- guardian.co.uk, Friday 22 January 2010 18.30 GMT
It was recently reported in this paper that I was proud to have received a third-class degree. Not really. But at 66 it is true to say I am no longer as ashamed of it as I was. Admitting failure is quite cleansing, but never pleasurable. But since I have now admitted this, I should also like my failed 11-plus and my rather disappointing results at O- and A-level to be taken into consideration.
I have a list of excuses, or reasons, as long as my arm. There certainly were teachers who frightened me or bored me, and from home maybe rather too much heavy pressure to succeed. But I have to take most of the blame myself. I was rather a poor student, too easily distracted – did a lot of gazing out of windows, fine for training to be a writer, but not a great way to achieve in the classroom. The truth is that I was happy to bumble along and do enough to avoid detention, but not much more.
Later on in my writing life I have been shortlisted frequently and often failed to win book prizes. War Horse was one of these failures. That particular failure did bring its own special reward, though, the most encouraging comment I ever had. It came from a neighbour of mine in Devon, Ted Hughes, over a comforting cup of tea. He said: "Doesn't matter a fig about the prize, Michael. You've written a fine book, and you'll write a finer one, too."
These were the words not just of a great poet, but of a great teacher, an inspiration to so many aspiring writers. He was above all an enthusiast. He was stimulating, exuberant, fascinating, and he loved his subject – whether speaking of the river, of poetry, of stories.
Both political parties talk a lot of sense, as well as nonsense, on education. The Labour party has tried valiantly to raise the lamentably low standard of education in this country. It recognised that far too many children were leaving school illiterate and innumerate. It sought to tighten up the whole system, introduce regular testing right through a child's life at school, bring in league tables: ideas with the best of intentions, no doubt.
But they have been proved deeply flawed, because the priority in schools in recent years has been the passing of exams, not the education of children. Everything else has had to take a back seat – music, drama, sport – to make room for the holy grail of examination success. The teachers taught with that in mind – why would they not? The children learned with that in mind. Everyone was judged on that basis.
The Tories in their turn have also come up with some good ideas. They have decided that the early years in education are key. Get this wrong and you spend the rest of a child's time at school repairing the damage. Quite right. Needed saying, needs doing. Now it has become part of Conservative policy to ensure that teachers will be allowed into the profession only if they have good degrees, if they have passed that test well. It is quite true that in countries with highly successful school systems such as Finland teachers do have to be much better qualified than they are here, and that they have higher status, more respect. But this is also because children have a higher status there, more respect. It is also quite true that the class of a degree may be a useful means as part of the selection process, but only as part of the process.
It is aptitude, the ability to enthuse, to communicate, to motivate, that is far more important than whether a candidate has a first- or third-class degree. And with this ability must come a love of the subject he or she is teaching. It's the one thing that reaches children, touches their hearts, awakens their intellect, when they see that a teacher really means it.
It was in fact through teaching that I learned this. I would read to my year-six children only those stories I loved myself – and when I ran out of those I told my own. I told my story with total commitment, lived every word, and so they believed every word. I did not ask questions about it afterwards. I did not test them. I simply let them lose themselves in the story, in the music of the words.
Let me tell you a story. I like to tell stories. My wife, Clare, was being interviewed for her teacher training some 35 years ago now. She was mightily pleased to hear that they were accepting her, but their parting advice to her as she left the room was: "We look forward to having you here. But there is one thing: as a teacher, you will have to curb your enthusiasm and exuberance." She didn't learn that. Neither did I. She went on to get a second-class degree. I'm not bitter.
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