Suffolk: John Constable? Who? No, sorry, never heard of him

John Constable's The Lock

John Constable's The Lock - Credit: PA

With Education Secretary Michael Gove creating a storm over his proposals to introduce more facts into the curriculum, Terry Hunt recounts a worrying conversation

“John Constable? I’ve never heard of him.’’ Those were the astonishing words uttered by a bright 18-year-old lad who has been educated at two of Suffolk’s best state schools.

This is a boy with some good GCSE results behind him, who is expected to do well in his A-levels, and go on to study at a decent university. And yet he’s never heard of John Constable. I checked with his friend – equally blank looks.

How can that possibly happen? Two intelligent youngsters who are doing well at school are not aware of Constable, arguably England’s greatest landscape artist, who was born in Suffolk and whose best-known works feature iconic views of the county.

The conversation took place over the Easter weekend. As usual, our house was packed to the rafters with youngsters – friends of our three offspring. All of them are pleasant, polite and intelligent. I mentioned, in passing, that I planned to visit the Constable exhibition at Christchurch Mansion later in the day.

There was no flicker of recognition. Then came the enquiry: “Who?’’ Thinking this was a wind-up (even though it wasn’t April 1) I replied: “You know, John Constable – our greatest artist – grew up just down the road.’’

The blank looks remained, and then one of the boys said: “I’ve never heard of him.’’ Neither, to my astonishment, had his mate. One of these youngsters had studied art to GCSE level – but obviously learning about Constable’s very existence wasn’t part of the course.

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While I was enjoying the exhibition (well worth a visit) I mused on this conversation. Was it the parents’ responsibility to fill this knowledge gap? As far as I’m aware, both lads come from supportive homes in which their parents take a keen interest in their progress at school.

Then, all the headlines about Michael Gove’s plans for our schoolchildren to learn more facts started to appear. How timely, I thought. The National Union of Teachers doesn’t like it, with one member dubbing it the “pub quiz curriculum’’. There are even warnings that children will be so bored that truancy will increase.

Of course, I’m a dinosaur. I attended Framlingham College in the early 1970s as a non fee-paying scholarship boy from a local primary school. This was an era, certainly in the public school system, when it was pretty much all about learning facts. Come to think of it, one of our more useful punishments was to laboriously compile a list of historical dates. Rather “parrot fashion’’, agreed, but some of them have stuck with me to this day.

I wouldn’t advocate a return to those methods, but surely having a sound knowledge of facts is essential? Let’s take history – my favourite subject. If you don’t know what happened, and when, then how can you comprehend, and discuss, the world around us?

A grounding in facts was necessary when I came to study history at university. Knowing the basics meant I was able to wax lyrical to put forward my theories about why events had taken place. Sometimes it seemed the wilder and wackier the theory, the better marks I received. But I needed to know my stuff in the first place.

Surely it cannot be acceptable for any high school student in Suffolk, Essex, or anywhere in the UK, not to be aware of the existence of John Constable? Which other major figures from our history have they also not heard of? The mind boggles.

So, at the risk of upsetting the teaching profession (of which my daughter is now a fledgling member), I do think that facts are vital in a child’s education. Not the mindless, parrot fashion of past decades, but a good grounding as a basis for creative thought.

Maybe Mr Gove’s new methods could start with teaching about Britain’s greatest artists.