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Bury the good news

How the truth about state schools is twisted by journalists who go private

Discarded needles, enforced mediocrity, petty bullying, too much political correctness, not enough Jesus or competitive sport: New Statesman readers with children in state schools will be surprised – but perhaps not that surprised – to hear that these are common features of our nation’s schools, at least according to our press and broadcasting media, few of whose leaders use the system they so relentlessly traduce.

Last month’s offering by the Sunday Times was depressingly typical and typically depressing. Written by the paper’s “award-winning war correspondent” Christina Lamb, it posed the question: “What’s wrong with winning?” At considerable anguished length, she went on to explain why she had moved her son from state to private schooling.

The main problem, according to Lamb, was the lack of any competitive ethos within what was, by her own account, a happy primary school, led by a “firm headmistress and young, dedicated teachers”. Forced to resort to “subterfuge” in order to find out her son’s overall ranking in the class, Lamb was later horrified to find that at sports day, “instead of racing against each other, the children were put into teams with a mix of different ages . . . with each team doing different activities”.

Indignities such as these – plus scant knowledge of the Lord’s Prayer at the school – even­tually forced her to join the queue at the local oversubscribed private school, and there she was deeply gratified by the head’s open boasting about everything from sporting achievements to A grades to Oxbridge entrance successes.

Lamb makes much of her own state education and avowed abhorrence of the “two-tier” system of education in this country. This theme of reluctant conversion is a common journalistic line, most powerfully demonstrated by the novelist Will Self in the London Evening Standard last October. In his column, boldly headed “I’m a diehard lefty but my son is going to private school”, Self described his decision to take his son out of a state primary but concluded that he personally could not be labelled a hypocrite, as he had never believed that state education was an engine of social change in the first place.

Presumably both Lamb and Self will have taken comfort from the sad story of William Miller, the now middle-aged son of the theatre director Jonathan Miller, who, in the Mail on Sunday in February – under the banner headline “Atrocious lessons and daily bullying . . . why I won’t send my children to a state school” – castigated his father for “a mistaken ideology”. According to Miller, he and his two siblings were “the victims of the most cavalier of social experiments”. Yet this was, it should be pointed out, more than 30 years ago; all would agree that state schools are very different places today.

Every such story relies on unchallengeable, intimate details and anecdote. There is no place in them for the part played by parenting, individual temperament or other behind-the-scenes factors or conflicts; according to these writers, and dozens more like them, it is the school and school alone that causes a child’s lack of achievement or unhappiness.

The reader has no way to address the manifest contradictions that arise between these stories. Lamb’s son was in an admittedly happy, co-operative primary where, according to his mother, his ruthless edge was not being sufficiently sharpened. Self’s son was alleged to have been bullied and tested to the extreme. Miller blames his lack of academic education on his middle-class parents. And yet regularly other newspaper features will castigate the middle class for claiming that the state education system, rather than their own privilege and efforts, enabled them to achieve good results.

Writers and journalists who have sent their children to state schools are treated either as slightly exotic birds that have successfully contained a rare tropical disease, or as disingenuous or deceiving, as Martin Samuel in the Times has argued, because they ruthlessly exploit their own affluence and connections to cover up their children’s poor education.

The real politics of education is always placed on the back burner. Lamb declares herself impressed by “the astonishing range of facilities and activities” on offer at the private school she finally chooses for her son. Yet the resource argument, central to the privilege and achievements of the independent sector, is relegated to a marginal feature in her decision, rather than being woven objectively into the story.

A quick search on the website of the Inde­pendent Schools Council demonstrates the extent of the enduring funding gap. Keeping a secondary-age pupil in the independent sector costs as much as £9,000 a year (up to £30,000 for some boarders). Funding for state school pupils has slowly edged up, but is still only around £5,000 per annum. Yet it is easy to forget how much state education has improved over the past decade or more. There are fewer failing schools than there were ten years ago. Almost two-thirds of the state schools inspected by Ofsted last year were judged to be good or outstanding. There are more good teachers and heads; results are better than ever.

