The last time I wrote, I was in a bit of a frenzy – OK, I was a total headless chicken. I was preparing to stand in front of a selection meeting for prospective Labour councillors for the ward of Camden Town with Primrose Hill. That happened on Thursday night and the winner was none other than the favourite, a lovely Italian chap called Lazzaro Pietragnoli, who is chairman of the local branch and saved the library in Primrose Hill. I thought he was great and that he deserved to win. He won and I say good for him.
So what did I take away from the process? Firstly that putting my head above the parapet briefly made me a public figure. This is something that I found a little bit odd. Secondly, I discovered that I really enjoy speaking to an audience – I did it before when we made the deputation for the playcentre, but this time I felt I found my voice. Finally, I had some nice comments after the meeting which made me more determined to carry on – Reese is not a quitter.
However, it was also nice to go back to normal and reclaim a bit of head space, so I could think about something other than politics. As I’ve said, I use my time on the bus to and from the college for reading and my imagination has been fired by a strange little book I found lurking in the bottom of my bag.
My friend Lu Hitchin had given it to me and it’s called Look at Kids.
It’s a mixture of text and photos of children who, since the book was published in 1972, are probably approaching 50 these days. The author is a woman called Leila Berg, whose name vaguely rang a bell. A quick Google revealed why: Berg was an old-school socialist and progressive educator, who comes up in discussions of AS Neill, Sumerhill School and the ill-fated Risinghill Comprehensive School in Islington – closed down by the Inner London Education Authority for being too far out (even in the 60s).
Look at Kids makes no secret of its progressive values, full as it is with descriptions of both brutality against young children (I found some of these passages painful to read) and also cold and repressive parenting – the former is associated with poverty and the latter, middle class aspiration. Berg believes strongly that kids need love, nurture and should learn through play – a million miles from the target obsessed culture that dominates our educational establishments from nursery classes through to university. Leila Berg would be horrified by a creature such as Michael Gove
and his plans to take the curriculum back to the 1950s – Kings and Queens, facts and figures, spelling, punctuation, times tables – you get my drift.
Yet in a weird way, someone as far left as Leila Berg and far right as “Govey” have more in common than you might think. Both Gove’s utterances and Berg’s writing betray a suspicion of the State’s suitability to regulate the lives of individuals. Govey is a free market freak (with lots of mates in big business looking to get their snouts in the trough), while Berg’s objections seem more humanitarian – she rails against council estates where kids aren’t allowed on the grass and tells the fantastic story of a young mum who sticks it to the caretaker on her estate by sticking a paddling pool on one of these hallowed grass spaces. In the Berg book, “the Council” is a grey, stony and inhuman presence; the antithesis of life itself. The council is basically Big Brother from 1984.
I guess I found this intriguing as I read the book on Friday, the day after I went for the selection interview. In a time of rapacious monopoly capitalism – banks, supermarkets, Murdoch, Facebook, McDonalds, big oil, big pharma, edu-business, you name it – local councils seem, by comparison, to be the epitome of benevolence. But back in 1972, Berg wrote:
The children on Council estates cannot keep animals and cannot grow flowers. I am sure children need to be in touch with the earth, need to have their fingers in soil, and their eyes looking into an animal’s or a bird’s eyes. These children are dissociated from the universe, and the rhythm of the universe; they are like a note that has been hurled out of the score.
I found this intriguing as in Camden, where I live, there are dozens of initiatives designed to encourage urban children to interact with nature and many of these are funded by the local council. We have the City Farm in Kentish Town, community gardening initiatives in parks and on estates, while schools work hard to make sure kids have access to nature – I have a lovely photo of my son posing with a very handsome owl on his shoulder because owls were bought in to his school a few months ago.
Without the intervention of bodies like local councils it is doubtful that many kids in cities would have these experiences – London Zoo is only about a mile away from our house but we have only been a handful of times because it is very, very expensive. You can buy a family pass but then there are snacks and toys on sale that will soon relieve you of your cash.
The Berg book also resonated with a talk given by the excellent Neil Selwyn at our residential day on Wednesday. Selwyn’s aim was to puncture the hype surrounding the impact of technology on schools and encourage critical thinking about things such as social media – kids can hang out online, teach themselves and share knowledge in a way that makes some people believe that the traditional school is now redundant. The guru of such thinking is Stephen Downes, who believes in such concepts as “E-Learning 2:0.
Downes’s point of view can be seen here:
Here is his theory in a more diagrammatic form:
Ideas like this aren’t new; the idea that people would share information via a network of computers is discussed by Ivan Illich, whose “deschooling” movement was very much in vogue in the Sixties and very much in the consciousness of progressives such as Leila Berg. These ideas inspired the creation of “free schools” in the 60s and 70s – the writer Jenny Diski describes setting one up in an old goods yard in Kings Cross (with money given by Camden Council).
How intriguing it is that the word “free school” has now taken on such toxic connotations – a vehicle for pretentious snobs like Toby Young
to remove their children from the mainstream State sector without having to cough up school fees. Likewise, theories suggesting the replacement of schools with websites and teachers (all Trots) with software is very appealing to Mr Gove, especially since his old mucker Rupert Murdoch has expressed an interest in this area.
This was in the news last week
So I guess even when I’m trying to escape from politics by reading a random book given to me by a friend on the top of the bus, I find myself thinking and writing about politics all over again; looking thorough a strange ideological looking glass at the world I emerged from – ie the 1970s. Berg’s book presents a familiar world ( a London full of children living in desperate poverty) but at the same time very unfamiliar world – photos show washing lines full of cloth nappies rather than landfill sites full of Pampers that won’t decompose for the next 200 years. I understand her issues with authority – with the uniformity and petty regulations of social housing – but wonder how she feels about the creation of a city that only the super rich will soon be able to live in.
As you know, I like to end on a song and I kind of think this ties in with what I’ve been trying to say. It was filmed in Islington Green Comprehensive School, transformed into an Academy for vast sums of money and renamed City of London Academy (as a nod to its sponsor, our old friends The Corporation of London). The Academy is doing much worse than the failing school it replaced:
However, Islington Green lives on for ever in this: