Is this today’s craziest school of thought – as education chiefs abolish schools


Wester Hailes Education Centre

Wester Hailes Education Centre

School has been abolished.

In the part of Mereseyside where this extraordinary revolution has taken place, youngsters of secondary school age ought to be whooping with delight and throwing their hats in the air.

Reality, as you might expect, is slightly different. The tinkering classes at the snappily named Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council haven’t precisely abolished school as, er, repurposed it.

In the lexicon of bullsh*t bingo (where you call house when you have collected all the best corporate nonsense-speak phrases from ‘blue sky thinking’ to ‘pop this in your mental microwave and see if it pings’) my current favourite word or expression is  most definitely “repurposing”.

I gather this is also a favourite word among the high-heid-yins at KMBC’s Children’s and Families Services Directorate (and breathe…). After all, they are labouring under a creaking label which is a painfully wordy repurposing of, well, the simple old education department.

Now I don’t need the good council’s press office to ring me and let me know that this directorate does loads more than look after education. No doubt there is a wealth of worthwhile services provided by the Children’s and Families bods.

However, punters being punters don’t really care. That’s why so many ordinary people still refer to “corporation buses” or “water boards”. Such plain speaking anachronims no longer exist in our public services utopia. But we like the names because they tell us everything we need to know. And we’ve generally got the brains to understand there’s a bit more going on behind the scenes.

Which brings me back to schools. We’re all cosily familiar and comfortable with the concept. Even to the point were we understand that private school and  public shcool are actually the same thing – and that most of us actaully attended state or comprehensive schools.

Maybe your fondest memories are from senior school or junior school. Perhaps you knew exactly what you wanted to be when you were at  pre-school or maybe you still didn’t know where you were going even when you finished secondary school. Either way, schools are a quintessential facet of childhood, right through to summer schools during the holidays and Sunday Schools for those of a church-going bent,.

Many go on to study at music schools, business schools, art schools, law schools or medical schools – or maybe stage schools and drama schools. When it comes to recreation maybe you’re more cookery school  than rock school. Whatever.

The point being that we all fundamentally understand the concept of school in its great, amorphous and many-tentacled diversity. Part of the reason for this is that in our society – and pretty much every other one I know of, youngsters attend school from roughly the age of five to 16. It’s one of life’s comforting little constants.

Excepts kids in Knowesly won’t be going to school for much longer. The local authority is abolishing its 11 existing secondary schools to replace them with seven “learning centres” open round-the-clock to the entire community.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not quite curmudgeonly or reactionary enough (yet) to dismiss this out of hand. In fact, I actually like the sound of lots of the work. Which leaves me cringing and asking why they have to sully something which should be exciting and innovative, by turning it into an insulting and bonkers, PC-gone-mad renaming exercise?

I don’t know whether the Media Office/Public Relations department at the council are old stagers who will be wringing  their hands in angst at this (and wishing they could wring the necks of the people who dreamt it up).

Or whether they are the kind of clever and presentable (but usually-dead-eyed) readicals who embrace political correctness in the same way fundamentalists embrace the outer extremes of religion.

Either way, in my professional capacity I think this is an utter PR disaster – most notably shown when two opposing camps were invited on to Radio 5 Live this morning to debate the issue.

The man from the Campaign for Real Education was able to speak plainly – urging the council to call a school a school  while encouraging staff, parents and pupils alike to to get on with the process of education. Sure, open it up to the community, like many schools already do, but ditch the name change idea because it is a piece of trendy, politically correct nonsense.

On the other side of the debate, was the functionary from the council. I’m sure he is a very nice and eloquent chap. But he sounded like a stuttering ringpiece because he was restricted by the descriptive confines of the PC madness his authority has adopted: it was all “consultation”, “outcomes” and “protocols”.

However, I’m not only speaking in a purely professional capacity, but a very, very personal one. You see, I didn’t go to school. Nope, I went to a 1970s social engineering experiment called Wester Hailes Education Centre – also known as WHEC.

Wester Hailes Education Centre

Wester Hailes Education Centre

I don’t have a bad word to say about the school, the staff or the education I received there. However, growing up in the 80s, there was a fair degree of stigma being from Wester Hailes, the sprawling sink estate almost always associated with AIDS, heroin abuse, poverty and crime. 

As awkward teenager finding my way in the world , meeting young people from other parts of Edinburgh could be testing. Kids carry terrible preconceptions. Justifying to a judgemental peer group that the area I came from didn’t automatically mean I was a junkie, AIDS risk or housebreaker could be hard.

However, then explaining that my school was actually an “education centre” guaranteed the entire process was absolutely excruciating. Almost everybody assumed that education centre actually meant re-education centre and believed that it was some sort of penal reform venue.

This ugly naming convention dogged me long after school (should that be education centre?) was behind me. Trying to explain it to fellow college students and later work colleagues was also painful. To avoid the borstal assumptions, whenever people asked me where I went to school, I would simply reply WHEC. That led to many people thinking I said Wick – and opened up a whole new can of worms with the assumption I was some sort of Highland teuchter.

Eventually I gave up. Now I try not to talk about school at all. Not that I’m ashamed of being from Wester Hailes – but because it’s too damned annoying having to explain why the place couldn’t simply be called a school and had to be an “education centre”.

For me school was great. Thanks to the PC shenanigans of a bunch of 70s and 80s bureaucrats who fancied themselves as social pioneeers, talking about it has always been difficult.

That’s a school of thought the education (and the PR people) at Knowsley Council should be considering. Here endeth the lesson.


3 thoughts on “Is this today’s craziest school of thought – as education chiefs abolish schools

  1. As a fellow graduate (?) of WHEC, I know exactly what you mean. Pupils could have had two heads the way some people would look at you. Even now, more than a decade later (gulp!), you can detect that sharp intake of breath from people who know the place, clutching their purses and wallets that little tighter and cooing ‘oooooh, you’ve done well for yourself then haven’t you, well, considering….’ You might have left by then, but if memory serves, it was also the first in Scotland to set up a creche to allow gymslip mum’s to carry on with their education. Common place today. Overall I’ve nothing but good, decent memories of the WHEC. But jings – the ‘what school did you go to’ question at parties is still the one that fills me with dread for the reasons you suggest.
    Brilliant basketball team though 🙂

  2. Just to back you up on this one Scotty. When I went for an interview with the BEEB in my late teens, the BBC high heid yin checked my CV and asked if the WHEC was actually a school. The clear inference being that I’d just left borstal or something.
    Cheeky twat.
    Mind you, I did turn up for said interview after a week in Blackpool sleeping in my mate’s dad’s Lada Riva. So I probably did look like a convict.

    • Awright Smitty?
      In fairness you’ve perfected the style of, er, dishevelled cool.
      You always look as though you might just have spent a night in a Lada Riva!

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