Tuesday, October 25, 2011

All in it Together

In her book, School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education (Verso), Melissa Benn mounts an impassioned defence of universal education, the idea that every child - whatever their background - deserves a serious education with the same high expectations. Along the way, she catalogues the failed opportunities, the obsession with targets and tables and the denigration of comprehensive education meted out by successive governments.

Benn begins by detailing the depressing litany of muddled thinking and ideological idiocy of the current government. The massive expansion of the academies programme and the introduction of free schools – essentially private schools funded from the public purse and accountable only to central government – is a deliberate attempt to phase out local democratic control. If the free schools follow the experience of their Swedish model, Benn warns, it will simply usher in venture capitalists and individuals with dubious motives. The desire of the education secretary, Michael Gove, to impose upon schools the curriculum of a 1950s grammar has resulted in the English Baccalaureate, a narrow set of subjects that excludes Music and Art; and a new preoccupation with prep school Latin, seen as a key feature of the West London Free School of that Tory twerp Toby Young, is a strong indicator of where current thinking on education is coming from. Interestingly, Benn points out, the dominant concern of the traditional education establishment during the debate on the introduction of comprehensive education during the 1960s was to protect the teaching of Latin. Clearly, this is more about social status than being able to read Virgil in the original.

Since the 1944 Education Act created a compulsory and free education system for all, the story of comprehensive education has been one of missed opportunities and the compounding of a system of apartheid. The 1944 act created winners and losers broadly along class lines: grammars for those who passed the 11+ and secondary moderns for those who did not; but class lines were not always reliable and middle class children who failed the 11+ were consigned to the secondary moderns to the horror of their parents. The effect of this was twofold: nearly dead private schools were unwittingly revived – 11+ failures boosted their admissions – and the Tories lost the 1964 General Election on the issue; but this push from the middle classes for a universal education system was not capitalised on. Comprehensive education was introduced in the 60s and 70s but selection was never abolished. In areas where selection still existed, grammar school places became much prized; and they still are today. After private schools, grammars are where the wealthy want to send their children. In places such as Kent and Buckinghamshire, where selection still exists, the middle classes have colonised the grammars. Only they can afford the property prices that spiral in the catchments of these schools and only they can afford to coach and tutor their kids through the 11+; and the continued existence of this system distorts the intake in the comprehensives in these counties: they are in fact old-style secondary moderns. Whereas in the post war years grammar schools provided a limited opportunity for social mobility for bright working class kids, the economic muscle of the middle classes means there is no such opportunity today. What would increase social mobility is a genuinely comprehensive system – truly all in it together – that we have never had.

More recent history has eroded the comprehensive ideal further. Tory education acts of the late 80s and early 90s introduced the National Curriculum, league tables and SATs. League tables pitted selective state schools against those with the broad intake of community schools – this was nonsense and, the fact that they could not compete, began the denigration of comprehensives. New Labour, with Alistair Campbell’s revealing phrase “bog standard comprehensive” and the choice of Blair and Harman to send their children to selective schools across London from their homes, further compounded the demonization of universal education; and when Diane Abbot sent her child to a private school, the message was clear. However, there was investment in buildings and an improvement in results under New Labour. The national rate of students achieving five good GCSEs rose from 45% in 1997 to 60% today; but this slavery to league tables merely meant the focus was all on that 15% in the middle and schools continue to routinely pour all their resources into their borderline students. The ones at the top end will still excel with a standard level of teaching and learning but those at the bottom..? The 40% who don’t get five good GCSEs are written off and these will inevitably be the most deprived and vulnerable; but to those making the decisions this does not matter. Benn quotes the radical academic Danny Dorling’s condemnation of the belief of the powerful “that just a few children are sufficiently able to be fully educated, and only a few of those are then able to govern”. When Benn speaks at the Oxford Union she is seriously asked by an undergraduate why we need to educate everybody when someone needs to sweep the streets. Depressing.

New Labour’s record on education was not progressive: there was no end to selection but instead they began the fragmentation that is the current threat to the system. They ushered religious groups and the private sector into the stew with their faith schools and academies programme. It is they who have brought us to here, to a hotch potch of swivel-eyed crusaders and religious fanatics running free schools; and even Labour’s new shadow education secretary has ruled out total opposition to the free schools programme. The private sector is becoming increasingly involved: for-profit organisations are circling the free school movement and the increase in the academies programme will see an expansion in business sponsors. One academy that Benn visits in Manchester is merely a vocational factory turning out workers for the nearby airport. This is in effect state-subsidised privatisation and an indication of the mindset that has taken hold in recent years: learning for its own sake is wasted on some and they are only fit to be educated for work. In the real education private sector, public schools are keen to preserve the charitable status which gives them annual tax relief to the tune of £100 million - of taxpayer’s money. Much is made of their partnerships with state schools but this is merely window dressing. Private schools do not explicitly bar entry to anyone but as Benn points out “freedom of entry is on a par with the welcome that Harrods or the Island of Mustique extend to your average UK family”. What fee paying parents really want is their children to be educated away from state school kids.

