Thursday, 31 May 2012

A few thoughts on debt and crisis

Hearing and watching radio and TV accounts of the debt crisis could easily lull one into thinking any of the following:
a) the 'bond markets' or 'the cost of bonds' was something a bit like weather, something that just 'happens'.
b) 'debt' is something that governments rack up and is always bad - usually called 'public sector debt' or 'public sector borrowing'
c) the private sector is some kind of virtuous club which contains within it the power to provide jobs and to share out wealth to everyone

None of these things is true.

These 'bonds' that everyone is now talking about are just a kind of moneylending. Human beings running this system of moneylending fix their interest rates. Governments usually raise money this way, so when the cost or price of the bonds goes up, that's how the moneylenders get us to pay them. 

However, this 'sector' of the economy, the banking and financial sector is in massive difficulties entirely of its own making and nothing to do with what governments do or have done. They made high-risk loans and then sold those 'debt packages' to other people in the financial sector. Those people often didn't have the cash to buy those loans so they 'leveraged' them ie they borrowed even more money. This way the debt mountain got bigger and bigger and bigger. This is the financial crisis. The financial crisis is not what governments have borrowed. 

Analogies are dangerous but let's take the mortgage one. So long as you (like a government) can pay your mortgage, your debt is not a problem. If your mortgage company lends vast amounts of money (or spends it) and finds that it's not getting enough income, it would, all other things being equal, try to get more money out of you and all the other mortgage-holders to get it out of the hole. This is where we're at. 

The banking sector has over-lent and is trying in various ways to get solvent through putting pressure on governments - that's us, to pay for their losses. The 'bonds market' is one of the instruments they can use. They simply up the interest rates. It was the 'fear' of this that George Osborne used when the Coalition came to power. What he said was that he had to cut the government debt otherwise the cost of government borrowing would be too high. But what he didn't say was that particular pressure was not caused by the government borrowing, it was caused by the banking sector's lending! In fact, one reason for some of the government debt was that same government had helped bail out some parts of the financial sector! 

So, when you look at the UK economy one distinctive thing about it is the huge size of the financial sector's debt. The government debt is 30% the size of the financial sector's debt.

Now to this virtuous private sector. We hear from apologists for the government as on tonight's BBC TV Newsnight that if only the public sector could be shrunk (that's to say if public sector workers are sacked and our services get worse), then young people would start up businesses and the economy would boom. It's a nonsense. The companies are holding over £700 billion. They don't want to invest (start up new businesses or expand present ones) because austerity - which the financial sector has demanded - is making people less willing to spend money. 

The main point here is that there is nothing 'virtuous' about the private sector. It exists in order to make profits. If it can't make profits, it shuts up shop.. It's not there to provide jobs or services or the things we need. It may happen to do that but only when and if it can make profits. When it can't, it sacks people, stops providing the things and services we need.

What we are seeing is a moment in history where the people who pocket the profits don't want to take the risk of starting up and expanding businesses and again, this is absolutely nothing to do with government debt, public sector borrowing, or what they call 'the need to cut the deficit'. It is entirely to do with the fact that they can't make profits, demand is too low. The main reason demand is too low is because the bankers have demanded that governments do things to make the demand low (ie sack people, impose wage freezes, cut back on services, cut back on government debt) so that governments can help the banks! 

There is nothing virtuous about any of this. It's all about the people who pocket profits trying to stay as rich as possible. To do that, they are trying to make the poor pay, they are trying to get governments to cut our standard of public service - schools, hospitals, transport, welfare. 

What's going on here is that the system has reached one of those points of crisis where 'business' (or capitalism as I would call it) can't solve the crisis by itself. Whether they know it or not, they are trying to make everything - labour costs (or wages, salaries and pay, as we call them), rent, money, raw materials, machines, cheap enough to make it worth their while to start up and expand businesses in order to make profits. 

This means destroying millions of people's lives. They are trying to make us all poorer and with a lower standard of living, education and health so that they can survive as the owners of wealth, the owners of businesses or as we call it 'the means of production'. 

That's what this crisis is really about. They are doing all they can to hang on to the 'means of production'. If this means millions of people being without jobs, electricity, food, hospitals, schools - so be it. 

That is the beauty of capitalism

But they can only get away with it, if they succeed in telling complete lies and phooey about what's causing the problem. That's why they talk about the 'bond markets' as if it's the weather. That's why they make out that it's the government debt that is the problem and not their own gargantuan debt. That's why they make out that a 'big public sector' is what's stopping them expanding and starting up new businesses when in reality  it's their own unwillingness to do it because they know that we haven't got the money to buy what they might make.

In other words, in order to hang on to those 'means of production' and the massive wealth they possess, they have to lie about what's going on.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Scandal: Kensal Rise Library vandalised by council

I received this today:

Save Kensal Rise Library

This morning between 2 and 3am Richard Barrett, Brent's Property Officer, raided and stripped our library.
About 15 workers took the books from the library and also took the murals painted in the 1930's specifically for the library along with all the plaques commemorating the library's opening by Mark Twain.

They took tables and chairs and other assorted objects including a microwave and a box of sticky tape.

They were assisted in this action by about 12 police officers.

In a meeting with campaigners last week the new leader of the council Mohammad Butt promised that the murals and furniture would not be taken.

We asked him to hold off stripping the library until he had organised a meeting with All Souls College, the council and ourselves.

This action this morning is proof that the council had no intention of trying to ensure that the reverter on the library had not been triggered.

Cllr Mo Butt said he wanted to listen to the community, engage with them.

This is how he listens. By taking this action he has jeopardised the ability of this community to run this library.

We may be finished with Brent council but our campaign continues. We will not let their cowardly, middle of the night plundering defeat us.
Cllr Butt's words to us are worse than meaningless.
They reveal what a cowardly, conniving, bunch of dishonest panhandlers they are, but what else would you expect in the Banana Republic of Brent?
You may want to email Cllr Mo Butt at Brent Council and tell him what you think.
Stay tuned!

Margaret Bailey

Monday, 28 May 2012

Important conference on Reading for Pleasure

Centre for Literacy in Primary Education Reading for Pleasure conference 

Making it happen with Michael Rosen 
Friday 15 June 2012, 9.30-1.00pm 
Registration from 9 am 
Cost £95 (lunch included) 
Venue: CLPE, Webber Street, London SE1 8QW 

Focusing on the importance of a love of reading, this morning conference brings together leading primary literacy experts, providing insights and guidance for developing a reading for pleasure school.

Michael Rosen, broadcaster and writer, former Children’s Laureate
Sue Ellis, UKLA and Strathclyde University
Julia Eccleshare, Co Director CLPE, Children’s Book Editor, The Guardian
Jennie Clark, Teacher, Churchfields Infants School
Darren Matthews, Deputy Head, Prygo Priory, PS
Sue McGonigle and Olivia O’Sullivan, CLPE Power of Reading Project Booktrust and National Literacy Trust

Webber Street, London SE1 8QW 5 minute walk from Waterloo main line and tube stations and Southwark tube (Jubilee Line) tel: 020 7401 3382/3

Centre for Literacy in Primary Education Reading for Pleasure Conference

Making it happen with Michael Rosen Friday 15 June 2012 9.30-1pm at CLPE, registration from 9 am

The need to enhance children's pleasure in reading is identified as a key issue in raising reading achievement. Increasingly, schools are looking for ways to address promoting and providing for children's wider reading within the literacy curriculum. This half-day conference presents key speakers and initiatives leading the campaign for children's enjoyment of reading nationally, in LAs and individual schools. 

Programme 9.30 Welcome and introduction Sue Ellis, Co Director, CLPE

Reading for Pleasure – why it's crucial Michael Rosen, writer, broadcaster, academic, former Children’s Laureate 

Reading for Pleasure - what the evidence says Sue Ellis, UKLA and Reader at Strathclyde University, Scotland 

Book Trust and National Literacy Trust initiatives 

Power of Reading Project: the impact on enjoyment and achievement Olivia O Sullivan and Sue McGonigle, Project Directors, CLPE 1

Developing a reading for pleasure school Darren Matthews, Deputy Headteacher, Prygo Priory PS, Havering Jennie Clark, Literacy Coordinator, Churchfields Infants School, Redbridge 

Reading for pleasure - the influence of authors and publishers Julia Eccleshare, Co Director, CLPE and Children's books editor, The Guardian 12.40 

Q and A and discussion 1.00 Close and lunch 

CLPE, 44, Webber Street, London SE1 8QW Tel: 020 7902 2295 Fax 020 7928 4624

Book online or email Cost per person £95 (lunch included) I / we would like to attend the Reading for Pleasure Conference School/Organisation/LA Address Telephone Email I enclose a cheque for £ payable to Language Matters Please invoice CLPE is an independent Charitable Trust Registered Charity No. 1092698 Registered Company No. 04385537 If you need to cancel your booking we will refund the fee less 10% for administration. If notice of cancellation is within less than five working days, we regret no refund will be given.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Under the Cranes showing at London International Documentary Film Festival


START: 29 MAY 2012 1:00 PM
29 May 2012 1:00 pm
Roxy Bar and Screen
020 74074057
128-132 Borough High Street, Greater London, United Kingdom, SE1 1LB

Book Your Tickets

Eventbrite - End of the Line + Under the Cranes


End of the Line

World Premiere
Rosie Baldwin, Anna Snowball, Holly Stimson, Hannah Temple | 5:02 mins
This short film created and produced by Four Lovely Ladies Productions surveys life and death; journeying into the open expanse of the Thames estuary on a dated train that runs to the end of the world’s longest pleasure pier in Southend-On-Sea.

We begin our journey led by the camera, exploring the scene as the slow, rickety carriages travel further away from land. The beautifully bleak location oozes with nostalgia and mystery, immersing us in an enigmatic sense of purgatory.. With a change of weather, isolation transforms itself into a heavenly sense of hope, as the train reaches its destination. The filmmakers begin encountering visitors, painting a raw portrait of people drawn to this off-season seaside pier in the depths of winter.
The interviews create fleeting intimate moments with strangers who speak of fond memories, regrets and hope for the future.

