Education Fads Get a Royal Rap


Britain's Prince Charles has ignited a fury among some of his country's educators with a back-to-basics plea that rips "fashionable" approaches to schooling.

In a televised interview yesterday with Sir David Frost, the prince blasted "trendy teaching systems" that he said had "failed the nation's children for the last 40 years."

The prince has spoken out in recent years on issues ranging from modern architecture to the environment. But he is now breaking constitutional precedent by backing the new Labour government's call for root-and-branch reform of schools.

The heir to the throne's perceived cozying up to Labour and direct involvement in policymaking have raised eyebrows among many analysts, who note the prince was expensively educated in the best schools.

And constitutional experts are asking whether any member of the royal family, especially one destined to be king, should be involved in a public- policy debate at all.

Charles claimed that his Prince's Trust, a charity that in the last 21 years has helped some half a million young people from inner-city schools to find work, had been "picking up the pieces of a somewhat failed system."

His remarks were made as the government is starting to address what new Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair has called "a crisis in the nation's schools." Stephen Byers, the government minister responsible for school standards, recently said half of all schools in the state-funded sector are underperforming, and that 4 out of 10 pupils enter adult life without adequate reading skills.

In a bitter rejoinder to Sunday's interview, Stephen de Gruchy, leader of the National Association of Schoolteachers, said Charles was "ill-placed to condemn failure in others."

A senior clergyman said yesterday that the recently divorced Charles, "a confessed adulterer," should end his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles or abdicate his claim to the throne.

But Education Secretary David Blunkett, who soon after the May 1 general election ordered schools to concentrate more on reading, writing, and basic mathematical skills, has sided with the prince. A Department for Education spokesman says Mr. Blunkett and Charles are set to meet next month.

It is highly unusual for senior royal figures to hold detailed discussions with Cabinet ministers. But the prince's advisers say he is passionate about the need to improve standards in schools. In the TV interview, he said: "Education needs to rediscover those important features abandoned in the last 30 or 40 years, out of a fashionable approach."

Since the early 1960s, teachers in British schools have been encouraged to offer a flexible form of education in which reading, writing, and math skills were given a lower priority than in the past.

The prince's officials say privately that he is impressed by the new government's plan to offer pupils with reading difficulties special after-school and weekend instruction. The government is also pledged to create 250,000 jobs for unemployed youngsters, paying for the plan with a highly controversial windfall tax on recently privatized utilities, such as water and electricity companies.

The prince has often said that young people need to be encouraged to develop basic skills before tackling more complex subjects. But there are two important differences in the latest royal intervention.

The remarks came in a widely advertised, high-profile TV interview. And the prince's advisers openly acknowledge that his ideas on education are close to those of Prime Minister Blair.

Aside from complaints from teachers' leaders, Charles is receiving criticism from constitutional experts. Michael Fabricant, a Conservative member of Parliament and an authority on constitutional affairs, says: "The raison d'tre of the royal family is to be above and separate from the antics of politics."

David Starkey, a constitutional expert in the London School of Economics, warns that Charles is taking a risk. "It's not sensible for the monarchy to get into bed with any political party. The prince should sit tight and avoid the limelight," Professor Starkey says.

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