Matthew Young is mistaken to think that Tony Blair’s electoral success proves the decisiveness of the centre ground (Letters, 7 May). Blair lost three million voters in his first term alone, and his third election victory was won with a smaller share of the vote than the Conservatives failed to win with in 2010. Tory weakness shielded him.
In the 2015 election, the parties of the centre have done very badly. Labour’s voters did not return to them, the Tory share of the vote increased only marginally, and the Liberals, the quintessential centre party, collapsed. With Ukip, the SNP and the Greens surging, it is ostrich-like to assume an essential centrism in the British electorate.
Young is right, on the other hand, that Britain is not about to embrace a radical left government. The left barely registered in this election in England, apart from a reasonable vote for the Greens. But there is much ground between austerity capitalism and Bennite socialism, as the SNP have shown. Labour, were it to occupy some of that ground, would have more chance of winning over those disaffected Liberal Democrats – many of whom, after all, were once disaffected Labour voters.
James Meek’s article on Grimsby reminded me of my experience growing up in Hull (LRB, 23 April). My mother was a widowed teacher whose school was close to the docks. The children she taught were reluctant scholars, she said, the boys anxious to leave school and become trawlermen and the girls to work in the fish houses. When I was 17 I had TB and was sent to a sanatorium. As a grammar-school girl from a sheltered background I felt somewhat uncomfortable surrounded by young women from the fishing area. The patient in the next bed, Doreen, a handsome, Nordic-looking woman a little older than me, was kind to me. Her mother was the chief barmaid at the trawlermen’s Dee Street club and Doreen had worked there too. She used to take me into her bed and tell me about a life I had no idea existed. Doreen married soon after she left the sanatorium and I was invited to the reception. It started out in a large hall, the men on one side of the room and the women on the other, with no contact between them. Any dancing was between women, with the men watching and commenting among themselves. After heroic drinking by everyone, we piled into taxis and went to a pub, and then, after some hours, to another pub, men and women still keeping to their own sex with no mixing. At this stage I became rather ill and had to be sent home in a taxi. I later learned from Doreen that a few other people had left the celebrations early too, but most carried on to the end, when the bridegroom went straight back to sea.
While I’m sure Jonathan Elphick is right to identify as a sanderling the bird James Meek calls a sandpiper but describes as ‘a small white-breasted bird usually to be found foraging on British foreshores in groups of twenty or so, scuttling up and down sandy beaches as the foaming forward edge of the sea roars in and hisses back’, I’m equally sure that the bird scurrying across the tarmac of derelict streets in Grimsby is a turnstone (Letters, 7 May). Oblivious of the economic status of the human communities it lives alongside, you’ll find it doing much the same in coastal towns as far apart as Whitstable and Whitby.
I enjoyed Jenny Turner’s piece, particularly the comparison between a school and a violin workshop, which tallies with my experience (LRB, 7 May). Dawn Foster’s article, not so much.
Both writers cited recent scandals involving academies and free schools as evidence that the coalition’s education reforms have increased the risk of failure in England’s public education system. But in order to show that, they’d need to compare the failure rate of academies and free schools since 2010 with the failure rate of all other state schools in a comparable five-year period and neither of them makes an attempt to do this. In fact, one million fewer children are educated in failing schools today than in 2010, and of those free schools that have been inspected by Ofsted to date, a higher percentage have been ranked Outstanding than the national average. In addition, a lower percentage have been ranked Requires Improvement or Inadequate, the two lowest Ofsted categories, if you take the schools visited since 2012 when Ofsted toughened up its inspection criteria. Both writers also neglect to mention the remarkable things that some free schools have achieved.
Foster claimed that free schools ‘increase social segregation and inequality’, but offered no evidence that this was happening in England. In fact, free schools are eight times more likely to be opened in England’s most deprived areas than in the least deprived. Foster also wrote: ‘Unlike local authority schools and academies, free schools can employ teachers without teaching qualifications.’ In fact, academies and local authority schools have always enjoyed that freedom – and the number of unqualified teachers employed by all state schools in England in 2010 was considerably higher than it was in 2012. Similarly, it’s not just free schools that are allowed to select 10 per cent of children according to their aptitude for certain subjects, as Foster claims. All state secondary schools are entitled to do this. Foster also said that free schools are likely to be opened in areas where there’s no need for additional places. But the National Audit Office, in its report on free schools for the House of Commons last year, found that 70 per cent of free schools places were in areas forecasting a need for more places.