The day draws to an end, and the train begins its long, slow voyage back to land as the visitors begin to divulge into their beliefs about life, death, lost ones and the after-life. The train arrives at the station and its passengers disembark, wandering off to rejoin everyday life, leaving their time at Southend pier behind – a hazy memory.

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Under the Cranes

+ Panel Discussion
Emma-Louise Williams |  | 56 mins
Blending drama and documentary styles, Under the Cranes is a beautifully conceived meditation on the multicultural of history Hackney and the changes that continue to shape this part of East London. Director Emma-Louise Williams seeks to counter the prevailing perception of the inner city as a site of failure, ugliness and misdeed through a socio-poetics of everyday life. Breaking with the linear narrative convention, the audience is invited to apprehend the city as a sequence of interwoven vignettes: 'past in the present; present in the past.'

A script derived from poet Michael Rosen's documentary play, Hackney Streets, is layered with graceful location shots and rare archive footage. The film's soundscape mixes poetry, music, folksong and location recordings, while the picture juxtaposes slow panning shots with paintings by East London artists, Leon Kossoff, Jock McFadyen and James MacKinnon. We hear from the famous (Shakespeare in Shoreditch; 'Black Beauty' author, Anna Sewell; and poet Anna Barbauld) alongside a Jamaican builder, a Bangladeshi restaurant owner and the Jewish 43 Group taking on Oswald Mosley in Dalston. Blending past and present, the film offers a lyrical, painterly defence of the everyday, while raising questions about the process of regeneration and the meaning we find in the places we call home.

Gove Bible Donors: plus more thoughts

QUOTED FROM GUARDIAN May 15 2012, Jessica Shepherd

[my bold within the article]

"Millionaire Conservative party donors have clubbed together to rescue a plan by the education secretary, Michael Gove, to send a copy of the King James Bible to every state school in the country.
Gove hoped to mark the 400th anniversary of the Bible's completion by donating a leather-bound copy, written in 17th-century English, to all primary and secondary schools by Easter.
However, his plans were said to have run into trouble in January when government sources reported that David Cameron had told Gove to avoid using taxpayers' money for the £370,000 initiative.
At the time, Gove had not found private philanthropists to sponsor the enterprise. It has now emerged that leading Tory donors – mostly former hedge fund and private equity bosses – are footing the bill. They include Lord Stanley Fink, the former co-treasurer of the Conservative party who was once chief executive of the listed hedge fund Man Group. Fink, a life peer, has donated more than £2.3m to Tory projects.
Lord Robert Edmiston, a motor trade entrepreneur who gave more than £3.2m to the Tory party between 2000 and 2010, has also sponsored the Bible project. The life peer is an evangelical Christian who set up the charity Christian Vision.
Others who have funded the scheme include Ramez Sousou of the private equity firm TowerBrook, who has also given support to Cameron's party, Michael Farmer, the Conservative party co-treasurer and City financier who has donated more than £3m to the party, and Lord Harris, a regular donor to the Conservatives and the chairman of Carpetright.
The Liberal Democrat donor Paul Marshall, a hedge fund boss and committed Christian, and his wife have also donated funds for the scheme, as has Sir Peter Lampl, the founder of a private equity firm who is an education philanthropist.
A spokeswoman from the Department for Education said no public funds would be needed for the project. The Bibles, which state on the spine that they have been presented by the secretary of state for education, have been sent to schools this week.
Teachers have greeted the initiative with a mixed reaction. A primary school teacher from Sheffield, who did not want to be named, told the Guardian the Bible, which arrived on Monday, would "stay in the headteacher's office on a shelf".
"I work in an inner-city primary school and there's no way that our children are going to be reading and understanding the kind of English this Bible is written in," he said. "I have nothing against celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, but we really could have done with some more story books."
Another teacher, who did not want to be named, wrote on the forum of the Times Educational Supplement that pupils in her school – a Church of England primary – were presented with their own Bibles. "I feel the inscription on the side is more to do with this project than the actual 'gift'," she said. "Privately funded or not we could all have used the money more appropriately to our own school setting."
The Bibles, which have been published by the Oxford University Press, are accompanied by a letter from Gove.
"I believe it is important that all pupils – of all faiths or none – should appreciate this icon and its impact on our language and democracy," it says. He adds that the gift has been funded through the generosity of private sponsors "who share my view that this book has a unique place in our nation's history and culture".
All schools are expected to have received their copies by the end of the month."

