The Closure of Greendale Community School, Kilbarrack: or education and socialism. February 17, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Education, Uncategorized.
Some of you might have caught the television reports last Friday evening concerning the Reunion at Greendale Community School in Kilbarrack. The school is closing after numbers have dropped precipitously over the past decade or so. Opened in 1975 Greendale has always managed to leverage – well, something, some quality so that it has truly been a centre of excellence particularly in terms of writing. Take a Guardian report about Silvio Burlusconi’s wife Veronica Lario in her public letter to him a couple of weeks back regarding ‘thoughtless quips’ he made about other women. As the Guardian put it:
Ms Lario said her husband’s comments could not be dismissed as jokey remarks. Hinting at how deeply they had hurt her, she said she felt like a woman in one of the novels of the Irish writer, Catherine Dunne. “I ask if, like the Catherine Dunne character, I have to regard myself as ‘half of nothing’,” she wrote.
Well, as it happened I was there myself as a former pupil between 1978 and 1983. So when registering in the gym it was a gloomy pleasure to find myself in a long line of those who had attended between 1975 when the school opened and 1980 (registration was in blocs of years, 75-80, 81 – 85, etc, etc). There was also a certain surreal quality to find oneself wandering around with a garish green sticker with 1978 printed on it stuck to my lapel seeking out others of my ilk. And find them I did. The faces were familiar, but different…most of them. Anyhow, it was an interesting evening and for once more about the pupils than the school or the staff.
What was striking though was that uniformly those I met had nothing but good words about the school. And even more striking was that many of those words centred on the concept that the social mix within the school which drew students from across the North side and across social classes led to a situation where as one person put it to me ‘we could go out and stand toe to toe with anyone from anywhere and have no sense of being in some way lesser’. This I’d note came unprompted and from people who had no idea of my own political beliefs. And sure, any school will generate a degree of pride of place and so on. But… remembering Kilbarrack and Dublin in the 1970s and early 1980s during such crushingly impoverished times…perhaps such a strongly egalitarian approach at the core of the school ethos was a necessary support for those entering into a fairly grim world. A story another friend recalled which encapsulates a sense of the times was of a teacher chided by a substitute teacher for implying pupils should go to college with the words ‘for God’s sake don’t give them any false hope’. Thankfully the general approach tended towards pushing people to be ambitious in their lives whether in terms of skills, third-level education or whatever.
I had the interesting experience of spending one year in fee paying school located in Dublin after finishing my Leaving Cert in Greendale. And although I would praise some aspects of it, particularly the enlightened attitude of the religious there who being Jesuits tended towards a radical liberation theology influenced stance (videos of the social struggles in El Salvador and other parts of Central and South America were an interesting and truly educative feature of religious classes) quite at odds with the broadly middle class and upper middle class attitude of the students and parents, I have no sense of it really being ‘my school’. Moreover despite excellent facilities and good teachers it lacked the spark of Greendale, that sense that it was truly pushing barriers, both intellectual, social and otherwise.
On this subject, it’s a fundamental cornerstone of my own socialism that education is a key part of the mix in creating a society which strives towards social justice and a sense of egalitarianism. To me it seems that state education up to and including second level is a necessity. I’m strongly aware that there is a tension between libertarianism and statism in this area, and it’s a tension I share myself. It seems illiberal to force parents to send children to state schools yet not to do so leads to a pooling of social groups that even our new social mobility is not going to alter. Indeed our new much vaunted wealth is leading to a renewed emphasis on private second level education as ‘free’ third level frees up resources for the middle classes keen (and genuinely so) to ‘ensure the best’ for their children. Yet, there are arguments for a comprehensive system going well beyond curriculum to promote social solidarity. Lest this sound like a completely authoritarian approach I’d suggest that there are models available that would permit a degree of flexibility in terms of allowing actually greater autonomy for parents and children in organising aspects of their education (and here I’m thinking of home schooling, religious tuition, etc) around a core of the comprehensive curriculum.
I was reading in Prospect about Tony Crosland, author of the Future of Socialism and British Labour Party theorist who had struggled to implement comprehensive education. As Denis MacShane writes:
Crosland’s [other] sustained argument was on secondary education, which he saw then, as it is now, as the Achilles heel of building a reformist, classless, creative Britain. In his book, he called for 75 per cent of all places in private schools to be given to a range of pupils from all backgrounds. Comprehensive schools should be based on streaming by ability. Crosland would turn theory into practice when he became education secretary in 1965. His famous circular 10/65, which “requested” local education authorities to move toward comprehensive education, is today widely recognised as a disaster. His junior minister, the much tougher, more experienced Reg Prentice, begged Crosland to make the verb “required,” not “requested”—an order, not a plea. Crosland refused. As a result, instead of a major reorganisation of education on a par with the creation of the NHS after 1945, the move to comprehensive schooling was a long drawn-out agony, with a leakage of richer families to private schools.
Sounds familiar? What’s remarkable is not that Crosland failed or as MacShane puts it: “Today we have an apartheid secondary education system as a result of Crosland’s botched reform. The metropolitan elites reject state secondary education for their own children.” but that he tried at all, and saw it as a crucial component of his socialism.
Crosland is regarded in some respects as being on the right of Labour, somewhat akin to Tony Blair a generation or so later. And yet here he was arguing for comprehensive state based education, although note that he wasn’t abolishing private schooling – simply altering it out of all recognition. But when a 1950s Labour reformist offers up a vision of education in society which is more radical than anything we hear today in our society from our left parties (consider this from the Labour Party) then I think it’s time to think about the issue a bit more deeply.
Still, that’s what reunions do. Throw up the difficult questions.