Pupils can often be the best judges of the quality of their teachers – not necessarily immediately for who likes to be told that they are lazy, illogical or downright stupid!. It is only years later that we recall how, in often less than spectacular ways, those people who made us what we are. The most precious fruits of a teacher’s work are those that they are never likely to see.

Think of Queen Elizabeth, the first that is. If ever a woman had the scales weighed against her it was Elizabeth – she was disinherited by her father, her mother was executed when she was three, possibly abused by her guardian, and was within hours of execution herself in the five long years of her younger brother Edward’s reign. Elizabeth survived to die in her bed at the then ripe age of sixty-nine. She epitomises the energy and the turbulence of Tudor England.

Elizabeth must have inherited some genetic advantages from her strong-minded parents, but she had two remarkable teachers. The first was her adoring nurse, Catherine Ashley, who took the place of the mother Elizabeth never knew. Ashley was a shrewd, warm-hearted country woman who was forever aware of the dangerous intrigues that surrounded her young charge. When Ashley was imprisoned in the Tower, as much to frighten the young Princess into making a submission that would implicate her and others, the sixteen-year-old Elizabeth had the audacity to plead for her nurse’s release with the very Lord Protector who was after her own blood. With the most perceptive and affectionate words Elizabeth wrote “We are more bound to them that bring us up well than to our parents, for our parents do that which is natural for them – that is, bringing us into this world – but our bringers-up are a cause to make us live well in it”. Ashley’s unconditional love was reflected in the Queen’s affection for her old nurse for whom, for the only time in her long life, Elizabeth went into serious mourning.

The second teacher was one Roger Ascham, a leading academic of post-reformation England. Ascham was amazed by the quality of Elizabeth’s grasp of written Greek, and claimed that only three or four men in England could have bettered her. Ascham records in his diary how, on a December day in 1563, Elizabeth and her senior counsellors fled from the plague in London to Windsor Castle. At dinner that evening the Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil, received a message informing him that many of the pupils at Eton College, just across the Thames from the Castle, had fled from the savage beatings they were receiving from their teachers.

The news energised talk around that dinner table all those years ago. Secretary Cecil “took occasion to wish that more discretion were found in many schoolmasters in using correction than commonly there is, who many times punish rather the weaknesses of nature, than the fault of the scholar. Whereby many scholars that might else prove well, be driven to hate learning before they know what learning meaneth”*. Some present-day readers may see in this a foretaste of the issues currently facing the House of Commons Select Committee on Education. Sir Richard Sackville, then Treasurer of the Exchequer (the Tudor equivalent of Alistair Darling), entered the discussion and, turning to Ascham, asked “If it so please you… point out to me a schoolmaster, who by your judgement, shall teach my sons and yours, and all the rest, and I will provide you, yea though they do cost me a couple of hundred pounds by year…”. Reading between the lines, Elizabeth’s first “Cabinet” had as little regard for teachers as did Margaret Thatcher.

Later that evening, as the fire in the Great Hall died down, Ascham recalled , “I went up with the Queen’s Majesty (to her private chamber). We read together in the Greek tongue, as I well remember, that noble Oration of Demosthenes against the false dealings of King Philip of Macedonia”*. Elizabeth learnt well. Twenty-five years later – older, wiser and care-ridden – Elizabeth remembered that speech as she rode to review troops at Tilbury preparing to face the Spanish Armada. Elizabeth made one of the most famous speeches in the English language, paraphrasing Demosthenes. “Let tyrants fear”, she shouted as she rode up and down the lines of assembled soldiers, “being resolved as I am in the midst and heat of battle to live and die amongst you all… I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a King of England too”. They cheered, and have been cheering ever since.

Ascham didn’t live to hear that speech but he did respond to the challenge of writing a treatise on education. The Scholemaster is one of the first books to be written in English. It is a remarkable work representing the transition from medieval Catholicism into the beginnings of the Protestant, self-help, country that England was to become. By retaining the academic priority of the Classics, Ascham remained the traditionalist, but by advocating the cultivation of the “hard-wits” of perseverance, rather than the superficial “quick-wits” of the easily remembered answer, he was a true disciple of the Renaissance. Ascham urged teachers to be humane and he harshly criticised the brutality of much conventional grammar school teaching which he described as “the butchery fear of making Latin’s”. Schoolteachers should study each individual pupil he insisted and “discretely consider the right disposition of both their natures, not so much weigh what either of them is able to do now, as what either of them is likely to do hereafter”. He added a touch of worldly wisdom, “I know that those which be commonly the wisest, the best learned, and best men also, when they be old, were never commonly the quickest of wits when they were young”.

But Ascham didn’t get it all right by a long way, for he added a third precept, one which has had a devastating effect on English education. “In the attainment of wisdom” Ascham taught “learning from a book is twenty times as effective as learning from experience”. Ascham went on to insist that it was folly for young men to travel to Italy, as post-reformation gentlemen aspired to do to search for the wisdom of the ancients, when they could easily read all without ever leaving the shores of England.

Why such a trenchant injunction? “I was once in Italy myself”, Ascham wrote dismissively, “but I thanked god that my abode there was but nine days”. This scholar from damp and temperate England, where no man, and certainly no woman, ever took their clothes off in public, was appalled by the lasciviousness of the ancient statutes, the writings and the paintings that archaeologists were recovering from the dust of ancient Rome. He despised the fascination that such apparent pornography had for lecherous sixteenth century men. “I saw in that little time, in one city, more liberty to sin than ever I beheld in our noble City of London in nine years”, concluded Ascham priggishly.

Ascham washed his hands of such troublesome thoughts by saying that schoolmasters should censor what students study, and let the things of the mind dominate over the things of the hand. And, bachelor schoolmaster as he was, he completely missed the vital significance of a mother-figure in the earliest years of life. Elizabeth owed as much to Catherine Ashley as she did to Roger Ascham. The tragedy is that Ascham didn’t understand that relationship, and persuaded academics that they mattered more than parents and that affairs of the mind should always take precedence over the emotions of the heart.

The many generations of schoolmasters who subsequently read the works of Roger Ascham, took his injunctions literally. They continued to teach about the superiority of men over women, of logic over emotions, and of the mind over the hand to such an extent that the curriculum of the Elizabethan grammar school became increasingly irrelevant to the needs of its pupils. Those ghosts are still around.

350 years later, as a fourteen-year-old in a boy’s public school, I was proud to have been awarded the school prize for carpentry. Proud until I realised that my prize was the last to be given out. By then the audience had tired of clapping the endless prizes given for Greek and Latin translation, debating skills, and mathematical dexterity. Nervously I reached the stage with only my parents still clapping, to shake the hand of a famous Admiral. He looked down at the book he was to give me, breathed rather heavily and sighed, “Ha… carpentry… can’t knock a nail in straight myself”, with apparent pride.

I was deeply confused. Only now do I know how damaging has been Roger Ascham’s influence, even four centuries later. Today’s academics should reflect on what made Elizabeth the success she was… then they would be more interested in the likes of Catherine Ashley and remind themselves that it is the parents who are a child’s first, and hopefully, most committed teachers.