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Literary Classics

Don’t Make A Crisis Out Of A Drama!

 

Part 4 – Literary Classics

 

My website, loftybooks.com, now proudly presents all twenty of my plays written for schools, available to purchase via the online shop

 

In the current series of blog posts, I am giving brief outlines to each of these plays to help promote awareness of them. If you are a teacher, governor, parent or pupil and you think your school would benefit from a loftybooks production, please spread the word about this website! You can visit the Plays For Schools via the menu page to find out more.

 

This month: two plays that are fresh, modern interpretations of well-known classic stories. If you want to introduce young minds to the romantic, adventurous imagination of Robert Louis Stevenson, or give them their first taste of William Shakespeare, these are the plays for you. Treasure Island is a retelling of the famous tale of pirates and hidden treasure, while error.com is an updated take on The Comedy of Errors.

 

Treasure Island adapted from the original novella by Charles Dickens

 

Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of piracy and buried loot was written in 1883, but set sometime during the seventeen-hundreds, when piracy was at its height. The story is narrated by its young hero, Jim Hawkins, and is a first-rate example of what is called a ‘boys’-own tale’. In Stevenson’s original, Jim lives with his parents in a Cornish inn. A mysterious stranger comes to stay, bringing with him an old sea-chest. Before long, the stranger is dead and Jim has discovered a map leading to buried treasure. 

There are two versions of the play included in the script package. The shorter, abridged, version sticks fairly closely to the original, although it leaves out a lot of the detail for the sake of brevity. It also adds a couple of scenes for light relief, such as an underwater scene. This version is more suited to younger performers.  The longer version alters the plot rather, giving Jim a mysterious background and foster parents, and linking him to Admiral Nelson. The idea of this was to help link the play to pupils’ historical understanding of the period (this version is set very firmly in 1805), as well as to give it a somewhat darker feel. In the novel, Livesey and Trelawney react to Jim’s revelation of the treasure map by imagining the huge riches it will bring them. At this moment, they signal the introduction of the theme of greed into the story. This version is more appropriate for upper key stage two or lower key stage three performers.

Whether used in the classroom or as an end-of-term production, Treasure Island is a great story, and all those involved will enjoy the retelling of this classic tale.

 

Error.com adapted from the original play by William Shakespeare

 

William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors was written in or around the year 1594. Its opening scene shows a man being refused entry to a foreign country, and it was from this that the idea came of updating the play for a modern audience. Egeon and his family are essentially in the position of asylum seekers or refugees, a topic very relevant to our own times.

In Shakespeare’s play, there is a pair of identical twins, both called Antipholus and their servants (also twins), both called Dromio. One Antipholus and Dromio have settled in Ephesus (Antipholus is married to Adriana), after the family (including the parents, Egeon and Emilia) were separated in a shipwreck. The other Antipholus and Dromio arrive in Ephesus, seeking their twins. Confusion ensues as different twins are mistaken for each other by merchants and family members. In the end, the whole family is reunited and all is well.

In the updated version, many of the original scenes are retained, together with the Shakespearean dialogue (although all four twins are now brothers, not masters and servants). New sections feature the Ephesus police’s attempt to crack down on asylum seekers and Angelo and Balthasar’s plans to sell guns through the internet. Although the updated sections are fictional, the stories of asylum seekers are based on real life testimony gathered from a variety of sources. The use of the internet to smuggle guns is also a real threat.

error.com is a great way to introduce complex themes and ideas to students in key stage two or three. As many of the scenes feature dialogue taken directly from the original play, it is also perfect for introducing them to the language of William Shakespeare.

As always, both plays come with a teachers’ guide and a poster for display in your school, and they are – like all Loftybooks plays – exclusively available for instant download from the Loftybooks website. So get your copy today, just £15. You won’t be disappointed!

 

All script packages are available at: http://loftybooks.com/page6.htm

 

Next time: Myths and Legends brought to life: ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘Beowulf’.

Setting Light t the Empire

Don’t Make A Crisis Out Of A Drama!

 

Part 3 – Setting Light to the Empire

 

My website, loftybooks.com, now proudly presents all twenty of my plays written for schools, available to purchase via the online shop

 

In the current series of blog posts, I am giving brief outlines to each of these plays to help promote awareness of them. If you are a teacher, governor, parent or pupil and you think your school would benefit from a loftybooks production, please spread the word about this website! You can visit the Plays For Schools via the menu page to find out more.

 

This month: two more plays that would fit well at the end of the autumn term (in case you are still looking), but work well at other times of the year too. One is a perfect accompaniment to a study of the Victorians, while the other (which could also be used alongside a Victorian topic) addresses the oft-neglected subject of the British Empire.

 

The Little Match Girl an original script by Christopher Loft, based on real events

 

This play tells the true story of the Bryant and May match girls’ strike. This strike was significant for several reasons. At the time, Bryant and May was a huge company and the owners were well-connected, with several friends in Parliament, whereas being a worker in their factory was one of the lowest forms of unskilled employment available, usually done by women who were themselves society’s second-class citizens. Annie Besant brought the strike to wider public attention and helped increase the pressure on the owners, but it is the ordinary young women themselves who took the action, a very brave and risky thing to do.

 

The play is an adaptation of events, not a strict historical re-telling. It also includes (as a play within the play) the Hans Anderson fairy-story, ‘The Little Match Girl,’ which serves to point up the contrasts between the sentimentalism of Victorian society and the harsh reality of life for the poor. The play also provides opportunity for ensemble work, both in the factory scene, and in the whole-cast opening scene. With a main cast-list of thirty-four, there are plenty of parts available for all levels of ability, although the subject matter might make this more suitable for Key Stage Three than Key Stage Two. The emergence of the unions and the struggle for workers’ rights are areas often overlooked in the teaching of a Victorian topic, yet they are important areas to cover if one is to understand how modern society was formed at this time.

 

The Last Night of the Empire a mix of original and traditional material

 

This is another play that might be thought best suited to Key Stage Three performers. It does not have a story as such, but is a series of music-hall acts, punctuated by the retelling of historical events from the British Empire. The idea of the show is to juxtapose two very different aspects of the Empire side by side. On the one hand, the music hall represents a nation at ease with itself, jocular and celebratory. On the other hand, this ease is bought at the expense of other nations’ independence and sometimes with a degree of brutality we are still reluctant to accept and come to terms with. The story of the British Empire is, of course, too vast to tell in one evening, and much of it might not be considered appropriate even for Key Stage Three. The Last Night of the Empire attempts to give an idea of what imperial history involved and to give a flavour of the entertainment that accompanied the period when the Empire was at its height.

 

It is clear from the beginning of the show that we are dealing with something that is in the past, but the legacy of imperial Britain is still very much with us, and this is something that you might choose to explore further in the classroom. Key areas to focus on might be India, Africa (in particular, apartheid), involvement of commonwealth countries in the two world wars (the loftybooks play, The Home Front might be useful in this regard) and post-war immigration, and the American war of independence. The other key area for further study is the rise and fall of the music hall, how it emerged and how eventually it too was eclipsed as tastes changed.

 

Included in the music-hall acts are: a comedy double-act, a magician, a solo singer and a group of singers. There are also two short plays, one a dramatization of the well-known monologue, ‘The Lion and Albert’ and the other an original melodrama (with tongue very much in cheek), ‘Flame-Haired Phil’. With the historical information and a wide range of variety acts, there is something for everyone to think about and to enjoy in this production.

 

Both plays come with a teachers’ guide and a poster for display in your school, and they are – like all Loftybooks plays – exclusively available for instant download from the Loftybooks website. So get your copy today, just £15. You won’t be disappointed!

 

All script packages are available at: http://loftybooks.com/page6.htm

 

Next time: Classic stories re-imagined: ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘error.com’ (The Comedy of Errors).

Your Perfect Festive Production

Don’t Make A Crisis Out Of A Drama!

Part 2 – Your Perfect Festive Production


In case you did not already know, my website, loftybooks.com, now proudly presents all twenty of my plays written for schools, available to purchase via the online shop (see menu, right).


In the current series of blog posts, I am giving brief outlines to each of these plays to help promote awareness of them. If you are a teacher, governor, parent or pupil and you think your school would benefit from a loftybooks production, please spread the word about this website! You can visit the Plays For Schools via the menu page to find out more.


This month: two more plays for the end of the autumn term. It’s already October, and if you have not organised your Christmas production yet, have no fear: loftybooks offers two productions aimed at the younger end of KS2, or even the top end of KS1, that might just be perfect for your school.


The Land of Winter an original story by Christopher Loft


This was the first play I write originally for a Key Stage One group. One of the difficulties teachers sometimes have with younger actors is their difficulty in learning lines, so it features two narrators, who could read their words directly from a script, if that is helpful. The play, which is written for a cast of twenty-one, also includes groups of non-speaking parts, which enables a larger group to take part, and  four songs to be sung by a chorus, so the non-speakers will still have something to do. An oral guide for singing the songs, together with guitar chords and lyrics, is available for download when you buy the script and accompanying teachers’ pack. The play has a running time of about forty minutes. It is written in a fairy-tale style with fairly generic characters. It has winter as a theme but avoids mention of any specific festival, so it is ideal if you wish to avoid a religious-themed play for this time of year.


Frederick and Margot are Ilse’s children. They have been in trouble in school, and Ilse is called in to the head-teacher’s office to discuss their behaviour. Ilse has been singing and mucking about in class, while Frederick has been threatening people and then apologizing without really meaning it. Ilse is advised to find another school for her children, and this she does by taking them on a long journey. First they visit the land of song, then the land of threats, the land of mucking about, the land of meaningless apology, and finally the land of winter. In each of the first four lands, the children learn an important lesson about behaviour. In the final land, they use what they have learned to rid the land of a witch’s curse. It’s a heart-warming story that adults and children will all enjoy with easy-to-learn songs. It cost only £15, so please have a look and purchase a copy today!

 

Little People an original story by Christopher Loft


This was also written for KS1 performers, but has been successfully produced in KS2 as well. It is another original story and, like ‘The Land of Winter’ contains songs that enable a larger cast to partake than might at first seem the case. There are fifteen speaking parts. The play has a running time of forty-five minutes. Although the story does focus on Christmas, it is not religious in content but concentrates more on the commercialisation of this time of year. The story features several great characters and is designed to make the children (and their grown-ups!) think about the true meaning of gift-giving at this time of year.


Mark is always getting into trouble in school, and even though it is not always his fault, he feels like it is. After being told off by his teacher, he is the last child to get to see Father Christmas in his grotto. Santa seems to have left already, and, having wished to be little, Mark wanders deep into the grotto until he meets some of Santa’s elves. Mark has become little like them, and is soon finding ways to be helpful and to feel good about himself. Mark and the elves are interrupted by the goblins, who want to destroy everything good and create chaos. He is kidnapped by them and discovers that two of his friends from school are also goblins, and that the supposedly best-behaved child in his class is the goblin leader! Mark decides to join the goblins, but is rescued by the little people and shown the error of his ways by Father Christmas. In the end, all the children learn a lesson and return to their families for the happiest Christmas ever.


The play has obvious links with the PSHE curriculum and explores issues to do with concentration in class, self-esteem, generosity and selfishness. It easily lends itself to workshop activities based around the attitudes of different characters or Circle Time discussions on how the characters behave. It can be easily adapted to suit the needs of individual schools. There are six original songs in the show, the lyrics for which are included in the script. The songs are written for guitar accompaniment and most of them contains only two or three chords, so they are very easy to play. Everything needed to perform the songs is included in the teachers’ pack that comes with the script – exclusively available from loftybooks, so get your copy today, just £15. You won’t be disappointed!


All script packages are available at: http://loftybooks.com/page6.htm


Next time: History and Mystery with ‘The Little Match Girl’ and ‘The Last Night of the Empire’.

 

 

 

 

Your Next Christmas Production All Wrapped Up

Don’t Make A Crisis Out Of A Drama!

Part 1 – Your Christmas Production

All Wrapped Up


From this month, my website, loftybooks.com, proudly presents all twenty of my plays written for schools, now available to purchase via the online shop (see menu, right).


In the next ten blog posts, I shall be giving brief outlines to each of these plays to help promote awareness of them. If you are a teacher, governor, parent or pupil and you think your school would benefit from a loftybooks production, please spread the word about this website! You can visit the Plays For Schools via the menu page to find out more.


This month: two plays for the end of the autumn term. Christmas might still feel like a long way off as we creep reluctantly back to school, but I know the drama teachers will already be looking for their end-of-term production. Here are two candidates which might cause them to look no further.


A Christmas Carol adapted from the story by Charles Dickens


This was the first play I wrote for an end-of-term production, back in 1999. It was to be performed by a drama club I started that term in a school in South London. There were twenty children, drawn from Years 4, 5 and 6, and all rehearsals took place after school, once a week for ninety minutes. The performance was a great success with parents, pupils and staff and it was what got me started in writing and directing children’s plays. Although only twenty children took part, some had more than one role, and there are thirty-one characters in total, so this could easily be performed by a class on its own.


The play is an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novella and is set when the book was first published, in 1843. As far as possible, it uses the original language from the book. However, there are some variations in the tale, the most significant being the inclusion of the story of Dr Thomas Barnardo which, as the events depicted had not occurred when Dickens wrote his novella, obviously were not included within it. The idea of including the true story of Barnardo was to contrast his attitude towards poverty with that of Scrooge. It was also designed to fit more neatly into topic work on the Victorians, and could be used for classroom study.


So, if your class or year group is studying the Victorians this autumn, or even if they are not, here is a perfect end-of-term production that will leave everyone feeling Christmassy and noble-spirited without the need to learn any songs and without a specific religious focus.


All this is available for only £15. Included in your purchase is a teachers’ guide which gives advice on costumes, scenery, etc, as well as providing more background information on the story, and an alternative version at no extra charge called A Carol For Christmas. This is aimed at schools who want a less challenging production. It includes an excerpt of A Christmas Carol and some other short scenes. Please have a look and purchase a copy today. You won’t be disappointed!


Good News an original retelling of the nativity


This production is for schools who want a more traditional nativity-themed Christmas with songs and familiar characters, but also want a thought-provoking approach rather than some of the more comic versions that can easily be found today. Not that Good News does not have its funny moments – it certainly does – but it also has a more serious, reverent side. This play has been performed in various versions, and was written with the assistance of my musical collaborator, Andy Merrifield. The earliest version of this production was first performed in 2002, and it has been seen in various schools around London and the south-east since.


In the play, the birth of Christ takes place amidst the kind of all-pervading media influence with which we are blessed/plagued today. However, with such a media of constant sensation, the birth of a poor boy in a stable is not news at all, let alone good news (the word ‘gospel’, of course, means ‘good news’). It is something to be overlooked, while the machinations of kings and emperors are fawned over and the rise and fall of a celebrity chef is considered front-page headline material. The character Baron Media is a representation of our current ‘media barons’, and the point is made that really important events can be overlooked by a media that only looks after the vested interest. A discussion of the role of the media in society could certainly accompany this production.


Or it could be just an end-of-term Christmas show for everyone to enjoy! The songs (of which there are twelve in total, all original compositions) are catchy and you are provided with guide vocals and backing tracks for each one, so no musical knowledge or ability is required to teach the children – just play the vocal versions and teach them to sing along and, once they have mastered the lyrics, they can sing to the backing track alone. The sound is professionally recorded and all performances are given by the composer, Andy Merrifield, a professional musician.


If you choose Good News as your Christmas production, you will be reminding your cast and your audience of the true meaning of Christmas. Your pack includes a teachers’ guide, giving more information about the background to the story and advice on costumes, scenery, etc. It also provides you with a link to all the freely downloadable music tracks you will need.


Good News is available in two versions – one that has a running-time of about ninety minutes, and the other about thirty minutes. This is so you can choose the production that is right for your school. Both versions, together with access to the music, a guide to the show and an A4 poster for display, are included in the pack, priced very reasonably at just £25. Please have a look and purchase a copy today. You won’t be disappointed!


All script packages are available at: http://loftybooks.com/page6.htm


Next time: More Christmas Productions (KS1/KS2)

Independence, Conformity and Education

 

‘Before you can teach a child,’ says Agatha Trunchbull in the RSC adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, ‘you must first break a child.’

 

‘That doesn’t sound like teaching at all,’ responds Miss Honey. ‘It sounds like cruelty.’

 

‘That is because you are weak,’ says Trunchbull.

 

Roald Dahl populated many of his books with adult cruelty, especially towards children – there are the horrible aunts in James and the Giant Peach, or the collection of parents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – but, as far as I am aware, only Matilda uses a school as a principal setting. Perhaps Dahl felt it was too obvious a choice, too well-worn a path to tread down. Dickens had long before nailed the cruelty of education with Dotheboys Hall and Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickelby; The Bash Street Kids comic-strip version of a beastly teacher in an uncaring school has been a regular feature of The Beano since 1961.

 

Negative portrayals of schools are often popular with readers; it is always in fashion to hate one’s place of education, at least in this country. But if we think about this, does it not strike us as odd that it should be the case? School should be a place of growth and learning, an opportunity for educational adventure every bit as magical as the Hogwarts school of the Harry Potter stories, except that the magic arises not from spells and potions but from one’s own discoveries. What is to hate about that? The reality, of course, as we all know well, is that school is often not a place of magical discovery, but – as Miss Trunchbull espouses – an institution centred around discipline, obedience and conformity. Schools may not market themselves in this way. They might promote the idea of independent learning, rigorous academic pursuit, or high standards of achievement, but methods of discipline are at the heart of the way most schools operate, and it is my contention that these methods are often in direct opposition to the stated aims of independence and personal growth. Below are some of the methods I have in mind.

 

Uniform

Most schools have one, even from a very young age. The argument in favour is it provides a level playing-field: better-off children cannot humiliate their poorer peers by comparing the quality of their clothes. The answer to this is that children who wish to humiliate one another will always find a way to do it, and that a school in which adults and children treat one another with respect is less likely to promote such behaviour in the first place. Meanwhile, children are supposed to become independent in an environment in which all of them dress the same. The undeniable message of the school uniform is not equality but conformity. You are not yourself in a uniform, you are the property of your school.

 

Rules of Behaviour

One of the first activities of any new academic year in primary school is drawing up a class code of behaviour. Sometimes this is done by the children, but only when the teacher knows that a particular class has been told often enough what constitutes ‘good behaviour’ in order to voluntarily demand it themselves. Typical ‘golden rules’ of the classroom are: listen to the teacher, sit still, put your hand up, no talking, and so on. These instructions are repeated so frequently to (and by) children they cease to be questioned, but often they are not in the children’s interests at all. A 2013 study suggested that children are failing to develop speech and language skills due to lack of opportunity to talk at school. Similarly, many children find it difficult to sit still for long periods of time and the effort needed to do so detracts from their ability to focus on what they are studying. This is because the rules of behaviour in most schools are set up for the benefit of the teachers, not the pupils.

 

Organisation

Similarly, the organisation of the school day and the way activities are carried out within school is constructed for the ease of the adult, not the child. One of the first ‘lessons’ young children are taught is how to stand in a straight line, the reason being that they will spend a lot of their time at school doing just that:  lining up to go in and out of assembly, to get their lunch, to go home, and so on. This is not in the interests of children, and frequently results in ‘behaviour issues’ because bored children can’t stand in a line all day. It requires a different approach, one that starts with the needs of the children and not the teacher.

 

Role of Teacher

And here we come to the central issue. What is the role of the teacher? In progressive education, the teacher is often seen as a guide, or a helper, who enables the students to learn what they want how they want. At the other end of the spectrum is the teacher who stands at the front of the class and talks at the students all day. Don’t think this latter type have disappeared from our schools, because they haven’t. I’ve worked with this kind of teacher, and I found the lessons taught this way just as boring as the children did. Being lectured at is no way for a young child to learn. Active engagement with a topic is the way children learn best, and if schools really want to develop independent learners they need to start with how the teacher behaves. Important as this is, however, it’s not everything.

 

Academic Targets, Rigour and Standards

To a large extent, the measuring and quantifying of education is beyond the control of individual schools. It is the government’s method of ensuring conformity from its teachers, but that does not mean teachers have to use the same methods with their students. For every level or target or artificial standard we confer upon our children, we create a succeed/fail dynamic, and we do it from a very young age. Does it matter if a six-year-old cannot read certain words accurately? Well, it might help us adjust how we teach that six-year-old, but it should not be used as a label for the poor child. No one needs to be told at six that they are a success or a failure. When you are on a journey, the important thing is to keep moving, not constantly stop to see how well you are doing. Standards mean tests and tests, we know, are damaging to children’s mental health, not to mention their learning – you know, the thing schools are supposed to be all about.

 

Miss Honey tells Trunchbull that education should be about kindness, patience and respect, and it is difficult to disagree with her. Children need to know they are cared about, that they matter as individuals, even if they are struggling – especially then. We need to give them time to grow and learn, which they all do at different rates and in different ways. The child whose academic work is poor and who can’t sit still might, like Gillian Lynne, be a born dancer, might need to move in order to think. Our current system would brand them a failure; we need a different approach. Most of all, we need to respect our young people. This does not mean paying lip-service to the idea while expecting them to pay real service to us, dressing how we tell them, sitting how we say, and lining up for every little thing. It means really listening to and acting on the words of our students, and not just considering their wishes and accommodating them now and then as long as they do not conflict with our own aims. Genuine respect is genuine equality, and it takes work on both sides, but it is worth it. At present, we are far, far away from this ideal, so far that many schools would probably not even recognise it as an ideal.

 

A few years ago, I created the fictional school Silver Lake Academy. I wrote short stories that centred on different aspects of the school, in a parody of our current system, and the Govean ambition of voluntary-conversion academy schools in particular. Silver Lake is a school where ‘no excuses were acceptable for any failure to ensure every child was making progress every day, even when they were not yet inside the building’; where the Classroom Arrangement Ticklist told the staff exactly how their classrooms should look, including displays that should ‘leave no space available for any of the children’s work, which tended to lower the tone of the place’. It is a school where almost every lesson except English and Maths has been squeezed out of the curriculum; in which the Headteacher sequesters herself in her office every morning and avoids contact with children wherever possible; and where every child becomes subsumed within the system, less a name on a register and more a number on a spreadsheet, ‘another product to be upgraded.’ Children at Silver Lake are tortured physically and mentally, sometimes set on fire or made to disappear altogether. At the hands of the cruel Head and her Senior Management Team, the teachers fare little better.

 

Over Our Heads is my own minor contribution to the school-set story. It is a collection of stories about Silver Lake (some of which appear on this website in an earlier form), loosely structured as a novel. Against the background of the academy which has ‘given up education’, one teacher and one pupil struggle to make a difference. Their efforts to find a different way of teaching and learning, together with the Headteacher’s efforts to thwart them at every turn, make for an enjoyable satire that will be recognisable to anyone who knows anything about primary schools today. Over Our Heads is, I hope, a wry, insightful look into much of what is wrong with our system. It can be purchased in kindle format or as a paperback from amazon. Why not check it out for yourself?


 

 

Tories, snake oil and tuition fees

Tories, snake oil and tuition fees

 

Whenever I hear or read anything about social policy from a Tory politician, I always find it helps to remember in the back of my mind that these people are the modern equivalent of the snake-oil salesmen of western folklore. Snake-oil salesmen were con artists who offered all sorts of cure-all ‘medicines’, none of which actually worked, and some of which made things a good deal worse. This is the case with government policy on university tuition fees. Jo Johnson (Tory minister of state for universities and science), writing in The Guardian, would have you think that tuition fees are a wonderful development because (she says) they increase access to higher education for the poorest and most disadvantaged students. Tuition fees, apparently, are a price we have to pay for sustainable higher education. Oh, the irony of a government that says we should not burden the next generation with debt having a policy that specifically burdens the next generation with debt!

 

Let’s look at this more closely. Jo Johnson defends tuition fees with the argument that students do not have to start paying them back until they are earning a salary of £21,000. According to independent market research company High Fliers, the median starting salary for graduates in 2016 was £30,000. Even if an individual starting salary were much lower, graduate salaries often increase rapidly during the early years of a career. Furthermore, the average salary for all workers across the UK in the last tax year was just under £27,000. Most university-educated young people, therefore, would expect to be earning over £21,000 fairly early in their career, and therefore paying back a huge loan. For students from wealthy backgrounds this might not matter, but for those from lower-income backgrounds, the debt is going to be much harder to pay back. At the very time a graduate might want money for a mortgage or to start a family, they are likely to feel the weight of their student debt at its heaviest. The only alternative is to earn less than £21,000 for thirty years (when the debt is written off); or in other words, if the educated poor are not to be burdened with debt they must stay poor. No advantage for the disadvantaged after all. Snake oil!

 

Not only does Jo Johnson ignore this inconvenient truth, she goes on to say that the £21 000 threshold and the thirty-year rule is actually ‘a deliberate subsidy for the lowest-earning students’.  It clearly is no such thing, but the claim itself raises another point. On the Andrew Marr show (02.07.17), Michael Gove said, ‘If you don’t benefit from a university education, you shouldn’t have to pay additionally to support those who do’. Before considering how Gove and Johnson differ on this point, let’s examine the sense of this statement. Like any con artist, Gove makes it sound so straightforward, but the answer to his point, of course, is that we all benefit from university education, whether we go to university or not. If an uneducated man breaks his arm and goes to the hospital, the doctor who treats him will have been to university; if an uneducated woman sends her children to school, they will be taught by a succession of university-educated teachers. It is ridiculous to suggest we do not benefit, even if we do not go to university ourselves, and it is not unreasonable therefore to expect us – all of us – to help fund higher education.

 

To return to the difference between the two Tory ministers: Gove says the taxpayer should not have to pay for tuition fees; Johnson says the government is providing ‘a deliberate subsidy’. So who is funding this subsidy? Who picks up the shortfall when the debt is not repaid? The taxpayer, presumably. Not only is Gove’s argument short-sighted and narrow-minded, it appears to contradict government policy. It is another example of the mess this Conservative administration is getting into at every turn. Their ideologies are getting confused, as further evidence by their claim that they want to reduce national debt while at the same time increasing personal debt.

 

But the real problem for the Tories is education itself. Despite their rhetoric, it is clear they do not want a better-educated population, and for good reason – the better educated people become, the easier it is for them to see these politicians for what they are, a bunch of snake-oil salesmen, the kind we really should not be subjected to anymore, the kind whose time is nearly up.

