Saturday, April 11, 2009

Rigid British education bureaucracy produces crazy results

Boy, 4, refused place at village school where his family has been taught since his great-great-great grandfather built it

A boy of four has been has been told he cannot go to his village school - even though it was built by his great-great-great grandfather and has taught every generation of his family. When he starts school in September, Jamie Turner will not have a place in the primary just 150 yards from home but will have to attend another in a village two miles away. Priority goes to children who have siblings at the school - but Jamie's brother Joshua, 11, will be leaving when the new term starts.

Littledean C of E Primary was built in 1852 by their great-great-great grandfather, stonemason William Smith, and still carries a plaque bearing his name. Jamie currently attends the nursery which is housed in the school building.

His furious mother Leigh, 31, a care assistant, today attacked Gloucestershire County Council, which is giving places at the school to children from nearby Cinderford even though that village has three primaries of its own. She said: 'It's all wrong - the system has ruled that Jamie can't go to a school around the corner from his home yet they are bringing in children from outside the area. 'His great-great-great grandfather built the school and our family have always gone there, yet the majority of the children they've taken in are from Cinderford, not Littledean. They should give priority to local families.'

Joshua and elder sibling Ashleigh, 13, have both attended the school - as has every generation of their family since the 1800s. Mrs Turner added: 'The whole family is really upset. Jamie's quite shy and still cuddles my leg when I drop him off at nursery so he'd be lost if we tried to make him go to another school.' Father Gary, 30, a self-employed taxi driver, added: 'There has been a member of Jamie's family at that school since 1852 - so it baffles me that he has been rejected. 'If this is the system then the system needs to be changed - it's a total disgrace.' Jamie's grandfather David Annetts called it situation 'an outrage' and said: 'I have aunties and uncles in their 90s who went to that school.'

The Turners have appealed against the decision and headteacher Val Huggett has contacted Gloucestershire County Council to voice her support for the family. But Sam Budd, the council's senior access manager, said the authority had no choice but to refuse Jamie admission because it had received 19 first preferences for Littledean's 15 places - and 15 of them were from families with children already there.

'While we sympathise with Ms Turner, the county council has to abide by the school's admission criteria,' Mr Budd said. 'Jamie has been offered a place at Forest View Primary, which is the nearest school with free places.' The only option for children in Jamie's position is to go on a waiting list in case places became available after all, he added.


How Handel became England's national treasure

So you want to be a legendary composer? As Handel fever hits the country, our correspondent reveals the secrets of success

Go freelance

It was Handel’s biggest gamble, but it would pay off spectacularly. Yes, a lot of his masterpieces were commissioned by the Hanoverian monarchs, who wanted the greatest composer in England explicitly to harness his talents to Britain’s triumphs, and, by proxy, theirs. “But Handel didn’t have a patron as such,” says Christopher Hogwood, who has curated Handel Reveal’d, the new exhibition at the Handel House in London marking 250 years since the composer’s death. “He was a free spirit: he took himself where he wanted, while every other composer was an employee.”

Indeed, if we think of Handel now as the epitome of the Establishment composer, his conditions were much more precarious. Fashion and opportunity took the jobbing German to London and, although he stayed put once he got there, it would take decades of hard work before his public status ensured him any permanent security.Know how to brown-nose

Of course, being a free-floating man of the market had its downside when the market went kaput. It was the establishment of a new Italian opera company that drew Handel to England in 1710, and he profited from the initiative with the triumphant premiere of his opera Rinaldo. But seven years later a huge spat between King George I and the Prince of Wales eroded the aristocratic support base of this speculative venture and Handel had to fall back on his own devices. The result was two years spent cosying up to the Duke of Chandos, Acis and Galatea the sublime result.

When the opera season restarted, Handel had an insurance policy, taking up pensioned court appointments as the Composer to the Chapel Royal and music master to the royal princesses. “That was enormously canny,” says Edward Blakeman, Handel biographer and the editor of the Radio 3 Handel celebrations next week, “because it placed him within royal circles without forcing him to kowtow to royalty.”

Have a party trick

Growing up in Lutheran Germany, Handel’s first instrument was the organ: he was appointed organist at Halle Cathedral while still in his teens. In fact, it was only because Handel objected to the condition of succeeding L├╝beck’s master organist, Buxtehude — that he marry Buxtehude’s horse-faced daughter — that he didn’t take up the post and live out the rest of his days in north Germany.

But he never forgot the training. First, it was the springboard to Handel’s lifelong process of recasting or adapting old tunes in new forms (be they his own or those of other composers). “It’s the basis of organ schooling,” Hogwood says, “taking an old chorale melody and making it your own thing, so it’s hardly surprising he used that for the rest of his life, particularly when he discovered that he could borrow more than just chorales.”

More than that, though, his lightning skill at the keyboard also allowed Handel to add razzmatazz in performance. In his early years in Italy, his PR campaign went into overdrive when he bested the venerable Domenico Scarlatti in a harpsichord duel (“Uncommon brilliance,” huffed the Italian afterward). Many years later in England, when Handel’s rivals were slowly cottoning on to the new vogue for oratorio, Handel gave the punters added value: himself. “He had to make his own oratorios even more attractive,” Hogwood says, “so he devised the organ concerto, where he could still show off when he was quite elderly. Even when he was blind he extemporised, and there was no report of Handel ever playing a wrong note.”

