At the Brit Awards 1998, Chumbawamba's drummer poured water over John Prescott. Photo: Getty
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The Brits are so polite these days. One reason? There’s no bands left

It used to feel like a school canteen full of rival gangs - now it's a civilised dining room.

I’ve come to the Brit Awards, dear reader, in order to bring you news from the World of Pop, intending to observe in a neutral and detached manner. Unlike Morrissey – complaining last week that “the Brit Awards have hi-jacked modern music in order to kill off the heritage that produced so many interesting people” – or Kasabian, who snarled that wins for Ed Sheeran would be a victory for squares, quaintly couching their objections in the language of a 1960’s Cliff Richard film, I come not to bury the Brits but to watch them in a mood of nostalgic curiosity. I’m revisiting a scene where in the past I have been both bored witless and riotously entertained, to see what’s happened in my entirely insignificant absence.

I was last here in 1996, the Year of Jarvis Cocker, when my band’s song “Missing” was up for Best Single; and the year before that, in 1995, at the height of the Blur/Oasis Wars, I was seated with Massive Attack, “Protection” being nominated for Best Album. Madonna performed that night. She’d recently recorded with them and it was the first time I heard anyone refer to her as “Madge”. (I assumed that Nellee and 3D and Mushroom and Daddy G, no slouches when it came to nicknames, had invented it themselves.) After the awards we went to her private party at Brown’s in Soho, within which inner sanctum was a sanctum even more inner, where a velvet rope fenced off the area containing actual Madonna, and a handful of Chosen Ones.

And now here I am again, after a twenty year gap, at an event that’s bigger, glitzier and more of a TV show than an actual awards ceremony, but what else has changed? Not the winners, who are as predictable as ever, chosen by a voting process about which everyone is suitably vague. Oh, it’s more or less whoever in any category has sold the most, or is the best, – look, let’s not dwell on it. Like old Tory leaders, the winners emerge. There are no surprises.

What is different is the atmosphere in the room, which partly reflects the atmosphere in pop music, and is created I think by the fact that there are no bands. Where it used to feel like a school canteen full of rival gangs, with warring factions shooting insults and dirty looks at each other, poised on the brink of a food fight, now it is a civilised dining room, all the nominees, like their fans, being much-Selfied and much-Liked individuals. Solo artists, islands. They sit not with their mates and partners-in-crime, but with their managers and pluggers, and all of them on good terms with the similar individuals at the next table.

There’s less camaraderie, and less rivalry, and the absence of both is what dulls the air.

Band camaraderie is infectious, and enlivens an audience – you want to be part of that gang, whether it’s the Rolling Stones or the Spice Girls, the Libertines or One Direction – and bitchy rivalry is entertaining. Blur vs Oasis was silly but funny. Now, admiration and respect are the order of the day. Sam loves James, Ed loves Sam, and everybody is Taylor’s best friend.

In short, nothing happens. Almost nothing. With my Mum-face on I think that Paloma Faith holding a microphone in the pouring rain is a health and safety nightmare, but it turns out that the accident waiting to happen is an unforeseen one, involving stairs, a cape and a dancing bull. Madonna falls over, giving the evening its longed-for news angle. Seated only yards from the stage I hear the crash as she goes down, most shocking of all being the heavy ker-THUMP of her mic hitting the floor. Golly, I think, that mic’s actually on. Not a given nowadays – and quite a thrill.

What is most remarkable though, and confirms everything I’ve ever thought about the indestructible will-to-power of Stars, is her recovery. Have you ever fallen flat on your back? I have once, on the slippery decking outside my back door, and on landing whiplashed and winded did what you would do, and burst into tears of self-pity. Which is why I’m not a global superstar with a decades-spanning career, and neither are you.

Tracey Thorn appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 18 April. Book tickets here.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

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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