Five Guys, Industrial Authenticity and Communal Luxury

Everybody knows what authenticity looks like. Hand-made, artisan, rustic, wooden, hearty, traditional, handed-down, rough around the edges, folk, old-fashioned. Certainly this is what recent claims to authenticity, especially in the world of food, have foregrounded.

But of course what is always elided is how this authentic food is made available to the consumer. Medieval artisans had a shit life, and the only thing of their’s that today’s artisanal food retains is their image.

As was recently pointed out by Rachel Laudan in Jacobin the history of food has been one of the overwhelming success of culinary modernism. For thousands of years advances in technology and science have improved our ability to grow, harvest and process food to the point where we are able, without too much difficulty, to feed 7 billion mouths with nutritious food. It is as a direct result of the industrialisation of food production that we have within our grasp, a slightly iniquitous distribution of property notwithstanding, the ability to grow more than enough food for everyone with relatively little human labour.

However, in spite of the staggering human achievements of culinary modernism and industrialised agriculture, the last five to ten years have seen a cultural turn away from the modern and the industrial and back to the hand-crafted and artisanal. Which is why a recent trip to Five Guys in Cambridge was so refreshing.

The restaurant is on a new-build entertainment development, and it has the high-ceilings and plate glass windows of the sort of standardised ‘commercial unit’ that has sprung up on brownfield in every town in the country in recent years. But instead of taking this box and turning it into a cosy ‘authentic’ ‘restaurant experience’, such as the faux-50s Italian diner of Frankie and Benny’s next door, this standardised industrial aesthetic has been embraced. There is no suspended ceiling; the lighting and various ducts and pipes are visible above your head. The floor is made of simple, inexpensive, plain grey tiling. The bins are simple cheap moulded plastic. The tables and chairs are made from plain and cheap plywood and vinyl. Dotted around the restaurant are stainless steel racks where boxes of peanut oil and sacks of potatoes for use in the kitchen are stacked.

Five Guys

A gleaming stainless steel machine

The kitchen itself is also proudly displayed to the customers. It is a gleaming, stainless steel machine, clearly designed to be as efficient and clean as possible. All of which makes for a surprising antidote to the usual authentic artisanal schlock that has become unavoidable in the last few years.

But Five Guys, in spite of this industrial aesthetic, still manages to claim the label of authenticity for its food. Its menu is tiny, its food is relatively expensive, and the overall effect it creates is of an All-American staple, of a proper well-cooked hamburger with excellent fresh crisp fries. But the message of Five Guys’ aesthetic is that this authenticity, the ability to create such excellent food in the quantities in which they do, is a direct result of the industrialised mode of its production. It’s a different route to authenticity based in honesty, in the sense of transparency, rather than the simulacrum of authenticity that has recently swamped our lives.

Five Guys food

Ingredients piled on stainless steel racks

How is this of any importance? Food is a basic everyday necessity – it takes a major chunk out of the pay packets that we all give up the better parts of our lives in search of. Five Guys’ aesthetic is a reminder of the fact that what we’ve been told, that it requires all of us to work all of the time in order to reproduce society, to house and feed ourselves is a lie. Centuries of human ingenuity and inventiveness have enabled us to meet all of our collective needs with very little work at all. Machines haven’t made us redundant; they’ve liberated us.

Indeed, it is telling that the authentic artisan has reappeared as a figure of the zeitgeist in the years since the financial crisis of 2008. Of course, Borough Market has been back on its feet for nearly fifteen years now, but it is only in the past five that it has become a congested nightmare of tourists and slightly pissed money enjoying the weekend. And it is in this period, as the artisan has taken its place as the figure of our time, that we have been working harder and harder for less and less money. The gains of the twentieth century, under the welfare state, made possible through the use of modern machinery, have only recently begun to unravel. Diseases virtually nonexistent since the last Queen was on the throne have reappeared, pay has stagnated or fallen and people are working harder for longer.

It no longer feels like we’re benefitting from the onward march of modernity, even as that march rushes ahead faster than ever, and our eating habits have changed to keep pace with our experiences and expectations of the economy.

But it’s not that modernity has stalled or that the machines have delivered us into a nightmare of low-wages, longer hours, ecocide and rising instances of mental health problems. The problem is that the machines have owners, and their owners prefer us poor.

But there is no liberation to be found in going back to making everything ourselves by hand. Machines have created the conditions in which we could all, if we wanted to, spend the vast majority of our time in leisure, enjoying the fruits of communal luxury. We need to reclaim modernity, and the idea that we can use technology and machines to improve our lives.

The more machines that we can make to carry out essential work, the less work we will have to do ourselves and the more time we will be able to spend as we please. Five Guys, with a gleaming kitchen stuffed with labour-saving machines, staffed by only a handful of workers, and with a fancy self-service soft drink machine that lets you choose between dozens of different drinks at the swipe of a touch screen, suggests what such a world might look like.

The Coming Schools Crisis

By all accounts teaching has become a pretty miserable profession in the past few years. From speaking to more experienced teachers this slide seems to have been underway for a while, but it has undoubtedly reached new levels of unbearability under Gove and Morgan, record highs which it will certainly challenge in the next five years.

But why is this? What’s been happening and why are people still signing up to teach, albeit in declining numbers?

Teaching remains hugely rewarding. I’m still slightly incredulous that what I’m doing on a daily basis is my job. Yes, it’s stressful and frustrating, but it’s also infinitely more fun and rewarding than any office job that I could think of. But at the moment, as the job constantly demands more attention, emotional investment, energy and time, this fleeting and increasingly rare enjoyment is the only thread by which the whole profession is hanging, and it’s beginning to fray.

Firstly, it requires pointing out that funding for schools did increase slightly under the last government, roughly keeping pace with inflation. But this was only true of 5-16 education, with funding for 16-18 education being cut back, leading to those secondary schools with an in-house sixth form having to redirect funding from their 11-16 budget, and several standalone sixth form colleges closing outright.

But even where schools budgets have roughly remained steady over the past five years, this has not meant that schools have necessarily been able to function in the same way as they did in 2010. For one, austerity has handed schools a whole host of new problems with which to deal. Children are finding life harder.

As a direct result of austerity their nutrition has deteriorated, which makes the day at school harder for them to negotiate.Their mental health is widely reported to be suffering.Their families increasingly can’t afford the basics required for them to attend school, and teachers are increasingly dipping into their own pockets to meet the shortfall.

A population bulge is making its way through the primary system at present and is set to make landfall in secondary schools in the next few years, and the secondary system will doubtless be told to provide for this without funding meaningfully increasing to account for it, all the while hearing that the schools budget has been protected.

Moreover, the dramatic cut in capital funding for school building programmes will, without a stark change of policy, lead to this increase in the size of school populations having to be crammed into school buildings designed to educate many fewer, which will not contribute to anyone’s wellbeing.

Elsewhere, the threat of OFSTED and forced academisation has led to an extremely high-stakes environment for test results, with a single blip in attainment or in the level obtained in an inspection often being used as an excuse to shut a school and hand control over its many lucrative contracts to an academy sponsor which is explicit about being more interested in making a return for shareholders than it is in providing a high-quality education.

This raising of the attainment and inspection stakes has led to senior managers loading an excess of additional work on to classroom teachers, without increasing their numbers. This has taken the form of an explosion of data being recorded and managed by teachers in order to attempt to track students’ progress and attempt to intervene as soon as possible after a pupil has begun to deviate from their expected curve of progression, regardless of the fact that most teachers are aware that progress in a subject cannot be measured in this stultifyingly simplistic manner, of simply expecting a pupil’s attainment constantly to increase along a pre-identified curve, and that many, if not most, of these demands for data from senior management are a complete waste of their time.

An anecdote to illustrate this: recently, at my placement school, many teachers were furious because senior management, in response to an OFSTED inspection at a nearby school which found that their provision for students eligible for the pupil premium, ie the most deprived students, was insufficient, demanded that all staff, with two day’s notice, add an intervention for every pupil premium child that they teach onto the school’s data system. They didn’t ask that teachers think hard about how to improve the education of these pupils; teachers were simply required to produce a mountain of evidence, even if that evidence is fundamentally meaningless or tokenistic. Some of these interventions are shallow and barely helpful, and have been written for the sake of proving that they have been written. Many of the students don’t require specific interventions, but management demanded and teachers provided in a climate of vague threats about having talks in the head’s office should they not comply. GCSE preparation for Year 11 and mock feedback for Year 10 simply had to wait, and many people ended up relinquishing their bank holiday to the endeavour.

