Saturday, January 15, 2011

Layer 422 . . . More Music, BBC4, Sister Rosetta, Hugh Masekela, Chess Records, Roots of Rock, Tests, Exams, Children Under Pressure, Education, the Oldham Verdict, Barack and Cuba

Three wonderful programmes, back to back on BBC4 last night -

The Godmother of Rock & Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

During the 40s, 50s and 60s Sister Rosetta Tharpe played a highly significant role in the creation of rock & roll, inspiring musicians like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. She may not be a household name, but this flamboyant African-American gospel singing superstar, with her spectacular virtuosity on the newly-electrified guitar, was one of the most influential popular musicians of the 20th century.

In 2008 the state governor of Pennsylvania declared that henceforth January 11th will be Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day in recognition of her remarkable musical legacy.



Hugh Masekela: Welcome to South Africa

South African musician Hugh Masekela celebrates his 70th birthday and reflects on his career in performance and interview, from first picking up a trumpet in the 50s through the apartheid years, exile and stardom in America, his return to South Africa on Nelson Mandela's release, and concluding with his vision of the future for his country.

The programme also features performances from his 70th birthday concert at the Barbican in London in December 2009, where he was joined by the London Symphony Orchestra, their Community Choir and guest South African singers.


Roll over Beethoven - The Chess Records Saga

Chicago's Chess Records was one of the greatest labels of the post-war era, ranking alongside other mighty independents like Atlantic, Stax and Sun. From 1950 till its demise at the end of the 60s, Chess released a myriad of electric blues, rock 'n' roll and soul classics that helped change the landscape of black and white popular music.

Chess was the label that gave the world such sonic adventurers as Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf and Etta James. In this documentary to mark the label's 60th anniversary, the likes of Jimmy Page, Mick Hucknall, Public Enemy's Chuck D, Paul Jones and Little Steven, as well as those attached to the label such as founder's son Marshall Chess, pay tribute to its extraordinary music and influence.

The film reveals how two Polish immigrants, Leonard and Phil Chess, forged friendships with black musicians in late 1940s Chicago, shrewdly building a speciality blues label into a huge independent worth millions by the end of the 1960s. Full of vivid period detail, it places the Chess story within a wider social and historical context - as well as being about some of the greatest music ever recorded, it is, inevitably, about race in America during these tumultuous times.


The Tonight Programme (ITV)  - presenter: Julie Etchingham

Kids Under Pressure

We look behind the statistics that show a dramatic rise in the level of childhood depression over the course of a generation as Julie meets a young woman who has battled with the disease through her teenage years – and she hears from her mother about what it was like to support her daughter through such difficult times.

The programme investigates whether the current education system is adequately preparing children for the challenges they face in modern society and discovers how some schools are looking at new ways to improve pupils’ social and emotional skills, such as a revolutionary scheme involving children interacting with a baby in classes, as well as a ‘happiness class’ at one public school whose head teacher is critical of the emphasis on testing in mainstream education.

Do children have enough freedom nowadays? We meet the parents who have blocked off their own road to traffic to give their kids the chance for the kind of free independent play that was once commonplace. The programme also questions mental health issues and behavioural problems children are experiencing, as well as body image anxiety.

Are our children in crisis?

Why is there continuous testing in schools?

Are we raising a generation of troubled children?

Grounds for concern - Britain was ranked bottom in a UN survey of children's wellbeing in 21 countries around the world.

Are today's kids happy? A Mumsnet survey revealed that 1 in 4 parents think their  kids are less happy than they were at the same age. "A large majority of mums and dads are worried about the education system, the freedom for kids to play, and the pressure on kids to grow up too soon."

"Even David Cameron has said that happiness is an important indicator of child wellbeing." Well - duh! Genius.

The Mumsnet spokeswoman said, "We expect children to perform in ways that we didn't so aggressively before . . . competitive pressures now appear very early on in children's lives."

The programme talked about the devastating consequences of all this for a significant minority. There's been a 70% increase in children suffering from serious emotional problems since the 1970s. We're failing to protect the children who are most at risk.

10% of all adolescents have diagnosable mental health problems. 80,000 of our young people suffer from depression. Kids who were healthy, confident and outgoing become ill as a result of adult expections for them to achieve test and exam targets. "My emotions felt out of control, and I couldn't see a way forward. I thought my parents would be better off without me. I was causing them so much misery. I was desperate. Really desperate." So said one articulate and intelligent girl. "I decided that enough was enough and I tried to kill myself."

"I love walking the dog now. It gives you space to think. It's my way of de-stressing." This young woman is now 20 and still talks about anxiety and stress. This is an appalling situation. So many of our young people are burnt out, afraid of life, troubled every day, incapable of joy, incapable of embracing life.

"It's been hell," said Anabelle's mum. "The pressures on young people are so hard. Academically there's SO much pressure. Greater than there's ever been. They find it so difficult to cope."

Of course we were treated to a look at Wellington College's "happiness classes". "The focus is on helping a child develop meaning in their own lives," said Anthony Seldon, head of the college. "Also a sense of self worth and self esteem. An ability to face the trials and problems that will inevitably be part of anyone's life."

Yes, Anthony. But PLEASE don't call them 'happiness classes'. That's just ammunition for your enemies. I do like it though when he goes on to say, "An excessive emphasis on testing is putting unneccessary pressure on our children. The whole school system is skewed towards the passing of these frankly pretty meaningless bits of paper. How sad when schools could move towards truly identifying and nurturing every single child's innate and unique gifts. Because if they're not drawn out when children are at school they'll remain dormant for the rest of their lives."

Two thirds of the parents who took part in the Mumsnet survey said there's too much testing in our schools. Sarah Teather, Minister for children and families, rather pathetically said the usual rubbish - schools and parents need feedback on how children are 'getting on', blah blah . . . As if she's never heard of continuous formative assessment for progress through clear learning targets. As if regular weekly and monthly feedback on coursework isn't far more useful than high-stakes exams.

She rather unexpectedly went on to say, "However, we do recognise that there's  a tendency in schools to teach to the tests, and that's the last thing we need. It's not good for children, and it's not good for teachers."

So why not get rid of  "these frankly pretty meaningless bits of paper" and ensure that proper systems for pupil progress tracking are put in place? Afraid that schools might 'cheat', minister? Well then - get rid of league tables as well. Do that, and there's really no point in cheating. And in any case groups of schools can organise their own verification and moderation procedures, which need cost very little in either time or money. Unlike our disgracefully wasteful exam systems.

The programme went on to consider children's needs to explore their own worlds, make their own discoveries, and just play together.
78% of parents say their children don't spend enough time playing outdoors.

Independent, non-structured activity is crucial for developing life skills, forming friendships, developing emotional intelligence, etc.

75% of parents say their working day is too long, leaving them too little time for their children.

Typical working mums and dads spend just 19 minutes a day 'looking after their kids'.

The programme also dealt with the pressure put on kids to look "attractive", "sexy", etc. And to buy and own all the 'right' gadgets and gizmos.

How do we "give children the tools they will need to tackle the challenges of growing up"?

There was mention of a "Roots of Empathy" programme on the Isle of Man - to help children to "strengthen their emotional ties to other people". The idea is to "reduce aggression and improve social skills". The children learn to "understand how other people feel - through being able to put themselves in other people's situations." Bringing babies into classrooms is an important part of this scheme.

"We're giving them the emotional literacy that will last a lifetime."

"We want them to be able to share their emotions so that we don't have so much aggression in society." Almost there. Empathy - emotions - feelings: we still have some sorting out to do.

"If our kids are happier and more considerate they'll be better able to face the challenges ahead."

Dr Tony Sewell of the charity Generating Genius appeared in the programme, talking about 'targeting the cleverest kids and preparing them for university'. Though it seems like an elitist programme, at least Sewell is advocating learning science through proper first-hand experience and experimentation. This, of course, should be available to all children.

The presenter summed up by saying, "It may now be a matter of political will to drive through the changes that could benefit ALL of our children."

MAY be a matter of political will? Let's just say the current generation of teachers and headteachers can barely even organise a boycott of KS2 SATs, so they're hardly going to drive through the major changes that are needed of their own accord. SATs have to go. Tracking systems for pupil progress in ALL areas of learning - academic, social, emotional, etc - have to be brought in. Pedagogy has to change to give all children the ability and the opportunity to learn through activity, experience and interaction. Pupils should be setting their own learning targets. All of the ideas of Paulo Freire, and of the New Learning Revolution need to be adopted. Other countries are already doing it. It's outrageous that Britain isn't.


The Labour party still has to change

Despite the victory in Oldham, the next election won't fall into our lap. We must become the progressives' champion

by Ed Miliband

The first real electoral test for this Conservative-led government has revealed people's deep sense of unease about the direction in which our country is being led, and their anger at promises so solemnly made and yet so casually broken.

I believe that unease stems from misgivings shared right across Britain on the three arguments that will dominate the year ahead: the economy; the damage being done to the next generation; and the way we conduct politics. From the trebling of student debt, to capitulation on bankers' bonuses and a VAT rise squeezing working families, this government is showing it shares neither their values nor their hopes for the future.


Oldham East and Saddleworth byelection: Trouble for the Tories

David Cameron faces the anger of the Conservative right after the party lost more than half of their votes in the constituency



This piece on Miliband is well worth a read:


This is brilliant. I was beginning to think this would never happen. Great timing Mr President - a brilliant challenge to the Tea Party mob, in the aftermath of Arizona.

Barack Obama acts to ease US embargo on Cuba

President brings end to travel and finance bans in place since 1959 in move which will help his standing with American left

Barack Obama has eased America's long-standing embargo on Cuba, allowing many Americans to travel there for the first time and increasing the amounts that they can invest in the island.

Other changes announced by the president will allow all US international airports to accept flights to and from Cuba; at present, chartered flights are restricted to Miami and a handful of other airports. The moves represent an important step to rapprochement between the US and Cuba.


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