Tag Archives: education

We are on the brink of a new era, if only…

So, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has called a snap general election. The result of the election, as things stand, is likely to be a substantially increased majority for the Conservative Party, a significantly strengthened hand for the PM, a greater likelihood of ‘hard’ Brexit from the EU and the single market, and the further erosion of popular support for the Labour Party, the future of which now looks bleak indeed.

It saddens me enormously to have to acknowledge this, as a lifelong Labour supporter and sometime member; but we need to be realistic about the challenges we face if we are to begin to address them. I voted for Jeremy Corbyn when he first stood for leadership of the Labour Party. I knew little about him at the time but he easily outshone the other candidates at hustings and promised a change of tone and direction that I welcomed. I hoped for a unified party and a leader capable of creating a shadow cabinet with a place for everyone, and I took Corbyn’s promise to deliver this seriously (in fact, it was this that finally led me to prefer Corbyn to Yvette Cooper, the candidate I favoured initially but whose campaign was poor). Unhappily, for all his apparent decency and concern for issues I too believe in, he has not been able or willing to deliver this.

By appointing John McDonnell as his shadow chancellor, Corbyn gave an immediate indication that a genuinely unified party was not a part of his agenda at all. He must have been aware that this is precisely how this appointment would be read by other MPs. In making it, he in one stroke undid the good work he had done in promising an open, all-embracing style of party leadership. So much for straight-talking politics. I accept that Corbyn and the party have not been helped by the antics of some rebel Labour MPs, but Corbyn too has done little to build bridges between wings of the party, while many of his supporters seem bent on splitting it, ousting many excellent and hard-working MPs in the process. Perhaps Corbyn too is more concerned with changing the Labour Party than with changing the way the country is run. He now faces a general election at the head of a bitterly divided party, with an exceedingly thin-looking shadow cabinet and what is effectively a shadow cabinet in waiting sat behind him on the back benches.

Even accepting that Corbyn’s heart is in the right place and that he has some decent policy ideas capable of winning popular support, it has become patently clear that he lacks not only the requisite management and leadership skills to run and carry with him a major political party but also the high-level intellectual skills to challenge government policy, as demonstrated by his faltering and often embarrassing performances at PMQs. Many of the attacks on Corbyn have been unfair and are plainly politically motivated but I think his supporters are deluding themselves if they believe his woes are entirely of the media’s making. There is now a firmly entrenched public perception that Corbyn is unelectable. This impression, one that is, frankly, unlikely to be turned around in the space of a few weeks, is down partly to media bias but also, and undeniably, to his own words, actions and performance. It is, I regret to say, likely to prove fatal, unless Corbyn can demonstrate that he is capable of fronting a wider coalition of views and expertise. Frustrated at Corbyn’s inability to organize a creditable opposition to what, in my view, is the most deceiving, cynical, reckless and bitterly divided government in living memory, I allowed my membership of the party to lapse last year. It gives me no pleasure at all to say this, knowing how deeply divisive this issue is among Labour members, including some of my closest friends and family. Even now, there is a part of me that is desperate to be convinced by Jeremy Corbyn and his team.

If things look bleak for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, they look bleaker still for the country. Like most followers of progressive causes, I am used to disappointment, but the double blow of the 2015 Conservative general election outcome and the Brexit vote has been pretty hard to take. The pain is particularly acute since the government, and the coalition before it, have pursued – and continue to pursue – policies which will make the majority of people poorer, increase inequality, diminish opportunity and undermine democracy. The current Prime Minister, like her predecessor, happily puts party political considerations above the stability and security of the country. She is a shallow, unsympathetic and deliberately divisive leader whose flagship policy – the resurgence of grammar schools – is evidentially groundless and morally indefensible. She is taking us backwards to a society in which the circumstances of a child’s birth determine their life outcomes and employers are free to exploit the unlucky second tier of our education system, untroubled by the hard-won workplace legislation May and her ilk dismiss as ‘red tape’. Far from sharing Theresa May’s sense of a country ‘coming together’, I see one bitterly divided by covert class war, I see people passionate for change but unable to channel their passion and I see people desperately throwing blame where it does not belong.

At home, in the UK, many believe they have made a bold and brave choice, taking back control – and, in their view, sovereignty – from invisible bureaucrats, freeing up Great Britain to become truly great again. They see those who disagree with them as a threat to the democratic mandate they believe they have won, as ‘saboteurs’ who should be ‘crushed’, perhaps, to use the Daily Mail’s words. Viewed from Europe, where I am part of an international workforce drawn from some 28 countries around the world, the perception is rather different. For the most part, the people I meet like and respect the British; they are smart enough to know that we are more than a few moronic football supporters chanting Sun headlines in a Madrid bar. They are not angry or upset about Brexit, and they don’t want to punish us for it; though they are aware of the spread of vacuous nationalistic jingoism and irresponsible anti-immigration rhetoric that helped produce it (in many cases, of course, they are familiar with this from their own countries). I would say that, by and large, the most common response is perplexity about a decision which will see the UK lose much and gain little. There is a general perception that we have voted to leave with little understanding either of what we are leaving or of where we are going. And, for the most part, people feel pretty sad about it.

So, where do we go from here? The past few months have, for me, been the most depressing and least hopeful in my own political lifetime, but change is always possible, and, as ever, the options are wider than people are encouraged to believe. It is not too late for Corbyn to reach out to the wider party, which he must do be effective as a leader. He needs to be the kind of leader who is not afraid to trust the expertise of others in his party, to disperse power and responsibility and be genuinely prepared to open up key positions to people with whom he disagrees. In terms of policy, Labour should try to put clear water between it and the Tories on Brexit. It should make clear it is the party of soft Brexit, actively engaging with European partners as part of a single market and highlighting the very significant benefits of free movement. It’s agenda here should be clear, offering a genuine alternative to all those who feel alienated by the hardening of government rhetoric – but it must also try to widen the debate. The Government and the media are keen to make the general election a re-run of the EU referendum. Labour needs to show that there are bigger issues at stake and that this is a vote on the kind of Britain we want to see: closed, narrow-minded and belligerent, a low-wage haven for unscrupulous employers and tax evaders or open, caring, cooperative, democratic, careful about the friends we keep and keen to be an active partner and good, progressive example in Europe, even if we no longer have a seat at the EU table.

Progressive voters will need to think tactically and progressive parties, Labour included, will need to work together if change is to be more than a possibility. They need a common plan. The one contingency the Conservative Party probably won’t have planned for is a genuinely coordinated, well-planned coalition of progressives, with Labour at its heart, reaching out as well as in, engaging across the party and beyond it, and demonstrating genuine unity of purpose in creating a Britain that is worth living in, whether it is part of the EU or not. If this doesn’t happen, I fear bleak and difficult times lie ahead.

 

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The rain falls hard on a humdrum town

Thirty years ago I left school aged 16, thoroughly alienated and without a qualification to my name. I don’t think I was a bad student but school didn’t really suit me. Somehow, I never found out what it was I was great at or liked doing. The teachers weren’t particularly good and could be brutal. I recall my PE teacher, Mr Perkins, finding me alone in a corridor of the sports hall, picking me up by my neck and flinging me hard against a wall (I don’t recall why). Not that the school was entirely to blame. I could be disruptive and difficult, particularly when I couldn’t see the value of what I was doing. The continuous ego-bashing bullying I experienced throughout the last two years of compulsory education didn’t help much either. The thought of going into school made me physically sick. I stopped going out after school and after a while I stopped going into school altogether. If my parents were at work I would stay at home. If they were at home I would roam around the park adjacent to the school. I couldn’t face my final exams either, though I told my parents I’d sat them, delaying the inevitable fallout by a few weeks. By the time school finished, formally that is (it had finished for me some time before), I was scared, friendless and utterly lost. After a dismal summer spent dreading the day the exam results came out, I began signing on.

This wasn’t anything unusual at the time. I grew up in a mining town in a period when the industry was being systematically dismantled by the government and most of our fathers were unemployed. After a while, I was told to attend an interview, for a job with British Gas, I think. When I didn’t turn up (my busy schedule of not looking for work, listening to The Smiths and writing terrible poetry didn’t allow it), I was summoned to a meeting where I was told that my unemployment benefit would be stopped if I didn’t go on a Youth Training Scheme at a local glassmaking firm. A year of making tea and running errands ensued (with a bit of mild sexual harassment thrown in). The poetry got a bit better, I read most of the books in Penguin’s Modern Classics series and I started to think about further education and, maybe, doing journalism for a living.

