We **** Need ** Education

Thousands of students marched to protest education cuts

10,000 students marched to protest against education cuts

Healthcare and education. 99% of people would agree that both are services of vital importance. As a nation, the NHS is one of our best assets and the very right of every single citizen of the United Kingdom to free medical treatment is one which many take for granted. Is that wrong? In a word, no. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services. It is perfectly possible to both expect the state to provide healthcare, whilst appreciating that we in this country are fortunate enough to live in a land where it is our right to have access to such services and that we are in the global minority with this.

Free education is a right too. Our right. The right of every person in this country. At least, for those between the ages of 4 and 18 it is. This week’s student protests in London dragged the ever-present issue of student fees back to the fore-front of the nation’s collective mind and highlighted the problems of graduate employment as well as the staggering financial implications which arise from university and higher education courses. I know someone who marched and I know how passionate they were, and still are, about the need to shine a light on the mess that is education finance in the UK. I saw them apply to uni, I saw the nerves the weekend before they left and I saw them return after their first term having the time of their life. But today I saw a photo of them marching over Westminster Bridge – student union banner in hand – and I was proud. It’s disappointing that the students campaigning this week are unlikely to still be students if and when any legislation is introduced to combat the dramatic rise in fees which was introduced in December 2010, but this in itself proves the commitment of many to a cause which effects everyone. Earlier this month, students from Oxford University, Oxford Brookes and other local schools and colleges protested against David Willetts, the Minister of State for Science and Education, giving a talk in St Peter’s College to the point where the proceedings inside were forced to be suspended as the chants from outside may it impossible to continue.

Pinning down exactly whose “fault” tuition fees as an entity are is difficult, predominantly because they have been introduced gradually. In 1960, fewer than 200,000 British students attended university. This figure had doubled by 1980 and risen to 650,000 by 1990. In 1997, New Labour decided that the state could no longer provide for the 1.15 million students studying beyond secondary educational level and so introduced an annual fee of £1000 for university courses. Fees were required to be paid upfront and maintenance grants were ousted. In 2003 this system was revised; £3000 per annum but with loans and some maintenance grants available specifically for students. Returning to the General Election of May 2010, it is clear that student fees wasn’t a campaign issue parties wanted to push; though when the NUS launched a campaign aiming to achieve the support of every MP by encouraging them to sign a pledge which read “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees”, many MPs (the majority, Lib Dems) jumped at the opportunity. Perhaps not so coincidentally, every Lib Dem MP who got elected in the election had signed this pledge.

As you and I both know, these promises, if not intentionally empty, were broken. Really quite dramatically and with new, extortionate fees. £9000 per year is the highest amount a university is allowed to charge and all but a very small number are doing just that. The upshot of this is that, for the average three-year-course student, around £35,000 worth of debt will be accumulated during their studies and £27,00 of that will be for their education. Depressingly, at the same time the UK has seen a 40% cut in the teaching budget which begs the question of where our fees are going if not to raising teaching standards? The line fed out by government that “increasing fees will cut the deficit” is a simplistic statement and one which doesn’t quite add up. It is costing the government more than ever to keep students at universities as the trebling of fees has had the knock on effect of causing student loans and their cost to soar. It is now crystal clear that the argument needs to be made that university education is just as important and integral a public service to and for this country that the National Health Service is. Preferably, sooner rather than later.

Why? Because we don’t need no education.

Life in the Bubble – A Day in Oxford

Harry Potter, “dreaming spires” and rowing was all I had to go on if I was ever roped into a conversation about the city of Oxford before I had the opportunity of visiting it for myself last Autumn. Now a year on my thoughts about the University Town and its famous colleges are still swirling and my opinions not yet formed. It is common knowledge that visiting anywhere on a school trip is a wholly different experience to doing so, say, with family or friends and Oxford was no exception. It is a well-known fact that school-tourism usually involves a) a museum (it’s always a museum, sometimes you’re lucky enough to get a castle or an aquarium, but there’s always a museum) b) the buying of tacky souvenir key rings, and c) the obligatory scrum outside the sole sweet shop.

The glorious day began with a guided tour round Christ Church College, which is so perfectly modelled as the image of British student life given that the few on show were walking around wearing satchels and all eating organic fruit. It’s almost too ‘Oxford’ for Oxford. We were reliably informed by a third year that the statue stood on top of the fountain in the centre of the courtyard had been knocked over four times in the college’s history; and that three out of the four culprits were British Prime-Ministers. How very reassuring. The “no walking on the grass” rule seemed a little unnecessary and consequently resulted in an unnervingly deserted courtyard, though in some ways this added to the feeling of timelessness.

Much as I admired Christ Church’s grandeur, however, the next door college of Corpus Christi stole my affections (and no it wasn’t just because there was a croquet game going on when we arrived) due to its relaxed, almost sleepy atmosphere, and secluded gardens. Here it was difficult not to imagine a rather perfect, if clichéd, four years – sprawling on the grass with a classic penguin novel and a glass of lemonade as the morning sun glinted off the dewy grass and the thought of joining a crowd of spectators watching a boat race in the afternoon a pleasing, yet still somewhat distant, prospect.

It’s all very well about the attraction of the colleges, but what about the nitty gritty? The annual University Guide pull-outs found in most broadsheets can always be relied upon to voice allegations of elitism about and cast a sceptical and scathing eye over the two most prominent universities in Britain. The lack of straight out answers to such questions unfortunately adds even more to the overflowing plates of prospective applicants, who not only have to endure a gruelling application process including aptitude tests and interviews lasting several days but also have to consider the social implications of accepting such an offer if one were to be given. Surely such a decision should be made purely on the basis of the individual’s personal needs and specifications – course content, fees, location – instead of whether or not they will be deemed snobbish, elitist, or most fickle of all, superior?

Alas it seems that the stigma surrounding Oxbridge is set to continue, though that shouldn’t put off those who truly believe they would be happy being a part of such an institute. After all, there’s nothing arrogant about writing Oxon or Cantab after your name; indeed there should be a certain element of pride about having gained a degree from one of the world’s highest ranking universities. Seeing the University of Oxford, its colleges and libraries in all their glory, made it all seem real, and I can honestly say that even a day visit gave me a new perspective on Oxford. There is an awful lot to think about over the next year or so, although sometimes I think it’s fair to say that the cons of Oxbridge are elevated in the media so much more than those of other universities due to a constant struggle between those who support their traditional and unique style of education and those who think both universities an automatic destination for the supercilious upper classes, irrespective of whether or not they deserve to be there.

So I’m pleased to be able now to say, if ever conversing about Oxford, that it is home to several fantastic bookshops, a library where students are required to sign a form swearing “not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame” and the most bicycles I have ever seen.

Teacher for a Day

Paragliders – Whitsun 2012

Before I begin, the above title isn’t strictly true; I wasn’t a teacher for a day, I was “Volunteer 001” for three days and “Student” for the fourth – these being the labels printed onto the lanyard I wore during the days I helped out at my primary school, assisting with the end of year school play. Being in charge of the lighting desk is a task I’ve done before and is a very enjoyable one, especially as it gives me the responsibility of illuminating the scenery and putting the spotlight onto the ten and eleven-year-olds who stand on the same stage that I stood upon several years ago when I myself was a performer in such a production.

Still being in full-time education myself I don’t have a wealth of experience teaching children of primary school age, but having spent last week in the company of some of the keenest, most enthusiastic year 5s and 6s imaginable I’m happy beyond measure that I’ve come through the experience wanting to do it all again. Nothing quite beats having six eager faces staring up at you as you demonstrate an action or dance; faces which contort into focussed, furrowed brows as they copy your movement – transforming into beams of achievement which stretch to broad grins as they do it right for the first, second, third and fourth times before producing a dazzling grin when the triple-sidewards-shuffle has at last been perfected.

The highlight of going back into my old stomping ground (well, walking politely and considerately upon ground as I’ve never been much of a rebel) came about when the effects an overcrowded, overheated school hall-cum-theatre combined with the restlessness of the kids I was doing vocal coaching with to make me to show some initiative and take matters into my own hands. “Everyone, follow me!”, I hailed over the heads of infants still eating their lunch “But where are we going?”, “Outside, into the playground. We all need some fresh air. You’ll sing better”, “But it’s raining”, “That won’t stop us”. So out we went – the youngsters running and screaming at the novelty of not being on lock-down inside during “wet play”. Sheltering under a multicoloured awning, the six singers – two girls and four boys – sang.  A capella. And I sang with them. And I felt the most alive I’ve felt in a while.

If you’ve seen the show Billy Elliot you’ll know that the only way young Billy can describe the feeling he gets when he dances is as “electricity”. Well that’s the way I feel when I sing; but to sing with six eleven-year-olds who don’t question the fact that they’re spending their lunch hour raising their voices against the wind and rain of drizzly northern England and don’t have any inhibitions about singing in front of themselves, each other or strangers isn’t something you get to experience every day. It was a challenge, it was hard work and it left me shattered at day’s end but it was worth it to bring up the lights on the night of the performance and watch these same kids belt out the melody for all they were worth in front of an audience of parents, siblings and teachers was remarkable and heart-warming and oddly nostalgic for me.

So there was I, sat at my little lighting booth, waving my arms to indicate the direction of sway for the final song and doing the actions – with them every step of the way. I was so proud of their confidence and perseverance and it was a privilege to be a part of their closing days of primary school. It confirmed to me that performing arts are such an important and irreplaceable part of school life, allowing as they do for the creative juices to flow in all who are involved and for children to widen their minds and think outside of the academic box. So in future, if anyone asks me to “do the lights”, I hope for their own sake they’ll have read this post before inquiring – because for me, “doing the lights” is so much more than flicking a few switches.

The Bard Lives On

Ben Crick as Romeo

Ben Crick as Romeo

Outside of the English department, professing my enjoyment of Shakespeare in school is hardly likely to gain me any smiles of agreement; in fact I’d be lucky to get a nod of acknowledgement. It is with this in mind that I rejoiced (or rather, breathed a deep sigh of relief) upon seeing British students like myself immersing themselves in the infinite capabilities of the greatest writer the world has ever seen. Shakespeare: Off By Heart – a talent competition with a difference – corresponds with the BBC’s current focus on all aspects of Shakespeare’s life and works, rather sensationally titled Shakespeare Unlocked.

Whittled down from 2000 people aged between 13 and 15 throughout the nation, nine finalists were chosen to attend workshops at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon before appearing solo on stage and performing a well-versed soliloquy in front of several hundred people and three thespian judges. Jeremy Paxman hosted – an interesting choice as I can’t imagine anyone with the ability to unnerve young contestants any more than the man who berates swathes of intelligent under and post-graduates on University Challenge with put downs such as “No no no Corpus Christi you’re in the wrong century let alone decade” or similar such remarks. This choice was presumably intended to offer some gravitas to a relatively unadvertised BBC2 programme where the critics were three people you vaguely recognised from having seen on tv a few times.

As most people know, BBC2’s track record of, as Paxo put it, “X-Factor for intelligent people” programmes is pretty sparse and rightly so; we tend to leave that to BBC4. Due to this, the format of the show lacked any real sense of structure and although this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, their inexperience at behind the scenes, diary-like, “reality” tv footage showed, refreshing as it may have been. Clips of the patronisingly described “children” undergoing voice and acting coaching were dispersed between video of the actual performances and portraits of the 9 and their backgrounds. If I were to be critical I’d say that this didn’t help viewers to sustain a real sense of watching the action continuously in the theatre as the audience would have done, though on the whole this didn’t detract from the show’s overall message or impact.

There were some real characters among the chosen few and all showed a real enthusiasm for the literary gospel they were proclaiming the words of. My favourite, however, had to be Ben. Aged 15, he delivered the famous balcony scene monologue of Romeo and Juliet with suitable exaggeration and aplomb, despite the fact that he didn’t care much for the character of Romeo – deeming him naive to become besotted with Juliet so swiftly. He used his inner thoughts to his advantage by portraying Romeo almost comically and capturing the attention of the audience on all three sides. I was sorry that he didn’t make it through to the final three – each charged with the task of performing Hamlet’s daunting “To be, or not to be” speech – though from the wallpaper of his room being made up of rosettes from local drama festivals and as a member of the NYT (National Youth Theatre) I’m sure he’ll go far.

For anyone who missed it I offer you my sincere apologies as it is no longer on i-player (they definitely need to extend the one week limit to two at least), however I am able to point you in the direction of a couple of other reviews which will fill in the gaps for you and hopefully make you feel like you’ve watched it through alertly, twice. Here’s what The Telegraph,  The Times and Sunshine Tomorrow had to say. I’d be very interested to know your views if you did manage to catch it first time around and hopefully it will be repeated soon for those who didn’t.

Shakespeare and his plays may often seem another world away – and sometimes they are – but his comedies and tragedies speak reams about human nature and even today stand up against the most respected of writings as works that define literature. Last year, I studied Macbeth and loved every minute of it. It’s alternative title for the superstitious, The Scottish Play, doesn’t do it justice. The challenge of understanding what appears to be a different language altogether is directly proportional to the levels of satisfaction felt on revelling in the richness of the words once understood. If nothing else, it’s certainly the only incentive I’ve ever had to wield a carving knife around the kitchen, proclaiming wide-eyed and as if possessed “Is this a dagger I see before me?”

We are the Youth of Today

Teenagers from Badminton School in Bristol, Lucy Warden, Sam Crumpton and Maddie Sunter celebrate in the rain

It’s late August. The last remnants if the summer are swept away in a scourge of last year’s games kit and M&S have been promoting “back to school” buys for at least three months. But something else is about to happen; an air of tension and nervous excitement pulsing through the brick work and vibrating around the gates of schools and colleges across the country. When the public examination results are finally revealed and the predictable, posed photographs of jumping girls in flowery summer dresses (though read this for an interesting take on the politics of results day pictures) literally leap out at you from the front page of The Times, spare a thought for those same teenagers who will have their achievements waved away like a swarm of irritable flies by the time the following day’s news drops through the letterbox.

“A-Level results are up in Britain by an overall figure of 5%” announces the Radio 4 newsreader, whilst the pompous proprietors of educational supplements will mock these findings incredulously with a chortle of “oh well they’re surely making the exams easier then!”. Why this incomprehensible need to put a negative slant on the painstaking hours of work and revision from so many students across the country? As someone who is on the brink of sitting the first in a long line of external exams this summer I find it ridiculous that the significant measure of time and effort allocated to what I have been educated to believe are some of the most important exams I will ever take has the frightening potential of being blown out of the water by someone at News International who decides it’s about time the youth of today were on the receiving end of some criticism for a change.

Sadly, it’s not the only item on life’s agenda we’re ever reprimanded about. All too often, sweeping statements are made about the attitude of the under-twenty generation, be it a lack of interest in current affairs or our supposed appreciation of all things rebellious and anti the establishment. Unfortunately, more often than not it is the people who issue such generalisations whom are guilty of shunning the very portion of society they complain about. This manner of discrimination I find indescribable, though I am not short of examples and none so obvious as when we are paying passengers on public transport. If I had a pound for very time I’d been refused a child ticket whilst still legally a child, or had the details of my ticket unnecessarily scrutinised by an officious employee of the GMPTE I’d have been wealthy enough to avoid the aforementioned people by chartering my own private jet for even the most local of journeys.

I can still vividly remember,  although the memory isn’t so much tinged with anger as it is saturated, being publicly humiliated when boarding a bus into my nearest town. I was fourteen years old at the time and after cheerily greeting the driver I politely asked for a return child ticket to my destination. After receiving the most obvious once-over, the driver sneeringly told me to “pull the other one love” as he blatantly believed me to be lying about my age. I wasn’t trying to scrounge the saving of a measly 47p or whatever it is by saying I was younger than sixteen; I was younger than sixteen! I do apologise if my smart appearance suggested that I might actually be an ambassador for the polite and educated contingent of Britain’s youth population. Or rather, I don’t apologise one bit.

Great British Schooling Tradition

“Where They Are Just And Loyal”

It always struck me that, of the four illustrious Hogwarts houses, the fair students of Hufflepuff never had any glory or recognition bestowed upon them. Everyone hated Slytherin, apart from the Slytherins themselves who all garnered a sinister pride from their membership of the House that had produced the highest number of, shock horror, dark wizards, the Ravenclaws all seemed a snobby bookish lot and the Gryffindors, well, everybody loves the Gryffindors. Gryffindor is Harry and Ron and Hermione. It’s the Weasleys, it’s Neville and his toad Trevor, it’s the Fat Lady and that perpetually roaring fire.

Can you imagine what it would be like if your school was structured in the same way as Hogwarts? I’m not suggesting the council install a starry ceiling or programme staircases to sporadically change direction, but how would you feel if you and your peers were divided up into four houses; separated by colours and mottos and even living space? For a long time the tradition of schools having “House Systems” has been thought of as only for those attending the most prestigious of schools or those who want to mark themselves out as institutions of heritage and history. You only need to flick through the opening chapters of any of  the Harry Potters or Enid Blyton’s “The Twins of St Clare’s” or the “Mallory Towers” series to understand the quintessential Britishness of these such systems.

It isn’t so much the fancy regalia of cloaks and hats proudly bearing the crest of a founder or the novelty of being, to use a rather strong but apt word, segregated into dormitories and common rooms with the people who bear the same stamp of affinity as you which those of use who aren’t or have never been part of something which offers such certain stability in exchange for loyalty and honour find attractive. It is the togetherness of it all; the team spirit, the camaraderie, the feeling of belonging to something, to someone, to many people in fact. Kinship is the most honest way to describe house systems at their strongest and most enforced, although there is most certainly a spectrum of the importance of these systems in the life of a school. I have been in a house, at Primary School, where they assigned the three primary colours and green (green being classed as a secondary colour is one of the few facts I remember about year seven Art) to the names of four explorers. Let’s see how many I can remember…

Sharman, named after Helen Sharman was the yellow house, or ‘group’ as it was sometimes referred to. She was the only female featured and I remember being disappointed to be in Sharman being clueless as I then was as to her ground-breaking role as Britain’s first astronaut in Space. My older self now feels proud to have been devotedly acquiring ‘points’ to be drawn up on our house noticeboard which would win the whole house prizes if we were to win and in doing so honouring a female pioneer in the Scientific world. Unfortunately my school didn’t award a ‘House Cup’ and promptly lay on a spectacular feast for us if we were victorious. Fiennes (as in Ranulph) was up there too along with Captain James Cook and another – I forget who. To this day I still wonder who made those crucial decisions as to the names of the houses we represented!

Outfit Snapshots:

  • Mustard chinos: New Look
  • Electric blue shirt and turquoise nail polish: H&M
  • Blue cardigan and turquoise silk scarf:  a Vintage Fair
  • Blue suede shoes: Clarks
  • Grey cashmere socks: M&S
  • Hufflepuff badge, blue beret, gold Accurist watch, brown leather satchel and Ray Bans: All Gifts