Month: June 2016

Jexit

Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t even seem to understand how utterly he has betrayed the alliance between the old left and younger progressives. 

I am angry. Not post-2015 election angry; that was red-hot.

“It will take years to come back from this,” I thought last May, “why have people put such colossal obstacles in their own way?”

This is different. This is ice cold. I love Europe. No one said this during the campaign but I think it is a beautiful, forward-looking beacon of hope. It is at least as democratic as the UK’s own archaic parliamentary system and it emerged as a shining light from the terrible darkness of what came before it. Nigel Farage and Rupert Murdoch have won. Not just this time but seemingly forever. Reason and compassion have lost. We don’t like to admit it but many of us can see where Britain might very well be heading now because it’s happened before during the last century in other countries not so far away. I don’t even know if I’m brave enough to stay here and fight it. In the small hours of Friday morning, the modern, tolerant, open-minded future we thought we’d finally secured in the nineties appeared, quite simply, to die.

Having voted to remain and having spent some time attempting to convince others to do the same, I am nonetheless partly responsible for what happened on Thursday. In a different, smaller election less than a year ago I behaved almost as recklessly as the Brexit voters behaved in this one. I voted for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election because I was angry and dissatisfied about the way the country was going and the things he said made me feel better about it. I believed, and still believe, that his ideas and policies would solve many of the country’s problems if they were implemented. But they aren’t going to be implemented. Take one look at the electorate that turned up on Thursday and that is apparent. Just shouting louder and louder that the voters should stop reading the Sun and agree with me will not make it so. More importantly, it will do nothing whatsoever to tackle racism, sexism, poverty, inequality, cuts or privatisation.

This realisation has come slowly, just as I fear the folly of their actions will slowly dawn on many “leave” voters in the coming weeks and months as our economy and society unravels. I was ready to acknowledge my error just before the recent set of local elections but the results themselves changed my mind. Seeing Labour take or retain control of councils in precisely the sorts of places that tend to decide elections convinced me that Jeremy Corbyn should have been given a chance. During the EU referendum campaign, from my point of view, he blew that chance and I now represent one less person who would vote for him again in the event of a leadership challenge. I’d prefer he did the right thing before that moment comes.

Yes, Cameron was the arsonist; he lit the fire and had no plan to put it out. But Corbyn was standing by with a fire extinguisher which he failed to use. If he had led a fierce pro-European campaign, he could almost certainly have secured the 600,000 or so switches from leave to remain required to secure our future within the EU. He didn’t; he went on TV and gave lukewarm answers about the EU as though he were musing about the matter with his mates in the pub. It was honest and it was real, his supporters say, isn’t that what we want? No, it bloody isn’t. What I want is to not live in a fascist state and, as we’ve clearly seen in the last 48 hours, honesty of that sort is not what wins votes.

Vote Leave won with the slogan “take back control.” There was nothing honest or real about it. Since before Margaret Thatcher, the response of the affluent metropolitan left to the areas of the country struggling with the effects of industrial decline, poverty and then austerity has basically been to say: “vote for nicer rich people like us and we’ll share some of our stuff with you. Vote for those other guys who look and talk just like us and they won’t.” It’s true but it’s also bizarre and immensely patronising. If you think I’ve got that wrong, feel free, but first read this.

75% of 18-24-year-olds voted to remain on Thursday along with 62% of 25-34-year-olds and 52% of 35-44-year-olds. The mood among many (not all) young people in many (not all) places is very different from the mood among many (not all) older people in many other (not all) places. Jeremy Corbyn has made the plight of most young people an essential pillar of his message: on housing, employment, training and skills. Great. But it seems it’s only because he happens to agree on those issues too. Young people care about internationalism; about being part of something greater than little England. We’ve always had EU passports and the thought of having them ripped from our hands is incredibly sinister. If Corbyn wants to take us younger voters (I’m 33; I’m no Abby Tomlinson) with him then he has to do more than say what he thinks and trust that we’ll agree; he has to listen and show some passion for the things that matter to us. Being a leader sometimes, if not always, means representing the people you lead.