I enrolled at the local technical college, taking the A-levels and GCSEs I needed to get onto an NCTJ ‘pre-entry’ journalism course. It was at the college that I encountered great teaching for the first time, and a brilliant English teacher who made me see myself in a new light. She was smart, funny, interesting and different. She dressed differently and she spoke differently, all of which was pretty inspiring to a lad who was desperate to find a way to be different. Most of all, she was interested and encouraging, quick to see the value in the work her students did and to support them in doing what they did well, better. And she made it plain that we were her equals, jointly negotiating the terms of our learning. That was such an importance difference for me.

This was a time when it was still possible for a working-class kid to get a foothold in a profession like journalism without contacts, parents with cash to splurge on an internship or even a university degree. I had no idea, though, that I was part of one of the last waves of working-class, non-university educated entrants to the industry. The lecturers who interviewed me for a place on my chosen course, at Preston Polytechnic, were both sharp-witted, working-class newspapermen who had got into journalism through local papers and gone on to work for the nationals with some distinction. This was still a well-worn and very common path in the eighties and it wasn’t unusual for people like Harold Evans (who edited the Sunday Times up until 1981) to have emerged in the industry from working-class backgrounds, progressing through regional newspapers, to edit national newspapers, often very brilliantly (as in Evans’s case). And the newspaper industry was all the better for it, reflecting society and its concerns much more roundly than does the present cohort of senior journalists and commentators, most of whom share very similar backgrounds (many also being friends and university contemporaries of the politicians they are charged with holding to account). My course was full of working-class teenagers, school leavers, with a few older adults who were looking to retrain. Within a year, pretty much all of us were employed in regional papers around the country, learning on the job, which is where most journalistic educations really begin. I served my ‘apprenticeship’, gaining an incredibly wide array of really useful skills, including important ‘soft skills’ such as tenacity, the ability to listen and a respect for deadlines – which have been incredibly useful to me since, both academically and professionally – as well as the knowledge, technical skills and general storytelling know-how necessary to become a senior journalist. I was lucky enough to have a few hugely enjoyable years as part of a terrific team of reporters and editors at the Shropshire Star, most, if not all, of them with social backgrounds similar to mine.

Since then, however, journalism has, increasingly, become a profession for middle-class university graduates. Alan Milburn, in his 2009 report, Unleashing Aspiration, described it as ‘one of the most exclusive middle-class professions of the 21st century’ – quite an astonishing shift in such a relatively short period of time. This trend was confirmed in this week’s Sutton Trust report, which found that more than half (51 per cent) of leading print journalists attended fee-paying schools, while 54 per cent attended either Oxford or Cambridge. The private school sector, it is worth remembering, educates just seven per cent of the total population, and Oxbridge less than one per cent. I fear that many working-class children would now think of a career in journalism as something beyond them, socially and economically. And I suspect that, given the longstanding recruitment profile of both the BBC and the Guardian, senior positions in both of which are dominated by the privately educated, many working-class journalists would now not even consider applying for posts with either of these supposed bastions of liberal, democratic values.

I sometimes wonder if I would have made it into the profession at all if I were starting from the same place today. I think it’s pretty unlikely. It might have been conceivable, in the eighties, that I would find a way to university (as I eventually did) and onto a graduate journalism course. Higher education was free at the time, and that was a crucial factor in my decision to give up work to take a first degree. But I think it pretty unlikely, given where I started from and what my expectations were (i.e. not high), that I would have been prepared to take out a loan for my studies, and incur huge debts that would take years and years to pay off. People from working-class backgrounds, with no safety net to fall back on, tend to find it difficult to see the spectre of mounting debt as an investment in their future. Nor, fairly obviously, would I have been in a position to work for free for a period to get a foot on the ladder, as so many new entrants from wealthier backgrounds do; and certainly not in a city as expensive to live in as London.

Does this matter? I think it does. First, it matters because it diminishes journalism and undermines democracy and the civic life of the country. An industry in which high-level new entrants have usually graduated from an elite university, know someone or have parents who know someone, or be wealthy enough to work unpaid for a time, is clearly not going to be very reflective of the concerns of the general population. And, indeed, it is not. What you might expect to result is precisely what we have ended up with: an out-of-touch commentariat of senior journalists who largely share the backgrounds and core beliefs of the political elite and are deeply hostile to or pointedly amused by anyone who doesn’t. Little wonder so many ‘ordinary’ people feel under-represented by the media, angry that their views and the views of those they voted for are routinely derided, under-reported or ignored altogether. But, of course, if you never meet any ‘ordinary’ people, you wouldn’t know that, would you? If your children go to different schools than theirs, you’re probably not going to feel as outraged as I do when I see how the state school testing regime distorts children’s education and alienates young people. If you’ve never been inside an FE college and don’t know anyone who did, you’re probably not going to be overly exercised when government policy pushes the sector to the brink of extinction and all but destroys what must surely be a key part of the mission of any institution offering further education: lifelong learning.

It matters also because it reflects the more general attenuation in opportunity for people from working-class backgrounds, captured, again, very starkly, in the Sutton Trust’s report. It found that the UK’s top professions remain disproportionately populated by alumni of private schools and Oxbridge. In medicine, for example, nearly two-thirds (61 per cent) of senior doctors were educated at independent schools, while 40 per cent were educated at Oxbridge. Only 16 per cent attended comprehensive schools. In politics, nearly a third (32 per cent) of MPs were privately education while over a quarter (26 per cent) went to Oxbridge. Almost half (47 per cent) of the current cabinet attended Oxbridge. In law, 74 per cent of the top judiciary were privately educated and the same proportion attended Oxbridge. And in the senior civil service, almost half (48 per cent) attended independent schools and more than half (51 per cent) Oxbridge. The same trend is also increasingly evident in sport, entertainment and the arts, where it is difficult these days to swing a Bafta without striking an old Etonian. It is hardly surprising that applications to private school remain high big despite increases in fees, when the simple fact of which school your children attend can make such a huge, life-defining difference to their future prospects.

Despite decades of ministerial hot air about improving social mobility, rungs in the social ladder are being hacked away with increasing frenzy, not least by the present government, which appears set on consigning many of this country’s greatest social achievements to history. The education system, which ought to be at the vanguard of challenging unearned privilege and increasing social mobility is, in fact, reproducing privilege and reinforcing social inequality. As Danny Dorling put it in a recent article, education in England ‘is expanding into new extremes of elitism’. Its covert message, ‘that a small elite, made up of superior individuals, should lead us’, gains greater popular assent the more inevitable and immutable privilege appears to be (as does the belief that those at the bottom are there by dint of their own failings). We end up with a self-reproducing ‘meritocracy’, with privilege passed on from generation to generation, all by awfully nice people who are just doing what anyone would do in their position to secure the best for their children. I don’t blame them. The extent of inequality in this country means the stakes are incredibly high, too high to be healthy. But we need, and deserve, an education system which challenges rather than facilitates this. Our schools continue to fail the poorest children while subjecting them and the schools in which they learn to an extraordinary regime of continuous testing, fake ‘rigour’ and accountability, all of which is extremely harmful to our kids, our teachers and our communities. State-maintained schools are subject to constant reform, with policy – criminally, in my view – written to secure headlines rather than to serve our children. It is here we see, more clearly than anywhere else, the truth of Dorling’s charge that the people running state education think of it as ‘education for other people’s children’. The same is true of further education, so often treated with contempt and ignorance by ministers, despite the hugely important role FE colleges have played in our communities for decades. At the same time, in higher education, government policy has engineered a two-tier system, with elite universities, which remain dominated by the privately educated, offering the kind of rounded liberal education wealthy parents expect for their kids, and the others offering, increasingly, vocational education of one sort or another, to meet the more rudimentary needs of the rest. The ‘complex and intimidating’ Oxbridge admissions system seems almost designed to deter working-class applicants. Education for them, training for us. Calcifying patterns of privilege are not the sign of a healthy society. They are like those spots you see on the leaves of dying trees. They are the warning signs that something is not right, something rotten that, left untreated, will bring down the whole tree.

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Education in the age of austerity

The three main parties have begun to unveil their manifesto promises ahead of the general election in May and education has been centre stage. Last week the Prime Minister promised to protect the schools budget though, it turned out, only in cash terms. This means that, under a Conservative government, the budget will go up as pupil numbers increase, but per-pupil funding will, in real terms, fall as inflation and other demands on the schools budget increase. The Liberal Democrats were more generous (in the circumstances they can, perhaps, afford to be), undertaking to ‘guarantee education funding from nursery to 19’ and pledging to protect the schools budget in real terms. Nick Clegg promised to fight ‘tooth and nail’ for these commitments in any coalition negotiations. Then, yesterday, Labour leader Ed Miliband pledged to protect the Department for Education budget, also in real terms, maintaining investment in schools, sixth-forms and further education colleges (for 16 to 19 year olds) and protecting early-years provision, if Labour wins the general election.

