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The Changing Face of Racism

Writing on the evils of racism is fairly easy – one can assume with relative certainty that most of those who read it will agree with it, whilst there is little risk involved socially or professionally to those who do so. Which is good, since racism is wrong, and must forever be denounced, lest it creep back in through lack of watchfulness on the part of those who thought they had defeated it.

However, writing in defence of those who have been wholesale denounced as racist is a little trickier. In what follows, I hope folk take this as it is intended to be – an honest attempt at trying to grapple with the difficult questions we must all face, on an issue that is in one sense very clear cut (racism is wrong) but at other times rather more difficult to disentangle (people who say x are racist).

This blog first took seed when I noticed this post by @Samfr on Twitter:

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Sam was falling for the temptation, into which so many fall prey, to point mockingly at the rustics whilst lauding the perceived multicultural and tolerant London. Rather, he was identifying an occurrence that neatly illustrates the grey area over which so many in the commentariat would blithely march in their single-minded determination to head for the moral high ground – in reality, where certainty exists for some, debate and disagreement exists for others.

Not that certainty, and strong denunciation, is always a bad thing – after all, shame and social censorship is a long established way of ensuring members of a society uphold its moral norms. However it is tinged with danger as ratcheting up the rhetoric can entrench attitudes, leading one side to think it monopolises tolerance whilst the other grows more and more resentful and willing to contravene precisely those codes in response. 
It is one thing to tell Joe Bloggs we ought not use certain words because of the harm they can cause – it is quite another to tell him that his mother and father, grandparents and siblings are all racists, because they use a word Joe thought everybody used, and certainly not with any intended racist connotation. If our recent political history tells us anything, it is that such an approach drives essentially good folk away from the mainstream and toward those with more malign intent.  

Besides which, allowing one side to think they own this debate might just mean we miss the evils of racism when it lurks in precisely those places where we would last expect to find it. Liberals might think their noisy denunciations make them impervious to accusations of racism – in reality they have their own charges to answer.

And now for the difficult bit.

My childhood was split between army camps all over Britain, old Lancashire (Salford) and North Yorkshire/County Durham (Stockton-on-Tees). Speaking to a teacher colleague, who grew up in an entirely different part of the country, we were discussing the latest UKIP fiasco and went through the words we used as kids which we would never consider using, or endorsing, or condoning today. And, in truth, it was appalling. Words long since abandoned, and thankfully so, were just a normal part of our lives. They may make us wince now, but not then. They were the norm, used by adults and kids alike. Part of this might have merely reflected our backgrounds (‘northern, respectable working class’) but more likely it spoke of our time as children of the 80s and 90s. And I’d wager that, if we felt able to be honest, most of us would admit to the same.

Some examples. Well, when I was a kid, it was standard for any show of tears to be greeted with the phrase ‘don’t be a poofter,’ meaning stop showing emotion and being ‘soft.’ I vividly remember being in junior school, where a group of us were perplexed as to why one of our number had just been told off for calling someone a ‘spas[tic].’ I remember a colleague of my father’s in the army was called ‘Midnight’ and introduced himself as such. I remember the word ‘paki’ was common currency, less so as an insult, but more often to refer to the ‘paki shop’. Indeed, when I took my Indian heritage then-girlfriend (now wife) to first meet the family, one older relative (whose identity I shall keep concealed) asked us ‘would you nip to the paki shop [in which this relative worked] and get us some flyers?’ Flyers, for those unaware, were tubes of liquorice with sherbert in the middle. About thirty seconds later, the blood drained from this person’s face as they realised what they had said and apologised profusely – the language was racist, but the person really was not.

And I could go on, and on, and on. Granddads and generally older male relatives are particularly rich sources for examples – perhaps unsurprising, certainly according to this article here, painting older, northern males as being particular culprits – but I could include examples from male and female, teachers and professionals, sports clubs and public figures, tv shows and celebrities. Indeed, recent years have been particularly plentiful in the ‘gaffe’ department, particularly from football culture (itself often associated with the working class male) – be it Joey Barton’s apparent sexism, or Robbie Fowler’s taunting of Graeme le Saux, or Alan Hansen referring to ‘coloured’ players, or Jose Mourinho’s use of homophobic language (though, to illustrate the point I am trying to make, using a word that still features in one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time).

The easy response here would be the ahistorical and hysterical – to denounce everyone as bigoted and refuse to try and understand what is going on here. But in reality, what is actually playing out is time itself, and the ways in which conventions and etiquette shift with it. And that change is rarely universal, let alone uniform. In other words, times change, and oftentimes for the better, but it changes at different paces in different places, and sometimes folk get caught on the wrong side of that step change. Nigel Farage may well get be greeted with howls of disgust when ruminating on use of the word ‘chinky’, but the awkward truth is that until very recently, certainly well into my adulthood, that was (and in some places no doubt still is) the standard word used to describe a Chinese take-away (though in Lancashire it tended to sway between that and ‘chinee’). If Dave Whelan’s comments show anything, it is (probably) not that he is racist, but that he was formed in a society that used racist language – perhaps some of it with racist intent, but for the vast majority not so. Racism did and in places does exist, and must be challenged forcefully – but we need a more nuanced litmus test than what words somebody chooses to use, which makes it easy for racists to escape detection and non-racists to be unwittingly caught up in something they had neither intended nor suspected. Or, as Simon Danczuk has said:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsAnd this is the thing – despite all those terrible examples I cited earlier, I always knew racism was wrong. We all did. And can honestly say that we did not see those with a different colour skin as essentially different. And yet we used racist language. And were not at all unusual in that. We were children (and adults) of the time, in a country that was changing and in many ways has changed for the better (except for derogatory terms for the traveller community, attitudes and language toward whom are terrible but which we rarely challenge with the same gusto).

Maybe, then, hidden away amongst the angry words and insults is actually a social and political reality of two nations, ‘between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.’ When those two cultures collide, they see things about each other they don’t like. The outrage of the culture industry at use of certain terms demonstrates a lack of awareness that, for many people, these are common currency. What is obvious in Haringey might not be so obvious Hartlepool. And if the two nations theory is true, then why would it be obvious? Lack of awareness and understanding at the attitudes and thoughts of the other can clearly swing both ways. 

