Is it just Barnsley or are new schools going up everywhere? Every village I drive through it’s the same story. The existing building torn from the map and a new one in its place. Great Houghton . Darton . Darfield . Hoyland Common . Mapplewell. Bolton-on-Dearne . Brand new schools. And what’s even more shocking – overnight. No messing about. No hanging around. One minute there’s elaborate stone work or glazed red brick Victoriana, where for over a Century generations of children have been force fed facts about the Battle of Hastings and Richard the Lion Heart. German verbs beaten into their backs with canes. Where they have benefited from the character building experiences of exclusionary team sports and compulsory bullying. The mental torture of long division. Then… Whooshta. All change. Old building ripped down and a new one unfolded in less than twelve hours. Straight out of the box. Connect flap A to socket B, a quick twist with an Allen key – away you go, brand spanking new Secondary Modern all ready to be burnt down in the next half term.
I blame Gordon Brown.
Gordon Brown whose media approach as Prime Minister in the wake of Big Tony is to adopt the sly, professional oily grace of undertakers when they’re craftily flogging you the more expensive casket. I met him once, at a tea and biscuit drive for left-handed awareness. The Staincross St. John’s Church Hall. Gorged himself on jammy dodgers and those iced biscuits that no one ever seems to know the names of. The marbly-looking things. He carries with him the faint aroma of embalming fluid and the sub-zero temperature of the mortuary. Anti-septic. I sat there, nervously dunking a bourbon and chocolate buttercream sandwich into an over-sugared milky coffee, fixed to my wooden chair by his impenetrable glass eye. And then that smile. Chilling. Tom Sharpe’s The Throwback. It is the smile of a hastily reanimated corpse. A nervous tick. It’s not a smile at all, it’s the automatic reaction of a poisonous sea anenome when it’s poked with a sharp stick. At best a polite social response without any emotional context. Always accompanied with that hint of embarrassment at being caught doing something so frivolous. Levity. Is this Scottish Presbyterian guilt or an automaton struggling with an unexpected procedure? And then there’s the frantic way he digs his tongue repeatedly into the side of his mouth as if he’s trying to dislodge grainy biscuit crumb that’s worked its way down behind his gums.
You just know that his handshake is ice cold.
It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open…
But to get back to schools. The quiet scandal of new school building appals me. I mean, look at them aesthetically to start with. Flat pack from Ikea. They come in two types. The wood cladded primary schools (Ercöl) and the secondary schools with the funny purple tower near the reception (Breestå). Identical. It’s the Tesco approach to education. The appalling, comfortable homogeny of it. Victorian buildings dragged down and replaced with balsa cladded chipboard. Bastards. And then we have to consider that somebody somewhere is making a bloody fortune. And as usual it’s the tax payer that’s forking out for it. All of these new buildings are knocked up under the auspices of Private Finance Initiatives. A 1992 Conservative idea. In 1997 New Labour re-branded them ‘Public-Private Partnerships’. A government license to print money for dodgy firms. These schemes are used not only schools but also hospitals, road building, prisons, everything. The system works simply – private firms build the school and then we the tax payer ‘rent’ it back from them over the next few decades. The pay back rate on the cash is astounding. It’s the equivalent of a bloke going into Dixons to buy a 96 inch flat screen TV. Advertised at £2,500 he obviously can’t afford it outright. However, if he makes a small regular payments of £90 over the next 360 months he can easily spread the cost and go home with his shiny new gadget here, now, today. And the TV will ultimately cost him £32,400. And have stopped working at some point in 2009. Sound like a sensible approach to public spending? It’s a financial time bomb ticking away. A typical primary school – complete with swings, a really big chess set and a hopscotch grid painted on the playground tarmac – will end up costing £200,000,000,000 by the time it’s paid off. By which point the gerry-built structure will be on the verge of collapse and will need to be replaced by a new one. Why didn’t they ring Ocean finance? Or those friendly people at Picture? Gordon Brown on the ‘phone from number 11. ‘How much do we want to borrow? Twenty-five billion.’ Shields the mouth-piece and silently queries the sum with Tony Blair who’s putting together an Airfix model of a Harrier jet to play out the bombing of Baghdad on the lounge carpet with Jack Straw. John Prescott stood on hand with the enamel paints. A steaming choca-mocha. Tony nods, an enthusiastic thumbs up. Gordon beams brazenly. ‘Yes, twenty-five billion,’ he confirms, rictus smile. ‘And that will cost us how much to repay in 30 years…?’
A fucking fortune, mate, that’s how much. A fucking fortune.
And will these new school buildings make the children who occasionally see fit to attend them any better educated? It’s doubtful. Let’s face it – extremely doubtful. E-numbers, bad and disinterested parenting, TVs in bedrooms, hooded tops, the rise of the X-Box and the text message assault on basic spelling and grammar stand in the way of a decent learning. And what about the insidious influence of hip-hop, I hear you say? Too right. The Wu Tang Clan and the baggy, fluorescent homies that float in their wake have kicked the seven shades out of erudition. Ho’ chasing motherfuckers. Bring da ruckus. The Panda Pop trash culture of reality TV and Jeremy Kyle. A new Dark Age looms. Illiteracy and misogyny. No respect unless it be for wealth and third rate celebrity. The year zero of 1977 perverted and turned up until the white noise of 50,000 screaming Lorraine Kellys is deafening. School buildings are the least of education’s problems.
And another thing. Why am I pushing my long irons, what’s that all about?
I blame Gordon Brown.