“It is not important what we cover, but what you discover.” Victor Weisskopf
I spent eight years at two schools in the UK as a parent governor and was vice chair on two very different governing bodies, working with committed staff and volunteers to try and improve educational opportunities for thousands of children. I’m not sure how much we achieved. When a system is focused on teaching children to pass tests rather than how to learn, it turns out young adults who are highly efficient at regurgitating facts and relatively inefficient when it comes to intelligent questioning and independent thought.
Passivity in the young is an obstacle to progressive change, so whilst acknowledging the value of the traditional ‘three Rs’ of reading, writing and arithmetic I’m proposing three more which might result in a more engaged citizenry, and ultimately a more equitable society: reveal, remember and resist.
Recently, my son returned from school and told us about a presentation pupils had received from a group of young Israelis. The presenters extolled the virtues of life in Israel, speaking of their wonderful experiences of education, community and of how proud they were to serve in the Israeli Defence Force. My son was uncomfortable with what he perceived as a propaganda exercise on behalf of the Israeli state. One of his peers bravely raised a hand and asked how the presenters felt about Palestinians wanting their land back in the Occupied Territories. The dismissive reply was that they had not come to talk about that issue.
Prompted by his sense of injustice, we accompanied my son to speak with one of the school leaders about the need for balance when addressing such a contentious issue. We pointed out that providing a platform for representatives of an occupying force without offering any counter narrative is at best an oversight and at worst an endorsement of what is viewed by many as a violently oppressive militaristic regime.
Apparently a parent at the school had offered to organise the presentation and no checks were carried out to determine the content. The deputy head was embarrassed, understood our concerns and agreed to look for opportunities to provide a more balanced presentation for students in future. That recognition will hopefully benefit all the students at the school, and it came about because a child spotted something he thought was unfair and chose to reveal rather than ignore it.
Sometimes it feels as if we live in the age of revelation—not in a biblical sense but a technological one. From Edward Snowden to Chelsea Manning to Christopher Wylie, modern-day whistle-blowers have direct access to information classified as secret by government agencies or private corporations. The growing impact of people-led movements, not just data-led, is evidence of the power even of smaller, personal revelations.
You have agency, so use it. Revelation is an active process.
On 14 June 2017, the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower in west London killed 71 people, injured scores more and left hundreds homeless. I cried as I watched the images on my television; I was moved to donate immediately to a charitable fund offering support to those affected; I visited the neighbourhood in the following days, not as a voyeur but as a bereaved community member.
In my childhood, I learned to ride my bicycle in the shadow of Grenfell; as a teenager, I learned to love and hate on the estate and the streets surrounding the tower. My parents have lived for over six decades no more than a two-minute walk from what is now a charred carcass, a Kubrickian monolith, testament to the deadly folly of man’s vaunting ambition and limitless greed. I felt the loss of those lives in a painfully profound way, not as a dispassionate observer.
And yet, in order to write the previous paragraph I had to Google the date of the fire and the numbers killed. I’m not devoid of empathy or indifferent to the suffering of others. It is human to forget. Healing requires us to leave the hurt behind, when we’re able to. As an individual coping with loss I don’t berate myself for forgetting. At a societal level however, we would do well to attend to the oft-quoted words of George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Ask yourself what the date was when planes crashed into the World Trade Centre. What year did the Second World War start and finish? These dates are, quite rightly, seared into our collective consciousness. This not-forgetting arises because those events have radically altered our reality. But it is also true that our reality has been radically altered in part because of that not-forgetting. The process of learning from the past in order to shape our future requires us to remember. Regardless of the direction of change we wish to take, it is important to recognise significant historical moments if we are to be taken seriously in our attempts to articulate a vision for change.
The act of societal remembering must not be passive, because societal forgetting is often engineered, imposed and active. Our governments move from one murderous overseas war to another, continuously privilege the most wealthy over the most deprived, relentlessly under-resource the services required to increase equality, and ceaselessly churn out the message that we’ve ‘never had it so good.’
But of that money promised by the government for rehousing and support for the families left homeless in Grenfell Tower, how much has been forthcoming? As we approach the anniversary of this beacon of inequality in one of the richest countries on Earth, why are there still families without a place they call home?
You have agency, so use it. Not-forgetting is an active process.
Most great narratives of myth and history feature individuals or groups struggling against seemingly insurmountable forces. Everybody loves an underdog because those tales reflect a universal truth about societies: if the objective is to better the lot of the masses, what is required is to challenge concentrations of power and authority. This is the fundamental mathematics of equality and justice—that the cake should always be shared fairly.
Holding on to that clarity is crucial, but it requires commitment and daily acts of resistance. The utter chaos that is the education system in England is a perfect example of something which runs contrary to the basic mathematics of equality and justice. When my children were younger there was a huge effort from the local authority to turn their small community primary school into an academy run by a large chain, headed by former and current hedge fund managers.
Initially, parents, pupils and staff worked to maintain a sense of togetherness, continuing to provide a village school feel for children from some of London’s most deprived areas. The demonstrable love for the school from pupils, parents and teachers was clear evidence of an institution rising to meet the needs of local people. In the face of what constituted an attempted hostile takeover, working to increase that love and to serve the community to the best of their ability was an act of resistance. In embodying the values we hold dear, in being the change we want to see in the world, we resist that which stands in opposition to those values.
As a parent governor, I sat in meetings with the local authority and representatives of the proposed academy chain where we asked for justifications, evidence and plans; scrutinised detail; and returned with further questions. All the governors agreed that this was not something anyone in our school community wished to proceed with. We started delaying, using all the tools at our disposal to tie the process up in red tape, knowing that if we could prove difficult enough for long enough, the proposal would go away.
One staff member then involved her union, who wrote to the press, organised community meetings, and mobilised parents and pupils to protest loudly with placards and chants. This was painfully uncomfortable for governors, who were often lumped in with the local authority as having betrayed the community and sold the school down the river, which was the opposite of the truth. But it was another effective tactic.
Eventually, the local authority agreed to give us six months to recruit an outstanding headteacher and to hit various progress targets as a school. We did so, and the following year the school was one of the most improved in London according to Ofsted (whether or not that measure means anything). The academy proposal disappeared, and five years later ours remains a state school sanctuary for many underprivileged children, successfully serving the needs of the community in which it sits.
You have agency, so use it. Resistance is an active process.
Resist, reveal and remember are the keys to any education worthy of the name.