Abergavenny Left

“Mountains, Markets and Marxists…”

Q: What’s the reason for inequality of opportunity? A: It’s private.

Life seems peppered with complaints these days. A major tut-inducer was the snow – fine for your long weekend in Val de Bourgeois, but bad for shuffling to uni in Ugg boots like Bambi on ice. More vexing was the incontrovertible annoyance of having one’s seminar room CHANGED due to the hitherto alien concept of student activism. And those Palestinians thought they had it bad! Grave and pressing as these issues evidently are, one student gripe I have never understood is the animosity between those who have paid for their education and those who have not. The stereotype of a fee-paying, Our-Lady-of-the-League-Tables-type student is not always accurate, and moaning about it is futile and misdirected. We should stop worrying about whether someone’s school shapes people who fit into fashion clique A or clique B. Private schools accessible only to the rich or intelligent do produce a real social carcinogen but it is not one of such minor trivialities. No, this national disease is the widening of an educatio-class divide that is so entrenched, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has recently deemed it equivalent to a caste society.

Many social groups exist within the university. Perhaps most numerous are the white-plimsoled, Noel-Fielding-a-likes? Equally abundant are those who stop wearing LU sports tracksuit bottoms just long enough to down a few pints of each other’s urine. Similarly, a distinct, cosy coterie is formed by a proportion of those who paid for their education (and some who didn’t) . And why not? Who are we to say that straight hair is better than meticulously styled frizz? Why should we not challenge those who originally decreed that pyjamas must be confined to bedtime hours? (Hell, I may even decide to go to the library in my dressing gown this week!). The clichéd groups seen in American teen movies (jocks, rich kids, geeks) ring truer than ever in university.

Of course, anyone who says that the type of school you attended has no bearing on your social grouping is as deluded as those who deny anthropogenic climate change. However, surely we should let people dress, talk and holiday in San Tropez however they want? For in bemoaning this divide students are misdirecting their ire. The problem is far more serious. Much like a fag to his fag-master, the government’s capitulation to the cane-wielding might of the private school is one of the greatest factors affecting the UK’s current massive inequality of opportunity. What follows are few reasons why we should concentrate our attentions on the categorical discontents of the fee-paying system, rather than the social differences of our peers who attended them.

The biggest and perhaps most covert crime committed by private schools is one which costs us £100m in tax. The Charities Commission provide numerous escape clauses and loopholes to preserve private schools’ status as charities. The definition of charity is ‘generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering’. It is hard to think of an institution which fails to meet this definition quite as triumphantly as the private school. However, with seven of the Commission’s nine board members being privately educated, it’s also hard to see why this would matter. The Charities Commission allows schools to keep their taxes if they can show that they do good by giving places to bright children from poor areas. It’s not enough that they deny the Exchequer £100m in tax. The twisted ‘philanthropy’ of the do-gooding private schools, aside from separating rich from poor, also abducts many poorer children who could have helped to save failing comprehensives.

In our league-table-obsessed climate, where one would be forgiven for believing that pigs are indeed fattened by monitoring their weight, the link between these failing schools and poor pupils is hardly esoteric. Private schools segregate bright, rich, middle class children, skimming the top layer and leaving the poorer ones to plummet. The Commission’s stipulation that private schools must also educate – and therefore extract from the state system – bright, poor kids merely extinguishes any chance of a slight re-tipping of the scales. In addition, many of the best teachers get siphoned off into fee-paying schools. The nation is effectively investing in training a teaching resource which is enjoyed by the privileged few. It’s about as fair as pushing in the dinner queue for the last jacket potato when your Mum’s already made you packed lunch.

The current model can only exacerbate existing inequalities. The rich or gifted continue to dominate Oxbridge and the Russell Group, while the poor and underprivileged must enter less revered institutions. However, don’t think that this two tier system is the fault of the majority of parents. Many families feel forced to choose the private route because acceptable state-alternatives do not exist in many areas . The crux of the problem is the government’s insistence on rewarding the vastly-advantaged paying schools. Something must be done if equality of opportunity is to become anywhere near realised.

