Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Memories of Sec Mod school

Emma-Louise Williams and I have started a blogspot to build a living archive of memories of life and education in Secondary Modern Schools in Britain between 1944 and the early 70s.

It's a story that has never been told even though over two-thirds of the school population at any given time were going through the secondary modern schools.

We're inviting anyone who had experience of the schools to send in comments.

Here's the address:


The end of State Education, at last.

"Good evening, thanks very much for asking me to give this year's Rupert Murdoch Lecture on education - and thanks first to him for being a beacon of truth in a sea of lies and misinformation. Today marks the day when we have finally got rid of state education. This great parasitic octopus that has sucked the lifeblood out of the nation and delivered to those of us in business millions of illiterates will, under this government, have its tentacles removed and its body buried.

Please welcome in its place: variety, diversity, specialism and choice. Put it this way, if you're a parent, you will quite literally have no idea who your local school is funded by or how. It could be national government, local government, a church or other religious organisation, a business, a charity, a trust, a foundation - or all 7 at the same time. Exciting or what?

Apart from some key features of the curriculum - like phonics - central government are butting out of education. They're leaving it to the real experts - teachers, interested business people like me, and any organisation prepared to take on schools. On the minister's desk at this very moment are proposals from zoos, oil companies, banks, third world charities, housing companies, Oxford colleges, my business - weapon systems - and many more. Who knows, in a year or two's time you could well find opening up next to you the Facebook Primary School, the Royal Bank of Scotland High, Oxfam Academy or whatever.

And look, in widening up these opportunities for schools, teachers and pupils, I'm pleased to say that the government are going to look again at the old division between fee-paying and non-fee-paying schools. I have in mind that once we've broken the grip of the revolutionary communists and trotskyists who run local government across England, we'll be able to introduce means testing into the schools that used to be public sector. In other words, those who can afford it, will pay.

To those who say that the longterm consequence of all this is that some schools will go to the wall, I say, so what? That kind of school doesn't deserve to stay open. That will be a school with poor teachers letting down the children. So pupils and teachers can decamp to the good school down the road. In fact, there will be exciting times in many children's school careers where they will literally be roving the streets looking for a school to go to. It's what we do when we hunt for a bargain, so no reason why it shouldn't  be like that when choosing a school. "

Monday, 30 January 2012

Opening soon: The Richard Branson School, House of Saud School; Apple Mac School etc etc

Gor blimey,  you have to move quick to keep up with these Tories on education.

I was listening to 'Analysis' on BBC Radio 4 this evening: 'Do Schools Make a Difference?'  (The answer to that question, by the way, was 'not much' or, to be precise: 10%. The other 90% was 'background' and schools couldn't and don't affect that. ) The programme's line at the end, though, was that if you become a teacher and you have no optimism that you can 'make a difference' then you won't help anyone. So best to be an optimist. (I think I've got the dimensions of what was being suggested here.)

The programme leant towards the idea that all that New Labour stuff about school improvement was by and large tosh and was little more than a massive perk for New Labour trusties embedded in universities concocting 'research' which proved that this or that process 'worked'. More chattily, the programme came to the exciting new conclusion that a good school is....er....one with good teachers. (I kid you not.) However, no one on the programme could make the intellectual effort to consider ways in which teachers could be given incentives and structures to help them develop - (which I've always believed can be achieved by teachers researching their own work and sharing their study with each other.)

Mr Mossbourne (previously of this parish,now residing in Ofsted), Michael Wilshaw got his usual crack of the whip to tell us that schools needed a good headteacher and....er....good teachers.

But never mind all that - what exactly is today's Tory line on education? Last week, you'll remember Michael Gove was going down the market to flog them off - 'Not just one. Not just two. But three lovely schools - look, I'm throwing a playing field in on top for you. And a caretaker. How about that? To the woman in blue. Not for 1 million, not for 500 thou, not even ladies for 250 - take the whole lot with a recycling bin thrown in for a one hundred grand. Take it or leave it. Are you with me or against me? Let me see the colour of your money...'

Now Nick Gibb's line is slightly different. He seems to be saying, 'anything goes so long as it's good'. Yes, he said that the Tories were going to abolish 'top-down' directives. That's all over. (Tell that to the Haringey parents who are having their schools forced into Academy status! Tell that to the Year 1 teachers teaching initial reading with phonics only and preparing for the phonics test for 6 year olds. Not top-down? That sort of thing is more top-down than  an Olympic toboggan race.) What the Tories are aiming for is diversity. So that if parents wanted to have a 'traditional' school, there'd be one for them. If they wanted a 'progressive one' with 'child-centred learning' there'd be one of them.

Yes, you heard it here: Tory minister says that if parents want the kind of schools that they've been mocking and despising for the last 40 years, then so long as it's good, says Nick Gibb Schools Minister, that's fine by him.

Yes, you have to run to keep up with these guys. We're looking at a moment in history where the role of the state in education is changing very fast. I suspect that within ten years they will have created an education system that is essentially an archipelago of institutions run by a mix of trusts, consortia, hustlers, charities, private companies with a complex network of scholarships, subsidies, sponsorships and the like.

We will be wrong to describe this as either the 'market' or 'state education'. This will be hybrid education; a hunting ground for 'outsourced providers' turning up with truckloads of 'materials'. If you were to mass together all the theatres in this country and asked, 'What kind of system is that?' you would see everything from commercial theatres, theatres run by a trust trying to get money from local authorities or the Arts Council, some with monies from an old foundation,  - some with some kind of social commitment, some with none, some in upstairs rooms of pubs, some apparently lavish and so on. Maybe that's what schools will be like.

So,look if you work for a charity, an outsourced provider (eg refuse collecting), some kind of educational trust or charity, a university or if you're just plain bloody rich, then education is your new frontier. I predict it's a matter of months before we have the Richard Branson School alongside the Gulbenkian Foundation School alongside the House of Saud School alongside the Apple Mac School, all the present faith schools, specialist schools, free schools, private schools and so on.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

I've waived my bonus

"I would just like to say that I have made a decision to waive my bonus. I have looked at my salary of 23 trillion pounds and after a good deal of thought, I came to the view that I don't need 85 trillion shares in the company. I think you will all agree that this represents a victory for common sense and fair play. I get to keep my 23 trillion quid and the company just hands out the 85 trillion shares to some other guy sucking up the surplus. As we say here at the Bank, some people stick their bullion in trunks, we stick our trunks into the bullion and hoover up the bloody lot.

Look, as the captain of the slave-ship said to his slaves, we're all in the same boat - now row faster you bastards.

Good man. And he certainly collected his bullion in a trunk when he sold the lot in Trinidad.

I digress.

We live in straitened times. And I want to be straight with you. I work damned hard. And I have an enormous brain. That's why I need to be paid in trillions. People who are lazy and have small brains - that's all of you, don't need trillions. Why not?

One: you wouldn't know what to spend it on. You're too stupid.
Two: if you had loads of money you wouldn't come and work for me or any other slave driver. And then where would we be?

So you get fuck all and a slice of bread and I get 23 trillion. Roll on next year when I get my bonus back.

Take those glum looks off your faces, for chrissake. Don't tell me you suffer from depression. Depression? Gettit????

Never mind."

Let's put the beating back into Labour.

"Hi! Look, there are major problems in our society - poverty, inequality, bad health, computer games, attention deficit disorder, dirty floors, imported tomatoes, climate change, pornography, fat cats, thin cats - and all of them could be solved if working class parents knew for certain they could smack their kids. I'm not talking about middle class people here. They're fine. It's working class people. They come up to me and say, 'Hi! We want to thrash our kids but the bloody middle class tossers who run everything say that we can't. If we do, we'll be hauled up in front of the beak.'

And that's where we're letting them down. And we saw what happened. Lawless, feral kids smashing up everything. If they had been beaten throughout their childhood, there'd be no rioting, I can tell you. Those feral kids would have respected their elders. Good elders like the police for example, who only take 300 quid a 'ping' from journalists in order to locate stars' mobiles; and who have cleaned up their act since the Lawrence case, I can tell you. Oh yes. Look at the Mark Duggan case. Completely cleaned up. Well, no. Not like that. I mean, yes. And er no. Good. Yes. Ahem.

Anyway, beating kids makes kids respect the person who beats them. I was thrashed when I was a kid and I respect the police. There you have it. You see, it's  a matter of mind over body. You thrash me and my mind respects your body. And your mind. Yes. But if you don't thrash me, I don't respect your mind or your body. Or anyone. You see,working class people haven't got minds. That's why they can't use their minds to bring about respect. So we must give them back the right to thrash.  Middle class people are different. They don't need to thrash kids because they've got minds.

I know that some middle class people do thrash their kids.And good luck to them. Take David Cameron. If he had been older he could have thrashed Boris Johnson. Look, I'm of the school that says, what's good enough for the toffs is good enough for us.

Let's use the lamming in Lammy and put the beating back into Labour. As I say to my three year old girl, c'mon, son, look at me like that again, and I'll have you."

How to profit from your education.

"Many exciting new developments are happening in education at the moment. We are finally breaking the grip that revolutionary communists have had over your children and in their place bringing in the business community with their long record of superb management of the British and world economy. Schools can now choose to be run by anyone who knows how to make a profit. What we do is shovel tax-payers' money towards these companies up to and beyond a level where they can provide their share-holders with juicy dividends.

People have said to me, but surely, you believe in socially agreed and administered norms to guide us in how we run schools? Indeed, we have spent the last hundred years and more developing the systems of inspection, government commissions, exams, league tables, school management, governors to run education. Well, I'm getting rid of all this. From now on, there is only one measure of education: money. Of course, we will carry on with exams and testing and all that but the purpose of all this is to use all results and positionings on league tables and the rest as a form of market research and measurement of competitiveness.

In the past, I know that some people have wondered if it's the job of education to serve business (or capitalism as some would call it). I don't think we need to ask that question any more. Under this new dispensation: education doesn't serve capitalism. It IS capitalism.



Friday, 27 January 2012

Good news from Jerusalem

Today an email arrived with some good news:

Dear Friends,
The Government of Israel has accepted the Israeli Supreme Court recommendation that my residency be reinstated. I have been granted 2 years' residence on the basis of a Jerusalem Identity Card, and pending good behavior, shall receive permanent residence thereafter.

I am deeply indebted to all of you and extremely grateful for your kind support during this year of particular uncertainty. There is still much work to be done for resolution in line with international law for the 130,000+ Palestinians whose residency has been revoked by the Government of Israel.

With Best Wishes,

Munther Fahmi

The Bookshop
at American Colony Hotel
Tel: 02- 627 9731
Join me on Twitter: @muntherfahmi1

Here's how the Guardian reported it:

The Palestinian owner of an celebrated Jerusalem bookshop patronised by politicians, diplomats, authors and activists has won a rare victory in a six-year battle to be allowed to remain in the city of his birth.

Munther Fahmi, the proprietor of the small but well-stocked bookshop at the legendary American Colony hotel, said he was overjoyed at the news, received on Thursday, that he had been granted a temporary residency permit by the Israeli authorities. He and his lawyer are optimistic it will be made permanent after two years.

Fahmi's campaign to be allowed to remain in Jerusalem is backed by eminent literary figures including the Israeli authors Amos Oz and David Grossman and British and Irish writers including Ian McEwan, Roddy Doyle, John Banville and Simon Sebag Montefiore.

Following the reprieve, his immediate plan was to book a trip to the London Book Fair in April, he told the Guardian, confident he would be admitted back into Israel. "This has been a huge strain. I have been living with uncertainty for 15 years, unable to plan my life. Every time I left the country, I didn't know if I could come back."

The threat stemmed from Fahmi's absence from Jerusalem for almost 20 years, which resulted in him losing his residency permit. Despite having been born and brought up in Jerusalem, he had been forced to rely on a series of tourist visas since returning in 1997.

Thousands of Palestinians have lost the right of residency in the city under similar circumstances. According to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, in 2006 there were more than 1,300 revocations, although fewer than 200 in 2010. Human rights groups say the measure is an attempt to keep a Jewish majority in the city, pointing out that the restrictions apply only to Palestinian residents.

Fahmi was born in Jerusalem in 1954. In 1967, Israel captured and later annexed the east of the city, then under Jordanian rule. Fahmi's family, along with most other Palestinians in Jerusalem, declined to take Israeli citizenship and were instead granted permanent residency.

At the age of 18, Fahmi left to study in the US. He married, had a child, acquired American citizenship and built an insurance business. Initially he returned regularly to Jerusalem in order to retain his residency, which can be revoked after an absence of seven years.

In the heady, optimistic period following the signing of the Oslo accords, Fahmi decided to return to live in the city of his birth. He opened the bookshop in 1998, stocking it with Israeli, Palestinian and international authors. The crowded shelves include history, political commentary, fiction, poetry and travel guides. It has become a magnet for visitors – tourists, pilgrims and dignitaries – and locals wanting to read about the Holy Land and the wider region.

But Fahmi had lost his residency permit, instead counting on a three-month tourist visa every time he re-entered the country after a trip abroad. Six years ago he started a legal battle to get his residency rights reinstated.

Two years ago, the Israeli authorities told him they would issue no more tourist visas, and Fahmi would have to leave. His appeal on humanitarian grounds was granted this week.

Fahmi said the international support for his battle "had a huge impact, and rightly so". He paid tribute to Andrew Franklin, founder of Profile Books, who had "relentlessly steered" the campaign. "My first plan when I get to London is to hug and thank him," he said.

The decision, he said, was "good news for people who want to see Israel in a different light". The state should be concerned about its "growing isolationism".

But, he added, there were still "tens of thousands of Palestinians whose residency rights have been revoked. I hope they too get reinstatement."

Not Just For Them: a story for Holocaust Memorial Day

This is about France
This is about Germany
This is about Jews.
This is not about France
This is not about Germany
This is not about Jews.

In the family they were always the French uncles
The ones who where there before the war
The ones who weren’t there after the war
The family said that one of them was a dentist
And the other one mended clocks and that’s it.
Not quite it. There was a street that the relatives
Here and in America kept saying, which was:
Rue de thionville, rue de thionville
And places in France: Nancy, Metz, Strasbourg
And one of the brothers was Oscar and the other was Martin
And that was it. Though Olga, in America
Nearly as small as a walnut, said that she used
To write letters to them to learn how to write French
And Michael here in England said that he used to
Write letters to them to learn how to write French
And that was it. That’s how it was, they said.
Michael knew how it was. His mother was the sister
Of the French uncles and she waved him goodbye
When he was 17 and that was the last he saw of her.
And that was it. But I wouldn’t let it go and I
Started looking for the rue de thionville and at an
Airport I met a guy who came from Metz and he said
He would go to the mairie, the town hall, and look
Up Oscar and Martin, rue de thionville and he did
Or says he did and he wrote back to say he didn’t find
Anything. And that was that. But then Teddy in America
Wrote to say that some letters have turned up, a son
Of a brother of a mother or something and he’s got letters from 1941
And they’re from Oscar, and they’re from Michael’s father
And oh my god they’re asking for help, they’re letters
To Max , look I know the names won’t mean much to you,
I’ve been living with this stuff and I don’t even know why
I’ve tried so hard to find out about it, but there were these
Brothers and sisters, all born in Poland, one of them is
Michael’s mother. That’s Stella, she stayed there,
married Bernard, there are the ones who went to France
that’s Oscar and Martin; there’s Max who went to America
along with Morris that’s my father’s father.  I know the names.
So when I see the letters I know who they are, Oscar asking Max
for help, Bernard asking that money should be sent to Michael
who is now in Siberia, he doesn’t know that he’ll never see
his son again, and I’m looking at the letters, and there’s
an address in France, not rue de Thionville, in Metz
or Nancy or Strasbourg. It’s 11 rue Mellaise, remember that
in Niort in Deux Sevres. The other side of France.
And I start to read about how they all fled, everyone fled
‘L’exode’ they called, it, Exodus, everyone fled from the east
To the west, and here’s Oscar in the west in Niort
Deux Sevres...11 rue mellaise, remember the address
I find the house on google, there it is, a shop downstairs
A flat above, the French street, the shutters, the grey
Render of the walls, the kind of place I’ve walked down
A thousand times on trips to the country I love to be in
The place I discovered things I couldn’t buy or have
In England in the 1960s: jus de pomme in big brown bottles,
Fresh melons, blue vests, espadrilles, I didn’t even
Know why it mattered and here was 11 rue mellaise
The kind of place I would have liked to have stayed in
But this was the address for the last letter any of us have
From Oscar. And that was that. But I wouldn’t let go
Of it, and I started looking for what happened to Jews
In Niort, in Deux-Sevres and I found books which spoke of
‘rafles’, round-ups and a  young rabbi who did all he could
But it wasn’t enough and every time I found a book
I went to the index to look for the name, Rosen. It’s
Something I’ve done, looking for my own name, or
The name of my brother or father or mother but now
I was looking for Oscar or Martin, and then, somewhere
I found something that I should have known about but
Didn’t. Le fichier juif, the Jewish file, the document or dossier of
Jews.  In France, there’s a job called Prefect and Sub-prefect
Like local officials and these prefects and sub-prefects
Carefully wrote out the names of every Jew, date of birth,
Place of birth, job, married to...names of children. And there
In one of the books was page 1 of the fichier juif for
Deux-Sevres.  But where was this fichier juif, I wanted to
Know, I don’t know why, and it seems as if most of the
Fichier juifs just disappeared after the war, they just
Slipped away and would have been lost, vanished
But for some reason a pile of them turned up in a
Basement of a building and carefully and slowly
They had been put together and copied but all I
Could see was page one. A facsimile of page one.
And that was that. But then at the back of a book
I found the name of another book: ‘Les chemins
De la honte,itineraire d’une persecution, Deux-Sevres
1940-1944', by Jean-Marie Pouplain....the path of shame
The account of a persecution, Deux-Sevres 1940-1944
And I ordered it. It arrived into a house we were
On the verge of moving out of, so there was
Something temporary and on the move about
Us at that point but the book arrived and I pulled
Off the cardboard packaging and I did what I’ve done before
I looked in the index for Rosen and it said, 34, 65,
And I turned to page 34 and there was the fichier juif
And number 40,it said, 'Rosen, Jeschie, né le 23 juin,
1895, polonaise,bonneterie, marié a Kesler, Rachel,née en 1910,
11 rue mellaise.' Some things very right, some things not so right
The name Jeschie, Oh I figured it was a nickname. Jews have Hebrew
Names and sometimes their Christian names are echoes of the
Hebrew names, perhaps he was Oscar because it sounded like
Yehoshua and the Yiddish nickname of Yehoshua was perhaps Jeschie..
But the job, ‘bonneterie’ it means the person who sells clothes
In the market. Not a dentist or a clockmaker and I slowly
Looked up each number and each page number told what
The prefect and the sub-prefect carefully wrote down, how
Jeschie and Rachel were given their yellow stars, how they
Had to pin a sign saying Entreprise Juive, Judisches Geschaft
Jewish business to their market stall, how everything they owned
Was taken away from them in a process called ‘aryanisation’
The business was Aryanised...whatever that meant and there
On one of the entries it said that Jeschie was an ‘horloger de
Carillon’ – a mender of chiming clocks. But what about the
Last pages? and I turned to the last page numbers –
Page 234 and 236, 240 and 245 and  Jeschie Rosen
Was arrested outside of Deux-Sevres, he seems to have tried
To get away, ‘clandestinement’ – secretly but was picked up
somewhere else and then he and Rachel appear on another
document, the lists that the Nazis made in Paris of every Jew
they put on what the French called ‘convois’ – ‘convoys’
and there they are on convoy 62, leaving Paris on November
20 1943 going to Auschwitz.
And when I had read all that, as I stood there with the book
In my hand I knew that I was the first person in the family to know
All this and it felt like I had to tell everyone and I sat down
And started to write a letter to all the relatives which I
Didn’t finish because I had to go and find out – and I knew
Where to look – how many people were on that convoy, how long
Did it take to get to Auschwitz, what happened the moment
The train arrived, how many never came back, how many

I read: 1200 Jews left Paris/Bobigny  at 11.50 am on November 20 1943
Arrived Auschwitz November 25, as cabled by SS Colonel Liebenhenschel
1181 arrived.
There had been 19 escapees, they were young people
who escaped at 8.30pm Nov 20 near Lerouville.
In the convoy there were  83 children who were less than 12 years old.
Out of the convoy 241 men were selected for work and given numbers
Women numbered 69036 - 69080 were selected too.
914 were gassed straightaway
In 1945, there were 29 survivors - 27 men 2 women.

I looked over what I wrote before I sent it off to my brother,
And my cousins who would pass it on to Michael and to Max’s
Son in America  –  who I haven’t told you is 103 years as I write this,
I thought about what kind of war was it, what kind of people
Was it, who looked at a mender of clocks and his wife and put
Them in a document, made them wear a yellow star, made them
Put a sign up on their market stall, took their money away
From them, arrested them, put them in a transit
Camp, put them on a train and sent them to a camp in Poland
Where they were killed.  This is a story about France,
A story about Germany, a story about Jews. This is a story
That’s not about France, not about Germany, not about Jews.
I found these things out in order to know. I found these
Things out, I know now,  in order to tell other people.
 I found these things out so that Jeschie and Rachel will be known
But in the end I know that the point of them being known is
That this is a story not just for them and about them.

london underground: shoving etc

...london underground there are shovers, passers and divers. shovers shove. passers pass. divers dive in front of you at the last possible moment. I'm thinking: shovers are shovey people, passers are passy, divers are divey. shovers shove their feet into shoes, shove bad thoughts to the back of their minds. passers pass you on the stairs in a movement of air, pass their thoughts around their minds in a flow. divers dive in to get to the seat in front of you, dive to dodge a thought.

probably not.  this is too fixed. on monday I did a bit of shoving. day before yesterday I did some neat passing. yesterday I did a dive...

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Oswald Mosley and Holocaust Memorial Day

In the many different ways, people will be looking at the Holocaust, I don't suppose too many will look at the strange story of Oswald Mosley. And yet, I can think of half a reason why perhaps he'd be worth including. The events of what has come to be called the Holocaust are of course focused on what the Nazis thought and did. (For my own clarity of mind, I tend to use some other words than 'Holocaust' because it's not always clear enough for my liking whether people are talking about some or all victims of Nazism. So, if the conversation is specifically about Jewish victims, I prefer the phrase 'the attempted genocide of the Jews'. Of course, the Nazis targeted many types of people (as they saw them), some specifically for genocide, some for extermination on the basis of their state of mind, some for extreme confinement, some for slave labour and so on. I feel much more comfortable if we remember all these victims by being precise about who they were, what the Nazis intended to do with them, what they actually did to them and, if possible, to figure out why.

A good part of Holocaust Memorial Day has come to be about the conversations with young people - education, in other words. But what do you say about it all? How? And why?

This isn't going to be a summary of HMD materials for schools - far from it. I'd just like to raise the question of whether there's any reason or usefulness in thinking about what Oswald Mosley wanted to do, actually did and how or why he didn't succeed.

In a recent book, 'Battle for the East End, Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s' by David Rosenberg (Five  Leaves), you get a clear picture of how Mosley's fascism evolved. Put much more crudely than DR puts it, there's a clear road from the authoritarian, anti-democratic model full of praise for strong, young, clean, vigorous, healthy men to a specifically racist party with most of that racism directed towards Jews. This is a reminder that fascist parties and fascist regimes don't necessarily target and scapegoat a specific group. Their function and purpose is wider than that - it's about the nature of how to run a government, an economy and a society: an authoritarian capitalism, with extreme limitations on freedom and human rights. Mosley figured that simply banging on about that wasn't going to get him to become Britain's generalissimo. So, he adopted the Hitler method (not the version tried by Mussolini, his first love); in other words, Mosley changed tack. He thought, by going for the Jews he was on to a winner.

David Rosenberg's argument is that one of the reasons (neither he nor I would say that it's the only reason) why it wasn't a success was an organisation called the Jewish People's Council Against Fascism and Anti-semitism. This grassroots, umbrella organisation, capable of drawing in tens of thousands of people including allies and sympathisers from outside the specifically Jewish groups, put at its heart a humanistic defence of people against persecution and for 'harmony'.  

Now, this story of a fascist who found racism and a targeted minority who found self-defence seems to me to be a particularly interesting and relevant story to tell.

That said, I should declare my interest! Several interests. My parents were 17 years old when Mosley tried to march through the area where they lived, London's East End. They were also Mosley's specific targets in the day-to-say thuggery that his follows went in for on the streets. They were also very active in one of the most powerful bits of community action that undermined Mosley - the big rent strikes. Mosley tried to recruit  non-Jewish tenants of the East End to his British Union of Fascists by saying that they were being swindled and cheated by Jewish landlords. By organising tenants' action (the Stepney Tenants' Defence League) in which thousands of Jews and non-Jews took part together, it completely wrecked Mosley's efforts to describe all Jews as racketeering landlords, and the rest of the whole anti-semitic bundle to do with Jews only owing allegiance to each other and/or being part of some conspiracy to achieve ends only of benefit to Jews.

Yes, at one level all a far cry from the terrible mass slaughter of the genocides and persecutions of the Nazi era. At another level, though, a keyhole into what fascists and racists try to do, and what we can do to oppose them.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Poor people are too rich

"Good evening. Since my last talk, people have been saying to me, 'What's going on? What's happening?' So, tonight I'm going to roll up my sleeves and explain some things.

We're in trouble at the moment. Every single one of us. But why? It's simple. Poor people are too rich. Many of them work in places like hospitals and schools. This has brought the world economy to its knees.

Rich people have told us they need more money so what we're doing is rolling up our sleeves and taking money from the poor people and giving it to the rich people. Then the rich people will roll up their sleeves and save the world economy.

Of course there is a tiny minority of rich people who do bad things. And we take this very seriously indeed. We say to them, 'Naughty!'  And I'm pleased to say that even the Labour Party - who brought the world economy to its knees - are saying much the same thing. We all say, 'Naughty!' So no one accuse us of not taking this matter very seriously indeed.

Tomorrow, I'm going to explain how we're working very closely with hedge fund managers, currency traders and tax avoidance companies to save the world economy.

Good night."

What to do if you see a poor person.

"Good evening. These are hard times. Many of you are feeling the pinch and I feel your pain. But we know why  it's so hard for you. It was the last government. They spent and spent and spent until they brought the world economic system to its knees. And now we're rolling up our sleeves and picking up the pieces.

First of all we've got to tackle waste.  People say to me, look at all the people being paid out of the public purse. And I say, exactly. That's the kind of thing that had the world economic system on its knees.

Now, we've tried all sorts of ways to stop all this silly spending. We've got to get people back to work. There are jobs. All sorts of jobs. Big jobs. Small jobs.Tiny jobs. Tiny, tiny, tiny jobs. Jobs with pay. Jobs without pay. But they're all jobs. And there are loads of them.  And we need to get people doing them. And they won't do them if we folk in government keep giving them money. The last government - who brought the world economic system to its knees - went on giving and giving and giving.

We're going to stop that. But we need your help. So we're starting something new. We've already launched the Big Society. And a great success it's been with big society thingies happening all over the place. And small ones. And tiny ones. And tiny,tiny,tiny ones. Everywhere. Marvellous.

Now we're launching the Big Sod Society. This is where you can do your bit. Here's how: if you're in the supermarket and you see a poor person buying something - go up to them and say, 'Hey you, where did you get that money from?' If they say, they got it by working for it, you can leave them alone. But if they say they're on benefits of any kind, kick them.

This is how we're going forward.

Good night."

Iain Duncan Smith turns nastiness into an art form.

Iain Duncan Smith gives the impression of not having to try very hard to be nasty. Today, the Evening Standard reported him as saying of certain families: "They are incentivised, many of these families, to find more children so that they can stay out of work. This is utterly wrong and it's a benefit system which desperately needs change."

The Standard's headline was: 'IDS says families have babies to claim benefits'.

Of course, you can imagine that NewNewLabour would get stuck into IDS on this one. Well, you might imagine it, but that's not the Party spirit of the moment. Here's how the Standard reported it: 

'His comments sparked an immediate backlash. Labour frontbencher Karen Buck said: "Iain Duncan Smith needs to think with great care before making these crass statements."'

What?! He needs to think about it?! That's the problem, Karen Buck. He did think. Then he opened his mouth and the poison fell out. Don't you get it? The Tories are trying to get poor people to eat each other. They have fairly successfully got whole sections of the people to think that in some complicated way the public sector caused the world economic crisis. Having more or less sold this lie, they proceeded to slash away at whole chunks of our public services, sacking thousands of people, while media jerks talk of unemployment as a most unfortunate side effect of Tory policy. It's not a side-effect, guys; it is the pre-planned intended effect. There have been signs of some fightback against these lies and attacks, but Miliband and Balls have signalled that they won't be backing any of it. They've handed the whole battlefield over to the Tories. Shameful. 

But then along comes belt-and-braces IDS, who wants to make sure that any anger against the cuts is defused, so he makes up stories, hoping to unleash a storm of rage from one set of people affected by the cuts, straight at an even poorer group of people affected by the cuts. 

And in the face of this nastiness, all that the NewNewLabour spokesperson could summon up was that IDS should bloody think with great care! Blimey, we don't want him to do any more thinking or he'll be thinking up vigilante schemes to attack pensioners. 

Perhaps she could have said that there was strong evidence that very rich people have babies so that they can pass on their wealth in ways that usually involve tax-avoidance. The thing about trying to work the benefit system is that you don't get very much and more often than not you get done for it. The thing about working the inheritance tax avoidance systems is that your family stays eyewateringly rich and the rest of us don't benefit from the transfer of property from one generation to the other. 

But we get the picture: NewNewLabour have turned into the Nice Party, the ones who won't spoil the Sunday dinner by mentioning money. And a fat lot of good, it'll do them.  

Monday, 23 January 2012

Skins, tweets. Amazeballs. Apparently.

Various technofreaks and futurologists champion the idea that young people are several steps ahead of education. The argument runs that they access ideas and knowledge in ways that standard, traditional education doesn't and possibly can't match.

I'm agnostic on this at the moment but I found myself catching my breath today interviewing Laura Hunter, who is one of the scriptwriters on 'Skins', the soap on E4.  I didn't know (why would I?) that the characters are on twitter and people - that's real people - have conversations with the characters. That's not the actors, OK? It's the characters.

When she told me this - it was for an interview for 'Word of Mouth' going out on Radio 4 tomorrow - I was caught out. The first thing that came to mind is that this is the kind of 'empathy' work that English teachers, drama teachers and writers have been doing in schools for a good few years now. Instead of trying to tie students down to right and wrong answers, we try to get the students (or young children) to be the character in a book, play or poem and get others in a class to quiz them - why did you do that? what do you want to do now? - and that sort of thing. It harnesses the non-explicit knowledge that the class might have about a book or a character and gets them to think creatively about the dilemmas that they're in.

And whaddyaknow - there's a soap doing just that. So, yes, I thought, that might count as an example of how young people are accessing knowledge and ideas outside of school through new technology.

Then I got an ideological twinge. I suffer from them. Surely, wasn't this one step too far on the madness that is 'naturalism'? Getting involved in a drama as enacted by actors is fine, but isn't there a point where it's ideal that we come out of the involvement phase and start to put what we've seen and 'been in' into the context of our lives, the lives of people around us, and questions of ethics and values. Wasn't that what Brecht was saying in eg 'The Messingkauf Dialogues'? Isn't it what happens in Shakespeare's plays where characters comment on each other's actions - or their own - through thinking out loud and sharing those thoughts obviously with us the audience? We get round behind the immediate flow of emotions that arise within the watching of a particular scene. That's the idea: 'alienation effect' - so-called.

But here young people are tweeting the characters in a soap...and...er believing that they're talking to the character...not the actor...with no alienation effect in sight.

But then why should there be?

Amazeballs, as they say on 'Skins'. Apparently.

'Word of Mouth' Radio 4 Monday 4.00pm, Tuesday 11.00pm and then iPlayer.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Michael Gove: Prince of Chaos. It's worse than I thought.

Here's one I missed. Perhaps you saw it. I didn't...

'Reforms to the national curriculum in England will not take place until the autumn of 2014 – a year later than planned – the Education Secretary Michael Gove has revealed in a written statement. However, the changes will be compulsory for a minority of secondary schools because academies are not obliged to deliver the curriculum.

"The longer timescale will allow for further debate with everyone interested in creating a genuinely world-class education system," Gove said. The delay puts back plans to change how schools teach English, maths, science and PE. However, it has been announced separately that history, geography, design and technology, the arts and foreign languages will become compulsory for all pupils up to the age of 16."'

(from www.publicservice.co.uk December 20 2011)

So let's unpack this:

Michael Gove is at present driving the academies waggon at breakneck speed through parents' and teachers' groups, kicking aside anybody in his way, demanding that 'county' schools (ones that come under the jurisdiction of a local authority) become academies. Presumably, his dream is that over the next eighteen months, many hundreds more schools will become academies - perhaps a majority.

All the while, some nibelungen in the underground caves of the Department of Education are sweating blood over the exact wording of a 'national' (snigger) curriculum for the subject that I'm involved with - 'English' -  in the non-place we call England. In other words it'll be a national curriculum that won't be national and won't be a curriculum. It'll be the combined wit and wisdom of Michael Gove, the nibelungen and whatever thoughts emerged or will emerge from 'consultation', and then foisted on to those schools (and only those schools) which, perversely are NOT funded directly from the same corner of administration as this new curriculum - that is, Westminster! Academies are funded and controlled from national government.

Meanwhile, you could be a successful scrap metal merchant, a US bank (presumably one that hasn't gone bust or proven to be bent) or a religious foundation - or whatever - and you can set up your academy with your 'ethos' and invent your own curriculum for English. In other words money can buy you the right to set the curriculum in an ever-growing part of what we laughingly still call the state system, or indeed 'public' education.

Why should local authority 'county' schools have to suffer the imposition of any part of Michael Gove's fervid imagination? We've already heard him wittering on at Tory Party Conference about a utopia where all children (though, not the ones in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and not the ones in private schools, free schools or academies) will be reading the works of John Dryden. Why, if there is a genuine consensus that there should be national curriculum, where every pupil will leave with some kind of agreed entitlement, is it good politics to have a system where there is no consensus of practice? Either you have a national curriculum or you don't. What's the point of a make-believe one?

Then, in Michael Gove's statement we read of him talking about a longer timescale allowing for further debate. Why am I laughing silently into my beard?  I won't compromise my friends but several people I know with thirty or forty years experience of teaching and research in literacy, literature and education have already had some experience of what the Gove team's idea of consultation and debate is. I've seen at first hand how Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, for example, treated a group of librarians and advocates of reading for pleasure. At the launch of last summer's 'Reading Challenge' (the excellent summer holiday project which brings children into libraries to read books), Nick Gibb decided to give a five minute lecture on the virtues of phonics. This had nothing whatsoever to do with Reading Challenge, nothing to do with anyone in the room. I doubt if there was a single person in the room who, if convinced by the highly unconvincing Nick Gibb, and who then thought they ought to immediately rush out and do phonics with a bunch of children, had even the remotest professional chance or reason to do such a thing. They weren't early years teachers, Nick. They were people excited by the idea of getting children in the summer holidays reading books. Clearly, neither tact, empathy or a sense of occasion are Nick Gibb's strong points. Meanwhile, all accounts of his encounters with friends and colleagues have been one of a similar kind: short, sharp lectures on phonics and complete refusal to listen to or be interested in anything that teachers, practitioners or advisers have to say unless it fits his pre-conceived notions of what will and must take place in classrooms. Actually, by and large he doesn't seem to be interested in anything that any pupil does or might do after they've done phonics.

I had a much more enjoyable and friendly time with the 'Expert Panel' that Michael Gove set up many months ago. I (along with many, many other people) was invited to give opinions and advice and I ended up face to face with Professor Mary James, Associate Director of Research in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. However, on my arrival Mary James made it clear that no matter what I was going to say, several aspects of the outcome were already decided! 1. The final 'national curriculum' was going to be very slim, no more than some guidelines. 2. The people 'up there' had decided that content and pedagogy were two different things. The government would lay down the key areas of content, Teachers would be free to work out pedagogy. 3. At the time of our meeting (perhaps nine months ago?), she said that them 'up there' (my words, not hers) were rather keen on giving teachers and schools a list of prescribed or recommended authors.

I tried to find out how slim (I didn't find out) but agreed in principle that parents were entitled to know what schools were going to do in any given area of the curriculum and what they hoped were the outcomes. Like her, I suspect, I thought that the distinction between content and pedagogy is only really sustainable on a piece of paper but not at the moment of teaching and learning. (In the words of W.B.Yeats,'How can we know the dancer from the dance?' (or vice versa, I suspect)). As for the magic list of authors, I said that this had been tried before with the Cox Report in, (from memory) 1989 and had got booted out by a combination of teachers', advisers', researchers' and authors' contempt, derision and direct action.

My own contribution was around reading whole books, turning schools into book-reading communities, and thinking of English and literacy departments as publishing and performing houses. In that way, the issues so dear to the heart of Nick Gibb and Michael Gove - spelling, grammar and punctuation - take place in the real environment of producing texts for people to read, rather than exercises that end up purposeless and dead in...er...exercise books. That sort of thing. And then I went. End.

Given that this was the model of consultation that Michael Gove set up - expert panel receiving guest submissions in face to face encounters - then surely by now they have seen everyone they wanted to see? Perhaps not. Perhaps they're going to go walkabout now? Needless to say, this model of consultation is highly unsatisfactory because it's static. It doesn't involve practitioners showing education in practice, it doesn't involve them researching themselves in action in classrooms. As I've said before, the government has the model for this way of consulting and producing policy with the Language in the National Curriculum Project from the late 80s.

Ironically, at the very moment that the Ministry lets go of hundreds of schools' curricula (to academies, free schools and private schools),  it resorts to the same old authoritarian way of controlling the schools left over. Even more ironically, even as they say that this is in order to perfect education so that it's 'world class', they are quite happy to let another year go by where these left over schools can actually do more or less what they want within the scaffold of the exam system. (I've even heard an adviser stand up in front of a hundred teachers and announce: 'The National Literacy Strategy is dead. Go back to your schools and devise your own.'  And that was over two years ago, on the day that New Labour admitted through its deeds if not its words that the NLS had been a screw-up.)

So, we have a Ministry zig-zagging between diy curricula for some and an authoritarian one for others; a period without direction and a period with direction.

And of course there's every possibility that by the time this new curriculum appears - September 2014, Michael Gove and Nick Gibb will be off frying other fish, spending more time with their families or cooling their heels on the backbenches. And if a new government were to come in in 2015, whatever load of general or specific jaw-ache Gove and Gibb come up with, could be wiped from the record and the whole silly, top-down, piecemeal crap could start all over again.

Do they wonder why we hold them in such contempt?

92 of my poems on YouTube

Many apologies if you knew about this, but for those who write to me asking where they are, they're here:


These are 92 videos that my son, Joe shot of me performing my poems and a few songs, including my version of 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt'.

The first round that I did some three years ago were all from the same book, 'The Hypnotiser' which had gone out of print and is still out of print.

Then there were some shot while I was on tour in Scotland. (me in a gingery jumper for these)

And then Joe shot some more last year themed around family episodes. (the flowery shirt ones)

These come from:

'Michael Rosen's Big Book of Bad Things' (Puffin);
'Quick Let's Get Out of Here' (Puffin);
'You Wait Till I'm Older Than You' (Puffin);
'Centrally Heated Knickers' (Puffin);
'Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy' (Bloomsbury)

The other way to find the whole lot - plus some BBC ones -  is to go to my website and navigate your way round there:


and click on 'Videos' on the menu bar across the top of the front page.

If you go via YouTube you will quickly come across what are known as 'poops'. These are adaptations, re-makes, over-dubs etc  of my videos and I can't guarantee that the content of these is suitable for young children.  YouTube is still a free-for-all and people can do what they want with what they find there.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Can poetry survive education? Yes.

The principle lying behind some old ways of teaching children, school students and college students how to read and understand poetry is the deficit theory. That's to say, the reading pupil supposedly knows less about the poem than that alliance of the educator, text-book and examiner. The outcome here is that in the tests, the top 5% (very nearly all of whom come from homes where talk about literature and ideas goes on anyway) simply absorb this stuff through the pores in their skin. A sizeable chunk in the middle experience the process as mild humiliation, but go through the paces and do OK and don't bother with poetry very much ever again. The failing percentage have no idea what all that chat was for and learn to hate poetry. (Exaggeration I know, but bear with me.)

The reason for all this lies in the kinds of questions the reading pupils are given: most of them are variations on the theme of proving why the poem is 'effective' or, in lay terms, good. So, whether in short bursts or longer passages, the pupil has to spot and name bits of the poem doing what poems do (apparently these are metaphors, similes, alliteration, similes, personification, rhyme, rhythm, imagery) but, in this particular poem chosen by the text-book writer or examiner, are all done 'effectively'.

In truth, this is all pretty tiresome and has very little to do with how or why poets write/perform and probably, given half a chance, not much to do with how or why anyone chooses to read poems.

So what to do?

Unavoidably, we all read with two inter-related aspects of ourselves: our experience of life, our experience of texts. You can of course pretend to read with someone else's experience of life and experience of texts and a good deal of the test-crazy system tries to get pupils to do just this: coming up with rehearsed formulae  disguised rather thinly as coherent responses. In order to tap into the two inter-related experiences (of life and texts), all that educators need to do is ask another genre of question altogether: the questions that clearly the educator doesn't know the answers to. Only then can the reading pupil position him- or herself as a fully entitled reader.

So -
you can ask readers to discuss (eg in pairs) what aspects of the poem remind them of anything that has ever happened in their life or in someone else's life they know about;

you can ask readers to discuss what aspects of the poem remind them of anything that they have read, viewed, heard by way of 'text' (including film, TV, song, etc) that aspects of the poem reminded them of. In both these questions,  you can ask the reader to discuss why or how they were reminded - in other words to tease out the links and possible explanations for the links.

Then you can ask the readers (in pairs or small groups) to come up with questions that they would like to ask of the poem, the poet, or indeed anyone or any thing in the poem. You can then collect all these questions together and then, create some kind of forum in which to answer them. One way is to ask eg one of the readers to take on the role of the poet and the others to interview the poet. Similarly, a reader could, say, take on the role of the Duke, or the killed Duchess in 'That's my last Duchess' and field questions accordingly.

When it comes to the way in which the poem has been put together, there is a way in which the power can stay with the reader. You can point out that poems are a way of 'sticking language together' - what M.A.K. Halliday calls 'cohesion' - 'wording' has 'cohesion'.  You could say, poems are a 'specialised form of cohesion' (for sixth formers and college students). For younger pupils you show how clauses and sentences and paragraphs are ways of sticking words together...eg 'The man walked into the room. He was wearing a hat.' ('He' back refers to 'the man' and so 'sticks' sentence two to sentence one.) Poetry does this same sort of thing as other language but has others ways too: eg anything that comes under the heading of 'prosody' - the musicality of language which ties words, phrases, verses, whole poems together (eg rhythm, rhyme, repetition and any repeated sound-systems).  Poetry also uses patterns of images - a kind of secret network of recurring, image. It also often uses binary opposites of ideas, images, themes.These 'stick' the binary parts together. That's often how conflict and contrast work in all literature, but in poetry it can be over a comparatively short and dense piece of writing.

You can demonstrate this (once, say), or 'scaffold' it, as the jargon puts it, and in so doing you show that parts of a poem link to other parts (stick together) using 'secret strings'. If you have copies of the poem, you can draw these secret strings straight on to the poem. You put a loop round a letter, syllable, whole word, clause, verse, chorus or whatever and run the string to the next part of the poem that links with it. For younger children, I call the children 'poem detectives'. It's a game. Find the secret strings. And you say, 'You can't be wrong. If you find a string and can show how or why it's a string - it's a string! You're right.' This puts the power of 'spotting' into the hands of the readers. They can work in pairs doing this...and then share the discoveries.

You can then ask them to discuss why such strings are there...pointing out that the poet might well have not spotted them him- or herself.

You don't have to do this with every poem - of course! There are plenty of other things to do with poems: like reading one and then another and then another! Or reading it outloud. Or not reading it outloud. Or writing it out in your own notebook. Or reading it outloud while some other people do 'freeze-frame tableaux to 'illustrate' it. Or drawing a picture that is inspired by the poem. Or taking photos to go with the poem. Or making a power-point with the poem...and so on. Or sticking post-its on to a poem with your thoughts of that part of the poem on the post-its.

I offer the above questions, though, for those occasions when there is a reason for trying to make explicit how and why poems are interesting, how and why they might matter, how and why they might be effective (or not); how and why they are 'stuck together'. That said, it may well turn out that the questions people ask for which there are no definite answers, may well take readers to important aspects of the poem. That's because one major strand of poetry is about saying things in non-explicit ways, to suggest and imply things, or to say things that are intended to set up chains of associations away from the poem itself.

Picking up on a theme from an earlier blog: this keeps the processes of investigation, discovery, play and co-operation at the heart of the reading and critical processes.

Almond plus Gogol plus Durrenmatt at the Little Angel Puppet Theatre

The Little Angel Theatre in association with Kneehigh are putting on 'A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings', a show 'inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez's short story'.

I'll declare my interest - I'm a patron at the Little Angel.

If you can imagine David Almond's 'Skellig', Gogol's 'Government Inspector' and Durrenmatt's 'The Visit' melting into each other, then you'll have some idea of what this show feels like. But of course this is a puppet show, which in this case means mostly four puppeteers operating hand-held 'rod' puppets in full vision. The stage is peopled with scores of lumpy Brueghel-like figures in a small village, dealing with the fact that an old man with wings has turned up there.

These are puppets whose facial expressions appear to change with the action (they don't - they're carved), speaking to us from different levels and corners, and from deep into some kind of journey-space far away. If you have any preconceptions about puppetry being cosy or sentimental, then this show will banish these.

It is indeed 'magical realism' - believable people dealing with unbelievable things, showing their naivete, their qualities of greed, hope and longing and then having to pick up the pieces when it all falls apart. At every point in the drama, you can find yourself asking yourself how would you behave, can you position yourself in some place that is superior to the character speaking? Perhaps, perhaps not.

This is a superb show - great for an all-age outing. I went today with my nearly-11 year old and 7 year old. Funny-sad-tense-beautiful-strange-thoughtful-ethical.

You can find the Little Angel on facebook at: facebook.com/LittleAngelTheatre
twitter: @LittleATheatre
YouTube: youtube.com/TheLittleATheatre
website: www.littleangeltheatre.com
Box Office 020 7226 1787

The theatre is in Islington half way between the tube stations of the Angel (Northern Line) and Highbury and Islington (Victoria Line, Overground and National Rail line to Welwyn and Hertford).

Friday, 20 January 2012

IMF - chutzpah or blether?

Here's the Guardian's report on today's IMF Chutzpah report:

'With more than 200 million people currently unemployed around the world, the call to action said policymakers should "address youth and long-term unemployment to provide decent work prospects, along with country-specific structural reforms that are fairly implemented to achieve faster growth. Through dialogue, labour market reforms can be agreed that can both raise employment levels and ease fiscal adjustment."

It added: "Boosting jobs and investing in human capital is the most promising way of tackling inequality. We support the work of the ILO and others in assisting governments to examine realistic policy options, including cost-effective social policies to cushion the most vulnerable from adversity. Investment should target skills and education and thus equip people for the future.

"Rising inequality calls for heightened consideration of more inclusive models of growth. We must deliver tangible improvements in material living standards and greater social cohesion."

The call for action urged governments to resist the temptation to resort to trade barriers in an attempt to safeguard jobs. "Countries must reaffirm that none will resort to growth-destroying protectionism and demonstrate that trade restrictions introduced in response to the economic crisis will be rolled back."'


This had me gasping.

First the horrific figure of 200 million people unemployed. That's 200 million people deliberately taken out of earning money, deliberately taken out of production because capitalists have no other way of organising the making of things. They produce so many goods and work so hard competing with each other to produce them at less and less cost (lower wages, more 'productive' machinery) that in the end, there aren't enough people with enough money to buy the goods. So they start destroying 'capital' - closing factories, laying off people.

Of course none of this has anything to do with what we need in terms of food, housing, clothes, energy supplies, transport, health care, education and useful goods and services. 200 million people are laid off because that's the only way this system can think of to keep itself profitable. That's 200 million people in poverty or worse. Capitalists think that unemployment is part of the solution to their problem. No. It IS the problem.

Now the IMF is a longtime proponent of this system and has in the past forced its way into countries, demanded that their public services (healthcare,education, care for the elderly, social housing) be slashed so that firms coming in can be profitable. Governments, hungry for money - often to run wars - have taken their loans and forced the people to accept these 'packages'.

And now they're posing as some kind of Keynesian angels, wittering on about 'social cohesion' and the dangers of inequality...what am I saying, 'Keynesian'?! - they're posing as commies. They're calling for 'investing in human capital'! That's what you and I call 'education and training'. They're calling for 'cost-effective social policies' - that's stuff like housing, disability and unemployment benefits - which most countries are slashing to bits because the bankers (and the governments who love them) have been straining every muscle to claim that the cause of the crisis is...er....'social polices' ie the 'deficit' - that's the money that governments spend...on...er...'cost-effective social policies' and...er...'investment in human capital'!

In other words, all this is contradictory, hypocritical blether.

How to control children's minds

[I should have prefaced this with a disclaimer:  what follows is not to blame teachers one jot or iota. The system in England forces many schools to adopt what is in effect a SATs course. I've heard headteachers explain to me how much pressure they've been under to do this. Even so, there are some schools and some teachers who do manage to resist that pressure. So, of course I'm not blaming them either! Finally, what follows is specifically about this moment in the year, in the lead-up to SATs in England. Disclaimer over.]

For people who like to control children's minds, the great advantage of the SATs that Year 6 children face in England is that for several months these tests (and the preparation for them) prevent children from putting together significant chunks of extended prose, stop them having to pay any close attention to words in any metaphorical or playful way, inhibit them from  using language to express dilemmas and problems, cut them off from the chance to explore through language how a person might get out of dilemmas and problems; to explore through language ideas, possibilities, transformations, changes; or to express through language doubt, speculation, ambiguity, uncertainty.

In place of these uses and functions of language, are closed-ended questions which revolve endlessly around features of language which are supposedly  'in' a passage of writing. The writing that children are required to do is prove that they have spotted what's 'in' the passage, and it's of a highly formulaic kind - specific right-or-wrong answers to 'why', 'what', 'when', 'how', 'where'. Has anyone ever shown or proved that making children do this sort of thing achieves anything?

In actual fact, readers produce their meanings 'outside' of the text. The reader produces meanings in some kind of inter-relation with the text. Some part of this process is dependent on some basic shared, learned interpretations of the squiggles on the page. However, it's very easy to exaggerate the degree to which these interpretations are shared and fixed (as it were, before the reader starts to read) and very easy to ignore how the reader brings his or knowledge of texts and his or her knowledge of life in the reading moment. In order to turn writing into markable chunks of comprehension, a discourse of examination-ese has had to be invented which implies that all meaning is 'in' the text, the examiner knows what this meaning is because it pre-exists that moment of reading, and it's the job of the candidate to arrive at the same conclusion as the examiner ie to discover what's in the examiner's mind. Only then will the candidate get the marks, the measurable quantification of response to writing. It's the accountancy principle of reading - ideal for a capitalist society, because it puts a price on everything.

A subject largely ignored at all levels of education is the exploration of how readers' interpretations of texts are socially constructed. A reader isn't a free-floating asteroid. He or she is a social being who uses texts to navigate life, who has spent the whole of his or her life responding to texts. These texts aren't free-floating asteroids either. They come out of institutions, they are marked with purpose and intention. In a complicated formulation, this has been called 'the social construction of intertextuality'. No matter how complicated that sounds, there is no reason why children and school students can't explore this in many interesting ways: language maps of themselves investigating why they say this or that, where and how they acquired this or that way of speaking; examinations of the texts of their pasts in terms of where they come from, what purpose they might have, and why they were given them, investigations of the texts around them in terms of their origin and apparent intention...and so on.

If I want to make myself distressed though, all I need to do is focus on the kind of writing that English Year 6 children are asked to write, re-write and re-write again and again and again in the run-up to the SATs test. As a body of writing, it represents the removal of all danger, excitement, desire, problem, dilemma, problem-solving or subversion. It is in effect a censorship of the brain.

But even this over-simplifies. I always say to anyone (not only children) that the great thing about writing poems or stories or life-writing or even accounts of what you've done (so-called 'recounts') is that the potential in that moment of writing is discovery. However, if you do too much pre-structuring, pre-note-making, pre-planning, you miss one of the great achievements of the invention of writing which is to enable the writer to do the discovering as you write, in the process of writing. It's as if the pen (or keyboard) is a probe or a spade (see Seamus Heaney's poem on this) or a fork turning the texts and experiences over as you produce the words on the page (or as M.A.K. Halliday would put it, 'as you produce the wording').

In the name of teaching people how to write, we have invented processes in education which prevent, hinder and inhibit these acts of discovery - particularly as the children and students approach the time for testing. The schools are under immense pressure to do this because it's this way, they're told, the children will do better in the tests. So of course they do it. It can even be 'proved' that it's a form of entitlement.

In practical terms with Year 6 children in England, just at the moment when their level of maturation and understanding and experience offers them the possibility of writing long projects, stories, novels, collections of poems, autobiographies, biographies, they are squeezed into writing short, segments of closed-ended answers to questions that examiners already know the answers to.

I know this doesn't last forever, I know that most schools in England treat the post-SATs months as a fantastic opportunity for creative work of many different kinds. Let's just say that for many teachers and children, we're in hold-your-nose-till-mid-May time.

ps in the above I keep using the words 'investigate' 'explore' 'discover'. Wouldn't education be brilliant if every day at school was a day when you investigated, explored and discovered? I would add in 'play' and 'co-operate'. Yes, investigate, discover, play, co-operate. If  you were in school for a day where you didn't do any investigating, discovering, playing or co-operating, you could summon the monsters of the deep to eat Michael Gove. Or something.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

I seem to have hacked into Number 10...

"I say, Samanth, do be a love and pass me one of those bikkies. Did you see my speech today? No? Well, I know this sounds boasty but I think I did pretty bloody OK. I've got this whole riff thingy going on 'popular capitalism'. What do you think? Oh, I didn't mean those bikkies, I meant the figgy roll ones. Anyway, the great thing about popular capitalism, you see, is that it sounds er...erm....popular. You see? I mean when it comes down to it, people like capitalism. Everyone does. Bloody hell, everyone does all bloody right by capitalism. Apart from er...erm....those who don't. So popular capitalism, you see dear, sounds pretty damned OK. And then one of the little chaps in the back room came up with 'turbo-capitalism'. Three years at Balliol didn't do him any harm, eh? Oh...have you? Take some nurophen, then...anyway, where was I? Yes, so this little chap, says, turbo-charged, y'know, Jeremy Clarkson, that sort of thing, turbo-capitalism, gettit? I pounced on it. Sound bloody bite or what? Did you find the figgy rolls? Actually, between you and me Samanth, it means sweet f.a., football league and premiership all in one. Turbo-capitalism! Hah, there's just capitalism and capitalism. That's what Vernon taught me when I was up. At least I think it was him. All a bit of a bloody haze to tell the truth. What? Yes, yes, yes, I know it's thin ice, darling. Don't start lecturing me. Look, don't you worry, I'll be spending weeks in bloody meetings with the City boys telling them that I didn't mean a bloody word of it. Of course I will. I'll just explain to them that I have to say that tosh in order to keep little Eddie Moribund on his toes. I'll just say to them: of course I don't mean it, go bloody forth and multiply, I'll say to them. And if there's one thing that lot know how to do it's  multiply, eh, poppet. Samanth? Samanth? Bloody hell, it's only 10.30 and you're sparko."

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Teacher power; children power; language power

I had a great day today working with teachers in Richmond, London. We had two hours thinking and talking about poetry in schools.

If I'm not careful (and install my shuttup button in my brain) I could easily gas on for two hours about poetry in schools. The net gain for the teachers, their children and education as a whole would be about minus 23%. So, instead, what I try to do is convene a discussion where teachers pool their best practice. With some 50 teachers in the room, they proceeded to produce what was in effect a magnificent outline for a poetry curriculum in primary schools, much better than any document, or plan or outline I've ever seen issued from central government or for that matter in a book. It came directly out of classroom practice, related by classroom teachers, full of observations about how it actually worked in their classes.

So, for example, at least three teachers talked about reading a poem a day to or with the children, with a developing pattern of the children introducing poems that they read (or asked to be read) coming from books in the class, from home, or from poems that the children themselves wrote. One of the teachers said that poems were sometimes the way the children moved from one activity to another and she gave the example of her reciting Allen Ahlberg's poem about the scissors getting lost. This was how the children got the signal that it was  time to come to the carpet.

Two teachers talked about ways in which they've made places where the children collect language - phrases they've heard or read, headlines, lines from poems or songs, odd words; one of them had a 'Magpie Wall' and the other had a big notebook for the children. We talked about how this can be a great starting point for poems. You go to the Wall or the book when you're stumped or looking for ideas.

One teacher talked about how the momentum of children choosing poems also involved the children going off and preparing performances of poems in their spare time, in the playground. Sometimes this would be group of them, working up a performance piece together, splitting up the lines, building in choral speaking and the like. This was coming from them, she pointed out.

One teacher talked about watching Attenborough's Frozen Planet and the children becoming collectors of language, picking out phrases they liked and then constructing a poem out of these 'found' phrases.

One teacher talked about having a special store or box under her chair, where the children knew she kept special books which she would read from. These include poetry books but she had discovered that the children were slipping books of their own into the special box, so that the teacher would read those out too.

I chipped in with the idea that if you want children to be interested in poetry, you can simply write poems out and stick them on the wall - and then change them every so often. If it's possible, the children can then write comments on post-its and stick them to the poem.

All this is informed by a notion of language and literature which works on the idea that what we're trying to do in schools is enable children to take up language and become owners and controllers of it. This is hard to do in schools where the curriculum is dominated by exercises which suggest that the examiner/tester who wrote the exercises and questions knows more than you, the child. That invisible questioner appears to own and control language and knowledge about it. You can only be right if that questioner says you are, and the rest of the time you're wrong and inadequate.

Poetry doesn't of itself break this down. It can repeat the pattern if poems are only chosen by the curriculum, if the pattern of work is always the same and predictable, if the work is dominated by questions which have right and wrong answers or 'right' ways of writing. What was interesting and exciting for me - and I hope the teachers too - was that a lot of the practice they were talking about seemed to be about children taking power to themselves as inspired and modelled and 'scaffolded' by the teachers.

This seems to be new. A few years ago, deep in the heart of the now-junked Literacy Strategy - teachers were inevitably talking about how to use poetry to implement the Strategy, following the requirements of that trivial and insulting matrix.Here though was a group of teachers who were talking about children discovering poems and poetry and making it their own.

In the second half I talked about some starting points for asking questions about poems and also writing them - again informed by the idea that what really matters is children taking ownership of the words, the language, the form  and finding out new things about all that and themselves in the process.

Exciting day.

David Cameron: Books, Lies and Videotape

The front page of London's Evening Standard tonight shouted out:

"Cameron visits the school we're fighting to save and gives this message to parents: However busy you are, read to your children"

There are a lot of messages flying off the newspaper here:
1. We're brilliant, because we're saving a school.
2. David Cameron is brilliant because he's helping us.
3. David Cameron reads to his children. (He tells us later that  he does)
4. You should be like him and read to your children

Inside, we learn that the school didn't have a library but now it has, thanks to Selfridges who've come up with loads of dosh, and several publishers who've contributed loads of books.

So we can add some more messages:

5. If you can't afford a library, go and ask your local Selfridges.
6. If you haven't got any nice new books, ring up the publishers.

We also learn that, thanks to the Evening Standard, the school now has a team of reading volunteers who visit the school to hear the children read...so:

7. If you haven't got enough paid teachers to hear and encourage children to read, go out and recruit some unpaid volunteers.

We also here Cameron saying:
'I hope one day you will look back and think about this school and this great library and everyone who has supported it...because actually there is a huge problem with some kids not having access to books. And having a library like this, in a school like this, with volunteers like this, is a really great start in life.'

From which we learn:

8. Cameron is having a laugh. The 'huge problem' he's talking about is him and his cronies, whose actions over the last year have caused libraries to close and prevent children from having access to books. To which we could add the fact that the new enforced regime of phonics, requiring schools to buy expensive phonics' kits has taken money away from giving children access to books, and taken the energy and focus away from putting whole books at the centre of the school day and the centre of school life.

But, hey, shouldn't we welcome this wonderful intervention, this wonderful 'support' for books in schools?

Not a bit of it. This is Big Society Bollocks. It's precisely the piecemeal provision that old-style charity provides and with it the same old patronising you-should-be-grateful stuff that goes with it. What the Evening Standard has done is great news for that school. Not any other schools, because it can't. The kinds of money and attention pouring into this particular school can't be reproduced in every school. There aren't thousand of Selfridges queueing up to start up libraries in every school.

In other words, there is no substitute for universal provision.

Now, here's an ironic twist. When I was Children's Laureate, I was ushered in to see Ed Balls (then Sec of State for Education) and Jim Knight, then Schools Minister. I pleaded with them to start a proper universalised campaign for the reading of whole books in school and the provision through libraries of books in every home. I gave them the research on it, the articles on it, and my 20-point plan on how to create a book-friendly school and community.

I could see that I wasn't getting very far, so as a parting shot, I said, 'And you know what'll happen, don't you? The other lot will take this up, as part of their bid to stop looking like the nasty party.'

Balls thought that was very funny and that was it. I got precisely nowhere.

And guess what? It's happened. Balls is off perfecting how he is going to give the bankers the very clear message that he won't be supporting public sector workers now or at any point in the future.

Never mind, Ed. Cameron got his photo-opportunity, pimping off inner city children, presenting himself as Kind Politician Man while real progression towards universal provision and policy on the reading of whole books in schools and communities doesn't move one inch further forward.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

My bid for leadership of the Labour Party

I hereby promise that I will not support any campaign by anyone, anywhere to protect public services or to protect their livelihoods. I hereby promise never to point out on TV programmes or in newspapers that it wasn't the public sector which caused the world economic crisis; I hereby promise not to point out that we are in the midst of a transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest section of society: I hereby promise that I will let interviewers on radio and TV bark at me about 'deficit reduction, deficit reduction, deficit reduction' without ever mentioning any of these aforementioned things. I hereby promise that I will accuse union leaders of being unrealistic for trying to protect their members from the attacks on their standard of living. With these words, I pledge my support for the present Labour leadership and should it be decided that the present leadership isn't pretty enough to make the difficult decisions facing this great country of ours, then I hereby offer my heart and soul as the one to take its place and do even better than the present incumbent to ensure that the rich shall go on inheriting the earth.

Ofsted - stunning new development

Breakthrough moment in education: Ofsted are changing the word 'satisfactory' to 'requires improvement'. This remarkable step forward (or is it a step up?) must have come from months of discussion, formulating theory, research and analysis. Finally, we've got some real intellectual clout at the top of the education tree. Imagine the committee meetings, the sub-committee briefings, the urgent break-out sessions in neighbouring seminar rooms...Hurried whisperings in corridors -
 'Hey, Chazza, what do you think of  'Could do better'?'
'Not bad, not bad - hey, how about that?! 'Not bad'? What do you think?'
'I prefer my 'Could do better.'
'Hmmmm. OK let's get in there and get down to some hard thinking on this....'

Ofsted was always the wrong answer to the wrong questions, but now it's moving forward. Or it's going forward. Or: going forward, Ofsted is conducting a rebranding exercise. Or something.

So Michael Wilshaw, hotfoot from creating a school that has hoodwinked journalists into thinking that he 'turned round a failing school' - when in reality, money was poured in to create a selective school where there wasn't one before...is now 'turning round' Ofsted.

No chance of turning it round so fast, that it makes a hole through the floor and spins through it?

All that money on inspection rather than advice. Bullying rather than co-operation. And just think, Ofsted have no requirement to look at the provision of books, the reading of whole books, the level of home reading, the pattern of reading of whole books across a school. And yet, we know that high levels of all that is one key to success.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Word of Mouth does word of...er...mouth

A 30 minute radio programme about traditional stories and storytelling here.


It's BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth and includes Monica from Uganda who learned stories from her parents, told them to her children and grandchildren and has never told them to anyone else before. And children from 'Translation Nation' who tell stories in their home languages and translate them in school.