Added to this, the advent of performance related pay is going to be used by senior management to control and monitor teachers even more closely, and it is going to be a source of even more anxiety on the part of the profession as teachers’ ability to afford mortgage payments and Christmas presents becomes contingent on the performance of a group of sixteen year olds in a two hour exam at the end of two years of study.

Another trend that has become noticeable in recent years is the manner in which pay distribution in schools has changed. Academisation, as well as a widespread managerialist response to the funding cuts at Sixth Form and FE level, with the appointment of executives in the place of heads and deputy heads, and the casualisation of the teaching staff, shunted into jobs as ‘lecturers’ and ‘tutors’ that pay by the hour, has led to the pay packets of senior managers ballooning in recent years.

When you set this alongside the only slight increase in overall schools funding, it should be clear that a net increase in cash going to schools does not necessarily translate to a net improvement in the daily lives of classroom teachers.

This is not a call for increased teacher pay. Teachers aren’t, as a whole, demanding better remuneration in return for this increased burden on their time. The point is that the burden on schools has increased, while the amount of money being spent employing classroom teachers has remained stagnant or even fallen in real terms, with the number of classroom teachers employed in state secondary schools remaining roughly steady since 2010. An unchanging number of teachers are being asked to cover this increasing list of demands being made of schools, and rather than eating into the schools budget these demands are into teachers’ lives instead.

Casual conversations in and around the staff room (the population of which is steadily decreasing as staff barely have time to eat their lunch while walking between canteen and classroom) abounds of extra-curricular activities and staff social events enjoyed by many a decade ago having become casualties in the drive to meet the demands made of you as a teacher in this country today, which is, essentially, that you must work almost all of the time.

These things are hard, and they are making teachers unhappy in their job and family life (it was recently pointed out that only one member of staff in our faculty had children, an inevitable consequence of the demands of the job). But teachers have endured them because they care passionately about the children they teach, and because their careers are dotted with the moments of intense joy that educating young people can bring.

But the signs are that the profession’s resolve is beginning to snap. A steady stream of findings that should raise the eyebrows of anyone with a passing concern for the future of the profession has recently been appearing in the press.

Thus we hear that four in ten Newly Qualified Teachers quit within their first year of teaching. This would merely be wasteful if it weren’t for the fact that applications for teacher training have been plummeting year on year, leading to a £50 million increase in school spending on supply teachers to plug the gap.

Meanwhile, the Department for Education’s own figures shows the number of teachers quitting the profession reaching a record high this year, having increased by 25% in the past four years. This represents roughly one in twelve full-time teachers quitting the profession each year.

It should be clear, then, that something over the past five years has changed to damage teachers’ collective resolve. It is no longer a healthy profession, and it is no longer a profession in which people are able to survive for very long. As a result the teaching profession is fizzling out, steadily burning through teachers faster than it can replace them.

At present the school system is remaining above water by breaking young teachers and leaving them exhausted by the wayside after a couple of years. The most extreme version of this is perhaps Teach First, more than half of whose graduates decide not to return to the classroom at the completion of their two year course, but this is also happening to young teachers who have taken on significant quantities of student debt in order to fund their training at universities in pursuit of a PGCE (I’ve added around £13k of student debt to my own personal mill stone).Teaching is no longer a profession in which you can reasonably make a career with any pretence of keeping your health and your family life intact. It is a profession that is dying.

The only short-term response to this unavoidable fact that I can imagine is that our schools are, in the very near future, going to be kept afloat on the backs of unqualified teachers (look out for a Conservative Party policy announcement near you that says something about private schools not requiring qualified teachers, meaning that state schools shouldn’t either, with no mention of the fact that this will be an attempt to paper over the recruitment crisis) as well as Teaching Assistants, who are probably going to end up delivering lessons pre-prepared elsewhere, who the government will be happy and able to be burn through and replace far more quickly than professional teachers, given the lack of professional training required. (Incidentally, I’m sure someone somewhere is lining this up as a lucrative business opportunity as education consortia will doubtless begin to sell fully-prepared schemes of work to departments which can’t find qualified teachers).

I doubt schools will shut, and I’m sure everything will be done to portray this as an obstreperous profession selfishly demanding more holidays than they already have, and a wise government making hard decisions to secure our ability to compete in the global economy. But in short I can see the secondary education system as we know it, in which children are taught by subject specialist education professionals, able to assess and then meet their individual needs, ceasing to exist in the next five years without a significant increase in funding in the schools budget to pay to employ more teachers in order to reduce the average teacher’s workload.

What to do about this?

The prospect of the NUT’s recent agreement to ballot for strike action should a significant increase in schools funding not be secured in the Autumn Budget, which it doubtless now, under a Tory government committed to securing the education budget in cash terms only, happy to let it shrivel with inflation, won’t be, offers a glimmer of hope, if only as a chance to spend a day catching up with marking and planning.

But the time for largely symbolic one-day strikes is over, especially in the face of a government that has already made up its mind and to which increasing public expenditure is anathema. If we as a teaching profession truly want to protect our secondary school system from its onrushing death we’re going to have to escalate to something of the order of an indefinite strike, a tactic which has seen recent success at Lambeth College this year and on the part of Chicago teachers in 2012, that makes it clear to the rest of society what is at stake for the education system and that makes the issue practically and politically unignorable for the government.

We’re going to have to do this and we’re going to have to do it soon, before we turn up at school for the first day of term and find there’s nothing left to defend.

Upward, not forward, towards the neoliberal school


Always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!

The school will be modern. It will be transparent. Dynamic. Multi-faceted. Outward-looking. Future-oriented. A vector for social mobility. Professional. All about student progress. Unaccepting of mediocrity. It will action tailored interventions. It will incentivise excellence. It will foster an ethic of civic-mindedness. It will be aspirational. Inclusive. Green (!).

Its students will be traditional. Well-behaved. Respectful. Diligent. Hard-working. Worthy. They will strive. They will act like their parents’ parents. They won’t talk back. They won’t step out of line. They will do what they’re told, in the name of winning the global economic race. They will wear a kilt in 2015. They will develop a flexible skill-set fit for the 21st century. They will be marketable. 20% of them will not be able to find a job, nor eek out an existence from the miserly and ever-shrinking welfare state, but this will be their fault. Because look how sleek and modern a school we built for them. We gave them every opportunity, more than their parents ever had. They should have worked harder. They should have been more traditional. They should have been more modern. They should question nothing.

Bulldoze the country houses! Concrete over the walled gardens!

Whenever I read of a fading aristocrat purring that their crumbling pile has been ‘saved for the nation’ by being taken under the protective wing of the National Trust I am immediately filled with an urge to reach for the petrol can. It rankles something deep within me, this haughty presumption of cultural worth, and the manner in which the ravages of the modern world are, implicitly, threatening to destroy it.

The presumption that underlies this claim is that all that is old is good. The older the better. There is value in history, and our cities, towns and villages will be better for the more old stuff that is preserved within them. Contemporary buildings provide mere infrastructure; the historic provides the soul of a place.

Yet in spite of the fact that I am tempted by a spot of arson every time it is obediently trotted out by the Mail, this sentiment is also simultaneously tempered by a very real sense of how beautiful many of these buildings are. Indeed, my desire to punch flush-cheeked aristos in the face is counter-balanced by my visceral appreciation for, to pick one among many, Ely Cathedral’s staggering beauty.


Ely Cathedral

How to reconcile these divergent feelings?

Firstly, it is worth pointing out that preservation and demolition are both explicitly political acts. Even walking away from a building and letting it decay into a Ruskinian tangle of ivy and soft-edged stone is political. The manner in which we treat any aspect of the built environment speaks eloquently of our ideologies.

It is important, then, to examine what different types of building are afforded these different treatments, and why.

The obvious comparison to draw is between the glee expressed in the media over the preservation of a country house and the glee shown at the demolition of mid-century high rises, well represented by the existence of countless television programmes along the lines of Country House Rescue as well as the proposal to televise the demolition of Glasgow’s Red Road high rises. These acts are, indeed, almost identical, in both their ideological origins and their architectural intentions. Both acts seek to fashion the built environment of the present in the image of the class-ridden deferential society that was partially rolled back under the Attlee government: the Downtonisation of the built environment.

Under this rubric, the architecture redolent of the expropriated wealth of the aristocracy and the gentry must be preserved at all costs, being turned into a museum-exhibit of how life used to be before the rowdy mob presumed to ask for any political rights, while the evidence of their ever having obtained any semblance of control over the political system, in the form of decent council housing, must be erased from the grain of our cities.

