7 AUGUST 2004, Page 18

Ancient & modern

When Plato writes about education, he comes up with a brilliant image of the master-pupil relationship: 'After a long partnership in a common life, truth flashes on the soul like a flame kindled by a leaping spark.' The Labour and Tory education manifestos have very little to say about this 'rather dodgy' (© C. Clarke) concept. They think the answer to school problems is to play about with systems and structures.

The Roman professor Quintilian (c. AD 90) is the first ancient to think seriously about how schools work. He insists that a good school depends as much on the character and psychological understanding of the teacher as on the materials for instruction. He must be a man of scholarship and high principles, since pupils learn by example. He must watch a child's behaviour, and relate the size and difficulty of any task to a child's attention span and capacity. Quintilian does not approve of caning or flogging, which he categorises as degrading and ineffectual, because it does not fill a child with enthusiasm. Praise, encouragement and personal example will fire pupils with a love of learning.

Quintilian regards the child's memory as the most important indicator of character and capacity. Plasticity of mind is also important, by which Quintilian meant the child's capacity to deal with different subjects at the same time. Thus he recommended that Greek and Latin should be taught together, though Greek first because Latin would have an obvious initial advantage.

There was no such thing as a school 'system' in ancient Greece and Rome. Indeed, it is hard to identify any ancient building that could be called a school. Education was a private, ad hoc business, and literacy and numeracy were at the heart of it; schools did not need high-tech labs and computerised board-rubbers, But however much the world of education has changed, in one respect at least the ancients were right. As the historian Thucyd ides puts it, 'men are the city, not walls or ships empty of men'. Systems and structures are all very well, but when one looks back to one's own schooldays, no one remembers them. One remembers the teachers. All hail, Duchy, Parky, Whoccy, Occy, Horsebox and the rest! Producing excellent teachers and ensuring that they have everything they need to do an excellent job should be the priority.

Whoops! That can't be Lib Dem policy, can it?

Peter Jones