We are lucky in the UK to have a strong state education sector. Despite the cynicism that surrounds every aspect of it, most young people in this country benefit from a mature, balanced, secular curriculum, delivered by people whose utmost ambition in life is to provide the best chances possible to following generations.
Like the health service, the most important feature of our education sector is that it is free to all. Every child in this country has a right to a minimum standard of education, and whatever the arguments over the relative level of that minimum standard, that position is among the greatest assets this country has. Money can of course improve the quality available to those individuals fortunate enough to be born into families with greater means and aspiration, and that includes choosing to live in a popular catchment area just as much as forking out for a fee-paying school. But the poorest children living in the most hopeless of environments will still be offered the opportunity to better themselves, whether they are able to make the most of it or not.
The word “free” does not have as clear a definition as one might think though. In this context it should mean not attracting a fee: that is, requiring no expenditure at all beyond what you would otherwise be spending (which covers school meals and clothing). Yet with my eldest child approaching the end of his second year at school, I have started to dread opening his book bag at the end of each day, wondering what I am going to be asked to shell out for today.
Firstly, there is the school trip. I wholeheartedly believe school trips to be of immense value, but the legal requirement to insert the word “voluntary” in the phrase “please return the slip below along with your voluntary contribution of £7” is risible, conveying about as much essence of voluntariness* as a tax demand. I can cope with the peer pressure of spending money, and to be fair our school does tend to ask parents not to send spending money anyway; but the implicit message, that everyone else will stump up and you’re letting the side down if you don’t as we’ll have to find it from somewhere else, is far more compelling, which of course is exactly the intention.
And yet, although I cannot completely dispel a slight sense of grudge here, I do at least accept that this has always been the case. When I was at school there was no charade of choice whether to contribute or not – it was very blunt, you either cough up or miss out. At least now, although it is clear there would be no effort made to assuage my conscience, the lack of a contribution would not result in my youngster being disbarred from the bus. I’m just not prepared to play chicken with the school and risk him drowning in a rip tide of shame.
Secondly there is the overwhelming number of clubs and activities the school invite me to “allow” my boy to engage in. He already does martial arts, swimming, dance and guitar club so my conscience occupies a well-protected position here, but of course he wants to do everything. In truth I want him to do everything he possibly can as well and actually time is often the limiting factor, but I do still roll my eyes at each new leaflet he brings home with him.
Finally, and far more insidious, is the proliferation of sponsorship forms. I will freely admit that I am not the most charitable of individuals: I don’t currently have a Direct Debit charitable payment giving me a monthly feelgood factor; I don’t entertain chuggers of the doorstep, town centre, telesales or supermarket lobby varieties; I rarely respond to broadcast emails at work or messages on Facebook exhorting me to attend someone’s Justgiving page for some feat of commendable physical exertion, despite having once thusly supported a cancer charity by running 13 miles around Tyneside.
I don’t however share the extreme position that some friends of mine hold: that charities should not exist at all, as the causes they support should be funded by government through appropriate taxation. I accept that you cannot govern by referendum and that the vast majority of decisions must be made by people we appoint to represent our views, but I believe the charitable sector to be a healthy compromise, in that funding is generally proportional to popular support, which is usually driven by the number of people affected by the symptom the charity is attempting to remedy. Thus the existence of a charitable sector regulates funding for worthy causes in what I believe is a far more effective and efficient way than government would be able to.
What I strenuously object to though is the abuse of children to generate income. I use the word abuse advisedly, because I believe blackmail and bribery to fall squarely into this category. Let me give you an example to illustrate my point. Last week my lad brought home a sponsorship form for some sport-related charity, aiming to improve the lives of youngsters in Africa by providing them with opportunities to engage in football. I have a fundamental issue with this straight away, as I am pretty certain that there are some rather more basic requirements – food, medicine, housing, schooling, clothing – that could improve these unfortunate youngsters’ existences rather more significantly than having a ball to kick around.
Parking this objection for a moment though, this particular plea for help was accompanied by a promise that any child managing to acquire £25 worth of sponsorship would receive a limited edition football, with medals for anyone getting at least one donation. Or, to paraphrase, if your child fails to raise £25 for this charity whose aims you may or may not support, he won’t get a shiny football. As my child is 6, I cannot really send him out knocking on doors to generate the cash, so effectively it is up to me to drum up donations from family and friends. This being the third sponsorship form this year, that well is running a little dry. But my 6 year old doesn’t understand these things and will just feel like he’s missing out.
My other concern with this exercise was that the money raised is being split between football-bereft African children and the school itself, which would be able to pay for some new play equipment as a result. This is troubling for two reasons: firstly, as with Comic Relief, that there is a need to show benefit to UK causes to assuage the rampant xenophobia (probably here characterised by lack of compassion for problems outside our shores rather than hatred of Johnny Foreigner) that would otherwise seriously limit donations; secondly, that the school should feel the need to ask for charitable donations at all. In this case I share my friends’ view that the state should be adequately funding the basic requirements of the school, and it saddens me that other state schools, situated in less privileged communities, will not benefit in the same way, not having such well-off families on their registers.
So on this occasion I have chosen not to contribute; but I know there will be another request for cash before the end of term, and another set of dilemmas to negotiate.
An appropriate recipe, or even a tenuously-linked one, proved impossible to come up with today so the below is simply another one I served at a recent themed dinner party.
Thai green veg curry (serves 2, maybe 3)
- Half an aubergine, diced
- Handful of mange touts or sugar snap peas, sliced lengthways
- Handful of baby corn, sliced lengthways
- One tin of coconut milk (400g)
- 1-2 large shallots or half a small onion
- Two green chillies
- 1 inch piece of fresh galangal (can be done with ginger but much better with galangal)
- 1 large clove garlic, peeled and chopped
- Tbsp light soy sauce
- Small bunch coriander
- 1 red chilli, fincely sliced lengthways
- Tsp ground cumin
- Tsp ground coriander (it does taste better if you toast and grind whole cumin and coriander but normally this is a bit too much effort)
- Handful of Thai basil if available, otherwise plain basil
- 2-3 sticks of lemongrass, outer hard layers removed and chopped finely
- 2-3 tsp soft brown sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- Jasmine rice for two people, cooked as instructions (easy cook or basmati rice are fine)
Combine spices, chillies, lemon grass, shallots, garlic, galangal, ginger, basil and salt into a blender and pulse to a smooth paste. Heat the coconut milk, then add the curry paste, sugar and soy. Pop the sweet potato in and simmer for 5 minutes, then add aubergine, mange touts and corn and simmer for another 10-15 until the sweet potato is soft to the bite. Garnish with the shredded red chilli and serve with the rice.
*Yes, I know it doesn’t sound right, but it really does exist.