The ideological nature of this curatorial choice is particularly clear in the manner in which the National Trust often goes about managing the aristocratic piles that it ‘saves’.

Firstly, it is clear that any building which requires designation as a heritage asset and active conservation work, which is then marketed as a tourist attraction, is an obsolete building. If it worked on its own terms, if it was capable of being put to active use as just a building, even if it required being reprogrammed, for instance being turned into flats, or a community centre, it would not be in need of rescue. In light of this, then, the National Trust steps in to save the supposedly valuable but realistically inutile  from degradation and eventual ruin. However, it does not treat these buildings as objects of intellectual curiosity, to be examined and learned from. Rather than remaking these buildings as museum exhibits, the National Trust instead remakes them as theme parks. On the lands around preserved farmhouses, only historically appropriate farming techniques are permitted. Fences must be made from hazel, fields insulated against chemical fertiliser and anachronistic crops. It has nothing to do with learning from the past in a self-aware present; it is an act of resuscitating the past, of constructing a simulacrum of what’s been lost in a misty-eyed nostalgia. It recreates the obsolete and in doing ensures that its legacy persists.

A brief examination of the origins of the modern heritage industry is telling in this regard. Raphael Samuels, in the first volume of his tome ‘Theatres of Memory’, dates the emergence of heritage in the form in which we know it today to the 1980s. This was a decade in which the ruling elite turned its back on the Social-Democratic compromise of the mid-century and began to reassert its control over the working classes. What is so interesting about this is that this economic turn came about as the Social-Democratic compromise began to become unfeasible for the ruling classes. The compromise had been, essentially, that organised labour would receive an ever-increasing share of a growing pie as long as they did not take the whole pie for themselves. This compromise held until it began to look as if the pie might soon cease to grow in the 1970s, at which point the demands of organised labour for an ever increasing standard of living posed an existential threat to the capitalist class, who would only be able to meet these demands by ceding their position of economic dominance, albeit a position which had been largely subservient to the demands and interests of the working and middle classes since the late 1940s.

Of course, it wasn’t just the case that the old elites re-established themselves in their former positions of authority, and wanted us to know it, but that a new financial elite rose to dominance, in historically uncharted territory, creating a sort of neo-feudalist capitalist economy in which the place of God had been taken by ‘hard work’ and that of the old feudal ties by an utterly shallow image of meritocracy. This new elite needed to legitimate itself in the eyes of a subjugated working class that now explicitly had nothing to gain from the triumphant political settlement, and in a postmodern world bereft of any of the old certainties and reduced to the play of sign and surface it chose the architecture of the old ruling class to do so. In a world in which normal peoples’ standards of living could be expected to set off on a negative trajectory it was important that these people once more knew their place in a society delivered back into the tight bonds of class and wealth.

Knole House for Tatler

Propaganda of the deed?

But neoliberalism hasn’t only rested on the shoulders of deference and coercion; as inequalities of wealth have gaped open so too the forces of aspiration and envy have been mobilised to keep working people in line. Instead of the lived reality of improving living standards seen under Social Democracy, neoliberalism offers the pipe dream possibility of untold riches always dangling just out of reach from your position of precarity, immiseration and bare subsistence.

Theme park heritage, weekend trips to eat scones in a patched up manor house and a tea towel decorated with prints of the local country pile are a key component of this culture of aspiration. The message is if only you worked a bit harder, studied a bit more, were a bit more abstemious with your outgoings, you might one day be able to afford to buy something like this, not merely dally in it for leisure, enjoying a fleeting glimpse of how the ruling class lives.

This culture preserves, and rebuilds, what products of the pre-’45 built environment it can find, and it designs new buildings in styles that ape them, that seem to either sneer at, or completely disregard, the existence of architectural modernism and the progressive society that produced and embraced it.

In this way the heritage industry plays its role in maintaining the status quo.

Indeed, in a world in which the words modern, and especially concrete, illicit a reflexive sneer, a world that screams ‘consumer choice’ from the rooftops, but which only offers variations on pitched roof noddy-boxes on out of town cul-de-sacs, our horizons are limited. When the last vestiges of welfare state modernism are finally erased from our cities, either demolished in a carnivalesque spectacle or decanted, stripped, cleansed and reclad as luxury apartments, there really will appear to be no alternative to the architecture of the past, of deference and dominance.

A radical alternative might, then, seek merely to subvert this tendency; to cherish the condemned, and to bulldoze the expensively restored. But, again, Ely Cathedral.

Indeed, although it is true that the built environment inherited from the past may well impose very real limits on the society of the present, and the society that it can hope to become in the future, it doesn’t necessarily follow that removing all trace of the past to liberate the present and future is a productive, let alone a feasible, approach. Indeed, it bears little relation to how society handles the legacy of the past in spheres beyond architecture. It is not the case that each generation torches the archives of their parents. Instead, active attempts to understand or form the present that took place in the past are preserved and studied, and lessons are drawn from them in order to inform the solution of new problems as they are encountered. Indeed, many of the solutions lit upon in the past still, sometimes with a bit of tweaking, work today.

Again, this opens the prospect of simply reworking what we can, of bodging and fixing what we inherit in order to make of it a viable environment for the present. But I can’t see a cathedral being put to much practical use, in any shape or form, in the present day. However, most cathedrals are stunning objects in themselves, and although they are pretty much obsolete in a largely irreligious present, I wouldn’t be happy to see many of them either left to rot or torn down.


Plan Voisin

An alternative approach, one that could find space for the beautiful and useless, might resemble Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin. This was a comprehensive masterplan for central Paris which involved the demolition of swathes of Beaubourg and Le Marais , which were to be replaced with huge tower blocks and urban motorways fit for a modern city. However, this plan was explicitly not, contrary to the popularly repeated line, one which sought to do away with the past. Indeed, it envisaged preserving all of the urban fabric of intellectual, cultural or historical value as museum exhibits in a sprawling park out of which the aforementioned towers rose. Its purpose was to liberate the city from the limits and impositions that the old Paris imposed on life in the twentieth century, by demolishing medieval infrastructure, such as winding narrow lanes, while preserving those beautiful and significant objects from which the present could learn. It sought to build a museum, or archive, of the city’s past, rather than turning it into a theme park of itself.

This approach represents the preservation of the historic as historic. It respects the beautiful: it recognises it as beautiful, preserves its beauty, but is aware that the present and future cannot be subservient to this relic from the past. It recognises that time passes on.

Which leads me to some tentative points of something resembling a programme for a more grown up conception of demolition, one which is more amenable to a progressive politics. They are:

Keep anything that you can reuse.

Preserve any objects of purely aesthetic value as purely aesthetic objects.

Do not let the built environment of the past constrict your conception of what the future might be.

Bulldoze anything that does so.

Perhaps this would mean some poor faded aristocrats would have to watch the seats of their ancient families crumble into ruins. I’m not sure that would be such a bad thing.

Towards a Twee Architecture in the Kent Commuter Belt

A proposed new development on a prominent site on the main road into Sevenoaks from the north has been described by one local resident as “a cross between a Kensington mansion block and the Disneyland hotel,” the Sevenoaks Chronicle recently reported. A cursory glance at Berkley Homes’ plans for the site on London Road suggest that this is indeed an extremely apt description.


Berkley Homes’ proposed development on London Road

It presents two staggered wings to the main road, each made up of one element of four bays, the outer two of which consist of bay windows tastefully picked out in stone from the red-brick facade, with another element to the left made up of two bays, one of which consists of more bay windows, which is surmounted by a plain brick gable. This broken composition is, presumably, an attempt to disguise the enormous mass required to fit 66 one, two and three bedroom flats into a 0.83 acre site. These two wings frame a central elevation, finished in what appears to be a mix of stone and stucco, surmounted by a slim portico above the central topmost bay. In its elevation, and in its plan, which is an H-courtyard with the crossbar pushed far to one end, the designs evoke Jacobean country houses such as Ham House and Hatfield House, perhaps a nod to the residence in the town of James I’s first Lord High Treasurer, in spite of the fact that his house, Knole, looks nothing like this.

