"The Shrinking School! Why is everyone complaining? That’s a brilliant idea! Very clever! Very Alice In Wonderland meets Malory Towers meets… Oh, wait, somebody’s trying to tell me someth – Ah. Apparently it’s not a concept for a children’s book. It’s new government policy. Oh well. It was a nice thought while it lasted.
In 2010 education secretary Michael Gove cancelled Labour’s £55bn Building Schools For The Future programme, a move which remains unique in the annuals of Govian history for producing a flicker of hope rather than raging despair. At last Tony Blair’s grandiose scheme – apparently aimed at building over-engineered glass palaces to provide him with a suitably showboating legacy rather than comfortable, functional and enduring seats of learning for thousands of children – was ended and something better thought-out could replace it.
This week the government unveiled the alternative. The budget will be cut by… making the schools smaller. Classroom sizes will remain the same but everything else – corridors, assembly halls, atriums (or, if you went to public school, atria) and so on – will be reduced by about 15%.
I don’t know how many of you went to school in the Eighties but if you did, I’m sure you remember what happens when you overcrowd a building full of children. Carnage. That’s what happens. The little buggers need space! Otherwise stress, rage and serious injury ensue as fizzing balls of juvenile energy cannon around the place, off walls and into each other and the whole building takes on the look of a giant pinball machine from hell and the caretaker has to spend his evenings scraping Year Seven remains off the floor.
"You know what happens when you overcrowd a school? Carnage"
So what does this latest change to government policy tell us? Well, what it perhaps tells us most clearly is that no-one in the government has ever attended – or had a child who attends – an institution that habitually disgorges a thousand pupils into its passageways a dozen times a day, each time making the bull runnings of Pamplona look like an Edwardian Easter parade. When Old Etonians visualise a school, it is simply not what they see. So it seems almost as if the living reality for normal people – be they young, old, poor, disabled, or simply non-trustafarian – cannot truly or meaningfully be conjured in the minds of those who rule them. It seems almost as if the practicalities of a scheme don’t matter as long as the numbers add up. Hmm.
And then there’s the fact that by making assembly halls and other communal spaces too small to be effectively hired out during the holidays and evenings for other events. This, boys and girls – quiet at the back there – tells us that short-term gain is still being privileged over long-term investment. And, as pressing the educational plant into alternative service during its downtime was the government’s idea in the first place, it suggests that someone, somewhere is just making this sh*t up as he goes along.
And of course there’s the even simpler fact that, when faced with a funding shortfall, the powers that be took the easiest way out. They didn’t propose raising more money – perhaps by ending the charitable status of public schools that annually sucks so many millions from the communal coffers to over-privilege the few – and redistribute it more fairly, they just redrew existing plans on a smaller scale.
Do you remember how you always thought, when you were young, that life was going to have its ups and downs but would essentially, overall, be an experience of linear progression? And we basically still adhere to that philosophy on an individual basis – it’s why we are all busy trying to improve ourselves – trying for promotions at work, going running, going to book clubs, on arts courses, even back to university occasionally. And do you ever feel that those responsible for our collective well-being and progress are only looping back on themselves, repeating mistakes that happened even well within living memory? That makes me more tired than any run.
The best you can say about these new schools is that they will function as efficiently as a metaphor for this government as the overpriced rubbish that was built under the previous one. Limited horizons? We built them for you! Come on in – scooch over, you… and you, and you – come on in!”
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