If I were Prime Minister: I would stop library closures and do away with government targets

Our series in the run-up to the General Election – 100 days, 100 contributors, but no politicians – continues with the novelist and cookery writer

Joanne Harris
Thursday 05 February 2015 11:43 GMT

One of the concerns I’ve had for many years is about targets. A desire to meet targets has taken over so many areas of public services – but especially Education and the NHS. I was a schoolteacher until about 15 years ago. Target culture was creeping up back then but it has got worse.

So if I were prime minister I would scrap Sats tests in schools and trust in the teaching profession. I would shift things much more in the direction of measurable progress on the ground. I think more and more people feel that they are somehow not part of society, and targets don’t help. Targets pay lip service but they don’t reflect the reality of people’s experience. You can fill filing cabinets in schools with documents that say you have met your targets but education is something that can’t be quantified in that way.

I feel the same about exam results themselves. Education doesn’t end when you leave school . It’s not enough that someone has a piece of paper that says they have passed this exam or that exam. A paperwork culture is creating a generation of children who think that once they’ve got their bits of paper their education is complete. But it never is. Education is about providing spaces for people to continue learning and so feel connected to society.

For the growth of the spirit, this reducible approach is toxic and horrible, and it’s infecting universities as well – the idea that being trained for a trade is all that counts. We are all the poorer for that kind of mentality.

Libraries are an extension of Education. They are the cheapest and most effective way to bring culture to people, and it’s shameful that we are getting rid of them. Libraries are not just symbols of civilisation, they are a civic space that bind communities. Take them away and society becomes fragmented. Compare a community that has a library with one that does not and you will see the difference. And it’s always the poorer areas that lose their libraries first. There’s this idea that poorer people have TVs and the internet so why would they need libraries? Libraries are reduced to a middle-class luxury, and thus more and more members of society feel disenfranchised, that they do not belong. I feel the same about the arts generally – theatres and galleries – and I would increase the amount of public money spent on them.

I would also get rid of charitable status from private schools. This is an archaic leftover from a time when there might have been some justification for it. By the same token I would remove all public funding from faith schools. I see no good coming from any system that excludes. Schools should be secular places where everybody is equal and feels they belong. That’s not to say religious studies shouldn’t be taught. Of course religions should be studied. But the school itself should be a free space ideologically and religiously.

Making people feel that they are part of society and that they belong is what matters.

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