One of the things about living in contemporary Britain is that it takes a lot to make one’s jaw drop. The culture of casual market-driven brutality runs so deep that surprise almost becomes a luxury. But a story in the Camden New Journal about how one primary school – St George the Martyr Primary School in Holborn – requires its pupils to walk along corridors with their hands behind their backs in what the School’s “executive headteacher” describes as “The University Walk” certainly did so. According to the Camden New Journal, the headteacher claims that the walk will “strengthen pupil safety, raise their aspirations and maximise learning time” [my italics]. She claims a 93% reduction in “incidents” since the walk was introduced. In response to concerns for parents the Chair of Governors, Rev Guy Pope, is quoted as saying that the parents are not looking out for the best interests of their children.
Leaving aside the breathtaking arrogance of that last statement, I find the policy terrifying. The schools that I attended in the 1960s and 1970s were not exactly bastions of progressive education, yet this goes far further than anything that was conceivable then. And that comment about aspiration is horrifying; and is a powerful reminder of a point that the late Richard Hoggart made in his book The Way We Live Now; that so much talk about aspiration is actually about obedience, a promotion not of leadership but of quiet following. It is a disturbing reminder of the implications of the language of “aspiration” as used by politicians across the spectrum.
The idea of the University Walk seems to me deeply sinister. I do not recall people walking through the quadrangles of Oxford in this way, and this seems to me to be about a university as propaganda; a goal that you fail to attain through your own lack of diligent obedience, not because society has a hierarchy of privilege. The corridors of this particular primary school look very like the place where self-loathing and victim-blaming are learned. Moreover, all of us – children and adults – express ourselves spontaneously through the use of our hands; deny the use of those hands and expression is circumscribed in the name of discipline. We have become an increasingly authoritarian society – a society in which the spontaneity of childhood is regarded as a threat. This policy appears to me to express that authoritarianism powerfully.
And the return to Victorian values is explicit and obvious. These things are no longer done in the name of Godliness to anything like the same extent (although, looking back, the return of religion to the centre of public life seems to me one of the more significant trends of the last three or four decades), but instead now we produce disciplined workers and consumers; in a week when Education Secretary Nicky Morgan declared her support for testing seven-year-olds. We used to hear a lot about how the commercialisation of childhood threatened it; but surely this kind of regimentation, the assumption that education is only about producing disciplined footsoldiers in a capitalism whose basic deal – the provision of a decent life to those who sell their labour – has clearly broken down, is the real threat. The idea that education can be liberating, and something that is collectively good, seems to be dead.
No doubt the row will blow over, and some accommodation will be reached. But the actions of this “executive headteacher” and her governing body raise obvious questions about power, authority and obedience under late capitalism. It does not look like the action of people confident in their authority or with the idea of dissent, intellectual challenge and open learning.