I had a great start to the day. As part of a Teach First initiative I was invited to give a lesson to a group of year 11 students at Cator Park School in Beckenham.
I frequently give lectures, chair events and meet and greet the famous and powerful (today, for example, I welcomed Gordon Brown to the RSA where he was giving a speech to the think tank IPPR about constitutional reform). None of this stopped me being incredibly nervous today. As I told the class, my own teenage sons find it hard to listen to me for more than about two minutes, so how would I hold their attention for an hour?
To break the ice I told them about a former academic colleague of mine who spent the whole summer preparing for his first ever lecture. To avoid any mistakes he wrote out every word in advance. On the day he strode as confidently as he could across the stage, plonked his notes on the lectern and started to speak.
He was just beginning to get over the worst of his nerves when he began to hear some students giggling. Without looking up or stopping his flow he tried to work out what might be the cause - were his flies undone, did he have odd socks on? It was only then he realised: since his opening words he had gradually been lifting the lectern from the floor and it was now almost head height.
Anyway, not only did I calm my nerves, but I had a great hour. The content picked up on a recurrent theme of mine: politics is difficult because we the people have complex and often contradictory desires. Having shown the students that they agreed with both the following statements, I got half the class to develop the best argument for the proposition:
As long as we aren’t breaking the law or hurting anyone else the Government should not interfere with how we run out lives
And the other half to defend
Government has an important role to play in encouraging us to look after our health, protect the environment and other things we care about as a society
I found it fascinating that within fifteen minutes the groups had identified the three classical philosophical arguments for both the libertarian and paternalistic state.
After the lesson I met a group of students who had been involved in the school’s impressive international work. Some had been on exchange trips to Russia, others to help out with a social project in Uganda set up by the teacher whose class I was leading.
Talking to the school’s passionate Headteacher, I was reminded of one of the many dilemmas of decision making. The school is by far the most socially diverse in the largely affluent and white borough of Bromley. It does benefit from some central Government funding but the local authority does not give it any additional support despite its crumbling building, its challenging intake and its steadily improving results.
There is little question that greater devolution to councils in affluent areas will tend to lead to lower levels of redistribution within services; these councils generally don’t need the votes of poorer citizens to get re-elected. The goals of social justice and local democratic freedom pull in opposite directions.
It’s not an easy problem to crack, but if we want some sound advice we could do worse than ask some of the year 11 students at Cator Park.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.