May I highlight for my right hon. Friend a free school that will be opening in one of the most deprived wards in Wolverhampton next year? It will provide a real ladder for social mobility for young people. It is a great, tangible advert for what this Government are doing in education, and he is more than welcome to visit.
Oh dear. The usual tissue of untruths. It's true that a 'school' is opening in the city. The rest is spin, starting with the adjective 'free'. It's not free. It's paid for by us, the citizens of the UK. 'Free' in fact means 'outside the planning and supervision of the wider community'.
The School is Anand Primary. It has a revolting and rather evasive video which may induce vomiting:
working tirelessly to deliver a new Sikh ethosWhich rather implies that there's a coherent, discrete Sikh identity, of course. And that Sikhism, alone of all religious doctrines, is entirely beneficent. But let's not get into those deep waters.
What else? Well:
Our school will be a safe, happy and eco-friendly place dedicated to giving your children the best start in life. The highest standards of teaching will be complemented by a wide range of extra-curricular activities to enable all the children to fulfil their academic, creative and sporting potential.A wise man once said that if a statement's reverse can't be plausibly delivered, then it's meaningless. I'll give it a go.
Our school will be an unsafe, unhappy and wasteful place dedicated to giving your children the worse start in life. The lowest standards of teaching will be complemented by no extra-curricular activities to enable a few of the children to fulfil their academic, creative and sporting potential.See? Nonsense. And I'd be very surprised if a school of 60 pupils with no actual premises is equipped to deliver all this anyway. To say nothing of the nasty little secret at the heart of Free and Academy schools: they're exempt from laws requiring qualified teachers, minimum nutrition standards, democratic governance, Freedom of Information compliance and a host of other rules which have transformed state schools in recent years.
Then we reach the Sikh values:
Wow. What a radical and distinctive moral vision. Don't cheat, work hard, be responsible for your actions and be community minded. All very nice, but I'm not sure we need an entirely separate school to promote these values: I very much suspect and hope that all the other schools in the locality hold the same ideals. Except Business schools of course. Those people are scum.
- Kirat Karau – which means that we should all earn our living through honest means and hard work. We should all take responsibility for ourselves and should never compromise our integrity.
- Vandd Shakau – which means that we should share the fruits of our toil with all. We should respect everyone and work in the self-less service of all.
- Naam Jappau – which means to keep God in mind at all times. To not waste a second of the time we have on this planet but to use it to become the best that we can be.
Naam Jappau is, I suspect, the real point of this establishment. Despite the video's claim that the school will be open to all, its purpose - like that of all religious schools - is to provide segregated education without interference. Plenty of dishonest non-religious parents send their children to Catholic schools, for example, but I suspect that it won't happen in this case. The proof is in the eating, of course but religious schools tend to become ghettos, which are not well-known for achieving social mobility.
'Oh, but you're just a big racist', I hear you objecting. 'Catholics and Protestants and Jews all have separate schools'.
Don't worry, dear readers. I hate those schools too. And I know whereof I speak. I only attended Catholic schools. I've been physically assaulted by the Sisters of Mercy, the Christian Brothers and the Benedictines. I'm also familiar with the Northern Irish education system, whose segregation has perpetuated state-sponsored sectarian hatred for generations. Schools controlled by a particular religious ethos promote separation, isolation and superiority. They encourage students to see themselves as Chosen People with a secret code to Paradise rather than as free and equal citizens rather than privileged members of an Elect. They also retard intellectual development: at one of my secondary schools I became convinced my name had been changed to 'Shut Up', as that's the reply I got to every question on religious matters. Inquiry is never given free rein in a school which assumes as a matter of policy that there's a deity (or deities). The rights and needs of subjugated groups are never accepted - what links most religions is misogyny and often homophobia.
My Catholic education was psychologically and culturally damaging. It was also, with the honourable exception of one school, educationally substandard. Inquiry was limited, certain subjects were verboten (I lived in a state of perpetual ignorance with regard to sexuality, gender relations and basic biology for many years afterwards) and challenging ideas went unmentioned. It was no battleground of ideas. There were no questions, only pre-packed answers.
This city doesn't need religious schools. The ethnic groups which want them aren't persecuted and fading away - the Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims are strong, proud and enduring traditions here. They're free to educate their children religiously at home and in their places of worship. What we don't need is an educational system which systematically promotes segregation (and let's not forget that Sikhism is one of the few non-proselytising religions: it's an ethnic category as much as it is a religious denomination). Children should learn about each other's cultures in school without a teacher telling them that one lot is right/Chosen/going to heaven and the rest are misbegotten heretics. Schools shouldn't, to be blunt, exist to reinforce division, untestable claims and the status quo. How many free thinkers will we get from schools whose ultimate answer to every question is 'Because God says so'?
But returning to Paul Uppal. What's this bit?
It will provide a real ladder for social mobility for young people.Seriously? How? What's the metric? How will removing some children from existing primary schools and sending them to a new school based on religious and ethnic identity promote social mobility? As far as I can see, it will retard it. Social mobility is about working-class people moving into the professions and income brackets (though those who like the idea rarely mention the possibility of downward social mobility). It's a class and economic issue, not an ethnic or religious one. At this point, Mr Uppal is just spouting arrant, embarrassing nonsense. They're just words, signifiers with no signified.
Social mobility means closing the fee-paying schools, abolishing Academies and Free Schools and taxing the rich and the likes of Apple and Google to make sure that the resources of Eton are available to all children everywhere. There's no secret to how fee-paying schools get good results. They weed out any child they don't like. They have tiny classes and resources coming out of their ears. In the state sector you don't get £30,000 spent on you per year until you go to prison, where there are fewer ski trips and lacrosse lessons.
This city doesn't need more money diverted to vanity schools. This city has a food bank. I'd humbly suggest that an economic structure which ensures people don't depend on charity to stave off hunger would be a greater contribution to 'social mobility' than any amount of niche educational establishments.
I despair, I really do. My only explanation other than wilful stupidity is that Mr Uppal is a racist cynic. He's decided that the Sikh community will deliver him a bloc of votes if he promotes this scheme – and that's all he needs. Personally, there's a lot to admire in Sikhism, and I've got nothing against Sikhs, just as I have nothing against most religious bodies, other than their baffling need to install some form of deity in the scientific gaps.
Paul has just returned from a country which explicitly identifies itself as a Jewish state. Its Muslim population is legally discriminated against in every area of life. Both sides see the other not as humans, or fellow citizens, but as enemies. Despite the similarities between Judaism and Islam, religious difference has become religious hatred because the communities never meet - just like Northern Ireland, only hotter. Is this what's inspired Paul's mission to Balkanize this small and relatively peaceful city?
Will the other politicians in the city oppose this and other 'free' schools and 'academies'? Not a chance. None of them see any electoral advantage in challenging the discourse of 'choice' (as though it's a magic solution for all ills) or 'identity politics' - and votes trump principles. Personally, I think secular schools run by a democratically-elected council which has the resources and the strategic oversight to plan for the city's needs is a proud and radical idea. But everybody else would rather retreat to the tactical jockeying and appeasement we call democracy.
And people call me cynical.