(This blog was first published on The Salisbury Review)
Historically May 3rd has always been a day of turmoil: Poland gained its first democratic constitution, Spanish rebels in the Peninsula War were murdered by the French and later painted by Goya, Patrick Pearse was executed in Dublin, Ireland was split in two, the Royal Air Force sank the Deutschland, black people were allowed mortgages in the USA, and Sandy Toksvig was born. Now for the first time since 1926, England is in the grip of a national strike.
Thousands of small children have been withdrawn from their Play Doh and Peppa Pig pop-up books as 300 furious groups of parents around the UK act against the Government, which is trying to introduce tests in primary schools. There has been a protest of 500 in a playground in Brighton, and a petition signed by 40,000 presumably literate adults will be handed in to Downing Street.
It’s official, at least according to members of the NUT speaking to the BBC: English children cannot sit tests in basic English and maths without suffering a nervous collapse. Years of educational evolution, well over the last forty years, mean that England’s children, largely those with an Anglo-Saxon rather than an Asian brain, are physically unable to cope with the stress of being tested. Worse, as one teacher put it, sitting tests may seriously damage their self-esteem.
The damaging psychological effect of brain fag has been much written about since the last war, a time fading from memory, when people of all ages and classes had to learn what teacher told them or they were beaten until they did, but we won’t go into that. The issue in the UK is not, of course, really about psychology. It’s all about class and politics – education here and increasingly in Scotland and Wales, being one of the leading signifiers in our apparently never ending class war.
The strike was organised by the ‘Let Our Kids Be Kids’ group who claim to have 7,000 followers on Facebook. They agree that, ‘Kids are over tested, over worked and in a school system that places more importance of test results and league tables than children’s happiness and joy of learning.’ They’ve kept their children out of school for a day of ‘educational fun.’
Interviewed on Radio 4 from somewhere in a Suffolk wood, they spoke about their desire for ‘the joy of learning,’ to be restored. They didn’t say exactly when learning was joyful but one suspects it was sometime in the 1960s. One mother complained that her son aged seven was being forced to learn fractions, ‘by rote.’ She said this knowledge was useless because he ‘couldn’t directly apply it.’
The burgeoning group of children now deemed to have ‘special educational needs’ complicated things as some parents interviewed used them as a reason why children should not be pressured into learning. Another yummy mummy who was surely ‘gluten free,’ added that her children aged six and seven, should be ‘out picking flowers rather than sitting in a classroom.’
Like many I went to school in the 1960s when we were indeed encouraged to go out and pick flowers, put them in our hair and dream of San Francisco rather than study. I remember a block of wooden fraction pieces, beautifully carved, which no one ever touched and were not explained. At my secondary school we never learned any grammar and I gave up going to maths without anyone noticing. Later, at university, as Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister reminded me on Radio 4, it was hard to write a clear, cogent essay.
Because of my own rough educational background in the West Midlands, I was fascinated to hear Respectable, by Lynsey Hanley, as Book of the Week on Radio 4 last week. Born in 1976, she grew up in Chelmsley Wood, near Birmingham, then the biggest council estate in Europe. She made it to sixth-form college, Queen Mary’s, the University of London, a career in music journalism, working for Heat, a popular celebrity magazine, then for an off shoot of the Daily Mirror called, ‘We Love Telly.’ She is now a visiting fellow in cultural studies at Liverpool John Moores University.
At first, it seemed quite a happy story in which by sheer grit and intelligence she overcame all obstacles, achieved her ambitions and jumped up a class. Being British she felt slightly guilty about this, of course:
‘Well, there’s nothing you can do about it, is there? Yeah, because so much about it just seems wrong. I feel like I’ve got the life of Riley. I’m really not saying that everybody who is middle-class has the life of Riley, but it has worked out for me beyond my wildest dreams. The idea that you could get to write books was just crackers. I still can’t actually believe that I’m doing it.’
But her story quickly took a darker tone when she reached her real theme; ‘The divisive notion, encouraged by politicians of all parties over the past two decades, that we’re all middle-class now.’
It became obvious why she’s never changed her strong Brummie accent although she hasn’t lived in Birmingham since she was eighteen. She believes that the selling of education to all is a big con, designed chiefly to break working class solidarity. Education is the main driver of social mobility but for Hanley that should not mean leaving behind a world where people eat custard tarts and blow on their chips to join others who take holidays in Tuscany and eat olives. She says that working class people who abandon their class because of education ‘cause deep rifts in families, traumatised by generations of deferred dreams.’
Many have been upset by bad dreams but she knows people who are damaged by dreams they’ve never had. Education is dangerous and divisive. As she made her way up, ruthlessly, ‘seizing the weapons of middle class soft power,’ by worrying about eating a good diet and knowing the names of theatre directors, she found she was working on a TV magazine in the days of Big Brother and Jade Goody. Goody’s ignorance she says, ‘made it alright to denigrate people regarded as common.’
For extreme left wing educationalists such as Hanley, Goody was the supreme victim of the great middle-class con trick played on the working class, particularly by Tony Blair’s New Labour.
‘The belief that an amoral underclass exists in highly unequal countries like the US and the UK,’ she says, ‘has proved magnetic for newspaper editors.’ She lambasts Charles Murray, the American libertarian political scientist who first became well known for his book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950–1980. She detests his criticism of the US underclass as people who ‘have never been socialised’ and are therefore uneducable. She’s obviously never heard black comedian Richard Pryor’s savage attack on the same people in his own ethnic group.
From there she moved shockingly to attack the late Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools. She says that he believed, ‘middle class children did better because they had better genes than working class children,’ so any attempt to educate them was unlikely to bear any fruit.
He believed, she says, ‘Teachers were working with damaged, dunderheaded goods.’
Did he say any of that? It seems hard to equate those views with his love of grammar schools, which Hanley herself refers to as agencies of a ‘limited meritocracy.’
This venom against educational aspiration comes from the conviction that middle-class life is inherently unjust, that by its existence it somehow stops and excludes others. This is not just cultural Marxism, it brings to mind Pol Pot, who tried to bring about the Year Zero and start again from scratch by killing anyone with even limited learning.
As Hanley learned to appreciate art galleries and olives, she says she entered a world where, ‘knowledge and its hoarding were pursued for its economic and social wealth.’ There was no education for its own sake; it was inherently corrupted by capitalism.
For Hanley and the Left, who dominate education in the state sector, from nursery schools to the Institute of Education, what children do or do not learn is immaterial. The idea of social mobility itself is dangerous because it deadens the revolutionary impulse. Nothing can matter because the class war, set back by New Labour, has not yet been won. Giving knowledge to children merely reinforces the ‘hoarding of cultural and social capital.’
As Hanley says disparagingly, ‘As surely as the thirty foot wall around Oxford.’
(Image: Matt Brown)