Lessons from the Battle of Newbury

23rd February 1996 at 00:00
We live on the edge of Newbury, overlooking the beautiful Enborne valley which is about to be torn apart by the construction of the Western by-pass, a four-lane highway designed to ease congestion by carrying heavy goods vehicles to and from the south-coast ports. The clearance of ancient woodlands has begun. A natural wildlife habitat is being crushed.

The project is going ahead in spite of growing opposition. Whether one is personally affected or not, the project is an obscene intrusion into a local lifestyle that has existed for centuries and yet another vicious blow to a national heritage and a deteriorating environment.

The Third Battle of Newbury is likely to prove historic, representing a watershed in public attitudes towards road building and development. It is a civil war of its own kind: the Highways Agency is determined to proceed and the protesters are hell-bent on stopping it.

This is both a local and a national issue. The arguments for and against the Western by-pass have been fully rehearsed and publicised but they have not yet reached the educational press. That is surprising since, perhaps more than any other newsworthy story, this is very definitely a matter for teachers and children. There is much to be learned.

At the North of England Education Conference in January, Professor Ted Sizer, of Brown University in the USA, exposed the inadequacy of our compartmentalised curriculum. He advocated learning which begins by addressing "essential questions" such as "Who owns this country, anyway?" What is happening at Newbury reflects the confusion, contradiction and hypocrisy with which education in Britain is riddled. Our national preoccupation with competitiveness is matched only by our desire to gain something for nothing. Children learn by example - both good and bad - and if we expect teachers to be the guardians of children's morality and social conscience then we must confront children honestly with the manifestations of adult greed.

We all know, parents and teachers, that children have secret fears. In the recent past, one fear would have been the risk of a third world war. Today, it is probably the nightmare of destruction of the environment. But children are a force in their own right and we are now seeing them literally take over elements of our social fabric. Along with the earning and spending power they have held for many years, they are flexing their muscles in their use of computers, gaining access to worldwide information and entertainment services and engaging independently in the battle for their survival.

A Meridian survey of opinion posed the question: "are you in favour of the Newbury by-pass being built?" Many of the 70 per cent "yes" respondents understandably feel that Newbury's traffic problem has to be solved; so do the other 30 per cent no doubt.

But Newbury already has a by-pass which does not, as local MP David Rendell insists "go through the centre of Newbury". It skirts the town to the east. And yet he has the gall to accuse opponents of telling untruths. Townsfolk have been persuaded that a new, western route is the only solution: a view that has been convincingly discredited. A combination of public transport improvements and some road adaptations designed to facilitate traffic flow would provide a more acceptable and cheaper alternative.

Clearance along the route advances, leaving solitary trees each inhabited by its own suspended resident. Each has his or her woodland name: "Bark", "Badger" and "Star". Here is, literally, the cutting-edge.

Hundreds of security men and two security women in their early twenties stand in line surrounding the chain-saw gang. A teenager in uniform protests: "I need the money". A policeman quietly admits: "I feel guilty that our generation has allowed this to happen." Protesters stand as close as possible. They are articulate and courteous and their morale is high, contrasting sharply with the face of officialdom.

This is devastation on a massive, preventable scale. Are we so corrupted by materialistic ambition to be blind to the destruction of our natural environment? This, surely, is a question we must encourage children to address.

George Varnava is president of the National Association of the National Association of Headteachers but writes here in a personal capacity.

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