Saturday, 31 March 2012

Secondary Modern Schools - some more stories

Blogspot for Sec Mod history here - with new stories being added all the time:

With news that the government is going to allow for an increase in the number of grammar school places in existing grammar schools, we can see a creeping return of the old segregated system that came in 1944. Part of the way this is done is to eulogize about the grammar schools of the past, whilst quietly forgetting what went on in the schools where the majority of children went.

This quiet forgetting is made all that more easy by virtue of the fact that the story of these schools - the 'sec mods' has not been told in the words of the people who went to them, or taught in them. A whole slice of social history affecting millions of people is hidden.

It's not one story and it's not easily told. What we've done with this blog is to just start on what might be quite a difficult job. After all, the people who find their way to a blog, come over a complex set of hurdles - literacy,  computer, internet, a particular kind of internet literacy, until they might happen on our Sec Mod blog. What they are saying, is really interesting and significant and beyond them lie thousands of others who might tell different kinds of stories.

If anyone reading this can think of ways in which their stories might reach this blog too, then please get in touch. My email is available on my website or  you can simply leave a message on the 'comments' slots on the Sec Mod blog. They will only be seen by us and won't be published unless you want them to be.

In the meantime, please browse through the accounts of what it was like to be in the mainstream secondary schools of the post-war era.

Stories to solve: George Shannon

'Stories to Solve' and 'More Stories to Solve' both by George Shannon

Please let me recommend these. They are great for talk, thought, figuring, wondering for almost any age of person. Some are funny, some are really, really difficult. They can be read - but better still, read, learnt and then told. Great for home, school, holiday, anywhere anytime.

That said, they raise some very interesting questions about what we understand by 'narrative' and 'story'. A lot of present-day thinking and practice in schools is dominated by 'genre theory'. This would have us believe that there are distinct genres to the way we write and think and these are predicated on a particular kind of language use. This, it is argued, has to be taught, learned and adopted. If this isn't done, a kind of wilful discrimination of the under-privileged takes place. That's to say, the underprivileged are excluded from the 'discourse of power' if they aren't taught and don't learn the 'powerful genres' - argument, persuasion, discussion, recount and the like. Anyone who is a teacher or who has a child will be familiar with hours of work in this area.

I've written about his before. What's interesting about these stories (apart from the fact that they are fascinating and curious and wonderful) is that they defy a lot of this genre-talk. In order to crack the problem posed by the stories, a person has to enter into many different kinds of thought, investigation and discussion. So a story about a challenge to each other by a frog and a deer involves what is in effect a kind of geography-astronomy concept. One with a frog in a barrel of fresh cream involves something to do with old dairy knowledge. Others are about various kinds of wit and cunning. Many of them show us people or creatures who use their knowledge of the natural world to get the upper hand.

One model of 'narrative' or 'story' would have us think that it's something towards the soppy, touchy-feely end of things. It doesn't really engage with the world as it really is because when people get into difficulties they use some magic stick or meet some little old bloke by the side of the road who tells them what to do etc etc. And anyway, there's always some happy ending or other. In fact, the world is full of what we might call 'wisdom tales' in which either the participant(s) show wisdom and therefore show it to us, or they show folly and we show our own wisdom in spotting their folly, or indeed to see before they do what they might or could have done.

Why should we underestimate this? Why should we call this or think of this as something less important or less powerful than some of the more formal discourses? And who's to say or who could prove that getting to know many of such tales doesn't in fact enable people indeed to have the knowledge and ability to face up to and challenge the powerful. After all, that is precisely what happens over and over again in many of these kinds of stories.

So, a real solid plug to these two books. Occasionally, the language is a bit knotted and needs stretching out into more familiar phrases or expressions. That aside, they are real interesting, challenging and fun ways to explore some ideas and problems.

I'm not sure how available they are in the UK so it might need a bit of internet scouring to get them. It's worth it.

Recommend a good poetry creative writing book?

Someone asked me on facebook  if I could recommend a good poetry creative writing book. I said:

No. Read a poem and wonder how or why the person wrote it. Imagine yourself doing the same thing. Then do it. Keep doing that many, many times. At the same time, read, read, read. Read what people say about poetry and poems. It'll all come together. Don't look for quick results. Don't look for formulae. Try to find out what you really think about things. Keep a notebook of any phrases, words, ideas come into your head. Read your own journal. Use the phrases as 'start-lines' and see where they go. Any thought you get while you're reading is important because it's full of 'writerliness' ie it's already 'packaged' as a bit of writing-like stuff. Treasure it.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Racism was abolished - NOT. Horrible people.

Below is the full article from today's Guardian:

Here's the link so that you can hear the recordings of the officers:

[For me, one of the most revealing things about this is this sentence:

" The CPS initially decided no charges should be brought against any of the police officers."

We know that rank and file coppers are racist. What is constantly concealed from us is the racism in the judicial system. The unravelling of the Lawrence case revealed one corner of it - and there's more to come - but here in this story, there's more of the same. The Crown Prosecution Service personnel could listen to this stuff and their first reaction was that there was no case that the Crown could bring! That says it all.

Five hundred cheers for the 'man from Beckton' who recorded the police doing this even as he was being assaulted by the police. ]

Guardian article starts here:

Police face racism scandal after black man records abuse
Crown Prosecution Service reviews decision not to charge officers heard boasting of strangling 21-year-old black man

Scotland Yard is facing a racism scandal after a black man used his mobile phone to record police officers subjecting him to a tirade of abuse in which he was told: "The problem with you is you will always be a nigger".

The recording, obtained by the Guardian, was made by the 21-year-old after he was stopped in his car, arrested and placed in a police van the day after last summer's riots.

The man, from Beckton, east London, said he was made to feel "like an animal" by police. He has also accused one officer of kneeling on his chest and strangling him.

In the recording, a police officer can be heard admitting he strangled the man because he was "a cunt". Moments later, another officer – identified by investigators as PC Alex MacFarlane – subjects the man to a succession of racist insults and adds: "You'll always have black skin. Don't hide behind your colour."

The Independent Police Complaints Commission referred the case to the Crown Prosecution Service on the basis that three officers, including MacFarlane, may have committed criminal offences.

The CPS initially decided no charges should be brought against any of the police officers. However on Thursday, the service said it would review the file after lawyers for the man threatened to challenge the decision in a high court judicial review. MacFarlane has been suspended.

The inquiry began after the victim handed his mobile phone to a custody desk in Forest Gate police station and told officers he had been abused.

Earlier, he had been driving through Beckton with a friend when he was stopped by a van containing eight police officers from Newham borough. London's streets were flooded with police who had been drafted in to contain the rioting.

The officers arrested the man on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs and told him he was being taken to a police station to be searched. After being taken into the van, the man was also arrested for missing a previous magistrates court appearance. No further action is to be taken in relation to the suspected driving offence.

It was once inside the van and handcuffed that the man said he was assaulted by police. He described having his head pushed against the van window and said one officer placed his knees on his chest and began strangling him. "I couldn't breathe and I felt that I was going to die," he said.

The man said he decided to turn on the recording facility of his phone after MacFarlane allegedly made sexually explicit references about his mother and telling him he would be "dead in five years".

