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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era