The schools budget has, up until now, enjoyed real-terms protection, in line with undertakings made by Chancellor George Osborne in 2010. The loss of the ring-fence would leave schools in the unprotected territory so familiar to further education colleges, many of which have struggled to remain viable in the face of eye-watering cuts. Even if it is maintained in real terms, and increases in line with projected increases in pupil numbers, rising pension and National Insurance costs will take funds away from teaching and learning. Funding for 16 to 18 year olds in England has already been heavily cut, from £7.7 billion in 2009–10 to £7 billion in 2013–14, with a 17.5 per cent cut to the funding rate for 18 years olds from last September (while schools funding has been protected, the overall DfE budget fell by 7.5 per cent between 2010–11 and 2014–15). Stability in funding for this age group is expected this year but there could be more pressure on this budget and it will be interesting to see if Conservative plans for cash-terms protection for schools extend to 16–19s.

Funding stability for schools is to be welcomed. But in the prevailing policy climate there is bound to be a cost. Ring-fencing areas of public spending has a huge effect on the areas outside the ring-fence, as further education has discovered over the past five years. The overall Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) budget was reduced by a quarter between 2010–11 and 2014–15, with a further six per cent cut imposed this year. Ewart Keep has estimated that, on current projections, the overall reduction in the BIS budget between 2010 and 2018 will be 42.5 per cent. The bulk of the cuts so far have fallen in adult further education. The government’s February 2014 skills funding statement included a 19 per cent cut to the adult skills budget by 2015–16, which means an overall fall in adult skills funding from £2.8 million in 2010–2011 to £2 billion in 2015–16. Professor Keep suggests that ‘cumulative cuts of 60 per cent or more in funding for adult skills do not seem an unrealistic expectation’. The continued privileging of certain parts of the education budget could mean even bigger cuts in a sector with which few politicians or civil servants are even remotely familiar (as the current skills minister admitted shortly after his appointment). This poor level of recognition combines with further education’s unprotected status to make the sector a relatively easy target for cuts.

Further massive reductions in spending on post-19 further education and skills are all but certain. Perhaps that is why adults did not feature noticeably in the education announcements of any of the major parties. Few would disagree with Ed Miliband’s statement that the emergence of a new, stronger and more resilient economy depends on investment in ‘the talents and education of all our young people’. But it surely does not depend only on the education of young people. The fact that 70 per cent of the 2020 workforce is already in employment – while half of the current workforce is not qualified beyond Level 2 – demonstrates just how important adult education is in meeting the needs of an economy in which higher-level skills are becoming increasingly important. Of course, it is right to put the needs of children and young people first. Getting things right at school pays dividends in every area of national life and is, without doubt, the smartest investment any government can make (provided it gets it right). But, for various reasons, some more entrenched than others, it does not work for everybody – far from it – and we simply cannot afford to write off those who do not succeed first time around. Of course, we should maintain schools investment, but we need to invest strongly and intelligently in the skills and education of adults as well.

Unhappily, it seems, increasingly, that we unable or unwilling to do both. Whichever party holds the balance of power come May, austerity will continue, with spending reductions biting ever deeper into an already beleaguered sector. All the main parties support ‘cutting the deficit’ and ‘balancing the books’ – they differ only as to timescale. There is little challenge to this consensus, notwithstanding the devastation austerity politics is causing in parts of the public sector. Since 2012 the pace of deficit reduction has slowed and the government has allowed its targets to recede somewhat. The economy has begun to grow and employment is rising (though tax receipts have not followed suit – a reflection on the sort of low-pay, low-status jobs the economy is creating). But, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned in the wake of the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the pace of austerity will soon again quicken, with ‘colossal’ cuts to come in the next parliament. Although £35 billion of cuts have been made thus far, £55 billion more are still to come. The Treasury has scheduled an average 17 per cent real-terms reduction in spending across government departments between 2015 and 2019 – and with schools and health protected that will mean much bigger cuts in other areas. As the Office for Budget Responsibility noted, public spending as a percentage of GDP will fall to 35.2 per cent by 2019–20, its lowest level since the 1930s, with a further one million public sector jobs set to go as a result. Those who remain in public sector employment will face continuing pay restraint at least until Treasury books are balanced.