This sort of building is nothing new to the burghers of Sevenoaks. Recent weeks have seen the long-awaited opening, to a grand fanfare, of the new M&S on Bligh’s Meadow, the hulking brick-skinned, hipped-roofed, stucco-porticoed mass of which looms over another part of London Road roughly a hundred yards from Berkleys’ proposed development. Across town, in the leafy residential area of south-west Sevenoaks, a new development of Tudorbethan executive homes has been nauseatingly dubbed ‘Floreant Place’ in anticipation of its new residents, they who will presumably be flourishing. Meanwhile, at the Vine, Sevenoaks’ cricket pitch, the gargantuan sandstone and stock brick mass of Sackville Place, a building containing “the most exclusive apartments in Sevenoaks”, has, in recent years, risen to dominate the surrounding area, like a gaudy Neronian palace displaced to the Weald.


A Neronian Palace displaced to the Weald

In other words, Sevenoaks has developed a problem with twee. New building in the town is invariably pitched roofed, invariably made of brick, invariably evocative of historical styles. It is becoming a steroidal Poundbury for stockbrokers and tax lawyers. The one recent building which has dared to attempt to join something like the mainstream of architectural culture in the rest of the country, the housing development on the site of the old Railway and Bicycle pub, built in the brick rectangular grid style so popular since the Stirling prize win of the Accordia development in Cambridge, sits with flats unsold and shop units unlet in a town in need of a lie down and a wet flannel so feverish is the local property market.

This is all very appropriate for a town which has, like its neighbour Tunbridge Wells, become a by-word for a certain class position in England. It has become the archetypal town of the upper lower middle class, one of the first ports of call for aspirational young professionals looking to settle down in comfortable domesticity and raise a family in an area chock full of ‘good’ private schools. It is the sort of place about which you overhear people in suits and open-necked shirts talking on the train, proclaiming their intentions not to move anywhere else since they’ve got the garden, the dog, young Annabel gets on so well at her school, the commute is actually not that unreasonable and where else would one find all of these things at such a relatively affordable price, especially now even zones 5 and 6 are getting so expensive?

Indeed, it is this position of Sevenoaks, as a place to which to move from the city in order to start a family for young professionals, which seems to inform this dominance of overt, borderline ridiculous twee in the town, and it places this twee in a very interesting relationship to inner city architecture. In recent years the term ‘inner city’ has had many of its negative connotations scrubbed from it as, in the wake of Richard Rogers’ pamphlet ‘Towards an Urban Renaissance’, as well as of the Good Friday Agreement and the cessation of IRA attacks on central London targets, urban living has once more become fashionable. Thus the move to a flat in London has become a rite of passage for the middle class twenty-something.

It is this trend among the young professional class, away from commuting from suburbia and towards an urban lifestyle, which has precipitated the boom in apartment buildings in zones 1 to 3 in recent years. The train journey from Lewisham to London Bridge has become something of a museum exhibit of the progress of the architectural expression of this boom. This architecture has been well documented by Owen Hatherley in his Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, but to give a brief summary of it: it tends to take the form either of high-rise point blocks or large massy slabs of apartments; during the Blair and Brown years these buildings were often finished in garish, brash coloured panelling, in more recent years zinc and brick have begun to predominate; decoration, beyond the choice of either loud materials or a signature and curious shape, is minimal. It is, in Hatherley’s terms, pseudomodernist architecture: that is architecture which, although it has very little in common with modernist architecture proper, either in formal or political terms, gives the appearance of being modern by dressing itself in a vaguely modernist veneer.


A pseudomodernist museum exhibit in Bermondsey

This flimsy skin-deep modernism of recent developer-built architecture in inner cities stands in an interesting relationship to the architecture built under the Welfare State, what we might call ‘real modernism’ to distinguish it, which surrounds it, but which has increasingly been demolished or renovated beyond recognition. This was an architecture which was self-conscious about its own plans to build the society of the future. The forms of the past had to be discarded if the society of the past wasn’t to be reproduced, generation after generation. A failure to do so would, in Brecht’s words, be “a bad prospect for those who do not sit at golden tables.” This was meant to be an architecture for those who do not sit at golden tables, and it was meant to be bad news for those who did.

What typified this architecture? It was often constructed from concrete, either poured in situ or assembled from prefabricated panels, which gives many housing estates their repetitious monotony, but, especially in the case of buildings poured in situ such as Camden Architect’s Department’s Alexandra Road estate, which contributes to the manner in which each individual unit of housing is a single cell in a larger whole. They are often austere in appearance, lacking decoration, and bely an interest in the notion of the existenzminimum, in the minimum amount of space necessary for a comfortable and fulfilling life, which is evident in their compact plans. This isn’t the miserly boxiness of contemporary developer-built housing; rather it is the least amount of space required by a citizen of a dense and busy city to live a convenient and fulfilling life in a space carefully designed to match their needs. There is also a sense, visible on some of Southwark Architect’s Department’s tower blocks which you pass on the aforementioned train into London Bridge, of taking a real interest in the quality of light available to each residence. In these point blocks, each of which contains four flats per floor, the balconies are arranged so that two are on the south face of the building, while the flats which take up the north-east and north-west corners of the building have their balconies on the east and west, ensuring that each flat has a balcony in sun at some point in the day. It is an egalitarian architecture intent on providing as many people as possible with a home which is sufficient to their needs and which enables their self-fulfilment.


Alexandra Road

Now this is clearly divergent from recent speculative apartment blocks, topped as they are with luxury penthouses, with so-called poor doors for housing association tenants begrudgingly ceded space by avaricious developers. Indeed, these new, pseudomodern buildings appear to be the antithesis of their ‘real’ forebears, obsessed as they are with individuality, iconicity, aspiration, exclusivity and luxury. It is an architecture for an age “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, in a country where “there is no such thing as society”. That at least explains the tendency for these buildings to be luxuriously appointed, have clear and visible gradations of status between units in a building, and for them to be relatively cheaply built so as to insulate the developer’s bottom line.

But it doesn’t explain why these buildings should be aping the stylistic traits of their radical forebears, even in the sterilised manner in which they do so. Instead, this emerges from the capture of the inner city by moneyed young professionals and the need then to render these areas no longer dangerous, poor, dirty or dodgy. It is the product of three decades of a concerted attempt to scrub the inner city of any connotations of the working class communities for which it was built, and to remake it as private and luxurious. That is to say that this architecture is attempting to capture some of the cultural cachet that goes with the image of the modern city and all the chaos and creativity which has taken place therein in the recent past, which is an architecture deemed fitting and appropriate for the ‘cool’ inner-city neighbourhoods into which rich young professionals are flocking, ‘aspiring’ as they are to fashion themselves as urbane and modern, but without any of the realities that have historically come with it. It is modernism reduced to an icon of itself. Radical architecture as lifestyle choice.

Sevenoaks, however, stands in stark contrast to this recent trend. It is not a town that could in any way justify having the label ‘cool’ appended to it. It is, instead, comfortable. It is a fantasy of the petit-bourgeois good life. It has rows and rows of detached ‘executive’ houses, flotillas of German 4x4s, and two Waitroses. It’s a theme park for the upwardly mobile in which they can live an imagined existence of country wealth, a simulation of the life of the landed gentleman.

Instead of the decaying modernist architecture of inner-city cool, this suburban historicism offers the young family looking to settle down the chance to aspire to the life of the old English countryside, of luxurious domestic comfort, in an architecture which apes that of the landed ruling class. As they abandon their edgy and self-directed twenties and begin to settle into more traditional patterns of domestic life, not unfamiliar to their parents, this young professional class has waiting for them in green and pleasant surroundings an architecture which evokes the old world, of traditional values and social forms, an architecture which evokes and reimagines the domestic arrangements of the historical beneficiaries of the English class system.


Every aspirational Englishman’s house looks like a castle. Or a manor. Or something. Floreant Place.

In many ways, this isn’t surprising at all. This country has developed an intensely dysfunctional relationship with modernism, and with any view of the future as malleable and improvable, as we wallow in imperial reminiscences and xenophobia, progressive governments of the state-educated a blip in an otherwise uninterrupted tradition of the calm passage from Eton to Downing Street, in which the vast majority of recently built housing takes the form of small pitched-roof boxes on out of town estates. What is interesting, however, is the manner in which it is the offspring of the ruling classes, and the young who aspire to join them, who are moving into the cities and adopting the architecture of the urban poor and of the welfare state for a brief period of self-direction and experimentation in their young years before retiring to a detached house doing its best to pretend that Le Corbusier had remained plain old Charles-Edouard and had never picked up a pencil. It’s a pattern of migration which belies just how shallow is the recent revival in the stock of modernist architecture in this country, a mere youthful dalliance, and how far out of reach remains the world for which much of the modernist architecture of the Welfare State was built.

This is what Democracy (in the Classroom Possibly) Looks Like.

