TONY BLAIR AND THE MURDER MACHINE (1995)

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

The story of Tony Blair's son and the posh school Blair chose to send him to has, it seems, done the jumped-up little middle-class pipsqueak a lot of damage in the labour movement.

So it should. We must, however, be clear on what exactly is wrong with what Blair has done.

Why shouldn't Blair get the very best he can for his child? The answer depends on what you feel about children whose parents have no such option. That is, the big majority of children.

Last autumn, with my son, Thomas Ruah, I attended the graduation ceremony for 16 year-olds at an East London school. It was an emotional occasion, and one which, I think, sheds some light on the Blair affair.

The big assembly hall - the walls almost completely hidden behind hundreds of drawings and paintings and sculptures which students hod produced in their last year – was packed tight with parents and school-leavers.

After the ceremony, in which there was a lot of razzamatazz and self-congratulation by officials, a big crowd of young people stood around for ages talking.

As they said their goodbyes, hugging each other, at this first great disembarkation point in their grown-up lives, the scene reminded me of emigrants and their relations and friends taking leave of each other at the dock side.

Walking around looking for people to say goodbye to, some of them were, intermittently, in tears. I watched this scene, waiting for what seemed a very long time for my son to satisfy his need for contact with those who had been his schoolmates - and I too was more than once close to tears.

Tears for those wonderfully fresh and alive, intelligent and eager young faces. Tears at the thought of what awaited many, perhaps most, of those youngsters, and for what capitalist society and the school had done to almost all of them.

For this was a "sink" school. In terms of exam results, and therefore the future prospects of the children, it is one of the worst schools in a borough which is one of the worst in the country.

Not so long ago, serious race conflicts had erupted there. One boy was stabbed and almost died.

Teachers did their best, in vain, in impossible conditions, with crippling underfunding which, for example, had ruled out all science experiments for the two years before GCSE. The results were what you would expect.

Of 180 of the school's boys and girls who took GCSE examinations, only 11 per cent got five or more passes at grades that would allow them to continue their education. That means that only about twenty young people emerged from that school last year with the minimally necessary education! For most of the rest it is Y T schemes, dead-end jobs, or worse.

Worse than that. The 160 exam "failures", and the dozens who did not get as for as the end exam, will have come out of this process seriously damaged. Youngsters who are at the peak of their intelligence and receptivity have had an education which sends them out to face life convinced by their experience at school that they ore “not bright", or are "limited", or that they ore seriously stupid. Above all, that books, and all they represent, are not for them.

A lot of those children will have had the idea hammered into their personalities that the subjects they did at school are beyond them. They will blame themselves, not the school system, for their lack of basic education.

Their schooling has thus in large part been an inoculation against even the possibility that they will in the future try to educate themselves.

Those children have been intellectually mutilated.

So too, some of those who, like Thomas, "did well" emerge damaged, for they carry a load of guilt about their friends who never had o chance.

"The Murder Machine" was Patrick Pearse’s title for a famous indictment of education in Ireland early this century. Those words describe the British education system now. For vast numbers of working-class children it is nothing but a bourgeois murder machine!

The school I describe is close to the very bottom, but many working-class children have the same sort of experience, all over the country.

That parents should try to get the best education possible for their own children seems to me to be both natural and proper. Faced with a good City Tech college at the end of the road, it would be perverse to opt instead for the Sixth Form equivalent of the school I have described. You are forced to play the education system as it exists now, when your children need it, however loathsome you may find it. The alternative is deliberately to penalise your own children.

What is wrong with what the Blairs have done is that only a handful of people are in a position, because of chance, wealth, or education, or a combination of these, to play the system. For the leader of the Labour Party ostentatiously to indulge in educational “conspicuous consumption" like this is to spit in the faces of all those who can't.

And it was to add to the spit a raucous yuppie jeer for Blair, immediately afterwards, to slap down Labour’s Shadow Minister of Education, David Blunkett, for daring to talk of taxing the school fees of the rich. Blair thereby seemed to line up the Labour Party with those who happily work this privilege-oriented and class-divided education system of ours, and against those who say that in education we need one integrated system, with equal treatment for all our children.

The Oratory School, where Blair has sent his son, is not only an opted-out school. It is also, as a religious school, a school which can arbitrarily select its pupils. Its head teacher is a leading Thatcherite. According to Doug McAvoy of the National Union of Teachers, it is the only school in the country which has opted out of the statutory arrangements on teachers'pay and conditions.

Where the unions are concerned, of course, Blair is no different from an outright Tory, even though he is trying to line up the unions to get rid oF Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution (the one that commits it to nationalising industry).

I don't know all the alternatives open to Blair; but I'll bet his options included many schools better than the schools which most working-class children in East London go to. Or any other part of London.

We need Labour leaders who, unlike Blair, are committed to breaking up the murder machine through which working-class children are now fed in the course of being educated to take their destined places in capitalist society. A Labour leader, right or left, with decent human instincts would be a great improvement on Mr Tony Blair.

Having a Tory leading the Labour Party is bad enough. This guy lacks the instincts you would still - even now - find in an occasional decent Tory.
Against the Tide
SO 621