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An Attenborough aims for the Gove-rnment jugular

Michael Attenborough, outgoing director of the Almeida Theatre, has launched a brilliantly coherent attack on Michael Gove’s attitude to education and the Tory Government’s downgrading of the arts. A member of one of Britain’s best-known media dynasties, he let fly in a letter last week to The Stage. The content is now going viral. Here’s the  nub of it.


‘I’d be surprised if any voters show up at the next general election. Have politicians really not noticed that the public now regard them with a lethal mixture of mistrust and boredom?

‘All we hear is endless debate around fiscal policy, the national debt, inflation, etc – in other words, exclusively materialistic, money matters. And while such considerations are important, they are only half the story and instinctively the public knows this. When are we going to find a politician who has the guts and the vision to address that which is invisible, that which we carry around inside us, the other half of the National Health, our emotional, psychological and spiritual health? Our humanity, our human nature.

‘Don’t be under any illusion; this is as connected to public life and politics as that which is visible. Many factors shape our personalities; one of the strongest is education. We are currently polluting our young people as carelessly as we are the planet. The dictatorial, narrow focus that governs the national curriculum is precluding any proper debate as to what kind of education we want for our children and our grandchildren.

‘The very word education comes from the Latin word ‘educo’, to lead out (not to cram in), and this is where the arts come in, with their unique ability to develop communication skills and moral and social awareness, to inspire creativity and self-expression, to instil a sense of self-esteem, self-confidence, achievement and hence identity. To produce rounded, responsible future citizens of the world. To question our assumptions and prejudices and reaffirm our basic values and our shared humanity. To crucially give the lie to the idea that nothing really matters any more except money.’

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  1. Edmund Coxon says:

    Hear, hear!

  2. I agree: but I don’t see any dichotomy between Attenborough’s views, and wanting children to be able to read & write English correctly (& understand Maths). This is essential to produce self-confidence & esteem. 50 years ago, children from varied backgrounds had an excellent all-round education (including arts) from junior school through grammar school. We could read and write (& knew our grammar), which enabled us to grasp – if not then fully understand – Literature/Theatre/etc.
    You can only ‘lead out’ those who’ve been schooled. The debate needs to be more focussed on exactly why children’s educational abilities seem to have shrunk so in the last 25 years. Could it have something to do with the teaching?

  3. Perhaps I might be permitted to chip in for the younger (mid-20s) generation. There is really no doubt that our fathers and grandfathers, for whom rote learning and a traditional, classical curriculum were the foundations of their schooling, were much better educated in the universal sense? The basic knowledge and understanding they were given between the ages of seven and thirteen ensured that they were able to engage with and explore the canon of Western culture during their years of senior schooling. Of course, this system still obtains to a certain degree in the public schools, but it has all but vanished in the state sector.

    When I compare my own (admittedly privileged) education and cultural background with that of my state-educated contemporaries, I cannot help but feel a great sadness at their intellectual poverty. With very, very few exceptions, they have no idea of art, music, literature, history, geography, languages; all those things which were once the fundamentals of knowledge and the foundations of civilization are now meaningless terms, inapplicable and unapproachable. I include in this group many of those bright young things with four “A”s at A-level, trained to pass exams as once animals were trained to jump through hoops and walk on hind legs.

    Mr. Attenborough is undoubtedly correct that cultural and intellectual education are equally important, but he fails to see that the former is entirely contingent on the latter. It is, quite simply, a matter of foundations: castles built on sand are no better than straw huts. Provide children with a rigorous, rich curriculum in their earlier years and we will reap the rewards of their intellectual flowering.

    • Agreed. And speaking of privileged educations, I note that Attenborough attended Westminster School and sent one of his two sons to St Paul’s. I assume his other child also had a private education. Attenborough comes from an academic family steeped in education and culture. His grandfather attended a grammar school in Leicester that is now private. His letter to the Stage refers to a debate about ‘the kind of education we want for our children and grandchildren’. Well I want for mine the kind of education that his grandfather, himself and his children enjoyed. That is either unavailable due to the destruction of grammars or is beyond my means. Would he, or Mr Lebrecht care to advise?

      I also note that despite Lebrecht’s rather breathless reference to an apparently brilliantly coherent condemnation of Gove’s attitudes to education that the letter does not refer to him directly. For the most part it seems to me that Gove would like to see children in state education receive the same kind of education the privately-schooled Attenborough received, one that allows him to enjoy a successful career and the knowledge to be able to cite Latin etymology in letters to the Stage. If that is the case, then I’m unclear as to what there is for him to complain about, other than being called a luvvie.

    • Elizabeth White says:

      Well said, David.

  4. Gary Carpenter says:
  5. Rosalind says:

    Excellent posts from David and Ziggy!

  6. Angela Giblin says:

    Good on him. When will people wake up?!

  7. Gary Carpenter says:

    I’m sure his surname has been of no use to him at all…

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