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The Phantom Menace

I Watched ‘The Phantom Menace’ and enjoyed it!



Like many Star Wars fans, I have tried and failed for twenty years to warm to the prequel trilogy. Yet sitting with my son on the sofa and beginning our preparation for Episode Nine with a re-run of the eight previous episodes and the two spin-off films (yes, I am that sad – it’s one film a week until December 19th), I actually found myself thinking this was a far better movie than I had previously believed it to be.



First of all, there’s the visual impact. The fights and battle scenes look really good. From the opening encounter between the two Jedi knights and the droids sent to kill them, to the epic struggle between the battle droids and the Gungans (not to mention the lightsaber duel between the Jedis and Darth Maul), the action is fast and furious and the special effects have stood the test of time very well. The spectacular vistas of Naboo – both the underwater world of the Gungans and the huge city where the final showdown takes place – look really good, and Anakin’s accidental destruction of the droid control ship is suitably awesome.



Secondly, the dialogue is by no means as clunky as it became later in the prequels trilogy. Although there’s nothing particularly well written here, it’s serviceable enough, and Yoda’s memorable line, ‘Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering’ is a nice use of what we English teachers call the Rule of Three. It’s always a surprise to me to remember that that quotation is in this film, as it has such a bad reputation.



And thirdly? Well, now I am beginning to struggle. The pod race is good, but it’s no less confusing than the first time I watched it, and nowhere near as tense or exciting as the Ben-Hur chariot race it is clearly trying to emulate. The midi-chlorian nonsense is not as annoying as it used to be, and even Jar-Jar is more bearable after two decades of getting used to him. Also worth mentioning is Ian McDiarmid, who gives a fine performance as Palpatine. Other than that, however … well, it looks good and the fights are great. Isn’t that enough?



The problems with Episode One can probably be boiled down to the likelihood that nobody dared tell George Lucas he needed to edit some stuff out. At two and a quarter hours, the film is about thirty minutes too long, and its structure is too loose. It could do with tightening up (a criticism that can also be levelled at ‘The Last Jedi’). The plot remains somewhat obscure and, even when one understands it, ‘a trade stand-off that is a cover for a secret invasion that itself is a device for the promotion of Palpatine’ remains a shoulder-shrugging ‘so what?’ of a storyline.



Apart from McDiarmid, the performances are poor. Natalie Portman is not exactly awful, but she is given little to work with and, compared to Carrie Fisher’s Leia, her character is limp and eminently forgettable. C3PO and R2D2 are not given any opportunity to relive their double act that made the original 1977 movie so enjoyable. And there is not enough Darth Maul.



Most of all, the two Jedi knights at the centre of the action are both so dull! Why is this? They are given plenty of action sequences (which are great), but the rest of the time they plod around all po-faced and serious. They are not a double act at all, but more like two versions of the same character. Where Luke and Han had some dynamic to play with (the naïve do-gooder and the world-weary cynic with a heart of gold), Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor (both fine actors) have nothing to develop. My theory is that they are both trying to channel the calm authority of Alec Guinness in the original movie. But Guinness was a brilliant actor who could signify a huge amount with a slight change of expression – a glance or a raised eyebrow – and neither of these two are in the same class. Also, the older Obi-Wan had little rushing around or fighting to do (even his duel with Vader was tame in comparison with what we see here), so exuding calm made sense for his character. These two are both athletic and, of course, younger, so why do they behave in such a dull way? Yoda isn’t dull. It’s not part of the job description. Additionally, I’m sure the actors weren’t helped by having so many scenes with Jar-Jar and green screen. Sometimes you can see it in their eyes: they have no idea what is going on.



What George Lucas did well was using CGI effects to create an impressive visual spectacle. His desire to take Star Wars in a different direction could have worked – but at heart this franchise is all about action and adventure, and there’s just too much dull chat with dire acting here. Lucas is not the greatest at getting good performances out of his stars, and with no Harrison Ford-style witticisms from anyone, the whole film just takes itself far too seriously.



Having said that, I did enjoy it, more than at any time in the last twenty years anyway. Roll on Episode Two!



My most recent novel, ‘Time Burners’ includes a parody of the Star Wars saga, and is available to buy from amazon. Please see the relevant page on the website.

Turning The World Upside-Down: Brexit and the Civil War

Turning The World Upside-Down

Brexit and the Civil War



The ongoing debate about Brexit has raised issues previously raised during the English Civil War. Questions such as ‘Who is sovereign – people or parliament?’ and ‘What role should the monarchy have in the governing of the nation?’ are frequently raised now, as they were then.



The idea that parliament is necessarily on the side of the people is a relatively recent one. It is only just over a hundred years that some women and working-class men were given the vote. Before then, for hundreds of years, parliament represented land-owners, property owners, the ‘haves’ – and often against the interest of the ‘have-nots’.



It was only when working people started organising themselves in trade unions, which led to the formation of the Labour Party, that they had a way of voicing their interests in a significant manner. People like the Match Girls, who went on strike against the potentially fatal working conditions of their factory environment, paved the way for greater representation of ‘the people’. But the desire of the masses to have their voices heard is much older than that.



During the civil war period, many ordinary people began to put forward ideas for greater equality and fairer representation. Groups such as the Levellers challenged the idea of what parliament should be and asserted that it should be the people who ultimately determine how they are governed. Thomas Rainsborough put it this way: ‘I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.’



It was the growth in literacy and the relative cheapness of printing at the time that allowed views such as these to become widespread at the time and to last through the years, and so we can see just how modern some of these views were. Gerard Winstanley, for example, was the first person in England to call for medical treatment to be made freely available (The Law of Freedom in a Platform, 1652). Winstanley was a member of the True Levellers, or the Diggers as they became known. Other proposals put forward by free-thinkers of the time included married women being allowed to own their own property (Margaret Fell, 1669), an end to imperialism (Edward Burrough, 1649), state education (Samuel Herring, 1653) and a widening of the franchise (John Lilburne, 1647). Oliver Cromwell was horrified by such proposals, for although he was on the side of parliament he was not necessarily on the side of the people.



So who does rule Britain? And what role should parliament, the Queen, or indeed the European Union, play in the governing of the country? Whatever else Brexit has done, it has galvanised the interest of people in democracy and how we are governed, and that surely has to be a good thing. Just as it was in the civil war period, generating ideas that echoed down through the centuries.



If you are a teacher and you would like to use materials about the Match Girl strike or the civil war in your lessons and/or drama productions, please take a look at the Plays For Schools page on this website. Production packs for ‘The Little Match Girl’ and ‘The World Turned Upside-Down’, including teaching notes, full scripts (with photocopying rights) and posters for your school are available to download now.


Good Mental Health: A Guide For Schools

Good Mental Health:

A Guide For Schools

An interview With Catherine Dinglesby



This month we interview Catherine Dinglesby, Headteacher of Silver Lake Academy, which is setting new standards for the way it cares for the mental health of its staff.



Why do you think good mental health in the workplace is so important?

Because some government directive told me to.



But your school has won awards for its mental health initiatives, has it not?

Oh yes, we tick all the boxes.



Right. Er … perhaps you could tell us about some of those strategies.

You’ll have to ask Miss Slump about that.



Miss Slump?

The Deputy Head. I delegate all staff matters to her.



Oh, I see. So your strategy is not to be hierarchical, top-down. You involve other staff in looking after one another?

No, no, no. It’s totally top-down. The reason I delegate it to Slump is because I don’t want to have to deal with those snivelling imbeciles.



Do you mean the children?

No, you idiot, I mean the staff! I can’t stand the sight of them. I used to do the appraisals myself, and honestly, the boxes of tissues we went through! I thought we’d bankrupt the school! I had to get toilet roll in the end. ‘I don’t feel valued!’ Sniff sniff. ‘I want to leave!’ Boo hoo! ‘You’re a bully!’ Waa waa! On and on it went. ‘I wish I was dead.’ ‘You;re not the only one,’ I replied.



Um … so now you’re referring to the outdated ‘appraisal’ system that you got rid of? The one where staff had to meet targets or suffer a cut in pay?

Yes, that’s the one. We had to scrap it in order to tick one of those boxes. Still, the award logo looks good on our letterhead, and we can bring it back in three years.



Why would you want to bring back an outdated system that made teachers cry?

Because it worked, of course!



But didn’t it mean staff progression depended on pupil progress?

That’s right.



And isn’t pupil progress dependent on a whole lot of factors, many of them out of the control of the staff?

So what? I don’t care how they make progress as long as they do it. Or at least, as long as they are seen to do it.



Sorry, what?

Well, all that OFSTED and the DfE want to see is that all the data looks good on the spreadsheets. If the stupid kids don’t actually improve, a little creative management of the grades soon makes everything look right.



Mrs Dinglesby, are you telling me you and your staff actively cheat to make your school look good?

Yes, of course. Everybody does it. Why not?



You do realise this interview is going to be published, don’t you?

What? I thought we were just having a chat. Excuse me, this interview is terminated. I’ve just remembered I need to call my lawyers.



You can read all about Catherine Dinglesby and her school, Silver Lake Academy, in ‘Over Our Heads’ available from amazon in paperback and kindle

The Box

The Box


I’d like to come out now, said the man in the box.


Of course, they said. Just give us a shout whenever you’re ready.


I’m ready now, he said.                                                                 


Now? There was a pause. You’re ready now, you say?


Yes. Now. I’d like to come out.


Fine. But you can’t actually come out right now.


Why not?


There are some things we have to agree first.


Like what?


Like how you’re going to get out of there, for a start. The walls are very high. You’ll need a ladder.


Don’t you have a ladder? he asked.


Well, maybe we do and maybe we don’t, they said. But we don’t particularly want you to leave. If you want to get out of that box, you need to supply your own ladder. Do you have one?


I’m not sure, he said.




I mean, I might have. It’s just I haven’t needed one for ever so long, so I don’t really know where it is.


OK. Why don’t you have a look for it? Let us know if you find it, won’t you?


Couldn’t you just lend me a ladder?


Nope, sorry. You’re the one who wants to leave.


I am allowed to leave, right?


Of course. Any time.


It’s just … difficult, you know.




Why is that? asked the man in the box. I mean, why are the walls so high anyway?


To keep out the undesirables of course.






No, it’s just that … when I got into the box, you said it was all about freedom. You said I was free to go anywhere I liked.


And so you are. Within the box.


What about the undesirables? Aren’t they free too?


Of course. If they make it into the box.


And if they don’t?


Then they’re really not our problem, are they?


The man thought for a moment. I’m stuck here, aren’t I? he said.


If you say so, they replied. Still, look on the bright side. It could be worse.


How so?


You’re free.


As long as I stay inside the box.


Yes. As long as you are inside the box, you can travel and work wherever you want. It’s pretty nice inside the box, isn’t it? Don’t you like it in there?


It’s alright, but I don’t get to make all my own decisions, do I? Anyway, I’ve told my family I’ll be out soon. They won’t be happy if I don’t make it.


You can always try and get out without a ladder.


I’d never make it.


That’s up to you.


Wait a minute – why is it getting darker in here? said the man in the box.


We’re just putting the lid on, they said.


What? But then I’ll never get out!


We can’t hear you, they said. Sorry.



Silver Lake Academy

Silver Lake Academy

A Reader’s Guide


At troubled times like these, when the country is in chaos and the future all too uncertain, we naturally look to our educational establishments to save us. Our primary schools, we think, where the youngest of the nation’s children go to suck at the teat of knowledge, will surely provide us with well-rounded individuals who, once fully grown, will guide our proud nation back to some semblance of sanity.



