Saturday, 11 March 2017

How long before the phonics books are sponsored by Chewits?

What is the education world’s equivalent of turning an ancient cathedral into a BMW showroom?
It sounds like the beginning of a schools journalist in-joke, but this is a genuine question I have  asked myself, following a series of unsettling news stories.
First, it emerged that back in my home town of Peterborough, the dean of the cash-strapped Norman cathedral had agreed for it to be used as the venue for a posh launch event for BMW. There were actual cars parked incongruously in the nave, surrounded by clouds of dry ice. Outside its glorious West front, cars were displayed on every scrap of well-tended ecclesiastical lawn, with fairy lights erected all around. Predictably, this caused outrage and disgust across the town, although some praised the dean’s efforts to raise funds in tough times. The dean, when faced with the criticism, claimed it was done “respectfully” because “no sales took place”.  He pointed out that the cathedral already has a shop and Fair Trade stand, so what, really, was the big difference? I laughed out loud when the local paper quoted him saying: “If Jesus is Lord at all, then he is Lord of BMW as well as of Peterborough Cathedral… We do not believe that God can be contaminated by the presence of a new car”.
Whatever his strained rationale for this ghastly endeavour, I felt the management of the cathedral had gone a step too far. Something about driving a spanking new Mini Countryman up the flagstones just seemed, well, a bit off.
The taste-free episode got me thinking about what the limits of commercialisation in schools might funds fall in real terms, and additional dosh is pumped only towards free schools and grammars. What might headteachers be driven to in the coming years? We’ve already had the stories of families asked to make hefty financial contributions. Some heads have left, refusing to compromise – or sell their souls - in the face of what they see as government neglect of the system.
But for those headteachers and bodies managing schools who remain and are increasingly desperate to keep courses running and the lights on – what would be their limit? Would you be happy if Nestle held a chocolate bar launch event in a school? What about representatives from computer game companies paying to hand out goody bags during assembly? What about charging for parents’ evenings (the teachers have to be paid...) or fining children in the wrong uniform? How about charging “education tourists” in the system who were not born in the UK? Or renting out the school hall to the local branch of UKIP?  And if the academy chain to which your school belonged insisted on you doing any of the above, would you rebel? It's sure if you opposed fundraising efforts you would be accused of being an "enemy of promise" intent on frustrating the "social mobility agenda".
Who knows where we might end up. No one imagined the Tories would be so effective at breaking up and effectively privatising vast chunks of the education system in such a short time. Lord Nash, the unelected businessman who seems to be in charge of schools, has expressed his belief that schools need to be run more like ruthless businesses and less like humane, supportive places of learning. Headteachers, he said, were too keen to offer staff “the benefit of the doubt” (ignoring the fact that this benefit of the doubt is the only thing keeping any sort of living breathing teacher in front of many classes).
Maybe it is only a matter of time before schools have their “Peterborough cathedral moment” and we allow Toy’s R Us to promote their goods during circle time and the phonics books are all sponsored by Chewits. Yeah, my son would love that.


