Thursday, 15 September 2016

Dear Justine Greening

Dear Ms Greening

I wonder if you could take the time to read my comments. I hope you can understand them, product of secular comprehensive education that I am, it may be possible I have not fully mastered the art of communication without access to the hidden learning that only selection and divine influence can unlock.

I write to express my heartfelt concern regarding the proposed expansion of the grammar school system and also the lifting of restrictions on faith schools.

I write primarily as a parent and citizen, though I am also a teacher. Were I not a parent, I would also be concerned but I refer to my child directly during the letter as it is him, not me, whom your policies will impact upon.

In short, can you kindly explain how prejudicing against people of different faiths or no faith at all is going to allow my local Catholic, CofE or Islamic faith schools offer a 'better deal' for my child as he approaches high school age?

Can you explain to him in clear, plain English why my thought-out position on faith and belief (for clarity, I happen to believe that religious teachings are useful as philosophy and that a sceptical agnostic position is the only real justifiable position to take) is going to potentially deny him access to local schools? Can you do this without recourse to sweeping rhetoric and generalisations about 'better schools for all' or whatever stock phrase your PR gurus have advised you to employ.

If it helps you choose your language he is 5. He also believes that the big bang started the world, finds the existence of God unlikely and I would describe his philosophical view as broadly utilitarian. If this all sounds a little precocious, rest assured he's an average child at an average secular 'all in' primary school and I've never achieved an A* in anything. I am merely trying to provide you with information that helps you communicate. I believe that understanding the values and positions of people will help you communicate with them effectively. Like most children he understands rational argument to a point and he is capable of understanding discussion based on broad statistics and reason.  

I'd personally also like your advice. In my immediate area there are 5 schools. 3 are the aforementioned faith schools (one of which is private) which are currently at least only partially selective. I would prefer my child receives a secular education, being informed about faith dispassionately and by a teacher who understands a broad range of belief systems. Should he choose to adopt a faith, I will accept his position as different to mine.

As it stands, I would be able to encourage my son to at least consider these faith based schools and I would support him to choose whichever he feels most comfortable with. The position is far from ideal as I can cite several friends who have had children effectively 'barred' from these schools despite living within sight of them but at least my son, should he wish too can enter the lottery with a degree of hope.

Under your proposals it is possible that these schools would be closed to him unless his mother or I were to create a sham performance of a religious devotion that neither of us feel or believe. Would you advise I ignore the convictions of my studies and considerations and adopt a pragmatic approach? If so, I have to say it seems an absurd position to have to take in order to access state funded education. I do worry that I might need to start praying for utilities or having my postal service approved by my local Imam

What complicates the matter further is the fact that the fourth school is a grammar school. We all know that grammar schools require coaching and the entrance exam is difficult. That's the point of the grammar schools. They exclude people, they are difficult to get in to.

I feel I was privileged in my education. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me to read books and took me places. I also had some fabulous teachers who fostered in me a spirit of enquiry and the ability to appreciate and question the world. I also have memories of being about 10 and playing football, climbing trees, riding down hills on skateboards, helping my neighbour who ran a mobile chippy van, going to bonfire night on my own for the first time and playing computer games till my eyes hurt.

I would ideally like my child to achieve the same balance in life. I don't recall school causing me a particular degree of stress. I remember being a bit frightened of a particular teacher but I don't recall crying over tests, sweating over levels and worrying over homework. I don't recall feeling the symptoms of depression or anxiety or a deep seated fear about 'performance.' I largely recall this time in life positively.

I would like my child's life around the age of ten to have a similar blend and am uncertain how putting him through rigorous extra schooling will help that. Would you suggest I start saving now for the private tuition to ensure he can access this school. Again, it seems odd that state education requires private intervention to access. I could cite stats to back this point up, but I assume you are aware of them as you have considerably more data and resources than I have! Will we soon have busses that are only for certain people? Trains which require a passcode? I assume education to be a basic inalienable right, not something I need to pay extra for because someone has put a crystal maze-esque series of cryptic challenges that a child needs specialist coaching to pass.  

Finally, lets assume the only option left to us (or more to the point, him) is the local comprehensive. Allow me to expand slightly.

I feel privileged that when I went to school, I went to the local school with many of the people I'd grown up with. I formed friendships with a wide range of people and I learnt not to look down on people or to look up to people unless they really deserved it. In other words, I learnt not to take that much notice of how someone was doing in English or Maths but rather to pay attention to who they were. My high school was just about the most ordinary school you could mention but I met all sorts of people from different backgrounds. I feel to a certain extent that has shaped who I am today. I feel I am able to relate to a wider range of people as a result of engaging with a wider range of people during my formative years.

I can't put this into statistics or turn it into data. I can't do this any more than it appears your government can quantify the reasons why grammar and faith schools are a good idea. I have however justified in a rational and coherent way, why I support comprehensive education and why I feel your ideas are absurd and divisive. It would be nice if you could reciprocate with an argument of your own, explaining why this important aspect of schooling, this 'socialisation' is not relevant if you are intelligent or your parents believe in a deity.

I will of course let my child choose the school which suits him. Ironically, I'd be most comfortable if he chose the local comprehensive. This would suit me well. It seems however a shame if that's his only choice because your government have vandalised the state system with misguided beliefs about social mobility and outdated views about the place of religious faith in 21st century teaching and learning. It would be even worse if my child's education was effected by a series of policies which seem designed to make some sort of political statement within the conservative party about the direction of the party.

It seems a shame that education is a political football kicked between warring parties and even tossed about within parties to make points and please the aspects of the electorate you want to appeal to. This policy has 'win back wavering traditional Tory voter + appeal to faith groups especially in cities' written all over it.

It seems a shame to have to explain all of this to a five year old. I suppose it will be an education of sorts for him. I would like him to realise the reasons things happen and I'm sure he will be able to accept that you need to make political capital. I could probably explain it using ice cream or chocolate as an analogy. I haven't really noticed any great attempt to explain either decision, analogies or otherwise.

It seems a shame that you can't look at the data and understand that with investment and a consistent approach, decoupled from political interference that the comprehensive model can work, for all. That providing a range of schools of different sizes and characters, but all with a broad entry policy and reliable consistent funding and support from the huge body of professional research is the only logical way to improve standards.

It seems a shame that the government's idea of 'radical change' is a return to the values of an era that never even existed. It is a shame that the education policy of this government seems to be a collective riff on John Major's memorable image of a traditional Britain. The spinster cycling to church, past the grammar school with its rigorous history curriculum and proper English authors.

It seems a shame that a government cannot see the folly of dividing children at 11 on the basis of the faith of someone who is not them. It seems a shame the government cannot see the folly of dividing children at 11 into 'cans' and 'cannots.'

It seems a shame that a broad education system, organised and centrally administered and able to react to demands has been splintered and fragmented into a mish-mash of private enterprise, faith projects and meaningless corporate slogans and that the government have the Orwellian gall to refer to 'choice' and 'for all' when pedalling a divisive and segregationist idea.

It would be shame not to dignify my letter with a reply.

Your sincerely.

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