John Claughton – WoLLoW

John Claughton – WoLLoW
John Claughton left Oxford in 1979 with a double first in Classics and four cricket Blues. He was just what the City was looking for, and – after a brief dalliance as an “inadequate” professional cricketer at Warwickshire – walked straight into a job at Rothschild’s. Only problem was, he hated banking and was “crap” at it.

John Claughton left Oxford in 1979 with a double first in Classics and four cricket Blues. He was just what the City was looking for, and – after a brief dalliance as an “inadequate” professional cricketer at Warwickshire – walked straight into a job at Rothschild’s. Only problem was, he hated banking and was “crap” at it.

One day he was sitting in the Jolly Gardeners pub in Putney with Alexandra, the woman who 13 years later would become his wife. She had been invalided out of the Royal Ballet School with a toe damaged by pointe work, and was suffering enough without having to put up with a boyfriend grumbling about work. If he hated it so much why didn’t he just do something else? “Tell me,” she challenged him, “what have you ever enjoyed?”

The answer was instantaneous: “Latin and Greek,” said John. There was no looking back. Forty years later, he is still doing what he loves, after two years at Bradfield College, seventeen at Eton, five as Head of Solihull School, and a ten-year stretch as Chief Master at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, the institution that changed his own life as a boy. Now 65, and several years retired, he is the mastermind behind WoLLoW, which aims to transform the teaching of languages in Britain’s primary schools.

WoLLoW stands for World of Languages, Languages of the World, which deftly encapsulates the scale of Claughton’s ambition. He’s an advocate of breadth, as well as depth, and acutely conscious of the way learning proceeds by making connections, both within and across subject areas. At King Edward’s – recalling how the narrow path of A Levels had funnelled him inexorably from Latin, Greek and Ancient History into Classics, with Law as the only conceivable alternative – he was responsible for introducing the International Baccalaureate, as well as setting up an Assisted Places scheme conceived in the spirit of the Direct Grant system, which operated from 1944 to 1979. “We couldn’t replicate it,” he says. “But at least 20% of boys could go to King Edward’s for free.” In his day it had been 90%, which meant that like the other great northern grammar schools it could be truly selective, attracting the brightest little boys from far and wide across the Birmingham area irrespective of family circumstances. Claughton is categorically clear that scrapping the Direct Grant scheme has only widened the north-south divide.

The stimulus for WoLLoW came from Steffan Griffiths, Head of Norwich School, who recruited his old Eton colleague to advise on the delivery of languages teaching. Easy, Claughton said, you need joined-up thinking. “Latin has survived because it has done English grammar for centuries in quite an interesting way, but have we ever talked to our colleagues about the fact that we are doing actives and passives and subjects and objects?” You need dialogue. You need to get the Modern Languages department and the Classics department and the English department all talking to each other. You need to promote an appreciation of languages across the board, to make sense of one in terms of others. And crucially, you need to value, and build on, the multilingualism of your pupils.

But if the impetus came from Griffiths, the idea of developing it into a full-blown system was down to Claughton.

He knew he needed a catchy name. The fact that the acronym “WoLLoW” is also a palindrome is grist to the linguistic mill. The fact that it connotes enjoyment even better. “Through Flanders and Swann we got to ‘The Hippopotamus Song’ and that took us to the Metropolitan Museum’s blue faience hippo from Ancient Egypt [now their brand logo]. The word ‘hippopotamus’ became a route into our early lessons, encouraging the kids to identify pi and think about words that derive from ‘hippos’, and so to believe that yes, they could make sense of the Greek alphabet.” The hippo named Wollow became a synecdoche for the WoLLoW way of learning. It was also “something the kids could hook into”, and hippos abound in the classroom at West House, where Claughton, a governor (he formerly governed at both Highgate and Wellington), has been putting theory into practice alongside a highly experienced primary school generalist. “It’s much more fun than saying we’re doing ‘enrichment’ or ‘literacy’,” he remarks. For him, as much as the children. Claughton describes his past self as “a clever little boy” fortunate enough to benefit from a government-funded golden ticket to a great day school, and there’s still something energetically boyish about him.

A major component of WoLLoW is exploring similarities across languages, both superficially and at the level of deep structure, including the languages pupils bring into the classroom. West House is a majority Asian, multiracial environment, and according to the head, WoLLoW is “the only lesson children go home and talk about”. Claughton explains why this is especially gratifying. Grandparents will speak their original language but not necessarily a great deal of English; parents tend to be bilingual; and children, driven hard to succeed at school, are frequently at risk of losing their heritage language. “On the one hand that’s careless, because in a multiracial global world it could be useful to them, but also, just imagine: if my 94-year-old father couldn’t speak to his own grandchildren, he’d be jolly upset. Yet in our society we are creating situations where it can be hard for children and grandparents to relate, because their linguistic knowledge and experience is so varied. Getting children to talk to previous generations is encouraging them to value their heritage and not leave it behind.” The Chinese never lose their language, he adds. “But Gujarati or Tagalog? Maybe that seems less valued, and therefore less valuable, and there’s a temptation to let it drift.”

In 1975, when John was a pupil, there were just three non-white boys at King Edward’s. When he returned as Chief Master in 2006, the balance was around 50-50. The percentage of non-white pupils rose to about 70 by the time he left, and a survey of Year 7 pupils revealed that half saw themselves as bilingual. It’s not so much that overall numbers of immigrants have increased, Claughton says, rather that “those families are here because they want to give their children a better chance and education is a fundamental part of that”. Getting white working-class families to have the same aspirations is much harder, not least because Birmingham is very “siloised”. “You’ve got some schools which are 98% Muslim, then other pockets on the outskirts – where the back-to-backs were knocked down and they built the big tower blocks you see on the M6 – which are white working-class areas. Those children have been pushed to the periphery; there’s little chance of them travelling any distance to school.”

John was born to a Yorkshire cricket-playing family in Guiseley. “My life was going down to the cricket field with my dad. It was what we did. It was what everyone did. We never went on holiday in the summer.” Mr Claughton senior was a clerk in the Bank of London and South America in Bradford, which he joined on his 16th birthday (he has yet to see South America), and like his three brothers, played in the Bradford league. John’s great-uncle played for Yorkshire and between the wars, used to drive over the Pennines to moonlight for “the great clubs of Lancashire”. “He would have earned more on a Saturday afternoon than working at the lamp factory in Guiseley.” If anyone scored 50, they would go round the ground with a hat.

When John was 11, his father was promoted to a managerial role in the Midlands. The head of Bradford Grammar promptly wrote a letter – which Claughton still has – to Canon RG Lunt, the Chief Master at King Edward’s, which read roughly: “Dear Ronnie, There’s this little boy called John Claughton whose family is moving down to Birmingham. He’s a very bright little boy who will probably be an Oxford candidate in a few years’ time. I think you should take him.” So Ronnie did. A letter was all it took in those days. It was how Claughton got out of Rothschild’s too, by firing off speculative letters to a likely selection of schools, of which Bradfield was the first to respond.

The teenage Claughton lived in the golden triangle between home, school, and the county ground at Edgbaston. Cricket, he says, is like the Nile. “It has two streams flowing into it. One is the world I came from, where cricket is a central part of the village and town communities of Lancashire and Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, with works teams playing in the leagues, like the Mitchells & Butlers Brewery team which played on the ground nearest me. The other comes out of the great public schools, where cricket became a long game to occupy the long boarding school afternoons and keep the kids off the streets of Windsor.” He recalls how at Warwickshire there were two dressing rooms segregated by status – now senior and junior, but originally amateur and professional. “Amateurs and professionals used to go onto the pitch from separate gates. Even in my day, the capped and uncapped players went out of different doors. By the time I was master-in-charge at Eton, I had travelled the whole narrative of English cricket.” He stayed true to his Yorkshire roots though: “I brought some northern aggressive will to win, because I thought we played like a bunch of bloody amateurs.”

