Learning for pleasure - speech at Oxford Brookes University

12 Sep 2011

 I was very honoured and flattered to made an Honorary Doctor of Education by Oxford Brookes University last weekend.

I was invited to give an address at the degree ceremony for the university's newest education graduates. It was a great pleasure to join them and their families for this event and I enjoyed talking to many of them afterwards.

A number of people kindly asked if they could get a copy of my speech, so - with some trepidation - I have pasted it below.

I say trepidation because the speech was far more personal than I had originally intended. It was certainly more personal than my usual journalistic writing. That's because my current experience of dealing with cancer had prompted me into a rewrite to accommodate a newly heartfelt belief in the value of learning for its own sake and for the sheer pleasure of learning. 

Address at the Graduation Ceremony, Oxford Brookes University September 10th 2011

"Pro-Vice Chancellor, distinguished ladies and gentlemen and most importantly, graduates….

It’s a pleasure to be here with you today. May I add my congratulations to you all on your hard-earned qualifications.

Like weddings, graduation days seem to come in cycles.

My own was 32 years ago. But now I’m into cycle two: my elder daughter graduated two years ago. And my younger daughter will – all being well! – graduate next year.

But, you know, things have changed somewhat since my own graduation.

Way back then, in 1979, Mrs Thatcher had just become Prime Minister, a Sony Walkman was the height of personal gadgetry, average house prices were just over £13,000, inflation was 17%….and – if you think that’s incredible – in football, my team (Ipswich Town) finished two places ahead of Manchester United in the old Division One! That really was another world!

 And, of course, in education there’ve been enormous change too. And – without being too serious on this occasion - that’s what I’d like to say a word or two about today.

 Back in the world in which I graduated, schools in England were not subject to a national curriculum.

 Indeed – although it’s hard to remember now - the very notion of a nationalised curriculum was still considered, by some, to be dangerously totalitarian…associated with the propagandist curriculum of the Soviet Union.

 Moreover, except in the few areas where academic selection survived at age 11, primary schools were completely free from any form of external assessment.

At secondary level, sixth-formers could ease their way into A-level study without having the exam hurdle of AS levels looming after just a couple of terms.

 And lower down the school there was no outside pressure from league tables.

It wasn’t all perfect, of course….and – surprise, surprise! – back then politicians blamed schools and teachers for many of the things they thought were wrong with society.

This was also the time when education started to become intensely political – though it’s hard to believe now, before the late 1970’s education was only rarely made national news headlines. 

 But from that period on things changed. Politicians started to talk disparagingly about the ‘secret garden’ of the curriculum, claiming that the what was taught in schools was too important to be left to teachers. 

 It was a little after this that I started to report on education, initially as a political correspondent for the BBC covering Mrs Thatcher’s government and, later, as the corporation’s Education Correspondent.

 And, of course, it was the Thatcher reforms of the late 1980’s that introduced the national curriculum and national testing.

 This was the start of a trend - continued under Tony Blair - towards more assessment, more central control, greater accountability, and ever more Whitehall-led benchmarks.

 And, for all the talk of trusting teachers and liberating schools that we heard from politicians at the last election, the current government is continuing that trend.

 Now this is not the place for a detailed analysis of these reforms.

 But what now apparent, I believe, is that the swing from autonomy to accountability went too far.

 It wasn’t that testing was wrong but that the frequency and the high-stakes nature of that testing brought some, perhaps, unintended consequences.

The pressure of league-tables affected the behaviour of schools. C/D border-line pupils became a higher priority than other pupils.

Subject options became influenced as much by league tables as by what was right for them, a risk that continues with the EBacc.

England went from the least- to the most-examined school system in just a couple of decades, bringing a narrowing of focus in the curriculum to those parts that are tested and used in accountability measures.

And, while some schools still teach a broader curriculum, others have understandably allowed the range of learning to shrink. 

I was lucky with my schooling. There was plenty of teaching that strayed far off the fairway of the exam syllabus. Often we ended up in the rough or the bunker, and it was all the more interesting for that.

And to be honest, those bits often proved to have the most long-term impact.

For example, the A-level history teacher who trusted us to cover the curriculum content in our own time while spending  lesson-time in discussions that meandered way beyond the set syllabus. 

Or the English teacher who decided O Level English Lit was too narrow, so allowed us to create our own syllabus. That was when I ‘discovered’ George Orwell, sowing the seeds of my journalistic career.

Or the primary school teacher who let us watch the Test Match on a black & white TV at lunchtimes, guaranteeing – for me – a life-time of interest and pleasure in watching and listening to cricket.

 All of these were examples of learning in the widest context, without an eye on the looming exam, free from the restrictions of the next qualification or step up the education and career ladder.

