Education, education, education: the political

This is one of a pair of posts. This one looks at the unanswered questions after the tuition fees vote. The other one declares and explains my personal biases.

18 is a magical age. Drinking, voting, leaving home, and exams that have the power to change the direction of your entire life – and the end of free education.

It’s peculiar, how education changes in the August of the year you pass your A-levels. Suddenly education is a privilege, not a right. Suddenly you must justify your choices harder than ever before, make sacrifices, shop around, evaluate the potential quality of your teaching in a way you have never had the chance or obligation to do before. Suddenly education is a marketplace, not a common good.

And it’s about to become more so, thanks to the trebling of tuition fees and slashing of university funding. As part of the cuts to humanities, funding for languages at university has been decimated – even as the coalition tries to push more teenagers to take them on at GCSE. Education is not a life-long concern – and education for its own sake is utterly devalued by a government that persists in painting certain subjects as more worthy than others.

When we talk about the cuts to education, adults tend to forget that many teenagers don’t go to university because of the career options at the end – they go because they care passionately about their areas of expertise and because they love to learn. For the same reasons that 17-year-olds do A levels and 6-year-olds love art lessons. Because of the joy of learning.

At the protest, everyone I spoke to shared a similar sentiment. The protests were about the cuts. The anger is about the lies, the broken promises, the injustices. The coalition’s last-minute attempt to persuade furious protesters that in reality they just haven’t quite understood the implications has done little, if anything, to help – in fact, its list of myths certainly doesn’t cover the main objections I have (though at least it’s provided some great parody ammunition).

Many of the big questions remain, at least to my knowledge (please correct me if I’m wrong) unanswered:

  • How much is this going to cost the country?
  • Why are we borrowing more when the coalition’s stated aim is to reduce, not increase, the deficit?
  • Why the uneven nature of the cuts, aimed at humanities more than science?
  • Where’s the evidence that humanities graduates don’t contribute to the economy to the same extent as science ones?
  • Where’s the study that shows what impact the fees and cuts might have on poor students, minorities, students from poorer schools?
  • What’s going to be done to make the Student Loans Company fit for purpose, if it’s going to be overseeing so much more money?
  • What is the sale of this debt into the banking system going to do to the economy, in the short and long term?
  • We’ve seen analysis of EMA and participation – but where’s the analysis of the impact of stopping the EMA on attainment, aspiration, attendance, self-esteem?
  • Why is debt you have no hope of paying back fine for students but bad for countries?
  • Whose voices are going to be missing from the wider conversations and absent from our universities in ten years’ time, because of fees, because they’re critical thinkers but not great mathematicians, because they can’t afford college, because they’ve been told their chosen field is worth less than others, because they don’t believe their education is worthwhile any more?
  • Why are universities covered by the Department for Business and not the Department for Education, anyway?

And the anger is going to get bigger as the injustices are perceived to mount up – the post-Christmas VAT rise coupled with this year’s round of bank bonuses is going to add fuel to the #ukuncut fires – and some of the anger will stop being directed at Nick Clegg and his merry band of pledge-skippers and start to be aimed at others in power. Dumbledore’s Army are already marching, and for all the pearl-clutching about yobs poking Camilla with sticks and the discourse about falling support for students, the narrative has escaped the cosy confines of the right-wing press. Groups of kids are using decentralised technology to organise protests in real time – and making jokes about Godzilla at the same time. They don’t need the support of the Daily Mail. They’ve got their networks, and the Mail doesn’t matter any more.

And bear in mind, while everyone on every medium is talking about peaceful protest, that this is a group of young people who have never seen peaceful protest work. This is a generation of politicians who have never listened to peaceful protesters, no matter how reasonable. Would there have been resignations if there hadn’t been a pitched battle going on outside?

“This is not good news for anybody”

After work today I went to the student protest. Been itching to get there all day – 20 minutes from the office, and the helicopters buzzing outside the window like wasps, and the constant, hypnotic stream of tweets on #demo2010 and #dayx3. The horse charges covered by the BBC news (though I can only find this one-line mention of it online, now); the baton-beating of a journalist that went unreported on the rolling TV news. And the debate, another stream of words passing hypnotically by. I couldn’t not, at the end of the day, grab my iPhone and go.

