Saturday, May 31, 2008

Layer 48 Eevnin Stannad, Standards, Evil Bastards.

News from Yahoo:

Astrologers Tell Nepal’s Deposed King To Stay In Palace.

Man Wins Compensation For Too Many Germans.

Michael Jackson ‘Incapable Of Performing Ever Again’.

David Beckham To Captain England Again

I’m giving up on the Guardian. Yahoo News is fucking hilarious. You couldn’t make it up.


Do newspaper vendors still stand and bawl, selling their wares on London’s pavements? I remember well the street cries of yesteryear: “Eevnin’ Stannad! Stannad! Ge’ Yoowwa Stannad!” How they echo down the years. Surely those guys don’t still exist?

I bought a copy of the Evening Standard at lunchtime yesterday. It calls itself ‘London’s Quality Newspaper’ and it’s a pile of poo. Always has been. Best avoided whenever possible. In normal times you wouldn’t want to stink your house out with it, but these are not normal times.

There it was yesterday, piled up on the counter of the newsagent, with the single-word headline ‘ENOUGH‘. Accompanied by a large picture of a knife, smothered with blood.

“Eleven teenagers stabbed to death in London this year. Children killing children. Today the Standard sets out our charter to beat knife crime.”

Interesting? How were they going to handle this? Well - for a start they had knife crime and their ‘charter’ all across the first seven pages, interrupted only by adverts for the House of Fraser, The Phantom of the Opera, Heathrow Connect and Air Berlin. Not bad.

But what about the charter itself? The new five point charter. Unsurprisingly they want more searches, more prosecutions, tougher sentences and compulsory therapy. But what’s this, at number 2? Something about education and ‘cultural change’? Hmmm.

Here it is in full:

2. Train children in “peer-to-peer mentoring” and use citizenship and personal, social and health education to teach the simple message: respect cannot be won at the point of a knife.

Education will be important to ensure future generations grow up without any illusions about the devastation knives cause — and with the skills to avoid getting involved.

Schools should focus on compulsory personal, social and health — as well as citizenship — lessons on teaching children about the importance of treating each other with respect.

But the responsibility goes far wider than schools to embrace every section of society — from parents to the media responsible for creating films, music and computer games that can influence young people's behaviour. The Mayor's advisers, among others, believe that investment in youth clubs and mentoring schemes, particularly for those excluded from school, are vital to divert youngsters away from crime.

On another level, Sir Alan Steer, the leader of the government's behaviour task force, urges parents to take greater control over the music their children listen to. But this culture change will take many years to achieve.

Compulsory PSHE and citizenship - right on. Cultural change. Yes. Many years to change. Exactly.

And on page 4 there’s more good stuff. Mayor Boris Johnson is “understood to be concentrating on the root causes of youth violence in order to improve the situation long term . . . ” “The Mayor’s Office is committed to putting in place measures needed to restore young people's sense of hope and engagement.”

Ray Lewis, deputy mayor for young people, said there was "no magic solution" but he would look at what was driving teenagers to violence in the first place.” He also said, “It is also imperative that we look at why so many young men, and increasingly women, are growing up angry and disengaged from society."

Deputy Mayor for policing Kit Malthouse (how many Deputies has this guy got?), said, “The long-term solutions to youth crime are complex and will require a wholesale cultural shift.”
Suddenly I feel the earth moving. People talking about identifying root causes of disaffection and aggression. People talking about offering hope and engagement. Recognition that young people are growing up angry and disengaged from society. People talking about the necessity for a wholesale cultural shift. Amazing.

And credit where it’s due. This is a Tory paper, and these people are part of the Tory team now running London. Maybe there’s hope yet.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Layer 47 Blair, Brown, Blunkett, Blinkers, Bullshit and Blindfolds.

Back home from the peace and quiet of Somerset. The noise levels here at home today are quite intolerable. This has been happening for the past 3 weeks, thanks to the water mains being relaid up and down the street, but today it’s worse than ever. There’s nowhere in the house I can go to get away from the racket that’s being created by pneumatic drills, cement mixer lorries, men shouting, drilling, etc. It’s incredible.

Of course the minute I write all this down they’ve decided to down tools and have a tea break, and there’s blissful silence, at least for a few minutes. To be fair this particular team seem to spend as much time off the job as on it. Which at least partly explains why the works have gone on for so long.

Right now there’s not even the sound of children over in the school playground because it’s half term. Summer half term. There are no major roads where I live, so for the next few minutes I’ll be able to enjoy blissful, peaceful silence.

I’m desperate to have my quiet street back again permanently. Throughout the six months prior to these water mains works commencing I had to cope with noise coming from directly across the street, where the school was being rebuilt and enlarged. The sound of lorries and vans arriving from very early morning, from earth-moving machines, diggers, cement mixers, dumper trucks, drilling, hammering, sawing - all of it was sheer noise pollution. Enough to drive someone like me, who values and loves silence, totally crazy.

I suppose I should be less egocentric and give a thought to the poor sods who have to operate the angle grinders and pneumatic drills, and show some concern for their health - their lungs breathing in the dust, their ears being battered day after day by the grinding and drilling they’re doing.

Summer half term, and the weather continues dull, overcast, cold, windy and raining. At least down in Somerset, where the weather was even worse, it was peaceful and quiet!


The War on Teenage Terror.

There’s yet more chatter on the radio about knife crime, and what we can possibly do about it. People yakking and blathering on about the shocking frequency of knife attacks and murders, and the need for teenagers to have positive role models, and adults who are consistent in what they say and do. So might that be consistent in their stupidity and cluelessness, just like the pundits?

Police Commissioner Blair says we need to talk about it more. Someone else says that knee jerk reactions may get some kids off the streets and locked away, but won’t solve the problem. And, errr . . . . that’s about it. Clueless.

This level of national discourse is appalling and shameful. Because all that people in power really want to do is tinker with the issues, apply sticking plaster to these running sores, and keep things pretty much as they are. The idea of a revolution, at least in consciousness, is very far from their minds. That’s the last thing they want - to have to think very differently about how we operate as a society.

At the moment they are incapable of thinking about and talking about what’s happening in terms of our national low levels of social, emotional and spiritual intelligence. They don’t even understand the concept of emotional intelligence, or emotional literacy as some prefer to call it. There’s no way they are familiar with the work of Goleman, for instance, let alone have any capacity to think about what an attempt to tackle these intelligences might mean in terms of the school system and indeed our national ‘culture’.

And yet a radical shift in our thinking and our ways of doing things is the only appropriate remedy for the trends that we see accelerating. It’s only a serious attempt to address the long term issues from the very roots of the problems that can possibly make any difference. Containment and punishment is not a solution or a policy that has any hope of success. And is this shift happening? Or likely to happen? Ha!


The Standards and Testing Debate.

Estelle Morris, whom I wrote some very positive things about last week, had a column in the Education Guardian this week, which was pure bullshit. Idiotic, useless waffle of the very first order. I regret having to say such things, because it provides yet more ammunition for the political opposition, but then I AM opposed to everything this wretched government has done and is doing to the education system.

Morris’s column was headed ‘Genuine Engagement on this Testing Issue’, and it was anything but that. A good friend had cautioned me last week about being so fulsome in my praise of Morris, when after all she had consistently supported the government’s SATs agenda, and still does. Well here she is, writing and saying the most absurd nonsense.

She begins her piece by saying, “It is very difficult to have a sensible debate about testing”, and then goes on to prove her point by making idiotic assertions that have absolutely no validity. Here’s what she says:

“There was a time when the dividing lines in the testing debate were quite simply whether we should test children or not. That battle has been fought and won. Tests are an integral part of school life.”

Well, Baroness, you ought to know that the rest of the world doesn’t see it this way. Scotland, for example, has never seen it this way. Wales has just abandoned testing. Are these people all stupid? Or do they perhaps have some legitimate claim to having a correct point of view? And if so, then in what sense has the battle been fought and won?

Here’s the good, decent and caring Baroness, still a parliamentarian, still a Labour party member, seeing the world entirely in terms of the narrow debate within England. And yet she must surely realise there are still thousands of intelligent voices in this country, an increasing number in fact, who completely disagree with SATs and summative testing as means of describing and assessing children’s progress and achievement.

What she really means, of course, is that the debate within PARLIAMENT has been fought and won, and that’s all that really matters. She’s into realpolitic. She sees the world in terms of pure political power, and sure enough our politicians are overwhelmingly in favour of SATs and therefore there’s no point in debating testing any longer. There’s nothing like enough opposition to testing within the main political parties and within parliament, so we might just as well forget it and move on.

This is how politicians operate. New Labour has never been about principle and taking a stand, or showing leadership towards some legitimate ideological goals. It's only ever been about narrow political calculation and appeasing the floating voters. The realities of power, yes indeed!

They had a landslide in 1997, and also in the following election, and a massive mandate for radical change towards the type of society we ought to be, and they didn’t know what to do with it. There are no philosophers within New Labour, only ambitious technocrats and power brokers. People who consider themselves effective and efficient managers.

But I digress. Back to Estelle, bless her.

“Teachers use the (test) data to raise the standards further.”
And then she selectively quotes from the estimable Mick Brookes, gen sec of NAHT, to back up her assertions, which is a typically New Labourish thing to do, and leaves a very nasty taste.

“Data”, Estelle? What fucking data? Data that tells us how well children cope with tests, which effectively tells us nothing about anything important. What teachers actually make good use of is not tests but formative assessment (continuous assessment) which steers their teaching from day to day according to how well children are learning from day to day, week to week. Responding to end of Key Stage data helps no child whatsoever! This is nonsense!

Perhaps Estelle should pay more attention to the likes of Melanie Phillips, after all. Tests are there to measure the performance of schools - and that’s it, as dear Mel P will gladly tell you. But they don’t even do that effectively. And what if they did? What if they really did tell us how well schools are processing children through tests? Is that what we really want to know - what we really care about?

All good teachers and all good schools have systems for tracking children’s progress that rely not a jot on summative testing. They assess them in relation to clear targets for learning, in terms of outcomes in learning skills, concepts and knowledge. This is how progress is really assessed - continuously. If you really want to assess and rank how well schools are doing, then you ought to start by finding out whether or not they have good systems for formative assessment and tracking progress against agreed learning targets and outcomes.

We even know which skills, concepts and knowledge they ought to develop in emotional intelligence and spiritual intelligence, and we know when children lack them, and no tests can give us this crucial information. Or any crucial information about children’s creativity, imagination and enthusiasm for learning. But then this government, and seemingly Baroness Morris, care not a jot for these things, and they don’t think parents do either.

But they’ll carry on wringing their hands about the crazy, angry kids on the streets and their culture of knives, gangs and guns. And they’ll carry on wondering what to do about these fallen children of the underclasses. And occasionally they may give a thought as to why our children in general are the most miserable in Europe, if not the world.

But will they ever do anything about it? Will they fuck.

Towards the end of her article Estelle tells us that it’s basically the decision of head teachers if their schools choose to restrict and narrow the curriculum and concentrate on teaching to the tests. She comes to the astonishing conclusion that if parents don’t want their children’s experience of school to be limited, restricted and impoverished, then they should speak up and say so.

And this is the most outrageous thing for her to have said. Having spent years battering it into the heads of parents (and teachers) that good test results are all that matters, and it’s through SATs tests that schools will be judged, for Morris to now turn round and say that maybe education should be about something wider and more important and maybe parents should speak up about this, and if they did then “I’m sure the schools - and the government - would respond” - this is pure evil. This is abdication of responsibility and refusal to take a moral as well as a principled stand on crucial issues.

This is someone who knows or at least suspects that children’s rights and well-being are being violated every day in most schools in this country, and that teachers and head teachers, in tough areas particularly (though not exclusively), are being driven to despair and beyond by government policy and the Ofsted regime, and she has the nerve to tentatively suggest that the decision to do something about it might rest with parents - that if they feel strongly enough about it then they have the power to change it!

She’s sure the government would respond? Yes - if there were to be a mass protest by parents on behalf of their poor bloody kids. But don’t expect the government to change anything for the better on behalf of the kids and their hard-working teachers just because it’s the RIGHT thing to do! Clearly that could never happen! Even if they understood what’s right for children and what ought to be happening in schools. Which they clearly do not.

It’s also ridiculous to imagine that this government will disown the policies it’s been pursuing for so many years, or expect them to recant all the reactionary nonsense it’s been purveying. That would be one massive U-turn too many. Which is why the way forward is in fact for this government to be given the bullet. In the hope that a Parliament with no overall majority might actually make a fresh start on looking at key issues anew, and having to argue and debate properly the issues that really matter.

I truly look forward to the day, which I’m convinced will arrive, when we emerge from our delusion and our collective madness and say what the fuck have we been doing to our kids all these years? And who’s to blame, apart from ourselves?

Who led us into this nonsense? Why were those children treated so badly? Why did they miss out on so much? Why were their childhoods so boring and impoverished? Why were they crammed and homeworked to within an inch of their lives? Why did they not come to love learning for its own sake? Why was their creativity and imagination so under-nourished? Why was their mental and emotional health so damaged? Why didn’t they learn to manage their emotions, and develop a sense of awe and wonder, and learn to value life itself? Why were their spirits so downcast and defeated before they even got going?

Step forward all those who really had a chance to change things from 1997 onwards. Step forward Blair, Brown, Blunkett, Miliband, Balls, and the rest of you. Yes, even you wee Jim Knight, and you Estelle. You were our ‘leaders’. On with the blindfolds.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Layer 46 The Best and Worst of the English.

The Best

I’ve said some pretty harsh things about England in my time, so this might be a good time to show some sort of balance in my opinions of our national life.

An English village can be a place of pure wonder on a day in the month of May. There are certain aspects of the English climate, the landscape, and the character of the people that have combined down the centuries to produce environments that are truly delightful.

Taking walks around my friends’ village this week it really struck me that there’s a visual, sensory and aesthetic richness that’s quite amazing. There’s unbelievable beauty in the buildings, their gardens, the natural flora and the way these elements combine within a relatively small place. It’s an environment that’s grown organically over the centuries, without any strategic planning as such, and it all fits snugly together in the most wonderful way.

First, there’s the stream that plunges down through the village from the moor, a stream that over the centuries has cut from the rock a steep-sided valley, in which buildings now cluster and nestle. The higher you walk, the more the sides of the valley draw together and the steeper they get, until the village abruptly ends with a single large house and its garden, right beside the stream, with immaculate lawns like the baize of a snooker table.

This property almost fills this top part of what is almost a ravine - and only a narrow track ventures around and beyond it, and makes its way further and higher, up into the woods and onto the moor.

The stream plunges over rocks and provides the musical backing track for your walk in this part of the village, splashing and gurgling its way down to the sea, about a mile away.

In this place the weather never gets so hot or so dry, or so cold, that it threatens the existence of the hundreds of plants that are to be seen here - both the native ones, like the silver birches and honeysuckles and foxgloves, and the strange and the exotic ones that the English went out and collected and brought back here from around the world.

Even on a dull day in May the colours combine in an amazing display of nature’s incredible palette. The lovely blues of the Californian lilac still abound here in May - much later than places further south and east. The yellow blossoms of the laburnum hang delicately here and there. The subtle lilacs of the wisteria, and indeed the lilacs, crop up frequently.

Trees are still in blossom everywhere. The cherry blossom season is over, but there is still white, pink and yellow blossom in abundance. The hawthorn is at its peak in May.

And then there are the shrubs. Pyrocanthus, rhodedendrons, roses of every colour, both standards and climbers, fuchias, and so much besides. Exotic shrubs I’ve never even seen before, alongside the common and garden varieties. We grow them because we can. Because we appreciate and adore their shapes, textures, colours, fragrances, beauty. This place is stunningly beautiful, not least because of the care and attention that has gone into planting and maintaining this variety of living things, down the years.

There are flowers all over the village. From the tiny ones growing wild in wall crevasses and between the rocks by the side of the stream, to clumps of irises, daisies, buttercups, etc, springing up everywhere. The daffodils and tulips are long gone, but their places have been taken by a seemingly infinite variety of others that avoid the frosts of the early Spring, but delight in these somewhat warmer days as Spring draws to an end.

There’s a proliferation of window boxes and hanging baskets, containing geraniums, pansies, violets, petunias, and a host of others.

Green! There’s a lush, fertile backdrop of every imaginable shade of green, everywhere you look. Grasses, hedges, trees, flowers, ferns, shrubs. Green - that speaks of the abundance of water, and of sunshine, but not too much heat or sun so that things dry out and turn brown or parched yellow. You can’t imagine things in this sheltered spot ever drying out. The surrounding hillsides are an unbroken mass of lush green canopies of trees in full leaf, climbing up towards the moors, clinging to their rocky purchases in the thin red soils.

Beyond the flora there’s the crafted and built elements of this environment, the products of our national imagination and creativity. The subtle and yet substantial houses and cottages that are gathered together in such neighbourly and intimate proximity. Their brick, stone, slate, wood and glass, in harmony and proportion. None of them trying to outdo their neighbours in any way that speaks of showiness or excessive pride in itself. Homes that are content to have two or three bedrooms, a cosy lounge and a kitchen. Everything that anyone needs for a good life, an equal place in the community. For here we are all equal, even if some are slightly more equal than others, as Orwell, a true English genius, would have it.

The village becomes a true community because of the buildings it shares, for all to use. And these too have their own beauty, and their own modesty. The main street of the village is where we find pubs, cafes, shops, galleries, tea rooms, guest houses and churches. All of these date from the early part of the last century, or the century before that, or even the one before that.

The best of the Victorian and Georgian architecture sets a standard that’s hard to measure up to for contemporary architects working to budgets that are either too tight, or in some cases too lavish. The English vernacular is all about substance, not show; modesty, not brashness. Its materials are for the most part local, and blend well into the landscape. They don’t try to dominate it, or stand apart from it.

The people here, like their buildings, the flora and the landscape, are calm, modest, harmonious, gentle, quiet, unassuming, warm and friendly. There’s a definite feeling that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, which is as true for the people themselves as it is for the environment that’s been created over the centuries. They live for the most part in a spirit of mutual appreciation, cooperation, trust and respect. They organise art shows, charity events, concerts and cultural meetings of various descriptions. They are proud of their community and participate in the events that help to bring people together.

The pubs serve the best cask-conditioned ales, good wines and tasty food. The staff are friendly and attentive. There’s an atmosphere that speaks of lives well lived, of relaxed joie de vivre and interdependence. Here, no man or woman need feel like an island. In the winter time and early Spring log fires blaze their warmth from iron grates.

In the shops people take time to show recognition, to chat, to banter, to smile. Yesterday there was a small queue lined up at the counter of a shop, clutching their purchases - wine, beer, newspapers, magazines, various foodstuffs. “You know the saying - anticipation makes it more enjoyable”, said someone cheerily, to a customer who’d been standing in the line for a couple of minutes. “I’ve only got tampons and toothpaste”, said the customer, pensively. “Pity it’s not condoms”, said the next in line, to the great amusement of everyone within earshot.

Oh yes, our English wit and humour. There’s another priceless national asset.


The Worst

I’m beginning to get very angry with politicians who claim they’ve been doing a good job for children, who like to polish their egos by saying they’ve been taking good care of young people. It brings to mind a routine by the brilliant American comic, Chris Rock. He berated parents who like to preen themselves by boasting “I take good care of my kids!” by yelling at them “That’s what you’re SUPPOSED to do, you idiots!”

This is what we need to say to politicians who boast they’ve spent millions on improving schools and opening more nurseries - “That’s what you’re supposed to do!”

To all the politicians who say they’re making sure more kids than ever are doing well academically - that’s what you’re supposed to do!

The question which then arises is, SO WHAT? What is it you’re NOT doing that you SHOULD be doing?

Do they now enjoy school more ? No.
Do they have a more positive attitude to learning? No.
Do they have more emotional intelligence? No.
Are they more creative and imaginative? No.
Do they read more widely and read more books for enjoyment? No.

Do they feel like they’re exploited and treated like pawns in somebody else’s game? Yes.
Do they resent more cramming for tests, having to take more tests and having to do more and more homework? Yes.
Do they feel more stressed and more anxious? Yes.

So what’s any of this got to do with taking better care of kids, as opposed to processing kids more efficiently through results factories? Nothing at all.

Which isn’t to say that lots of schools haven’t improved. But that improvement down to the efforts of the professionals in schools, not down to the amateurs, the career politicians.

When was the last time a politician came up with an original idea that could improve the lives of children? When was the last time a politician had a vision of something that could transform the lives of children and make them better and happier?

No, what politicians have done is convince even the educationalists that their job is to ‘prepare children for the world of work’. To convince parents that the way to judge a school is on its position in a league table. To convince teachers and head teachers that the only thing that matters is success in tests and exams. Or at least to make them fearful of the consequences if they can’t improve test scores and meet government’s arbitrary targets.

We used to be fearful of what would happen to the education system if it was governed by payment by results. Well we’ve got that, and we’ve also got a system that simply dismisses people if schools don’t meet government targets. And we’ve got an education service that’s allowed all this to happen to them.

I’m sick of it all, and it’s obvious that children are sick of it as well.

More of this tomorrow.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Layer 45 Voices, Time and the Floyd

This is a double blog, as I won’t have time to write one tomorrow.

Wonderful Radio 4 today featured a writer, a novelist, I’ve never heard of - Kate Mosse. The interviewer mentioned that Kate has created a very good website, on which she has a whole section of advice for writers.

He website also has very interesting interactive section, like a blog, where she shares what she’s doing as a writer whilst she’s actually working on a novel - the idea being that she gets feedback from a certain section of her readership as she’s writing her next novel, which affects the way she’s writing it.

This is pretty much what I’ve been saying to friends about my enthusiasm for blogging - if everyone comments on everyone else’s blog it really helps to generate new ideas, helps to refine your previous writing, etc. The interactivity is crucial.

I guess in years gone by when people had no telephones, let alone email, if they wanted to share their thoughts and their lives with good friends then they pretty much had to write letters - lots of them. These days we can just publish blogs - letting the whole world know what we’re thinking and doing, or just letting a select readership have access to our journals, and giving them a means of instantly feeding back.

I have several good friends who are good writers, though most of them have yet to officially publish anything. Some of them annoy the living daylights out of me because they are so talented and such good writers, and yet they make little or no time in their busy lives for blogging or writing a journal, or whatever.

They all recognise that the process of putting their thoughts into writing is incredibly enriching, like a meditation. And yet they don’t have the drive or the energy to do it, at least not regularly. Or maybe they don’t think it’s worth the effort, or maybe they have misgivings about sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings, and don’t see the point of keeping a journal that’s pretty much for their eyes only.

I’m now fascinated by the thought that the thing we might miss the most about somebody we don’t see frequently is their voice - meaning their unique perception, their take on the world, their way of expressing themselves, their sense of humour, their original thinking, and so on.

And the more I think about this the more I feel angry that our schools don’t recognise that this is the most important thing we can do for children - to help them realise that they have an individual voice, an individual take on the world, a unique perception, which they need to recognise and learn how to express to the full.

It’s all very well learning to enjoy the individual voices of great writers, through reading them as often as possible. But children usually take in an implicit message that only the voices of published writers are interesting and important and valid - i.e. their own voice is extremely unimportant and invalid. In fact they don’t even understand the concept of having an individual voice.

I remember coming across Harold Rosen’s efforts to address this issue back in the seventies, through his work as a secondary school teacher and researcher. And subsequently his son Michael’s continuation of this work, especially in books like Did I Hear You Write?

I remember my own time as a teacher, returning from a day’s outing with my class, and hearing them ask the dreaded question, “Do we have to write about it?” Well no, they didn’t. It took me only a few minutes to scribe on the board their recollections of the actual events of the day. What was the point of 25 - 30 children all writing a useless list of “We did this, and we did that; we went there, and we saw this, and we had our packed lunch . . . “

All that I asked of them, in return for a brilliant day visiting exciting new places, was to write down their individual impressions of their experiences. What was interesting? What was exciting? Funny? Scary? Puzzling? And then, having written their individual thoughts and feelings, their responses and their conclusions, they loved listening to one another read out their pieces. Lots of appreciation and laughter. Which then inspired another burst of writing - “Oh yes! I’d forgotten about that! That’s what I thought as well! I need to write about that!”

They soon learnt that what’s important in the process of learning is not so much recording the facts as recording their individual take on the facts, which is as true for a science experiment or the discovery of a new maths concept, as it is for a geography or history or art or geology field trip.

Being able to examine and reflect on our own unique and individual thoughts is a vital part of living and learning - about ourselves and about life in general.

It’s a waste of time being an individual human being unless we enjoy our individual humanity, and the individuality of others. Unfortunately our school system doesn’t care for developing children as individuals, and certainly not as individual writers, and it claims it has no time to do so, as it rushes each day to cover the ‘curriculum’ and prepare for tests.

A cracked record? Moi?


Time and the Floyd.

Last night was Pink Floyd night on BBC4. A whole evening of brilliant TV, and music, and without a single advert. Pure magic.

The story of the Floyd is a fascinating one. There are so many elements that make their story so unusual. They were a unique band to begin with, thanks to Syd Barrett. I hadn’t fully appreciated what a strange, wonderful, courageous, charismatic and brilliant human being he was in those early days, before he lost his mind. I hadn’t realized either how much his talented peers had loved him, and how much they had missed him, both personally and musically, after he’d gone off with the fairies.

His whole spirit was unique, iconoclastic, anarchistic. And the band therefore didn’t give a damn about fashion and trends and commercialism. Sure, they wanted recognition and appreciation, but not as individual egos. It was all about the music, and what they had to say about life, the universe and everything.

I remember well their early days - the incredible live shows they performed just after “Arnold Layne” - coming into the mod haven of Coventry Locarno on the back of their chart hit, and playing unbelievable spaced out music that was nothing like Arnold Layne and nothing like anything anyone had ever heard; playing in semi darkness, with a liquid light show projected over the entire stage.

The audience wasn’t stoned, as such, but it sure felt that way. I guess people either loved it or hated it. Either you got it or you didn’t. I guess quite a few of my mod mates might have been unhappy that it wasn’t an evening of Arnold Layne type ditties, and headed off to the bar. I didn’t really notice anyone else. I was too wrapped up in the music and the performance. These guys were the house band of the incomparably trendy and freaky UFO Club, for chrissakes. Not that I’d ever smoked a joint, let alone taken LSD.

Arnold Layne, though untypical, was itself a great song. I still have a pristine 45 rpm copy of it. Such wry humour, such a strange thing to write a song about. Someone’s strange hobby. Collecting clothes. Moon shine, washing line. A see-through mirror. "He dug it". Lyrics and a tune you could never forget.

That was the beginning of a lifelong fascination and appreciation, right through to my current enjoyment of David Gilmour’s ‘On An Island’, and his band’s brilliant performances of ‘High Hopes’ and ‘Comfortably Numb’ on the DVD. Nobody else plays and sings like that. The Floyd completely stole the show when they invited Roger Waters back to perform at Live8 in Hyde Park in 2005. Which would have happened with or without Waters.

Their very early stuff, though immature and relatively amateurish, on account of them being non-musicians (apart from Rick Wright), was totally original, totally off the wall. They maintain, perhaps a little tongue in cheek, that they weren't good enough as musicians to copy or imitate what other bands were doing, so they didn't. Following Syd's example they weren’t afraid to experiment, and improvise, and jam. Their gigs were all about improvisation and jamming. Nobody had ever seen or heard anything like it. And this was before Dave Gilmour joined the band.

By the time I saw them in Manchester in 1969, at a college gig, they were on their way to becoming megastars, and Gilmour was a well-established member. The light show was projected all along one side of the hall by now, as well as all over the stage area. They had well and truly mastered their instruments, and the stage was filled with their gear - a huge drum kit, amps, speaker units, even kettle drums and a gong.

Their catalogue of tracks by now included Astronomy Domine; Careful With That Axe, Eugene; Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun; and A Saucerful of Secrets. All of which are immortalized on the great live album recorded at that Manchester College of Commerce gig in June 1969 - Ummagumma.

Coincidentally I was also at the first ever live performance of Floyd's Atom Heart Mother at the legendary Bath Festival in Shepton Mallet in 1970, but that’s another story.

I also remember standing in the amphitheatre in Pompeii in the mid ‘80s and picturing the Floyd playing there, performing the amazing track Echoes from their album ‘Meddle‘, in Live At Pompeii. They showed clips from that last night on the TV, including shots of them strolling around the rim of Vesuvius, which is indeed an amazing experience. Awesome!

You can get a flavour of the film from the comment on the youtube video, posted by StripeyElephant - "Holy fuck this is the best thing I've ever seen."

My own favourite part of it is the middle section, where the camera tracks slowly around huge menacing black stacks of speakers - studying an unbroken black wall of speaker units, with protruding horn units looking like military grenade launchers, about to lob sonic bombs around the deserted amphitheatre. Roger Waters' bass thunders and throbs its incessant pulse

Dugh ga buh ba - ba dum
Dugh ga buh ba - ba dum
Dugh ga buh ba - ba dum
Dugh ga buh ba - ba dum

followed and accompanied by Gilmour's howling, wailing, pleading guitar; soaring and wrenching your spirit, demanding you go with it to some otherworldly place in his emotional universe, accompanied by Rick Wright's vibrating rotating wail of electronic organ and Dave Mason's precision drumming and splashing smashing cymbals. I still find electrifying the moment when Gilmour first cuts into the bass drone with the nastiest bluesiest most jagged chord imaginable, whipped into some previously unknown sonic dimension by his incredible mass of electronic gadgets and effects.

(There may be little point playing this video unless you're able to pump it through a good sub-woofer setup or some good headphones)

You may like to know that, according to an old book of mine about guitar players, Gilmour used to use (pre digital and Midi) an effects board consisting of a Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face, an MXR Phase 100, a Dynacomp noise gate, a Uni-Vibe, a Pete Cornish Custom Fuzz, a Jim Dunlop Cry Baby, and three sweep pedals. "This new state of the art board had sophisticated revolutionary switching capabilities - each effect could be individually by-passed or configured in any sequence, and there were three outputs for various amps." On the other hand, this may be too much information.

The centrepiece of last night’s broadcast was a documentary about the making of Dark Side of the Moon, which is now seen as their magnum opus, and which they are quite rightly extraordinarily proud of.

It was so interesting to find out that it was made in the Abbey Road studios, pre-computers and digital recording, and the sonic effects were all done on an early sequencer and using tape loops set up on banks of reel to reel tape players. Of course! And of course nobody else had ever tried to work in this way. Nobody else was so experimental and innovative.

Roger Waters’ lyrics might now be viewed as typically ‘angry young mannish’ (as he does himself), but he was able to encapsulate perfectly in words what so many of us were feeling in the aftermath of post-60’s disillusionment - feeling about materialism, about the rat race, about the lack of sanity in the world, about militarism, about mortality, about religion, and about ‘hanging on in quiet desperation’. Lyrics that were not wordy, lyrics that were economical and evocative and precise.

The programme told the story of how Clare Torry came to perform her incredible improvised wordless vocal over Rick Wright's brilliant ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’. They described how their old mate Dick Parry was invited to play his wonderful sax pieces on ‘Us and Them’ and ‘Money’. They also told the story of how the strange rambling voices and the manic laughter were specially recorded for the album.

I first heard Dark Side of the Moon lying beside a log fire in a darkened room in the house of a VSO teacher in Northern Nigeria in 1973. In the context of the time, and having just a week ago emerged from the Heart of Darkness, so to speak - from the jungles and rivers of Zaire and Central Africa - it was an unforgettable and mind-blowing experience.

Just listening to some new music on some good quality hi-fi would in itself have been mind blowing after all the time I'd been without it, after all those weeks of traveling across the Serengeti, through the mountains of Rwanda, and along the mud roads of the central African rainy season. Coming into contact with the Dark Side in those circumstances was a breathtaking sonic culture shock and mind-fuck of the first magnitude.

Dave Gilmour says in the documentary that he only wishes that he’d been able to have the experience of hearing the album for the first time, from start to finish, completely ‘out of the blue’. Well Dave, I can tell you, listening to it in its entirety in the stoned darkness of an African evening in front of a flickering log fire was spine-tinglingly overwhelming and incredible. And for that, many thanks.

It says something for the quality of the documentary and the strange brilliance of the band and their music that even my son, no lover of rock or the sixties or psychedelia, sat with me and watched it all through, even though he was dog tired after a double shift at work. There’s hope for him yet! He’s a wonderful young man, but has a lot to learn about music, which, by the way, he seems to have stopped listening to. He’s reached a hiatus. The day he plays and enjoys one of my precious vinyl albums on my turntable I’ll know he’s getting fully on message and fully on track.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Having just re-listened to 'Careful With That Axe, Eugene', I'm still amazed by the insane power of Roger Waters' diabolical screaming, and recall vividly the effect of it during live shows. Thrilling, scary and and somehow liberating. I didn't realise at the time that you were allowed to be so full-on crazy and anarchic in public - so utterly emotionally over the top. If you were standing close to the stage it was as disturbing and disorienting as witnessing The Who smashing their instruments.

Sure, it was wild and anarchic and pointless and childish, perhaps. But then isn't this what art is supposed to be about, at least some of the time? Delving into our innermost darkest thoughts and feelings, and expressing them, in words, images, colour, movement and sound. As I say, a kind of liberation.

It's interesting that Michelangelo Antonioni was so determined to have this track in 'Zabriski Point', and I well remember what a controversial movie that was when it was first released.

And going back to Romeo and Juliet (see Layer 31) there an interesting image in Romeo's response to being told "From Verona thou art banished" -

"There is no world without Verona walls,
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.
Hence banished is banish'd from the world,
And world's exile is death; then 'banished'
Is death misterm'd. Calling death 'banished,'
Thou cutt'st my head off with a golden axe,
And smilest upon the stroke that murders me.


One final thought, Let Pink Floyd be an inspiration to all fledgling musicians and writers - don't be put off your desire to be creative and expressive by a lack of technical training and know-how. Don't worry about not being able to do what others can do. Do your own thing, create in your own way using whatever skills and abilities you have, and enjoy whatever you do. Be original and then you can't be judged by conventional standards. Start a new genre of your own perhaps. And the more you do it the better you'll become.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Layer 44 Eyes and Ears of the Community

Here’s the latest from the government, and from Beverley Hughes, the children's minister, on tackling teenage gangs and violence:,,2281394,00.html

"There is a false dichotomy that schools are there to provide education only, and not for the welfare of the whole child. If they don't tackle these problems they are going to compromise educational objectives. Where there is a culture of fear and uncertainty in a school, it is something that not just the school, but youth services and police have got to grapple with.

"It's not schools taking this on alone, but they are in the unique position of being the eyes and the ears of the community; they see young people everyday." She added that areas had been identified where schools were being heavily affected, including London boroughs, and inner-city areas including Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham. "It's very localised in these areas ... for some schools this is a big issue."

Pretty breathtaking hypocrisy really. Here’s a government made up of a group of ignorant, arrogant politicians that has done its best to turn schools, especially in inner cities, into miserable results factories, and they’re suddenly concerned about the welfare of “the whole child”!

Welfare! They mean they want schools to provide them with intelligence on the kids they suspect are violent gang members, since schools are assumed to be the ‘eyes and ears of the community’. Snoops. Spooks. Grasses.

“False dichotomy”? “Educational objectives”? Whose? Not mine, pal. My first educational objective is for kids to enjoy being in schools where there’s a stable, settled and well motivated staff who put the well being of the child at the very top of the agenda. Which is not happening. What they mean is they don’t want bullying to get in the way of swatting and preparing for tests. They’ve bullied teachers into bullying the kids into doing more homework, more ‘booster’ classes, and more ‘literacy’ at the expense of the broader curriculum and their enjoyment of school, and now they’re worried about bullying.

Culture of fear and uncertainty”? It’s this wretched government that has created a culture of fear and uncertainty in staffrooms up and down the country, in our inner cities especially. Fear of the league tables. Fear of Ofsted. Fear of the Year 6 children not getting their Level 4s.

Uncertainty? No-one’s certain any more what the fuck they’re supposed to be doing. It seems they shouldn’t be providing “education only”, but on the other hand we’ve been bullied by people who insist that getting those Level 4s and GCSEs and getting the schools up the league tables IS the only thing that matters.

Only now it isn’t. Schools have to get those government targets, but they also have to be the eyes and ears of their communities. And we all know what the crims will do to anyone they see as a grass. This is nonsense.

Of course schools should concentrate on education, and of course teachers should be educationalists, first, foremost and above and beyond all else. They should concentrate on the education of the whole child, and not allow themselves to be operatives in results factories chasing meaningless and counterproductive government targets.

They should be helping children reach their full potential in every aspect of their development, which means in terms of emotional intelligence, social intelligence, spiritual intelligence, instinctual intelligence and physical intelligence, as well as academic intelligence. If we sort out these intelligences then by and large we won’t need to concern ourselves with providing the police with intelligence.

I once had a teacher who reluctantly agreed to take a Year 6 class but did so on the sole basis that she would not compromise her beliefs about providing a broad and balanced curriculum that developed all of each child’s various intelligences and encouraged creativity, imagination and a love of learning. Not that I was trying to get her to do otherwise - but she recognized the way things were going, in most schools. If only all teachers were strong enough to take a stand, and stand up for the rights of children.

Personally I have no issues with cooperating with the police where it’s clear that there’s criminal activity taking place. I don’t want the crims to get away with their activities, and I don’t want them hurting and bullying other kids.

But neither do I want idiot politicians and idiot bureaucrats to get away with their efforts to turn all schools into soulless results factories at the expense of real education - the kind of education that helps to prevent angry and disaffected kids from hating school, hating teachers, hating themselves, just hating . . .

Personally I’m sick to my soul with a nasty, soulless system of schooling that exists mainly for its own sake and its own survival, and cares not a jot about the criminal underclass and its sick children. And I’m sick and tired of the fact that so many schools exist only for the more able children, and for the purpose of reaching academic targets.

Teachers are not trained to develop the intelligences that stop kids getting into trouble in the first place. We have geography teachers, literacy teachers, teachers of science, teachers of maths, and so on. We don’t have teachers of children because we don‘t train them to meet the real and urgent developmental needs of our children.

We don’t educate children - we school them and we cram them and we haven’t a clue how to instill in them - especially the less academically able ones - any liking let alone love of learning for its own sake.

Teachers are entitled to tell Beverly Hughes and her ilk to fuck off and only come back when she’s persuaded her Cabinet colleagues to start showing some caring about real education and stop wittering on about their targets and driving up standards, to start showing some understanding and caring about the real needs of children and their families.

It’s incredible that in a supposedly civilized and enlightened country we’re still so ignorant about how to deal with the causes of madness and violence, and how to prevent children going off the rails. It’s unbelievable that we go on trying to ’drive up standards’ at such a cost to children’s well being, and we cling to 19th century paradigms as to what education is all about. “Give these children facts” indeed. It’s infuriating that we sow the seeds of disaffection and violence, and then try to crack down and punish children when they can’t cope, can’t control their fear and anger, and simply crack up.

We should be ashamed that we tolerate poverty and its effects on children and families. The only correlate of low achievement is not skin colour or class or gender or inexperienced teachers - it’s poverty.

But schools can make a difference, in the long run, provided they are allowed and encouraged to be places where children feel valued and happy and where they enjoy learning. English Primary schools used to be renowned world wide for being such places, by and large. But not any more.

English children are now deemed to be the least happy of any in the industrialized world. They struggle with childhoods that are toxic, and they grow up in schools and neighborhoods where their basic human rights are threatened and denied. Life for children in this country has been getting steadily worse, not better. Their quality of life has diminished, even if their test scores have risen, thanks to more and more drilling, rote learning and cramming.

We should all feel thoroughly ashamed. We should all be like that young teacher and from now on take a stand. From now on we should do what’s right by children, not do what’s right by a fucked-up, inhuman and ridiculous system.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said yesterday "The reality is that schools are an oasis of morality in a world that does not otherwise give many young people guidance and role models of good citizenship." Mr Dunford’s being a little optimistic if he imagines that there’s any substantial “guidance” taking place in schools. It takes a lot more than “guidance” to develop high levels of social, emotional and spiritual intelligence.

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "Something needs to be done. Schools aren't just dealing with the culture in schools, but in the culture of the wider community and culture of society.”

The problem is that everyone knows that ‘something needs to be done’, and many of us know what it is that needs to be done, but the people who have created our current system of education with its regressive and repressive and ignorant approach to ‘driving up standards’ patently haven’t a clue what needs to be done, they aren’t capable of listening to those who do, and they aren’t about to do a U-turn and admit they’ve been getting it wrong all these years.

They want quick fixes and they want to tackle the symptoms of the sickness we see all around us, increasing day by day. They're not in the business of finding cures for the causes of the sickness. They’re so far from enlightenment it’s laughable.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Layer 43 Having A Laugh

One of the benefits of retirement from headship is the intellectual stimulation that’s suddenly available, and accessible, and very, very enjoyable. I love my days being filled with conversation, books, newspapers, music, the Internet and Radio 4.

Ever since head teachers were bludgeoned into the role of bureaucratic functionaries who just do as they’re told - who just exist to ‘drive up standards’ - they were no longer required to think about the needs of children and teachers, and they were no longer allowed to be alternative centres of thinking about pedagogy, teaching and learning. Their independent action research into how to improve attitudes to learning, to reading, to mathematics and science, etc, was no longer welcome, and in many cases no longer tolerated. Talk about ‘Leaders of Learning’!

Teams of ‘experts’ had devised the National Literacy Strategy, for example, and the role of the head was to ensure the strategy was implemented in their schools. So no more nonsense about holistic learning, reading and writing across the curriculum, the integral role of speaking and listening, genuine purposes for writing and research, a sense of audience for creative writing, and so on. No more rubbish about children enjoying school, or developing a love of learning.

Al of those strands of thinking now had to be abandoned, and the teachers were to be directed to do whole-class teaching and decontextualised and meaningless exercises to practice ‘grammar for writing’, ‘connectives‘, adjectival phrases, and “wow words”! Not just a return to ‘basics’, but a kind of turbo-Victorian approach to children learning by rote to operate within the dominant culture.

These are the intellectual depths to which teaching was supposed to descend - the idea that good writing consists of long sentences full of ‘connectives’, multi-syllable words (whether or not the children fully appreciate their meaning), fancy descriptions, and the kind of vocabulary that may be quite common in some middle class homes but certainly isn’t in the majority of working class homes, where, incidentally, the language is nevertheless, more often than not (because not all of the working classes are thick and ignorant, you see) vivid, lively, colorful and witty. It also tends to be concise, direct and appropriate.

I used to despair of teachers who started out in their careers, and often went through their entire careers, thinking that working class language and expression was inferior and unfit for purpose. I well remember a snooty teacher that I had for ‘A’ Level French who hated the Midlands accent that was prevalent in my school and scolded us for our ‘lazy’ and ‘slovenly’ pronunciation, and for our ways of speaking. I remember asking myself why I should have any respect for this self-made toff (RIP Mr Hottot) who clearly had no respect for (or understanding of ) me and my vast extended family, my friends and my neighbours. I felt a very real need to give him at least a sharp verbal slap, but of course I also wanted to get through my French exam.

The only thing I remember learning from this guy was the word ‘palimpsest’ (See Layer 1). He obviously loved the word, and thought it made him sound educated and terribly bright when he used it. The second time he tried to teach it to us he started off by asking our small group of ‘A’ Level hopefuls (only half of whom passed the exam) if we knew what it meant. When I told him the meaning he asked me how I knew it (!), and was somewhat taken aback when I explained that he’d already introduced us to the word - the previous year. It’s still not exactly a word that’s always on the tip of my tongue. I reckon I could get through life without it.

I’ve known plenty of teachers (and head teachers) down the years who had a built-in conviction that non-standard English needed to be driven out of the classroom and replaced with ‘correct’ English. They found it very hard to come to terms with the idea that if the community they work in has its own modes of speech, its own local grammar and syntax, and its own vocabulary and pronunciation, then it was perfectly entitled to have those things, and entitled to resent any teacher whose attitude was elitist, snobbish and discriminatory.

It seems incredible to me that as part of their basic training young teachers aren’t made aware that their job is to validate and show respect for children’s current usage of language, and to work towards children becoming aware of ‘Standard English’ and ‘Received Pronunciation’, and to be able to use them appropriately when any situation requires it, such as in tests. (Though one might argue that examiners have no right to penalise any child who chooses to write in the vernacular in a test.)

Teachers who see themselves as missionaries, or elocutionists, who descend on working class communities with no respect for the local culture and a determination to impose their fundamentalist beliefs about speaking and writing on the children they work with, and attempt to make the children feel ashamed of their community languages, accents and dialects, should be sent packing. To the contrary, the system goes on encouraging them in their self-appointed role.

However, I digress. All I’m really saying is that the life of head teachers in the current climate is intellectually stultifying, and the biggest challenge on offer is to learn how to work the system and survive in their job, whilst dealing with a daily diet of problem-solving, administration and supervision that is hardly very intellectually stimulating the first time around, let alone the 10th or 20th.

Not that most heads are looking for intellectual stimulation, of course, but wouldn’t it be NICE if the education system offered them some possibilities and encouragement to think at a high level about what they’re actually doing to and for children. Like, for instance, providing for all the developmental needs of children and enabling them to grow their emotional, social, physical, instinctual and spiritual intelligences, as well as their intellects. The system still doesn’t promote intellectual development and critical thinking, of course - just memorisation, fact acquisition, and test-passing ability.

And as for developing curiosity, creativity, imagination and a love of learning for its own sake - you’re ‘avin a laugh!


Football - the great working class pastime cum plaything and business opportunity for oligarchs, tycoons and rich scumbags from around the world - available free on ITV last night (if you don't count the cost of the brainache adverts): the Champions League Cup Final, live from Moscow. Manchester United v Chelsea.

Football’s become a bit like language really - once the humble property of ordinary people, but lately colonised and now ‘owned’ by those who like to consider themselves the elite, the good and the great, who consider they have the right to make the rules and to impose the terms on which it’s practiced and enjoyed.

At least this is the case in funky old Britannia, where no-one has any qualms any more about selling their souls and their assholes to the devil, or the Murdoch corporations, or Sky TV, or whatever. Mass culture in Britain is increasingly the BBC v The Rest. The People’s Media v Commercial Interests.

Which is why just a few hundred thousand ‘subscribers’ can now watch Test cricket live, or most football matches live, instead of the millions of people (children included, since they also have ‘rights’) who would like to, and indeed feel they ought to be able to.

Though there are increasingly few members of the populace who were brought up on the notion that everybody - regardless of class or financial means - has the right to share in the riches of our national cultural life: even humble street sweepers, shelf stackers, labourers, child minders and others on minimum wages and part-time hours, who may not have two pennies to rub together when all their bills and taxes have been paid.

(They don’t pay Income Tax? Well they DO pay near enough 20% VAT every time they buy a bog roll or a pair of shoes or a pen or pencil. Which means they pay proportionately more in tax than middle class folks, who in any case are able to afford accountants who show them how to avoid paying tax. So stick that in your anti-egalitarian pipe and smoke it.)

Interestingly the football clubs of Spain and Germany are still at least 51% owned by the fans themselves, joined together in ‘sporting associations’. (Was this the origin of our ‘Association Football’? I’ve never really thought about it.)

In those countries they have maintained a member-owned tradition and a commitment to allow young people to experience being football fans in some of the finest stadiums in Europe. They still have ‘affordable’ prices for entry - 100 Euros can still buy you a ticket for the entire season at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.

Well that’s where a political tradition of anarcho-syndicalism gets you, Mr Scudamore, Mr Abramovich. But you’re not really interested in that, are you? It’s just noses to the trough, as far as you’re concerned. And those that can’t get near to the trough can just fuck off as far as you’re concerned.

I just wish Bill Hicks, who was satirizing the shit out of commercialism and its domination of cultural life, 20 years and more ago, was still around with his courage and his explosive wit and his insightful wisdom. I miss him badly. He was a good man. He made me laugh - like no-one else ever did, or probably ever will again.


You can read David Conn’s excellent column on the state of football, its finances, and the impact of the ’free market’ on the national team, in yesterday’s Guardian.

As for the match last night - it was brilliant. As it would have been had the players been ‘earning’ less than half of what they currently gorge themselves on. As it would have been had Barcelona and Bayern Munich been able to afford those particular players, and been in the final instead of Glazer’s United v Abramovich FC.

Well done the Uefa president, Michel (Liberty, Fraternity, Equality) Platini, for continuing to draw our attention to the fact that the success of the top English clubs has been “built on an unsustainable level of debt which, in all fairness, is distorting the level playing field in Europe”. In all fairness, I reckon they should just kick us out of Uefa.

So don’t laugh about the German teams not doing well in the Champions League any more. At least Germany insists on keeping football as the people’s game, and keeping live football affordable. It’s not the decent and egalitarian social-democratic Germans who are the nationalist neo-fascists these days - it’s us.

We‘re the ones who consider ourselves entitled to all the power, the prestige and the glory, at any cost. To ourselves, (our own people, our own game, our own national team,) or others. (Yes folks, I can bring politics into anything, even Uefa and the Bundesliga!)

Though by all means have a damn good laugh that there aren’t any decent German footballers any more. Over the years I think they’ve had more than their fair share of luck and good fortune. The wheel of fortune has certainly turned, in more ways than one. So sorry Herr Ballack - you were the only German in the Final, and you were crap. Your glory-seeking off-target shooting from free kicks and from miles out of range was rubbish. You were having a laugh.


PS John Terry is a wuss. Fucking hell, man. You just missed a penalty, that’s all. I can’t feel sorry for you. Think of all the money you’re earning. Fuck the glory. Fuck your ego. I’ll save my pity for the poor fuckers who can’t afford to get into Stamford Bridge, and will never be able to afford to watch you and your vastly over-paid pals kicking a football, except on a screen, of course. Down the pub, maybe. The few that still remain in working class Britain, that is, and can afford a pub license for Sky.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Layer 42 Results, Results, Results.

I thought I’d said all there is to say about SATs and testing, but Anne Atkins was back on the subject on Today’s Radio 4 Thought for the Day.

Nothing new or original, really, but more emphasis being given to what a futile, nasty and destructive business it all is. She spoke about how education was originally seen as something that was for the benefit of the individual, and learning was just for learning’s sake, and for the sake of the students - not for any other purpose.

She said that we’ve come to believe that every talent can be measured, which is clearly nonsense. Even the believers in SATs don’t believe that, unless they’re complete morons. The mad satters try to maintain that SATs are just a routine, low-key, end of key stage procedure that needn’t take up a lot of time and energy -which is downright dishonest and stupid, to say the least.

Anne, on the other hand, was keen to make the point that love can’t be assessed, and neither can being a good parent. Nor can ‘character’. She concluded that any quality that can be weighed and measured is not much more than that.

I just wish I could believe that this steady chiseling away at the nonsense that we currently take to be real education is having any impact on the thinking of the people who have been promoting the system we currently have in this country. I still seriously doubt it. They embrace it like a religion, and in the absence of any inclination to properly debate an intelligent rationale for our system they will go on clinging to their fundamentalist beliefs.

The stupid tendency will go on parroting their idiot mantras - “We need to drive up standards . . . Too many children are failing to master basic skills . . . We need to prepare children for the jobs market . . . There is no excuse for failure . . . SATs are just 5 days of testing at the end of a key stage . . . We need to measure the performance of schools and teachers . . . High standards are not incompatible with enjoyment of school and a rich curriculum.” Bollocks - all of it.

The problem with these fuckwits is that they have no concept of what life is really like in schools where there is no critical mass of able children, and no experience of the problems of running schools where there are huge issues with the recruitment and retention of able and well-trained staff.

They have no understanding of the impact of government directives and strategies, and an Ofsted regime that cares only to analyse spurious data. They have no clue as to the way in which school managers and governors are demoralized and terrorized into turning their schools into results factories, and to hell with the wellbeing, creativity and enjoyment of school of millions of children, both the able and the less able who struggle to cope with the rigid demands of the system.

Crime and Disorder

Half an hour before the Anne Atkins piece, and also half an hour after it, there were reports on the huge amounts of money that have been spent on locking up young offenders, and on the excessive use of custody and criminalisation, with no measurable impact on crime reduction and prevention. This is the big news of the day, according to the BBC. We lock up a much higher number proportionately than any other civilized country. The cost of this custody has been met from moving money out of the education, social services and housing budgets. We’re spending £280m a year on locking up our criminal youth, and £24m on crime ‘prevention’.

Hasn't it occurred to anyone that we need to spend more money on both education and rehabilitation, as well as on better housing and proper community policing, and less on being the best friend of the USA in its imperialistic adventures and its 'war on terror'? It's a similar issue really - first you make people angry, and then you bash them over the head and put them in detention for expressing their anger in the only ways they know how.

Why are we not rehabilitating our young offenders? Why are we not reducing re-offending? Why are crime prevention measures not working? Duh! Why are we still asking these dumb questions?

Let’s go through this again. We take money away from the education and the developmental needs of young people, from work with families, and from community development. We alienate more kids by providing an education system that cares nothing for the real well-being of children - an education system that causes them to be competitive, stressed, depressed and angry with the system that brands them as failures or also- rans, which of course is what most kids are, according to our system of grading and measuring.

We take away their enjoyment of school. We pay no attention to developing children’s crucial emotional, social and spiritual intelligences. We don’t give a damn about developing creativity and imagination, let alone caring, loving and enjoying life - every minute of every day.

We drill them in classrooms where the emphasis is on competition rather than collaboration and cooperation. We reduce opportunities for creative interaction and conversation. We never let them play and learn in situations where they need to develop skills of cooperation and dialogue, where they’re allowed to work out their own problems, rivalries, jealousies, with minimal intervention from adults who know them well and are concerned to develop their individuality, and are well trained to do this.

We spend virtually no time on developing their understanding of concepts and vocabulary around human values, morality and ethics. We never let them ask questions about real issues. We give them no understanding of philosophy, let alone experience of Socratic debate and dialogue. We give them no time for proper reflection or meditation.

We drill them and regiment them and dress them in uniform. We give no encouragement towards individuality, let alone encourage them to develop their unique human ‘voice’. We exclude them from activities they genuinely enjoy, and we remove any notion of learning through play.

