Call Michael Gove: I've got an idea

How to solve the schools crisis.

In the past, my only engagement with O-levels was the ordeal of constantly correcting the O-level generation whenever they tried to ask me about my GCSEs, and then, when I was lucky, enjoy a rant about the New World and its confusing acronyms. So that gives some explanation to Michael Gove's O-level reversion. But all I see is the amplification of elitism in the education system.

Gove introduces his two-tiered grading system on the claim that GCSEs are too easy and too many of these snot-nosed brats are skipping out of school with exemplary qualifications. But whether a single A* graded GCSE student ends up more intelligent than an A graded O-level student is irrelevant; generations will be coming off the factory line in two clear categories of intelligence, with only 30% holding qualifications that universities will give a second glance. And as we all know, these days anyone applying for at least a medium-rate job without a university diploma should be shipped straight back to their mother's basement.

The problem isn't that too many people prance away with A grades; the problem is that the only skill taught is how to pass an exam, and very few workplaces hold jobs that require mastered geography essay structures or memorised verb tables. What Gove is getting wrong is our entire motivation for education.

The motivation we see here all amounts to the same thing: creating a Huxleian dystopia within the education system. Through all our schools, state and private alike, children are bottled into the grade of human that society requires. With GCSEs there was less of a grip on the outcomes: pupils would have drummed into them the techniques for passing exams that will get them into universities in the hope that eventually they will amount to Something. But the forsaken, those who slipped through the cracks into Nothing, were doomed to be Epsilons. Once fallen, these people were often ignored; someone has to wash up the test tubes and refill the fountain pens!

Perhaps, as the educational motive behind GCSEs always complied with Huxley's John the Savage (“why don't you make everybody an Alpha Double Plus?”), it can't be helped when the system accidentally creates Epsilons, because we had good intentions! Well, Gove, reintroducing O-levels and CSEs for less able students doesn't stop this Survival of the Fittest mechanism, it just makes the creation of Epsilons more deliberate.

Supporters of the reform may argue that CSEs allow skills outside of academia to be valued as well. I whole-heartedly agree that egg-heads are not the most important type of head. But the reform won't solve the issue. It is deeply ingrained in the system that academia is rewarded higher than anything else. Whenever teachers fretted over exams on our behalf, it was always for the sake of our university applications. This mentality doesn't go away at the snap of Gove's fingers. CSEs will be imposed on 14-year-olds, at that point permanently deemed Lost Causes, and universities will write them off forever, blasting an enormous portion of their potential employment into the abyss of the unattainable.

But fear not! I have taken the liberty of devising a solution that recognises both academic and practical achievements in equal merit. I propose all school uniforms be scrapped and replaced with a universal scout uniform. No longer shall students receive note of their educational abilities on paper, no: they will be able to proudly sew their achievements to their clothes. Achievement badges will include advantages for the egg-headed, such as the “Having an Educated Opinion on Sartre” badge (featuring a big, existential question mark) and “Understanding and Applying Standard Deviation”.

For the more practical-minded, be excited to sport the delightful “Ordering Food in French”, “Interacting Positively with a Customer” or the renowned “Wearing Motorcycle Leather in 30 Degrees”. Someone call Michael Gove and tell him I've cracked it. Then give him a “Resorting to Outdated Solutions” badge.

Michael Gove. (Getty Images.)
Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.