I’m angry at the moment. I’m having a lovely weekend, on the whole, but I’m angry. There’s a lot to be angry about in education at the moment, let’s face it, but the thing that has specifically riled me today is the article published in yesterday’s TES about the schools visited by current and former education ministers since January 2022. It chimes in with various thoughts rattling round my head at the moment about teaching in a rural area, issues of rural deprivation and lack of opportunities, and how spectacularly unbothered our current government seems to be about schools in huge swathes of the country. So let’s have a look.
Callum Mason’s article points out, amongst other things, that the politicians concerned – the four different education secretaries we’ve had since then, plus three different ministers – were more likely to have visited a school in France or Spain than they were a school in the South-West of England. It’s true: the list of schools visited includes one in Paris, one in Valencia, and none at all in the South-West. But there are other omissions too. I was curious to see whether any schools in my own county, Lincolnshire, had been visited. Absolutely none. In fact, if you drill down beyond the broad geographical regions listed by the TES, you find some pretty striking facts. There were no visits at all to schools in the rural counties of Cumbria, Norfolk, Suffolk or Shropshire. No visits to any schools at all in some of England’s biggest cities: Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Bradford or Nottingham. No visits to Knowsley, where no A level provision has existed since 2017: if you live in Knowsley and you want to do A levels, you have to get on a bus and go elsewhere, with all the attendant worries that might bring. The only two visits that took place in the North-West were both to schools in Blackpool. In the East, two of the four schools visited were actually within the London commuter belt. Only three schools visited (the two schools in Blackpool and one school in Hastings) were in the top 20 most deprived areas in England. Most shamefully, only four of the 55 areas selected by the Government as Education Investment Areas were visited.
The issues facing young people growing up in areas of deprivation – especially rural deprivation – has been on my mind more than usual this week, as I’ve been reading Natasha Carthew’s brilliant, beautiful, angry book Undercurrent: A Cornish Memoir of Poverty, Nature and Resilience. Carthew writes powerfully of the many kinds of lack experienced by young people in rural communities, and it’s a list that all people involved in education should have at the forefront of their minds. The lack of opportunities. The lack of access to concerts, galleries, museums, theatres (which also becomes a lack of a sense of belonging in these spaces). The lack of public transport. The lack of support for marginalised groups. The lack of role models. The lack of anything to aspire to, because very few of the people you know have lives that are any different from your own. The lack of faith in any possibility of escape. It’s hard to get young people growing up in these circumstances to believe that achieving their GCSE target grades – those grades on which schools are judged, and that secondary school teachers up and down the country will be losing sleep over as we enter the last few weeks of exam preparation – has any kind of importance whatsoever.
My brain has a habit of making odd connections, and as I was reading Carthew’s memoir, I kept thinking back to the conversations I’ve been having with my Year Thirteen students about Tess of the D’Urbervilles. We’ve been looking at Tess not just as the victim of vile Alec and insufferable Angel, but also as a victim of circumstance: of having the misfortune to be born a girl, into a poor rural family, at a time when she has absolutely no means of escape. The odds are stacked against Tess from the start. And while we can think about Hardy’s concept of Fate, and of Tess’s lament about being born on a ‘blighted star’, we can also think of the many imbalances of power that make her story what it is: the story of a young woman stuck in the middle of nowhere, with limited opportunities to make decisions about her own life.
There is so much more that our government needs to offer to students in deprived areas, not the least of which is teachers who are valued, trusted, and paid appropriately. But they need to come and see us, to find out what we face.