Just another brick in the wall

British schools have become joyless production lines. This is the moment for change.

Governments do not understand schools. They rarely have throughout history. They see education not as a means, but purely as an end, a process validated wholly by success in bad exams that they equate with academic achievement and even scholarship. My hope remains that the coalition government will make a better job of it than its predecessors.

Schools and universities should be places of challenge, joy and deep fulfilment, in which all the faculties a student possesses are identified, nurtured and developed. They should open the minds, as well as the hearts, of the young. It is vital that they do this, as many adults possess neither open minds nor open hearts. Our young should learn how to think and how to feel. Education is their greatest chance to learn how to live. Yet, the world over, schools and universities seem increasingly to be closing the mind and the heart, not opening them.

A school should be educating the young for life in all its fullness - not only for work, but for the 21st century in all its unknowable dim­ensions. Attending school should be as highly prized by students in this country as it is in emerging countries such as Vietnam and Uganda. Young people at school in Britain should be grateful to be studying in such well-resourced environments and their parents should be appreciative, too. The lack of gratitude often shown by our schoolchildren and their parents for the education they receive - whether free or paid for - is a large part of the British malaise.

Universities should be rounding off the education experience, taking undergraduates to new heights of scholarship, excitement and learning, and giving them the profoundest intellectual experiences of their lives. Higher education should be stretching students broadly, too, beyond the merely academic, preparing them fully for life. It should be turning out responsible, capable and deeply fulfilled young men and women.

British schools should be leading the world academically and in the provision of psychologically nurturing environments in which they develop their young. They are doing neither. British universities should be leading the world in teaching, research and innovation, as well as striving to export their unique qualities abroad. They are losing ground on the first and are failing properly to do the second. British schools and universities are falling far short of what they could and should be achieving. Figures from a major analysis of OECD countries, the Pisa study, published at the end of last year, show that the UK has dropped behind its competitors in reading and mathematics. "We are a C country with A* pretensions," was the verdict in the Times Educational Supplement.

The sobering fact is that our schools are not even attaining the one objective to which all else has been sacrificed: securing good exam passes. Our schools are heading ineluctably towards becoming exam factories, students moving mechanically from lesson to lesson until they are spat out at the end of the process clutching a certificate listing largely meaningless exam passes. Peter Abbs, for many years one of the most persuasive voices decrying the impoverishment of education, has written: "The fear is that schools, colleges and universities have become no more than corporations run by managers . . . without character, charisma or charm."

This new "industrial revolution" is not a uniquely British phenomenon. Tony Wagner of Harvard University, and author of The Global Achievement Gap, says that American schools are also failing because their passive learning environments and uninspiring lessons focus more or less exclusively on preparing the young for tests. Indeed, schools the world over are having the creativity and life sucked out of them as they dance to their governments' demand for "exams, exams, exams".

My worry is that the coalition government views an emphasis on creativity in teaching as a left-wing ploy to distract attention from the real business of raising "academic standards", by which it means exam passes. Britain can't even boast that young people are content: it came bottom in a 2007 Unicef study of child well-being in 21 industrialised nations.

Meanwhile, British universities, with funding levels considerably below those in the US, are slipping against overseas competitors. They, too, are becoming factories, populated by undergraduates with little love for their subject and little idea why they are there, and taught by academics with little interest in or ability at teaching, whose research, especially in the humanities and social sciences, is rarely taking us closer to true knowledge.

The fundamental problem is that schools should be educating the whole child, not just instructing them for tests. This should not happen at the expense of an academic education, and, properly done, it enhances it. At Wellington, inspired by Howard Gardner of Harvard, we say that each student possesses "eight aptitudes", which can be seen as four sets of pairs making up an octagon - the logical and linguistic, creative and physical, moral and spiritual, personal and social. Taking just the two intellectual aptitudes, the logical and linguistic, schools do not properly encourage the young to think or reflect deeply in these areas.

Schools no longer teach academic subjects - they teach exams: not history, but history GCSE; not mathematics, but mathematics AS-level; not chemistry, but chemistry A-level. Schools engage too little in scholarship. Rote learning and instruction have taken the place of genuine learning and imaginative responses. Teachers are being reduced to technicians, students to secretaries, schools to factories.

At the root of the problem is trust and the lack of it. Government doesn't trust governors, governors don't trust heads, heads don't trust teachers or parents, and teachers don't trust students. Michael Gove's policy of academies and free schools, however, is a step in the right direction. As Julian Glover wrote in the Guardian on 23 May, "Schools policy in England is succeeding and will soon reach the point where it cannot be undone."
But will our government really trust schools? For inevitably some will make mistakes. Or will they try to impose a pedestrian curriculum, a debilitating rather than liberating inspection regime, and autonomy in name only?

Profound developments, including the digital revolution, globalisation and new research on the brain, make change essential. But at present, we have yesterday's schools for yesterday's world.

The question is not whether we can afford to do all this, but whether we can afford not to do so. Nothing is more important to invest in than education. It is the present and the future. We have no option but to change. I call again for a "great debate" in Britain about the purpose of schools and universities, more ambitious than the one initiated by Prime Minister James Callaghan at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1976. We have to rethink our schools and universities from the ground up. Such an opportunity for a rethink occurs perhaps once every 50 years. Our young crave it. Our teachers deserve it. Our country needs it. This is the moment.

Anthony Seldon is Master of Wellington College. He is the co-author most recently, with Guy Lodge, of "Brown at 10" (Biteback, £20)

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

Getty
Show Hide image

As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools