Is Cardinal O'Brien being used as bait?

Nuance, compromise, and ambivalence don't make 'good TV'. We've chosen this binary world.

It's hard to write about Cardinal O'Brien without writing about Cardinal O'Brien, but I feel I have to try.

I can't help reaching the conclusion that this kind of confected argument, this kind of outcry, this kind of reaction, serves no-one very well. Does it serve O'Brien well? Not really. Does it serve those who attack him well? Not entirely either, and some reactions have skirted close to being as intolerant as the person they're attacking for seeing a "tyranny of tolerance". Who, then, does it serve? Those who host the discussions, I suppose. People like me, who write articles about it. But not many others.

It's difficult to avoid thinking that there is plenty of delight to be had in some quarters about comments like O'Brien's, which are akin to Sheriff Bart saying "Hey, where the white women at?" to the KKK dudes in Blazing Saddles. I can't help thinking that this might just be a tedious bit of provocation, signifying nothing at all, designed to create heat and light (mainly heat), a few clicks on a few websites and a few circular custard pie fights in comments sections underneath blogposts.

Oh, but it keeps happening. "Gay marriage, wurgh!" yells the newspaper website. "Ooh, bad views, wurgh!" yell the liberals, and all pile on. And so it perpetuates a self-serving tedious circular debate of nothingness in which no-one wins, no-one says anything remotely insightful and no-one learns anything, other than that other people can be quite annoying when they disagree with you -- and I think we all kind of knew that anyway.

I'm not saying Cardinal O'Brien, god bless him, is a troll. As far as I'm aware, he isn't. I assume he believes everything he says, and really believes that it's right. Which he's entirely entitled to do -- and his views probably represent the views of a lot of morons, bigots, idiots and fools up and down the country. I don't imagine he speaks for all Roman Catholics, believers or otherwise. I'm sure there is nothing to doubt his integrity; I wonder if he's just being used as bait.

To me, though, this seems to be the way we often tend to conduct our intellectual debate in this country. We find a bit of an outlier who has some kind of authority, flatter them that they're more significant than they really are, and tease them into saying exactly the thing that will create the most shouty polarised arguments possible. This seems to happen more often than is healthy for a genuinely fruitful debate to take place.

Have you seen that programme that stains Sunday morning television like a suspicious map-like mark on a previously pristine bedsheet? The Big Questions, it's called. I can't work out if it's a mickey take of Mitchell and Webb's Big Talk or just someone's idea of how adults really should discuss things. If it's the former, it's quite good, although rather unsubtle; if it's the latter, it's a crime against brains. I rather fear that might be what it is, though.

I THINK THIS, says person A. WELL YOU'RE WRONG, booms person B. And then they annoy each other for five minutes while Nicky Campbell referees. It's deeply unsatisfying if you've tuned in expecting anything other than a fight, and I end up turning over. There's no room for people to find common ground or work towards any compromise. It's Team A v Team B. I wonder if our deliberately adversarial parliamentary system, exemplified by the boorish lowing of backbenchers at Prime Minister's Questions, has something to do with this; if this is the example you get from the people at the very top, the cream of the country's intelligentsia, why shouldn't everyone else do the same?

But this is the way these things seem to go. If you can't talk in sufficiently argumentative, snappy soundbites, you don't get invited onto television and radio to talk about things; dare to try and speak in nuance, or admit you don't know the answer to questions, and you'll be quietly dropped. Ever wondered why people come out with daft answers on gameshows? They're chosen to be the ones who'll wildly guess at anything, rather than say they don't know. And it's relatively similar with current affairs, I'm afraid.

Back to O'Brien for a moment. I probably disagree with what he has to say. So what? I'm bound to. That's what it's all about. Who wants to listen to some relatively enlightened religious figure (of which there are many) taking the modern world on board, when you can demonise some dozy old dinosaur instead, and imagine all godsquad types are the same? I think it's the selection of these people in the first place that's the key. We get the voices we deserve. If we wanted nuance, compromise or ambivalence, we'd probably get it. But that wouldn't make what's considered 'good TV' or 'good radio', or, in this world, 'good copy'.

So, on with the binary world. It's the one we've chosen, and it's the one we're stuck with.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
A protest in 2016. Getty
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Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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