This year, London’s Holland Park School once again reprises its role as an educational vanguard; a symbol for, as Melissa Benn puts it, ‘the battle for Britain’s education’. In this battle, competing visions of the shape of pedagogy and academia in the secondary school system are played out in the institutions which define learning for future generations.
When I opposed the motion that ‘this house believes in grammar schools’ last November at the Exeter University Debating Society, one point of clash between our side and those defending the motion was the claim that there had been a ‘golden age’ of grammar schools. This is a fallacious golden age, one built on a misunderstanding of the realities for working-class children facing the eleven-plus exam, and on a misplaced belief in the triumphs of meritocracy (an idea that can only ever be a sham when people start from such different backgrounds). Grammar schools never improved access, and today they continue to wreak aggregate destructive effects upon the integrity of education at large. Grammar schools retrench inequality as opposed to ameliorating it, and this is a point that does not need more rehearsing. Still, Holland Park, on its foundation in 1959, represented the hope for a real golden age: a victory for an education that was inclusive, forward-thinking and well-funded.
Of course the heady days of this ground-breaking egalitarian vision can by no means be completely romanticised. Holland Park’s location in Kensington and Chelsea—socially divided boroughs with a concentration of extremely wealthy parents likely to favour private schools—damaged the chances of success of the comprehensive experiment. In spite of all this, the 1970s and ’80s saw the famous and notable educated alongside working-class children from the surrounding area. It was a visionary school, as former teacher Michele Hanson wrote in the Guardian several years ago.
The narrative goes that Holland Park declined in the 1990s. Stories abound of teachers having to roam the school in packs due to fear of unruly and violent children. When the new administration arrived at the turn of the millennium, the teachers’ unions were blamed for this state of affairs. This was followed by what one former teacher describes as a ‘witch-hunt’ of union members. There was a counter-revolution, and one which certainly pulled up grades and standards—but increasingly at the expense of real education, a strategy which prized hothousing, measured success by quantitative data, and emphasised the presentation of a sterilised and polished image.
I went to Holland Park myself and a few experiences from my time at the school might here be of note: only a few, as my intention here is not to be autobiographical. Nor is it to engage in an attack on the school’s administration or any individuals, but to point out that their policies are reflective of the New Labour and Conservative schooling agenda.
In the first assembly of sixth form, we were presented with the example of the meticulous organisation of a former student who had gone on to study at Cambridge, and shown his planner. It had, on investigation, been faked by the leadership. Statistics were never forged, but cleverly interpreted (e.g. we were given the success rate at GCSEs, which was undoubtedly something to be proud of, but without an English and Maths pass included in the figures, which is standard national practice). When a government minister visited a lesson, select students were given rehearsed answers to questions to be asked during the ‘lesson’, and a year or so later a fellow student was pulled away from her class to pretend to work in the study centre when an inspection occurred. There was an obvious cadre of ‘favourites’ of the leadership. We were all awash with sticky notes, postcards, expensive furniture, and style over substance; in academic terms, quantity was prized over quality. GCSE work started as early as Year 9, B.Tech. GCSE equivalents in Year 8, and when the SAT exams were removed nationally, we kept them.
As far as political challenges went, there was no quarter for them at Holland Park. As sixth form council leader, I was in a sort of playground version of a Kafka scenario, where no decision I took on behalf of the electorate would have any consequence. When Holland Park announced its decision to convert to an Academy in 2010, we launched an anti-Academy campaign. We were opposed to the Academy status for the usual set of reasons: endangering access and equality of opportunity, insecure funding, private sector involvement, and a lack of democracy which was already apparent well before Academisation. But our demands were merely consultative ones: a ballot in which students, parents and staff were eligible to vote on the decision. The legal precedent is there: the grammar school ballots in areas such as Ripon earlier in the decade, for instance. School and council took an iron line. Our leaflets were destroyed, conversations with staff were construed as ‘intimidation’ (the real intimidation was the hauling in of petition signatories in ones and twos for a half-hour dressing down), and supporters were banned from entering the consultation meeting.