Both articles cited the growing number of academies and free schools as evidence that England’s public education system is being ‘privatised’, but I’d dispute that. The only legal entities that can own state-funded schools in England are charities. True, some for-profits have set up charitable arms and they, in turn, now own academies and free schools, but the parent companies can’t (and don’t) make money from their involvement in these schools. It’s also true that profit-making companies can bid for fixed-term contracts to operate state-funded schools, but that was true before 2010, when they could bid to operate local authority-run schools. Foster describes academies and free schools as ‘schools run by outsourced contractors’. To my knowledge, only one for-profit company has been awarded a contract to operate an English state-funded school since 2010: Internationella Engelska Skolan, which Turner mentions in her article.
Of course, the authors could be using ‘private’ in a looser sense – to include the third sector as well as commercial companies. However, charities have been allowed to run state-funded schools for more than a hundred years. Many of the schools that have converted to academy status in the last five years were already owned by charities – all the voluntary-aided schools, for instance, as well as the foundation schools – so that’s not a sea change. And in any event, the crossing of the Rubicon, if that’s what it was (local authorities transferring buildings and the like to academy trusts), happened before 2010.
Turner and Foster’s suggestion that free schools and academies are free to do as they like, save for the light touch regulation of Ofsted and the EFA, is also misleading. The vast body of laws and regulations these schools are subject to is mind-boggling and their poor headteachers (and governors) waste hours of every day on compliance.
More misleading than simply neglecting these subtleties was the overall thrust of the articles, which is that the reforms initiated by Michael Gove (and to a lesser extent Andrew Adonis) were masterminded by evil capitalists, intent on squeezing the last drop of profit out of state-funded education. That simply isn’t true. Having spoken at length to Andrew Adonis, and knowing Michael as I do, I can say with complete confidence that their sole motive was to improve England’s public education system – in particular, to improve outcomes for the least well-off, who fared very badly under the pre-2010 state-run Shangri-la favoured by both authors. For Andrew and Michael, education reform is and always has been a moral crusade, not an attempt to hand control of England’s public education system to billionaire robber barons.
West London Free School Academy Trust
Jenny Turner says that ‘no one really knows what SAT is supposed to stand for’. If that’s true, memories are short. When the then Department for Education decided that it needed a national system of assessment to go along with the national curriculum, it called the tests Standard Assessment Tasks, only to be threatened with breach of copyright by the Americans, SAT being the US system of assessing students for university places. (The original name was Scholastic Aptitude Tests; now, it’s just SAT.) The education department backed down and decreed that SATs should become National Curriculum Assessments. But the term SAT remains in common use, technically in breach of copyright. More important though than the name is the strange mishmash of assessment styles: national to the age of 14; GCSEs and A-levels set by commercially competing examination boards; then universities setting their own largely self-regulated, modular exams. Some may regard this diversity of assessment, alongside the diversity of school types, to be a strength of our educational system. I remain sceptical. The evidence is difficult to interpret but the likelihood of educational achievement having been significantly improved, either by the variations in assessment or the proliferation of school types, remains low.
August Kleinzahler may be right in supposing that Lee Harwood intends the words ‘A picture held us captive and we/could not get outside it’ to be read as written by Li Ch’ing Chao (LRB, 9 April). Their original writer, in any case, was Wittgenstein, as translated by Elizabeth Anscombe, at §115 of Philosophical Investigations, which continues, after a comma, ‘for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.’
Vancouver Island University
Talented linguist though he was, Montaigne did not write in English, though Michael Neill quotes ‘Of the Institution and Education of Children’ as if he did (LRB, 19 March). John Florio is surely due some of the credit here.
My grandfather was Nye Bevan’s private secretary at the Ministry of Health from 1945 to 1951. Ten years ago a historian approached him for his recollections. I don’t think it can have been Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, whose biography of Bevan was reviewed by Owen Hatherley (LRB, 7 May). But whoever it was, my grandfather sent them away, saying his memory was no longer reliable (he was by then in his nineties). That may have been the reason, or he may have simply not wanted to talk to them. In any case, privately he would say without hesitation that Bevan was the best minister he ever worked under, and not just because he was the only one – of 15 or so in 36 years, at the ministries of health, housing, local government and the environment – who would walk down the corridor and knock on your door if he had something to say to you, rather than summoning you to his office.
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