What was it all for?

And what’s left still to do? Musings on the miseducation of me, following a question by Anya Martin.

This was Anya’s question on GCSE French. My French teacher at the time told me I was one mark off of an A.

The problem was that I had learnt next to nothing in the three years before he started teaching us – even though I was in a ‘top’ stream throughout. Thus began, and on results day, ended two years of verb table drills – because English teachers had not taught us the basics of how languages are constructed.

A decade later at an evening class I spent a couple of years doing GCSE German – choosing to take two years rather than one. But I got that ‘A’ grade I didn’t get for French. So my experience is very similar to that of Anya.

Ten years to stew over what were the causes of my ‘lost decade’ – one that is still continuing as fatigue symptoms get worse

There are two strands to this, so please bear with me (or alternatively have a look at Lost Cambridge if public policy and ‘woe is me!’ are not your things). The two strands are. as mentioned: 1) “Woe is me!” and 2) Public policy issues.

Now that I’m the wrong side of 40, much of what I think and write about isn’t about me, me, me, but ultimately what are the public policy lessons to be learnt so future generations don’t have to experience the bad stuff that I did. Though inevitably that means having to have some “Woe is me!” paragraphs in the preamble – much of which I blame on the Conservative governments of Thatcher and Major, who were the prime ministers throughout all bar the last six months of my childhood. (Before Tony Blair rocked up and said “Want to go to uni! Here are some up-front fees you have to pay and no you won’t get a grant like your older brother!”. Scoundrel. I’ve never forgiven him for that. And that was before Iraq.)

1990s teenagers were the last generation of school children to be educated prior to The Internet becoming mainstream. When I got to university in 1999, email and internet access were just one of many ‘new’ things to get used to in what was my first time living away from home. That and with the Millennium looming, it made it easier to draw a metaphorical line under a lot of things. The problem was that – as Anya alluded to, much of the previous decade in formal education was wasted, and not just through things like poor teaching. When the late Chris Woodhead, the new OfSted Inspector was appointed in the mid-1990s, he became infamous for his quotation months into the job that ‘15,000 teachers were incompetent and should be sacked’, I remember at the time thinking: “Is that all?” I was like “Here’s my list – and this is just one school!” What I hadn’t appreciated at the time was that the entire profession was on its knees after over a decade of being starved of resources and support by a succession of ministers – the school buildings repair bill of today still a reminder of this.

What was 1990s schooling like? And how well did it fare in hindsight?

Have a listen to Tom Allen, who is only a few years younger than me.

“Do you remember…SOH-CAH-TOA? SOH-CAH-TOA? Why didn’t they cover pension schemes, tax returns, and mending broken hearts!”


But that was 25 years ago. What’s happened since, and how easy is it to predict the future?

These children in 1966 had a go at predicting the Millennium.

And shortly after the Millennium arrived, this group of musical chaps had a go at imagining what the Year 3000 might be like.

Above – Busted. Now is that before or after the climate apocalypse?

Did a decade of schooling and churchgoing in the 1990s prepare me for the real world outside?”

Absolutely not. Which should reinforce the importance of lifelong learning

In one sense it’s very hard to attribute motive regarding what we were and were not taught. To what extent were adults and institutions on the front line simply reacting to decisions taken further up the public sector food chain? On the other hand, you had toxic pieces of legislation such as Section 28, the impact of which still has not been undone.

The point Tom Allen makes in his stand up sketch is far more powerful – and far more Political than it sounds on first hearing. He covers important issues and concepts that we were not taught about in school – and that with hindsight we should have been.

The debate on what should and should not be taught by schools is one that has been around a very, very long time – to the extent that governments have lost elections over it. The Tories lost the 1906 General Election to the Liberals over the Education Act 1902 which discriminated against schools run by non-conformist movements. The debates they were having back then and the protest marches regarding antidisestablishmentarianism and the Welsh Church (which was ultimately disestablished) sound trivial in today’s post-Christian society (As defined by Rowan Williams, now of this parish).

Letter-writing: The businessman vs the traditional English teacher

The first time I clicked that what we were being taught in school was not preparing us for the outside world was when some businessman rocked up to one of our English classes to discuss how to write letters to apply for jobs. The look on our English teacher’s face – she was one of the old school who was soon to retire, was a picture in itself when he said all of our carefully prepared letters as directed by her would have ended up in the bin had it been in the real world. Everything we had been taught on letter writing over the previous four/five years went out of the window. It was brutal. When I started working in a bank during my year out (I never called it a ‘gap year’ because at the time it was a brand that did formal programmes that a number of people I knew were applying for), everything on letter templates that the business chap had said was what the bank used, and everything on structure & style that school had taught us had been ignored. But then the school environment we had been sent into was one where we were all expected to use fountain pens, and where ‘white correcting fluid’ was banned because too many kids were being caught sniffing it to get high. And in those days banning stuff in law was seen to be an effective solution.

“Just say ‘No!'”

This was also epitomised by the song released by the popular Children’s TV drama Grange Hill, who released a track called Just Say No which coincided with a series about the dangers of narcotics.

In hindsight the drama was ahead of its time and pushed the boundaries addressing a whole series of social issues that politicians were either too squeamish to touch (teenage pregnancies) or were part of the problem in whipping up prejudice (racism).

The mindset of both politicians and adults generally was that if you taught children that bad stuff existed, we’d only end up doing said bad stuff and harming ourselves. It was only the tragic death of Leah Betts – who was only a couple of years older than me at the time, to force a change in Government policy on public health, recognising that ‘just say no’ (without telling children what they were to say ‘no!’ to) did not work.

Learning to live with not being able to change the past, while trying to make the most of the future

One of the many things that the younger generations that have succeeded the micro-generation of Xenials that I’m in (analogue childhood, digital young adulthood – moving from a rotating dial landline telephone to an internet-enabled smartphone in the space of a decade) is that they refuse to be defined by the structures that old institutions are trying to place on them. On so many levels, the move by England’s Euro 2020+1 team over the summer demonstrated how younger generations can run rings around politicians and large, well-connected media institutions and publications. More strikingly, it went global. That was after the the event. In the recent case of Marcus Rashford, he called out one prominent publication before it had the chance to go to press, spiking the story and putting the institution on the defensive. And all he did was to respond with facts. And some of those in power don’t like it.

I thought the climate emergency, followed by the global Corona Virus pandemic (and our responses to it) would be the two defining issues of our age. One weather vane for the next general election on this will be the politically volatile seat of Ipswich, where the incumbent MP – a former Cambridgeshire County Councillor has made speeches similar to Mr Hayes above.

But look what’s happening on the streets.

“There’s no place for racism. …Look how far they got us. Not everyone can get to the final, but we got there. We just didn’t happen to win it.”

The video was filmed in Oldham, which was one of the areas I visited on a number of occasions during my civil service days to ensure the Fitton Hill Neighbourhood Centre in a White Working Class Community got built – not least because the construction of a health clinic by the NHS was conditional on that centre being built. We got the neighbourhood centre built – it opened six months after I left the civil service. With it came the health centre. My feeling was similar to what Ald. Kelsey Kerridge said in Cambridge in the early 1970s, but on a smaller scale:

All I want to do is to see the first brick built there. I shall know then that it’s going to be finished. Then I can have some peace and quiet.”


I kind of feel similar about a new large concert hall for Cambridge, knowing how long historically it takes to go from suggestion to project completion.

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