Last night I took part in BBC Radio 4’s soft focus pre-election programme Two Rooms, along with Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator ( which now, rather amusingly, calls itself ‘ the oldest continuously published magazine..’) The basic premise of the programme is that two groups of people – one broadly optimistic about their lives , one much less so – sit in two separate rooms debating the same issues. You could call it the Two Nations – Sort Of. Very post-ideological, very Radio 4.
In the first programme, which broadcast some moving stories of terrible poverty in Britain 2015, the Two Rooms talked about personal finance; last night the group discussed education and opportunity.
it was an interesting, if frustrating experience. (Recording took four hours – so the programme was heavily edited.) Many in Room A, to which I was assigned, were older and had come out into a (relatively) buoyant job market, where qualifications had some meaning and provided them with a ladder of opportunity. One participant had re-trained, via an access course, to become a physiotherapist. One quiet mid-life woman described how she had gone from her comprehensive to Cambridge, where she was very unhappy, but said that her education had opened up all sorts of opportunities as a result. There was only one privately educated person in the room. From Northern Ireland, he lacked the air of entitlement that so often surrounds his English counterparts.
What these stories showed, I argued, was the impact of recent, and often dramatic, cuts in everything from access courses to career guidance, not to mention well paying jobs; hence the experience of Room B, where those in possession of a degree could not even get any employment, even at the minimum wage. One younger member of Room A spoke at length, and very movingly, about how, at every stage of his life, it was the welfare state that had saved him: free secondary education, help with council housing and social services.
Interestingly, we were there to discuss education but hardly anyone mentioned it, except in the briefest and most personal terms (‘my history teacher really helped me’). There were few complaints about state schools and no mention at all of the last five years of upheaval in our schools under the Coalition. Nor, I am sad to say, did the Radio 4 include my report on the findings of a recent LSE/Manchester University study, by Dr Ruth Lupton among others, that the end result of the Coalition’s prolonged experiment in marketisation has been a marginal increase in the results of the brightest, and a corresponding dip in the results of children from more deprived families. After all that!
That the Coalition education revolution has spluttered to a halt was, however, reflected both in the quiescence and frustration of Both Rooms. Fraser Nelson, a Gove enthusiast, was keen to talk about the transformational impact of a good education, but the ordinary British citizens in Rooms A and B know better. They know that education alone, particularly in a grossly hierarchical system – and not just of schools, but increasingly of universities- cannot fix the problem of opportunity.
There was not a single mention of academies, free schools, bring-back-the-grammars………but plenty of talk about the injustice of unpaid internships, the way education is turning into a business, the need for properly paid work experience, and the need for expert personal and career guidance. Both rooms expressed emotions between dismay and disgust at the fact that a child from a private school has a 200 to 1 chance of getting into Oxbridge while a child at a state school has only a 2000 to 1 chance. A pity then that neither of the rooms came up with a proposal to abolish, or restrict state subsidy, of private schools.
How does any of this fit with the upcoming General Election? Education is proving a rather second order issue, as if the nation itself is worn out with Gove-ite exhortation. Apart from an increase in proper apprenticeships ( which all agreed upon), Fraser Nelson could only really come up with some very second order proposals, such as more speakers in schools, and internships for those from poorer families.
Nelson seems to think that if only the poor, benighted state school graduates could get access to the wonderful contacts and networks of the privately educated, all will be well. This seems to me a profound mis-reading of the way social networks, and privilege, work. It takes a lifetime of opportunity, support, second and third chances to create a Boris Johnson – not one shot at listening to the editor of Spectator at a lunchtime sixth form careers fair.
But if the political right have run out of meaningful answers for the problems of education and employment, something much more interesting is happening over in the progressive/Labour camp. Just this morning, Tristram Hunt announced a potentially exciting development in Labour policy that fits perfectly with the concerns expressed in Two Rooms.
Building on the slow, patient work of recent years, like the Heads Roundtable and the Husbands review, Labour have now come out strongly in favour of moving towards a baccalaureate structure for the 14-19 years, suggesting that they might eventually phase out GCSEs (no longer fit for modern purpose) in favour of a diploma style qualification that will embrace both vocational and academic pathways.
This modern, flexible structure will indeed provide those more vocationally oriented with a pathway to pursue but within the context of a good general education. Within this scheme, every student will have to continue with maths and English to 18, as well as develop certain personal skills and undertake an extended project. The Bacc structure offers a much more challenging and flexible programme of learning and is one that those in both Rooms A and B might have benefitted from, and would, I am sure, support.
A quick report on two successes for the comprehensive argument in recent student union debates.
The first was held on February 5th, at Manchester Debating Union, the largest student debating body in the country, where Professor Bernard Barker ( the first comprehensive student to go on to become the head of a comprehensive school) and I were arguing against Robert McCartney of the National Grammar Schools Association and Graham Brady MP on the motion: This House Supports the Re-Introduction of Grammar Schools.
After a heated, but largely good tempered, discussion, between panellists and from the floor, the motion was defeated. (Initial voting had suggested a narrow margin against the motion; we increased our share of the vote after the debate.) One of the key themes raised in this discussion was whether comprehensive schools produce good results – we argued that they certainly can – and, a slightly different point here, cater for really bright children? On the latter point, we heard anecdotes from either side of the argument. Robert McCartney tried to suggest that comprehensive education was based on sloppy, overly ‘progressive’ and child-centred ideas of teaching and learning. It seems that MDU agreed with us that Mr McCartney was behind the times on this issue.
For videos of all the contributions and further details of the debate itself, click on the MDU link above.
I took part in a similar debate at the Cambridge Union on February 19th. Here, our challenge was greater than it was in Manchester as voting at the beginning of the debate was in favour of the motion This House Would Re-introduce Grammar Schools; our job was to persuade the ‘House’ otherwise.
Cambridge Union is much more formal in atmosphere and structure; one can be interrupted, bar the first and last minute, at any point during one’s speech; most of the male debaters still wear formal dress, including bow ties; in short, it can feel like a rehearsal for life in the House of Commons or at the Bar ( although I understand the Oxford Union is even worse, in this respect..)
Our opponents were Robert McCartney (again), Andrew Shilling, a parent leading a campaign to set up a new/satellite grammar in Kent and Shaun Fenton, head of Reigate grammar, an independent school. Our side was represented by Michael Pyke of CASE, Ndidi Okesie, of Teach First and myself, recently elected Chair of Comprehensive Future.
A couple of action shots:
Again, we won this debate, quite decisively, with a swing of 33% in our favour.
In my view, this was due to two main elements. Firstly, even those arguing for the ‘reintroduction’ of grammar schools could not really justify the historic waste of talent and opportunity – ably elaborated by Michael Pyke – that resulted from the post war division between grammars and secondary moderns. The argument, on their side, seems to have shifted from the reintroduction of a mandatory 11 plus to the importance of offering an ‘academic’ education to a few (most of whom, judging on current figures, are likely to come from relatively affluent homes) with good comprehensives for the rest. (No-one uses the term ‘secondary moderns’ any more, for obvious reasons. ) The fact that you cannot have a grammar and comprehensive system running side by side cannot be stated too often.
Secondly, our side’s strength lay in our detailed exposition of the evidence of the slow and steady educational success brought about by comprehensive education in this country over the last fifty years, the fact that selection clearly harms the opportunities and achievements of poor children ( this argument was powerfully expressed by Ndidi Okozie) and that large parts of the Tory party now recognise that selection harms the majority. Finally, we have learned a great deal about what makes a good comprehensive system, and school, over the last fifty years, leading to some examples of stunning schools around the country, and particularly in poorer areas.
For all these reasons ( and more) there is now a broad cross-party consensus that non selective schools – a good local school for all – is the only rational principle on which to run a state education system and that it would be fatal to return to a damaging and divisive system of old.
Reader, they agreed with us.
I will be taking part in a few debates and discussions over the next few months.
First up – see below…..
MANCHESTER DEBATING UNION
This House Would Reintroduce Grammar Schools
February 5 @ 5:00 pm / 6:30 pm
This House Would Reintroduce Grammar Schools
Grammar schools, dominant in the UK until the 1960s, ran under a system of selective education. At age 11 all school students would be given a general intelligence exam. If a student passed they would gain entrance to a more academically based grammar school. If they failed they would be sent to a school focusing more on practical skills. There’s an increasing minority within the political establishment who argue that grammar schools should be reintroduced, including the resurgent UK Independence Party, believing that it offers an opportunity for the brightest students to thrive regardless of socioeconomic background. Critics argue that it creates segregation in our society, and only removes a few children from their troubled backgrounds rather than tacking the root causes of deprivation. This week the Manchester Debating Union asks: should we reintroduce grammar schools?
