Growing up in a household in which Kurdish and Farsi were mixed in with English, I sometimes struggled to tell which words belonged to which language. When I was four or five, I was about to remark to classmates that the colour of a particular wax crayon was ‘gorgeous’. I stopped mid-sentence, suddenly aware that I’d laid my own trap. ‘Gorgeous’? That seemed very obviously Kurdish. (Even now, the sibilant /dʒ/ in the middle sounds suspiciously flavourful.) It felt like something my father would say with a smile before taking a photo of us. I chose a plainer word. I was ashamed, and had already taken to hiding the ‘other’ part of me.
‘It’s ominous,’ a colleague at a post-92 university told me. ‘Some smaller, newer universities may go bust. This will leave working-class students with nowhere to go. Some of them cannot afford to study away from home, some have caring responsibilities.’
Last October, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) held public hearings on sexual abuse at UK specialist music schools. The inquiry primarily covers what are often called ‘historic’ incidents, from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Allegations of sexual abuse at Chetham’s School of Music, in Manchester, first hit the news in 2013, when Michael Brewer, a choirmaster and former director of music at the school, was jailed for six years for indecently assaulting a pupil. She committed suicide days after testifying against him. Over the following months, a picture emerged of widespread abuse at UK music schools in the 1970s and 1980s.
In September 2018, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that there had been an 8 per cent cut in total school funding per pupil since 2010, a figure that even special advisers at the Department for Education don’t try to dispute. Around two thousand headteachers marched to Downing Street in a protest over funding. There has been a steady drip of stories of teachers buying materials, clothing and food for their pupils. Many schools have been forced to adopt four-day weeks. The money that the new chancellor, Sajid Javid, promised in last week’s spending review would bring funding back up only to 2009-10 levels, and the policy of ‘levelling up schools across the country’, announced by Boris Johnson at the end of August, means more of the money would go to schools that need it less (often, as it happens, in Conservative constituencies). Gavin Williamson, in his first speech to Parliament as Johnson’s education secretary, called for a return to ‘the Victorian spirit of ingenuity’.
The two most famous graduates of the Horace Mann School for Boys, class of ’67, were Barry Scheck, of O.J. Simpson ‘dream team’ fame, a lawyer who became expert in the use of DNA evidence in criminal defence cases, and William P. Barr, Trump’s nominee for attorney general. He previously held the post under the late George H.W. Bush. Barry and Bill at the age of 14 were almost entirely recognisable as the adults one reads about or watches on TV. Both boys, so far as I remember, entered Horace Mann in the ninth grade, as a handful were allowed to do. Most of us started in grade seven. We all were required to wear ties and sports coats and proper trousers. I remember Barry in a tweed jacket, a small-ish boy, my size, carrying around an outsize and packed-to-bursting briefcase. He was very determined, and academically aggressive. Bill was then, as now, a pleasant-faced, pillowy-looking boy.
The Trussell Trust runs a network of over 400 food banks. Earlier this month, it reported that a spike in demand for its food parcels last summer was due to ‘holiday hunger’ among children entitled to free school meals. The all-party parliamentary group on hunger warned last year that as many as three million children are at risk of going hungry during the summer holidays.
The Tory donor and businessman Sir Theodore Agnew has been made a life peer and appointed to replace his friend John Nash as the parliamentary under secretary for the school system. The job includes oversight of the nearly 7000 schools which have academy status.
Secondary school league tables, Ofsted inspections and government improvement targets all use statistics that are based only on pupils who are registered as attending the school towards the end of their time there. School leaders therefore have an incentive to remove children from their rolls before the January of GCSE year, when ‘census’ data are collected, if they think the pupils will not do well. The government insists that regulation prevents this happening, but past investigations have indicated that it does, even if the practice isn’t widespread.
On the first day of school last week, children in their first year at primary school in the small city of Ashkelon in southern Israel were excited to learn that Binyamin Netanyahu would be visiting their class. This is what the prime minister had to say to the six-year-olds: The first lesson in first grade is 'Shalom first grade' with the emphasis on shalom [peace]. We educate our children for peace. A few kilometres from here, Hamas teaches its children the opposite of peace and, from time to time, it tries to fire at us, at you. Our policy is clear – zero restraint, zero let-up, zero tolerance for terrorism. We respond to every hostile attack on our territory either by overt or covert action, and we are determined to foil terrorism at every turn, just as we did yesterday in Jenin. I wish a quick recovery to the soldier who was wounded.
As another teacher said to me recently, one of the scariest words in the jargon of school managers is ‘support’. The government’s plan to ‘support and challenge’ English state schools – the Education and Adoption Bill, which has now passed the committee stage – is very scary indeed. There are 21,500 state-funded schools in England; nearly 5000 of them are academies. Each one is under the control of a trust or private limited company, and each trust has an individual funding agreement with the education secretary to establish and maintain academies. When a local authority school is converted into an academy, once the contract is signed, local government stewardship, with its bothersome requirements for consultation and public oversight, is at an end.
Dennis O'Sullivan, the headteacher of a secondary school in Hertfordshire, has written an open letter to David Cameron setting out the funding crisis facing schools in England and Wales: 'a school like mine needs to find £500,000 in savings on an income of just under £6,000,000 in each of the next three years.' This is because:
Last month, Westminster School raised more than £7000 by auctioning internships with bankers, artists and barristers and a host of other placements set up by the private school’s alumni. Louise Tickle in the Guardian compared the auction to a Tory fundraising event in 2011, when party supporters stumped up thousands to get their children through the doors of hedge funds and banks. Private schools and the Tory party aren’t the only ones at it. The week before Tickle’s piece was published, Highbury Grove, a state comprehensive, auctioned a day’s work experience at the Guardian.