We exclude them from school for petty breaches of discipline, including not wearing the approved shoes and socks. We exclude permanently the less able (who are going to mess up the school’s statistics) at the first possible opportunity, often on the flimsiest of pretexts.

And we wonder why they turn out to be anti-social, angry, unable to exercise self-discipline, bitter, resentful, depressed, psychopathic and thoroughly fucked up. And that’s just the ones who do well in SATs and GCSEs.


Children and families cope with their lives and make something of themselves in spite of, not because of, the pathetic systems of education and social support that we have in this increasingly materialistic and nasty society we’ve been creating since the beginning of the Thatcher-inspired counter-revolution against progressive values and social democratic politics.

If children and young people don’t turn out to be basket cases it’s primarily down to their own resilience and spirit, and the support they get from loving parents, and some very caring teachers who do right by them in spite of excessive work loads and demands for treating the kids like units of production.

Brain-washing the kids into conformity and willingness to cram for tests, and to do ever-increasing amounts of homework from the age of 5, is now the name of the game.

The education system is a mess, and everyone knows it, though virtually no-one is willing to admit it. It’s architects have been people like Thatcher, Baker, Blunkett, Woodhead, Barber, Blair . . . and Adonis! And now we have Balls and . . . Jim Knight! Hurrah!

The only decent Secretary of State for Education we’ve had in the past 20 years, the only one with any experience of teaching (in secondary schools only, admittedly), the only one who spoke from knowledge and conviction and from the heart, without briefing notes, has been Estelle Morris - and she resigned because the system was beyond being steered by a single individual in a proper progressive direction, and it was doing her head in. At least that’s my take on her demise.

Coincidentally she was a student in Coventry (at the College of Education, where I went to many a disco, in spite of not being a student there myself) at the same time as me, graduating a couple of years after I did. I like to think that teaching in a Coventry comprehensive school did her a power of good, at least in terms of seeing real life and real working-class kids and families from the perspective of a class teacher. Coventry was the first city to adopt comprehensive education and build new comprehensive schools. The one I attended was on a large green-field site, the first in the country, and was totally brilliant, apart from the odd teacher, like the one who tried to teach me to speak German for 5 years. And even he wasn’t a bad old boy.

Individual schools may do well by their kids in spite of the system, not because of it. The system does not encourage doing well by the kids. The system does not care about the kids. Not really. The system cares about results.

Results. Results. Results.


This is what Polly Toynbee had to say about Estelle Morris at the time of her resignation:

She never played the Westminster game. She spoke gently and intelligently, made reasoned arguments persuasively. Anyone who heard her fine speech in Blackpool - the best and the best received of the conference - knows that she has done herself a grave injustice, fatally colluding with her thuggish attackers. But in a state of meltdown, people do and say the wrong thing. "There! That proves it! She couldn't take the heat," says Westminster. Why should she - or anyone else?

Some say her unwarranted insecurity springs from her own failed education, failed A-levels and a retreat to a teacher training college at the age of 18. School failure - at 11 or 18 - often does scar for life. Even those who rise above it later can find that in adversity and under stress, lacking the false affirmation of paper qualifications, they buckle under the illusion that they are essentially stupid and will be "found out", as they were at school. (As an 11+ failure with one A-level, I should know.) People retain a mystic faith in old exam results or in the snap judgments of school reports, dogged by lazy character assassinations for the rest of their days. That is why education should always try to praise a child's talents, not brand it with failure. These things she knew well, and it made her a humane politician and a good education minister.

What made her job unendurable was the perpetual interference of Downing Street's bright young men, filling the prime minister's head with their not so bright ideas. She was never in favour of the spread of yet more faith schools. Nor was she in favour of anything that smacked of a return to selection at 11.


The Dalai Lama is in the House.

Visit the following page for details of what religious nutters can be like when they fall out with one another. Talk about spiritual intelligence!

“A Buddhist group on Tuesday announced plans to picket public appearances in Britain by the Dalai Lama, accusing him of restricting religious freedoms in his homeland and among exiled Tibetans. The Western Shugden Society, a branch of Tibetan Buddhism that reveres a god denounced by the Dalai Lama since 1996, said demonstrations were planned outside Britain's parliament and at several other locations on his 11-day tour.”

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Layer 41 National Treasures, Great Thinkers and Failed States.

There are some things that we Brits have to give ourselves credit for. Electing a socialist government in the aftermath of World War Two. Setting ourselves against any form of fascism. The creation of a national health service. The BBC and the concept of public service broadcasting with a mission to ‘inform, educate and entertain’.

On television over the weekend it was possible to watch the following on free terrestial channels:

The FA Cup Final (never mind that it was a rubbish match with a John Motson commentary so predictable, dull and boring that it’s not surprising the BBC have had the FA Cup broadcasting rights taken away from them. They should have given Motty the boot some years ago.)

Have I Got News For You. (Hislop & Merton - national treasures) (BBC)

Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain. (BBC)

The Comedy Map of Britain. (BBC)

Wild China. (BBC)

Doctor Who. A special Agatha Christie edition.(BBC)

Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures. (BBC)

Coast (BBC)

Russia: A Journey with Jonathan Dimbleby. (BBC)

Bremner, Bird & Fortune. (National Treasures) (Channel 4)

The South Bank Show: Gore Vidal. (ITV1)

Various movies, including a TV premier of Brokeback Mountain (a dismal, depressing film if ever I saw one.)

All of the above (- a single weekend’s output) with the exception of the movies, are made in Britain or made by British companies shooting in China, America, etc, - an incredible creative effort that adds enormously to the culture of the nation. This is something we have a right to be proud of as a nation. I have no time for people who moan about there being nothing on TV worth watching. The fact that we can now access Catch Up TV On Demand is something else worth celebrating.

Not that I have anything against the best of American TV either. Down the years there have been some amazing programmes - too many to remember. Twin Peaks. The Simpsons. ER. Murder One.The West Wing.

Though nothing can ever surpass our very own Green Wing, which I miss very badly.

The BBC did very well to recruit Andrew Marr from the Observer, though I really miss seeing him in print. A friend’s son, who is by no means politically sophisticated or astute, happened to see him on an interview programme and remarked that he should be Prime Minister. Too good for that, I’m afraid, laddie.

His History of Modern Britain is a masterpiece of clear, concise and well-judged historical analysis, made vivid with some very well chosen clips from the film archives, which carry the viewer along and maintain interest throughout. Superb TV.

Melvyn Bragg is another national treasure, who has contributed to the culture enormously down the years, making very few dud programmes either on ITV or BBC radio. We will just have to forgive and forget his madness in making a programme about the pathetic and laughable ‘The Darkness’ - possibly one of the silliest bands of all time.

Gore Vidal, born on my daughter's birthday and a Libra Ox, is one of the USA’s national treasures. Bragg’s programme on him this weekend remarked that at 83 he’s the last surviving member of a brilliant generation of American writers - with Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer all being sadly departed.

Vidal makes the point that the USA’s education system (like ours) kills curiosity. He says you can no longer meet interesting 16 year olds who have real individual voices, whereas at the age of five or six they still do.

The New York Times for years tried to persuade readers not to read Gore Vidal or Norman Mailer. Vidal still feels that it’s possible to have a positive impact on society through literature and fiction. His instincts are to still to ‘intervene in the affairs of a sad country’.

He’s old enough to remember America in the time of the New Deal, pre neo-conservative America, in the era of liberal intervention and federal policies to reduce poverty and unemployment. The era before the USA’s spending on ‘defence’ went completely crazy. He spent decades living in self-imposed exile in Italy, but he’s still a great patriot, in that he still believes in the ideals of America’s Founding Fathers.


Andrew Marr’s programme quite rightly gave a heavy emphasis to John Maynard Keynes, who was a brilliant economist, a liberal interventionist, and an incredible guy. He literally worked himself to death on behalf of Britain trying to persuade the American administration to give proper support for reconstruction in Britain in the aftermath of World War Two.

What did the Americans really think about a Britain governed by Socialists? Why did they play such hard ball over financial help? It was pretty obvious they wouldn’t have wanted State socialism to succeed in Britain - national health service and all. They still don’t, but then neither do New Labour. We’re living in the American Era all right.
Read more about Keynes at:

The last book by Gore Vidal that I bought is ‘Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace’ (How We Got To Be So Hated - Causes Of Conflict In The Last Empire) [2002], which should be on every student’s reading list. The Guardian’s review of the book called Vidal "the most elegant, erudite and eclectic writer of is generation". The Times said, "There is no one quite like him, and if you do not know his work, you should".

Melvyn Bragg is quoted as saying, "Vidal is the outstanding literary radical of America". The Observer said, "Vidal’s combination of learning, wit and disdain gets into your blood. He can change the way you think."

So some Quotes from Vidal:

"Our rulers for more than half a century have made sure that we are never told the truth about anything our government has done to other people.

[Our government] masterminded the killing of Lumumba and Allende; and it unsuccessfully tried to put to death Castro, Khadafi, and Saddam Hussein; and vetoed all efforts to rein in not only Israel’s violations of international agreements and U.N. resolutions but also its practice of preemptive state terror.

George Bush booms, "Either you are with us or you are with the Terrorists". That’s known as asking for it.

His predecessors also assiduously served the 1 per cent that owns the country while allowing everyone else to drift.

