As of this lunchtime I no longer have a child in school. After 15 years of book bags and reading practice and PE kit and lunch money and parents’ evenings and INSET days and school reports and grumbling about the price of uniforms, suddenly it’s all over. One is off to university this autumn, the other will be heading for sixth form college, unburdened by the need to put his hands on his school tie ever again.
They’ve changed a lot, of course, in the past 15 years. Possibly not as much as the school system has. Beneficiaries of New Labour’s “education, education, education” largesse they went to an excellent local primary school, and have kept one step ahead of the reformers ever since.
The youngest enjoyed all the sports the local primary sports coordinator introduced him to – shortly before the school sports partnerships which made it possible were abolished. They went to an outstanding secondary school which was in the very last group of schools to be refurbished under the generous old Building Schools for the Future programme. The oldest completed her AS levels in the year before AS’s were changed. The youngest has just done the last year of old-style GCSEs before syllabuses, course work and the grading system itself are all reformed. They leave the school system while uncertainties about possible forced Academisation swirl around. I have occasionally pictured their ride through the school system like a scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark: we are, collectively playing the part of Indiana Jones running just ahead of the granite ball representing the Department for Education – or maybe we’re Bart, they’re Homer:
They’ve done fine, of course, thanks to a series of hard-working, professional, and downright wonderful teachers who cajoled, inspired, and enlightened them all the way and who genuinely seemed to care about what happened to them. And not everything has changed since my day. I asked my son how he felt about leaving. “Now it’s over I can look back on it and say it was great” he said (remember, he left school about two hours ago) “But at the time, when you’re there and you’re a teenager and you hate everything, it makes you feel like banging your head on the desk.” I doubt there’s anyone who went to any school, anywhere, who doesn’t know exactly how that feels.
I loved the idea of Building Schools for the Future (BSF) long before I had school-age children who might benefit from it, and not just because someone needed to (literally) fix the school roof.
The public sector’s realm used to be ugly, grimy, cheap and second-rate. Asked to think about the public sector in the 1980s and chances are you pictured schools with leaky roofs, outside loos and children taught in pre-fab huts which were inhumanly hot in summer and deathly cold in winter. NHS hospitals were painted grey and sludge-green and the lino on the floor was cracked. There were plastic chairs chained to sticky grey carpet tiles and staff behind protective barriers in council offices and job centres. Those mental images, I’m sure, helped undermine confidence in the whole value of the public sector. Public was for losers who couldn’t haul themselves into the promised land of Private.
The notion of BSF was a welcome vote of confidence in Public. It was a philosophical Trojan horse which didn’t just make a practical point – that children couldn’t learn and teachers couldn’t teach in those conditions; but introduced the idea that people who used the public sector should be treated well and deserved excellence. That Public could be as good as Private.
For all its problems of slowness and bureaucracy, you’ll have guessed that I’m not overly chuffed at the news that Michael Gove is halting investment in BSF; especially as rumours persist that part of the savings from this and other cuts to the education budget are to be used to fund free schools and the dash to academies which are not exactly uncontroversial.
Still, as the man said don’t mourn, organise. I’m not sure what can be done to save school building, but here’s a campaign to try to secure parental consultation before schools can opt for academy status; here’s info about another campaign in support of local schools, and here’s the Department for Education case for and the anti-academies alliance argument against – for those who want to see both sides …
Strange feeling reading the papers since the election result, as though the whole of my working life for the past few years has been written up on a giant etch-a-sketch and is now being slowly erased. I have, over the past few years, worked in different capacities on or alongside Every Child Matters, Building Schools for the Future and the QCA amongst other things for the DfES; on support for victims of sexual violence (Home Office ) and on equalities legislation ( GEO ) All of it now seems potentially to be threatened, gone or going. I am the Typhoid Mary of government communications.
I suppose this is the inevitable result of working with the civil service – as someone once explained it to me we’re the chauffeurs, Ministers chose the destination, we just get them there the best way we can. The destination on my stuff has evidently changed, so mirror, signal, manoeuvre and off we go again – even if lots of good stuff seems to be being jettisoned along the way. How much weirder it must be to have been one of the Ministers and now watch the whole thing being dismantled as you are plunged into irrelevance and obscurity.