Mark Steel: Who needs schools anyway?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has already made two announcements this week, declaring that schools should revive the art of "deep thought", and cancelling £700m worth of school building projects. Which is handy, because for deep thought all you need is a hill to sit on and you can contemplate for months at a time without ever needing to go indoors. You don't hear Tibetan monks grumbling, "Ooh, I don't have a building to sit in, so how can I become at one with the rhythm of my own breathing? Please, master, my mum said I shouldn't sit out in a strong wind for more than three days?"

The initiative is typical of the imaginative thinking within the new politics. For example, one early casualty of education cuts has been swimming classes. And in many areas local authorities are cancelling schemes that allow children to use pools at little or no cost. So we save money wasted on teaching them to swim, but it doesn't matter because there's nowhere to swim anyway, which is the sort of joined-up thinking this country's been crying out for.

But more instructive than the specific cuts is the relish of those announcing them. Already the tone has changed from a matronly lament that sadly lots of stuff has to be got rid of. Now, like a hit-man over the early stage where they felt a bit queasy, there's a glint in their eye and they're loving it. Gove himself was on Newsnight bearing a chilling blank expression and repeating that the cuts were "unavoidable." In a couple more weeks he'll have two huge bodyguards behind him with folded arms and he'll have developed a Russian accent and do his interviews from a secret base under the sea and say, "Mr Paxman, zese cuts of vich you speke are, how shall ve put it... unavoidable. HA HA HA HA HA. Aaagh you are a fool, Mr Paxman, if only you could have verked for me, ve could have cut so much togezzer."

Projects they promised would be protected are now cancelled, and the definition of "waste" is stretched more creatively. For example, the cancelled school building scheme was derided by Gove as "bureaucratic and wasteful". So it turns out any of us who've wandered around a school in the past 10 years and thought, "Ooh, this is a smart new building", were wrong. What we should have said is, "Ah, I see you've got a new sports hall. I'm not sending my kids to this bureaucratic waste of a building, they're going to one that's run properly, where the science block's been sold off and turned into an Argos."

Because schools are now under the category of waste. Maybe they've got a point, because the aim seems to be that no one leaving school will have a job so they might sit in a crumbling hovel in practice for years of deep thought, but it's an example of how the coalition's cutting confidence is growing every day. And far from softening this, the Lib-Dem wing of the government loves it most of all.

They splutter with enthusiasm for cuts they vehemently opposed a few weeks ago, and you wonder whether they've started denouncing themselves like prisoners in Mao's Cultural Revolution. Maybe Vince Cable kneels before the cabinet every morning and says, "I confess, oh mighty cutting Chancellor, with the humility of a million grains of rice waiting to be boiled, that in doubting the magnificence of abolishing waste as early as this year I was recklessly ignoring the budget deficit you so nobly try to reduce. I am truly more pungent than a centipede."

Somehow they maintain that their principles remain because they're making sure the cuts are done with "fairness." In which case, presumably the schools the leaders of this government went to will also be fretting about cancelled buildings. So at Eton, where in the past few years they've had an Olympic rowing lake added to their grounds with no bureaucracy or waste involved, the headmaster will be holding meetings with parents to say, "Unfortunately, due to unavoidable cuts, we're having to sell off one lane of the course to developers. However, the funds raised mean at least we can go ahead with the purchase of a range of mountains in Nepal, which pupils will be able to attend in order to enjoy some extremely deep thought."

Comments