Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Is that an elephant?*

Strolling again this morning, and my mind turned to an item I'd heard briefly on the radio news as I was being dragged from warm slumbers to fretful wake by the insistent tones of Humphrys. It seems that the gap between rich and poor is wider than it's ever been in this country. 


Normally this is something that is blamed on the Tories. After all, they would be much happier if the working classes went back to cap-doffing and grovelling respect for the monied few, along with minimal education and dying young from easily-preventable diseases.


But no. The gap did increase a little under the last Tory administration, but it's positively galloped away since Mr Blair and his dour friend came to power. Labour, it would seem, is the natural friend of the obscenely rich. Who'd have thought it?


Much was made of this collective failing on the part of our leaders over the last thirty years, but it wasn't the iniquity that caught my mind and made me think. One of the examples of it cited by the redoubtable Mr Humphrys (or it might have been his new friend, ex-US Correspondent Justin Webb - they all sound the same when you're half asleep), was that this sorry situation made it ever harder for the poor to drag themselves up out of the mire. If you can't afford to move to an area with a good school, the argument went, how can you hope to compete with those wealthy so-and-sos who can?


This is an oft-trumped argument when talking about social mobility in this country. Those trapped by poverty are condemned to the poor and failing schools where the most they can hope to learn is how to deal drugs in the playground or get knifed for wearing a duffel coat. Once you enter those gates you're doomed to a life of feckless ignorance, stuck on the dole like your parents and their parents before them. How unfair it is that those with a bit more cash can fiddle the system and get their kids into the better schools.


And to a great extent it is true. There is a spiral of hopelessness that starts in these sink schools, churning out barely-literate unemployable sixteen year olds whose whole life is mapped out in front of them: if you're female then breed children for the benefits; if you're male then indulge in petty crime and drug-taking until the state looks after you by locking you up. The result is making life ever more impossible for social services, but keeps the media frenzy well fed with tales of terrible depravity.


But hang on a minute. This is the line we're always given; that social deprivation and poverty mean these kids have to go to the worst schools; that it's unfair better off parents can send their wains to the good schools. So let's try and bridge the poverty gap, or persuade universities to take lower and lower quality students, or let pupils take exams in things like media studies and hairdressing when they can't even spell properly.


Do anything, in fact, except address the key problem: why is this school failing its pupils?


In an ideal world, there wouldn't be any bad schools, of course. In reality there are plenty. And yes, they tend to cluster around the 'bad' areas, the sink estates and the unemployment blackspots, because those places lack investment, lack parental support for children, lack hope maybe. Better teachers gravitate away from them, leaving only the ones who can't get a job anywhere else, or the hopelessly altruistic who quite frankly aren't much better.


Another little nugget of information that lodged itself in my brainpan recently was this. The top fee-paying schools are now charging around £30,000 a year. The best figures I can come up with for state spending is around £4500. Now, a lot of that thirty k will be taken up with boarding costs, but even if you were to take off a bit more than half for bed and board, the state sector is still spending only a third of the amount of money on teaching staff and facilities per pupil than the best public schools. 


These top fee-paying schools represent the gold standard, and even then I think they are maybe taking the piss a bit charging that much. But the fact remains that they are good places to work, and so attract the best teachers. At the other end of the scale, the shitty schools are the lowest point to which the incompetent fall. 


No-one ever seems to sack teachers for being bad at their job. It's always the fault of the system, the government regulations, the red tape, the nasty parents, the rules. I am sympathetic with a lot of those claims, but only up to a point. Despite everything the NUT would have you believe, there are bad teachers out there; people temperamentally unsuited to teaching or people too stupid to be allowed to pass on their ignorance who have nevertheless managed to scrape through teacher training (which doesn't say much for that institution, either), and the kindest thing to do for all concerned would be to pay them off and send them packing.


But the rest of them - the mediocre right through to the brilliant - should be encouraged, rather than shackled; should be allowed to teach rather than mark exam papers and fill in endless target assessment forms. The worst schools should attract the most investment. And I mean real investment that means these sink schools can have teacher pupil ratios of one to eight, not the one plus unqualified (i.e. cheap) teaching assistant to forty unruly adolescents that seems to be the norm now. These failing schools should be pumped up to the point that affluent middle-classers want to move into the sink estates so their darling little Tarquins and Petunias can attend. 


Spend as much on education on the poorest as the richest can afford to spend on their on their own children.


Of course then the good schools would be starved of investment, all the good teachers would leave for the inner city, and the leafy suburbs would become the new Toxteth. But that's a problem for another day.


Successive governments have tinkered with the education system, fiddled with exams, farted about with the curriculum and come up with all manner of creative ways to measure a success that quite plainly isn't there, to the point where when a social problem rears its ugly head they can't bring themselves, on either side of the political divide, to admit that they have failed. Until some brave politician grasps the nettle of education, the gap between the haves and have-nots will continue to grow, as will the stories of social deprivation, abused children, third-generation unemployed and ever-increasing prison populations.


The other elephant I saw last week was when the climate change debate somehow failed to notice that seven billion people is quite plainly too many for the planet to cope with. But that's a rant for another day.

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4 Comments:

Blogger John R said...

On the last point, I don't think there's anyone (or at least, anyone worth paying attention to) who doesn't know that overpopulation is the big thing. It's just that the only functional solutions to it are China's oh-so-popular one child policy, or genocide (crazy talk about doing away with world poverty, first rate healthcare et al. will stop the rate of growth, but only in the long term, and only once the requisite flocks of blue lunar light powered aerial porcines have been found to achieve it in the first place). You might be able to draw CO2 out of the air and pump into old salt domes or oil fields, but you can't unbirth three billion people.

Not without wandering into the realm of terrifying internet slash fiction, anyway...

January 28, 2010 12:21 am  
Anonymous Ellen said...

Soylent Green is people!

January 28, 2010 2:10 am  
Blogger JamesO said...

I quite agree, John. It's not as if we can go around the world killing people. There isn't an easy answer (or maybe any answer, for that matter), but it would be nice every so often if it was mentioned.

Ellen - so is munce!

January 28, 2010 9:16 am  
Anonymous Ellen said...

In all seriousness James, the real problem with education is that the government got involved with it at all! But that's all I'm going to say about that--I could go on all day. Problems with the educational system is but a symptom of a much greater illness!

January 30, 2010 3:22 pm  

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