The Liberal Democrats have recently made tackling this social immobility their new focus by proposing an extra £2bn in education spending. Although this would immediately match private school funding, for many parents figures alone may not be enough to dismantle the preconception and stigma attached to comprehensives. Guardian columnist Peter Wilby has come up with the fantastic solution of awarding university places equally to each of the country’s top sixth forms regardless of absolute results. This would encourage parents to send their children to less successful schools and balance the scales relatively quickly. Unfortunately, change seems unlikely.

Although things have improved since John Major’s ‘classless’ cabinet (in which 16 of the 20 male members were privately educated), the government still does not buck the trend of influential institutions being dominated by the alumni of private schools. Like any elite, Westminster politicians are unlikely to sign their death warrant (see Labour’s curious shift on proportional representation). Schools like Harrow, Winchester, Rugby and Eton have existed in their current form since the nobility deceitfully seized them from the paupers in the 1400s. Unless the government takes an unprecedented moral stance, the educational revolution we desperately need is still a long way off.

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February 11, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Let’s party (and educate our children) like it’s 1859!

In last week’s Leeds Student, Jono Hall argued that creationism should form part of the curriculum for both religion and science (Creationism in a School Near You, November 21st). I would like to follow his argument to it’s logical conclusion and propose that another religious doctrine based on faith rather than evidence should be taught in schools. I call it Earth-Flatism.

I am of the belief – contrary to every piece of relevant, empirical fact – that the earth is flat. What’s that? There’s overwhelming evidence to suggest otherwise, you say? No, you see, anything you may have heard from these troublesome fellows called ‘scientists’ who have an annoying desire to look at something called ‘evidence’ (basic trigonometry etc) is merely a product of a grand illusion. A trick conjured – just as the Christian God is cleverly duping us about all that believable carbon dated stuff – by the great Earth-Flatist God. The creationist line (pandered to perfectly in the article) is that people believe in both evolution and creationism and thus, both must be reflected in the education system. I believe that the Earth is flat, so should my views not also be represented?

According to Jono, creationism and evolution ‘evidently overlap’ the school subjects of religious education and science. Like creationism, Earth-Flatism is not concerned with the trivialities of scientific testing. It cherry-picks its way through mythology and wild inferences in a very similar way. I, like Jono, see no reason why theories such as mine and creationism should be taught only in religious education. Why are the ideas presented by Witchcraft or The Jedi similarly left out of scientific discussion? In doing so we, as Jono states, risk alienating people who “hold different points of view”.

The principle that we must not offend people who do not subscribe to Darwinism leads inevitably to these preposterous conclusions. I am not saying that children should not learn about world religions. Without religious education, they would not be able to decide what to believe. However, matters of faith have no place in the science classroom. The idea that we must assess ‘perceived truths in a critical manner’ is all well and good. However, it would be negligent to present children with creationism as a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution. The former is unproven. The latter is supported by mountains of evidence and has withstood 146 years of critical bombardment,.

Perhaps Jono’s article shows how the ideologies of the Christian-right are now bleeding from the US into the UK? Some readers might argue that gaps in evolutionary fossil data invalidate Darwinism. But people who believe in creationism select their facts carefully. Given carefully selected facts, I could construct an argument stating that the Earth is not round. Although evolutionary theorists cannot explain every detail, they are working to fill the ever smaller cracks in their knowledge. For example, the recent COBE experiment (mapping the cosmic microwave radiation left over from the creation of the universe) has all but proved the big bang theory. It seems strange that the return to archaic ideas gathers momentum despite all the evidence.

Darwin’s theory of evolution argues that we are not divine creations, but inconsequential and accidental. Complex life is just arrangements of DNA, mutated by chance and prolonged through a process of competitive survival. This may sound bleak, but most of the world’s scientific minds accept it.

Creationists are worried about the implications of these ideas for our view of life and death. However, any cult based on faith and not facts has no right to criticise the origin of species. To teach a religious view as part of the scientific curriculum would be as sinister a crime as indoctrination carried out by an authoritarian regime. If we do not actively oppose this erosion of empirical thought and critical thinking, our children may soon read about fantastical deities in their science books, including (if I have my way) the Earth-flatist God.

December 5, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment