Monday, 30 April 2012

Inequality is being made.

The good thing about the Sunday Times publishing its annual Rich List is that it gives us all a day or two to remind us of just how rich the rich are, and how much richer they have become.

Owen Jones has written an article here:

which lays out the meat and potatoes of the matter, which I suppose can be summarised by saying that since Lehman Brothers went bust, the super-rich in this country have got richer by £414 billion pounds. Crisis? What crisis?

For those of us who see inequality as a problem, it's tempting to think that this is all we need to say on the matter: 'Look! There's plenty of wealth. It's just that it's unevenly distributed!' End of. However, if you take up this position (not wrong in itself), it doesn't take long for the other side to tell us why such inequality is OK, or indeed essential to keep everything going along nicely most of the time.

So, it seems to me that we need to pick the bones out of this.

Firstly, the key thing about inequality represented by statistics, is that it appears to be static and of the moment.  We understand things much more easily when they are shown to us as still photographs and ratios are just that. But we don't live and work in still photographs and ratios. We are in constant motion in relation to each other, existing across long periods of time. So, when we say 'inequality', we need to think of that firstly as a continuous state of being over whole lifetimes, not just when someone pops up with the stats. Secondly, we need to understand that inequality is a process. It's produced - and is going on being produced and reproduced - by a way of how wealth is made.

So, to take these in turn: the continuity of it inequality is hidden from us by a constant blather directed at us about lottery winners, achievement, self-improvement, success, rags to riches stories and the like. A martian could be forgiven for thinking that our society is like a saucepan full of boiling peas, with the peas on the bottom racing to the top and the peas on the top racing to the bottom, all in some kind of joyous bubbly circulation. The metaphor couldn't be more wrong. Much more accurate would be something like a moussaka with its thick creamy crusty layer on top and a huge chunk of spiced minced lamb underneath.

The point about the continuity of inequality though is that it belies what happens when a layer of working class people improve their living standards, say over 30 or 40 years. We are led to believe that inequality doesn't matter because we've done alright. What this does is break up the idea that we should have institutions in our lives (health, education, housing) which are paid by for all of us, and serve all of us. One trick by our leaders is to keep referring to terms like the 'kitty' or 'in the pot' meaning the sum of money that's raised through taxation - as if that is the sum total of a country's wealth! Meanwhile, the rich and the super-rich are salting away trillions. But, this apparently is not our concern, it's just a necessary part of how 'we' improved our living standards over a two or three decades, say.  In fact, for a good deal of time, it's very hard to find out exactly how much this rich and super-rich pot adds up to. And even harder is to find out by how much it increases year on year.

In some kind of right-wing sci-fi world you could conjure up a society in which massive inequality existed but everyone's needs were served - enough food, shelter, education and health provision, and access to leisure facilities and goods. This after all was the 1950s American dream and was projected worldwide as if the whole of America lived in detached houses planted on half-acre sites. Out of sight tens of millions didn't live that even at the height of the boom years of car and armament production.

So, this leads to the second point, what is the process by which inequality is produced? To read the many articles which are bothered by inequality, one could easily imagine that it's produced by a combination of unfair taxation, tax dodging and cunning systems of inheritance. It's very cheering to see these aspects of inequality being highlighted but they are what they are: dodges, tricks, benefits. They don't produce the inequality. It's quite possible to make an argument for saying they are necessary part of inequality, in the sense that this is part of how wealth is salted away, hidden, conserved within families and the rich class as a whole.

Ultimately, wealth can only be made by human beings. This is what we mean by work - by hand and brain. So you could produce a model of an industry, a firm, a business of a harmonious group of people making, distributing, servicing (or whatever) and every day it produces a bit more wealth. This is how most politicians talk. All the talk about 'jobs' or 'growth' is rests on this idea that the people who own and run the firm are in the same boat as the people sitting at computers, driving trucks, working on production lines or whatever. And so, Ed Balls and George Osborne battle it out over who can make this happen so that there are more jobs and more growth.

The snag is that it's the 'jobs' and 'growth' that produce the inequality! That's to say, the way that capitalism works is that what a firm grosses per year must always come out worth more than the firm's total costs - rents, plant, wages, investment. This is profit, distributed as dividends. If there's no profit, the firm goes bust, or as people who believe in this system say, that's a fact of life In fact it isn't. It's a fact of capitalism, one way in which human beings have figured out to produce, distribute and consume  stuff.

So, every day, the dynamic of capitalism is that it's producing profits, or if you prefer, inequality. (Digression, it's always easier to imagine capitalism in terms of shops, or small businesses making calling cards or something but this isn't where or how the major inequality occurs. The figure cited by Owen Jones and derived from the Sunday Times Rich List is £414 billion since the Lehman Bros went bust. That's not £414 billion owned and shared out between corner shop owners! This is owned by the top thousand wealth-owners, the owners of massive multi-national companies.)

Now where are we at?

We're at a moment in history when every day, politicians are telling us what 'we' can't afford, what 'we' must stop having, how there isn't the money to pay for the kinds of hospitals, schools, housing and social welfare we've had in the past. In fact, they say, there are all sorts of drains on the economy, dragging us down: people on disability benefit who aren't as sick as they make out (the politicians say), the non-industrious poor who won't work and so on. They keep telling us that the problem is 'the deficit' ie the debt created by a shortfall in what has been raised by taxation - the old 'kitty', the pot. And notice, time and again they tell us about a ratio: the ratio between that debt ('deficit') and the Gross Domestic Product - the amount of money raised by the sale of all the goods made in the UK.

Cunning, huh? Because what's missing from this ratio, is the profits being made and remade and re-remade year in year out by the rich and the super-rich. Where's all that?

Where is the £414 billion? (Some would argue, by the way, that this is probably only a fraction of the real figure of wealth owned by the top thousand, because part of being super-wealthy is knowing how to remove vast amounts of wealth from the public eye, stored up in tax havens, trusts, foreign investments and so on. And indeed, most wealthy people know how to put swathes of their daily living costs own as 'investment' ie as part of what the firm has to spend to survive and is therefore not taxed. As a tiny picture of that, no wealthy person spends his or her disposable income on a car, weekday meals, stays in hotels. What add up to poor people's main expenditure comes free if you're wealthy. )

But let's just deal with that £414 billion. Imagine what could be done with it. Imagine how it could be used to make sure that we developed the very best sustainable energy sources, let's say. Or how it could be used to ensure that we had the best medical service we could possibly imagine. Or that it could be ploughed into investing in people's training, education, and development of skills and ideas. Or that it was channeled into solving the problems of housing for all.

But while we might dream of that, we have to remember that the owners of that £414 billion aren't going to do that. We don't have any means, through our elected representatives in parliament or local government to get that money put into these things we want and need. And yet it was only possible to make that money from selling goods, products and services at more than the cost of employing the people who made them.  The employee produced the profit but are not allowed to benefit from the profit they made. It's not even mentioned whenever our elected representatives tell us about what we can afford!

So, we are forever being given the kind of picture of a room you see through a keyhole. That snapshot of the 'kitty' or even of the 'inequality' doesn't show us what is going on, the process. And because of that, we are fobbed off again and again with crumbs.

Instead, we have to push open the door, look at what is really going on with the process of how inequality is produced, and then do some figuring of whether there could be other ways to produce, service and distribute things so that the value of what we do is not taken away by a tiny minority. If there are, the problem then is how do we get from here to there.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Deficit Rag - 30 years in the history of government

Deficit good, very very good. Government borrows money, good for the banks that lend it, oils the wheels of capitalism, very very good. Deficit good, debt good. Deficit pays for expenditure. Deficit good. Everyone good good good.

Capitalism doing well, produces and produces and produces and produces,

Profits are good. Very very good, people who make profits hunting around for places to put the profits. How about lending, lending, lending. Good returns. Ah returns and returns and returns...hmmm

O but hang on capitalism produces more stuff than people can buy buy buy

Capitalism doing less well, so starts to cut back, lay people off, competition gets tougher, cut costs, lay off, go home, no job.

But capitalism invents the universal credit card, the credit card, heaven in your wallet, heaven in your pocket, b lend lend lend, owe owe owe, everyone owes, but who cares? just borrow more, have a house, buy a house, borrow to buy a house,

Oh-oh, people got laid off, capitalism was doing less well, can't pay back, can't pay back, can't pay back

Oh-oh but capitalism sold itself loan parcels, each time they sold them, they ended up owing each other more. debt debt debt got bigger and bigger between capitalists.

Capitalism goes into a spin, governments try to bail out the lenders who lent, governments can't raise enough money to pay back the people who lent them money, crisis crisis crisis. Everyone owes owes owes. Crisis crisis crisis

Now there's a different song which goes like this:

Deficit bad, very very bad. Blame previous government, blame poor, take money from the poor. It was the poor's fault. Greedy selfish poor. Bastards, layabouts, malingerers, benefit cheats. The rich must stay rich, rich, rich. The rich must have the freedom and the right to make profits..the only way they can make profits is if people are poorer, and cost less to capitalists...and governments must spend less, stop borrowing money, and make sure people spend less on taxes and more on stuff that capitalists make. yes do away with that bad bad deficit because then there'll be more credit for capitalists to spend on production and more money for people to buy stuff, but stuff buy stuff. Problem solved. solved solved.

Or not.

The new song is: deficit bad, very very bad. The solution is poor people getting poorer and poorer. They haven't even got benefits because benefits are bad, very very bad. Poor people poorer.

Oh dear, poor people can't afford to buy anything. The economy is shrinking. Everyone's still in debt. Government's still in debt. Deficit bad, very very bad.

But rich people getting richer. Yum yum yum...

Osborne explains ticketty boo economics

Osborne to missus:
I think I've cracked it, dear. Look, you see, people go to work and earn money. And most of them pay taxes. Then we in government we spend those taxes. Now, this is the thing: what if we just stopped doing that? Eh? What if we said, OK, you people we're going to stop spending money on everything apart from the army, bombs, prisons and the police? You can keep all that money we were taking away from you? And then, here's the good bit, they wouldn't actually keep it, dear. They would rush out and spend it. This would make all our kinds of people do things like make nice things for them, or lend them even more money and soon the whole place will be purring away like one great big beautiful steam engine, chuff chuff chuff, ticketty boo, ticketty boo, ticketty boo. Even schools and hospitals and all that. Our kind of people can run them. All the people with more money will just spend their money at the schools for their children and at the hospital for when they break a leg. You see? There'd be so much money. Everyone would  have money. Now, of course, there would be a lot of competition. Competition is really good,  you know dear. All our friends compete against each other to deliver up the best crisps, the best armchairs, the best hospitals until you get the best. And here's a good thing, as they compete, they get lean and efficient. I love that, lean and efficient. This means getting rid of all those silly extra people who don't do things. Jobsworths. And you make sure that you pay people as little as possible, dear. You have to do that. Now, I know this leads to a little probby because even though we've cut their taxes, this does mean that they might just possibly have less to spend. They might not be able to afford to buy the best hospitals. But that's fair enough. We must reward those who are good at what they do. And that'll be the rich people. So they can have the best hospitals and the best schools. People like us, dear. It's good, isn't it? See how it's all going to work out? Lovely lovely lovely. I feel like skipping.

Merde-och awakes

Merde-och to Wendi: Mornin darlin. Y'know I was thinking that the great bloody thing about capitalism is competition. You won't understand this, but all my life I've been in competition with these other bloody paper and TV people, and the thing is I've crushed'em. Crushed'em like a fist going through a Pavlova. In fact, I've crushed so many of'em there's hardly any bloody competition left! That's competition for you, eh? Are you listening? And of course, I  have to tell you this, sometimes to be ahead in the game, you have to cut corners. That's what it is. If people out there want to know what these bloody celebrities are thinking, then we can't read their bloody brains, can we? But we can listen in to them, can't we? That's what all this fuss is about. It's like eavesdropping at a bloody party. Look, if these bloody people don't want to be eavesdropped, tell'em to get off their bloody phones. Anyway, I'm trying to talk about competition here, darlin and I don't think you're listening. What I'm trying to say is that competition is what business is all about: cut costs - that means taking out the unions, thanks very bloody much, bringing in the technology, and getting ahead of the game even if it mean slipping a few dollars to some cop who needs to buy his kids a doll or something, eh? But y'know even then it might not be enough. This is what I'm saying. You have to be sweet with the people calling the shots. For better or worse, it might be these bloody politicians. So that's where we got to. We went to the parties, you remember that one in Oxfordshire that time, took us a bloody age to get there? And they sort us out. I liked that Jeremy feller. He seemed a nice young man. He was on our side. But now look. These opportunist bastards are after his skin. That's the kind of unprincipled shits they are. Excuse my French, darlin. Have you got those bloody blood pressure pills? We're not out the woods yet, darlin, we may have to think about retiring to the Catskills.

World economic situation: how it was sorted

Credit Card: Well, we've got plastic money in place, everyone can borrow money.So that's sorted. Now who's sorting out the thing to do with everyone having enough money to pay the monthly bill?
Mortgage: Not me. Nothing to do with me. What I've been doing is making sure that everyone can have a house. Everyone should have a house. Well, I say 'have', but it's not actually 'having'. We 'have' it while they pay the mortgage. Well, I say, 'pay' but only if they have enough money. Do you sort that?
Credit Card : No, not me.
Mortgage: Oh. So who is sorting that?
Credit card : I' really sure. Does it matter very much?
Mortgage : I suppose not.
Credit Card : Good. That's sorted then.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Schools for profit: the future

I guess we're all interested in looking at new ideas in education. After all, the world changes, new forms of living take shape, new problems arise, technology changes and so on. Education should, in theory, be part of that change. I often reflect on the fact that my ways of working have evolved with the technology. This blog is an example of that.

Technology, though, is not some kind of neutral, value-free 'good'. It is sold to us by massive multinational corporations locked into competitive battles with each other (see Nintendo vs X-box, Pixar vs Dreamworks,PC vs Apple) and any percentage point of competitive advantage is gold dust. This advantage can be won in the usual traditional ways: automating (always a high cost) and paying employees less. But the other invisible way, is to engage the agencies of a state in some way to secure you contracts. We've seen this in stark form with the Murdoch BSkyB episode. This is a classic case of a major capitalist not content with presenting dossiers and portfolios to some kind of arbiter to decide, it's clear that Murdoch tried personal shmoozing to win the big prize. As Polly Toynbee has eloquently shown, the prize was much bigger than Murdoch securing the total ownership of BSkyB. He was after creating a hyper-cheap media bundle of TV, newspapers and online news and chat which would have eliminated the competition. 'Press freedom' would have been a phrase meaning the 'Murdoch freedom'. And he has himself explained how his newspapers express what he thinks. He chooses the editorial line, the position on wars, trade unions, deficit reduction, and which political party should be voted for. In the world of ideas (which after all, is at the heart of media output), this would have meant that the capitalist logic of 'bigger means lower unit costs' would have won for Murdoch the right to portray the world as he sees it to the majority of the population of the UK. My point, however, is that this position needed the state. He needed the agency of the government (Jeremy Hunt) to give him this leg-up.

Education has been at the heart of any country's policy. It is almost synonymous with 'the state'. It's what the state does. Up until recently, there has been a general consensus that the only way a whole population (not just some of it) can become literate, numerate, able to access what contemporary society needs us to know, and sufficiently 'skilled' in what employers (capitalists) say they want from us, is for the state to arrange this either directly or through local government.

(Pause for a moment to point out that education has always been a battleground over this very matter with people from all sides contesting this model of hand-and-glove ie of schools simply serving the needs of 'business' or simply delivering the minimum. Elements on both the left and the right have insisted that there are other humanistic features that education could and should offer (eg 'the arts' ), that it's important to offer students 'critical literacy' ie the means to critique what is offered and that it's important for students to learn how to learn ie that it's not simply a matter of 'what' they have learned but whether they can act on 'stuff' (knowledge, processes, skills) be curious about it and learn what they need or want to learn)

Of course, with differential incomes and wealth, it's possible to make education a paid service but to 'deliver' all that personal contact, expensive materials, buildings to house it all in, it doesn't get cheap enough for it to be financially viable. It can only work if you charge serious amounts of dosh, which can only be paid by the seriously well-off, which of course serves this elite well by 'reproducing' the elite. The elite pay for elite schools which produce the country's elite.

But now, what is emerging is a way for capitalists who have worked for years on the edge of education to take it over. So, for as long as there have been state exams and text books in order to pass exams, then major 'educational publishers' have of course competed to produce the exam papers, text books, learning guides that enable you to pass the exams. The competition to sell text books and course books into schools has been as 'fair' as any market is fair but it's always been predicated on this cosy relationship between the state and the exam-publishers with long-lasting contracts being the big prize.

Yet, this isn't enough. Competition is all, we must remember. So what's the next step? Clearly, what would be terrific for the education capitalist is to find a way to make schools profitable...but charging poor people to go to school is no good because poor people haven't got enough disposable income. But the state has. Aha. So what needs to be engineered here, then, is a situation in which the state buys the services of a 'provider' to not only run the school on the basis of being 'experts' or 'experienced providers' but as sellers of materials, technology, commodities. In other words, the state gives the school money, the school buys both the curriculum AND the materials, the hardware, the software, the books from the 'provider' (the capitalist).

This seems to be the Gove vision. Pilot schemes are being run already. Take a look here:

(I wasn't able to see anything on this site about costings. I couldn't see anything anywhere that explained how  Pearson was going to pay its way. Presumably, you only get to that if  you click for more information. Funny, how money is like the relative you're ashamed of, so you keep him locked in the attic.)

Now I'm not going to dismiss what Pearson is offering here. The idea of schools having a version of what universities have had for a while - an internal internet or 'intranet' - is great. For my MA students I select chapters of relevant books, these are cleared by copyright arrangements in the library and go up online for the term. A few moments on the web and you'll see universities all over the world providing bibliographies, course outlines etc for their students. It's part of what your fees pay for. Of course schools should have this sort of thing. I visit primary schools where the school website is growing into a place where the children's work can be 'displayed' and more and more schools are looking at blogging as a way for children to write about things that they want to write about. One of my students has done a term's 'action research' on it working with a lunchtime group.

But who decides this curriculum? In the case of the MA I've been teaching, this was worked out by a group of us with reference to other similar courses in the UK, Australia, Canada and the US. Its methods were monitored by various agencies within the university mostly acting on behalf of the students and ensuring that what we offered was in line with what other courses offered. In the case of school curricula, as we know, the state sometimes takes on a huge interfering role (New Labour was an extreme form of that) and at other times expresses what 'it' wants in terms of principles often spelled out through major 'Reports' (Plowden, Bullock, Rose etc). These are then controlled (or 'enforced' if you prefer)through exam and inspection systems.