And this brings me onto what I want to end on: the attempt to achieve balance in our learning and in our lives.

 Now, of course, it is vital to ensure that children learn what politicians call ‘the basics’, and the media still calls the ‘3 R’s’ (conveniently forgetting several other skills that are also vital in the modern world, such as ICT).

But we should not allow other types of learning to be marginalised….learning for its own sake …learning for the sheer joy of discovering new things.

And, if you’ll excuse a rather personal note, let me tell you what has recently reinforced these views.

Six months ago I was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. It was a shock, especially as I’ve never been a smoker.

My first reaction was to keep going as before. The cancer was not going to beat me.  

But slowly as the chemotherapy took its toll - and as I pondered the implications of a shortened life - I started to change my outlook…in particular my view on the balance between work and the rest of life.

I’ve been lucky. I’ve always enjoyed my work.

But this shock made me realise I’d allowed work to make me rather a dull boy in other ways.

I was always rushing from deadline to deadline. Always trying to keep up. I worried about how often I got my stories onto the 10 o’clock news or Today programme.

But more recently, I’ve tried to get a better balance between what’s necessary for work and daily utility, on the one hand, and – on the other - learning about or doing things for the simple pleasure of discovering something new.

Or, as the poet W.H. Davies put it: ‘what is this life if full of care, there is not time to stand and stare’.

(And, you know, that line has stuck with me ever since primary school when, in a handwriting class, we had to copy it out in neat italics. Thank you, Mr Saunders, for that…you couldn’t have guessed how long it has stuck in my mind eventually to emerge now…the italic handwriting style has not, however, survived!).

 So, since being given my rather gloomy prognosis (which, incidentally, I intend to confound) I have given fresh thought to all the things I still don’t know or haven’t experienced.

Some are serious, others frivolous.

For example, I want to learn more about the trees that surround me.

So I now go out on walks with a tree guide and a leaf swatch. It’s amazing how much more you notice when you’re learning.

And I’ve signed up for woodworking classes (I had the first one yesterday).

There’s so much else I want to do while there’s still time….I won’t bore you with the list, but it’s a long one.

All the items on it have one thing in common… they are all about learning… not to improve my career prospects or my earning-power but for its own sake.

What’s more many of them are well outside my normal comfort zone. They could – and probably will - expose my failings.

So, that’s my resolve…to find more time for learning new things…things which, in the past, I rushed past, like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, worrying that I’d be late for the next appointment or deadline.

And I suppose if I have any message to pass on it is that - as you stand on the brink of your teaching (or indeed other) careers - I’d urge you to try to keep that balance in your own lives and in your teaching. 

Stand up to the external pressures that will tempt you to focus just on grades and pass-rates.

And remember that, important though qualifications are, it’s other learning that can also change the lives of those you teach in ways you probably can’t even anticipate.

Teaching just for the joy of the learning.

Learning for its own sake.

It’s what keeps us alive …. and I use that phrase advisedly.

User Comments

Rita Lister - 12 Sep 2011

School Librarian Royds Specialist language College

I am very much in tune with your articles. I enjoyed reading your article which asked the question whether anyone had ever met a mugger who had read Middlemarch, immensely. Receiving these articles, is my daily current awareness treat.

Jan Chambers - 12 Sep 2011

Your address

Wow! Fantastic. Thank you Mike for sharing your speech. I agree absolutely with everything you say and feel.

Rebecca Hanson - 12 Sep 2011

Yin and yang

I think education for children is best when it adopts and yin and yang approach which embraces both freedom to explore and the skills of acquiring a core of knowledge and learning to acquire skills and knowledge when required to do so.

For adults who want to take a break to experience the kind of education Mike is describing here, I can't recommend Higham Hall highly enough. No tests, no certificates, just great tutors and seriously healthy and delicious food in a stunning environment.

Kelly Dickson - 12 Sep 2011

Great work

Very nice speech, Mike - wish I could have heard it in person. We've got a bunch of young people here this week "learning for its own sake."

Ursula Edgington - 13 Sep 2011

From the heart

Touched by your personal challenges - and the passion you continue to have for the true value of education. Its good to have you speaking our minds!

Gareth - 13 Sep 2011

One of the best....

Your words stuck a chord and were truly insightful. One of the best speeches I have ever read. Thank you.

Joan - 14 Sep 2011

Hi Mike,
I am lost for words, but your wonderful speech revealed eveything(my thoughts,goals and more...).
Thank you for sharing what so many of us are experiencing in life. It is a speech for life.
Best wishes.

Post a comment

After posting your comment you will need to confirm it by checking your email and clicking the confirmation that will be sent to you.

Comments will appear once reviewed for appropriate content.