 

On Libraries

On Libraries


I went to primary school during the 1970s. My school was in Southwark, south London. It had a school library (of course) and I loved books. At home, I had my own library, by which I mean not just a collection of books but a collection organised according to the Dewey Decimal System, available for borrowing by members of my family and others on occasion, because yes – I was that sort of child. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when my school was looking for a group of children to replenish the stock of the library, my name was chosen. I remember sitting next to the teacher in charge of the library one day (I have a feeling it was a Saturday, but I might be mistaken) on the top deck of a routemaster double-decker bus, heading towards County Hall by the Thames. There, in what I remember as an impossibly huge room, was the central library for schools, from which I and others were allowed to choose the books that would grace the shelves of our school library for the next few months or years. I can’t remember if I took my responsibility seriously enough to make sure I chose a wide range of material to meet the varied needs of our school cohort, or whether (as I suspect) I just chose the stuff I wanted to read, but I remember the day as a magical opportunity to delve in to the Royal Library of Alexandria and feast upon its delights (my memory might be somewhat embellished by Time).

 

The point is, school libraries were taken seriously in those days. Not only did we have our own library at school, which was run by a teacher, but every week our own class teacher would walk us up the hill to the local library, where we could borrow more books. It was there I discovered the short stories of Sherlock Holmes and (I am sure this memory has received no embellishment) we were given pear drops by our teacher from the local sweet shop.

 

I lived across the street from a magnificent architectural structure known as Carnegie Library. This was like a temple of books (and not just books – long before I had the money to buy records, I borrowed albums from the Carnegie, including the first ever Bob Dylan album I heard in its entirety), a place where you could sit and read for as long as you liked and no one was going to bother you. (Actually, this was not entirely true. Occasionally, well-meaning adults might try to recommend the Hornblower books or some other deathly dull tome, insisting that I would enjoy it when I was equally sure – but too polite to say so – that I would not.) It was a heaven on earth and just across the road. I was allowed to go there on my own from quite a young age and, from quite a young age, I wanted to be a librarian, although what appealed to me most about the job was less the access to books and more the deft manner with which the people behind the desk flicked through the library cards when you returned a book. This was before computers took all the joy out of librarianship.

 

Now, the joy has all but gone from our libraries all over the country. The Carnegie’s doors are shut, despite an ongoing campaign to save it, and the building seems destined to be turned into a gym. The ILEA, with its magnificent County Hall library for schools, was axed more than thirty years ago. Although some school libraries have reinvented themselves for the twenty-first century, many are barely used or have ceased to exist altogether. Some blame cuts to local authorities; others say demand for libraries is on the wane. I say, like King Lear, reason not the need. Reading, browsing, just sitting surrounded by books and silence, these are wonderful opportunities and a building devoted to them is a sign of a civilised society. Which is why it was heartening to read in the last Labour manifesto that Labour would end cuts to local authority budgets to support the provision of libraries, museums and galleries; that Labour would introduce an arts pupil premium to every primary school in England – a £160 million annual per year boost for schools to invest in projects that will support cultural activities for schools over the longer term; and that Labour would put creativity back at the heart of the curriculum. If there is to be another election in the near future, as seems more likely than not, I do hope Labour continue with these manifesto commitments. My own local library, which is a short walk around the corner for my children, is just about surviving, but only just. If we really want to combat hate crime, we need to promote our civilization a little better, and there seems to me no better way to do so than by opening, reopening and celebrating our libraries.


Thank-you for reading.

Jeremy Corbyn: the right man with the right policies

Jeremy Corbyn:

the right man with the right policies


One of the criticisms levelled at Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party is he is not able to win elections. Despite winning two leadership elections in his party, Corbyn is well-known as the ‘unelectable’ leader, a joke to some, a well-meaning but misguided dinosaur to others. Rather than discuss whether or not he is electable, however, or the purpose such a label might serve his supposed enemies in the mass media, the government and even his own party, I want to look at the issue from a different angle.


Even before the current election campaign got going, it was clear – in the minds of media and (most) politicians alike – who the winner was. Theresa May has been announced as our next Prime Minister so often, it sometimes seems unnecessary to even bother with the actual process of pushing a reluctant electorate to the polling stations to actually vote for her. Of course, we can suggest the polls might have got it wrong, or put our hopes on a last-minute surge of support, a collapse within the Conservatives, or some other seismic change, but the problem is not the polls so much as the fact that politicians and the media are so obsessed by who the winner will be. Still not a vote has been cast in this election, and the choice of winner is supposed to be ours to make, so the media could, if they chose, spend the campaign examining the worth of the issues involved. Instead, they obsess about opinion polls and how things will or will not be paid for, but is this actually helpful in any way?


One of the things that marks Jeremy Corbyn out from many other politicians is that he is actually interested in making things better for the majority of people in this country. Where most media pundits and politicians talk about how to win and which constituencies they must pick up votes in, Corbyn considers the actual issues facing real people and how they can be addressed. When Theresa May appears on The One Show and talks about ‘boy jobs and girl jobs’, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this was promoted by some focus group or other. When Corbyn appears anywhere and says anything, it sounds like it comes from his heart. The Labour manifesto, which has been praised for containing a bold agenda of state intervention, is a product of Corbyn’s approach to leadership: he doesn’t think about how to win, he thinks about how to improve this country.


Of course, his critics will say it is precisely this failure to think about a strategy for success that is his problem. It’s no good having bold policies, they say, if you don’t get a chance to put them into practice. There is truth in this statement, and yet it overlooks the fact that power is no good unless you know what to do with it. Which comes first, power or policies? Well, we have the policies now, and hopefully on June 8th we will get the power too. But if that does not happen, one thing is certain: in less than two years, Jeremy Corbyn has succeeded in changing the focus of the Labour party and has established a firm platform on which to build in the future. Hopefully, that building process can begin in just a few short weeks.

Why I Am Voting Labour

WHY I AM VOTING LABOUR

AND WHY I THINK YOU SHOULD DO SO TOO 


What is this election about?


Let's not waste any time. This election is a clear choice between a party that wants to govern for the benefit of the few and the suffering of the many and a party that wants to make things better for the vast majority of people in this country.


It is not an election about Brexit, although the Tories would like us to think so. Theresa May claims she needs a larger mandate to carry through Brexit properly, but she has already passed the bill triggering Article 50 with a huge majority. There is no sabotage of the Brexit process; all that the opposition parties are doing is providing proper scrutiny of government plans (which, by the way, is what opposition parties are supposed to do).


Theresa May has her mandate; the reason she wants a bigger majority in the House of Commons is so she can push through legislation that will damage the country without anyone being able to stop her (including her own MPs, who technically are the only people can stop her anyway due to the fact she already has a majority). This election is not about the good of the country, it is about the good of the Tory party, and a government elected by about a third of those who voted last time round, so hardly representative of the country as a whole.


Why should we choose Labour this time?


Simple. Look at their policies:


·        A proper living wage of £10 per hour to be introduced by 2020

·        Universal free school meals for all primary pupils

·        Increasing the top rate of income tax from 45% to 50%

·        Renationalisation of the railways

·        £500 a year extra for unpaid carers

·        Renationalision of the NHS

·        200,000 homes a year, half of them council homes

·        Reversal of Tory Inheritance Tax cut

·        Reversal of Tory Corporation Tax cut

·        Firms in tax havens banned from bidding on government contracts

·        End of public sector pay freeze

·        End ‘sweetheart deal’ for multi-corps by HMRC

·        Halt opening of grammar and free schools

·        Ban late payments to small businesses

·        Scrapping of Tory business rate hikes

·        End the gender pay gap

·        Ban zero hours contracts for workers with regular hours


It’s a pretty impressive list, isn’t it? They are policies that will make things better for the vast majority of ordinary people. Isn’t it time things improved? Austerity has had us under its cosh for long enough, and it hasn’t even worked. Labour has a better way. You can read more about Jeremy Corbyn’s pledges to rebuild and transform Britain hereAre these policies popular? Yes, they are. A recent opinion poll showed overwhelming support for policies mentioned above across the country.


What about the Tories? What are they offering?


More of the same that we've been suffering the last seven years; they are standing on what Theresa May insists on calling their ‘proud record’. As Jeremy Corbyn pointed out in Prime Minister’s Questions on April 19th (about one minute into the clip), our Tory nation is one in which: wages are lower today than they were ten years ago; there are more households in debt; six million people earn less than the living wage; child poverty  is up; and pensioner poverty is also up. And that’s not all. The current situation in the NHS is so bad that the Red Cross said this year it is facing a humanitarian crisis. Also, the government has failed to address the recruitment crisis and shortage-of-places crisis in our schools, May repeatedly ignoring questions over education in numerous PMQs. Instead, the Tories concentrate on Mrs May’s pet policy of reintroducing grammar schools, which, a recent report concluded, will not aid social mobility as claimed.


It’s a poor record to be proud of, Mrs May.


But if Labour policies are so much better, why are the polls so bad?


Partly this is because most of the coverage of Labour in the media has focused on supposed weaknesses of the leader and ignored the policies. Now the election has been announced, it should be possible to see wider media coverage of the actual policies, and hopefully the polls will change. However, Corbyn’s supporters are often criticised for blaming the media, and many people do feel that the problem with Labour is its leadership, so let’s tackle that issue. The main criticisms often levelled at Jeremy Corbyn are that he is ‘unelectable’ or that he lacks ‘leadership’. Is there any truth to these claims?


Is Jeremy Corbyn unelectable?


In the first nine months of Corbyn’s leadership, there were four parliamentary by-elections. Despite claims in the media that Labour would lose seats, including this careful analysis by Ian Warren in The Guardian of why Corbyn would lose in Oldham West, Labour won all four by-elections. In fact, Labour increased its share of the vote in three of them,  including Oldham West, in which the Labour share of the vote went up by 7.3%, and Tooting, which had been Sadiq Khan’s seat. Labour also won the London Mayoral election, of course. In the light of this string of successes, Ian Warren’s article no longer looks like careful analysis but wilful undermining of an elected party leader. It wasn’t just journalists undermining Corbyn, though. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) was about to flex its muscles in this respect, too.


In August 2015 (the month before Corbyn’s election as leader), the ICM opinion poll for The Guardian showed the Tories with a 9% lead over Labour. By the following March, the two were neck-and-neck. Other opinion polls showed a similar pattern of Labour closing the gap on the Tories. Then came the EU referendum and the attempted coup by the PLP to get rid of its leader. Fearing a snap general election after the referendum, the anti-Corbyn wing of the party (most MPs, to be fair) either resigned their shadow cabinet positions or took a vote of no confidence in their leader, or both. After the referendum, the gap between Tory and Labour was 4%. After the vote of no confidence, it was 16%.


At a time when the country needed the opposition to pull together and take the fight to the Tories, Labour decided to fight itself, and one of the nastiest, most drawn-out and pointless leadership contests began, which ended with Jeremy Corbyn receiving an even bigger mandate from party members and the Tories still holding a 16% lead over Labour in the ICM poll. During this period, the idea that Corbyn was ‘unelectable’ and that he lacked leadership became so commonplace that it was never challenged in the media or by most politicians, even though up to that point Labour under Corbyn had enjoyed electoral success and had narrowed the polls too. Clearly, the unelectability tag is a myth, a self-fulfilling prophecy put about by Corbyn’s enemies. June 8th is our chance to expose that for the lie that it is, and has always been.


But he is a bad leader, isn’t he?


The day after Corbyn sacked him for disloyalty, Hilary Benn appeared on the Andrew Marr show and said his leader was ‘a good and decent man’ but not a leader. He also said (about nine and a half minutes into this clip), that Corbyn was not to blame for the referendum result, which Benn’s fellow plotters ignored, as they added this (false) charge to the list of his supposed crimes. 


But what makes a good leader anyway? Was Tony Blair a good leader? In 1997, many would have said so, but after the debacle of the Iraq War, for which Blair still faces the possibility of trial as a war criminal, his leadership qualities are not so clear-cut. As for Theresa May’s idea of herself as a strong leader, she has called an early election after repeatedly saying she would not do so and is presiding over a government that has failed to eliminate the deficit as it promised to do, that has increased debt by more than all Labour governments put together, that has failed to reduce immigration as it said it would do, and has tried to go back on a manifesto commitment in the recent budget. And that’s not even mentioning the string of possible charges facing Tory MPs and others who seem to have cheated on their election expenses.


That’s not strong leadership, that’s lying, cheating, back-tracking and failure.


So what are Jeremy Corbyn's leadership qualities?


Corbyn’s appeal to Labour members rests in part on the fact that he is not like other leaders, that his type of strength is something more ideological, something that can be admired and trusted. Corbyn is a man of principal, an honest politician who has consistently stood up for what he believes is right and has for over thirty years been shown to be on the ‘right side’ of history. He has refused to take part in the public-school bullyboy approach to PMQs beloved by Cameron and aped by May; he survived a political assassination attempt by 172 of his own MPs; he wants to make things better for ordinary people. That’s the kind of leadership I can get behind. I suppose there may be some who prefer the lying, cheating, debate-avoiding Lynton Crosby style of leadership, but are those the people we really want deciding who runs the country? We can make that decision, the 76% of eligible voters who did not put an X next to a Tory in 2015. We can choose something better.


It is also worth bearing in mind that, before Corbyn, Labour was not an anti-austerity party. Ed Miliband offered us austerity-lite in 2015, an offer that was roundly rejected at the ballot box. Corbyn was overwhelmingly elected as leader on an anti-austerity platform. These policies that are so popular with the public? They are Corbyn policies; they are a result of his leadership. It is the vision of a different country that Corbyn represents, a vision in which people are put before profit, that is such a strength of the party today. If you like the policies, you really should like the man who made them possible. We never would have had this alternative under Ed Miliband, or anyone else for that matter, and that’s why Corbyn’s supporters are so fanatical about him, and possibly why his opponents are so eager for him to resign.


But the Labour Party is in disarray. How can they possibly form a government?


It is important to remember, of course, that we are not electing a Prime Minister, we are electing a government, so what about the rest of Labour? The reason for the attempted coup and subsequent disarray in the PLP is because many MPs were panicking at the thought of losing their seats. They thought if they had a different leader they might have a better chance, but now they know they are going into an election with Corbyn in charge, they will pull together for the good of the party. There may be one or two who would prefer to step down rather than serve under Corbyn, but the rest will relish the opportunity of being in government again, and particularly those who have done such a sterling job on the shadow front bench, people like Rebecca Long-Bailey, Richard Burgon, Angela Raynor, Emily Thornberry and Barry Gardiner. Don't worry, Labour can govern, and will do a lot better than the Tories if given the chance.


But I can’t vote Labour because they let me down over Brexit


This is exactly what the Tories are counting on. As I said at the start, this does not have to be an election determined by Brexit, but the Tories would like it to be. It is understandable that fervent Europeans who refuse to accept the Brexit vote would find it hard to get behind Labour, but it is important to realise two points in relation to this matter. One is that, like it or not, Article 50 has now been triggered, and we need a party that can deliver the best Brexit for ordinary people, which is certainly not the Tory party, and the only way to stop the Tories is by voting in a Labour government, painful as that might seem right now to some. The other point is that we cannot afford to ignore the many crises in our society by only focusing on Brexit. Of course, the deal we get will help determine what happens in the NHS, schools and so on, but that deal is years away – maybe ten years, if some are to be believed. We need to focus now on making things better for the majority of people in this country, and only Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party are offering that opportunity. The Liberal Democrats, who have ruled out a coalition with Labour but not with the Tories, cannot be trusted (as students well know after the Lib Dem betrayal over student fees), and the Tories, it goes without saying, will be a disaster.


I've had enough of elections. I don't think I'll bother this time.


You might feel you are suffering election fatigue, but the fact is this could be a defining election for us all. This is our chance to choose the country we want to be a part of in the future. Is it a country where only the rich prosper, and the rest of us see our life chances dwindling along with our bank balance, health, education and job prospects? Or is it a country that is fairer for everyone, with the rich paying their share and the poor no longer being made to suffer for a financial crisis they did nothing to cause? There is only one choice in this election,  a choice between Tory Doom and Labour Hope. Like you, I will think carefully about what I want the outcome to be, then I shall carve my cross with pride. Like millions of others, I shall vote Labour. Join us, and make June 8th the end of May.


Education, Education ... oh.

Education, Education ... oh.

Last month, the education select committee published a series of reports heavily critical of government policy. Rather than responding constructively to these criticisms, the government has pushed ahead with policies which are widely acknowledged to be falling short. How far we have come in the last ten years or so.

In 2007, the BBC reviewed the impact of the Labour government on education. Labour had been in power for ten years by then, elected partly on the strength of Tony Blair’s mantra, ‘Education, Education, Education.’ For all its faults (and it certainly had faults), the Blair government brought many positive changes to education, rightly acknowledged by the BBC. Among improvements can be counted the following:

·       An increase in per-pupil funding by almost 50%

·       An increase in teachers (35, 000 recruited to the profession in ten years)

·       Teachers’ pay rose by 18% in real terms

·       An increase in Teaching Assistants of 172,000

·       An eightfold increase in capital investment (school buildings)

There were certainly negative changes, too – the introduction of the literacy and numeracy strategies, for example, which were counter-productive and formed part of an overall move towards testing, league tables and the all-important OFSTED judgments that is currently smothering creativity and driving teachers out of the profession. Yet I remember that time as one in which pay and conditions (factors that greatly influence retention of staff) improved for teachers and it felt like the profession had greater respect and significance in the eyes of government.

Contrast that with the mood in teaching today. The select committee found that the government has no long-term plan for addressing teacher shortages and is failing to meet recruitment targets on a consistent basis. Not only is recruitment failing, but retention of current staff is also a problem – workload concerns and the lack of good professional development are just two areas of failure in this respect. The committee’s report specifically suggests raising the status of the profession as something the government must do to improve recruitment and retention.

A separate report criticised the government’s handling of multi-academy trusts, and yet another found fault with their plan of encouraging more grammar schools, urging caution over the use of selective admissions criteria. One of the first actions taken by the coalition government in 2010 was the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future fund, which would have continued the investment in school premises that Labour had begun. Instead, we have been given academies, free schools and now the prospect of grammars, none of which are proven to raise standards or improve the quality of education in our schools.

Teachers are leaving the profession and new recruits are thin on the ground; schools are crumbling and lack proper investment, while academies rise and fall like chimeras, promising much but delivering little except in terms of high pay for those who run them. This government is routinely failing the parents, teachers and children of this country, but – unlike the NHS – the severity of the situation is not widely recognised. Teachers deserve a pay rise; local authority schools deserve investment and development; academies and free schools should be abolished; and politicians should stay out of running schools – which means no more OFSTED, no more tests and no more league tables. Most of all, no more Tory government ruining the present – and the future – for us all.




Thoughts on Turning 50

Thoughts on Turning Fifty

(and not miserable ones!)


As I write this, I am clinging desperately to the last few days in which I can just about claim not to be old. I am not young, of course; I have not been young for many years; but I am not yet old. By the time you read this, the situation will have irreversibly altered, for the decisive moment will have come and gone: I shall have turned fifty.


Of course, there are those who will say fifty is not old. It is the new forty, or even the new thirty. For all I know, it could be the new twenty-one. But we all know this is not the case. Fifty is old. It's a different box on the survey forms. People say it's middle age, but it really isn't that. How can this be the middle of my life? Whatever else I might do. I'm almost certainly not going to live to be 100, not unless there is a radical reduction in my wine and red meat intake, and what kind of life is that?


No, there is no doubt about it: I have started the descent towards death, hopefully a long, slow descent, but a descent nonetheless and a lot shorter and quicker than I would probably like. I can no longer afford to scoff at the daytime TV adverts June Whitfield used to do, telling people in their fifties they had better hurry up and make their wills before they pop their clogs (although she put it more delicately, as I recall). I need to start listening to those ads. If I can hear them. It won't be long before I'm feeling cold even with the heating turned up to eleven, complaining the music is too loud and forgetting what I came into a room for. The other day, I ordered food in a pub and, by the time I sat down, could not remember what I had ordered. It's definitely all downhill from now on.


So, am I depressed to be joining the ranks of those for whom life is officially over? Well, I thought I was. I thought about the things I had once wanted to achieve in life - run my own school, write a bestselling novel, receive rave reviews for my latest play at the Royal Court, an original screenplay academy award - all still possible, of course, but to be honest even the realistic ambitions are dwindling into disappointment (not the academy award, that's just a matter of time, but some of the others). Sooner or later, one has to realise that, just like the plays I write (!),  life is going to end before you want it to.


A couple of weeks ago, I heard a survivor of the holocaust, Joan Salter, talk about her life. She had been born in 1940 to a family of Polish Jews and  spent her early years in hiding from the Nazis. She ended up in America, and only later found out that she had a whole other family, most of whom were murdered in concentration camps. Of course, anyone who compares their own experience to that of a holocaust survivor is going to realise how lucky they are, but what really stayed with me from Joan's talk was that, despite being reunited with her birth parents and her sister, there was no 'happy ending'. The pain and suffering continued. This woman, now in her seventies, was too little at the time to even know who the Nazis were, but her life has been ruined because of them. And she was one of the lucky ones. So I haven't got everything I wanted in life? Big deal. I've got enough, more than enough. I am one of the truly lucky ones.


Three years ago, I thought my teaching career was at an end, so fed up was I with the mainstream education system and my particular experience of it. Little did I know that waiting round the corner was a wonderful job in a wonderful school, a school where a difference really can be made on a daily basis (it's called Red Balloon - google it and see for yourself). Not only that, I have the best family anyone could want and (as a part-time teacher) more time to spend with them. And I have a full day each week to devote to my writing. Call me sentimental if you must (and you surely will), but what I have discovered in half a century of life is this:  happiness is not only possible, it is simple. Forget great wealth, public recognition, power and the other usual criteria of supposed success; be content with people you care about and work that matters to you. That's it. Even if you're fifty. 


Especially if you're fifty. It's the maturity that comes with being a 'certain age', the relief at not having to pretend to be young anymore, that allows you to realise how happy - and indeed how lucky - you really are. Well, that's what I think anyway. So if you too are this certain age, or maybe creeping like snail unwillingly towards it, many happy returns. That fifth decade had made us who we are, right? Let's enjoy the sixth one, and any others we are lucky enough to get, while we can, whatever June Whitfield has to say about it.

Review of 2016

2016: The Good, The Bad and the Hmmm...


In this blog post, I am looking back at the books, theatre, films and TV shows I enjoyed in 2016 ...  and a few I did not. 

Recommended:
Purity, Jonathan Franzen. The Corrections remains one of my favourite novels of the last twenty years and, while this does not quite live up to the standard of that work, Franzen does have a way of interweaving different stories and making relevant comment upon society, that is effectively employed here, much more so than in his previous novel, Freedom, I would say. At his best, he's a sort of twenty-first century Dickens, and this is definitely worth a read. I also enjoyed Tim Taylor's 'transformative approach to education', Mantle of the Expert and a re-read with great pleasure Virgina Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.

A marvellous year for theatre, I thought. I really enjoyed Needles and Opium at the Barbican, even without Robert LePage, The Maids at The Trafalgar Studios, and two Pinter adaptations: The Caretaker (Old Vic) and No Man's Land (Wyndhams). One truly great performance this year, though, was Glenda Jackson in King Lear (Old Vic). So glad I had the opportunity to see it. Still recovering!

Mr Robot (Seasons 1&2, Amazon Prime). The best TV series I have seen for years. Even though I have watched both seasons twice, I'm still not sure exactly what is going on. Mr Robot delights in pulling the rug from under the viewer's feet, as well as taking odd diversions along the way, such as a memorable 'sitcom' episode in Season Two. A highlight of a good year for TV, in which I have also enjoyed The Man In The High Castle, Flowers, Better Call Saul, The Americans, The Walking Dead and Woody Allen's much maligned Crisis In Six Scenes, which I thought was an unexpected delight. I also enjoyed The Windsors and the Christmas special of Inside No 9.

Rogue One was, for a spin-off, a surprisingly good film in the Star Wars series. After The Force Awakens, I did not think I'd be ready to like another film as much, but Rogue One is a worthy addition to the series. Of course, it uses many of the same tropes as Episode Seven (and not quite as well), but it is also a little darker and has moments all its own. Now to prepare for Episode Eight...

Disappointments
I have been enjoying Peter Ackroyd's History of England series, more for the style of writing than for anything very new in terms of historical analysis. He does try to cover the lives of 'ordinary' people as well as 'the great', which is admirable, but his volume on The Civil War was a little disappointing in this respect, considering it was a time when an increasing number of the 'ordinary' were able to express themselves. I'd have liked more about the Diggers and Levellers personally, but maybe the next volume, Revolution, will do better.

In the theatre, I am rarely disappointed, but I am not sure The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime gave me anything I didn't get from the book, and a lot better too. It's well done, but I'm not sure exactly what purpose it serves. Antony Sher was a watchable King Lear, but after Glenda Jackson anything was bound to disappoiont by comparison.

A lot of criticism has been (rightly) levelled at Westworld, which is an overblown and far too complicated for its own good mess of a show, rescued only by the wonderful performance of Antony Hopkins. I was rather underwhelmed by Billions and have simply stopped watching Sherlock, which has become a different kind of show altogether.

Deadpool. Couldn't get into it. Blah.

Hmmmm
I really wanted to love Jonathan Coe's latest, Number Eleven, and I did enjoy it, but it's not really a worthy follow-up to the brilliant What A Carve-Up! (just as The Closed Circle was far inferior to The Rotters Club). Coe seems to have settled for writing rather amusing minor novels, this being the third in a row I would say, rather than the great comic novels he has also given us.

My hmmm moment regarding theatre is simply the prices. To see a show in the West End now is ridiculously expensive, with 'premium' seats ion the £150 price range, and even the lower end of the market being priced at around £40. The Old Vic's Lilian Bayliss Circle remains good value, with partial-view bench seats at the side offering actually pretty decent views for £12. I was upgraded for No's Knife to a far more expensive seat in the stalls, which was an unexpected pleasure.

The Walking Dead. Is it really good, or is just the same thing over and over that seems good because we enjoyed it the first time? I'm not impressed by the mid-season breaks they always have, but at least this season things seem a little different. Will the producers follow through and end the season with Negan still in the ascendancy? Or will it be the same as always, with Rick somehow triumphing? The dramatic end to Season Six makes me hopeful, but the jury is out.

The Hateful Eight. Lots of good Tarantino trademarks, including jumping back and forth in chronology and the old 'somebody under the floorboards' trick, but the accusations of misogyny were not exaggerated, and there is an uncomfortable feel to this film's abuse of its female characters, I preferred the more dynamic female characters of Death Proof (the full version of which is one of Tarantino's best films) and Kill Bill.

Loftybooks
Further information about my own little contributions to the cultural landscape can be found elsewhere on this website. Why not have a look? In 2016, I published two new children's novels, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Curious Kidnappings and Incredible Escapes of Princess Daisy and Dr Zigglybugg. I wrote Spear of the Gods for Bedford TIE, which toured schools and public events last summer, and I had a one-act play, Responsible Product, premiered at Bedford's Stagewrite Festival. Keep in touch with loftybooks on twitter and facebook for the latest updates on my work throughout 2017. Also, if you want to comment on my review of 2016, or share your favourite cultural moments, you can let me know via the contact page of this website or on facebook or twitter. Have a great 2017!!

Christopher Loft discusses his new novel

The Curious Kidnappings and Incredible Escapes of Princess Daisy and Dr Zigglybugg


Christopher Loft discusses his new novel

This looks like a new children’s book. Is that right?

Absolutely! It’s aimed at eight to twelve year-olds, but I think younger readers would get something out of it too (although they might find some of the language a bit of a challenge), and adults would enjoy reading it to their youngsters, I think, so it’s a book for everyone really, but written mainly with that age group in mind.


And the title features a princess, so is this for girls?


Well, no. I don’t want to gender-stereotype anybody. I don’t really know what a book ‘for girls’ is, or a book ‘for boys’, for that matter. This features a girl in the main part, but there are lots of books with boys as the central character which girls also like (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory springs to mind), so why can’t boys like this one? The key to this book is not that it is about a princess, but about a person who wakes up in a world that is different to their own and how they cope with that.


So is Princess Daisy not really a princess?


At the start, she is just an ordinary girl who suddenly and without explanation finds herself living the life of a princess. Just as she is getting used to that, she is kidnapped by the evil Dr Zigglybugg who wants to hold her to ransom so the king will surrender his kingdom, and that’s when Daisy has to use all he resourcefulness, to try to escape.


And presumably this happens more than once?


Oh, yes. Each chapter is almost a self-contained story. I say almost because there are little clues and hints in each one that point towards something more, but you don’t find out what that is until the end. Meanwhile, to can enjoy each story for what it is, and one of the pleasures of it is that it is very repetitive. In each chapter, Daisy find something fun to do, has her fun ruined by getting kidnapped, and then has to find a way back home. It’s pretty silly, but each story has a point to make too.


A lot of the humour does come from the same thing happening over again, and people reacting the same way.


That’s right. The king never really learns from any of his mistakes, which means his daughter keeps getting taken prisoner, and Dr Zigglybugg never really learns either so he keeps coming a cropper. But there’s other repetition too, for instance Dr Zigglybugg always writes a letter to the king which always makes the same demands (although in creatively different ways) and he never thinks that people will know what his demands are each time.


Each story has new and interesting palace servants as well.


One of the running jokes is that the king has so many servants at his command, and each story introduces someone else with a ridiculous job title, such as Second Groom of the King’s Chamber, or Fifth Royal Rose De-Header, or Third General Dogsbody. The servants are often a lot smarter than the king they serve, of course, which just adds to the humour.


And there’s some amusing stuff for the grown-ups as well.


One of the stories is about a general election in which there is only one candidate because, as the king is in charge of everything anyway, it doesn’t really matter who the Prime Minister is, although it does matter very much that people vote for him/. I suppose you could call that a bit of gentle political satire.


Where did the ideas for the book come from?


I made up these characters to amuse my daughter, the real-life Daisy, when she was very little. I started writing the stories down so that I wouldn’t forget them. When I thought about publishing them as a collection, I looked for a way of linking them together with a continuous narrative so that they would form a coherent novel rather than just a lot of very similar-sounding stories, and that’s what I have done. When you read the book, it might not seem that there is a thread running through the stories at first, but stick with it and you will see that there is, and that it does matter that you read them in the right order.


Is it available to order in time for Christmas? Where can I get it from?


It’s available for Kindle and as a publish-on-demand paperback on the amazon website, along with my other books for children, The Pied Piper of Ham-a-lee-in and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Patricia Highsmith: Queen of Crime

Patricia Highsmith Queen of Crime


Patricia Highsmith’s fame rests principally on the success of two novels: Strangers On A Train, which was her debut, and The Talented Mr Ripley. Of these, I would suggest the former is outdone by Hitchcock’s film version (there is nothing wrong with the novel, but the film is one of the director’s finest), whereas the latter could never be matched, let alone surpassed, in any film version. However, these two are but the tip of a mighty iceberg of brilliant crime writing that seems, oddly, to be still underrated today. Not all of her books are great, but enough of them are to grant her that tittle, too. I haven’t read them all, but I’ve made some serious inroads, so here is my guide to a few of my favourites.


What makes Highsmith such a great writer is the way she takes us into the mind of her protagonist, often someone who kills by accident, or without really knowing what he (yes, always he) is going to do; but then afterwards, when he has had time to recover from the initial shock of his crime, he finds being a murderer is not as unpalatable as he first thought. And we are right there with him, rooting for his side, wanting him to get away with it or even to kill again, horribly fascinated by – even attracted to – the evil of his crime.


The archetypal Highsmith anti-hero is Ripley, who appears in a series of novels bearing his name, although the irony is he remains an anonymous character in each, masking his true identity in order to carry out whatever dark deeds need to be done. My favourite might well be Ripley Under Ground, in which Ripley is involved in art fraud and impersonates an artist, before inevitably having to carry out a murder in order to protect himself. Ripley is incredibly selfish, but somehow impossible not to like. It is difficult not to share in his disdain for the rest of humanity, even though we know to do so suggests sociopathic tendencies. Never have I felt more thoroughly engrossed in the mindset of a heartless killer than when reading the Ripley books. They are all worth trying, although personally I find The Boy Who Followed Ripley lacks the tension and plausibility of the others.


Deep Water is one of Highsmith’s finest non-Ripley books, about a man in a loveless marriage whose jealousy of his wife’s lovers eventually leads him to kill. Another loveless marriage is found in The Blunderer, in which a husband is fascinated by the unsolved killing of a married woman and suspects the woman’s husband. When his own wife apparently commits suicide in similar circumstances to the murder, things start to spiral out of control. Further marital jealousy can be found in The Glass Cell, in which an innocent man in prison becomes jealous of a man he believes is having an affair with his wife. The way the main character’s mind turns from his own innocence to becoming a potential killer of the most casual variety is completely convincing and worryingly enjoyable.

Highsmith is often at her best when a little macabre imagination on the part of her protagonist becomes something frightening that he is unable to put a stop to. It happens in The Cry Of An Owl, in which a divorced man develops an obsession with a younger woman that turns into something far more dangerous and threatening to him (Highsmith apparently considered this one of her weaker novels), and also in This Sweet Sickness, a truly disconcerting read about a man’s determination to be with his ‘one true love’, even though she is married and pregnant with her husband’s child. A surprisingly good read is A Dog’s Ransom. The premise – the kidnapping of a dog – seems trivial, but the mind of the criminal and (somewhat unusually for this writer) the mind of the policeman investigating the crime (aside from this novel, I can only think of one other Highsmith book that concentrates on a policeman to such an extent, and that is The Blunderer), are so well drawn that it keeps the reader turning the pages.


Another good page-turner is The Tremor of Forgery, although it is quite different in setting from many of Highsmith’s novels, this one taking place in Tunisia. The development of an ‘accidental’ killer and the way he responds to his crime is, however, pure Highsmith, and far better I think than The Two Faces of January, another ‘foreign’ adventure (Athens this time) and another ‘accidental’ killing, but this novel lacks the claustrophobia and atmospheric tension of the best Patricia Highsmith work. Other novels that are worth trying but perhaps not quite such satisfying  reads, in my opinion, are A Suspension of Mercy and People Who Knock On The Door, the latter definitely a departure from the usual, focusing on a family’s disintegration after the father becomes a born-again Christian. Sub-par Patrician Highsmith is still a cut above most crime writers, though.


Patricia Highsmith’s novel Carol (originally published as The Price of Salt) is one of only a few of her books I have not read yet. It is not a crime novel, but tells the story of a lesbian relationship with a relatively happy ending, something pretty much unheard of at the time (1952) and a brave venture for its author. I would suggest that her take on the crime novel – to take the opposite point of view from the moral majority and to portray a series of protagonists who appear to lack a conscience – was in itself a brave move for a writer as well. Her novels stand as testament to a magnificent talent, and they deserve to be more widely appreciated.

We Haven't Even Started Yet: Why It Is Time To Reassess Dylan In The Eighties

We Haven't Even Started Yet:


Why It Is Time To Reassess Dylan In The Eighties


It is, amongst serious fans of Bob Dylan, a matter of such widespread agreement that it is almost an unassailable fact: Dylan sucked in the eighties. This period featured the albums Saved (1980), Shot of Love (1981), Infidels (1983), Empire Burlesque (1985), Knocked Out Loaded (1986), Down In The Groove (1988) and Oh Mercy (1989), and the soundtrack to the film Hearts of Fire (1987). Of these, only Oh Mercy is considered a decent album. At one point in recent tours, Dylan was introduced on stage by an announcer who gave a brief resume of his career, summing up the eighties as a period in which he ‘lost his way’. When even the official announcement is a criticism, you know there has to be something wrong. But were the eighties really such a ‘lost decade’ for Dylan? I am going to suggest they were not; that he is the victim of a bad press in this regard (possibly a backlash against his earlier ‘religious’ period); and that this decade was no better or worse than some of the other periods in his career.


First of all, are the albums Dylan released from 1980-1988 (I shall exclude Oh Mercy as that is generally considered one of his periodic ‘return to form’ records) really that bad? Well, not all of them are that great, it is true. It is hard to listen to Down In The Groove, for example, and claim it as a great album. However, they are not all awful either. In his biography of Dylan, Robert Shelton called Empire Burlesque a major album ‘by any standards’. Both that and its predecessor, Infidels, have been claimed as returns to form as well. So why do these albums not get a better press these days?


In the case of Infidels – and this is something that goes for a lot of Dylan’s work in this period – it is because of the songs he left off the album. Fans consider ‘Foot Of Pride’ and ‘Blind Willie McTell’, for instance, as infinitely superior tracks inexplicably omitted from the final cut. Yet this does not mean the album itself is no good. Infidels contains some of Dylan’s finest writing, possibly his best since Desire in 1976. ‘Jokerman’ and ‘Sweetheart Like You’ are just two examples of this.


As for Empire Burlesque, the criticisms are three-fold: some say the lyrics are poor; some blame the production (it was remixed by Arthur Baker, giving a very different sound from the original tracks); and some criticise Dylan for ‘stealing’ lines from others. Despite Jay Cocks in Time magazine describing the album as full of anger, turmoil and mystery, Michael Gray dismisses it in The Bob Dylan Encyclopaedia as a shameful spectacle. Why? Gray hates the triteness of lyrics like ‘You to me were true/You to me were the best’ without considering the possibility of irony in the song (‘I’ll Remember You’). Empire Burlesque is an album in which nothing is quite as it appears to be; in which image is shown to be shallow, and truth difficult to grasp; in which the world is going to hell, and love (difficult to find) is the only salvation. The clue is in the title – a burlesque, which is a dance that appears to reveal more than it does – and in the constant allusion to the world of cinema, which is another front for reality. In the original title list for Empire Burlesque was a song called ‘New Danville Girl’, which was later reworked (and released on Knocked Out Loaded) as ‘Brownsville Girl’. It is a song in which the boundaries between movies, dreams and reality are constantly blurred, and provides the key to unlocking the mysteries of Empire Burlesque.


The movie connection addresses another criticism, which is the ‘borrowing’ of lines to provide lyrics. Dylan purloins lines from various old films, particularly those featuring Humphrey Bogart, for songs on this album, for which he is sometimes criticised by his fans. However, Dylan has always worked this way, and continues to do so. The borrowing of Bogart lines is not ‘lazy songwriting’, as has been claimed, but part of Dylan’s normal way of working, and relevant here to underscore the ideas about image and reality. It is lazy criticism that is the problem, not Dylan’s skill or lack thereof.


Finally, the production. Many people do not like the ‘disco’ feel Arthur Baker provides for the album, preferring the stripped-down sound of the original takes. However, we know that Dylan likes to experiment and try different sounds or genres of music (country in the late sixties, gospel in the late seventies/early eighties), so why not a contemporary feel? On the other hand, poor production could be said to mar several of his eighties albums – Saved and Shot Of Love, for instance, the songs from which sound much better in live recordings of the time than they do on the albums. This does not mean that the songs themselves are poor, though.


Indeed, the eighties provided Dylan fans with some of the best work he ever produced, song-wise. Consider the following list:


In The Garden

Lenny Bruce

Ev’ry Grain Of Sand

The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar

Angelina

Foot Of Pride

Blind Willie McTell

Jokerman

Sweetheart Like You

I And I

When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky

Tight Connection To My Heart

Dark Eyes

Brownsville Girl


I am not claiming that this is the greatest period of Dylan’s career; but he has had other times during which his work has not been universally acclaimed. Consider the nineties, for example, during which he only released four albums, two of them cover versions. Or what about the early seventies? At the time, Self-Portrait was almost universally derided, and none of his further attempts at recording (including another movie soundtrack, Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid) provoked much excitement, until Blood On The Tracks in 1975 (another album in which the original versions were rejected, by the way). The seventies, however, are not considered a period in which Dylan ‘lost his way’, and Self-Portrait has recently enjoyed a re-evaluation, with Greil Marcus appearing to at least partially retract his original damning review. Is it not time for a re-evaluation of Dylan’s work in the eighties? It could be kick-started by a Bootleg Series release of Dylan’s concerts from 1980-81; or the original versions of the Empire Burlesque songs; or unreleased eighties material (there is still quite a lot of it out there). Dylan is a great musical icon; there was no losing of the way. A genius is never lost; the truth is, the rest of us are yet to catch up.


Olympic Juice

Olympic Juice
Why Olympic success isn't good for everyone and how you can make a difference for yourself

So, the Olympic Games is over. While congratulations are undoubtedly due to all the competitors, and the final medal table position of Team GB is indeed something everyone concerned should be proud of, I am sure I’m not alone in appreciating the irony that Great Britain, a country with an epidemic of obesity among its population, is now one of the greatest sporting nations in the world (the ‘greatest’, of course, has an even greater obesity problem – even its problem is obese). How we love to cheer on/berate our athletes while we lie upon our sofas and stuff chocolates down our swollen throats into our suffocating stomachs. We celebrate as yet another privately-educated athlete wins a medal by being a fraction of a second faster than someone else, while conveniently forgetting that even the slowest of the competitors could out-run (or throw or shoot or whatever it is) any of us without even trying.

After 2012, there was much talk of the legacy of the Olympics and improving grassroots involvement, with very little sign of this actually happening. While UK Sport has ploughed millions into funding athletes they think will win medals, undoubtedly benefiting the elite (a very successful strategy at Rio), sport at the grassroots level has been less fortunate, and there is no sign that we are becoming a more active nation in any lasting sense. This money, by the way, comes from the proceeds of the lottery, the biggest players of which are the poor, so our elite athletes are funded by the spare change from the burger shop frittered away on a useless dream of unlimited wealth. The poor are squeezed to provide juice for the elite. Such is life.

Let’s imagine for a moment a world in which qualification for the Olympic games did not depend on competitive success, but chance selection – a lottery. A few weeks before the Olympics, names of random citizens would be pulled from a metaphorical hat and thrust into the arena. Imagine how much more exciting it would be if an overweight housewife from Hull had to compete in the Velodrome time trials with an out-of-condition executive accountant from Aberystwyth. Instead of celebrating the difference of a hundredth of a second, we’d be celebrating the ability of the average Joe to stay on a bike for five minutes. Instead of an untouchable elite of super-humans reminding us of our own unworthiness, we could witness people like us, plucked from their sofas even as we reclined on our own, a sort of Hunger Games without the killing. Meanwhile, all the proper athletes would be spared having to sacrifice their whole lives for the sake of a chunky piece of bling to put around their necks, and could maybe catch up on Eastenders instead.

Or, if that seems to extreme, how about adding some more realistic Olympic sports to the roster? Olympic channel-surfing, perhaps? Or Olympic staying in bed the whole day? I think I could compete in the Olympic Faffing About with great success. Getting Ready To Go Out would be my best event:

‘And here he is now, still looking for his keys. Oh, he’s got them, got the keys, now he can’t find his phone. Where is that phone? He’s looking under the newspaper, in the marmalade. Oh, he’s got it, he’s got the phone, and now he’s lost the keys again. What do you make of that, Mark?’

‘Oh, it truly is great faffing about, Phil. The way he went from finding the phone to losing the keys a second time, it’s really masterful.’

Well, maybe not. The best we can hope for, it seems, in lieu of any investment in  public health is the motivation of shame. Watching some poor young man or woman weep because they are only 37, 000 seconds faster than most of us instead of 37,000.0003, ought to make us at least try to attain some degree of self-improvement. In line with this aim, and inspired by the Olympics, I have spent the last week undertaking a juice diet, having decided this is as good a moment as any to stop looking like a pregnant man and shed some weight. It might not help me gain qualification for 2020, but hopefully it will allow me to keep hold of some of the clothes I have and not be reduced to shopping in the XXL section anytime soon.

My diet of choice is Jason Vale’s Juice Master (The Juice Master Diet by Jason Vale, Harper Collins). The claim on the front of the book is 7lbs in 7 days, which is the amount Jason (people who write juice diet books always have tio be called by their first name, for some reason) says you can lose and the timescale in which he claims you can do it. But will it work?

The juice diet is not just a weight-loss thing, it is also a detox: not only is solid food forbidden for a week, but so is caffeine and (of course) alcohol. This is actually my third time of following the Jason Vale diet. The first time I stuck religiously to the book; the second I broke down on the third day and started drinking coffee; this time, I don’t even go through the pretence of giving up caffeine. Alcohol I can manage without, but my morning cup of coffee? No way. Each time I have done the diet, I have suffered intense headaches – the first time only on the first day, but the second time it was three days of hell before I surrendered. Annoyingly, even with three cups of coffee on my frirst day, I still end up with a pain in the head on the end of Day One (days of a diet are always capitalised), putting paid to my theory of the powers of caffeine. I think the answer must be to drink more water, but I stick with the coffee on the morning of Day Two just in case.

The front of Jason’s book shows a glass of refreshing orange-coloured juice. If you are attempting the diet yourself, forget this juice. There is no orange in the next seven days. The staple of the Juice Master diet is something called Super Juice. It consists of pineapple, apple, cucumber, lime and avocado (quite tasty), mixed up with wheatgrass and spirulina (a form of algae that is supposed to be incredibly healthy but tastes – at least in the powdered form they sell in the health shops – incredibly disgusting – add it to your juice and you will taste it for hours afterwards, usually with an accompanying shudder). The colour of this juice is sludge-green; none of the others is much better.

So what is the juice diet actually like? The juices themselves vary from the revolting (Super Juice is by no means the worst – there is one that is so bad Jason allows you to suck on an orange in-between mouthfuls) to the actually quite moresish (there’s one with yoghurt that is quite creamy-tasting and a tangy one with lemon which is the closest you’ll come to drinking lemonade for a while) and, once you get past the headache stage, it’s not too bad.  So, key questions:

Will you feel tired? Yes, you will, and Jason’s answer – to take lots of exercise – seems like rubbing salt in the wound to begin with, although probably a good idea when you think about it. Actually, fifteen minutes of jogging twice a day is a beneficial accompaniment to the diet, and worth the perseverance.

Will you feel hungry? In the first few days, probably. By the time you get to Day Four, however, your body is used to the new regime and you’ll cope. By the end of the week, you’ll feel a lot better and a lot healthier.

Will you lose weight? Undoubtedly. Not eating for seven days will do that to you! The claim of seven pounds sounds a lot, but I’ve lost at least twice that amount each time I’ve tried that diet. Sure enough, as I weigh myself on the Monday after the Olympics and the day the diet came to an end, I find a whole stone has been shed and clothes that once did not fit me are now looking fine.

Most of all, the juice diet is a good way of getting out of bad habits. It will stop you snacking in-between meals and cure you of your lust for fast food (should you have such a lust). But, it will only work for you if you have one thing…

Will Power. The one quality you must bring to the diet is the desire to go through with it and the determination to keep going. You will reap the rewards (and seven days isn’t actually very long, even though it will feel like the longest seven days of your life!), but only if you see it through to the end. Other useful tips are:

Read the book. Jason Vale is no great writer, but his evangelical approach to juicing can have quite a positive effect on you during the week.

Exercise whenever possible. How much exercise is set out in the book, but I have always found it hard to do the recommended amount (see above). Don’t be hard on yourself if this is true for you too. Just do what you can.

Drink plenty of water. This will help with the headaches and keep you hydrated. The combination of juices and water might keep you running to the toilet, but don’t do what I did the first time and misread the wheatgrass instructions – too much of that stuff will give you green poo!

Find a friend. Juicing on your own is very difficult. Get a friend or partner to do it with you. You might find yourselves being very grumpy with each other some of the time, but at least you will both know what the other one is going through.

Don’t return to bad ways when it’s over. A sensible diet, combined with continued regular exercise will help you to feel better and to look better.

And finally, be prepared. Make sure you have all the ingredients and equipment (you’ll need a juicer, a blender and a ton of fruit for starters) before you begin, and do not underestimate the drive and resilience you are going to require. This is not easy, but it is good. It might not be enough to get you to Tokyo in 2020 (unless the lottery-qualification idea takes off, or Juicing becomes an Olympic sport) but it might allow you to watch the next cohort of over-privileged elite athletic champions without too much shame and embarrassment.




The Adventures of Robin Hood (Part 2)

It's A Steal! The Adventures of Robin Hood (Part 2 ... of our interview with author Christopher Loft)

'The Adventures of Robin Hood' is now available as a kindle ebook and a paperback, is that right?

Yes, it costs just £5 for a paperback addition, and about £2 for the ebook, although if you look out every few months I'll be offering time-limited free downloads, advertised on my twitter account @loftybooks.

It really is a steal at those prices, ha ha. What makes your version so much better than all the other Robin Hood books for kids. It's essentially the same stories, isn't it?

Well, my book  has all the classic elements - the archery contest, the duel with Little John, and so on, but I think there are a couple of innovations that make it worth getting. One is I have updated it a little, so Maid Marian is more proactive rather than waiting to be won over - she wants to achieve things on her own terms. Also, I think mine is a more humorous retelling, while still being true to the spirit of the original stories.

And what are those original stories? Where did Robin Hood come from?

There are several ballads, known as Child Ballads because they were collected by Francis Child in the Victorian times, that date from the Middle Ages. Most of the characters and stories come from those, in particular one called 'A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode'. The ballads set the tone for the outlaw - who his friends are and the face he robs people after treating them as his guests. The giving to the poor elements, and the idea of Robin as a man of noble birth, came a little later. Like a lot of our ideas about England's past, they were given form by the Victorians, who were very interested in romanticizing the past. In my book, I have used some of the original features and also some of the later additions - I am not so interested in getting to the truth (whatever that might be) as in telling an enjoyable tale.

Like your other children's book, 'The Pied Piper of Ham-a-lee-in', this started off as a school play, didn't it?

Yes. I used to write plays for my after-school drama  club when I taught at Streatham Wells primary school in London. Robin Hood was the last story I tackled and, wanting to be clever, I wrote a play examining the identity of the mysterious outlaw. It was called 'Will The Real Robin Hood Please Stand Up?' and featured a character named Simple who might, or might not, be Robin Hood. I asked Andy Merrifield, who had collaborated on some other pieces with me, to write the music for a few songs (there were only a handful originally) and that was that. When I left Streatham Wells, which was a great school to work in, I went to Streetfield Middle School in Dunstable. I decided to have a look at the script again and wrote some new lyrics, which Andy set to music, and suddenly we had a whole new play, 'The Adventures of Robin Hood'. I recently found out that Streetfield has just closed, a victim of the two-tier conversion process. Such a shame, as it was another good school to work in and certainly supported my efforts at drama productions!

So does the stage version still exist?

It certainly does! It's one of the plays I am going to make available to schools via my website (loftybooks.com) in the autumn term. I already have eight school plays available to purchase and am looking to add six more before the end of 2016, then another sic next year. All being well, 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' should be one of them. It also exists in two shorter versions, 'The Adventures', and 'The Further Adventures', for schools that might not want to put on a full-length musical play, or for younger children.

But the books is an adaptation of the longer version?

The book is basically the full-length version in novel form, although there are some added extras that don't exist in the play. Also, I put back a scene that was in 'Will The Real...' but not in 'The Adventures...' which is when Robin hides in a barrel in the Miller household. There is hardly anything in the room except a huge barrel, and Hench and Men are searching for Robin but never think of looking in there. It was always one of my favourite parts. I like that silly kind of humour, and I think kids do, too.

So what is next? Are there other children's books to come?

Maybe. I have some short stories I might expand into a novel, and there are other plays I can plunder for ideas, too! It's always worth liking my facebook page or following me on twitter, as well as checking up on my website. And my play for children, 'Spear of the Gods' aka 'The Vikings of Bedford' will be at Moggerhanger Park on August 10th, if you really can't wait for my next book!

The Adventures of Robin Hooid (Part 1)

The Adventures of Robin Hood

To mark the publication of The Adventures of Robin Hood as a kindle ebook, Christopher Loft answers questions about his new novel for children.

Your last book for younger readers was about the pied piper of Hamelin. This one is all about Robin Hood. What attracts you to legendary stories like this?

The same things that attract anyone, I suppose. These stories have already stood the test of time because they are archetypal tales - they speak to something deep within us. The Robin Hood legends are all about fairness - stealing from the rich in order to give to the poor. Children have a very strong sense of when something is unfair, so they can easily understand the morality behind Robin's wealth redistribution.

The story is a bit more complex than that, though, isn't it?

Absolutely, of course it is. It is a real moral dilemma: we know stealing is wrong, but we also know it is not fair to let people starve whole others have more than they need. The question then becomes: how bad does suffering have to be in order to justify theft? Can it ever be justified? Hopefully, the answer that we arrive at is to construct society so that it is a fairer place for all, then the moral question doesn't come up. It's important to have the discussion first, however, to explore the underlying issues.

It's beginning to sound a bit heavy for a children's book!

Well, the discussion isn't quite like this in the book! The closest we get to the moral side of things is when the outlaws justify their actions by claiming that high taxation has turned all of society into outlaws in any case, and that argument is put forward in the form of a song, so it's not really heavy at all. The book does deal with bug themes, but in ways that children can understand - through amusing characters, silly jokes, and music!

Ah yes, the songs. How is it possible to listen to the songs via the ebook?

The title of each song is a link to a youtube video, which contains the lyrics of the song (they are in the book, too) and a recording of Andy Merrifield performing the song. As with my other children's book, the music for the songs is written and recorded by Andy, who is a great musician as well. We have worked on a number of projects together. For anyone who gets hold of The Pied Piper of Ham-a-lee-in on ebay, you'll find that has youtube links in it now as well.

Ands when will the book be available in paperback?

By the beginning of August, hopefully. I'm just ironing out a few kinks in the manuscript and then it will be available to order from amazon for just £5. The song performances are not in the printed book, of course, but they can be accessed via youtube on the loftybooks channel.

So what makes this such a good read? Why would any 9-13 year-olds actually want it?

Well, apart from the timeless appeal of the stories mentioned above, I think my version of the Robin Hood legends has plenty to interest kids. The key to a good story is to make readers care about the characters. Here, we have Robin, who is the dispossessed heir to Locksley Hall, now a penniless and regretful ex-soldier; there is Maid Marian, who is fed up with the lowly status given to women in the Middle Ages; there are Hench and Men, who are a couple of clowns; and there is a whole host of baddies to boo - from the Sheriff of Nottingham to Prince John and Sir Guy of Gisborne. It's a lot of fun to tread, I think, and a little bit educational too, dare I say.

You may. Originally, it was a musical production, wasn't it?
Yes, that's right. I'm going to tell you more about that next time, I think.

CHECK BACK AT THE END OF JULY FOR PART 2 OF THIS POST, IN WHICH CHRISTOPHER LOFT DISCUSSES THE ORIGINS OF "THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD"


Younger Than That Now: Bob Dylan Turns 75

YOUNGER THAN THAT NOW: BOB DYLAN TURNS 75

Yes, May 24th marks three-quarters of a century for Bob Dylan, and it seems only fitting to devote a blog post to the fact, at the very least.  Perhaps the most important and influential of all the great artists that emerged in the Sixties, Dylan continues to write, record and tour, no longer the challenging and uncompromising performer he once was, but still a mesmerising stage presence for the faithful and worth a look if you have never seen him before.

Dylan has been a radio DJ, a writer, a visual artist and a film star, but first and foremost His Bobness is a singer-songwriter – the singer-songwriter, the man who virtually invented the term, inspiring countless talented and not so-talented men and women all over the world to pick up an acoustic guitar and sing about things that actually mattered. When The Beatles were singing ‘Wooh!’ and writing She Loves You, Dylan was penning songs about Medgar Evers, Emmett Till and other victims of the Civil Rights struggle, and appearing alongside Martin Luther King at the Washington Monument, the day King delivered the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech (and Dylan sang When The Ship Comes In).

In 1965-1966, when the rest of the world was still coming to terms with his earlier material, Dylan created some of the most mind-blowing lyrics ever written, hired a backing band or two and pretty much invented rock music with Like A Rolling Stone. Bruce Springsteen once said the snare shot that opened that song ‘sounded like somebody kicked open the door to your mind’ and that Dylan ‘showed us that just because the music was innately physical, it did not mean that it was anti-intellect,’ which is as good a summation as any of Dylan’s achievement in the mid-Sixties. By the time the world caught up with what he had accomplished on Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, that holy trinity of albums that pointed the way to a generation, Dylan had already moved on.

There then followed the birth of Alt-Country in a Woodstock basement; a painful divorce that spawned the blistering, brilliant Blood On The Tracks; a stadium tour with The Band; the legendary Rolling Thunder Revue and the much-maligned film that it spawned, Renaldo and Clara. Dylan left the seventies behind and entered the eighties on a religious crusade. Finding himself no longer feted as the guru, the prophet, the counter-cultural leader he apparently never wanted to be, the great man was abandoned by many of those who had once adored him, the next ten to twelve years almost always referred to as the period in which he ‘lost his way’. The hugely underrated music he created during this time, from Slow Train Coming to Under The Red Sky, included some of his best material. Shot of Love contained perhaps his finest song of all, Ev’ry Grain of Sand, as well as a heartfelt tribute to the comedian, Lenny Bruce; the 1985 release Empire Burlesque was a knowing, Humphrey Bogart-inspired joy of an album that is consistently derided by the less appreciative of his fans; even the greatly-overlooked Knocked Out Loaded the following year contained the astonishing Brownsville Girl; while Under The Red Sky was a wonderful mix of fairy-tale narrative, apocalyptic warning and sardonic humour. Outtakes from this period include sublime tracks like Blind Willie McTell and Foot of Pride.

Ever since the late Nineties, Dylan has been on a series of tours around the world with the occasional stop-off to release new albums, either a collection of covers like his latest offering, Fallen Angels, or new material such as 2012’s Tempest or, a personal favourite of mine, the 2006 release, Modern Times. Other diversions have included three series of the Theme Time Radio Hour, a volume of memoirs, the Masked and Anonymous movie that he co-wrote and in which he starred, and a number of art exhibitions. In 2013, Bob Dylan revisited the Albert Hall for the first time since 1966, when that venue was the scene of one of his greatest triumphs, the climax of his legendary world tour with The Band, a series of concerts that (together with The Basement Tapes) spawned the bootleg industry. The recording of the twenty-first century Dylan at the Albert Hall reveals a man committed to his most recent music and backed by a band that followed his every lead, completely in tune with him figuratively speaking as well as literally. Just like it had always been.

Happy Birthday, Bob. You were so much older then; you’re younger than that now.

Our Kids Need Fun - And Not Just For One Day

Our Kids Need Fun - And Not Just For One Day


First of all, an apology. This blog post is another rant about education. I wanted to write a calm, considered piece, but every time I tried I found my blood boiling and my mouth foaming. As if Nick Gibb and Nicky Morgan were not enough to create this reaction, there is also the large amount of nonsense currently being printed in the media about parental opposition to government education policy. The latest journalist to raise my blood pressure is Gaby Hinsliff , and it is her piece published today (Friday 6th May) that is the cornerstone of my current rant. Read on if you can bear it.

Although Gaby Hinsliff’s latest article in The Guardian (‘Education needs a Lego moment’) does advocate more ‘fun’ in schools, it also displays her own ignorance about what is going on in education at the moment. Some of the points she makes are: parents should not have taken their children out of school in protest against the SATs; if tests were held on a weekly basis, the KS1 SATs would not be so stressful for the children; it is a good idea to make the school day longer in order to make room for activities squeezed out of the timetable (‘make dens and play sport and draw’); and schools should swap good practice in imaginative teaching.

Like many who write about education (including those who write government policy), Gaby Hinsliff does not really know what she is talking about. Michael Rosen, on the other hand, a parent and writer who frequently visits schools, certainly does. I had the opportunity to hear him speak a couple of weeks ago at the launch of Parents Defending Education, which is the kind of parent body Gaby Hinsliff seems to dislike. Michael was very articulate about SATs tests and forced academisation, the two strands of government education policy PDE is most strenuously opposing, pointing out that when all schools are academies and therefore not required to deliver the national curriculum, tests will be the way the government ensures schools teach what they (the government) want. Already we know that schools teach to the tests, because they are so afraid of what might happen to them if they don’t. This will only get worse under academisation as schools will continue to be held to account via test results without the understanding arm of the Local Authority to protect them and take account of local circumstances. The curriculum, therefore, will be defined by what the government choose to test our children on (which, at the moment, includes the horrendous SPaG rules, which are unnecessary for anyone to learn and which even Schools Minister Nick Gibb does not seem to be familiar with), thereby giving the lie to the claim that becoming academy gives a school greater freedom. If you really want to know what is going on in education, read Rosen, not Hinsliff.

The Parents Defending Education launch was also, of course, a chance for parents who have had enough of the current system to have their say. For a long time, teachers who oppose the government’s policies have been saying we need parents to join the protest, their voices carrying far more weight than mere teachers, who have already been demonised by the media and government alike. At last, that is starting to happen. If journalists and ministers do not strangle it at birth, this movement should only grow in power as the Tories plough on regardless with their damaging dream to undermine state education altogether. I myself have not taught in the mainstream for two years, having reluctantly decided I could no longer work in such an atmosphere, but as a parent and a writer I still occasionally visit schools to help out with trips, school events, or to take part in writing workshops and Theatre-In-Education projects. From what I have seen, schools continue to be full of hardworking, caring teachers who only want the best for their pupils, but who are forced to implement a desk-bound, dull curriculum dictated by the need to pass tests. It is not good enough, and we need better national commentators than Gaby Hinsliff to expose it.

Of the four points from Hinsliff’s article I mentioned above, the first is the disapproval with the parent-led campaign, Let Our Kids Be Kids. ‘A handful of parents kept their children off school for the day,’ writes Hinsliff. ‘I’m not sure what it proved.’ Well, one thing that it proved is that parents are finally realising what teachers have known for a long time: SATs are not an effective means of assessment. Like any test, they only tell you what a particular child can do on a particular day. At sixteen, a child can prepare for an exam, can understand the significance of the one-off test (even though continuous assessment might actually produce a more realistic appraisal of that child’s abilities). At eleven, it is much harder, which is why the tests are so stressful for our children. At six or seven, it is impossible, which is why there is no place for them at Key Stage One. But the ‘SATs Strike’ did not only show how much parents care about these issues, it made the national media. It is much harder to dismiss the objections of parents than teachers, and that is why we have long wanted parents to join us. Steve Rose and company, you are welcome. More power to you.

Gaby Hinsliff, however, remains unconvinced. In her article, she appears to blame parents, not tests, for making the children stressed, and suggests that, at Key Stage One, ‘so long as they’re used to having a weekly classroom test, the kids need never know that one week the results get sent to the Department for Education’. In other words, the SATs will be a lot easier if they do something like them every week. More testing? Hmm. I don’t think so. The whole point, of course, is that children of this age should not be tested at all. Teachers are actually very good at getting to know their children and assessing what they can and cannot do without needing to ‘test’ them at all. SATs exist because government ministers (and the various ‘agencies’ that feed off education by producing software for schools) want data and tables and things they can measure. They don’t want happy, fulfilled children, like parents and teachers do. That is the problem.

The idea that the ‘fun’ stuff (the stuff that has been squeezed out of schools by the need for data, tables and tetsts, like music, drama, art and sport) can be reinstated through after-school clubs (or ‘extending the school day’ as the government likes to say) is also misguided. Children are tired at the end of the day, which is why in primary schools the all-important literacy and numeracy lessons tend to be timetabled at the start of the day, and the after-school status of such activities is a clear message to kids: this stuff doesn’t really matter. What we want are schools that include a holistic approach to education, not the narrow, dogmatic timetable that is letting down our young people.

The idea of using after-school clubs to fill in what is missing elsewhere is hardly a new one. I ran after-school drama clubs for years, starting in the late nineties, because even then drama was being removed from lessons (this was at the dawn of the ‘literacy hour’ with its regimented timetabling of shared reading, guided reading, guided writing and so on), and things have only got worse since. In one recent play-writing workshop I ran with a Year Seven class, none of them had ever written a play-script before. They had read one or two, but I found nobody who could tell me about a play they had made up or performed themselves. One very able pupil with a lot of good ideas to contribute told me she hated writing, ‘because we have to do it all the time’. I love writing, but even I don’t want to do it all the time. The sun was shining that day, and on the way into the school I walked past the hall, where the Year Six children sat in regimented lines taking their SATs test. The school had large, grassed play areas outside. They were empty.

The final point I take issue with in Gaby Hinsliff’s article is the idea that teachers could have ‘a national day of Learning Through Fun, where schools swap good practice in imaginative teaching’. Better still, teachers could pass on ideas to parents who do not know how to be creative with their kids. The sad news is that, thanks to changes in teacher training, teachers themselves are now less creative than once they were. In the seventies and eighties, schools were full of teachers who were also writers, musicians or artists, and who wanted to share their passion with a younger generation. Now, teachers are ‘trained’ in ticking boxes, evaluating success criteria and following very precise lesson plans produced by robots (or possibly people acting like robots). Teachers are not used to letting kids be kids, and that is why parents are having to do this job for them.And we don’t want a day of fun – we want a whole education of fun. Learning new things IS fun, if you are learning what you want in a way that suits you. Funnily enough, that used to be the approach in our schools and, despite what the Black Papers and their ilk claimed, it worked.

I am sure Gaby Hinsliff is well-meaning. Her article bemoans the lack of creative writing in schools and is generally in favour of ‘fun’. Unfortunately, she is not well-informed enough to know what is really going on. Teachers are, and that is why they overwhelmingly oppose forced academisation. That is why, even after all these years of SATs, so many in schools continue to fight for their abolition. Now parents are joining in the fight, and in ever greater numbers. If you care about what is happening to your child in school – a neglect of creative, practical child-led discovery that borders on child abuse – I urge you to join the campaign and let your voice be heard. After all, unlike some, you know what you are talking about.

 

And The Award For The Biggest April Fool Goes To...

And the award for Biggest April Fool goes to...


As I write this, it is April Fools’ Day here in the sunny UK, which means it is officially the day when people can lie to you and then laugh about it when you believe them. My introduction, as a small child, to this noble tradition was when another small child told me I had bird shit on my shoe. A naturally trusting infant, I looked down at my immaculate footwear, only to hear the hollow, empty laugh of the April Fool prankster ringing in my ear. ‘Ha ha,’ he said. ‘You’re an April Fool.’

Nowadays, of course, such things do not bother me (although even now, as a teacher, I breathe a sigh of relief when April the First falls – as it does this year – in the school holidays). For one thing, I’m more mature (although even then, as a small child, my reaction was more one of disappointment at being lied to than embarrassment at believing the lie). For another, I have bigger things to worry about – namely, the way the whole April Fools Day ethos has been co-opted by the government as a permanent policy initiative, with us as their perpetual victims.

Yes. In Cameron’s Britain, April Fools Day is every day, and we are the fools. The government delights in lying to the people and then laughing about how they are believed as we foolishly re-elect them – with a majority! Having lied to us for years about not wanting to privatise the NHS while actually doing it, the government’s latest wheeze is to lie to us about not wanting to privatise education, while actually doing it. The decision to force all schools to become academies IS privatisation. It involves leasing public land to private trusts, who can then sell it off at a profit; it involves covert attempts to introduce selection into schools where this is not allowed to happen; it involves removing parents from the decision-making process and replacing them with people with the right ‘skills set’ (for that, read lawyers and accountants); and it involves tearing up decades of teachers’ pay and conditions agreements in favour of allowing any unqualified individual to be in charge of the nation’s children. It is not so much a nail in the coffin of education as the whole coffin, all the nails and a hole six feet deep in the ground, all ready for delivery of the corpse.

Why does the government not come clean and say what it wants to do (or – here’s a radical thought – put it in its manifesto)? Because it knows how unpopular such an idea is with the electorate. Far better to lie to us about what it is doing, and then laugh when we believe them. If there is one thing the 2015 General Election shows, it is that we are a nation of fools. We elected a government that is actively waging war on its own people for the benefit of the elite. We elected them with a majority of seats in the House of What They Are Not: Common People.

Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, a woman so steeped in untruths that her name is probably not ‘Nicky’ or ‘Morgan’ but ‘Michael Gove’s Sock Puppet’, is an expert on lying with a straight – if oddly distorted – face. On Question Time recently, she tried to blame the teacher recruitment crisis on the lack of pupils studying A-Level Maths during the last Labour government. However, her ability to pull off the most ridiculous of lies without cracking a smile is starting to wear thin. During her speech to the NASUWT conference at Easter, she was jeered and laughed at, a phenomenon she did not appear to understand, even though her government has been doing it to the people since 2010. ‘None of us can deny,’ she opined, ‘that the education system is in much better shape than it was five years ago.’ Cue laughter from NASUWT delegates. Morgan did not seem to appreciate why they were laughing; she gave evidence to support her claim. ‘Compared with 2012, we now have 120, 000 more six year-olds on track to become confident readers.’ The laughter subsided as delegates tried to work out what this meant (presumably, it was a reference to the phonics test for six year-olds, which does not measure confidence [can you measure confidence and, if so, how?], but simply children’s ability to decode words, some of which are nonsense anyway).

Undeterred, Morgan went on to blame trades unions for the crisis in recruitment (or at least a part-share of the blame with the previous, maths-hating Labour administration), because they put out too many negative press releases, thereby failing to ‘sell’ the profession. More laughter. Jeering. If she were a young person looking for a career, said the education secretary, she would not consider teaching. Applause (and no doubt a sigh of relief). ‘You’re applauding against your own profession,’ she said in her best headmistress tone. No, they weren’t, Nicky. They were applauding against you.

Of course, Morgan only went to the NASUWT conference because she knew the NUT would flay her alive if she set foot at their gathering. But the NASUWT delegates were right to laugh. The government have spent long enough laughing at us; perhaps it is time to stop letting them, to stop falling for their April Fools jokes like the trusting children we must appear to be. (Remember when Cameron said he had ‘no plans’ to cut child tax credit?) Perhaps it is time to laugh at them for the ludicrousness of their assertions. Ultimately, they will think they have the upper hand whatever people do. At least laughter is unlikely to result in the heavy-handed prison sentences that followed the 2011 riots (jail time for stealing bottled water just a few years after bankers who cost the country billions got away scot-free). But whether we are angry, or whether we are laughing at them, or whether we do both, one thing we must do is stop them. If there is one lesson we can learn from the current crop of Tories, it is that they will u-turn when they think they have to (as shown by the recent PIP scandal, for example). It is essential for parents to join with teachers in opposing forced academisation, just as it is essential for the public to stand with the junior doctors against forced contracts. This government does not represent the will of the people, and their railroading of their own citizens is undemocratic and immoral.

But they can be defeated, and that is no joke.

Absurd Thoughts for an Absurd World

Absurd Thoughts for an Absurd World

Beckett, Ionesco and Theatre of the Absurd.

March is the month in which Stagewrite comes to Bedford, the festival of new writing for theatre that is the brainchild of two local companies, No Loss and Lifebox. Writers submit one-act plays, or extracts from longer pieces, and a selection of eight or nine scripts is made, to be performed in staged readings across four nights. For the audience, it is a chance to see a range of previously unperformed work at a very reasonable price (a season ticket for all four nights costs only £20). For the writers, it is an opportunity not only to see one’s work in performance but also to get feedback on what has been written; for what differentiates Stagewrite from other events is that, following each performance, the writer, director and cast engage in a Q and A session with the audience. It is an unusual – and very welcome – chance to discuss one’s work with people in a constructive manner. Writers who are serious about developing their craft can use Stagewrite as a way to resolve problems in their work or to try out alternative endings.

This year is my second experience of Stagewrite. In 2015 my first play for adults, The Interview Stage, received its first performance there and was very well received – so well that it went on to have a run of performances in Bedford and London, as has been documented elsewhere. The overwhelmingly positive feedback I received gave me the confidence to try something else, and the result of this is my new play, Responsible Product, to be premiered at The Place on March 11th. As I told Phil Mardlin, Responsible Product is my attempt to write something in a consciously more absurdist style. Whether it is well-received or not,  what I am looking forward to is finding out what impact (if any) this approach to my writing has on the audience.

The most famous example of absurdist drama is undoubtedly Waiting For Godot, arguably the greatest play of the twentieth century, certainly one of the most influential. Although at first ignored and then derided by the theatrical establishment, Waiting for Godot went on to dominate the world of post-war theatre like no other play. As Peter Hall has written, Godot ‘challenged and defeated a century of literal naturalism’, redefining the theatre as a place of fantasy and leaving naturalism to the cinema. It is part of what Martin Esslin termed the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ (in his landmark book of the same name). Absurdist writers rarely define themselves as such. Esslin grouped together a range of playwrights who shared certain characteristics in their writing: Beckett, Ionesco, Adamov, Genet and Pinter. There are others, of course.

One of the characteristics shared by these writers is the expression of the futility of existence; another is the failure of human beings to communicate effectively with one another. Although absurdist plays often seem to depict a world very different from our own, the irony of Theatre of the Absurd is how well it reflects the real world, how much more effectively it does so than the supposedly naturalist writers that preceded Godot. It does this because it recognises the absurdity at the heart of the real world.

With Responsible Product, one of the influencing factors was the existence of zero-hour contracts, which seems to me a pefect example of the absurd. In my understanding of zero-hour contracts, a worker can be officially employed yet, on any given day, have no work to do and receive no pay. One would think that having work to do and being paid for it were the defining characteristics of employment, but apparently not. This is the absurdity at the heart of our world of work and, although Responsible Product does not deal directly with zero-hour contracts, it does address other absurd elements of the modern world – from reality television to the phone-hacking scandal, from the destruction of workers' rights to the fact that Britain could elect a government that seems to be waging war against swathes of its own population, literally robbing the poor to pay the rich.

Something the current government is very effective at is portraying itself favourably through mass media, whereas, as mentioned above, the failure of human beings to communicate meaningfully with each other is a feature of absurdist drama. One of the distinctive features of Godot is the way Vladimir and Estragon communicate with each other (or fail to do so). As Esslin points out in his book, Beckett uses music-hall traditions to inform his writing, and there is something of the comic double-act about these two characters. Theatre of the Absurd often features similar pairs of characters, veering from the threatening (Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party) to the comical (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Stoppard’s play).  At the same time, comic double-acts have also become more absurd in their style (starting perhaps with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and very noticeable in some of the Monty Python sketches).

In Responsible Product, my Vladimir and Estragon are Seymour and Amos, two hapless workers in a telesales department trying to make sense of a world that cannot be made sense of. As Waiting For Godot is set in an abstract landscape that could be anywhere, Responsible Product unfolds in a generic workplace that is meant to represent any office or workplace. It is at once a situation we might recognize and yet it is a place of absurd experience. Eugene Ionesco is the master of showing the absurd at the heart of the everyday. His plays are often set in recognizable places that are gradually revealed to be very different from what we might expect. They too show us the impossibility of effective communication, as well as the futility of the human experience.

In Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, the initial appearance of what appears to be an escaped animal is greeted with attempts at rational explanation. Gradually, however, everyone in the town, except for one man (Berenger), turns into just such a clumsy, unthinking animal. Berenger’s desperate attempts at preventing the last of his friends to change are doomed to failure as the pressure to conform outweighs both reason and emotion.  In The Lesson, a professor and his student fail to make themselves understood to each other and ultimately resort to violence. In Ionesco’s first play, The Bald Prima Donna, a middle-class dinner party consists of banal exchanges of information and descends into an impenetrable sequence of non sequiturs.

Ionesco called his pieces anti-plays. Predating Godot for the most part, they satirise the comfortable world of the bourgeoisie, but – and this is an important element of absurdist writing – they offer nothing better in its place. Absurdist drama is often very funny because, when one recognizes not only that the world is absurd but that there is no alternative to this absurdity, there is not much else to be done but to laugh at such a world.

In Responsible Product, I have tried to create characters that are identifiable but not likable, and a predicament that appears unavoidable and hopeless. Seymour and Amos can never escape their situation – unemployment is not an option and an alternative career seems ridiculous for such incompetent characters – and the opportunity to improve one’s lot is only available to those prepared to sacrifice their own humanity. Marx’s theory of alienation is at the heart of their situation. Is it truly hopeless? Well, at the end of Rhinoceros, Berenger is still holding out against the unthinking mob, refusing to give up his humanity, but there is a sense that his resistance will ultimately fail. Maybe for the characters of absurdist drama, futility does conquer all, but what about the audience? Might not Rhinoceros serve as a warning against thoughtless conformity? Might it not inspire us to value our independence, our humanity even? Perhaps, in its own little way, Responsible Product might serve a similar purpose. If you are in or around Bedford on March 11th and looking for an evening of thoughtful absurdity, why not come along and find out for yourself?

To buy tickets for Responsible Product, or any other Stagewrite production, click here.

To read my interview with Phil Mardlin, click here.


What Am I Getting Dressed For Exactly?

What Am I Getting Dressed For

Exactly?

Parents in Pyjamas: what's the issue?


Parents. Remember when it was said you had all the power in education?  Did it feel that way? Does it feel that way now? It seems to me that it is increasingly the managers who are calling the shots, whether as governors  (I have written a play about this), as an academy trust (which, as we have recently seen, is not the same thing as a governing body), or the headteachers themselves (by no means the same thing as teachers, heads have taken on a ‘super-empowered’ life of their own). Kate Chisholm, an academy headteacher in Darlington recently sent home a letter to all the parents (and carers - the term ‘parents’ in this blog is intended to cover all those involved in family childcare, including extended family, foster carers and others, and is in no way intended to imply one is preferable to any of the others) asking them not to dress in their pyjamas when coming to school. Depending who you listen to, this is either a ‘Big Brother’ style attack on their individual rights (as one of the parents has said) or a brave act intended to raise standards (as some headteachers have apparently claimed). But what is really the issue here? Not surprisingly, this is basically an attack on working-class parents; but it is also an example of how the balance of power in education is moving more and more away from parents and towards over-authoritarian managers, supported, to a large extent by the media. Such as Kate Chisholm, lauded by Harry Wallop in the Daily Torygraph as a super head. But just how super is she?

First of all, to what extent is it a headteacher’s business what other adults choose to wear? Isn’t that an adult’s own choice, whatever others might think? Many employers have a dress code, of course,  if not an actual uniform then the expectation of a certain level of smartness (many schools are included in this, as teachers know). But what if you work from home? Or you are a full-time carer? Then you can more or less wear what you like, even if that means wearing your pyjamas all day around the house. Why not? It saves on time and the washing; it makes sense; and if you are popping to the shops, all you need to do is cover up a bit. As long as you cannot be accused of indecency, your clothing is your business. In saying to parents it is not acceptable, therefore, Kate Chisholm is crossing a line. The question is: why?

There are two basic reasons that are put forward by Miss Chisholm. The first is the idea that nightwear is not ‘proper’ attire in which to come to school. The second is that doing so is somehow detrimental to your child’s academic progress. The first is a value judgment and the second is highly questionable, but before I examine them, there is a separate point I’d like to address.

One of the arguments put forward in support of pyjama-wearing parents is the difficulty of the school run for many families, and this is a fair point. For lots of parents, getting their children ready for school is difficult enough and their own presentation in the mornings may suffer as a result. It might be worth looking at how tired and stressed our children are because of the demands of modern schooling and how that itself is having a knock-on effect on the time and effort required to get them ready each day; but that is a matter for another post. In this case, the ‘I-may-not-be-properly-dressed-in-the-morning-but-my-child-is-and-is-on-time-and-surely-that’s-what-matters’ argument is a moot point, because Miss Chisholm makes it clear that she is not just talking about the mornings, or even the afternoons, but the school plays as well (‘at Christmas we have about 12 different performances of the Christmas play, in morning, afternoon and evening. And there were parents in all of these performances wearing pyjamas’ she says) – parents never seem to get dressed in her part of Darlington. So, while that argument is valid in a general sense, I am going to leave it to one side and return to Miss Chisholm’s particular complaints: it’s not ‘proper’ to wear pyjamas at your child’s school at any time, and it may actually harm their chances of success.

