When schools close early, we are surely back in an age of decline | David Olusoga

To millennials, 1980s nostalgia consists largely of themed nights at nightclubs, a disturbing revival of synth-pop and the return of shoulder pads. With house prices pushing home ownership beyond the reach of those without private wealth, and students leaving university with average debts of more than £50,000, no one in their right mind would call young people fortunate, but they are blessed in having no other associations with the 1980s. Small comfort, I know.

For the generations who were around to experience it, the 1980s is a decade that comes with baggage. In 2019, as car manufacturers announce layoffs or transfer investment overseas, as waiting times go up and satisfaction in the NHS heads down, and with the formation of a new centrist party – the gang of 11 – the past few weeks have increasingly felt like a trip around a 1980s theme park. The brief but ghastly reappearance last month of Derek Hatton – the ghost of recessions past – felt as apt as it did sick‑making.

The desperate economic plight of some of our schools appears to be sending us hurtling further back in time. The introduction by schools in London, Birmingham and elsewhere of a 4.5-day week feels like a 21st-century tribute to the three-day week of the 1970s. Yet this reluctant decision to send children home at Friday lunchtime in order to cut costs has not brought forth a tsunami of outrage from the right.

This is strange, given that just five years ago rightwing commentators were complaining that British schoolchildren were a bunch of malingering slackers when compared with kids in China. Back then, the education minister Liz Truss was even dispatched to Shanghai on a fact-finding mission to see what we might learn from a system in which the school day starts at 7am and finishes at 7pm. As if we don’t have enough homegrown methods for ensuring that our children are among the most unhappy in the world, according to one study.

But it turns out that there is no need to introduce a 12-hour school day and that the school week can actually be cut by 10%, with no harm done. What no one seems to have realised back in 2014 was that one tenth of the teaching week – along with text books and other basic equipment – are luxurious frivolities that this government appear to regard as “little extras” that financially struggling schools could sensibly jettison in order to make ends meet.

So I clearly wasted three hours of my life a few years ago watching Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School, as that time would have been far better spent persuading all the kids in my extended family to bunk off every Friday lunchtime. It is almost as if the resourcing of state schools is – for some unexplained reason – a second-tier priority for a Conservative parliamentary party whose MPs are six-and-a-half times more likely to have attended private schools than the national average.

People walk past a tent under a London bridge

Across England the number of people sleeping rough has increased by 73% in the last three years. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Schools unable to keep their lights on and their doors open for the full working week is just the latest bleak instalment of a long-running show. The age of austerity returns for its ninth miserable year; always in the background, the common denominator in everything from the Brexit vote to knife crime. Since 2010, public spending as a share of GDP has dropped from about 45% in 2010 to approximately 38% today. This, of course, was always the prime objective of Cameron and Osborne – the twin authors of our current predicament.

Almost as shocking as the damage done to millions of lives is the mismatch between the scale of the reordering being done to our society and the level of outrage it has induced: the slow, year-by-year, percentage-by-percentage point decline in budgets; the incremental suffocation of local authorities and the decline in the services they provide is one of those gradual phenomena – like climate change – that the human mind is poorly equipped to deal with.

The primitive fight-or-flight regions of our mammalian brains react to immediate danger. We instinctively run from an avalanche but the gradual retreat of a glacier, the portent of the far greater danger of rising temperatures and rising oceans, just doesn’t get through to us in the same way. When it comes to austerity, as with climate change, we are the frog being slowly boiled, the temperature rising too gradually for us to sense the danger.

But nine years in and the realities are getting harder to miss or dismiss. Across the country, civic buildings – libraries, concert halls, courts – are being sold off to private developers, the transfer enabled by new powers given to councils in 2016. Public buildings, built from the rates and taxes paid by past generations, are being auctioned off by impoverished councils who need the money to pay the redundancies of workers they can no longer afford to employ. Many of these grand Victorian buildings will be turned into flats that most people will never be able to afford.

Even in London, at the centre of the wealthiest region in northern Europe, in so many ways insulated from the financial realities faced by the rest of the country, the facts of austerity are becoming harder to ignore. The tents of the homeless line the streets. Across England the number of people sleeping rough has increased by 73% in just the last three years. Over the last seven years the increase has been 169%, joining schools unable to stretch their budgets over a full five-day week and the now near constant drumbeat of negative economic news. These are all signs that we are falling back into an age of decline and decay that anyone who remembers the 1980s had hoped and presumed we had escaped.


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