The story here, then, is as much one of a dominant culture being appalled by the habits and attitudes still ingrained (and long thought erased) in the less dominant. Those attitudes and that language will, in time, change – lest those who would expunge succeed in only entrenching them further.

Blue Labour could help Labour ‘get in the game’

Throughout the country, beyond particular urban strongholds, Labour is in a perilous position. The natural advantages so long enjoyed in certain areas have made it presumptuous, whilst electoral security has rendered safe constituencies the fiefdoms of (often incoming) architects and guardians of the progressive, liberal- left project. As such, Labour has become sluggish, but also detached – in all too many places it has failed to hold its voice at the heart of the communities from which it originally sprung.

This presents a problem in the face of the new political realities before us. Put simply, Labour is in no position to fight UKIP in its heartlands. Or even to speak with authenticity to that social and cultural angst from which UKIP is siphoning support.  Our initial reaction, to disregard UKIP as a Tory problem, has left us vulnerable as the roots of revolt have crept into lands once occupied by the left – we did not conceive that we might need to build an alternative offer of our own.

Alas, the penny has dropped, and the response has been typical of a party that does not accept the legitimacy of that which it seeks to combat – when we listen, it has been the job of those who are part of the problem to provide diagnosis and solution; when we speak, it has been in tones of that which is being rejected.

Thus Labour has too easily condemned itself as part of the problem it is claiming to solve. Worse, it often does not have the resources or the rootedness to even imagine that there exists a legitimate alternative. For all our talk of reconnecting with the disaffected, one cannot help but wonder how many in the formal organisation of our party have the capacity to recognise the extent of this cultural deficit – the once rich chorus of the Labour tradition has long turned to a shrill, castigating shriek. At root this is a culture clash, and there has been little sign that those with their hands on the levers are willing to budge.

So Labour is poorly placed to fight UKIP. It needs a different voice, which presents a problem to a party that has spent so long rooting out difference. The critique-free liberalism that has delivered the party to its current predicament must now accept challenges to its narrative – doubts over its ability or willingness to do so remain.

Yet the picture is not as bleak as it might be. For all the homogeneity of the professional arm of the party, the Labour tradition nonetheless has within its heritage precisely this alternative voice. It still exists as a cultural phenomenon, in the hearts and minds of many a Labour voter, and many more an ex-Labour voter, and indeed in many an activist feeling increasingly alienated within the changing landscape of the local associations they helped build. By a rule of thumb, this might well be more economically to the left – it is certainly more socially conservative. Either way, it can naturally articulate a legitimate Labour vision of society that not only pitches for that sizable band which is deserting us for UKIP, but can do so in a way that is more wholesome and hopeful than anything UKIP – with its misanthropy and its myth-peddling – has to say.

This offer, which up until now has remained in the background, a loose coalition, informal and ultimately unloved (despite early signs of interest), is perhaps best articulated by the group now given the moniker ‘Blue Labour.’

Yet substantial obstacles block its advancement. Even if the Labour hierarchy were to accept the need for diversity, party infrastructure is hostile enough to its delivery that those who might just provide it will rarely break through to the front line. The party has become an echo chamber – it would require something drastic for those with another tale to tell to walk the gauntlet and come through successfully on the other side. Or, as I have written previously,

‘To exacerbate the problem, engagement with the party on a local level too often offers little opportunity for the excluded: the arteries are clogged up. Those that Labour recognise they have alienated are not the kind of people who tend to advance through the party, either by selection or appointment. Those who are opposed to the traditional views of what is in effect the Labour dalit class generally are the kind of people who advance through the party, both by selection and appointment… [so] the old grassroots might well be socially conservative, but it is highly unlikely that any such individual would gain any position that would allow such views to be honestly represented, whilst those who expend such effort in shouting them down regularly do so. As such, even in the event of recognition of this representation deficit, there is unlikely to be any concerted action to address it – it remains a fact to be confronted that it was/is during the ‘diversity years’ that the Labour Party has become so very ideologically narrow.’

Perhaps, then, the UKIP moment presents an opportunity. If Labour has within its tradition the ability to respond to UKIP, if there exists within the party a group already articulating this alternative, if that articulation currently finds little direct representation because of structural barriers to advancement – might part of our solution lie in giving Blue Labour a more formal voice? Can an affiliate grouping be created which would assist Blue Labour in getting its message to the front line? Might direct intervention be justified?

It has long been the paradox of Blue Labour, and the postliberal movement which it represents, that for all its reverence of institutions it has yet to form an effective one of its own. Perhaps it has lacked the incentive, or the support, or indeed the will.

Well, times have changed. The answer to the ‘Purple Revolution’ might just be a bit red and a bit blue. Which means the Labour Party needs Blue Labour, just as Blue Labour needs the Labour Party. It is time to formalise that union. 

The Death of Liberal Education

In our schools, right now, there are many students who spend 60% of their entire time in a classroom studying just three subjects. Come the end of the year, or perhaps already for some, this will increase, and for those deemed to be falling short there will be up to 18 lessons (perhaps even more) out of 25 spent studying just these same three subjects. The same children might also be forced encouraged to attend after school revision sessions, or marched invited to lunch time catch-up sessions, or bribed welcomed to pre-school intervention sessions, all of which will be topped off with a healthy dollop of homework for each of the three subjects.

If that sounds a little unbalanced… well, good, I’m glad, we’re clearly on the same side here. Because it is. Whilst English and Maths are the top priority, Science is also increasingly given a seat at the High Table of the curricula Elect, particularly since STEM, and our alleged lack of focus on it, became the buzzword of the Prophets of Economic Doom in recent years. In other words, we force students to spend the majority of their time doing just three subjects, whilst simultaneously puffing our chests out and bragging to the world that we offer our kids a broad, balanced, liberal arts education. Which, on paper, it might well look like we do, since we still corral kids into an unsustainably large number of exams – but peel back the surface layer and things begin to look a little different.

