Yesterday the Guardian journalist Michele Hanson wrote about visiting Holland Park School, which opened in 1958 as the first purpose-built comprehensive in London. My own children, who are taking A-levels this summer, are leaving that school with good memories, not least of some fine individual teachers. But Hanson’s piece is depressing.
Hanson herself taught at the school in the early 70s. Now, she ‘can barely recognise the place’. Many of the differences have to do with appearance: security guards, neat lawns, uniforms, suits, ‘a swizzy vase of white flowers’ on a spotless table. ‘No litter, no graffiti.’ And, for a school with 1,400 students, a disquieting lack of noise: ‘The foyer, which used to be the children's favourite meeting place, is gleaming and silent.’ In a classroom: ‘More immaculate, shiny surfaces . . . Only the teacher speaks.’ As she tours the school she witnesses the immediate correction of any slightly out-of-line conduct: a boy with his shirt untucked, a girl wearing plimsolls instead of ‘shiny black shoes’, a girl with her bag on a desk instead of on the floor, a teacher with books on the floor instead of, I suppose, on a desk.
She quotes the headteacher: teachers, he says, need to ‘see part of their job as playing a role and appropriately manipulating children to fit in with what the end product has got to be.’ And an internal memo to teachers: ‘Check, monitor, assess, challenge student progress/performance by rigorous application of current results against predicted data.’
The school is being run as a business, the ‘end product’ here being not profits but exam results. And in business terms it’s successful: year by year, the school has been moving up in the league tables. The ‘complete DNA change’ that Hanson notes at Holland Park is hardly surprising, because everything now is saturated with the jargon and methodologies of business management – the NHS, the police, government and politics too. (And publishing.) But jesus, it’s depressing. Predictable quote from a newly retired English teacher: ‘In the last few years I felt that the school had lost its soul.’
The school maybe, but not, thank god, all those who walk, shirts tucked in or not and shoes shiny or scuffed, through its corridors. Not ‘students’. Boys and girls when they enter, young men and young women when they leave. They know what’s going on. You can regulate and bureaucratise the soul out of an institution with dismaying ease, but individuals are spikier, bolshier, more resilient.