Clinton, in his frantic pursuit of election victories, set in place the trigger for a police state that his successor is now happily squeezing.

We are no longer even remotely the last best hope on earth but merely a seedy imperial state whose citizens are kept in line by SWAT teams and whose way of death, not life, is universally imitated.

Once we meditate upon the unremitting violence of the United States against the rest of the world one begins to understand why Osama struck at us from abroad in the name of 1 billion Muslims whom we have encouraged, through our own preemptive acts of war as well as demonization of them through the media, to regard us in - how shall I put it? - less than an amiable light.

These guardians of our well-being have sternly, year in and year out, refused to allow us to have what every other First World country simply takes for granted - a national health service.

At the first suggestion that it was time for us to join the civilised world, there began a vast conspiracy to stop any form of national health care. It was hardly just the "right wing", as Mrs Clinton suggested. Rather, the insurance and pharmaceutical companies combined with elements of the American Medical Association to destroy forever any notion that we be a country that provides for its citizens in the way of health care.

Although drugs are "immoral" and must be kept from the young, thousands of schools pressure parents to give the drug Ritalin to any lively child who may, sensibly, show signs of boredom in his classroom. Ritalin renders the child docile if not comatose. Side effects? "Stunted growth, facial tics, agitation an aggression, insomnia, appetite loss, headaches, stomach pains and seizures."

For Americans morality has nothing to do with ethics or right action or who is stealing what money - and liberties - from whom. Morality is SEX. SEX. SEX.

This is just plain old-fashioned American stupidity where a religion-besotted majority is cynically egged on by a ruling establishment whose most rabid voice is The Wall Street Journal.

More than 50% of the national budget goes for war. Fifty years ago Harry Truman replaced the old republic with a national-security state whose sole purpose is to wage perpetual wars, cold, hot and tepid.

Representative government of, by and for the people is now a faded memory. Only corporate America enjoys representation by the Congresses and presidents that it pays for in an arrangement where no one is entirely accountable because those who have bought the government also own the media. Now, with the revolt of the Praetorian Guard at the Pentagon, we are entering a new and dangerous phase.

Although we regularly stigmatise other societies as rogue states, we ourselves have become the largest rogue state of all. We honour no treaties. We spurn international courts. We strike unilaterally wherever we choose. We give orders to the United Nations but do not pay our dues. We complain of terrorism, yet our empire is now the greatest terrorist of all. We bomb, invade and subvert other states.

Our Congress has been hijacked by corporate America and its enforcer, the imperial military machine. We the unrepresented people of the United States are as much victims of this militarised government as the Panamanians, Iraqis, or Somalians. We have allowed our institutions to be taken over in the name of a globalised American empire that is totally alien in concept to anything our founders had in mind. I suspect it is far too late in the day for us to restore the republic tat we lost a half-century ago.


This theme of the USA behaving like a rogue state is taken up by another great American writer and thinker, Noam Chomsky, in his 2006 book, ‘Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy’.

The book’s blurb says, "Offering a comprehensive and radically insightful examination of America past and present, Chomsky shows that this lone superpower - which topples foreign govenments, invades states that threaten its interests and imposes sanctions on regimes it opposes - has stretched its own democratic institutions to breaking point. And how an America in crisis places the world ever closer to the brink of nuclear and environmental disaster."

Gore Vidal is a great thinker whose family background and circle of friends have given him intimate connections with the highest levels of government, so he has every right to see himself as an ‘insider’ with a clear understanding of how power operates in the USA. Noam Chomsky, a professor of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT, was recently named the number one public intellectual in a poll by Prospect magazine. We, and the people of America, ignore these people at our peril.

But as Gore Vidal says, truth-telling can drive people crazy.

(note to Wikipedia - dreadful spelling error in web address!) Gore Vidal - www - well worth watching


Monday, May 19, 2008

Layer 40 Driving Up Standards

As a teacher I have to say there’s nothing finer and better in life than seeing a good teacher inspiring, motivating, enthusing, enabling and leading children towards a lifelong love of learning for its own sake.

But there’s nothing worse than seeing a poor teacher boring, frustrating, dulling, demotivating and turning children away from the whole idea of schools and learning, and making their lives hateful and intolerable.


The final word on SATs week. The Today programme on Radio 4 did a final review last Saturday. Some points from the programme:

“Our teachers pushed us really hard.
Children were crying and shaking
Year Six is all Sats - and no creative subjects.”

And the teachers said:

“We assess every half term, so we know where the children are anyway.
League tables are just there to judge the success of the school.
The purpose of the test is to judge the school.
We need to test a broader range of achievement
There is a tremendous amount of pressure to do well in the tests.”

And in response some dumb arse defender of the tests said,

“The SATs just amount to 5 hours at the end of six years.”

Totally refusing to see that the tests distort the teaching and the curriculum on offer. 5 hours! Incredible. They just don’t want to be in the least bit honest about the pressure to constantly practice for the tests, and the fact that most schools have felt a need to change their culture, to work for test scores rather than to meet the real developmental needs of all children and all of their intelligences.


Why the hell would children want to be in a school where they have no interest in the curriculum on offer, and where they get bored, frustrated and alienated every day? Would you, as a parent, want that to happen to your children every day? Of course not.

Would you, as an adult, want to put up with a working life where you get bored, frustrated and alienated every day? Maybe you’re reading this and saying, “That’s exactly what I do”. So why do you do it? “Because I need to earn money!” I hear someone say. So you do it for the money? Fine. Do children get money for putting up with such a life? No. So why should they?

“Get real!”, people are shouting. “Learning isn’t about self-fulfillment and having fun. Learning can’t always be interesting. Besides when kids have passed their exams they WILL be able to earn decent money! That’s why they have to go to school!”

Really? Well maybe that applies to your kids, though you might want to consider that all children learn best and achieve more where the curriculum is relevant, when they have some say in what and when they learn, and when the learning is lively, interesting and motivating.

Is it not reasonable to expect schools to work in this way? Or do you just want schools to go on cramming kids for tests as their key objective, the thing on which they will judged and measured?

Besides, the children most at risk are those that know they’re never going to be ‘competitive’ when it comes to tests - the ones who recognise that their forte, though they may have other (and perhaps more meaningful) strong points, is never going to be their ability to perform well in academic tests. In which case they will never be competitive in the market for the kinds of careers they require exam passes at high grades for them even to gain entry to college courses. At least that’s the way the world looks to them. Though they may feel differently later in life, in which case they can resume studying for exam passes, etc.

Frankly the world looks a pretty bleak place for kids who like to cooperate rather than compete, who like to create and imagine, rather than regurgitate in tests after remembering ‘facts’ and ‘concepts’. For kids who know that they can, in any event, find the things they’re interested in on the Internet, so what’s the point in cramming it in school?

So who can blame kids who refuse to spend their lives doing meaningless things, being hectored by unsympathetic teachers, being disciplined for not wearing the prescribed naff school uniform, being told that only black lace up shoes are acceptable in the ‘Academy’. Academy? Pah!

Who can blame kids for wanting to spend their days riding bikes, playing in the parks, walking in gardens and beside rivers and streams, exploring the woods, hanging out in libraries where they can please themselves what they read, watching TV, watching films, listening to music, and so on. Does any of that sound so terrible?

There is a middle way, even with our current system and its crying need for a learning revolution, and finding that way involves making schools at least tolerable and enjoyable in parts for the less academically able, and indeed the academically able, who are not, after all, stupid and recognise that the pleasure of doing well in tests cannot cancel out the precious time and effort that's wasted in grading and testing children, rather than continuously assessing, with the students' involvement, whether positive, realistic and mutually agreed learning goals are being reached.


Another hot topic of news today was that “Children could trigger a full Ofsted inspection if they say they are "bored" or unhappy at school under new plans.”

So here’s another big stick to beat the schools with! It’s been going this way for a while, to be fair, though. We’ve known for some time that having driven schools to narrow down their curriculum and do more cramming, the government and Ofsted would eventually turn round (when middle class parents, for example, started complaining about their kids’ fucking boring schools) and tell the schools that high tests results alone are no longer enough - the kids mustn’t be bored either!

And woe betide any school that thinks it can now start making learning interesting BEFORE HITTING THE TARGETS FOR SATS AND GCSE’S!!! There will be no changes to the target-setting, testing and Ofsted regimes, you can bet on that. What we have here is an add-on demand to those that are already established, and kept there by the Establishment. Duh Management.

So now, inspectors will ask children and parents whether the learning on offer is boring, and then zap the schools where the answer is yes. A qualitative survey, followed by a bureaucratic response. It’s no better than the previous system. It’s actually worse. Not only does the system not trust the schools and teachers, it will now positively encourage the whistle blowers in its “relentless efforts to drive up standards”.

And how come Ofsted hasn’t concerned itself before now with children’s actual experience of school? What’s going on here?

Stand by for a whole raft of resignations from school managers and teachers who have just had enough of the hypocrisy, the unreasonable demands, the confused priorities, the reversion to Victorian practices, the whole anti-child culture that has as its highest priority “preparing children for work” - for a working life of dull obedience, and conformity to ‘standards’.

No wonder our society’s fucked, people are continuously over-stressed, more and more children and adults suffer from mental and emotional illnesses, more and more murders and violent incidents are happening all around us. So much for driving up standards.