Fifteen-year-old Aimee Collins, a state school student from Somerset, wrote this brilliant speech for the…
This week you’ll find my blog takes quite a personally political journey. My politics are very left leaning but I am also very angry with this current government as I witness the impact of their policies furthering the hardship suffered by those already battling on the invisible periphery of our society. These are my opinions based on my observations and I invite all to comment, to engage, to discuss where we find ourselves today, how we feel about it and most importantly, what we want done about it.
I have a new job in adult education. On my way to work I pass the Grenfell Tower. Today a tall white tarpaulin structure supports the weakened skeleton beneath and hides the devastation of that night. The green heart, chosen by school children local to the area, symbolising their love for those they lost, adorns the top section of this otherwise clinical memorial. It is hard not to be moved every time I trundle past on the daily commute. It’s hard not to be ashamed that this actually happened in London, in 2017, in a borough which hosts some of the world’s wealthiest people. But what is particularly unforgivable is how the residents had complained over and over again, fearing it would only be when a tragedy occurred that the powers-that-be would listen to their voices. Unforgivable but unsurprising.
Why am I writing about this, you may wonder? Because it is a physical representation of how broken the ‘system’ has become as the neoliberal project powers full steam ahead here in the UK. Money rules. If you can save a pound here or there, apparently it is okay to view human life as collateral. We have a government that endeavours to turn all aspects of social care and provision over to private providers. Whether it be the cladding of social housing or access to good education, ‘bidding’ and ‘tendering’ have become the language of our human rights. How about ‘Everybody’s right to life shall be protected by law’ (European Convention on Human Rights, Article 2)? Anyone? Who’ll start the bidding? Or how about: ‘Education must develop every child’s personality, talents and abilities to the full’ (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 29)? Of course, the neoliberal line is all about freedom, but freedom for whom in this trickle-down economy? Certainly not those living in Grenfell Tower. Their freedom of voice was ignored at every turn in their battle for the legal right to life. Must they really wait for that trickle to enter their neighbourhood before they earn that freedom? Meanwhile, no money, no power.
The Grenfell fire came out of the same neoliberal agenda as our current education system. The shutting down of parents’ voices in education by the loud and affluent men at the heart of our children’s education, Lord Nash, Lord Agnew, Lord Fink (anyone spot a pattern?) and their millionaire buddies, is leading to the catastrophic failing of schools to provide the right to education for every single child. Not every child is guaranteed safety in their home, nor a chance to thrive under this government. But do our leaders care?
Not really. People really are an encumbrance to our government. Remember Theresa May’s apology for her poor response to the Grenfell community on the anniversary of the disaster? Stating she regretted not meeting them, she has gone on to not meet them. Her apology took place in the safety of an interview with Sky News. The carelessness and cynicism with which our government treats those it is supposed to serve is unconscionable. That apology is meaningless. It’s offensive. But maybe it’s meant to be. These people demanding action and support from the State really are trying their luck when they know they must wait their turn…you know, for that trickle to reach them.
If we needed more evidence of the cynical treatment of our children under this government, we can look to Damian Hinds every time. He views everyone he has responsibility for, students, parents and teachers, as liabilities. I’d like to draw your attention to a quotation from last week’s TES regarding the recent reports on the impact of the new GCSE assessment on students’ well-being. Findings from research carried out by NEU, ASCL and Rescue Our Schools have suggested categorically that this is an urgent matter of concern to be dealt with at the highest level. Mr Hinds responded:
“Having, for most subjects, the exams at the end of the period also enables you to think, to consider all the different aspects of the subject together and, in turn, then helps you if you are going on to A levels for those that are, to go on for that, and then for those going on to university, but of course GCSEs are there to help you prepare for whatever your next step is.”
It’s rather like when you pick dropped food up from the floor and you okay its consumption with ‘a bit of dirt never hurt.’ There is no substance to this answer. Some bits of dirt actually probably do hurt, as does the introduction of retrograde policies. The uproar and controversy this return to 100% examination has caused is widespread. The stress amongst students is leading to increased levels of anxiety and both parents and teachers are shouting out their concerns. But Mr Hinds brushes this off with the glibbest statement ever: bit of thinking, great for A levels and university, oh yeah and for those others.
