I left King Ecgbert’s, my Sheffield school, when I was 18 years old with one, solitary O’Level in English Literature, having spent two years in the Sixth Form, not much of a return on investment. I lacked imagination and drive and enjoyed the easy life and long holidays afforded by this extended stay in King’s Croft, the name of the little house that formed the sixth form block in the leafy suburb of Dore. I spent much of my time hanging around the back of the City Hall waiting for the lorries to turn up from whichever band was playing and asking if we could roadie for them, thereby gaining free entry to the gig. In my defence it was a recession and jobs were not easy to come by, when I finally left all I could get was a position as a salesperson in a men’s clothing outlet, that paid £2 more than the dole.
What happened in the shop was that I had a strong religious experience which set me on the path to wanting to be a Roman Catholic priest. All of a sudden my lack of educational achievement was an impediment to my new vocation. I left my job and as well as being engaged in the work of a Christian community, I signed on the dole and attended Sheffield’s FE college to study for O’Levels and A’Levels. I then, due to the great generosity of the Marist Fathers, lived in Whitechapel and studied philosophy at the Mill Hill Missionary Institute for two years. This all gained me entrance to Heythrop College, a part of London University, where I studied for a degree in Theology. In order to do this I received a full grant and had all my fees paid by Rotherham council, this paid my rent, bought me books, fed me, clothed me and allowed me to make the most of my education.
I have subsequently gained an MSc in Organisation Development, as well as doing Masters level studies in Christian Spirituality and Politics and Doctoral work in Organisation Development. I am currently reading for a Creative Writing Phd in the department of English at Sheffield University. As part of my studies I have been reading a biography of the Poet Ted Hughes and for fun listening to the diaries of Alan Bennett. I realise that these men, who have become national literary figures, were from working class backgrounds, as is the writer Jeanette Winterson. They represent a group of people from the 50’s 60’s and 70’s who, though from families that couldn’t afford to pay for a university education for their offspring were supported by a society that valued education for its own sake.
Though not in the league of the above mentioned luminaries, I too come from that group, my Mother being a widow with a small income. The system, if not the values, persisted into the eighties (good for me), until it hit the neoliberal buffer represented initially by the Thatcherite conservatives and then tragically aided, abetted and augmented by Blairite new Labour. The logic is that the state can no longer shoulder the terrible burden of offering an education to its citizens so a better more equitable system should be found. An extension of credit to the those young people who feel inclined to seek third level schooling was a solution that came right out the Milton Friedman playbook. He was the Chicago School Economist who advised Thatcher and Regan and advocated free market remedies to all the nonsense that came from the post war socialist consensus that put society and the pooling of resources at the forefront of government action. This contract between the government and the governed has been systematically shredded since 1979 to the present day.
Though Tony Blair famously intoned ‘education, education, education’ and this mantra has been artlessly mouthed by succeeding politicians the reality that my generation saw coming as we marched against student loans in 1989 has come to it’s gruesome fruition. My mother, from the era of post war privation, trained in the art of make do and mend, had an almost pathological fear of debt. A major reason that Alan Bennett puts forward to argue that if the conditions that prevailed now, the cost of a degree being some 30 – 40k, his frugal and thrifty northern parents would never have let him go. In fact, I am convinced that this is true of many young people from working and lower middle class backgrounds, and it would have definitely have been true for me.
This , it seems is the tip of the neo-liberal iceberg, a friend informed me that in Doncaster there are no schools that fall under the traditional auspices of the local authority. It is fair to say, I think, that the idea of a comprehensive and egalitarian education has withered on the vine. Academies are the norm, and these are more and more run by private companies for profit, we are going back to a chaotic, increasingly unregulated system, and in the wake of this (as the wonderful book the Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein illustrates) Theresa May’s new grammar schools will be brought in to save the day.
Now I do admit that Hughes, Bennett and Winterson all went to Grammar Schools. However the guiding vision of our cuts riven local education authorities and many others was to make all schools as effective as the old grammar schools, without the need to consign to the scrap heap those who failed the 11+. Now we are all told that the taxpayer demands value for money and that choice is so much more important than a uniform system that offers quality to all regardless of class, wealth, or power. To this creed of the right I would like to offer one example from my own life.
My eldest daughter managed to secure a place at Goldsmiths College a part of the London University to study English, the fee per year was around £3000. Four years later, my second daughter secured a similar place at the same university to study for the same degree in English. Now the fee, for the identical course, with the exact same provision was £9000. In what version of the free market does this make any sense? To pay three times as much for the same product? And there we go I have already been seduced into a discourse and language about education that is, in my opinion, utterly alien to a phenomenon that is aimed at human development and opening up the possibility of personal odyssey.
This, of course, will be dismissed as the whining and whinging of a woolly minded liberal who stands firmly with his back to the harsh realities of the real world. Well, as the final touches are being added to project ‘Pull Up The Ladder’ that the right wing of my generation has been gleefully engaged in since the seventies I want to register this, probably pointless, cri de cœur. I feel ashamed that we cannot extend the same courtesy to the next generation that we received from the previous one, who fervently desired that their children should be better off, not just financially, but educationally, as they instinctively knew that this was the path to freedom, a freedom they had just sacrificed so much to preserve. This instinct gave us a poet laureate, Ted Hughes one of the greatest poets these islands have produced, whose writings enrich even exam syllabi and offer an accessible journey into the heart of purpose and meaning, pointlessness and darkness relates that each of us encounter in our lives.
He is just one of the great cohort of freely and graciously educated citizens gracing our society, a cohort I am proud to be a card carrying member of. What I have realised, however, is that the pulling up of the ladder is not just the neutral act of the neo-liberal elite who are kindly solving the economic woes of the benighted socialist experiments that gave us the nannified welfare state that spoon feeds its citizens and never lets them stand on their own feet. No, I am sadly persuaded that the ladder that offered a leg up to the likes of Bennett, Hughes and Winterson is being removed in order to block those very people who then use their highly educated and state nurtured abilities to criticise the system. How dare they be so ungrateful?
President Barak Obama , soon to be replaced by an arch ladder puller, likes to quote Martin Luther King Jr when he said ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ Can we, who have been offered the ladder, not bend ourselves with more urgency, so that the project we bequeath to my children’s generation is not to reinvent the ladders that we though a lack of political will and imagination have allowed not just to be pulled up but incinerated.
Just to mix my metaphors here is a poem by the great 14th century Iranian poet Hafiz. Keys or ladders, we need them all.
‘The small man
builds cages for everyone
While the sage,
who has to duck his head
when the moon is low,
keeps dropping keys all night long