More thoughts:

The more I think about this, the more interesting it is to remind oneself that producing the King James Bible was part of the attempt to establish and confirm the Protestant and national control over the lives and minds of the people, as determined by the Privy Council.  At the time it was illegal to stay away from church and to do so put you under suspicion of being a Roman Catholic. Though there is no way Michael Gove can seriously believe that sending out bibles can in even the faintest degree re-establish this kind of control, there appears to be some kind of reflex that yearns for some kind of ideological control over how we view 'the nation'. Politicians really do need to come to terms with the fact that no matter how hard they try to do this, they don't succeed in establishing this kind of control. Forces much bigger and stronger than them pull people in many  different directions - to  both smaller and larger allegiances - to locality, culture, ethnicity, language, Europe and to countries of origin. There is of course a particular irony in Michael Gove trying to do this at precisely the moment when the UK's economy is in the grip of something more international than it has ever been. And another irony in that the document, the King James Bible, is itself a highly multi-cultural document both in its origins, its source texts and translations and indeed in its translators. It was only in its 'enactment' that it was national. 

The King Gove Bible

I just thought that I would put on record my thoughts about the Secretary of State for Education's decision to place a copy of the King James Bible in every maintained school in the country.

1. I have absolutely no objection to Religious Education being taught in schools. I do object to schools fibbing about these lessons being compulsory. They're not. I had a run-in with the very good inner-city comp two of my children went to when we had a circular round stating quite clearly that it was compulsory to attend RE lessons. No, the provision of RE is compulsory. Attendance at them is not. Pupils can choose to not attend them provided they have a letter from parents/carers.

2. I have absolutely no objection to the nature of Christianity being taught in RE lessons, assuming it will be taught alongside other 'major world religions' which is precisely how the RE syllabus is described and how in most cases it is taught, particularly in the two years leading up to the GCSE. However, if parents have opted for a 'faith' school or an Academy they either know or will find out that RE at KS1, KS2 and KS3 (ie between the ages of 5 and 14) may well be directed towards one specific religion. If it's a faith school, then presumably that's what parents and children are choosing. In many cases, this may also be so for parents and children choosing an Academy with a particular 'ethos'. However, some parents are not always aware just what that means or, at the end of the day, may not mind particularly. It should be said here that this is how pupils in British schools are receiving ever wider and more different kinds of education. Both the previous government and this one seem to think that this is a good idea when it comes to religious and 'moral' education whilst at the same time requiring equal and uniform conditions in other areas of education eg in the teaching of reading.

3. The King James Bible is a very specific document which came out of some particular struggles in Europe over religion, morality, the organisation of churches, the role of the state in religion and whether literacy was for all or for some. It incorporated many documents and translations that preceded it and evolved over several hundred years even though people frequently think that what they are reading is the exact book which appeared in the second decade of the 17th century. I'm not absolutely sure which version of the King James Bible has gone out to all schools but it isn't the exact same one as was first produced. If nothing else, the spelling will  have been modernised.

4. In my lifetime, most Christians in this country came to the conclusion that the King James Bible was not fit for purpose. They needed a text that everyone could understand and which was on reflection a better, more accurate translation of the oldest known texts. Various key words were and still are disputed eg whether people are servants or slaves, whether certain women are described with a word that means 'woman' or as prostitute and so on. The 'New English Bible' was produced in order to solve these problems. Anyone interested in modern school pupils looking at how 'the bible' (as we say) tells the story of the crucifixion or the story of Abraham and Isaac will find it doubly or triply difficult using the King James Bible than it is with the New English Bible. This is not only because the King James Bible is written in early seventeenth century English. It is because much of it rests on translations that were made many years before. Even in its own time, it borrowed the rhetoric and language of a previous era. If you go online, you can see sites which show how passages evolved (or didn't) across these bibles. So, in summary, I dispute very strongly the idea that the King James Bible is very useful as a way of talking about Christianity to young people.

5. One of the justifications for sending out this particular bible to all schools is that it had an immensely important part to pay in language and literature. I agree, it did. However, it doesn't really help to exaggerate this. First, two writers who also had an immense influence on language and literature in this country show us that one (Chaucer) produced all his writing well before the King James Bible, and Shakespeare died very soon after he could have seen it. All his Christian references are thought to come from the 'Geneva' bible. Yes, there are plenty of specific phrases which survive because the King James Bible was the stipulated text ('salt of the earth', 'through a glass darkly') but these alone wouldn't or shouldn't justify making this special case for sending out a copy to all schools. Chaucer, for example, represents a key moment in literature from these islands where French and English were combined into a mightily successful piece of literature. Shakespeare's work represents an inventiveness with language and ideas unmatched previously and has become a text that has influenced writing ever since. It's true that writers following the production of the King James Bible drew on its language and imagery but it is not easy to distinguish between the language of that bible and the Christian ideas represented by it. It is of course a production of Protestant England and poses certain problems for Christians who do not see themselves in that particular way.

6. Where we are trying to interest children in the history of 'the English language' (a term which itself can be disputed, by the way), then using the King James Bible as a key text is highly problematical. Much easier and more appropriate from a literary point of view  is eg a few lines of Beowulf and/or an Old English riddle, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Dickens. But this isn't the only 'English' going on. Running alongside anything that appears in print are popular forms of speaking - and on occasions of writing - as well as regionally specific kinds. Though often hidden out of sight or neglected, it is possible to trace the history of  these many popular Englishes through such texts as folk songs, poetry, dialogue in drama and, since the time of verbatim court transcripts, in court case documents. That way, we discover, for example that 'ain't' is not a 'wrong' form of English, it is simply one form of usage which has been around for hundreds of years ('ain't' 'ent' 'int' etc) and is no more right or wrong that 'isn't' or 'haven't'.

7. It hasn't cost the government millions to send out these bibles. It seems as if an anonymous donor has contributed the lion's share. But we should ask if this is what happens in education now? The Secretary of State has a whim of some sort another, flies a kite saying that this or that should take place in schools, and an anonymous donor appears and funds its execution? It is really no way to run a public institution, no way to treat the matter of education (content or method). It's open to abuse, corruption, vanity and totalitarianism. My argument is that there is a touch of all these in this story. Why for example does it say on the spine of the bible that it comes from the Secretary of State for Education? What a gross piece of self-regarding nonsense! As the donor is anonymous, we may never find out if that donor is rewarded with honours in some way as a consequence or indeed with any other perks. It surely is not the job of a Secretary of State for Education to come up with pet projects and peddle them. He or she is at the head of a complex institution supposedly full of checks and balances - inspectors, committees, sub-committees and ultimately education can only take place with consent from all. But this event is non-consensual. It hasn't emerged out of discussion, consultation and argument. If a committee had heard evidence from a range of sources - linguistic, literary, Christian, multi-faith and non-faith, historical, educational etc and the general view was that every school should indeed be sent this particular bible, then I would probably have to keep quiet about it. The point is that I don't believe for a moment that any such consensus would be reached. I doubt that there was or is any particular wish for this bible to be distributed in this way.

8. I predict that in most cases, in most schools, the book will be quietly ignored.

[9. On a personal note, a version of the King James Bible was how I received a good deal of my Christian education in state non-denominational school in the 1950s and 60s. I can quote several parts of it. However, because I can and enjoy doing so, would be no reason for me to impose that memory on others. I suspect that Michael Gove's decision to impose it in this way is precisely because he has memories as a boy of standing in chapel while someone read out in sonorous tones: '...there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus...' or he sang 'The Lord's my shepherd...' though the usual text we  sang was adapted from the King James Bible even though they told us it was 'the Psalm'. (It wasn't!). Another 'incidentally' here, the KJB represents the first time in English when people would have heard or read what is in effect 'free verse' eg the Song of Solomon or the Psalms. These are English free verse translations of Hebrew poetry. They are not however the first examples of this as both Wycliffe and Tyndale were doing it long before the King James. It's the dissemination that is new. However, people who object to free verse poetry as 'chopped up prose' are often people who admire and love the prose of the King James Bible eg Auberon Waugh. OK in the King James Bible. Not OK when poets do it. ]

Friday, 25 May 2012

Reading: a case study in a school in London

I offer this without comment. If you would like to comment, you'll see that this, like all my posts, goes up on facebook and twitter. I don't 'enable' comments here because I'm something of a magnet for crazy and offensive comments and I don't have time to moderate.

So, here is one teacher's observation of using real books within the context of a commercial scheme.

The school and the problem
Our School in London has been using Ruth Miskin Literacy for nearly three years.  It has been very successful in getting their pupils to functionally read. The pupils moving into Year 3, who had been using RML for two years, had a higher reading age than the children moving out of Year 3 into Year 4. The problem, as C. (Literacy Coordinator) told me when I met her in October 2011, is that her pupils don't want to read. C. wanted something to make her pupils want to pick up a book.

My recommendation
I recommended a series of teacher resources based on classic children's books.  Read & Respond allows teachers to use a whole, real book with their class, covering guided, shared and independent reading, plus writing, plot/character/setting activites plus some speaking & listening - put another way, approximately half-a-term's literacy teaching, with a real book at the core.

The books that this series is based on are not education versions of classic books. They are the real thing. There are 92 of them, from We're Going on a Bear Hunt, to Not Now Bernard. The Iron Man, Carrie's War, Stormbreaker, Holes etc. A full list is here

The testimonial
I went back to see C. in March to see how she was getting on with Read & Respond. She said that it had been a great hit.  The best thing for me was when she said that a parent had come to see her to ask her "what she had been doing to her child?" The night before, her son had picked up a book voluntarily for the first time in years!  Since then, C. has send me the following testimonial.

The staff at the school have been using the Read and Respond books this academic year. They have been a tremendous hit with both staff pupils and parents.

In Year 6 many of the children were very reluctant readers but since the introduction of the Read and Respond materials, most of the children have begun to really enjoy reading and have benefitted from the variety of genres available to them. As there are a number of the same books the children have enjoyed discussing with their friends which books they have read so far. The activities from the ‘teacher’ books have been used for ‘Big Writing’ tasks and again the children are motivated to write as they so enjoyed the books. The parents love them and especially appreciate when the teachers have set them as reading homework tasks. “We want more!” replied one Year 6 teacher.

In Year 5 the teachers found ‘Street Child’ to be an excellent stimulus to help plan a scheme of work for Literacy, as it linked in well to their History topic on the Victorians. There was good advice on differentiation, good activities for Guided Reading, good links with the assessment focuses on the APP grids; the interactive CD contains activities that are interesting and stimulating and all of it is child friendly.

