No, it’s not weapons – I just wanted to get your attention; it’s “Words”. Last week two words of enormous significance crept into the news, and the first of them was the word “fair“.
This is a very interesting and potentially devastating word, but I wonder if the Minister was wise in letting it out of the box? Has he read the story of Pandora?
The word was used in connection with a report by British Schools Adjudicator Ian Craig, who had been asked by the British Labour government to look into the procedures and practice of admissions to secondary schools in Britain.
It seems that many parents, desperate to get their child into a good school, are devising ways to get round the strict allocation procedures put in place to ensure “fairness”. As has been brilliantly explained by Judith Woods in “The Telegraph” these desperate tricks include “using grandparents’ addresses on admissions forms for sought-after schools, renting homes in the catchment area, feigning marriage break-up and then reporting that one parent has moved nearer the school, and swapping houses with friends.”
According to Mr Craig – and the government – this is “cheating” and not “fair”, and the former is asking for local authorities to “use all means open to them to deter parents from cheating the admissions system. This includes removing places from the guilty and pursuing them through the courts, possibly using the Perjury Act.”
My interest here is not so much in the minutiae of the details of this current spat but the concept of “fairness” in society, which strikes me as pretty fundamentally complex.
It is of course a fairly modern concept, not one that much preoccupied Genghis Khan or even the Victorians, who were much happier with the principles outlined in this verse of the hymn “All things bright and beautiful”.
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And order’d their estate.
Interestingly, the concept is also one that is not often explicitly discussed by governments. I wonder if this is because the power and moneyed elite know that they might be on a sticky wicket in any discussion of “fairness”?
As ever, one cannot hope to find the answers until one has clearly posed the questions. So here goes:
Minister, as you have introduced into evidence the concept of fairness and labelled those trying to get round the school admission regulations as “cheats”, could you possibly answer these questions?
- Is it fair that many families – desperate to provide a good education for their children – cannot afford to move to an area where there are good schools but are stuck through their limited means in an educational ghetto?
- Is it fair that people can play the religion card and send their kids to a high-quality “faith” school outside of their catchment area, Tony Blair, former British PM, being the best recent example.
- Is it fair that a substantial minority of parents don’t have to bother about finding a good state school at all since they can go private? (And shockingly, according once more to Judith Woods: “the advantage of being educated at an independent school is greater in Britain than in almost any other country.”)
- Is it fair that many of the same substantial minority own multiple dwellings while hundreds of thousands of ordinary families do not own their own home and have to pay rent to someone, a system that seems to me to be a direct descendent of the feudal system where you slaved all day in return for the right to live on some Lord’s property? (Speaking of which – much as I love the Queen – is it fair that the small Royal Family owns vast, multiple dwellings that could house thousands of homeless people?)
- Is it fair that poor person A should die of some horrible disease or disability while person B of limited means can pay for special treatment and survive?
And of course, the ultimate question: Is it fair that I wasn’t born with the voice of Elvis Presley and the brain of Albert Einstein?
Yes indeed; the concept of “fairness” goes far. Once you introduce it as a premise, then where do you stop? And either you base your government on “fairness” or you don’t. You can’t have your cake and eat it, can you?
I look forward in coming days to hearing more from Ministers – and indeed from readers – on the concept of “fairness”. One thing is sure to me, in a world of rapidly-increasing problems and people we risk hearing the word a lot more often as we struggle to find solutions which are “fair”. Of course, that assumes we think things should be “fair”.
Looking around, my conclusion is that we pretend to think it’s important but only if it doesn’t affect us too much personally.
Oh, the second Word of Mass Destruction? You’ll have to wait till next time …..
By Chris Snuggs