Scottish Nationalists now have their own escape plan and I envy them enormously. One-nation Tories, Labour supporters, Liberal Democrats and Greens have no choice but to make common cause in a new and darker age. With Boris or Gove likely to inherit the Tory leadership, the only way to do that will be under the banner of Labour’s rose. The right of the Tory party and UKIP are using the same tools fascists have used throughout history to win good people to their cause. We cannot demonise those people and we cannot divide among ourselves. This isn’t a battle between left-wing ideals and Thatcherism anymore; that ship has sailed. It’s a battle between the very idea of a rights-based, democratic post-war society and fascism. Labour needs a leader who can reach out and offer our country’s most ignored communities something that inspires them as much as that “take back control” message but in a form that actually means something. Boris, Gove and Farage won’t give these people the control and the means to stand on their own two feet that they rightly crave but we can.

With a bit of unity now behind a centrist, pro-European leader, we may be able to achieve more than currently seems possible. Who knows, maybe we could even get to a no confidence vote before article 50 can be triggered and a general election to offer the public a range of options regarding what should be done with their previous instruction. Yeah, you heard.

To counter the dark forces at work in this country after the Brexit vote, we’re going to need to rethink everything. We may need electoral pacts with old enemies, we will need to cooperate and we will need to listen. The last time the UK faced a national crisis on this scale, the Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Labour leader Clement Attlee formed a national coalition. What is perhaps needed now is a national opposition. Boris and Gove are going to be caught with their trousers down after the outrageous promises they’ve made to the British public during this campaign which they know they can’t keep. Their government won’t survive for long and, once enough people see what’s happened, they will lose. There could be two beneficiaries: UKIP or what’s left of the current political establishment. The stakes are that high: victory or Farage.

Jeremy Corbyn is not equipped for this fight personally or politically. He’s a good man and I agree with almost all his principles but saving the UK from the flames that erupted on Thursday is going to take levels of compromise and responsiveness of which he has proven himself incapable.

David Cameron called a referendum as a political gamble and he lost. He ran a dull, fear-based campaign (like the ones that worked to better effect in the 2015 General Election and the Scottish independence referendum) without expressing any passion or pride about Britain’s place in Europe. Jeremy Corbyn could have ridden to the rescue. If he had campaigned hard on a positive, optimistic vision of a united Europe, the younger people who were increasingly putting so much faith in him would probably have seen their vision of Britain’s future saved from bigotry and hatred at the eleventh hour. But it wasn’t of enough personal interest to him so he campaigned half-heartedly and supposedly “honestly” about an issue that required a hard-headed strategy.

It isn’t forgivable and I’m frustrated by the (now mostly older) left-wing voices still defending him as though nothing has changed. Perhaps many older people even on the left don’t understand how much our European identity matters to those of us who only ever remember carrying red passports with “European Union” emblazoned at the top. If they think this is just an “oh, well” moment they’re dead wrong. Many of them don’t seem to understand that the coalition their “old left” briefly formed with a younger generation hungry for progressive change is now over. This just isn’t ok and we will not stand for it.

After the local elections in May I said we should give Corbyn a chance. – and this was that chance. He’s betrayed the very younger generation he claimed to be fighting for. Either one of the big parties could have delivered a remain vote if they’d campaigned more-or-less united around a pro-European leader. The Tories couldn’t do that but, with a small number of exceptions with no big names among them, the Parliamentary Labour Party could have. It wasn’t what they’d call the “Blairite” MPs the old left like to castigate that failed us this time; it was their man Corbyn himself.

To grasp the scale of what has just happened is to understand that Cameron and Corbyn must both go and a new Labour leader must emerge who can save not just the party but the country itself.

Calls not to “politicise” the assassination of an MP are weasel words by the architects of hate

A lot of things that have happened in the last couple of years have made me uncomfortable. One of the less important ones is the growing fashion for writing gushing obituaries on social media about dead celebrities. Like so much that one criticises, I’ll probably find I’ve done it myself at some point but it still doesn’t seem particularly healthy. We first started treating grief as a public recreational activity when Princess Diana died and we’ve never really stopped.

 I didn’t know Jo Cox and, although I’d heard the name, even as a member of the Labour Party I couldn’t have told you before yesterday which constituency she represented or which particular issues she was known for championing. And yet, unlike anyone else in the pantheon of 2016’s dead celebrities that I had never met, her death got to me. For the rest of the day after I heard the news, I felt distracted and agitated by it and I found myself welling up as I heard some of the reports.