This was written in response to Michael Fordham’s blog post entitled ‘Should Classrooms Be Democratic?’, which was published on his Clioetcetera blog here:

It was submitted as a comment on the original article but didn’t make it past the censor’s office (update: I was being unfair, it’s now been approved).


If we take the term democracy to mean ‘liberal democracy as practiced by western nation states in the present day’, then yes, classrooms are, presently, democratic. But this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the notion of democracy if we understand it to take its etymological sense of ‘rule of the people’.

Representative Democracy, as presently practiced in the UK, was understood in the 18th century, especially by the Founding Fathers of the United States, as a fundamentally aristocratic system of governance. This was a system by which a political class could monopolise the organs of power and the discussion thereof, decide which questions they were willing to pose to the masses, that wouldn’t threaten their hegemony, and effectively remove fundamental issues of discussion from debate. To pick an obvious example, there is a reason, in contemporary Britain, that upward of 60% of people support the renationalisation of the railways and yet it is not going to be seriously discussed by a parliament stuffed with parties committed to the ideology of Neoliberalism. Under this system of so-called democracy the traditional model of teacher as aristocrat, as privileged member of a higher group of society who decides what is available for discussion on the part of their pupils, and who responds to unwarranted questions and threats to their authority with recourse to the behaviour management policy is utterly unproblematic. It is a precise mirror of our class-ridden society, and an efficient means of reproducing it.

How, then, might ‘real’ democracy differ from ‘modern’ democracy, especially in the classroom? Here, I feel that direct democracy has been given an unfair hearing. It is not a system in which “every decision has to be ratified by those it might affect”. It is instead a process through which consensus is sought. When that is over an issue of some technical expertise, direct democratic assemblies tend to appoint a working group to study the matter in depth, apply any relevant experience and expertise, and, crucially, act in a manner which is in keeping with the ethos of the group. That is not to say that they come up with a proposition and then resubmit it to the assembly; but rather that they have been granted authority by the rest of the group to act in accordance with an agreed set of basic principles. When it is a more general issue, then yes, a direct democratic body would most likely hold a meeting, in which the views of everyone can be heard, and in which no one’s views are prioritised over another’s due to their status, and in which the final decision of the group will be to undertake only that which everyone can agree upon.

A direct democratic society doesn’t involve a lack of laws, necessarily, or even a lack of authority. The crucial point is that “the people who make those rules” in a direct democratic society are you and I, and we make those rules for a set period of time with a specific mandate, and when that mandate expires, when our working group has outlived its usefulness and has solved the problems it was set up to solve, the members of that working group become you and I once more. Authority in a true radical democracy is fleeting and context-specific. Democracy is not, therefore, a process of exercising some degree of control over “the people who make those rules”; rather, it is a system in which the people who make those rules are the same people who are expected to abide by them.

What are the implications of this for the classroom? We might view the class as a democratic assembly which has nominated the teacher in order to teach it. In a democratic classroom we are not necessarily expecting students to produce their own codification of class rules; rather, we would expect an agreement to be reached between teacher and students that certain work has been deemed necessary to the students’ development by someone, the teacher, who has professional expertise in such matters.

Yes this almost certainly will occasion students to take issue with certain lessons and refuse to do pieces of work in others, and there is a clear question mark around the ability of children to make decisions with their own long term interest in mind. But nonetheless, I’m not sure I see the point in compelling a student to do something they truly don’t want to do. If we history teachers, as we so often say we do, truly care about the creation of independent and critical thinkers we must be exercised by this. I honestly doubt whether there is any benefit in forcing a child to behave in a particular manner and to compel them to learn a particular lesson or topic on pain of detention or some other punishment, even if that lesson is one which promotes so-called good citizenship. The content can be as democratic as you like, but if it is delivered in a form typified by compulsion and punishment it can hardly be construed as a democratic lesson, and it can hardly be doing much to bring about a democratic society.

This doesn’t sound terribly radical to me: an active agreement reached between students and teacher that the teacher’s authority is legitimate by dint of their professional expertise in the matter of the education of children and their knowledge of the subject matter being taught, and an active commitment by the students to therefore abide by that authority for as long as it serves what has been recognised and agreed upon as their academic interests. On issues or subjects where students are more knowledgeable than the teacher, such a classroom would presumably defer to the student as the new source of knowledge (I recall being given a chunk of an English lesson in year 13 to talk about the discussion of the study of history in The History Boys which my teacher saw as relevant and interesting, but about which he knew little).

Indeed, it is clearly worth viewing the classroom as just one more arena in which members of society interact. When our Year 13s finish their A levels they become, just like us their teachers, locals at the same pubs, constituents in the same elections, citizens of the same towns and cities. Do we want them to sigh with us over a pint about the manner in which both of us now find ourselves powerless in the face of a supposedly legitimate political class? Or do we want to both have known a much more radical notion of authority and legitimacy, and to sit down and plan together how to bring that about more widely? Indeed, it is worth asking the extent to which “modern democracy” resembles democracy anymore.

The Demolition of Pimlico School; or: Gove’s Business Park Vernacular


Pimlico School

John Bancroft’s Pimlico School building stood for exactly forty years. Finished in 1970, it was finally bulldozed in 2010. Thus one of the great school buildings in the UK was replaced with a perfectly bland PFI box, all rendered white facades and quiet unobtrusive windows; Pimlico School, inevitably, gave way to Pimlico Academy.

Perhaps, as Westminster Council claimed, the old concrete and glass buildings were too expensive to restore (after years of deliberate neglect), and were too inflexible for the school’s future needs, and perhaps the school was failing, and in need of a change in leadership. I have no idea either way.


Pimlico Academy

What is clear, however, is that this represents perhaps the most typical example of what has happened in the treatment of school buildings in recent years in this country. A brief history takes us from the first committed attempts to build schools, in both the architectural and institutional sense, fit for the modern age throughout the heyday of the welfare state, through decades of neglect under the Conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s, to a brief renaissance of the idea that providing good schools in which our children might study is worthwhile under New Labour’s ‘Building Schools for the Future’ programme, which in turn has been axed by Gove, since which only the most essential work has been carried out in a miserly business park vernacular.

Let us take a look at each in turn. Perhaps the two most striking and memorable pieces of Welfare State modernist school architecture are the Brutalist Pimlico School and the Smithsons’ Miesian Hunstanton School (now Smithdon High School, still operating under local authority control in its original buildings). Both were starkly modern and new. Hunstanton School was built in 1954, a sleek steel and glass liner of a building that rose at the edge of an otherwise sleepy 19th –century resort town on the North Norfolk Coast. It was opened as a Secondary Modern School, one of the three tiers of school instituted by the 1944 Education Act, the intention of which was to open secondary education to the working classes and to girls, and which provided free school meals and milk for all pupils up to the age of 18. Pimlico School was yet more radical. It was built by the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) as London’s flagship comprehensive school, a type of school  that was meant to break down the barriers of class that had formed between grammar and secondary modern schools and bring about the society of a socialist future. Ashley Bramall, chairman of the ILEA between 1970 and 1981, pertinently urged the people of London not to fear that “London children will let themselves be railroaded into a conveyor-belt, computerized uniformity” in the same year as Pimlico School was opened, attesting to the manner in which these schools were profoundly radical in their ambitions, concerned as they were with nurturing independent and informed citizens who might bring about a society as devoid of class as their schools had been.


Hunstanton School

It is worth briefly dwelling on the manner in which people with a penchant for country piles and Georgian squares bemoan the manner in which so much modern architecture is so disrespectful of its context. It looks out of place, they say. It detracts from the picturesque environment into which it has been dropped. And nothing could be less contextual than the abstract and irregular raw concrete massing of Bancroft’s Pimlico School, located as it is in a warren of stuccoed neo-classical terraces. Which, of course, is the whole point. Comprehensive schools were always intended as a direct threat to the deferential class-ridden society that built Pimlico’s oh-so-tasteful terraces, and their architecture was an expression of this fact. To do anything other than build an architecture which was so clearly of the future, so obviously not beholden to any stylistic or material inheritance, would have been to help to preserve that society. As Brecht suggests, “time flows on, and if it did not, it would be a bad prospect for those who do not sit at golden tables. Methods become exhausted; stimuli no longer work. New problems appear and demand new methods. Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change.” It is, therefore, perhaps unsurprising that Simon Milton, leader of Westminster Council, the local authority which demolished Pimlico School, and which is not exactly known for its tradition of radicalism, described the building as “entirely without merit” and “fundamentally misconceived”.