In Year 3 the books are used three times a week for focus group guided reading sessions. The teacher’s guide is used to help structure discussions and the other resources in the booklet are used for consolidation/follow-on work with independent groups.
“All in all, a real winner and guided reading would be a poorer place without them!” stated one Year 3 teacher.

In Key Stage 1 the teachers have found that the Read and Respond books are bright and colourful and, therefore, very attractive to the children making them excited about reading. The activity book is very helpful when creating fun and interesting activities relating to the texts. It is user friendly and easy to understand. It is wonderful that every child has access to a book and can follow the story. 

In conclusion, the Read and Respond books have been a great success here . We hope to be able to order more in the future. Please keep on producing them!

In conclusion
I hope that you find this a useful piece, and backup for everything you have been campaigning for - using real books in the classroom.  I visit too many schools who use reading schemes across the school and wonder why they have reluctant readers and poor writers. I am deeply concerned by the schools who move into 'special measures' and all of a sudden ditch real books in favour of reading schemes - because it is easy to track progress. 

Kindest regards

A teacher

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Brent libraries: the situation

Here's a letter I received about the situation with Brent libraries. I am reprinting it in its entirety with permission from its writer, Gill Wood

Dear Michael,

I was intrigued and frankly flabbergasted to read the email Councillor James Powney sent you about Brent's intentions to issue every child with a library card posted on your blog on 27th April.
You may be aware that Brent Council closed half of its libraries last year, and concerned residents in Willesden Green are fighting the Council's current proposals to demolish the library we have here, not even 30 years old, as well as the original Victorian Library building that has been on the site since 1894 and built by the poor ratepayers of the area at the time who recognised the importance of literacy to their population. The plans will also evict our much loved Willesden Bookshop, which specialises in children's and multicultural books, and has supplied books at a discount to most of the schools in Brent and beyond in the twenty three years they have been on the site. The Council plans to give a housing developer valuable public land [the library car park at the back of the building] in return for a new cultural centre building and five blocks of luxury flats. The new building will have a smaller footprint than the one we currently have, and inspite of the need for affordable housing for those on the Council's ever increasing lists, there is no affordable housing provision included in the proposed development. The Council gets a new building and the freehold of a smaller plot, and the developer ends up with a new housing scheme it can sell at market rate.
There is a huge danger that we will lose our bookshop because it will not be able to afford the commercial rates it will need to meet. I was at a Brent Executive meeting when the same Councillor Powney (who voted for this development along with the rest of the Executive without allowing those residents and stakeholders in the library a full and substantive consultation about the plans) told those present that the retail space in the new building will be "high end" commanding a high rent, which the bookshop will not be able to manage. I consequently find his comments to you outrageous and incredibly offensive.
The Council has now posted the planning applications on its website and Brent residents now have until the end of May to write to the planning officer, Andy Bates [] and lodge their objections. This is the last opportunity for those of us whose views have been ignored up to this point to make our voices heard before it is too late. I would like to urge every Brent resident who has concerns to write within this crucial consultation period and make their views known.

 Numbers crunched by the SOS Libraries Campaign based on the Council's own figures show that in the period between October 2011 to March 2012 (6 months after the libraries closed) 152,000 fewer books were issued and Brent libraries received 148,250 fewer visits compared with the same period the previous year. 54% of borrowers from the 6 closed libraries have not subsequently used another Brent library. The statistics and the actions of the Council speak for themselves.
It is a laudable intention to issue every child with a library card. It would be even better for those children to be within easy reach of a library which will allow them to use it.
Here we have a Council actively terminating the life of a small business at the heart of our community and choking off opportunities for children to read, thereby reducing opportunities to raise the borough's poor literacy rates for the sake of a developer's profit margin. This is being brought about by councillors, like Lead Member Powney and the newly elected Council Leader Muhammad Butt, who are supposed to be acting in the best interests of the ratepayers who elected them.
I just thought you may like to know.
Yours sincerely,
Gill Wood
Keep Willesden Green

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Boris Broadcasting Corporation

What is Boris Johnson doing? He is elected Mayor of London and tells us all that he's going to redouble his efforts on our behalf, but finds that he can't keep his head and mouth sufficiently in gear to do so. Instead, he thinks that being voted into this job has given him a platform to sound off about something that he can do nothing about, is nothing particularly to do with Londoners being Londoners but has everything to do with how he wants to position himself in relation to the Tory Party and the country.

His attack on the BBC is not a serious discussion of what kind of institution the BBC is, who works for it, and what kind of function(s) it serves. It's a visceral attack from someone who has learned in his life that he and the people around him at school and university have an entitlement to rule. In the past, this entitlement took people like him into the top ranks of everything (as Michael Gove of all people has pointed out) and being top dogs everywhere, including the BBC, was enough. Now, this entitlement is embodied in Boris's mind in the notion of the market, which is in the throes of its greatest failure. Precisely at the moment when the market in money is about to plunge millions of people's lives into unemployment and poverty through no fault of their own, Boris is championing the market as the best regulator of our minds - through the media.