The current landscape makes the post war years of grammars and secondary moderns look lean and ordered by comparison. Community schools, grammars, academies, faith schools, free schools, independents – all in the name of the ubiquitous notion of choice; and the truth is they present no choice to most. This bewildering fragmentation will only be navigated by those with the greatest means and the sharpest elbows. Most will settle for a school with little knowledge of how its resources are being drained to support more ideologically-driven areas of the education system. Benn uses the example of Finland, where the achievement gap between social classes is the narrowest in the world. Their system is simple: there is no choice; all children attend their local school which is inevitably, because of equality of resources and a balanced intake, a good school. Their system does not “pit child against child or school against school”. Our education system has constantly sought to segregate children. Even in the community school where I work, the core subjects of English, Maths and Science set children by ability from the age of 11. This results in students with special educational needs and those from the poorest backgrounds being in the lowest ability groups. This is despite evidence that the highest-performing systems delay setting and streaming until later in adolescence and the poorest performing national systems divide their pupils at too young an age. As Benn says, mixed-ability teaching “offers the fairest and overall most effective method of learning, certainly in the early years of secondary education”.

We should all be interested in what Melissa Benn has to say about education; at the close she asks “will we – parents, citizens, taxpayers – stand by as one of our most vital public services passes into hands of venture capitalists, hedge fund managers and a growing array of faith groups?” The answer has to be emphatically no but, as Benn points out, our state schools have never been held with the same public regard as the NHS and this has not stopped our system of universal healthcare edging towards fragmentation and privatisation. So, we must fight back, and defend and promote the idea of comprehensive education because, as Benn says, “the alternative scenario…is too frightening to contemplate.”

Saturday, October 22, 2011

British Sea Power at East Wintergarden

British Sea Power how do I love thee? Let me count the ways: the first song of yours I heard references the opening line of L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel of fatal attraction across the class divide, The Go-Between – it was love at first sound; you sing of “interstellar clouds on the Sussex Downs” and write sleeve notes about Malcolm Lowry’s death in Ripe; and you play gigs in the strangest places – from the Whitecliffs Promenade CafĂ© in Saltdean to the highest pub in the Yorkshire Dales, the Tan Hill Inn. And yesterday’s venue, at the hellish heart of business, was no exception: East Wintergarden is a glass atrium some 80 feet high in the middle of Canary Wharf in London; more used to hosting corporate swilling, somehow BSP had managed to convince Mammon to let them in to its temple. With capacity for only a couple of hundred, seated cabaret style, this intimate early evening semi-acoustic set was a warm up for the band before hot-footing it across London to play at the Barfly in Camden later in the night.

It was standing room only when we arrived and Roy Wilkinson, BSP’s former manager and brother to Yan and Hamilton of the band, was giving a reading from his book Do It For Your Mum, his tale of rock dreams and family farce. This was quickly followed by further support from punk poet Jock Scott, whose ramblings took in backpacks, domesticity - “a poem from when I thought I was happily married” – and John Cooper Clarke. When we spotted the band getting up to prepare to go on stage, we nipped in and grabbed their table. I had never before been to a gig where I was sat at a table, let alone one with a tablecloth; and with a bottle of merlot in front of us I was half expecting some chicken to arrive in a basket.

This was a different experience from when I saw BSP at Leefest in the summer: no foliage and supporting cast of robots, bears and foxes; the band were sedentary, so no antics from Noble; and with Yan on acoustic guitar it was a stripped down, mellower sound which worked beautifully. With the “high-church amplified rock music” reined in, Phil Sumner’s cornet and Abi Fry’s viola and backing vocals shone through. Songs already tender – The Lonely, The Land Beyond, Bear – sounded magical. Bear, inexplicably tucked away on last year’s Zeus EP, was particularly gorgeous. Heartier BSP favourites such as Carrion, Larsen B and It Ended on an Oily Stage were transformed. Even in skeletal form, Waving Flags prompted an outbreak of dancing with one group atop their table, much to the concern of the staff who were more used to corpulent corporate types.