Here's a link to that project:


I'm working with them tomorrow at Eastside, the educational trust who devised and run the project.

The Power of Reading

The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education has been working for seven years on the Power of Reading project. This is what they say about it:

"The Power of Reading project CLPE’s highly successful Power of Reading project enhances teachers’ and children’s pleasure in reading, and raises children’s achievement through teachers’ knowledge of literature and its creative use in the classroom.
The project has now been running for six years and has involved 10 projects based at CLPE in London with 31 additional projects in 19 different Local Authorities nationally. To date there have been nearly 1200 schools, 1,500 teachers and over 60,000 children participating in the project from Cumbria to Southampton and from Bristol to Hastings.
Project aims
The project aims to enhance teachers’ and children’s pleasure in reading and raise children’s achievement through developing teachers’ knowledge of literature and its use in the primary classroom.
Raised achievement
Analysis of data from four participating local authorities (2008-09) showed that 70% of children progressed by 2 or more National Curriculum sublevels and nearly and 33% by 3 or more. Data specifically indicates that as a result of the project the rate of progress for boys is narrowing the attainment gap between boys and girls."

Here's the link:


Start the Week: capitalism is dead; long live capitalism

On BBC Radio 4's Start the Week this morning, they were discussing money. Here's the line-up:


Philip Coggan talked about the history of the money system and seemed to be pointing a finger at the fact that there is a perpetual struggle between those who lend and those who borrow - each wants something different from money - lenders want it to cost more, borrowers want it to cost less: hence the crisis, he said (though that seemed to be a big jump for me).

Detlev Schlichter said that all our problems started when President Nixon pulled the world off the gold standard. What happens, he said, is that governments print money to enable people to go on borrowing but this ultimately postpones problems until it reaches a crisis. Solution: money has to be tied to a globally agreed standard, and the best one found to date is gold.

Angela Knight said that the bankers need regulating but we keep giving them the wrong regulations.

Lord Glasman said that Germany gets it right because they have connected their money system to the 'Labour theory of value' which means that wage differentials between workers and 'the board' are much narrower; and workers have real training, skills and qualifications, governments have invested in this and it's quite literally paid off for everyone...er...in Germany.

That's how it went.

A couple of bizarre things about it: there's a strange, hollow feel to listen to four people with very different solutions for what is a major problem for capitalists and their governments but all arguing for ways to continue the very system that has caused the problem. In fact, though their structural solutions were different, all of them seemed to be certain that a) some major debtors would default and b) 'we' can't afford to have public services at the level 'we' have them.

On these occasions, I always feel like saying, 'Hold it there, guys.' The level of public service we had in our respective countries wasn't the cause of the problem. As Glasman pointed out, what happened was that capitalists decided not to spend their money developing productive capacity, finding out things we need and making them and/or making them better - they decided to put their money into futures, hedge funds and nebulous packages of debt which various wide boys told them would make massive and quick money.

Then again, our respective governments made a decision, arguably on our behalf to buy the debts that the major banks had run up. As a way of preventing the middle classes rioting, this was an astute move. Middle class riots merging with working class general strikes start to look like revolutions. However, the recoil blow of governments buying all this debt is that governments raise money through a combination of taxation and spending less. That's what they're doing. Through our taxes and rapidly shrinking public sector we are paying for the fun and games capitalists had lending money to people who couldn't pay it back. One key part of this 'policy'? Governments are all trying to introduce a programme of lower wages and/or no wages.

Now that sounds to me like a transfer of wealth from the poorest part of the population to the richest part. Or capitalism by other means. Usually capitalism does this by making people work very hard and paying them as little as possible: the milking principle. But here we have the governments we elect, effectively transferring funds directly across: funnelling the monies they raise on our behalf, for our benefit straight into bankers' and general financial services people's pockets.

(One of the more sickening features of the present crisis is to hear everyone from politicians to commentators talking about unemployment and lower wages as an unfortunate by-product of the 'solutions' that our governments are coming up with. Not so, they are the means. They are the deliberate choices they are making.)

In the midst of this, those of us much accustomed to the phrase the 'Labour theory of value' might be forgiven for a big head-scratch listening to Glasman. This theory states that the source of all value (not the direct or sole source of prices and profits) is human work, acting on materials, acting together to make things that human beings need or are taught or convinced they need. The fixing of prices and the ultimate figures attached to wages and capitalists' profits involve complicated maths but yes, ultimately it all goes back to human beings making things that alter stuff from being of no value to us (eg because it's in the ground, like oil) into stuff that is of massive value.

Glasman even described the capitalists' process of producing this value as one of 'exploitation' (he used the word once, I think) but is clearly reluctant to think that ultimately this is where the problem lies. That's to say, we have a system that works by, as he says, getting workers to produce 'value' (goods we want and need) but when this is transformed into wages and prices, it just so happens that the combined wages of the workers is never as much as the combined profits of the capitalists. All the goods and services are sold for more than the workers' wages, more than the cost of the plant hire and purchase, more than the cost of hiring space or land, more than the advertising and publicity all combined. In other words, the workers don't get the value of what they make or do. That's how and why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

The reason why this becomes a crisis may vary from era to era. In the present time, one major problem has arisen out of the fact that that extra 'value' that the capitalists have made off with (ie their profits) needs to be invested in order for it not to lose its monetary price. In the end, this means that capitalists find themselves taking bigger and bigger risks, lending it to ventures that go bust, or on this occasion to poor people who couldn't afford to pay it back. But why were they poor? Because other capitalists were trying to pay them as little as possible (in order to extract value from them) and/or had laid them off from work, or public services were being cut and so they had been sacked by the state. The system produced the very reasons why it failed - namely too many poor people, or at least too poor to pay back their debts, ie the money that capitalists had lent to them.

Now it might have been nice if there had been just someone in a discussion like this who might have represented this point of view. Glasman gets the nearest to it, but he's decided that he's married to capitalism, and so uses his Marxism in a strange truncated way- leans on concepts like the Labour theory of value for him then to apply it to saving capitalism from itself.

One other little 'apercu' that I don't think I had quite thought of before, though: Philip Coggan pointed out an interesting irony. Once the money system is represented by paper money, it is essentially a political system, one in which the supply of money is ultimately controlled by governments for their own reasons. It's a state system.

Isn't there a nice irony here that the great ideologies against the state, the free marketeers, the laissez-faire capitalists, Tea Party folk etc demand to be free of state control, the creeping state and the like? And yet, it's the state they need to run their money system (it's theirs because the really major credit-debt machine is for capitalists), it's the state they need to print money, raise and lower interest rates in order to safeguard their debts and savings (borrowing and lending) and,as now, to create unemployment which in turn depresses wages which - in their theory - enables them to run business more profitably, or start up new ones more easily. (They also want the state to act when workers start to protest about this: they demand that police and armed forces beat up and kill workers who come out on to the streets to say that they and their families are going hungry, their schools and hospitals are getting worse etc)

Governments do that for them. We may not knowingly elect them to do that. But that's what they do for capitalists. And then capitalists keep turning round and saying, down with the state!

We need the state to spend our taxes wisely and efficiently on things we need and want in fair and equitable ways - at this stage: health, education, social services and to an ever decreasing degree  - housing.

One day, we will discover that we need the state to help us produce, distribute, provide and spend so that everything works out in fair and equitable ways. The 'value' that Glasman spoke about will be fairly distributed.

But that'll only happen when we are all confident enough and bold enough to act, to take over all the making and doing for ourselves. The idea that the 'state' (ie the power of which is supposed to lie in the hands of the people we elect) actually owns and controls money is in a way a glimpse of the way it could all be like that - though it'll have to be a very different kind of 'state'; one that we really own and control ourselves and works for the benefit of all of us).

The Poetry Station - poetry in secondary schools can live

And here's the fantastic Poetry Station from the English and Media Centre. Poetry lives here.

Poets performing poems chosen with school students in mind.


Perform-a-Poem: your pupils become performance poets

And while I'm posting links, here's one I made earlier:


If you're outside the London Grid for Learning, why not start up your own one - in-school, or between schools, or on quadblogging (see previous thread here) or with your own local grid?

Writing-in-schools breaks out of testmania

I've received an email as follows:

"David Mitchell (a Primary Deputy Headteacher in Bolton) has developed an approach called Quadblogging which sets up groups of schools to talk, share ideas, information and comment on each others' work. At present there are more than 1000 classes in 27 countries working together creating some incredible moments of learning as well as fellowship. If you click on the link you will be able to see some examples of how quads have worked together. All of this is organised from David's back bedroom!

As an extension of the Quadblogging approach David and a group of other practitioners are trying to organise a festival of blogging on February 29th 2012 - our aim of the day is get school students engaging together on one blog site from across all age groups and continents from the start of Feb 29th in Tonga until its end back in the Pacific Rim which makes up 48 hours of fellowship time across the world. We are looking to join together students who might not ever otherwise have the opportunity to meet and communicate. This might be in text but also using video and sound clips and interactive writing programmes.

We are approaching you to see if you would be able to help us in the project. We hoped that you might be able to spread the word as our reach is limited to our contacts in education through Facebook, Twitter and the Quadblogging site. We also wondered whether you would have some thoughts on how we could improve it.  You might even want to join in on the day or know other authors and poets who might enjoy this as well as we are certain it is going to be an amazing experience. "

Here's the link: