The launch of the Charlotte Mason Digital Archive at Redeemer University College in Toronto early in October was a fascinating event. Thanks first of all to Dr. Deani Van Pelt, Marlene Power and all those who made the conference such a success. I have already been using the online images of the archive here in my study in Milnthorpe, because it is quicker and easier than making the 30 minute trip to Ambleside, or even to finding my own digital copies of selected documents on my own computer – and the quality of the images is much better than my digital photographs. Thanks to Deani and Marlene and their team for this marvellous resource.
Since the Redeemer Conference I have spoken to two groups about Charlotte Mason. One was the Ambleside Local History Society. In the question session that followed my talk one fairly elderly lady said that she had attended the Practice School attached to the College in the 1930s, and gave us a brief but graphic first-hand account of the nature study, the narration, the broad curriculum, and several other aspects of Charlotte Mason education that I had just been talking about. A week later I spoke to the annual conference of the Cumbria Family History Society, where I concentrated on the work that Margaret Coombs has done on Charlotte’s family and early history. In the audience there was a man from the still quite strong Quaker community in South Cumbria who told us that his own family had links with the very area that Charlotte’s father came from in south-east Ireland, and he was able to confirm that the name Mason was indeed quite common amongst the Quaker families there. All this made me very much aware that there is a surprising amount of information out there in the community; it’s a matter of knowing who to ask.
I was talking the other day, at the half-term holiday, to our grandson Joel, who moved into secondary school in September. ‘Ten times better than primary school,’ Joel insisted. ‘Why?’ he went on. ‘Because we don’t spend all the time practising for those awful SATs tests.’ Now let me stress that I don’t blame the primary school; all primary schools throughout the country do the same. The last year in primary school is devoted largely to getting children through the SATs tests in Maths, English and Science, because the national ‘League Tables’ are based entirely on the results of these tests. Joel is fascinated by History and Geography, and he is quite musical, but he had done nothing of any of these for the last year and a half of the primary school. Now he gets his History, Geography, Music (he is learning to play the guitar), and many other things, and from Joel’s enthusiasm they appear to be well taught, with an emphasis on getting out and about to look at things and finding things out for themselves, all within a structured and caring environment that stresses friendship and helping one another. Joel goes to a Roman Catholic comprehensive school in Liverpool, but I don’t think Charlotte Mason would have criticised much of what goes on there – well, not in Joel’s class anyway.
In fact the debate about ‘those awful SATs tests’ continues unabated over here. The government is coming under increasing pressure to revise the whole system. It has been totally abandoned in Wales, and abandoned at the age of 14 and much altered at the age of 7 in England. Even our government inspectors are now saying that the SATs at 11 seriously restrict the curriculum in most primary schools. This year many heads of schools flatly refused to do them – and because our state schools now have a fair degree of independence, the government discovered that there was not much it could do about it. The SATs are on the way out, though it may take a year or two yet. Charlotte would have been pleased, because this system has had a similar deleterious effect on the primary school curriculum to that caused by the ‘Payment by Results’ system that Charlotte herself detested in the 1860s and 1870s.
Our government over here is keen to introduce ‘free schools’, to be called ‘Academies’ and to be set up by parents’ groups, commercial companies, or whoever wants to set up a school. These schools will have full government funding, but will be free from many of the regulations (including the National Curriculum and probably some aspects of government inspection) that apply to ordinary state schools. The schools will be based on the American model of Charter Schools. But of course over here the motivation to set up a ‘free school’ will not primarily be concerned with the teaching of religion as many in the US are, since that is already built into the state school system (as I mentioned above, our grandchildren go to a Roman Catholic school, which is fully state funded). The concern that many people have (including me) is that these free schools will be set up in more affluent areas to cream off the more able and socially advantaged children, with full government funding. In fact the regulations for free schools do say that children cannot be selected for entry on academic grounds; but the name, location and curriculum of the school can select just as easily – ‘The Lawns Classical Academy’ is likely to turn into a selective ‘grammar school’ before you can say ‘Charlotte Mason’.
© John Thorley 2010