Sunday, August 31, 2008

Layer 72 Oxford, the ‘Credit’ ******, and Obama.

Fog in August - today’s morning outlook. Thick fog at that. Followed by rain before the morning was even half way through. Well at least it got rid of the fog.

It was predictable really - that yesterday’s fabulous sunshine and warm temperatures, coming on top of endless damp and dreary weather, would result in fog once the cool, damp stuff returned overnight.

Oh well, mustn’t grumble. At least we had a wonderful sunny day for our outing to Oxford yesterday, so that my academic friend could visit this strange city and have a busman’s holiday.

Oxford Town, around the bend,
Come to the door, couldn’t get in,
All because of the colour of his skin,
Whadda ya think about that, my friend?

(Bob Dylan, Oxford Town)

Actually it was more like the colour of our money that was at issue, preventing us from getting into the various colleges for a tourist’s eye view of those famous temples of academia. What’s a few gold coloured coins from a few hundred tourists to the college authorities, when they can rake in a few thousand quid for each private wedding party that they book for the toffs and the nouveau riche who are wealthy enough to thereby turn what are (or should be) essentially public premises into exclusive private premises for their poncy wedding parties?

So there we were, having driven 60 miles, coming across college after college closed for weddings. At one point, I think it was St John’s College, I pleaded with an old porter guy to let us at least just go through into the courtyard, if that’s what they call it, to take a couple of photos for two minutes since it was obvious the wedding hadn’t even begun to assemble. Having grumpily allowed us to do that, the bastard then had the nerve to come out of his little piggy den to chase us out after exactly two minutes. God knows what foreign visitors make of all this. Imagine going to visit some world heritage site elsewhere, like a Buddhist temple complex or the Taj Mahal, and finding it closed to the hoi polloi because it’s been booked for a bloody wedding.

And it’s the sheer exclusivity of places like Oxford that make people like me so depressed and angry. It’s not there for the masses - of course it isn’t. We have to pay to even look at it, and even then only when the moneyed classes haven’t reserved it for their exclusive use. And as for becoming a student there - we know that the place is packed full of effete little twats, admittedly the swatty little twats, who have right of access because mummy and daddy could afford the best schools, the best teachers, and the best private tutors for extra cramming. Of course there are some very brilliant kids who come from the moneyed classes, but not enough to fill Oxford and Cambridge. So the places fill up with the not brilliant but swatty and privileged rich kids.

Not that I’d want to go there myself, or want my kids or my grandkids to go there - not unless one of the colleges changed its admissions policy and allowed in only students who could prove they had at least one parent who’d earned a living doing a regular working class job for at least a year, and therefore understood what it’s actually like to be poor and insecure and to have to struggle to get by. In fact priority for admissions should be given to students who have themselves worked in a low paid job for at least a year, and because they needed to, i.e. were not just doing it as a ‘gap’ year. Though a year spent on a volunteer project in a third world country would also stand them in good stead.

My ideal college would also prioritise students who had a thorough knowledge of rock, blues and soul music, and a decent amount of ‘world’ music - because, well, it’s important to be able to relax and socialise with your fellow students from time to time, and it’s important to have an appreciation of the finest and most spiritual music the planet has produced.

Credit would also be given for having a working knowledge of Zen, an understanding of how mainstream religions undermine and get in the way of real spiritual intelligence, and ability to dance without looking like a banana and a prat. Ability to sing and play some blues and rock would also count in your favour, especially if it had been developed without the benefit of mummy and daddy’s private tutors.

Evidence of high levels of EQ and SQ would be particularly welcome. In fact what we’re talking about is being able to establish that you’re a properly rounded human being, and not just a one-dimensional exam-passing machine, in which case you definitely wouldn’t get a place and would be sent off to somehow, somewhere, get real.

Ah yes, you say, but these elite colleges are very expensive to run, and need to maximise their incomes. Which is why so many student places are reserved for foreign students who pay the full whack, and thereby reduce even further the number of places available for ordinary Brits who attend a state school. So it all comes down to money in the end.

To which I say, the country must make up its mind to ensure that allowances are made for privilege, and therefore to discriminate against all those who have had the greatest amount of privilege, and discriminate in favour of all those who have shown they not only have first class brains and motivation but have also have had to deal with the least amount of privilege.

And yes, this will cost money, but it’s money well spent if the end product is an investment in genuine talent and ability and an investment in greater fairness and equality. No doubt some of the colleges would say they’re already doing this, but my guess would be that what they do is pretty tokenistic.

At which point I must say hats off to Magdalen College which manages to demonstrate that allowing visitors and booking wedding parties need not be mutually exclusive. It would appear to be the college’s policy to allow people to use their premises for weddings, but only on the basis that visitors have priority - i.e. the two sets of people mingle respectfully and don’t interfere with one another’s business.

It’s even quite entertaining to view at close quarters how these people dress and speak, especially when they’re done up in their hilarious wedding garb. With the blokes taking the biscuit for sheer poncy nonsense.

I do find it hard on the ears though - especially those strangulated whines emanating from the wannabees, who are trying too hard and have picked up their attempts at upper class speech from other fakes at their second-rate private schools. The languid drawls of the real upper classes I even quite like, since they are somewhat genuine and effortless, almost artistic in their svelte musicality.

I should also acknowledge, in fairness to Oxford, which is a place where I’d hate to live, since it’s so dominated by the class system, twattish, neurotic and arrogant students, egomaniacal and dull academics, tourists, etc, that in terms of the physical environment the place is just unbelievably stunning.

Everywhere you look the architecture is dazzling in its sheer brilliance and beauty, its proportions and layout, and its gorgeous glowing Cotswold stone. Even the paving and the cobbles, the lawns and gardens, are simply magnificent. The whole place is a testament to our human capacity for brilliant invention and creativity, for sublime spiritual connection, whilst at the same time showing and reminding us what the abuse of power and wealth and unmerited influence can actually do to fuck up a place, and indeed a planet.

We must never forget that it’s the Oxbridge system that’s responsible, in its eager determination to sort out the sheep from the academic goats, for distorting and corrupting what goes on in the name of education in this and many other countries. And it’s only real education and its practical application, enlightenment, that can save our sorry souls.


A friend of mine has been told by her partner that she cannot buy something that she’d like to own because of the ****** ******. I hate the term ‘credit crunch’. It’s a lazy, stupid, journalistic cliché, if ever there was one. What is ‘credit’, anyway? I thought it was something you earned for something good you’d done. Or something for which you shouldn’t ask, for fear of its refusal causing offense. And what’s a fucking ‘crunch’, in this context? Merely a pathetic alliterative device, and a euphemism that avoids the need to describe what’s really going on.

What we have is an economic crisis, or emergency, if you like - a time when the supposedly rock solid banking system is close to collapsing - brought about by one of the periodic breakdowns in the capitalist system, assuming we agree it’s just a periodic breakdown and not a deliberate part of how the system works, as with any economic ‘bubble’ - where stupid punters are conned into believing that they can and should invest in a slice of the action, driving up the prices of shares, property, etc, until such point as the really clever bastards who pull the economic levers decide it’s time to cut and run, to cash in on the bubble, to take their profits and instigate the inevitable ‘crash’, which then comes down to no more and no less than the stupid, the ignorant, the greedy and the overstretched being told that what they’ve struggled to purchase isn’t, after all, worth what they were told it was worth, and what’s more in order to keep on borrowing the huge amount of money they’ve been loaned they are going to have to pay a hell of a lot more for it. QED.

Of course there are also stupid banks and finance houses whose directors thought they would be able to continue to borrow money from the really big boys in order to go on lending money to the minnows at even higher rates of interest, and were amazed when the real money men turned round and said, effectively, that they were no longer prepared to lend money to silly little banks who were so stupid and so greedy that they were lending too much money to people who had no realistic chance of keeping up payments on their crappy little properties once the full effects of rising fuel and food prices and unemployment started to bite. Sub prime indeed.

It’s going to be fascinating to witness what Obama, or McCain, and further down the line Cameron, do about it all, if anything. McCain’s instincts will be to use the power of the US of A to grab more of whatever oil and gas is still available, whilst the other two will be much more considered in their actions, one would imagine, and indeed would hope. There was an excellent piece about Cameron in the Guardian this week, by the excellent David Marquand.

I think it’s true that Cameron is basically Whiggish at present, and something of an old-style One Nation Tory whose instincts really are towards maintaining national cohesion through a degree of fairness and support for the least well-off. I think he’s intelligent enough to understand the need to do that if we intend to improve the state of society and aspire to be a civilisation rather than a battleground between rich and poor, with more and more of the wealthy feeling bound to live in gated communities and middle-class suburbs, districts and commuter towns and villages, where membership, i.e. residency, is gained on the basis of being able to afford being able to buy property there, never daring to venture into the neighbourhoods they consider dangerous ghettos.

It’s been very interesting lately realising that so many people who were born and bred in London know absolutely nothing about many different parts of the city, especially those that they consider either too poor or too wealthy by their own standards. Of course we’re familiar with the north/south divide, with the Thames being something of a physical as well as a psychological barrier, but even people with their own cars, people who are in their forties and fifties, have so often shown no curiosity whatsoever about what goes on in places like the East End, which is actually fascinating in all sorts of ways. For this reason alone I’m glad that the 2012 Olympics will be happening here, as well as the fact that the money spent on developing the landscape in my beloved Lea Valley is going to make a massive difference to local people’s enjoyment of the place.

Marquand’s conclusion seems to me to really hit the nail on the head:

“One of the great questions of the age is how to protect the precious filaments of civil society from the pressures of resurgent capitalism, hyper-individualism, resentful populism, family breakdown and state encroachment. Cameron has not found the answer, but he has realised there is a problem. I think he has also realised that the feverish social engineering beloved of old Thatcherite and New Labour policy wonks is part of the problem, and that lasting social and cultural changes have to grow from the bottom instead of being imposed from the top.

Against that background, Labour talk of a leadership change is not just petty and mean-minded; it is sublimely irrelevant. The question that matters is whether it can retrieve the non-statist democratic republican strand in its heritage - exemplified by John Milton, John Stuart Mill, Tom Mann and RH Tawney - and abandon the heavyhanded, statist democratic collectivism that has been second nature to Labour governments since the 1920s. There is still time. Just.”

I was going to say a few things about Obama, but have run out of time. Suffice to say I’m delighted he’s made it to the nomination, whether or not he manages to persuade enough rednecks and backwoods folk to actually vote for him. At least it’s been a very big shake up and indeed shock to the American political system. I love the guy’s style, and his speeches. I fear for his health and safety if he gets elected, and indeed before the vote even takes place.

In many ways it will be better for him personally, and for his family, if he doesn’t get elected, since he will then be able to stay a real person, rather than become a figurehead, and an embattled one at that. If so, that is if he ‘fails’, I can see that he will be able, through his writing and his speeches, to continue to exert a massive influence on American politics from the sidelines, as it were. It was brilliant that he was able to make his acceptance speech on the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Wonderful.


Incidentally, I’m about to make a pitch to a major confectionary conglomerate to produce what I believe will be a massively profitable and best-selling bar of chocolate containing nuts and bits of biscuit, in a gold wrapper so that it looks like a small bar of gold, to be called a Credit Crunch. You heard it here first folks. The idea is hereby copyrighted.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Layer 71 Goodbye to the Games; Politicians with Issues.

The Olympic Games closing ceremony was phenomenal and fabulous, entertaining and enthralling, apart from the 8 minutes that were allocated to London to advertise the 2012 games. This section was truly awful - even more shockingly horrible than anticipated. The Chinese put on a show that was awesome, spectacular, original, majestic, inspirational and uplifting. The Brits, however, brought on a red bus, some tackily dressed dancers doing silly and senseless gyrations, some garish umbrellas, and Beckham doing the only things he can do - grin inanely, and kick a ball. Or as Marina Hyde said in The Guardian, “Behold, world, our Beckham! Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair!”

The centrepiece, the pivotal performance in the London slot, was a rendition of “Whole Lotta Love” featuring Jimmy Page looking like a fat pigtailed grey-haired uncle, and Leona Lewis, admittedly a Hackney girl, warbling away at something that originally was, and still ought to be, belted out by Robert Plant. But not in this context. This was no place for ANY cock rock, let alone a period piece by Led Zep. The Chinese effort at contemporary rock music was colorful, original, up-tempo, uplifting and had a massive feel-good effect. The Brit effort was plodding, dull and hackneyed, and not a good advertisement for Hackney 2012 in any way. Shameful.

Even more horrible was the follow-on programme on BBC1, featuring various events around Britain - supposedly some kind of national launch party for the 2012 games. It was so bad it was impossible to switch off for fear of missing the very worst of what seems to pass for contemporary British ‘culture’.

In London, right outside Buck House, the organisers had built a concert stage that looked like a particularly nightmarish filling station. I think there used to be a petrol company called UK. This one was pumping out BP - British Poop music.

First up were the cast of the Queen musical, doing all the predictable and horrible stuff they do - “We Are The Champions”, “We Will Rock You”, etc. Time does nothing to diminish my hatred of Queen’s stupid, preening, overweening, senseless rubbish. What kind of people like this stuff? Fucking morons. Freddie Mercury, aka Farrokh Bulsara, - RIP. You were a true tosser and an egomaniac without peer, in a world full of egomaniacs and tossers.

How do they decide the running order of these things? In the time-honored manner of bringing on the complete rubbish first, and keeping the ‘best’ of it to ‘top the bill’? If so, it was a ridiculous mistake. To follow the magnificence of the Chinese dancing, playing, singing and performing with such complete dross was to fill one’s heart with despair and shame.

Next on were a bunch of lads called Scouting for Girls. Eh? What? Bring back The Animals, The Searchers, The Rolling Stones, even The Swinging Blue Jeans. What’s the point of having these wet little pillocks with their wet little names and their wet little haircuts performing so bloody wetly? Strangely though, S for G chose to end their slot with “London Calling” - a dark Clash classic.

London calling, see we ain't got no swing
Except for the ring of that truncheon thing
The ice age is coming, the sun's zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin
Engines stop running but I have no fear
Cuz London is drowning and I live by the river.
Did they really mean to bash out the message that London is NOT a good place to be? Or was it similar to Ronnie Reagan’s liking for Springsteen and “Born In The USA” - enthusiasm for a title, a tune, an artist and a performance, without paying the least attention to the meaning of the lyrics.

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I'm ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go
Born in the U.S.A.


Even worse than the crap music and the crap dancing were the silly kids they hire as “presenters” and MCs of this rubbish. Ludicrous inane wannabe celebs; fatuous, idiotic, foolish prats. Chattering, bilious fools. It was all so utterly cringe-making I truly worry about the media’s presentation of our national life and culture over the next four years and in 2012, should the world manage to stagger that far.

The Chinese left us all wanting more, and truly appreciating the refinement of their arts, their imagination, their traditions and their culture. God knows what’s going to happen if we let the fools who run our media and our affairs mess it all up with a ridiculous melange of sold-out dinosaurs and daft kids. Sensible rockers like Mick and Keith will stay well away from such rubbish, and so will any truly talented young folk, for fear of being tainted with the sheer crap that’s bound to predominate.

Maybe we should just hire the folk who produced the Chinese shows/ceremonies to come and do it for us - to create something new and brilliant. Or else risk the world seeing the true awfulness of what our mainstream celebrity, star-struck and wannabe culture actually is.

People like ‘Lord’ Coe and Co are already running scared of trying to match the Chinese effort. They’re already copping out by saying ‘our’ games will be more humble and modest, both in budget and ambition. You can already see them getting ready to parade just a few pop idols and national ‘icons’ dressed in pin-stripes and bowlers, riding in buses and black cabs, with a squad of pearly kings and queens for added flavour. If our 8 minutes in the closing ceremony of 2008 is anything to go by, God help us.


Obama mit Biden

I have a new theory about the US presidential election, which is now starting to shift into overdrive. Most positive and progressive people seem to assume that if there’s any justice on earth then the Democrats and Obama will win the race, and will begin forthwith to right the wrongs that have been perpetrated on America and on the planet since the Republicans stole the presidency from Al Gore and the Democrats back in the dawning of this millenium.

But my theory is that Fate hasn’t yet finished inflicting on America the amount of humiliation and economic catastrophe it feels the country deserves. This isn’t my judgement, I hope you understand. As Obama would say, that sort of decision takes place well above my pay grade. Personally I’m a pretty forgiving type, just as long as the guilty party is sufficiently grovellingly apologetic, and promises to never ever do those bad things again. Like waste 3 billion dollars a year on high-tech weaponry, on a fatuous and counter-productive ‘war on terror‘, and on killing thousands of innocent people, instead of using those incredible amounts of money to rid the planet of illiteracy, ignorance and starvation.

However, I’ve still not heard very much in the way of apology, and I’m beginning to suspect that Fate has taken the view that America still has an awful lot to learn about its racism and misogyny, about the effects of its arrogance and its bullying, and is therefore going to ensure that McCain becomes the next president, with appalling consequences. Only then will people stop and say to themselves - “You know, it really isn’t such a bad idea to elect someone on the basis of their actual policies and programmes, and not on the colour of their skin, their gender, their bellicosity, their affability or even their age. We must learn this lesson well, and resolve never to forget it.”

That’s assuming there’s any country (or world) left to elect another president after McC has finished confronting and facing down the Ruskies, the Iranians and the Islamists.

The hot topic in Britain this week is that 'Lady' Thatcher has dementia, CJD, BSE or whatever, and doesn’t know who’s who or what’s what. To which most people say - we told you so. We knew that already. It took Britain several elections to test Thatcherism to destruction, to discover that 'trickle down' political and economic theory is a pile of poo, and that if you don’t invest in good public services you get, well, bad public services. Which, after all, most people depend on. After 11 more years of neo-Thatcherism (ie New Labour) the poor are still getting poorer, the rich are getting disgustingly rich, and there’s still no sign of any inspiring progressive leaders in waiting who can turn the country around and lead us in a more progressive, more just and more enlightened direction. Cameron? Miliband? Boris? Oh dear.

City Academies to take over Primary Schools.

My handy Penguin dictionary defines Adonis as a strikingly handsome young man. Ah, the irony. Baron Andrew Adonis, age 45, ex-academic and ex-journalist, the scrawny, weasel-like New Labour schools minister, is about as qualified to run schools in England as I am to run a marathon. The bastard didn’t even attend a state secondary school. Wikipedia says his mother ran away and left him when he was a toddler. Good call. There goes a woman who recognizes some evil spawn of the devil when she sees it.

Front page news in the Guardian yesterday was Adonis’s plan to launch “matrix” Academies, which are basically City Academies with feeder Primary schools under their direct control.

Actually, the Guardian’s reporters are idiots. Polly Curtis and Allegra Stratton (who they?) wrote “One in five children start secondary school unable to read, write or do maths at the expected level”. Says who? These people have swallowed the line that 100% of eleven year olds should have reached Level 4 in their Sats by the end of Primary school. Which includes all children with special educational needs, English as a second language, behavioral and attitudinal problems, attendance issues, health issues, parents who suffer from depression, drug addiction, etc, etc.

What these reporters obviously don’t recognise, in common with most of the population, is that most ADULTS operate quite happily at Level 4 in their everyday reading, writing and maths, so if children are already at that level when they enter secondary school WHAT THE FUCK ARE THEY GOING TO DO FOR THE NEXT 5 - 7 YEARS?

Who says Primary schools have a duty to do the work of Secondary schools for them? Who says Secondary teachers (as well as parents and poxy politicians) have a right to expect eleven year olds to be writing etc at an adult level by the time they enter Secondary school? So that they can 'access the curriculum'? And when exactly are they meant to learn how to access the curriculum for creativity, for emotional intelligence, for social intelligence, for spiritual intelligence?

There’s a hell of a lot wrong with our education system, including poor management of schools, both Primary and secondary. But can someone please explain how secondary specialists with no understanding of Primary pedagogy are going to benefit primary age children within a school of 2-3,000 pupils? Only an arrogant dimwit like Adonis could come up with this stuff.

What’s more he has the gall to cite Finland as the model of education he’s following. Says Lord Adonis, “Countries like Finland are often cited for their all-through schools which provide one seamless education for children through primary and secondary age".

Yes, you aDonut, and Finland also has NO summative testing of children prior to the age of 16, NO Sats, NO league tables, NO Ofsted regime, and NO micro-management of schools. Education professionals are shown proper respect and given the freedom to run their own professional and pedagogical affairs, including in-service staff development and curriculum development. And THAT’S the way they get to be top of the educational pops.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Layer 70 Targets, Achievement, Attainment and Gold Medals.

The People’s Republic of China has the same birthday as me - September 30th, 1949. Not a lot of people know that.

I suppose it was always going to be difficult to avoid the craziness of the Olympics, and it’s been very easy to get sucked into watching the games, given all the circumstances, which include a decision not to go away for a holiday this August, the crap weather outside making staying inside a good option, and the fact that live TV coverage of the various sports is spread right across the day from pre-breakfast to suppertime. Getting hooked into watching the whole of the opening ceremony, thanks to that fabulous drumming spectacle, was also a big factor.

The other key element was the fact that, for once, ‘Team GB’ has actually been very successful, at least in a small number of sports that require a heavy investment in incredibly expensive equipment and facilities, lots of very expensive and elitist coaching, and in which there are relatively few other nations taking part. To whit - cycling, rowing and sailing. All of which has been very intriguing and thought-provoking, and which made for some compelling viewing.

There’s also the China factor - the fact that the games are being held in a country that’s intriguing, fascinating and astounding, for all sorts of reasons. It’s not that long ago that China was a completely closed society, and very few of us knew anything about the place. Now, thanks to a plethora of documentaries, and thanks to China becoming a global economic powerhouse that can’t be ignored, we are starting to take notice.

Amidst all the chatter amongst the commentariat about China’s record on freedom, democracy and human rights there’s the undeniable fact that the political leadership have done a remarkable job in transforming the country from a peasant economy with a doctrinaire Marxist culture into a socio-economic system that’s rapidly gone from strength to strength because they didn’t do the stupid things that Russia and its satellites did when the Soviet system collapsed.

Much to the frustration of the neo-conservatives in the US and elsewhere, communism in China didn’t collapse or capitulate to capitalism like the Soviets. They haven’t privatized their state-owned assets, and they haven’t allowed robber billionaires to strip wealth from the public realm. On the other hand, they have allowed foreign investment to flow inwards, and to expand their productive capacity hugely. *

Needless to say, the current Russian leadership are now very angry indeed that their political predecessors, like Boris Yeltzin, sold out, became virtual puppets of the West, and allowed their professed socialist ideals to be kicked into touch. The Russian state became a virtual bystander as oligarchs and billionaires took over control of the commanding heights of the economy.

The inexorable rise of China has been reflected in Olympic success - they are the country with the most gold medals by far . They are now successful even in events that require power and stamina as well as finesse and strategy. And we in the West are now aware that the Chinese are as ethnically and physically diverse as anywhere on earth, and given some hefty levels of investment in facilities, equipment and coaching, they are able to succeed in sports that were once the preserve of the USA and the Soviets. Money = power = dominance. As even we in Team GB have discovered, it’s not rocket science, it’s bloody obvious, and it’s about money and investment.

Meanwhile, here at home people are starting to realise that in these days of sports science and intensive training regimes most of the successful British competitors come from elite school backgrounds and from homes that can afford private coaching and training. Kids from council estates generally don’t have decent access to either facilities or coaches. Therefore the Olympics are not about competition to establish who are the best athletes on the planet, merely about which of the most privileged young people are the fittest, fastest, most skilful, etc.

This is one of the reasons why it was so delightful watching the unaffected young spirits of Jamaica doing so well in the 100 metres sprints. Just to prove the point that young people from a relatively small and impoverished Caribbean island can be the equals, and indeed betters, of anyone on earth - at least when it’s mainly a matter of tearing down a running track at incredible speed.

And well done Becky Addlington from Mansfield, The Midlands, for two brilliant victories!

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s starting to feel very angry that our sodding stupid government have set TARGETS for Olympic medals! On what basis? Where’s the need for it? They’ve even hinted at dire consequences if the targets aren’t met. How dare these bastards attempt to take ownership of even our sportsmen and women? The money for funding sports development comes, for the most part, from the Lottery, which means that it’s OUR money, not theirs. And even if it came from taxes then it’s still OUR money.

These politician bastards don’t even realise that they’re not doing this stuff in OUR name! They don’t represent US! Nobody wants them to set stupid fucking targets. Leave sports, education, health, etc to people who know what they’re talking about and know what they’re doing. As if these people aren’t already doing their best to be successful and need oppressive targets to motivate them. Everybody just wants this government to fuck off and die.


Two more excellent contributions to the achievement/attainment debate:

Francis Gilbert

The news that A-level gradeshave risen yet again comes as no surprise to teachers like me. We've become much better at teaching to the tests, and pupils are much more proficient at passing them. But does this mean that our students are genuinely becoming cleverer?
Worryingly, I think not. My experience suggests that precisely the opposite is happening. When I think back to when I first started teaching A-level 15 years ago, I realise that my lessons were a great deal more creative and exploratory and, as a result, fostered more intelligent, original and crafted responses.

The emphasis was upon "exploration" rather than teaching to the exam.
In my quest for good exam grades I (now) encourage pupils to slap down the material that will enable them to meet the assessment objective rather than painstakingly help them craft essays – like I used to. Since teachers are now judged solely on results by their students, parents and line managers, and their pay is dependent upon this, they would be foolish to teach like they used to. The net result is that exam grades have risen, but standards have declined.

Anne Perkins

Our poor teenagers have just spent two miserable years in the most thankless task of learning how to pass exams. Francis Gilbert's teacher's perspective precisely mirrors the experience of my own daughter. During her last two years at school there has been no room for open-minded inquiry, the excitement of the unexpected discovery or serendipitous connection. Instead she can recite how many marks each question is worth and what arguments she needs to spew out in order to score them. Teachers are judged on their results, and their pupils are desperate to get the grades. Together they conspire in a miserably impoverished academic schedule that leaves them unready -– as the universities now complain – to move on.

Just look at Michael Phelps' diet and his sad comment that all he's good for is eating, sleeping and swimming and you get a feel for how A-level students feel at the end of their courses. When you have to get to a target, that target is going to be all you want to get to. But at least no one tells Phelps he's wasting his time.


Confucius “wanted his disciples to think deeply for themselves and relentlessly study the outside world”.

"His moral teachings emphasise self-cultivation, emulation of moral exemplars, and the attainment of skilled judgment rather than knowledge of rules, etc”.

He believed that pursuing one's own self-interest is not necessarily bad, but one would be a better, more righteous person if one based one's life upon following a path designed to enhance the greater good.

He believed in the virtue of perfectly fulfilling one's responsibilities toward others, most often translated as "benevolence" or "humaneness".

Wikipedia also says, “Confucius's moral system was based upon empathy and understanding others, rather than divinely ordained rules. To develop one's spontaneous responses of rén so that these could guide action intuitively was even better than living by the rules of yì. To cultivate one's attentiveness to rén one used another Confucian version of the Golden Rule: one must always treat others just as one would want others to treat oneself. Virtue, in this Confucian view, is based upon harmony with other people, produced through this type of ethical practice by a growing identification of the interests of self and others."

I wonder what Confucius would have to say about British education in the 21st Century.

* For the record, Wikipedia says this about China, at :

After Mao's death in 1976 and the arrest of the Gang of Four, blamed for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping quickly wrestled power from Mao's anointed successor Hua Guofeng. Although Deng never became the head of the Party or State himself, his influence within the Party led the country to economic reforms of significant magnitude. The Communist Party subsequently loosened governmental control over citizens' personal lives and the communes were disbanded with many peasants receiving multiple land leases, which greatly increased incentives and agricultural production. This turn of events marked China's transition from a planned economy to a mixed economy with an increasingly open market environment, a system termed by many "market socialism”.

Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji, both former mayors of Shanghai, led post-Tiananmen China in the 1990s. Under Jiang Zemin's ten years of administration, China's economic performance pulled an estimated 150 million peasants out of poverty and sustained an average annual GDP growth rate of 11.2%. The country formally joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001.

Although China needs economic growth to spur its development, the government has begun to worry that rapid economic growth has negatively impacted the country's resources and environment. Another concern is that certain sectors of society are not sufficiently benefiting from China's economic development. As a result, under current President
Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, the PRC have initiated policies to address these issues of equitable distribution of resources, but the outcome remains to be seen. For much of China's population, living standards have seen extremely large improvements, and freedom continues to expand, but political controls remain tight.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Layer 69 Getting Rid of Sats, Making Room for Learning.

Time for a round-up of recent articles on Sats, lest we forget the importance of this subject.
Firstly, the wonderful Jenni Russell’s piece in the Guardian on July 28th. The strapline said, “The minister's brazen denial of evidence that his school tests damage children is typical of this government's culture.” If you missed it, then catch up here:

Today there’s a column by Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, which begins well but ends in a total muddle.

On the one hand Mr Taylor says, quite correctly, that too many schools are drab, joyless, assessment factories, and that Sats are essentially “a guide to school’s willingness and ability to teach to the tests”. On the other hand he seems to be in favour of keeping ‘top-down systems of accountability’ and ‘quasi-market mechanisms’.

What we actually need are bottom-up (i.e. teacher-driven) systems for monitoring pupil progress that also benefit pupils and teachers.

Without any evidence, other than the detested, misleading and unnecessary league tables, Mr Taylor says that underperformance in schools tends to be concentrated in the poorest areas. How is he judging underperformance? In terms of the children’s enjoyment of school and enjoyment of learning for its own sake? Of the development of their creativity and critical thinking skills; of their enjoyment of literature, whatever their level of reading; of their progress in emotional and social intelligence?

No - he’s back to talking about underperformance in terms of what the Sats themselves are assumed to measure - the ability to do well in timed tests. Many schools in the ‘poorest areas’ have done an amazing job to take the majority of the most disadvantaged children to at least Level 4 by the age of eleven without turning them off learning altogether and without teaching to the tests or failing to provide a broad, rich and balanced curriculum.

As he himself says, “disadvantaged pupils need content that is engaging and relevant, but they can find themselves in institutions obsessively focused on avoiding failing-school status“. As well as curriculum content that is rich and relevant they also need teachers who show them respect, who know how to raise their levels of interest, enjoyment, confidence and self-esteem, and who themselves are treated with respect and trust.

Mr Taylor concludes that “the search is on for a system that combines accountability and transparency with the scope for every school to be a place of creativity and “invention“. Did he ever read, I wonder, “All Our Futures”? Many schools throughout this country rightly prided themselves on being places of creativity, imagination and excitement prior to Sats, league tables and the Ofsted regime being cemented in place.

As for accountability and transparency, there are schools that are already using ICT-based tracking systems which can identify precisely where individual pupils have reached in terms of clear targets for knowledge, skills and concepts within reading, writing, maths and science, on the basis of teacher-supplied information which feeds through every single month or every half term to the school’s central server at the touch of a button.

Electronic tracking of pupil progress through specific learning targets and criteria from the Early Years onwards is already a reality. Teachers have always monitored pupil progress - without rigorous formative assessment it’s impossible to teach effectively. Many schools have invested in computer-based tracking systems and can produce from it masses of data and charts for whole-school, key stage, age group, and individual class level, as well as data broken down pupil by pupil. Such assessment and tracking, which can be verified by internal and external moderation, by sampling and monitoring, is far more sophisticated and useful than anything Sats can provide.
What must be obvious by now, to Mr Taylor and to government, is that Sats never were and never could be of benefit to pupils or teachers. As the likes of Melanie Philips never tire of reminding us, they exist to measure, grade and compare schools, nothing more. The fact that they don’t even do that effectively because they’re such a crude instrument that inevitably distorts and narrows real teaching and learning is not going to make a jot of difference to the attitude of this government - which shows no ability to learn from its mistakes.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Layer 68 Zen, Tao, the Olympics, Warfare and the Zone.

There was a superb documentary on TV recently about the planning and construction of the Great Wall of China. First there was the programme about two guys riding motorbikes right across Mongolia, and then this very informative look at how the Chinese determined to prevent the Mongols from attacking and plundering Beijing and the rest of China.

It’s interesting how chains of thought originate. Thinking about the Chinese approach to warfare sent me off on a quick skim in my copy of an ancient book, Sun Tzu’s Art of War. You can read what Wikipedia says about the book at , but I think I’ll try to add something to the entry since it fails to emphasise the book’s roots in Taoist thought and practice. It also fails to emphasise the book’s relevance to our overall attitude and approach to life in general, even though it mentions its applicability to business and sporting environments.

In general we in the West are ignorant of Taoist thought and practice, and its importance as philosophy and spiritual guidance. We also fail to recognise that Zen developed out of not only Chinese Buddhism but also ancient Chinese Taoist thinking and beliefs. In essence Zen and Tao are identical.

Wikipedia tells us that Sun Tzu “taught that strategy was not planning in the sense of working through a to-do list, but rather that it requires quick and appropriate responses to changing conditions. Planning works in a controlled environment, but in a competitive environment, competing plans collide, creating unexpected situations.”

The essence of Zen and Taoist thought is that in order to prepare oneself for living well we need to train ourselves, through meditation and other practices, to focus our minds at all times in the present, so that we can respond “quickly and appropriately” (i.e. spontaneously) to whatever “unexpected situations” we may find ourselves in. By all means allow yourself to dream and your mind to wander, to imagine and to create, and reflect on past experiences, but the time to do that is during ‘meditation’ or during conversation with friends. But don’t engage with the world unless your mind is focused and very much in the present.

In order to combat those who would exploit us or do us harm, and in order to protect and nurture those for whom we are responsible, as would a Samurai, for example, we need to be fully aware and living in the moment, with our minds, our instincts and our intuitive faculties clear, calm and ready to respond with speed and precision. This is what people taking part in sports have come to call being “in the zone”.

It’s also what the “positive psychology” movement calls “Flow”.
[ See ]
Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields. Colloquial terms for this or similar mental states include: to be on the ball, in the zone, or in the groove.”

Wikipedia continues with the following:

Components of flow

Csíkszentmihályi identifies the following as accompanying an experience of flow:

* Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one's skill set and abilities).
* Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
* A loss of the feeling of
self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
* Distorted sense of time, one's subjective experience of time is altered.
* Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
* Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
* A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
* The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
* People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.

Not all are needed for flow to be experienced.

Wikipedia then adds:

"Religion and spirituality

Csíkszentmihályi may have been the first to describe this concept in Western psychology, but as he himself readily acknowledges he was most certainly not the first to quantify the concept of Flow or develop applications based on the concept.

For millennia, practitioners of
Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Taoism have honed the discipline of overcoming the duality of self and object as a central feature of spiritual development. Eastern spiritual practitioners have developed a very thorough and holistic set of theories around overcoming duality of self and object, tested and refined through spiritual practice instead of the systematic rigor and controls of modern science.
The phrase "being at one with things" is a metaphor of Csíkszentmihályi's Flow concept. Practitioners of the varied schools of
Zen Buddhism apply concepts similar to Flow to aid their mastery of art forms, including, in the case of Japanese Zen Buddhism, Aikido, Kendo and Ikebana."

In any kind of sport being “in the zone” is what ultimately matters, assuming one has already developed to a high level the skills one needs to employ in the endeavor. In cricket a batsman can’t hope to prosper unless he’s “in the zone”, and everything “flows”. A bowler can only be successful if he’s “in the zone”.

And it’s the same in life. It’s important to be driven by passion, but it’s crucial to be able to direct one’s passion and one’s instincts from a basis of quiet, calm and confident awareness of whatever situation we may find ourselves in. Gung-ho aggression will probably lead you directly into your own little Valley of Death, especially against a smart opponent, whilst the heat of the moment is not the time to be asking ourselves “what should I do here?”, either.

Instincts will basically cause us to react with “fight, flight or freeze”, and are pretty useless when what’s required is consistent application of effort and engagement in a continuing process.

Ultimately one may decide to retreat, for instance, but it’s not the same as fleeing in panic. The 33rd hexagram in the I Ching is called Retreat, and the Wilhelm translation has this to say about it:

Retreat is not to be confused with flight. Flight means saving oneself under any circumstances, whereas retreat is a sign of strength. We must be careful not to miss the right moment while we are in full possession of power and position. Then we shall be able to interpret the signs of the time before it is too late and to prepare for provisional retreat instead of being drawn into a desperate life-and-death struggle. Thus we do not simple abandon the field to the opponent; we make it difficult for him to advance by showing perseverance in single acts of resistance. In this way we prepare, while retreating, for the counter-movement. Understanding the laws of a constructive retreat of this sort is not easy. The meaning that lies hidden in such a time is important.

It’s not difficult to see how Sun Tzu, Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching, the I Ching, the Art of War, Zen and ‘positive psychology’ are connected. Neither should it be difficult to see how all of these apply to everyday life. But do we offer these insights to our pupils in schools and colleges? And if so, where’s it happening? Not in the National Curriculum, that’s for sure.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Layer 67 08 08 08 The Olympics Begin.

The big day has finally arrived. 08 08 08. And at the 8th minute of the 8th hour the Beijing Olympic Games duly began, after nearly 4 hours of spectacular opening ‘ceremony’. It was an amazing multi-media performance. Beginning with hundreds of drummers, lined up in ranks, filling the floor of the ‘bird’s nest’ stadium in total darkness, hammering their huge square drums which lit up with every beat.

There were lots of real surprises, like the 360 degrees video screen right around the top of the stadium, a huge globe that emerged from the floor of the stadium and seemed to hover in the air, and a final torch bearer who seemed to run around the rim of the stadium, suspended by wires, prior to lighting a huge Olympic torch. Maybe it was all over the top and ridiculously extravagant, but it was certainly impressive.

After the show came the parade of competitors, all vying for the first title of the games - the worst dressed team. And there were some real hummers, some of them really stinky, some of them just hilarious. Ranging from the plain drab and boring to the ridiculously and hideously bright and garish.

So we now have two weeks of fun and games, and no doubt a lot of dross mixed with a certain amount of excitement and some cracking good entertainment. I’m not sure I can take any more of Sue Barker, though. She’s got to be the most stilted, robotic, idiotic presenter in the history of TV.

However, the BBC commentary team for the opening ceremony included Hazel Irvine who could hardly open her mouth without saying something patronizing and derogatory about China, who clearly seemed to consider herself some kind of geo-political expert, and someone called Carrie Gracie, another Scot, who’s apparently a fluent Mandarin speaker, and who at one point seemed to say “China’s been working hard, trying to civilise itself in preparation for these games”. I’d like to get confirmation of that, because it hardly seems possible that any commentator could possibly say such a thing.

Hazel’s stand-out quote was uttered in a part of the show that apparently related to Confucius. “A man who had a habit of speaking truth to power - a lesson there for the current Chinese leaders,” said Hazel. Bleah! Hazel Bleahs indeed. What is it with middle aged women called Hazel?

I think there should be a new verb - to bleah, or blear or blair. To talk utter supercilious, patronizing, vomit-inducing bullshit in an unconvincing suburban middle class voice.

Talking of creating new verbs, the wonderful Harry Pearson was in good form in his Olympics column in today’s Guardian:

What nouns will become verbs?
Athletics leads the world in the important business of converting lumpy old "naming words" into exciting and vibrant "doing words" and many people are tenterhooking as they await the latest developments. After Five Live's Allison Curbishley's bubbling efforts in popularising medalling and PB-ing, some experts believe this time the former runner may go for broke with outbursts like: "And word coming out of the US camp is that D'Ladedah Tubbs, who all-comered when semi-finalling in the 400 metres, has positived. Until Wada have B-sampled we can't start scandaling but I'm hearing some of the media in America have already furore-ed and I'm sure we can expect some real controversying in the next 24 hours." Other observers, however, believe that Curbishley has already too-earlyed.


What new bit of gimmicky tat will Paula Radcliffe add to her running kit?
Britain's favourite birdlike distance runner started off plodding round the track in a standard vest and pants but over the years she has bolstered her performance with the addition of sunglasses, beads, a nasal strip, white gloves and knee socks. Like a teenage boy with his first car, it seems Paula just can't stop clipping accessories to her vehicle. Many experts expect her to start the marathon sporting fog lamps, furry dice and an air horn that plays Dixie.

Layer 66 - Meet The Rich, Unjust Rewards and Capitalism in a Shambles

Another black teenager was killed in London yesterday. He died in the Woolworth store in Walworth when two young men with handguns leapt off mopeds and fired through the shop’s doors. He was the 22nd victim of knife or gun crime in London so far this year.

I find this utterly shocking. For God’s sake - mopeds? Where’s the dignity in that? Even at the age of 16 I wouldn’t have been seen dead (whoops!) on a moped, let alone have used one on a mission to kill somebody. Mopeds were, and are, a joke - a real tossers machine if ever there was one. Top speed 30mph, with a following wind.

Can you imagine Al Capone’s gangsters going about their business on whiny little mopeds instead of roaring around in cool black V8 Fords and Chevys? What the hell’s got into these kids? It’s time we took another look at how they’re being educated, and also consider offering them some serious mentoring. Mopeds!


Unjust Rewards

This week the Guardian has been publishing extracts from a new book by Polly Toynbee and Davis Walker called Unjust Rewards. The first extract was called Meet The Rich, and describes “the jaw-dropping arrogance they encountered when they asked some of the fat cats to justify their lives of luxury”.

Here’s a couple of extracts to give a flavour of the piece:

“Those who make the most money seem less willing than ever to see it redistributed. Tax consultants Grant Thornton estimated that in 2006 at least 32 of the UK's 54 billionaires paid no income tax at all.”

“We hoped to gain an insight into their notions of fairness - what might persuade them to share more of their wealth with others. What we encountered was a startling demonstration of ignorance. Here were professionals who deal daily with money, yet know next to nothing about other people's incomes. When asked to relate themselves to the rest of the population, these high-earners utterly misjudged the magnitude of their privilege.

How much, we asked our group, would it take to put someone in the top 10% of earners? They put the figure at £162,000. In fact, in 2007 it was around £39,825, the point at which the top tax band began. Our group found it hard to believe that nine-tenths of the UK's 32m taxpayers earned less than that. As for the poverty threshold, our lawyers and bankers fixed it at £22,000. But that sum was just under median earnings, which meant they regarded ordinary wages as poverty pay.

Mistakes such as these should disqualify the wealthy from pontificating about taxation or redistribution. And yet City views carry great weight with ministers and politicians of all parties.”

“None of us like to feel guilty about our comfortable lives, and it would have been absurd to expect mea culpas from these people just because they earned so much. What we had hoped for was more awareness, some recognition that their position needed explaining and even justification. Instead, with the exception of a couple of progressive lawyers, they simply denied they were rich.”

“The idea of redistributing more was, said one lawyer, "all kinds of bullshit crap which doesn't help the people". They felt a passionate hatred of capital gains tax and inheritance tax.”

Toynbee and Walker conclude:
“Here were people who might be technically adept, or good at deal-making, but as a group - with one or two exceptions - they were less intelligent, less intellectually inquisitive, less knowledgeable and, despite their good schools, less broadly educated than high-flyers in other professions. Their high salaries were not a sign of any obvious superiority. Most dismaying was their lack of empathy and their unwillingness to contemplate other, less luxurious lives. They could not see that the pleasure they derived from possessions, prospects and doing well by their children is universal and that others deserve a share of that, too.”

I find this whole scenario - the tax avoidance, the elitism, the snobbery, the greed, the stupidity - so sickening I can hardly even bring myself to think about it, let alone comment on it. What I do think, though, is that New Labour has done nothing at all to deal with these attitudes and these people whatsoever, and has presided over more than a decade of widening inequality.

And even now, when the City has been busted by the sub-prime crisis, and has had to go cap in hand to the government for subsidies and for bridging loans, the fucking government still has no idea what to do about the entire shambles.

There’s a very good piece in yesterday’s Guardian on this issue by Aditya Chakrabortty called “Capitalism Lies In Shambles, and the Left Has Gone AWOL.”

There’s more good stuff by Aditya C to be found at:

Seamus Milne, also published in the Guardian’s Opinion pages yesterday, was quite specific:
“The challenge for the rest of the party has to be to crystallise what is already a clear majority for a more progressive and popular policy agenda: on pensions, health, housing, tax, regulation and Iraq. With or without Brown, Labour has to take a new political direction to survive.”

“Brown could face down the threat of a counter-coup and relaunch his premiership next month by breaking with untrammelled neoliberalism and making the move beyond Blairism he ducked last summer. He could announce an emergency package of measures that would tilt government policy unambiguously towards greater equality and public intervention - such as controls on utility prices, a shift of the tax burden from the low-paid to the rich, and a major public housing programme. He could make a conference speech that reminded voters of what Labour is supposed to stand for and carry out a reshuffle reflecting the new approach: cutting the disproportionate Blairite presence down to size.”

“What neither Brown nor his rivals seem yet to have grasped is the scale of political change needed to deal with the new conditions triggered by global financial crisis, falling living standards and recession - and the bankruptcy of a deregulated market model (that was) all the rage during a boom (which) has now evaporated.”

In his piece Milne gives a damn good kicking to David Miliband for being the Blairite he’s always been. It’s true that Miliband has been loyal to Brown, (in that he hasn’t suggested any radical shifts in direction or policy), and of course he was loyal to Blair for more than 10 years. It’s also true I wrote about Miliband recently with a certain amount of praise for his manner and his potential. ( ) I still think that Miliband would be an asset to some sort of coalition government in the event of there being a hung parliament, but I still think he’s far too young and inexperienced to even contemplate becoming party leader.

Maybe he’s similar to another young Foreign Secretary who was promoted too high too soon - David Owen - and who never subsequently prospered in politics, for a variety of reasons. Maybe he’ll emulate Owen by leaving the Labour Party after it’s returned to its left of centre roots and quickly move on to help set up a rival party of the centre left in which he can be a guiding star and a philosopher king. I think that would be pretty much inevitable if we ever get around to adopting proportional representation. You read it here first, folks.


Perhaps it’s worth repeating another point I made in that previous blog, since we’re considering here the attitudes of the fat cat bankers and stockbrokers, etc, and now that more and more people are having to default on unmanageable mortgages, especially with fuel and food prices shooting up -

“Delightful TV footage this morning of Bear Stearns executives in handcuffs, charged with fraud and misleading investors. Charged with not communicating the true risks of the sub-prime market. They moved their own money to safety whilst keeping everybody else in ignorance of the fact that the economic and financial shit was about to hit the fan.Will the British authorities now follow this excellent example? Don’t hold your breath. Do keep a clothes peg handy for when the stench gets really bad.”

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Layer 65 Long Strange Trips and Seeking Enlightenment.

It’s animal madness here today. I’ve just had a squirrel leaping around all over my conservatory roof making an amazing racket, before shooting off along the fence top and into the trees.

Meanwhile White Cat has been on holiday for the past fortnight, camping in the garden in the little Ikea tent I originally put up for my granddaughter. She seems to like it a lot. I’m now thinking it needs to be her permanent quarters. It has a built in ground sheet and seems to be rainproof. It even resembles one of the tents you see refugees living in on news programmes. Being the senile idiot cat she now is, however, she’s just come in for food, and whilst I wasn’t looking did a dump in the corner of the conservatory. She spends more than 23 hours of every day outside, but of course has to shit inside. Up with this I can no longer put.


Watching the repeat of Long Way Round last night was interesting - 3 guys on motorbikes plus two support 4x4 trucks (one of which crashed) making their way slowly across some incredibly difficult terrain through the wilds of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia, reminded me of the insane times we had journeying back to England across practically the whole of Africa in 1973 in a two wheel drive VW, on a shoestring budget and with no support team whatsoever.

We were most definitely on our own, with just a couple of large-scale Michelin maps to guide us. It’s made me feel determined to do something with the reels of Super 8 movie film I have, and all the slides and photos I took. I really must get them all transferred to digital format and create a proper DVD with a music soundtrack, plus voice-over.

Looking back, the whole thing was pretty epic. Watching the guys on TV cracking up with the sheer effort and frustration of dealing with virtually impassable roads day after day brought back a lot of memories of exhaustion, but also exhilaration and wonderment at some of the landscape, and the kindness of people along the way.

Having done all that I should be ready to do something similar with photos and videos of a career in working in London schools. Lots of highlights and lowlights there too, and another epic trip to put on DVD.


I suppose Oxzen should have something to say about the Jim Rose article in Education Guardian this week, and about his Primary Curriculum Review.

Peter Wilby, in his article on Jim Rose, concludes that people like Sir Jim “keep the system working”. Was this meant to be ironic? Or is it a supposed to be a genuine compliment that ‘conscientious, hard-working, undogmatic,’ etc, men and women like Jim Rose help to legitimise and prop up a system that’s driven by others who are indeed full of ‘airs and graces, flashiness and egotism’ (which Sir Jim seemingly isn‘t.)

The kind of people, in fact, who enjoy bullying others and creating an education system that’s based on ludicrous notions of academic attainment being pretty much the be all and end all, on league tables, on a culture of targets and testing, and ruthless dismissal of the efforts of conscientious teachers and heads of schools to provide a broad and balanced education that genuinely meets all the needs of children and helps develop the crucial skills and attitudes required for emotional, social and spiritual intelligence.

No doubt Sir Jim can cope as well with this faint praise as he can with the comments of those who maintain he’s basically a fence-sitting career bureaucrat who hides behind bland statements like “I don’t make policy” in order to divert attention from the fact that he’s been so willing to do the bidding of his political masters and not make any waves or offer any opinions that might contradict or challenge the prevailing New Labour orthodoxies. You see, Sir Jim, it’s like this. Very few of us actually make policy, but we can, even if we’re working within the education system, offer opinions to the policy makers that might actually give them pause for thought and cause them to make better policies.

I despise what he had to say about the teaching of reading. He’s clearly no expert on the subject, so what was he doing writing a report that supported an approach to the teaching of reading that skewed the emphasis so heavily towards ‘synthetic phonics’, whether or not learners have such a need?

All he needed to say was that it’s essential for learners to develop grapho-phonic skills, as well as onset and rime skills, and skills in identifying syllables, graphemes and phonemes, but that it’s equally essential for learners to have in their repertoire skills in using picture cues, syntactic cues and semantic cues, and to use such predictive cuing systems from the outset.

Plodding and pounding your way through text using ‘synthetic phonics’ on its own is not the best, the most efficient, the most effective or the most intelligent way of tackling text. It’s just part of everyone’s tool kit for word identification when other strategies aren’t helpful. Otherwise it just slows down and interferes with the whole process, which is a complex and sophisticated one from the very beginning, especially with English, where there are so many high frequency words that are phonically irregular.

I think that just about sums the matter up, except to say, “Once xxxx x txxx there was x . . . .” Get it, Sir Jim? This isn’t about real books versus no books. This is about approaching the teaching of reading as though we, and children, are intelligent, thoughtful, insightful, sophisticated and analytical beings, which happily most of us are. End of.


Having said all that, it must be said that Sir Jim’s final report on the primary curriculum could well be something we’ve needed for a long time if indeed it delivers what it’s supposed to -

* greater emphasis on personal, social, emotional, physical and spiritual development
* greater emphasis on play-based and active experiential learning throughout at least the foundation stage
* greater emphasis on developing creativity and imagination
* a requirement for Primary schools to introduce foreign languages in ways that make learning them meaningful and enjoyable

But talk about the Long Way Round! This is all stuff that was meant to be happening in our schools from 1966 onwards, and frequently was, prior to the introduction of the National Curriculum, the Primary Strategies, SATs testing and league tables!

We used to be the world leaders in a form of Primary education that genuinely put children and their various developmental needs at the heart of the learning process, before we turned the clocks back, became curriculum obsessed and driven by tests and targets. We used to believe that children should first and foremost learn to love learning for its own sake and should look forward to coming to school in order to enjoy a rich variety of creative learning experiences each and every day. Ha!

I’ve invented a new word for teachers who are responsible for their school’s personal, social, emotional and spiritual development. Zenco.

And speaking of Zen, there was an excellent article in G2 this week by Miranda Hodgson, “I Became A Zen Buddhist Nun”.
In it she explains how she used to have “an aggressively atheistic” view of life, but “gradually became aware that there were other, non-theistic approaches to experiencing the spiritual side of life”. She started doing yoga, and was then introduced to Zen meditation by a friend.

She then goes on to say,

“Having previously lived such a goal- and achievement-oriented life, sitting in meditation and simply observing my state of being was a new experience. As I examined my ideals, particularly the validation I sought through unrelenting hard work, I found that they were empty. One by one, they dropped away. I realised there were more important things than climbing the career ladder at any cost. Although it was a liberating experience, it was incredibly frightening at times. I had to reassess my approach to life.”

“I met a Zen master (a practitioner who has received permission to teach), and under him, I made a formal commitment to follow the Zen path. Unlike in Japan, where Zen monks and nuns are supported by the state, Europeans who make this commitment continue to live and work in society as they did before. For me, the decision to ask for nun ordination came easily. It simply felt like the right thing to do; it made sense. Life was beginning to unfold naturally.”

“Because I am now a teacher, I don't shave my head and, as I wear the kolomo and kesa only for meditation, I look no different from anyone else you would see in the street.”

“When most people hear the word nun, they think of Catholic nuns. Often, their first question is why would I want to give up having sex for ever. Stated in this way, it puts sex on a par with things such as smoking or drinking: self-gratifying acts of pleasurable consumption. If one understands sex according to such a selfish, loveless definition, then I suppose that yes, I have "given it up". One of the vows I made when I was ordained pertains to sex, and it states that you should not use your sexuality in a way that harms. It is not what you do, therefore, but how you do it: using someone as a commodity for one's own satisfaction is definitely harmful if considered in that light. Shortly after my ordination, I met a man with whom I now share a relationship based on mutual trust and respect.”

“Some of my students assume I live like a puritan, and are surprised when I tell them that I do drink alcohol and I will eat meat.”

“While my status as a nun usually fosters a dialogue between me and my students, I sometimes feel it separates us. Nowadays, students think that, to be successful in life, they must strive for high scores, regardless of whether academic learning is right for them. I feel sad at how stressed my students get and, during exams, I remember words from a Zen teacher that to "be adequate" is enough in life.”

It seems to me that articles and case studies like this one ought to be central to the curriculum of all our pupils in Secondary schools - not in order to persuade them to become Zen nuns, but in order to point out some issues around atheism, belief in a God as a supreme being, the development of spiritual intelligence, the use of meditation, the purpose of life, the pursuit of academic qualifications and material success, the importance of diet, the use of alcohol, and the importance of a serious and respectful approach to sexuality that is enjoyable and affirmative at the same time as being non-exploitative and another route to satori and spiritual joy.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Layer 64 Darwin, Dawkins and the Muppets.

People are even more staggeringly stupid than even I had thought. I don't even know where to start with this.

I was contentedly watching a Channel 4 programme made by Prof Richard Dawkins called The Genius of Charles Darwin. I'm no kind of a scientist, and I've no idea where and how I came to understand natural selection, but it clearly explains biological diversity and the origins of species. It’s logical, and it makes perfect sense.

What makes no sense whatsoever is the idea that everything was created by "God". It's blindingly obvious that 'creationism' and 'intelligent design' are complete nonsense.

And yet . . . Dawkins was doing his best to teach Darwin's ideas to what seemed to be a group of intelligent sixth formers. They were apparently 'bright' young people, who clearly understood the ideas behind natural selection and the origins of species. They considered the fossil evidence, and the evidence from the study of DNA. It all seemed to make perfect sense.

And then the majority of these students calmly let Dawkins know that the theory was all very interesting - but they couldn't possibly accept it as truth because it conflicted with the teachings of their religion.

Fucking hell!! Christians and Muslims. Closed minds. Crackpot ideas. Blind obedience to ludicrous nonsensical claptrap. Unquestioning subservience to religious doctrine and unscientific bollocks.

Doomed. We're all doomed. There's no hope. Multiple intelligences? There are millions of these muppets who don't have even a single intelligence. Logic, reason and enlightenment have no place in their poor brainwashed lives. They’d rather go along with some version of a creation myth than risk upsetting their elders and making waves in their family and their community. And things seem to be getting worse, not better. How can this be?

I suppose it’s understandable. These days there are plenty of communities, sects and cliques who feel alienated and persecuted, who cling together for support and reassurance, who feel beleaguered and threatened, and reject the orthodoxies of their supposed enemies and persecutors, for fear of becoming like them, which clearly mustn’t happen.

And of course people like Dawkins have long ago identified themselves as atheists, non-believers, godless infidels, and probably sons of the devil. This makes them the enemy - automatically. Forget their espousal of scientific truth, and their insistence on rigorously questioning and testing anything and everything. They might be RIGHT in logic and reasoning, but they’re WRONG to reject God and all his works, and therefore they’re just plain WRONG.

Jesus. There’s no hope. Turn back the clocks. Stick your heads in the sand. Refuse to contemplate plain old facts, which have no legitimacy any time they happen to conflict with what some ancient scribe happened to write hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Obviously the Big Bang is wrong. It never happened. God created the entire universe, and continues to be responsible for everything that happens under this and every other sun. He said ‘let there be light’, and there was light.

Hold on. I feel the need to find some common ground, some third way, some sort of compromise here. Why can’t the fundamentalists just say, “God created the Big Bang”? That’s something we might all go along with. Why not? God created the Big Bang as some kind of experiment, and then sat back to see what happened. He was curious to know what would happen if this mother of all explosions kicked off.

Let’s agree to go along with the religious folk (tee hee!) and agree that God created the Big Bang and therefore the universe, as long as they agree that everything that’s happened since then is down to physics and chemistry, biology and mathematics, and the processes that arise from them, including the self-directed actions of human beings, who alone are responsible for the things they do and the choices they make.

I’m happy to go along with the notion that God is observing us, like some kind of super-scientist, and long as religious folk agree to go along with my notion that God is NOT responsible for all the stupid, ignorant, superstitious, illogical, irresponsible stuff we get up to. And it’s not the Devil or some sort of evil force making us do the things we do and making us think the things we think. WE decide.

Look at it this way. Either God made everything and God directs all our actions, or he doesn’t. Surely an all-powerful God would be capable of defeating a mere Devil? Or is it God’s choice that there should be a Devil hanging around, tempting and corrupting, leading astray and spreading evil?

Is this what theologians and religious people get up to in their working lives and their spare time? Arguing and speculating about the powers of God and whether or not there’s a Devil, heaven and hell? Well it’s a WASTE OF TIME! I’m here to say - stop wasting precious time! Do something useful! Find a hobby that’s more enjoyable and more productive! Grow up! Stop being so childish and idiotic!

OK - you can have your God. He created the Big Bang, and then he either fucked off or He’s hanging around, taking notes, and putting bets on how long these idiot human beings are going to take before they manage to blow themselves up and exterminate the only intelligent, self-aware and self-directing life that’s ever existed in the entire history of time. End of.


Harold Rosen

Harold Rosen died on July 31st, 2008. He was a brave, committed, wise, visionary and wonderful human being. John Richmond’s obituary in the Guardian sums up his life and work and his impact on educational thinking.

Certain phrases and sentences stand out.

* a leader of thought in the world of English teaching in the second half of the 20th century. He and his colleagues forged and sustained a new understanding of the subject within the school curriculum

* Harold's own teachings, writings and activities illuminated many people's understanding of the relationship between language and learning, whatever the age of the learner and the content of the learning.

* In the politics of education, Harold fiercely resented - and, when he was still working, fought - the attacks on progressivism from within the Thatcher, Major and Blair governments.

* In 1936, (he) took part in the battle of Cable Street. It was the urgent clarity of the needs of those years - to defeat fascism and to liberate working-class people from every sort of poverty - that formed Harold politically.

* Returning to civilian life in 1947, it was clear to him, that the defeat of fascism must be only the necessary beginning of a shift towards more open and egalitarian societies in the victorious as well as the defeated nations.

* Mentally, he remained trenchant and analytical until the end, and joyful at news of gains in the long educational revolution in which he had played so prominent a part.

* Briefly put, the theory and practice that emerged at Walworth insists that the content of the curriculum that the teacher brings to the class must respect the culture and experience that the learner brings there. It sees the making of meaning in and through language as the essential act in which learners engage and which teachers help to bring about. It says that the best learning is a collaboration between teacher and learner, and between learner and learner.


Briefly put, this was what I most resented about my own school days, my contacts with teachers, at the first purpose-built comprehensive school in post-war Britain. The failure to show proper respect for the culture and the language that me, and people like me - my friends and relatives - espoused.

Fortunately it was a small minority of teachers that operated in a patronizing and dismissive way. I guess the majority of the staff were young(ish), idealistic, and very caring, very respectful.

But there was Mr Hottot, for instance: an Oxford graduate, as he so often told us, somewhat slumming it, in charge of our French department. It had to come out sometime, I guess. The man was a snob, an elitist, a patronizing, irritating twat. Who said things like, “I can’t understand your slovenly speech”. Yes - he’d like to have sent us to elocution lessons to cure us of our flat vowels, our insistence on having a baath instead of a barth, on following a paath instead of a parth. The fucker had the nerve to parachute into Shakespeare’s county and then try to condemn us for our Midlands accents, dialects and phraseology. Because we were working class. Because we used non-standard English and spoke with something other than Received Pronunciation. The Queen’s English.

So Harold - many thanks, and great respect, for all your work, all your efforts to show linguists and teachers how they should be going about their business - with respect for children and students, and a determination to help them their develop their own individual 'voices' and reach their own individual understandings of the world. It’s been a long and tortuous road towards enlightenment, and the enemies of equality and reason are still in the ascendancy, but the fight goes on.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Layer 63 Liverpool, Crosby, Gormley and Another Place.

Returning to a place, a city, after 35 years is bound to be interesting and memory-challenging. Approaching Liverpool I realized I could hardly remember a thing about the two weeks I’d spent there, on some kind of training or work experience, all those years ago. What had I done? Where had I been? There were no recollections of details, which presumably means that nothing interesting or exciting happened. I think it was in the middle of winter. I’ve no idea who I was with or what I did. Blank.

And now? Liverpool 2008 - European City of Culture. Ta - dah! Hundreds of millions of pounds, probably billions, invested in regeneration schemes and rebuilding. The first views of the city as we drove in from the motorway included whole terraces of Victorian houses completely boarded up - with the boards uniformly painted and patterned, presumably by Council artists, as if to say - ‘Look visitors - we’re a city of culture; we even make our clapped-out wrecks and ruins look funky and colourful’.

I’m troubled by the thought that I can’t even remember what Alexei Sayle said about Liverpool in his two-part documentary about the city on BBC last month. Is my memory becoming ever more feeble, or was there so little to be said, even by the wonderful Alexei, that was interesting and memorable? All that come to mind are some positive thoughts on the Liver Building and some negative ones on the Radio City tower.

Thankfully the weather was wonderful. People were strolling about in their summer finest as we walked into the Albert Docks area, looking for some action. First stop the tourist information office, looking for somewhere to stay.

Handy Travel Tip #1. Don’t expect anyone in a big city tourist bureau to have a clue about accommodation. Unlike someone in a place like Totnes or Torquay, for example, where they will gladly phone Mrs so and so a couple of streets away to check that she still has vacancies, city folk know Nothing At All, and will just stand there flicking through the local guide book which is stuffed full of paid adverts for hotels and guest houses, which is something you can perfectly well do for yourself, with a lot more speed and efficiency, as it happens.

Ask them how to book seats on the Magical Mystery Tour or how to get to the Beatles Experience, by all means, but nothing complicated, like where to stay. Which we were only doing because none of the places on the Internet B & B sites give phone numbers any more. It’s so passé , my dear! In cyberspace nobody books by phone any more, only ‘on line’. Nobody hears you scream, or cares about your frustration. And there’s nobody to discuss your needs or deal with your queries. Fit in or fuck off.

Handy Travel Tip #2. Don’t travel with someone you don’t intend to sleep with or don’t expect to share a room with, and make sure you’re feeling wealthy before you try to get a room at a regular hotel, where you will be forced to pay double. Because that’s just the way it is. Fixed price rooms. Buy one (bedspace), get one free. Or buy one, pay for the other one anyway. Fit in or fuck off. Absolute minimum price for a room in a budget hotel in Liverpool? Don’t expect much change from £60. And that’s without breakfast.

Handy Travel Tip #3. Don’t believe a word anyone in a tourist office tells you about distances and the time it takes to get to places. For “10 minutes walk” read “20 minutes forced march, assuming you don’t get lost.”

Handy Travel Tip #4. Use the university. If you’re not visiting during term time then the local Uni should offer you a single room in a hall of residence for £20 if you have your own sleeping bag or bed linen. £25 if you need bedclothes and pillows. This will be of particular interest if you’re young and penniless, old and penniless, or just plain penniless. Also if you resent paying too much money to hotel chains and would rather give it to a university.

Handy Travel Tip #5. If you’re in Liverpool you should try to make time to go a few miles up the coast and visit Crosby, where the Antony Gormley installation is spread out across the vast expanse of the beach. It’s called Another Place, and it’s wonderful. Even better, try to go to the beach at high tide, medium tide and low tide so that you can see it at different stages of the tide coming in and going out.

Another Place has traveled Northern Europe before finding its final and permanent resting place in Crosby. It consists of 100 metal casts of Gormley’s naked body, all spread out across the beach, mainly towards the low tide mark where the sand is covered with silt that looks like mud. The following website gives you a pretty good idea of how the pieces are arranged, but you need to wander around on the beach to really experience it properly.

What’s really interesting is how the more or less identical pieces have become 100 very similar but significantly different pieces, thanks to the effects of time and tide, and also human intervention. Rather like ourselves. Some of them now benefit from wigs made of sand, and some have daubs of paint on them. Depending on where they’re standing they show different degrees of corrosion and encrustation, and they have developed significant variations of colour.

When the beach is busy it can be difficult to spot some of the figures, as they seem to disappear from view when surrounded by real humans. Children happily play and make sandcastles right next to them. Nobody has any issues with their nakedness.

Of course when the tide comes in they remain standing still, staring out to sea, watching the big ferries and container ships entering and leaving Liverpool. The ones nearest the shipping lanes become completely engulfed by the sea with each ebb and flow of the tide. Their heads stay motionless, of course, whilst water and the waves flow and crash over them. How different are we? b

As for Liverpool itself, it’s certainly interesting. We had an excellent meal in a place called Bistro Pierre, including good wine, best ever crème caramel and excellent service.

“A super little French Bistro, this ticks all our boxes; fresh food, rustic furniture, exposed brick walls, candle-topped wax covered wine bottles. We enjoyed the cosy ambience here as much as the menu, which changes every month to accommodate fresh seasonal ingredients.”

The restaurant is situated in what’s called the Cavern Quarter. You may want to give Mathew Street itself a miss, especially if you don’t enjoy tourist traps, beggars and loud ‘dance’ music blaring from various bars and clubs. Try the webcam instead:

The Albert Docks regeneration is impressive in its way, but I personally found the area pretty soulless and pretty much cut off from the rest of the city. It suffers from comparison with St Catherine’s Docks, for example, where the nearness of the magnificent Tower Bridge and Tower of London add interest to what are, let’s be honest, some pretty monolithic and not altogether inspiring pieces of commercial architecture.

The new buildings in the vicinity of the docks are desperately dull and horribly clichéd - there are at least 3 large blocks that think they’re being terribly clever and cool and full of contemporary ‘vernacular’ since they’ve been shaped to resemble the bows of large ships. One such block would have been more than enough to signal the fact that this is the docks area of a major port city. Pity the architects and planners couldn’t see the difference between silly clunking cliché and interesting vernacular.

Did local people really want their city to be like this? Would the fabulous Liver Building, the splendid Cunard Building, or the magnificent Port of Liverpool Building be improved by having one end shaped like the prow of a ship? Of course not. They just do it because they can. The fact that the Cunard is 30 feet less in width at one end compared with the other may be a subtle signal that this is a maritime office block, but essentially it’s in the style a Venetian palace, which is what a dignified and timeless maritime building should look like, in my view. What Liverpool has now acquired is cheap, ridiculous tat, which diminishes, not adds to, a city with a proud tradition and a great history. Similar things could, and should, be said about Gloucester, Exeter and other English cities, of course. Don’t even get me started on Liverpool’s main pedestrianised shopping district.