When the Labour government came to power in 1997 roughly half of all children were leaving primary school without reaching the expected levels in English and maths. Today that figure is about 20 per cent. In 1997 about 45 per cent of pupils achieved five good GCSEs. Now the figure is more than 60 per cent – more than three times the proportion that left school with five O-levels in the so-called golden age of the grammars, an era often subtly misrepresented to disparage today’s predominantly comprehensive schools.

About £3bn a year is being spent on new school buildings, ensuring that many state school pupils will have access to facilities for learning art and drama that some private school pupils can only dream of. And more young people than ever are going to university, but even that good news story is distorted by a disproportionate emphasis on the numbers of state school pupils going to Oxbridge – or not.

Even these figures can be looked at differently. How many people know that just under a third of state school pupils who apply to Oxbridge get in and just over a third of the private school applicants get accepted? Or that many Oxbridge colleges accept state school pupils in roughly the same proportion as they apply? Access to Ox­bridge may be less to do with second-rate state schools than with how, as the Sutton Trust’s research has shown, simply not enough state school pupils with the appropriate grades apply.

But the success stories have state schools, and their supporters, in a double bind. As they improve and exam results begin to creep up, new lines of attack develop from the media. Every positive message about new buildings, rising standards, more children at university, is obscured by another, more insidious news item that undermines the good work being done.

Better exam results are not a cause for celebration but an opportunity to question the value of the qualifications themselves. The independent sector and parts of the media, joining in an unholy alliance, frequently attempt to demoralise state school parents.

All of this obscures a simple, uncomfortable truth: most parents use state schools and more than 80 per cent of them are satisfied with the service they receive, according to successive polls. But those parents (and they are the overwhelming majority, as the proportion of children in private schools has remained static at about 7 per cent for the past decade) cannot count on the nation’s most powerful opinion-formers to put their weight behind an education system in which thousands of children are flourishing, learning, feeling safe, passing exams, going to university and taking part in com­petitive sport.

How can those parents maintain their belief that they, too, are doing “the best” for their children against a constant backdrop of sniping, damaging assertions, anecdotal evidence or distorted application of statistics? They may also be unaware of the complex politics behind, or the context within which, so many of these negative stories – or equally stereotypical TV programmes and films – appear.

Feature writers and columnists have at least to declare their motives, to lay bare some “human-interest” details of their apparent dilemmas. However, we know far less about the personal choices and politics of the senior presenters, editors and managers of newspapers, television and radio stations, who are responsible for commissioning, selecting, editing and presenting stories on education, day after day.

Most newspaper editors and senior broadcast executives use private schools. Yet all have strong views about state schools, which suggests they may possibly have a long-term vested interest in portraying the schools they have rejected for their own children in the grimmest light. Moreover, there is a subtle distinction in their opinions about the state education service and the National Health Service, to which many of them do entrust their families.

This goes to the heart of the matter. It is well established that what makes a public service powerful is the use of it by all ­sections of the population, not just those without choice. State schools are getting better and benefiting from huge investment, but still face challenges in their attempt to raise standards equally for children, particularly those whose home backgrounds may not automatically prepare them for learning, passing exams or going to university.

It is a great tribute to our state education system that it has continued to improve and that its prevailing ethos – that all children, regardless of family background or parental income, have the right to a free, excellent education – is still a cherished ideal among so many, despite the relentless criticisms of some of our most influential citizens. Just imagine, for a moment, how rapid educational change could be, and what spectacular steps could be taken towards a truly world-class system, if all the presenters, editors, columnists and commentators put their combined force behind improving the state system, rather than boycotting and belittling it.

Fiona Millar and Melissa Benn are writers and campaigners for state education

Fiona is the author of the recently published “The Secret World of the Working Mother” (Vermilion, £12.99)

Melissa’s latest novel, “One of Us”, is out in paperback (Vintage, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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