Then thank God above and all his angels for Silver Lake Academy, a bastion of excellence in a sea of mediocrity. At Silver Lake, both staff and pupils follow strict rules and codes of conduct, to ensure that nothing dangerous, such as creativity or imagination, should come between them and their pursuit of Learning.



The school was Silver Lake Academy. It stood in its own space, an island, proudly marooned from the rest of the world by pedestrian road crossings on every side. The nearby lake that had given the school its name, in which pupils had once been taught to swim by stern-faced masters, was long gone, drained and filled with concrete; a supermarket now stood upon its site. The green fields that the school had overlooked in its Victorian heyday were also gone, replaced by a housing estate. The rise in population in the area had led to the planned demolition of the old building and its proposed replacement with newer, sleeker, more fit-for-purpose units, but somehow the money for this had never materialised, and so the school had remained as it had always been, with its three storeys of dull brick, its ignored entrance notices for ‘Girls’, ‘Boys’ and ‘Infants’ carved in stone, and its clock tower, which had once been the town’s only reliable timepiece, still marking the hour as it had for decades. The school had originally been a state-funded attempt to educate the poor. Now, to celebrate its one-hundred-and-fiftieth year as an educational establishment, Silver Lake was abandoning education altogether.



The headteacher was Catherine Dinglesby, a short, squat woman, little taller than some of her Year Six pupils, but built of bricks and mortar. Formidable in her bulk, tough as old boots and surprisingly agile for her size, Dinglesby was not to be underestimated. She radiated power like the national grid. Her shoulder-length blonde hair, her piercing blue eyes and thick, bushy eyebrows, the solidity of her frame, all of this had caused many a man to quake in his shoes and many a teacher to acquiesce in whatever was asked of her.



The deputy head was Carla Slump, an ambitious, selfish woman, the daughter of a vicar, but who had herself long since abandoned any moral code. Instead, she slithered up the staircases and along the corridors, easing herself into classrooms when the teachers were not there, casting furtive little glances around the room to find fault however she could, to pronounce judgment upon the staff, to deliver doom.



And then there was Evangeline Sack, a stout, unsmiling woman in her late forties. Physically, she had a rather unfortunate resemblance to a potato, which had led to the coining of the nickname, ‘Potato Sack’, a cruel if somewhat apt expression. Her voice had a pinched, nasal twang and, when talking to children, an artificial, honeyed sweetness. The result was far from the dove-like coo Mrs Sack imagined and much closer to a cross between a robot and a doll that wets its own pants and says sorry.



Amongst the rest of the staff were: Miss Sternflap, Mrs Goodreach and Miss Russett; Mrs Wasani, the token ethnic teacher; Mr Token, the token man; Miss Monotone and Miss Honeybunn; Miss Simper and Miss Suckup; Mrs Large and Mrs Oldways; Mrs Turncoat; and Miss Prettybore, the NQT. And then of course there was Miss Owen. Alison Owen.



Alison had been a teacher for fifteen years, the last five of them at Silver Lake. It had been her mother who had been responsible for setting her on that path. Irene Owen had been a teacher too, an inspiration to her daughter, someone who could take dry-as-dust topics and bring them to life in a way that would excite children’s imaginations.  Alison had hoped she would be able to do the same, but teaching had changed since Irene’s day, and her daughter found the profession to be little more than data analysis and box-ticking; a world that left out the fun of learning, the thing that made it all worthwhile, and replaced it with an illusion; a world that only stultified the young minds she wanted to awaken. During her training, she had read and admired Pestalozzi, Rousseau and Holt; in her practice, she had been told to forget the thinkers and concentrate on ‘what worked’. She had soon found that ‘what worked’ didn’t, but she’d stuck at it because she enjoyed working with young people and because she felt that, despite everything, maybe in some small way she could still make a difference.



For fifteen years she had stuck at it. Fifteen years of planning work and marking books; lesson observations and inspections; government strategies for raising standards. Fifteen years of the ever-changing curriculum; the support programmes for those ‘falling behind’; the special needs assessments; the in-service training, performance management and appraisals. Fifteen years of wet playtimes and lunchtime meetings; one hundred and fifty pieces of work to mark each day.  Fifteen years of thirty faces every morning; tears and cuddles, smiling upturned eyes; snotty tissues, nits, playground cuts and bruises; happy birthdays, cards and cakes. There were the little girls who called her ‘mum’ by mistake and afterwards smiled shyly at their confusion; and the little boys who called her ‘mum’ by mistake and afterwards didn’t even notice. There had been fifteen years of laughter and excitement, work and play; after-school clubs and end-of-term productions; thank-you cards; ‘best-ever teacher’; love. And there had been fifteen years of pressure and expectation, the expectations constantly going up and the pressures constantly slamming down – from the government to the inspectorate; from inspectors to local authorities; from local authorities to governors and headteachers; from them to the teachers;  and, if those teachers were not careful, it slammed down from them to the children in their care.



It happened in a thousand different ways. There were ladders for these little kids to climb, every rung a level in a curriculum relevant only to itself; and if this were not enough, every level had its sub-levels, its baby-step rungs, its ladders within ladders. The schools were held accountable for the progress the children made, clambering up the steps to nowhere. Literacy and numeracy were the subjects that mattered; each tiny movement in the direction of supposed progress worth the sacrifice of the rest of childhood. It happened in a thousand different ways: Art and Music lessons were removed to make more room for reading, writing, number work; cutbacks in PE and sport; RE excommunicated; Drama played out offstage. There were a thousand words of anxious encouragement falling on a thousand innocent ears.



‘You’ve got to reach your targets.’

‘Don’t forget full stops.’

‘We haven’t got time for that – it’s SATs year.’

‘Show your working or you won’t get a mark.’

‘Don’t look at the pictures, use your phonics.’

‘It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense as long as you know what it says.’

It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense.



And it didn’t make sense, not to Alison. She often wondered if she should say something, if she should knock upon the Headteacher’s door and tell her what was in her heart, that her heart was not in this wonderful new world of educational confusion. But she could all too easily imagine the Headteacher’s response. She’d be offered a seat, maybe a nice biscuit and a soothing cup of tea. But all the time, under her desk, Mrs Dinglesby would be pressing a button, a silent alarm, a button that screamed to the outside world, ‘Get this woman out of here! There’s no place for her in my school!’ At Silver Lake, staff were criticised for the slightest thing; it was all too easy to get into Mrs Dinglesby’s black books, and Alison did not want to be there.



You can read more about Alison Owen and her struggle with Silver Lake Academy in ‘Over Our Heads’, a novel which actually began life as a series of short stories (some of which are on my website,, each one designed to feature a different aspect of school life and to particularly focus on the plight of the teaching staff. At some point, it was decided to link these stories together through the character of Alison Owen, forming a novel of sorts, and to include some discussion of progressive education, which, despite having much to offer, tends to be a somewhat ignored approach these days. Aspects of school life that are covered include classroom organisation, extra-curricular activities, school trips, fairs, data tracking, outdoor learning, supply teaching and phonics. If the book has a feeling of the absurd, then it can surely be considered in some way an accurate reflection of our current education system.

It is for the reader to decide whether there is anything of merit in these pages. It amused me to write the book, and I hope it amuses you to read it. If it does, feel free to spread the word to others; if not, kindly move along. Thank-you.  



The above are (mostly) extracts from Over Our Heads, available here.


Long Ago Far Away

Long Ago Far Away


Like many fans of the series, I long ago (although not particularly far away) wrote an outline of my own version of how the Star Wars prequels should have looked. No one who had to sit through The Phantom Menace, never mind the other two, could really accept that this was the origin story of Anakin Skywalker.


When I wrote my novel Time Burners, I decided this was my chance to put forward my own vision of the Star Wars universe. For copyright reasons, of course, I had to create my own fantasy galaxy and characters, and this changed my original idea quite a bit, but although it is a sub-plot in the novel as a whole, my creation of the ‘Lost Citadel’ stories was one of favourite parts to write.


Here is the recount of the whole series, in the words of one of the characters from Time Burners, Ollie. I hope you enjoy it. If you want to read the novel, it is available by clicking this link.


Long, long ago, in a galaxy far away, there were two planets, Citadel and Voida. As you might guess from its name, Voida was empty of all resources, void of anything that could produce food, energy or building materials. This left the Voidarians reliant on imports for pretty much everything. In need of something to export in return, they became expert designers, builders and mechanics, at first exporting their skills, and later building starships and weapons systems on Voida that were in demand throughout the galaxy. Their planet became home to technically brilliant, if not always very wise, men and women, as well as the fastest pilots in the known universe, and, travelling in the wake of these daredevils, some of the meanest criminals.


In contrast, Citadel was rich in resources, and by some quirk of fate it was the only planet in the universe to produce a mineral deposit known as complodium. This was a strong yet flexible mineral that could be fashioned into a material excellent for building. But the Citadellians never exported complodium, preferring to keep all of it to themselves, and this was for one simple reason. They learned that, for those who were able to manipulate it properly, exposure to complodium, together with mental thought-power, could confer the ability to travel not only from one location to another, and even from one planet to another, but also one time period to another. The Citadellians quickly realised the value of this discovery, and some amongst them became expert travellers through the spacetime continuum using this rare substance.


When the Voidarians learned about complodium, they of course wanted the material for themselves. They declared war on Citadel and built a huge weapon that was capable of destroying an entire planet. Unfortunately, the collective lack of wisdom among the Voidarians meant that they failed to realise the use of this weapon would deny them the very substance they were fighting for. They did use it, and Citadel was blown into a billion pieces, which were then scattered throughout the galaxy. Many of the planet’s inhabitants managed to escape – either by starship or by use of complodium – before their home was destroyed, and some of these dedicated their lives to searching through the galaxy for scattered shards of complodium. The most assiduous, and the best time travellers, amongst them formed together as a band they called the knights of the lost planet Citadel, which later became shortened to the knights of the lost Citadel. Whenever they found enough complodium, the knights fashioned it into a tube that could be inserted into a special type of ray-gun, the firing of which transported whoever it was aimed at through space and time. The more sophisticated knights, who did not want to keep pointing ray-guns at themselves, also created complodium bracelets called wraserbands, that they wore about their wrists at all times, which could be used to transport themselves or others, as they chose. Both the guns and the wraserbands emitted complodium as a green ray, and it was the force of this ray that initiated the process of travel through time and space.


The Voidarians, meanwhile, were also on the lookout for complodium, and the most dedicated seekers called themselves dark lords, or sometimes lords of the dark void. At one time, they discovered a dead star called the Black Planet which held an enormous lake full of dissolved complodium. By drinking the lake water, the powers of this mysterious mineral were conferred upon the drinker, and the dark lords relied upon this source to enable their own journeys through space and time, and they developed their own ray-guns to use upon others. Their mission was to travel back through time to just before the moment Citadel was destroyed, so they could take over the planet instead. The knights spent much of their time trying to foil this plan. Some dark lords, though, preferred to make a profit out of their discovery, and a dried version of complodium, the properties of which became active through burning, soon became available on the black market.


Criminals on the run were the main customers for complodium, because a lot of them thought it would be a cool idea to commit a crime quote openly and in plain sight and then, when the cops came looking for them, travel back through time to undo the crime for which they were being pursued. To the knights of the lost Citadel, these criminals became known as time burners, and some of the knights became specialists at tracking down such renegades. Three levels of punishment were decreed for time burners. First, the criminal would be sent back to wherever he or she had come from to face due justice for what they had done: the knights could send them back to the exact moment of their departure.  For a second offence, they would be imprisoned in a place called The Prison of Lights; and for a third offence, they would be sent to the Prison of Darkness. It was widely believed that this third prison was really just a euphemism for death. The knights were a kind of intergalactic FBI, you might say.


Now, all of this is merely background information. The first book in the series, which was the only one actually titled Knights of the Lost Citadel (although it was later re-named The Mask of Silvitius), begins in a different corner of the galaxy, on a planet called Moravia, where young Danny Cosmos lives with his family on their farm. Now, Danny is a talented young lad. He can run faster, jump higher, has quicker reflexes than any of his peers, and he is a little bit smarter than them too, while remaining heroically modest at the same time. Danny’s family are in the midst of a long-running feud with a neighbouring family, the Flectors, who, at the start of the book, have just set fire to the Cosmos farm and destroyed their star-plough machine.


Danny volunteers to fix the star-plough and sets off to pick up supplies from a mining planet called Tontonina. Here, he meets a mysterious figure known only as The Monk. As he dresses in the habit of the Rhamesthelian order, Danny assumes he is a Monk of Rhamesthelia, but he is in for a surprise. Observing the above-average physical abilities of young Mr Cosmos, The Monk reveals himself to be none other than Silvitius Starbright, one of the knights of the lost Citadel. Silvitius explains the powers of complodium, a supply of which he has discovered in the mines of Tontonina, and urges him to join the knighthood. Danny Cosmos promptly abandons the idea of fixing the family star-plough and accepts a wraserband from Silvitius. The next thing you know, the two of them are chasing down time burners all over the place. Word spreads about this new galactic hero, and the book ends with a huge party after the arrest of a notorious time burner named Mordecai. The knights look forward to a golden future they think Danny will usher in for them, but the young man has attracted enemies as well as friends, as shown in the second book in the series, Ghost Planet.


This story follows the fortunes of Obsidious Cloud-Shadow, one of the dark lords, who has established a secret base on the planet Lithunia. Due to its peculiar orbit, which hides it from view behind a sun for half the year, Lithunia is known as the Ghost Planet, and it is here that Obsidious plots the destruction of the knights of the lost Citadel. Central to this plan is the use of rogue time burners, agents who pose as criminals in order to lure the knights out into the open. Obsidious then traps them in a certain time period, robbing them of their wraserband and ray-gun, and effectively imprisoning them there. Inevitably, the book ends with a showdown between Silvitius and Danny on one side, and Obsidious Cloud-Shadow on the other. An extra twist is added with the revelation that Obsidious is actually Danny’s real father, and the people he thought were his parents adopted him as a baby. All three main characters survive the tale, but Danny runs away, angry that Silvitius had known the truth about his father but not told him.


True fans of the series rate the second book and film as the best of the lot, mainly because of the role of Obsidious. It is revealed that he was once a good man, a knight of the lost Citadel, and the idea of such a noble mind turning to evil pulled the rug out from under the feet of many of the predecessors of this series, which tended to have clearly defined sides on which characters had to remain. What Ghost Planet did was to raise the possibility of a fluid exchange between one side and the other, something that had barely been explored before. The original book had its critics, but nobody was sneering at Guy Laker after this volume came out, and everyone was eagerly awaiting the third and final volume of the trilogy, The Dark Empire.


This book begins with Danny, who has returned home to his family, keeping to himself what he now knows about them, and wanting just to return to the simple life he had before. Obsidious, meanwhile, has also returned home and is now, on Voida, second-in-command to Emperor Silkblade, the ruler of the planet. Cloud-Shadow’s plan is to somehow win over the trust of his long-lost son, and, with his help, destroy once and forever the knights of the lost Citadel, and in particular Silvitius Starbright. It is revealed that it was Starbright, realising the superhuman powers of Danny even as an infant, who stole the child from Obsidious and placed him with the Cosmos family.


One day, a mysterious stranger appears at the Cosmos farm, offering to help with the harvest. Desperate for anyone they can get, the family take him in. During a dramatic storm, in which star lightening threatens to destroy all the crops in the harvest barn, the stranger (who calls himself One-Eye, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone) saves the day, using what appears to be a magical control of the elements to create rain, putting out the fire and saving the whole family. One-Eye then reveals that he is really Silvitius Starbright. Cosmos, unable to turn his former mentor away after what he has done to save the farm, agrees to listen to what he has travelled across the galaxy to tell him.


Silvitius teaches Danny how to find inner peace through meditation, using techniques he learned from the Order of Rhamesthelia. Danny joins the order, where he learns the importance of balancing good and evil, and Cosmos is eventually convinced that his master is right about his own role in the universe, which is to either turn Obsidious from evil to good, or to destroy him. Silvitius also explains that he took Danny from his father only because Obsidious was turning to evil ways and had threatened to kill his own son. Confirmed in their purpose, the two knights travel around the galaxy, righting wrongs as they go, until of course there is once again the inevitable showdown. Obsidious, who has fallen too much under the control of the evil Emperor Silkblade, cannot renounce his wicked ways, and recognises that he must fall, bringing the emperor down with him, if the galaxy is ever to have peace. This is what happens, both Obsidious and Silvitius dying at the end, and Danny left to lead a suitably sombre celebration.


This supposedly final volume was considered such a fitting end to the story that nobody really wanted a further volume. At the same time, these books just served to whet the appetite, and Laker was eventually persuaded to write, not a sequel, but a prequel trilogy. The prequels told the story of how Obsidious, whose original name was Atavel Cosmos, had turned from good to evil. The first book, The Secret Princess, focused on how, as young men, he and Silvitius were firm friends, chasing down time burners and fighting the dark lords together, until Atavel met and fell in love with a girl called Moonlap. She was a princess who had gone into hiding because her wicked uncle wished to marry her to a local ganglord named Villainous. She and Atavel eloped together, but Villainous tracked them down and killed Moonlap. The book ends with Atavel holding Moonlap’s lifeless body and swearing revenge.


In the next book, The Black Star, Silvitius tries to dissuade Atavel from going after the powerful ganglord and takes him on a number of missions, chasing time burners across the galaxy. However, during a mission on a planet called Darius Orb, Atavel hears that Villainous has taken up residence on the Black Star, which is the dead planet with the lake of complodium, and he goes off alone to find him. There he meets Emperor Silkblade, in disguise. He tells Cosmos that Silvitius betrayed Moonlap to Villainous, and that it is the knight of the lost Citadel that he should seek to destroy. Atavel at first refuses to believe it, but then Villainous appears and takes him prisoner, removing his wraserband. It turns out that Villainous and Silkblade were working together to make this happen, and that Silkblade has plans for Atavel.


In The Emergence of Darkness, the final prequel volume, Atavel is gradually persuaded by Silkblade to join the dark lords. It is also revealed to him that Moonlap is still alive, and that she has given birth to Atavel’s son. Accepting his new role as a dark lord, and his new name of Obsidious Cloud-Shadow, the former friend of Silvitius makes it his mission to seek out and kill him. Of course, there is a showdown, in which Obsidious thinks Silvitius dies, but he is only wounded and later, restored to health by the Monks of Rhamesthelia, he snatches Danny Cosmos from his father and gives him up for adoption to distant relatives, also named Cosmos, in order to protect him, and in the hope he might one day restore balance to the universe.


The prequel novels were popular with many, but also attracted an awful lot of criticism, not only from the usual sources (who complained about Laker’s portrayal of women as either victims or sex-objects), but now also from fans of the original series, who felt that too much prominence was given to Atavel and not enough to Obsidious. Guy Laker claimed that he was trying to show the origins of the character’s complexity, but by this time the Knights of the Lost Citadel had become far larger than its creator and was no longer under his control. Laker bowed to the inevitable and sold the rights to the characters and the stories for several billion dollars


This allowed the floodgates to be opened, and before long a whole range of other series of books were appearing, written in most cases by far more creative individuals and featuring offshoots of offshoots from the original six novels. There was a series called Smugglers of The Ghost Planet Lithunia; another called The Adventures of Moonlap and her Incredible Sisterhood; one all about the Monks of Rhamesthelia; and even a very dull series named Miners of Tontonina. One-Eye had his own series of books, as did various previously unknown cousins and brothers and sisters of Atavel Cosmos. The stories are too numerous to explain in detail, but these and other books in the same universe greatly expanded the original ideas and made it all but impossible for the saga to ever come to an end. Whenever some sort of resolution to the whole story seemed to be on the cards, a new branch of the narrative would spring up somewhere – an adventure set thousands of years earlier, or later, or in a parallel universe. Knights of the Lost Citadel became an inescapable part of contemporary culture; another world that some say is the equal of our own.


Brian at Forty

Brian at Forty


It is forty years since Monty Python’s Life Of Brian was released, and this is now being celebrated by a cinematic reissue of the picture. It would be interesting to know what younger generations think of the film. Certainly, the impact it had in 1979 cannot be repeated today, partly because Christianity is a less significant part of public life now than it was then.


It’s interesting to reflect on which films are chosen to be re-released to mark an anniversary. Alien was thus celebrated earlier this year, but 2018 seemed to come and go without any reissue of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, surely the biggest film of 1978. When first released, Steven Spielberg’s film was ‘bigger than Star Wars’ and helped cement the director’s reputation as one of the modern greats.


I recently re-watched Close Encounters and was struck at how slow-paced and thoughtful a film it is. One of the ideas it contains is that there is a secret group of men communicating with aliens and concealing the fact from the rest of us, which is the premise behind The X-Files, but the focus for Spielberg is not about uncovering a conspiracy. It is about a sense of wonder. At times, the film is reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In his early films (Jaws, Close Encounters, ET), Spielberg was very good at focusing on families and knew how to coach believable performances out of his young actors, and much of this movie is about how Roy Neary’s obsession eats away at his relationship with his family. It is very much a film about obsession and raises some interesting ideas about the nature of creativity and the vulnerability of humanity in the face of the unknown. Such an approach to an alien movie would be unthinkable today. Even with John Williams working for him, Spielberg eschewed dramatic music in favour of a five-note theme that is used to communicate with the extra-terrestrials, and there are no cheap shocks or gratuitous explosions, etc. It is really quite a beautiful film, quite possibly the best he has made. It deserves to be seen again.


Life of Brian, on the other hand, surely remains well known, at least through its most famous catchphrases. It is certainly the Pythons’ best film, the only one that has any real sense of cohesion and it does contain some moments of genius that justify its continued reverence. The scene in which the People’s Front of Judea denounce the Judean People’s Front is a perfect satire of what was wrong with much of the Left during the seventies and eighties (and can still be applied to parts of the Labour party today – ‘splitters!’).


In a famous television debate about the film, the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, referred to the film as ‘the sort of thing the Footlights would do on a damp Tuesday afternoon’ (a delightfully damning comment), and he did have a point. The ‘Welease Woderick’ scene is humour based entirely upon laughing at speech impediments, which is pathetic, and certainly below what the Pythons were capable of; and the ‘Romans they go the house’ graffiti scene is surely best appreciated by public schoolboys who have sat through hours of Latin classes. Life of Brian is a very funny film, but not everything about it is great.


The main point of discussion in the Muggeridge/Stockwood debate is whether the film was making fun of Jesus, a suggestion John Cleese and Michael Palin vehemently denied. Fans of the film point out that the whole premise of the movie is that Brian is not Jesus but a case of mistaken identity. I have always thought this rather disingenuous. The opening scene, for example, is clearly a parody of the nativity, regardless of the fact the wise men went to ‘the stable next door’. Later, the sermon on the mount is mocked (‘blessed are the cheesemakers’). I for one have never been able to think about either of these biblical events without recalling Monty Python, and I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to say that this film did serve to undermine the seriousness of the Christian story within our culture. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but I think the Pythons were trying to have their cake and eat it by their claim that a parody of the life of Jesus was not making fun of Jesus. Indeed, I wonder to what extent this film is responsible for the decline of Christianity in the country as a whole.


