Radio 4’s Two Rooms shows how Labour is getting it right

Melissa Benn's picture
Last night I took part in BBC Radio 4’s soft focus pre-election programme Two Rooms, along with Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator ( which now, rather amusingly, calls itself ‘ the oldest continuously published magazine..’) The basic premise of the programme is that two groups of people – one broadly optimistic about their lives , one much less so – sit in two separate rooms debating the same issues. You could call it the Two Nations – Sort Of.Very post-ideological, very Radio 4.

In the first programme, which broadcast some moving stories of terrible poverty in Britain 2015, the Two Rooms talked about personal finance; last night the group discussed education and opportunity.

it was an interesting, if frustrating experience. (Recording took four hours – so the programme was heavily edited.) Many in Room A, to which I was assigned, were older and had come out into a (relatively) buoyant job market, where qualifications had some meaning and provided them with a ladder of opportunity. One participant had re-trained, via an access course, to become a physiotherapist. One quiet mid-life woman described how she had gone from her comprehensive to Cambridge, where she was very unhappy, but said that her education had opened up all sorts of opportunities as a result. There was only one privately educated person in the room. From Northern Ireland, he lacked the air of entitlement that so often surrounds his English counterparts.

What these stories showed, I argued, was the impact of recent, and often dramatic, cuts in everything from access courses to career guidance, not to mention well paying jobs; hence the experience of Room B, where those in possession of a degree could not even get any employment, even at the minimum wage. One younger member of Room A spoke at length, and very movingly, about how, at every stage of his life, it was the welfare state that had saved him: free secondary education, help with council housing and social services.

Interestingly, we were there to discuss education but hardly anyone mentioned it, except in the briefest and most personal terms (‘my history teacher really helped me’). There were few complaints about state schools and no mention at all of the last five years of upheaval in our schools under the Coalition. Nor, I am sad to say, did the Radio 4 include my report on the findings of a recent LSE/Manchester University study, by Dr Ruth Lupton among others, that the end result of the Coalition’s prolonged experiment in marketisation has been a marginal increase in the results of the brightest, and a corresponding dip in the results of children from more deprived families. After all that!

That the Coalition education revolution has spluttered to a halt was, however, reflected both in the quiescence and frustration of Both Rooms. Fraser Nelson, a Gove enthusiast, was keen to talk about the transformational impact of a good education, but the ordinary British citizens in Rooms A and B know better. They know that education alone, particularly in a grossly hierarchical system – and not just of schools, but increasingly of universities- cannot fix the problem of opportunity.

There was not a single mention of academies, free schools, bring-back-the-grammars………but plenty of talk about the injustice of unpaid internships, the way education is turning into a business, the need for properly paid work experience, and the need for expert personal and career guidance. Both rooms expressed emotions between dismay and disgust at the fact that a child from a private school has a 200 to 1 chance of getting into Oxbridge while a child at a state school has only a 2000 to 1 chance. A pity then that neither of the rooms came up with a proposal to abolish, or restrict state subsidy, of private schools.

How does any of this fit with the upcoming General Election? Education is proving a rather second order issue, as if the nation itself is worn out with Gove-ite exhortation. Apart from an increase in proper apprenticeships ( which all agreed upon), Fraser Nelson could only really come up with some very second order proposals, such as more speakers in schools, and internships for those from poorer families.

Nelson seems to think that if only the poor, benighted state school graduates could get access to the wonderful contacts and networks of the privately educated, all will be well. This seems to me a profound mis-reading of the way social networks, and privilege, work. It takes a lifetime of opportunity, support, second and third chances to create a Boris Johnson – not one shot at listening to the editor of Spectator at a lunchtime sixth form careers fair.

But if the political right have run out of meaningful answers for the problems of education and employment, something much more interesting is happening over in the progressive/Labour camp. Just this morning, Tristram Hunt announced a potentially exciting development in Labour policy that fits perfectly with the concerns expressed in Two Rooms.

Building on the slow, patient work of recent years, like the Heads Roundtable and the Husbands review, Labour have now come out strongly in favour of moving towards a baccalaureate structure for the 14-19 years, suggesting that they might eventually phase out GCSEs (no longer fit for modern purpose) in favour of a diploma style qualification that will embrace both vocational and academic pathways.

