School Matters column with Dennis Richards OBE

Harrogate Debate is a relatively new, not for profit organisation, which has already held a number of high profile debates in the Council Chamber or Wesley Chapel.

Friday, 4th November 2016, 12:00 pm
Updated Wednesday, 16th November 2016, 3:23 pm
Harrogate Debate is a relatively new, not for profit organisation, which has already held a number of high profile debates in the Council Chamber or Wesley Chapel. This photo is from the recent debate on fracking.

Professor John Adam and his colleagues are to be congratulated on their initiative.

On the evidence so far, it would appear that education will be a regular feature. In the second debate the motion proposed is that “Faith schools are a blot on the educational landscape”.

I am invited to oppose it.

For some reason every serving head teacher of a faith school within 50 miles of Harrogate has discovered urgent commitments for the date in question. Hubris on my part leads me to accept.

After all this is a local forum and I am bound to be facing a familiar old foe from the correspondence columns of the Advertiser.

No such luck. I find I am to debate with Richy, the campaigns director of the British Humanist Association, who has come up from London, especially for the debate.

He opens up with a bewildering array of statistics, which put my hastily prepared notes to shame. I mentally rehearse my opening gambit.

Richy is from London, hence he knows “nowt about owt up ‘ere in Yorkshire”. I say this, doing my best impression of Geoffrey Boycott. It doesn’t work. I don’t think many in the audience care much for Geoffrey Boycott.

Try something else. Humour perhaps. I recount my embarrassment at one of my first prospective parents’ evenings, when I flippantly advanced the notion that, contrary to popular opinion, it would not require a reference from the Archbishop of Canterbury to gain admission to the school.

In the subsequent question and answer session Rev Mark Carey, who had recently moved into the area, announced to everyone’s astonishment, “My father is the Archbishop of Canterbury. Is it a plus or minus?”

That doesn’t go down well either. I simply cannot match Richy’s certainties. I see grey areas everywhere.

The next debate is, wait for it... grammar schools.

I make a mental note to be out of the country. I attended a grammar school back in the old 11 plus days, but have spent my entire teaching career in different comprehensive schools in various parts of the country. I know where I stand but others will have to debate that one.

I would, however, confess that as head teacher of a comprehensive school, I always felt a touch wistful about classics. The Latin motto on my school blazer said “Turpe Nescire”.

For at least a year, I had no idea what it meant. It sounded like a paint brush cleaner or a brand of instant coffee.

My Latin teacher was Trigfor... also with a meaning lost in the mists of time. We are seated in serried rows listening, as he declaims Latin prose and verse.

We boys are seemingly rapt in attention... but not for the reason, for which Trigfor would have hoped.

Our classroom has a large doorstop, which prevents the door from swinging back to hit the wall. When the door is closed, the doorstop presents an obstacle for Trigfor to negotiate. He rarely succeeds.

The only thing that varies, is the moment in the lesson when he will invariably trip up, while reading some dramatic piece from Virgil, Horace or Ovid perhaps.

The class bookie has taken bets on the moment it will happen. The various “oohs and ahs” which reverberate around the class, far from expressing our enthusiasm for Latin, indicate only Trigfor’s proximity to the doorstop.

A triumphant “Yeah!!!” means Trigfor has, as usual, given us a winner. On the rare occasions he misses, we have already invented the concept of the rollover, long before Camelot thought of it.

We loved Trigfor’s teaching method. Quite simply he did all the work. “Next boy”, he would call out. The victim would mutter a vague “er…er…er” and sure enough Trigfor would do it for you.

On one memorable occasion, we had a blow-up Yogi Bear doll in the class, complete with school tie and blazer. “Next boy!” says Trigfor. Somebody mutters an “er” on Yogi’s behalf and Yogi does as well as any of us.

Trigfor moves on, heedless of the mirth that our jape has created. Much of the subject matter left me baffled. You know the kind of thing. “Perseus visits Atlas, who refuses to give him hospitality. Perseus uses the head of the Gorgon to turn him into a stone” Translate.

And yet... and ye... some of it so stuck with me, that even today, I can remember the discovery of conjugation and of declension, of parsing, of learning all the tricks of the trade that making learning another language so much easier. And the vocabulary!

The richest words of our English dialogue and dictionary, derived from Latin and Greek. Perhaps every school needs a Trigfor.