One of the most famous scenes in the film is the ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ scene, one which might appear particularly relevant at the moment, with lots of Brexit memes to that effect on social media (like this one). However, looked at more broadly, there is a point to be made here that many people overlook: Judea was occupied by the Romans, and many people did want the Romans out, despite the advantages they had brought. Why might this be? Because for many people their sense of identity is bound up with geography, with a sense that they own their own land. This is a point that fanatical EU Remainers don’t seem to understand: if you feel that you are ‘owned’ it is natural to want to be free, however ‘kind’ your owner might be to you.


Much to mull over as we munch our popcorn. Happy Easter!


Brexit: Who Is To Blame?

Brexit: Who Is To Blame?


Whether you voted Leave or Remain, or you couldn’t be bothered to vote at all, one thing everyone seems agreed upon is that the current situation is a total mess. It must be somebody’s fault, but whose? This handy cut-out-and-keep guide allows you to assign guilt to whomsoever you think is the most responsible. Here then are the runners and riders:


David Cameron

He made having a referendum government policy because he thought he would never have to implement it, not expecting to win a majority in the 2015 election. Then he promised an improved relationship with Europe, which he failed to achieve. Having called a referendum, he failed to make any provision for what would happen if Leave won. And then, having promised he would not walk away if he lost, he promptly walked away. To add insult to injury, he hummed a little tune as he did so.


Theresa May

Faced with the task of governing a country split almost exactly down the middle over Brexit, she eschewed the idea of bringing people together in favour of siding with the most extreme faction on one side, thereby pitting herself against the vast majority of MPs as well as a sizeable part of the country. She called a general election in order to stamp her authority on parliament and lost her majority instead, placing herself, her government, and effectively the rest of us, in hock to the DUP. She failed to negotiate a deal, and what she did manage, a ‘withdrawal agreement’, was hated by almost everybody who was expected to vote for it. Having suffered the largest defeat ever, she merely presented the same deal again - and (nearly) a third time, too. Too powerless to govern her own cabinet, never mind the country, she remained in office merely out of fear of Jeremy Corbyn. Speaking of whom…


Jeremy Corbyn

Despite being in opposition (and therefore not in power), he is the favourite scapegoat of much of the mainstream media, the government and many of his own MPs. Knowing he would be torn apart if he favoured either Brexit or a second referendum, he tried to play both sides at once, a ploy which brought him the largest share of the vote enjoyed by Labour for some time in the 2017 election, but not quite large enough to get into Downing Street. As the Tories have displayed increasingly insane and self-destructive tendencies, he has hung on in hope of another general election, still trying to please everyone and not managing to do so, partly because so many are so fixed in their negative view of him that even if the man discovered a cure for cancer the headline would read ‘Corbyn Puts Doctors Out Of Work’. For many, he remains the best hope for Britain, but will Britain ever realise it?



These are the hardline Leavers, some of whom have been pushing for Britain to quit the EU for decades. Mostly rabid right-wingers (although there is also a left-wing argument for Leave, known as Lexit), according to hardline Remainers they lied to the electorate and cheated their way through the referendum and so no one should listen to them ever. Mostly an unpleasant assortment of individuals, including Nigel ‘Breaking Point’ Farage, Boris ‘Letterboxes’ Johnson and Michael ‘Enough of Experts’ Gove. Although it should be remembered that Dennis Skinner is also a Brexiter, as was the late, great Tony Benn.


John Bercow

Just as pantomime dame Theresa May enters stage right and tries for a third time to deliver the same old tired routine of 'My deal is the only way!', up pops token baddy Speaker Bercow with his cry of 'Oh no it isn't!' Everything descends even further into chaos, and Bercow brings the house down (the House of Commons anyway). Cue cheers and boos in equal measure from different parts of the country.


Supposedly the driving force behind the whole Leave campaign, anti-immigrant feeling has long been a motive for a minority. However, the failure of either the BNP or UKIP to gain any kind of significant hold in Westminster shows it remains (in this country at least) a minority view (the electoral failure of UKIP, by the way, is also a very good argument for first-past-the-post). The nastier elements of the Leave campaign may have stirred up racist feeling in Britain, but immigration has been nothing but beneficial to this country, and there is a sizeable amount of evidence to show immigrants contribute far more to the country than they take out. Leaving the EU may be far less about immigration than some would have you believe.


The Media

Of course, that doesn’t mean anti-immigrant feeling does not exist, and it is our beloved media that is responsible for much of it. Far-right newspapers with their screaming headlines have long fed the fire of anti-otherness, whether the ‘other’ be the dark-skinned, the foreign-tongued, or simply the EU. In this respect, the decline of the print media cannot come fast enough. However, it would be a mistake to blame only one side of the divide in this country. Waitrose shoppers are also on the list.


People’s Vote People

Also known as hardline Remainers, they had the unique idea of beginning their pro-EU campaign after the vote had taken place (instead of the more conventional method of campaigning first, before the vote). No one was painting their faces blue and yellow or marching through London saying how wonderful the EU was before the referendum, but as the old saying goes, you never know what you have until you lose it. Convinced that the first referendum was a fraud and the only voters were … non-people, hardline Remainers had the not-at-all insulting idea of calling their longed-for second referendum a ‘People’s Vote’. None of them seemed to consider that, even if they won, it would hardly make the Brexiters go away. Nor did they think that actually they might not win, but then they never accounted for…


The British Population

Voters, eh? What are they like? First, they give Cameron’s Tories a majority in 2015, after five years of soul-crushing, poverty-inducing austerity, thereby putting the PM in the difficult position of having to deliver on his promises. Then they go and vote the wrong way in the referendum! Finally, they refuse to give a majority to anyone at all in 2017. If people won’t vote the way they are told, we are going to have to abandon this democracy thing altogether. Speaking of which…


The European Union

The favourite target of Brexiters, the EU is responsible for everything bad that has happened since the 1970s, whether real (like… er … health and safety legislation) or imagined (straight bananas). Famous for making countries vote again if their referendum results were ‘wrong and for making Greece accept austerity after the country had voted for an anti-austerity government, the EU likes to present itself as the guarantor of peace in Europe. Unhelpfully, it is governed both by unelected bureaucrats (the EC) and elected representatives (the European Parliament), fuelling arguments on both sides of the 'democracy' debate. As the far-right begins to take hold in parliaments across the continent, the idea of staying in a union that might soon be in the hold of fascists might not look quite so rosy in a few years. But will they recognise this in Westminster?



Rarely since 1649 can those who sit in the House of Commons have looked so out of touch with the rest of the country. While political geeks get all worked up about the latest cross-party amendment, ‘meaningful vote’ or defecting MP, the rest of the country is reportedly getting increasingly fed up with the whole thing. Anna Soubry might be upset because a fat man in a hi-vis vest yelled at her, but then it was her (former) party that promised these people they would deliver on what they had voted for, something Soubry (and quite possibly the majority of those in Westminster) seem to have little intention of actually doing. Then again, perhaps it’s not their fault at all. Perhaps it’s…



Yes, you. What have you done? Did you vote Leave? Then you are ruining our economic prospects. How dare you consider the principle of independence more important than money? Did you vote Remain? Then you are anti-democratic! How dare you oppose the  Will Of The People by suggesting more democracy?  Or did you not bother voting at all? Then you have no right to complain. How dare you? What’s that you say? What about …



How can it possibly be my fault? No no no. It can’t be me. It has to be somebody else. I can’t possibly be held responsible. It’s them, I tell you, them. THEM!!!!




‘Off-rolling’ is a term used to describe the practice by which schools remove pupils from their school roll. This can be done through exclusion, permanent or otherwise, or sometimes by encouragement, otherwise known as the threat of exclusion (‘Wouldn’t it be better on your child’s record if they moved schools of their own volition?’).


I am currently working on a one-act play in which a school is about to be inspected by OFSTED and the headteacher wants to make sure certain pupils are not in school on the day of the inspection. This is not fiction. I have worked in at least one school in which phone calls were made to the parents of frequently disruptive pupils, asking them to keep their kids at home while OFSTED were in. I was witness to one such call, which was surprisingly friendly in nature: the deputy head knew the parent well (presumably they had had several official meetings in the recent past) and both adults were concerned that the school might suffer because of the waywardness of this particular boy. The parents understood; everything was fine. I don’t know if all such conversations are like this, but I do know the deputy head in question was working his way through a list of pupils who were effectively banned from school, not for any specific action they had carried out, but just in case.


The following paragraph contains a spoiler for my novel, Over Our Heads. It’s not a huge spoiler, as Over Our Heads is more a collection of short stories than a novel (I called it a novel because I thought it sounded better, and because there is a narrative thread that runs throughout the chapters, but the chapters themselves were conceived as stand-alone stories) and this revelation will only ‘spoil’ one of them, the one in Chapter Thirteen, called ‘Dig For Victory.’ In this chapter, the management of Silver Lake Academy use the school garden to ‘grow’ replica pupils to stand in for those whose SATs scores are likely to be bad for the school. The disappointing pupils stay home and the replica pupils, artificially engineered to perform well in academic tests, sit the exams. As with several of the chapters in Over Our Heads, the situation is extreme, an exaggeration, but the only reason it is fiction rather than fact is because the scientific possibility does not yet exist. In another chapter, pupils are given brain implants to track progress and, in yet another, a child is physically stretched, like on a rack, in order to fulfil impossible requirements. I am convinced these would be regular practices if they were possible to implement, and if schools thought they could get away with them.


Over Our Heads is a parody, but not as far-fetched as it might appear. Off-rolling is real, and has been described as ‘unethical, inappropriate and beyond repugnant’. All over the country, there are schools either dissuading parents from applying for a place or excluding pupils so that they move on somewhere else. All this is done so that the poor behaviour or low academic standard of a particular child does not impact upon the school’s data, does not make them look bad or lower their position in the league table of schools. The very fact there is a ‘league table’ of schools (like we’re all professional athletes competing for a trophy) is ridiculous, evidence of the absurd system of education we have now developed in this country.


Think about it. What are schools for? Are they not for the benefit of children? Or, at the very least, for the benefit of society at large – are schools not places where children can learn to function in wider society, both academically and socially? How is this process helped by excluding children from taking part in it? There are thousands of children currently off-roll in this country, educationally homeless, often sat at home, prisoners in their own bedrooms. Somehow, things have got turned around: now children exist for the benefit of schools and not the other way around.


In his book, The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson explores the idea that by categorising mental illnesses we have inadvertently caused people to be diagnosed as ‘ill’ who might otherwise be termed ‘eccentric’ or ‘odd’ - strange perhaps but not harmful. This is especially the case with children – for example, in the case of bipolar disorder. In the USA, at least, many very young children have been diagnosed as bipolar and put on medication quite unnecessarily and sometimes with fatal consequences. Off-rolling is not quite in the same category as a bipolar diagnosis, but it is in the same general area: we are too quick to label children as difficult because they do not conform to what we want them to be.


Education has become a rigid and inflexible beast. OFSTED inspections, exams, league tables, they all dictate to the child what the child needs to do. But what about those setting the rules, the dictators themselves? Shouldn’t we, the adults, be prepared to change our expectations, our ideas, our ‘red lines’ to accommodate the academic diversity of the children who come to us? Isn’t that what ‘comprehensive’ education should be about? We need to find a way to welcome back the excluded. Education is for them too.


Education should be for everyone.

