And the Good News is…!

It’s Inauguration day, Brexit plan week and NHS month…

good-news-ii1and whilst there may of course be plenty to shout about, not much of the mood music is positive. It’s dry January, nights are long, mornings still dark, weather still wintry and some big banks have announced they are relocating thousands of jobs from London to Europe. With the best will in the world, it is easy to understand why the news media can’t find too much good news to shout about.

Thursday 19 January was DfE’s publication of the GCSE and A level performance tables. compareDear Reader, please believe me when I say that schools in the independent sector have almost no idea about the outcomes of such publications in any given year, other than that we are able to look up our data with 24 hours to go to see ‘what’s what’.  Now the statistics are published, not only can any one go and look up the data, but they can make use of the government’s comparison tool to compare the performance of any schools they might wish.  FYI, you can find that tool here: https://www.compare-school-performance.service.gov.uk/

24 hours later, and I have been able to study the outcomes of thee ‘new’ form book the government have created. For the Claires Court Sixth Form outcomes in terms of progress measures, we show up really well – here’s the snap-shot:

compareccs

This performance comfortably places our performance better than any other school with the Royal Borough, significantly better than any of our immediate competitors in both the state grammar, comprehensive of independent sectors.  This places us as school number 100 out of a total of 4,380 schools, otherwise inside the top 3%  (2.28%) of all Sixth Form schools and colleges. In many ways, our challenge is not just to achieve the best with the highest of fliers, but with those of more modest abilities who strive to pursue their Sixth Form studies through to more modest outcomes. The stats to be published in March on students completing their main course of study should be just as exceptional; we are always keen to keep every soul on board, come what may.

GCSE performance tables you’ll see are as opaque as the Sixth Form are clear, because our sector now is almost completely excluded – all the IGCSE using schools (our sector) are misrecorded, and since government has captured no information on the entry cohort we have entering Year 7, they show no progress measures either. In due course, I’ll write more about this, but in the meantime, let’s just enjoy the good news about our Sixth Form.  But you knew that already of course, because you read our Court Report.

https://www.flipsnack.com/ClairesCourt/court-report-2016.html 

 

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Going Feral about Education…lessons from South Korea

I am sure I was not the only one who watched the Sunday night programme entitled south-koreathis week. 3 sixth formers from their idyllic welsh valley in Pembrokeshire swapped for three days into two of the best schools in Seoul. Make no bones about it; on the face of what we witnessed, the city pupils in Gangnam had the better deal when it came to school results, but at what cost? School days for most seem to last for up to 18 hours, with only 6 hours for the children to ‘sleep’, no more. before remounting the treadmill for another day in their 44 weeks of school year. You can read a little more here, and the programme is beautifully presented and developed by Sunday Times education editor Sian Griffiths, who had this to say at the start:  “Sixty years ago, nearly 80% of the population here was illiterate, today South Korea is an economic giant. And they did all that through education.”

Make no bones about it, the academic standards between the 2 nations are light years apart, or so it seems, though the pressures on teenagers there are extreme. Suicide is the common cause of early adult death, and one student interviewed had lost 2 friends to suicide at age 16. Standards are higher elsewhere in the UK, and indeed at the individual school level we have state and independent schools here which outperform all of the nation states by published PISA outcomes. But put simply, the UK lags behind academic achievement of South Korea, end of. South Korea is reaching out to understand the better bits of what we do, improvements for example being to force the closure of schools by 10pm, rather then remaining as they do open til midnight.  Yes, rub your eyes – ‘midnight’!

sian_griffiths_2_journalist_sunday_times2Sian Griffiths’ worries are that if the South Koreans grab the best bits from our offer to children, such as our hands-on practical lessons in science or development of creative skills, they’ll not loose the academic advantage in hard maths and languages, and suddenly we’ll be exposed on all fronts as being second-rate and what little international successes we having will disappear completely.  She makes a very valid point here, when she asks “and what lessons are we learning from the South Koreans?”