But such radical fervour was short lived in English education, and milk-snatcher Thatcher’s government of the 1980s saw the neglect and dilapidation of many of Britain’s school buildings. In 2003 the Audit Commission described how, as a result of the neglect of the Thatcher and Major governments, “building elements came to the end of their life cycle and problems with leaking roofs, failing heating systems, deteriorating temporary buildings and external woodwork accumulated. In some schools these problems reached crisis level during the 1990s.” It was in this context that Blair suggested that the three priorities of his government would be “Education, education, education”, and, when he wasn’t leading the country into an illegal war, he did find time to make a massive investment in school buildings. Launched in 2004, Blair’s ‘Building Schools for the Future’ (BSF) programme sought to rebuild every secondary school in the country through an investment of £55 billion.


Evelyn Grace Academy

Famous products of this programme include Mossbourne Academy, in Hackney, whose buildings were designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the firm founded by Richard Rogers, and at the opposite end of town in Brixton, Evelyn Grace Academy, for which Zaha Hadid won the Stirling Prize.


Mossbourne Academy

But perhaps the school which is most emblematic of this programme is Thomas Deacon Academy in Peterborough. Designed by the darling of multinational companies and tin pot dictators from California to Kazakhstan, Foster + Partners, Thomas Deacon is famously expensive: it is estimated to have cost £50 million in total. And it transpires that £50 million buys you an awful lot of school: a central atrium 15 metres high covered in a curving, bulging diagrid roof; glass walled classrooms looking out onto ribbons of balconies, knitted together by sweeping staircases; a large unplanned central space filled with tables, bookshelves and computer pods. As the subtitle from a Guardian article published a few weeks before the school opened its doors in the summer of 2007 suggested, the school looks “more like a smart corporate headquarters than a place for teenagers to learn”.


Thomas Deacon Academy

Which is rather an apt description. Many of the school buildings completed under BSF have an undeniably corporate feel to them, not least becase large-scale architecture has chiefly been driven by the production of corporate offices in the past few decades, which has seen the predominance of the lightweight steel frame and the ‘iconic’ shape, as well as the abundant use of glass. Evelyn Grace and Mossbourne Academies stick out as rare forays into school architecture for their respective firms, while a Foster+Partners tower has become as essential a component of urban regeneration as a Calatrava bridge. So while these schools are undeniably products of the age, and the architects, of Neoliberalism, funded as they were largely through PFI contracts, they were at least built in an age, that is the age that was brought to a spectacular close in the autumn of 2008, when it was thought that the door to the ruling elite of the new world order could be kept open for the most intellectually able, regardless of the class position into which they were born, through good education. Indeed, Peter Mandelson’s famously relaxed demeanour at the prospect of people getting filthy rich only began to be seen for the foolishness it was in the aftermath of the crisis of 2008, as well as the publication of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book ‘The Spirit Level’, which finally gave the lie to the notion that meaningful social mobility can exist in an unequal society. And however misguided New Labour’s faith in the possibility of equality of opportunity was, and regardless of the extent to which it was the spoonful of liberal sugar which helped the medicine of Neoliberalism go down, it does make sense of these schools, designed as they were as essentially part of the same world, in the same style, from the same materials, as the corporate headquarters in which they hoped their students would spend their working lives. The architecture was, to reluctantly use a horrible word, aspirational.

oakfield primary

Oakfield Primary School

When Gove became Education Secretary in 2010, he grandiosely announced that he wouldn’t be having Richard Rogers designing any more schools, as he cut the BSF programme and announced that those new school buildings that were deemed essential would variously not be allowed to include curves, be built from standardised designs, avoid pesky architects’ fees by not being designed by architects, have their corridors and halls squeezed to legal minima, and just generally be cheaper and less well built than their predecessors. The aim of these scrimpings has been to reduce the average cost of newly-built schools from £21 million, as it was under BSF, to £14 million, because, of course, there is no alternative.


Felixstowe Academy

And in recent years the Tories’ cost-cutting has begun to bear fruit. Shoddily designed and cheaply finished school buildings have started cropping up across the country, such as the prefabricated Oakfield Primary built to a standardised design produced by a brand calling themselves ‘Sunesis’, and Felixstowe Academy’s new £18 million building. Serendipitously for the writing of this essay I showed some pictures of this new ‘state-of-the-art facility’ at Felixstowe to my housemate, who knows even less about architecture than I do (because I’m the sort of person who shows pictures of buildings to my housemates) and his first comment, entirely unprompted, was that it looked like an Amazon warehouse.

This is apt, inasmuch as students aren’t valued any more. Not as students, or as people, or as citizens; though as workers, perhaps. Gove’s so-called Priority School Building Programme is the final victory of the Eton-educated middle-aged white male establishment over the socialist Local Education Authorities, an expression of a class system as rigid as the breeze blocks out of which its schools have been built. Whereas the well-designed thoughtful BSF schools promised the bounties of the new globalised economy to their students, the schools built since the Conservatives didn’t win the 2010 election but somehow ended up governing anyway have sought to do little more than prepare their students for their lives working in call-centres and Amazon warehouses, where any presumption not to flog yourself in to the ground and do exactly as you are told for exactly as long as you are told will see you tossed back on to the heap of arbitrarily cancelled social security payments and compulsory unpaid labour (which used to be called slavery, but which is apparently totally OK if it is given a snappy new name like Workfare) to be replaced by someone else desperate to be able to afford to heat their own home (if they are lucky enough still to have one) through the winter. Since we have ‘recovered’ from the crisis of 2008, workers have, when they haven’t been viewed as a potential source of efficiency savings or revenue for monopolies such as rail franchises and postal services, been seen as nothing more than a nuisance, to be conditioned through the media or beaten up by the police as appropriate. Indeed, under Gove’s expanded Academy system, students’ schools are being sponsored by the same employers who will expect them to toil in wage slavery until they’re no longer fit to work or no longer needed, many of whom have donated large sums of money to the Conservative party which wrested these schools out of the control of local authorities. In other words these schools are explicitly being run, or ‘sponsored’, by people with a vested interest in blinkering students to what they could take from life, if only they knew what they deserved. We are a far cry from Pimlico School.

PIM corner

Pimlico Academy

Yet Pimlico Academy’s buildings were built under BSF, when money was still relatively easy for school builders, but they still chose to construct something that wouldn’t look out of place on a business park on the outskirts of Swindon. Indeed, Pimlico Academy cost £34 million to build, significantly more than the £21 million average for BSF schools. Which rather goes to show the extent to which this isn’t about money; it’s about ideology. Certain people, such as Westminster Council, the local authority responsible for demolishing Pimlico School, and reincarnating it as an Academy, which was famously caught gerrymandering its marginal wards by selling its council housing to likely Conservative voters in the 1980s, have every interest in preserving the status quo, in ensuring that students, on leaving school, are primarily concerned with improving their own skills within the job market, rather than questioning the idea that they should be reduced to a marketable set of skills and the labour they can provide for capitalists. For these people, the architecture of the out-of-town business park is the perfect complement to their view of education.


Sandal Magna Primary School

But in spite of the relative expense of Pimlico Academy’s new building, the right still shrieks that there is no alternative to tiny halls, cheap tacky finishes and bland corporate design should you be so bold as to suggest that schools ought to be well designed. Yet there are plenty of examples of thoughtful school designs being produced on a relatively slim budget. Sandal Magna Primary School, designed by Sarah Wigglesworth Architects and built using BSF funds, opening in 2010, is a good example. Built using inexpensive materials, it cost just £5.2 million, and was described by Jay Merrick of Architect’s Journal as “culturally optimistic” and having succeeded in creating “an engaging and progressive mark of change and difference”. With a floor area of 2,985 m², this works out to roughly £1,742 per m², compared to Pimlico Academy’s approximately £2,654 per m², given its floor area of 12,810 m². Good architecture need not be expensive. The point is that the establishment doesn’t want good architecture; it wants average standardised architecture in which to prepare average standardised future employees for the world of work. In this context, the radical aesthetic of Pimlico School is a direct threat, and hence it had to be demolished.

This all perhaps seems a small point in the wider unfolding of the catastrophe of Neoliberalism, but it’s clearly important enough to those with power to provoke a concerted attempt to demolish the legacy of three and a half decades of architectural output by socialist local authorities, whether that be in the form of schools or housing or leisure facilities. It should serve to alert us to the richness of what we are losing, and the boldness of the world it was built for. And quite how crap is what we’re being offered in its stead.

