Middle England Strikes Back
“Thus far and no further”, cried the English middle classes last week. They’ve had enough of cuddly left wing buzzwords like ‘social mobility’ and ‘equality of opportunity’ and they especially don’t want them in their back yard.
That’s why the residents of the small West Sussex town of Stedham are ‘overjoyed’ with the decision of their local National Park Authority to refuse planning permission for a state boarding school for children from inner city London.
As a resident of the same London borough as the students, but also someone who holidays in the village in which the school was to be sited, this case is uniquely personal to me. I have never witnessed a more obvious example of the ways in which Britain’s political and governmental institutions enshrine privilege, whilst simultaneously disadvantaging and disenfranchising the poor.
Even worse, if anything could be, is the way in which it goes almost unnoticed in our social and political discourse. The rank hypocrisy of the Guardian reading rural elite is stark.
Socialists of the Champagne variety, who continuously wax lyrical about the plight of the working classes, were so horrified at the prospect of poor children being unleashed upon the countryside that they have actively sought to block this innovative and progressive scheme.
They talk the talk, but they won’t walk the walk, especially if that means surrendering the exclusivity of the countryside.
And that’s what it is. Although technically open to all, are the lives of those Stockwell school children enriched by the preservation of the countryside? Do poor families frequent the countryside? Or, realistically, is day-to-day life spent battling the highly urbanised space in which they reside?
The countryside is the preserve of the rich. The landed gentry still exist, but instead of country sprawls they have pressure groups such as the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England. Be of no doubt that there is a war going on between the working and middle classes, with the planning departments up and down our fair land the arena.
Whilst the middle class may not riot, fight or swear, the ways in which they quietly utilise their social capital, forming campaign groups such as the CPRE to exploit government institutions, is socially destructive behaviour of another magnitude.
The South Downs Park Authority claimed the school’s “impact on the landscape would be inappropriate.” But little thought was given to the transformative effect this school would have on the lives of some of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged young people. Surely that should trump almost any other concern.
After a decision like this, it becomes impossible not to question the purpose of national parks. Realistically, what palpable benefits do a majority of people derive from their existence, if even the opportunity of a unique educational environment is excluded?
Surely this is just a fault in our planning system that needs rectifying, right? Not to me. I believe this case drives to the heart of the question about for whom our politics are designed and operated and whether or not the instrument of state action ever truly helps the poor.
Michael Gove recently said that the chance for every child to attend a great school is “the civil rights struggle of our time”, adding that the “odds remained stacked against young people, especially those from the poorest families.”
Facing the sort of dug-in opposition uncovered by the Stedham School decision, Mr Gove will need to undertake a more systemic reform – disestablishing the vested interests in our political system and placing the poor at the heart of decision-making – if he is to achieve his aims.
Evidently the countryside is an expensive club, of which an elite few have the capital to access. If he is to win his battle for equality, our education secretary whose flagship Free Schools policy facilitates the school in question, will have to ensure that this is not true of our wider political system.