The BBC is many things but one thing it isn't is a subsidiary of Rupert Merde-och. Boris's elite is suffering some of the greatest discomfiture that it has ever faced with the unravelling of the hacking story. More precisely, what has emerged is a conspiracy between News International, the police and the upper ranks of the Tory and Blairite Labour Parties. There was an open corridor between all three. The illusion that the Boris elite always want to create is that they rule on our behalf. What has emerged through the hacking story is that they rule on their own behalf. For this to be exposed is clearly giving them great pain. In Boris's mind, that part of the media not in the firm grip of his elite's marriage to the market end of the media is the BBC and constitutes a threat to him, his elite and the need for the conspiracy to be kept hidden.

Yet, the response, sadly, to Boris's outburst has been to ask, is he right or wrong? No, the first question is, Boris, what do you think you're doing using your position to sound off about the national question of the BBC? You were not given a mandate by the people of London to do that. Secondly, Boris  you were elected in part by virtue of being trucked into County Hall on the back of the Evening Standard (Evening Boris, I prefer to call it), a monopoly free sheet handed out on street corners and Tube stations. Every day, the Evening Boris carried double page spreads celebrating the wit and wisdom of Boris, the loveable buffoon who wears funny shorts when he goes running. Tory Party Central Office were gifted millions of free election material. That's what the freedom of the market gave Londoners. This is what you Boris are defending. This is what you Boris want to replace the BBC with. 

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Reading Book: 1.What is language?

Language is with us wherever we are. Language runs through almost every part of our life. For that reason it is hard to put ourselves outside of it in order to say what it is. One way to talk about it is to describe it as 'words'. That seems obvious enough. Looking back over what I've written here, we can all see the words. They are marked out one from the other by a space on the page and sometimes with a full stop and capital letter.In that previous sentence, they are: 'They' followed by 'are', followed by 'marked', followed by 'out' and so on. Then again, when we think of dictionaries, we can see that the language there is divided up into words. A dictionary is  where we go for meanings and definitions, and we might think of dictionaries as the core of the language. Quite often when we are not in our country of origin, we walk about with a dictionary to help us understand the language, or so we think.  There is also a popular sense that clever people are people who use big words or words which the rest of us don't understand. Again, if you go into many classrooms, you can see that in order to help the children write, on the wall there are good words or 'wow' words.  In some modern teaching-to-read schemes, the starting point is looking at letters and sounds and the second staging post is words. The first test for how children are getting on with this, coming into UK schools in June 2012 is a list of 40 words which the children are going to be asked to 'sound out', in what is called a 'phonics screening test'.

So, all in all, it rather looks as if the basic unit of language is a word and if we're going to describe language, we might as well say it's words.

I don't think so.

If we are to grasp what we get language to do and how get it to do things,  we need to think of language in a slightly different way. We have to think of it as 'wording'. (This way of thinking comes from the linguist, M.A.K.Halliday.) Wording is  a word we use, say, when we talk about the 'wording' on the side of a cereal packet or the wording of a song: 'Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away...' or 'Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall...'  Wording suggests not one word or even a list of words but words in a string or sequence that someone has put together. Exactly! That's what language is: strings or sequences of words that someone has put together to make meanings. Words are always in some kind of sequence, which means that they are always linked or stuck together reaching forwards and backwards to the words that came before and the words that come after. Even lists like the ones that children will have to sound out in the phonics screening test, words in dictionaries, lists of animals or stars or shopping lists have the glue of the reason for the list holding them together along with links to other lists or links to other books, other situations in which language is being used. Thinking of language as words, I suggest, may not be a very useful way to help children read  and write but we'll come to that later! Obviously, words exist, we can talk about single words, define them, change them, play with them but what I'm suggesting here is that language is more than this, more than words buzzing about randomly like molecules in hot liquids. To grasp what language is we have to grasp the idea of words stuck together.

So, let's go back to that word 'sequence'. How are these strings or sequences made? Every language has its own way of making these. One of the odd things about learning a language other than the one we picked up at home as we grew up is that we soon start to see that languages are put together in very different ways. Here's an example: in English one of the ways we can say that we are going to do something in the future is to use the word 'will'. I might write: 'I think I will get some new shoes tomorrow.' If I want to write something like that in French, I find that I haven't got that word 'will' or indeed any separate word to do that job with. The rough equivalent of it will be an 'ending', something that goes on the end of a 'root'. I will say, 'je ferai'. In one language it's a word, in the other it's the 'ending' 'rai'.

You will often hear this process referred to as 'rules'. I'm going to avoid that, because it suggests to me something inaccurate about how we have made and changed language. 'Rules' suggests to me that someone or some group laid down regulations or instructions as to how we should speak and write. In actual fact, the process was and is quite different. Language evolves and changes because thousands of people in the groups and communities they find themselves in, change it. They change it in order to say and write the things they need to say and write. As the habits and structures of these groups and communities change, as the relations between people and groups change, people find that they need new ways to say things - not just new words, but new sequences, new patterns, new principles.