What surprised me about the programme, which showed only the 3 welshmen abroad as yet, not the return ‘fixture’, was that my expectations of a nannying Korean set of parents driving compliant, servile children after school to tutors and then back home for homework was so far off the mark! Of course films may lose the truth in the editing, but what with one of the parents having to work 16 hour shifts as a taxi driver to cover the high costs of at least 2 after school sessions, actumap-south-korea-360x270-cb1352148298ally the story is much more complex. Here goes…

South Korea is about 30% smaller than England, and so is its population, so comparing the
2 countries is quite a neat thing to do. Their industrial revolution has largely happened since the Korean war, at a time when 80% if their population was illiterate. Now 99+% of their population stays into Sixth form, compared to about 60% of ours, though in truth the latter statistic is not comparable since recently we have insisted that all children stay in some form of education until the age of 18. The difference between the 2 Sixth Form educations is stark, as being diverse and spread from elite academics through to full vocational, where in Korean city schools, the push is fundamentally at the high level academic (including the study of English) level. The 2 city schools visited (boys and taught in separate schools) open their doors for study shortly after 7, with lessons running from 8 to 4pm. School is a full community provision, including ‘fine’ dining (well, hearty school meals for all) and after school, we see the students off to their tutors for a 2 hour catch-up session. They then travel home, eat dinner with the family, before setting off using public transport for some more specialist study (we saw English), before the students returned … to their school which was still open to complete their homework. Lights out at school circa midnight so the students travelling home and going immediately to bed, before prepping for school the next day from 6pm.  Honestly, it’s bonkers for children to do this; the scenes in the classroom all day showed children falling a sleep in their books, and the patent exhaustion and stress of it all was visible to all – on the children, on the parents with their long hours and multiple jobs just to keep up the payments on all the extra tuition needed, and on the relationships between all.

Here’s what I learned that was positive from the programme.

  1. It seemed obvious that the students were consenting to their education, because for the vast majority of the day, they were able to live as independent consenting humans, forging friendships and learning what to like and not like without the pervasive stare of a helicopter parent.
  2. The peer group pressure to do well was obvious, and they were suitably harsh to each other to keep people in line, gee-ing each other up too as and when necessary.
  3. No ‘blame culture’ was evident the teachers were all teaching and working really hard, and no-one seemed to lose the plot if a child fell asleep. That ‘nap’ was clearly necessary and the learner came back on board as they regained consciousness, without the teacher making undue fuss.
  4. It’s clearly the student’s job from quite an early age to determine what they need and how much extra support they need, hence the tutors, second tutors and returns to school for homework, rather than study at home*.
  5. And because they seem permanently in the company of friends, they don’t seem to be going up in solitude, nor force-fed a narrower diet of what what the idiot’s lantern has for them.
  6. And because they are not suffocated with their family, family values are very strong, and at examination time, whilst the students are in the exam hall, the mothers are in the temple, praying for good fortune for their children’s results.

*We are talking city landscape here, with 80% of the population living in high rise flats, with excellent connecting public transport and shops open 24/7. Space is at such a premium, that the homes don’t seem large enough to permit a place for homework or private study.

In case you think I am coming out in favour of the South Korean approach, I’m totally not. I love growing up in our post-industrial world, with a balance available between the academic, the aesthetic, the sporting and creative circles that intertwine in such complex ways. I have never wanted my children to be feral, to grow up without being able to share with each other the closeness of a family life. But watching these brilliantly engaged adolescents, carving their own academic careers in a focussed peer group without intense adult intervention clearly is a reminder to us to move off centre stage a little bit more than we might, because the children are very capable of doing a whole lot more then we might expect. And of course, there are quite a few strategies we have already adopted here at Claires Court to enable the children to become independent and self-reliant, if not feral. We are 8 ’til late (late busses roll at 5.35pm except on fridays and snow days), with full services available at school, universal wi-fi and clubs, activities, study and focus groups for students to join and engage with at their own discretion and interest, and a growing number student-inspired and led.

Think about catching up the programme on iplayer; it’s a harsh society that permits so many of its young children to commit suicide, and the South Korean government is really doing their utmost to learn from why suicide rates are so much lower here in the UK. Yet, as our rates rise, maybe, our society can learn from the South Koreans as well. 100% of their 16 year olds identified our GCSE Maths paper as being suitable for the primary school years – eek!