The illusion of liberalism continued, though. Our assemblies encouraged us to think for ourselves, to stand up for what we believed in; the arts and creativity were prized. However, staff members I have spoken to were immensely critical of the bureaucracy, one feeling as if she spent more time filling in forms than teaching. These contradictions were not limited to Holland Park, but were defining features of the New Education as a whole. The government couches its education reforms in the rhetoric of the Big Society. We are told that it is giving us freedom of choice, liberating schools from the yoke of central government, and handing us the reins to create a co-operative, empowered secondary education system for the twenty-first century. It was this vision of intellectual freedom that formed the pivot of rhetoric when I attended the opening of Toby Young and Boris Johnson’s love-child, the West London Free School. The reality is very different.
Michael Gove wants the hardest examinations in the world, and is preparing to implement this in tandem with a blueprint for education that takes us back to the 1950s. We are already Europe’s most examined country, and nowhere was this more true than at Holland Park. Academies legislation gives schools the ability to hire the unqualified and dismantle national pay negotiations for teachers, as well as to remove the legal obligation for teachers, parents and in some contexts students to have a say in the affairs of the school through the Governing Body. The reins of education are being handed not to us but to the market, and firms like ULT, ARK and Edison (who famously sold off their schools’ computers, art equipment and books to pay for a stock market crisis in the US in 2001) are waiting to take over our schools.
What of Holland Park? Fifty years later, it is a vanguard once more, of a very different variety. It has undergone an £80million rebuild and now resembles the headquarters of a leading city rather than a school. The Daily Mail is desperate to portray it as the last gasp of Labour big spending: a ridiculous thesis, since the financing for the new school came from private sources such as individual donors and the sale of school land in a controversial deal. It is no longer a school but a production line, where children are not encouraged to explore their various interests and learn how to experiment, make mistakes and participate in their own education, but to swallow ‘facts’, meet targets and pass exams. The new building, in its Neo-Brutalist expanse of glass, is just an expensive architectural metaphor for a loss of soul. How can students learn when they are too worried about sitting correctly in their expensive chairs, keeping the classroom spotless, and moving through the corridors in four-four time with a member of the uniform police ready to note the slightest irregularity in the length of their ties?
The online comments on the Mail article are telling. One ex-sixth former says, “The head teacher is very conservative in his management, marked by the shift to the right by becoming an Academy. I can only see this place going downhill, not in grades but in the aiding the development of a child into an adult…as a sixth form student we gained no freedom of self management…”. A Holland Park parent says, “Note the focus on appearance…If you have children in any way creative, in any way free thinking, in any way different from the norm send them elsewhere. If you are a parent who wishes to be consulted, involved, respected then ditto. But at least they have nice chairs.” Another ex-student talks about the “prison-like atmosphere” of what has become “more similar to a military camp than a place of learning and education.”
Holland Park has helped get me to Oxford (though I dare say my own unorthodox way of doing so did not sit well with the powers-that-be). But as one current student remarked to me earlier, “I feel like I’m being used a chess piece to move the school forward. Our results may be improving, but as a student I do not appreciate the school’s intention to manipulate us into their way of thinking—exams, results, exams. Education should be enjoyable.”
The common theme is obvious: children are not enjoying their education, and whether by accident or design, the school, like the education system itself, is not putting its students first. It is a far cry from the school which Tony Benn sent his children to so many years ago—the school clings to the ghosts of its past in word whilst rejecting them in deed. If this is a ‘battle for education’, it is a stealth war. This is not the old open defence of elitism, but concession to the comprehensive model alongside its simultaneous subtle destruction beneath a culture of marketization and statistics-obsession. The Conservatives I debated grammar schools with the other day seemed determined to view schools as preparation for the future labour market rather than hubs of enrichment and development. So while Gove and my old school look forward to the future, we should be doing the same: taking up the call for free, fair education.
It was Tony Blair who coined the phrase ‘the greatest act of academic vandalism’, referring to the sidelining of grammar schools. He was wrong, but the phrase can be reappropriated to describe what is happening to our comprehensives. Let’s tackle the real issues facing education: underfunding, economic inequality that prevents children from even finding accessible learning, narrow pedagogic styles. The worst of all, though, is a government that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, and is bent not only on privatising, cutting and demeaning the staff and students at our schools, but on twisting their very essence into reflections of its own characterless image. •
Nathan Akehurst is a History and Politics undergraduate at Lincoln College, a member of the Socialist Worker Student Society, and the former chair of the ‘No Academy at Holland Park’ campaign.