Tuesday 4 May 2010

Mrs Angry's Schooldays

Mrs Angry was a convent schoolgirl. Yes, thank you, I have heard all the jokes.
Sadly, the character building experience bestowed on me in my tender youth is one that future generations of Catholic girls are unlikely to undergo, due to the dwindling numbers of bad tempered nuns willing to endure an eternity worse than purgatory itself in the Catholic educational system. It's a shame.

On the subject of Catholic education, incidentally, how curious that both Barnet Eye blogger Roger Tichborne and Mrs Angry were traumatised in their childhood by the same wooden ruler wielding spanking enthusiast Miss O'Donovan, notorious teacher and tormentor of innocent six year olds at St Vincent's school in Mill Hill. This fine example of Christian love and motherly guidance died some years ago and is apparently buried in Ireland: if any reader knows where exactly, please let me know so that I can fulfil a long cherished fantasy, make a trip across the water and dance on her grave. Thank you. And yes, I can quite see how certain readers may feel that Mr Tichborne and I were not spanked hard enough. On the other hand, perhaps this abusive treatment sparked a life long hatred of injustice and a desire to do something about it ... And if there are any Bishops out there feeling guilty, a small apology and may be a papal dispensation for a few days less time in hell (let's face it: I am heading in that direction) might be a suitable gesture of remorse.

After escaping St Vincent's, I went to what was then a convent grammar school: St Michael's, in North Finchley; still there, still teaching Catholic girls, still a grammar school, but no longer a convent as it ran out of nuns some years ago, caused largely by a number of them, including the head teacher and head of the order losing their vocations, possibly in despair at having to teach me, and then running away to get married. Yes, really. Perhaps you will not be surprised to hear that Mrs Angry came very close to being expelled from this school, aged 12, for being accused of organising a demonstration and sit down protest against the teachers, actually, may I point out, quite unfairly, although I did take part, and ironically in one of my later careers did become a trade union convenor and organised a couple of strikes: who would have thought it.

Why am I mentioning all this? Because last week, a letter appeared in the Daily Telegraph, signed amongst others by Miss Ursula Morrissey, my old sixth form tutor, and the present headmistress of St Michael's, in support of Tory education plans. This support is apparently given on the basis that a Tory government will help to provide 'real freedom' in education and enable schools to be, and I quote, 'free from local authority intervention'. Ursula: Mrs Angry is very disappointed in you. Take a detention, and stand by the gym cupboard until half term.

Hold on: I'm having a flashback.

Now the Conservative definition of 'freedom' in education is a very interesting thing. Freedom in this sense is from the same list of Tory obsessions as 'choice'. What this means, unfortunately, in practice, is actually choice for the middle classes, and freedom from any obligation to the children of disdvantaged families.

Which brings us back home to Broken Barnet, because one of the unacknowledged truths about our borough is the stark contrast in living conditions and opportunities for those with means and those without.

Some while ago I was invited, with other members of Barnet's Citizens' Panel, to attend a presentation and consultation evening by the local healthcare trust. What is the Barnet Citizens' Panel, you may be asking? Well, it was started some years ago in the days when our council thought it might be a good idea to ask residents in detail what they thought of their performance. There were a lot of surveys and questionnaires along the lines of how fantastic do you think Barnet Council is? I was asked to join the panel one day when I was wandering past Tescos, and can only assume it was because I looked fairly sane and wasn't holding a can of cider. For some reason, like so many Barnet enterprises and services, this Citizens' Panel has been quietly dropped. Could that be, by any chance, because the answers received were not what the council administration wanted to hear?

At the health trust presentation meeting we were given some really shocking statistical information about the borough's residents, and their access to healthcare. We were told, for example, that here is a significant difference between the life expectancy of residents in disadvantaged parts of the borough, and those living in the more affluent areas. The disadvantaged areas tend to be to the west and south of the borough, where there is a more marked distance from the nearest hospitals, yet presenting a higher incidence of conditions requiring screening and support such as TB, and sickle cell disease. Does it matter if poorer people, often without their own transport, have to travel to get to clinics and hospitals miles away? They can get on a bus, can't they? The elderly, the sick, pregnant mothers with small children? Of course the buses which are promised when hospitals close have a tendency to disappear when no one is looking, as in the case of Edgware Hospital - or not exist in the first place, as in the case of the Royal Free and Chase Farm.

The same sytem of apartheid exists in our borough when it comes to education.

Yes, there are some very high acheiving schools in Barnet, the ones our council boasts about: St Michaels', QE Boys, Henrietta Barnett etcetera. But these are selective schools. To stand any chance of passing these exams a child must be tutored for at least two years beforehand, at great expense, and if all else fails the parents of those children can usually pay to have educated privately. What about the rest? In the good old days, entrance to selective schools was on the basis of the eleven plus, a snapshot assessment of innate natural ability and intelligence, unenhanced by tutoring. These days a bright child from a deprived background stands little chance of being assessed on the same level as a child from a more affluent background. So they have to make do with the schools which are not selective. And for the disadvantaged families of this borough, unless they happen to live in the catchment area of a good state school, they are stuffed. There are some very bad schools in this borough, which are completely boycotted by middle class parents who are able to play the system, and even move if necessary. This is hardly an option if you are a tenant on an estate somewhere, or living in temporary accommodation on a restricted income, now is it?

If you are lucky, like my son, you are entitled to attend a faith school, in his case the excellent Finchley Catholic High, a boy's Catholic comprehensive school. For Catholic girls, however, there is a major problem, as there is no comprehensive: there is a mixed establishment, whose name and reputation strikes fear in the heart of any practising Catholic, and consequently is full of non Catholic, inner London pupils. St Michael's prides itself on its national high ranking and success: frankly, as it creams off the highest acheiving applicants from any where in the London area, to do any less well would be impossible. How much more of a challenge,and service to the local community, it would be to copy FCH, and provide a comprehensive education for girls from all backgrounds and of all abilities. In the meanwhile, local Catholic girls must travel out of the borough to attend a decent girls' school (if they are accepted rather than local girls) and St Michael's happily welcomes girls from Croydon, Wimbledon, Leytonstone: ridiculous. This example of what happens within the Catholic community is typical of what happens in the borough as a whole. Vast areas of the borough are not in a catchment area for a good state school: parents who can, push their children into selective schools or pay: those who can't have to put up with the awful ones who consistently score at the bottom of the league tables, and no one cares as they are of course in Labour voting areas.

Will Conservative plans to give more 'freedom' to schools, more control to headteachers, and more 'choice' to some parents benefit the less advantaged children in our borough? No, it won't. It will lead to more selective schools, with their own idiosyncratic admissions policy which will be exploited by the middle classes: the children in the less advantaged areas will continue to have the worst schools, the worst healthcare, the worst housing and live in areas where crime and antisocial behaviour are part of everyday life.

Welcome to Broken Barnet.

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