 

 

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Structural change – aren’t you sick of it?

I posted the title to this blog just before Christmas 2016, and then left content until my freedom-economy-future-political-economy-600-420return to ‘thinking’ after Boxing Day. The raw emotion sown in the title arises is me simply because so much has been traduced by a variety of governments over the past decade in the quest for progress for no good reason; and in educational terms that means for so many in schools and colleges, new amounts of work have been created through the imposition of structural change, and not just once or twice, in recent years. Let me give you a couple of examples.

On the curriculum side, much has been substantially changed, and not just in terms of content but levels of difficulty. Making the curriculum more demanding, and raising the degree of challenge to the youngsters concerned is simply not a ‘bright’ thing to do. Consider the Early years. As we learn more about the vital importance on movement and interaction with their environment in the early years, a greater emphasis must be placed on ensuring children physically ready for school, because (guess what?) as our society has become even more sedentary, a higher percentage of children are now arriving at school without the physical development in place to permit them to benefit from ‘class’. Sitting kids_colouring_600x250still, tying shoe laces, managing their own toileting are no longer expectations teachers can have for the new intake at aged 4. As a close friend and expert in children’s development, Professor Pat Preedy has this to say: “Children today are moving less, they’re developing less well, and they’re learning less; we need to do something drastic to make sure children now and in the future get the movement they need to develop properly physically, intellectually and emotionally.”

Moving up the age levels, we see the challenge in Mathematics and Literacy being made more demanding at every age level from primary through secondary. The requirement for oecd-pisa-2016change comes because England is seen to be doing less well in the international PISA tables than over European and Asian nations. But changing the structure for the entire country is completely counter-intuitive, because many of our schools are already matching or outperforming these other nations, as data released by OECD themselves makes clear. But change has happened across all the key stages, and we won’t be able to judge the efficacy of this change for many years to come – one good or bad set of results for the country can’t be used to prove anything, as research needs to be longitudinal and spread over 5 years at least.  And it’s not just the toughening up of the core disciplines that’s the issue, but the narrowing of the curriculum with the loss of so many important supporting disciplines. With subjects such as Art, Design technology, Drama, Music and RS consigned to the perimeter in so many state schools, children won’t find out they have an academic interest in such disciplines in the same planned manner as before.  None of these changes have to make an impact upon the independent sector in which I work; it’s noticeable though that there is an increasing sense of separation from our sector to mainstream, encouraged by government themselves, suggesting that we should be doing far more to influence and support education within the mainstream. David Hanson, CEO of IAPS pointed out recently that poor parents were put off by negative stereotypes of private schools; “The media characterisation of private schools is so extreme and embedded through constant repetition that for ordinary people what they represent is not only unattainable, but also incomprehensible and alien.”

schools-that-work-for-everyoneAnd therein lies the rub. State and Independent school curricula and provision are moving in very different directions indeed, driven by the turmoil of structural change in the state sector. The best state schools will attract and retain the highest quality staff, and be able to offer great breadth and diversity of choice, subject and extra-curricular activity. But those schools that are not able to cope with these demands of structural change, exacerbated by continuing and dramatic budget cuts each year, are having their governing bodies excised and school leaders dismissed at an ever increasing frequency. The net effect is high staff turnover, low aspiration in achieving anything outside of the explicit demands of the ‘test’ and a general lack of confidence that the school more generally can meet all of its pupils’ needs. Suggesting now, as the Government’s Green Paper (November 2016) does, that the way forward involves further dramatic structural change, leading to the expansion of grammar schools at the expense of the other existing schools losing their most able pupils in the process will clearly exacerbate the decline in confidence and breadth of success in such schools. It’s worth noting that in a previous structural change, government insisted Universities were better placed to run schools than local governing bodies. The experiment is only a few years old, but all the evidence indicates the experiment is not going well. Moreover, as Professor Louise Richardson Vice Chancellor of Oxford University has made clear; asking universities to set up free schools is “insulting” to teachers and heads. Speaking to the Today programme on 22 September 2016, Professor Louise Richardson said forcing her institution to establish schools would be a “distraction from our core mission”, and said universities already helped the schools community in many ways, but running them was “not what we do”.

I’ve grabbed the picture to illustrate the paragraph above from www.disabilitynewsservice.com, because the government’s proposals on ‘schools that work for everyone’ completely ignores the provision for those with disabilities – that’s circa 20% of the school population.  As their journalist John Pring writes; But there is not a single mention of disabled pupils in the consultation paper, and the Department for Education (DfE) has failed to carry out an equality impact assessment of its proposals. Inclusive education campaigners say that expanding grammar schools – secondary schools which select pupils via an entrance test – will discriminate against disabled children and lead to more segregated education in special schools.  And they say the plans are a clear breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, with new UN guidance making it clear that all segregated education should end and be replaced by “inclusive classroom teaching in accessible learning environments with appropriate supports”.  Now forgive me, dear reader; is it really permissible for one of the government’s great departments (DfE) to ignore the 2010 Equalities act, which legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society in quite such a flagrant manner?

The Government closed its Green Paper consultation on 12 December, and you can read my submission here – http://schl.cc/2G. For me the biggest structural change impacting upon the school is the hollowing out of local authority services to an alarming degree. Those employees within RBWM with whom I have contact continue to offer professional services, but only where a statutory obligation to provide exists.  Alan Bennett, author, playwright alan-bennettand diarist has this to say on the 11 September 2015 (we received his latest book for Christmas): David Cameron has been in Leeds preaching to businessmen the virtues of what he calls ‘the smart state’. This seems to be a state that gets away with doing as little as possible for its citizens and shuffling as many responsibilities as it can onto anyone who thinks they can make a profit out of them.  I am glad there wasn’t a smart state when I was being brought up in Leeds, a state that was unsmart enough to see me and others like me educated free of charge and send on at the city’s expense to univeristy, provided with splendid libraries, cheap transport and a terrif art gallery, not of course to mention the city’s hospitals.  Smart to Mr Cameron seems to mean doing as little as one can get away with and calling it enterprise. Smart as in smart alec, smart of the smart answer, which I’m sure Mr Cameron has to hand. Dead smart.”

And there is the worry about structural change imposed upon communities, be they local or national, without sufficient due consideration given to the enormity of the changes needed to implement them, and the vast timescales that then ensue. The effect of the Education changes recently wrought with the changes to GCSEs and A levels won’t be seen for at least a decade; these whole scale changes were made in spite of the education community’s carefully considered opposition to them, so what’s worse is that those charged with their implementation are ‘pressed men’ not willing advocates. Do those of us in the independent sector see these changes as a good thing for the nation? You’ll know my view, and as the 2500 independent schools are precisely that, we can’t speak with ‘one’ voice. But you can judge us by our actions:

  • we are not reducing the breadth of our offer,
  • we are keeping up our very broad focus on the co-curricular,
  • teachers have the autonomy to teach, and encouraged to develop the mastery to match,
  • class sizes remain of human scale,
  • we’ll continue to provide for children from a very broad range of abilities,
  • we are using the very best of all approaches to  teaching and learning, blending traditional with modern, old technology with new, and above all,
  • we are keeping change for changes sake to the absolute minimum.
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Post-truth; emerging dangers in education and the wider world. 

Carole Cadwalladr writing in the Guardian draws our attention to the far right’s gaming of the Internet. Her article is intriguing and worth a read in its own right, because it assists growing the awareness of why the internet can’t be the main way we find out stuff. As one of the commentators on the article makes clear “Google search is the canary, not the coal mine”, and whilst we can suggest a conspiracy theory around the far right’s dominant position as the oligarchs in charge of the Internet, I suspect that theory needs a bit more work to be proven.

What the article does help expose though is the  danger we now face as a society preferring to read news stories from the internet rather than from the paper press.  I am sure I am not the only one who enjoy a night time recreation read of the news, to find myself distracted by ‘clickbait’, which is to say the least distracting.

clickbait

What the American elections have shown us, if the Brexit vote hadn’t already, is that politicians can now tell bare faced lies and still get elected. ‘Post-truth’ was named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries last month, and frankly, I am getting more than a little troubled about living as a moral person in which I value above all Integrity when all around me in positions of power are prepared to make it all up as they go along. Here’s what the editors at the Oxford Dictionaries wrote:

“After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. “

They have also produced an excellent video as well, which explains in much more depth what ‘post-truth’ is about, as well as the other finalists in the year, including alt-right, chatbot and glass cliff.   The dangers in education are growing clearer by the day, with the rapidly growing rise of the use of appeals to emotion and personal belief rather than evidence-based knowledge and ‘facts’.

I have just finished Claires Court’s submission to the government’s Green Paper, entitled ‘Schools that Work for Everyone’.  Now I have quite a lot of staff within Claires Court that take umbrage at such poor use of capitalisation by the DfE, but that’s not my gripe. The core of this Green Paper is the basic premise that the Department for Education believes that the answer for our Society’s needs for more school places is ‘grammar schools’. If you don’t believe me, you can read their proposals here – https://goo.gl/ideGxm. Within my school’s catchment area sit some 18 or so selective free grammar schools, and many of them are the most famous of their kind in the land, and I absolutely sympathise with the notion that if a child can gain entry to them, their future academic prosperity is assured. The trouble is, that growing up as a young teacher in Maidenhead, I watched Maidenhead shut down its 2 grammar schools and 3 secondary moderns in order to create 5 large comprehensives that permitted choice, excellence and diversity for all, not just those who were selected for the grammars; Maidenhead’s secondary modern schools were not recognised in the same breath!

Herein I need to ensure I write with due diligence and show a  duty of candour.  The vast majority of children in selective education areas don’t get selected for grammar school, even if they have attended private school for their junior years. In many ways this is because the assessments tests used are biased to find circa 20% of the population who are the most able. As this area fills with more capable families because of the vibrant economy and the proximity to London’s highest salaries, survival of the fittest comes in to play. The local average IQ is nearer 107 than 100 (meant to the the 50% centile), so actually it is even harder for children to make the grade because…only 20% can get through the cut. For years, the local tutor economy in East Berks and Bucks demands that children need 2 years of tutoring from year 4. As a school, we get under pressure because the IQ test in English and Maths covers concepts that extend up to Y7 and 8 ideas. If only we could cover them by the start of Year 4, it would make the tutor job so much easier.

The trouble is, you can’t map a curriculum across an IQ test! Not only that, even if you could, no teacher in their right mind would teach to it, and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate would shut you down if you did. Here’s Edmund Holmes, who became Chief Inspector of Elementary Schools in 1905 writing on his retirement 6 years later in 1911 about paying by results, a system he describes as “the most fatuous and most pernicious educational system that the mind of man ever devised”. His retirement treatise was called “What is and what might be”, and its a ponderous, but he shines a light on the ‘Post-truth’ of education speak even then: “The implicit assumption that the real results of education are ponderable and measurable is a deadly fallacy which has now the force and the authority of an axiom”.  Holmes chooses to criticise Civil Servants as well as teachers: “… imposing a curriculum “binding on all schools alike. In doing this they put a bit in the mouth of the teacher and drove him, at their pleasure, in this direction and that. And what they did to him they compelled him to do to the child”.

I call Holmes to mind because Sir Michael Wilshaw, the current Chief Inspector is shortly to retire, and he is  more than vexed by the current obsession of the Prime Minister over grammar schools, saying “more grammar schools will “reduce standards for the great majority of children”, undo much of the progress of recent years, and be socially divisive. Condemning the policy as a retrograde step, Wilshaw went on to state  that ministers should focus instead on promoting specialist, technical subjects in schools, and new technology colleges for 14-19-year-olds, so future generations have the skills necessary to drive the post-Brexit economy. “If you’re going to make a success of Brexit, this is number one. It should be the number one government priority – not grammar schools,” he says in an interview with the Observer.

And right across the piece from almost every quarter those who trouble themselves with the research base highlight that we are much better off with an inclusive system than one that divides and rules. The local view within the RBWM conservative group is that they want to bring their emigre grammar school children home, and they can do that they believe by opening a new grammar school in Maidenhead. Its immediate effect to those that oppose it will quickly lead to the other 5 schools in the area becoming second class because they lose their most able children, and therein lies the rub.  Look around at the nearby secondary modern schools in Slough and South Bucks, and most are either ‘requiring improvement’ or in ‘special measures’. That’s the evidence that Wilshaw spots in 2016 that Holmes did in his pomp; the ‘Great schools were as bad as the elementary state schools’ consigned to a doom of chasing results rather than growing healthy minds that could collaborate effectively with all.

In the wider world, we see a growing intolerance of reason in a just society, where rights are called for at the expense of responsibilities. It’s no surprise to me that Dictionary.com’s word of the year is not a new one entering our vocabulary, but one that we have seen march before and caused much dread across both Europe and the Far east.

xonpphobia

At at time when schools are charged with preventing radicalisation and ensuring that the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 are recognised and supported, it’s particularly tough when politicians either side of the pond are using a fear of foreigners to win election. During the Brexit campaign, Labour MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered in the street by Thomas Mair in the streets  of Birstall, Yorkshire shooting her in the head with a sawn off rifle and then stabbing her 15 times. Mair was everything that the Nazis stood for 60 years or so ago, as Mr Justice Wilkie made clear in his sentence: “It is evident from your internet searches that your inspiration is not love of country or your fellow citizens, it is an admiration for Nazis and similar anti-democratic white supremacist creeds,” Wilkie said. “Our parents’ generation made huge sacrifices to defeat those ideas and values in the second world war. What you did … betrays those sacrifices.”

It’s clear from the Police evidence that Mair found it easy to fill his mind with hate and loathing, that the internet provided him with access to the worst of ideas and mechanisms to murder. Of course all of such material is available through other sources, and I am not suggesting for one moment that Mrs Cox was murdered because of the Internet. What I am saying is that we ill served by our political elite if they don’t use an evidence base to promote what works best. And I am sadder still that fine young principled politicians can lose their lives simply by standing up against those that spout hate.  Here’s Jo Cox’s husband, Brendan, speaking from the witness box after the verdict had been announced . “The killing of Jo was in my view a political act, an act of terrorism,” he told the court. “But in the history of such acts it was perhaps the most incompetent and self-defeating. An act driven by hatred, which instead has created an outpouring of love. An act designed to drive communities apart which has instead pulled them together. An act designed to silence a voice which instead has allowed millions of others to hear it.

“Jo is no longer with us, but her love, her example and her values live on. For the rest of our lives we will not lament how unlucky we were to have her taken from us, but how unbelievably lucky we were to have her in our lives for so long.”

Thomas Mair goes to prison for the whole of the rest of his life  for this murder; a man whose personal views were inspired by white supremacism – and that certainly is one of the worst of the post-truth emotional pulls very much alive today on the eve of 2017, one we must really worry about as President Trump comes to power in the USA.

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BBC News: Wales Pisa results: ‘Little will be learned’

Professor Dylan Williams is one of the most respected figures in education. Writing on the BBC on 5 December, he had this to say: Wales Pisa results: ‘Little will be learned’ – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-37826634

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Making sense of tragedy and chaos – why it is important to be an expert witness.

The election of Donald J Trump to the Presidency of the United States knocks the UK’s Brexit vote into a cocked hat. It seems likely that the reasons for both votes is very much the same, that being the backlash from the silent less-qualified majority who have seen their work and home conditions deteriorate substantially in comparison with the affluent better positioned minority over the last decade. Very much a repeat of the Brits’ sacking of the Experts this side of the pond it appears.  I quote from the Telegraph: “I think people in this country,” declared Vote Leave’s Michael Gove, “have had enough of experts.” His fellow Brexiteers were quick to back him up. “There is only one expert that matters,” said Labour MP Gisela Stuart, also of Vote Leave, “and that’s you, the voter.”

I am old enough to remember the rise of Margaret Thatcher, her election in 1979 seeing the demise of the Labour party for a generation until its re-emergence under Tony Blair in 1997 with New-Labour.  One of the funniest books written about the period is John O’Farrell’s ‘Things can only get better – Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter‘, which carries many immortal lines.  Try this one:

“Like bubonic plague and stone cladding, no-one took Margaret Thatcher seriously until it was too late. Her first act as leader was to appear before the cameras and do a V for Victory sign the wrong way round. She was smiling and telling the British people to f*** off at the same time. It was something we would have to get used to.”

The book starts by identifying the author’s early years in Maidenhead, living around the corner from Claires Court.  Dickensian images of collieries and slag heaps are conjured in the opening stanzas, and we are transported into a Cookham where (he writes) “the down-trodden classes are barely able to consider a life other than work, and where leisure is unheard of”.  The landscape of Maidenhead has necookham-workhousever been scarred by ‘mining’ per se, but pretty much every other element of the poverty of the 19th century has been experienced here in the Royal Borough and wider area. The Cookham Workhouse was built in 1834/5 and provided for 200 inmates, and any vagrants and beggars overnight, because sleeping rough was not permitted within the borough.  In the map of the whole area, the workhouse is shown sitting as a cruciform building, halfway between the Infirmary and the Isolation hospital; they knew in those days that there were no cures for the infectious diseases of their times, and such patients needed to be kept completely separate from those who were more generally infirm, from injury hospitalisations to the chronically sick. St Mark’s hospital and its attendant graveyards stood ‘helpfully’ nearby.  We know all of this because local experts have chronicled these events of the time and established as best they can the steps that led to improvement in care and provision, and their important work continues to the present day.

Whether writing about the 19th, 20th or 21st Centuries, our local and national communities have experienced challenges beyond endurance. Earlier this month, we marked the 100th anniversary of the conclusion of the battle of the Somme, the worst ever conflict ‘event’ in which the British infantry have participated. We now know of over 12,000 British child soldiers who lost their lives on the Somme, whose presence there had been actively encouraged by families, friends and the wider society at large. It was only when the carnage of that battle came to light in 1915 that families began to ask for their children to be sent home; parents had simply no understanding that their sons would be fighting and dying, rather than supporting behind the lines.  The experts of the day did not consider conscription necessary, since so many troops could be mobilised through volunteering alone.  Once the casualties became clear, so their views changed and the number of children permitted to join up rapidly dried up.

With the wisdom of hindsight this year, we are also exploring the ‘casualties’ of 50 years ago, at Aberfan, in which 116 children and 28 adults lost their lives. Their school was engulfed in a slurry of mud and stone: “More than 1.4 million cubic feet (40,000 cu metres) of debris covered a section of the village in minutes. The classrooms at Pantglas Junior School were immediately inundated; young children and teachers died from impact or suffocation. Many noted the poignancy of the situation: if the disaster had struck a few minutes earlier, the children would not have been in their classrooms, and if it had struck a few hours later, they would have left for the half-term holiday” – Wikipedia

The owners and ‘experts’ alike were not allowed to get away with their preliminary excuses, and the official enquiry blamed the National Coal Board (NCB) for extreme negligence.  The memorial at Aberfan replicates in its own way what the War Graves commission does so well for the war dead – every child is known, named and remembered. I quote from the same Wikipedia article: “A study into the disaster’s long-term psychological effects was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2003. It found that half the survivors suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some time in their lives, that they were more than three times more likely to have developed lifetime PTSD than a comparison group of individuals who had experienced other life-threatening traumas, and that 34% of survivors who took part in the study reported that they still experienced bad dreams or difficulty sleeping due to intrusive thoughts about the disaster”.