Let's take the example of how we ask questions in modern English. Here are some questions we might ask: 1a  'Are you going out tonight?' 2a 'Do you like coffee?' 3a 'Is it Wednesday or Thursday?' Now if these were statements they would be something like: 1b 'You are going out tonight', 2b'You like coffee', and 3b 'It is Wednesday or Thursday'.

The difference between 1a and 1b is that the words 'are' and 'you' and 'going' are one time written as 'Are you going' and the other as 'you are going'.  When it's written as 'You are going',  it's a 'statement', when it's written as 'Are you going...?'  it's a question. 'You are' and 'are you' can flip (or 'invert') but the word 'going' stays in the same place.

The difference between 2a and 2b is rather odd because another word has turned up - the word 'do'! 'Do you like...' but 'You like...' Someone or some people at some time or another seem to have experimented with 'do' to use it to help them make certain kinds of questions. It didn't seem possible to have 'Like you...' to ask the question about what 'You like...' I needed 'do'.

The difference between 3a and 3b is a bit like 1a and 1b except that it's an even simpler change between: 'Is it..' and 'It is...'. An 'inversion' .

What seems to be going on here is that when we use words like 'are' and 'is' we can 'invert' them, but when we use words like 'like' we can't. We have to bring in another sequence: 'do you..'. We don't say 'Like you coffee?' And yet, it was along these lines that English-speakers a few hundred years did ask questions: 'Eateth he at noon..?' which, using modern words would be: 'Eats he at noon?' Nowadays, we might say, 'Does he eat at noon?' (or 'midday').

So, this 'do' (and 'does' and 'did') was at one time never in questions and then it started to be used more and more. And yet, we still use inversions in some circumstances as we can see from ''Are you going out tonight?' and 'Is it Wednesday or Thursday?'

The important point I'm making here is that we're not talking here about old words like 'larder' fading out and new words like 'app' coming in. We're talking about the sequences of words we use to make meanings - in this case, that vital matter of how we ask questions. No one wrote a rule or regulation about it. Human beings like you and me tried it out, liked the sound of it and created a fashion for it, and it has stuck - for over six hundred years! It seems to have been first tried out in the 14th century.

All this is 'grammar' - a way of describing how we string words together to make the meanings we want to make and what is clear from what I've written here is that I've singled out 'grammar' as one key feature of language, if not the most important one. Put another way, people making sounds, signs and symbols  without grammar are not making language. The moment sounds and signs have meaning there is a grammar, some kind of string of sounds or 'sequence' as I keep calling it, which we humans have invented in order to make meanings. And grammar was and is in our hands. We make it, we shape it, we change it. We don't do this randomly or without reason. We can't just grab hold of  sounds and signs and invent a new grammar and hope that communities of people will understand it. We have to work with what's there,  using it or adapting it within the limits of what the people around us find they want or like. Importantly, different groups of users of our language speak and write using different sequences. For example, you can hear people say, 'Do you have any money I can borrow?' or 'Have you got any money I can borrow?' or 'You got any money I can borrow?' and so on.

This tells us first that many of our ways of speaking and writing are 'variants'. In other words, we have several (not an unlimited number of) different ways of saying what are very similar things. It also tells us that at any given moment, people using one variant will meet up with people using another variant. What sometimes happens then is that somehow or another more people come to speak one way rather than another. It might be that you go to America and start to take up using American ways of speaking. The 'Do you have any money...' way sounds a bit American to my ears but then we hear a huge amount of American-style speech in the UK and it's possible that the 'Do you have' way of speaking is becoming a sequence that is becoming more common here. We influence each other's way of speaking and writing. What I've described here is an essential and permanent part of language - we keep changing it and one of the most important ways we do this is through people using variants (and different languages altogether) come into contact with each other and speak and write to each other.

What this adds up to is that when we speak of language, we're not talking of something fixed, we're not talking of it as something with only one acceptable shape, we're not talking of it being governed by what I understand by the word 'rules'. Language is in the hands of its users (us) and we produce variants and change. As I've said, these are not unlimited variants or unlimited changes where people can say or write anything and hope that people around us will find these understandable, acceptable or useful. Rather it is that every group or community we are in or want to be part of has established acceptable, understandable and useful sequences of language. As individuals or groups, as we move around from work to home, from a leisure practice like sport to a religious practice, from being with a loved one to being in charge of someone, and, importantly, as we move between speech and writing, our use of language changes. We use different variants. We each have different standards of acceptability depending on which group we are with. Users of a non-standard way of speaking English like 'Geordie' or 'Glaswegian' or 'Cockney' , in, let's say, a work situation, are using just as rigorous and pernicketty standards of acceptability for that situation as, say, a broadcaster using what is called 'Standard English'. The key question for each of these language-using situations is 'acceptable for whom?'

In the next section I want to look at how we might want to think about speaking and writing. How are they similar and how are they different? What is 'Standard English'? What is 'dialect'? What is 'accent'?

I hope in other sections to return to 'grammar' and consider what it is, how it can be taught, at what age and with what purpose. I want to look later at how we read, what we read, and then move on to how we write and what we write.