Whatever criticisms I might have of how this has been enacted in the past, I can't deny that it's a product of the electoral system. We elect a government which chooses its education mandarins who then run this system of schools, exams, inspections, reports and so on. Sometimes in my lifetime, a general election really did offer a choice between different visions of what kind of school system we wanted.

What seems to be on the agenda now, though, is for multinational corporations to receive guaranteed income from the state in return for providing technology AND curriculum. Under the heading of 'innovation' (which of course capitalism does, it does 'innovate' in order to survive), they will be able to make schools for poor people pay.

I think at this moment, we need to take in a big breath, and go back to my bracketed paragraph above, which I began with 'Pause for a moment...' This is about what education is for and the contested vision. Now of course it's very easy to lapse into generalised tosh about all this with high-minded phraseology and well-intended homilies. I will admit to doing quite a lot of it myself. So I'll proceed with caution. No matter how directed education has become, how much box-ticking (by teachers and pupils), no matter how much education has been a matter of right and wrong answers, every day I hear teachers talking about children involved with education at the level of ideas and their personal development. I see projects in schools which are not driven by the immediate need of these right and wrong answers but by 'bigger stuff'. I've seen primary school children running a school radio, putting on plays, producing books, writing blogs, putting on a jazz opera, doing a project on local history and culture by interviewing local people and then presenting it in assembly etc etc. My own students have devised projects with their students and monitored how these have progressed over a term. All this has  emerged from teachers' own practice and theory.

So how does the Pearson-Gove model work? If you're a school that buys in the total package, how much control will teachers have over what's taught and how? How much chance will there be for schools to be about the free circulation of ideas, and the exploration of what are not pre-determined outcomes? Can a capitalist model for education allow for that kind of freedom, those kinds of rights? Or are they just 'learning packages' bought by the state to feed the multinational maw? How soon in the process will the more humanistic objectives about learning which are in the publicity material be dropped or sidelined and we'll be having 'discipline packages' and 'behaviour management packages' and 'minimal learning packages' which enforce the stratification and segregation of children?

Whatever it is, whatever they are, this is the next phase in the debate about education.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Historic moment on reading for enjoyment in schools

I  have been applying my mind unsuccessfully to the fact that the Ofsted English report 'Moving English Forward' (March 2012) contains this 'recommendation':

All schools should develop policies to promote reading for enjoyment throughout the school.

I've trumpeted it in various places - in one of my 'Dear Mr Gove' letters in the Guardian, at the Children's Laureate meeting with the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb and of course here.

But it's not enough.

It seems to me that we have for the first time ever in history a statement from a quasi-governmental body which backs the idea that schools should do something concrete about reading for pleasure. It supports those thousands of schools which already do things, it gives a rationale or justification for schools to work at this, it would ask of schools which haven't thought much about this to do some work on it.

I really like the fact that it asks the schools to develop the policies rather than it being a hand-down from central government, it hands the initiatives to schools.

So what to do?

I am not 100% convinced that the government is going to turn Ofsted's 'recommendation' into a government 'request' or 'requirement'. As you might imagine, I tried as passionately as I could to put the case for the government to ask this of schools, on the basis that the consequence of doing so would benefit all pupils everywhere but in particular those from homes where there are no books.

Could I make the suggestion that anyone reading this column who is part of any organisation which administers the provision of books, reading and ideas about books think about convening a conference or many conferences or a national conference organised around this matter? As a suggestion, perhaps the brief for the conference would be to create useful working blueprints for schools to use, adapt and develop. The cue or headline for such a conference could be the Ofsted recommendation. Again, I would suggest that those who have already worked up  blueprints for this: the NUT, Booktrust, the Reading Agency, the National Literacy Trust and Calderdale (Deborah Bullivant), CLPE, UKLA, the Campaign for the Book, Just Read  and anywhere else/anyone else could put this together.

This group of people and others have the expertise, the long experience of working in this field. We are at a pivotal moment in this struggle to get a wide variety of reading matter into the hands of children of all backgrounds. This could be a historic moment but it requires of us to take the initiative.

Any takers? Anyone offering a venue? A date? An organising committee?

Let's do it.

Brent makes universal child library cards possible

I have received this email Councillor James Powney:

" I am Lead Member for libraries in the London Borough of Brent.

I just thought you might be interested that I have pursued the idea you have blogged on of giving all school children in a Brent school a library card and encouraging them to borrow and read.

We have now written to all schools suggesting this, asking them to sign up pupils en bloc, using the school address. We have a special school library card, and the school is not responsible for fines. Subject to budget, we will also be trying to organising school visits, and of course as many visits to library events as we can. The child's address needs to be held by the school for Data Protection reasons.

We have only just started this scheme so I can't say how successful it will turn out to be. I just thought you might like to know your idea had borne fruit."


[to tell the truth I heard the suggestion from someone else - sad to say, forgotten who - and I've circulated it ever since. I'll only take credit for the dissemination not the invention!]

Brief thoughts: Murdoch, power, BBC

On grounds of 'freedom', Murdoch was allowed to develop his press corporation, mostly based on sport, naked women and a relentless set of stories based on different forms of witch-hunting and demonizing. As he became powerful, so politicians of all kinds felt that they had to court him in order to win power. This process ended up creating open corridors between the Murdoch corp, politicians' offices and the police. It's no surprise then that high-up people in the corp got to thinking that they were untouchable and that they had the power to break those who criticized them. Hacking has been the defining symbol of this.

Leading politicians and the Murdoch corporation are now in a struggle to reclaim legitimacy and are spending a good deal of effort using words like 'integrity' and 'truth' even as it is blatantly obvious that they have tried to evade inspection of their corrupt and invasive practices.

It's too early to say what serious or lasting progress will come from this. Nick Davies emerges from it all with immense credibility. More indirectly, the BBC has a marginally stronger chance of survival. There is no doubt in my mind that a rampant Murdoch-Tory alliance would have sliced the BBC to shreds. A weakened and discredited one will find this much harder to achieve.

It's interesting to me to ponder why and how the BBC mostly avoids the 'corridors' principle though most politicians seem to feel entitled to ring up the BBC to demand that stories are cut or included according to their wishes. If we ask the question could the BBC have ever thought it had the right to hack and cover-up in the way the Murdoch press felt it could, I'm fairly confident I could say no it wouldn't.

I'll be very interested to see whether the BBC will defend itself on these grounds next time the privateers and multinationals fix their sights on the BBC once again.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Morning breaks: SamCam breakies

Morning breaks...

"Sam? Sam? Are you there? I'm going to need you today darlingsweet. No, no strawberries on them this morning, they seem to stop me hearing the snap crackle pop thingy. Look, I'll be absolutely honest with you darl, it's not looking totally on-song.For some reason, everything seems to have got very, very, very sticky. One moment some bloody twitty twat is asking me the price of blooming milk because that ghastly Dorries girl is saying that I'm out of touch. I'm not out of touch, am I darl? You know that. Can you make the bacon crispy sweetheart? Ta very much. Then it's this whole Murdoch thingy which seems to come at me from all directions - one minute it's hacking hacking hacking, the next it's BSkyBBskyBBskyB. To tell the truth I don't know who said what to whom or when. Am I supposed to know? I thought it was my job to come up with some kind of lovely big thing we could all get behind while the money boys made sure that everything was ticketty boo for them in the City. And I did. I gave them the Big Society and whaddyaknow - blink - they're bloody rubbishing me for it. No grilled tomatoes this morning, darl, they're a bit squashy for me on a day like this. And now it's the growth wotsit. I don't know anything about growth or notgrowth or a lot of growth or a bit of growth. What is growth anyway? What is it that's supposed to bloody grow? Daddy worked out some bloody good ways of getting growth with those offshore funds, why can't Britain do that? Why doesn't Britain ship out some funds off  to the Caymans or something and bring'em back untaxed. Or something? Darling you're not saying anything. Can't you see that this is a grim old day for your little Davy. This isn't what we had in mind at all, is it? No I don't know what dress you're going to wear for the Jubi-bloody-lee!"


...though it may be technically true to say that we're not seeing what most people would be inclined to call growth, it is also the case that we're not seeing contraction in a truly recessionistic sense. We are then in a state of growthession which is in many ways extremely encouraging. Where other economies are suffering because they haven't dealt with the deficit, the big bad deficit, the deficit that  you, me and Mother Shipton's aunt are incredibly scared of ...BOO! DEFICIT!...yes, that bad...we here in the UK are dealing with it and that's why I'm pleased to say we're in this immensely pleasing state of growthession.

Though it's true to say that some of the results coming through are disappointing. I have no idea, for example, why the construction industry is not just getting on constructing. That's a great shame. And I'm going to ask them to do something about that. Yes. And it really is a bit of a mystery to me as to why things aren't moving along a little faster than I would like. But they're not slowing down as fast either. In fact, it's all slow. Which is not as bad as fast. Fast would be very bad. Nearly as bad as the DEFICIT! Oh there it is again. Woooooooo!

