I let my head fall back against the window and leave my eyes to gaze at the clouds scudding past in the low grey sky. Not watching anything, just aware of the London skyline drifting past, listening to a melancholy song by an obscure Scottish band, wrapped warm on a quiet early morning commuter train - this is one of my life's small pleasures. Inconsequential, I suppose.
Ed Balls has found himself in an entirely predictable mess with his Children, Schools and Families Bill, after tabling (and gaining approval for) an amendment which allows faith schools to teach personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) lessons ''in a way that reflects the school's religious character''. The national secular society has accused him of "cowardice", in giving way to those who, like the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Roman Catholic Church, hold that homosexuality is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil. (I wonder what happened to Cardinal Ratzinger? [Keep up - Ed]).
The hoo-hah about this issue is going to miss the important political points we (Conservatives) should be making. These are:
- Of course faith schools will approach matters of sexuality in a manner distinct to the approach taken by secular schools.
- This wouldn't be a problem for anyone, so long as there are sufficient schools available to maximise the choice parents have over their children's education.
It becomes a problem only for those who subscribe to an ideology of Identity Politics. Such people face an intractable problem, unless they are willing to impose a national curriculum of such detail that it circumscribes the ability of schools to set their own character. The problem for such people is this: it's only a few weeks since the government passed the Equality Bill, which, among other objectives, contains the following clause:
I'm sure you can see the problem. It is exactly impossible to insist that a state school may teach that homosexuality is an intrinsic moral evil, and simultaneously to insist that the same school promotes the equality of people regardless of their sexual orientation. The fuss over Ed Balls' amendment will be as nothing compared to the sequence of predictable and unlovely court cases that will arise when lawyers for lobby groups (secular, religious and sexual) start to use one Bill's clause to attack the other.
It's easy to criticise. And since I'm currently attempting to be selected as a Tory PPC, you've every right to ask me the question: what would you do? I'll answer that. But I'm not giving up the chance to be long-winded and whimsical first. I don't get the chance to write here as often as I'd like these days.
My life's small pleasures are inconsequential. And yet. A certain man - the most important man I know - once listened to me, as I struggled to explain the meaty importance of some dispute at work, about how my rivals were moving against me and the counter-measures I would therefore deploy - he listened to this, and he listened too, as I stopped, as I listened to myself, as I heard the sheer ghastliness of the person I was describing, and I began to feel (my constant companion) guilt at my (often hidden) ambitions. (You can hide a lot with a shy demeanour, you know). I expressed sorrow at my selfishness and then more guilt at my sense that too much of our life revolved around what I wanted to happen, external to our homelife, and not around the 'we' at home; not around him. And he said to me:
- Graeme. I want a small life; I want this. I want to make a good meal for us tonight, and I want to keep you safe.
- Night Geometry and the Garscadden Train
because AL Kennedy's story has stayed with me since I read it in the early 90s, and simultaneously:
- I want to be more like this man, because he is good.
Since that day I don't refuse to notice the pleasure of the instant, the small and the seemingly inconsequential. I hope it's made me a more bearable social creature. It has changed my view of politics (my distaste for bigger pictures, and all the words I expend on that subject (not to mention my daydreaming on trains)), stems from that moment with Keith. From an anecdote about watching a London sky, via a memory of a conversation at home, to an opinion about the Equality Bill? Maybe.
So you can take it as read that I don't believe myself, still less my homelife, to be a manifestation of an intrinsic moral evil. Tories should be promoting stability in relationships between decent human beings, which is why I thought Nick Herbert's lecture to the Cato Institute last week so important. So what would I do about faith schools?
I would let them be. Subject to national inspection of what is being taught (please don't tell me that a civilised country can't work out certain basic norms, without resorting to legislation), and full transparency over the outcomes of those inspections, it is not up to me, or you, or anyone else to tell a parent how they should school their children. I might quibble with the funding of a school that wanted to teach my life as evil; but I quibble even more at the rationing that goes on at the moment. We have direct family experience of this. Two of our five nieces and nephews have already gone through levels of stress which I find repugnant for a child, in order to secure a place at a good local school. At eleven, they became aware of the life-changing importance of getting into the school of their parents' choice. Three others face the same battle in a few years time, if we don't secure the mass expansion of educational provision, and educational providers, envisaged by Michael Gove's reforms, so that we can end the farce of schools selecting families, rather than the other way around.
What do you think is one of the biggest problems of our inner cities, in Hackney, in Bethnal Green, in Bow? Is it that some schools teach their religion? Or is it that there aren't enough schools of sufficient quality? Friends of ours - the sort of people you need to drive the standards in a community upwards - have given up on the East End and moved out to Essex or Herts, in large part because they can't guarantee getting their children into a good school. Most East End parents can't afford £10000 a year to send their sons to the City of London, Ms Abbott.
These two issues are linked, of course. Some parents use 'faith' as a criteria for determining how good a school is. Still more, I suspect, are attracted to such schools because their outcomes stand out in a sea of conformity. If we encourage multiple providers to open multiple schools in our boroughs - offering a range from the ultra secular to the ultra orthodox - no parent will need to compromise their faith or their secularity. As usual, pluralism is the best route to freedom and quality.
As usual too, if more depressing: state-determined fiat about 'Equality' is the best route to pointless balkanisation between people; it engenders mutual distrust. It will help too to prolong the rationing of education, one of this country's most shameful characteristics.