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Education Matters: Geoff Barton retraces his educational journey back to Lancaster

21:40 16 July 2014

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury.

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury.

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The north-south divide isn’t really new.

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Back in 1980 when my wife Philippa told her Surrey friends that she was going to university in Newcastle, one of them looked at her with a baffled frown. “Newcastle?” she said. “Do they have Marks and Spencer up there?”

It was a kind of benchmark of civilisation – a test of whether Newcastle was a place you could dare to live.

I thought of this comment because I’ve headed north twice in the last fortnight.

First, I was asked to give a talk on literacy at a brilliant state comprehensive school in a run-down part of Newcastle. I was inspired by the way the team at this all-girls Catholic school take in students from all backgrounds, some in the grip of terrible disadvantage, and help them to achieve some of the best results in the city. It did what all great schools do. Irrespective of our circumstances, they exude the optimism of how learning can give us a stepping stone into a better life.

Great universities do the same.

Last weekend, I was invited to Lancaster University for its celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the Department of Linguistics.

It was a nostalgic visit. Lancaster is where I studied from 1981 to 1984. It’s a proud institution that looks magisteriallly in one direction over the sturdy granite county town of Lancashire. In another it peers towards the beguiling silhouettes of the Lake District. And then, just down the fields of Bailrigg hill, there’s one of the more scenic parts of the M6 motorway with its reassuring distant rumble of juggernauts.

This is Lancaster. As a gawky young man not yet certain what he wanted to become, it’s where I studied English and Linguistics. It’s where – to be honest – I fell in love with learning.

It was at Lancaster that I was taught by experts in their field and where I realised that real learning isn’t for tests or exams; it’s for the sake of learning. As one of my tutors quipped: “Professors are people who know more and more about less and less, until eventually they know everything about nothing.”

I learnt that. Thus at the weekend I listened to a professor who had extensively analysed the language of the Daily Mail. Another had explored the postcards of the late Edwardian era, which – because there were up to six postal deliveries a day – were deployed as we might use emails today. I listened to experts in the field of grammar using words and concepts I could barely comprehend. I loved it.

The banners around the university campus reminded us that Lancaster is now ranked among the top ten UK institutions. Its vice chancellor, Mark Smith, happens to be a former student of King Edward VI School. It is a place which is involved in ground-breaking research into space technology, climate change, and much else.

But alongside the practical implications of its teaching and research, it’s also – like all great universities – an embodiment of the human spirit of learning for the sake of learning.

As we head into the summer break, we know that mid-August will bring the annual pantomime of A-level and GCSE results, with squabbles over standards or grade inflation or league tables. Someone, no doubt, will choose this time to lament falling standards, or gloat about how exams were tougher back in their day.

For me, examinations are an important gateway to other things: they open doors to the sixth form, to college and to university. They are necessary and must be taken seriously.

But let’s not confuse examinations with learning. And let’s not forget that the most important work that great teachers do at all levels is to give our students something that will last way beyond their examination certificates and yellowing newspaper clippings of league table positions.

They pass on a love of learning that led many of us to become teachers in the first place.

Last weekend it was a great privilege to be invited back to those great teachers of my past and to have the chance to say, simply and in person, thank you.

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