Anyway, unemployment is growing nicely, which is no bad thing. Though one of the figures that came through suggested that this means we're spending more which means more DEFICIT - and if people are out of work they're not paying taxes which means we're getting less income. You see it's not easy this thing. Here I am trying to make the UK a haven for slave-owners and I find that it's costing us a lot of money to enable that to happen.

Could I finish by saying that Jeremy was a great colleague and friend and we shall miss him greatly. Indeed.

Cam and Sam face the crisis...

It's gone midnight in the Costwolds. A bedside light goes on.

" ‎"Sam? Sam darling. Wake up. Look, things are beginning to look just a tinsy bit hairy.You know I said at Bekkah's party that I didn't have a chatterooni with old Murdy. Look, I know we agreed that of course some things are secret and out of bounds and beyond the boundary and all that? and that I would never tell any porkypies? But I did say, I know, don't be hard on me darling, but I did say that I didn't talk to the Murdies...but in actual fact. o god, I did. Yes, and you see, I do know the price of a bottle of milk darling but that's not what I'm talking about here, you see Jeremy is in the doodoo too. I'm not the only one. It really is beginning to look as if Huntface wasn't a bad nickname for him, eh? eh? Oh look don't look at me like that, you know, I think I might ring up Noman, Norman Tebbitt. I need a cool hand on the tiller right now, darling. You couldn't make me my fave cup of hot chockie could you? Look, the bloomin bloody sodding Murdies have started publishing Huntface's emails, darling. Don't you see? As they would say, we're bloody buggered. Oh I know it's not nice, darling. But none of it's nice. If ever I meet that Nick Davies chap I'm going to do that thing they say in the east end. I'm going to chin him. Yes, that's what I'll do. Did you make me that hot chokkie? Mummy used to do that for me when I struggled with my semi-deponent verbs. Latin darling. Latin. Gove is dealing with that. One day, everyone will speak Latin. And then it'll all be nice again. All nice. All nice. Nice. Nicey nice. Nicey nicey...hmmmm"

The bedside light is turned off.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Meeting at the DfE - Not the Minutes

Apologies for being enigmatic but as the participants in today's meeting with Nick Gibb felt that they would prefer it if today's meeting remained confidential, I have to respect that.

It's public knowledge (the DfE tweeted it) that the participants today were Nick Gibb, Quentin Blake, Anne Fine and myself.

I think it's OK for me to repeat what I said yesterday that I agree with and support the recommendation of Ofsted's report: 'Moving English Forward' - namely:

"All schools should:
develop policies to promote reading for enjoyment throughout the school"

In an ideal world, it's my view that this wouldn't involve Ofsted with all its attendant problems of coercion, unaccountability and authoritarian ways of going on. In an ideal world, the ministry itself could call for schools to develop such polices without there being coercion attached. In an ideal world, such policies can only be implemented (my personal view) in an environment not dominated by SATs.

However, as a step forward, for the sake of those children who come from homes without books, then the challenge for the schools in England and Wales to come up with polices, the nationwide discussions that would arise on how best to do this, plus the knock-on effect that this would have on teacher training, I feel that this is the best next step to take.

There is real support for 'reading for pleasure' as an idea, as something which enables young people to make advances in ways that perhaps they haven't before. The support comes from the NUT with its excellent 'Reading for Pleasure' materials, Booktrust, the National Literacy Trust, the Reading Agency, the Campaign for the Book, the many people who signed the 'Just Read' petition, the Evening Standard's reading campaign and so on.

The key issue now is whether the government will run with Ofsted's 'recommendation' or not. And if not, why not. 

Nick Gibb: Meeting 2

At the end of my last meeting with the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb (see previous blog), he suggested that it would be a good idea if we had another meeting attended by as many of the present and past children's laureates in order to discuss ideas to encourage reading for pleasure.

So that's what's happening tomorrow.

Between our last meeting and this, Ofsted produced their 'Moving English Forward' report which you can read at the Ofsted website. Apart from the infuriating statement condemning schools for spending too much time preparing children for the SATs, (huh! why would that be? no prizes for correct guess) the report contained this statement:

"All schools should:
develop policies to promote reading for enjoyment throughout the school"

This is not a statement from the ministry so there's nothing official about it, but it is the first time that this particular way of putting the matter has been made from as high a level as Ofsted. As it happens, it was precisely this point that I put to the then Sec of State for Education, Ed Balls and again to the Schools Minister. Vernon Coaker ie ask schools themselves to develop these policies and that's how and why I developed a '20-point plan' for schools to adapt and use for their own purposes, a 'model letter home' for schools to adapt and use. It's why the NUT developed their really excellent 'Reading for Pleasure' booklet and resources - all available online. And it's what Alan Gibbons has been saying through the Campaign for the Book, and it's what another group of us said through a campaign we started called 'Just Read'. Some of this you can also find here at:

And of course Booktrust, the Reading Agency and the National Literacy Trust have been each banging on about this for decades, providing materials, ideas and training etc etc.

So, how should we view all this? 

Are we really reaching a moment when this 'reading for pleasure' stuff is going to be taken seriously? Or are we going to shuffle words round the page and come up with yet more worthy pamphlets? 

One thought in favour of the notion that it's serious this time: a consequence of demanding such time-consuming work purely on 'decoding' ie synthetic phonics, is that teachers and parents are starting to see more and more examples of what has been called 'barking at print'. That's to say, children who appear to be 'reading' but are in fact simply 'saying the words' or decoding out loud with not sufficient understanding of what it is they're reading. 

The only way this can be overcome is through the reading of a wide range of texts, reading often, talking about such texts, having texts read to you, having a chance to sort and browse through a wide range of texts at home, in classrooms, in school libraries, in the local library, in bookshops or wherever. 

There is no other way. 

This is confirmed by Dr Charles Hulme's research - here - which highlights the point that it's 'talk' which improves understanding of texts with Year 4 children, not more phonics work:

Clarke, P., Snowling, M., Truelove, E.  & Hulme, C.  (2010).  Ameliorating children’s reading comprehension difficulties: A randomised controlled trial.  Psychological Science, 21, 1106-1116

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Today's dose of modern rhetoric words

nit-picking - as someone who has spent some time hunting, finding and picking nits, I appreciate this term. Not that it matters too much for this metaphor, the nits aren't the beasts. The nits are the eggs and are actually easier to find than the lice who lay them, because nits are a rather beautiful creamy translucent colour. No matter. Nit-picking in writing is that usually irritating habit of picking up on people's minor errors, or spending rather too much time on minor points and missing the main drift. I rather like the way people say 'nit-picky' as an adjective: 'I don't want to be too nit-picky about this, but I would just like to say...'

big up - Did this start appearing in the UK around 1995? I have the impression that superannuated music journos started using it around then when talking about musicians and singers who probably didn't need to be bigged up by superannuated music journalists. You can say, 'a big-up for Mick Jagger' or 'I'm gonna big up Mick Jagger here...' . Shakespeare used it when Mark Antony says, 'I come not to bury Caesar, not to big him up' - very moving it is too.

butt out - this is the opposite of butting in, which is what goats do. If you've ever seen or felt a goat butting in, you get the picture. My step-daughter (aged about 9) was butted so hard, the goat pushed her up against a wall and held her there until its owner got it to, well yes, 'butt out', which showed that goats don't butt out of their own accord.   In the US 'butt' is also the UK 'bum' or 'arse' and because of US imports, now everyone knows the US 'butt'. This means that 'butt out' now has an extra connotation of getting your bum out of the conversation and not just your horns. When I was in the sixth form, the way to command someone to stop intervening in a conversation was to deliver the command, 'Trunk out!'. This usage seems to have been restricted to Watford in the early 1960s.

blather, blether, witter - we seem to need quite a few words to describe what we think is load of nonsense or a lot of inconsequential chat. We might say, 'Oh there's me wittering on'. Or 'He was blethering on about something or another.' My father always said 'blather' as in 'Some load of old blather' and 'blether' has a strong Irish sound in my ears as I've heard plenty of Irish people saying it almost as 'blethrr'. People in Much Wittering are sick and tired of people asking them I won't.

effective - occasionally this rhetoric of modern terms will sneak in a bit of education-ese. In the hours of compulsory comprehension that we all enjoy so much, one repeated question is 'why do you think this phrase is effective?' You might be thinking that it isn't 'effective' but the question side-steps any possibility that you might think the phrase is boring and crap. The answer is usually something to do with alliteration, personification, metaphor or simile which you can remember with the mnemonic SPAM. This will save you ever wondering why or how alliteration, personification, metaphor and simile might be 'effective'. They just are. Like high mountains. Being good at English Literature when you're 16 is about doing this without thinking. Being good at English Literature at 18, 21 and for MAs and Ph.Ds is avoiding at all costs saying that a piece of writing is 'effective'.

connectives - this is an exciting new word to come into school vocabulary, and talking of vocabulary, connectives are part of the mnemonic VCOP which has only a slight connection with the police (the school inspection service) and stands for vocabulary, connectives, openers, punctuation. Apparently, these were what were deficient in thousands of examples of children's writing, when examined by researchers. So children now sit down to write, saying to themselves (or teachers say it to them), 'VCOP!' The connectives are a grammatical pot-pourri of words which perform different functions in sentences, some of them 'conjunctions' (and, but, etc), some of them what used to be called 'sentence adverbs' (however, eventually, etc) and some of them the 'header' words for 'subordinate clauses' (when, if etc). You could argue that there are many other kinds of 'connectives' in sentences eg  'this' or 'it' which usually connect to something that comes before it, after it, or to some strange 'it-ness' belonging to the world, as in 'It was sunny.' But the rule here, is never question grammatical terminology too closely or the whole apparatus will collapse (eg 'adverbs' quite often don't do anything to verbs eg 'very' in 'I am being very silly about this.'). Still [connective], let's not get too het up about this [not a connective].

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Rhetoric keeps arriving

name check  - people used to say, 'I'll give you the name' or 'can you tell me your name?' Now they say, 'I'll do a name-check'. I suspect people think it sounds busy-busy and modern. Or something.
put your foot in it - the it you put your foot in is your mouth. This leads to the kids' gag: 'Every time he opens his mouth, he puts his foot in it.'
put your oar in - the place where you put your oar is probably the water but metaphorically it's a conversation. It can work both ways: 'No one needs you to put your oar in.' Or 'Excuse me, but could I put my oar in on this one.' Quite why the minority sport of rowing has given this idiom is mystifying. Unless it's a sideways nod to boating lakes.
triumphalism - miserablism - the political background to this is based in left politics where both of these terms are used as swear-words. Triumphalism is talking as if we've won more than we've won, and miserablism is making a virtue out of saying how miserable, poor and wretched we are and this will enable us to  win.
cleverdickery - talking as if you're cleverer than you are - but we're all supposed to do that now, according to cv coaching and the like.
networking - meet and greet- mingle - circulate - I think 'networking' came in about 1995. Before that, people used to do the other three terms here: circulate, mingle and meet and greet. I wonder if networking works. Surely by now, when someone makes a bee-line for you, don't you think, Uh-oh,here comes some bloody networker, you're not going to get my phone number, pal?
blow the gaff - spill the beans - let the cat out of the bag - whistleblower - leak People get put in prison for doing this, and it's clear that all governments everywhere hate it. In the UK, the Freedom of Information Act came in, and in theory this should have meant that no one didn't ever need to blow the gaff ever again. In fact, cunning governments now set up institutions - like Academy Schools - which are inexplicably exempt from the FOI. Presumably at some point soon, someone from inside an Academy will blow the gaff.
hostage to fortune This is one of those phrases that people use on TV and Radio political discussions. Interviewer: But doesn't that leave a hostage to fortune? Interviewee: Er..yes. I think it means that you say something which might then end up with you being 'hung out to dry'. So it's saying something eg 'When I am Prime Minister, I will give everyone £400 pocket money a week' and then when you become Prime Minister people remind you of it.
keep your powder dry It was always a good idea to keep your gunpowder dry but my mother used to keep the powder she put on her face pretty dry too. If you keep your gunpowder dry, you'll be in a better position to kill someone when it's time to use the gunpowder. It'll work. So, if you keep your gunpowder dry when you're talking, you don't say everything, you don't commit yourself, you reserve judgement. The only problem is here is that that would be more like not firing your gun or cannon, rather than just being a good housekeeper.
whitewash Most government reports are whitewashes, because they cover over the sins of omission and commission just as a painter washes a dirty wall.
up himself Not sure if this is truly a rhetorical term rather than a general character assassination. However, if  someone says something a bit vain, like: 'I think I'm really better qualified than you to talk on the subject', this is referred to afterwards in the pub as 'him being a bit up himself'. As a phrase it certainly conveys an interesting image: presumably it's someone who thinks so highly of himself, he would rather enjoy having  it off with himself. Quite a lot of bending needed there, I think.

Rhetoric after breakfast

inspirational - it's great to be inspirational and all sorts of people can be it. You have to be enthusiastic, creative and philosophical. I 'aspire' to be 'inspirational' and sometimes make it. People have pointed out, however, the word is supposed to be 'inspiring' but 'inspiring' doesn't last as long as 'inspirational' so it's not so 'inspirational'. I've forgotten why it's supposed to be 'inspiring'. If it's 'inspiring' it should, presumably, help you to breathe in, while if it's 'inspirational' it should, presumably help you get inspiration or a big blast of breathed in air.

feedback, comeback and come back to me on that one, and I'll get back to you one that one - interesting cluster of feeds, comes and gets here. They're all related but slightly different. 'Give me feedback' or 'I'll give you feedback' sounds like good busywork stuff, whereas 'I'll get back to you on that one' is good delaying tactics. It probably means that you've 'kicked it into touch' (Rugby term). I rather like 'feedback' because it reminds me that it's what human beings do with each other all the time even when we don't know we're doing it, nodding, looking, gesturing, reacting etc and we then respond to the feedback in some kind of endless loop of reflexivity. (I think I'll copyright that phrase now that I've written it: 'endless loop of reflexivity').

left field - this is a baseball term like 'step up to the plate' which is what we all do nowadays. 'Left field' means that it's a bit heterodox, a bit of a surprise intervention. It can be used to dampen down divergent thinking or to praise it. It can be related to off the wall which seems to mean a bit crazy as well as being a bit 'left field'. Interesting that these descriptions are all about place. Left field off the wall is probably 'far out' (sixties hippy term that seems to have died along with 'come over to my pad'.

mutually exclusive - I can remember the little chirp of delight I gave when I first met this phrase. I think I was about 16 and didn't know that such a complicated idea (as I thought then) could be expressed so compactly. Its meaning is somewhere near 'contradiction', I think: the idea that if you hold these two ideas in your hand at the same time (if you could hold ideas in your hand) they would either knock each other out, or one would knock the other out. Basically, they can't live together. Didn't Bono say something about that?

riff - this term seems to be adapted, misused and recycled from musicianspeak. In rhetoric, people who write about stand-up comedy talk about someone 'going off on a riff about...' meaning a run of memories, gags and chat on a given subject. You can also say, 'he was riffing about...' analogous to adlibbing or impro-ing.  I think this irritates musicians who say that the 'riff' isn't the impro. The impro is the impro. The riff is the thing you impro about. Don't make musicians angry or they'll...

give you aggro - meaning literally aggressive behaviour (a term made up by 70s 'skinheads' I think)  but this has weakened to meaning not much more than a general moan or

whinge or kvetsh (Yiddish, Yinglish), or whine. See Australian gag at time of high immigration from the UK: 'How do you know that the plane on the runway is full of Poms?' 'The whining goes on after the engine's been switched off.' (Brits were famous in Australia for moaning about everything. Well, it is bloody hot. Oh, now I've done it.). At some point in 1994 parents stopped saying to their children, 'Don't moan' and started saying, 'Don't whinge'. A law must have been passed on it.

pottymouth seems to have come via TV comedy and chat. Maybe Stephen Fry made it up. It's an example of making something sound trivial by attaching it to childhood. So someone could direct a volley of abuse at you eg 'Fuck off you wanker'  and you could offer the put-down 'Ooooh, pottymouth.' Note here though that what comes out of you in the form of waste gets implicated in insult, violence and sometimes sexual terms. All quite messy really. Exactly.

More modern rhetoric before breakfast

touch-feely - this can be used perjoratively - to insult people who aren't talking precisely, or who are just talking about emotions, or who are just trying to win people over with blandishments. 'That's all very well, but it's all a bit touchy-feely, isn't it?' (to be said after a presentation on 'how to greet customers') Or it can be used by a touchy-feely person,as in 'I'm going to be quite touchy-feely now...' ie switching off the factual stuff, and turning on the emotional stuff. TV blind date shows quite often feature people who announce that they're 'touchy-feely'.  They don't seem to mind that this makes them sound quite creepy.

-ese and -ish like -speak can be added on to almost anything to indicate that someone is talking a jargon or 'in-group' language or 'lingo'. So legalese is one of the most famous and useful for describing the fact that you don't know what a lawyer is talking about, unless you're a lawyer. Which I'm not. 'ish' is good for talking about 'creoles' ie a way of talking that's thought to be a mixture eg 'Yinglish' which is talking English with lots of Yiddish in it but not, talking Yiddish with lots of English in it. The most famous creole-user is Chaucer (very good at combining 'late middle English and French' though I don't think he called it 'late middle English' because he didn't know it was late or middle. However,  we don't call Chaucer's writing 'creole' because Chaucer didn't live in the Caribbean or the southern states of the US.  Enough of that, already (a bit of Yinglish there for you) but  'ish' and 'ese' are very useful. However, franglais is not fringlish. I mean, it is fringlish but we don't say, 'fringlish'. But you could. I wouldn't stop you because I'm...

anything goes - I'm not, but that's what people accuse me of ie that people like me who say that language doesn't have rules, it has ways of speaking and writing which human beings have developed over time (and go on and on developing) in order to make meaning. In truth then, I'm saying just the opposite of 'anything goes' and that we talk and write because of culture and tradition which is both learned but also changeable.  Even so, you can say of someone's views and ways of talking and writing  'Oh, he's anything goes'. This is quite funny because it turns a clause, 'anything goes', into an adjective  which is precisely the sort of thing people like Simon Heffer would scream in your face about.

More modern rhetoric - Rosen getting carried away.

