Archive | January, 2013

Education: undoing is our undoing.

31 Jan

Sigmund Freud had a fair amount to say about undoing things. He suggested that such actions could be part of the ego’s defence, motivated by dislike or even hate. Well how about the tit-for-tat desperation of politicians in power to reverse or undo what has been done by the other lot when they held the conch?

It’s hard to see beyond the ego of Michael Gove as he rubbishes GCSEs and drives forward with the EBacc (English Baccalaureate) while the Commons select committee are telling him to Calm Down Dear. Predictably the NUT are first on to the barricades foaming with the indignation of the self-righteously underprivileged. Next the anti-selection lobby, particularly those who were educated privately or at grammar schools,  dust down their indignant phrases of injustice and social stigmata from days of yore. Others pile in like boys joing the fight in those glorious playground bundles, now outlawed by Health and Safety, the anti-bullying lobby and God knows who else. Gove all jutting lower lip and arrogant certainty ploughs on. Has anyone thought about asking the teachers – or even the pupils?

I don’t mean those teacher- advisors who sit on quangos and pick up a nice daily allowance, freebies and time off from their real jobs so they can swan around in Russell Square feeling important. I don’t mean the plethora of experts from this or that University’s Department for Education – guys and girls who have spent years in meaningful research in Oslo or Rio or Shanghai during the endllessly long summer holidays and return to tell us we must be more like others. After all the Finns are streets ahead of us in Maths and cross-country skiing. No – I mean the teachers and pupils who are teaching and learning in their thousands up and down the country, right now.

I only taught for 35 years so what do I know? Every time significant change occurred in my school, colleagues would so rarely say What a good idea! Rather the drudge of revising schemes of work, chucking out text books and worksheets, endless training meetings to discuss and implement change within and without school…and all for what? Some marginal shift which might benefit one group and disadvantage another – and the certainty that what goes round, comes round – and square one is a place that all education policies get back to.

The pupils are now used, of course, to being told that they aren’t as clever as previous generations, exams being easier, coursework easily plagiarised and so on. They sigh knowing that all attainment and achievement will be ‘put in perspective’ by some politician like Gove wanting to make political capital out of ‘declining standards’, hell-bent on undoing what the other lot did.

The real winners? Publishers and exam boards who rub their hands with glee when the system is ripped up. The quality control quangos love it too – well-paid consultancy and monitoring going on years into the future before the EBacc is undone and then the gravy train rolls on.

The losers – teachers, pupils, parents. Systemic change comes at a huge price and it is our undoing.

Am I getting more arty – or is it just an age thing?

22 Jan

I spent half an hour, last week, sitting in front of Il Tagliapanni (The Tailor) at the National Gallery. I was killing time and had persuaded myself to continue my journey of art education and discovery. Whenever I have done this in galleries up and down the land I have tended to forget the brilliant images within a millisecond of sipping the first pint in the pubs round the corner.

Not so with Giovanni Battista Moroni’s brilliant portrait. If the artist’s name and the pasta-giggle of a title wasn’t enough of a draw, the arresting demeanour of the beautiful tailor made you want to sit and stare. And so I did. The heavy tailor’s scissors to the bottom left drew the eye, which, having been drawn moved back to the kind, firm, quizzical face. Why are you interested in me? The tailor seemed to be saying. I  wondered about such an artisan being the subject of a portrait – after all wasn’t it just the toffs of the time could afford a portrait commission? I checked the blurb – it seemed that it was several decades before the Italians comfirmed the painting as that of a tailor. I wondered why. I sat again and saw the chalk lines on the dark velvet cloth being cut – must be for a VIP? But the tailor holds the attention…for ages. Go to the National Gallery site. See for yourself.

I wandered on and bumped into my old buddy Mark White – he an artist and teacher who has tried, sympathetically, to aid my art education. I was gratified that he added to my response to Mr Moroni’s painting, accepting amuch of what  I said with gratifying interest – then filling in some gaps. I wandered round to the National Portrait Gallery and caught The Duchess of Cambridge looking ten years older by the magic of artwork, the Taylor-Wessing exhibition which was…very good photography – and then I moved off to The Ship and Shovel to take stock…and a nice pint of Badger’s. As with so many, I guess, I was thinking through my real response rather than the one expected of someone with a finely-tuned artistic sensibility. You know the sort of thing – those moments when you have to face the undeniable truth that you like Simon and Garfunkel more than Mahler and Any Human Heart more than anything by Yann Martell or Salman Rushdie. Actually I like anything more than Mahler but I’d still go with my luvvie mates to the Albert Hall in the vain attempt to try to ‘get’ what they seem to ‘get’.

The evening held promise. I was heading for the Duke of York’s theatre, dahling, accompnied by a highly attractive woman, to see The Judas Kiss with Rupert Everett and Freddie Fox. The play charts the period from Oscar Wilde’s famous arrest at the Cadogan Hotel to his final parting from Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas). Quite a good deal of male nudity laced each scene but David Hare’s script was a joy. There were no foppish repeats of time-honoured epigrams, rather the sharp, sardonic wit of the tragic figure as he wrestled with his relationships and his life. Black, sad humour there was and Rupert Everett stole every scene, every exchange – our hearts went out to him as we laughed almost embarrassedly. Wow…that was art.

I’ve been on this arty kick for a few weeks. Much as I question the need for musicals, I found Kiss Me Kate at the Old Vic fresh and engaging. I didn’t get bored (this being my benchmark for any judgement of quality) – mind you I have taken to not drinking alcohol just before or during theatre or film. Your head just goes doesn’t it? A couple of beers and 30 minutes into even the most rivetting of plays, your chin hits your chest. A woman a few seat dow from us at the Judas Kiss snored with some volume before her companion gave her a kicking. Not age, just wine.

A dear friend and I caught Martin Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness at The Royal Court. Stirring intra-family strife. Dirty linen being washed; the baggage of an extended family’s life being opened on stage. It was effective, dramatically and the set change was stunning…but it was gloomy and a bit lopsided. The central part of the play consisted of a ‘Question-time’ style chanting exchange of truths being revealed in this surreal set-up. It worked but went on far too long. Intriguing, though.

Kristin Scott-Tomas, Rufus Sewell and Lia Williams did a great job in the revival of Pinter’s Old Times at the theatre newly named after him.  I could look at Kristin S-T for ages anyway – rather like Il Tagliatanni, actually. The staging here was obvious but good – the love triangle – and triangulate they did, these smart three actors, in every move they made or line delivered. I suppose with Pinter you can’t fail but there was an urelieved gloom which I didn’t go for too much but that’s the territory that Pinter invariably seemed to inhabit.

I finished up my January arty tour de force by slipping into Quartet at the Sutton Empire. I gather this Downton come Tea with Mussolini come Exotic Marigold of a film, improbably directed by Dustin Hoffman has taken a bit of critical stick. Psshhaww! It’s a gentle humorous delight about a bunch of operatic has-beens who end up in a home for musical pensioners. Billy Connelly gets most of the good lines; Maggie Smith delivers the same lines in the same manner; Tom Courtenay is vulnerably stoical and Pauline Collins does her best to imitate that silly woman who used to be on Coronation Street. Sheridan Smith probably advances her career as the doctor in charge of the asylum and a good time is had by all. Take your mum (if over 50) or your grannie or, if you have a bus pass yourself, grab a ride to the nearest flea-pit.

Well after all this activity do I feel more arty? Another page of A Casual Vacancy feels like I’m walking through treacle so perhaps my sights have moved up a notch. But I’m off to Jack Reacher later and I have just started my final sentence with a conjuction…so watch this space.

Snowbound schools and simmering discontent

22 Jan

As the number of young, legally truanting visitors to A and E  grows the question asked of Headteachers up and down the land has been: why isn’t your school open? As a former teacher in boarding schools I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times, in 35 years of teaching, that my workplace was considered hors de combat. Huge snow drifts preventing any vehicular access or, more prosaically, no service or private hire buses running were the reasons. Health and safety – seemingly the biggest player these days was less of a factor; personal responsibility and commonsense featured highly.

The snow-faring nations round the world have a bit of a larff at us at this time of year as we mumble and groan our way through the inept navigation of winter. Sports Direct sell little grippy things you can attach to the bottom of your shoes: mums and dads – buy them. Halfords flog cheap snow chains for those of us unfortunate enough to be without a 4 by 4: get them. I broke an arm once slipping in a school playground:my parents didn’t sue; rather they told me I wasn’t being careful enough.

So what is the mindset of the modern Headteacher? Certainly not ‘Let’s give whoever can make it in a productive day’ it appears. Or am I doing our education leaders a disservice? Presumably they are plagued from morning till night with boxes to be ticked, compliance to be complied with, rules to be tabled and policies to be thought through, discussed at high level meetings and implmented to the letter for fear that some upstart parent (or pupil) will pick up on the detail and fire litigious bullets into the study.

Oh come on. Get some cojones! So much coming out of local authorities and health and safety executives and the dozens of quangos that plague education is advisory, not statutory. I once worked for a Head whose first question of colleagues when they suggested, boorishly, that some protocol needed to be adopted was ‘Would it be a good thing for the pupils and for us?’; the second question -‘Do we have to?’

This Head was guided by instinct, a natural sense of justice and commonsense. Come on guys and girls, put a smile on your faces and go for it!

Strangers on a train

20 Jan

One of Richard Branson’s railway beasts pulled smoothly out of Manchester Picadilly. Last Thursday I was returning from a sad family visit and had pampered myself with a first class ticket. I was quietly happy that my little area was empty and I spread myself – room to set the papers down here, J.K.Rowling’s enormous A Casual Vacancy (why am I reading this?) there, phone, notebook and so on. Ah here comes the wine waiter with my large red. Food ordered (the slow-roast pork belly) and a couple of hours of bliss ahead.

The Stockport happened. At this improbably early port of call a woman (forty and careworn) and son (thirteen, I’d say) bustled and apologised their way up the carriage to their allotted resting place – just opposite me. She was all instruction to the calm, unspeaking young man: Put your bags over there; do you want to sit facing forward or not?; I’d prefer to have my back to the engine; these seats are tight for first class; that’s my phone going. And so she spoke at length into her device as she sank into the rear-facing seat above which a sign asked travellers not to speak into such devices.

Her son ( I assume he was the offspring, though the little that I learned about him in the following two hours suggested that he could not possibly have been a product of the nervy, control freak opposite) took to his iPad and, as the modern user can be, was all contentment. Not so his mother who was busy with conference calls which were vital – her words to explain to the polite boy why she couln’t lavish all attention on him. The calm waiter arrives – a lifesaver she called him before she quizzed him on the range and quality of wines. I can’t drink anything really dry so a Pinot is better than a Sauvignon but I’d like to taste it first. The brilliant rejoinder of ‘We’ve only one white on offer and it’s medium,’ stopped her only temporarily in her tracks. Next was the negotiation of food.

Why Virgin train managers don’t print a little card with the choices on baffles me. The new man, less taciturn than the wine guy, went through the six options. Too fast of course – and she told him so. Can you repeat more slowly? (no please). At this point the near-dumb youngster sprang into life and rattled off, verbatim, the entire menu. Wow! The lights are off  but there’s definitely someone at home. She drew breath to consider – What do you want darling? The pork. His reply was instant. Ah that sounds good but does it have any nuts or cream? I’m not good with either. Well no nuts but just a little cream. I can’t risk it; I can’t risk being up all night. I remember the last time I had a bad meal on a train. Perhaps one of the other options madam?

Meanwhile I had finished my first merlot and, as luck would have it, the wine man was passing and filled my glass with the chummy knowing smile that said ‘I know you’re listening to what’s going on and I know what you’re thinking’. He was right. A Casual Vacancy was open in front of me but not a word was being read for the time being.

Back to the menu-drama. Well she decided on a vegetarian salad sandwich. The wine waiter spun away from me to fill her glass with the medium. I’ll taste it first ( as if she had an option if she didn’t like it). It’s fine, she said curtly – and added, I do have to be careful actually. Not sure for whose benefit this was as the waiter had disappeared sharpish. More calls – by this time I was less interested and more irritated. The pork arrived for the two of us eating it. Her anaemic sandwich appeared at the same time attractively parcelled in plastic. Well I could predict the next exchange…that looks nice, your pork. Doesn’t look too creamy…oh excuse me, could I change my mind? I could manage the pork, I think and I’d like a glass of red now – a fresh glass of course. The waiter-grunt said more than most primaeval noises of their type.

Meanwhile the young lad had shown how good he was with his pleases and thank-yous. Must be paying for his education I thought, somewhat unworthily – he can’t have learnt too much at home anyway. Waiter  no. 2 returned with the pork and the merlot (presumably the wine waiter couldn’t face another exchange). You can take the sandwich away, she said gracelessly.

No madam, please have it on the house.

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