Mysteries of the Multiverse

Mysteries of the Multiverse


I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert on time travel, and I’m certainly no scientist. At school, I used to get 0/10 and ‘See Me’ in red pen on every piece of work I did in Physics. Chemistry wasn’t much better, my highest test score being 21%, I seem to recall. Nevertheless, it is into my hands that the greatest scientific discovery of our age seems to have fallen. I don’t pretend to understand it, but the story I have uncovered would seem to be an explanation of how humankind can travel throughout the spacetime continuum, or – to put it another way – to traverse the multiverse. Now, I know hardly anything about the universe, let alone the multiverse, but what I do know is there for all to see in my most recent publication, Time Burners. Therefore, I urge all of you who have an interest in such matters – or indeed an interest in the plight of humanity itself – to get a copy, read it, and come to your own conclusions., It is available in kindle or paperback from amazon at just the click of a button. Meanwhile, here is the preface to the book to whet your appetite:


I had wanted to give this book the subtitle, ‘How To Travel Through Time and Other Cosmic Secrets Revealed’. I was fully confident that I would be the first to publish information that would lead directly to a revolution in our understanding and exploration of the spacetime continuum. Further, this would not be classed as a novel at all. It would sit proudly amongst the theoretical science books and be read by professors and geeks and nerds the world over.


However, after protracted legal negotiations, I was told that some of the material on which my information was based would only be made available to me under certain conditions, namely that parts of it were redacted and that I presented the whole thing as a work of fiction. When you encounter thick black bars in the text (like this xxxxxx, for example), you will know why. That is how the information was presented to me; I have no more knowledge of the hidden words than you do, I am sorry to say. Not only were these conditions applied, but I was forced to publish the book myself after every major publishing house that had previously shown interest turned the manuscript down. Make of this situation what you will.


I can only apologise for the lack of clarity on this issue and assure you, my loyal readers, that it is not your author who withholds this information from you, but the governments of the world. If you wish to challenge the situation, I suggest you take it up with your government.

Time Burners

Time Burners


My new novel makes the perfect Christmas present for a fan of time-travel stories and science-fiction in general.


Everett Granger is a typical small-town nobody. Not particularly successful at school, he also had to watch his childhood sweetheart get married to the school bully. His only real interests now are movies of the seventies and a minor obsession with the Watergate scandal. Everett spends his days flipping burgers at a backstreet fast-food restaurant and his nights tuning into the police scanner in the hope of a scoop that he can sell to the local paper.


One night, such a scoop does come his way, but it’s something much bigger than a local news story. Everett follows the trail of two suspicious attempted burglaries and uncovers the secret to one of the biggest mysteries there is. In an attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery, Everett will get involved with American paranormal investigators, a journalist from a national newspaper, a research scientist, and … oh … Richard Nixon.


Follow the adventures of a group of intrepid yet clueless time travellers as they drop in on Washington DC in the seventies, the wild west in the 1800s, a futuristic planet or two, and even their own past.


Time Burners is not just a story of time travel. For the first time, it attempts to explain the theory and practice involved in making a journey through the spacetime continuum. If it were not for the enforced redactions within the text, the casual reader would have access for him or herself to the secrets of time travel itself!


One of the best books on the subject in the multiverse. Perhaps.


Why not find out for yourself? Time Burners is currently available as a kindle ebook at just £1.99 and as a paperback for only £10

Scary Tales

Scary Tales


Just in time for Halloween, here comes Scary Tales, my new novel for everyone from seven upwards.


Once upon a time, a little girl walked through the forest to visit her grandmother, who was not very well. On the way, she met two other children, who had been abandoned by their father, and they in turn stumbled across a girl who had been put into a deep sleep and who could only be awoken by a kiss from her true love. Oh, and there was another girl (with long hair), kept prisoner at the top of a tall tower. And ... three little pigs, a wolf, a cowardly prince (and his helpful horse), not to mention a boy with a beanstalk in his back garden. And we mustn't forget the fairies, of course. And a couple of giants. And the witches, all three of them. These shouldn't really be called fairy tales. These stories are scary tales, and in the pages of this book there is plenty to be scared of (as well as plenty to enjoy). If you want a fresh take on well-known tales and if you enjoy humour as well as just a little bit of a scare, this is the book for you!


I’ve always been interested in fairy tales, and even at an early age I enjoyed the thrill of being scared by them. They are the tales we tell our very young children, and yet they contain some of the darkest themes of any story. It’s no wonder children have nightmares. Wicked stepmothers, giants and witches abound in these narratives, and some of the earliest versions of fairy tales are much more gruesome than the relatively anodyne retellings we favour now.


Little Red Riding Hood, which is a story at the heart of Scary Tales, is one of those with an interesting past. The earliest known printed version is by Charles Perrault, which ends with Red Riding Hood climbing into bed with the wolf, who then devours her. There is no happy ending, but Perrault explicitly presents it as a story with a moral (‘don’t talk to strangers’). However, in some of its earlier versions, the wolf eats the grandmother but leaves part of the blood and meat, which is then eaten by the little girl, unwittingly cannibalising her own grandmother. Pretty gruesome stuff.


There’s nothing quite like that in Scary Tales, but the element of fear is important. The idea that some terrible fate might befall us if we do not do the right thing is an important element of social cohesion. It is, so to speak, what keeps us on the right path. At the same time, if Little Red Riding Hood does not stray from the path through the woods, she would never meet the wolf and there would be no story at all. ‘A little girl goes to see her grandmother – the end’ is not much of a tale. So we have the paradox of stories that show us the consequence of doing wrong, yet it is the thrill of the wrong that gives them their power.


Do yourselves a favour this Halloween season – get a copy of Scary Tales (kindle version available now, paperback will be on sale soon), read and enjoy it, then please leave a review on amazon. Of course, those of you of a nervous disposition might want to steer clear, but the rest of you – you’re in for one scary good time!

Why Drama Matters In Schools

Why Drama Matters In Schools


For many years, when I taught in primary schools, I used drama in the classroom as much as possible and I ran an after-school drama club. Whenever I bump into former students of mine, as I did the other day at an open evening, it is the drama they want to talk about – the roleplay activities we did in class and the full-scale productions we staged at the end of every term. They never want to reminisce about the sit-down-and-listen lessons; it’s the drama that matters to them, still. It was towards the end of the last millennium that I started running a drama club as an after-school provision, realising that there was no longer room in the curriculum to do justice to this area of teaching and learning. If the curriculum was unfriendly to drama back in 1999, just look at it now.


At this particular open evening, we were informed that instead of offering drama, dance and music as separate activities, this school offered one catch-all subject, performing arts. This, apparently, was to save children the tiring effort of walking from one part of the school to another for a different lesson. Fewer lessons = less walking = a less tiring day. The probability is that students at this school are the lucky ones: at least they get drama once every few weeks, interspersed with their meagre ration of music and dance. But here was a school with magnificent facilities barely used; everyone is too busy with their English and Maths.


Does drama matter? Isn’t the focus on core skills more important? Isn’t what our young people really need the ability to communicate and understand the basics of numeracy and literacy? Drama is a luxury we cannot afford. What use is drama anyway?




It builds confidence. Ask any drama teacher, and they will be able to tell you stories of that shy child who never spoke in the classroom, never put themselves forward, the one who lacked all confidence in themselves. Until they took to the stage. I remember one little girl who, when she first joined drama club, wanted a non-speaking part somewhere in the background. For her, just standing on the stage in front of people was a massive challenge. After the final performance, she felt fantastically proud of herself and couldn’t wait to sign up for the next one. By the time she left the school, she had regular speaking parts and was developing into a good character actor. Her story is by no means unusual, and why? Because taking on the role of someone else is often essential for children who lack self-confidence. It gives them a space to explore, to grow, to gain that belief that is so essential to tackling any task.


It strengthens teamwork. No one does drama on their own. Even a monologue has a director, a lighting designer, a stage manager. In schools, plays are about working together. It’s frightening to walk out onto a lit stage in a dark hall filled with people and perform. In that atmosphere, it’s reassuring to know you are not alone. There, on the stage, waiting for your arrival, are your fellow actors, also nervous and in need of reassurance. This is a situation in which you need to know you can rely on other people and others need to know you’ve got their back. Drama brings people together in a way few other activities do.

It aids personal development. At its heart, drama is about character. What happens, a playwright asks, when these people are placed in this situation? Most plays explore the change in their characters as a result of the events unfolding around them. This is a wonderful opportunity for young people. Not only can they put themselves inside of somebody else and look at things from another point of view, it also causes them to develop themselves. One cannot help but ask oneself, ‘How would I react in this situation? Why is this character so different from me (or so similar)? What makes me one way and this person another?’ By putting on the ‘mask’ of another character, we are given a safe space in which to explore ourselves.


These are just three of the benefits of drama; there are many more. I have not even touched on the things I used to use to sell my drama club to disinterested senior managers: the benefits in terms of reading, speaking and listening and so on, things that headteachers do recognise as important.


Drama is the way we learn to explore ourselves and others, the way we use to explore life. This is why actors, directors and writers will say drama is life, and we should not let life disappear from the curriculum. Children need drama, and all of us – teachers, parents and students – should fight for its place in our schools. Our children will thank us.

Even if it does mean they have to walk somewhere else to get it.


If you are interested in purchasing high-quality, tried-and-tested, reasonably-priced drama scripts for your school, click here.


How to have a happier, healthier planet

How to have a happier, healthier planet – Ban Cars.


There are already movements in major cities of the world to ban cars. We know that levels of pollution in such areas are dangerously high. We know that cars cause accidents. In my opinion, they are also eyesores and a blight upon the aesthetics of our urban streets. In the age of #MeToo, do we really need these icons of macho power, these penis substitutes on wheels? I don’t think so.


I’m not here to convince you. If you don’t think that something needs to be done about the environment in order to save our planet, what kind of head-in-the-sand ostrich are you anyway? Banning private cars from our roads would go a long way to improving the health of our planet, and that is reason enough to go ahead with such a move. Making the streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as just more pleasant to look at, is a bonus. And face it, how many people really enjoy driving? Next time you get a chance, look at the queues of single-occupant vehicles stuck in traffic; these people are not happy. They’d be better off on a bus.


I’m not here to convince you; I’m more interested in the how than the why. How would we cope if we were no longer allowed our own personal form of motorised transport? I’ll tell you how: beautifully.


Such a radical measure could not be performed overnight. It would need building up to; it would require preparation. My proposal is that we introduce new taxes on motorists and gradually increase those taxes over time (maybe a five-year period). This extra revenue is used first of all to transform public transport: nationalisation of the rail industry, accompanied by nationalisation of buses at a local level (I don’t know what this is called, but there must be a name for it), by which I mean buses are owned and run by local authorities. There would be an end to competition between different transport companies,which is bad all round for the passenger because it does not improve services but does increase fares. There would be more frequent buses and trains; a wider network; a nationwide 24/7 service so nobody has to worry about when they are travelling or where. You can already get free newspapers and wi-fi on buses and trains, so a few extra amenities would just make the journey all the sweeter; and more comfortable seats wouldn’t go amiss either. Best of all, when 'D-Day' does finally arrive and all private cars are banned, bus travel would become free for all. Yes, public transport would be entirely subsidised through a rise in National Insurance (with the money you have saved through not having to maintain a car anymore, you would hardly notice it) and higher business tax; or maybe your employer has to pay the government so you can travel to work on a train or bus; and that journey would be quicker and easier because there would be no private cars getting in the way. I know the end of cars would be a bitter pill for many to swallow, but steadily improving public transport that is free for all to use would be the sugar on that pill.


And that’s not all: cycle routes would also be improved; government subsidies would make the purchase and maintenance of pushbikes much cheaper; and cycling lessons would be compulsory for all children from an early age. Imagine how much pleasanter it would be to cycle, walk or run around your local town if there was not all that noisy, polluting traffic everywhere! It would also be safer and quicker for emergency services to get to where they need to be. Other forms of vehicular transport would also survive: freight, for one; furniture removals; and taxicabs. However, taxis would be more expensive to use, in most cases prohibitively so. The exceptions would be the elderly or infirm and pregnant women (for whom the service would be cheaper than now), and maybe an all-female night-time taxi service in areas where women do not otherwise feel safe.


