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.

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Who's winning the European referendum? The Vicar of Dibley gives us a clue

These polls seem meaningless, but they reveal things more conventional ones miss.

At the weekend, YouGov released some polling on 30 fictional characters and their supposed views on Brexit.  If you calculate a net pro-Remain score (per cent thinking that person would back Remain minus the per cent thinking they’d vote for Leave), you have a list that is topped by Geraldine Granger, the Vicar of Dibley (+21), and ends with Jim Royle (-38).

It’s easy to mock this sort of thing, and plenty did: “pointless”, “polling jumping the shark”, and so on. Some even think pollsters ask daft questions just to generate cheap headlines. What a cynical world we live in.

But the answers to those questions tell you quite a lot, both about the referendum campaign and about voters in general.

For one thing, most of the fictional characters that people saw as voting to Remain are (broadly) nice people, whilst the Outers included a fair few you’d not want to be stuck in a lift with, along with other chancers and wasters. On one side, you have the Vicar of Dibley (+21), Mary Poppins (+13), Miranda (+11), and Dr Who (+9) taking on Hyacinth Bucket (-13), Tracy Barlow (-15), Del Boy (-28), and Basil Fawlty (-36) on the other. This isn’t really much of a contest.

Obviously, some of these are subjective judgements. Personally, I’d not want to be stuck in a lift with the Vicar of Dibley under any circumstances – but she’s clearly meant to be a broadly sympathetic character.  Ditto – with knobs on – Miranda. And yes, some of the Outer characters are more nuanced. Captain Mainwaring (-31) may be pompous and insecure, but he is a brave man doing his best for his country. But still, it’s hard not to see some sort of division here, between broadly good people (Remain) and some more flawed individuals (Out).

So, on one level, this offers a pretty good insight into how people see the campaigns.  It’s why polling companies ask these sort of left-field questions – like the famous Tin Man and Scarecrow question asked by John Zogby – because they can often get at something that normal questions might miss. Sure, they also generate easy publicity for the polling company – but life’s not binary: some things can generate cheap headlines and still be interesting.

But there are two caveats. First, when you look at the full data tables you find that the numbers saying Don’t Know to each of these questions are really big– as high as 55 per cent for both Tracy Barlow and Arthur Dent. The lowest is for both Basil Fawlty and Del Boy, but that’s still 34 per cent. For 26 out of the 30 characters, the plurality response was Don’t Know. The data don’t really show that the public think Captain Birdseye (-11) is for Out; when half of all respondents said they don’t know, they show that the public doesn’t really have a clue what Captain Birdseye thinks.

Much more importantly, second, when you look at the cross breaks, it becomes clear how much of this is being driven by people’s own partisan views. Take James Bond, for example. Overall, he was seen as slightly pro-Remain (+5). But he’s seen as pro-Brexit (-22) by Brexit voters, and pro-Remain (+30) by Remain voters.

The same split applies to Dr Who, Postman Pat, Sherlock Holmes, Miranda, and so on.

In fact, of the 30 characters YouGov polled about, there were just eleven where respondents from both sides of the debate agreed – and these eleven excluded almost all of the broadly positive characters.

So, here’s the ten characters where both Remain and Leave voters agreed would be for Brexit: Alan Partridge; Jim Royle; Del Boy; Hyacinth Bucket; Pat Butcher; Tracy Barlow; Captain Mainwaring; Catherine Tate’s Nan; Cruella De Vil; and Basil Fawlty.

That’s not a great roll call. And it must be saying something that even Outers think Cruella De Vil, Alan Patridge, and Hyacinth Bucket would be one of theirs.

Mind you, the only pro-Remain character that both sides agree on is Sir Humphrey Appleby. That’s not great either.

For the rest, everyone wants them for their own.

So what about those who say they don’t yet know how they will vote in the referendum? These might be the key swing voters, after all. Maybe they can give a more unbiased response. Turns out their ranking is broadly similar to the overall one – with scores that are somewhere between the views of the Outers and the Inners.

But with this group the figures for don’t knows get even bigger: 54 per cent at a minimum, rising to a massive 77 per cent for Arthur Dent.

And that’s because, lacking a partisan view about the referendum, they are not able to project this view onto fictional characters.  They lack, in the jargon, a heuristic enabling them to answer the question. Which tells you something about how most people answered the questions.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.