At school, my least favourite lessons were Science and Maths. Not the teachers, by the way, all of whom I thought were great, but the subjects. Nothing personal really, I just didn’t have all that much interest. I could do what was asked, I could get grades good enough to keep the hounds at bay, but they just didn’t inspire. History did, Geography did, English Literature did, RE did, PE did, French did (eventually) – but Science and Maths? Nah. (I know we’re not supposed to say that anymore, but nonetheless it’s true, for me as for many others). As such, I couldn’t honestly say that I would have had much of a successful time at school, by various measures, if they had forced me to sit through the equivalent of two whole days’ worth of the two things I disliked most, whilst skimping on the subjects I adored. For sanity, if for nothing else. If they had then told me that the latter would be sacrificed still further to allow more time on the former – well, I’d have thought it part of a cruel experiment designed to test the stress capacity of an already moody teenager. It would have ruined school for me. It just would have. And the pressure of trying to get good grades in the subjects I enjoyed and wished to carry further, whilst having the tables so egregiously stacked against the likelihood of doing so, would have sparked the fires of revolt.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Nor do I see why it should be any different for students today. Which leads to the question: why do we do it? Only, you already know the answer to that question. As soon as I mentioned the three subjects, the game had been given away. And so, with a gallic shrug and a defeated air: we do it because of OFSTED and because of league tables. Or rather, we do it to preserve ourselves and our institutions in the face of OFSTED and league tables. 5 A*s to C, with English and Maths. The End.

Of course, it is easy to look up from the coalface and curse the cowardice and question the courage of those who lead us, to shake our fists and swear that we’d do things differently. And for those who choose to pursue school leadership, maybe they will, and these experiences will help them discern the costs of sedition. But the blindingly obvious truth is our leaders are just as human as we are (no, really), trying to make rational choices in a clearly irrational situation, fighting to do the best for their school in the hopeless situation in which they are placed – faced with the external pressures that bear down upon their shoulders each day, we’d probably be liable to make precisely the same decisions. Everyone imagines themselves a hero until the time comes to be heroic. Self-preservation might not ever keep the Hollywood script writers in fruitful supply, but one can at least acknowledge the logic that it carves out a space where one can sit quietly, wait out the storm and hope for better times. In other words, we have to give SLT a break here, and cast our eyes toward the real culprit.

Change is indeed in the offing, of course, and whilst it seems the forthcoming points scheme will help mitigate some of the crazy incentives that have riddled our education system for the last few years, we can also be sure that, like every piece of tinkering that has come before it, it will have unintended consequences that will yoke schools and the teachers doing their best to operate, dignity intact, within them. Every new idea always seems better than the one it is designed to replace – that we keep on replacing them so frequently tells us something about the quality of the ideas offered as solutions, as much as the ones laid aside as old hat. And let it not be forgotten that this happened on the watch of precisely he who spoke so emphatically on the value of a liberal education. Oh how they laughed on their way to their twelfth STEM lesson of the week. 

And so there must remain a sadness: the kids who have come through this system have just one shot at this. In reality, the latest political wheeze means much more for them than it does for us. For those sitting in a Maths classroom up to seven times a week, whilst trying to get their Art or History or Geography or RE or Music or Language GCSE on just one hour a week – well, for them, this is it, this is all they have. That our Enlightened Masters thought they were changing things for the better will cut no mustard with them – they, like those before them, will have been the guinea pigs, and it is their life options that will have suffered for the experiment, they who will have to live with the consequences of that in a way that we never will. Especially those whose interests and ambitions don’t align neatly with the external incentives and prejudices that, in the name of improving education, have closed those very doors that they might have earnestly desired to walk through. 

In Praise of Slow Learning (and Teaching)

 Our kids are taught too much. Which very often means they don’t learn enough. The more able manage a shallow grasp of lots of things, whilst the less able grasp little of much at all. And as time has progressed, I can’t help but wonder if it is our very definition of progress that creates the problem.

Coming through my teacher training, terms like ‘pace’ and ‘progress’ were the ever present dictums that shaped our teaching and informed our observations. Lessons had to be snappy, tasks swiftly completed, and pupils whisked on to the next chunk of learning without honest reflection on whether they had truly mastered the stage they were at. That the kids were learning, able to show that they were learning – these were the indicators of a successful lesson. Every minute was for learning, all learning should be moving forward, there could be no rest.

Of course, there was to be a narrative thread linking all this learning together into a coherent whole – this being as true for the sixty minute lesson as it was for short-, mid- and long-term planning. In that sense, every lesson was a stand-alone set piece, linking to the last lesson and the next, but careful never to step on the toes of either. That would be repetition, and repetition is bad, lacking challenge and failing to engage pupils. This, after all, is what ‘progress’ is all about – moving forward, always moving forward, learning new things, becoming better educated.

I’m not sure there is too much to argue with this – it certainly makes sense and sounds desirable – but as time has worn on there exists a quiet, nagging doubt that this is not delivering outcomes we should desire, and might in fact be an obstacle to them. The danger seems clear: in the determination to show progress, because this is how we judge ourselves and are judged as teachers, do we give pupils too little time to master one thing before whisking them along to the next?

Asking such questions may seem indulgent – if progress is good, and grades are good, then why rock the boat? Well, simply this: why, despite all their progress, and their impressive levels, do pupils just seem to know less? The renewed focus on a knowledge curriculum might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the fact that such a call has become commonplace is itself instructive. And I’m yet to meet many teachers who do not think it important for pupils to know the basic vocabulary and canon of core knowledge for their subject. Yet if that has gone, and I think it undoubtedly has, then we are duty bound to ask why that might be.

Which leads us back to that point about teacher training. Perhaps these accounts of pace and progress that have followed me round ever since my training years have meant that I, we, have been less inclined to offer sufficient opportunities for that important feature of learning: practice. And here there is much to be learned from our colleagues in the Maths departments. If practice helps us know, and knowing helps us understand, and understanding help us learn, then why should that be any different in any of my subjects? I teach RE, History, Psychology and Philosophy – for every one of them, getting the first clause of that formula right is just as key as it is for Maths.

