This will not be the first nor last time that Education Secretary, Michael Gove has been compared to the fact-obsessed schoolmaster, Mr Gradgrind of Charles Dickens’ novel, ‘Hard Times’ (with its pertinent parallels to our present economic woes and government austerity programmes)[i]. Gradgrind opens the novel declaiming, “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts. Nothing else will ever be of service to them … Stick to Facts, sir!” Gove laid himself open to such a parody in his recent speech at a conference organised by the Spectator magazine[ii], where he stated that English school children were being held back and disadvantaged in comparison to their peers in the Asian ‘Tiger economies’ of China, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea due to our shorter school days and longer holidays.
Specifically, he criticised the current school schedule as harking back to the 19th Century when food production was still a major player in the national economy and farming needed large numbers of daily and seasonal workers on the land, “The structure of the school term and the school day was designed at a time when we had an agricultural economy.” Mr Gove said going on to recall his own school days, “I remember half-term in October when I was at school in Aberdeen was called the tattie holiday – the period when kids would go to the fields to pick potatoes. It was also at a time when the majority of mums stayed home. That world no longer exists and we can’t afford to have an education system that was essentially set in the 19th century.”
Gove, like Gradgrind, appears to set much greater store in children being able calculate the price of everything and categorise the constituent parts of living things, rather than having any practical knowledge of (or pleasure!) in what he appears to believe are superfluous skills, such as being able to plant and harvest some of their own food (or at least know that someone has grown it before the produce is presented uniformly packaged on a supermarket shelf). “We’ve noticed”, Mr Gove opined, “in Hong Kong and Singapore and other East Asian nations that expectations of mathematical knowledge or of scientific knowledge at every stage are more demanding than in this country. In order to reach those levels of achievement a higher level of effort is expected on behalf of students, parents and teachers. School days are longer, school holidays are shorter. The expectation is that to succeed, hard work is at the heart of everything. If you look at the length of the school day in England, the length of the summer holiday … then we are fighting or actually running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap.” With unctuous eagerness to reinforce their minister’s utilitarian pronouncements ‘Whitehall sources’ added, “We can either start working as hard as the Chinese, or we’ll all soon be working for the Chinese.”
Before condemning our children to a system designed only to make them fit for a life of servitude on the production line, there are some other facts Mr Gove should consider. Numbers and facts that pertain to the very countries Gove cites as role models to emulate and catch-up with in his ‘global race’[iii]. These show that Gove’s dismissive assumption that agriculture has little or no part to play either in children’s lives or our future wealth and well-being are as short-sighted and misguided as Gradgrind’s.
China’s economic growth has been impressive, but only at great cost to its environment and by deprioritising its agriculture and undermining its own already shaky food security. Huge areas of former farmland were developed for factories making goods for export and the surrounding urban sprawl needed to house their millions of workers – many of them migrants from rural areas. Much to their alarm, when officials analysed the latest satellite images they found that that the conversion of former farmland to such industrial or urban non- use was more than two and one-half times greater than previously believed. China has been a net importer of cereals since the 1990s due to such development, but also from having exhausted or polluted the underground aquifers upon which much of its arable land had depended for irrigation. Consequently, the Chinese government is increasingly concerned at the country’s food vulnerability. To such an extent, that along with others listed approvingly by Mr Gove, China has been buying or leasing land overseas to grow its food and fuel.
In its 2009 report, ‘Land Grab or Development Opportunity?’[iv], the International Food Policy Research Institute estimated that China had ‘secured’ 2.8m hectares in the Democratic Republic of Congo to grow oil palms for biofuel. Whilst South Korea had bought or leased nearly 700,000 hectares of Africa’s farmland to grow wheat plus another 326,000 hectares in Mongolia. Oxfam estimates that over 60% agricultural land leased or bought over the past decade by foreign governments and investors has been in African and other developing countries where their own food security is already a major issue[v].