This modern, flexible structure will indeed provide those more vocationally oriented with a pathway to pursue but within the context of a good general education. Within this scheme, every student will have to continue with maths and English to 18, as well as develop certain personal skills and undertake an extended project. The Bacc structure offers a much more challenging and flexible programme of learning and is one that those in both Rooms A and B might have benefitted from, and would, I am sure, support.
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Michele -Lowe's picture
Thu, 23/04/2015 - 14:13

I heard last night's programme and was heartened to hear education even mentioned as an election issue. It's conspicuous by its absence in all the current reporting. As indeed are sundry other issues.
Fraser Nelson struck me as sounding out of his depth when commenting on his group. He could only do it rather in the manner of a sociologist. However, he started to make progress when he commented on further education and/or university as a business and rather like PPI, there's been some "mis-selling". Education has been increasingly marketised over the last five years. I wonder if he considers the logical conclusion of these
insights? "Something is going badly wrong in our education system". Indeed, but it's not the abolition of assisted places or lack of speakers like his good self which are at the root of it.
I thought it interesting, too, how little both groups saw education as the whole of the problem, though it's good to hear people talking about "valuing education" and "investing in teaching". They were clear sighted and realistic on the whole and those who had had better experiences were honest in their assessments of why: timing -entering a relatively favourable employment market and being helped, whether by an individual or state structures.
Still, all that said, at last one corner of the media taking education seriously for a second.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 23/04/2015 - 15:36

'Don't mention education...' was listed first on the flip chart in 'Ballot Monkeys' Tory battle bus. Do the authors of this satire know something? Have they twigged that education is an issue the Tories want to be shoved down the electoral agenda - what with failed free schools, academies not being a silver bullet, the millions of pounds bunged to companies linked to academy trustees, exam reform shambles, a toxic ex-SoS, scandals surrounding Gove-favoured schools, lack of primary school places...?

See the clip here (fourth one along) - you'll have to expand the screen to see the list (and laugh at what else it contains).

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 23/04/2015 - 16:55

Melissa - My problem with this is that school students should not be making irrevocable career choices at 14. How many people have the same ambitions at 18 or 21 that they had in the second term of Y9 when these decisions are presumably to be made?

If we really are to transform the experience of schooling from the 'production line treadmill' that Tristram Hunt has been very recently criticising, then we do not want to just substitute one treadmill with another twice as big.

The new KS4/5 must be both developmental and inspirational. A student may, in the course of personal development, be inspired to choose a completely different career and life-path to that which was envisaged in March/April of Y9.

It is possible to retain flexibility and pathway switching within a 14-18 system, but it is not easy and I don't think much thought has been given to it lately. Janet Downs has some ideas, as I do myself. I was once Curriculum Vice Principal (and for a time Acting Principal) of a large 14-18+ Comprehensive Community College.

I think we will need to revisit the concept of modular curriculum, but in a way that can promote personal development and consequent pathway switching at many points during a 14 - 18+ curriculum experience. There were some very radical ideas and structures captured within the 'Leicestershire Modular Framework' (Section 5.7 in 'Learning Matters') that are relevant to these issues.

… Benn’s post on Local Schools Network points up the prospect of some very welcome new thinking from Tristram Hunt, but there are grave …

Trevor Fisher's picture
Fri, 24/04/2015 - 14:11

I have just managed to post a piece on the lack of education in the election, and if the tories are seriously trying to 'not mention education' they are succeeding. The issue which is raised by Melissa's article is that schooling is no longer a political issue. How can this be tackled in the two weeks to go?

A colleague told me that Daily Politics yesterday had the whole show on education, and I have asked for a report of this, hopefully he can do this and it can go on LSN. But overall we have become the invisible spectators at the feast. Some feast.

Perhaps this is the calm before the storm. We have two weeks to go.

Thanks to Janet Downs and Andrew Staffell for helping me to get files uploaded, as a product of a technical school I have a real problem with technology. But at least this one got loaded, so I look forward to comments when colleagues have had a chance to read it.

Trevor Fisher.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 24/04/2015 - 14:36

Trevor - I stumbled across the Daily Politics Education Debate last night on BBC Parliament (or something) channel. Missed the first ten minutes when the 5 education spokespeople (Morgan, Hunt, Laws, someone from the Greens and another from UKIP) gave statements. Got fed up with Andrew Neil interrupting and the first three talking over each other (usually about whether the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged increased or decreased).

Andrew Neil asked Hunt about the 'one-in-three' who'd left primary school not being able to read to the required standard (or something like that). That was Hunt's golden opportunity to say the UK Stats Watchdog had scotched that particular statistic and criticised Morgan twice for using it. But he didn't. I was shouting at the TV at that point - 'Tell him about the UK stats! Don't let Neil get away with saying he's got it written on a piece of paper in front of him! Just 'cos he's got it written down doesn't mean it's right!'

After 25 mins or so they left education to go on to child care (important, I know, but it's not compulsory education). I switched off.

But it's available here if you want to watch. But the fact that it went out at 2pm and then later on an obscure channel says it all really - education is not deemed important enough for a debate on a main channel at peak time.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 24/04/2015 - 14:43

Doesn't the picture on the Politics Show of the five education spokespeople look as if they're in Madame Tussaud's? Morgan looks particularly glassy-eyed. And the colours on the lecterns don't look right. The Tories' is purple, LibDems orange and UKIP's pink.

John Mountford's picture
Fri, 24/04/2015 - 14:55

Don't hold your breath, Trevor. The attempts by the mass media to lull the general public into a sense that education is a side-show in the run-up to the election, has been remarkably successful. I fear it's more likely the calm of indifference than that which heralds a storm.

Melissa's hope that Hunt may be on to something is just that, a hope. But, what would it matter if the exam reforms he speaks of were taken up by the next government? - there'll be another one along in five years time ('all change, all change') and that's the problem facing education. It needs reforming, but which party can deliver something meaningful and coherent? My answer is, (far too simple, of course to be taken up), ALL of them or NONE of them. Who's to decide which?

Trevor Fisher's picture
Sat, 25/04/2015 - 20:46

I would be interested to know what the exam reforms Hunt is proposing actually are. The letter published by the guardian today was truncated, and the opening which pointed out Hunt's actual commitment is a ten year discussion for a consensus on removing GCSE was cut out.

But that is what the Guardian on Thursday reported. Not a commitment to change the system

Hunt is proposing nothing, and ignoring the Gove reforms which will dominate the next 3 years unless stopped.

All talk of reforms ten years hence depend on Labour winning 2 General elections minimum. Its been a brilliant move in giving the impression of movement this parliament when the promises are that insubstantial, but as Oscar Wilde once said, of one of Tristram's ancestors, "I though he was a young man of promise, but it seems he is a young man of promises". What the beef in what Mr Hunt is saying?

Please define!

Trevor Fisher

Guest's picture
Sat, 02/05/2015 - 13:43

On the basis of the gist of this thread surely the time has come to declare the real intent of this site as being the Labour Schools Network. It most clearly lacks impartiality and places political preferences above an education policy and implementation that is freed from political control of the biased and ill-informed career politicians and their ideological bents.

John Mountford's picture
Sun, 03/05/2015 - 07:53

Guest, Roger is right, "no one is stopping you putting your oar in", neither is anyone asking that you do. However, as Brian points out, "I’m sure Janet is grateful to you for pointing out that the Ballot Bus is a fictitious satire although I suspect she was already aware of that as she refers to it as a satire in her post."

I'm sure we all uphold your right to your personal views. It doesn't assist your cause, however, of convincing others to agree if you persist in distorting what others are saying. If you go back and read Janet's first response here, you will see that Roger speaks the truth.

As for the political tone of this site and the views of those who contribute, it is open to all opinions. For my part, I'll repeat what I've said often times before about the blatant disregard of ALL the mainstream parties for the future of our education system, 'a plague on all your houses'.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 02/05/2015 - 14:04

No one's stopping you putting your oar in Guest.

Guest's picture
Sat, 02/05/2015 - 15:31

I thought I had put my thoughts into the ring or did I not make my position clear?
I've just noticed that another contributor - Andy - is like-minded to my position (see trevor fisher: Election profile of education comment made at 9.19 am today).

