It is grey and wet outside the window although the snow in the countryside has melted. In London it is falling thickly in Parliament Square and no doubt trains and planes will shortly grind to a halt as usual. The weather may be typical for winter here — we hear of a less typical dramatically cold spell in northern India — but there is a certain warmth of optimism in the country that is decidedly unusual and quite hard to pin to any good reason. It must be that business of the Olympic legacy because there doesn’t seem to be a lot else to crow about as austerity measures continue to bite, jobs go at the huge Honda factory near here, and shops and major chains of stores continue to close in our high streets. Pensions are being cut, all the usual problems with healthcare and education continue and yet people seem to believe that things might improve and, more importantly, that they might be able to force some improvements for themselves. Whether it’s the Olympics, cultural successes on the international stage such as the extraordinary selection of current films being recognized for their brilliant British direction, production or acting, there is a little lift in the chilly climate.
We have a huge number of remarkably talented people in this country and not only in publicly recognized fields. We are at the cutting edge in many scientific and medical fields, often due to our earlier appeal to Asian immigrants who have made such good use of what was on offer here to rise to the heights of their particular fields. In cultural areas, from television to theatre to art of all sorts, we bow our heads to nobody, whilst appreciating the influences that we have been lucky enough to tap into over hundreds of years from vast swathes of the world. The City of London remains unique among the world’s great financial centres, whatever its problems, and, sometimes, if only for its history. We still have a lot going for us in this tiny country whether or not our finances are up to much, but I am not convinced that our present government is not on a wrecking course in many areas — and we are lucky that it is a coalition where the worst instincts of Conservatism continue to be tempered by those of the Liberal Democrats, at least for as long as it lasts.
The government is not popular. It is seen to be mean and divisive in spite of any LibDem emollience, to have it in for the poor and, as for Europe, to be as confused and divided as ever and liable to get things wrong, whatever wrong is. Actually it may be that the prime minister’s personal instincts on Europe are not so wrong, but he has the same problems over the whole question of our relationship to or membership of the European Union that have existed amongst the grassroots of his party since the Common Market first became an issue at all. There is talk now of a new group led by Ken Clarke on the Left Conservative side and Lord Mandelson, theoretically at least, from slightly Left of that, which will fight against growing euroscepticism and for the importance of our continuing involvement with and leading role in Europe. I hope it succeeds in silencing the baying voices chasing renegotiation, referendum and ultimate isolation.
Benefits and pensions may be this government’s eventual downfall, but there is plenty of time for now to get the ship back on an even keel or to sink it. The area that seems to get the least publicity at the moment and where the relevant secretary of state may be causing the most long-term damage is education. Michael Gove is seen as one of the stars of contemporary Conservatism. He is actually a reactionary with opinions rooted somewhere in the 1950s and of remarkably little relevance in solving the problems really faced by teachers and schools today, where his tinkering with teaching and testing systems is causing nothing but grief. He has been much criticized for his focus on academy and free schools, funded and maintained by private companies and institutions outside the remit of the local councils which have previously run the state schools in their areas. Academies have been set up in many areas where state schools were seen to be failing. Their successes have been talked up by the secretary of state, continuing failures risen above. The truth is that their results overall have remained very much the same as they were under local authority administration although some notable success stories have created the fanfares.
The academy idea may not be a bad one, new private funding going into schools good, ultimate answerability only to an overblown centre probably bad; it is too far removed from its client base and too dependent on the ideological persuasions at the centre of the centre as opposed to those clients. Gove seems to believe, along with many at the centre of governments, that one size fits all regardless of culture, creed or economic capacity. It doesn’t, it doesn’t, not even in a small country like this where the seat of power is within touching distance. Gove, however, in his educational ivory tower, is neither reachable nor in touch with the reality on the ground, a failing which plenty of other executives of this government are regularly accused of.
I must declare an interest in a new involvement with an academy school in my county, the new Sarum Academy in the City of Salisbury. Now, Salisbury is a beautiful place with one of the great monuments of Christianity at its centre, the great 13th-century cathedral, the magnificence of which is shared and appreciated by visitors of many other creeds or none. Salisbury, one imagines, is a relatively comfortable and prosperous country market city, suffering the usual high street closures and job scarcity but pretty well off compared with inner city areas in the north, for instance. Well, not necessarily so, the job market is truly appalling in a largely rural area with few jobs available on mechanized farms and little industry close at hand and this is nothing new or only to do with present downturns. Actually, Salisbury has, on its western edge, one of the poorest and most deprived council housing estates in the country. Sarum Academy has been opened in the old comprehensive school buildings right in the middle of the estate.
Things should be looking good. The well-known construction firm of Robert McAlpine is building what is basically a new school on part of the site which will open in September. Most of the old buildings will be razed to the ground. With McAlpine, the school is otherwise supported both by the Salisbury diocese, Wiltshire Council in this case, plus a major local private secondary school and a local university. So far so encouraging but Gove’s directives as to educational curriculum, exams, teachers’ pay, the importance of traditional educational values and his generalized assumptions will make schools like this, in poor areas, whomsoever run or funded by, completely impossible to run successfully. They will fail altogether when they do not achieve the results he also demands and they have little hope of getting them.
The impressive principal at Sarum came from another highly problematic academy and knows all too well what she is up against. Insistence on traditional academic disciplines beyond the obvious, reading, writing and maths to a reasonable level, are of no value to pupils who do not value academic education. These young people, unlike children in India, do not aspire to be doctors, lawyers or scientists, they never look so high and neither do their parents, unfortunately. They do not value education for its own sake or for what it may offer in the future, they are staring at the ground, not the stars. There are always exceptions but for most, getting them to school is in itself a major challenge, as is keeping them there or expecting them to arrive again the next day or for the beginning of the next term. They do not respect their teachers or any authority and they do not care. They come from homes that are intellectually wholly deprived, often as materially poor as many people imagine families are only in the developing world.
The stories of runaways, drug use and even mothers pimping their daughters that we might expect to hear from the populations of overcrowded Indian city slums are all here too, and we, because we can’t quite believe them in front of our noses in cosy county towns, continually fail to recognize the real needs of affected children while Gove focuses on the importance of better language teaching. A lot of these children can barely communicate in their own language. What they need is aspiration and occasionally instant success. They aspire, if at all, only to some sort of instant celebrity that requires no particular effort or education but gives them the means of future employment and a chance for small successes in relevant forms of education; they may yet learn to want more and to understand that it is possible to strive and achieve.
As things are, the emphasis from the top on traditional teaching of traditional subjects is pushing out the possibility for vocational training in everything from hairdressing to computing to cooking, all of which were meant to be provided in the new buildings in Sarum Academy to a level that might mean future employment. Maybe some of these children will have the natural talent to become great athletes or wealthy football players, maybe some will achieve their celebrity aspirations but not many. Most will neither have learned to learn or to value what they have learnt and they are probably right because for most of them, old fashioned ‘book learning’ will be of no value at all, however sad that is and whether Michael Gove likes it or not. As usual, the government is looking at a warped version of the big picture and avoiding microscopic scrutiny of the individual stories that make up the reality, of the problems that they are failing to address. These are the issues the impact of which will be great on the future of the country and which are far from the legacy of hope being embraced by those among us who have the means to continue to aspire to better.