Facebook event page: http://www.facebook.com/events/1610632269165849/
– Proposition —
– Robert McCartney QC
Barrister and Former Leader of the UK Unionist Party and founder of the National Grammar Schools Association.
– Graham Brady MP
Conservative MP for Altrincham and Sale West, former Shadow Secretary for Europe and Chairman of the 1992 Committee.
— Opposition —
– Melissa Benn
Journalist and author, founder of the Local Schools Network which campaigns in favour of a totally comprehensive schooling system.
– Professor Bernard Barker
IN CONVERSATION WITH OWEN JONES
September 29th, 7 pm. I will be in conversation with Owen Jones about his new book The Establishment: And how they get away with it
Location: Sutton House, 2-4 Homerton High Street, Hackney, London E9 6JQ
The event is put on by Pages bookshop in Hackney. Go to their events page to book tickets for this event.
HENLEY LITERARY FESTIVAL
Feminist writer and activist Laura Bates and I: in conversation with Monisha Rajesh, talking about young women today, fourth wave feminism, sexism today and much much more.
2pm Town Hall £9
Box Office Mon-Fri 10am-2pm 01491 575948
CONFERENCE ON WOMEN AND EDUCATION
Thirtieth anniversary conference organised by Mulberry School for Girls:’ Educating Twenty First Century Women: Passion, Possibilities and Power’ on Friday 10th October 2014, at the Queen Elizabeth 11 Conference Centre, Westminster, London.
The afternoon panel, beginning at 2pm, will discuss the empowerment and disempowerment of women in powerful institutions such as politics, religion and law. The other speakers are: Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP – Shadow Home Secretary Reverend Rose Hudson Wilkin – Speakers Chaplin at the House of Lords Eleanor Mills – Editorial Director of The Sunday Times Munira Mirza – Deputy Mayor of Education and Culture – Greater London Authority Jo Wilding – Human Rights Barrister at Garden Court Chamber – Ndidi Okezie – Educationalist and Regional Director at Teach First Chair: Kat Banyard – Founder of UKFeminsta and Author of The Equality Illusion
SYMPOSIUM ON EDUCATION AND RUSKIN.
I will be taking part in a symposium put on by the Guild of St. George and The Ruskin Library and Research Centre (Lancaster University) entitled: Education for Education’s Sake? A Symposium on Ruskin and modern education at Toynbee Hall 28 Commercial St, London E1 6LS United Kingdom 10.00 a.m. 4.30 p.m. Saturday, 11 October, 2014
WOMEN’S THERAPY CENTRE: ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING
The theme of this AGM will be mothers and daughters. Also speaking will be Dilek Gungor, senior psychotherapist, who will talk about a new WTC initiative for Mothers and Daughters.
11 am – 1pm, Friday October 17th, 2014
Islington Town Hall, Upper Street, London N1 2UD ( Committee Room 5)
OUR COMMUNITY, OUR SCHOOLS
Special meeting in Walthamstow, put on by Our Community, Our Schools on ‘What do we want from our schools? A Charter for Schools’ on Tuesday 21 October 2014
7.30pm, Harmony Hall, Truro Road, Walthamstow
For more details, go to this website.
The FORGIVENESS PROJECT
As part of a season looking at different aspects of forgiveness, I will be chairing a session on November 10th
wrestling with the question: How do words help relieve pain?
Exploring how the written and spoken word can help the recovery process will be Mr Gee, the acclaimed London poet, musician and comedian who recently presented Radio 4’s ‘Poetic Justice’ series encouraging inmates to write poems, and Marian Partington, whose sister was a victim of serial killers Frederick and Rosemary West and who has seen first-hand how recounting her story to offenders through The Forgiveness Project’s RESTORE programme has helped change lives. Marian’s remarkable and lyrical memoir ‘If You Sit Very Still’ tells the story. Tim Caroe is a GP who works with people (who are often called patients) and the stories they bring to him in his role as a doctor. He aims to help them to write the next chapter of their life narrative in a way that sustains them.
Venue: St Ethelburga’s Centre, Bishopsgate, London, EC2N 4AG
Doors open at 6pm with the conversation beginning at 6.30pm
Tickets cost £11 and available from here… http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/how-do-words-help-relieve-pain-tickets-11552470751
Please note tickets are not available on the door.
My session at the recent Edinburgh International Book Festival ( August 17th) was filmed. There is also an added bit at the end, talking to members of the audience about their reaction to the session and the festival etc.