I also note that Andy also drew from Janet an admission that her latest biased crusade re the 'Ballot Bus' and Tory flip chart, is fictitious. That is to say the latter is a creation of the satirists and doesn't actually exist nor is there any evidence to support such an assertion. That makes her position on this thread wholly scurrilous. That is to say despite admitting that she has embellished an untruth persists in pedalling her own urban myth. Shame on her.

It is no wonder to me that the number of contributors has diminished over time. It is also begs the question as to the nature and tone of this forum should Labour come to power on 7 May: will education take centre stage or will it become the Labour Schools Network in full honesty?

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 03/05/2015 - 08:18

Guest - fiction, including satire, often speaks truth more eloquently than actual events. Of course 'Battle Monkeys' is satire. And I used the fictional flip-chart comment to tease out a truth - that education is not being mentioned much in this election by the outgoing Gov't (indeed, any party). This is surprising since education (academies, free schools, exam 'rigour' etc) was a flagship policy and, shored up by the LibDems, pushed the Academies Bill through Parliament at break-neck speed. Gove based his education 'reforms' on a lie - that the UK had 'plummeted' down league tables when it had done no such thing (and one league table - TIMSS - had even put England at the top of the European league in Maths and Science).

All this has been well-aired on this site. And Labour's woeful opposition in educational matters has also be written about - for example, Twigg's confusion over his academies (and his misguided praise of Cuckoo Hall); Twigg's amnesia about London Challenge; and, perhaps most damning, the deception about academies which began as soon as they started.

I'm sure Andy will be amused when he reads he was responsible for wringing an admission from me that 'Ballot Monkeys' was a satire. Did he use telepathy? My first comment above and on Trevor's thread made it clear the programme was a satire. Both were written before Andy 'drew' an admission from me.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 03/05/2015 - 09:20

Guest - If you haven't noticed, many contributors to this site, including me, are consistently critical of Labour's education policies.

If Labour forms the next government, as I hope it will, I am sure that will continue.

This is what Professor Michael Shayer says about my book, 'Learning Matters' (which I haven't mentioned for a few posts now).

"If teaching-to-the-test undermines understanding, then what kinds of learning promote cognitive development and hence better understanding? Titcombe addresses this question and also analyses the success of Mossbourne Academy to argue how the whole school system should be reformed, rejecting both the right and the left wing establishment in the process. This is some achievement.

Michael Shayer
Emeritus Professor of Applied Psychology, King’s College, London

Brian's picture
Sat, 02/05/2015 - 22:44

I'm sure Janet is grateful to you for pointing out that the Ballot Bus is a fictitious satire although I suspect she was already aware of that as she refers to it as a satire in her post.

agov's picture
Sun, 03/05/2015 - 07:47

The fact that Andy is correct on another thread doesn't mean that Guest is correct on this one. Andy makes the point that LSN is not "a Labour voters forum ". That does not support Guest's ludicrous judgement of this being a site that "lacks impartiality and places political preferences above an education policy".

Guest's picture
Sun, 03/05/2015 - 12:31

"Have they twigged that education is an issue the Tories want to be shoved down the electoral agenda" (Janet 23 Apr @ 3.36) takes a reference about something featured in a satirical programme to a new and different level. That is to say, strongly implying that it isn't purely satire but is based on reality. On that basis, and accepting my inaccurate sequencing of the comment on this thread with the trevor fisher thread for which I apologise, it becomes abundantly clear that Janet is straightforwardly agin the Conservatives and attacks their education policies at every opportunity.

This is entirely different to Roger's stance that I perceive to be balanced because albeit a declared staunch Labour support he has a track record of admitting Labour's mishandling of education (e.g. the Blair years) and is not shy about criticising Labour. The same or similar cannot be said of Janet's position.

agov@ I accept what you say but would invite you to review the threads over time. I have done a speed read version of this and found that progressively the threads have lost a balance that they once had.

Like John Mountford, Roger Titcombe, Andy (?) and a handful of others I too would greatly prefer to see education wrested out of the hands and whims of political party interests and spin doctors, and have it placed on a far more stable and long terms basis. What I am implacably opposed to is the perpetuation of the status quo and education driven by rank political bias.

Guest's picture
Sun, 03/05/2015 - 12:35


The Conservatives are not alone in keeping quiet about education but Janet fails to acknowledge this.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 03/05/2015 - 13:24

Guest - you are right that I attack the Tory education policy at every opportunity. That's because it is based on a lie.

'Have they twigged that education is an issue the Tories want to be shoved down the electoral agenda?' was a tongue-in-cheek question leading to why the Tories might want to keep quiet about education.

So, yes I am 'agin the Conservatives' because they lied. Their education policies are built on sand comprising falsehoods, misinformation, misused statistics, dodgy surveys and prejudice. They're doing immense harm to education in this country by reducing it to dreary tables of data produced by subjecting English children to more testing than is common in the rest of the developed world.

It's not bias to resent being lied to. I am just as contemptuous of the deception which the Labour government spewed out about academies. I gave a link to that article - you'll note that I wrote it. But just in case your speed reading missed it, here it is again.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 03/05/2015 - 13:44

Guest - your speed reading missed my comment above about the Daily Politics Election Debate on education being low profile.

And it skimmed over my comment on Trevor's thread about the election profile of education when I said 'The Leaders’ (minus 2) debate mentioned tuition fees but nothing much else about education.' You may have noticed neither the Conservatives nor LibDems were represented in the Leaders' debate so I must have been referring to other parties.

In the same comment I said, 'UKIP bang on about grammar schools but not much else about education. Labour has said a bit more (but not a lot)...'

Earlier in the same thread I had said, 'The fact remains that education hasn’t featured much in the election campaign.'

Your claim that I've failed to acknowledge the near silence from other parties isn't entirely accurate.

agov's picture
Mon, 04/05/2015 - 06:19

"“Have they twigged that education is an issue the Tories want to be shoved down the electoral agenda” (Janet 23 Apr @ 3.36) takes a reference about something featured in a satirical programme to a new and different level."

Nonsense. It takes it to the same level presented in the satirical programme.

"strongly implying that it isn’t purely satire but is based on reality."

To the same extent as presented in the programme. It is a commonplace of this election that education has been little mentioned. Given that it was the Tories (and their LibDem accomplices) who imposed so much upheaval on the system, not to mention on the children whose education has been affected largely for the worse, they would presumably be talking about it a lot if they were not frightened of reminding voters, perhaps especially mothers, of what they have done.

"straightforwardly agin the Conservatives."

Actually, she seems to almost entirely confine herself to education policy and not only that of the Conservatives.

"attacks their education policies at every opportunity."

Don't think so. Think you'd find that sometimes she has said they have done something right, possibly not often but that would be a reflection of reality.

"This is entirely different to Roger’s stance that I perceive to be balanced because albeit a declared staunch Labour support he has a track record of admitting Labour’s mishandling of education (e.g. the Blair years) and is not shy about criticising Labour. The same or similar cannot be said of Janet’s position."

Yes it can. She may not say it as often as Roger but then unlike Roger she doesn't urge people to vote Labour. You have either not seen it or chose to ignore it.

"and found that progressively the threads have lost a balance that they once had."

You mean some people may have discussed politics during an election campaign. How appallingly disproportionate.

"What I am implacably opposed to is the perpetuation of the status quo and education driven by rank political bias."

Sounds like Janet and many others to a greater or lesser extent. What you really mean is that someone said something you disagree with. Boo hoo.

Guest's picture
Mon, 04/05/2015 - 08:57

"What you really mean is that someone said something you disagree with. Boo hoo." Is this puerile comment the best you can rise to. How very sad. I do hope you will remember this comment next time you choose to challenge someone or something that you disagree with. Alternately perhaps you are suggesting another variant interpretation of LSN - the Local Sycophants Network?

agov's picture
Tue, 05/05/2015 - 06:32

No, nor was it. Good to see you've abandoned further attempts to justify your absurd claim, which if I recall correctly, rather than being a position you arrived after a period of examination, was the one you proclaimed in a much earlier post.

Guest's picture
Tue, 05/05/2015 - 18:02

Yada, yada, yada, blah, blah, blah. If it isn't asking you to strain or stretch your "recall" I'd be grateful to know what this "much earlier post" is.

I do hope you stabled, cleaned down and fed your mighty white steed after your so gallant charge to the aid of Janet. From her robust response to my comments it strikes me that Janet is far more able than you in defending her position. But hey, you are of course entitled to be a patronising and condescending male chauvinist and treat her with disrespect by feeling she can't defend herself.

agov's picture
Wed, 06/05/2015 - 11:37


Guest's picture
Wed, 06/05/2015 - 20:04

Oh, how I laughed and laughed at the incisive wit!

Please do carry on belittling yourself (including unsubstantiated claims arising from your failing powers of "recall".

agov's picture
Thu, 07/05/2015 - 16:32

So still no further attempt to justify your absurd claim. Keep up the good work.

Guest's picture
Thu, 07/05/2015 - 17:39

Oh dear, agov perpetuates the vacuity and absurdity of his/her position.

Memory/recall still failing you or just continuing to make it up as you go along. How sad.

agov's picture
Sat, 09/05/2015 - 09:39

Nope, only stated a perception - you know how perception "should not be ignored". I don't ignore my perception that you have an agenda of distorting what people say and throwing around accusations of hypocrisy and dishonesty without justification, and wrong in pretty much every detail, as a substitute for having anything worthwhile to say.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 09/05/2015 - 09:48

agov and Guest - This is going nowhere. I would much rather you argued with me or others on this site about education, for which the future now looks exceedingly bleak.
You could of course give yourselves a break and read a good book. I could recommend one.

John Mountford's picture
Sat, 09/05/2015 - 11:45

Nice try, Roger!!

Andy V's picture
Sat, 09/05/2015 - 15:04

I see, you state that you "recall" something and then when challenged and can't evidence or substantiate the "recall" you resource to smoke and mirror sophistry in the form of your own cowardly "perception" construct behind which to hide.

I'd say that makes my case and shows you under your true colours.

Feel free to witter on but I've got debates and discussions to engage in rather than waste time on your empty blustering.

agov's picture
Sun, 10/05/2015 - 09:57

“recall” ... “perception”

Same thing.

cowardly “perception” construct

It was your construct, which you arrived at after your vast research of looking at a few threads over a handful of months. But don't let your hypocrisy hinder your whining.

my case

For which you have still neither provided justification nor apologised.

I’ve got debates and discussions to engage in

Hopefully that would be on the basis of your having abandoned your stock-in-trade of distorting what others have said but it seems you're still at it.

your empty blustering

Better than your empty accusations.

agov's picture
Sun, 10/05/2015 - 09:57

Roger - actually I find him vaguely amusing in a nostalgic sort of way. Reminds me of those 1970s polytechnic lecturers desperately trying to be considered intellectuals.

But I will get back to reading a good book (- yours) now that the election is over.

Andy V's picture
Sun, 10/05/2015 - 12:04

Oh dear, here we go again:

I would gently suggest you undertake a dictionary check of the meanings of 'recall' and 'perception'. They are not the "same thing".

You put the following words on my lips, "[my] vast research". What I actually said was, "agov@ I accept what you say but would invite you to review the threads over time. I have done a speed read version of this and found that progressively the threads have lost a balance that they once had" (see my comment 3 May @ 12.31). It follows then that you are either wholly wrong or blundering around with blustering sarcasm. Either way, it is you not I who is, "distorting what others have said".

Just in case your memory is letting you down - I'm sure your not stooping to being highly selective or distorting things - 5 May @ you said, "which if I recall correctly" and since then I have held you to account for that "recall" in that I've invited you to quote my thread or statement wherein I made the comments you allude to (by the way this demonstrates that it isn't a perception but rather a reference to something that has been stated) but you haven't/can't.

You know set yourself up at the LSN policeman seeking an apology from me: "For which you have still neither provided justification nor apologised". Did I miss something? I am unaware that I have anything to either 'justify' to you or give you an 'apology' about. If however, you are indulging in more shining white knight to Janet's rescue antics, then, permit me to refresh you memory on my earlier statement. Janet has no need of knights to save her, she is extremely capable and acknowledged by many as being able to defend herself; and indeed has done so on this very thread. The issue here is whether Janet's response assuaged my perception of her position, and that agov rests Janet and me.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 10/05/2015 - 13:29

Can we please stop squabbling about perceived personal grievances in the face of the truly apocalyptic disaster that is about to engulf the English education system.

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