By explaining why this was so and by expressing the emotions I felt at hearing the news, I will be accused of “politicising” a political assassination by a desperate but powerful rear-guard action on the right-wing of British politics. On social media and in the tabloid press they are spinning their vile rhetoric anew, seeking to minimise the capacity of this horrific crime to shine a light on the hatred and fear they’ve been whipping up in our society over weeks, months and years. Typically, a political assassination is politicised by the assassin, not the outraged supporters of the target. The weasel words of the apologists who try to defend the indefensible make me sick to my stomach.

When I was 12, my father died with no warning whatsoever. It’s not what people often imagine if they’ve never experienced the sudden loss of someone close to them; the anguish and torment that people often assume would be the logical response comes later and more slowly. Sudden death leaves a gnawing, burning sensation that never really goes away rather than delivering an immediate sucker punch. The first few days are all numb disbelief. All the more remarkable, then, that Jo Cox’s husband Brendan was able to issue such a coherent response within just a couple of hours of his wife’s cold-blooded murder:

“Today is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. More difficult, more painful, less joyful, less full of love. I and Jo’s friends and family are going to work every moment of our lives to love and nurture our kids and to fight against the hate that killed Jo.

Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people.

She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.”

 

Hate was the catalyst. We should be deeply suspicious of those who would prevent us from naming it and finding its source, or cry “mental health” as a smokescreen (as though they’ve ever given a toss about mental health before)- gun control campaigners in America know all too much about that sordid deflection tactic. Three separate witnesses report that the alleged killer (I won’t name him) shouted either “Britain First” or “Put Britain First” as he killed her (update 18/06/16: the defendant has appeared in court and given his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”) There has been a clamour by the far right (especially the group actually called “Britain First”) to try either to deny his links to right-wing politics altogether or to obfuscate about it. This is pathetic. These are the very people who routinely criticise moderate Muslims for failing to condemn Islamic terror loudly enough. It would be the easiest thing in the world for these people to say something along the lines of: “if, as the evidence appears to be suggesting, this individual was acting out of a twisted interpretation of British nationalism, then we wish to emphasise that he does not act in our name and we condemn it utterly.” Instead they attack the “left” (read: everyone that thinks things are going too far when MPs get gunned down in the street in broad daylight) for “politicising” murder, blaming the witness reports on “mainstream media lies” and even, in some cases, suggesting the murder itself was a “false flag” operation by secret agents working for the EU! These are the lengths people on the right of our politics will go to in order to shirk the responsibility for what is happening in our country.

And what exactly is happening? Let’s assume, as I desperately hope we can, that this is an isolated incident; merely the most extreme element in the pervasive web of fear and hatred being spun throughout this country. Why now? What has happened to ratchet such sentiments up so high? Yesterday Nigel Farage unveiled an advertisement which looked as though it had been directly photocopied from a snippet of propaganda used by a group of people in the 1930s I daren’t mention for fear of invoking Godwin’s Law. This was only the latest act in a deliberate and orchestrated campaign to whip up hatred against immigrants and foreigners by a group of people who wish to persuade us to leave the European Union: to “take back control”, to “make Britain great again”, to stick it to Johnny Foreigner and put Britain, well, first. In an atmosphere of ignorant tabloid rage, whipped up by poisonous demagogues like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, an already hysterical referendum campaign is becoming a battle for the survival of some of this country’s most basic values or, as Martin Kettle  argues in today’s Guardian, a battle between the press and democracy itself.

It’s not just those on the “Remain” side of the EU debate who believe things have gone too far. Even in the pro-Brexit Spectator yesterday, in a piece for which author and publication alike should be greatly commended, Alex Massie observed: “if you shout ‘breaking point’ over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks.” Those who are deliberately and knowingly encouraging aggression and antipathy towards entire groups and communities to suit their own political aims now have the gall to turn round and accuse everyone else of “politicising murder.”

Jo Cox’s alleged killer did not represent the campaign to leave the EU but it is becoming increasingly clear that he was a symptom of the same hate it’s been peddling. This hideous referendum has unleashed a wave of xenophobic bile we must fight with all our might. Jo Cox believed that and paid for it with her life. She wasn’t just another celebrity whose death can be dismissed with the usual barrage of safe platitudes and uncontroversial praise through amateur Facebook obituaries. She was assassinated for her beliefs and if pointing that out is politicising her death, then so be it: let’s politicise, as loudly and as unashamedly as we can. Politicise it until it can’t be politicised anymore: for democracy, for Ms Cox and her family and for the dream of a better world that was her life’s work.

