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.

Getty
Show Hide image

There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.