Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Schools should be palaces

There is a wonderful scene in an early episode of The West Wing. Sam Seaborn, the White House Deputy Communications Director, is trying to ask Mallory out on a lunch date. Mallory is a teacher and the daughter of Sam’s boss Leo, the Chief of Staff. Sam and Mallory get into an argument about a paper Sam has written on school vouchers; Mallory is vehemently opposed  to voucsam and malloryhers and is a committed public (state) school teacher. Things don’t look good for Sam until he reveals that he is as opposed to vouchers as Mallory and that his position paper was simply written to reflect the views of the administration’s opponents. Sam goes on to declare his commitment to education with the following statement:
Mallory, education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don't need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That's my position. I just haven't figured out how to do it yet.
Sam’s words came to mind yesterday, as I listened with horror to Michael Gove in the House of Commons announcing that the government is to abandon the Building Schools for the Future gove programme as part of their slash and burn approach to debt reduction. I accept that the scheme could be more efficiently administered and savings could be made, but to suspend the proposed building projects for 715 new schools is absurd. Anyone with a modicum of insight into education knows that poor school buildings and facilities have a direct impact on teaching and learning as well as significant implications for the wider community. This short term, knee jerk and what increasingly looks like an ideological decision is going to damage the education of children in our society for decades.

I have served for many years as a school governor in a variety of schools, including as Chair of Governors. I have chaired school appeals panels for a London borough. I have two young children at school and am grateful for the significant refurbishment their schools have undergone in recent years. I’ve seen first hand the difference major school improvements make to learning. The quality of our school buildings speaks volumes to the children, staff and wider community of the value we ascribe as a society to the education of our young people.

David Cameron enjoyed the privilege of going to etonone of the most  expensive privately funded schools in our country. I don’t begrudge him that, but I want to hold him to words he uttered when campaigning to become Prime Minister: I know how lucky I've been to have the chances I had. I want every child to have the chances I had. That is why I'm standing here.

Well Prime Minister, there are two ways to fulfil your aspiration; either you’re going to have to build a bigger Eton Wall or you’re going to have to fund the state education system to ensure that every child gets the education they deserve; in school buildings which are the best our society can provide.

The West Wing: Six meetings before lunch (2000)

1 comment:

paul said...

Well said, Philip.

That said, given the wider context, I do think that the days of schools' 'special pleading' in certain areas is probably over.
I agree that the environment and esteem questions are central, but an awful lot of school procurement in recent years has been costly, yet kinda rubbish.

"No more tinkering!" would be my mantra!