Thursday brought a visit from Anthony Horowitz. He held a crowd of 300 sitting on the sports hall floor for 2 hours, not an easy gig, captive. He talked about his awful boarding school experience and how villainous versions of his teachers die gruesomely in his novels. He said: what if the ghosts of the RAF pilots and the cold war spies once based here appeared in school?
I’d like to see them. I think they’d wonder what the hell was going on. I wrote the last blog after London Bridge and before the election. Since then, the election, Grenfell Tower and Finsbury Park mosque. I’ve never known what to do about angry men loving violence except to try to educate them out of it and encourage girls to walk away. I do know a bit about public services, though, and I’m up to my neck in compliance. Throw me a rope, would you?
Housing is difficult because no-one’s making any more land and the public’s assets were stripped a generation-and-a-half ago. It’s expensive to build, takes skill to manage and relies on assumptions about the common good that appear to be fading into the past. When Beveridge fought the Five Giants of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease housing was a key solution. We decided that people should have safe homes to live in and that the state would provide them. After that, we sold off loads of the stock, stripped councils of the money and the powers they needed to keep it safe and available and lauded those who reduce council tax so that the stock and the staff crumble.
And piling Pelion upon Ossa, compliance. That cladding might have been cheaper, but it was OK because it ticked a box, and another box marked ‘value engineering’, no doubt. And the response: it looked like chaos but it probably ticked its boxes. And the fire escape plan? Well, there was one. And the PM’s visit? Best described as a box left unticked. Good job the Queen knew what to say. On which part of planet Conservative and Unionist does that make sense?
Public services can’t be replaced by box-ticking. Targets are important, perhaps even necessary, but never sufficient. When you strip away all professionalism, all respect for the job and most of the money, and leave civic institutions with compliance matrices rather than public values then we’re all, literally and terrifyingly, at risk. Literally in schools where the cheapest and easiest exams became the system’s calibrations, terrifyingly in tower blocks where no one’s job was to worry about the welfare of the people. The strongest survive such blinkered negligence but the vulnerable suffer. Children always suffer.
Schools are model communities where we look after society’s young until they’re old enough and clever enough to fend for themselves. We have to chug along regardless while the world outside falls apart, so we’ve been entertaining ourselves in the mornings. One of the problems in exam season is that the big spaces are full of desks and anxious young people with see-through pencil cases and you can’t assemble for weeks. Assembly is the glue of a big school and things fall apart without them. So, brainwavingly, assembly in the dojo. Notwithstanding the awkward access, potential bottlenecks and the matter of the shoes, we’re loving it. Half a year squash up on the seats and the others sit barefoot and bootless on the mat. All facets of assemblies (uplifting thoughts, Byzantine instructions, the Reading of Lists, expressions of grave disappointment) are delivered in socks. Normal, even with year 9. We stand together and think about the lives of others. We did it on Thursday last, in assembly, because that’s what’s best to do. We didn’t need to be told.
Beveridge’s last words were ‘I have a thousand things to do’ but I worry that we’ve replaced symbolism with action. I worry that declaring a minute’s silence is intended to hide a tragedy of negligence in the clothing of a natural disaster. I worry that crowdfunding and selfless volunteering are expected to fill a vacuum left by an austere and individualist state. I worry that we value economy over responsibility and I worry all the time about the example set our children. I wouldn’t be surprised if the pilots and the spies decide to haunt us all.