Which means we might just need to slow down a bit – to stop, take stock, to practice. Indeed, perhaps we need to stop adorning schemes of work with great leaps and jumps that undoubtedly impress outside eyes but which we must question honestly: are these for the inflation of ourselves or our pupils? It might also mean building in mastery of knowledge and practice explicitly into our teaching, which will take an effort of the will, programmed as we all are to impress by getting pupils to as high a level as possible as quickly as possible. 

But it needs to be built on firm foundations. What they know, they need to know well. So that, measured in terms of breadth, perhaps our pupils should study less. Since this might help them know more. Which is precisely the case for slow teaching.

The NeoTraddie Revolution

We all know of Luther’s most famous uttering: ‘Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy faith has.’ What fewer know is the next line ‘…it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.’ The context is apposite – a Western intelligentsia that had rediscovered Aristotle and with it had pursued a shallow intellectualism that left the heart, and no less the soul, cold.  Luther was not the first to tread this path – the vexatious issue of the relationship between faith and reason was/is as old as the hills 
Luther was wrong, of course, though one cannot help but suspect that, as with most of history’s greatest heretics, it was for an excess of piety rather than deficiency of it. But he was edging at something important, something instinctive, difficult to communicate, particularly to those who already reject the rules by which we play – that in the heart of life there is mystery, and reason can not always take us there. That trying to subdue life to the rational can impoverish it. That wisdom can make fools of the educated. If Aquinas services the head then Augustine wraps up the heart, and it is the strength of the Church to value both equally 
I’ve always seen myself a traditionalist in education, something which I saw as splitting two ways. The first was pedagogical, the desire to emulate those who transformed me, and not have to jump through hoops doing daft things to please people with daft ideas. But there was a second strand, and this was the belief that students should have access to something greater, to high culture, to aesthetic ideals, to the good, the true and the beautiful. The traditionalist, as I saw it, was every bit the rebel and for that reason entirely the romantic. 
Yeats once described, in his poem the Seven Sagesthe whiggish mind; ‘a levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind/That never looked out the eye of a saint/Or out of drunkards eye.’ The Seventh sage responds to the Sixth mournfully: ‘All’s Whiggery now/But we old men are massed against the world.’ Looking around at the education revolution, one cannot help but feel the sympathy of the traditionalist must be with the Seventh Sage. For the NeoTraddie chorus, remarkably uniform and increasingly shrill, seems to have become that which so provoked Yeats’s ire. Clutching academic journals, divinising research, yoking everything to the demand for ‘evidence!’   rationalistic, technocratic, and above all, cold. Or at least it often feels like it. And as the mob is whipped up with mock outrage and witty blogposts against the latest idea or practice that contravenes their rulings, and indeed against anyone who holds or practices them, then it often looks like it, too.  
Is it this lack – of wonder, of awe, of mystery – that marks the technocrats of the education revolution? If it is it puts it at odds with traditionalism as I understand it. Teaching is now a profession, a career no less, of which it is increasingly conscious, and with it the language and logic of learning has come to ape that of process and manufacture over growth and flourishing. And it is that coldness that causes one to well up with discomfort and shout ‘No!’, even at erstwhile allies. If there is anything to redeem Ken Robinson, it is that he gets this, the importance of the intangible, even if his greatest error is to force it into a realm in which it does not belong.  
As we (rightly) speak of reason, of the rational, of evidence, we must not forget to balance this with the mystery at the heart of life, the romance in the heart of mystery, and love in the heart of both. I suppose it is from here that I look at the revolution and see in the heart of it something lacking – and, for all it sounds daft, maybe it is love. That can raise a guffaw, provoke laughter, a dismissive huff and a roll of the eyes, but maybe in so doing the point is better illustrated. Education is about love, because in the end all that is good is about love. Which means it is about the heart as well as the head. And the traditionalist must straddle these twoAquinas must waltz with Augustine. 

Blue Labour and Education

Below are the outline notes of a paper I gave at the Blue Labour conference at the University of Nottingham yesterday, on what Blue Labour can offer education. 

For those who asked for copies – hope this helps!

Vocational Education

The first area Blue Labour might look to challenge contemporary orthodoxy can be summed up with the simple question: ‘what do we educate our children for?’

It seems straightforward, perhaps tedious, but I’d argue that for too long we have transformed that question and actually answer a subtly different one that can more accurately be rendered ‘for whom do we educate our children?’

The shift is slight, but telling – if the first suggests inherent virtue, then the latter points toward an outside demand. And once we define education through the service of an outside demand, we shape its offer to better support our preferred outcomes in relation to that demand.

It is in this spirit that Labour have for too long bought into an error. An understandable, perhaps even noble error, but an error nonetheless.

They have bought into the idea that our children are split into two types, the academic and the non-academic. In so doing, we have tacitly supported the notion of vocational training not as a good in itself, but actually as a good for kids who are deemed to be non-academic.

The corollary has been the idea that for everybody else, only an academic pathway was legitimate, one that followed naturally to completion of a degree. The natural consequence was an excess stress on degree level education, deemed good in so far as it services our service economy.

In other words, we submitted education to the demands of the market, and in so doing segregated our children according to which aspect of that market they might service. And you can be sure that this has influenced what we teach our kids and how we assess its delivery.

This has nudged schools and society toward a similar segregation, reinforcing a subtle denigration of the very socio-cultural classes with whom Labour traditionally stood shoulder to shoulder. The contribution of those in the vocational is less valued than it might be, even despite frequent protestations otherwise, because we have accepted the notion that the vocational is the other side of the coin to the academic, which is at any rate the more desirable.

Put frankly, this stinks.

Yet one can see where it comes from. The romantic ideal of hands-on work is replete with core ideas of relationships, reciprocity, contribution – but also, and importantly, with pride and dignity in work. And rightly so. Yet as a movement our stress on vocational schooling seems too often to have been less a recognition of skill and production as a virtue in the pursuit of the good life, and instead the acceptance of the pernicious idea that our workers cannot also be educated – or at least not in an academic sense.

In other words, we have given ownership of the educated to the service economy, when we should instead be claiming it back, for all.

