This last weekend I visited the Cheltenham Literature Festival and had a wonderful time catching up with old friends and going to a number of talks and debates. Particularly impressive was Martin Bell, who was reading some recently composed short, pithy poems reflecting his experience as both a war correspondent and an independent MP campaigning for probity in public life. He was erudite, insightful and funny all at once – I recommend his book of verse, For Whom the Bell Tolls. In another session, Melvyn Bragg talked about his book, The Book of Books, on the development and influence of the King James Bible, celebrating its 400th anniversary this year. He explained that the roots of the King James translation go back to Tyndale, and that that version, which constitutes the majority of the King James Bible, is reflected in Shakespeare, who was clearly familiar with it. Melvyn Bragg also smuggled in several denunciations of the fundamentalist atheist fanaticism of Richard Dawkins, which interestingly went down very well with the audience. He finished by looking at how the King James inspired reformers such as William Wiberforce, who led the campaign to stop the slave trade in the British Empire, and mentioned that the Bible on which Barack Obama was sworn in was, in fact, the King James version!
Finally, I was present at the annual Education Debate which takes place at Cheltenham, with Melissa Benn, (http://melissabenn.com )a very well informed critic of coalition policies; Toby Young, who is behind the controversial free school in West London (http://www.westlondonfreeschool.co.uk ); Anthony Seldon, headmaster of the independent Wellington College and a frequent speaker in favour of more ‘roundedness’ in education; and a local state school head teacher Chris Healey. The two issues which aroused most heated controversy were free schools, which it was felt by many were expensive, and susceptible to ‘hijacking’ by the aspirational middle classes or ‘special interest’ groups, and distracted from the issue of improving weaker schools in a locality. Toby Young of course strongly denied that this would happen. The second issue arose out of a discussion about the national curriculum, which is currently being re-written by the government, but which does not apply to either free schools or academies. Most panel members felt a national curriculum, however ‘bare bones’, was a good thing. Toby Young, however, felt it was not – and the reason he gave was that it was open to political interference, for example having to teach children that climate change exists (he is a climate change denier)! This elicited a very sceptical reaction from the audience; in my view, a bare-bones national curriculum is needed to guard against precisely that kind of maverick view infiltrating into children’s education.
Last week saw more good news for Bennett’s under 15 boys’ rugby side. In the Kent Cup game against the Howard School we won 38:20, taking us into the third round. And in the Daily Mail Royal Bank of Scotland Vase, Bennett U15s beat Hayesbrook 54:0, taking us into the third round of that tournament too, and only 5 matches away from Twickenham. Congratulations to all, and their coach Mr Singleton.