-gate - adding 'gate' on to the end of anything to indicate what used to be called a 'brouhaha' (!) or scandal. Came from Watergate, which was the name of a building, but can now be used eg for 'pastygate' as a description of Cameron's 'gaffe' about eating pasties...or not eating pasties....or not eating them where he said he had eaten one.
gaffe is not a new word but has had a good lease of life in recent years. It's become the stand-by term for an error of speech or any kind of error, particularly used of politicians, who make 'gaffes' by saying that they've eaten a pasty (see above) or that they are devoted to their wives and family which of course would make them utterly electable...until someone finds out that they're not. (Devoted, electable or both.). Then they get elected, anyway.
Colemanballs - a term invented by 'Private Eye' to describe sports commentators 'gaffes'. Now 'balls' meaning rubbish can be put on to all sorts of words as a suffix to indicate specific kinds of rubbish. Or 'bollocks' or 'bollox' too eg 'He's talking 'managementbollox' or some such. And quite a lot of people do.
Essex - meant to describe how people from Essex (obviously) but also carries with it the idea that this is the speech of people whose parents or grandparents came from London's 'East End', so it's a form of 'Cockney' but because some 'Essex' people have done well, it's intertwined with views about people having 'made it', wearing 'flash' clothes, make-up and jewellery, (and flash is probably a rhetorical term in itself as in 'talking flash') and, sadly, people saying of themselves that they're not clever. 'I'm really Essex. Can't you hear?'
flash - sounding, or trying to sound, slick. You can 'come over flash' as in 'Don't come over flash with me, son.'  or 'Don't come all flash with me, son'.
monkeys - this features in Essex and London talk, meaning talking rubbish. You don't have to put it into a fully-fledged sentence. Someone says, eg 'Spurs are going to win the league this year.' And if you don't believe it, you simply say, 'Monkeys'. If you're a punctuation pedant you should probably write that either as 'monkey's' or 'monkeys'' because this is not about a gang of monkeys but about the monkey's balls or the monkeys' balls. In fact you could have an interesting debate about whether the nonsense you deem to have been spoken is worth several monkeys' balls or just one monkey's balls. An interesting point, I think.
hoity-toity - quite an old term meaning posh which is worth its own category of course. Hoity-toity seems to involve a whole air. You can walk, look, or act in a hoity-toity way, but it becomes most evident with someone 'coming all hoity-toity all of a sudden' in the way they speak. Traditionally, in 'kitchen sink' dramas, Dad claimed that his teenage or young adult daughter was suddenly talking or being hoity-toity - classically in 'Till Death Do Us Part'. See also 'She's no better than she should be' and other put-downs about people getting above their perceived station in life: eg 'all fur coat and nothing in the fridge'.

Hoity-toity has a Yiddish equivalent 'hoyche fenster' which literally means 'high' or 'big windows'. You can describe someone as being hoyche fenster meaning that they're rich. Or it can mean that they're talking posh. I don't know whether Philip Larkin was a fluent Yiddish speaker (I doubt it) but he did write a famous poem about high windows.

Today's rhetorical terms - beginning a list

Still thinking about the book of my last post: A Handbook of Rhetorical Terms by Richard A. Lanham (University of California Press)...

...and thinking that the modern era has come up with all sorts of 'rhetorical terms' too, no represented in a book which has gathered together the 'classical' terms ie the ones from Ancient Greece and Rome with some medieval ones added in, I think.

But in the modern era we have eg

weasel words - shifty, evasive words and phrases,
put-down - a successful insult
economical with the truth - this one came from a case in law where a government diplomat or 'Mandarin' claimed that he wasn't lying, he was just being 'economical with the truth' and I think it was the minister or ex-minister Alan Clarke who turned it into 'economical with the verité)
textspeak - of many other kinds of -speak in order to describe particular kinds of jargon (coming originally from George Orwell's 1984 and newspeak )
and a good one coming from blogging and online forums:
whataboutery - a term to describe what a commenter on a thread doesn't deal with the question at hand but says, in effect, 'what about..?'
flashback - this used to be a term only about novels and films, but I've heard people use it meaning a sudden memory coming to mind - which is rather like:
madeleine moment (citing in effect the moment in Proust's work where he eats a 'Madeleine' and a wave of memories come over him)
Freudian slip - which has been mocked with the term a 'Freudian slit' or 'what do you call a psychiatrist's petticoat?'
psychobabble - people talking about Freudian slips.
all mouth and trousers I first heard that one in about 1963 at Watford Grammar School, as used by a bloke called Arthur. The old term was, I think, 'blabbermouth'. Maybe we need a sub-category for descriptions of people who use language in a particular kind of, in bold, blabbermouth (which in Yiddish, as used by my father to describe me,  is a yachner )
grunting - a perjorative term used by people wanting to 'put down' (usually) teenage boys and the way they thought to speak ie 'teenspeak'
anorak and nerd - though these are both terms to describe people and not language, they are both used to describe a way of talking about things. People say, 'I know this sounds a bit nerdy' or 'I'm really going to sound like an anorak now, but....' So I think these qualify as rhetorical terms...Well, nearly.
sloppy and lazy - there's a theory that people who use non-standard English in their speech are somehow not working hard enough. It's applying the theory of protestant industriousness and propriety to speech. So, first the new middle classes invented a proper and correct way of speaking English and married it to their belief that  working hard booked you a ticket to heaven. So combine the two so that when someone says, 'I ain't got none', that proves that they're lazy and not going to heaven. Sorted.

Rhetorical terms 1 and 2 - this could be fun

For some reason as I was hunting for a toilet in Foyle's bookshop, I bought 'A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms' (Second edition) by Richard A.Lanham (University of California Press)

I didn't find the toilet and I can't find the rhetorical term for not finding what you're looking for but nevertheless the book is great bus and train reading.

Here's rhetorical term 1 I've selected  from Lanham's Rhetoric (as I shall call it)

chleuasmus - a sarcastic reply that mocks an opponent and leaves him with no answer. (This makes me think of some of Dorothy Parker's one-liners like the one she threw at the person who had been going on and on about having a baby. When it was born and the woman told Parker,  Parker said, 'We always knew you had it in you.'

And here's term 2

eidolopoeia - presenting a dead person as speaking or the speech of a dead person, not so much as a ghost but in an argument or description. The example Lanham gives is of the speech in Henry V where the dead men's arms and legs and heads on the battlefield are imagined as speaking.

"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at
such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left."

Quite apart from this being pedants' delight (which would make a good name for a university pub, wouldn't it?), some of these work as possible starting points for anyone of any age looking for writing ideas.

I will do these as occasional posts

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Servicing SATs,servicing Free Schools and serving up poetry!

Education is huge complex institution with thousands of nooks and crannies in it. People gather together in these nooks in order to teach and learn and play and talk and write...and all the rest. Just out of view an ever-increasing number of people provide services into schools - anything from supplying potatoes for school dinners to headteachers' management training. With the burgeoning of the test-till-you-drop culture, another range of suppliers supply exam papers, mock exam papers, revision notes, 'SAT busters' (yes!) and the rest.

Imagine my delight over the last few days, to be working through 'Key Stage 2 English SAT Buster, Reading Book 3' published by CGP. I was even more excited to see that one of the pieces that a Key Stage 2 pupil would work on here would be a poem! Hurrah! A poem. I glanced down at the author of the poem (it's a sort of trade union thing) and saw that it was someone called C.J.Fenton. Hmmm, not a poet I know, I thought.

Then, I flicked to the inside cover page and saw that the whole booklet is 'written and presented by Chris Fenton'. Possibly a coincidence. Possibly not. What fun, I thought. You write and present a mock-SATs booklet and in order to do the poem criticism part, you just a poem. Why not?

However, I'm a bit of nosy bloke so I googled the name Chris Fenton and now imagine even more delight when I found this:

where we find this:

"As experienced education professionals, we are here to help any new free schools to develop the curriculum they offer and to guide staff into creative and cohesive teaching. We will help to make the learning in your schools irresistible!"

So, it's all getting rather exciting, isn't it? Chris Fenton sells his or her services to CGP to write mock test booklets - that's for tests which have had an awful, appalling effect on English education, a point of view echoed by 'Moving English Forward' (the recent English Ofsted Report) which acknowledged that many schools teach to this test with poor, narrowing consequences. Not content with writing this booklet, I suspect (no proof) that Chris Fenton turns him or herself into CJ Fenton and does a bit of self-publishing, ie shoehorns in a poem he/she has written.

However, this clearly doesn't bring in enough bacon, so - if I'm not mistaken - the same Chris Fenton has spotted a gap in the market: these chancers, privateers, pirates, snobs and wheeler-dealers setting up 'Free' Schools, might actually lack expertise. Can this be possible? Perhaps. And the thing is, Chris Fenton and the 'New Schools Network' are on hand to provide support for these schools which are part of how this government is smashing up free, universal and equal provision for all children.

Warning: I may be completely wrong about Chris Fenton, C.J.Fenton and Chris Fenton of New Schools Network. It could be three different Fentons or two Fentons.

Interesting all the same. And if I'm right, how very much of our times, is Chris Fenton.

Poets, poems, performances, ideas, websites

If you are interested in helping children write poetry - or indeed write anything, it's my firm belief that the best place to start is with writers and their writing.

1. James Carter is a poet, former lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Reading and is a peripatetic teacher, workshop leader, INSET trainer. His website is here:

Ten years ago he published a book on creative writing (one of several) and it's now reappeared as  Just Imagine, Music,images and text to inspire creative writing' published as a David Fulton Book by Routledge (2012).