Difficult choices are inevitable, particularly for colleges which will have to make yet more stark choices as to which areas of provision they retain and which they let go (with obvious implications for their own sense of mission which seems likely to further narrow). BIS will have to cut funding steams it has previously fought to protect (the modest but important community learning budget so far protected in cash terms will come under even greater pressure). But there will also be increased pressure on schools to achieve more with less (political expectations rarely diminish in line with resources), while pay restraint and the pressures of accountability (reflected in teacher responses to the DfE’s workload challenge) will continue to press heavily on teacher morale. There is, however, something to welcome in the recognition that falling levels of investment in education won’t deliver economic success, and in some of the more specific commitments made by the main parties, particularly, for me, Ed Miliband’s espousal of a broad and balanced curriculum offering creativity and an equal focus on academic and vocational skills (though the challenges here are enormous – and the opposition to meaningful reform likely to be intense, as Mike Tomlinson discovered when he recommended replacing A-levels with an overarching diploma for both academic and vocational subjects). However, as Nick Clegg will no doubt confirm, manifesto pledges are not written in stone – however hard we promise to fight for them – and delivery will depend, in part, on whether the election delivers a majority, a coalition or a minority government. The unpredictability of contemporary politics makes it less likely than ever that you will get what you vote for. And the seeming inevitability of further deep and damaging cuts means it is also less likely than ever that you will really know what you are voting for. As long as the narrative of austerity – that reducing the deficit must be our number one priority (rather than a means to a more ideological goal) – prevails, we can expect more of the same, and worse, with a continuing reduction in state-funded adult learning. In an important sense, the big decisions are already made. We just await the detail. The march of austerity continues to strip our public discourse of its important civic and moral dimensions, narrowing not only the options for public policy but the space in which alternative ideas can be debated and developed. What remains is not pretty.

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‘Everybody is equal. Nobody should have to be afraid’

As Amnesty International reports that the world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place for refugees and migrants – and extremist groups in the UK attempt to exploit the appalling events in Woolwich – it seems timely to remind ourselves that the rights of people fleeing conflict and persecution deserve to be protected – and need to be defended. This is an interview I did with Holocaust survivor Paul Oppenheimer a few years before his death from cancer in 2007, aged 78.

Paul Oppenheimer was four years old, about to start school in Berlin, when Hitler came to power in 1933. In 1936, like many other Jewish refugees, he fled Germany, moving, with his mother and younger brother, to London. They later rejoined their father in Holland, where Anne Frank’s family were to be near-neighbours. In May 1940, the Germans invaded, and Paul and his family were sent, first, to a transit camp, and, then, to the extermination camp Bergen-Belsen, where both his parents died. Forty years passed before he was ready to tell his story and to lend his energies to supporting the work of the Beth Shalom Holocaust education centre.

In the 40 years that followed his liberation from Belsen, Paul Oppenheimer kept his experiences to himself. But meeting other survivors of the Nazi concentration camp where both his parents died prompted him to tell his story. After 10 years of educational work, he is convinced that it is only by learning the lessons of the Holocaust that we can hope to prevent it happening again.

He was born in Berlin in 1928, to middle-class parents, Hans and Rita. ‘My parents were Germans and I was also German,’ Paul says, ‘my parents were Jewish, and I was also Jewish. All the troubles that we encountered subsequently with the Nazis were entirely due to the fact that we were Jewish. If we had not been Jewish, we would have had a very different life.’

Paul and his family were what were called ‘assimilated Jews’, non-observant Jews who took no part in Jewish religious life. Once the Nazis had achieved power, life became gradually more difficult for them and for all other Jewish people in Germany: ‘Most wanted to get out. The biggest problem was to find another country that would take in these “refugees” from Germany – nowadays they would be called “asylum seekers”.

‘We were fortunate. We had an uncle and aunt who lived in London. They offered to take us in. So, in March 1936, when I was seven-years-old, we left Germany and we came to England. My father stayed behind in Berlin. We’ve never been able to find out why he didn’t come with us.’

While in London, Paul’s sister Eve was born, and her British citizenship turned out to be of the utmost importance to his story, almost certainly saving her life and the lives of Paul and younger brother Rudi. In September 1936, Paul’s father left Germany, to work at the Amsterdam branch of Mendelssohn’s Bank. Once established, he wrote to his family in London suggesting they join him.