By 9.30 the band were gone and so were most of the audience – probably following the trail to the Barfly. Sadly, we had no tickets for the second gig but, as we seemed to have polished off three bottles of wine, it was probably wise. Feeling thoroughly sated, we stepped out in to the dark canyons of Canary Wharf to make our way out of Hades.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Apple Day

The Herstmonceux Allotment Association’s (HAA) Apple Day has now become a regular event every October. Last weekend, for the fourth year running, allotmenteers banded together to pick juice apples on the fruit farm that houses the allotment site. Being paid the going rate by the farmer for each giant crate filled with Cox’s, it is an opportunity for the HAA to raise some funds and a fantastic way of getting the community together and involved in the harvest. Since the first Apple Day in 2008, when the rain was coming down like stair rods (© my mum) for the duration, this event has been blessed with glorious autumn sunshine and this year was no exception. Meeting up early on Sunday morning, the blue sky and balmy temperature guaranteed a good turnout and the number of pickers was further swollen by a contingent of Canadian students from the study centre at Herstmonceux Castle.

There has been a considerable apple crop this year; the dry hot weather of the early summer balanced with just enough rain later in the summer saw the fruit blossom and swell. Even after the picking of the premium sun-ripened apples on the outside of the trees - bound for the supermarkets - there was still an abundance to be picked. Inner branches and those near the ground were heavy with low-hanging fruit; this made for quite back-breaking work but there were plenty of children on hand more suited to this, literally, low-level work. That’s when they weren’t charging up and down the rows of trees, chasing and hiding from each other, which seemed to them a much more agreeable way to spend the time than getting snagged on a tangle of branches.

It wasn’t just hard work: with the warm October sun on our backs, it was an idyllic way to spend the morning. It was difficult not to romanticise: this is what my grandparents would have travelled from London to Kent to do for their summer holidays each year. Too many of our lives now don’t have the balance between mental and physical work that is essential to wellbeing and it felt good working up a thirst and an appetite. Eating the produce was a difficult temptation to overcome, especially if you came across one of the sporadic Russet trees, planted amongst the Cox’s for cross-pollination. With skin the texture of coarse leather, these burnished ochre apples are the sweetest you can smell or taste. Having eaten three before the sun was at its highest, I was in danger of leaving no room for the barbecued sausages that were promised for lunch.

After a morning of picking, we wandered back through the rows of fruit trees to the barn where the barbecue was smoking and the cider barrel had been tapped. Refuelled with hot dogs, burgers and cake the children formed a water-fighting mob, running free over the allotment site whilst the grown-ups sat around, basking in the glow of the day-star and drinking cider. The decremental pricing of the cider – first glass £1.50 and each subsequent glass 50p cheaper until your fourth and any further glasses would be free – was a dangerous incentive. However, its cloudy stillness and strength was such that it was impossible to make it past a third glass, although it was pleasant enough making a valiant attempt. All things pomaceous - the effort of apple-picking and the effect of sampling them in their fermented form – finally took their toll and in mid-afternoon the congregation wandered home tired and fulfilled for another year.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Self Preservation Society

It’s that time of year when the final flourish of some crops presents a headache. Those extra rows of late-planted beetroot, more than can be eaten by the family, need to be properly stored; but the consistent temperature required and all that mucking around with boxes and sand make it easier to give it away. The glut of suddenly reddened hot and sweet peppers from the greenhouse is more than even the most ardent heat-seeking foodie can stomach. And the apples; oh, the apples… The answer is, of course, preserving. If you’re pushed for space - as we are in our house - pickles, chutneys and relishes are a very easy way of putting any excess to good use. If you can grow it yourself, you can preserve it yourself.

Pickled beetroot
1 kg beetroot, washed
600 ml pickling vinegar
50g caster sugar
Pinch of chilli flakes
Approx. 2 small preserving jars

Roast at 200 C for 50 – 90 minutes, or until soft.
Leave to cool.
Stir the sugar into the vinegar.
Peel away the beetroot skins then slice.
Pack into warm sterilized jars.
Pour in vinegar to cover beetroot..
Add chilli flakes.
Seal and shake jars lightly.
Store in a cool, dark place.
Leave at least a month before using.
Will keep for 6 months but refrigerate after opening.

Apple chutney
1 ½ kg cooking apples, peeled and diced
750g light muscovado sugar
500g raisins or dates
2 onions, finely chopped
2 tsp yellow mustard seeds
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp salt
700ml cider vinegar
Approx. 4 small sterilised preserving jars

Add all ingredients into a jam pan.
Slowly bring to the boil.
Simmer for 40 minutes or until thick.
Add to jars and seal.
Store in a cool, dark place.
Leave for 3 months before using.
Will keep for a year but refrigerate after opening.

Chilli relish
100g long fresh red chillies; deseeded and finely chopped
100g red peppers; cored, deseeded and finely chopped
630g jam sugar
400ml cider vinegar
Approx. 4 small sterilised preserving jars

Stir the sugar into the vinegar in a jam pan over a low heat.
Add the chillis and peppers.
Bring to the boil and boil for 10 minutes
Allow to cool for 45 minutes or until jelly-like
Add to jars and seal.
Leave for 3 months before using.
Will keep for a year but refrigerate after opening.