Naturally, many of you would consider this proposal an act of insanity. But how sane is it to continue polluting our streets, at levels we know are affecting our intelligence? How sane is it to poison our planet and suffocate ourselves? How sane is it to cause gridlock through single-occupant cars all over our towns and cities? How sane is it to cut back on public transport, increasing rural isolation and making people feel unsafe at night? How sane is that?


If you can’t support the move towards a car-free future, then you’re part of the problem, not the solution. However, there are ways forward. You just can’t get there by car.

Trump - the president we all deserve

Trump – the president we all deserve.


Let us start with the premise (widely reported) that the election of Donald Trump was a reaction against the status quo, a sign that many in America had had enough of ‘business as usual’ and not only did not want to elect a member of the Clinton clan to the White House but did not want to elect anyone that could be seen as a ‘normal’ politician. They wanted something different, and they certainly got that.


Although much of what Trump has been doing in office is unpleasant, the blame for it does not ultimately fall on him. It falls on us. He is the president the people deserve – the British as well as the Americans – because what he is doing (albeit by accident more than design) is pointing up the various flaws in the current political system, and indeed the Western world in general, and it is those flaws that we should be tackling rather than the man who is the human advertisement of what is wrong. Like a fool in a medieval court, an absurd signifier of our own errors, Trump is showing us inconvenient truths.


The first of these is political corruption. One of the issues that won’t go away is Russian interference in US politics and how far, if at all, The Donald himself colluded with Putin in his own election. This is indeed a huge scandal, but it is hardly the first time a president has been mired in scandal. Any presidential candidate considering getting involved in a bit of underhand dealing can look back at the fine tradition of high-office corruption and be pretty confident that he or she can get away with whatever skulduggery he or she intends. Just look at the following examples.

Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, had her own controversies to deal with, but it was her husband who was the last president to be impeached – for perjury and obstruction of justice. Although Clinton lied about having an affair with an intern nearly half his age and was eventually fined £90,000 for contempt of court (giving misleading testimony), he was acquitted by the senate, and almost twenty years later Bill was out on the stump making speeches in support of his wife’s candidacy. What does this tell us? That a president can lie and cheat and (to all intents and purposes) get away with it.


Ronald Reagan was heavily implicated in the Iran/Contra affair, in which weapons were sold to Iran and the money was used to illegally fund anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua. Reagan survived the scandal, and most of those indicted found the charges against them were dropped, mostly through lack of evidence (a great deal of paperwork was destroyed by Colonel Oliver North). Even those who were convicted were later pardoned by the first President Bush. The protection of senior administration officials, including Reagan, is viewed by some as the beginning of post-truth politics.


Richard Nixon was the man behind the most famous political scandal of modern times, Watergate. Not only did he authorise illegal activities in order to undermine his opponents, but once these activities came to light he ordered a cover-up that included a widespread campaign of lies, more lies and bribery in order to conceal the extent of the wrongdoing. Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment, but his successor, Gerald Ford, issued a pardon that ensured Tricky Dicky would never face jail time.


And on and on it goes: Lyndon Johnson (and Nixon after him) was involved in covert bombing of Cambodia; it has been alleged that John F Kennedy won the 1960 election through voter fraud (with help from the mafia); and there are numerous other allegations of rigged elections throughout US history.


Looked at this way, Trump’s corruption, far from being a threat to American democracy, is almost part of presidential tradition. In this context, it is clearly absurd to consider the office of the President of the United States as a high and noble one, and Trump points this up clearly. Even those presidents not accused of corrupt shenanigans have little to be proud of: George W Bush led Britain and America into an illegal war in Iraq, for example, while Trump’s immediate predecessor, Barack Obama, celebrated his Nobel peace prize by ordering an unprecedented number of drone strikes on the middle-East, killing hundreds of civilians in the process. The problem is not Trump. It goes far deeper than that, into the very nature of the presidency itself; but admitting there is such a problem is something America is not yet ready to do.


This is not an issue confined to the United States. We have our own problematic institutions, and in his unofficial role as court jester Trump neatly pointed these out on his recent visit to the UK. First of all, the EU (which – in yet another alarming claim by a sitting president – Trump identified as a ‘foe’). In 2016, Britain voted to leave the EU, but now seems to have changed its mind. Despite the corruption within the European Union, and its flagrant overriding of democracy (for example, forcing Greece into accepting an austerity programme, in direct opposition to the democratically expressed wishes of its own people), the European Union is now touted by unhappy remainers as a bastion of all that is good, while those who sought to leave are wicked fools. This is not an issue of leave or remain – the point is that by calling the European Union an enemy, Trump is inadvertently signifying how ridiculous our own position is, dithering in the middle of staying or going, with neither option particularly attractive – potential economic ruin if we depart, corrupt and unaccountable political enforcement if we stay. Either way, it’s a mess, for which we have no one to blame but ourselves. And we think Trump is the idiot?


Then there is the issue of border control and immigration. The president has rightly attracted much condemnation for his policy of separating children from their parents at the Mexico border. Meanwhile, the now-saintly European Union, has recently paid Turley millions of euros to build a wall (yes, a wall) to keep out Syrian refugees, something that attracts little attention here. The EU (and so, for now at least, the UK) also appears to operate a policy of allowing migrants to drown in the Mediterranean and therefore is responsible for the death of hundreds of desperate people every year. All the attention is focused on Trump, but right now who has more blood on their hands? At best, all we can say is: look at him, and see our own sorry selves reflected.


Finally, on what is not entirely a side note, let’s end with the royals. Much of the criticism of the president’s visit to our shores concentrated on his treatment of the queen. In the British mainstream media, there can never be criticism of the queen – even though she is the head of an institution built around hereditary privilege (white privilege no less), an institution that enshrines the idea that it is not what you do but who you are that matters – and what did Trump do? He walked in front of her. Naturally, this is against the rules of protocol: you cannot walk in front of the queen because … well, there is no reason, except pointless deference to an unelected and powerless figurehead. The commentary provoked by this insignificant detail of who is in front of whom while looking at fancy-dress soldiers is its own absurdist critique. Trump is (again, without meaning to) pointing up the ridiculousness of the monarchy, an anachronism that has no place in the modern world, its abolition long overdue.


While we refuse to tackle the real problems in the world – endemic corruption in Western politics, Western intervention in the middle-East that has provoked the migrant crisis, and the outdated institutions lauded by the inane, we have no right to complain about the man in the Oval office. Until we sort ourselves out, if we ever can, Trump is the president we all deserve. And – here’s a chilling thought – he might be just the tip of the iceberg. Just as Trump makes Dubya look good, so too the incumbency of President Donald Trump might one day be considered a high-water mark from which we have since fallen. Just imagine that.


Christopher Loft’s new novel, ‘Time Burners’ includes a focus on the Watergate scandal and its role in bringing down Nixon, and will be published in the autumn.

Going in 'Over Our Heads' at Silver Lake Academy

Going in ‘Over Our Heads’

at Silver Lake Academy


Christopher Loft’s most recent novel, ‘Over Our Heads’, is a satire of modern education. Set in a very peculiar academy, it focuses on the struggles of the pupils, and in particular the staff, to cope with the pressures of a system that prioritises results over enjoyment, the appearance of progress over actual learning, and data over humanity. With the end of another academic year almost upon us, this month’s blog – a Q and A with the author – explores the murky waters of Silver Lake Academy.


What prompted you to write this book?


I was a teacher in mainstream education for over twenty years. Four years ago, I walked away because I felt I could no longer work in such an environment. It wasn’t just the workload; it was the approach to education, which has become so narrow and joyless. It was no longer something I wanted to be part of, and afterwards I had the urge to write something about how I felt about what is happening to education in this country (and from what I hear it has only got worse in the last four years). Partly I wanted to set out my own views, but also I wanted to show up the absurdity of much of what is wrong with the current system. I invented Silver Lake Academy as a representation of some of the worst ideas and practices.


The book was originally a series of short stories. Why did you turn it into a novel?


I started off with just one story, ‘A Parting Gift’. Then I thought of writing different stories around different themes, and I enjoyed the idea of creating a fictional staff and focusing on different teachers in different situations (some of the original stories can be found on the loftybooks website). One of these, which focused on the efforts of one teacher to help one particular pupil, grew too big for an individual story, so I began to thread it through various chapters and before I knew it the novel was taking shape. The end result is a narrative about an experienced but downtrodden teacher who decides to reject the way she is told to teach and use a more child-friendly approach in order to help one pupil in particular who she sees as a younger version of herself. In the background, meanwhile, are lots of other tales of various dodgy practices within the school.


Dodgy practices? Whatever do you mean?


There’s a pupil-tracking system that involves implanting combustible materials in children’s brains. There’s a statue that swallows children, and a school garden inspired by ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. One of the pupils finds herself being literally pulled between two teachers; another one has her hair set on fire; and there’s one who disappears altogether. They are absurd events, because I wanted to highlight the absurdity of the system. I don’t think schools are very safe places for children anymore – not for those who want to actually be children, that is. If you’re happy being a product on a conveyor belt, fine; but if you want to enjoy your education, the current system is probably not for you.


Can you say a bit more about that?


Nowadays, a lot of educational practice is evidence-led – or ‘what works’, to use its colloquial title. Studies are done to discover the effects on academic results of a particular method, and if the data moves in the right direction, over a sufficient number of studies, that method is said to work. What is not taken into consideration is the effects of these methods on children’s wellbeing. If you look at what evidence-led practitioners have to say (twitter is a good place to start), there’s plenty of ‘evidence’ that formal learning in Reception (rather than child-led discovery) is a good idea, and I’ve seen enthusiastic support for the idea that it doesn’t matter if children don’t enjoy reading, as long as they make progress in it. We have a growing epidemic of mental-health problems in our young people, and I think the side-lining of wellbeing in schools is part of the cause of this.


Silver Lake is no fun for the teachers, either.


I suppose this book is written mostly with teachers in mind. They are also suffering under the current system, and the crisis in recruitment and retention is well known. I never thought I’d leave mainstream teaching, but then I never imagined the current situation. It’s not just how teachers are expected to teach, or the pressures that are placed upon them, it’s the way those pressures are placed. Teachers have to constantly prove their worth to their superiors, and all too easily a culture of bullying can emerge in schools, which is one of the things I’ve written about in the book.


Why should people read ‘Over Our Heads’?


Well, teachers (particularly in the primary sector) will find it entertaining, and hopefully recognise a few truths within it. For anyone not involved in education,  it might be a bit of an eye-opener, but hopefully the stories are quite enjoyable to read in any case. It’s a book for everyone really, and I hope people give it a try!


Over Our Heads (Stories From Silver Lake Academy) is available from amazon as a paperback or kindle ebook. To buy it now, click here. For further information, click here.



Telling Tales

Don’t Make A Crisis Out Of A Drama!


Part 10 – Telling Tales


My website,, 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 page via the menu page to find out more.


This month: in the final blog in this series, two sets of tales. The Canterbury Tales is a musical based on some of Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous stories, while Scary Tales is a collection of fairy-tales all mixed up together to make a ‘new’ story. Both shows are lots of fun to read and to perform and could be the basis of classroom study as well as memorable end-of-term productions for your school!


The Canterbury Tales


The play is an adaptation of some of the stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century. Chaucer is often seen as the father of English Literature, and this work the first recognised classic in what we might call English, although in the original Middle English it is a challenging read for most of us today. Many of Chaucer’s stories have a sexual element that make them unsuitable for adaptation for younger performers, and the stories included in this version are among the few that have no explicit sexual references, hence the choice of these particular Canterbury Tales!


In Chaucer’s book, there is discussion between the different storytellers, as there is in the play, and one prominent discussion is known as the ‘marriage debate;’ and centres on the idea of what makes a ‘good wife’. The original version is unfinished and the plan – for each pilgrim to tell stories on the way to Canterbury and on the way back – is not realised. For the purposes of the play, we see the pilgrims arrive at Canterbury, but this does not happen in Chaucer’s original.


The individual stories themselves are fairly faithfully told, albeit in a modern style. Chaucer’s Tale was originally The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, but as there is no Nun’s Priest in our play it became Chaucer’s (Chaucer does tell a tale in the original, but it is rarely included in modern versions of the text and is in any case a long and largely non-narrative discourse that would not belong in a play such as this).


The play exists in two versions – shorter and longer – both with music, and both versions are included in the pack you will receive if you choose to download this play. Also included is a link to download the guide vocals and backing tracks, making learning the songs as easy as listening to them! Because of this, the price for this production is £25 rather than £15, but definitely worth the extra!



Scary Tales


They shouldn’t be called fairy tales really. They’re scary tales – full of wicked spells and curses and people being eaten alive. In Charles Perrault’s version of Red Riding Hood, for example, not only does the wolf eat Granny, he eats Red Riding Hood, too – and that’s how it ends, with him gobbling her up! No-one survives, no-one gets rescued. Plenty to be scared of. It might seem strange that such stories would prove so enduringly popular with children – what is it that attracts them (and us)? Fear? Or the lessons the stories give us in how to overcome it?


Scary Tales is an amalgamation of different fairy-tale stories. A few liberties have been taken with some of the characters and narratives, but that is very much in the tradition of storytelling – each time the tale is told, each teller adds something new. In this case, the story is set largely in a forest, a forest that    used to be a great kingdom. However, the king, queen and all the royal household were magically transformed to protect them from the evil intentions of three “wyrd sisters” – Uglayne, Gullveig and Baba Yaga.


These sister-witches knew that if they killed the queen’s young daughter, Aurora, they would be able to rule the land themselves. The good fairy, Hippolyta (assisted by Arethusa, Rosalba and Tatiana) intervened, however, protecting Aurora and the rest of her family with a magic spell. The evil sisters then began to search for the sleeping beauty in a range of ways, enlisting the unwitting and unwilling help of Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and a prince along the way. However, they did not take into account the importance of a mysterious old lady, a cowardly young man (and his horse) and one little girl with very red hair.


Scary Tales is intended as an end-of-term production (although it could also be used in the classroom as a teaching tool for studying Traditional Tales). The slightly shorter (abridged) version is for schools who do not want to stage the full ninety-minute play or that are suffering from time constraints in rehearsal! Of course, either version can be cut further if so desired.


**Watch out for a novelised version of Scary Tales to be released this autumn!**


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 for Scary Tales and just £25 for The Canterbury Tales. You won’t be disappointed!


All script packages are available at:


Thanks for reading this series of blogs. Let me know which is your favourite loftybooks play by using the contact form on the website!

This Means War!

Don’t Make A Crisis Out Of A Drama!


Part 9 – This Means War!


My website,, 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 page via the menu page to find out more.


This month: two plays inspired by historical events, one for each of the world wars fought in the twentieth century. War of Words is based on (and includes plenty of) the poetry that was written during the First World War, reflecting the lives and thoughts of those who fought and those who waited for them at home. The Home Front focuses on the Second World War, and in particular how the people of Britain coped with air raids, evacuations and rationing, amongst other things, during the war years.


War of Words


The play is not an attempt to tell the story of the First World War so much as it is an opportunity to focus on the poetry that came out of it. All the poets are ones who lived during the time of the war, most of them fighting in it. All of their work is out of copyright, hence its inclusion. Others, like Siegfried Sassoon, have been omitted due to copyright restrictions. The play focuses on the following key events: men rushing to volunteer at the start of the war; going to France/Belgium; life in the trenches; the Christmas Truce of 1914; life back in Britain during the war; the Battle of the Somme; injuries suffered as a result of war, including shell-shock; the death of so many men. The details surrounding these events are deliberately omitted. The play is meant to accompany teaching on this subject, not replace it. As a lot of our understanding of the war comes from the words of these poets, the play gives the opportunity to focus directly upon them. Each scene is a dramatization based on the words of the poems, words which are sometimes spoken directly and sometimes read or recited in the background. It makes for a moving experience, as well as an educational one.


Poets whose work features in the play include: Rupert Brooke, Ivor Gurney, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Edward Thomas. The themes and some of the poetic language make this play most appropriate for Key Stage Three.


War of Words is a demanding production in terms of the language but, as it is divided into smaller sections, one part can be easily taken out and performed on its own in an assembly, etc. The production is very appropriate for any commemoration of armistice day, especially as 2018 marks 100 years since the end of the war, or as an accompaniment to the study of the poetry or the period.



The Home Front


It is difficult for us today to imagine what life must have been like for those who lived through World War II on ‘the home front’ – the ordinary people who kept the country going during the time in which Britain stood alone against the Nazis.


It was a time in which parents sent their children to live with strangers; when Jewish children from Nazi Germany fled persecution and sought a new life in England; a time of rationing and bombing (during the Blitz, London was bombed for 57 consecutive nights); a time of extraordinary bravery shown by ordinary people. It was a time when humanity was seen at its worst, and at its best.


The characters in the play are fictional creations, but the events are real, of course, starting with the Munich peace agreement of 1938, then the outbreak of war, evacuation, Dunkirk and the Blitz. The play ends in 1941, when the Battle of Britain was effectively over. The full version of the play includes more information on Kristellnacht and the persecution of the Jews, although this and other themes are dealt with to some extent in both versions, which is particularly useful if The Home Front is being studied in class as part of a topic.


The play covers themes including evacuation, Dunkirk and the holocaust. It does not shy away from difficult issues, but is available in two versions – one shorter than the other – which gives the opportunity of studying some of these issues in more or less depth as required. Parts of the play can also be performed or studied as ‘stand alone’ sections, for example as the basis of an assembly. The material is suitable for Key Stage Two and upwards.


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 each. You won’t be disappointed!


All script packages are available at:


Next time: a double-helping of tales to finish off with – Canterbury Tales and Scary Tales.





Princes and Paupers

Don’t Make A Crisis Out Of A Drama!


Part 8 – Princes and Paupers


My website,, 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 page via the menu page to find out more.


This month: two historical dramas, one based on a children’s novel, the other inspired by real events. The Prince and the Pauper is an excellent piece of historical fiction by Mark Twain, which supposes that Prince Edward (son of Henry VIII) has an doppelganger living in poverty named Tom Canty. The two run into each other and decide to swap roles to find out how the other half lives. Both get a lot more than they bargained for! The World Turned Upside-Down tells the little-known story of radical groups that sprang up in the wake of the civil war: the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Seekers and Quakers. The individuals involved in these groups had some surprisingly forthright ideas, years ahead of their time (including the formation of the NHS!). The play shows how these ideas were formed and what happened to the people who thought of them. Both these loftybooks plays are perfect for Key Stage Two or Key Stage Three pupils to study or perform.


The Prince and the Pauper


This is a tale of Tudor England as seen through the eyes of a nineteenth-century American; a tale which transforms the least dynamic Tudor monarch, Edward VI, into a crusader against social injustice; and a tale, the message of which comes across as clearly today as when it was written (or indeed when it was set).


Mark Twain, the author of the original novel, is one of America’s greatest writers. His prose is full of moral urgency and humour, capable of inducing laughter and tears in equal measure. His story tells us how Edward VI, while Prince of Wales, inadvertently changes places with a poor boy (pauper) from the back-streets of London. As far as possible, the original language has been retained and the play is a fairly faithful retelling with no additions.


One of the central themes of the story is the distance between the monarch and his people. We expect our leaders to be distant from us in certain respects, but at the same time they must understand us: the leaders must be in touch with the people, or how can they lead effectively? Today’s royal family can face criticism for being ‘out of touch’, but also for being too much like us; it is not an easy balance to get right.


The idea of breaking down the distance between ruler and ruled is echoed in the play by the ‘breaking down’ of the distance between actor and audience. Costume changes (the scene in which Tom is dressed, for example) might be done onstage rather than behind the scenes; Miles Hendon directly addresses and interacts with the audience at one point; in the coronation, those watching are encouraged to stand as if really involved. This is designed to drive home the point that this is not just a play about the past, but the present and the future too and its themes are universal.


Tom Canty ( the pauper of the title) shows that you do not have to be born to lead in order to be a born leader. The distinction between the leader and the led is continually blurred in the scenes involving Tom: he consistently maintains that he is not the king and has no right to rule, and yet gives the appearance of being – as Lord Hertford points out – ‘every inch a king’.


It would be easy for both prince and pauper to coast through their respective changes of situation: Tom, clearly, could maintain the deception of royal bearing, while Edward has enough education and nous to survive in the ‘real’ world. The fact that neither of them is prepared to sit back and be spectators to injustice, whatever each one’s individual potential to oppose it might be, is a principal strength of the story. The play is great fun to perform as well as being a useful addition to any study of Tudor history, and a great piece of writing – most of the script is written in Mark Twain’s original words.


The World Turned Upside-Down


The story, in its simplest form, is this: a group of people live together in makeshift homes on a wooded hillside. They grow their own food and try to live a sustainable lifestyle, a model perhaps for a new society. When they are not working the land, the members of this disparate group tell stories to one another – it is these stories that form our play. They speak of how the people came to be living on this hillside and – being under threat of eviction – what they hope or fear for the future.


Although the play is inspired by events of 1649, it could take place at any time. Hence, anachronisms abound – clothing, props and other references to times past and future are intentional. We see Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers, but it could be Wat Tyler and John Ball; Jack Cade and the men of Kent; Chartists; Suffragettes; even Occupy London. As they wait for dawn, bringing the final showdown of their eviction, the Diggers tell each other stories of how they came to be where they are, and it is these stories that make up the bulk of the play.


The stories they tell one another include the following: the Norman invasion of England; an allegorical version of the Emperor’s New Clothes; the English Civil War; Abiezer Coppe; and the attempted escapes from prison by Charles I. The play is an excellent way to explore issues connected with the Civil War period, and is gret fun to prform. In addition, the play explores many themes that are related ideas of equality and related to commonly-held values. Many schools now employ values as a way of teaching PSHE and Citizenship. The play makes explicit reference to common values such as freedom, cooperation, tolerance, unity and love. The play can be used to further explore these values and consider what they meant for the Diggers and what they mean for us today.


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 each. You won’t be disappointed!


All script packages are available at:


Next time: more historical drama, this time related to both world wars, in ‘The Home Front’ and ‘War of Words’.





Singalonga Loftybooks!

Don’t Make A Crisis Out Of A Drama!


Part 7 – Singalonga Loftybooks!


My website,, 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 page via the menu page to find out more.


This month: two musicals that have proven enduringly popular with schools, both of which dramatize well known stories of folk legend.  Rats! Is an adaptation of Robert Browning’s narrative poem, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and The Adventures of Robin Hood is a collection of legendary tales concerning the famous outlaw. Both pieces feature songs written by myself and my musical collaborator, Andy Merrifield. Andy is a fantastic composer and performer, and script packages that feature his work come with a link to download the backing music and vocal guide tracks for all the songs, all put together by Andy. These two musicals are suitable for KS2 performances, but could also be used in KS3.




