I found secondary school frustrating, on the whole. I had always been a curious child, keen to know, to learn, to find things out – and my experience at primary school, especially the last four years, which I spent at a Welsh language school, was a real celebration of that. By the end of it, it felt like I’d had the most magical education that any child could want; we learnt so much through music – singing and folk dancing – and going on trip after trip to the wildlife park or botanical gardens. I soaked it all in.
Secondary school was different. It was a small school, and very focused on helping children who were not particularly motivated to pass their exams, which was brilliant for those who needed that, I suppose. I was always motivated, though; what I needed was much more extracurricular stuff to keep me interested and get my brain buzzing – and I just didn’t get that. By the time I was 14, I really wanted to get out into the big, wide world, which I knew was full of wonderful things, and start finding my own way. Of course, I was still only a child – and having a 12-year-old of my own now I can see it from the other side – but at the time, I felt as though I was ready. I loved reading (I still do) and it was impossible for me not to be profoundly aware of all there was out there to explore and discover. It was hard to pull back on those reins.
I was definitely a very vocal pupil – right from primary school. If I perceived something illogical, or unfair, or saw what looked like bullying, I would always speak up about it. I might not have forced any changes, but I’ve always believed that quote “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” So I always wanted to try and fix things. Over time, I learnt that best results come from a quiet conviction, backed with facts, because most people, ultimately, want things to be done better.
I have no idea if my teachers would remember me now – I hope my biology teacher does, though, and with a smile, because that’s how I think of her. She was brilliant; oldfashioned, yes, but a really good sort. I loved biology, especially learning about plants and the miracle of the bounty this earth holds. I remember her stopping to show me the old man’s beard growing in the trees. She wasn’t patronising; I knew she cared. Teachers, adults in general, need to be aware, I think, that children aren’t fools – they pick up on everything and they know, through your actions, how you feel about them really.
Schools today seem to be so competitive, which is sad. I strongly believe that all children, from all backgrounds, deserve a great school, so it was always going to be the state sector for us – and we are lucky to be blessed with some wonderful schools in West London. My two boys go to the best primary I’ve ever come across; it serves a pretty deprived catchment and more than 70% of the pupils have English as an additional language, but they are taught Shakespeare, Hardy, Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas – as well as how to present themselves, how to talk to adults, how to come across well, essentially; the kinds of advantages that children from more privileged backgrounds often have because of their upbringing. The head teacher helps them believe that they can achieve anything. My daughter is at the start of her secondary journey – I don’t know how the school will turn out in the long term, but it also has a strong head teacher, which I think is so important. A school is like a ship and you need a captain – someone clear and confident at the helm, who knows where it is going.
Inspiring a love of life-enhancing stuff is one of the most powerful things any school can do for children. We – and they – are bombarded by adverts instructing us about what we need to buy in order to feel good; but it can sometimes seem as though no one is telling kids what a bloody great old world it is: full of things to discover, priceless things you can’t simply buy. That’s why we started the Good Life Experience festival, with free activities and talks from people with a real passion for something – anything! Because learning doesn’t end in school. It ends when you die. And life is what you fill your brains with, and what you do with your hands.
About the author
Cerys Matthews is Welsh singer songwriter, author and broadcaster. Her festival of food, music and the great outdoors, The Good Life Experience, takes place September 18 - 20th at Hawarden estate just outside of Chester. For more information visit www. thegoodlifeexperience.co.uk