 

 

Grammar Issues of the EU Referendum

 

Through a serious flaw in the way they use grammar, many Brexiteers have got so used to using xenophobic dogma, they no longer even notice they’re doing it.

“Shall we go to the park?”

On its own, what does this question mean? Who do you assume I am including in this venture? You and me? You, me and my fiancé? Me and someone else altogether? Since “we” is a first person pronoun, you know I mean myself and one or more other people but that’s where your understanding of the question ends. Out of context, pronouns like “we” and “our” and “us” are meaningless. As someone who has had to teach the new Year 6 grammar requirements this year I know as well as anyone that a pronoun is a word used to replace a noun and, when that noun hasn’t been previously introduced, the sense of that pronoun is lost.

Now consider this:

“The EU referendum is about our right to govern ourselves.”

Who do you assume I mean now? And how is the sense created by this sentence different from some of these alternatives:

“The EU referendum is about the UK’s right to govern us.”

“The EU referendum is about our right to govern the UK.”

“The EU referendum is about the UK’s right to govern the UK.”

There are lots of people in Britain who don’t really seem like they’re the same as me; many prominent Brexiteers for a start. There are many people in other EU countries who are a lot more like me. When I talk about “our right to govern ourselves,” I might be talking about those people all across the EU who are a bit like me. I might be saying that people like us (whichever countries we live in) should be entitled to political representation. As it happens, I do believe exactly that and I also believe people with very different political views to my own should be entitled to political representation too.

“It’s about our right to govern ourselves,” is meaningless in the absence of any proper nouns and it only makes sense when used as a case for Brexit if it is accompanied by a highly questionable and somewhat insulting assumption: that British people are fundamentally different from (if not simply better than) their European partners. The implication is that all British people are of one type, all non-British Europeans are of another and we (the fundamentally different British) have totally different needs when “governing ourselves.”

A hipster from Latvia has much more in common with a hipster from Britain than he does with a homophobic nationalist from Latvia. A homophobic nationalist from Portugal has much more in common with a homophobic nationalist from Denmark than she does with a bohemian champagne Socialist from Portugal. So much of our culture is now international that the divisions between people in modern Europe have very little to do with which bit of the continent they happen to be born in or choose to live in now.

The peculiar twist to all this is that, when I point out this state of affairs to the Brexiteers, they tend to react with considerable hostility and I find it hard to believe they really think they’re the same as me anyway. Most of them absolutely hate Brits like me and yet they’ve given themselves such a small field to choose from when selecting those who are allowed to be included when they say “we” and “us” that they surely can’t afford to be so picky when it comes to their own countrymen. I find it impossible to understand why they want to roll up people like me and people like them in one “we” so we can separate “ourselves” off and govern “ourselves” even though we have absolutely nothing in common and even though they clearly hate me. Even the Brexiteers don’t know who the “we” and “us” they’re so concerned with actually includes, or at least if they do they seem to thoroughly dislike a good third of the people with whom they say they want to govern “them(our)selves. “

For whom do these people want self-rule? Who are “we” and how do we recognise each other? If we disagree on almost everything and yet each of us can find agreement with like-minded people in other countries, why is self-rule for the myriad of different people, mindsets and sub-cultures on this bit of land so important?

People arguing for Brexit, it would seem, use pronouns in the place of proper nouns to disguise their xenophobia, or at least stubborn and ungrounded nationalism. I wrote a silly article about this a few months ago. With Leave taking a lead in the polls, it’s all starting to seem decidedly less funny. Perhaps I should be grateful to Michael Gove for beating me round the head with grammar rules otherwise I might never have had this revelation about the grammar of Brexit.

We might have had to figure it our for ourselves.

Inside Finland’s Miracle

This week I had the privilege of travelling to Finland to find out what makes their world-beating education system tick- and what the UK could learn from their achievements.

As Finland slides into view, Paavo Piik, an Estonian theatre director I’m working with, smiles and gestures towards the coastline. “There it is,” he says, “the promised land!” To teachers all over the world, Finland has become a byword for getting it right in education. I’m exhausted after two back-to-back early mornings but that doesn’t dampen my excitement as our ferry approaches the end of its two-hour crossing from Tallinn and Helsinki takes shape in front of us. I’m halfway through my final term as deputy head at an inner London primary school and since I started teaching in the British system twelve years ago, and throughout all the frustrations that has involved, I’ve always wanted to come and see this for myself.

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I’m here in my half-term at the invitation of the Theatre of Europe. We’re creating a show exploring the challenges facing educators, particularly in the UK, through an international lens. My companions are all Estonians: Paavo is a director, Paul is a producer and Arun is a filmmaker, here today to document our visit. We’re visiting two schools in very different settings before meeting Krista Kiuru, the former Finnish education minister. One of our aims is to learn the secret of their success: how do they achieve such apparently high standards (Finland consistently outperforms the UK in the PISA international rankings) while ignoring almost all the instruments a succession of British governments has insisted on using to achieve the same goal? In Finland there is no statutory testing until children are sixteen, they have no formal inspectorate and teachers have the freedom to teach as they see fit with almost no interference from government. The pressures and anxieties that are causing an unprecedented number of British teachers to leave the profession simply don’t exist here. These facts also make us keen to play devil’s advocate as we explore this apparent Nirvana first-hand: what’s the catch? Surely nothing in life is this simple.

Our first stop is Siltamäki, a small town just outside Helsinki. The first people we see are a kindergarten class sitting outside singing with their teacher. Estonian is pretty similar to Finnish and Paavo is able to inform me that the song (sung to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus”) is about a duck who goes “quack quack quack.” Straightaway it looks like a British education minister’s nightmare: a group of children doing something “fun” and “woolly” rather than “rigorous.” I can almost hear the them scoffing in my head. The children sit close together but in whatever position makes them comfortable, facing whichever direction they please. Everyone looks remarkably relaxed.

The principal meets us at the door and I’m amused by her demeanour, which is considerably more familiar to me and is probably the same all over the world: formidable, energetic and intensely proud of her school. She doesn’t really care who we are: there’s a film crew in her school and she’s determined to show off its achievements. They’ve been working on a musical production, and she shows us some of the children’s artwork it has inspired. In everything she says, she keeps coming back to the musical which seems to have been the focus of the school’s work for weeks if not months.

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“I pity the children who don’t like musicals!” Paul says as we’re led into the hall to watch a snippet of the production itself which is being rehearsed. Every child in the school has made a contribution and everyone is involved in its performance and execution. Standards (meaning actual standards, not test results as that word has come to mean in the British system) are extremely high. Without a national assessment agenda, there is far more room for children to follow their interests and that is true in this performance: some of the children are hunched over a laptop controlling the videos they’ve filmed and edited with remarkably high production values, others are on the stage in beautifully-crafted phoenix costumes performing a dance while about twenty others form an extremely impressive band including singers, percussionists and a variety of instrumentalists including a tiny boy with a bass guitar who is cooler than any British person will ever be. The only children in the hall are those needed for this particular section of the performance and all of them are involved- no one is sitting around waiting for “their bit.”

“This is all very nice,” the acid tone of the Tory minister I’m carrying around in my head says, “but children need to learn basic skills. Where is the rigour?” I finally sit down with one of the children, a sixth-grade girl who is twelve years old and one of the few ethnic minorities in the school. I’ve just seen her singing beautifully in the show but once again the Tory minister in my head pipes up: “we as a nation can’t compete in the global race by singing.” so I ask her what her favourite subject is.

“Maths,” she replies immediately, “it’s really fun and you have to think in lots of different ways.”

I smile and complement her English (plenty of English twelve-year-olds can’t speak English as confidently.) Some children must find that difficult, I say. Of course, she replies, and the teacher spends extra time helping those children. The same is true in all the subjects they study. They spend plenty of time studying what we in the UK would call “core subjects”; they just don’t get themselves wound up about it by assessing them obsessively and crowding everything else out of the curriculum.

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Next we head upstairs and visit a lesson. The children are about eight or nine; each of them is at a computer and each of them is just playing Minecraft. The spluttering, red-faced rage of the minister in my head is not even comprehensible now. The class teacher, a long-haired, tattooed guy in a t-shirt who would look more at home at a metal concert than in a primary school classroom, explains what they’re doing. Each student is helping to design and maintain a city. They each have a different role in overseeing the effective administration of the virtual city and all of them have unique problems to solve, all of which are controlled and monitored at the teacher’s terminal. We ask the teacher what subject the children are doing and he shrugs. It’s not something he really worries about. They’re learning about the world they’re going to have to live in and the problems they might have to help solve when they’re older. He tells us he loves Sid Meier’s “Civilization” computer games and I nod enthusiastically. I’ve often said those games taught me more as a teenager than any subject I learnt at school.

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This free-flow approach to the curriculum is the next step in Finland’s evolution as the school’s vice-principal explains to us when we emerge from the class. I’d read about this in the UK news a week or so before our visit but she is able to explain it with a clarity the British media always seems to lack when reporting education stories. Of course there is a compulsory framework, she tells us, but it’s a basic outline and the rest is about the teacher’s creativity and the interests of the students. I ask how this curriculum is to be enforced. How does the government know that the basic offer (such as essential maths and Finnish language content) is being delivered? We’re told that schools are required to publish their own curricula on their websites (ha! You DO have to do something we have to do!) which is shared with parents and must be agreed with the education department. And that’s it. That’s Finland’s accountability system.

We thank the staff and we’re left with considerable food for thought as we drive away. What we’ve seen was wonderful but could it work with the levels of inequality we have in England? Or in the multicultural communities that inner London schools now serve? That’s what we’re going to find out. Our next destination is Aurinkolahti, a multi-cultural primary and secondary through-school in inner-city Helsinki. There is a new challenge here. Only 5% of Finland’s population was born overseas, even that figure is a considerable increase compared to a decade ago and the country’s ethnic minorities are heavily concentrated in this part of its capital.

Again we’re met by the principal but this time she immediately delegates the job of showing us round to a group of students. These are teenagers who’ve recently done something for the very first time: national tests. It’s the last week of term (I’m told Finnish schools have seven more weeks of holiday than we do in the summer, as well as shorter days and more breaks- well of course they do) and many of the younger children are on trips. This visit is an opportunity to see the results of Finland’s education system: its sixteen year-olds who are the “Finnished product.” (sorry)

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Over the hour that follows my mind is completely blown. Throughout the school there are dozens of sixteen-year-olds, from a wide range of social and ethnic groups, doing quite literally whatever they want. Some of them are lounging around on bean bags chatting or reading, some are playing sport in the gym and the majority are engaged in their own business using the school’s generous resources: there are students in the best-equipped design and technology workshop I’ve ever seen working on their own projects with a range of tools and machinery, there is another group in a maths classroom working out how to program a robot to walk and dance, there is a group of girls in the art studio producing beautiful portraits and another group gathered around a stage making props and costumes for a performance.

No one is running, no one is shouting and there is no sign of any tension or argument. Wherever we go, we meet young people enthusiastically wanting to show us what they’ve been doing. They recently went on a school trip to London and they play us a video they’ve produced of the trip. In temperament, they’re as sweet and polite as the most pleasant primary school classes I’ve taught. In intellect, they just seem like well-rounded adults.

This is the last week of term and it isn’t typical. Before their exams, their timetable varied between three and six hours of classroom learning a day and they attended subject lessons like anyone else. The difference is that the exam syllabus was only one part of what was valued in those lessons. I ask how their exams went and, with a shrug, they say they were fine. Paavo asks whether the exams are important. They tell us they can be and that universities “take an interest” in the results. Some of them are planning to go to university and some of them aren’t. Those that aren’t tend to have very specific plans for the technical courses they intend to go on to based on the skills they’ve had the opportunity to develop at school.

Life isn’t perfect, they tell us, and of course adolescence isn’t easy anywhere but, the more I speak to these remarkable young people, the more I realise the concept of the “teenager” isn’t inevitable. The stroppy, rebellious, antisocial youths prone to cruelty and excessive risk-taking we see all too often in most English-speaking societies aren’t inevitable: we have created them. Their behaviour is a choice we have made and continue to make. As I’m led around this school, I’m torn in two by two equally powerful but competing emotions. I’m utterly inspired by the sight of what’s possible when young people are nurtured and empowered rather than patronised and scrutinised but I’m also furious with my own compatriots, realising how stupid and primitive we Brits really are when it comes to one of our most important responsibilities: the education of our young. I feel like a time-traveler visiting the future from an earlier and more savage age.

Next we interview two teachers; one teaches maths to the older students and the other teaches English and German. We’re astonished that they’re happy for this to take place with an audience of about twelve of their students. This is a testament to the relationships between teachers and students here: they are friendly, informal and authentic. There are no uniforms for the students, teachers wear whatever makes them comfortable and everyone calls everyone else by their first name. The teachers talk completely candidly about their job including its challenges (even Finnish teachers have some paperwork- there’s still no way round the need for safeguarding procedures, for example) and the changes on the horizon in terms of the creative, topic-based curriculum. They love their job and, while they still feel pressure, I can’t help feeling that it’s the right pressure: to make learning inspiring for their students and to ensure they’re motivated to be the best they can be, not just to be good at exams but to be thoughtful, focused, friendly and skillful in a range of disciplines.

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Somewhat stunned by what we’ve just experienced, we get back in the car and, after a brief stop for lunch, we’re off to the Finnish parliament building for our final appointment: a meeting with Krista Kiuru, the former education minister and one of the architects of its current evolution. We sit around a table in the café and reflect on what we’ve seen during the day. I’ve met quite a few politicians and she has the same studied charisma and careful presentation that I’ve observed in all of them but there’s an authenticity and warmth about her that her British counterparts often lack. There’s also genuine and unmistakable passion as she warms to the theme of Finland’s education system. What’s amazing is the lack of complacency; she doesn’t want to talk about Finland’s achievements but about what it needs to do to be even better.

Scoring well in the PISA rankings was never Finland’s primary objective- its aim was to create a better life for its young people and its performance in the international tables was just a welcome bonus (which makes the remarks of Gove, Morgan and Cameron about Britain’s drive to climb those same rankings look even more absurd) but, having achieved what they did, they were then a little spooked when they dropped slightly between 2012 and 2015. Yet Krista’s response to that drop is to insist the Finland needs to go even further down the road it is already taking: to put even more emphasis on student motivation, engagement and well-being.

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Finland is still haunted by two US-style mass shootings in quick succession in 2007 and 2008 in which a total of 20 students at a high school and a technical college respectively lost their lives. This has made it easier to argue for an system that puts student’s happiness at its centre and what is most remarkable about Finland’s education agenda is that it enjoys complete cross-party support. Krista’s Social Democratic Party is out of power now and the government is dominated by the centre-right. While this brings frustrations (for example, Krista believes the new administration is failing to provide sufficient funding to schools with additional challenges presented by immigration and inequality like Aurinkolahti) the basic direction of travel has the agreement of everyone in the Finnish parliament. Rather than becoming the political football education represents in the UK, Finland’s school system has adopted a consistent direction of travel, agreed in collaboration with teachers, to which the entire country has seemingly signed up. Paavo asks if Krista is certain that the new reforms can make standards even higher and simultaneously make the education process even happier and more inspiring. Her answer is simple: “it must.”

I want to talk to Krista about the challenges we would face in exporting the Finnish model to the UK. I tell her that our Tory government have always insisted we must learn from the best international examples and I ask her if she ever had any contact from British ministers asking for her advice when she was education minister. She just laughs, shakes her head and looks at me with what I can only call pity. As well as education minister, Krista has also been Finland’s housing minister; she talks briefly talks about how Finland has striven to ensure socially mixed communities and how important this has been to the smooth functioning of their education system. I want to talk about this further, especially as housing is something we’re making even more of a mess of in the UK than education, but we’re out of time. Paul has already gone to get the car and he texts to tell us we need to leave or we’ll miss our ferry. Our seven hours in Finland have absolutely flown by.

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Minutes later, we’re sitting quietly aboard the ferry, individually reflecting on everything we’ve seen and heard. I walk up the deck and watch Finland recede into the distance. So much of what I’ve witnessed has only been possible because of Finland’s unique circumstances. It has an adult population that values education more than the majority of British adults do, it is a far more economically equal country than the UK and it has a parliamentary system that encourages gradual evolution rather than dramatic ideological swings. Yet there is so much I’ve seen that we could start doing tomorrow in the UK if only there was the political will.

In the UK we’re failing our young people. We’re clobbering them with an enormous, prescriptive barrage of exam content and building our entire system around that content, rather than the students themselves. It isn’t going to change tomorrow and it isn’t going to change next year. But, turning my back on a remarkable country and facing into the powerful breeze from the open sea, I try and find a reason for a little optimism. No one knows what the future holds, even our politicians. That imagined government minister whose voice was rattling around my head earlier suddenly seems so utterly small and pathetic. Our government have no answers to the big questions about education in the 21st century and they get laughed at by the people who do. I decide there is only one conclusion I can allow myself to draw from today: the promised land is out there, I’ve seen it with my own eyes and maybe one day we’ll get there too.