South Korea’s overall food self-sufficiency has declined to 26% over the past 40 years, as its affluent and aspirational population has turned increasingly to a western, more meat intensive diet – but having ‘lost’ 400,000 hectares of its farmland to urban and industrial development, the country’s cattle are raised in US-style feedlots reliant on vast import of US-grown maize and soya beans[vi].
Even Mr Gove should know that Hong Kong, with its soaring skyscrapers and new airport built out on land reclaimed from the sea doesn’t have much spare land for growing food. Forty years ago, Hong Kong produced just under 50% of its own our vegetables; by 2000, that had decreased to 11.7%, and today has crashed to less than 3%! Hong Kong imports 95% of its food from other countries – much of it from mainland China[vii]. As noted above, hardly the most secure or sustainable source. Hence Hong Kong, one of the world’s foremost finance centres is ranked jointly with Sudan, one of the world’s ‘economic basket-cases’, as the 8th most food insecure country in the world[viii]. It’s all very well being a world-class ‘bean counter’, but not if you haven’t got any beans to eat…
Singapore recognises that ‘fact’ and has begun to adjust its priorities. One of the most densely populated and urbanised countries in the world, Singapore imports nearly 90% of its foodstuffs. The country has virtually no farmland left: Whereas in the 1960s there were some 20,000 small farms still in existence, almost all of which have now gone under concrete and only 2% of the total land area is described as being under agriculture, mostly in designated ‘agro-technology parks’. Following the global food crisis of 2008 which saw riots in countries across the globe from Bangladesh, to Haiti and Egypt, the government set up a $20 million ‘Food Fund’ focused on increasing the proportion and resilience of its home-grown food supply, promoting urban farming projects and setting targets to increase production of food staples such as eggs, vegetables and fish. Singapore’s shift in priorities shows that it is Mr Gove’s schedule and world-view that needs to be adjusted. Agriculture is not the dominant sector and major employer it once was in the UK economy and people’s lives – and, no, most people don’t want to return to the back-breaking days of hand-picking ‘tatties’. But having an understanding that all human economic activity is dependent and founded upon agriculture, the availability of fertile soil, clean water and fresh air and those with the knowledge and skills to manage those natural resources sustainably should be a fundamental part of any school curriculum.
Beyond just digesting dry facts and statistics, children should have the time and opportunity to see and understand farming and food production directly – to grow their own food, whether in the classroom, school playground, on local allotments or in window-boxes and gardens at home. Like Singapore, our towns and cities and their wildlife, would benefit from more commercial and community growing spaces within urban areas. Food producers and consumers have become divorced from each other, separated by tens if not hundreds of ‘food miles’; a disconnection that mainly serves those turning a profit from ‘adding value’ to the raw produce through processing and packaging.
But what really struck me about Mr Gove’s pronouncements was the grey, joyless future they presaged for our school children: Longer school hours, shorter holidays, pupils confined indoors being crammed with facts like battery-hens. No sense that the human mind, imagination and soul need to be nourished by more than lessons and instruction. I was privileged as child to grow up on the edge of a village that still supported two working farms, bounded by scrubby woodland just holding the line against the creeping urban sprawl. But providing sufficient, safe space for me to fossick about in – then going onto secondary school, set amidst rural Rutland with its fertile farmland to free-range over.
Inner-city children are denied such easy access to the countryside, but most will have parks or even city farms offering some outdoor space and contact with nature and living things other than us humans. Gove should be working harder to provide more opportunities to schoolchildren for such contact and connections rather than seeking to drive children harder on his ‘fact treadmill’. The fundamental fact, as Singapore has learned, is summed up in the old eco-hippy mantra, allegedly derived from a Native American Indian prophecy, and seen on many a t-shirt in the ‘70s, “When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.[ix]“
But somehow I can’t imagine Mr Gove ever wearing a t-shirt…
[ii] Spectator Education Conference, 18/4/13.
[vii] Friends of the Earth, Hong Kong cited in: http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1061806/rethink-hong-kongs-food-supply