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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.

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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.

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.

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!

Education, education….

3 Sep

Watching Sir Michael Wilshaw Ofsted-speak his way through the Andrew Marr experience on Sunday sent a few shivers down my spine. Sir Mike has big credibility with his mate Mike Gove because he kicks teachers’ asses. The public secretly like this because it means their children aren’t to blame and they can rest easy in the sure knowledge that education way back when was so much better than here and now. It’s also true that anyone who talks of raising standards, doing justice for the youth of the country, reinventing ‘satisfactory’ so it can mean ‘good’  and so on, is going to find a nice soft chair of popularity to squat in for a while.

Add to this the confusions of the English GCSE debacle, the apparently unarguable news that we are sliding down the Maths and English world league tables and that 30% of school leaders are poor..and Sir Mike has plenty of ammo to arm his inspectors for fresh assaults on schools in the coming years. To this end we hear that inspectors will alight upon schools with only 24hours’ notice (big deal) and will focus almost exclusively on observing teachers ‘perform’ in the classroom.

Now here’s the issue. What is the difference between teaching and education? When I was trained as a teacher – at around the same time as Sir Mikey was going through his paces at St. Mary’s College, Twickenham – I learned about educational innovators who recognised the need to educate the whole person – this meant understanding the varied ways in which we can help children to grow – knowledge and skills, yes, but also the arts, sport, culture, service, responsibilities to society- respect, good behaviour.

Now few might feel moved to disagree with this  but  much of what constitutes good education is unrecognised by our inspection regime. Further, the game that a slavish reliance on attainment and achievement data has led schools to play has unbalanced young people’s perception of what we value in education and thrown society off the scent of pursuing much of what is valuable.

For example the notion that there is a template for a good lesson, a good teacher (and those of us in education have endlessly reinvented this wheel over many years of statutory training days) is hugely flawed. Good teachers build trust and respect in a variety of ways over time – and, crucially, have the knack of instilling trust and respect in their pupils. I once mentored a young teacher in her first year of teaching. She had skill with the interactive whiteboard, timed her 3 part lessons ( starter, main, plenary) expertly, wrote the aim of her lessons on the board just in case the pupils couldn’t work out where she was heading,  asked a few AfL (Assessment for Learning, aka ‘good’ ) questions and set the homework with time for any queries. Problem? The kids didn’t like her. She looked down her nose at them (and she had no right to because she wasn’t an Einstein herself) and they spotted it, of course.

The Head of Department was a less well-organised and, in Ofsted terms, a less effective teacher. But she liked children, was an expert who they trusted – and she ran trips and excursions galore: she gave of her time and was rewarded with trust and respect. She was an educator – that’s a teacher ‘plus’ and the plus is what Ofsted don’t see, don’t understand. There

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