Teaching Poetry

Ever since I retired from teaching I’ve been less and less keen to read about education. Government initiatives, cuts in funding, the failure to support young teachers - it always seems to be bad news. But here’s a book which changes all that, and is full of insight, commitment and imagination. I went to a workshop Kate Clanchy ran in Birmingham twenty years ago, and was really impressed. I’ve bought her three poetry collections since then, and read her novel. i had heard about her work at Oxford Spires Academy, where she’d helped teenagers from all sorts of backgrounds, none of them posh, write fabulous poems and win competitions. so now here’s her book about poetry, teaching poetry, teaching kids, being a parent choosing a school…everything you might ever have wondered about to do with education. It’s called “Some kids I taught, and what they taught me” and it’s the most inspiring book I’ve read this year. Get it from the library, give it to teacher friends for Christmas, donate a copy to your local school - it needs to be in as many hands as possible, as soon as possible - just wonderful.

A ruthless coup

When we saw the announcement of Boris Johnson’s success in the leadership election, he and Hunt turned to congratulate each other, and Johnson made a joke about Hunt’s good ideas, which he’d now proceed to pinch. Good mates, we thought, and although Hunt has reservations about Johnson he’ll do what many cabinet colleagues have done, and stifle his misgivings in return for a place in the cabinet.

Oh no he won’t. Because Johnson won’t be offering him a place in the cabinet that he’ll want to accept. There’s no notion of keeping the party together, healing woulds, representing different factions. It’s the hard Brexit dream team, with nobody there who might get in the way. Maybe the most extreme move is having Dominic Cummings as a senior adviser. To most people he’s the guru on the Brexit election, the maverick mastermind who gloried in the poisonous anarchy of that campaign, and by force of personality imposed a ferocious discipline on his part of the Leave campaign. His tactics, his slogan, his focus on targetted digital advertising were all crucial, and without him they wouldn’t have won.

But my memories of Cummings go further back, to his time in education. He was similarly rude and disruptive then, making a lot of enemies and steering through the Gove reforms, but that’s not an achievement to be proud of. The sustained insults to people working in education, and the abstract nature of the changes envisaged, ensure that there’s no positive legacy - just a record of damage and possibilities missed. Cummings might win Johnson the election for which he’s heading, but he won’t do anything for the lasting benefit of the country.

Birmingham Primaries

So many depressing stories just at the moment, but one of the worst is the sustained protests outside primary schools in Birmingham. so, which side are you going to pick? Muslim parents angry that their wishes are being ignored, or teachers trying to deliver a positive programme of health education to which they are required to be committed? It’s a tough situation, but nobody can seriously believe that it’s in the interests of seven year olds to have chanting crowds and placards outside the school gates every day. There’s serious beliefs involved, but there’s also some very nasty manipulation, and teachers getting nothing like the support that they need. Having watched over the years, I can’t help feeling we’re paying the price for decades of politicians looking for the easy vote, encouraging parents - and religious parents in particular - to believe that they can have the schools which suit them and their beliefs, and the teachers are stroppy incompetents who will just have to get into line. Now, just when we need a strong defence of the status of professionals, the value of experts doing complicated work, nobody knows or cares why that matters.

Hooked on History

There’s a lovely moment in the documentary about the making of “They shall not grow old” when the woman from the Imperial War Museum describes Peter Jackson’s decisive pitch - “I want to make something which will interest 15-year old kids in the First World War.” He said it, and he meant it, and the resulting collaboration is just stunning - old footage, painstakingly converted into colour, with sound effects added, plus a running commentary precisely selected from hours of recorded archives. There’s no central character, no personal drama, but if you were teaching this in school, this is the resource you’d want to have.

And then there’s Peterloo. Similar case, really. Important part of our history, often not taught, and certainly not taught in detail. Mike Leigh’s film was made for all the right reasons, and wears its heart on its sleeve, but there’s no way any teacher’s going to be showing this to their kids. It’s solemn, far too long and desperately one-sided. If the Prince Regent, the government and the local bigwigs are just going to be shown as “people in costume who don’t care”, why bother giving them screen time? We could have the marchers’ eye view, powerfully presented, in half the time. I wanted to like this, wanted to recommend it, but came out of the cinema bored and angry. .

The Joy of Teaching

No, not a phrase you hear a lot. I've just caught up with a long interview from Saturday's Guardian, in which Andria Zafirakou talks about her work as an art teacher in a Brent community secondary school. the kids are diverse and challenging - speak 35 languages, and many of them come from seriously deprived homes. But that's part of the attraction - she likes learning bits of their languages, trying to get them motivated, helping them overcome the obstacles they face. Great stuff, and familiar - I knew lots of teachers like that. She's not into lecturing them about their deficiencies - build up their confidence, make them feel some pride and enthusiasm, and then they'll be ready to learn. 

And why is she in the news? Oh yes. She's just won an international award for Teacher of the Year. These are the attitudes, the approaches, that people all over the world value in their teachers. Theresa May and government ministers have of course but running to congratulate her, despite the fact that she's the direct opposite of the kind of teaching that they encourage. It would be nice to think that her example might change their minds, but don't hold your breath.  

Stewart on Lawrence

A real TV treat. To accompany the TV showing of Gertrude Bell's Letters from Baghdad, BBC4 have put out two one-hour episodes of Rory Stewart talking about the legacy of T.E.Lawrence.  It's been gorgeous - some fabulous photography of landscape and architecture, but also a detailed, clear analysis of what was going on in Lawrence's mind, and why that might matter now. And it's all done by a guy who idolised Lawrence as a kid, and then explored vast stretches of the middle East on foot, staying in bedouin tents. But also by someone who at a ridiculously young age was a governor in Afghanistan and Iraq, and who saw the idioocy of occupation in heartbeaking detail. as his conclusion spells out, it's tragic that the American military are encouraging their officers to study Lawrence - because he's a winner at fighting in the Middle East - whereas Lawrence himself would actually be telling them "don't do it better; don't do it at all." 

This series is from some time back - it shows Stewart walking thoughtfully through a Damascus souk - but I can't think how or why I missed it. Yet again, thank God for catch-up. 

Getting Ahead

I have to confess, I smiled. I shouldn't, because it's a sad story for a number of pupils, and tragic for the guy at the centre of it, but there is still a strange symmetry about the story of Mo Tanweer, the deputy head at Eton who's just lost his job for handing over exam secrets to his pupils. Go on, guess what he used to do before he went into teaching. that's right. He actually was an investment banker.

Maybe he thought he was going into public service, paying something back for the riches he'd acquired. But you can be sure they were rubbing their hands. Just the kind of hot property they wanted to acquire, a guy at the cutting edge, who'd give them an edge, let them mark out their place at the front of the field. It was always one of the drawbacks of league tables, that they fired up the guys who like to be on top, to whom it's more important to bewinners than to educate the kids in their charge.  

Climate Change

Do you really need more warnings about climate change? asks Bill McKibben, as he calmly details the various weather events taking place in North America this week. And yes, of course, if you widen it to the whole planet it's far. far worse. As he knows. He's been warning about this for thirty years. But he manages to stay calm and focused, to mount yet again the unanswerable argument:

"Global warming is the first crisis that comes with a limit - solve it soon or don't solve it. Winning slowly is just a different way of losing. Winning fast enough to matter would mean, above all, standing up to the fossil fuel industry..." But that's enough. Don't take my work for it. In my paper version, it's on p.25 of the Guardian on Monday, 11 Sept. I'm sure you can find it online.

The fantasy world of SATs

Are you ready? Try this:

“The comma element of the semicolon should be correct in relation to the point of origin, height, depth and orientation. Where the separation of the semicolon is excessive, neither element of the semicolon should start higher than the letter ‘I’. The dot of the semi colon must not be lower than the letter ‘w’ in the word ‘tomorrow’.”   ( Guardian 11.7.17)

Not a far-fetched satire, but actual advice offered to markers of SATs for ten-year olds. Gove, in his infinite wisdom, decides it's crucial to get ten-year olds to spot where the semi-colon should go in an artifically constructed sentence. But just pinning the tail on the donkey isn't enough; the tail has to fit in with tight requirements, and must definitely face the right way. So tons of students who actually know where the semi-colon should go will end up not getting the mark, because their semi-colon doesn't match the examiner's ideal. if we were talking about monks illuminating manuscripts it would almost make sense, but every ten-year old in the country? 

Grammar Schools

I'm gobsmacked. I had Theresa May down as realistic, a tad dull but basically intelligent.  Her handling of the Boris Johnson problem looks quite shrewd to me, while her instant dismissal of the whole austerity thing (by totally ditching George Osborne) was positively refreshing. So what's she doing seeking to revive grammar schools? OK, so she has nostalgic memories of what they did for her, but does she not understand that a new grammar school means three new secondary moderns? Are there lots of parents and voters lined up who want to send their kids to secondary moderns? Last time we tried it, that didn't go down well.

On the other hand, the advice she's getting may not be the best. The leaked memo from her top civil servant says they're going to make sure it's OK, because they'll check with grammar schools heads on how to make sure that those rejected from grammar schools don't suffer as a result. I can hardly wait.  

Labour Education Policy

At last. I've been waiting fo r this for more than twenty years. Labour actually has proposals for education which aim at a comprehensive service - for all children (and adults), at all ages. It starts from child care and goes on to adult education, taking in restored maintenance grants on the way. It's not about opting out or choice or free schools; it's about provision for everybody's kids. Just amazing. 

I'm one of Tony Blair's few critics who don't think that the Iraq War was the worst thing he did. Of course, it was bad enough and it comes close. But for me the big mistake was to lose the chance - optimism massive majority, obvious damage from the previous regime - of establishing education for all as a basic principle. But Tony wasn't running a service. He was offering choice, to upwardly mobile metropolitan parents like himself, so let's invent endless new options which make headlines and further disrupt the system. Thanks, Tone.

So Corbyn's announcement is a real breath of fresh air. whether he can sell it to his MPs, let alone the country as a whole, may well be something else again. Watch this space.   

Arrogance in Education

Toby Young got it wrong. He swanned about the media, claiming that improving schools was a simple job, but he was arrogant because he underestimated the complexity of the task. That's not me talking. It's Toby Young, having the honesty to admit that his confident generalisations about raising standards weren't actually justified. It's good that he can admit this, but it hardly makes any difference, because the arena is packed with similar windbags who are sure they have the answers, but don't actually have much experience in how schools work.

If you said to a visiting Martian "Yes, we have experts who know about education, and have carried out extensive research, but they're not the people who are actually in charge of it" I think they'd say the Martian equivalent of "Huh?" and assume we were crazy. And we must be, to trust our educational system to the care of confident dogmatists with no first-hand experience.   

Janet Mendelsohn

Went to Birmingham for the day, for a whole-day programme of stimulus and chat, provided for free by Birmingham Unisersity. Grab it now, because the chance may not come again. It was centred on the photographs of Janet Mendelsohn, a young American who came to Birmingham in the sities, and took some wonderful photos of Balsall Heath. i will declare an interest. My son lives in Balsall Heath, and I went there in the sixties, as part of a week's workcamp centred on a housing survey of Varna Road - then famous as "the wickedest street in England" due to its thriving prostitution trade. Janet M become really friendly with one of the working girls, and took a whole series if photos of her, her pimp, her kids, and the surrounding area. They're close, warm portraits, by someone who feels at home and is trusted - not at all a fast raid by an outsider in search of sensations. On top of that, Janet M was friendly with Stuart and Catherine Hall (she gave a lovely brief talk remembering that), who were central to the Birmingham Centre of Cultural studies - community arts, including photography, all sorts of connections - which were also followed up during the day. And when I did my education year in 1966-7, I wrote a long essay about Education and the Mass Media, drawing heavily on the Popular Arts, a book co-written by Stuart Hall. Great photos, politics and art, and a heavy dose of nostalgia - a terrific day.   

Free for all

When he was in charge of education, Michael Gove used to go on about "the blob" - big amorphous system, with no character or distinction. How much better to have a range of shiny new academies, bright and thrusting,competing with each other to achieve excellence.

There's two news stories this week spelling out exactly what that costs us. First of all, we're short of teachers. nobody's actually minding the store, making sure there's enough teachers to go round. Schools are scrapping with each other, pinching staff, but no-ones actually in charge of the system as a whole.

And now today, reports that "thousands" of kids are being shunted out of schools, deliberately lost, because if they stay on the books they'll muck up the exam statistics. This was always the down side of the triumphant cries of "All our students get 5 A-Cs or more." The old O levels were never meant to be for every students in the country, but now schools feel free to just forget about the ones who won't do well in exams. Yet again, we used to have a system, but that was yesterday. 