Social Mobility

But Blue Labour’s challenge of orthodoxy doesn’t have to stop there. With its stress on rootedness and place, it can also challenge this omnipresent fad of the professionally concerned: ‘social mobility.’

Put simply, it has become a fashion for every change in education to be justified with a hand-wringing appeal to social mobility. It must be said Govian revolutionaries are particularly good at this, and very much resemble the liberal left when they do so (no surprise there). Determined to display their compassionate credentials, they present their reforms as self-evidently enlightened because self-evidently about helping-poor-people-get-a-job-more-like-ours-for-a-change

Thus we’re no longer in the game of developing intellect to help human flourishing, but have instead turned education into the harlot of the markets. What use, after all, within a marketised utilitarianism, for appeals to refinement of intellect? For human flourishing? For the feeding of the soul?

Or, to quote a leading Labour figure: ‘Overcoming educational inequality is a huge challenge. However, we know the cost of doing nothing. It’s bad for social mobility and ultimately bad for Britain’s economy.’

No desperate romantic, he.

Yet the objection to social mobility is more than than the cold-fingered grip it places round the throat of any sort of expansive view of learning. For social mobility effectively means, in contemporary parlance, the ability to move away from those you know and love. With the heavy implication that failure to do so somehow represents a mournful loss of potential and indeed choosing to do so is itself a signifier of success.

Maybe I’m being unfair, and such definitions of social mobility will always exists whilst the regions are effectively supplicant to the economy of the South-East. But at the same time, we cannot scratch our heads and wonder at atomisation whilst we have spent a generation and more telling anyone with talent that the reason we educate ourselves is to walk away from who we are, or at the very least from where we are from.


Which brings me lastly to institutions.

Now I should say to start us off – I support free schools, and I think Blue Labour should too. They are the embodiment of Blue Labour insights into associative society. The left, understandably perhaps, are broadly more critical, wedded as we are to an idea of tiered central control – this does, after all, give political power to influence outcomes but also help create infrastructure to guarantee standards.

However, as a movement we ought to be comfortable with and full of admiration for those who, driven by common interest, create a learning community. Of course there are checks and brakes needed – a minimum standard and protection against the growth of conglomerates – but the idea of communities coming together to share in the education of their children also has this virtue: it reminds us of the primacy of the family and the community to self-regulate and create with the support of the state, rather than in sole dependence on it. Education done with, rather than done to.

Thus it’s a lesson in humility for the left, but also of liberty, and the importance of horizontal and vertical ties (both generational and social) that can more closely wed folk to a place and a common purpose – and therefore each other.

And when our collective futures are interdependent – and when we see that up close – then we work for one another, and not just ourselves.

This is Labour.

But… whilst there is implicit in this idea that institutions embody virtue, we must be weary of thinking that these become virtue manufacturies.

Virtue can indeed be passed through institutions, and be embodied within them, but it is a not a static product passed to an individual. It is instead something generated through the spirit and circumstance in which it was created and then supported.

In other words, the cart must follow the horse – high-minded notions of schools instilling virtue in our young must first consider the possibility whether our institutions possess virtue themselves, before then asking where this comes from (there can be little doubt our schools have lost this, which I hope we can discuss later).

Thus, when we hear about a virtuous elite reinvigorating society through some sort of Reaganite trickle-down effect, I’m more inclined to wonder if this is precisely the wrong way round – that virtue is in the bricks and mortar in the sense that it was embedded with the sweat and tears of those who toiled at its creation, and thus its ongoing legacy. 

When we contracted this out to the state, we lost something important here.

This being the case, it is associative relationships – or to use the more straightforward terms of love and honour and pride and dignity – that generate virtue, and our institutions stand as testimony to them, rather than factories of it.

(For which reason you’ll gather I’m a fan of faith schools. Though I deeply fear for their future, partly because of Labour’s inability to value tradition and lived lineage over sterilised accounts of equal access to goods and services. The only thing that will preserve them will be pragmatic, rather than intellectual, support. – as I have said in the past, the government could buy all our schools if they like, but it’ll cost them a fortune and we’ll only use the money to build a whole load more.)


So, to sum up, what can Blue Labour offer education?

Well we need to be able to situate education within a healthy vision of the good life, and not just talk about the pernicious effect of coldly utilitarian systems but also to live out the consequences of that thinking too – this means a recovery of the value of the vocational, sure, but without excluding from the beauty of our cultural inheritance those whom we deem to be non-academic.

Blue Labour can also recognise the vital role of schools in forming our young and instilling within them the virtues that we have decided ought to be cherished, even where they might be rejected by wider society – but we must not think that such a thing can be contracted out over and against the family and the communities that act as both creator and guarantor of these institutions .

And lastly, Blue Labour can reject this obsession with social mobility as the judge and jury of educational success and offer an account of flourishing set within rootedness and love, rather than atomised and essentially selfish conceptions of success.

