The politics of education can seem tedious and frustrating, but it’s unavoidable and worthy of attention by anyone who cares about the bigger picture beyond their own immediate circumstances. Does it matter where children go to school? Does the size of schools matter? Does it matter where families live?
Migration was in the news this week.
Newham Council, in East London, cannot cope with the number of people looking for housing in its area. The council maintains that the cap on housing benefits imposed by the government is causing people currently living in the area grave problems. Rentable values have risen in recent times, and there are now too few low-cost houses and flats available to rent for the high numbers of people in need of accommodation. Newham housing officers wrote to a housing association in Stoke on Trent – some 160 miles from Newham – to try to get some of their more vulnerable families re-housed and relocated. They have since been accused of “social cleansing” – which the Mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales, vehemently denies.
At the same time, it has been reported this week than many parents, particularly in London, have not been able to get their first choice of school for their five year olds, as there is a growing demand for places, with a shortfall of 800,000 school places looming.
To ensure that there are more primary school places available existing schools have been encouraged to expand, with playgrounds built over with semi-permanent classroom accommodation whilst planners decide on the development and the financing of more permanent classrooms.
So there is now a situation in certain inner-city boroughs nationwide where there are ever-expanding school rolls (with over 1000 pupils in one Primary school alone), and insufficient places where these pupils can play and even eat their lunch. And this is before we come to the matter of having so many children confined in one place – surely a major worry for certain five year olds as they venture into school.
So one has to ask, where have the planners been hiding, and what have they been doing?
Anyone with an ounce of insight and forethought knew that there would be a growing interest in living in and around Newham in 2012 and henceforward. Newham now contains Europe’s biggest indoor shopping mall (Westfield East) and has become a major railway hub, with a new Eurostar station as well as several underground and overground train lines. The 2012 Olympics is here, and so is the market economics that accompanies it.
It’s about supply and demand. There is insufficient supply and plenty of demand, which inflates prices. Something similar is happening in schools. There are insufficient places and plenty of demand for places which most individual schools can’t accommodate, even though anyone who has been working in local authorities over the last few years was patently aware that this population growth was happening.
And the national government is still considering taking the responsibility for allocating primary school places away from the newly shrunken local authorities.
It doesn’t strike us as being particularly well thought-out or cohesive.
Let’s go back in time for a few decades and see what foresight was offered then.
In the 1980s, two key policies had a huge effect on what we are dealing with today.
Firstly, the Prime Minister of the time, Mrs Thatcher, decided to adopt a policy of selling off social housing to those who could afford to grab a bargain. This clearly meant that there were not as many council houses available for future needs; again, something that could easily have been predicted with the opening up of the European Union residency laws, a growing aging population and a continual population expansion.
Secondly, owing to a slight dip in the birth rate (knowing that this was undoubtedly a temporary issue) the government of the day encouraged schools and local authorities to sell off their playing fields and any buildings or parts of schools that were currently under-utilised.
At that time this policy was questioned, debated and objected to, but the sell-off continued, regardless of the thoughts of those who could foresee future problems.
Into the nineties, many schools were closed with children shunted from one place to another. Within three years of this policy being in place, one London authority had to reopen a defunct Special School to cope with the overspill of pupils who hadn’t anywhere else to go for the start of their secondary education.
If we look further back in time, we had the post-war “social cleansing” where many families from Bethnal Green in the East End of London were rehoused further afield due to the fact their Victorian housing was in need of repair and uninhabitable. Extended families were separated, and communities were broken up. Eventually, once Bethnal Green had been redeveloped, the families returned because they felt a sense of belonging, and recognised the purpose of and need for a proper community.
A final trip down memory lane brings to mind a certain Education minister, Mrs Gillian Shephard, who told us that there was no evidence that large class sizes were detrimental to the learning of pupils, even though those of us who were working in schools knew that teaching 24 children was far more productive and appropriate than teaching a class of 34. It didn’t require expensive and extensive research to know the bleeding obvious.
Back then, of course, we were apparently still under the delusion that we could practice a pedagogy that was mindful of the various educational and developmental needs of all children. When teaching to tests, of course, the number of children in a class is less of an issue – didactic teaching treats all children as if one size (and one method) fits all.
So what is the point in this brief history lesson?
First and foremost, there needs to be cohesive thinking behind social policy. We need to live in the present but we also have to be aware of the potential of what we do now for future generations. This has certainly not happened in either the case of housing shortages in Newham or the overcrowding or development of “Titan Schools” in our education system.
Short-sightedness has significantly contributed to the existing problems, and the impact for our children and young people has barely been considered.
Secondly, Mrs Shephard was wrong about class sizes being unimportant, and the counterargument used by schools at the time is once again valid and applicable to the development of theses super-sized Primary schools.
We should have learned by now.
One cannot possibly provide for all the social, emotional, physical and intellectual needs for the individual child if there are a greater number of pupils in one place. Admittedly, not everyone wants to attend a small one-form entry school, but have the needs of the children been considered when these large “portakabins” have been brought into their playground space, and with them a whole influx of people?
As Professor John Hawkson of Oxford University says in the Guardian article, “I’m seriously concerned about five-year-olds in the playground or the lunch queue in that size of school. In the classroom it doesn’t matter, but you have to manage the social spaces. I would be anxious about what happens in the playground, because you can’t control it.”
And what of the children in these vulnerable families who potentially have to leave their friends and the area that they were probably born in, to “migrate” to a completely different area of the country, that has available housing at a cost that they and Newham Council can afford because it is suffering from economic and manufacturing demise and offers very little prospect of work for these East Enders?
Once more this is incredibly short-sighted and cannot possibly have consideration for the needs of children and their families.
3Di Associates often talk about a need to think and operate holistically.
We are horrified that our worse fears of decades ago are now being realised, where we saw this mass selling of social housing and school premises which ultimately meant the needs of our young people were disregarded by the social policy of the time.
We are further horrified that nobody seems to be learning from either the Bethnal Green “experiment” or the disposal of school buildings, whereby the people who came and lived on the former playing fields’ new housing estates needed to attend schools in the area which were overcrowded. Obviously councils now have nowhere else to build because the playing fields have been sold off to accommodate the new houses of their new intake of pupils! Catch-22.
We are appalled that overcrowded large schools are emerging from a lack of planning and as a direct outcome of inadequate policies and planning in the past. It is extremely difficult to meet the personal, social and emotional needs of young people in such large institutions where the adults working with you and walking around the place do not even know your name.
The depersonalisation of the Primary school experience is certainly not going to help develop, nurture and embrace a common system of values and shared responsibility.
This is not intelligent or thoughtful social policy. Having inadequate housing and overcrowded schools perpetuates injustice and inequalities and we must learn from this. Housing and education policies must work in parallel, where the needs of the pupils are reflected in the pedagogy and the environment in which they are learning and living. We must be mindful of all of the children’s needs, and not just whether they achieve the target academic standards, for if we continue to neglect their personal and social needs we are going to continue this cycle of social inequality, and nothing will improve.
At 3Di, we have an alternative way of thinking. We even have an answer to this overcrowding of schools. More of this later…….