Techno in Barcelona, the Indie’s founding fathers, and my advice to Australia’s cricket team

Amol Rajan's Diary.

Techno, I recently concluded, is the devil’s music. Even in its wilder and more varied forms, it has the kind of painful monotony that only a satanic imagination could conjure. In mid-June, I was at Sónar, a music festival in Barcelona, where my best-man duties had taken me. With unflinching fortitude, we listened to hour upon hour of this horrible noise, the only occasional glimmers of hope coming when a distant DJ dropped a beat and turned the volume up simultaneously. How on earth people can devote whole evenings, never mind careers, to this remorseless tyranny I shall never know.

Inky dreams

For all that, it was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had – not least because the Catalan sun readied me for my new job as editor of the Independent. It had been some time in the planning. On the flight home, with the techno finally draining from my ears, I took down my suitcase and extracted a battered old copy of Stephen Glover’s Paper Dreams, which documents the birth of the great British institution that I now lead. I bought a second-hand edition for 16p in Exeter shortly after joining the paper and, together with Andrew Neil’s Full Disclosure, Piers Morgan’s The Insider and Max Hastings’s Editor, it convinced me that being a journalist was one of the great privileges available to man. And to be editor? The stuff of dreams.

In the name of the fathers

Glover’s prose captured the zeitgeist beautifully, as indeed did the glorious early editions of the Independent. In preparation for my new assignment, I have buried myself in the archives and, reading those issues, I feel a deep sense of honour. For years, I’ve spoken to some of the great characters who made the paper so brilliant early on, including Glover, Francis Wheen –whose biography of Marx is simply the best book I’ve ever read – and Sebastian Faulks, a team-mate of mine in the Authors Cricket Club.

I think of these men as our founding fathers. The part of George Washington is played by Andreas Whittam Smith, who still writes superb columns for the paper.

Street knowledge

Last week, I asked Andreas what the founding ideals of the Independent were. First, he said, it was of no party or faction: you can’t think of it as left or right; it would always aim to surprise. Second, journalism is a street: we are on one side; the people we write about are on the other. It’s our job not to cross the street. Andreas used to think of his paper as “classic with a twist” – a lovely phrase.

In the coming months, I and the best team of writers and editors in Fleet Street will be animated by the spirit of those founding fathers. I have no intention of turning the clock back; rather, I want the paper to be true to the ideals in our DNA. After all, most of the British public think of themselves as independent-minded. Zeitgeists come and go but scepticism in Britain endures and we shall sing on its behalf.

Credit where it’s due

Two aspects of my appointment attracted most attention: the state-school heritage and skin colour. Naturally, I was thrilled to receive a warm letter from Keith Barbrook, the head teacher of Graveney School in south London, my alma mater. The brown skin business made me feel humble – but also uneasy. I didn’t smash through a glass ceiling, as one commentator put it: I just happened to be the lucky rascal who, when the moment came for an editor of minority extraction, was in the right place. Other people –my parents chief among them – deserve much more credit than me.

Second, the language around these issues is always dangerously loose. In The Meaning of Race, Kenan Malik shows that “race” is a social rather than a scientific category, concocted by (among others) French nationalists in the 19th century who wanted to justify inequality. It is also the first step on a road that ends in fascism. I am all for championing equality and indeed will fight for it, including through better and fairer representation of ethnic minorities. But race ought never to be a homologue of culture. I am an Englishman and a patriot and proud of it.

Gone Walkabout

Talking of nationhood, what on earth is happening to Australia? Our summers used to be defined by the onslaught of their cricketers through Ashes series we were bound to lose – but this lot seem utterly useless. They’re getting thumped on the cricket pitch. One of their players has been dropped after some allegedly drunken shenanigans in – of all places! – a Walkabout bar. And now they’ve dumped their coach just weeks before the biggest contest of all. I used to think that the answer to many of the world’s problems was a programme of mass migration to this beautiful, spacious and plentifully resourced nation. Now I’m not so sure.

The seamy side

So desperate are the tourists that they may fast-track legislation to allow the Pakistanborn Fawad Ahmed to play in this series. Ahmed, an asylum-seeker in a country not known for its liberal attitude to foreigners, has been left out by the selectors – but they retain the option of bringing him in for the last four Tests.

However, I must warn my Australian and, indeed, Pakistani comrades that a technical deficiency is threatening to hold back this sprightly twirlyman. Study pictures of Ah - med closely and you can see that he grips the ball tightly, with the seam running perpendicular to the base of his fingers.

Shane Warne, my hero, could tell him that this is a recipe for failure. Warne gripped the ball loosely and with the seam running perpendicular to the top, rather than bottom, of his fingers. That was what enabled the swerve into the right-hander that made Warne unplayable. Ahmed, by contrast, is a scrambled seam merchant. He may say that he is simply classic with a twist. I say he should log on to Amazon and get hold of a history of spin-bowling, quick.

Amol Rajan is the editor of the Independent

The audience at the Sónar festival in Barcelona. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

A protest in 2016. Getty
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Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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