I hope you’re bearing up under the workload I suggested a fortnight ago. I imagine your action plan is coming along beautifully. And me? Inspired by a Norwegian visitor, I’ve been thinking about free school meals. How the Vikings have changed over the centuries.
A long time ago in a school far away I was in charge of the free meals queue. This was a Friday lunch duty where children eligible for free meals queued up to get dinner tickets for the following week. In that school, in the 90s, children who paid for meals paid with cash, but free meals children had tickets. (In another school everyone had tickets but free meals were a different colour). Anyway, the free tickets queue seems a brutal way of doing it, to modern eyes. We might as well have put a sign up saying ‘Poor kids, line up here’. I used to try to make it The Line to Be In with song-and-dance routines and jokes as well as top-notch training in the conventions of queuing.
Technology freed us from this and changed the world for the better. Cashless catering preloads free meals money. Everyone pays the same, rich and poor fingers alike, no one needs to know who’s free.
Free school meals are of course our major proxy for deprivation, for the children who have the biggest struggle in life and who, nationally speaking, tend to do less well at school. Some of your predecessors in Sanctuary Buildings haven’t liked to speak of such things. Your dear old predecessor Gove was prone to call any reference to differences in achievement mapped against poverty as ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’, blaming teachers for self-fulfilling unequal expectations. I haven’t heard you on the matter but doubtless you concur.
The self-fulfilling thing is insidious the other way though. A report by the redoubtable Sutton Trust into why normal people can’t afford to live in London makes some interesting comments about how rich people picture themselves in contradistinction to the poor.
Top earners do not see themselves as "especially fortunate" because they are "surrounded by numerous other people like themselves", says the study. The report warns of a social and geographical separation, with very affluent people in London having infrequent contact with those facing much tougher circumstances. They are likely to espouse values of meritocracy, while being part of a process that has seen social mobility becoming less likely.
In plain English, sir, if you will, that means that rich people never mix with poor people. They don’t understand that security of wealth also secures educational advantage. They assume they do well because of their own efforts, because they were naturally born cleverer, harder-working, more insightful, go-getting, resilient, plucky rather than lucky. That chap who plays Lewis’s cross oppo thinks along these lines.
However, policies made exclusively by those who have never had a moment’s anxiety about paying the rent or putting food on the table have a tendency to blame the vulnerable for their lack of gumption and devise direr punishments for poverty. It leads to universal credit inflexibility, drains schools and hospitals of money, closes libraries, sports centres and youth clubs, derides the public service and blames the poor for not being richer. It makes it unacceptable to draw a line between poverty and the experiences that lead to educational success, despite the education system being designed to reflect, support and reproduce the experiences of the rich, in the wake of cultural capital. Why would you want to face a terrible human problem when you can just tell people its unseemly to mention it?
We’ve had a community day at Tallis today on celebrating diversity, though we tend not to include divisions between rich and poor in such events. At first lunch I struck out with my warmed-up stew and berthed alongside a shipmate who was about to launch a sonnet with year 8, namely, Robert Hayden’s beautiful tribute to the remarkable slave and liberator Frederick Douglass:
When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.
Mr Williamson, your people of the comprehensive schools have a dream like this of education as a beautiful and terrible thing, necessary as air, and useful as earth. We want a world where none is ignorant, none excluded or alienated. Yes, we aim to teach the rhetoric, legends, poems and wreaths of bronze. But we do it focusing on the flesh-and-blood lives that we try to grow. We do it despite struggle, injustice, poverty and the wilful misunderstandings of those who have everything to lose by flinging open the gates of opportunity, of London and saying – take your place, you’re welcome.
Mr Williamson, seize the day. Abolishing child poverty is the beautiful, needful thing that would garland you with sonnets. Wouldn’t that be worth trying?