I arrived not long before the vote was counted, a few minutes before the news spread that the measures to raise the cap on student fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year had passed by 21 votes. My small corner of the protest was pretty calm, all told, because I was kept outside Westminster Abbey along with a crowd of a couple of hundred newcomers on the outside of the kettle, with a double line of mounted cops and riot police with short shields between us and the massed students filling Parliament Square.

Twitter was light years ahead of the mainstream media. I passed more than one journalist on the outside of the cordon who didn’t have a clue what was going on, and the fact that I had a phone in my hand made me a magnet for people wanting to find out what was happening inside the boundary.

They talked to me, and I talked to others, and though most didn’t want to give their names all were happy to talk. This is some of what was said.

A woman whose 16-year-old son was still in the kettle:

I was here with a friend earlier and we were in the crowd when the horses charged. We just ran away.

I’m so proud of my son. I agree that it’s wrong to raise the fees like this. I supported him coming here – I came myself – but the police were getting so heavy handed in there and I’m scared for him.

I have a daughter who’s applying now to do film studies and you have to wonder what they’d think of that, the Lib Dems. It’s not what they value. But then with the cuts to science, you wonder what they do value, whether they value anything at all.

A man dressed in motorcycle leathers, who wouldn’t take off his helmet after he came out of the demo:

They were using Section 60 and searching everyone. They wouldn’t let anyone out without filming them or taking photographs. It’s not legal to do that. They have no right, but they wouldn’t let people out otherwise. They trapped us in there and now they won’t let people out. It’s not right.

Overheard, from a group of 15- and 16-year-old girls, giggling as they stamped their feet to keep warm:

We need a better chant. It’s so cold. “Freeze the fees, not our feet!” “Should we stay or should we go?”

A police medic, between politely directing lost cyclists and concerned tourists to various destinations via routes that didn’t go through the riot directly behind him:

It’s a long day. We’ve been on the go most of us since about 7am – I was running with the march when it started this morning. I’ve been all over. I spent a couple of hours with someone who was injured, a protestor – hit on the head with a bottle or something like that. People throwing things, it’s bound to happen. I did stop for a Twix and a cup of tea at one point, but I reckon we will be here a while yet. It’s not going to be a nice night.

Overheard, another policeman, talking to a student:

That’s nice of you, but I’m not meant to eat Nik Naks while I’m on duty.

Joey, a 17-year-old girl who’s studying for her A-levels:

I’m waiting for some friends who are still in the kettle. We ran into a boy, he said he was 15 and he’d come here with a group of older students, like 20 or something, but they’d gone off or he’d been separated and he couldn’t find them. He seemed, like, really immature and unsure and we said he could stay with us but in the chaos we got pushed one way and then we couldn’t find him. I hope he’s OK.

Sandra, a retired mum of two students who are studying elsewhere in the country:

It won’t affect me personally, or my kids, but it’s still wrong to expect young people to start life with such a huge debt around their necks. Of course fewer students are going to go to university. No one wants to be in debt the rest of their lives – that’s why the government wants to cut the deficit, after all. But this isn’t the way to go about it. It won’t even help.

Jodie, 14, who cares for her mother, who is scared her disability benefits will be cut due to the coalition changes to the system:

If I can’t get the EMA I can’t go to college. That’s all. I’ll have to work, because mum can’t support both of us on her benefits. So that’s it for me. That’s it. It’s over.

A student from Nottingham, who had missed his coach home because of the difficulty leaving the demo:

Of course it’s been cold and hard, but it’s been well worth it. It won’t stop here – it can’t stop here. It’s not over. You never forget the first time someone breaks your heart. Nick Clegg is done. We have to keep fighting. But this is not good news for anyone.

There’s another post in the works, a more thoughtful one, about the decision the coalition has just made and why I feel it’s so horribly misguided; my feelings on that are inextricably bound up with and informed by the fact that I was one of the very first batch of 16-year-olds to get the EMA, on a pilot scheme in Birmingham, and without that fact there’s no way in the world I’d be in London, a journalist, typing this. I wouldn’t have A-levels. And that changes how I write about it. So that post is for later.

David Cameron is Voldemort. No, seriously.

I’ve lost count of the number of articles on the student demos that start like this: Where did the passion come from? Why are students – schoolchildren – teenagers – taking to the streets in their thousands to protest, all of a sudden? Isn’t this the apathetic generation who doesn’t care about anything?

