School

The four schools I visited all smelled the same - biscuits and urine. Although on reflection perhap

Recently I have been looking at schools; not as a novel leisure pursuit or shrewd investment opportunity, but with the purpose of choosing one for my eldest to attend.

The law dictates that children must be educated and although I feel slightly cowardly for not flouting the law, I do not wish to end up in a cell again. That five stretch scarred me.

Five long hours of solitary confinement; a terrible punishment for a garrulous man. Falsely accused of a crime I did not commit, and at the same time mistakenly not accused of a crime I had committed: Where's the justice in that?

But how do you choose a school? What do you go on: The staff to pupil ratio? Exam statistics? Proximity? A single incident glimpsed from the corner of your eye during a guided tour? The smell? The four schools I visited all smelled the same - biscuits and urine. Although on reflection perhaps that was me.

At each of the schools I was given a tour of the building; "And this is the hall..." as if the architecture was of primary importance. Thinking about it, the most important aspects of a school - what has most effect on you as a pupil - are your teacher and classmates. But you don't get to choose them. You can't go to the Head and ask for the addresses of everyone else planning to attend so you can pop round and meet them.

A school is such a large thing, almost abstract. Deciding which school is a bit like deciding which country would be better to live in - Spain or Italy say; whereas what really matters is the town, the street and the house. And how do you compare unlike things? Spain has a longer coastline, Italy has more cafes: One school has a swimming pool, another free guitar lessons.

The more I think about it the harder it gets. I am considering writing an essay entitled ' The Impossibility of Making Decisions', it would be one chapter in a much larger work - ! a masterpiece - entitled 'The Impossibility of Ever Doing Anything'. I haven't started it yet, obviously.

Touring a school a large scale version of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle operates; your observing of a class changes it. If you pop your head round the door to try and get a glimpse of a class in action what will you see? Writing/rioting stops immediately and thirty-one heads swivel to gaze back at you. And what can you learn from that? Only that they have functioning necks.

"Best days of your life" was how someone described schooldays to me during research for this piece in the pub, and he had a point - he had a pint as well - but as I remember it wasn't school itself but break time that we enjoyed. Indeed, the highlight of my life was when I was pretending to be a motorbike in the infant playground and all the others joined on, and we became a huge phalanx of motorbikes with me at the front. Then I glimpsed greatness, knew it was my destiny, for I saw clearly the mark of greatness: Do something easily imitated. I write 'pretending to be a motorbike' but really I mean pretending to be a motorbike and rider combined - few children pretend just to be a motorbike, making engine sounds and hoping someone gets on.

What are schools for? To prepare you for life? To help you pass exams? Exams are strange. What do tests test but the ability to take tests? They seek to find out what you can achieve alone, under high pressure, without books and against the clock. How often does that situation crop up in normal life? Hardly ever. Unless you end up working in bomb disposal - which could happen, it's a boom industry.

Strange how things change: once people kept diaries - private diaries to be read only after one's death; now it's blogs to be read by anyone. And education was once a privilege of the rich; now it's compulsory for all; and so doesn't seem like a privilege: Are schools not a bit like prisons? The difference being in prison you get time off for good behaviour, in school you get an extra two years in the sixth form.

Marshall McLuhan's phrase 'the medium is the message' has been boggling my mind lately. To me it means that it's not as important what you watch on telly as the fact that you are watching telly - which someone described as putting your mind in valet parking.

It struck me that the medium is the message is a specific example of a more general point: the means is the ends; the ends are often used to justify the means (for example we bomb Iraq to bring it democracy) but this distracts from the only important thing, what is being done (bombing). And perhaps this applies to school as well - it's not what you learn at school, or the stated noble aims of the establishment that matter, but that you go to school; that imprinted onto your soul is the necessity of going somewhere to do something you don't enjoy from 9am to 3.40pm.

Walking down corridors, entering rooms and enduring dull presentations/lessons: It may be that school prepares you for work - or that work inevitably resembles school - because we've all been through it, it's in us. It strikes me that schools are a nineteenth century anachronism, people factories, preparing us for jobs that no longer exist. All the factories are in China nowadays; everything is made in China. I went for a Chinese meal recently - do you know where it was made? On the premises: Don't be prejudiced.

Photo: Getty
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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.