of civility with its knowledgeable experts and self-deprecating presenters. It’s deeply redolent of English country life at its best – enduring, tranquil and essentially good.

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