Education, said Nelson Mandela, 'is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world'. But what education, and what kind of changes? In Britain, education policies through the ages have been engines of Apartheid. The Butler Act of 1944, brought in by the Tories, finally made state funded education available for all – and so was welcomed by the working classes – but it was deeply conservative and reinforced ruptures between the rich and poor, people of faith and secularists and most dismally, used testing at 11 to determine the destinies of children. Public schools – then the domain of the aristocracy and upper classes were left untouched.
Some children from the working classes who were early developers escaped to grammar schools while the rest rotted in secondary moderns, rejects who soon felt they were no good and never would be. Catholic and Church of England schools which legally excluded non-Christians pupils were left unregulated.
Through the decades that followed this structure was retrenched, but grammars were phased out by Labour in 1965 because they were patently unfair. Well, yesterday Theresa May laughed more than any of us have ever seen her laugh as Philip Hammond pledged a return to those inglorious forties and fifties. As the veteran columnist Simon Jenkins writes today in the Guardian: 'Theresa May's desire to return to grammar schools is her first real spasm of Trumpism. It is incoherent. It makes no sense educationally, financially or politically. It is also based on a lie, that selection is about parental choice. May seems unaware that parents don't choose grammar schools, grammar schools choose children'.
She must of course be aware of that – she went to a grammar herself. But this, like Brexit, is part of the back to the future myth, an opiate for troubled people in troubled times. She and Hammond, wanting to appear charitable – also promised free transport for the poor who are bright so they can be bussed to the promised lands. The big idea is to cream off the best and damn the rest. Tellingly, those who don't matter at all were mentioned last, an afterthought.
Other iniquities in the education plans were announced: plenty more free schools will be funded- they cost 60% more than local authority schools. In Ofsted inspections, the failure rate for new free schools is three times the national average for state schools.
These privileged institutions are given heaps of money while comprehensives are starved of cash. In many of these schools today water drips from ceilings and the smell of damp permeates. (Perhaps parents whose kids are asthmatic and have to learn under these conditions should sue the government?) Hammond also enthusiastically announced that there would be more faith based schools. More bad news for the children of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Professionals and parents can decide what is taught and how. Education is now a department store. It's all about CHOICE! So, for example, the government wants compulsory sex and relationship education in state schools. Excellent. But hark. It is not obligatory for all the other types of schools.
Grammar schools: I was poor and went to one but the system does not work
And all the while, typically hypocritical, the powerful, moan about 'cohesion'. There are too many annoying 'ethnics', making social cohesion impossible - so nags Ukip's Douglas Carswell this week. Oh no! They speak a different language at home! Possibly even eat curry or noodles! Research shows children from most minority backgrounds do better than white working class children at school and university. By why throw facts into a hot brew of prejudice?
If people like Carswell really cared about integration, they would oppose these plans for education reform. They would say middle class kids need to get out of their bubbles, that faith based schools have no place in a modern democracy, that grammars will only intensify the separation between the classes, that the child of a politician should be able to play with the child of a plumber. And public schools should lose their charitable status.
Now a confession: I sent both my kids to public schools. Big, indefensible mistake. I gnaw at my arm (metaphorically) when I think about those decisions. Like many immigrants I thought this would be their passport to success, to acceptance. And it has been, up to a point. But I limited their worlds, their social circles, sent them into dreadful Darwinian establishments where there was no pastoral care only vicious competition. I did not properly understand that there is such a thing as society (Mrs Thatcher thought there wasn't) and never anticipated Britain would be perilously split and broken as it is now.
Divide and rule – the infamous British method used to control colonial subjects – is now May and Hammond's preferred political tool to keep our children apart. They promote class, religious and race divisions. Welcome to wilfully disintegrated Britain.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist, columnist, broadcaster and author. Follow @y_alibhai
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