I've had something on my mind all week - for longer, in fact - and I feel I have to get it off my chest. It relates to something which has been in the news lately: the teenage girls from Bethnal Green Academy who, the news tells us, have travelled to Syria to join ISIS.
Don't worry: this isn't going to be a Grace Dent-style racist rant. What I've been thinking about is something I saw on one of the news reports about the story: a bit of background detail, literally. A banner, displaying the school's latest A*-C pass grades: '80s-themed, because the pass rates were in the 80s. Pictures of students' faces photoshopped onto the bodies of '80s movie icons: the Blues Brothers, the Terminator. I've been trying to find a picture of the banner as it appeared on the news, but the best I can manage is this Google Streetview image, via HuffPo, showing the place where it hung, but with a different banner:
The '80s banner got to me because it reminded me of the similar 'morale-boosting' posters I've seen in the 'target-driven environments' where I've worked: jolly little boasts about sales goals met, staff suggestions acted on, awards won, long-timers congratulated. Even the jokey eighties theme was the kind of thing someone in an office would come up with - a try-hard, too-desperate attempt to inject some fun into the statistics, to try and mask, with cheerfulness, the horrible truth behind them: that these are the numbers by which you are judged. You can dress your pupils up as Jake and Elwood for a laugh, but you won't fool them into forgetting that those passes, in an education system obsessed with results, could decide their whole future - and the future of their school, as well.
And I thought: I bet they don't have banners like that at Eton or Westminster, the schools our coalition leaders attended. They don't need them. Kids who grow up at those schools grow up knowing that the world will soon be theirs. And kids at schools like Bethnal Green Academy? They grow up knowing their worth will be counted in numbers, figures, targets, and that failing to hit those targets knocks them even further back in a race that's been rigged from the start. And their teachers get stressed when those targets aren't met, because what will the league tables say? And the kids pick up on that stress, and they worry more about hitting those targets - or go off the rails in a bid to escape.
In my adolescence, after finishing sixth form and waiting to go to uni, I tried to run off and join the Newbury Road Protest. It was a cack-handed attempt, and I came back when I realised I had no real plan to get from Hartlepool, the furthest south I could get by public transport, to far-flung, exotic Berkshire: but it wasn't really the protest I was running to. I was running from the problems in my life: my anorexia and bulimia, my gender dysphoria, the pressure to succeed, to make something of a life I was barely managing to hold together. And this was in the late nineties, those halcyon days when things could only get better: how much worse must things be for young women struggling to find their place in the world in these times, when we're told loudly that there is no alternative, and the weak go to the wall?
To the Grace Dents of this world - those rewarded by the system with a space in the media from which to pontificate - the choice those girls made is simply a matter of wickedness, or religious fanaticism. But I think it's at once more complicated and simpler than that. And it isn't the fault of the Qu'ran, or a preacher on YouTube, or Jihadi Tumblr accounts: it's the fault of banners covered in numbers, and what those numbers represent, and a society that reduces young people in their formative years to nothing more than the sum of those numbers. And, until we stop doing that, I fear we'll see more people seeking an escape in something deeper than a league table boast, and a photoshopped Blues Brother.