I write this post as we learn of that a plane carrying 77 people, including a soccer team from Brazil, Chapecoense, crashed on the outskirts of Medellín, Colombia, killing most aboard. Early signs are the plane experienced complete power failure, with the pilot reporting having no fuel, crash landing just a few miles from its destination. Emergency services are mobilised all over the hill side, 7 survivors have been found, and the president of Brazil has declared a period of national mourning. It’s a major tragedy, right up there with the Munich Air disaster of 1958 when , a plane carrying 44 Manchester United players, known as the Busby Babes, and officials were returning from their European cup match against Red Star Belgrade. 23 adults died; “the crash not only derailed their title ambitions that year but also virtually destroyed the nucleus of what promised to be one of the greatest generations of players in English football history. It would take 10 years for the club to recover, with Busby rebuilding the team and winning the European Cup in 1968 with a new generation of “Babes”.  No doubt air travel in the longer term in South America will be made safer, as it was following the Munich disaster, but that’s only going to happen if experts painstakingly piece the evidence back into sufficient shape to draw conclusions.

At the same time, more local in the UK, the spectre of child abuse has raised its head again, in the same sport of football. This time there are suggestions not just of cover ups, but of institutional bribery to ‘pay victims off’ to keep the club’s name out of the press. I have not idea of where this latter expose will take us, but suffice it to say that there won’t be a police force in the country not having to deploy its officers to sift through the allegations, investigate as appropriate and hold both individuals and corporations to account. Such additional pressures can bring services to their knees, but it is essential that we respond and deal with matters with great care and expertise.

Our own hospital services of 2016 are facing incredible challenges of resourcing, where ambulances are unable to discharge their injured and sick, as there are no hospital beds into which to admit them, because we cannot discharge those in hospital with sufficient speed into caring environments back in the community. Those community resources are being stretched to the limit both by an aging population and by this age of austerity in which we have every year to do more with less, and that requires very considerable expertise indeed.

We do live in interesting and immediate times, in which our past history serves to remind us of lessons past and lessons learned. I have no doubt that we require great expertise every day, and that as an educator I must lead my school and learners therein, both adults and children, to gather what skills we have, hone those and develop others anew, to be able to cope with all the circumstances that an uncertain future may bring. I can’t believe we must accept ‘Beyond truth’ reasons as vaid. Whatever rhetoric politicians have used to win elections and plebiscites, we in the real world need to remember falsehoods when spoken or given as evidence.  There will come a time when those that cause the disasters that inevitably follow lies and deceit will need to be held to account. Not just by our judicious use of the ballot box, but of civil, criminal and international courts of tribunal as well. Our need for expert witness is as real now as ever.

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“There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”. Leonard Cohen

There has been plenty to cause us to reflect and be respectful, perhaps even mourn this week. 11am Friday 11 November saw our country come to a halt for 2 minutes, to remember those who have given their lives across 2 world wars and 102 years of military service.

Wednesday saw the US election promote the ‘least well qualified’ candidate to the White House, and some of the cartoonists caused the Statue of Liberty to veil her eyes.

Leonard Cohen died today, and with the death of the author to the title of this piece comes an opportunity to celebrate a core belief in my work. As regular readers of my blog and emails will know, a mix of predictive texting and a rush to publish on occasion leads to fluffs, spelling and grammar infarctions. However, fundamental to working in education is to understand that it is not a perfect process, but a journey in which teachers & children need to explore, learn from their mistakes and work in the ‘gaps’ together. 

Cheerfully this week, research highlights that time spent guiding or scouting promotes life expectancy in ways the church service or sports club does not. Other evidence highlights why; the majority of children aged under 5 are no longer physically sufficiently well prepared for school, and subsequently because of a learned unwillingness to be active, the arrival of high levels of obesity and early onset diabetes. 

Cohen was an extraordinary craftsman, as poet and melody maker. His longevity as author and performer makes his last album ‘You want it darker’ as important as any others. Personally I don’t want it ‘darker’, so I won’t be working to fill the gaps. Children need to play more together and with adults, so time must never be filled with planned activity at the expense of those freedoms. And opportunities to make mistakes need to be planned in, so in failing, the child and adults develop the resilience to bounce back and recover.

Light brings so many and varied opportunities for us to see and do everything; it’s arrival needs to be planned but also lucky and occasional in addition,  so we make the most when we have its benefits. Structure is all important, as there are plenty things we need to get done and in good time  – but do let’s remember that we need those cracks, to let the light in!

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