Familiarity breeds content

Elizabeth Campbell, the new Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council, had to admit she had never visited a tower block and appears as out of touch with the lives of the Grenfell Tower residents as the hapless officials who have been forced to quit. Theresa May’s credibility is in ruins partly because she showed herself terrified of meeting ordinary voters. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, after a campaign characterised by anger and intolerance, incidents of verbal or physical attacks on foreigners resident in the UK have increased. Many Moslem families face a rising tide of abuse. People with severe disabilities are depicted as benefit scroungers and face appalling consequences in the light of the Bedroom Tax and other benefit cuts.

Meanwhile the extraordinary property boom and growing disparities in income result in ever-deepening social stratification and separation through housing; and the attack on community schooling under local authority control has resulted in large numbers of new free schools and academies with far greater control over their admissions, free to exercise de facto selection.

Socially-exclusive education breeds, among other things, upper-class people, including many politicians, who have no idea about the challenges and difficulties faced by huge swathes of society that they’ve never had any contact with. The simplest way to integrate poor, disaffected people into an ostensibly moral world-view is to blame them for their own problems, or to conclude that the only way to improve their lot is via trickle-down from economic growth generated by already-rich ‘wealth creators’. The result is rising levels of separation, social exclusion, misunderstanding, suspicion, prejudice and intolerance.

Despite huge progress made in some respects, the broken-up and multi-faceted education system fosters these attitudes. Much of the thrust of education ‘reform’ in the last 20 years has been couched in terms of ‘equality of opportunity’ – improving the life chances of children from poorer areas who have been betrayed by a culture of low expectations in their schools as well as homes. But this is a smokescreen for the wider agenda of privatisation, attacks on local government and a harsh, narrow, economic-outcomes-focused curriculum ie the neoliberal model.

If the education system is competitive, richer families will always have an advantage because they will find it in their interest to purchase such an advantage. Hence the continued popularity of private education – which succeeds by providing high levels of adult support, reinforcing a sense of entitlement and superiority, and by definition excluding the poorest and neediest children; the growing popularity of private tutoring to ensure those crucial exam passes and grades; and growing social stratification through house price inflation which secures a place at the ‘successful’ local school rather than the neighbouring catchment area which serves the hoi polloi. The continued existence of an ‘attainment gap’ between rich and poor areas – used as a stick with which to beat teachers and local authorities – should be no surprise and cannot be resolved by ever-harsher inspection regimes and high-stakes testing. The solution is not to make the system even more ruthless, but to make it less competitive.

If the system is competitive, designed to produce winners and losers, with the latter implicitly or explicitly blamed for their lack of success because of their own lack of effort or other failings (it’s hard to write that without a mental image of Donald Trump castigating ‘losers’ …), the upshot is exclusion, complacency, prejudice and a lack of mutual comprehension and empathy. If the system is also exclusive, via schools selecting pupils on the basis of income, gender, religion etc, society is fractured.

A kinder, gentler, more equal society benefits everyone. If minority groups are integrated into your neighbourhood and your children go to school with children from a wide range of backgrounds and with a wide range of special needs, familiarity breeds understanding, tolerance and inclusion. Children with Down’s Syndrome or autism or other special needs; people from other countries and cultures; children who are physically, socially or intellectually different: they are not seen as figures of fun, or derision, or hero-worship, or as scary, or as non-people, or as hopelessly beyond our reach or comprehension – because when you live and work alongside them they are just part of the rich tapestry of life and society, with much to offer and to teach us.

Nearly 40 years ago I volunteered to work as a carer at a holiday centre for people with physical disabilities, mostly wheelchair users. I’d never spent time with any such person, and only afterwards – after a life-changingly wonderful experience – did I realise with a shock that I had somehow imbued prejudices that categorised wheelchair-users as probably mentally handicapped (as the phrase then went) also. Nobody had ever actively tried to instil such ideas in me, and they were less prevalent than the racism and sexism I was also subtly indoctrinated with, but hey presto there they were. It was a simple misconception to erase, but it needed proximity and contact to do it. Nowadays, the visibility of paralympians, Stephen Hawking et al makes such casual prejudice far less likely (though goodness knows wheelchair users continue to face many uphill battles, sometimes literally so), but conditions such as autism – and, for example, many mental health issues – continue to be poorly understood, with consequent suspicion, fear and prejudice. However, I’ve seen very young children demonstrate wonderful understanding, acceptance and tolerance of severely autistic children, including when they are violent, and be thoughtful and proactive carers for them, and for children with severe physical disability. Undoubtedly, and I mean undoubtedly, our school was a better place for having those children in it.

To arrest the slide to social fracturing, we need inclusive community school subject to democratic control. We also need socially-inclusive catchment areas. This means, as part of reforms to this country’s dysfunctional housing market, an end to gated housing schemes and exclusive private estates, and social housing targeted in richer areas. Private schools must be immediately deprived of their ludicrous charitable status, and subjected to a tax which acknowledges their social toxicity. I propose that there should be an employment quota for privately-educated workers to public sector appointments, set initially at the current proportion of children privately educated, and scheduled to reduce over time. Academies and free school must be returned to democratic public control – hey, we could create structures to supervise and support local schools and call them – just an idea off the top of my head – Local Education Authorities. Academy Directors who pay themselves huge salaries to pursue their own empire-building agendas would be given the opportunity to return to the real world of pedagogy and public sector pay. And we must recognise that single-sex schools and so-called ‘faith’ schools can have no part in a truly inclusive system; we must live together and learn together; religious separation becomes social and racial divisiveness.

And then we could focus on making schools more than exam factories in the service of an environmentally and socially destructive neoliberal economic system …. on things like active positive citizenship, democratic participation, lifelong learning, self-directed learning ….

It’s sad, in many ways, that Elizabeth Campbell, Theresa May and so many others, are so ignorant about – and consequently nervous or scared of – people less fortunate than themselves. It’s also dangerous. Let’s make our schools make people get together. Familiarity breeds contentment.