Monday, 27 February 2017

Walthamstow's 29-storey monument to greed

When I first moved to Walthamstow 10 years ago it was a scruffy place, full of local colour, and a smidgen of middle class gentrification (I appreciate I contributed to that in my own way). You could walk down the high street in your pyjamas and no one minded. There wasn’t much point in keeping up with the Joneses because there simply weren’t many Joneses about.
I had found my perfectly distant haven, an ungreedy place away from the thrust of central London where I could shuffle to the cornershop in my slippers.
Cormorants and herons flapped overhead for everyone, both rich and poor, to enjoy. There were friendly shopkeepers, shabby but adequate public services, a well-meaning Labour council and rather too much dog poo (let’s not romanticise this too much).
Just after the 2012 Olympics, I welcomed the influx of small organic bread businesses, craft markets and general hipsterdom. Who would begrudge a man with a beard the right to launch a craft ale company on a run down industrial estate? I was not a denier of gentrification. I feel the area is better off for a few extra pizza places to break up the chicken shop monotony.
However, then the estate agents picked up on it all and started to “sell” the area to people without the wit or imagination to find it or appreciate its charms unaided. It was great for my house price (I say this without pride or delight). But I am vaguely sickened when agents send a postcard through my door featuring a piece of street art on the side of a house. They are keen to cash in on every pleasant detail of the area. No mobile kebab van is safe from exploitation, no mid-century clock tower escapes the estate agents’ graphic design software.
This is where it all started to go wrong. Please understand, I am still in love with the place and appreciate the need for more housing - especially of the "affordable" and social kind. I know it is easy for me to say I don’t want people to move here because Walthamstow is mine all mine. I know that is unfair. I was an interloper not so long ago and welcome our new residents, as long as they are tolerant, friendly and love the area as much as I do.
So I reluctantly accept the many blocks of flats popping up. They aren’t particularly pretty, but these low rise developments are probably an inevitable change.
But this weekend, the owners of our local shopping “mall” – a modest shopping centre containing modest shops – showcased their plans for an extension. Like almost everyone in the area, they are keen to “add value” to their property. I have mixed feelings about much of it. Plans to introduce “active shop fronts” in the form of cafes could improve the town square and gardens (which, worryingly, will shrink). There will be more big chains, which I despise, but I appreciate many will welcome them.
But there is one plan that is clearly unacceptable – I suspect even the owners of the mall know that it is so. They are due to lodge outline planning permission for two 29-storey blocks of flats towering above the mall. This beast, which is utterly out of scale with the rest of the area, will be built by the highest bidder for the site and the mall owners and developers will be laughing all the way to the bank.
The whole thing is particularly galling as we are expected to tolerate this greed and physical invasion on our public space and open sky as we watch the quickening collapse of our public services. For example, I recently learnt that the community-run swimming pool where my sons have their swimming lessons is under serious threat of closure.
If the plans for a tower go ahead, our human scale town will suddenly become another Stratford, where vast, aggressive and misshapen towers dwarf the people, homes and businesses in the area. The promised regeneration of that part of East London has become a sort of grim Gotham-ification of a poor but vibrant neighbourhood. It is a kind of obliteration where the less well-off are left to scratch at the shining windows of Westfield or stare up towards the shadow of looming concrete, glass and steel. We do not need these buildings. We are not the banking district and nor do we want to be. Create homes for people. Let the developers make money and contribute to the community, by all means. Just know when to stop. But I fear that they don't.

Monday, 20 February 2017

'Why are all the street cleaners black?' and other awkward race-related kid-questions

My husband was walking down the street with our eldest (for tis he, the GREAT ASKER OF QUESTIONS) and they passed a man of African origin picking up litter for the council.
“Why are all street sweepers black?”, our boy said, quite reasonably. Certainly around our neighbourhood, this would be a fair observation.
“I hope you gave him the full history of slavery, migration, inequality and the immutability of the social status quo” I told my husband, who himself is black and descended from slaves and indentured workers. “Did you give a heartfelt speech about your people’s struggle”?
“No,” he said, “I told him there were one or two Polish ones too”.
My husband chose not to go into detail with our boy, who, as a mixed race chap from a middle class background, has spent the last eight years working out where he “fits in”. Maybe my husband didn't want to confuse the lad, who is still grappling with what his skin tone might mean for him.
I, on the other hand would have given the boy the full speech about how it came to be, in 21st century East London, a child could still get the impression that white people are in charge, Asians drive fast cars and black people sweep the floor. 
If he had listened long enough, I would have explained how four decades of women’s lib has resulted in white men being in charge of pretty much everything and his mother washing nappies in a housework tabard (yep, must try harder).
Despite huge advancements, many youngsters are still unlikely to see black or mixed race people in positions of power, such as headteachers and civic leaders. Even within my son's school, there are more black cleaners than there are black teachers. Children might be lucky enough to have an inspiring black football coach, but it’s tough if you’re not into football.
I can see why this degree of apparent segregation is confusing to a boy who has friends from across the racial spectrum. Pupils are all equal in his primary classroom and skin colour does not influence their allegiances. Friendships are far more likely to be determined by interests than anything else.
However, the fact that he has already absorbed the idea that there are certain roles for certain races shows what a long way we still have to go.