What is wrong with parents wearing pyjamas to go to school? Miss Chisholm says it is ‘disrespectful’ not to get dressed before coming to school (her own mother used to wear a posh dress and perfume, so there you go), and one anonymous parent claims it is lowering the standards of society. Although Chisholm’s letter mentions the weather as a factor, it is clear that her real gripe is that she wants parents to make an effort for school, to dress up for the drop-off. Although she claims she is not being ‘snooty’, it is difficult for Chisholm to avoid the charge here that she is basically using a middle-class value system to pass judgment on working-class parents. The Guardian helpfully points out that Skerne Park Academy sits in the middle of a ‘council estate on the southern edge of Darlington, opposite a closed pub, a kebab shop and a Londis grocery with a poster on the door: “One child at a time. Unless accompanied by an adult.”’ The Telegraph adds that 43% of the children are eligible for Free School Meals (which means they are poor). It is clear what we are being told: these council-estate parents are no good. If they behaved like the middle-class teachers in the school, their children would do better. One parent claims to support the head because she doesn’t want the estate to have a ‘Benefits Street’ image, even though it is the head who has brought attention to it (and even though Chisholm herself says it is no more than 50 parents out of a school of 450 kids – why even send a letter to all of them in that case?). If it was middle-class parents in pyjamas, would Chisholm take the same line?

Probably not. The Telegraph interview makes it clear that for this head, the pyjama issue is linked to other parental problems, these ones of more obvious concern. Parents have sworn at her when she has tried to raise discipline issues with them; one father took a swing at her when a change to school uniform was introduced; she has been subjected to verbal abuse; some parents let children skip school or turn up late. Clearly, there is a problem between Kate Chisholm and some parents and it seems strange that, rather than reaching out to what seems to be a core group (Wallop calls them ‘hardcore’!) of dissatisfied parents, Chisholm is intent on making them even less satisfied with her management of the school. Could it be that she has an ulterior motive? Does she want them to remove their children? Does she want them to be shamed into behaving how she thinks they should? So, whatever did happen to parent power – or was that only meant to be for the middle-class parents?

The Daily Telegraph would like to portray Miss Chisholm as a fearless head standing up to a feral underclass, and the comments beneath the article show just how much their readership laps up this kind of bile, but how great a head is she? There was ‘talk’ of the school being closed down before she took it over, whereas now OFSTED says it is ‘Good’. True. OFSTED also says the school has failed to reach its floor targets and is in the bottom 20% of schools for SATS (in 2014, the most recent data on the OFSTED website). That is the lowest possible band. The Telegraph trumpets the fact that Chisholm has replaced French with Mandarin on the school curriculum, although it is difficult to see the relevance of this. Wallop also states that she changed the school uniform, using money from the Pupil Premium to fund this for parents, even though the ungrateful parents objected. It doesn’t mention that the Pupil Premium money is supposed to be used to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils; maybe squandering it on a school logo for their jumpers instead of investing in teachers or resources was what upset the parents.

I have no idea how good a headteacher Kate Chisholm is, or how good her school is. But I do know that I can take a few facts about her actions and use them to paint her in a less than favourable light; just as our mainstream media can take a few facts and make her look like a champion (‘we need her in our schools’ says one Telegraph commentator). What is dangerous here is not just what Chisholm says, but the way it (and she) can be used to make a more general point, a point that is a thinly-veiled attack on the parenting skills of low-income families. And what a coincidence that this should happen just after Cameron announces the importance of parenting classes. Of course! That’s what the feral underclass needs! And here’s the proof. Thanks, Kate!

There is only one reason Miss Chisholm could justifiably comment on parental appearance, and that is if she feels it is detrimental to the education of the children in her charge, which apparently she does. In that case, the question becomes: Does turning up to school in your pyjamas damage children’s education? Well, to say the least, this is highly questionable. For one thing, how on earth could such a claim be verified? The point, once again, is that it is the kind of people (ie the poor) who would do this who are also the kind of people whose children fail. And it’s their fault. Obviously. Let us see what Miss Chisholm has to say on this matter:

“I am a great believer in brain development and how children grow. Children need boundaries and they need to know what to expect in the morning. There are studies that prove a clear routine improves children’s ability to learn, and therefore their ability to retain knowledge, their ability to progress and reach their aspirations.”

This is a great example of sounding as if you are making a point without actually doing so. Look at it one sentence at a time.

I am a great believer in brain development and how children grow.  Presumably, this means she believes that the brain is capable of development and children are capable of growth. Well, that’s a relief! Is there anyone who does not believe this?

Children need boundaries and they need to know what to expect in the morning. This seems a reasonable point, but somewhat irrelevant. After all, wouldn’t you expect to see people in their pyjamas in the morning? Boundaries can exist whatever you wear, so what is she really saying? People who think PJs are OK for school have no boundaries. Hmm.

There are studies that prove a clear routine improves children’s ability to learn This is interesting. I wonder what these studies are and exactly what they mean by a ‘routine’. If you are routinely taken to school by a parent in their pyjamas, does this count? If not, why not? If so, hooray! Routinely taking your children to school in your pyjamas means you are improving your child’s ability to learn. Well done.

and therefore their ability to retain knowledge, their ability to progress and reach their aspirations. Oh, there’s more. According to this, a clear routine improves children’s abilities all round, even their ability to reach their ‘aspirations’. The Telegraph interprets this as meaning Miss Chisholm wants all children to flourish and reach their potential – and adds that she will take on any parent that disagrees with her, even those who want to punch her. It is a wonderful journalistic twist by Wallop, to make it look like Chisholm is the champion of underachieving children, whose enemies are their own parents, selfishly refusing to provide a routine and thereby preventing them from reaching their ‘aspirations’. Given that many primary children probably have as an aspiration to stay home from school whenever possible, it is unlikely that either Chisholm or Wallop means this. What they mean is not children reaching their own aspirations, or even their parents’ (feral underclass that they are), but the aspirations the government has for them. So, parents of Darlington, sort yourselves out – get into a non-pyjama routine at once, or your kids will never grow up to enjoy their allotted life of unemployment, poor health, flooding and early death. You have been warned!

When this was first on the news, I thought the whole issue was trivial and not worth bothering with; but that’s not the case. It is another example of the demonization of the working-class that Owen Jones wrote about in Chavs, and it must be resisted. Education is not purely the preserve of modern managers like Chisholm. The education of our children is too important to be left to people like her. Unfortunately, formal education in this country is too focused on data and ways to measure it and not at all focused on the personal development of the human beings they are supposed to care for: our kids. Right now, the needs of children that schools are best at meeting are as follows: the need to be separated by ability at a young age; the need to be put under pressure; the need to be tested; and the need to conform. For everything else, it is us, the parents, who are having to fill in the gaps, and we have our work cut out. No wonder we don’t have time to get dressed in the  mornings.


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Happy New Year! But also...

Happy New Year! But also…

 

I’d like to wish all of you a happy 2016 and in particular say hello to those former students who have unearthed my website from the depths of the internet and have been kind enough to get in touch. From time to time, I hear from or run into people I used to teach, some of them barely recognisable to me now, transformed from eager young learners into mature, sophisticated, proper grown-ups!

Whenever I do encounter former students, all they ever want to talk about is drama. When I was a full-time primary-school teacher, I wrote and directed school plays and often ran after-school drama clubs in order to be able to stage these productions, curriculum pressure preventing this happening as part of the normal school day. In my view, offering the opportunity for children to take part in drama at school is essential, and equally essential is the public performance at the end of a course of sessions. Drama builds character, develops the imagination and empathy. It allows children to see things from another person’s point of view (to ‘climb into his skin and walk around in it,’ as Atticus Finch says). For those who think everything must lead to measurable progress in the curriculum, drama improves speaking and listening skills and (if one is working from a script) reading as well. It helps develop teamwork as well as independence fosters creativity and creates bonds between people of different backgrounds and abilities. It is a naturally inclusive art form: some of the least-able readers often turn out to be great learners by rote, or impressive mimes, or great physical actors; those on the autistic spectrum often revel in the repetition of actions and dialogue in exactly the same way over and over. For those who do not wish to act, there are numerous backstage roles that often appeal. Drama is good for the mind, body and soul, and taking part in a performance in front of parents, teachers and (especially, especially, never underestimate the importance of) peers, is a real test for any child, a much more significant test than a SATs exam.

No wonder then that it is the school play that these grown-up kids want to reminisce about. That school play, the one that has stayed with them all this time, it doesn’t matter if it wasn’t the greatest production in the world, it only matters that it happened. I can still remember my first lines in my first school play as a child, forty years ago. I can remember the way I tingled with excitement, butterflies dancing in my stomach, as I took my place at the side of the stage. I’m not sure it actually was a stage, perhaps it was just the floor of the school hall. And were there lights, or just the normal hall lighting with the curtains closed? It doesn’t matter. In my mind, it was a full house at the Lyttleton, and I had to try the garden gate and say, ‘Locked. That’s funny.’ And it felt great.

In his book, The Magic-Weaving Business, Sir John Jones recognises the importance of the school play. He too says that when he meets former students it is exactly such memories that they want to talk about. ‘It is ironic,’ says Sir John, ‘that such experiences are often confined to that most dubious of groups extra-curricular activity’ (his italics).

I used to agree with Sir John. It is ironic, I used to think, that this most crucial of experiences is not a guaranteed opportunity for every child as part of their education. I no longer think it is ironic. Now I think it is disgraceful. Years ago, school plays were more frequent occurrences – and not just at Christmas. Drama was central to teaching, too. At one school in which I worked, drama was so much a part of the way teachers taught, it was never referred to as ‘drama’. It was called teaching. It was simply taken for granted that what we now call ‘drama’ would be a normal part of the way teachers taught. This was in the early days of the National Curriculum, before OFSTED, and before the rash of strategies and interventions that came to dominate our profession. Once the Literacy Strategy began its stranglehold, drama began to fade from the classroom – not that it was outlawed, but its reification as a series of exercises – ‘hot-seating’, ‘conscience corridor’ and so on – meant these nods in the direction of drama were allowed to replace the school play, the community event, the magic-woven memories of our children.

What did we do, as teachers? What could we do? We went along with it, of course. We agreed to relegate what we loved to the status of an after-school club, with maybe the ritual of a nativity and the odd leavers’ production to keep us quiet. That seemed OK at the time – I certainly enjoyed the years I spent working with children on drama productions for an hour or two after school. However, in accepting this lowly status, we have also allowed other teachers – those who never ‘got’ drama in the first place, perhaps – to dismiss drama from their minds altogether. For them, it is not this crucial experience that has become ironically relegated to an extra-curricular existence. For them, it is an extra-curricular activity that has nothing to do with teaching or learning. It’s alright in its place, but it has no educational benefit. For them.

Step forward Andrew Gould, headteacher of Barming Primary School in Maidstone, Kent. In November, Mr Gould hit the headlines after he cancelled his school’s Christmas productions (all except the Reception class) because he thought OFSTED wouldn’t like it. Or, as he put it, he ‘could not justify’ children being taken out of class to rehearse a play when OFSTED might come at any time (the school was in special measures). Mr Gould was labelled a ‘Grinch’ in the Media and there was an online petition calling on him to change his mind (which he did not do). Gould later defended his decision, saying this:

‘I am fully in favour of extra-curricular activities enhancing learning but also fully in favour of developing a curriculum and an ethos in lessons that builds confidence, enables team work, independence and creativity.’

Do you see the ‘but also’?

Gould is clearly referring to the school play as an extra-curricular activity. He believes extra-curricular activities can enhance learning and he is all for them. Good for him.

But also he wants lessons that build confidence and that enable teamwork, independence and creativity. This is very different from what the extra-curricular school play can offer. Apaprently. In the mind of Mr Gould, the school play, while it might enhance learning, does not build confidence or develop teamwork, independence or creativity.

Has Mr Gould ever staged a school production? Unfortunately, in today’s educational climate, probably not. He has no doubt been too busy poring over spreadsheets and analysing data. If he had had any involvement in a school play, he might not have made such a statement, for drama, of course, does develop those very skills Gould says he wants. Being part of a school production does build confidence, it does improve one’s ability to work as part of a team as well as one’s independence (getting your own ‘bit’ right, whether that’s speaking a line or carrying off a prop) and creativity (students love to come up with creative ways of staging a play, or overcoming a difficulty in rehearsal). If Gould really wanted to develop those skills in his students, there is nothing better that he could have done than have every year group involved in a school production.

But Andrew Gould did not do that. He did not stand up to OFSTED (just as I never stood up to demand my extra-curricular productions become curricular ones, just as hardly any of us hardly ever do). But Andrew did not ‘cancel Christmas’ because he was scared of OFSTED, he did it because he did not see the importance of drama, because he could not ‘justify’ it. To him, it would only ever be an extra-curricular pursuit[cl1] , not an essential way of teaching and learning. And that is a disgrace. For too long, we have allowed the value of drama (and, let’s face it, other arts subjects too) to be downgraded. Now, most of us who care about such things have either left mainstream education or are too battle-weary to fight anymore.

I suggest that it is up to the parents now. It is heartening that parents complained in Gould’s school about his decision (although he brushed aside the petition, it would seem). One can only hope this gave him food for thought. But if parents care about their child having a proper, rounded education, including the chance to be in school productions – and concerts, and art shows, and trips to the theatre, museums, etc (and not just when it fits their ‘topic’) and all the other things that children used to be able to do, they will need to keep fighting. The voices of teachers are effectively ignored by the government and the Media, but the voices of parents and carers are not so easily silenced. This is now their opportunity to make 2016 the year when drama was once again recognised for the importance it holds for our children’s education. It’s not an extra. It’s the lead role. Happy New Year.

Incidentally, although I no longer write plays for young people, I still write about education. The abuse of power exercised by some senior leaders and school governors against teachers was the subject of my first one-act play, The Interview Stage, which was given its premiere last year and which reached the final of the 2015 British Theatre Challenge in London in October. A recording of that performance, produced by Sky Blue Theatre and recorded by MiniMammoth Films, is now available on YouTube – anyone with an interest in teachers, those they teach and those they answer to, might like to watch it, and you can do so by clicking here. You can find out more about the play on this website.

 


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Once More Unto The Teaching...

Once More Unto The Teaching…

Children’s Minds by Margaret Donaldson

 

First of all, let me apologise for the terrible pun in the title of this month’s blog post, but I did choose it for a reason. I often feel drawn towards writing about education because I have worked in that field for nearly twenty-five years now and because I care about it passionately and I hate to see how it has become distorted into this awful data-driven, target-centred, academised (which is to say back-door privatised) mess that we call the British education system today. Yet I am also aware that there are many (some of them very vocal and – groan – very dedicated bloggers) who welcome the direction education is taking right now and bewail those of us who advocate a more child-centred approach.

What do these people like? They like the idea that teaching is about the transmission of knowledge (and possibly skills, it depends). They (generally) like testing as a means of assessment. They probably approve of the Black Papers, or would have done if they had been around at the end of the sixties/start of the seventies. They love synthetic phonics and truly believe that teaching a child to decode a symbol into a sound is somehow equivalent to teaching them to understand what it means (which is what reading is).

What don’t they like? They don’t like the idea that children might come to school with their own ideas, their own set of values, their own knowledge or their own ability to decide how, what, when, where and with whom (if anyone) they wish to learn. John Holt said that his concern was not to improve education, but to do away with it, to end what he called ‘people-shaping’ and to enable people to shape themselves. The subject-centred, teacher-centred educationalists do not like John Holt. And they almost certainly do not like Margaret Donaldson’s wonderful yet short book about child psychology, Children’s Minds. If you have to go into battle with one of these people, arm yourself with this. It’s brilliant.

The early part of the book is concerned with showing where Piaget went wrong. This might be old news today, but it is still interesting to read. Piaget essentially did not credit children with enough intelligence (does this sound familiar already?). He thought they could not decentre (see things from another point of view) because in the tests he gave them, they didn’t do it. But it was later proven that this was due to the nature of the tests and that, if structured differently, young children could decentre. What Donaldson does well is not just debunk, but show how and why Piaget was mistaken and who came along with better ideas. Of those she writes about, Chomsky, McNamara and Vygotsky are the most interesting and well-known.

Chomsky suggested that children are already predisposed to learn language and demonstrated the strength of his idea by showing that, when children make mistakes, they are often grammatically correct (such as saying ‘bringed’ instead of ‘brought’) and are not errors they would have picked up from adults. ‘Bringed’ shows the ability to apply a rule, not just repeat a word parrot-fashion. McNamara suggested acquiring language is part of a wider learning process and is learned within a meaningful context. Providing meaningful contexts, of course, is very much part of a child-centred, ‘progressive’ approach, but is also backed up by psychological experience and can be shown to prove that children can make deductive inferences. In fact, Donaldson shows that children make sense of a situation first and then make sense of what is said to them. If the situation means nothing to them, their language and understanding will lack complexity and sophistication; but in a meaningful situation, children can reason and make inferences just like adults.

There is then an interesting section of the book about reading and writing. This, of course, also has to be taught in meaningful contexts, but also it should build on children’s skills in speech. We are so keen today to start children reading as soon as they set foot in our school, we often fail to develop their speech and language skills first, an essential prerequisite.

Vygotsky suggested that children see the names of objects as an internal attribute, like colour, not externally applied. To become aware of language, they have to separate it from objects, which learning to write can help them to do. In learning this, they also learn about themselves. The need for a meaningful context in learning to read and write means flashcards and similar devices should not be used, but also it reinforces the idea of learning being its own reward. Young children want to learn for their own purposes and using stars and other rewards for doing well undermines this process.

At this point, the so-called traditionalists would probably want to use this argument: child-centred learning is all very well for those who are motivated top learn, but what about those who don’t want to. Leaving aside the argument that all children are motivated to learn and that it is usually schools that remove this self-motivation (Donaldson has something to say along these lines too), Children’s Minds does consider this idea closely. The paradox is that (even for motivated learners) children cannot decide for themselves what they need to learn and so they need control; but too much control can turn them away from what they need to learn. Donaldson suggests that the aim of the control, therefore, should be to make control unnecessary. If the teacher respects the student and lets them see that they do, a balance can be achieved. Thus the paradox is resolved and the critics silenced.

 

Confirmed traditionalists will harrumph and harangue and refuse to accept the psychological evidence, but this is still a great book to read. If you like John Holt and Frank Smith and other progressive educationalists I have written about (please see my previous blog posts) and you want some further evidence to back up their ideas, this is the book for you.

 

Missim Woods

Missim Woods is Christopher Loft's new novel for adults. In this interview, he tells us a little bit about it.

Where did the idea for Missim Woods come from?

Well, a number of different influences actually. First of all, I wanted to write a pulp fiction detective thriller, the kind of story you could imagine being made into a Humphrey Bogart movie. Bogart essentially plays the same part in a lot of movies. He’s a fast-talking, hard-bitten man of the world who treats ‘dames’ like dirt and always knows the score. He’s one jump ahead of everybody, but somehow ends up on the losing side. It’s a role that is summed up very well in Woody Allen’s half-parody, half-homage, Play It Again Sam. Of course, now you can’t write straight pulp fiction; everything has to have a twist. I love modern thrillers like Shutter Island, which has an excellent twist to it, but the problem is that once you know what the secret is, the story loses its interest rather. The problem with the mystery genre is that the setting-up of the mystery is fascinating, but the solution is always a little disappointing. I wanted to write a mystery that would still be mysterious, even when the book is finished, yet wouldn’t leave the reader feeling cheated.

Is that the idea of the existential detective story?

Yes, because the mystery is life itself, in a sense. One of my favourite films is Mulholland Drive, yet I preferred it when I didn’t really understand what it meant, who the two women were. Once I got what it was about, I didn’t enjoy it so much; whereas I don’t think I’ll ever understand Inland Empire, so that film retains a lot more of its appeal for me! In a book, I think it’s harder to achieve that effect, but then I read Marc Saporta’s Composition Number One, which is a loose-leafed book. Before you start reading, you shuffle the pages so the order is random. This means the second page does not relate to the first, and the third is different again, and so on. However, you still find yourself making connections between them, even though you know the arrangement is random! I’ve just read Dr Sleep, which is Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining. It features two different narratives, and at the start you don’t know how they connect, but you do know they WILL connect at some point. Funnily enough, you feel the same with Saporta’s book. You know really there is no connection between the disparate pages, yet you can’t help but make connections between them. It’s how the human brain works, I suppose.

In Missim Woods, there’s a repeating line: Truth is that which links things together.

Exactly. When you’re reading a thriller, you start thinking about how the different parts of the story might fit together, like a jigsaw puzzle, and Jack is doing the same within the novel; only life is actually far more like Composition Number One than Shutter Island: there is no secret twist for you to try and unravel, it’s just a random collection of events and you have to make the best of it. That is why it’s an existential detective story.

So there is no solution?

Well, I wouldn’t say that. There are a number of different possible solutions actually, just like there are different ideas about what the meaning of life might be. Every reader has to decide for him or herself what they think the truth is; just like life. Of course, nihilism is always a possibility, too! Sometimes, I think of it like the Bill Murray character in Tootsie, who says he wants people to come out of seeing one of his plays and have no idea what happened; but then, other times I think, it’s obvious what is happening in Missim Woods, it just doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense. But then sense is overrated, isn’t it?

Does it matter if it doesn’t make sense?

Well, I’m a great believer that a book is a joint enterprise between writer and reader. I’ve done my part; the reader has to do the rest. If you read it, you help create it, that’s all. Whatever interpretation makes sense to you is the correct interpretation for you, even if someone else thinks the opposite.  It’s very egalitarian in that respect. And, I hope, a good read as well.

It’s set just before America’s entry into World war two. Why?

I think it’s a fascinating period. In this country, we tend to focus on the Blitz, the Battle of Britain, Dunkirk: when Britain stood alone; that’s our great national myth of the war. Throughout that period, though, Churchill was doing all he could to get Roosevelt to step in, because he knew without American intervention, Britain was lost. Meanwhile, a real debate was raging in the states, with a lot of people thinking the war in Europe is not America’s business and so they should stay out of it. Now, of course, America has a name for interfering in other countries, and quite often it is the Republicans who are doing it, but at that time the political position was quite different. We never study that over here. It’s not taught in schools or anything: America First, the debate that went on. It’s easy to look back and say, ‘Of course America had to intervene,’ but it was by no means as clear-cut to Americans at the time. I’m not defending that position; I’m just saying it’s interesting.

But it has a bearing on the plot, too?

Well, yes. Jack is up against something much stronger than himself; so were the allies. Whenever a tyrant appears on the scene – like Saddam or Gadaffi or whoever – the example of Hitler is invoked. ‘Appeasement didn’t work with Hitler,’ they say, as if that means appeasement as an idea is always doomed. But there is a real problem: what do you do when you are up against someone who won’t stop, who won’t listen to reason? What’s the answer? In a way, that is Jack’s problem too; it’s everyone’s problem.

Is the book available right now?

It’s available for Kindle on the amazon website. A print copy should be ready soon, which is published on demand. Look out for updates  on facebook and twitter.

We Keep Killing Progressive Education, So Why Won't It Die?

We Keep Killing Progressive Education, So Why Won’t It Die?

Before beginning this post, it is necessary to explain some of its terms. The idea of ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ education as opposing points of view is not always a helpful one, as good teaching and learning can, and often does, combine elements of both. However, these terms do embody fundamentally opposing principles. Another name for Progressive Education is ‘child-centred’. Progressives view learning as a natural process directed by children that only requires facilitation by an educator, not didacticism. Traditionalists are more likely to be subject-centred or teacher-centred: the curriculum itself, and/or the person ‘delivering’ it, is the most important element in the education process. This definition is elaborated in further detail below and will suffice in order to understand the basic points of this post.

On the eighteenth of October 1976, the Prime Minister, James Callaghan, delivered a speech at Ruskin College, Oxford in which he argued that the education system in this country needed radical change to improve; that parents and others felt ‘unease’ about ‘new informal methods of teaching’; in which he set out the case for a national curriculum of core knowledge. The Ruskin speech was a turning-point in the relationship between politics and education in Britain. Never before had a Prime Minister intervened in such a way. Prime Ministers did not usually make speeches about education at all; our children’s learning was seen as being the preserve of the experts within the educational establishment; but Callaghan changed all that. From now on, the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of education would be a matter for Westminster debate. First, what teachers taught children in the classroom would be decreed by the government; next the methods they used to do so would face reform. Eventually, we would end up with the situation we have now: a national curriculum that is continually tinkered with; attainment targets, levels (and whatever replaces levels), ways of measuring progress that fail to encapsulate the way children learn and in any case have no meaning in the real world but are what Claude Levi-Strauss would call ‘empty signifiers’; endless initiatives and interventions foisted upon teachers and schools; and the examination of data in the minutest possible detail relating to the supposed progress of children, but actually – as has been repeatedly shown here – failing to mean very much at all.

The Ruskin speech was the beginning of the end for Progressive Education, or so it seemed. When Callaghan spoke of informal methods causing unease, it was the progressive methods he was talking about. Ruskin created open season on ‘trendy teaching’, a hunting season that has remained open ever since. The so-called traditionalists in the education wars have been doing their best over the last forty years to kill off Progressive Education entirely. Yet strangely, it still lives and breathes. It lives in the child-centred nurseries and playgroups, for instance, and even in some Reception classes of mainstream schools; it breathes in the words of the so-called ‘phonics deniers’, who oppose the top-down synthetic phonics approach to the teaching of reading that has been government policy for the last decade. Progressive Education survives, despite all the assassination attempts. And so the question persists that this blog is an attempt to answer: we keep on killing Progressive Education, so why won’t it die?

At the time of the Ruskin speech, there was one school in the country that seemed to represent everything that was bad about Progressive Education. William Tyndale Junior School was in Islington, north London. It had adopted an individual approach towards education that was aimed specifically at socially and emotionally deprived pupils, an approach that focused on and prioritised the development of independent thought within pupils. The way they did this was to give children as much choice and responsibility as they could, to encourage and enable them to develop inner discipline rather than be subject to the discipline of teachers. Children were allowed to come in before school started and to stay at the end of the day; to go out or stay in as they chose at playtimes; to no longer have activities segregated by gender, such as football for boys or needlework for girls. At least some of these attitudes would be considered automatic considerations today. Rules were reduced to a minimum and children were expected to show responsibility as well as to exercise their rights. Instead of compulsory lessons, a wide range of activities was offered, both academic and non-academic, from which children were free to choose. I wrote at length about William Tyndale in my last blog post (which can be found by scrolling down the Writer’s Blog page) and so I shall not repeat it here. Suffice to say that the idea of encouraging independent thought amongst working-class pupils was neither widely applauded, nor even debated. Instead, critics of the school (principally one part-time teacher on the staff, who stirred up discontent amongst first parents, then managers and finally politicians and the public, via the press) concentrated on what they saw as low standards of behaviour and poor organisation by the headteacher. Before the staff of William Tyndale had had a proper opportunity to implement their ideas, the school was subject to inspection and abuse, causing great distress to some of the staff and ending up in an ILEA inquiry, which eventually concluded that the blame for the school’s ‘failure’ should be spread throughout the education system. The storm in a teacup that was the William Tyndale scandal gave perfect grist to the mill of Callaghan’s Ruskin speech. The following year, the fifth ‘Black Paper’ was published, which was to form Conservative education policy and lead to league tables, the national curriculum and OFSTED. Control of education was taken away from the professionals and handed to politicians, where it remains.

