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June 11, 2011 12:18 am

My half-term education

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The Hay Festival replaces textbooks with lessons on geography, the arts and current events

What makes an education? We have just finished half term, and all three cost centres were at home. They are at very different stages of their education. CC#1, having previously abandoned university, is going to start over in the autumn, at a different university, this one situated near a famous Regency south-coast town. CC#2 is half way through his GCSE examinations, and opted to spend the week sitting at the kitchen table doing past papers. CC#3 is in his first year of secondary school, and so I thought it would be a good idea for him to accompany me to the Hay Festival.

Mr M spent half term working. Why? After all, he is now employed in the education sector, teaching cricket at a boys’ school in Oxford, and they had a half-term break. But in his spare time he coaches the county’s youth teams, and, of course, they all have fixtures in the school holidays. And that’s on top of coaching our local ladies’ team and the village youth team. The moral of this tale is that if you are married to a professional cricket coach, expect minimal support in the summer months. So we have no cover at home, and CC#3 was much better off with me in Wales.

When we arrived in Hay, I realised that I had forgotten to pack any of his text books and his school exams are looming. CC#3 wasn’t exactly unhappy about this, and, anyway, the Hay Festival is an education in itself. We did a day there. First, current affairs, with Julia Hobsbawm and guests reviewing the daily papers. CC#3 is determined to go into the army, and was understandably thoughtful as they discussed The Independent’s sailing correspondent’s moving front-page piece about the death of his son in Afghanistan a few days before. Then it was on to ICT (technology to anyone who doesn’t hang out in a UK school), as I did a live online Q&A session for people who are unable to get to Hay to see me. This was followed by economics, when we realised that I had been switched to a 430-seat venue from my original 100-seater.

After my event we went to listen to Jonathan Stroud (CC#3 is a fan of the Bartimaeus books), who delivered lessons in creative writing, art and typography, all inside an hour. Then it was time for science in the Wiggly Worm corner (worms, soil and plants) before finishing up with drama, music and history lesson combined when we watched Michael Morpurgo and friends perform a dramatic reading of War Horse. Our half-term education concluded with a geography lesson, alas. On our way home our train from Hereford was cancelled, leaving us to figure out the best replacement cross-country route to get us from Wales to Oxford.

See? I had totally replaced the school books. And I am sure that most parents are equally as watchful and engaged in their children’s education. But on the day that we left Hay the front page story in London’s evening paper was that a full one-fifth of children in the city leave school unable to read with confidence – and yet 85 per cent of children own a games console. I’ve lost count of the number of parents I know who have mentioned how shocking they found this.

It is indeed shocking, and it is a state of affairs that can’t just be blamed on schools, or parents. The whole issue of education is a fraught one, but it is one with which we all – parents, teachers, employers – must engage. The Evening Standard article has spurred me to put another festival in my diary – but this time it is to visit Berkshire at the end of the month for the Festival of Education. Anyone who is anyone in the education sector from Michael Gove downwards will be there. It is open to all (although I won’t be taking CC#3), and I plan to be in the audience to hear what can possibly be done to rectify what is a truly appalling situation. As a parent, and an employer, this is no time to be ignoring the lessons of past failures in the national classroom.

mrsmoneypenny@ft.com

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