Work from home

Visit the Handel House at 25 Brook Street, W1, just off Bond Street, and you learn a lot more than just how near the bewigged maestro was to the shops on Oxford Street. The house was handily situated — an easy walk or carriage ride to court, church and the theatres where Handel’s stage and concert works were performed. But it was also his laboratory, shop front, rehearsal studio and marketing hub. Pop in to buy a Handel score and as a special inducement you’d get a free print of Handel’s own image.

It was also the place where, midway through his rehearsals for his latest operatic blockbusters, an enraged Handel reportedly dangled the great diva Cuzzoni out of his window after she expressed her dissatisfaction with her latest role. “She said there wasn’t enough air in her aria — meaning it wasn’t tuneful enough,” Hogwood says, “so Handel offered her rather more air than she needed.”

The story has more to it than prime diva baiting, though; it’s a reminder that Handel had to cast, rehearse and finesse his new works from his house, constantly brokering deals to make sure that his latest shows got off the ground. “He must have been quite good company for musicians, though quite demanding as well,” suggests the tenor Mark Padmore, “and for specific singers it must have been thrilling to be in that relationship”. Particularly thrilling if they ended up being thrown into the traffic halfway through a rehearsal.

Know your audience

“What the English like is something they can beat time to, something that hits them straight on the drum of the ear.” Was ever a truer word spoken of the tubthumping masses who crowded into performances of Zadok the Priest or Messiah? Handel rarely lost touch with that sort of popular feeling, never more than when he served up the 18th-century equivalent of the Enigma Variations in the 1747 oratorio Judas Maccabeus.

Ostensibly the piece is about the exploits of an Old Testament Jewish warrior; in reality, it fed on and fuelled public euphoria for the supression of the Jacobites (recently biffed at Culloden). The result, according to the Edinburgh International Festival director Jonathan Mills, was that the piece “could not be performed in Scotland for 150 years”. In London, of course, the snooty Sassenachs couldn’t get enough of it, prompting a whole series of further oratorios making thinly veiled comparisons between God’s chosen people — the Israelites — and the new kids on the geopolitical block, the English.

Few composers were as in touch with different compositional styles across Europe as Handel. According to Padmore, the crucial stage was early exposure to the Baroque liveliness of the Italian style, so different to Handel’s fustier Germanic roots. “Those early pieces have a great exuberance — I think it’s fantastic how pan-European a lot of that music is.” Even once Handel was ensconced in London he still travelled around Europe, mostly in order to find new (and cheaper) singers for his opera seasons, but also to keep in touch with the latest fashions.

You can hear that diversity in a piece such as the Music for the Royal Fireworks, which expertly blends the skill of a master contrapuntalist (his German training), the colourful effects of French instrumental suites and the songlike flow of Italian opera. The slightly pompous military swagger, of course, is all England.

Innovate, don’t imitate

Whether Handel ever went too far in his magpie-like tendencies remains a source of some controversy. “He takes other men’s pebbles and polishes them into diamonds,” said William Boyce, one of Handel’s rather less-well known English rivals, but if you were the writer of said pebble the process might have been rather less inspiring. Perhaps the most infamous example is that wedding favourite Arrival of the Queen of the Sheba, originally written for the oratorio Solomon. The hit tune was actually nicked from an obscure concerto by another German, Georg Telemann. “Borrowing from other composers was relatively commonplace,” Blakeman says, though he concedes that “the difference with Handel is that he did it such a lot.”

So how did he get away with it? “He borrows to transform,” Blakeman insists. “He never just takes something and reproduces it; it isn’t what we now call plagiarism. And actually if you listen to that Telemann concerto it sounds as though he is the one doing a poor imitation of Handel. When you listen to Handel it sounds like the complete piece.”

Have an outrageous public profile . . .

For some he was always Handel the selfimportant, Handel the bad-tempered, and — most parody-rich of all sterotypes — Handel the glutton. Ordering dinner for three at a tavern, he apparently demanded to know from the innkeeper where the food was. After the hapless man explained that they would serve the meal when the company arrived, Handel replied: “I am the company”.

. . . and a really private private one

Pity all this was probably all dreamt up by satirists. The real surprise, in fact, was how little gossip did circulate about London’s leading composer, not least the total silence on any romantic attachment. In fact, it’s most likely that the rotund German was probably something of a front. “He constructs an image which immediately gets him noticed,” Blakeman observes, “but it’s a mask behind which he can pursue whatever he wants to.”

Start myth-building

It certainly helped Handel’s reputation that the Victorians couldn’t find any skeletons in his cupboard. But so did the sheer efficiency of Handel HQ. “By the time of his death he was already an industry,” Hogwood says, “because the copyists and secretaries carried on producing works, for example oratorios made from material he had written, rejigged and with new words.”

It might sound trivial, but Handel also wrote on premium-quality manuscript paper, allowing him to build up an ordered, tidy and near-comprehensive volume of complete works. As the national obsession with giant choral spectaculars grew, Handel’s operas may have gone into the deep freeze, but the scores for his oratorios were a ready-made resource to feed Britain’s addiction to choral singing. Little surprise, then, that the very first recording of classical music — captured by Edison’s phonograph in 1888 — was of 4,000 voices tackling Handel’s Israel in Egypt at the Crystal Palace. Handel fashions have changed a fair bit since then, but his chosen people have never lost faith with their prophet.


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