Although the Tyndale affair made it seem that Progressive Education was leading to the collapse of our nation’s schools, the questions raised were not really to do with the school being too progressive. Robin Auld QC, who chaired the inquiry and wrote the resulting report, concentrated his attention on what happens when there is a problem at a school. The failings were really to do with the lack of mechanisms in place for accountability within the education system, not teaching methods. Of course, there is much to be said about accountability, but that is not the purpose of this blog.

A few further points on the Tyndale affair. The school itself is still there, albeit amalgamated with the infant school (as a result of the inquiry). In 2011, the governors decided it should become an academy. Despite an organised campaign by parents protesting the decision, the conversion went ahead. In 2013, the school received an ‘Outstanding’ grade from OFSTED. Appreciate the irony for a moment: in 1975, the school was under fire for supposedly losing the confidence of its parents. Forty years later, if parents are unhappy, that doesn’t matter. Legislation is now being put in place to stop parents delaying the academisation of schools, and yet this is mean to be the era of ‘parent power’, ushered in partly as a result of events at William Tyndale.

Back in the seventies, the head and teachers held lengthy discussions between themselves about the type of school they wanted William Tyndale to be. How many staff rooms today are home to such discussions? Now it is the governors who make the decisions. They can spend months, or even years, discussing academy conversion without even informing the staff of their discussions. When their decision is made, the requirement to consult with parents and staff is minimal, even without the new legislation. A consultation with parents might consist of nothing more than a lengthy outline of the proposed conversion (which many parents are unlikely to read), followed by a box to tick, next to a statement such as, ‘If a meeting were held to discuss this proposal, I would be interested in attending’. Schools can then claim that failure to tick such a box indicates parental approval. This might sound far-fetched, but it is well within the rules, apparently. Whether or not ‘parent power’ is at an end, therefore, teacher autonomy seems to be well and truly buried. The report on William Tyndale was one nail in its coffin; the Ruskin speech was another.

Although there was little criticism of the progressive methods of Tyndale’s teachers at the time, the enemies of Progressive Education are quite happy to use its approach as an example of all they see as bad in education. In his foreword to the book, Progressively Worse, Andrew Old writes that Progressive Education is the middle classes inflicting their own ideas on the working classes (something Tyndale staff were accused of), experimenting on them with nothing to lose in the process themselves. This is a common criticism of Progressive Education, as is the idea that the term can be reduced to the maxim, ‘learning should be fun’. While most progressive teachers would agree that learning is fun, this reductio ad absurdum is in no way helpful to an understanding of the term. Perhaps it is time to consider what exactly is meant by Progressive Education.

John Darling, in his excellent yet brief book, Child-centred Education and its Critics, says that child-centred (i.e. progressive) education is best understood as arising from dissatisfaction with traditional practice, that is a subject-centred, teacher-directed approach in which pupil motivation depends on compliance and competition. The progressive view is that education reflects the nature of the child, which is geared towards motivation and so is self-motivated. In the progressive approach, a teacher is more of a facilitator and children have a good deal of freedom and independence. It is often said, of course, that actually children are not self-motivated and need rewards and sanctions to work effectively, the progressive answer to which is that school and the culture in which it exists have made them this way, as has the conflict between what children want to learn and what society wants its children to learn. Traditionalists say the child should meet society’s requirements (ie develop the skills they will need for the next school, university, job market); progressives say the school should be made to fit the child.

Progressive education can be said to start with Rousseau. His novel Emile, or On Education, published in 1762, outlines his philosophy of how children learn. The main points are that children are naturally active, naturally good, should respond to their needs and learn at their own pace. Indeed, they will only truly learn what they want to learn and as they want to learn it, so the curriculum has to go at the child’s pace if it is to be effective. Very similar findings were made two hundred years later by John Holt in his excellent, reflective teacher’s book, How Children Fail and the follow-up, How Children Learn.

Everything else in progressive education, it could be said, is a footnote to Rousseau. Some of the main footnotes are Pestallozi, Froebel and Dewey. Pestallozi agreed that traditional education leads to superficial learning and believed that education can be a means of social change. He also said it should start with the real – practical, concrete examples. Froebel said that education (rather than teaching) is an unfolding of children’s innate understanding and that this is achieved through play, which can be guided by a teacher. Dewey, an American, believed strongly in education’s social function and believed that it is through education that society can advance. Kilpatrick, one of his disciples, believed education would produce better citizens, more intelligent and independent-minded. The teachers at William Tyndale would no doubt have agreed. Indeed, Dewey’s thinking influenced people internationally. In Britain, although it did not have such a big effect as elsewhere, it spawned the creation of the New Education Fellowship (NEF). Their influence was limited to a few independent schools, such as The Forest School or, indirectly perhaps, Summerhill. Importantly for later on (see below), it lacked intellectual rigour but was strong on belief. These beliefs were to respect the child’s individuality and allow free reign for their innate interests. Although their direct influence, was minimal, the very existence of the few independent schools influenced by NEF kept progressive ideas alive. It declined after World War II, when its idea to build a better society seemed undone by war and the rise of working-class power made it seem upper-class and naïve. Also, however, its decline was due to a feeling that the job was done.

The job was done in 1931 with the publication of the Hadlow Report, which made progressive recommendations, such as focusing on meeting children’s needs now, not thinking what their future needs will be, such as the job market, for example. The report was not implemented due to the Depression, but the seed was sown and its ideas were taken up by teachers so that later, when more teachers were required to teach the rising population (eg 1960 onwards), those new and young teachers were largely progressive-minded.

Progressive Education came of age in 1967 with the Plowden Report and the Primary Memorandum in Scotland, both of which recognised and recommended child-centred methods. Plowden stressed personal development and individual potential rather than conformity and said that these factors, together with happiness and enjoyment, were at least as important as subject knowledge. Plowden thought that attitude to learning was more important and recommended the project approach rather than separate subjects.

As Darling explains in his book, although progressive methods spread through the late sixties and seventies, the philosophy of education at the time was opposed to a child-centred approach. In fact, ever since AJ Ayers published Language, Truth and Logic in 1936, saying that a statement is meaningless unless it is verifiable and thereby rejecting value judgments, education had not been deemed appropriate for philosophy. Then RS Peters, and his colleagues Dearden and Hirst at the Institute for Education, began a new philosophy of education in which value judgements were redundant and only analysis mattered. This led to a subject-centred rather than child-centred approach. Dearden criticised the ‘needs and growth’ approach of child-centred practitioners, questioning who is to decide the needs of the child. Peters said that letting children ‘grow’ naturally was a redundant metaphor as it took too long and could be speeded up through teacher intervention. He rejected any model, therefore, that diminished the role of the teacher. Hirst’s criticisms were based more on the nature of knowledge than the nature of the child, suggesting subject-based teaching and stressing the importance of each stage of education as a way of preparing the child for the next stage. Although their criticisms were in some ways fair, they did not destroy the progressive argument as they were not objective approaches but based on assumptions (importance of the teacher, nature of knowledge).

Peters et al had a big influence on school inspectors and teacher training colleges in the seventies because, although their arguments were not that strong necessarily, they were put across in an academic way, whereas most progressives lacked the academic rigour to put their arguments in the same way (dating back to the NEF influence, shown above). The progressives were seen as wishy-washy by comparison, relying on educational theory from different times and places (eg Rousseau), whereas Peters’ ideas were seen as practically relevant here and now. As a consequence, certain ideas became accepted as facts: education is something that happens at school; it follows a subject-based curriculum; and it is necessary to submit to the teacher in order to receive it. Schools became a de facto means of social control, rather than social change. Could this be what interested politicians? Could this be what motivated Terry Ellis and his staff in Islington?

At the same time that Peters was presenting schools as agents of control, there was a populist answer to Plowden called the Black Papers, the first two of which were published at the end of the sixties in response to student riots in Paris in 1968, and which were firmly anti-discovery method and pro-greater authority and ‘proper’ curriculum. Child-centred educationalists were already vulnerable thanks to Peters and, although the early Black Papers were dismissed as lunatic fringe publications, by the time of the fifth one in 1977 it became, as already mentioned, Conservative policy, calling for tests at seven, eleven and fourteen (the hated SATs), league tables and a national curriculum. Callaghan’s 1976 Ruskin speech, with its call for rigorous standards, also helped this change as it was seen as common sense rather than party politics.

So, the change away from progressive education was partly due to Peters (authority and subjects), partly Black Papers (authority and … er, subjects) and partly Callaghan (rigour). Callaghan himself was prompted by the Tyndale hysteria, but also boosted by the publication of Neville Bennett’s 1976 book, Teaching Styles and Pupil Progress. Although his research methods were subsequently debunked, Bennett’s research appeared to show that children did better in reading, maths and English when taught in formal methods rather than informal.

All these factors paved the way for the government to seize control of education, leading to tests, league tables and the national curriculum. That did not happen straight away, however. In fact, even as late as 1985, it was considered unthinkable for the government to interfere in the curriculum. But in 1988 they did just that and they have never stopped since. Although initially only the ‘what’ of education was addressed and the ‘how’ – the methods – were left alone (interestingly, since it was the methods that were at the heart of the debate), in 1992 the Alexander report did the government’s work for them in this regard, criticising the discovery method and focusing teaching on subject knowledge. This was the end of child-centred teaching, at least as far as the government was concerned. The Alexander report also led to government insistence that more elements of teacher training take place in the classroom, thus diminishing the influence of colleges and theory of education, a dangerous trend that has only got worse in the ensuing years, meaning that teachers are less likely now to understand any concept of education other than the subject-centred, teacher-dominated, top-down social control method currently in favour.

So, bearing in mind all this history, why on earth does Progressive Education persist? Well, it certainly does persist. To take but one example: the teaching of reading. When I wrote my first post here (scroll down to read it), about Frank Smith’s wonderful book on the ‘whole language’ approach, Reading, I was criticised for being a ‘phonics denier’ and expressing views comprehensively proven wrong, yet I also received a lot of support from other educationalists who were of the same opinion as myself. Phonics, Smith argues in his book, is not an effective method of teaching children to read because all it teaches them is how to decode letters into sounds, whereas to learn to read one needs to gain an understanding of what those sounds mean. The crucial point is that this understanding does not only come from the visual information in front of us, but the nonvisual information we bring to the text. In fact, this nonvisual information is more important than the visual. Phonics apologists are not interested in any of this, of course. All that matters to them is that synthetic phonics (learning to read by a ‘pure’ phonics approach and nothing else) ‘works’. (It doesn’t work, of course – it might help children to decode, but it does not, for it cannot, teach them to understand.) ‘What works’ is the great mantra of education today – if you can find a study that backs up your approach, you can ‘prove’ anything works. The decline of teacher-training colleges has led to a discrediting of educational theory in favour of the ‘what works’ mantra; but the truths of Progressive Education remain true even when unheeded and that is why it cannot be killed. Those who understand this know that the way children learn is through direct experience that is self-motivated. And, thank goodness, no amount of government-funded research can alter the way children learn. You can create a world of league tables and data analysis that makes it look like learning is taking place, but the fundamental truths remain. Rousseau knew it; John Holt knew it; we know it. Sorry, traditionalists – we’re not going anywhere.

Looking back over the history of education in this country, the real surprise is how well progressive theories have managed to survive. Apart from a brief spark of interest in 1931 with the publication of the Hadlow report, and the heady days of the nineteen-seventies when the recommendations of the Plowden report were put into practice by a new generation of young teachers, it is a theory that has been stifled by the traditionalists, shouted down by the big-mouthed opponents of an approach that to them, perhaps, appears dangerous, giving too much importance to children’s own individualities, allowing for too much independence of thought, possibly changing society into a more equal, fairer place to live. Just like the teachers of William Tyndale Juniors apparently wished to do – and look what happened there.

Of course, the next question is, what now for education? The progressive theory might survive all the abuse it receives, but it remains as far as it has ever been from becoming government policy. However, there are signs of change, signs perhaps of hope. For one thing, children do learn to read for meaning, despite the dominance of the synthetic phonics lobby. This happens not because of their methods, but because our early-years teachers know what they are doing. They realise that children cannot learn to read simply by decoding letters; they understand how phonics is full of sound and (where its apologists are concerned) fury, but that it signifies nothing; they are aware of the empty signifiers and they ignore them. Our teaching profession, despite the criticism and punishment it suffers, still boasts some wonderful practitioners.

Furthermore, the new national curriculum allows for far more creative shaping by teachers than it once did, and many types of school are now exempt from having to use it at all, pointing the way to a possible abandonment of the whole ridiculous idea. John Holt himself explained in How Children Fail how absurd was the idea of a body of knowledge with which every child should be familiar – we can’t even agree amongst ourselves what is and is not essential for children to know, and in any case such a body of knowledge would be constantly changing over time. And it is not only the curriculum that is starting to fade: there are growing calls for tests such as SATs to be abolished, along with the hated league tables and OFSTED inspection regime, which causes so much unnecessary stress and paperwork for teachers and does little good for children. There is also the slow recognition by educational bloggers that the data they have been analysing for years about pupil progress is very probably meaningless. Another factor is the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, placing the privatisation of education through the academy and free school programmes under the spotlight. Added to all that is the teacher recruitment and retention crisis, with thousands leaving the profession and very few wanting to join. A return to Progressive Education could be just what the system is crying out for.

In the mid-seventies, while the Tyndale affair was in full swing, a Labour government was elected on the back of a left-wing manifesto championed by the late, great Tony Benn. The story of the two years between that election and Wilson’s resignation as Prime Minister is told in John Medhurst’s book, That Option No Longer Exists. In the face of hostile media attacks and opposition from his own cabinet colleagues, Benn tried as industry secretary to implement the manifesto. One of his achievements was the encouragement of workers at Lucas Aerospace to become a workers’ cooperative making socially useful products. In February 1975, Benn published an alternative economic strategy, which proposed a shift in the balance of power towards the working-class. The strategy was not supported by the government, but showed what could have been achieved if Benn had been allowed to follow through on Labour’s pre-election promises. Wilson did not have the nerve, or the inclination, to support such an idea. Instead, he folded under pressure from the IMF and the US and accepted public spending cuts in return for IMF loans. When James Callaghan took over as Prime Minister, he said, in reference to the 1974 left-wing manifesto, ‘That option no longer exists’. Indeed, it did not. The IMF set out to contain Tony Benn, Keynesian economics and socialism itself. Benn said this approach would lead to the break-up of society; but the approach was welcomed by the new leader of the Conservative party, a certain Margaret Thatcher.

Tony Benn wanted to change society; it was said of the Tyndale teachers that they wanted the same. Progressive Education, with its emphasis on independence of thought and the reduced role of the authoritative teacher figure, has the promising potential to do just that. The most powerful hope for the return of Progressive Education is the truth inherent within it. We have to maintain the faith, but we also have to be patient. The NEF might have thought they had achieved something when the Hadlow report was published in 1931, but it was thirty-six years before the Plowden report legitimised the progressive approach. Next year will be the fortieth anniversary of the Ruskin speech and 2017 will mark twenty-five years since the Alexander report. We may only be seeing the tiniest green shoots of growth now, but who knows what the future will bring? Phonics apologists still get mighty irate when challenged over their all-conquering schemes, which is hardly the attitude of people who think they are winning the argument, even if they have won the war (for now). A similar state existed with Peters, a man whose philosophy of education dominated the discourse but who never won the argument. The fact is, the anti-progressives can never win the argument because the truth is not on their side. How children learn and develop remains the same, no matter what the anti-progressives say, and sooner or later the world will come to recognise the truth. And then we can really start to learn.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”          Nelson Mandela

William Tyndale: The Seventies School of Shame Revisited

William Tyndale Junior School: a 'failing' school revisited

William Tyndale School is a primary school in Islington, North London, an academy that was rated ‘outstanding’ by OFSTED in 2013. It might now be a beacon of success, the kind of school an education secretary likes to brag about, but forty years ago, it was a very different story. Then, the junior school was known as the school that had lost control of its pupils; a ‘scandal’; an establishment in which left-wing ideology had destroyed the educational prospects of its pupils. Things were so bad at William Tyndale that the Inner London Education Authority ordered an inquiry into the running of the school, chaired by Robin Auld, QC, whose report was eventually published in July 1976. Ever since, William Tyndale has become a symbol of everything that was wrong with a progressive approach to education.

What happened at William Tyndale in the seventies? How did it acquire this reputation? And what lessons (if any) can be learned? There are three published accounts of the events of 1974-5 at the school: the official report by Auld; Collapse of a School or a System? by TES journalists John Gretton and Mark Jackson; and The Teachers’ Story, co-authored by four of the eight teachers whose work was at the centre of the story. I have read each of these, as well as a few other articles available on the web (including this piece by Kathryn Riley – apparently from a book, although I can find no record of it – and this, by Gerald Haigh from 2008). Auld’s report is the most detailed account, although written in the judgmental tone presumably reserved for such inquiries. Gretton and Jackson wrote an interesting analysis of the affair from the point of view of its impact on the education system as a whole. Ellis’ book (I will refer to Ellis as the author of The Teachers’ Story merely for simplicity – it is clearly the joint work of four people) is the only one to give any real insight into the thinking behind the actions of the staff, which makes it a very interesting read. Unfortunately, we have no insight into the thinking of Annie Walker and probably never will have. Nevertheless, what we do have enables us to form some sort of opinion of the events of forty years ago. And we should. If William Tyndale Junior School is going to continue to be used as a shortcut term for a failed progressive ideology, we should at least be able to examine what that ideology was and the nature of its failures.

So here we go. This is a fairly in-depth account of events, for which I make no apologies. Nowhere else on the internet will you find so much detail and, if you're interested in what happened, it will save you having to track down out-of-print books to wade through. If you're not interested, please don't feel obliged to read on - come back next month when I shall be looking more generally at progressive education.

In January 1974, Terry Ellis took up the post of headteacher at the school. William Tyndale had been without a head since the previous summer, when Alan Head had retired. Mrs Irene Chowles stood in during the autumn term, before Mr Ellis’ appointment. The school Ellis took over was not particularly remarkable in any way, being fairly typical of schools in the area. Alan Head had not been a very consultative headteacher, which had led to some discontent amongst the staff. Under Chowles, the school had carried on but not significantly improved in any respect. Ellis had a different approach, a far more inclusive one, which led to long discussions and democratic decision-making in staff meetings. Increasingly under Ellis’ tenure, the staff were happier with their working conditions. As usual in situations like this, staff that were not so happy found employment elsewhere. Irene Chowles was not happy, but chose to stay. Annie Walker, a part-time teacher who took a ‘remedial reading’ class (what would be called an ‘intervention’ today and would almost certainly be run by a low-paid Teaching Assistant), was not happy and chose to object. It was the manner in which she did so, and the nature of her objections, that determined the course of the Tyndale affair.

Ellis’ co-operative approach was not confined to the staff. The teachers decided between them to take a similar approach with the children. The thinking behind this decision was that, although schools should cater for all children, in practice what happened was some were catered for better than others. In most schools, said the staff – progressive or otherwise – the normal method is to push the bright children into achieving more and to merely cope with those who show problems. Ellis and his team wanted to focus instead on those suffering social deprivation and low self-esteem, the ‘casualties of inner-city stress’. They saw these children as having the most pressing needs, and they set out to meet their needs first, rather than the high achievers (who also tended to be from middle-class backgrounds).

The way they did this was to give children as much choice and responsibility as they could, to encourage and enable them to think for themselves and to develop inner discipline, rather than be subject to the discipline of teachers. Children were allowed to come in before school started and to stay at the end of the day; to go out or stay in as they chose at playtimes; to no longer have activities segregated by gender, such as football for boys or needlework for girls. These are good, progressive attitudes, at least some of which would be considered automatic considerations today. Rules were reduced to a minimum and children were expected to show responsibility as well as to exercise their rights. Instead of compulsory lessons, a wide range of activities was offered, both academic and non-academic, from which children were free to choose.

It should be stressed that not all of this was offered at once, or to all children. At first, the free-choice system was available only to one class (the eldest children), introduced by its most enthusiastic exponent amongst the teachers, Brian Haddow. This was introduced during the spring and summer terms of 1974. In the following autumn, the free-choice approach was used with two out of the four year groups in the school.

One new approach that was used throughout the school, however, was a group reading scheme designed to help children catch up with their reading. Previously, Mrs Annie Walker had been responsible for providing remedial reading to around eighty children in small groups. The new scheme had all staff taking a group at the same time each day. Naturally, such an enormous undertaking had its teething problems and it did not work well. However, Mrs Walker had little patience with the idea. She was against it from the start, it seems, but felt her views were ignored. Frustrated by this, she very quickly decided the idea was a failure, along with the whole ‘free choice’ system, and wrote her views down in a commentary to share with staff in May 1974.

This commentary not only attacked the progressive methods Ellis and others were so keen on, but blamed the ‘free choice’ system for a breakdown of discipline and poor behaviour amongst the children. In this, although she might not have known it, Walker had an ally in Brenda Hart, the head of the infants school, who considered the behaviour of the junior school pupils to have rapidly deteriorated in the summer term of 1974, something she later complained about to the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA). At that time, all schools in London were under the control of ILEA.

When her commentary did not have the desired effect upon her colleagues – serving only to isolate her from them – Walker approached the district inspector (Donald Rice) and the chairman of the school managers (Stella Burnett) with her complaints. Rebuffed by them both, she then began making contact with some of the parents and prepared another paper, this one a longer and more detailed criticism of the school, that became known as the Black Paper. Walker’s Black Paper detailed her criticisms of the ‘free choice’ method and, in its first draft at least, contained a paragraph suggesting that this method was part of an attempt to foment revolutionary ideas amongst working-class pupils. In her commentary, Walker had suggested there were ‘half-baked ideas about education’ to blame; now she was on the verge of linking revolutionary educational ideas with revolutionary political ones.

According to The Teachers’ Story, Walker was later presented in the media as a concerned woman, neither a traditionalist nor a progressive in education. Indeed, she claimed to know little about the theories of the Black Papers. However, she did secretly correspond with Rhodes Boyson, an enthusiastic supporter of Black Paper ideology. The actual Black Papers were a series of pamphlets written in the sixties and seventies in response to the Plowden report and very much opposed to the progressive movement within education. Ellis characterises the Black Papers as nostalgic for a supposed ‘golden age’ of the past, possibly Victorian, and viewing education as a way of imbuing children with a competitive spirit in order to help support the western capitalist system. In this view, Black Paper thinking was very much the opposite from the co-operative progressive ideology favoured by Ellis.

Ellis also suggests, however, that the crisis at Tyndale was not a simple matter of traditionalism versus progressivism. Indeed, he is scathing about some aspects of so-called progressive education, which had failed to change the nature of schools from what they had always been: a means of social control. Following progressive methods, teachers were perhaps no longer strict parents, but ‘occasionally severe aunts or uncles’ instead. At William Tyndale, the staff wanted to change the dynamic of the teacher-pupil relationship altogether, to allow pupils to develop inner discipline and an understanding of their rights. This was what led to the ‘free choice’ method, the freedom to come and go and the relaxation of rules. While not condoning dangerous behaviour, the teachers did not want to be moralistic over children’s conduct. They wanted to teach the children to think for themselves.

Another important aspect of the Tyndale approach was the valuing of play. Any good Early Years teacher today knows that children learn best through play, and child-led activities, in which pupils determine what activities they do and how they do them, is a staple of progressive ideology. Ellis and his staff not only believed that formal skills could be learned through the playing of games, but that understanding how to make good use of leisure time was itself an important part of education, usually overlooked. Not all that is of value is academic, they said – something a great many teachers would agree with today – and not all children are suited to academic study – something else now widely considered true.

It was later said that the sharp fall in the roll of William Tyndale was due to this ‘extreme’ approach to education; that is a matter that shall be looked at below. It is certainly true that many parents struggled to understand the thinking behind Ellis’ reforms. The attitude towards parents in The Teachers’ Story is that the staff did try to include and inform them of their plans, but that their focus was on the children and they were the ones the staff felt accountable to, rather than the parents. In today’s era of parent power, this might seem rather strange, but in the seventies parents did not expect to be so well informed about what went on in schools, and how and what the children were taught was very much up to the teachers – not the government, not the school’s managers, and certainly not the parents.

It is not true, though, that the school did not always communicate effectively with its parents. In fact, Ellis and his staff did hold many meetings and actively encouraged parents to come into the school to see how it worked for themselves. However, there were limits. It should be remembered that the focus was on the most socially and emotionally deprived children and it was the parents of those children Ellis particularly wanted to reach. He eschewed the idea of a PTA because, according to The Teachers’ Story, Plowden had found that a smaller proportion of manual workers attended PTA meetings than other meetings. (Many teachers today might be aware of how, even in areas of high working-class population, the PTA and governing bodies tend to be dominated by middle-class parents.) Ellis sought other ways to attract parents: open evenings, a parents’ room that was planned for the school, special meetings to introduce new ideas. However, the bottom line seemed to be that if the free choice pupils were given did not please the parents, that was too bad for the parents. The teachers saw themselves as taking the children’s side in this; not all the parents agreed.

It is tempting today to side with the parents. Few teachers would be brave enough now to take a stance against a parent in the way Ellis seems to have done. However, in the defence of the teachers, they do make a good point in their book: some parents, they say, advocate hitting their children to instil discipline. A teacher could not possibly condone that behaviour and the implication is that, by extension, parents did not always know what was best for their children. The counter to this might be that nor do teachers necessarily know what is best. However, clearly Ellis and his staff were trying to give children the space to find out for themselves. This stance can be agreed with or disagreed with, but in either case, it is a valid progressive attitude.

Returning to Walker, she showed her Black Paper in draft form to one of the school managers, Mrs Gittings and to parents following a meeting at the school in June 1974 (the meeting was not about ‘problems’ at Tyndale, but to ask parents for their support in an ongoing campaign by London teachers for an increase in the London Allowance, a campaign that included strike action as part of its method). The day before this meeting, Walker had an informal meeting of her own with a group of parents at the school gate. The next day, the London Allowance meeting was disrupted by parents, hostile to the methods of the school, some of them shouting abuse at Ellis and his staff. As a result, another meeting was arranged for July 9th to explain the new approach to parents. At this meeting, Walker put copies of her finished Black Paper on the chairs, claiming it represented views of parents. She also spoke during the meeting, disassociating herself from the rest of the staff and attacking the ‘free choice’ method, in what Auld describes as ‘extreme terms’ and with ‘personal criticisms’ of Ellis and, by implication, Haddow.

