Are we the product of our education? Or are the schools and even university that we attended irrelevant? For thousands of parents in this country who pay huge school fees to send their children to the right place, the answer is obvious. For others it can be said that they have succeeded – or failed – in life despite the education they received. And for some of us the answer is ‘it’s complicated’.
I’ve been mulling over this in recent months, partly because I am a school governor and the chair of a body that oversees, in some way, a hundred and forty church schools in East London and Essex. The work of those schools is hugely important to the children and families they serve, and yet we seem unsure, as a country, about just what we’re trying to achieve in our schools.
For me, schooling was a very mixed affair, and yet I am sure that I reflect many aspects of my education in my life now. The first school I attended was in Ghana, where my father – a doctor – was working. The Akosombo International School is now a huge boarding establishment of some repute, but in 1964 it was much smaller and mostly attended by the children of the white westerners who were supervising the building of the Akosombo Dam on the Volta River. I learned to swim in a fabulous tropical open-air pool, but forgot completely when faced with the cold water of Mile End Municipal Baths when taken there by my next school, in London.
Malmesbury Primary School, in east London, was a very different place. Looking back, I can see that we were taught by some deeply dedicated teachers, including the brilliant infants head, Ruth Fisher. Compared to the drab greyness of the East End in the mid-1960s, it was a bright, colourful place and the sort of progressive school that is too often derided now as ‘trendy’. True, we never learned our ‘times tables’ but, as East End kids even then of a range of backgrounds and ethnicities, we learned about the world and how to get on with each other. I’m grateful for Malmesbury School.
I made a big leap in moving, at the age of eight, to St Paul’s Cathedral Choir School. Everyone spoke ‘posh’, so I soon became bilingual as I moved between the streets of Bow E3 and the choir stalls of St Paul’s. They’d all done their times tables and learned things that I hadn’t, so I appeared stupid to them. It was only when we all did the ‘eleven plus’ tests that the teachers discovered that I had a brain. I remember them talking about the results in hushed tones and treating me with a respect that had been lacking until then.
Of course, the life of a chorister at St Paul’s offered a superb musical education. Singing for at least two hours a day to the highest standards for five years, and being treated as a fellow professional musician by adult singers, is an astonishing training. It is no wonder that many of my contemporaries have gone on to musical careers, among them the composer Mark Russell, the keyboardist and hugely-successful producer Marius de Vries, the organist Simon Lawford, the oboeist Simon Emes, the organist, choirmaster and tv personality Simon Lole and a number of others who still play or produce music. For myself, opportunities to play in public are not as frequent as they were, but I can still be found leading ‘the Dry Bones Band’ at events in Chelmsford Cathedral and elsewhere from time to time.
Not only does the life of a cathedral chorister produce able musicians but the discipline involved in leading daily cathedral worship results in the ability to concentrate for long periods that another former St Paul’s chorister, England cricket captain Alastair Cook has credited in enabling him to grind out long innings in the face of intense pressure. One of my contemporaries, Simon Russell Beale, has used it in a different way to produce some of the most remarkable performances in British theatre in recent years.
To move from a 38-pupil choir school to any other school is difficult. For me, Forest School, set in Epping Forest on the border between Walthamstow and Redbridge, seemed vast and frightening. It wasn’t really, but for me it still took some getting used to. As a music scholar, I had to earn my fees by participating in the musical life of the school. Whereas a cathedral chorister will often not see the music to be sung at Evensong until that morning’s rehearsal, at Forest I was expected to note-bash through weeks of dull choir practices before participating in a performance of (to me) embarrassing ineptitude. I must have been a pain to the music staff. Unsurprisingly, I rebelled and got involved in unofficial music-making and drama on my own terms. Thus it was on the stage at Forest, while acting in a play, that I met the girl who was to become my wife, Sue Jones.
For family reasons, I didn’t go to university when I left school. Instead, I joined the Inland Revenue and, in retrospect, got a good training in finance, managing people, and how to investigate things, but my heart wasn’t in it and it was never going be my life’s work. After five years, I became the Practice Manager for the doctors at Bethnal Green Medical Mission, which was as stimulating and demanding as I’d found the tax office not to be, and it was while I was there that I was encouraged to consider whether God was calling me to ordained ministry.
I shall be forever grateful that I was required to undertake a two-year part-time course first. The Aston Training Scheme was led by a charismatic and inspirational priest, Laurie Green, later to be Bishop of Bradwell. He encouraged his students to think, to question and to challenge what we were being told, and to look for God in surprising places, and certainly outside the theological traditions and presuppositions that we’d arrived with .
That probably meant that when I arrived at Oak Hill College, an establishment with a Conservative Evangelical flavour, I was never going to be an easy student to teach. With the confidence that Aston had given me, I made no secret that I wasn’t going to take everything that the college stood for without giving it a rigourous going-over. To my surprise, the student body elected me as their Student President, even though I was a long way from being most people’s idea of an Oak Hill student. I would still never claim to be a ‘Conservative Evangelical’ – I’m probably an Open Evangelical if that label means anything to you – even though I have a lot of time for the more gracious members of that tradition.
So, did all those places of education make me who I am today? Certainly, I have something of the multi-cultural perspective of Akosombo, in Ghana, and of Malmesbury, in the East End of the 1960s. My musical skills, such as they are, came from my five years in St Paul’s Cathedral choir, and maybe Forest gave me a confidence and can-do attitude that has enabled me to get to places that I wouldn’t have reached otherwise. Aston gave me to ability and the tools to question and Oak Hill gave me theological skills.
I’m grateful for them all, and yet I’m more than all that. I’m also the product of my family, of a whole range of life experiences and, I would suggest, of the love of God who has been close to me through thick and thin. Am I a motorbike enthusiast, like all my maternal grandmother’s grandsons, because she rode a bike when it was almost unheard-of for a woman to do so? Am I an ‘East Ender’ because my father’s family lived in East London for generations? Do I have a heart for refugees because my earliest-known ancestors came to Spitalfields from France as Huguenot refugees in 1750?
Maybe so, but the past can only tell us so much. I’m at least as interested in the future. I’m proud of my children – Sarah, Thomas and Rachel, all of whom are lovely and creative people. I’d like to think that I’ve played a part in their education and in making them the people they are. Will they be able to trace the influences of my education in their lives? Only time – and God – knows.