Years ago there was a report of a magistrate who, on discovering that a burglar had broken into an electrical hardware store to “steal TVs” and had come out with microwave ovens instead, suggested that because of his “crass stupidity” he ought to seek alternative employment, and that he, the magistrate, was in any case going to help him straight away with some of that alternative employment within Her majesty’s care.
I was reminded of this today because of Mr Gove’s latest ridiculous forays into the world of schooling. Once again his heart is probably in the right place but his thinking is awry in a very 19th century awryness. First he gives the impression of being a tin-pot dictator in the ongoing spat between him and David Laws over the appointments of the chairs of quangos (and particularly the so-called independent OFSTED) precipitated by the comments of Sally Morgan, the outgoing Labour peer who has not had her contract renewed. What Mr Gove actually thinks can be seen from his picture in the Guardian article.
Then, unbelievably, he is reported making the strangest comments about the need to improve behaviour in schools. The most interesting thing (although not the most bizarre aspect) about this is the statistic he quotes. He says that “700,000 pupils remained in schools where behaviour was not good enough”. There are 8.2 million children in England’s schools, so we are talking about a smallish minority to begin with, and presumably he has taken the data from those schools whose grading for Behaviour and Safety was a 3 (satisfactory/requires improvement) or perhaps a 4 (inadequate) at their last inspection. Apart from this OFSTED data, there is probably no other way of getting such broad brush inaccuracies. The Behaviour and Safety grade hardly is watertight, though. A good school of my acquaintance recently got given a 3 category unexpectedly (requires improvement), and one of the crass comments made was that children were making too much noise on the playground. Where did they want the kids to make the noise, for goodness sake? Since 2013, the grade has not really been awarded for the “behaviour around school” but more nuanced towards attitude to learning. We cannot safely use this data the way that Mr Gove has, because it means a whole raft of other things, and may refer to difficulties with safeguarding procedures (one hopes not), settling to learn in one or two classes, etc., rather than a blanket judgment about “improving behaviour”. And then comes the bizarre bit.
Litter picking and cleaning tables after lunch. Why is it that these old-school tactics which in my childhood were an opportunity for fun and being outdoors and using that pokey stick thing for picking up paper on grass, or a chance to chat to the dinner ladies and keep warm, are now touted as appropriate punishments? If they were that appropriate, schools would be doing them already. There is nothing here about dealing with difficult 15 year olds who will not go where you ask them to, or who act threateningly to fellow pupils and get away with it because they are bigger and stronger than the teacher. This is where teachers suffer in areas of behaviour, where fear and the after-school culture gets in the way of learning, and that is almost entirely a result of a libertarian approach to society, of a me-first not a community-first principle, and this is rooted in the way that the current administration sees the world. It, and its predecessors, has largely created the social difficulties that schools are being asked to clean up, and not for the first time.
At Christ the Sower, children can volunteer to do litter picking as a special treat – this way they feel they are contributing to making the school a beautiful place to learn; or they can help tidy up and clean the tables with the dinner supervisory staff in the hall – again, a privilege to be earned. There are also student telephonists, student photocopy assistants, student road safety officers, student gophers for the registration documents, children who set up the hall, and children who can help with first aid, and are trained to do so. However, none of these are or could be “punishments” (whatever that ridiculous word actually means). And none of them should ever be thought of as that. They are ways of serving one another and are modelled by staff and older children as much as we can help them to do so. There should be no work that is beneath us, because the service of one another is always a high calling.
In The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry argues that one of the greatest legacies of oppressive racism and slavery was that there was work that belonged only to the people at the bottom of the pile – he calls it “nigger work” – the kind of work that is only fit for slaves and whoever is the underclass of the moment – Dalits in India, Latinos in the USA – there are plenty of underclasses in this oppressive world. Honouring this work is essential, Berry feels, because it is the work that links us to the land and to the place we live – litter picking is actually an excellent example of caring for our home place. But it goes deeper than this. Having watched 12 Years a Slave last Tuesday night, I realised amongst all the horror that the people called “the planter class” had not actually planted a thing! Slaves did this. And, as Berry continues to argue, this means that the joy of being attached to the earth, of knowing the plants and the lives of the animals, was resident not in the white owners but in the slaves themselves. After emancipation, it was the small black (often, but not always, sharecropping) farmer of the south that actually knew the land well enough to bring about economic restoration. This kind of work on and with the earth, of serving one another in ways often too demeaning for others to countenance – this is the challenge that brings character and allows each one of us a stake in our places and in our communities. We all long for community, but nothing will be gained from it or contributed to it until we serve one another.
I think this is the first post I have written that manages to combine Mr Gove and Wendell Berry. Some sort of personal achievement. Being a servant is harder, obviously.