Gove and the English Literature GCSE

They say that a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has even got its boots on. That was before the internet came along. Now it can spin a whole web before anybody notices that something is not quite right. Which happened today, as a whole army of teachers lined up to denounce Gove for issuing an outright ban on anything written by Johnny Foreigner from being taught in our schools. Or insisting all children recite Dickens by heart. Or something like that. Anyway, whatever the details (and please, don’t bother me with such things), the general consensus is that Gove has been really bad and has re-written the English curriculum, by hand and to the tune of Rule Britannia, and we’re All Really Angry about it.
Of course what has actually been said, and what will eventually be proposed, is irrelevant. The very suggestion of change is enough for some to dust off their favourite sanctimony-pants and take to the Twitter dancefloor, strutting along issuing poignant comment about the day they communed with the noumenon whilst reading Of Mice and Men back in their Year 10 English class. No other book, it seems, can offer this. And even if it could it wouldn’t be as good ‘cos, y’know, yeah. Thus to propose any sort of change is not just callous, but a spiritual violence: the Child Catcher has nothing on old Gove.
And that’s just the tamer end of the Outraged spectrum. Gove the racist? Yep. Imperialist? Yep. Xenophobe? Yep. Mysogynist? Why, of course. The whole stinking, steaming, rotting dung-heap has been aimed at him. For many, this is not a debate about what literary treasures should be passed on to our children, but a simple battle between Good and Evil, between the Enlightened Elect and Gradgrind Gove, with his uneducated obsession with Dead, White Males.  That’s all there is to it. Argument over. Go back to your homes.
There are some chinks in the armour, mind. The Crusaders for Literary Diversity seem remarkably comfortable with the fact that, according to OCR, around 90% of school kids have all read the same text for their exams. Nor the fact that, looking at the guidance issued to date, there is nothing whatsoever to say foreign literature is banned, nor to suggest that it needs to be. But hey, why let reality get in the way of spittle-flecked anger? I’m outraged, goddammit, and the world shall know of it. Reason has no home here. Instead, those who swing the Sword of EduJustice have worked one another into an orgy of righteous indignation , using the #GetGoveReading premium rate hashtag as a kind of speed-dating service for the self-evidently superior. Calvin’s Elect does Take Me Out, digitised.
The real root of the issue – that kids should be given the opportunity in school to read a broader range of texts, and most don’t get the opportunity to do so – has been crushed by the weight of a thousand slurs about the moral and intellectual deficiencies of He Who Rocked The Boat. If this really were about the kids, and not Gove, they might find some sympathy with his remarks. After all, if most children leave our schools never having read a classic novel from the 19th century, why is that to be celebrated?  If few children have had the opportunity to engage with the literary fruits of the culture in which they are being formed, then why not question how that should be?  I once wrote that it is a tragedy that too often we deny our children access to high culture because of the hang-ups of their teachers. One or two folk pulled me up on that. I feel increased resolve to insist on it today.
And so we find ourselves in the curious position of being angry about teaching things to children that the parents of those children might deem broadly worthwhile and desirable. And by and large they would not understand the resentment of teachers that this should be so. I’m sure I don’t take too much of a risk in confidently predicting that few parents will write into school demanding an explanation for why little Joan has taken to pulling Gaskell off the shelf.
In other words, we don’t seem to be on the side of their kids. And that’s fairly fundamental.
Take a bow, everybody. Good job. 

Do we need fewer Catholic schools?

Set against personal struggles, moral confusion and fragmentation of knowledge, the noble goals of scholarship and education, founded on the unity of truth and in service of the person and the community, become an especially powerful instrument of hope (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI,2008)

There was a time when Catholics fought tooth and nail to build their schools. In the face of prejudice and obfuscation they persisted in their task, holding clearly before them a truth which we seem to have often forgotten today – that our kids deserve a Catholic education. And more, that a Catholic education is something distinctive, something unique, important enough to make the sacrifice and hard work necessary for bringing it about worthwhile.
And it has left us with some legacy. Over 2000 schools in the maintained sector alone, many of which were built decades ago in the midst of a birth-rate boom and before contraception culture really took hold. Buildings and land, sure, but also a living history, a testament in stone and mortar to the fortitude and sheer bloody-minded determination of those whose feats live on, even if the vision which energised them increasingly does not.
Knowing the history of our Catholic schools, of the hardships involved in securing first the freedom and then the capital to build them, makes one all the more determined to fling a defiant pair of fingers in the direction of any who would seek to restrict our right to educate our children in the way we see fit. To do any less would in some sense be a betrayal – of our faith, yes, but also of the toil of those who bequeathed to us such a gift.
But then, a squandered fortune need not be confined to a property portfolio, and there has emerged the distinct feeling that too often our schools are not quite what they say they are, and thus not quite what they were intended to be.  And if we were to scratch around for a reason for this, then we might move beyond buildings and onto a question at once more fundamental: why do we do this?
The more politic, having long learned the placatory language of faith schools, will here mouth pieties peppered with hazy references to ‘gospel values’ before rehearsing clichés about academic excellence. This keeps the charade forefront, hiding the fact that too often we stop short of delivering the kind of authentic answer we could be expected to give: ‘to build the foundation [of] our spiritual development, our learning and teaching, the formation of culture and our society in Christ’ (Mgr Stock, 2012).
All very well, some will say, but that is just words on a page, a pleasant stroll through a bit of theory swiftly forgotten once OFSTED rolls up and want to know why English results have taken a downturn and FSM kids did not receive enough C grades last year.
But here’s the thing: that quote, that primary mission; it’s not irrelevant. It might take an effort of the intellect to translate it into practical terms, but it nonetheless lies at the heart of what we should try to do. And it underpins why we do it. And it informs the goals we set and the decisions we make in trying to bring it about. 
Catholic School DNA

