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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!

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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

Want a job? Learn English!

29 May

These thoughts are aimed at those leaving school, university or are in unemployed limbo. All your qualifications – or lack of them – might count for nought if the way you communicate, particularly the written word, is poor. For more than twenty years I have pored over job applications and merrily tossed those with heinous errors into the bin. When I think about it, most errors are heinous. Poor spelling, punctuation and grammar can damn your application out of hand. Not tailoring your letter or CV to the particular employer and demands of the post will be dealt with similarly.

When you get ‘feedback’ on your failure to secure the job, employers will be vague. They want you off their backs and will, usually, trot out the sort of language which tells you nothing: very competitive field; choosing from a vast number of applicants and so forth. They will fight shy of saying, “Your spelling is shit, your grammar is worse.” They won’t complain that, ” You don’t know your apostrophe from your colon. Your ten GCSEs don’t own anything, nor have any letters been omitted.” Employers fear the race, gender, age, disability and special needs ‘hawks’ so they may well not tell the truth.

Even as I am writing I have had to resist the tendency to use numerals for numbers, even though this is acceptable for numbers over single digits. I have consciously avoided ending a sentence with a preposition, been sparing with metaphorical language, idioms and slang. And yet (note the conjunction) it is almost impossible. Check heinous, tailoring, damning out of hand, off their backs…and so forth. What I can claim is clarity. The written word must be precise, not sloppy; appropriate, not approximate. With the spoken word there is much fun to be had with inventive, metaphorical language – so long as those listening can unlock the code.

The teaching profession has managed the extraordinary number and variety of changes thrust upon it these last thirty years with skill, ingenuity and forbearance. Many of society’s problems are blamed on the formal education process rather (as they should be) on upbringing. One exception may be the teaching of English. I need not revisit the child-centred, ‘discovery’ debate; save to say that what we learn intuitively often needs a more formal explanation for us to make sense of it. This is true of language. I may  have been more lucky than I felt at the time  to have learned Latin to O Level and suffered the torture of clause analysis and regular grammar, punctuation and spelling tests. I was taught French in a pretty formal way too. Some of this education was akin to visiting the dentist – to be endured as a necessary evil but at least my teeth wouldn’t fall out the next year. If teachers in primary and secondary schools do not know the rules themselves, they will teach approximately not accurately. Most teachers of English couldn’t tell a gerund from a gerbil or a split infinitive from a split end. As for apostrophes – don’t get me started.

It may take more than a generation to correct the appalling ignorance of language which pervades the nation. By then it will be too late. America has overtaken us as the questionable guardians of English, which means the protectors of all that is American. They lead, we follow. Their IT and TV programmes determine our language.

What can the young job-hunter do about all this? One thing -get your letters of application and CVs right. Get them checked and, as you ease into your mid twenties and beyond, read occasionally about your language as well as in your language. Along with my favourites Sebastian Faulks, Ian McEwan, William Boyd and the rest I have, most recently found unusual pleasure dipping into Lynne Truss’ celebrated Eats, Shoots and Leaves and John Humphreys’ Lost for Words. Both books have been on the shelves a while but they are informative and fun. Anyone can enjoy and learn. My English master at secondary school, the legendary Ken Cripps, would open the lesson with, “It’s clause analysis today gentlemen. It will be very dull but it’s vital. I’ll crack a couple of jokes to keep you awake but if you fail the test you will have to come back at lunchtime.”

Almost anyone recognises elegant, accurate language and we invest qualities in its author beyond mere admiration of good written and oral communication. When we apply for jobs our language sells us. When we open our mouths, take up a pen or tap a keypad we reveal just who we are and how good we are.

Maurice Upperton

14 May

I arrived at Cuddington County Primary School, Worcester Park, aged six or seven and was dropped into Mrs Thorburn’s Class. New faces, little tables; feeling alone. Class 3, elder brother put in class 5.

Three weeks’ later promotion to Mr Upperton’s class 4. Mrs T had spotted something in me. Times table dynamism, no doubt. Astute woman – severe but astute. Mr U didn’t want a 35th or 36th member of the class when the uncompromising Head, Miss Iris Smith forced me upon him. He pouted like a spoiled child. A spare desk had to be found. I was placed in an alcove, separate. Not only was I new and a year young but now, also, in a recess. I felt odd. I was an inconvenience. Mr U was odd too.

Later, in class 7, our 11+ year, he was my teacher again. I have a stronger recall of this time. 1961. Mr U was a formal, suited man – usually brown or green tweed – quite dapper as befitted this neat little, pinched specimen. Half moon glasses over which he peered, perched on his nose precariously – his forefinger regularly prodded the specs back up to the safety of the bridge so he could relax into his piercing study of the individual under scrutiny. A decade earlier it would have been a pince-nez below his slicked Hitleresque hair. A strong but squeaky voive, a fob-watch running from lapel to top pocket (or on smarter days a waistcoat chain), a shiny dome and thinning hair, mirror-polished brogues which squeaked, not unlike his voice – are amongst many  impressions I retain of a man I didn’t like much.

He much preferred girls- their hard work, their general lack of interest in sport or being naughty, their desire to please. They fussed tirelessly over wickerwork and lino cuts, cried when they got the 15times tables wrong and pleaded for more sessions of country dancing. Boys he found tiresome. We didn’t have much time for him either – save for that lingering fear that smart, pinched, stern, controlled, neat, small men-with-strident-voices, can engender.

But. But…he could tell or read a story like no other. Most afternoons saw me tripping home in a glow of Huck Finn’s tribulations, Gladys Aylward’s heroics, Just William’s impishness and so much more. Uppity’s squeaky hectoring voice metamorphosed into a child’s aural delight as he navigated his way through the narratives: accents, gender and age-related diction, a brilliance of drama and timing, breath-holding and release – the story-teller’s power crackled across the classroom as we lay our heads. Occasionally I would be moved to glance up, intuitively knowing that it was the time to meet that extra grimace of expression, the edge of meaning that a facial contortion can give. Uppity rarely failed to satisfy.

For all his buttoned-up suits Maurice Upperton opened up new worlds each afternoon. Forty years later I met him at a past-pupils’ function. He was in his 90s. He didn’t remember me. His voice still squeaked. I still didn’t like him but his Huck Finn voice remains so strong in my ear.

William Butler Yeats 1865-1939. Wonderful Irish crackpot.

24 Mar

Of course William Butler Yeats was an Anglo-Irish crackpot:self-obsessed; into witchcraft and the occult; apocalyptic visionary for the future; incurable romantic; sometime stalker of the charismatic Maud Gonne. His dismay at the money-grabbing middle-classes was matched by his inability to reconcile the brutal heroism of the Easter Rising of 1916, in Dublin with his own deeply-felt nationalism.

And yet he revered the ‘terrible beauty’ of ‘MacDonagh and MacBride and Connelly and Pearse’ the shakers and movers of the IRA who died for their cause. His was a softer search for ‘Irishness’: in myth and landscape; art and drama; love and friendship.

Teaching Yeats is tough. His poems can be technical, enormously varied, romantic, indulgent; terse,dense; bonkers, impenetrable; uplifting, revelatory.  Getting to know him over time provides lasting pleasure, an unending and contrasting resorce of rythm and discord, warmth and bitterness, joy and disappointment. Above all, truth.

The sentimental romance and derivative poeticisms of his early poetry are, simply, arresting – often beautiful. Wandering Aegus of folklore myth searches life-long for his love, whom he has only once glimpsed – it’s a delicious, joyous search but always with hope:

Though I am old with wandering

Through hollow lands and hilly lands,

I will find out where she has gone,

And kiss her lips and take her hands;

And walk among long dappled grass,

And pluck till time and times are done

The silver apples of the moon,

The golden apples of the sun.