The English Education System in the Age of Neoliberalism

The times they are a changing in the English education system. Academies, Free Schools, performance related pay and Teach First represent a fundamental shift in the way the system works. This shift is very much a product of the changing economy, and Teach First perhaps the most glaringly so.

Capitalism is a system under which capitalists seek to obtain the largest return on their capital by investing it in a profitable enterprise. Expenditure is only countenanced on the grounds that it leads, directly or indirectly, to the realisation of profit. It is a system which spends abstemiously by dint of its greed.

For a capitalist state, such as the UK, to be committed to the provision of education for all of its citizens this education must be considered a profitable investment by that state. Regardless of what liberal hand-wringers might want to think about our apparent civility, if it wasn’t profitable to educate our children the state wouldn’t spend money doing so. This motivation is evident in the first intervention of the state in the provision of education, in 1870, which was a product of the perceived need to compete with countries such as France, Belgium and Germany in booming new industries, such as the manufacture of steel and chemicals, which required a high degree of technical expertise. British capitalists complained that they simply could not find workers capable of manning steel or chemical plants, so deficient was the numeracy and literacy of the average worker in an era of the patchy provision of education by charities and churches. Thus the provision of education from tax revenues, with the state covering the full cost of primary education by 1891, was countenanced on the grounds that this investment would increase the productivity of the workforce, and thereby increase profits. It follows, then, that, as with any other costs, capitalism seeks to reduce the cost of education to the minimum possible.

But we are not living in 1870, even though the principles of investment and profit which underpinned the economy of that time continue to operate today. Teach First is very much a product of the age of Blair, Brown, Bullingdon Boys, Boom, Bust and Neoliberalism. To begin to understand the success of Teach First in recent years, it is necessary to understand both the ideology of Neoliberalism, and the means by which it perpetuates itself.

Neoliberalism requires, among other things:

  • A workforce which is skilled enough to be highly productive in a range of different industries.
  • A workforce which is pliant enough and desperate enough for work that they are grateful for whatever wage they are offered.
  • A workforce that internalises the ideology of the establishment and that does not have the means to pick through its propaganda in order to realise how shit is the deal that they are being sold.
  • That those people who require skills of independent reasoning to perform their role in the economy, or who manage to acquire them by their own means, have as little ability to exercise that skill as possible.

This, then, is an order that positively relishes the prospect of a large number of unemployed people, who feel personally responsible for and guilty about their own unemployment so that they are not inclined to demand more generous social security and so that they desperately seek any form of employment, that relishes the reduction of education to the bare bones, of the inculcation of numeracy and literacy but the denial of access to arts and drama and anything else that might lead to the development of an awareness of self, and that relishes the fact that people are working harder and longer, are making themselves ill with the stress, and have no time to do anything else as a consequence. This is all part of the system of social control that reproduces Neoliberalism.

How does Teach First contribute to these aims?

The first manner in which Teach First is beneficial to the maintenance of the status quo is the manner in which it undermines the teaching profession. It is not in the interests of the government to have an independent, well-informed body of teachers which is confident in its own abilities and knowledge, and which is prepared to, say, strike to oppose the government’s reforms. Teach First manages to subvert this by both providing teachers with scant training, presumably making them more pliant, less confident in their own abilities, less aware of the manner in which the teaching profession has dictated the political discourse surrounding education in the past, and more dependent upon authority figures, while stocking the profession with a large cohort of teachers around half of whom quit the profession at the end of their two year programme, which contributes to the reduction in overall levels of experience within the profession. It is part of the process of making the teaching profession more malleable.

Secondly, Teach First is a good means of controlling teachers, and denying them meaningful free time. The bright young Teach First teacher who stays up until 3 or 4 in the morning planning lessons has become a character of the age, their plight pitied in the same breath as their work ethic praised. The transmission of knowledge is something which requires a high degree of intelligence and the ability to think for yourself, dangerous things in people with ample free time. Gove frequently referred to the teaching profession as a bunch of Trots, and it is probably fair to say that teachers’ politics are to the left of the rest of society’s (if you have the education and intelligence required to be a teacher and you’re right wing, you’re probably going to take your suit to the city and try and make your fortune, rather than take a lower wage in order to care for others). It is partly because of this that teachers have had every last ounce of spare time squeezed out of their curriculums with new paperwork, more lessons, and ever greater expectations. People fume in the comments section of Daily Mail articles that teachers get such long holidays compared to private sector workers and that they should bloody well work for them during term time. If a large number of community-minded people are going to be well educated in order to produce future workers, the establishment reasons, then we ought to do everything in our power to make sure they’re too exhausted to spend any time thinking for themselves. While this has been going on across the profession (and the Guardian’s Secret Teacher column pays eloquent testimony to this fact), Teach First must be its apogee, expecting trainee teachers to train themselves in what time they have among their almost full timetable. Moreover, by aligning the teaching profession with the desire to build a CV and to become a successful professional in whichever field is willing to pay the highest levels of remuneration, which is how the programme explicitly markets itself (it’s called Teach First for a reason, and the information session I went to while still an undergraduate featured two speakers from one of Teach First’s partner organisations: Goldman Sachs), it also presumably goes some way to undermining the propensity of the profession to attract the selfless and exclude the selfish, aided by the ‘transferable skills’ teaching inculcates and the relatively competitive starting salary of teachers, which only plateaus as the salaries of lawyers and accountants skyrocket. Indeed, by waiving the requirement that teachers are trained, the costs of which PGCE students have to meet themselves, albeit with help from loans and grants, Teach First positions itself as the economically logical route into the teaching profession for an indebted generation who are never going to be able to afford to buy their own home.

Thirdly, Teach First is part of the true dumbing down of education in recent years, which, perhaps counter-intuitively, takes the form of rigorous standardised testing. Teach First should really be seen as an attempt to eliminate the cost of training teachers, simply by not training teachers. It is an efficiency saving. However, as with absolutely everything undertaken by anyone ever, if you receive good training in something, you will be better at that thing than if you had received no training in it at all. To this end, there is a contradiction inherent in Teach First’s own justification. Educational disadvantage is one of the great shames of our society, it proclaims, as it inhibits social mobility, prevents human flourishing, and ensures that white middle class students are disproportionately represented in the most elite universities and in the professions. I agree. Who wouldn’t? The answer, Teach First suggests, is to flood the lowest-achieving schools with the best teachers. I agree, that sounds like a great idea. The best teachers, Teach First suggests, are high-achieving graduates with little or no training as to how to teach. Surely if that’s true, then educational disadvantage isn’t a thing: the highest achievers are just the best students, and they always will be the best students, regardless of the division of teaching resources. Which is clearly nonsense. Teaching is a profession, with professional skills and knowledge which need to be acquired; it is not an innate ability. Some people will have more potential to become good teachers, yes, but I doubt they have an innate knowledge of pedagogical techniques or of how the young mind learns. Likewise some people are better suited than others to becoming doctors, but I don’t hear anyone clamouring for the introduction of ‘Cut Them Open First’, where surgeons get a six-week crash course and are then let loose in an operating theatre. If great teaching is the way to improve the education and life chances of poor children from deprived backgrounds, and I presume it would help, then great teacher training is the way to ensure great teaching. A system which reduces the training that teachers receive can only lead to a reduction in standards within the profession.

Why would the government support the deskilling of teachers, and therefore, presumably the deterioration of educational attainment in the schools it is seeking to improve? To answer this question, you first have to consider how you could know whether a school is good or not. Normally, this is done with a quick glance at GCSE results, especially the percentages passed with grades A*-C, and the percentages of passes in English and Maths. If a school gets good results, it is a good school which educates its students well. However, GCSEs are legendarily formulaic, requiring more time to be spent on familiarising students with the foibles of the exam boards than with learning the subjects being studied. Thus to become a better school, you need to improve your GCSE performance, and to improve your GCSE performance, you often need to do little more than drill students more. Actually teaching one’s students need not necessarily enter the equation. Thus pedagogy and the careful nurturing of independent thought by well-trained professionals makes way for the drilling of basic skills by the under-trained and over-worked. This move comes at a time when most jobs required by the economy have become utterly mundane. Ford’s car factories in Detroit have given way to a call centre on an industrial estate in Swansea as the iconic workplace of our time. Basic skills suffice, and capitalism is only willing to pay for the bare minimum. The introduction of performance related pay to the teaching profession can also be viewed in this light, as a way of paying teachers only for the work they do in teaching the skills deemed necessary for the economy and codified by the exam boards, and effectively docking the pay of those who expend any breath trying to teach a broader curriculum.