‘We went to live in Holland. Those were the best days of my youth. But, on 10 May 1940, the Germans invaded. Once they had taken over, they started to persecute the Jews in Holland as they had in Germany. We were segregated into citizens and subjects, we had to go to a Jewish school, we had to wear the yellow star, we were not allowed on the tram or the bus, we had a curfew in the evening, we had to live in Amsterdam, we had to hand in our bicycles, our money, our stocks and shares. It just got worse and worse. Once all the Jews in Holland lived in Amsterdam, they started the deportations, to what turned out to be Poland.’

In June 1943, Paul and his family were deported to a Dutch transit camp, called Westerbork, from which weekly transports to the extermination camps Auschwitz and Sobibor departed. Of 100,000 deportees, less than 1,000 survived. ‘We remained at Westerbork for a long time and the reason was our sister Eve, because she was British. The Germans had a plan whereby they wanted to do an exchange. They knew there were Germans living in England during the war and wanted to get these Germans from England back to Germany to help with the war effort. In return they offered the British Government British nationals and their immediate relatives. We became know as “exchange Jews”.’

Because of Eve’s British citizenship, Paul and his family remained at Westerbork much longer than was usual and when, finally, they were transported to Bergen-Belsen, it was not by cattle truck but by passenger train. They lived in Belsen as ‘privileged prisoners’, not required to wear the black and white striped uniforms the other prisoners wore. Instead, they wore civilian clothes with a yellow star, though they slept in barracks like the others, and ate the same rations. Their part of the camp became known as the ‘Star Camp’.

Given only a cup of ersatz coffee, a bowl of turnip soup and a piece of bread a day, starving and exhausted prisoners succumbed to illness. Dysentery, pneumonia, TB and, worst of all, typhus were rife. In January 1945, Paul’s mother fell ill and, without doctors, nurses or extra food, died shortly after. She was 42 years old. Two months later, his father, 43, died from typhus, just one month short of liberation. At the time, 600 people were dying in Belsen every day, including Anne Frank and her sister Margot. Paul, Rudi and Eve spent more than six months in the camp, emerging from it as ‘starving, exhausted skeletons’.

After liberation, Paul and Rudi returned to Holland with Eve who, as a British citizen, was able to return to London with her uncle. Paul and Rudi spent six months in an orphanage before receiving their visas to come to England.

During the next 40 years, Paul made a new life in England, but spoke little of his experiences, even to his three children. Putting his experiences to the back of his mind, he forged his new life. ‘Nobody ever asked us about it, nobody seemed to be interested in it, we didn’t particularly want to talk about it, so we forgot about it. But, for a variety of reasons, in the last 10 or 15 years, we’ve come back to remember the story.’

The catalyst was the award of an MBE, for his work on road safety for the motor industry. ‘All these reporters from the Solihull News and the Solihull Times came to the house. They wanted to know where I had been during the war. When I told them that I had been at Belsen, they forgot about the MBE. One of the photographers told me that there would be a reunion in Belsen that year. He asked me whether I would like to attend and, after speaking with my family, we decided to go.’

Meeting with other survivors of Belsen brought a lot of old memories back to the surface, and, when he returned to England, Paul took the opportunity of becoming involved in educational work, talking to schools and adult groups and working with the Beth Shalom Holocaust Education Centre. Unlike most survivors working in education, he does much of his work with adult groups. ‘Other survivors do schools, because there are organisations to set that up. I’m not aware that any of them do adult groups, but this is something I have done right from the beginning. A rotary club first asked me to give a talk, now, whenever I speak, two more people ask me to give another talk.’

Many of those attending the talks are older people, with their own stories: ‘People don’t talk about what happened to them. A lot of people have very interesting stories, people who lived through the Blitz, who were evacuated, all sorts of things happened to them. But they don’t talk about it.’

‘The message is that we should never let this happen again,’ Paul says, ‘I finish off by telling the students why we go around telling this story. It’s because people haven’t learned anything from our experiences. And the same sorts of things are happening again, or have been happening all the time, in Cambodia, Rwanda, in Bosnia and Kosovo, in East Timor, where people are being hunted down just because there is something different about them, their religion, the colour of their skin.

‘We want people to learn that everyone should be equal, that nobody should have to be afraid. I end [my talks] with the quote: “He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.” I say that I hope you will learn the lessons of history so that you and your children will not have to repeat our experiences.’

This interview was first published in Adults LearningFor more information about Beth Shalom and its educational work visit www.bethshalom.com. The centre publishes Paul Oppenheimer’s book, From Belsen to Buckingham Palace.

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