The book, 'Just Imagine' is A4 format, 154 pages with a CD and illustrations.

If you go to his website you can see (and hear) what he's about, and find his other books aimed at teachers and children, including of course a list of his poetry books.

2. Roger Stevens is a poet, author, musician and artist. His website is here:

He founded the prize-winning site The Poetry Zone. Here's the link:

The Poetry Zone publishes poems by children, interviews writers and much more like this page of other sites for poetry and children's writing:

3. Here's The Poetry Station, a website run by the English and Media Centre. The Poetry Station is a web-based, poetry video channel, full of poets performing their own poems - and more:

4. Here's my website:

If you click on 'videos' - there are 92 videos there of me performing my poems. If you click on 'For Adults' and scroll down to 'Articles by me', you'll find articles I've written about poetry and writing.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Young people's language is crap (always)

This is a very interesting article and includes one of those lovely lists of people moaning about the decline in standards of language going back in time:

Someone Else’s Language
On the Role of Linguists in Language Revitalization
Margaret Speas, University of Massachusetts, Amhers

Daniels (1983) made this point
clearly when he presented the following series of complaints through the ages:

1961: “Recent graduates, including those with university degrees, seem
to have no mastery of the language at all. They cannot construct a
simple declarative sentence, either orally or in writing. They cannot spell common, everyday words. Punctuation is apparently no longer taught. Grammar is a complete mystery to almost all recent
graduates.” -J Mersand. Attitudes Toward English Teaching

1917: “From every college in the country goes up the cry, ‘Our freshmen
can’t spell, can’t punctuate.’ Every high school is in disrepair be-
cause its pupils are so ignorant of the merest rudiments.” -C.H. Ward

1780: “The greatest improprieties…are to be found among people of
fashion; many pronunciations, which thirty or forty years ago
were confined to the vulgar, are gradually gaining ground; and
if something [is] not done to stop this growing evil…English is
likely to become a mere jargon.” -Thomas Sheridan

1st century BC: “Practically everyone…in those days spoke correctly.
But the lapse of time has certainly had a deteriorating effect in
this respect.” -Cicero

Daniels comments, “The earliest language ‘crisis’...that I have been able to
discover occurred in ancient Sumeria.... It seems that among the first of the clay
tablets discovered and deciphered by modern scholars was one which recorded
the agonized complaints of a Sumerian teacher about the sudden drop-off in
students’ writing ability” (p. 33).

As we can see by these comments, it seems
that every generation fears that people (usually young people) are debasing and
corrupting the language. Yet, people still communicate and literature continues
to be produced. The truth is that living languages are always changing. Classical Latin “deteriorated” into French, Italian, Spanish, etc...

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Blair government and 'rendition'

I suppose it will take years to unravel the details of exactly how the Blair government collaborated with the Bush regime in carrying out war crimes. This article lifts the corner on one of them.

Can I select one paragraph from it?

Two weeks after the couple were rendered to Libya, Tony Blair paid his first visit to the country, embracing Gaddafi and declaring that Libya had recognised "a common cause, with us, in the fight against al-Qaida extremism and terrorism". At the same time, in London, the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell announced that it had signed a £110m deal for gas exploration rights off the Libyan coast.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Instruction vs reflecting:now and the future

The core struggle at the heart of education is over two models: the one regards the central process of education instructional and the other as reflective.

This struggle goes on every day, every minute and it takes place between teachers and government, between pupils and curriculum.

The instructional model is based on the idea that there is a core knowledge and there are core skills that children must acquire and that the best ways for them to acquire these are through various forms of instruction. This is ultimately a liberating process because most pupils do acquire this knowledge and these skills and the least advantaged pupils thus become more advantaged. Indeed, if they did not receive this instruction, they would remain disadvantaged. The critique of the reflective model that the 'instructionists' offer is that it is laissez-faire, 'anything goes',  and fails the disadvantaged. They never get hold of the core knowledge and core skills. This explains the decline in education standards, decline in behaviour and probably explains unemployment.

The reflective model is based on the idea that each and every human being has the power of 'reflection' - that's to say no matter what you do or say to a human being, it will think and reflect on what is being said and done to  him or her. In fact, there is no knowledge or acquisition of skill without the human being reflecting on it and 'doing the learning'. The best way to do this is for the learner to be given as many opportunities to investigate, explore, initiate, ask questions, frame the next piece of learning in terms that the learner conceives him- or herself.

At the moment, the instructional model is in ascendancy. It seems to be generally accepted that most knowledge and most skills have to be taught. Teachers should lay out certain kinds of knowledge and explain skills. At various points in the school-life of a pupil the efficacy of all this can be tested. The tests are in a sense a mirror image of the teaching, the teaching a mirror-image of the tests. One advantage of this is that if any other model of learning is put into the mix, it can often be shown that it is less effective because it doesn't achieve as high average scores as the instructional model. The problem with this is that it doesn't deal with the possibility that it's the whole model that is the problem. One possibility, for example, is that what is 'performed' in the tests are not necessarily usable skills and usable knowledge.

Behind the scenes, something else goes on. At home, families and carers work to different models too and this has an enormous impact on outcome. I used to laughingly refer to something called the 'middle class curriculum'. I think I got the gag from the director of the English and Media Centre, Michael Simons, when we were chatting about running our children around at the weekends. What is this? What were we referring to mocking ourselves at the same time as valuing it? We were (and I still am) taking our children to theatre clubs, museums, art clubs, dance clubs, libraries, art galleries, to see authors, presentations and the rest. And of course books galore. Reading, talking about reading, book ownership, book borrowing.

What does this 'bestow' on the child? What do they get from all this in relation to schooling? At one level, they get the knowledge and skills that school offers before and during the years of schooling. In a sense it creates a continuity between school-stuff and home-stuff. For such children there is very little that school offers which is unfamiliar in kind. The specifics may be new - something a child might not have heard of - but the general area is familiar. Many of the strategies that teachers use will be familiar too to the child who has been to talks or taken part in out of school workshops. Interestingly enough, though, the systems of learning in many of these out of school activities do not work to the instructional model. They are often based around asking children what they want to do. It's clear that all this serves them extremely well. They store up what has been called 'cultural capital' which pretty well guarantees them a place in a sixth form and on to some kind of tertiary education.

In some kind of complete revolutionary environment, this would have to be addressed. It's not an 'unfair advantage' as such. It's how people with a sense of education and learning seen from the point of view of a child approach the matter. So what can or could be done about it? The instructionists are fully aware of this disparity in cultural capital and say that this proves that they have to instruct and test all the harder. I would say that all this does is give the children with the most cultural capital even more advantage because though many of them find the instruction and testing tedious, they also find it obvious and easy. They score higher no matter what. As I put it earlier, it's all 'familiar'.

In my dream world, the state would take on the job of creating a million times more out of school places in activities along the lines that are offered already and which middle class people like myself attend with our children. In fact, where local authorities (mostly in the past) did take this on, they were able to point to some success. An activity like the Summer Reading Challenge run by the Reading Agency is one such.

If we don't want education to reinforce the disparity in holdings of cultural capital but to support those families who have less of it, then we'll have to think all  this through in practical terms.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Learning to read: Story 10

"  When I was a tot, most of our stuff was labelled ('table' etc). Fascination with words developed thus-odd, but it worked!  "

from twitter

Learning to read: Story 9

"I like how you describe reading and re-reading with young children (in ' False logic of decoding vs reading for meaning'). I work with secondary SEN students teaching literacy and the most effective way I have found for increasing reading accuracy is 'Paired Reading' which works on that same principle of modelling and re-reading, with no stopping to try and sound out words. It's all about fluency and enjoyment and following the storyline - it also helps with expression and confidence. I've read some very positive research about it (American). There are 3 stages - read a small para to the student; student and reader read same bit again together; student reads same bit on own. If the student reads the same word 6 times they are likely to be able to read it as sight vocabulary. Use a text with several words the student can't already read. I keep a note of about 6 new words and play a game with them at the end by writing them on the board and randomly pointing at them, awarding ticks/points - by the end they can usually read all of them. "

from facebook

Learning to read: Story 8

" My 4yr old has learnt to read through repetition &recognising words.She breaks words into syllables to work out new words. "

from twitter

Learning to read: Story 7

" I cannot remember a time when I couldn't read, although I can remember the days when people seemed surprised that I could, when I would spell out a word from a newspaper and ask my mum what it meant .
She was a lone parent in the 50s and spent hours reading to me, pointing at the words as she did. I'm told that I was fluent at three. I can certainly remember being bored to bits chanting with the class as the teacher turned the big book pages (yes, even then!)
I brought up my own son to love books, in the mid 1980s but as soon as he started school he refused to do anything, as he had to bark his way through a matchbox full of words before being allowed near the sacrosanct "Reading Books."
Thank goodness he rediscovered it as he started Middle School. (And there lurks another discussion...) "

(from facebook)

Learning to read: Story 6

" We didn't have many books at home but most evenings I'd ask my mum to read a rather dull book about Robin Hood (obviously I didn't think it was dull at the time) to me.  One evening, I started to read aloud with my mum and started following the words with my finger.  She stopped reading and I carried on.  I could read.  As a result I was able to read to before I started school at the age of five, not because anyone had formally taught me the sounds of letters but through an engagement and familiarity with the story and pictures.  Later on, I was the first in my family to go to university.  Now I have an MA in Literary Studies and teach English and Drama at a high school in my adopted home of Copenhagen.  Thanks for addressing this issue. "

(from messaging on twitter)

Learning to read: Story 5

"  No 1 son learnt the names of cars - could identify the name plates. Also read 'Townsend Thoreson' from a ferry by age 2 "

from twitter

Learning to read: Story 4

" My son learnt off the To Let and Food and Wine signs on the Blackstock Road. We did have books too, but for him it was realising that there were words everywhere. "

Learning to read: Story 3

" Both my kids learnt to read after nightly sharing of Letterland stories at bedtime - Annie Apple, etc. they loved it and knew them all after no time at all. It developed a healthy curiosity in letters and we would search the picture for anything else that began with the same letter. "

[from facebook]

Learning to read: Story 2

" My 7year old Yorkshre child is enjoying old The Broons comicstrip books. Scottish dialect - worked it out himself. No phonics..."

(from Twitter)
(Story 1 was from facebook)

Learning to read: Story 1

" I used to read Eric Carle to my 2yr old as part of her bedtime routine - 'polar bear polar bear what do you hear? I hear a lion roaring in my ear' - only I would pause so she could guess what came next. One night when I praised her excellent guesses she said rather sheepishly 'actually I was cheating, i was looking at the words'. Shame on me for exposing a 2 year old to words!"

Readers of this blog - more stories like this please. Phonics one too. Yes! There are many types of people, many types of brain, many types of parents...If it works, it works.

False logic of decoding vs reading for meaning

At this blog:

you can find this statement:

"You can’t read for meaning if you can’t decode the words."

How logical! But how false...

The problem with it as a statement is that it would suggest that there are two separate activities and that the brain is a like a piece of machinery. That's to say, the machine is programmed to do something and then, and only then, it can do it. Luckily and wonderfully, the human brain isn't a machine. Amongst many things it's a reflecting, contemplative, reasoning organ. It looks, thinks, adapts, changes, asks questions, alters what it's learned and of course enables 'performance' ie speaking, writing, moving, dancing, facial expression etc etc.

So what anyone does when they're learning is do several things at the same time, learning, adapting, 'accommodating' what's new with what's old in their minds, reflecting on what they've learned and so on. When children learn how to speak, most of the time to start off with they are hearing things they do not understand. Between the ages of 0 and 5 they move from not understanding anything bar tone of voice perhaps, to understanding an enormous amount and,indeed to have internalised pretty well all the grammatical processes of the language going on around them.

Because this spoken language is bedded down in children's heads by the time we are asking them to learn how to read, it is complete nonsense to suggest that there is no reading for meaning,unless you can decode.

The point is we have all seen very young children do both at the same time!

To take an example, many parents have read and re-read books with their very young children. Most such children, at any age between, say, 3 and 5 will start to ask what this or that 'says'. They will point at words and letters and try to say them. As you're reading with them, they may ask you, or you may run your finger over the words. If you leave gaps, they will say the word that you're not saying because they have heard you say it before. If you substitute another word, they will tell you. If you leave them with that book and many more, you will hear them saying the book outloud, some of the time because they remember you saying it, some of the time, because they find the word on the page. Sometimes you hear them 'take' that reading of the word to another text and find that word in another text. In other words, they 'read' that word (or words) somewhere else.

Meaning and decoding and listening are in this way interrelated. Of course this kind of thing doesn't go on in all homes. However, because it does, that is why some children are learning to read by other methods, other than synthetic phonics, or in addition to, or, alongside, or as part of that process. To ignore this or to pretend  it isn't happening or indeed as the Woman's Hour Head (as I'm calling him) is suggesting should happen, is in essence to declare war on the use of picture books with young children.

It's yet another example of how education invents ways in which children should be deprived of art's way of thinking about us as human beings, reflectively, contemplatively, speculatively, imaginatively, symbolically and, above all, through narrative or 'story'.

Letter from teacher re poetry teaching

Dear Michael
I follow you on Twitter and ....

I teach a primary 6 class, in a Belfast school, in a large council estate. Every morning I start the day with a poem taken a "poem for every day of the year" type of anthology. I read it aloud and then ask the children for a show of hands as to how many points out of 10 they would give it. Every class I have taught love this. They love poems that rhyme or those that make them laugh but many have also voted for poems they haven't understood but which they "just like the sound of". Throughout the year we cover a wide variety of poetry, some of which would sometimes be considered to be adult fayre, such as Shakespeare or Tennyson or Wordsworth. The children carefully listen and are really keen to offer their opinion on the poem of that day. On Friday I remind them of the week's poems and we vote again, this time for poem of the week. The winning poem is photocopied and is put on a small display area on the classroom wall. When the previous winning poem is taken down the children all argue about who can take and keep the previous week's poem.

It is such a small thing to do each day but I have found that it has triggered a love for poetry in many of the children. They very often get poetry books of their own from the class library and bring me their favourites to add to the Friday poem of the week.

I just thought I would share this small thing with you to let you know that many times in school we do things which cannot be measured and which might seem inconsequential, but which might enrich the lives of another generation of children.

Headteacher on 'damaging' books

It seems as is on today's BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour on a discussion about the Year 1 Phonics Screening check, a headteacher said: "It's actually very damaging to give children texts that they can't read because they can't decode the words."

Let's get into the thinking here:

There are people now who believe that the phrase 'first, fast and only' which has circulated around education in relation to the teaching of 'Synthetic phonics' (SP) through government approved SP schemes means that this is the only kind of reading material that should be put in front of young readers - 4, 5 and even 6 year olds. 

If you're not in education and are wondering what this is all about you can google 'synthetic phonics' and see what this is all about. SP is a system of teaching children how to 'decode' the language according to the correspondences between letters and sounds. So children look at letters and letter combination ('th' or 'ea' and the like) and learn how to say them. It's 'synthetic' because they learn how to combine these sounds into words or invented words. So anyone reading this blog will be able to come up with a 'plausible' pronunciation for 'glurg' or 'slib' and the like. 

SP advocates believe (and have vast bodies of tests and research to prove it) that SP teaching is a highly effective way children how to 'decode'. There is an argument, though, over whether it's a highly effective way to teach children to 'read' - that is, do what you're doing now, reading what I've written and trying to understand it (!). 

Some of us are keen to point out that 'decoding' is not the same as 'reading'. As evidence for that, some people learn to read without doing very much explicit, repeated 'decoding'. That's how I was taught 60 years ago. Similarly, some children are coming through who have learned to 'decode' but are 'barking at print' - that's to say, not finding 'reading for meaning' easy. 

As I've blogged about before, we have in June the Year 1 'Phonics Screening' test. Children will be given 40 words and asked to read them outloud. Some of them will be 'nonsense' words ie words that don't exist in English. The child will have 'failed' if he or she gets less that 32 right. The 'nonsense' words have to be read with 'plausible' pronunciations' so, let's say, the letters 'ee' have to be pronounced as one would pronounce 'ee' in 'meet' and not, say, as 'oo', as in 'root', or something. The parents of children who have failed will be informed. 

I have met the person who is quoted at the top here (from 'Woman's Hour') and I would want to make clear that what goes on in his school as a whole is not at all represented by what he is saying here. As he himself points out in his presentations, the first years at the school are full of reading aloud, children learning nursery rhymes and poems, the later years full of children writing, authors' visits (eg Beverley Naidoo), and a very rich literacy curriculum. However, in his philosophy, none of this is 'teaching the children to read'. Only the SP work is doing this. 

He has expressed this as avoiding putting texts that children can't decode in front of them. Those of us who read with our children every day are puzzled by this because this is precisely what we do every day. We share books that the children 'can't read'. In fact, they understand them (aurally ie through their ears) and they pick up the 'wording' of the written language ie how words hang together to make the sound, rhythm and grammar of our written language. Again, we find our children 'decoding' bits of these, passages of these, in all kinds of exploratory, patchy sorts of ways. They might be sitting on our laps, looking at the book as we're reading it. Or they might pick up books, comics and magazines in their bedrooms or that older siblings leave lying about (!) and 'struggle to read them' - voluntarily. Sometimes they get stuck. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes they ask for help. Sometimes they don't. The point is that they are putting 'reading' together as an investigative, discovering, exploratory process. 

Not all children will be doing this at home. To a greater or lesser extent though, many are. What the headteacher is saying is that we shouldn't do this sort of thing in schools. We shouldn't be letting children do (what all my children did) which is sit on cushions at the corner of the nursery or reception class with a pile of books and look at them. 

As an aside, it's worth pausing a moment and thinking how it is, in a print-rich culture, we might feasibly stop children of 4 and 5 looking at written language which they can't 'decode'. I mean things like street signs, parents' newspapers, menus, leaflets, older siblings comics, books and magazines, holiday brochures and so on?

The head who was on Woman's Hour runs a literature-rich school. Some headteachers, as I've reported here, are saying what he is saying but not running a literature-rich school. The 'real books' are banned from Reception and Year 1 classrooms, and the children move on from their to 'passages' and 'excerpts' and highly controlled 'genre' writing, highly controlled methods of constructing sentences, paragraphs and continuous prose. Meanwhile, there is no school policy on 'reading for pleasure' - even though this is recommended on the two Rose Reports, in the PISA and PIRLs reports and now in the latest Ofsted English report 'Moving English Forward'.