Sir Alec Clegg was the pioneering chief education officer of the West Riding of Yorkshire County Council for nearly 30 postwar years. A bespectacled local government administrator, Clegg was nonetheless a huge inspiration to teachers and pupils under his control. He placed enormous, if not overwhelming emphasis on the arts when drawing up the curriculum for the region and was the founder of Bretton Hall College, the West Yorkshire college specialising in arts and performance whose alumni include actor Colin Welland, comedian Mark Thomas and members of The League Of Gentlemen.
When did you first hear of Sir Alec Clegg?
He once visited our school. I was only about six or seven but I remember all the teachers turning up in their posh frocks. Mr Moody had a suit on! Mrs Hudson had this bright red lipstick! Then this little chap with glasses on came in. He was Alec Clegg – he wasn’t Sir Alec at that point. He took away this book that I’d written called The Little Red Engine, which I’d cut out into the shape of an engine. They were all so proud. He produced this fantastic book called The Excitement of Writing in which he printed some amazing children’s writing. He more or less said, not in so many words, that the children’s writing was as important as Shakespeare or Dickens. You can do this. You can become Shakespeare or Dickens. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be doing what I do now.
What kind of person was he?
I think he was a very warm person. When he came to our school, people were attracted to him. He had a charisma to him and I think you get charisma from being completely sure of who you are. He looked like a bureaucrat – he wore a suit all the time. Normally your heroes are generals or sportsmen. They aren’t people who sit on committees.
What made him a hero?
He opened up so many things for so many people. He said: “All children can be creative. You’re from a pit village in Barnsley but you can be a writer or an artist. Your work and your ideas are as valid as anyone else’s.” Creativity was a huge plank of the curriculum. In my school in the village where I still live, we had string quartets and theatre groups visiting. The West Yorkshire Abstract Art van would come round every six months with some abstract art to stick on the wall. You’d write a poem at the end of your history lesson or your maths lesson. The arts in education wasn’t the cherry on top of the cake. He believed it was the entire cake.
What was his finest hour?
I think it was a lecture he gave at Bingley College of Education in 1974 called ‘The Creativity of Children’. It was just before his retirement and the local government reorganisation that closed West Riding: [Reading transcript] “There is good in every child, however damaged, repellent or ill-favoured he might be.” It’s just a great lecture. I imagine teachers wept at it and rushed the stage. But that probably didn’t happen…
Are there any parallels between his life and your own?
A lot of my life has been spent in workshops encouraging people who didn’t think they were creative. I’ve led writing workshops with people with mental health problems, people who can’t read and write, people with Alzheimer’s… That was through him saying that everybody can do it. I can’t just sit there and write. I have to go out and get other people going.
Is there anything you don’t particularly like about him?
I’ve never thought about that. I wish he’d worn a suit less often. Excessive suit-wearing – it’s always a crime, isn’t it?
Ian McMillan was talking to Nige Tassell.
Ian McMillan is one of this country’s best-loved poets. Aside from regular appearances on flagship BBC Radio 4 programmes like Today and Just A Minute, he presents The Verb, BBC Radio 3’s Friday-night celebration of the written word. He is also poet-in-residence for both the English National Opera and Barnsley FC.