Those others. Again, we see those who don’t fit the government’s agenda being brushed under the carpet. They’re not important. They don’t need thinking about. I am not happy as a member of the London community to see any child in my city be swept under the carpet. I will get my children through, one way or another, but I cannot stand the thought that it’s not the responsibility of the State to ensure every child actually lives to adulthood and is allowed to prosper. I have seen children arrive in year 7 full of aspiration and dreams and watched them realise by year 10 that they aren’t the ones that matter, and they start to slip from your hands.
I remember, with great frustration and sadness, one of my year 11 boys becoming homeless in the run up to his exams. He was so clever, undoubtedly a Russell Group university candidate, but his controlled assessment folder was incomplete, his attendance was poor and his behaviour volatile. Prison was also another possible destination. Living in a hostel with his two sisters and hardworking mum, his school work was not his priority. He became passive and withdrawn, both physically and psychologically. If challenged, he exploded. As his English teacher and one of his heads of year, I made it my aim to make him feel safe in my space. He finished his controlled assessments – and believe me, his creative writing was stunning in its craft but also its visceral emotion. I did cry. Unfortunately, he was placed on a fixed-term exclusion for swearing at another teacher. At his ‘return from exclusion’ interview, he apparently sat silently until he was asked to offer his opinion regarding his attitude going forwards. He simply responded with a number of the most hardcore expletives. He was permanently excluded so spent the exam period locked in a room in a hostel, revising. This broke my heart. For me, that was a shout out from a young person, to see if anyone was going to care, if anyone was going to grab his hand and get him through. The system instead just confirmed for him that he actually doesn’t belong within it. Where he is today, I don’t know, but I’m going to guess he’s not about to enter the doors of the university he is so academically suited to.
Let’s be very clear, this government seeks to wash its hands of education. It seeks to strengthen the market to create competition between ‘providers’ (in the old days these were known as ‘schools’) and ultimately privatise education. The responsibility for failure is no longer theirs. Any offer it therefore makes is not to nurture the system but make it vulnerable to those with pound signs in their eyes. Panorama’s report this week on the Bright Tribe Academy Trust could not have exposed more clearly how schooling has become vulnerable to profiteering at the risk of our children’s learning, but also their lives. Fire doors not fitted, ceilings not secured nor fire safe, despite grants worth thousands of pounds handed over unquestioningly by the Department for Education. Where is our money? Whose bank accounts is it now in? Why are our children allowed to enter these lethal buildings? If the CEO of a trust needs a lawyer present to talk about their provision, it’s time, surely, to put a stop to this policy and bring education, our human right, back into the hands of the democratically elected local government; accountable to the government, accountable to us.
Now, you may be lucky. Your child may be in a school with an ethos of care where children are placed at the heart of all they do. And this is of course happening across the nation. Despite the funding cuts, limited curriculum and increased stress, they are doing their utmost to protect your child’s education. But we know others are not having that experience. They are lost in a world of money-makers and agendas. Their education is suffering and their safety is not guaranteed. Parents are cut out and disempowered. If we believe in a good education for our child, we simply must ensure the same for other people’s children too.
Let’s start fighting for the prevention of horrific outcomes. Grenfell shocked our nation and the response was overwhelming with donations and sympathy. But we need to act sooner. We need to demand people are not unwittingly placed in danger; that everyone is heard. If you live in social housing, if you attend a state school, you should be safe in the knowledge that government, both local and national, has got your needs and your rights covered. At the moment, this is not the case. Local government is being steadily brought to its knees; the Prime Minister doesn’t want to see you and Damian Hinds will brush you off like dandruff from his shoulder. It is time to make it clear that we are not liabilities in the path of their agenda; their agenda is the liability in the path of our children’s progress. We want it cleared.