WoLLoW was named just eighteen months ago, but has been five years in the making. Griffiths hired a talented linguist, Abigail Dean, to develop teaching resources on the back of John’s vision and deliver WoLLoW as part of the new, more integrated Languages programme, as well as take it out to local primaries. Driven by the fourth member of the team, John Wilson, Head of Modern Languages at Cheadle Hulme just south of Manchester, they are now working closely with schools in both state and independent sectors, as well as some universities, to maximise outreach. “We think it’s particularly potent as a partnership vehicle, because primary schools know they have to do languages but are often operating within severe limitations. We know WoLLoW works: the resources are all there, and all free; it doesn’t require a specialist – it can even be led by a senior pupil. WoLLoW can be delivered by any teacher who enjoys teaching and likes language.”

WoLLoW’s superpower is its “dialogic” approach. Claughton cites “the Loughborough lesson” as a defining example. He’d once taught a boy at Eton who thought that the name of his fellow pupil, the Earl of Loughborough, was pronounced “loo-g-bu-roo-g”. You couldn’t blame him. Through a series of prompts, the Loughborough lesson steers the class through a cluster of words that are spelt the same and pronounced differently, or vice versa: from “loch”/“lough” and “burgh”, “berg”, “burg” and “borough”, through the story of the Burghers of Calais to the ill-conceived labels of “cheese burger” and “beef burger”, a horizon-expanding trajectory that hints at the history of English and its relation to Germanic and Celtic languages. No more fragmented vocab lists, linked only by the topical banalities of a pencil case or trip to the supermarket; no more staying on the straight and narrow. Rather your learning radiates metaphorically outwards; and the synapses in your brain are really firing. Everything is connected. Learning about languages is learning about people and places and history; learning about other languages is learning about your own; learning about other people is learning about yourself. “WoLLoW encourages you to think sideways, and provides the cement which binds the different stones in your languages provision.”

From time to time Claughton goes back to Eton and feels “incredibly fortunate” to have taught at such a remarkable establishment. “But you also feel ashamed that you’ve lived in the land of the lotus eaters and merely supported the status quo. I didn’t teach Boris Johnson [he did, however, teach Rory Stewart], but I spend a lot of time ashamed that a school could produce somebody so devoid of integrity, decency, honesty and morality. At King Edward’s we were at least trying to inculcate values to a wondrously diverse group of boys. I’m really proud when I think of the impact a King Edward’s education can have on the son of a taxi driver from Birmingham.”

Perhaps it is mention of Johnson that turns Claughton’s thoughts to the war in Ukraine. If you look at Herodotus, he says [he’s the author of a book called Herodotus and the Persian Wars], you’ve got the great kings – Cyrus and Cambyses and Darius and Xerxes – ruling an empire not unlike Russia. But each one of them loses by misjudging their opponent: Darius invades Scythia, which is basically Ukraine, but the Scythians are a migratory rather than a settled people, and therefore impossible to besiege. “Herodotus shows you Putin-like leaders who, in their desperate desire to prove they are rulers of a great empire, get it completely wrong. Putin has misread the Ukrainians, which bearing in mind they are Russian-speaking and local seems quite careless.” It may be that linguistic awareness can foster values, but no amount of fluency can compensate for a moral vacuum; Putin has no interest in diversity – he wants everyone speaking Russian. Claughton notes the cyclical way in which the suppression or otherwise of the Ukrainian language in Ukrainian schools reflects the subjugation and/or resistance of the country itself.

It turns out that it’s Greek Claughton loves, not Latin. It’s partly that Greek “fitted neatly” with the way his mind works. “Greek words are an unreliable bunch, and need more chasing. It’s a lot more fun.” But in the end it comes down to the literature. “I might make an exception for Tacitus and Ovid, but wouldn’t you rather read Homer than Virgil? Or Thucydides, Sophocles and Plato?” The problem with the Romans is that they are seduced by their own image. “Everything they do is adapted to being noble Romans or failing to be noble Romans, but basically it’s about Roman-ness.” The Greeks, by contrast, are human beings. “When in Iliad 6 Hector comes back from battle, and Andromache has their child Astyanax in her arms, and the child cries at the sight of his helmet and the parents look at each other and smile, this is about being a human being, not about being a Roman hero.”

This focus on the humanity that binds us lies at the heart of WoLLoW. It’s the culmination of a compassionate career in education that Claughton’s many pupils, over four decades, owe to the wisdom of his wife, Alexandra.