Only, too often it doesn’t. Whilst we rightly acknowledge the achievements and popularity of our schools, the question of what makes them distinctively Catholic has been quietly sidelined, deemed impolite or just bloody awkward. Yet in the midst of growing costs, a poorer church, demographic change and wider cultural transformation, the issue of what our schools are and how they ought to operate is pertinent. Indeed, both the Tablet and the Catholic Herald have recently given special attention to precisely this.
More often than not, emphasis is placed on the Catholicity of schools as determined by the faith composition of those who attend or work there. Here, the statistics point to a clear trend: the number of non-Catholics attending Catholic school has risen dramatically – from 2% in 1974, when sizes were clearly more suited to constituency, to around 30% now. For some, this is evidence of bloated capacity, since if Catholic schools are about providing a Catholic education for Catholic children our size must remain correlative to the Catholic birth rate. But this gets it wrong. The religion, or otherwise, of the individual who rocks up at the start of Year 7 is not altogether crucial. If we take our mission seriously then the free offer, the encounter with that foundation, will be made regardless. Yes, Catholic children should get priority for entry – assisting in their education is why we built these places, after all – but if evangelism trumps statistics then the faith of the person who stands nervously at the gates is neither here nor there. Within reasonable limits, having fewer Catholic children need not undermine what we do, nor how we do it, and need not be an obstacle – unless some choose to make it so. Which is by far the more common problem.
As such, to suggest our schools are inhibited by the declining number of Catholic children is to grasp the wrong end of the right stick. For if we’re talking about the capacity to generate and sustain an authentic vision of Catholic education, set within the context of an authentic institution, then one must instead turn to Catholic teachers, or rather the lack thereof.
According to the CES census of 2013, only 44% of those teaching in Catholic secondary schools are Catholic. This figure refers to ‘baptised Catholic,’ and is drawn from schools self-reporting (by ‘headcount’ and including peripatetic staff), with the accompanying incentive to inflate numbers in the hope of keeping diocesan spreadsheets looking healthy and diocesan inspectors looking pleased.  If one were to refine the data to qualify Catholicity with reference to active faith and worship, then I would guess (the best I can do, since I know of no data which collects such information) that we would barely break 5-10%.
One can see why, in this context, the task of pursuing a Catholic vision of education would be quite a challenge. After all, how does one keep a Catholic school distinctively Catholic, as opposed to instinctively secular, when so very few who comprise the fabric of the school either subscribe to or live by that vision? The answer is: not very easily. The ‘Catholic’ becomes superimposed, an added ingredient to an otherwise secular model that is distinguished from other forms of school organisation primarily by how many hours RE the children get per week and how many Masses might be inserted into the school calendar in any given year. Or, as James Arthur puts it, ‘many Catholic schools look no further than the secular models of education that surround them. They adopt a dualistic model of the curriculum, which divides education conceptually and practically into a religious section and a much larger secular part… Religious identity is eroded in these secular models, with links to Catholic educational principles becoming historical memory.’
This erosion of identity trickles down throughout the school, as one might expect: after all, how could we reasonably expect someone of no faith to lead prayer? Or uphold the truth of teachings that, in all conscience, they reject? Indeed, it would be callous to do so. And what trickles down also rises up: with so few Catholics in the system, finding leaders is a key challenge. Since school governance rightly insists that key positions are held by Catholics with an active faith who commit to living by the teachings of the Church, so the pool for leadership becomes incredibly narrow. This has an predictable impact on recruitment, but it also encourages further erosion in Catholic identity and presents another obstacle to the fulfillment of that founding vision – in such constrained circumstances, which diocese has never turned a blind eye to such requirements, choosing to appoint someone whose enthusiasm for the Mass was sparked around about the same time as the job advertisement went out, or whose commitment to the faith could be said to be lukewarm at best, where it exists at all?
Some might declare this justified, indeed moral, on the basis of inclusivity and the avoidance of discrimination, though this logic always seems to sit on the doorstep of Catholic schools and rarely moves itself off to harry other groups where freedom of association would be presumed an automatic right. Either way, it presents a challenge. Of authenticity, yes, of honesty, of course, but also of mission. If Catholic education is something distinct, more than mere secular models with some colourful festival thrown in, then having so very few of those delivering it also being adherents to it brings its consequences. Or, in the words of Pope (Emeritus) Benedict, ‘Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual.’

Too many?

Which necessarily brings us to the key question: do we have too many schools? Can we retain an authentic mission within the framework in which we are forced to operate? Can we really claim to be doing what we promised to do when we first opened our schools? If we spread ourselves so thinly, can it really be a surprise that what is presented is often a pale reflection of the fullness of the vision with which we originally sought to vitalise in our schools?
These questions are not new of course, and Bishop Michael ofLancaster probed the very same themes in his pastoral letter of a couple of years ago. Or, in his words: ‘Is it right or sustainable to expect our Mass-going population of 21,000 to support our schools and colleges in which often the majority of pupils, and sometimes teachers, are not practising Catholics? Is it time for us to admit that we can no longer maintain schools that are Catholic in name only?’
Answers to those questions came there none, but the contexts in which such concerns arose have not gone away. They might even be said to have intensified. And so we come to the point where we must at least consider another possibility.
One must admit that in so doing we are thrust under the duvet with some uneasy bedfellows. There are plenty, after all, who will happily cheer the closure of Catholic schools as an aberration in an enlightened secular society, that being their own eccentric understanding of liberty and freedom. Whilst the presence of anti-Catholic voices automatically causes one to react in anger – or fear – and assert the status-quo as a means of retaining social and political leverage, there is little reason to believe that this is what the status-quo really delivers. And as time goes on, and demographics change, we become prostrate before a change we have failed to respond to, instead busily working against ourselves by upholding within our schools precisely those secularised models that we ought properly to be countering. And if we become merely secular schools with some festivals thrown in, with enough protection to let three or four post holders be determined by faith criteria, then those who protest our existence have a point about the (in)justice of our privileges.
We need, therefore, to consider that Caesar’s shilling might have become the millstone around our neck, perhaps even the thug at our door, rather than the enabler it once proved itself to be. As I have written before, the culture clash is making its way to our schools and we are not well placed to resist it. Whilst all focus is currently on the ‘extremism’ deemed present in certain schools in Birmingham, it is a small jump for the mischievous to pronounce that the Catholic church teaches Truth that some would caricature as equally extreme. Indeed for some Headteachers, being Catholic is already a disciplinary issue, and legal action has been threatened for any exam board that allows anybody the opportunity to express an orthodox Catholic viewpoint. A grandstanding legal case similarly demanding the abandonment of Catholicity is surely just around the corner – the defences have already been scouted. All things considered, it might be best to organise a suitable settlement before that becomes the case.
 Of course, pulling down a temple demands none of the effort or intellect needed to bring about its original construction, and so alternative accommodation needs to be considered carefully; these might range from micro-schools, to the development of free-schools (but not under current regulations), to reconfiguring the geography of our provision, to re-envisioning the nature of our delivery, to a quiet curiosity as to whether religious orders might do for our schools what one order in particular has done for the churches of Philomena and Walburge. It is worth noting, also, that there are nearly one hundred Catholic independent schools, whose rates of Catholicity compare even less favourably and whose contact with their state maintained counterparts tend to be, by and large, limited at best. Withdrawal from public provision would undoubtedly be difficult, but it might also prove an important social corrective, allowing us to confirm our belief that education is fundamentally the responsibility of the parents with which schools assist, a principle long since abandoned by the state sector and an important restatement of liberty in a world increasingly hostile to Catholic witness.
Responses to these challenges will naturally oscillate between those who prefer reform and those who counsel reformation, but it is nonetheless a reality we need to face. Integrity and honesty demand it. Those who sit in the pews each week and dig into their purses for yet more pennies to support our collective mission present us with a moral responsibility to be what we were intended to be and what we still say we are. It was the hard labour of their and our forebears that built what we possess today, in order that we might proclaim to their children the fullness and joy that is the Word made flesh. Should we cease to make that proclamation, should we cease to be able to make that proclamation, indeed should we buckle before modern day authorities who demand a rebuke for those who dare do so, then we betray those who came before us. And the very stones cry out.


