It’s education – stupid!

old etonian

School Swap – The Class Divide. ITV 9pm

I like Nicola Sturgeon, and I did vote for the Nats, knowing well that we’d get Cameron and Osborne, the Oxbridge educated elite whose scare tactics worked a treat in getting enough people on their side to elect them. One of the refreshing aspects of watching the 56 SNP members of Parliament filling their seats in the House of Commons is that some of them actually are common and none of them (as far as I’m aware) have had the merits of an Oxbridge education. Equality of opportunity in education. As Gradgrind says in Charles Dicken’s Hard Times “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

But don’t let facts get in the way of a good story. Mr Tulliver in The Mill in The Floss wanted to have his bread and eat it by having his son educated in an academy so that he wouldn’t have any bright notions of pushing him out of the mill, when he was older. The fact that his daughter Maggie (I’d guess based on George Elliot herself) was the one that took to book learning like a duck to water, whilst poor Tom struggled to stay upright, was of no concern. Education was wasted on girls. Fifty percent of the population excluded at a stroke. Fact. People keep having the wrong kind of children. Many of them are poor. In fact most of them are poor. And like their mothers and fathers they are likely to remain poor and uneducated.

The Joseph Rowntree Report in Scotland for example in 2014 stated: ‘There is clear evidence of a persistent gap in attainment between pupils in the richest and poorest households in Scotland. The gap starts in pre-school years and continues throughout primary and secondary school. In most cases it widens as pupils progress through the school years. Most importantly, the poverty attainment gap has a direct impact on school leavers’ destinations…’ Poverty equals poverty and it runs through those from the poorest areas like the lettering through Rothesay rock. It’s education stupid!

But we’ve already had this debate. In nineteen thirties Britain, for example, George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London thought he’d be picked on when he went to the spikes to get his ration of bread and sweet tea to survive another night. He was largely ignored, fitting in with the other of society’s drop-outs, but when he was singled out, usually because of his accent, he was seen as a gentleman down on his luck and treated better. The others, in contrast, were seen as part of a diseased body that had to be inoculated against. Fools that had fallen into bad ways. In Britain then only 1 in 1000 had a university education, far less than the ratio in France of even Nazis Germany.

Post-war we had a chance to make lasting changes in education. Private education, paradoxically, of public school boys was on its knees. It needed massive injections of government cash.  Masters of Wellington, like T.C. Worsley made the case quite plainly: ‘we are what we are, and shall be what we shall be, owing largely, if not wholly, to the privileged education, which the ruling class has received in the last forty years.’ In other words, pay up and shut up and we’ll give you the prime minister, government, judges and judiciary,  the privileged land-owning class and captains of industry. Butler blinked and we have it, no foolish taxes, such as VAT, on private education and they retain charitable status. Even Charles Dickens couldn’t have made that one up.  The public and private badge of privilege worn by Cameron and his cronies opens doors to the very select few and excludes the wrong kind of child.

It’s all about standards the privileged like Worsley say, buttressed by that old chimera from the Black Report (and, for no reason, Auden’s ‘seven stars go squawking/ Like geese across the sky’)—falling grades. Scare stories from the nineteen seventies like Panorama’s that focussed on educational fads like child-centred education, indiscipline and chaos of comprehensives such as Farday High, a kind Grange Hill for older folk, but without the merits of Tucker Jenkins.

I shouldn’t really watch programmes like Class Divide ITV 1.  It doesn’t teach me anything and is bad for my health. These are testing time and the Rowntree Report shows that in Scotland only 28% of children from the poorest families, such as those that attend Drumchapel High up the road, perform well in numeracy, compared to the cohort from more privileged schools in our fair cities West end.  In my childhood years I fell into that convenient stereotype, white, working class and male; sure to fail. I wasn’t particularly good at school. The old Scottish adage; they pretended to teach us and we pretended to learn just about sums it up. If I’d really stuck in at school I could have got a degree and became a history teacher and worked my way up to become head teacher of Warminster public school, featured in Class Divide, where annual boarding fees are around £27 000 (fling in a few extras, hey, who’s counting?) or I could have become an astronaut or became Sean Connery.

In the first programme we have headmaster Mark Mortimer accompanying Xander, Katy and Jon to Bemrose. The kids are pleasantly surprised. Xander sums it up. ‘It’s not as bad as he thought it would be’. All three test with ten other new starts. The private school pupil’s reading age is assessed as that of an eighteen-year old. The average pupil at Bemrose reading age is that of a seven-year old, but remember English is often a second language. But it’s more than that. Look at Xander, he’s physically bigger and more mature than his peers. It’s a throwback to reports of malnutrition in the troop intakes and an inability to perform simple tasks that continued up until the Second World War. Xander seems like a nice young Tory peer and I’m sure he’ll look back at his time with poor people with some fondness as he subjects them to yet more government cuts so people like him don’t suffer.  Bemrose as a school shows well. But a dory can’t compete with an educational frigate, nor should it be compared to such. The lessons learned don’t add up.

Education is one part of life’s equation. Educational and economic opportunity is the larger part. As studies such as Robert D. Putnam’s show Our Kids are taking a hell of a beating. Life chances are they’ll end up like their ma and pa. The rich such as those attending Warminster School will go on to one of the top five universities. They will get an internship (bidding starts at £16 000 for the type that mummy and daddy don’t mind paying for) and will go on to have a well-paid career.  That’s what private education gets for you. It offer social connections and wealth offers a buffer against economic and individual shocks. For example, allegations of a leak of where and when Ofsted school inspections would occur were linked to Ms De Sousa and a chain of academy schools, giving them time to prepare their best face, gain a favourable report and boost their league status. You couldn’t imagine Jo Ward, head teacher of 700-pupil secondary comprehensive–and counting they have a statutory duty to take children, many of them immigrants with English as their second language – Bemrose High in Derby, being in the loop and forewarned of an Ofsted inspection. Nor the head teacher of Drumchapel High. And the question needs to be asked, would it really matter?

We live in a more-it-tocracy in which the rich get richer, demand more through their monopoly of the key institutions and get it and the poor get poorer. Both are in the same sea of education, but Bemrose is a dory plucking kids from the waves and Warminster is a frigate intent on getting its charges from A to B and completing its mission.

It’s disappointing to hear Sturgeon talking of failing schools and their pupils needing more tests, starting with those in primary schools.  What we need to do is stop subsidising the rich and privileged. We need to take away their charitable status. We need to stop paying for Catholic and Protestant schools. We should merge them and offer no government support for those that want to set up their own schools. We should offer a clear path and grants for those from the less privileged schools in return for a fixed number of years in the educational districts in which they were educated. What we don’t need Ms Sturgeon is more tests. I thought you were smart enough to know that. D grade.

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