Frankly – no, no it’s not. I don’t think it ever has been. But the popular media has told itself, and the rest of us, a very sad story about young people that isn’t entirely true, and it’s not a surprise to see the mainstream media startled by a sudden, vocal proof that one of their favourite narratives just doesn’t work.

The mainstream media delights in telling stories about terrifying, terrible youth. Soaring youth crime and inner-city gangsThe fattest teenager in Britain. Pregnant at 13. Asbos. Yobs are taking over the streets. 12-year-olds encouraged to have sex early. Drug-infested schools. And yes, these are cherry-picked, but it’s easy to find dozens, hundreds, thousands of stories like this, many with the same or similar headlines. It’s much harder to find positive stories on youth that feed into such well-known narratives – a good news story about young people is framed as an anomaly, proof that our Asbo-ridden drug-taking pregnant yobbish terrible youth is not quite as broken as we all, of course, thought.

Sure, the media reports prodigies too – and then delights in their downfall. And when a child star fails to fall, there are gleeful attempts to toss them down – vile upskirt photos of Emma Watson on the front page of the Star; jeering at the temerity of Daniel Radcliffe to appear naked on stage. Positive, uplifting role models for our teenagers, that we rip apart for sport. For newsprint.

But for thousands of young people the stories just don’t hold true. They aren’t pregnant at 15, or drinking on street corners, or morbidly obese, or on heroin, or committing knife crimes. They’re just trying to grow up. And for those children – the ones we see marching on the streets now – there’s another story that resonates much more strongly with their lives.

So let’s talk about Hogwarts, Harry Potter and the Idealised Transition Into Adulthood. Let’s talk about the series of books that has defined a generation’s relationship to its school days, to its society, even to itself. The teenagers on these demos are far more likely to have read Harry Potter than any newspaper, at all – not only because the books speak to them but because the media speaks about, of and for them instead, and not in a very pleasant way.

Harry Potter offers an escape. It offers a world where Broken Britain barely intrudes at all, and the realities of everyday life – broken homes, morbid obesity (Dudley), vicious child abuse – are left behind Harry as soon as he enters Hogwarts – as soon as he enters education. And within those walls is a world where bullying is rife and problematic, sure, but teenage pregnancy, drugs, alcohol, knife crime, all the myriad vices that the Daily Mail ensures us are endemic in today’s teenage culture – they simply don’t exist. Here’s a story that helps middle-class kids make sense of themselves without telling them they’re failures. Harry Potter is even a pioneering ground for participatory media – it’s not such a huge leap from fanfic and forum roleplay to the sorts of joined-up stories and easy control of narrative that pervades the UCL occupation.

Most importantly, let’s talk about the Deathly Hallows, the final book in the series, where education (in the form of Hogwarts itself) has finally come under such strenuous and sustained attack that our heroes decide to go rogue. Throughout the whole series politicians are weak, easy to manipulate, refusing to listen to children until it’s too late. They appoint Dolores Umbridge. They fail to notice the return of Voldemort. They fail to act decisively. They fail.

And throughout the series the children’s appeals to authority fail, but hard work and persistence and simply Being Right is enough to prevail in the end. Until the end, when, in a world without Dumbledore’s kindly smile to smooth over the cracks, the teenage heroes – sixth-formers, let’s not forget – must take on the assembled weight of the entire political system to try to prevent that system from destroying itself. For the sake of education, they fight, and they die.

Stories – especially popular, populist, wildly successful books, especially fairy tales and moral tales like this one – are a culture telling stories to allay its fears, to resolve the conflicts it fears will shatter it in two, to make sure there is a happy ending after all. They are like dreams, in that they enable the body conscious to process difficult events, working them into a pattern, a narrative that makes sense and which they can survive. David Cameron is Voldemort. Nick Clegg is shaping up to be Professor Quirrell, but he’s also got a shot at being Snape – in tomorrow’s vote on education cuts and university fees we’re all expecting him to kill Dumbledore, and only time will tell whether he’ll be redeemed by his later actions.

The media and popular politics paints teenagers as bad guys, as problems, as passive blanks or as villains. Harry Potter paints them as our saviours – our righteous, furious, glorious saviours who will do what’s right, even if it looks wrong to us, because it’s what’s necessary. Even if it’s violent. Even if it gets them into trouble. Because the world will be a better place in the end.

Why on earth are we surprised when they take to the streets?