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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage