Last week the Education Secretary Michael Gove courted controversy when it emerged he strongly advocated the presentation of a taxpayer-funded yacht to the Queen, to mark the occasion of her Jubilee this summer. Putting aside my ardent small 'r' republicanism for one moment, I can see that the Jubilee is supposed to engender feelings of civic pride and might, at best, inspire young Britons to greatness. But, given Mr. Gove's past form, it is difficult to see how such a frightfully expensive gesture (some estimates put the price of the yacht as high as £100m) is the best way of effecting such change.
One of the first things Michael Gove did upon taking control of the Department of Education was to scrap the ambitious and expensive Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, which had been launched by Tony Blair in 2004. The £55bn programme pledged to rebuild every secondary school in Britain, and was undoubtedly run in the wretched fashion typical of many Blairite projects. But that's not to say the intentions of the programme were not well-meaning. Many of the inspiring schools and academies Debate Mate works in are ensconced in beautiful campuses, and it is easy to observe the beneficial effects such surroundings have on the students within.
It is a thrill to escape the dreariness of many inner-London boroughs and their ill-fitting housing developments, and study in a glittering building designed by an architect with an equally glittering reputation--and the children wear the pride that comes with such a privilege on their sleeves. Quite literally, in many cases, since many of the best-performing academies are also those with the most strictly adhered-to dress codes. Scarlett McCabe,the Debate Mate mentor at Evelyn Grace Academy, which won the prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize in 2011, says her students are highly motivated and appreciative of the great effort that has gone into making the school what it is. The facility was designed to a tight budget by Zaha Hadid, the architect responsible for the London Aquatics Centre which will be used in this summer's Olympics, and the students' enthusiasm for it is understandable, in spite of controversial policies such as a compulsory extended school day which lasts till 5PM.
On the other side of London, under the shadow of the breathtaking Bridge Academy in Hackney, lies Queensbridge Primary School. For the Debate Mate mentor working at the school, the children's annoyance at Mr. Gove's remarks is plain to see. "There seemed to be quite a lot of anti-monarchist sentiments," says Haia Ironside, who visits the children every week. "The students were angry that the Queen would be getting such a gift," she adds, "and it certainly did not seem a proposal which made the students proud to British--almost the contrary."
Haia asked her students what course of action the government might wish to take if they wanted to instill national pride in young people. "They emphasised that making schools nice places to be in would be the right priority," she tells me, adding, "the Bridge Academy was mentioned by a number of students as an ideal." When Haia asked them why new school buildings were worthy of the government's investment, they explained how they would celebrate the difference between such a building and their current premises. "They said they would expect it to come with lots of exciting facilities," Haia says.
The investment required for such significant capital expenditure need not be a burden to the taxpayer, as academies demonstrate (in fact, bringing in private funding may reach the same ends through far more efficient means), which is probably why this week saw the Shadow Education Secretary backpedal on BSF too. Stephen Twigg, a Blairite in a similar mould to Mr. Gove, said he would have cut £2bn from the programme's budget, and conceded it should have achieved "greater efficiency".
Nevertheless, when schools lobby hard on behalf of their community, the effects of significant investment are felt by all. A world away from Hadid's futuristic Evelyn Grace Academy and the sophisticated Bridge Academy, which was penned by the Building Design Partnership, is Curwen Primary School in Plaistow, Newham. A stone's throw from the Olympic Park--a polytheist temple to architecture--the school is airy and unpretentious. In stark contrast to the imposing Victorian edifices which dominate London's primary school scene, Curwen is low-slung and playful, inviting the children within to learn interactively.
I paid a visit to the opening ceremony of this totally rebuilt school (the original building had stood on the site since the late 19th century), and heard children and adults enthuse about the project. Asma, who is in her final year at the school, told me it presented everyone in the community with an opportunity. "The old building had had its day; this is a school for the future," she says, neatly summing up the new campus as "Better place, better learning, better future."
Thank goodness David Cameron swiftly torpedoed Mr. Gove's ghastly idea--he insisted the money could not come out of the public purse--but the fact remains that £100m, even when sourced from philanthropists and generous businesses, could inspire far more pride and greatness if spent on an infrastructure project like one of those mothballed when BSF crumpled.