Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

The Gatekeepers. Selected cinemas, nationwide. Released 12 April.

The Gatekeepers is an intimate, interview-style documentary featuring six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service agency. Directed by Dror Moreh, it focuses on the personal experiences of men at the forefront of the Six Day War. The remarkable openness of the participating interviewees has received a great deal of interest. Discussing the successes and mistakes of their time during the Occupation, they shed light on the wider controversy surrounding the war.

Opera

The English National Opera: The Sunken Garden. Barbican Centre, London EC2Y 8DS. 12 – 20 April.

Tonight, The Barbican will host the world premiere of The Sunken Garden. Directed by composer and director Michel van der Aa, with a libretto written by author David Mitchell, whose novel Cloud Atlas was shortlisted for the Booker prize, The Sunken Garden includes both 2D and 3D film. Focusing on the disappearance of a software engineer and the people who try to find him, it describes itself as an all new “occult mystery” film-opera.

Exhibition

Tell Me Whom You Haunt: Marcel Duchamp and the Contemporary Readymade. Blain Southern Gallery, Hanover Square, London W1S 1BP1. April – 18 May.

Tell Me Whom You Haunt places ten leading contemporary artists in dialogue with existing pieces by Marcel Duchamp, to explore the idea that found or ‘readymade’ objects lose their previous signification when re-contextualised. The exhibition includes responses from contemporary artists such as Olaf Nicolai, Robert Kusmirowski and Nasan Tur, all of whom play with the idea of ‘hauntings’ and the ways in which memory manifests itself.

Concert

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Colston Hall, Bristol, BS1 5AR. Thurs 18 April.

On Thursday, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra will perform a wordless ‘night at the opera’, conducted by Andrew Litton, with Vadim Gluzman as lead violinist. It will include pieces from Korngold, Bruch, Wagner and R Strauss. To supplement this exciting concert, Bristol ensemble conductor Jonathan James will be giving a talk on Saturday 13th April. Discussing the inferences and themes behind each piece, he will historically and socially contextualise the music to instil a new resonance to the performance. His talk will also be at Colston Hall.

Theatre

Fences. Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge CB2 3PJ. 15 – 20 April.

August Wilson's 1987 drama Fences is arguably one of the most famous American plays of the 20th century.  Set in 1957, between the Korean and Vietnam wars, it follows the life of Troy Maxson – played by Lenny Henry, a once gifted athlete whose job as a garbage collector now leaves him resentful and embittered. This new version, directed by Paulette Randall, has received high praise from critics including Lyn Gardner. Writing in the Guardian, she describes the portrayal of Maxson as “so vivid that you can't help being gripped by this story of a man who may have thrived, but who is fenced in by the era into which he was born.”    

Director of The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh, at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images
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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times