Improving Schools

I like Michael Rosen, but I'm not always delirious about his regular "Dear Ms. Morgan" article in The Guardian. Producing one a week, he's sometimes going to be scarping the barrel, or sounding off about something which is true but unlikely to have any effect on the powers that be.

This week's, though, is different. He attackes the stahndard Tory notuion of a good school as one that blows local competition out of the water. Instead he offers the London Challenge, a communal programme of sustained mutual support which succeeded in raising the standards of all the schools in a locality. It's not rocket science. It's what m,any of us working in comprehensive schools in the 70s and 80s was the point of the exercise. But now, it's made to seem like the eccentric proposal of dreamers who couldn't possibly be allowed to influence policy. Will Ms. Morgan be listening? Probably not, because her chances of doing anything about it are thin, but I hope someone out there latches on, and starts to wonder if that might possibly be a more fruitful approach. 

Comprehensives, anyone?

Fascinating article by Kate Pickett in today's Education section of The Guardian, making the case for comprehensive education. Remember that? Everyone's kids get a decent education, and it isn't all about competition or selection.  Treated in the UK as a kind of wild dream, there are places which actually manage this quite efficiently (Finland, for instance) and the long-term gains are substantial - some can even be measured in test scores, though they don't go in for the luidicrous kind of testing we currently inflict on our kids. Pcikett's point is that there's good evidence for this substantial change. But she's only raising the possibility because Jeremy Corbyn sees this as a crucial part of social justice - and that hasn't been true of any Labour leader for more than 20 years. I remember. I saw it happen. And this is so exciting, even as a remote possibility. (No, I don't underestimate the massive forces of privilege and self-interest standing in the way, but it's still good to see the case made.)

Chris Woodhead

Finally, another Woodhead headline, which we all knew was coming. Having fought motor neurone disease with the defiant, individualist ferocity he brought to his other battles, Chris Woodhead has died. I briefly knew him, went out for drinks occasionally, when we were both much younger. And then as he rose in prominence, he became an intellectual enemy, potent figurehead of a campaign to slander teachers and distort the nature of education. Nobody now wants to know the details of all that, but he was an early rare example of a phenomenon we shan't see often, the celebrity inspector, and he encouraged people to believe in crude solutions to complex problems. I can't see a positive legacy in shining example, thoughtful publications or actual progress in schools, but he certainly knew how to woo the media. And on top of that there's the whole business of "the affair", which was important because it become the centre of a political campaign to protect his position and muzzle the press, but that's another, much longer story (which, as it happens, you can follow elsewhere on this website).

Picking up the pieces

One of the smaller stories in today’s paper was good news. Education secretary Nicky Morgan has pulled the plug on Michael Gove’s efforts to reform exams. so, a bit of the damage he set out to do won’t actually come to pass, and we must be grateful for small mercies. On the other hand, while he was rampant large numbers of educational professionals said that he was wrecking the system, but Cameron was quite happy to indulge him. In the bad old days, we asked professionals to work out the details of schemes like this, but now apparently we leave it to the amateurs and trust to luck.


Not a good thing to be. In the US, Obama recognised that they were really important and needed protection – but then he became President. Here, i doubt if our lot know that they exist. they’re had a rough time in the NHS, and now it’s Education’s turn. Today’s Guardian has an article about teachers who’ve seen bad practice in their schools, coursework being fudged or overmarked, so as to boost the school’s results. they’re reported it to the boards, but heard nothing. If there’s been punitive action, it’s been quiet, low key, tactful. As in, under the carpet. The appetite for challenging those in power is shrinking all the time.

Runaway Gove

It was clear to many people in education that Michael Gove was on an ego trip, unable to produce lasting reforms which depended on co-operation, and with a highly inflated sense of his own intellectual power. This has now been confirmed by Nicky Morgan, his successor, who’s understandably irritated by Gove’s inability to back off from his former patch. You start to wonder about Cameron, who only got rid of Gove because Lynton Crosby said he was an electoral liability. How on earth could he have allowed Gove to run free for so long? Doesn’t Cameron have any obligation to people working in education, let alone the actual kids?