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Spitting Images…

10 May

It’s such a pity that the satirical hit-show of the 1980s remains in mothballs. Nicky Morgan’s thyroidic madness, as she leads our schools not so gently into that good night, would be a delicious but apocalyptic joy to behold. As I sipped tea with two jolly roofers in the back garden this morning, I offered them the prepositional conundrum presented to our year 6 kiddies in their English SAT this week. The laughter echoed around suburbia. Two roofers and an English teacher.

Now the dangerous Mrs M took no national test until GCSEs came calling when she was 16. Nor did she attend a state school – ie the schools which 94% of all children throughout the UK attend. Her rise to a degree in Jurisprudence at Oxford was via the leafy comfort of Surbiton High School, fees currently £16,000. Her life as a solicitor, then quickly professional politician, was a glittering race through the corridors of advantage and networking. And now she directs the education of the masses whose access to preferment is a tad shaky.

For many politicians born with silver spoons, I get the idea that their brains, desire for service and, hopefully, the ability to see the bigger picture, can overcome the disadvantages of a myopic view born of the playing fields of Eton or, indeed, the slums of Toxteth. But with Education (education, education…) the need for a sensitive, perspicacious leader is vital. We have been plagued by successive encumbents of high office being paralysed by a combination of their own privileged experienced combined with a corporate, profit-toxic view of how education should be organised and evaluated. Pupils and teachers, particularly at key stages 1 and 2, are the losers. Thank goodness a few parents this week stood their ground: enough is enough, they said. Children must be allowed to grow broadly before the examined world takes over;  not moulded from five to regurgitate irrelevancies which their young brains can’t compute anyway.

As I watched my roofing mates, Shaun and Dan, flash through their iPhones, we chatted about the schools they went to. Local lads from Carshalton. Housing estate. Fun growing up. Both failed 11 plus but the teachers at primary and secondary were OK, some brilliant. Quality of teaching was assessed by personality, running the soccer team after hours, engaging an interest – for Dan it was poetry, for Shaun history. Both were sport mad. Neither thought that those on high – Nicky Morgan – understand what education is really about. They admired their bright mates who went to university but it wasn’t for them. They wanted cash-in-hand and were pleased with the choices they had made. Dan calculated the VAT for the bill in a heartbeat.

The more we chatted, the more my glottal stops began to match theirs. Strange how we leafy suburban orators enjoy the chumminess of estuary English. Jack Whitehall tries plenty of innit-speak in his stage show but the Marlborough posh is hard to hide. I was pondering linguistic tics when a young woman wandered past me (by now I’m in London sitting in Victoria Embankment Gardens) hoicked up a substantial globule of phlegm and spit-fired into the rather beautiful tulip garden by which I was sitting, not spitting. Strange, I thought, that in gardens crowded with office workers enjoying the last minutes of a sunny lunch-hour, a rather chic looking filly (excuse, please the non-PC personification of a young thoroughbred. I had thought of revealing that the pretty thing in question was an olive-skinned Asian but, decided not to chance the rabid vitriol of my right-on readership) would choose to mimic the action of press-ganged sailors in 17th century whorehouses. My audible intake of breath resulted in an embarrassed explanation, en-passant, that a fly-dive through the glossed lips was the culprit. Big bloody fly, I smartly retorted.

She hurried on and my attention was drawn to the incongruous sight of a couple of young chaps, jackets off, playing table tennis. I had noticed the appearance of a number of these fun-tables in the various gardens along the embankment from Blackfriars to Whitehall. What a top idea! The two young men, with ties still on, looked a little sad, as if they were convicts getting exercise before returning to condemned cells. The spitting image of the tulip garden gobber and the bulbous-eyed Nicky Morgan faded as I wandered up Whitehall and met some retired teachers in the Harp (what a fine pub!). We didn’t mention education.


The i Caught my Eye.

10 Mar

I read papers at the weekend but the 40p in my pocket was burning a hole. I saw the obit. of George Martin advertised on the front of the i and went for it. Before I got to the warm and fulsome tribute to the great man, I was hi-jacked by a number of curious items.

Firstly a piece on how ‘battlers and bruisers’ are needed as secondary headteachers to sort out standards. “Uniforms”, said Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, “are all over the place. Scrappy worksheets abound as does low level disruption.” Weighing in to the problem was Nick Gibb, ex KPMG accountant specialising in tax, now Schools’ Minister.

The lifelong Tory activist and financier called for young teachers to be fast-tracked. “Able headteachers should be promoted swiftly from the ranks.” Well, I thought, don’t they need to practise their profession for a while before they catapult to stardom? Promotion too soon can be a double disaster. Firstly the superhead has yet to spend enough time doing what he/she is good at – presumably teaching; secondly, the erroneous assumption that the skills required of a headteacher are similar to the classroom teacher and that experience counts for less that confrontational ability. In my experience the quickly-promoted young star confronts more than reflects. Nick Gibb, as with so many politicians, is an amateur observer. I noted from his Wiki info that, of all the schools which he attended, Maidstone Grammar was far and away the best. Second came Bedford Modern, a noted private school. Not too many of the hoi polloi or top buttons undone in either place. I see that he is MP for Bognor Regis. I spent many an unhappy summer holiday there in the 1950s.

I scanned further items about which I couldn’t have cared less: Sunday trading (SNP taking the piss), Junior Doctors (sorry but both sides are getting it wrong), the Queen and Brexit, the link between obesity and sleeplessness, Chelsea getting PSG -ed and, of course, the EU.

However the news that Ashfield District Council has banned comedian Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown from appearing at the Festival Hall in Kirby had me chuckling. They said that his humour was ‘inappropriate’. Of course it is you stupid dickheads – that’s why he’s popular. And, as far as I am aware, he doesn’t incite terrorism.

There were a number of short items from round the world which kept me abreast of vital matters. The rebels in Columbia and the Polish government ruling that their own courts were unlawful were two items to make me smile and yawn simultaneously. It’s hard to avoid the Trumpmeister and his curious unstoppability. The circus going on over the pond is a joy to behold…from a distance. Did you know that the Kennel Club celebrates its 125th birthday this year and 22,000 tails will be wagging at Crufts today, apparently. Similar events.

I turned back to George Martin. A gentle genius.Go to you tube. All You Need is Love.

Poems of my Life. Flint.

17 Nov

Nursery rhymes and songs were the stuff of my childhood. Nothing unusual there. Listen with Mother and, when we had a TV,  Watch with Mother added more rhyme into the mix. Having a Danish dad meant Hans Christian Andersen and the stories and poetry of Ole Luk-Oye. More of this anon. Rupert Bear’s adventures were told in verse and prose. Now We are Six by A.A. Milne was read to me early because I had the book hand-me-downs from my elder brother.

Rhyme and rhythm should be part of a child’s sing-song day. At Cuddington County Primary School, I’m sure there were rhymes aplenty but one stands out. Flint by Christina Rosetti.

~Christina Rossetti

An emerald is as green as grass,
A ruby red as blood;
A sapphire shines as blue as heaven;
A flint lies in the mud.

A diamond is a brillant stone,
To catch the world’s desire;
An opal holds a fiery spark;
But a flint holds fire.

This is the first poem I remember being ‘taught’. I’m pretty sure that it was in class 3 –  Mrs Thorburn . I was 6. She would have had to explain what sapphires and rubies were, no doubt. We went foraging in the woods looking for flints, about which I had no idea. Mrs T encouraged us to clap stones together and make sparks, then breathe in the ignition aroma.

Then the poem. At 6 I was told what a simile was – and a metaphor but it took me longer to grasp that, I think. I knew about rhyme of course but hadn’t bothered with much else, I’m sure. Mrs T, after extolling the excitements of the gems, teased answers out of us about the monosyllabic fourth and eighth lines. It is these two lines that jump into my head as much as any other that I have ever come across. especially that last, exciting line. I can hear Mrs T now.


Gordon is no moron..

1 Jul

Gordon Strachan bided his time last Thursday. We were watching South Korea play Belgium. Gordy’s co-pundits were lamenting the poor refereeing which allowed a range of physical assaults to go unpunished while the merest hint of a foot up or the sight of a stud incurred  yellow and red cards held aloft in a ritual of sanctimonious officialdom. When a terrified Korean defender with the same name as all his team mates, rugby tackled a Belgian with a Dutch moniker, the pundit-baying intensified. “It was so outrageous he (the ref) couldn’t make a decision,” opined Lee Dixon. “A clear penalty!” The outrage continued.

At half time the level of consternation reached new heights. The chatter had broadened: Suarez biting; ubiquitous shirt pulling; elbows in faces; Quatar bribing any FIFA official they could lay their hands on; diving…or simulation as the boys in black now love to call it. And so it went on until Gordon cut through the crap.

“You people are talking as if there are rights and wrongs here. Surely it’s obvious that, at this level of soccer, there are no morals.” Wow. He’d said it. And he repeated it. Hallelujah, a sensible, intelligent observation for once amid the clichéd claptrap and time-filling platitudes which I spend hours yawning at. More fool me, you might say. I say that I’m ever hopeful that a Gordon or an Alan or a Clarence or a Robbie will say something truly interesting, thought-provoking. And here it was.

He said more. “It’s the art of what you can get away with. Let’s face it Suarez was a bit (or a bite) unlucky. Or perhaps his value has gone up even more?” This was great stuff. I was on the edge of my seat. Condescending smiles from Chilesey and Lee Dixon- Gordon was being playful, provocative. Not a bit of it. Think about it boys and girls. And I sat at home and thought about it.

Luis Suarez was greeted by thousands of fans and the President of Uruguay on his return to Montevideo. Disgraced? Not a bit of it. Ever more the hero. The greatest ‘foul’of all time, the brilliant head-butt by the genius Zidane, has raised him to cult status. He did what a man had to do. The gamesmanship of players at the highest footballing levels will always exceed the ability of referees, FIFA, UEFA and the FA to keep up. But we don’t want to ‘keep up’ do we? I like waking up to the latest scandal that has hit the soccer world. Today it is the match-fixing by 7 Cameroonians. Well you would wouldn’t you, if a few thousand quid would take you out of a slum and give you running water in a downtown semi in Yaoundé?

And don’t we love the shirt-pulling antics of the penalty area? How dull if the refs started awarding the correct sanction. A penalty each time? You’re kidding – so much fun and punditry outrage to tap into without making the right decision. Isn’t it better to watch overpaid yobbos verbally abuse referees, argue with every single decision – than see them meekly accept the judgement of a (supposedly) unbiased official?

As for technology, what a master-stroke by the Premier League and FIFA to introduce goal-line technology. The least important area of contention is the one-in-a-hundred matches where blind refs and their assistants can’t tell if a sizeable sphere has crossed the rubicon. It’s all Frank Lampard’s fault. If Hawkeye had assisted the hapless officials our glorious boys might not have been put through the German sausage machine four years ago. I don’t think so. But how brilliant of the powers that be to ignore all meaningful forms of technology help (see Rugby, Tennis, Cricket and any other high profile sport with an interest in truth and fairness) and plump for the least helpful, leaving all contentious decisions I the hands of the least able, i.e. on-field officials. It’s a master-stroke of Blatterdom. Sepp’s a canny operator in the world game – his game. It’s Roller-ball and he’s with Gordon. Who dares – or cheats- wins.

Lest my endorsement of Gordon’s wise observations, last Thursday, is taken as too frivolous let’s tackle that lurking moral sticking point. Example. How the top players behave has a trickle down moral effect. Think about this carefully. Think schooldays, schoolteachers, sports coaches, what mums and dads say at mini rugby or on the local tennis courts. Think about the behaviour that is encouraged at grass roots. There may be exceptions but for the most part we’re talking wholesome, happy, respectful  behaviour. Appropriate disapproval of bad language, fouling, gamesmanship. The local park and school match really is, these days, a million miles from the virtual reality of the Suarez bite. The latter is a bubble-wrapped world of media frenzy and gossip-generating scandal. How dull if Suarez didn’t have a Hannibal Lecter fixation. How boring if you couldn’t debag a centre forward in the penalty area and get away with it.

Gordon made me think about the truth of team games. For all the character-building good that school and amateur-level  club matches manage there is an inevitability that, the higher the stakes the greater the cheating. Morality goes out of the window – and we all conspire, in some way, to ensuring that things won’t change too much while the chequebook and Sepp Blatter are Kings of the Castle.

Games, Winning and Education (Or was Stuart Broad right not to ‘walk’?)

16 Jul

Nearly 40 years ago Charles Bailey, Cambridge philosopher, argued that games or sports which pitted one side against another should have no place in the school curriculum. Such activities inevitably provoked questionable behaviour in the pursuit of victory – i.e. cheating, argument, gamesmanship. It seemed, at the time, an armchair examination of the morality of games, without much context – an argument in a vacuum which, bolstered by other sedentary luminaries, was allowed to make headway in primary education, in particular. I remember watching my own children playing non-competitive bean-bag throwing during early years education. I was a daddy in a parallel universe writhing to get back to reality.

The recent breathtaking exploits of the Lions, Andy Murray, Chris Froome and the startling opening of the Ashes series have fanned the flames of ethical controversy which sport is likely to throw up so regularly. It is because all sport is bound by rules and nearly all governing bodies, responsible for codifying the rules include a rule (or law) which enshrines ‘the spirit’ of the game or activity. Players and spectators enjoy wrestling with the boundaries set, whether practical or ethical. We extrapolate to real life where, so often, the example of society’s leaders falls short of the behaviour of sportsmen and sportswomen.

MPs’ expenses; the fixing of the Libor rate; bankers’ bonuses (win or lose); BBC executive payouts; Jimmy Carr and Starbucks and the Duchy of Cornwall avoiding tax…do I need to go on about the cheating (gamesmanship) which abounds in society and is excused, often, by ‘We didn’t break any rules, did we?’  And yet we expect sportsmen to behave in more admirable ways than our politicians and captains of industry. Well, actually, they do.

This brings me on to Stuart Broad. He famously stood his ground last week when the young Aussie bowler, Ashton Agar had him caught at slip. He pretty much middled it to skipper Clarke but umpire Aleem Dar was the only guy at Trent Bridge or in the global TV audience who didn’t see or hear the resounding nick. The Aussies had been profligate with their appeals to the third umpire and his technology and had lost their right to appeal further. Broad knew the rules. He stayed where he was. Not out. There followed the usual plum-accented, MCC stripey-tie harrumphing about the Spirit of Cricket, led, predictably by the otherwise charming Aggers (aka Jonathan Agnew of TMS, cake-eating, armchair-musing, pigeon-fancying, gentlemen’s clubby radio 4 set). He met his match in the plain-speaking, arrogant Yorkshire lad – one Geoffrey Boycott. He put the thing in context. 21st century technology and professional umpires means that decision-making has been delegated away from the players. The rules concerning appeals to technology are clear. The day before Broadgate the supposedly infallible third umpire made two critical errors which cost England far more than the Broad’s retention at the crease. Trott was not out lbw – he hit the ball and Agar, the bravura debutant for Oz was indeed out stumped. He was on 6 and went on to score 98. Aggers, mournfully harked back to an era of gentlemen and players and ‘doing the right thing’. Is it only batsmen who should ‘play the game’? As a fast bowler didn’t Aggers admit to sledging batsmen to unsettle them and appealing for dubious catches or lbws. Has he ever called a batsman back after a dodgy decision in his favour? You can’t have it both ways Aggers – and Sir Geoffrey, in context, put you right. Notice how the Aussies said very little at the end of a hard-fought day, about the mid-afternoon controversy. They knew the score. They play hard but fair – and fair, in this instance meant within the new set of rules provided by the introduction of technology.

Dear old Andy M complained about the gamesmanship of his Polish semi-final adversary at Wimbledon who worked on the umpire to close the centre-court roof. Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, most recently, have thrown the athletics world into turmoil with positive drug tests. Let’s hope the expected win for Chris Froome isn’t blighted by some further scandal. After the serial deceit of Lance Armstrong cycling can’t take much more. Sport enables moral discussion. We cannot expect sportsman and sportswomen to behave better than others. Money + competition = corruption. Examples of both good and poor behaviour in sport abound. Soccer is full of it – Maradonna’s Hand of God goal against England is a celebrated piece of cheating but at least in sport the truth tends to be revealed instantly, discussed, often condemned, usually dealt with. Other malefactions in wider society grow unseen, like cancer, undermining the fabric of our major institutions. Sub-prime debt., RBS, payment protection insurance, the Hillsborough debacle, sexual abuse perpetrated by ministers of the church. Jimmy Savile.

So Charles Bailey thinks non-competitive bean-bag throwing is the way forward, or rock-climbing or yoga. Anything you can’t cheat at. From where I sit competitive sportsmen and sportswomen do a vey good job of playing within the rules and with a smile on their faces and a deal of respect for eachother. When they’re caught out they are exposed, usually quickly. School and youth sport can and should be used as a vehicle for inculcating moral behaviours, good manners, respect for the opposition and so on. A sporting education with morality at its heart produces sporting adults who recognise injustice and fair play equally. We become more indignant with lapses from a standard in sport than in other walks of life.

One of my fondest memories from school was cheating on a cross-country run round Richmond Park. Phil Newton and I hid on the first circuit round the Isabella Plantation. He had a fag, I had a coke and we rejoined the group, mid-pack, next time round. We didn’t get caught. Were we corrupt? Nah, just lazy. Happy days.

What Thatcher has done for me…

15 Apr

That the Iron Lady media frenzy has been unseemly is all too evident. What can we rescue from the tornado of hot, swirling vortex that has been whipped up before the wake of the worn out 87 year old, who happened to be our first female PM? Clarity, that’s what! Was she controversial? Yes. Did she win three elections? Yes. Should the tax payer pay millions for her funeral? No.

Let me move on (unlike the BBC and every other media organisation and vested interest) to other news. Is that bloke who runs North Korea a basket case? Yes. Did we like the Morse prequel, ‘Endeavour’? Yes. Is Sally Bercow a self-obsessed embarrassment for her speaker-hubby (himself a shade pompous)? Yes. Was the sexy song about a one-night-stand sung by the talented little 11 year-old on Britain’s Got Talent, inappropriate? Yes. Was Tony Blair to blame for the MMR scandal? No, but he didn’t help. Has Madonna done anything for Malawi? No. Has Nicholas Hytner done a great job for the National Theatre? Yes. Should Sir Robert Edwards’ (Nobel Prize IVF) death have had more column inches than Peaches Geldof? Yes. So it goes…but let’s not get into the bombing of Dresden.

On to sport. Where are rules not really to be followed? The Masters at Augusta, if the penalty concerns the world’s most famous player. Where should rules be slavishly adhered to? Augusta, if a 14year old Chinaman can be found and made an example of and lectured and penalised. Where could you see the very best exhibition of sportsmanship in the very heat of high-level competition? Augusta, when Angel Cabrera man-hugged Adam Scott after the Aussie had thrillingly snatched victory at the second play-off hole. Friendship through sport. Humility in winning, grace in losing. A lot of what went on at home this weekend fell so far short of the savoury. But when it happens we feel enriched; we are reminded that competition can be noble.

Grammar; to be precise Gwynne’s Grammar. The Sunday Times saw fit to sneak an article by Nevile Martin Gwynne on his new Ebury Press publication. For thinking and reasoning we need words. Just as words and their definitions are the science of vocabulary, grammar is simply arranging words in the best order to make the best and clearest sense for any purpose. Without words we cannot think, let alone communicate…learning grammar does not just happen.

If we all read NMG’s worthy tome we might use words more accurately, sparingly and wisely. The use and misuse of words and platforms this week has forced a valuable brevity upon me. In a funny way, the Lady turned it round.

1. Advice for Headteachers: teach.

14 Mar

I have given this article a number, indicating that my advice might multiply into a  series of unwanted naggings. Most people in power feign gratitude at helpful hints and will certainly ignore them unless a. The offerings comes from those who are even more powerful, b. Ofsted tell them, specifically, how to buck their ideas up and c. The advice comes from those whom they trust. I hope that I have been in this last category and I offer these thoughts as a kindly, critical stranger.

Teach. Yes, I mean get into the classroom and spend some of your busy week doing what you were trained for. Around 70% of secondary heads don’t teach at all. Increasingly they style themselves as executives, with iPhones strapped to their belts, secretaries who are called PAs, digital diaries filled with conferences or meetings with schools with which they are federalised to ‘share good practice’ or pool expertise or rationalise budgets. These meetings are, of course, chummy hot air balloons with lots of gas to propel the Heads (and their acolytes on the leadership group) high into the sky – but after tea and biccies they come to ground and little has been done to aid any of the children back at the ranch.

Primary Heads teach rather more but, in larger primaries, they too find it an inconvenience. Strange to say that the number of Heads who teach in private schools – about 50% – is greater. I wonder why, with all that cash sloshing around on Toby and Jemima’s riding lessons and tiny GCSE Maths sets, what is it that persuades the highly paid beak to dabble with a little 6th form Ancient History? Contact – that’s the thing. Getting to know a few pupils who then spread the word – he/she is a good egg. Being a brilliant teacher doesn’t matter – know your stuff, of course – and good preparation with an aversion to missing too many sessions (for conferences or ‘important’ meetings) are vital.

A few lessons a week not only gives you a profile with the students but also with colleagues. You may be a little de-skilled compared with the bright young things who are busting their guts on a full timetable but you can claim to line up alongside them, have coffee with them and complain about the behaviour of 4B; show them that you’re on their side. Parents like it too. At Parents’ Evening you don’t have to feel like a spare part smiling hopelessly into the middle distance as droves of them ignore you, keen to find out from the real teachers how their offspring are progressing. No – you can be sat at your own teacher-table with mark book at hand and genial knowingness about the aforementioned characters in 4B.

I have worked for several Heads all of whom taught. They had in common an aversion to those things which took them away, too often, from base camp. They each made a profit and loss calculation on how their time was spent and at the end of the year the balance sheet showed healthy assets in the home time-bank. Nor were these heads all brilliant teachers but they were given a greater leeway by their charges because they showed a liking (and command) for their subject and a strong desire to know, just a few children through teaching. One of these leaders confided that she wouldn’t know quite how to use her working hours profitably if she didn’t teach a fair load. This Head was a grafter and rarely begrudged any extra time spent in the cause of her school.

Good heads also push themselves to ‘go to things’: sports matches, drama productions, art shows, visit summer camps, go on summer camps, concerts, trips educational and social…this puts them in good odour with staff, parents, pupils of course but they, doubtless find these experiences elevating – the buzz from being there.

The word on the street is that leadership is vital in any enterprise. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes – and they can lead, we are told from the front, rear or side. They can top-down or bottom-up; be desk bound or out and about; wear a bleep to scurry out of questionable break-out sessions (heads who wears a bleep are shouting: look how important  I am because anything that goes wrong back at base needs me to be alerted to sort things out) .They  delegate like mad to assistant headteachers  many of whom are in their twenties and have advanced too quickly so as to keep the staff turnover from melt-down. This denies the poor sods the chance to fine-tune their teaching skills because, having been made Heads of Year two years after qualifying, have continued upward so they now teach as little as the Head and attend as many conferences.  They too are too busy to run after-school clubs – or do they just convince themselves that they are too important?

So one type of executive breeds another and Ofsted’s obsession with a data-driven agenda means that the nouveau headteacher is less likely than ever to know the children in his/her school, never mind teach them.

For the school’s sake, for the children’s sakes, for your sakes – teach, just a bit. You know it makes sense.

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