It can be seen from this that the first many parents knew of the new approach was through the critical reports given by Walker. It was the opinion of the staff throughout the crisis that it was Walker who stirred up the parents against the school, rather than the parents deciding for themselves they did not like the new approach. It is impossible to know the truth of the matter now, but what is known is that no letters of complaint were received from parents until July 1974, and then there were five, three of which were from parents in the infants school (and one of these expressed sympathy for the situation) and two critical ones from junior school parents. At the end of the summer term, there was what Auld calls a ‘sharp fall’ in the school roll. Seventeen children left and twenty-one did not transfer from the infants. Again, whether this is because of the school, or a result of bad feeling stirred up by Walker, is a matter of opinion.

Inspector Rice wrote a report on the school just before the July meeting, in which he recommended the appointment of extra staff (specifically a psychotherapist to meet the needs of children with mental health problems) and extra money for equipment. He did not seem to think there was a problem in the way the school was being run. Ellis told parents in the July meeting that staff shortage was a problem and Rice supported Ellis when managers Gittings, Dewhurst, Fairweather and Burnett shared their concerns with him (particularly the falling roll) in a meeting on July 23rd. Rice argued that Ellis deserved more time to prove himself and the summer term ended thus: no action was taken against Annie Walker for her actions; some, at least, of the managers and parents were expressing concerns about Ellis and the way the school was run; but Ellis was supported by Rice and the ILEA.

During the autumn term, the situation became more strained, with Ellis and his staff feeling increasingly under pressure. In The Teachers’ Story, this is clearly shown to be partly as a result of different accounts being given of what was decided on July 23rd. Burnett gave one version of events, Fairweather another; and in Fairweather’s, according to The Teacher’s Story, at the meeting had been discussed the possibility of Ellis’ removal, the closure of the school if the roll continued to fall, the possibility of leaks to the press in order to stir up trouble for the school, and the possibility of a spy being appointed to the staff in order to feedback about teachers’ activities. It seemed that Ellis had until the end of the autumn term to prove himself or he would be ousted. According to Auld, the teachers reacted in a way that was immature, aggressive and irresponsible: they issued a series of statements demanding support from the managers. Despite earning Auld’s disapproval later for doing so, the managers did eventually issue a statement of support, which was given in October via a letter to parents.

Otherwise, the situation seemed to settle down. The staff used this term to extend the ‘free choice’ method to two year groups and to plan changes to the use of rooms within the school. There were also some changes to staff, with two teachers leaving and two new ones arriving who were more in agreement with the new approach of the school. Meanwhile, Brenda Hart was increasingly concerned over the behaviour of the junior school children and the impact of this on the infant school.

The spring term of 1975 was still more settled. Although the co-operative teaching programme still had difficulties (possibly due to the staff taking longer than anticipated to manage it well), the formation of a steel band was proving a success with some of the more difficult and troublesome pupils and the appointment of a teacher/psychotherapist (Mrs Arnold) to work with groups of ‘disturbed’ children was also a positive development.

The managers were still unhappy, however, and a new appointment amongst them, Mrs Elizabeth Hoodless, began to make her presence felt. Mrs Hoodless was an experienced manager and governor and both she and her husband were active members of the labour party. Indeed, Donald Hoodless was Deputy Leader of Islington Borough Council and an Additional Member of the Greater London Council (GLC). Hoodless, Gittings, Fairweather and Dewhurst decided to bypass Rice and approach the ILEA themselves. Hoodless even discussed amalgamating the Infant and Junior schools under Hart with an ILEA inspector, named Truman. In his report, Auld speculates that Hoodless was recruited to the managing body specifically because of her political connections. She certainly appeared to use her husband’s position to gain access to Hinds. Hinds met with the four managers in February of 1975, as a result of which he commissioned a new report from Inspector Rice. Rice had already written one report on the school (in July 1974, see above), which Hinds had apparently not seen. This new report, which was completed in March 1975, mentioned the well-being of the children in a positive light and noted progress that had been made in reading. Although there were aspects of the curriculum that could be improved (or that were not observed, which is not quite the same thing) and the general lack of confidence in the school was noted, Rice concluded that no drastic action was called for, contrary to the hopes of the managers.

Despite the conclusion of the report, the managers continued to insist Hinds should take action. Extraordinarily, he discussed with three of them (Fairweather, Gittings and Hoodless) further actions they might take, including the circulation of a petition. Hinds agreed that a petition might be appropriate, much to the disapproval of Auld in his report. Hinds also subsequently asked the Education Officer to consider the amalgamation of the infant and junior schools. The result of this consideration was that a reorganization might be justified due to the falling rolls of both schools, but that it would represent problems if both headships were occupied. It might be inferred from this that Ellis was seen as an obstacle to amalgamation, although Auld does not state that outright.

Shortly after meeting with Hinds, Hoodless started a petition calling for the ILEA to take urgent steps to restore confidence in the school, following concerns about the quality of education and the falling roll. It did not mention amalgamation. Amalgamation was the agreed aim of a Labour Party resolution passed on 26th March 1975, however. The petition was circulated amongst Labour Party members and governors at other schools, but not amongst parents at William Tyndale and certainly not shown to staff. The petition eventually attracted 198 signatures.

Despite the attempt to keep it from the staff, Ellis and the other teachers did learn of the petition’s existence, in April. During the summer term, the school continued to improve: the sanctuary, which was Mrs Arnold’s therapy room, and the steel band were going from strength to strength and there were a number of events organised for the benefit of the parents and wider community. The roll was still falling, albeit only by a few, and the managers continued their campaign for the authority to step in. Whereas it seems that the managers blamed the staff for the falling roll, the staff blamed what they called ‘outside organized interference’, by which was meant not only Annie Walker’s Black Paper, but the subsequent behaviour of the managers as well.

During this term, the relationship between managers and staff deteriorated beyond repair. The staff made their own appeals to the inspectors and ILEA to investigate the cause of the falling roll. They used NUT support to get other schools to refuse admission to pupils leaving William Tyndale (contrary to the rights of the parents, it has to be said) and refused to allow managers into classrooms, citing harassment.

One manager, Mabey, responded by demanding access to classrooms. He was refused by Ellis, and both men wrote letters of complaint about the other to Hinds. The next move was for the managers to contact the national press, and stories began to appear in newspapers that put the school in a bad light. The first of these, in The Times on July 2nd, was written as if an attack on the managers was taking place, and appeared on the very day that Hinds chaired a meeting between staff and managers to try to find a resolution. Needless to say, none was found. The managers called for an inspection (by HMI, not ILEA), but the staff rightly cited Rice’s opinion that this was not necessary. Hinds suggested to the staff that an inspection could include an inspection of the managers’ conduct, but the staff rejected this offer and called instead for an inquiry into management. The result was that ILEA decided to hold its own inspection and inquiry.

During the events of 1975 that we have looked at so far, it is clear that both the managers and the teachers behaved in ways they should not have done. The teachers  should not have asked other schools to refuse children who were taken out of Tyndale, certainly; but the managers, having been reassured by Hinds and Rice that no further action was needed at the school, had no need to start a petition against the teachers with the clear (though not stated) aim of removing Ellis from his post. This was far beyond the remit of their role and, together with the probability that Hoodless was recruited to the cause because of her political connections, puts the managers in a very bad light.

Unfortunately, things were only to get worse. In the autumn term of 1975, when the free choice approach was extended to the whole school, the inspection was due to begin. The staff, believing the public perception of the school could only be harmed by the inspection, decided not to co-operate and, when the inspectors arrived on 22nd September, they found the school shut. The teachers were on strike, with the exception of Mrs Chowles and Mrs Arnold (the teacher/therapist). Extraordinarily, the inspection went ahead with the inspectors doubling as teachers. Not surprisingly, the lead inspector (Mr Pape) said that the ensuing report should lead to no final conclusions being drawn. (It should be noted here that a second inspection was later carried out, after the staff returned to work. Both reports are critical of the state of the school, the curriculum and the behaviour of the pupils. However, due to the strike and some children being kept off school when the teachers returned, it was almost two different cohorts of children that were observed. It should also be noted that in this second inspection, the inspectors were not able to establish any firm conclusion about the academic standards of the pupils and that Mr Birchenough, whose signature is on both reports as Chief Inspector, says the inspectors cannot offer a final judgement on the school.)

During the first inspection, the striking teachers ran an alternative school, the Gaskin Street Chapel School, attended by the children of those parents loyal to the staff. Meanwhile, the managers put in a formal complaint to ILEA about the striking teachers, a complaint which also made its way into The Guardian newspaper. The first inspection report was also released to the press, who used its incomplete observations to lambast the school. The Evening News ran with the headline, ‘SCHOOL OF SHAME’, which is fairly typical of the tenor of the reports.

Not content with smearing the school in this way, the managers sought to prevent the eventual return of the teachers. Despite this, the teachers did return, knowing that co-operation with the inspectors was the only way to get an inquiry, at which the behaviour of the managers would be investigated. According to Ellis, the staff had to be escorted by police into the school, through a crowd of hostile parents and reporters. He describes it as the most harrowing day in the whole affair, which is saying something, given the preceding events.

After the second inspection, with its inconclusive report, came the inquiry. In the conclusion to his report, Auld hands out blame to pretty much everyone, with the important exceptions of Chowles (the Deputy Head, whose forbearance he admires) and Hart (the head of the infants school, together with her staff). For the others, the blame was doled out as follows:

The authority (ILEA) is to blame because, if a school is struggling, it is up to the authority to intervene – and ILEA did not, or at least did not do so in time.

The managers are to blame because, although there concerns were genuine, they did not follow the correct procedure in expressing them.

The staff are to blame for creating the situation in the first place and for their attitude towards the managers (which Auld finds ‘wholly indefensible’) and the authority.

Finally, Walker is to blame for her ‘political’ accusations against Haddow and the manner in which she went about sharing her concerns about the school.

How justified was Auld in his conclusions? A reading of the report indicates a thorough justification, as long as one accepts the underlying assumptions made by Robin Auld, QC. The first of these is that the situation in the school was one that justified Walker’s initial concerns, if not the manner in which she expressed them. What were these concerns? Much of Walker’s commentary and Black Paper focus on the ‘free choice’ method and her dislike of this approach. Her objections are theoretical in their nature; hers is an attack on the ideology behind the approach, which is beyond Auld’s remit to comment on. Furthermore, her attacks were launched before the ‘free choice’ method had had a chance to establish itself and when the reading groups scheme was also faltering. A proper response – the response taken by ILEA, indeed – was to give Ellis more time. This did not happen. Walker was free to disagree with Ellis’ approach, but that does not make it a bad approach; she could say it did not work, but not after such a short period of time. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that Walker was not justified in her concerns at all, and this seems to be the response of ILEA at the time, though not Auld.

Unfortunately, the manner in which Walker pursued her case had a detrimental effect upon the school. It was only after she distributed her Black Paper, held informal meetings with parents and at least one manager (Gittings), that parental complaints came in (and then, only a total of five) and the school roll started to fall. The staff always maintained that the fall of the roll was due to the rumours started by the Black Paper (as well as other factors, such as the general population decline and parents moving out of Islington, which did also happen). The real reasons why the roll fell cannot now be firmly established and were never investigated at the time, despite the staff’s insistence.

The other ‘evidence’ that the school was not functioning well came from the managers, although their opinion is also based partly on Walker, along with their own knowledge of the school and the occasional visit.  Again, Auld accepts their concerns, even though ILEA did not – and their judgement was based on two reports by Inspector Rice. In addition, Dr Birchenough (Chief Inspector) and Mr Pape (a very experienced inspector) also advised against carrying out a full inspection of the junior school. Nevertheless, Auld considers Hinds made an ‘error of judgment’ in not intervening sooner. He clearly finds the position of the managers (or at least the four who visited Hinds in February 1975) a sympathetic one. The managers themselves were in no mood to be sympathetic towards the staff, however.

Why were the managers so opposed to Ellis and his staff? Apart from the falling roll (discussed above), the only reason is the progressive ideology at work in the school.  In The Teachers’ Story, the staff are quite open about the success of the free choice method with the children it was aimed at – the socially and emotionally deprived – and with the more middle-class children, but not with those in-between. The parents who withdrew their children, however, seemed to be mostly the middle-classes, possibly angered by what they saw as Ellis’ anti-middle-class attitude. Certainly, the teachers felt that the attitude of the parents against the free choice system made it harder for the system to work. As for the other parents, Jill Tweedie wrote an article for The Guardian in which two working-class parents apparently speak for the majority in criticising the school, but not all parents were critical: there was a support group for the school set up amongst them for example. Auld acknowledges that Ellis had good relationships with parents in many ways, but says that when it came to their children’s education, he was reluctant to listen to their ideas. This brings us to another assumption behind Auld’s report.

At various points throughout his lengthy report, Auld says that the teachers did not act in the interests of the children. At no time, however, does he distinguish between the interests of the children and those of their parents, and frequently seems to conflate the two. Ellis and his staff, however, were very particular about addressing the needs of the children rather than the parents (as discussed above). In failing to make the distinction that Ellis made, and in failing to even realise there is a distinction to be made (it is not rejected, just never discussed, despite its importance to the ethos of the school), Auld perhaps also fails to understand a key element of progressive education: it is a child-centred, not a parent-centred approach. Some parents might have been shocked by Ellis’ methods, but, as Ellis says, ‘because a school is “unpopular”, it does not mean it is bad’. There is clear evidence that innovations such as Mrs Arnold’s sanctuary and the establishment of the steel pan band were having a positive effect. Who knows what Tyndale might have achieved if its methods had been given a proper chance? It is easy to agree with Auld that the situation was bad because the parents said so; but it is equally possible to agree with ILEA that Ellis deserved more time.

Of course, it could be argued that the school did have more time: Ellis had been in post for nearly two years when the inquiry began. However, for most of that time (certainly from July 1974 onwards) the staff had been working under enormous pressure, and this is another consideration that is overlooked in the report. Teachers frequently referred to the pressure they were under and Ellis had to take several periods of time off work due to stress. Yet it does not seem to occur to Auld that working under such conditions might cause the staff to behave as they did. The ‘locking in’ of children by preventing transfers to other schools, the banning of the managers from the classrooms and the strike of 1975 might have been unwise decisions; but they are understandable when considered in the light of the situation in which the teachers were having to work. Consider what they had to put up with:

  • Walker’s commentary and Black Paper, in which she criticised her colleagues

  • The way Walker distributed the Black Paper to parents and used a meeting with parents to openly criticise the school

  • The involvement of Gittings, a manager, with the Black Paper at draft stage

  • The abusive behaviour of some parents at the meeting on June 13th 1974

  • The criticisms of staff in the meeting of July 9th 1974, causing some teachers to walk out

  • The secret meeting of managers without notifying Ellis on July 23rd 1974, at which the possibility of Ellis’ removal was apparently discussed, and about which different accounts and rumours circulated

  • The secret correspondence between Walker and Boyson, revealed later

  • The lack of action taken against Walker by ILEA

  • The apparent reluctance for managers to express confidence in staff, despite Hinds’ reassurances to them

  • The secret meeting between Hinds and four managers, after which he commissioned Rice’s second report

  • The follow-up meeting with three of the managers, during which Hinds advised them over starting a petition

  • The petition itself, which was conducted in secret and which contained no signatures from parents at the school

  • The recruiting of Hoodless in order to exploit her political connections and the subsequent involvement of her husband

  • The involvement of the local Labour Party by Hoodless

  • The discussion between Truman and Hoodless about amalgamation

  • The continued pressing by managers for ILEA involvement despite Rice’s second report recommending no drastic action.

  • The continued falling roll, part of which at least was out of the hands of the staff

  • The apparent harassment of the staff by the managers

  • The leaking of material hostile to the school to the press

  • The confrontational attitude taken by managers towards the school after they were banned from the classrooms

  • The demands for an HMI inspection

  • The first ILEA inspection and concurrent strike

  • The running of an alternative school during the strike

  • The second inspection

Such a catalogue of pressures surely goes some way to explain the siege mentality of the staff during the 1974-75 academic year and afterwards, and gives a context to the questionable decisions they made during that time. To expect, at the end of it, a school functioning in any way at its best would be ridiculous. Even so, the second inspection report cannot make a final judgement. Even after everything that was thrown at them, the Tyndale teachers were not condemned. Not yet.

Then came the inquiry. After several months of witnesses and evidence, Auld retired to write his report. Following its publication, five managers and Hinds resigned from their posts; Ellis and Haddow faced disciplinary charges; and William Tyndale junior and infant schools were combined under the headship of Brenda Hart.

Reading Auld’s report, it is clear that he considers the system itself to be at fault. Indeed, he considers that the set-up at the time, with the authority devolving part of its responsibility to managers, creates a problem: if a headteacher considers his approach is correct, but managers then complain about him to the authority and in consequence the authority recommends to the head a different approach, there is no means to ensure the head follows the authority’s lead. This apparent gap in the system is expanded upon in Collapse of a School or a System, the short study of the Tyndale affair by two TES journalists. In their conclusion, they assert that the main ingredients of the Tyndale situation were to be found all over the country at that time and that the pessimism and economic decline of the seventies was making society less patient with headteachers and more concerned about standards.  Kathryn Riley suggests that the Tyndale affair brought up the issues of who controls schools, how much power a headteacher should have and what the rights of parents should be. The answer to these questions was given by James Callaghan in his famous Ruskin speech of 1976, which suggested that the age of the autonomous teacher was at an end, and indeed it soon was. Ruskin paved the way for the 1988 Education Act, which ushered in the national curriculum and, eventually, OFSTED. A school such as William Tyndale, which sought to give pupils true democratic rights, became what many thought it should always have been: unthinkable.

Christopher Loft 2015

The Shining

Which is better? The book or the film?

I love books. I love films, too, but generally speaking, I would rather read the book than watch the film. If a book is any good, it has qualities that cannot effectively be transferred to the screen – interior monologues, flights of fancy, and so on. No one would possibly think they could make a film of A La Recherce Du Temps Perdu, for example. Occasionally, however, film-makers create something so beautiful, so well-shot or well-acted, that it soars above any achievement the author could have hoped for. I have never read Jake La Motta’s autobiography, but it’s a fair bet that it can’t match Scorsese’s adaptation, Raging Bull. Similarly, Arthur C Clarke’s short story, The Sentinel, could never possibly equal Kubrick’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Which brings us to The Shining. I have always admired the film, but not read the book until earlier this year. Frankly, I was disappointed. The novel of Carrie, with its broken narrative and different points of view, I liked very much. The Shining, despite its readability, I thought was poor by comparison. Turning to the internet, I found I was hardly alone in this point of view, although nor are those who disagree.

This article, by Laura Miller, particularly caught my eye. Miller suggests that in in the book the monster is Jack (whereas in the film, it is Kubrick, apparently); but I disagree. In the book, Jack is an alcoholic, blamed by his wife for hurting their child when drunk, to blame for the loss of his career and the move to Boulder, a man unable to escape the legacy of his father’s domestic cruelty. However, at the end, he is clearly portrayed as a victim of the hotel. Danny is frequently reminded that the man trying to kill him isn't really his father, but the hotel, and the would-be killer is referred to as ‘it’ rather than ‘he’, further depersonalising him. Even when his face is removed, he survives, a myriad of other faces filling in. The film, however, portrays Jack as the monster far more than the hotel. It brings to the fore his creative block and also the strain that not drinking causes him. Miller suggests the opposite is the case, but I think Kubrick effectively conveys the pressure that Jack is under, unable to express himself in writing and unable to distract himself with drinking.

Stephen King thinks that, in the movie, Jack is too crazy from the start, and it is true that he seems this way; but there are two things to say about that. One is that the film portrays Jack as having always been at the hotel (he says he felt like he'd been there before, Grady says it and then there's the photograph at the end), which supports the idea that he is the madness at the heart of the hotel; and secondly there is Wendy. In the book, she blames Jack for hurting Danny when he was drunk and Danny had messed up his papers; but in the film she defends him, excusing his behaviour in the scene with the paediatrician in a way that is very believable. King is right: Jack is crazy at the start, but no one wants to see it. Wendy can't admit such a thing, so she blames the drink; it suits the hotel manager Ullman not to see it because he needs Jack for the winter. I think the film does a much better job of showing a crazy man letting go his last hold on sanity.

Then there is Danny. In the book, he is gifted; in the film he is cute but scary. Scary weird. Having Tony talk in that strangled voice and the repeated shouts of red rum are much more effective, I think, than anything in the book. Further, Kubrick does in moments what King takes pages to do. The ball in the hotel, for example,  with its midnight unmasking, contains a man in a dog costume begging the hotel owner for sex. In the film, this is replaced with the legendary walrus blow-job scene. Then there is all of this: the cobwebbed skeletons; the shock of Halloran’s death; the creepy girl twins; the lifts of blood; Shelley Duvall’s big knife and enormous, scary eyes; Philip Stone in the red bathroom; the man with blood running down his face; the woman in 237; and a snow covered maze. Much better than a clock, a mallet and those stupid hedge animals in the book.

And I say this as someone who likes the book: the wasp nest is good, for instance, and, if there were no film, I would not be using the word ‘disappointing’ to describe King’s novel I might say – I would say – ‘it’s not as good as Carrie,’ but not that it was a disappointment. King’s problem, unfortunately, is that a novel by a good writer was chosen for adaptation by a genius film-maker. How can anyone compete with Kubrick? In her article, Miller says that King is annoyed by Kubrick’s genius status.  Well, King might bring more humanity to the story, but did no one tell him he was writing a horror story? It's not humanity that makes horror; it is the lack of it. That's what's really scary.

And so, in this case: the film.

The Pied Piper of Ham-a-lee-in

The Pied Piper of Ham-a-lee-in

An interview with Christopher Loft

Let’s get the obvious question out the way first. What’s with the title? Ham-a-lee-in? What’s wrong with The Pied Piper of Hamelin?

Ham-a-lee-in was the starting point of the story. This isn’t just a book to read, there are songs you can listen to as well.

How does that work?

The title of each song is a link to my website, from where you can operate the jukebox – play each song as it comes up. That way you can listen to the songs as you read the words. It’s why I was so keen to publish this as an ebook, so you can have that interactive feature. I’m hoping to launch it as an ibook in a few months as well, which means I can embed the songs into the text, instead of via a link. For now, a link will do, however, and it means I can keep the price down. One word of warning, however: apple doesn’t allow flash software like jukebox on its devices, so the links won’t work on the kindle app for ipad and iphone. You have to get it on a kindle, or just read it and listen to the songs on a separate device.

And Ham-a-lee-in is one of the songs?

Ham-a-lee-in/Ham-a-lee-in/It’s a great place to raise/A family in.

I see. So how else is this version different from say, Robert Browning’s?

Well, Browning was the inspiration, of course. When I started teaching, The Pied Piper was often used in classes. It’s a great poem and it can be used to teach rhyme and rhythm, character and narrative, all sorts of things. It doesn’t seem so popular now, which is a shame. But id did always make me wonder about a few things.

For instance?

Well – and this is rather a facetious example – the story took place in the middle ages when, I imagine, all towns had their share of rats running about. Why did this one town in particular make such a fuss? Surely rats were part of everyday life. That’s when I thought it might be a town full of obsessive cleanliness freaks, or at least a place that had decided to set the standard for hygiene in the middle ages.

Aha. That’s why it’s a great place to raise a family in?

Precisely. It’s the cleanest city in Europe – if not the world. And the tidiest. I added the tidiness factor because, as a teacher, I was always getting in trouble for having a messy classroom, yet I felt – and still do – that mess is irrelevant. Some creative people need mess in order to function creatively. It’s not the same as dirt. In my first post, I put up a big display in my classroom arguing for the value of mess. Amazingly, the head didn’t seem to mind, even though he did tell me to tidy the classroom. You couldn’t get away with a display like that these days!

Stick to the point. Isn’t the issue in Hamelin that there is a plague of rats, not just a few of them?

Yes, I know. That’s why I said it was facetious.

Fair enough. What else sparked your interest?

Well, I always thought it was unfair that the rats had to be killed, when it was really fleas that spread the plague. A small point, maybe, but not to the rats. I thought someone should show their point of view, which is where the song ‘We’ve Had A Bad Press’ comes from.

Wasn’t there a musical called ‘Rats!’ that you based the book on?

There certainly was. Andy Merrifield and I wrote it about fifteen years ago. I’d always wanted to write it as a book as well, but never had the time. There’s at least one other Pied Piper musical called ‘Rats!’ however, which is why I changed the name. The Pied Piper is a popular choice for musicals and it’s easy to see why. There are a few in existence. Browning’s poetry really lends itself to music. The songs ‘Rats!’ and ‘The Pied Piper’ use his words directly from the poem.

But you’ve changed the story quite a bit.

I’ve added some characters – such as the mayor’s wife – and changed the ending. Well, I couldn’t face such a downbeat end as Browning gives us. I want people to come away happy, hence the song, ‘Happy Ending’. I also felt the role of Browning’s ‘lame boy’ merited exploration. In the story, he’s the only one who gets left behind by the piper. I wondered what it would be like to be the only child in a town that has lost all its children. I imagined the other parents would transfer their love onto him and he would hate it. That’s where ‘The Last Little Boy In The World’ comes from.

How many songs are there altogether?

There are twelve proper songs plus a couple of instrumental numbers. You can hear them all for free on The Pied Piper page at loftybooks.com. The music was written and the songs were performed and recorded by Andy Merrifield, who is one of the most talented musicians and songwriters on this planet right now. He is criminally under-appreciated, so if nothing else I hope the publication of the book will bring him the fame and fortune he so richly deserves.

Any other hopes for the book?

Seriously, I think it is a good introduction to Browning’s poem. Although it messes with the story a bit and is a tad frivolous in places, it uses some of Browning’s words and hopefully generates interest in the story. If young people read the book and want to know more, they can head for the poem and enjoy it a whole lot more having read my version. That’s what I think, anyway.

When and where can I get hold of the book?

Right now. Here:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Pied-Piper-Ham---lee--ebook/dp/B01008M41E/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1434904740&sr=1-1

 

 

 

The Cupped Nest

 

Children’s Song – RS Thomas

 

There's a great moment in the film A Few Good Men which, strangely enough, I was reminded of by the recent news that thousands of schools have opted for a test-free baseline assessment method  for four year-olds. There may not seem an obvious connection between baseline in Reception and a film about US marines on trial but bear with me.

The film is about two ordinary marines named Dawson and Downey. They have killed a man named Santiago, one of their fellow marines, by accidentally suffocating him during a 'code red' punishment exercise. Santiago was, due to poor health, a poor marine and these two were ordered to 'teach him a lesson'. Throughout their trial, Dawson and Downey seem unable to comprehend that they have done anything wrong. They were given an order and they followed it and that is their job. At the end, however, Dawson realises that what they did was wrong. He says, ‘We were supposed to fight for people who couldn’t fight for themselves’. In other words, people like Santiago. Instead of attacking him, they should have stood up for him; instead of fighting against him, they should have fought for him.

