From Kendal to Wakefield

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

November is the month of festivals, crammed into what was traditionally world mountaineering’s most useless month, although these days that’s no longer true, especially in Nepal.

A longstanding book project was therefore put on hold so I could disappear to Banff as part of the book prize jury and to interview Yvon Chouinard, finish some writing assignments and then go to Kendal having digested this year’s short list for the Boardman Tasker so I could interview the authors – which was a great pleasure for me, if not for them.

So, in a nutshell, I enjoyed a few weeks of good entertainment and many conversations at the heart of the outdoor media village. (My highlight, incidentally, wasn’t a film or a book, but a beautifully illustrated lecture by conservation activist Ian McAllister about the Great Bear Rainforest on the coast of British Columbia.)

Then, immediately after all this, I gave a lecture at a comprehensive school, Wakefield City Academy. The contrast could not have been greater, and by the end of the evening, I felt it would have been more useful if they’d lectured me, rather than the other way around. Social justice is not an issue that crops up regularly at outdoor film festivals.

The school sits in the middle of a Wakefield housing estate close to the River Calder in the east of the city. It’s fair to say this is a neighbourhood with a lot of challenges. (The sight of grown men cruising around on small bicycles always makes me a little nervous.) Around 40% of the students are eligible for free school meals. (The national average is 16%.) A far higher proportion than average have English as an additional language, and the same is true for students with special educational needs.

And yet the school scores above the national average, not just for what educationalists call ‘value added’, but in terms of raw GCSE results. It has been awarded ‘outstanding’ in its last three Ofsteds, has been singled out by the government for its success and is now working in partnership to improve other schools and colleges. The headmaster, Alan Yellup, has just been awarded the OBE for raising standards across the country.

The students were welcoming to me and supportive of each other, both a credit to themselves and to the notion that every child can make progress given the right circumstances.

Now for the bad news: the state of the school buildings. In Sheffield, most of the city’s comprehensives were rebuilt during the last Labour administration. Wakefield City Academy was due for the same treatment, but the cuts came before rebuilding could start. The consequence is that all this educational brilliance takes place in a building that urgently needs replacing. (I was told that at one point the window cleaners refused to come because the windows were in danger of falling out of their frames.)

Alan Yellup told me it didn’t make any difference to the quality of the teaching, but I wondered about the justice of it. I’ll be in Oxford next week, walking around the colleges, and the contrast is obvious. Britain feels more divided now than at any stage of my life, and not just in economic or social terms.

Because Alan Yellup said something else that really got me thinking, about how, for his students, just going to Leeds, which is only a few miles on the train, seems a huge step many aren’t prepared to take. Instead they stick close to home, to what they know, because the world outside isn't for them, it's for others. When I talked about early climbing trips to North Wales, I might as well as spoken of Antarctica.

Wakefield has a connection to the long struggle for access to the countryside in the shape of Arthur Creech Jones, the city’s member of parliament in the 1950s, who died fifty years ago. Jones was born in Bristol, left school at 14 and was a conscientious objector in the Great War, which cost him his first career as a civil servant. He was later a trades unionist.

He first represented Shipley, lost his seat in 1950 to boundary changes then switched to Wakefield in 1954 by which time he’d made his most significant political contribution as colonial secretary in Clement Atlee’s government at the moment when the process of decolonisation gathered pace.

But Jones was also an enthusiastic walker, not just in Britain but the Alps as well, and as leader of the Workers’ Travel Association Mountain Group introduced working-class people to climbing in the Alps before the Second World War. Most importantly, he brought a private members’ bill in 1938 that was essentially the same access to open mountains bill the jurist James Bryce had tried to get on the statute book decades before.

Alas for ‘Creech’, landowning interests shredded his legislation, much to the fury of ordinary ramblers, although he was still made a vice president of the Ramblers’ Association. The bill was given royal assent in 1939 but never came into force, which in the long run was good news for the access movement, as Kate Ashbrook of the Open Spaces Society explains in a recent blog. Now, of course, we have a much better legal framework for access, though far from perfect.

But there are still many barriers to access and it seems to me that Creech’s most useful work was in showing others that there was no reason they shouldn’t enjoy nature and the outdoors as much as anyone else. That kind of intervention seems less common these days. For me, it’s a human right that isn’t taken as seriously as it should be. And it should be as readily available to the kids I met in Wakefield as good teaching.

Wakefield’s current MP is Mary Creagh, who I met when she was shadow secretary of state for the environment, before her move to transport and most recently international development. Creagh is the daughter of a car-factory worker who prospered at her Coventry comprehensive and went to Oxford and then the LSE. After a controversial spell as a councillor in Islington, she was elected as Wakefield’s MP in 2005, but her majority shrank in 2010. I imagine UKIP will split the right-wing vote next year and she’ll get back in and may well be in government.

Creagh called her son Clement, after Atlee. It would be unfair to class her as some kind of professional politician; Arthur Creech Jones was something similar. But I suppose one acid test you could apply to a future Labour government is whether they now finish what they promised and fund Wakefield City Academy’s new buildings.



Posted by Ed Douglas at 10.04 AM