Time to act: launch a Free University of Colchester!

Let teachers provide their own university - says Martin Newell

Let teachers provide their own university - says Martin Newell - Credit: PA

‘My education was interrupted only by my schooling’ – Winston Churchill

I WAS mildly startled recently to read a front-page headline suggesting that the over-60s should go to university to re-train. This, apparently, is because they will be expected to work for longer before retirement. “How about that?” I asked my tamer. “What will they want us to re-train for?”

She said: “They don’t. They probably want the tuition fees.” Spoken like a true former educator, I thought. I considered the matter. Since many of our young people cannot now afford to pay tuition fees, and since a few overseas students may not now be arriving because of the prevailing international banking miracle, why not get the pre-pensioners coughing up instead?

Brilliant. Or have I missed something essential here?

Education and I parted company back in 1968, when I was 15. From a services family, I walked out of my eleventh school in 10 years with no qualifications and two fingers aloft. I never returned to formal education. There was an advertising campaign during the last Government’s incumbency. Its hookline ran: “Everyone remembers a good teacher.”


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I remembered the violent ones: one who, when I was seven, shouted at me and slippered me in front of the whole class. One in Cyprus, who, when I couldn’t understand a new method of gathering up the exercise books, picked me up under my arms and shook me in the air. Then, shouting, he put me down and swiped me back and forth across the face with one of the books, until a little trickle of blood ran from one nostril. I exited the hut in a daze with my face burning, desperately trying not to cry.

I remember one who, one morning when I was 10, came speeding down the aisle between the desks, hauled back and slapped me full-force in the face. Why? Never found out. I think it was my smile, which had been misinterpreted as impertinence.

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I can’t remember the name of the dough-faced, sullen teacher in Singapore, when I was 12, who wrote “BLOCKHEAD!” in big red letters in my exercise book and sent me to be caned. I instinctively felt, however, that he didn’t like me.

My English teacher in a London comprehensive, upon noting that I had scored 89/100 in my end-of-year English exam, told me it was the highest mark in the class, but that she was awarding me an E because of my “attitude”.

Luckily, I remember the good teachers too. Mr Smith in Hertfordshire, who when I was 13 told me that I could write poetry quite well. Miss Kelly in Hampshire, who when I was six told me how clever I was to have spelled the word “rescue” without asking. Mrs Moir in Dundee, who when I was aged nine told me that I was good at history. Mr Jackson in London, who did his best to stop me leaving school by coming halfway across South London, in his own time, to confer with my mother.

I do sometimes wish I’d stayed on, too. But, as you may imagine, I’d had quite enough by the time I finally marched. It was just how it was.

I now know many teachers and lecturers socially. A number of them have retired, can’t wait to retire or have simply changed profession. As a result of conversations with them I know perhaps more about the changes to our education system than the average outsider. I could probably sit here and write a small and scandalous book upon the subject if so I wished.

Instead, I had another idea – a positive one: Let’s start the Free University of Colchester.

A wise lecturer once told me: “There are only two important things which you need to know about education: 1) That you can learn. 2) How to learn.”

Since there are many great teachers around, teachers who’ve either been laid off or have fled the system in despair, why not start a teaching bank?

Gather together a pool of educators, using a central database. Now assemble a curriculum and time-table. Run the smaller classes in private houses and the bigger ones in hired rooms of public buildings. The statement to the students might be: “We can’t give you a certificate – but we can promise to teach you.” Why buy an expensive education from the state when you can buy it cheaper from the teachers themselves?

After all, apart from law, medicine and certain science subjects, what do you need a qualification for? Almost any graduate will tell you nowadays it won’t necessarily get you a job. Most employers will rain kisses upon your upturned face if you only turn up on time and do the work well.

Given, therefore, that an education and a brace of certificates are not necessarily the same thing, perhaps it’s time we decided which of the two is most useful to our needs. Never have we been so in need of education and, yet, never has education been so meanly tinkered with and so expensive. Never have so many experienced teachers been wastefully cast aside by an administration almost entirely beholden to bean counters.

As for me? I’m not fussed. I learned to fend for myself decades ago. Free University of Colchester, anyone? Go on. I dare you.

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