In light of this, in the context of a vast sea of desperate unemployed adults, and a small pool of fairly mundane clerical work needed, by capitalists, to be done, it is in the interests of employers to have a failsafe way of looking at that sea of the desperate unemployed and picking from them those with the solid grounding in the basic skills of numeracy and literacy required of the contemporary proletarian, which is easily done with a national standardised test which measures little else. Anything learned beyond that just represents a threat, and it much easier to ensure the perpetuation of this process with an undertrained and transient teaching profession than with a professional and confident one.

(It is also probably worth nothing, in passing, the rather elegant manner in which Teach First manages to marry the procurement of these desiderata of Neoliberalism with the good old British Class System, as it takes middle class students from Russell Group universities off on its residential training course, replete with black tie dinners, before bussing them off into the most deprived neighbourhoods, to act as a beacon of what they might become to poor inner city kids if only they were a bit more middle class, a bit more respectable, a bit less chavvy.)

In the face of this system, whereby many new teachers receive no training, in which you can lose pay for not securing certain grades from your students, in which teachers are overworked, stressed, exhausted, and anxious about the future of their profession, teaching well (which, it goes without saying, many Teach First teachers will do during their careers) becomes something you do in spite of the system, not because of it, something that you manage to smuggle to your students in the face of a bureaucracy intended to paralyse you.

England’s Neoliberal Cricket

I have finally found time to read C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary, something criminally overdue for a historian and lifelong cricket fan in their mid-twenties. In it, James analyses cricket through the lens of Marxist aesthetics, for James is clear: cricket should be considered an art.

Marxist aesthetics, in brief, suggests that art forms are products of the prevailing means of production. That is to say that in a post-industrial society such as our own our art will reflect this context of its production. It is not the case that all artists sit down and have a little conference in which they agree that the post-industrial world is what they should all be trying to represent or evoke or allude to; rather, that the forms of society and the economy alter the manner in which people think and feel, and as a result of this fact the art that people produce changes. A poet who lives in London in the twenty-first century is obviously going to write differently to one who was born in sixteenth century Gloucestershire. There is a reason that Damien Hirst doesn’t paint bucolic scenes of rivers and mills.

Thus for James, in the period 1890-1914, in which “the solid Victorian age was breaking up, [and] the contemporary pattern had not yet taken shape,” this vacuum allowed the emergence of a series of “dynamic explosions of individual and creative personalities expressing themselves to the utmost limit,“ with players such as C.B. Fry, Ranjitsinhji, G.L. Jessop, Victor Trumper and Frank Woolley, “men of dazzling personality, creative, original, daring, adventurous” flourishing.

Bodyline, meanwhile, was, for James, “not an incident, it was not an accident, it was not a temporary aberration. It was the violence and ferocity of our age expressing itself in cricket”; whereas the ubiquity of the forward defensive in the 1950s was the product of an age in which the prevailing attitude was one of security, in which cricketers played the game of functionaries of the Welfare State.

This approach could provide a fruitful analysis of the malaise of the current England team. Back in the dark days of the last ashes series in Australia, much mirth was had at the leaking of the England’s 82 page menu, while by the end of the series many, in searching for an explanation for England’s capitulation, began to ask, perplexedly, how a team with a backroom staff fifty strong could have played so badly.

This is, I would argue, evidence that the England team is playing cricket fit for the age of Neoliberalism.

Under Neoliberalism we have seen the creeping tentacle of the market insinuate itself into every aspect of daily life, and the commensurate quantification of everything, from the quality of a university education to a surgeon’s ability to perform an operation, in order to enable this marketisation, as the market requires the appraisal of comparable information. This information is everything, and the number of people involved in creating, processing and handling that information has ballooned in recent years, to the point where London’s public transport network is barely able to move beneath the collective weight of technocrats passing through it each day. Thus the ineffable and unquantifiable has come to be seen as an aberration. We live in an age of all-pervasive information, ever more reliable, delivered ever faster by an ever increasing pool of corporate professionals.

In the sporting arena, this drive to quantification, analysis, professionalization and the removal of any ounce of doubt is nowhere better expressed than in the phenomenal success of Team GB and Team Sky in cycling. Here Dave Brailsford’s theory of ‘marginal gains’ (and I expect everyone has by now heard the one about what Brailsford eats for breakfast: marginal grains), whereby the sport is dissected into hundreds of variables each of which is then analysed and the slightest improvement, even of less than a single per cent, is sought in each, has brought two Tour de France titles and a capacious sack of gold medals back to Blighty.

Such an approach is evident in the play of the England cricket team in recent years. At present the England and Wales Cricket Board employs a Sports Science and Medicine Team, a Strength and Conditioning Team, a Physiotherapy Team, a Medicine Team, a Personal Development and Welfare Team and a Performance Psychology Team not to mention the army of skill-specific coaches visible in and around the dressing room on match days. The ECB has also developed a bowling machine that is able to mimic the deliveries of international bowlers, delivered from a screen on to which a video footage of the bowler’s run-up and delivery is projected, which effectively enables England players to prepare against every possibility offered by an opposing bowling attack before they take the field.

This system is representative of the attempt by the England cricket team to quantify everything, analyse every variable, reduce the game to a stream of information which can be gathered, processed, understood and then acted upon. They study every variable, compute every past match, analyse every player against whom they will play, formulate a series of plans and execute them.

Former England spinner Graeme Swann recently shed light on the manner in which this approach dominates England’s thinking. He recounted how, in his playing days, he had sat through team meetings before ODI matches in which management clung to “this crazy stat where if we get 239…we will win 72% of matches. The whole game was built upon having this many runs after this many overs, this many partnerships, doing this in the middle, working at 4.5 an over.” It is cricket fit for the age of the technocrat.

Which brings me to Chris Woakes. For me he stands as the exemplary figure of England’s Neoliberal, technocratic cricket. When he bowls and bats, he looks good. He has been very well coached. His bowling action and batting technique are what you would find in the textbooks. High left elbow, straight bat, crisp footwork, proper shots when batting; fluid run-up, strong upright action when bowling. Added to this his tall frame and athletic build and you’ve got the recipe for the perfect cricketer. And it is on these attributes that he is picked, primarily as a bowler.

And when he bowls, his figures look good, if unspectacular, epitomising the English approach of ‘bowling dry’ which their analyses have shown to be so effective. In the third test of England’s recent series against India he recorded figures of 20 overs, 8 maidens, 60 runs and no wickets, with an economy of 3.00 runs per over, and 11 overs, 3 maidens, 23 runs and no wickets, with an economy of 2.09 runs per over. This would appear to make him the perfect player for the current England set-up. A good strong repeatable action and a good dry economical bowler, the perfect foil for other more experienced bowlers to take wickets around.

But then you actually watch him bowl and it quickly becomes clear how these figures are achieved. He will bowl, more often than not, just back of a length on about a sixth stump line at 83.5 miles per hour with a hint of away swing to the right hander starting from the hand for a whole spell at a time. He is almost entirely unthreatening, and his lack of wickets and low economy begin to make sense: he barely makes batsmen play. And yet we are told that he has a big fan in England bowling coach David Saker, with whom he has presumably worked extensively in the past few years, and he is, according to all of the team’s templates and statistics, a fantastic bowler.

It is worth comparing his fortunes with another young England seamer: Steven Finn. This is a man with 90 wickets from just 23 tests, at an average of 29.40, and a strike rate of 48.3, fully ten balls per wicket fewer than James Anderson (fitness permitting shortly to become England’s all-time leading wicket taker in tests) and who is still not 26 years old. He is a genuine talent, a fantastic tall fast bowler the likes of which English cricket hasn’t seen in years. And yet Finn was deemed “unselectable” last winter and sent home from Australia, coached to the point where he no longer had control over what came out of his hand, his action fallen to pieces at the hands of tinkerers trying to coax him into adopting the ‘correct’ technique.

England’s is a cricket which prioritises hard-work, quantifiable improvement, metronomic consistency, analysis and correctness, produced by hours of coaching from well-paid experts, over talent, expression, individuality, freakishness. It is a homogenised cricket fit for an age in which you can drink the same Starbucks coffee on every continent. It is fitting, perhaps, that the ECB has appointed a former stockbroker as its new Managing Director.

And I don’t mean to damn this style of play particularly, merely to draw out the links between England’s cricket and the form of the economy in which they are playing it. But I would point out in closing that, although Finn might leak runs, and from time to time dislodge the bails at the non-striker’s end with his trailing knee, he’s still going to win test matches. I can’t see the same being true of Chris Woakes in the immediate future, regardless of what the statistics say.