I attended an inspiring panel discussion given by Writers Bloc last night, a new writer-led initiative which explores education throughout the world. The Orange-nominated Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie and Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie both spoke, talking about their experiences of the Pakistani and Nigerian education systems. They have both written essays, together with other writers like Zadie Smith and Hari Kunzru, which explore various education systems throughout the world through the lens of a novelist/writer; in all cases, the writers have visited the country in question, looking at a number of schools. Shamsie has explained the project here for the Guardian. You can join the Writers’ Bloc Twitter/FaceBook stream here.
Kamila highlighted Melissa Benn’s book, School Wars, because she felt that many of the issues that Melissa raises in School Wars are relevant across the globe; again and again you find wealthy elites providing well-resourced schools for their own offspring and “kind” at the expense of other groups, leading to a big divide between the education of the rich and poor. The talk was salutory for me because it reminded of a basic right that all children on earth should have but are frequently denied: to go to a good local school and not be turned away that because of their perceived intelligence, their religion, or their wealth. Unfortunately, we have a system in this country that frequently does that: millions of child can’t go to their good local school because it’s either a grammar school, a religious school or it’s got some kind of obscure admissions’ criteria which basically favours “wised-up” parents, usually who are well-off. When you think about it, it’s a completely shocking fact that a so-called civilised country like ours should treat children like this. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke eloquently about the Nigerian system, which I’ve seen first hand, where private schools are generally quite well-run, but government ones are usually very poorly run. I’ve seen first-hand the terrible conditions many Nigerian children suffer in their schools because money is siphoned off by corrupt officials and never reaches schools: 70 children to one broken down classroom, no books, no proper desks, not even a blackboard. I will never forget finding one school, which had been entirely gutted, smashed windows, no furniture, and discovering a few students crouching pathetically in the hallway trying to memorise an out-of-date English grammar book. Adichie called for radical reform of the whole system but didn’t hold out much hope because the vested interests in Nigerian are quite happy to keep the vast majority of the population totally ignorant and illiterate; after all, if the people knew what their rulers are doing, would they tolerate it?
Nigeria is at one end of the scale, where a powerful, corrupt elite have a total grip on how things are run, intent upon salting away money for themselves and telling everyone else to get lost. Unfortunately, here in the UK the current government is putting mechanisms in place whereby corruption is going to be much, much easier: the lack of transparency of free schools and academies, the secretive practices of central government, the bolstering of private companies and endorsement of fat cat salaries for the CEOs who run the school chains, all mean that our children lose out at the expense of the elite. Furthermore, it’s all a massive distraction from the key issue: we desperately need radical reformation of our schools admissions system so that every child here can go to their local school.