Other articles which might interest:

RE in Schools – Evangelise or Secularise?

Not For a Fire in Ely Fen

Catholic Schools and Education

Catholic Schools and Education – Redux

Gove’s Traditionalism and Catholic Education

The Rising Tide

Teaching (anti-Catholic) History

There May Be Trouble Ahead

Marriage and Schools

‘Not for a fire in Ely fen…’

It was at a dance festival where the thought first occurred. A rather good dance festival, as it goes. Featuring 16 or so (I confess I lost count) local schools who put on their own particular dance for an auditorium filled with proud family and friends. All ages, all abilities, all themes.
Did I mention it was good? It really was. The kind of thing that leaves one with a warm glow and a feeling of satisfaction that we, too, in some small way, help make this. That for everything we have to carp about, the kids will be alright.  They will.
And my own daughter? Well, her and her Reception class danced the story of Noah. It was excellent. I, on the front row (like any self-respecting embarrassing Dad), could not have been more proud. It was the only dance with a religious theme, mind (another school [rural, CofE] performed an excellent telling the story of St George, with full Wagner-esque pomp ). These four year olds, telling the story of Noah, each movement meaning something, each child in his or her particular place, moving at a particular time, along to particular music, a sort of beautiful, post-toddler kinaesthetic symphony.
And then I heard it: ‘what’s that then?’ It was from an adult couple in my vicinity. They were referring to the rainbow. And the appearance of dry land, I think. Anyway, it soon became clear that they were not the only adults sat round and about who did not know much about the story of Noah. Or what happens in it. Or what certain fundamental aspects of the story mean. Or what they tell us. Or how they shape us. Still.

And so that thought with which I started: my four year old daughter, and her colleagues, already in possession of more knowledge, in this regard more cultural capital, than a selection of perfectly respectable, intelligent, discerning adults. And if it’s Noah for four year olds then we might imagine where the boundary lies come sixteen.
Mad, that.
But it linked to something that has had me curious for a while. It’s this Hirschian revolution thing, which I’m a fan of really. I’ve always wondered why it is so light on the theological. So scant with the scriptural. Hirsch, to be sure, does give (brief) mention to these things, and his devotees at least tip their hats in that direction, but it rarely goes farther than that. And the question would have to be: why not?
If cultural capital is an important thing, then scriptural knowledge is central to that. Indeed, if cultural capital and intellectual heritage is an important thing, then theology is central to that. Literature, art, music, science, philosophy, law, language – take your pick. To the extent that I’ve just deleted a paragraph worth of apologia for such a claim on the basis that it seems so startlingly obvious that anyone who either cherished or possessed any of the above couldn’t really fail to acknowledge or be aware of it.
But then that last bit is the key, isn’t it? Being aware of it. Our canon is currently fighting a war against claims of imperialism when it should be fighting a war against threats of philistinism. For currently it sacrifices too much in the name of being open minded, and in so doing gives away the key to distribute precisely that cultural capital which really does open minds. And so the philistinism creeps on and consumes the canon, as those charged with populating it become less and less aware of that with which it might be populated.
It’s a common enough recognition, that the Dark Ages were a period of time when Western culture was nearly drowned by philistinism, to be preserved only by the monks in their scriptoria, East and West, frenziedly copying down the jewels of human thought, Christian and heathen alike. They saved the West, or so the annals tell it.

The thought never occurs that such a project might ever be needed again. Not because the knowledge will disappear in a flurry of ashes as libraries burn to the ground, but because it might lie as dust, itself the sign of neglect, forgotten in plain sight, a relic that disintegrates through lack of curiosity from a modern day Eloi who have decided there are more important things to pursue. 

And so we should raise a glass to our Catholic schools, indeed to all faith schools who authentically live their calling, busily preserving the treasures of our culture, the roots and foundations of it and all, the modern day monks in their scriptoria, frenziedly preserving what the contemporary has decided, in its own fit of philistinism, to casually cast away.

And a casual reminder to those who don’t of why they really should.

Why I’m Striking

I have a child in school. In Reception class to be more precise. I also have three other pre-school children. And, God willing, who knows what else the future might bring.

And so, as I send my child off to school each morning, the hope and emotion I feel is that of a parent, not a professional. I want the best for my kids. We all do. It’s only natural.

What does this mean?

Well, it means I want a qualified teacher standing in front of her. A teacher who is not so exhausted from the excess demands of the job that they have not had time to plan lessons properly. A teacher who has the time to look at her work and tell her what is good about it, and tell her how it could be even better. A teacher who is not so creaking with workload that the intangibles which really do shape an education are not forever competing with an almighty focus on the measurables which can distort so much. A teacher with the time and freedom to talk to my child, to cherish her, to help her flourish, to keep her steady as she makes her first steps in this complex and sometimes confusing world. And to educate her. To make her cleverer. To open doors for her and give her the confidence and grounding to walk through them. Not a number on a progress sheet, but a person. A human person. A beautiful soul.

Teachers, on the whole, really are heroes. My child’s teacher certainly is. But it is often in spite of the demands of this system, or wearily in the face of it, rather than because of it. This is as true for secondary as it is for primary.

An education system that alleviated these conflicts would be a better education system. And if striking is one way of trying to bring about those improvements, then so be it.

Which means that I’m striking for my kids. And I’m also on strike for yours.

And I’ll stand proud in doing it.

And for those who have chosen to cross the picket line, just one question: who are you really doing it for?