Monday, February 04, 2008

Education, education, education

Though there was a rumour in the late nineties that this inane phrase was invented by Prime Minister Tony Blair, those of us who had been schooled under the Communist system knew better. It was, in actual fact, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (shown here leaving the House of Unions after a session of the First All-Russia Congress on education in 1919) who first pronounced those words and every classroom across that empire had a poster at the back with them translated into the appropriate language.

To be fair to the Communist empire, after the early experiments in the Soviet Union, it reverted to the old-fashioned German teaching method and school discipline. Unpleasant it may all have been (no corporal punishment though, so there had been some progress) and the schools may have resembled prisons more than anything else, but the pupils emerged literate, numerate and in possession of, at least, some basic knowledge.

As we all know things are not like that in Britain but far otherwise. Although there has been a distinct worsening in the last ten years under the Labour government, the Conservative lot were no better; possibly less actively malevolent. At least they had assisted places and left the existing grammar and independent schools alone. On the other hand, there was no talk of extending assisted places to a full-scale voucher system or opening more grammar schools.

Who can forget the particular joy of so-called Baker days when teachers suddenly announced that they were not teaching but doing something else? Who can forget the primary schools which sent half the children to secondary ones unable to read or write? Still, I do admit that it has all become much worse.

Furthermore, as I mentioned above, there is a spitefulness about the Labour attitude to anything that comes anywhere near quality in education that is quite disgusting. This was more or less controlled under Blair, though the destruction went on but under Brown it is full-blown, possibly because the man is a fully fledged socialist not of the “workers must have everything that is good and attractive” school but of the “I must destroy everything good and attractive to ensure that nobody has more of it”.

Then again, I sense a feeling of desperation as the government flails around, coming up with one nasty and idiotic initiative after another either directly or through its useful idiots. Could it have sunk in that ten years of Labour rule have improved nothing and made much a great deal worse?

Recent ideas, if one can call them that without guffaws all round the room, include an underhand attack on independent schools, which are threatened with loss of charitable status unless they can prove in some carefully defined Stalinist fashion that they are doing their duty by society. As if providing good education was not doing that duty.

Many of those schools would dearly love to have more children from poorer or underprivileged homes but who is to pay for it? Assisted places have been abolished, vouchers are an anathema, government funded scholarships all but non-existent. There are scholarships in many schools for this purpose but they go only so far.

A few libertarians, getting hold of the wrong end of the stick, have been dismissing the need for charitable status. Let those schools take their chances. The answer is that the schools will not suffer if they have to raise their fees sky-high on losing their charitable status but a good many people in this country will. The pupils will have to come from the ultra-rich in this country and from outside.

My colleague has already written about the attack on the small primary schools in the country, which are cost-effective and of high quality. Away with them. Fortunately, there seems to have been a hitch in the government’s plans. Not only democracy but education matters – it is our future.

The latest wonderful idea comes to us indirectly from the Sheffield Hallam University and the National Centre for Social Research in a report that was commissioned by the Swiftian Department for Children, Schools and Families, which is looking at the proposals very seriously. I’ll bet.

To sum up, the report wants the abolition of grammar schools because they are populated by middle class children and make faith schools take a certain proportion of pupils from all faiths and none. Furthermore, places in the better and therefore more popular schools should be allocated according to a state-run lottery (fixed, surely) in order to make sure that they are not packed with children from aspirational middle class families.

Other people have already dealt with the obvious point that a good school is not something that exists magically in complete independence of its staff and pupils. The state messes around with either and the good school ceases to be that. Then again, this may not be all that obvious to our political leaders.

I should like to add another point. It is extremely insulting to working class or, perhaps, lower-middle class parents to assume that they do not care about their children’s education. It is just that they are often not in a position to do anything about it, not always being as mobile as people who are better off. There is, however, a good deal of evidence that non-middle class parents want the best education for their children and are prevented from giving it by the state and its control of schools and colleges.

The argument that grammar schools do not help bright children from poorer homes is nonsensical. If those schools are packed with more privileged offsprings it is because there are not enough of them. If there were grammar schools in every town and several in the bigger ones, they would not be dominated by any class.

So, with all that in mind, let me turn to another recent story about a Conservative politician. This time it is George Osborne, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and, in general, rather a waste of rations politically speaking.

Mr Osborne has announced that he intends to send his children to the highly regarded (not entirely accurately in my opinion but let that pass) and very expensive Norland Place School. This, I must admit, makes a refreshing change from his leader’s mental convolutions whereby it has been made clear that the little Camerons will be sent to schools in the state sector, as long as these are ones the parents can choose freely anywhere in West London and have a very good reputation. This, let me explain to our non-British readers, is not something that is open to most other people and reminds one of the similar contortions the Blairs went through with their offspring.

The discussion on ToryBoy blog made me feel that, by and large, there is a certain amount of sense in the Tory grassroots, which has to be a good thing. (Please, don’t tell my colleague I said so.)

Apart from one or two trolls who spit imprecations at private education (would they like to see the buying of books nationalized, one wonders) and a few Tory trolls who just go dulalee about anything their leaders do and tell us that this has nothing to do with anyone else, the commenters have largely approved Osborne’s decision with the proviso that he should now start campaigning for the availaibility of good and personally chosen education to all families.

This is really the problem with all these sagas. Osborne, like Blair or Harriet Harman or Diane Abbott, uses the obvious argument: I want the best for my children. Fair enough. We all do.

His choice of schooling is of importance to us all not because he is a public figure as some rather fatuous people have it. It is of little significance where most public figures send their children.

His choice is of importance because he is a politician and as such has inordinate control over the choices other people are allowed to make.

Back in the sixties when the Labour government started the destruction of grammar schools, a campaign that was led by the Highgate School-educated Anthony Crosland and the St Paul’s-educated Shirley Williams, who prefers not to mention this fact, (and not reversed by the grammar school-educated Margaret Thatcher) many people knew that politicians continued to send their own children to independent schools. That egalitarian they were not. The media, still in the supposed halcyon days of respecting politicians, rarely discussed this hypocrisy and arrogance.

Next time any of our readers start to sigh for the good old days of “honourable” politicians, they might like to contemplate, instead, this fact. Politicians were no more honourable – we just knew less.

Anyway, back to the present, where the media is not particularly respectful to politicians (and how they hate it); nor are the rest of us impressed by them.

The point the Conservatives might like to contemplate if they are serious about wanting to be re-elected is one that we have made a few times before (and shall make again): we, the electorate, owe them nothing. Even those of us who dislike the present government and its disastrous policies do not necessarily think that the alternative would be any better, unless Her Majesty’s Opposition demonstrate this fact by their ideas and policies. Let me spell it out: while we owe them nothing, they owe us an explanation and a reason as to why we should vote for them.

Given that the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer has now made a point of telling us how important it is for parents to be able to choose the best possible education for their offsping, I am looking forward to the Conservative Party producing some ideas on educational reform, by which I do not mean tinkering round the edges or telling us pompously that a Conservative government will ensure that schools will start teaching children and universities will become centres of excellence (just like they ensured so in the past). I mean some carefully worked out ideas as to how to take the state out of education, starting by how to make sure that the money follows the pupil not gets filtered to schools through LEAs.

No need for researchers to do any work on this – there are plenty of ideas floating around, not least papers produced by Reform.

I might even consider voting Conservative next time though not if they continue to produce inane ideas on the role of the state in childhood.

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