What has this got to do with baseline? Simply that the insistence on testing children just as they start their formal education is just one more attack on our education system. If SATS at 14, 11 and 7 were not enough; if the testing of children’s ability to read meaningless words at the age of six did not add insult to injury; now we have tests for four year-olds.

Except we don’t.

I applaud those schools who have realised, in their own Dawson-ish kind of way, that it is our job as teachers to be on the side of the children, not against them – and make no mistake, baseline tests are against children. They are an attack upon them, an attack that uses for its weapons a system of labels and levels and assumptions about progress; an attack that has already injured older children (the NSPCC recently reported a 200% increase in children seeking counselling over exam-related stress ); an attack that must be stopped. By choosing the only assemssent option that does not involve testing, teachers are sending a clear message to the government that such an approach is wrong.

But it is just a start. Or it should be.

In his poem Children’s Song, published in 1955, RS Thomas shows the recognition that we can never fully know what is going on inside the mind of a child. (While they are still very young, and before they have been educated out of such things, children live in a world where fantasy and reality can easily merge: noises in the night are frightening because there really might be monsters under the bed; fairies might well be found at the bottom of the garden; and imaginary friends are not so imaginary.) Even as they grow, children retain their own world which, as Thomas puts it, is a world too small for us to 'stoop and enter'.

Even though, as adults, we can never really understand children, we think we can. They are 'ours' after all, they belong to us, they must adapt to our world not we to theirs. But though we regard them with an amused (and patronising) look, and though we 'probe and pry with analytic eye' (a wonderful description of the assessment process) we can never really understand. Thomas describes the world of children as a place where 'Life is still asleep, under the closed flower, under the smooth shell of eggs in the cupped nest'. I love that image and it makes me think that if children are taking refuge within their smooth shells, then we – the teachers and the schools – we should be the cupped nest. We should be protecting them, fighting for them, standing up for them. We should be on their side.

So saying ‘no’ to testing at four is a start; but it is just a start.

There are a number of other measures that similarly are of no benefit to children and in some ways are an attack upon them, such as the increase in teacher workload brought about by triple marking, for example. This involves more work for children and their teachers without, according to a recent study, necessarily leading to any academic improvement. Even with levels abolished, there is still a concentration on progress shown through data, which leads to a concentration on literacy and numeracy to the exclusion of all else – whatever happened to the rich, all-round education involving the arts and games and time to explore? This too is an attack on our children and it should be opposed just as much as testing four year-olds is opposed.

Let the baseline response be a baseline in the sand. Let’s see teachers start to stand up for their students. Let’s see action.


How Children Fail

 

Fans of John Crace’s Digested Read  might be interested to know that this post can be summarised thus:

Question: Is John Holt’s book, How Children Fail, the greatest book ever written about education?

Answer: Yes.

OK, blog done, move on. Or, if you are like most people involved in education today, move on with a shake of the head and a tut or two. Why? Because, although John Holt is (I believe) widely respected, most of the conclusions he comes to in this book fly in the face of current theory and practice of education.

How Children Fail (and when I write about this book, I write about the only version known to me, the Revised Edition, first published 1982 – the original was 1964 – which includes thoughts and developments of his original ideas) is a book about a teacher striving to understand how best to help children to learn. Much of what he discovers could broadly be described as a child-centred or progressive approach. Many of his idea would be considered unthinkable – or at least unworkable – today.

Yet they are brilliant.

The nineteen-sixties was not the start of progressive education, although Holt’s work (and others’) in America and the Plowden report in the UK might make it seem that way. The beginning of progressive education is often taken to be the publication of Rousseau’s book, Emile, although even that is to discount a great deal of progressive ideology stretching back to the ancients. However, by the end of the nineteen-fifties, education seemed to get stuck in what we now call ‘traditionalist’ mode (the terms ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ are highly misleading, as Rachel Pinder’s excellent book, Why Don’t Teachers Teach Like They Used To? makes clear, but the question of terminology is a huge issue in itself and so will have to wait for now). It needed shaking-up and John Holt shows how and why that needed to happen. Although he is writing about the American system, the points he makes are, in most cases I would sugggest, universally applicable.

Interestingly, Holt says in his Foreword to the Revised Edition, that his is a book about ‘what works’ in education. This is a fashionable term at the moment, with almost every new innovation thrust upon teachers by the government being introduced because it has been shown somewhere or other to ‘work’. The evidence-based approach has been written about very well by Jack Marwood in his Icing On The Cake blog, and I agree that there is little sense in importing something wholesale from another country, a different culture, even another school, just because it has been shown to work there. What matters is what works here, in my school, with my class, with these children that I know well, and that I want to help. The job of a teacher, as Holt says, is to find out why these children I teach are not learning and how I can help them. It is not about apportioning blame, but taking responsibility. But because what matters is these particular children, I do think there is a lot to be said for the small-scale research carried out in schools by teachers as part of an evidence-based approach to their own teaching. Recently, John Hattie has suggested teachers should stay out of research, but it is this kind of research that matters, not the large-scale impersonal stuff and not the meta-analysis that Hattie is famous for. Finding out what makes the difference for the children I know and work with helps me as a teacher. I was part of team that carried out school-based research in partnership with the Expansive Education Network (The Chicken Project, 2013, which can be read online at eednet.net), which was very useful in providing solid evidence to show that particular individuals worked and behaved better when given practical, hands-on tasks in an outdoor setting. Having evidence like this to back up your theory really helps teachers to justify their practice to others (be they SMT or OFSTED) and, if your theory is proved wrong, helps you to recalibrate your bearings.

So what worked for John Holt? Well, a lot of the book is about him finding out what does NOT work. Children fail, he says, because they are afraid, bored and confused. They are afraid, above all, of displeasing adults; they are bored because what they are given to do bores them; and they are confused because their work makes little or no sense to them. Does any of this ring true today?

Fear

Teaching, says John Holt, is above all what prevents learning. (It is comments like this that make me love this book!) Teaching is defined as ‘I know something you don’t know and I’m going to make you learn it’. Like any good progressive, Holt knows that children only really learn what they are interested in learning (another point well made by Jack Marwood, although he resists being drawn into the traditionalist v progressive debate as he says in response to my comment ). However, thanks to the national curriculum, teachers are obliged to make them learn all sorts of stuff whether they want to or not. This is where the fear comes in – what if I don’t understand? What if I fail? Success and failure are, for Holt, two sides of the same coin and we cannot give children a love of succeeding without also giving them a dread of failure. The very idea of a national curriculum carries with it this template for failing and fear of failing. Holt has no time for a national curriculum.

Boredom

John Holt’s idea of a good school is a place where children learn what they want, not what we think they ought to know. It is a lovely idea, but not one you’ll find on any OFSTED  description of a ‘Good’ school. Schools that try to give children this kind of autonomy are considered weird (like AS Neill’s Summerhill) or closed down (like William Tyndale in the nineteen-seventies). Making a child learn something that he or she is not interested in leads to that child being bored. What do we do about this in schools? We offer rewards – stickers, merit badges, stars, certificates. It’s a kind of surrender, as if we’re saying, ‘We know you have no interest in this, but if you keep your head down and look like you’re learning something, we’ll give you this shiny object in return. Do we have a deal?’ Of course we have a deal: who can expect children to resist the shiny carrots we dangle in front of them? Holt says the idea that children won’t learn without outside rewards and penalties is ‘the creed of a slave’, yet we are so immersed in it, do we ever stop to think about what we are doing to these children, what out sanctions and rewards are really telling them? No wonder they’re bored.

Confusion

The problem with having high standards, says Holt, is that it leaves children no time to think. This is more of a problem now than ever before, with the pressure to demonstrate apparent progress meaning every child has to be learning something new in every minute of every lesson. What if there’s a learning walk or an unannounced observation? God forbid someone might be looking out the window! In his book, Hare Brain Tortoise Mind, educationalist Guy Claxton gives an excellent defence of looking out the window, the slow-thinking approach. His colleague, Bill Lucas, often shows a cartoon in his lectures of a child doing just that, looking out of a window. ‘What are you doing? Says his anxious teacher.

‘Thinking, Miss,’ he replies.

‘Well, stop it and get on with your work.’

Of course, children are confused. They are expected to learn in every lesson every day and then they are tested to destruction about what they have learned. And what happens when they go out to work? Business leaders complain that they cannot think for themselves. Politicians get it wrong when they talk about children failing. John Holt knew it was not the children who failed. It was the system. It is us. We are failing them.

What should we do?

Holt says we should look at our ideas and our teaching through the eyes of someone who knows nothing, can accept nothing unproven and cannot tolerate inconsistency and paradox. We should not teach in the way we would like to learn. We must teach in the way children need to learn and we can only know what that is by knowing them. Probably my favourite part of How Children Fail is the section in which John Holt says it is not the teaching ideas that made his class a better place for children to learn. It was a different kind of human situation. The most use a teacher is to their children is as a human being – someone who has done interesting things and has interests of her own, someone kind and patient even if occasionally angry, someone who says what he thinks and shows what she feels, someone above all who likes, respects and trusts those he is charged with teaching.

There’s another relevant point here. John Holt says we should not apportion blame, but we should take responsibility. Unfortunately, today’s inspectorate (and indeed today’s government) does apportion blame. ‘Fail’ an OFSTED (and failure in this regard means to be less than ‘Good’) and a school faces being turned into an academy (itself a controversial prospect) and is certainly blamed for its supposed failings. On a more personal level, changes to performance management allowing headteachers to fast-track so-called incompetency proceedings, means teachers take the blame for whatever failures are perceived to exist in their work. This is not helpful to the development of the profession and is the opposite of what John Holt called for. It is worth adding in this respect that, of today’s political parties, only The Green Party calls for OFSTED to be scrapped and performance-related pay to be abandoned (amongst other admirable policy ideas).

I love John Holt’s writing because he makes it plain: the greatest gift we have to offer children is ourselves. It is not this programme or that scheme, this intervention or that strategy. It is us. Our humanity. Our care. That is what matters. Politicians argue back and forth about how they want to stick their hands in education and play around with its workings, but what they need to do is just stay out: leave it to the professionals. And we professionals need to remember it is not the curriculum, or the learning intentions, or the differentiated success criteria, or even the (god help us) triple marking that makes us good teachers. It is ourselves, bringing ourselves to help others. It is time we stopped thinking about how to tinker with education and took a step back to consider, what is teaching for? What is the purpose of education? What do we really want for our children?

It is time to go back and pick up John Holt again.

Thank-you for reading.

 

Bob Dylan and the Test of Time

March 27th 2015

 

There is a theory that Robert Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan because of the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. Personally, I like to think that my own son’s middle name, which just happens to be Dylan, was the inspiration for Bob’s choice. I continue to think this despite the fact that my son was born nearly seventy years after Dylan himself and the fact that his middle name was chosen in honour of Bob so it is on the whole unlikely that Dylan could have named himself after someone named after him. On the whole.

Of course, if Bob Dylan somehow existed outside the laws of time and space and was not subject to their restrictions, then it is possible he could have taken his name from my own offspring. And there is a sense in which Dylan does exist in this way, or at least his music does. I was thinking this recently, while listening to The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll a song that is not tied to the time in which it was written but, like the rest of his music, stands outside the time and place in which it was produced.

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is early Bob, a song from 1963’s The Times They Are A Changin’ album, produced at a period in which Dylan was frequently referred to as a protest singer. He rejected this term, once describing himself as ‘a song and dance man’ instead, but even a casual listen to this album shows why that label was used. It is a collection of songs which do indeed seem to protest against the current state of the world, or at least the USA – racism, segregation, warmongering, anti-communism, politicians, parents, newspapers, pretty much all of the old guard and everyone who isn’t young. It’s an album that clearly identifies change – social and political change, not just cultural – with youth. It was seen as a rallying call for young Americans (and eventually British, Europeans, Australians etc etc) and there’s plenty to rally behind.

Some of Dylan’s angriest writing is on this album and some of his best songs – the title track and With God On Our Side, to name but two.  It’s easy to forget that there are some tender moments on the album, too, songs like One Too Many Mornings and the beautiful Boots of Spanish Leather that reflect Dylan’s emotions as his relationship with Suze Rotolo began to fall apart.

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is not actually my favourite track on this album, although some think it one of Dylan’s greatest ever songs (Christopher Ricks, who wrote twelve pages about it in Dylan’s Visions of Sin, considered it ‘a song that could not be written better. Something perfect everywhere’). However, I do think it is a good example of how something that was very much rooted in a particular event of the time has managed to rise above the time it was written and become a universal song about injustice.

William Zanzinger (real name: the slightly less alliterative Zantzinger) did indeed kill poor Hattie Carroll by beating her with a cane, on February 8 1963. There is some dispute about how much blame Zanzinger really deserves and the song takes some liberties with the truth, but that is not our concern here. It is the way Dylan presents the story that matters, not the facts behind it.

The first verse gives us the details of the killing – a rich man beating a poor woman with a cane that he ‘twirled’ as if in play around his finger. The cops are called and he is taken away and charged with murder. It seems a straightforward case at this point. The simplicity of events is complemented by the subtlety of Dylan’s language. How do we know the killer is rich? Well, it’s a ‘society gathering’, yes, but it’s that finger he twirls his cane around, a ‘diamond ring finger’ – not just a ring finger, like anyone could have, but one that is made for diamonds, maybe made out of diamonds, even. That one word instantly tells us this is a man of privilege. In the next verse, we find out all about him. At ‘just’ twenty-four, he is a rich tobacco famer, well-connected in Baltimore society. But only at the end of the verse, do we hear how he reacted when his victim died – ‘a shrug of the shoulders’ – and this is followed by the news that he was quickly bailed, as if the two facts are connected, as if his very indifference to the murder of a poor black woman (we are never told she is black in the song, but we rightly assume she is, given the context of the album in which the song appears) results in a rapid bailing-out process.

Already, we don’t like him. The next verse increases the awfulness of his crime: Hattie Carroll was hardworking, a mother of ten, treated disdainfully by those she worked for, and apart from all that, she was a gentle person. Her gentleness, in the face of such treatment on a daily basis, coupled with the indifference of her killer, makes us boil with righteous anger. Now, surely, we shall see this murderer get his comeuppance in the court room!

Dylan makes us wait. He emphasises the honour of the court, symbolised by the pounding of the gavel: the court is ‘on the level’, nobles are ‘properly handled’, the ladder of law has ‘no top and no bottom’ (what a great image that is). And then, of course, as we wait for a proper sentence to be delivered, he unleashes the irony: for ‘penalty and repentance’ Zanzinger gets a six-month sentence. We have nowhere to go with our anger, no way of sating it and so it boils over. Unlike Dylan’s earlier Seven Curses, which at least has the catharsis of wishing death and worse than death upon a corrupt judge, we are left only to bury our faces in a rag.

That is how Dylan tells the story, but the brilliance of the song is much more than that. It is the rise and fall of the cadence of the music, forever lifting our hopes only to let them down again, and it is in the repetitive nature of the song, too. The music has a drone-like quality and there is often repetition of words (such as ‘table’ in the third verse – Hattie Carroll never sat at the table, never talked to the people at the table, just cleaned up the food from the table – the placing of the word at the end of each line helps to emphasise it) and sounds, both through alliteration (‘a matter of minutes’, ‘doomed and determined’) and internal rhyme (‘slain with a cane’). The effect of all this is somewhat hypnotic, it draws the listener in as much as the story itself does, forever promising a resolution to the rise and fall, the repeated sounds, forever hinting at a breakthrough that is to come, the catharsis that never comes, except through tears. And then there is the chorus.

At the end of each verse, Dylan breaks off from telling the story to instruct us, the listeners, or at least those of us who are convincing ourselves everything will be resolved in the end (those who ‘philosophize disgrace and  criticise all fears’), not yet to bemoan the state of the world. He is doing just what the song itself is doing, he is telling us there will be a resolution and that we should hold on for it: ‘now ain’t the time for your tears’. Yet, even as he says this, his words contain the suggestion that maybe this story will not be properly resolved after all. Now is not the time for us to cry, but maybe later will be.

And so the song draws us on and on into its tale, making us hate William Zanzinger and pity Hattie Carroll, making us cry out for justice and put all our hope in ‘the courtroom of honour’ where, of course, we are ultimately disappointed. And it is here, in the courtroom, that I think Dylan does his best work in this song. For all that we despise Zanzinger and all that he represents, for all that we hate the society that has led Hattie Carroll to her fate, the songwriter makes it clear that the focus for our anger right now must be the judicial system.

That is what makes this a protest song.

It’s no good railing against the twenty-four year-old tobacco farmer or crying over the death of this poor woman. What we need to do is change a system that allows such injustice to be carried out. After making us wait for the verdict by reminding us of the fairness and equity of the court, Dylan demolishes our philosophizing and our criticisms at one fell swoop, that marvellous way he ever so slightly hesitates as he tells us Zanzinger is given a…six-month sentence. These words are allowed to hang in the air for just a moment. First the hesitation, then the pause for the news to sink in. After all that…only six months! Then Dylan comes crashing in and tells us Now! ‘Now is the time for your tears!

This is what you should be upset about – not just the murder, not just the callous indifference of the criminal towards his crime, but this – this clear injustice, this clear failure of our legal system to do the right thing. This is what we should be angry about, protesting about, on the streets about. This is what we should change!

Listen to this song in the company of Only A Pawn In Their Game and The Times They Are A Changin’, listen to it as part of this astonishing album, and you can hear the spirit of the nineteen-sixties begin to stir. Bob Dylan hated being called ‘the voice of his generation’, yet it is rare indeed that one man – let alone one album – can be identified as the source of so much of what characterised that decade. Of course, it wasn’t just this album – the anger and injustice was just as loud on Freewheelin’, albeit tempered by more of the softer side of Bob – but nevertheless, here in this song, on this album, by this writer, here is encapsulated the anger, frustration and determination to do something, not because we are exhorted to – because we are not – but because we cannot just sit by and let this happen. Dylan was not the leader of his generation, never claimed or wanted to be. But he awoke something in his listeners that made them want to take action.

And what he sang about was not one injustice.

It was all injustice.

And that is why this song is as relevant and meaningful now as it was then. It could be the Guildford Four. It could be Hillsborough. It could be any of us. Believe in a corrupt justice system and now will be the time for your tears.

That’s why.

 

 

Writer’s Blog

For over twenty years I was a primary-school teacher and, for the last fifteen of those years, I have been writing plays for children to perform – in schools mostly, but also the odd local theatre. In one sense, I’ve been a writer for far longer than I’ve been a teacher, but that’s the sense in which all of us are writers – you know, we write things, stories for our own amusement, end-of-term plays and so on.  To be considered a proper writer, one has to have stuff published and no, that does not include self-published, obviously. Well, time ticks on and I no longer teach in the primary sector, but I still write stuff. In fact, I now write more than ever – plays, short stories, and recently a novel. Strangely enough, the world of publishing is yet to awaken to the realisation of the wonderful opportunity to represent my work, can’t think why……but while the rejection letters pile up, I thought I’d put some of my stuff out there for people to read and comment upon if they so wish. All constructive criticism is welcome, so please go to the story pages and read a few, let me know what you think on the comments page. Thanks. The plan is to add new stories each month, so keep checking back. There’s also a facebook page you can like and a twitter account you can follow by clicking on the appropriate links.

So this blog is, partly, to keep you up to date with my latest endeavours to find wider public recognition (mediocrity being no barrier to ambition) and partly to share my own thoughts on writers who really are proper examples of the craft – not just published authors, but really good published authors. Other than that, there is no particular logic or pattern to what I’m going to write about, just whatever takes my fancy, but I thought I’d start with this classic work by Frank Smith as it is all about the other side to the writer’s coin – reading, What it is, how it’s learned and how not to teach it. This also gives me a chance to slip back into primary teacher mode for a little while. And yes, the cap still fits. So here we go.

  

Reading 

What Frank Smith Has To Tell Us About Deprofessionalisation

(Reading by Frank Smith, CUP 1978)

I recently re-read this excellent book by Frank Smith, which I hadn’t read since just before I started my PGCE course. While parts of it do seem dated (the bits about computers, mainly), most is frighteningly relevant. Frightening? Yes, because Smith rails against an education system awash with programmes of instruction, by which he means “any endeavour by anyone outside the classroom to determine systematically and in advance what teachers and learners should do next in the classroom”. Our current education environment is similarly awash. This should at least worry (and quite possibly frighten) us not because education seems to have returned to where it was before the Plowden Report (it is a common belief that these things are cyclical), but because the government, in my opinion, is on a mission to deprofessionalise the profession.

This deprofessionalisation has been going on for a long time. Recently, of course, there’s been a lot of rhetoric about how inspirational achievers should be allowed to teach without qualifications, which itself downgrades the significance of a teaching qualification. Then there’s the attacks on teacher training institutions, the insistence on training on the job rather than suffering lectures on pedagogy and child development (you know, theories that might actually be useful to people who want to learn how to educate young people).  That’s one side of it. Another side is the growth of these ‘programmes of instruction’, from the literacy and numeracy strategies and all their accompanying interventions (ALS, FLS, ELS) through the progress units of Year Seven, to the synthetic phonics programmes of today, the process of what and how to teach has been removed from the hands of the professionals in the classroom and handed over to remote bodies elsewhere. Smith published his book in 1978, long before the national curriculum came slouching to be born, but even then he identified programmes of instruction as the problem, not the solution. The point, Smith says, is that teachers are not encouraged to make their own decisions about how best to teach. Well, magnify that a thousandfold from 1978 to 2015. What with the DfE and OFSTED, teachers can barely decide how to blow their own noses, let alone how to teach.

And why does it matter (for Smith) that teachers make those decisions? Because “children cannot be taught to read. A teacher’s responsibility is not to teach them to read but to make it possible for them to learn to read” (his emphasis). Programmes of instruction purport to teach children how to read, but children will learn this for themselves, as long as they have someone to give them the opportunity. Someone who knows how to do that…like a teacher!  Of course, creating conditions for learning to take place is not something that can be easily replaced by a programme of instruction. It needs to be done by a teacher. A qualified teacher. Someone who knows what they are doing.

Reading is a great example of how education is being ruined by instruction (instead of ‘instruction’, we might say ‘schooling’ – the dichotomy between ‘education’ and ‘schooling’ is something I have heard Guy Claxton speak of in a similar way) because reading contains one of the most depressing programmes of instruction ever foisted upon our unsuspecting children: synthetic phonics. If followed to the letter (and sound, ha ha), synthetic phonics requires schools to teach decoding and only decoding. This is what is meant by ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ which is what the government wants. Children should not use pictures or context cues in learning to read, but must focus only upon pure sound, as they call it. But this is not how we learn to read. It simply isn’t and in this book Frank Smith explains how that is the case clearly and unarguably in a way that is beautifully relevant today. To take one example:

“Reading cannot be taught…as a series of operations which children must learn sequentially and which can be ticked off and taken for granted as children show proficiency in each one. ‘Programmed instruction’ scarcely scratches the surface of reading.”

Smith begins by demonstrating that being able to read is not just about visual information but nonvisual as well, by which he means an understanding of the subject-matter, for example. He shows that the more nonvisual information one has, the less visual information one needs and demonstrates this in an experiment you can do for yourself. You’ll have to read the book to see what the experiment is (it’s in Chapter Two), but it clearly shows that we use information we already have (‘behind our eyes’ as Smith puts it) to make sense of the letters on a page. It is the nonvisual information that makes us good readers, not the ability to decode. All the ability to decode does is make us able to decode. That isn’t reading. Smith goes on to show that phonics only really works if you know what the word you are reading is likely to be in the first place, i.e. you use nonvisual information.

None of this is a new argument, obviously. It is well-known. The reason I find it so interesting at the moment is because, although it is well-known, it is brushed aside as irrelevant by the phonics apologists. Smith’s relevance is superseded in their minds by the argument that synthetic phonics works. If it works, it must be good. And it does work, this has been shown to be the case. But work at what? It certainly doesn’t work at making children better able to understand what they are reading. Imagine trying to make sense of Rosie’s Walk, a classic book for young children. The ‘phonics’ reader would come away with the idea that Rosie had an entirely uneventful walk. The ‘real’ reader would know (spoiler alert, phonics readers!) that she narrowly escaped being pounced on by a fox. The ‘real’ reader would have been introduced to dramatic irony while the ‘phonics’ reader would have been bored by a bland tale of nothing very much.  The ‘phonics’ reader would know as much about that walk as the chicken herself.

Learning to read by using synthetic phonics is like learning to watch television by taking the set apart and putting it back together. You might get very good at doing it, but it's neither necessary nor helpful. When the government published its white paper on education in 2010 (‘The Importance of Teaching’, sic), it claimed that children would ‘master the basic skills of early reading’ through ‘the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics’ (paragraph 4.6), but every teacher who knows anything at all about reading knows that phonics alone doesn’t teach kids to read. As Smith says, "The tragedy is when children are led to believe that nonsense activities are reading." Year One Phonics Check? That’s you, that is.

It's not just phonics that Frank Smith addresses, though. It's the whole culture, the belief that teachers cannot be trusted to do their job. It’s the deprofessionalisation. One of the many ways this is enacted is by telling teachers what they must display on the walls of their classroom. This may once have been the teacher’s choice, and would usually have resulted in a celebration of children’s art work, writing and so on. Not now. Any teacher who has been told they must desecrate their walls with word banks, phonic walls, big write pyramids and the like, should take note of the following comment by Smith:

“In general the tendency should be resisted to decorate walls with sheets of print whose only function is perhaps to give adults the impression of an educational atmosphere. There is usually little need for a frenzy of labelling at the expense of windows, pictures and even soothing sections of blank wall.”

Is there really an attempt to deprofessionalise the teaching profession? I think so. You may disagree. But there is clearly an ongoing practice of ‘programmes of instruction’ that seems to suggest we can’t leave this teaching business (and business it surely is these days) to the teachers. Even in 1978, there was a reliance on programmes of instruction. Why did Frank Smith think this was the case? In the book, he suggests several reasons, the last of which is control, which is born from a lack of trust:

“Teachers need programmes if they do not trust children to learn…. People outside the classroom need programmes if they do not trust teachers to teach., if they feel teachers must be controlled every step of the way.”

Reading. Despite – and not because of – the plethora of theories on how to teach it, most children learn to read sooner or later, however they are ‘taught’. In his book, Smith shows the potential perils of programmes of instruction and the delights of joining ‘the literacy club’. More than anything else, reading Reading will restore your faith in the ability of children to learn and reinforce the value of teachers who are actually allowed to teach.

 

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