W.B.’s story is always at the romantic heart of these folklore musings. That means his unrequited love for Maud Gonne and, indeed, Ireland. He switches easily from things pastoral and mythological to himself.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made..

He sees himself as the fok-hero; a throwback whose Irish pulse beats out the tunes of the West of Ireland as walks the streets of London

….on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core. 

This ability to see the heroic as well as its tawdry opposite is at the core of Yeats’ greatness. Love and friendship are all; a vision of a better life – of the aesthetic, of time-honoured values; of a striving for what is  noble, honest  and of good report.

When I think of the fragility of young love my mind trips easily into  Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. Yeats’ unrequited love for Maud Gonne is captured in so many places and could provide an anthology for the lachrymose Kleenex brigade: The Pity of Love,The Sorrow of Love, When You Are Old, Never Give All The Heart etc ad infinitum. MG has a bloody lot to answer for. But it’s all lovely.  And the range of imagery surprises. The tough, near brutal, rhetorical love poem No Second Troy suggests that love for this passionate woman was inescapable for she had:

                                                    a mind

That nobleness made simple as a fire,

With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind

That is not natural in an age like this..

His great friend Robert Gregory, shot down in the First World War was loved somewhat similarly for a carefree, perhaps careless dynamism captured in the wonderful An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.

I know that  shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight  do note hate,

Those that I guard I do not love;

Here a timeless reminder of war’s absurdity but also the paradox of life, death, love, friensdships and fate which Yeats both embraced and wrestled with. He lost his best friend but his love for this noble renaissance man is enshrined in In Memory of Major Robert Gregory.

Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,

As ’twere all life’s epitome.

What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?

I think of bankers’ bonuses, of Carlos Tevez, of the murdered, innocent French schoolchildren; of British binge drinkers vomiting on the early morning streets our major cities (and elsewhere); of Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, rainforests and the arctic thaws. The extraordinary excesses and abuses of our lives have blunted the edges of proportion, decency, morality. We have bludgeoned ourselves into a hypnotic acceptance of what is – and our vision is blurred – even blinded – to what should be.

Yeats saw all this too. He hypothesises what Christ might find if he returned for a  Second Coming- indeed what sort of ‘Christbeast’ the early 20th century might have spawned:

And what rough beast,its hour come round at last

slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The poem has the image of a gyre, spinning out of control – civilisation seemimgly at its extreme, depraved limit – Things fall apart the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. It’s uncomfortably close to our desensitised world of acceptance of : greed,  environmental disaster, human suffering, conflict and war, religious disharmony and the unstoppable mantra of ‘grow the economy’.

Yeats was a celebrated figure of post partition Ireland – a senator, politician, eminence grise of the inter World War years. He, however, dwelt on his (and our) failings and, in so doing was both indulgent and achingly memorable. He was a grumpy old man, recognising that, An aged man is but a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick. But he loved his friends, his country and his values. These stand out in his poetry, often underpinned by a craftsmanship that was fine-tuned over a lifetime and needs more attention that this brief blog. As an old politician he chuntered:

How can I, that girl standing there,

My attention fix

On Roman or on Russian

Or on Spanish politics….

He concludes simply:

..O that I were young again

And held her in my arms

So while there was a continuing sense of disillusionment – even failure – finding its last expression in The Circus Animals’ Desertion – we are left with the sense of a rich life of energy and involvement and contribution. The declaiming last poem Under Ben Bulben is a typical call-to-arms:

Irish poets learn your trade

Sing whatever is well made,

He is passing the baton of purveying Ireland’s heritage through art and language to the next generation. He is sceptical that the challenge can be met by base born products of base beds but he set his stall out before the turn of the century:

Know, that I would accounted be

True brother of a company

That sang, to sweeten Ireland’s wrong,

Ballad and story, rann and song.

His dismay at what the world was doing to itself never overwhelmed him. He thought of that girl; he thought of Ireland’s ballad and story; he smiled at the thought of horseman, racing past his grave, no time to stop – just wave and ‘pass by’.

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