There are several musical versions of Browning’s famous poem, and more than one other version goes by the name Rats! There was a time when this pun on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s show, Cats, seemed ever so amusing. That time has now gone, which is one reason why the children’s novel I adapted from the script for this show is called The Pied Piper of Ham-a-lee-in instead.

The original poem was published in 1842, but the legend of the pied piper dates back to the medieval period. The only named characters in the poem that appear in the play are the Mayor and the Piper. The Mayor’s Wife, Sarah and Bert, Elizabeth and Bob, Wim and Pole, are all inventions. The story is an original re-telling, although some of the lyrics include lines from Browning’s poem (most particularly, ‘Rats!’ itself). The story as told in the play differs in several respects from the poem, some of the key changes being: Bert is not a ‘lame’ boy, but is injured during the story; the Mayor turns down the Piper’s offer at first; and the children come back at the end of the story.

Many of the characters are named after people or objects connected with Robert Browning: Bob and Bert are both diminutive forms of ‘Robert’; Elizabeth Barrett was Browning’s wife, and Sarah Wiedermann his mother; Wim and Pole are named after Wimpole Street (as in ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’), as is Mayor Street. The rats are all named after characters in ‘The Godfather’ and several of their lines contain references to the film (an ‘adults-only’ joke for the parents and staff to appreciate).


In the original poem, the idea that the mayor and the council members are more interested in their ‘ermine gowns’ than the good of their town is firmly entrenched in the minds of the citizens. This idea is developed in the play, with Wim and Pole representing the corruption in the political life of the town. One question that could be discussed with a class is who is really to blame for what happens: it might seem originally that the rats are to blame, but it is clearly shown that it is the sewage system that attracts them to the town in the first place, a system built (poorly) under the instruction of Mr Wim and Mr Pole.

Rats! has been performed numerous times in schools and community theatres in London and the south-east of England since the first performance in 2001. Whether you choose the full-length or the abridged version of the script, both if which are included in the script package, Rats! is sure to be a hit show in your school.


The Adventures of Robin Hood


The stories that make up the play (or plays, as there are also two abridged versions available) in this pack are mostly to be found in the Child Ballads, a Victorian collection of ballads written during the middle ages by anonymous authors. Many of these stories are now well-known and were legends, even at the time they were written. Was there ever a real person named Robin Hood? Nobody knows. There have been various attempts to link his name with outlaws from Barnsley to Nottingham and beyond; evidence of ‘Robert Hude’ and ‘Robyn Hode’ have been found in parish records from different periods of the middle ages; and we know that there were many outlaws created during the time of King John.

But the traditional image, of a hero of the people fighting a corrupt sheriff in a land ruled by an unjust tyrant, seems to belong more to the realm of the medieval May festival (an adaptation, perhaps, of the Green Man, a lord of misrule at May time) than to historical fact. Maybe Robin Hood is less an historical fact than he is an exercise in wish-fulfilment. Maybe the Middle Ages needed him.

We have tried to include a little of all the well-known Robin Hoods in our production. There’s Robin the fighter, duelling with Little John and outwitting the Sheriff; Robin the lover, wooing Maid Marian away from Sir Guy of Gisborne; Robin the archer, entering the archery contest in disguise; Robin the champion of the poor, stealing from the rich and giving it all away; and Robin the agent of social change, releasing the unjustly imprisoned and paving the way for the Magna Carta and true democracy (sic). Added to all that, there are one or two parallels drawn with our contemporary culture and a huge dollop of panto to liven things up a bit. The key episodes that make up the play are: the fight between Robin and Little John; the robbing of rich persons as they pass through Sherwood; the archery contest; the besting of the sheriff and Sir Guy; the return of King Richard to right the wrongs of his little brother; and the rescue of those wrongly imprisoned in the town jail.

The stories of Robin Hood are perennially popular with children of  all ages, and the catchy songs with Andy’s music ensure that this will be a production all who see it and take part in it will enjoy. The story also exists as a paperback novel that you might enjoy.

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. Due to the inclusion of backing tracks and guide vocals, these musicals sell for £25, rather than the usual £15. However, for what you receive in return, it is definitely a bargain. You won’t be disappointed!


All script packages are available at:


Next time: history comes to life in ‘The Prince and the Pauper’ and ‘The World Turned Upside Down’.





Animals and their Tales

Don’t Make A Crisis Out Of A Drama!


Part 6 – Animals and their Tales


My website,, 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 page via the menu page to find out more.


This month: two plays that dramatize well-known folk tales featuring animals. Anansi, The Original Spider-Man puts together some of the best traditional stories from different Caribbean and African cultures, where the trickster figure Anansi is well known.  Piggiwiggery brings together three different fairy-tales: The Three Little Pigs, Jack and the Beanstalk and a lesser known but very funny story called The Golden Goose.  Both loftybooks plays are perfect for Key Stage Two pupils to study or perform.


Anansi The Original Spider-Man


Anansi stories originated in West Africa, probably first told by the Ashanti people in Ghana. They are part of a powerful oral tradition in Africa, so powerful that the stories travelled to the Caribbean (as a by-product of the slave trade), where they are still told today in a range of forms.

Due in part to the cross-cultural variety of these stories, Anansi can appear to be different characters at different times. Sometimes he is a spider and behaves like a spider would. Sometimes he is a man. Sometimes, even, he is a god. However, most Anansi stories depict their hero as a lazy, work-shy trickster out to get what he can with minimum effort. As such, he is immensely likeable!

Often, Anansi’s schemes are successful and he ends up with a free meal or some other benefit. At other times, though, the joke is on him and he gets a whipping or, at the very least, a telling-off from his wife.

The play takes a few traditional Anansi stories and tinkers with them just a little bit. These stories have no identifiable author and can go by different names. The follow list is by no means ‘official’. The play takes as its main tale the story of Anansi and Tiger (or why stories are called ‘Anansi stories’). Other stories that have been included are: Anansi and Queen Bee, Work-Let-Me-See, Anansi and Yabbit, Anansi Goes Hunting, Anansi At The Swim-Hole, Anansi and The Monkeys, Anansi and The Yams, Anansi and Turtle.

This play was originally written to be performed outdoors, as a promenade performance, with each leg taking place in a different location, though this is by no means necessary! Anansi is packed full of themes, traditions and ideas that can be used as teaching points in the classroom. It is also great fun to perform, and has plenty of parts for children of all ages and abilities. The running time is approximately forty minutes.




The stories of The Three Little Pigs and Jack and the Beanstalk are well known, but in this play the characters from each one have a chance to interact with each other – Jack helps the pigs build their houses and the giant adopts the big bad wolf as a pet! There is also a third story that combines well with the others, known as The Golden Goose.

In The Golden Goose, the hero is the youngest of three brothers, given the nickname Dummling. In some versions, he is called Jack. For being generous to an old man, Jack is rewarded with a golden goose (its feathers are made of gold). With the goose under his arm, Jack heads for an inn, where, as soon as his back is turned, the innkeeper's three daughters each attempt to pluck just one of the feathers and gets stuck fast. Jack makes his way to the castle, and each person who attempts to interfere is joined onto the daughters. In the castle lives the king with the Princess who has never laughed. But the despondent Princess, sitting by the window and glimpsing the parade staggering after Jack and his golden goose, laughs until she cries. Jack marries the princess, living happily ever after.

The play is not exactly a pantomime, but it is perhaps closer to that style of theatre than any other. It is certainly written with the intention of audience interaction. As well as the songs, some of which could involve the audience, there are several opportunities for the actors to interact with audience members, and it is intended that this should be a two-way process throughout. There are eleven songs in this show, which have been written to make them fairly easy for children to learn and also to encourage audience participation. The teachers’ guide that comes with the pack includes a link for downloading all the music for the show pre-recorded, including guide vocals. Unlike other Loftybook musicals, which are full-length pieces (this is about one hour in length), Piggiwiggery! sells at the standard £15 rate, not £25, making it even more of a bargain

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:


Next time: sing along with two musicals, ‘Rats!’ and ‘Robin Hood’.

Myths and Legends

Don’t Make A Crisis Out Of A Drama!


Part 5 – Myths and Legends


My website,, 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 page via the menu page to find out more.


This month: two plays that bring to life myths and legends from past civilizations. Labyrinth is a re-telling of stories from ancient Greece, while Beowulf is an adaptation of the notoriously difficult Old English poem, the first example of what might be called English Literature. Both loftybooks plays are perfect for Key Stage Two pupils to study or perform.


Labyrinth adapted from Greek mythology


This is essentially a retelling of four Greek myths. The two best-known ones are the story of Daedalus and Icarus (in which a father and son are imprisoned in a high tower and escape using wings made from birds’ feathers, until Icarus flies too close to the sun and dies) and Theseus and the Minotaur (in which the Athenian hero Theseus defeats the monstrous Minotaur in the labyrinth that was designed by Daedalus). In addition, the play includes the story of the Minotaur’s birth (he was sent as a punishment by Poseidon when King Minos grew too arrogant) and the story of Theseus’ abandonment of Ariadne and the subsequent death of his father, Aegeus, after Theseus forgets to change the sails of his ship. The play ends with Zeus pronouncing judgment on all the characters and initiating democracy in Athens.

The play exists in a sixty-minute and a ninety-minute version, the shorter one being more suitable for younger performers, or for schools that might not have time to devote to the full version. Both versions are included in the pack you rcan download, and in both the actors speak in iambic pentameter (five beats per line), except for some scenes with the chorus, which are spoken in tetrameter (four beats per line). This is just one way in which the play uses Greek theatrical traditions, others being the use of poetry and song, the wearing of masks, and the reporting of events that have happened offstage.

Both versions of Labyrinth are packed full of themes, traditions and ideas that can be used as teaching points in the classroom. Also, the play is great fun to perform, and has plenty of parts for children of all ages and abilities.


Beowulf adapted from the original Anglo-Saxon poem


There is only one surviving copy of the original Beowulf, which was written in the tenth or eleventh century, but the story itself is much older. In this adaptation, the four key events of the poem – the fight with Grendel, Grendel’s mother, the dragon and Beowulf’s own funeral – are retold in language for a modern audience. However, this is only a play within a play, as we discover that the story of Beowulf is being told in the camps of Harold II, William of Normandy and Harald Hardrada, as they do battle for the throne of Britain in 1066. This means the play includes a lot of historical information about the Saxon culture (through the Beowulf story) and the key battles that led to the Norman overthrow of that culture.


Anglo-Saxon culture greatly valued the warrior hero; understandably so, as the Saxons had had to fight for the land they owned and were frequently under threat of having that land taken away again by force – most particularly by the Vikings. However, despite the gore and high body-count of Beowulf, the original poem is surprisingly short on narrative and (to a modern mind) frustratingly long on genealogical details and apparently irrelevant digressions. These aspects were by no means irrelevant to the Saxons, but they can make difficult reading for today’s audiences. For the purposes of this play, we stick strictly to the narrative and eschew the genealogical extras. Part of the story, which is different episodes in the life and death of Beowulf, might remind some of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, and it is worth remembering that JRR Tolkien took his inspiration from Anglo-Saxon stories such as Beowulf. This play is a great way to introduce these legends to students in key stage two or three.

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:


Next time: Animal Stories, courtesy of ‘Anansi’ and ‘Piggiwiggery’.





Literary Classics

Don’t Make A Crisis Out Of A Drama!


Part 4 – Literary Classics


My website,, 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 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. 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. 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:


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,, 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:


Next time: Classic stories re-imagined: ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘’ (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,, 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:

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,, 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:

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.



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.



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



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. 

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...

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.

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.

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


Foot Of Pride

Blind Willie McTell


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 ( 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.


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


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.


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.



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 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:




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, 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?


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.


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.


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.



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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