Last week I spent a great few days in London with my very dear friend, professional opera singer and voice coach, Janet Shell. We went to Kensington Palace, enjoying a few hours there looking at the ‘Seven Princesses’ exhibition. Many of the state rooms are being revamped. The palace has cleverly set up the exhibition devoting a room to each of the princesses, including Victoria, Margaret and Diana. In each room is an almost mystical representation of that princess, along with clues so that the more enquiring visitors can deduce to whom that room is devoted. The ‘Explainers” throughout the exhibition are, as is usual for all the historic royal palaces, incredibly well-informed and enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge. As a keen student of history, I loved the challenge - and yes, I worked out all seven.
Knowledge of a different kind was another of Janet’s objectives. We’ve called this Avril’s London Orientation Project. Last visit was largely given over to the underground and how to get from A to B in the shortest time possible. This trip was the continuation of the overground bits. All of which was conducted by bus from Kensington Palace to St Pancras, or as my spell-checker would prefer, pancreas, for a meal at the Champagne Bar. London seems full of roadworks at the moment, so the route was anything but direct, all of which suited Janet’s purpose to try and make me see how the ‘grid’ works and which streets are connected to which. No two ways about it, if you are not in a hurry, bus is a great way to see the city. For me, this will be an ongoing learning experience.
After our champagne meal, we went to the Union Chapel to hear Eric Whitacre and his singers in concert. Once again, I was stunned by the pure tones of his choir and the ingenuity of his chord structures.
The most thought-provoking part of the week, though, was, for me, watching Janet give a ‘taster’ presentation for student teachers of her work with voice. Her company, Talking Voice specialises in teaching those whose professions are prone to voice issues, to save their voices from the dangers of overuse leading to vocal nodes and other less pleasant things.
I had no idea that 60% of teachers will at some time be off work with vocal problems. Janet makes her presentations about fun and energy as well as learning. She will change tack and focus the instant she thinks anyone is glazing over. these include games and a lot of physical movement to bring home her mantra - that we only have one voice and you cannot go to the supermarket and buy another if you damage it.
This fun/enjoyment approach led to a much deeper feeling of regret and, yes, sadness. Today, we are bombarded by employers saying that many young people have neither the Maths/English nor Communication skills necessary to be effective in the workplace. I wrote to David Cameron when he was elected leader of the Conservative Party, suggesting that what was needed in education was a complete re-think about what it was really for. Why educate our children? Surely, as well as trying to make them rounded individuals who can think, the overwhelming need is to prepare them for the world of work.
What I received in reply was a standard ‘we’ve done this, written this, suggested that’ bread and butter letter from someone I’d never heard of. What a shame DC himself couldn’t even be bothered to sign the response, let alone read what I’d written.
So, what can we do about the parlous state of our education system? Can we stop the tick-box mentality, where, if a child learns the letter H in a week, he/she is judged to be a success? Could we - heaven forbid - try to make learning fun? I know when I was young if I enjoyed a subject, I was far more likely to work hard at it. I can’t think children have changed that much. Isn’t it worth a try? After all, these are the people who will be controlling our lives in 20 years time when we are all sitting by the fire mumbling our gruel.