An Interview With Katharine Kent

August 24th, 2009  |  Published in Thinking  |  43 Comments

For years, Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent disappeared from public life – she avoided Royal circuits, the ribbon-cutting and the television appearances. But it was only in 2004 that the newspapers worked out where she’d been. And they found that, far from being a recluse, the Duchess had been teaching music in a number of state primary schools, all under the name “Mrs Kent”.

Katharine Kent“They have been, without doubt, the most wonderful thirteen years of my life,” she told me during a visit to York to speak to the New Generation Society. “I’ve loved every minute of it”. The Duchess of Kent smiles frequently, but speaks slowly and forcefully. She certainly looks younger than her 76 years, and there’s a steeliness to this lady who, with the very slightest of northern twangs, insists that I call her Katharine.

Katharine Kent was born in Yorkshire and educated at Queen Margaret’s school near York. It makes sense, then, that her vocation lead her back to the North. But it was in East Hull, far from the confines of Hovingham Hall, her childhood home, that she found her ability to teach music.

“Now Hull was an extraordinary story”, she began. “ I’d been working with UNICEF, and a great friend of mine who had just moved to the city said I’d be absolutely fascinated by what she’d found there and to come up and see it.” Katharine’s friend was right. Although the deprivation in East Hull was not, she made clear, “similar” to the deprivation she had seen in India and Africa with UNICEF, what grabbed her attention in the UK was “just as worrying” . And it was all “on our own doorstep”.

Katharine Kent has always been musical. She studied music for five years in Oxford after leaving school. But  how did she get involved with teaching music at a school in Hull? Katharine replied: “I went to see a governor’s meeting at Wansbeck Primary School in East Hull, taken there by the friend who had just moved there. I heard the head teacher – who has now become a great friend – saying we could so do with a music teacher, and I just said, ‘I’ll do it’. And I did.” She laughed, adding, “I couldn’t really say no after that.”

It was this snap decision that eventually led to “Future Talent”, a music charity dedicated to finding, funding and nurturing exceptionally talented young musicians in the UK, founded in 2004. While teaching music at the school, Katherine encountered some of the most deprived children in the UK, and it became clear to her that music could help improve their education, that learning music “raises self-esteem in a big way”.

What was it like introducing the children at Wansbeck to music?, I asked. “I have to say, I’ve laughed more at school than I’ve ever laughed in my life. I remember saying to this group of children who’d left just the reception class, ‘What does music mean to you?’ They replied: ‘Nothing’. So we did a few rhythm games – matching words to a rhythm and so on (what the children call ‘rap’) – and they I put my keyboard on. I asked the first group to perform while the other children listened. I turned round and suddenly four of them had sat on four little seats, and one of them was pretending to be Simon Cowell and judging the other children’s diction! You have more fun with them, and it’s a lovely way to teach, to move into their world of music.”

I asked Katharine if she enjoyed leaving her Royal title at the gates of the school, and just becoming Mrs Kent, the music teacher. She looked a little bemused by the question, replying: “I absolutely swear to you, there’s a most extraordinary innocence about these children. It’s like being on an island. Their world is television and the Longhill estate. I never had to pretend to be different. I was just ‘Miss who does music’.”

How about the other teachers? Were they surprised to have a Duchess on the staff? “No”, she said. “Not even remotely. It just worked. Which is probably what made me so happy there. I absolutely love teaching – I think it’s one of the most rewarding vocations there is. It should also be rewarded more.”

Although Katharine was happy to introduce the children to pop music, and a bit of jazz, she also didn’t shy away from teaching them a more challenging repertoire. A Catholic convert, she once heard the boys of the Westminster Cathedral Choir singing “How beautiful are the feet…” – a Handel aria. “They were singing it in a wonderfully swingy way, and I thought, ‘my children could do that’. So I taught it to them.” The children, she told me, also sang Schubert and in Latin. “People were asking why these children from Hull were singing this kind of music, and I just said, ‘Why not?’”

It was through teaching the children at Wansbeck that Katharine saw talent which, without exceptional teaching and nurturing, would go to waste. “I must have taught at least 20 children within all this time that were incredibly gifted. And there are no stepping stones for them. Yes, if you’ve got money, you can get into King’s College School or wherever as a chorister. If you haven’t there’s really nothing. Future Talent is trying to provide those stepping stones.”

Future Talent will be five years old in November, having been founded in 2004 by Katharine and Nicholas Robinson, the Headmaster of King’s College School, Cambridge. In this time, it has attracted some noteworthy patrons, including Sting and Lesley Garratt. At the moment the charity provides individual sponsorship to musically gifted children and also supplies specialist music teachers to schools where they are most needed. Later this year, the charity will launch the Coombs scholarship – named in honour of Lucy Coombs, the inaugural administrator of Future Talent who died after an illness in 2007, aged just 26.

I asked Katharine if she thought that music should take priority over other subjects, such as PE, or even Maths and English. She replied: “No, but it can have a powerful influence on all of those subjects you’re talking about.” At Wansbeck, she used music to teach maths – even just by asking the children to add up the musical beats in a bar. Lessons on Geography and culture could be intertwined with music, too. “If we learnt a Polish folk song then on that day the children would learn about Poland,” she said. But, Katharine conceded, normal teachers don’t have the time to dedicate themselves to this, which is why an outside specialist must come in. Most teachers haven’t learnt music as part of their teaching qualification and even the bravest teachers are “like jelly” when forced to stand up in front of a class to teach it.

Putting music specialists into schools is one of them most expensive things Future Talent does, so how do they afford it? I asked Katharine if any members of the Royal Family support the charity. “No”, she smiled, “not one of them”. There are instead a number of trusts which donate the charity, as well as individuals. Save the Children also helped to set up the project in Hull.

Katharine feels strongly that the government has long been taking the incorrect approach to education for a long time. Speaking as a primary school teacher, she said: “We feel absolutely forgotten and misunderstood. We feel as if we’re being preached to from on high by the almighty, namely the government. No one ever comes down to our level and says, ‘What do you actually need in your school?’ We are told: ‘You need that’. Well, no we don’t – we need this. We need understanding and co-operation… we need to guide you, not you guiding us. Sometimes I feel absolutely let down by people.”

It was clear listening to Katharine speak that she feels a keen devotion to the children that she has taught – “my children,” she called them. It is plain, too, that she feels especially drawn to Hull,  borne out by the fact that she still visits Wansbeck at least once a term. “It still feel as if I’m going home when I get out at Hull station,” she said. “I’ve grown incredibly fond of the families there. No, I don’t pretend to understand deprivation entirely. But I know a lot more about it than I did when I started.”

By Will Heaven


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