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April 18, 2015

Why Magna Carta Matters

By Christopher Lloyd
In the Weekend Telegraph, Saturday 18th April 2015

The story of our 800-year struggle for freedom is more important today than ever.

IT WAS ONLY in August last year that the slightly gruff voice of an elderly American gentleman caught me unprepared on the end of my mobile phone.

I was on my way back from giving a lecture at a school in Northamptonshire. My hands-free was playing up. I could hardly make out the words from the crackles, but I got this gist: “It’s Sir Robert Worcester here – I hear you’re the guy who does timelines…..”

So began what has turned into what feels like the most exhilarating, high-speed partnership in the history of publishing.

In just four months, we have conceived, designed, created, written, illustrated and printed the Magna Carta Chronicle – a Young Person’s Guide to 800 years in the Fight for Freedom. The book is published officially on Tuesday this week.

I vaguely remembered Bob, founder of opinion poll company Mori (now IPSUS Mori), from my days at The Sunday Times as Technology Correspondent. That was 25 years ago – now Bob, 82, still behaves as if he is not yet past his peak. Not by a long shot. I have yet to meet anyone half his age with even half his energy, commitment and attention to detail.

So it was with good cause that last year George Osborne appointed Bob to be chairman of a committee charged with donating £1m of public money to causes to help celebrate this year’s 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta by bad King John.

Like me, you may be wondering how and why such generosity can be justified in times of stringent national austerity?

Having immersed myself in the Magna Carta Chronicle project over the last few months, I am convinced that the answer lies in the power and significance of this narrative for young people. The focus of the 800^th anniversary celebrations should be especially important to anyone teaching school children at KS 2 and 3 and for all parents with kids aged between 6 and 15.

For a good part of the 800 years since King John was surrounded by those rebellious barons at Runnymede, Britain’s national identity has been forged by a roller-coaster story concerning the evolution of what we now call freedom and rights.

It is a heart-wrenching tale that involves the forces of mother nature and chance just as much as the heroes, heroines and villains of traditional history.

The saga hits home hardest when you design a timeline. Soon after John’s humiliation, the broad narrative sweep takes in the appalling desolation of the Black Death, quickly followed by the resulting sumptuary laws designed to keep those pesky peasants who survived in check. Then comes Caxton’s subversive printing press, the Reformation, settlements in the New World, the American Declaration of Independence, the French revolution and tempestuous Simon Bolivar liberating the colonies of South America.

Fast on the heels of his horses comes the abolition of slavery, the Chartists, the opening of primary schools and universal suffrage. Finally, following two devastating world wars, the UN issues its declaration of universal human rights – a ‘Magna Carta for the modern age’, homosexuality is decriminalised, the Berlin Wall falls, woman become priests – no, I mean bishops…

As you can see, it’s a story that affects us all from cradle to grave.

The problem is it’s rarely, if ever, told – at least not as an interconnected narrative like this – to children in British primary schools today.

Ever since the time of Henry VIII us British have been brilliant at preaching our idea of liberties and freedom to other nations and cultures. Exporting our views around the world has become a national speciality, be it on the Mayflower, via the Empire or through the play-by-the-rules mentality of our great global sporting contributions: football, rugby and cricket.

But in our rush to preach, we seem to have forgotten – to the drastic cost of the present younger generation – how to tell the story to ourselves. We are still so used to projecting our narrative onto a global stage that the idea of telling it to our children is ironically alien to us.

We shouldn’t be so surprised that most young people in our multi-cultural society have little idea of the narrative of British values, the very essence of what Theresa May harks on about as being critical to the future cohesion of British society.

Freedom of expression, tolerance of alternative opinions, a lack of discrimination, equal opportunities and respect for diversity – all of these are core to the evolved psyche of our nation formed over 800 years. But they are under extreme threat, not least because we have lost the ability to tell the story of how they were fought and won over generations to young people today.

The fault falls mostly to an education system that has been so chopped up and fragmented by educational experts and politicians that telling any giant sweeping cross-curricular narrative over time has become almost impossible.

The snag is that the evolution of our national story cuts across ALL subject areas – from literature (JS Mill) to politics (The Great Reform Bill) and religion (the Reformation) to Technology (Edward Snowden) and Biology (The Black Death) – at the same time history, drama, debating and reading through non-fiction (literacy) course through it all.

Timetables, bells, different teachers for different subjects – they are all anathema to the big interconnected, cross-curricular picture – with the result that pitching to a young mind the fight for freedoms and liberties over the last 800 years is not especially easy or intuitive for many teachers (and parents). As a result our story of the emergence of our values has become lost.

So the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta celebrations may possibly be the best chance we will have to do this for a generation, if not longer.

When King John sealed that parchment in the summer of 1215 no-one could possibly know what history might make of the event. Now, 800 years later, we do. But how are we to tell the story in an engaging way in an age where young people are everything from reluctant readers to conscientious objectors when it comes to the study of history? And most schools are still in a mindset that’s obsessed with fragmenting knowledge into bite size chunks…

I have three suggestions – all of which we have incorporated in to the new official young person’s guide to Magna Carta – The Magna Carta Chronicle – which is published this Tuesday.

The first is to make the story irresistibly and stunningly visual. Wallbook artist Andy Forshaw has created the most beautiful giant fold-out timeline of about 100 key moments from 1215 to 2015. Let’s stick it on every bedroom and classroom wall!

Second, there is something extraordinarily powerful about telling stories from the past in the style of newspaper reportage, as if they happened yesterday. This makes reading non-fiction fun, engaging and relevant. News is the heartbeat of most young people’s online information fix. When seen in print, stories told in this style have more power than ever.

Finally, we must appeal to the innate sense of curiosity in a young person’s mind. A 50-question multiple-choice quiz is designed to unlock conversation between pupils and teachers, children and parents. The idea is that young people challenge adults, even if only to prove how much more they know than their supposedly wiser elders. All the correct answers are hidden somewhere inside the book, of course. There is joy in the discovery of the right answer. A little shot of dopamine goes a long way to creating a lifelong love of learning.

On Tuesday evening this week we will celebrate – at a launch party in central London – the launch of the Magna Carta Chronicle, made possible thanks to the support of the Magna Carta 800th committee.

Its aim will be to help revive the telling of our national story – one that has helped form our modern identify as a tolerant, multi-cultural nation, respective of diversity. It’s as a result of this narrative that we are a people who reasonably expect others who choose to come and live here to abide by our values, above all else expunging intolerance, discrimination and extremism.

That’s why I can’t think of a more important story that needs to be told to our young people today – the 800 years in the fight for freedom from 1215 to 2015.

And to think that if Bob hadn’t made that crackly telephone call just a few months ago, I may never have realised myself quite how much celebrating Magna Carta matters.

Click here for more information about the Magna Carta Chronicle



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