In the recording, the man sounds agitated; he raises his voice to complain about his treatment and in places insults the arresting officers. The verbal exchange lasts several minutes.

When the man tells an officer: "you tried to strangle me", the officer replies: "No, I did strangle you." The officer adds that he strangled him "'cos you're a cunt" and that the man had been "kicking out". In relation to the strangling, the officer says: "Stopped you though, didn't it?"

Minutes later MacFarlane, who is white, begins abusing the man. After a period of silence, he can be heard telling him: "The problem with you is you will always be a nigger, yeah? That's your problem, yeah."

The man reads out MacFarlane's badge number and complains that he had subjected him to racist comments: "I'll always be a nigger – that's what you said, yeah?"

MacFarlane replies: "You'll always have black skin colour. Don't hide behind your colour, yeah." He adds: "Be proud. Be proud of who you are, yeah. Don't hide behind your black skin."

Shortly before the recording ends, the man can be heard saying: "I get this all the time." He then tells the officer: "We'll definitely speak again about this … It's gonna go all the way, it's gonna go all the way – remember."

The man's lawyer, Michael Oswald, said: "By his own efforts our client has put before the CPS exceptionally strong evidence and we share his astonishment that the CPS have reached a decision that no police officer should be prosecuted on the basis of that evidence. We do welcome their agreement to review that decision and we now await the outcome of that review."

The CPS initially said charges should not be brought against MacFarlane because the remarks did not cause the man harassment, distress or alarm.

Grace Ononiwu, deputy chief crown prosecutor for CPS London, said: "Lawyers for [the complainant] have written to the CPS and asked us to review our decision. I have considered the matter personally and directed that all the evidence should be reconsidered and a fresh decision taken by a senior lawyer with no previous involvement in this matter."

Speaking to the Guardian, the 21-year-old was visibly shaken when recounting the ordeal. "It's hard to explain, but it makes you feel like a piece of shit – it makes you feel not even human," he said.

"I was glad that I had it on the recording. I knew that if I had it saved I could show that I had been abused.

"It's not right. We've just got different skin colour – underneath it we're all the same."

The Metropolitan police confirmed in a statement that it received a complaint on 11 August about alleged "racial" remarks and oppressive conduct.

"These are serious allegations; any use of racist language or excessive use of force is not acceptable."

The force said it had referred the case to the IPCC and that one officer had been suspended.

MacFarlane's solicitor, Colin Reynolds, said: "The officer has been the subject of an investigation, has co-operated in that and been advised he is not to be the subject of criminal proceedings."

Estelle du Boulay, director of the Newham Monitoring Project, said: "Sadly, the shocking treatment of this young man at the hands of police officers – both the physical brutality he describes and the racial abuse he claims he suffered – are by no means unusual; it compares to other reports we have received. What makes this case different is the victim had the foresight and courage to turn on a recording device on his mobile phone."

She compared the incident to the case of Liam Stacey, a student who was jailed for 56 days for posting offensive comments on Twitter after the on-pitch collapse of the Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba.

On Friday Swansea crown court rejected an appeal from Stacey, who used racist terms against other Twitter users.

When the student was sentenced in a magistrates court on Tuesday a senior lawyer at the CPS, Jim Brisbane, said: "Racist language is inappropriate in any setting and through any media. We hope this case will serve as a warning to anyone who may think that comments made online are somehow beyond the law."

Congratulations to George Galloway

Congratulations to George Galloway. This breaks all the media electoral rules, that is: once they've written someone off, vilified them, and announced their death, they should be hanging around the fringes of politics for the following thirty years trying to get back in. George didn't do that. He went on backing and supporting the things he and his party believe in.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

The origins of grammar - TLS review

re the origins of grammar, this looks interesting:

'Outstanding' stuff in schools

Getting away from all that Ofsted stuff for a moment: great things seen in schools.

I can't mention the names of the schools but in two separate schools I've seen some great things.

First a school that was given 'Outstanding' by Ofsted (oh hello again, Ofsted). This was in an area where most of the pupils are of Bangladeshi origin. There appeared to be many, many things going on at the same time to make it outstanding. In what I'm writing here, I'm not picking out the magic ingredients that appear to have 'done the trick'. I'm simply saying what impressed me - given who I am, and where I'm coming from.

I loved the fact that there was a 'Family Room' which was full all day with classes and then in the evening there was a cooking class. It was clear that parents have a place in the school and things are done by them as well as for them. My own feeling is that unless and until this is done in a systematic way, schools in many areas will be trying to run up a down escalator. Parents have to be part of the cause of the education of their parents and their skills and knowledge harnessed in all the many ways they've got at their disposal - telling stories, sharing experiences, showing how things were done, can be done etc etc.

The deputy head told me that they put an enormous emphasis in the school on the idea of being inspiring. I was told that the school tries to figure out ways in which each theme or topic taught is introduced to the children in a way that makes them surprised and excited. This followed up by trying to engage the children in coming up with questions on the topic or theme and it's these questions which drive the curriculum for that next period. That interested me a lot and I would like to go back and see that in action some time.

In the other school, it was an event. Years 2,3 and 4 have been working with Dorinia Harley a woman who runs the Emashi African Dance Group. She had been teaching them drumming, dance and singing. Separately in their year groups and then together drawing in the rest of the school, parents and teachers, the children, Dorinia and another woman presented a passionate, exciting, stirring show involving everyone. Dorinia herself is calm, modest, assured and brings out a total commitment from everyone.

I found myself musing about how or where such an event - and all the preparation - fits in the outlines and of what makes a good school. No one got any marks, it was a co-operative,collective display bringing the children, parents and teachers together. Everyone could participate - of course some people showed exceptional talents within that - but that was part of the whole, not something to one side. By some criteria, the event was without value. You could argue, perhaps, that it didn't take those children to any higher form of literacy, numeracy or science. It didn't offer them access to the language and process of power, which, it's argued, many of those children are traditionally excluded what's the point?

I'd answer that two ways: 1)there is tremendous 'value' in the event and preparation for itself. It asks of everyone to listen and co-operate. For many (of any background), it asks for a certain humility and flexibility to take on something new. There is a good deal of emphasis in the drumming and dance on forms of co-ordination and physical expression which many children rarely get a chance to use. In that sense, it's an extension of who you are and who you might be. 2) In the longterm, there's something else, isn't there? If you ask yourself, how often do children in schools get the chance to immerse themselves in something which requires them to tune into each other and to act in co-ordination with everyone else? Not very often. Learning is primarily seen in our culture as something acquired by individuals, for individuals - and yet in schools we instil this collectively! It's an extremely uneasy marriage and teachers sweat tears and blood to enable children to do both - learn collectively and individually. Again, for whatever reasons, many children come into schools full of self-blame, fears of detachment and unhappiness. Most people - children or adults - with this kind of stuff going on in their lives, will on occasions express these things aggressively. That's what schools deal with every single day. One way to make things easier is to create these big, festive occasions where everyone can participate, no one needs to be left out, and where everyone has to rely on  you and you have to rely on everyone. In short, there is no way of knowing exactly where such events lead in terms of those tested and measured subjects but my hunch is that they are part of how a school can be a place where every child feels that they are safe and that it's a place where they can be 'can-do' people.

Ofsted Report on English - what's great,what's crap

Here are some edited highlights from the opening pages of the Ofsted report on English, linked in my previous blog - with comments by me inserted in shouty capitals

Ofsted English Report

The quality of pupils’ learning was hampered in weaker lessons by a number of ‘myths’ about what makes a good lesson. The factors that most commonly limited learning included: an excessive pace; an overloading of activities; inflexible planning; and limited time for pupils to work independently. Learning was also constrained in schools where teachers concentrated too much or too early on a narrow range of test or examination skills.


The most successful schools were those that had identified the particular needs of their pupils and then designed a distinctive curriculum to meet those needs.



This report includes some examples of good practice but the majority of schools visited did not have systematic procedures in place to develop good literacy practice across all departments.


The survey found that too few schools gave enough thought to ways of encouraging the love of reading,



Part B of this report identifies 10 actions to raise standards of English in schools. Some of the issues identified, such as encouraging pupils to read widely and improving provision for literacy across all departments in secondary schools, have been noted as areas for concern in earlier Ofsted subject reports. In general, schools have done too little in recent years to address these weaknesses. This report recommends a range of practical measures that schools and the government should take. Ofsted believes that these actions would have the effect of helping to raise standards and to ‘move English forward’ in schools.

The Department for Education should:
publish research on the teaching of writing, drawing on national and international publications, to include the effective teaching of spelling and handwriting, and how boys can be helped to become successful writers
provide support in order to increase the number of specialist English teachers in primary schools and to improve the subject knowledge of existing English coordinators in primary schools.
All schools should:
develop policies to promote reading for enjoyment throughout the school




ensure that preparation for national tests and examinations is appropriate, does not begin too early, and does not limit the range of the curriculum or pupils’ opportunities for creativity in English


improve transition and continuity in curriculum and assessment in English between Key Stages 2 and 3
simplify lesson plans in English to concentrate on the key learning objectives and encourage teachers to be more flexible in responding to pupils’ progress as lessons develop.
Nursery and primary schools should also:
develop a structured programme for improving children’s communication skills in the Early Years Foundation Stage
secure pupils’ early reading skills by the end of Key Stage 1.
Secondary schools should also:
ensure that the English curriculum at Key Stage 3 has a clear and distinct purpose that is explained to students and builds in, where possible, tasks, audiences and purposes that engage students with the world beyond the classroom


strengthen whole-school literacy work across all departments to ensure that students extend and consolidate their literacy skills in all appropriate contexts.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Ofsted: chutzpah with extra dressing

Here is the Ofsted report on English. My first reaction is 'What a bloody nerve!' Much of what they're complaining about is a direct result of a) government policy and b) the fact that they policed it! At the very least, you might have expected them to beg forgiveness for having patrolled schools enforcing the crap National Literacy Strategies.

It's great to see them now advocating 'reading for pleasure' as if it's something they've been going on about for years. Yes, they cunningly had a little report on reading for pleasure tucked away on their website for some time now, but of course they have visited thousands of schools over the last ten years, say, and their checklist didn't include the provision of books for reading for pleasure. It just wasn't on their radar and so it wasn't something that they asked schools to do anything about.

Apparently, it now will be. Those of us who have put emphasis on this, however, weren't asking for the heavy hand of Ofsted to demand this. Over and over again, we've suggested that what the government could have done was publish some friendly recommendations which schools would be asked to adapt according to their local conditions.

The cynic in me says that this is really about the slow discovery these people are making about phonics: namely that whatever its strengths, it will never be enough to deliver competent readers who read for meaning. Only yesterday I heard that Tower Hamlets advisers are concerned about the phenomenon of 'barking at print' ie being able to read fluently but without understanding.

Meanwhile, the list of good school practice that they appear to be advocating are policies championed by LATE, NATE, CLPE, the English and Media Centre for decades even as they've been derided and cold-shouldered and treated as if they were the enemies within.

Anyway, more when I've had a closer read.

Bear: "I've done nothing wrong."

In a statement today, the Bear has made it quite clear that though various people have come into his cave, some of whom have been kind enough to make contributions to funds useful to bears, this cannot it in any way be construed as having influenced him.

"I keep matters concerning the welfare of bears quite separate from policy. I would also like to point out that the matter of who I eat with - or indeed who I eat - is a private matter. For the period of the book, 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt', this cave is mine. In the meantime, who I see in the cave really is my private business. In fact, it's worth quite a lot of private business, but that's another matter. Remember, we're all in this together, and there's no truth in the saying, 'While you get austerity, bears get prosperity'."

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Bear: 'I knew nothing about this'

Here is the latest statement from the Bear:

'Could I make it clear that I knew nothing whatsoever about Michael Rosen's entirely unacceptable behaviour towards me and the Bear Hunt fund. I am indeed extremely pleased that he has resigned.

Any suggestion that having a meal with me in my lair or indeed anywhere else would have enabled a person to influence my views on hibernation, berry-gathering, salmon-catching or any other bearish activities is entirely untrue.

I am resigning over this matter

I would like to make it clear that though I was filmed by a group of children's book critics posing as bank managers, it is entirely not true that I would have been able to get them access to the Bear or anyone in the family who appear in the book 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt'.  Though it's possible to see me on film appearing to make that suggestion, this was really nothing more than bluster. The funds I mentioned would indeed have gone into another fund known as 'Bear Hunt' but this fund is entirely separate from the funds accruing to the book from sales.

I am extremely sorry that I have embarrassed the Bear and the family none of whom knew anything about my suggestions that I could have given this bogus group of children's book critics access to him.

'Bear Hunt' is a healthy and entirely honest organisation involved in winning support for the best policies towards bears, austerity measures and Academies.

Some people have suggested that having a meal with the Bear would enable guests to influence policies to do with bears, austerity measures, hedge funds, oil prospecting and Academies. I can reassure the public that this is not the case. I can. Yes.

Thank you.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

'Good for the economy' means 'good for the rich'

What does 'good for the economy' mean for the poor?

When 'the economy' is growing, the poor are unemployed or in part-time jobs, low-paid jobs, pensioners,children in families where there isn't enough money coming in and disabled. When 'the economy' is growing the poor are living in lousy flats, in areas with the highest pollution, the least well equipped, least well-built schools, nearest to the most overcrowded hospitals and with the social services under the most pressure.

When 'the economy' is growing, the rich (richest 10 per cent) own and control some 50% of all wealth. They own this in land, property, material assets and money. They own and occupy several houses, send their children to massively well-endowed private schools, use private hospitals and buy in extra help for anything and everything in order to service their lives.

When 'the economy' is 'in trouble', shrinking, the poor are unemployed or in part-time jobs, low-paid......oh hang's not that different. The low-pay poor will have less chance of being on any pay at all (unemployment goes up), the tiny margins people were working to will be cut back and all the social services, education and health will be worse. The rich will be shuffling places a little, some going up, some going down a bit - but this will be nothing more than selling off an asset or two to pay for a bit of private education or health.

So the more the politicians can get the poor to think of  the 'economy' as theirs  and that 'recovery' is good for them (as opposed to being marginally less awful) then there is less chance people will protest or defy what is happening.

The point is: everything this government is doing is about making sure that the rich keep hold of 50% of all wealth. That's all they mean when they say that this or that measure is 'good for the economy'. At the moment, they believe that high unemployment, low wages and a massively cut back public sector is 'good for the economy' which means 'a good way for the top 10% to hang on to 50% of the wealth'.

Serious question re classroom discussion

How many hours a week is it possible to have a discussion with a class or within a class where ideas are discussed - not as a debate with 'sides' but simply discussing ideas? And parallel with that: how many hours or minutes a week is it possible to talk about feelings? Or both at the same time?

This kind of discussion might arise out of a book, a poem, a song, a piece of art - or just stimulated by something that has happened or that someone has seen. Or indeed from eg Philosophy lesson or Circle Time.

Answers please on a postcard - no - on facebook or twitter please.

Just curious to know how much room there is for this sort of thing now. Any Key Stage.

News on the relatives on the memorial

No - they're not there.

Here's the list:

There's a good reason they're not there: they weren't arrested in Deux-Sevres. The monument is for those who were arrested in Deux-Sevres. They had been living in Niort, Deux-Sevres in 1941 and 1942 but seem to have fled, only to be picked up somewhere else in France, sometime in 1943.

Perhaps there are records somewhere else in France which details where and how they were arrested. All that Jean-Marie Pouplain states in his book is that they, along with a list of others, left Deux-Sevres secretly ('quittés clandestinement')

Monday, 19 March 2012

A memorial with a personal link

On Holocaust Memorial Day this year I blogged here a monologue-poem about finding out what happened to my father's uncle in France during the war. I was just this evening doing a trawl looking for information about what the French government and judiciary have or have not done in relation to the wartime Vichy government, when up popped this:

It tells how the town of Niort has just put up a cenotaph for the 143 Jews of the 'departement' of Deux-Sevres deported during the war. This took place, as you can see, on Feb 3 this year. My father's uncle and his wife Rachel lived for a short while at 11 rue Mellaise in the town of Niort. We know this because a couple of years ago some letters turned up in the possession of a distant relative and several were from my great-uncle to our relatives in the US.

His name and his wife's name appear on the lists of Jews in a book about Deux-Sevres so in theory they should be on the cenotaph ('la stele). To date I don't know.

Your (UK taxpayers') new Broadcasting House

I was in the new Broadcasting House today. I thought I'd take a shufti just to feel it. The part I was in was made up of seven glass-walled storeys arranged around a quadrangle, so everyone on the top floors could  experience that Beachy Head feeling. The feeling engendered by the place is that of bee-hive drawers. Each floor is open and visible to the others so that the busy bee producers and broadcast assistants are all doing an all-too-obvious bee dance at their sites. There's also a touch of the panopticon about it: Jeremy Bentham's vision of the prisoners overlooked from the centre by one guard.

However, the new Broadcasting House is the panopticon without the guard. Mysterious. At least the panopticon prisoners know where the guard is. If you get me.

Another mystery is a strange piece of permanent decor. At the end of the floors there is a shiny white wall. I was too busy doing a Holby City tracking shot in my mind to notice exactly what this shiny white wall was hiding - a kitchen area perhaps. The shiny white wall, however, is broken by a luminous red symbol of a cloud, half-sun and a few drops of rain. A motif representing a lack of permanent sun? The oncoming shower? No one knew.

A rather laconic radio presenter who I admire a lot was sitting with his producer in one of the pub-like cubicles scattered about. He had shrunk. I'm not sure whether this was because this is what the new Broadcasting House does to people. I looked at my hands. They had shrunk too. He recommended I try the lift. He said that it was rather superb. Last time we spoke he was in a somewhat excited state talking about the fault-lines of 1930s London culture. Now he was recommending lifts. Of even more interest to him though was that this superb media factory had overlooked constructing places for presenters to write their scripts.

I got into the lift. It shot down to the ground floor. Why couldn't he write his script in the lift? I thought. At the bottom I met some Year 11 students from a school in Mitcham. Their teacher had long black hair with just-as-long blue stripes in it. Why not?

Look, Gove! Finnish education comes to London, 29 March


Leading Finnish education experts launch a book in London 29th March 2012. “Miracle of Education: The Principles and Practices of Teaching and Learning in Finnish Schools” is an extensive volume written by over 30 top Finnish education experts.

The publication provides in-depth explanations, answers and reflections about the reasons behind Finland’s consistent success in education. Written in English, the volume is a unique source of insight to the international audience, including policy makers, teachers, researchers and journalists.

It introduces the main features of Finnish education, such as strong equity policy, teachers’ role as autonomous and reflective academic experts, and evaluation policy that aims to improvement rather than ranking. It showcases the results of the long-term investment on education and schooling in Finland.

The book is launched in conjunction with the seminar: “In Teachers We Trust – Explaining the Finnish Miracle”, where Professors Hannele Niemi, Jari Lavonen, Kristiina Kumpulainen, Arto Kallioniemi and PhD, Adjunct Professor Auli Toom - the editors and contributors of the book - discuss education policies and experiences of recent education reforms together with leading British education experts such as Director Emeritus, Professor Geoff Whitty and Professor Andrew Pollard.

The seminar held at the Institute of Education in London 29th March is part of a seminar series “Finns and Education” organised by the Finnish Institute in London, the Embassy of Finland, London and their other partners. The seminar series continues on 30th March with the debate event: “Lessons from the North? Education, Teaching and Schools”.

For more information about the seminar programme, speaksers and the book, please see the websites below or contact Programme Director Jussi Nissilä.

“Finns and Education” seminar series:
“Miracle of Education” book:

Why 'Comprehension' is not comprehension

This is no official secret - just the opposite in fact - but 'comprehension' is defined for us by the publishers of those handy study guides, CGP. All the questions on the rehearsal Key Stage 2 SATs Comprehension test come under the following headings: Retrieval, Inference, Summary, Lay-out and Structure.

So, Retrieval is that one where the passage says, 'Bob had a blue hat' and the question is 'What colour is Bob's hat?' Inference is where the passage says, 'It was raining. Bob had a blue hat.' and the question is, 'Why was Bob wearing a hat?'. Summary is of course summarise 'It was raining. Bob had a blue hat.' (!). Lay-out is where they ask you questions about, say, punctuation, or eg why the passage also had two boxes of information next to it, or some such. And Structure is where they ask you about why this or that came before or after this or that or the like.

So that's comprehension done and dusted.

Or is it? What's missing? Well, only all the stuff that you really engage with, all the stuff that is the reason why you would ever read anything, talk about it, wonder about it, be affected by it, care about it. That's to say the mix of ideas and feeling which all writing bar the most scientific, most instructional, deals with. All the writing that is put in front of KS2 SATs students will have lying behind it and threaded through it a set of ideas. The chances are these won't be simple or clear-cut and can't be easily reduced to yes/no answers and so are 'difficult to mark'. Likewise, the feelings that might be engendered by a reader reading the passage.

Ah well, the defenders of the retrieval/inference/summary/lay-out/structure school say, you can't get the ideas from a passage unless you do retrieval, inference,summary,lay-out and structure. To which I say, yes but... My yes-but is this: do you approach the matter of comprehending a piece of writing with that list of testable activities or do you approach it through a discussion of its ideas and the kinds of feelings you perceive to be present in the text and/or in yourself? I would argue that by engaging with ideas and feeling, particularly in close reading of a text and in discussion with others, the questions of retrieval, inference, summary, lay-out and structure emerge.

The sad story, though, is that some schools under pressure to perform in the SATs feel that they have to drill on retrieval, inference,summary,lay-out and structure rather than spend time in a much more discursive way talking about ideas and feeling as a route to those SATs-type 'skills'.

Similarly, in the run-up to the SATs a good deal of other kinds of work which really engage with ideas and feeling in stories, non-fiction writing, poetry and the rest also slip off the time-table - drama, performance, interpretation-work eg doing art- and music-work inspired by a piece of writing.

It's hard not to feel suspicious about all this. That's to say, in many schools, trying to do their best to stay out of trouble with Ofsted, children are being steered away from time spent engaging with ideas and feelings and spending time instead getting the retrieval, inference,summary, lay-out and structure stuff 'right'. Conspiracy theory tells me that this suits the present era nicely - preventing children from thinking, discussing, arguing for and against ideas and feelings emerging and lying behind texts and urging them to thinking that all writing has right and wrong answers to fixed questions.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Becoming Our Own Experts: a remarkable book

"  Becoming Our Own Experts was first published as a fat printed book with a red cover in 1982. It is the bringing-together of papers written between 1974 and 1979 by a group of teachers, self-styled the Talk Workshop Group, at Vauxhall Manor School, an 11-18 girls’ comprehensive school whose buildings were on two sites in Vauxhall and Kennington, south London. The papers constituted an example of teachers researching the interactions of language and learning in their own classrooms, a process sometimes known as ‘action research’.  "

That's the preface to the second edition of 'Becoming Our Own Experts', now published as a free onliine resource here:

If you're a teacher, a student teacher, a trainer of teachers, anyone interested in education, can I please implore you to take a look at it. My involvement with the project revolved around the fact that I was a 'writer-in-residence' at Vauxhall Manor School in the late seventies when the work that is being written about in this book was taking place. It was perhaps one of the most informative, mind-changing experiences I have ever had in my  professional life. The combination of the life, thought and intelligence of the pupils (all girls),the passion, commitment and work of the staff was all powerful stuff. At the time, it just seemed 'exciting' or 'interesting'. Looking back on it, I can see now that it was indeed something very, very special indeed.

In an ideal world, teaching would not only involve teacher-training, teaching and INSET and 'courses'. It would also involve all kinds of 'action research' and sharing - at school level as well as local, national and international levels. Whenever I have seen it take place - and I'm in a very privileged place at the moment in that I am supervising teachers, teaching assistants and librarians through an MA module doing just this - I have seen that it is a transforming experience for everyone. Discoveries are made, attitudes change (mine too) and there is a real sense of optimism about the relationships between teachers, education and pupils.

So please take a look at 'Becoming Our Own Experts'. If I could speak on their behalf, I'm pretty sure that the editors and driving force behind it - John Richmond, Stephen Eyers, Helen Savva et al - would want anyone reading it to think: 'Couldn't we do something like this?' The answer is yes.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

A Load of Nonsense;Lear's 200th;'Word of Mouth'

There was something joyously explorative about today's show for and about Edward Lear, recorded in Bristol Central Library for BBC Radio 4's 'Word of Mouth'.

The line-up was writer Philip Ardagh, academics Anna Barton and James Williams and actor Paul Nicholson. Children from three local schools, Luckwell, Sefton Park and Cabot were there with their poems and pieces of nonsense and an audience of about 200.

We tried to weave a picture of nonsense in general, its history, Lear's own life and work alongside some specific pieces from Philip and me. The mood in the library was attentive and quick-witted. People seemed to be willing us on.

I think this is going to be an interesting year for looking at what nonsense (or 'new sense', as I've called it in the previous blog on this) is all about and we think we're doing with it. Of course it can oscillate between the twee and the subversive, between a refuge to the dangerous. One moment it appears to be disrupting the whole social order and the next seems to be saying hurrah for hierarchy. It seems to have instability running through its fabric.

My favourite line of the day came from a girl from Cabot Primary: 'There will be no sun today. It's melted.'

The great melter, that melts anything that gets too near to it, has in the end melted itself. For half a moment, nonsense can threaten the solar system. And then we laugh and the sun goes on being exactly as it was.

And today was also about nonsense not being just one thing. At one moment it was the sound of words that were being broken up or having attention drawn to them - rather than directly to their meaning. Another time, as with Philip's work, say, it's the form that gets disrupted. In his case, he often 'spoils' the telling of the story by interrupting it, asking the 'author' questions, telling 'him' to get on, thereby hiding the fact that it's another 'author'  ie another one who Philip is pretending to be, who is asking the questions! Storytelling becomes unstable.

I could go on...but please listen on Tuesday March 20 at 4.00pm (the Guardian 'Guide' has given it a nice plug), BBC Radio 4. Repeated on Monday March 26 at 11.00pm. After that, it'll be on iPlayer for the rest of time. (Does time rest?Sometimes.)

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Little George plans the budget in bed

Every night little George lay awake in bed trying to figure out ways in which he could make himself and his best friend David and all his other friends much, much richer. His first idea was to make sure that poor people had less money. He knew he couldn't just take it away from them so instead he came up with this really good idea of getting many of them sacked. This happened, and next thing, the poor people who were working got less money. Magic! thought little George.

Another plan he had with his friends was to get poor people arguing with each other over who was a nice poor person and who was a shitty poor person. Then, all the poor people could get angry with the ones George had called shitty instead of getting angry with him. That happened. It worked. Magic! thought little George.

Then George had several ideas about what to do with the monies that poor people give to rich people - like the nice relief rich people get when they put money away for when they're old. I know, thought little George, we'll go on giving them that relief, that way rich people can get richer because poor people give them some money to be comfortable for when they're old. They deserve it, thought little George.

Then finally, little George had this great idea: rich people pay 50p in the pound in tax. Poor old rich people, thought George. I can make sure they pay less, so that rich people can be richer at the end of the year. But where will the money come from, wondered George's servant Bill. Don't worry about that, said George, it'll come from poor people. Magic! thought George.

Letter schools could send home to parents about reading

Model letter about books and home reading for schools to adapt to their local needs

Dear Parents and Carers

We want to do everything we can to help your child to read and write – and we will. We teach children how to read. We teach them how to write.

But we want them to read and write really well so that they are confident when they see pages of writing that they haven’t seen before and so that they are confident when we ask them to write things.

But if you help us, your child will do really well.

If you have young children, please make sure that you read to them. Try to do this once a day. We can give you books to read to your children but you can get some books from the local library, some local shops, from catalogues and from online shopping.

We also run a school bookshop where you can buy books.

The most important thing you should do is make sure that your children see plenty of books or magazines or comics – or all three.

Why is this all so important?

1. In school, we ask children to read things and find out what’s important – ‘browsing’. It is very hard to teach browsing. The best way to learn browsing is going to a bookshop, going to a library or sitting with a pile of books or magazines and choosing what you want to read, or just sorting your books and magazines in ways that you like.

2. In school, we ask children to think about difficult ideas. This might be about, say, why or how things happened in history. It might be when we ask children to think about ‘if’ and ‘why’. If children read lots of different kinds of books, they will start to think about such things as part of their reading.

3. In school, we ask children to think beyond themselves, to think about why or how other people think and behave. If children read lots of different kinds of books, they will start to think about such things as part of their reading.

4. In school, we want children to ask questions, wonder about things, be curious and interested. Again, if children read lots of different kinds of books, they will be children who do just that: ask questions, wonder, be curious and interested.

5. Like adults, children are full of feelings and thoughts. Like adults, these sometimes boil over and the children don’t always know what to do with them. Reading books often show us people facing up to problems and finding ways to deal with them. This means that reading books helps children find ways of dealing with their feelings and thoughts.

We know from research all over the world that children who read widely and often and who have plenty of books or magazines to read do better at school than children who don’t have books and magazines.

Here are some important addresses and websites: [to be filled in]
Your local library – where you can take out 12 books on  one ticket! [to be filled in]
Your local shops where they sell books and magazines and comics [to be filled in]
Book catalogues for children online [to be filled in]

Read books with your children.
Get hold of books for your children.

We are going to hold meeting to talk about books and your children. Perhaps we can start up a parents’ committee of Books Champions to take this on further.

The date for this meeting is: [to be filled in] and we’ve invited [.......] to speak at it.

Best wishes
Headteacher and….

Sir Michael Tooshaw (of himself) and 'literacy'

This is what I wrote on the Guardian thread about Michael Willshaw's thoughts on literacy:

1. Beware all stats comparing 'literacy' across decades or from country to country. They rarely if ever compare the same thing ie they fail the 'like for like' test which is at the heart of any scientific study or conclusions.

2. It is quite possible that a percentage of people leave the various stages of schooling unable to write continuous prose, unable to fully understand an ordinary piece of continuous prose eg a sports report in a paper or a news story or whatever.
Why would this be?

3. One argument is that they need more phonics ie they didn't ever pick up those alphabetic principles which do prevail in English written language. So teach it to them. This may also be the case.

4. The problem that arises is after that or alongside that. What does a school do? What does a government do? Raising targets is really very silly. It won't help anybody to do anything better. Let's forget that.
The key thing is to look at the total literacy practices of a school and a school in relation to the school community and ask questions like: Why would or should anyone need to read in this place? What motivations do people get from this community (in school and out)? What activities go on here that inspire or encourage people (children and adults) to read beyond any 'literacy' activity going on in the teaching situation?

5. I don't see those questions being put by Ofsted when they arrive in a school. Their attentions are totally caught up with classroom organisation, school organisation and test scores. If you ask these questions properly you start to look at how the school positions itself in relation to all the many different kinds of literacy going on in contemporary culture - books, magazines, comics, sports programmes, leaflets of all kinds attached to cinemas, museums, leisure places and of course all the electronic media - phones, apps, facebook, and internet stuff in its massive variety.

6. So what does this school to do to encourage children and their parents to immerse themselves in this written language? What have successive governments done to set up book loving school communities? I have been to summoned to see successive schools ministers to talk over this very point - and Jim Rose with his now-junked reports - and the end result of several hours of face to face discussion with them all is absolutely zero. Sweet F.A. They just talk the talk.

7. I can only conclude that these people are liars. They say that they want to encourage children to read for pleasure. They know the research that shows what kind of impact this has on all children of all backgrounds - they know because I've pressed the research into their un-bloody-willing hands and yet they do nothing apart from make noises about the joys of English Literature.
I have even worked out a 20-point blueprint plan for schools to adopt, change and re-use on how to create book-loving school communities and I've pressed that into their hands. I've made a TV programme which exemplified that method....I could go on.

8. And now Willshaw and Ofsted have the barefaced cheek to talk about this matter as if schools haven't really wanted to do this or that Willshaw has just discovered this extraordinary and original idea of 'reading for pleasure'. In fact, Ofsted has been part of the problem. It's Ofsted and fearof Ofsted that have policed the SATs which have been one of the obstacles in the way of promoting reading for pleasure.

9. There is also a superb downloadable booklet produced by the NUT on 'Reading for Pleasure' written by the NUT in conjunction with author Alan Gibbons. The document to do this already exists! It has been resolutely ignored by HM Govt.

The 20-point plan is here:

How to make literature into Trivial Pursuits/Mastermind

The two main kinds of questions on KS2 SATs English papers are 'retrieval' questions and 'inference' questions. This is called 'comprehension'.

The intellectual poverty in this is mind-boggling. When we read, we engage with much more than these two faculties. We engage with our feelings and we engage with ideas - the ideas in our own heads and the ideas that we perceive to be in the text. The feelings and ideas are intertwined, intermarried.

Any of us could think of examples of this in our own reading or in talking with children we know. The other night I was reading a Horrid Henry book with my seven year old. It was the one where Moody Margaret comes to stay and everyone - apart from Perfect Peter - want her out. She's driving them nuts. So Henry gets up in the middle of the night and leaves a message on Moody Margaret's parents' phone...Then, the next thing you know in the story is that the parents have arrived at the house because they understand that there has been an 'emergency' with Moody Margaret.

It's actually quite difficult to figure out what's happened. You have to imagine what Henry left on Moody Margaret's parents' phone. So me and my little chap, we talked about that. We imagined what he said. We imagined how he could disguise his voice well enough to convince them that the 'emergency' was real.

We were engaging with what was 'inferred' in the text - yes.We were 'retrieving' stuff from the text but we were also started engaging with feelings - ie how we would feel if someone like Moody Margaret came to stay and we were started to think about if this was one of the rare occasions that Henry's parents weren't as angry with one of his schemes as they usually are. We started to engage with the values and ethics that lay at the heart of the story - and this came out of talk and acting out the roles and having fun with the situation - which though treated comically in the book, is in real life, always deadly serious...

This is what literature is for: to engage with feelings and ideas attached to beings we recognise and care about.

This isn't about right and wrong answers. There is enough play in Francesca Simon's writing for to have left us 'gaps' to fill in, and speculate about what might have happened and what people's motives were.

The dreadful poverty of the SATs papers is that they are training children's minds to think that reading is purely about 'retrieval' and 'inference' - and that the inference is on a very low level or, on occasions absurdly psychological. I have a comprehension paper based on Seamus Heaney's tragic poem about the moment (as a boy) he hears that his brother has been killed. Half the questions are about guessing the psychological motives for people's behaviour - as if children are or should be experts on that, as opposed to being people capable of reflecting and speculating on what they might have done in similar circumstances or the like.

So while ministers make puffed-up, pompous comments about the 'love of literature', their tests narrow children's and teachers' responses down to these exercises in trivial pursuits.

Chipping Norton peoples - prehistoric Tory theory..

Hot on the heels of the news just in of the 'Red Deer Cave people' found in China, (see here:

come further exciting discoveries in the Chipping Norton area of England. It seems that some kind of mix of the previously known Homo Etoniensis lived side by side with the Murdocherthals and Homo Metropolitanus. At one time, it was thought that these were three distinct species but bit by bit experts are unravelling a fascinating story of sharing, intermingling and support. From faint marks found on some of the finds, it's been possible to ascertain that all three peoples took part in a ritual involving scratching. It seems to have worked on the principle that if one person scratched another's back, that person scratched the first one in return.

Of great interest are what appear to be tokens of some kind - perhaps currency - which seems to have passed between all three peoples in some kind of offering or giving of services.

Aside from this, what is particularly exciting the experts is that it was previously thought that Homo Etoniensis (young male) was known for bizarre rituals, wearing of outlandish body-covering and being sick on them, avoided all contact with other early humans but now it looks as if they were especially keen to make contact with the Murdocherthals who in turn seem to have lavished tokens on Homo Metropolitianus. Apart from anything else this requires a complete revision of how Homo Etoniensis should be viewed. Far from being an aloof, clannish type, he should be seen as quite literally getting down and dirty with the other two. This confirms some people that it would be simpler to regard all three as variants within the species Tory.

Exciting times from the world of archaeology.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Have Ofsted blown it all apart?

Just watched Newsnight and in amongst the speedy presentation and jargon, am I right in thinking that Ofted's report on English has blamed the narrowing of the curriculum to fit the tests and a lack of policy on encouraging children to love reading for a plateau in standards?

Did I imagine that?

And then the new Ofsted boss comes on and goes on and on and on about phonics and dodges what his own inspectors are telling them?!

I had better buy their report and mark it with highlighter pen in the morning...

BBC going privater and privater...

The BBC is a state owned institution but is not run directly by the state. We pay for it by a poll tax, the licence.

Over the last thirty years the degree to which this was a totally public enterprise has shifted. Production was 'opened up' to 'independent' suppliers and of course a good deal of the internal services - canteens and the like were put out to tender. At various points since the 60s outfits like Kinsey have come in to do 'cost benefit analysis' and famously under the Birt regime, a system of internal accounting was brought in which meant that each and every programme and service within the BBC had to be budgeted. Greg Dyke racked some of that back.

The BBC (or the Ministry responsible for it) has been under constant pressure from other 'media suppliers' - most famously the Murdoch empire - to get out of certain areas of production and/or to do less and/or to be 'open to competition'. Put another way, big players in the media world are regularly massively irritated by the fact that a state owned institution has the clout and skill to operate in what they think should be their patch. This is all about what they see as their 'market' ie us and our viewing/consuming time.

The fib here is that commercially owned media are 'free' and the BBC costs us. This is rubbish. Commercially owned media is paid for by companies selling advertising. Companies can only sell advertising if they are making profits themselves. Profits come from the work of those who work for those companies. So, in a sense commercial TV is paid for by the workers in each of the companies whose ads we see in their media. So there's nothing 'free' about it.

Meanwhile, the BBC has slowly but surely been asked to 'free up' sections of its production. In the past few years, those of us who work in the media as freelancers have got used to flogging our wares both for the BBC and for independent 'suppliers' selling their stuff into the BBC. Intriguingly, we have often found that the people we're dealing with are often ex-BBC or people trained by the BBC - a situation rather akin to NHS private practitioners. Even more intriguingly, we are beginning to find that some independent suppliers aren't really independent at all. They are offered longterm contracts which in effect mean that they are monopoly suppliers for that period of time. However, because they are in the 'media market' they can also flog their wares anywhere in media land.

So we now have situations where outfits which are more or less monopoly suppliers - even in some cases actually living inside BBC premises paying the BBC rent - selling stuff to the BBC, selling stuff to outside suppliers and at this stage in the game, staffed largely by people who are ex-BBC employees.

Is there any point to all of this? Is it a new status quo? Or is it a slicing up ready for the real privatisation which will happen if the Tories get a second term? And is this in turn an indicator of what is happening elsewhere in what is left of the welfare state? Hospitals, schools, social services?

As I wrote the other day, this surely requires MPs to be privatised soon, too...

Bishopsgate Institute tonight: me on Dickens

Talking of author visits (see previous post) Charles Dickens is getting an airing at the Bishopsgate Institute tonight with a talk from me tonight.

Please come. Here's how it's billed in the Bishopsgate Institute booklet.

The Institute is opposite Liverpool Street Station on Bishopsgate itself right next to Spitalfields.


Michael Rosen will be talking on Dickens – The Storyteller at the Bishopsgate Institute as part of the London in Fiction series.

7.30pm Price £8, Concessions £6. For further information telephone 020 7392 9200

One of the great imaginative writers of all time, Charles Dickens was a consummate storyteller who could draw his readers into the heart of his narrative. Michael Rosen delves into Dickens's story-telling skills and techniques, including how his 'voice' appeared both as the narrator and in the minds and mouths of his characters. With the skill of the modern-day filmmaker, Dickens could convey the broadest scene to the most intimate detail.

Michael Rosen is a broadcaster, children's novelist and poet who was Children's Laureate from 2007 to 2009. He is the author of 140 books which include Dickens: His Work and His World later reformatted as What’s so special about Dickens? as well as contributing to numerous learning resources for schools on Charles Dickens.

Further information: Telephone 020 7392 9200

Author visits school - school prepares brilliantly

In preparation for their author visit, a school I went to this week had put on a 'Day' devoted to that author - who happened to be me. To avoid sounding as if this is one great vast bit of own-trumpet-blowing, I'll call the author in question Dave.

So Dave was due at the school on Monday. In the previous week, on the Wednesday, all the classes in the school looked at things that Dave had written, they put up on the walls some of Dave's work, they tried writing in a similar style to Dave - and found that they could. They produced fact files on Dave by going on line and looking at Dave's website and looking at other info. I think they did a Dave assembly and so on.

So, when Dave arrived, the children were immersed in Dave-ology.

Apart from this making Dave feel good and making him want to do his very best for every child in the school, it made Dave think about what this was doing for the children, their sense of language and literature (er...what is now called 'literacy', even though it's more than that word describes!)

If we think that part of our job in schools is to enable children to own literacy, to possess it, to be able to use it fluently and easily, to be able to get behind words on the page, words is use, so that they can get a sense of where the words they're reading come from, and why - then this whole episode seems to be a contribution in that direction.

The children now have a sense of where Dave is coming from. They made links between what Dave said (off the cuff, as it were), his prepared pieces (Dave is a poet), and things that people have said about Dave. So language is linked here to the person who is producing it. It's not a disembodied form of communication. Ironically though, by getting hold of this idea of words linked to specific people in a specific time, it enables children to understand and to move freely around language-in-use just that bit easier.

As it happens, Dave's performance makes reference all the time to getting hold of language (and non-English languages - eg the Yiddish his father spoke) so that language appears to be 'being made', 'being remembered' 'being contrasted' before their very eyes (er...ears, I mean.)

There is also a direct link between what Dave is saying (which appears to be anecdote) to the written words in his books - which the children had either read already or could read later in copies in the school.

Obviously, there are many ways to prepare for an author visit, but it seemed to Dave (and to me) that this was a particularly good way of doing it.

Please borrow, steal and adapt it.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

MPs for sale: a proposal (modest) for reform

Parliamentary democracy is wasteful and inefficient. That's to say, it costs too much and takes a long time to do anything. I think there is a simple way round this which will make it cheaper, more efficient and in the end open it up to choice.

At present we elect MPs who then choose leaders.

This system which took centuries to evolve is not fit for purpose. It may well have been appropriate for a previous era but no longer. We need MPs to be switched on to the everyday needs of the public in ways that really matter to them: goods and services or in plain language: what they buy. How better to do this than to make the very way in which we choose our MPs to be part of the same process.

I suggest that we do to reform our electoral system is for us to be able to buy our MPs.

The way this would would work is not a lot different from the present one. We would be offered a choice of candidates in our constituencies, just as we are offered a choice of shops in the high street, or a choice of goods in the shop itself. We would then buy the MP we wanted, in other words pay a fee to the candidate we liked. Whichever MP earned the most in the 'sale' would be the winner.

One way to run this is for the price to be a flat fee. I think this is mistaken. Both the candidate and the constituent could vary matters. The candidate could offer different kinds of service to different kinds of constituent and part of the competition between the candidates would be packaging this up in a way that was attractive to the client.

So I might offer up a three class service: the 'regular' which is a flat fee of £5.00 for the parliamentary term, which would get you one consultation in the MP shop. The 'super' at £10.00 which would get you two consultations and the 'Ultra' at £500.00 which would get you as many consultations as you needed and a fine lunch on the parliamentary terrace - at an additional £100.00.

The system would also be open to sponsors who could donate sums of money to the candidate they chose. These sponsors could come from private or public bodies, individuals or companies.

So 'first past the post' as far as your local constituency is concerned would be the person who had stacked up the most money from the constituency buyers along with the sponsors' contributions.

Then this group of successful candidates would assemble in Westminster. There would be a short period while they either confirmed allegiance to each other or created new alliances until the group with the greatest funds took power. Numbers of individuals wouldn't come into it. So, theoretically, a small group of MPs backed by extremely successful and creative entrepreneurs could take power, while a large number of MPs with relatively less well-off backers might be unsuccessful.

I think it would help if this interim moment could also be open to sponsorship so that groups of candidates could rustle up sponsorship deals from eg British Nuclear Fuels, Coca Cola or whoever in order to come out winner.

I think this is the only way we can get this country on its feet again.

Edward Lear - some thoughts and news

This is the 200th anniversary of Edward Lear's birth. He was one of the Victorian era's bizarre extrusions, like Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) in that he seems to defy convention whilst remaining firmly within its ethos. So on the one hand he created poetry which is full of disruption and breakage, on the other he was an immaculate versifier. A good deal of the longer poems pursue two themes: unrequited love and the stranger's 'gaze'. So we find characters who look for love or who offer it, whilst travelling to non-British places.

It's not hard to match all this to Lear's life, in that he was someone whose own body was disrupted by epilepsy and he spent a good deal of his life on the move away from Britain. He suffered desperately from depression and didn't ever seem to know how to win or receive love. He discovered that children (real live ones that he got to know) thought his writing was very funny but top flight art critics didn't rate his painting anywhere near as highly as he wanted them to. In fact, he was a brilliant painter of exotic birds, a superb water-colourist  and a very funny cartoonist. This wasn't good enough for him because he wanted to be admired and feted for his huge oils which now seem dowdy and conventional.

It's been comparatively easy for Lear's poetry to fill the slot which we might call: 'the eccentricity we allow certain kinds of British gents to have or wear'. On the other hand, it doesn't take much to find goings on that are more dangerous than that. It always sounds absurd to treat nonsense verse as if it is real or autobiographical, so I'll tread carefully. To take 'The Owl and the Pussycat' as one example - at one level it is like an extended nursery rhyme in which animals play out something very conventional - wooing, marriage and honeymoon, all told in typically perfect rhyme and metre. However, there is a rather obvious anomaly in the poem in that it's a cross-species marriage (!). Well, nothing odd about that we might say, look at the Frog Went a-courting songs where the frog courts a mouse and the Butterfly's Ball with quite a few cross-species couplings (!)Absolutely - but then you could ask in a Freudian way, but why was Lear interested in such a set-up? You can't help wondering about the fact that he was supremely uncomfortable with who he was, and with the nature of his sexual desire along with the great difficulty he had in imagining how he could have an intimate relationship with anyone, given the terrible secret of his epilepsy.

I think that all this makes for some interesting tensions that make his poetry less easily recuperable than first appears. Yes, there is something of the classic Victorian colonial gaze which looks upon foreign parts as places to go into and occupy and which treats foreign names and people as odd because they're foreign and foreign because they're odd. Again though, you have to put that with the fact that Lear felt that he himself was odd, albeit not foreign. Perhaps this gaze was really a refracted view of himself.

He was also good at playing with the Victorians' obsession with taxonomy. His false taxonomies of plants are classic disruptions of the desperately serious tasks all the explorers, botanists, zoologists and the rest set themselves finding and labelling everything that grew on the planet - a tradition, it should be said, which gave us the greatest disruption of all, 'The Origin of the Species'.

I think he is a fascinating, contradictory, problematic figure who produced some of the best nonsense poetry ever. He was original, out of the ordinary, sad, disruptive and at times utterly haunting.

Saying that he's a 'nonsense' poet invites some thought about what nonsense actually is. For my own peace of mind, I think of nonsense as 'new sense'. That's to say, nonsense is not without any sense. It nearly always  creates something new which doesn't tally with aspects of the world or aspects of texts which we regard as normal or conventional. So it frequently offers parallels, parodies, inversions and distortions. I guess we find a lot of this funny or attractive because it breaks up the world or texts we live with under compulsion and necessity. This nonsense, new-sense relieves us for a short while of these necessities and on occasions mocks them. This relieves us of feeling dutiful or polite or respectful.

Here is a blog which is carrying news of this year's anniversary activities:

Excellent facebook page here:

I'm involved in several of them: a BBC Radio 4 programme for 'Word of Mouth' going out on Tuesday March 20 at 4.00pm and Monday March 26 at 11.00pm, a celebration of Lear with Roger McGough and others at the British Library on May 13 and another celebration in the borough he was born in, Islington, on May 29.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Tweet lines

Crows out and about on brown fields: laughing, betting with each other over who flaps best.

Pylons cutting up the sky. It'll be ready to fold and glue in a moment.

I've lit the traffic lights; i've lit the buses;i've lit the chip shop and the station sign.The street is ready.

Pylons among trees agree on many things.

Old paper stuck at the bottom of fences for long enough tries to imitate leaves.

Empty offices uncertain if they're waiting or abandoned

The bus: a boat, the night ferry on the Euston Road, full of thought,hope,desire in the going along of it.

The bungalows are glad they aren't taller and agree that things are better that way. Yes.

Ruffled hair on the train,ruffled hairs,millions of rufflings,ruffle ruffle ruffle.That's us.

No ends. No beginnings. Only change.

Lights across streets and railway lines calling out to each other in the dark.

Shreds of polythene bags in lastdaysofwinter branches, a cat takes no notice.

About ten wheelie bins waiting for the bus

Quite a few bumble bees have reckoned it's safe to come out. I told them they missed the snow. They said, we know, we know, we know.