Fish swimming through the coral on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Getty Images
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Coral reefs are an irreplaceable environmental and economic treasure, in need of help

"Losing the world's coral reefs would be like burning every Impressionist painting - you won't get them back." A new exhibiton at the Natural History Museum shows just what a tragedy these natural wonders' loss would be.

When we hear the words "coral reef" we probably reminiscence on its collage of beauty, and feel nostalgic about Finding Nemo, but that’s probably as far as most people's knowledge goes. Yet despite occupying only about 0.1 per cent of the ocean’s floor, they provide life for at least a quarter of all marine species  and with rareness comes fragility. Human interferences such as overfishing, coral bleaching, pollution and climate change have damaged coral reef ecosystems, and many of them are now holding on for dear life.

By 2050, practically all of the world’s coral reefs will be seriously endangered. The Caribbean reefs, for example, have already lost 80 per cent of its coral cover since the 1970s, mainly due to the overfishing of the fish which eat algae that grows on it, as well as a disease that wiped out algae-eating sea urchins – causing the complete off-balance in the coral:algae ratio. Coral and photosynthesising algae are meant to live in symbiotic harmony when the water temperature is just right, but a rise in global temperatures stresses the algae; they get fed up and start to leave the coral in a process called "coral bleaching". The result is that the corals lose their algae, and without the algae they start to die. 

There are around 800 species of coral worldwide, and some have developed extreme survival tactics, like dissolving neighbouring corals with digestive toxins. But this isn't enough, and like all ecosystems, the damage caused to the coral reefs will have a domino effect throughout the world's oceans, and on land - like people living in countries like the Philippines and Haiti, two impoverished places which depend on the reefs for both food and tourism revenue.

To try to kick against public ignorance of just how important coral reefs are to us, the the Natural History Museum has curated a new exhibition about them. "This exhibition helps us to understand and predict the effect of human impact and climate change on our oceans, one of the biggest challenges facing our natural world today," said Sir Michael Dixon, the NMH's director ahead of its opening. "Coral reefs [...] are being studied every day here at the museum."

The exhibition is simple, spacious but effective. You walk in feeling as those you’ve been immersed in water, and there are geometrically-accurate structures of corals dotted around the space to create that "under the sea" illusion (though they're made from fresh plywood, the pungent smell of which may sometimes slap you back to reality).

Speaking to the NS at the press opening, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg from the University of Queensland spoke about why coral reefs are important, and the dangerous consequences of not having them around anymore:

Coral reefs are important for a number of reasons. Up front they are an enormously beautiful and diverse system – the most diverse ecosystem on the planet, aside from the rainforests. When you look at their contribution, they have generated trillions of dollars to economies across the planet. But what’s important is that there are about 500,000 people with very little means who live along coastlines and look to coral reefs for their daily meals and income. And those 500,000 people are extremely vulnerable. If we start to lose productivity of coral reefs and fisheries disappear, those people become even more impoverished.

It's an informative exhibition  and here are seven highlights:

1) It has six corals collected by Charles Darwin during his HS Beagle from 1831 to 1886  and even better, it's got the illustrations from his first scientific study, on the formation of coral reefs.

Darwin's notebook.

2) A giant Turbinaria coral – a massive, one-metre-long specimen, the many layers of which would have been a safe haven for many sea species.

3) A giant clam – the biggest of all living bivalves, and weighs as much as 300 bags of sugar. It's currently under threat of extinction as a result of overfishing.

4) A giant grouper – about the size of a large motorcycle, it’s the largest bony fish living in the Great Barrier Reef. But don’t be deceived by its size, as it doesn’t eat humans and is in real threat of extinction throughout the Indo-Pacific region due to overfishing.

A mighty, giant grouper fish.

5) A sea fan – a fragile lace-like structure that helps filter food out of the water. It’s also home to seahorses and nudibranchs.

6) Gorgeous 180 degree panoramic imagery of several reefs in a chamber of circular screens.

The immersive reef chamber.

7) A hundred real-life fish and 26 species of coral, making up a four-tonne aquarium. (And, of course, I tried to count up all the Nemos and Dorys I could find.)

"Losing the coral reefs would be like taking all the Impressionist pictures in the world and burning them, because you won’t get them back," said Hoegh-Guldberg. "Once you’ve lost them it’s a tragedy." On this evidence, it's clear why.

Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea will be opened to the public on 27 March – 13 September 2015, 10.00 – 17.50. All photos by the author unless otherwise credited.

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times