So, what would YOU do about education? Part 2

This is a brief mention of possible alternatives to what we have done with education. As usual, I do not claim to be an expert.

IllichWhen I was at teacher training college, the ideas of Ivan Illich were in vogue. I have a very limited knowledge of Illich. I seem to remember that his book, ‘Deschooling Society’ (1971), was all about people learning what they needed or what they wanted and that there was a focus on South America. Looking him up on that wonderful educational tool, the internet, I find that his theme was de-institutionalizing (or deinstitutionalising) education; creating ‘learning webs’ through which learners could access peer support. Please again note that this is a gross simplification, a summary of a summary. If it at least stimulates one person to explore further it will be worthwhile.

At the time I was at college (1974-1978) there was a movement of ‘exchanges’: places where people could find others who could teach them, provide skills or swap goods. I imagine that this idea came from Illich.

Neill_birthday_(cropped)A.S. Neill was also much discussed. He founded a school called Summerhill, where his ideas about self-regulation were put into practice. He believed that the school should fit the child, not the other way round. Again summarising very simply, pupils ran the school, taking decisions on rules. Lessons were not compulsory, but were traditional in style. It was primarily a private boarding school, which shaped the type of student who attended. There was much controversy at the time about the school, a lot of it based on misunderstandings. (Summerhill is still in existence, but this brief account should not be seen as relating to the current school.)

I’m not saying that I agree with either of these philosophies or that they should be adopted. However, I do think that there are elements which I would bear in mind, in the unlikely event of my having the power to ‘do something’ about education. The principal one is the shifting of the control of learning towards the learner. Closely allied is the power of collaborative learning, for example involving learning webs. I am also increasingly drawn to the idea of deinstitutionalising learning.

This is a list of talking points, not a new plan for education; it may never evolve to be a plan. Particularly it does not take account of the age of the learner. The needs of 5 year olds, 15 year olds and 65 year olds are all different. A glaring problem is the learner who does not want to learn.

10TerryPratchett02 (2)Finally, I can do not better than to précis the views of that great educational theorist, Terry Pratchett. (Yes, really.) The late great novelist was asked for a piece on excellence in schools. His recipe was to build a library; to ensure that children had a basic grasp of reading, writing and enough maths to “know when a pocket calculator is lying”; to teach them to use the library (but not the internet at first); and to remember workshops and studios. (It is reprinted in ‘A Slip of the Keyboard, 2014)

I intend to pursue this theme further. Please comment.

All photos from Wikipedia Commons.Terry Pratchett picture by Stefan Servos (Stefan Servos) [GFDL (


Fashion Police Bulletin #1

The Fashion Police have become aware that there is some uncertainty about fashion standards. While it would be against the Fashion Police code of conduct to stifle individuality, it appears advisable to issue some guidance on an ad hoc basis to minimise the risk of individuals or groups committing offences. This then is the first in an occasional series of bulletins.

Fashion Police

Baseball Caps These should not be worn back to front. To clarify, the point of the peak is to shield the eyes from the sun. On the spot fines may be imposed.

Trousers The top of this item of clothing should be approximately at the level of the waist or upper hips, not below the buttocks. The clue is in the term “waistband”. It is never acceptable for underwear to be exposed. A fixed penalty is automatic for the first offence; further sanctions may be necessary for repeat offenders.

Ripped Jeans It appears that there is currently a trend for jeans to be purchased with rips made in the knees. Senior members of the Fashion Police are to be heard sighing at this point, as there was a similar fashion in the 1970s. The concept then was a certain casual disregard for convention. If you must do this, rip them yourself, or better still wear a pair ripped through heavy use. (Advisory only.)

Onesies A pleasing trend is for the wearing of “onesies” in public (particularly supermarkets) to be diminishing. The Fashion Police applaud this.

Baseball Caps Was this not clear? These should NOT be worn back to front.

Future Trends Futher guidance will be issued, especially as the weather becomes more clement. However, it should be noted that wearing shorts over tights is not and will not be acceptable, for males or females.

Please note: As always, good taste is very individual and it is impossible to legislate for every eventuality. The Fashion Police reserve the right to change their minds or take an irrational dislike to some trend. This is by no means a definitive list.

My grandfather’s books: A gentle tribute to a gentle man

My (maternal) grandfather died when I was 2. I called him Bampin. He was a gentle man, apparently. My grandmother was…. assertive. When things got bad, Bampin would say to my mother: “Never mind, dear. When we do something right, we’ll go to Canada.”

DSCF0587Nevertheless, he went off to World War I, under age; he was gassed. He had a stroke and died in his late 50s. Sadly I have no memories of him, apart from what others have told me. In my grandmother’s house there was however a small collection of his books. This gentle tribute is just a look at the titles I remember. Some of them were sadly lost when my grandmother died.

Castle Dangerous of Canada This was one of those nicely bound Victorian tales of derring-do, full of ice, snow and peril. The copy would probably worth a penny or two now. (I’ve just looked it up: it was by Sir Walter Scott.)

DSCF0583Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe) An abridged edition. I still have it, and it’s rather special, as it was given to my grandfather as a school prize for ‘good work and conduct’ in 1910.

Fabian of the Yard (Robert Fabian) An account of the cases of a Detective Superintendent. It was quite violent for the time, and mentioned floggings as a judicial punishment. Again, lost. I have just looked it up and found it was made into a TV series, which I am sure my grandfather cannot have seen.

DSCF0586Stolen Journey (Oliver Philpot)  This and the next book are accounts of the ‘wooden horse’ escape by POWs in World War II. Philpot was one of the escapees. I love it…. great period detail. A treasured possession.

DSCF0585The Wooden Horse (Henry Williamson) A partly fictionalised account of the same escape. The word ‘mucking’ is used a lot. It was only years after I first read it that I realised what it was a replacement for.

The Nights of London (HV Morton) Each chapter takes a different aspect of London at night. Fascinating.

DSCF0581In the Footsteps of St Paul (HV Morton) A present from my mother. I haven’t yet read it, though I mean to… and I’m not sure Bampin read it.

Montgomery’s Orders of the Day I’m not sure of the exact title. Stirring stuff from el Alamein and Europe. I think my mother gave it to him. It did kindle an interest in Montgomery. Lost (unless my brother has it.)

DSCF0584Most Secret (Nevile Shute) I must have read this book more than any other. It’s a wartime story; typically excellent Nevile Shute plotting, with great characters. This put me onto reading Shute, a lifetime pleasure. It’s a basic, war economy edition but a dearly treasured possession.

The Saint (Leslie Charteris) Again, I’m not sure of the exact title. I have just looked this up, and found that Charteris wrote loads. Perhaps I should read some more. Lost.

Looking back over the collection, it strikes me as quite violent. I would consider myself generally to be a gentle man, but I also enjoy certain strands of crime and war stories. This list certainly puts a little more detail on my second hand memories of Bampin. It also makes me remember how precious ‘real’ books can be, with their accumulation of memories and associations.

(Footnote: I have just found, to my huge pleasure, that my copy of Nevile Shute’s ‘Round the Bend’ was a gift from my parents to my grandfather.)

Isms Part Two: Sexism

I’m glad I don’t have to play the dating game any more. I was never any good at it anyway, but it strikes me that nowadays it is fraught with difficulties which were never present when I was single.

In fact, the dating game is just one area where modern life seems to have a new set of challenges; the challenges relating to sexism.

As I have said in a previous post, Isms Part One, correct use of language is always important, even if we don’t pay attention to political correctness. I believe that sexism is wrong; that all genders should be treated equally. Putting this into practice can be difficult. Again, my experiences in the past promoted a very different set of values to what I now believe. Sexism wasn’t so much casual as engrained. Women were paid less, patronised and subject to what we would now call harassment.

Wolf whistling and lewd comments were everyday for women and girls. Advertising was often extraordinarily exploitative. Soft core pornography was on open display in newsagents. Women teachers were told to wear skirts. (Yes, really.) Brides promised to obey their husbands in the marriage ceremony.

Apart from this, I was taught, by word and example, implicitly and explicitly, a sort of gentlemanly chivalry. You opened the door for women; you gave up your seat for them on the train; you walked on the outside; you paid for them (although that one quickly went when we were students.) If you got a girl pregnant, you married her (which had a huge effect on my relationships.)

As usual, as I write this I am using it to sort my own thoughts out. I am also possibly confusing thought, word and deed. Just because language is changing and we now pay more attention to being anti-sexist in our speech doesn’t necessarily mean that sexism is over. Just look, for example, at how many big serious roles there are for women in the film industry, or how many top chefs are female. I simply don’t know how young men and women now operate or think. Are you allowed to look at somebody and think they are attractive? Is it sexist?

I cannot stop myself opening doors for women, but then I usually do it for men as well. I do try very hard not to make sexist comments, including in all-male company. Interestingly, I have worked for almost all my life in primary education, which is predominantly staffed by females. I have heard comments, for example about an apparently attractive visiting male dance teacher, which I would not dream of having made about a female. On two separate occasions I  was bending over in a cupboard when female colleagues walked in and made comments along the lines of “what a nice view!” I was actually hugely flattered (thank you if you recognise yourself!), but would not have made a similar comment myself for fear of being thought sexist or worse.

UntitledSo I end up very muddled. I hesitate to make any conclusion for fear of offending someone or some group. I believe in equal opportunities and equal rights. I believe that all genders should be treated equally. (This includes transgenders, but I find that even more confusing….. but one of the all-time great songs, ‘Lola’ is based on gender confusion.) I haven’t asked my adult children what their opinions are. Perhaps, as with racism, their children will find the whole discussion amusingly dated in a more equal future world.

In praise of our mutual friend, Mr Dickens

Charles_Dickens_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_13103We have been watching ‘Dickensian’, a very enjoyable BBC TV drama involving many characters from the novels of Charles Dickens. This inspired me to read some more Dickens; I’ve read less than half of his novels, and I don’t suppose I shall ever read them all. (This is somehow a happy thought; all that pleasure still left.) I have been reading ‘Our Mutual Friend’ and it has prompted me to write this brief piece in praise.

I am actually reading this on Kindle, depite my occasional misgivings about that device. It tells me that I am about a third of the way through, about 160 conventional pages. Imagine: 320 pages to go!

It is, at least as I see it, a typical Dickens novel. (Bear in mind that I am not a literary academic, but a common reader.) It’s a huge, sprawling work, bearing the traces of its original serialisation. I see that it was his last finished novel. It has an enormous cast of characters. I have made myself a little map of them, to help me remember who they all are. I’ve got 20 names on it and that’s nowhere near all.

The characters are widely varied: grotesque, upright, good, bad, rich, poor, humorous, tragic. Some are noble, some are reprehensible. I think I may have identified a heroine, but I’m still not sure of the main thread of the book; there are so many interweaving plots and sub-plots. The settings are detailed and varied, from the foggy Thames to rich dining rooms. Dickens does not hesitate to attack targets from the workhouse to the idle rich. This all makes for an involved and entertaining read.

One of the great pleasures for me is the language. He could really, really write. There are great, rolling sentences, sometimes taking up whole paragraphs; there are lists, there are parodies of speech.

I would not blame anybody who did not want to tackle Dickens. He is often hard for a modern reader. I suspect I am enjoying this so much because I now have time and energy to read at length. I have come to read some of his other work through seeing film and television adaptations. There have been some really good ones, not surprisingly often by the BBC. It does help to have an idea of what is going on! To anybody who wants to tackle Dickens but is daunted, I would recommend ‘A Christmas Carol’. It’s what we would call a novella, familar and readable.

I’m sure that there are endless criticisms that could be made of Mr Dickens. I’m not going to make them. I love the books and think he was a genius.

Assemblies and subverting songs; a ramble

There are some things that I miss about teaching: my colleagues, the children. There are some things that I am very glad to leave: the ever looming threat of OFSTED, marking.  I’m not sure which list primary assemblies come into. They were often boring, especially when I was delivering them, but occasionally inspiring. The singing could be pretty good, too. I am still in awe of the power with which my first deputy head pounded the piano.

In my experience (and just for once I can say this is considerable) children hate assemblies. I have sometimes been honoured to have children rushing up to me and thanking me for one; but too often they are bored and uncomfortable. All primary teachers will be familiar with the games of hairdressing and prodding the child in front of you which often go on. (While I’m about it, I have huge respect for all the children over the years who have sat and tolerated others being REALLY ANNOYING behind them, without turning round and clocking them one.) (Does anybody else still say clocking them one?) So perhaps my ongoing, protracted in-depth look at what I would do about education (‘So what would YOU do about education?’) ought to address assemblies at some point.

I did not originally mean to get onto the topic of assemblies here; I wanted just to reminisce about the wonderful ways I have heard children transform songs. When teaching in my first school, a primary, I heard infant children  change the words of that old favourite, ‘Who Built The Ark?’ It ended up as: “Who built the ark? No-one, no-one. Who built the ark? Brother No-one built the ark.”

At that time, a popular T.V. host called Larry Grayson had the catchphase: “Shut that door!” Inevitably, the juniors changed the emphasis of the aforementioned song so it went: “Now Noah said, GO SHUT THAT DOOR!”

One Christmas in this school each class presented a little piece to the rest of the children. My 10 year olds wanted to sing a song of which they were very proud:

“While shepherds and their flocks by night/ Were watching BBC/ The angel of the Lord came down/ And switched to ITV.” (Our channel choices were very limited in those days.)

800px-Haarlem_verzamel_Sunlight_zeep_pic2They were delighted when I taught them the version that either my father or my grandmother taught me (I forget which):

“While shepherds washed their socks by night/ All seated on the ground/ A bar of Sunlight soap came down/ And glory shone around.”

Photo of (Dutch) Sunlight Soap: AlfvanBeem (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

I love the continuity here. Back to my own school days, we had a school song, written, oddly enough, by Ralph Reader, who was an Old Boy and wrote the Gang Shows for the Scouts and Guides. It had been neglected and another Old Boy got it sung again, much to the annoyance of the wonderful Jim Hodgson, our music master (and I believe a very good jazz pianist.)

We had another master called Mr West, so inevitably the song had an extra emphasis, sung lustily by 600 adolescent boys/ young men: “From North to South, from East to WEST!” Its “noble lessons…. of piety and learning” changed to those “of piracy and burning.” At this point, on Founder’s Day, Jim would go for maximum volume from the church organ, doing a pretty good job of drowning us out.

At junior school, we sang: “We three kings of Liverpool are are/ George, John, Paul and Ringo Starr/ George in a taxi, John in a bus/ Ringo and Paul by car.”

This tradition goes back a long way. My father sang ‘Hark the Herald Angels” with the words: “Hark the herald angels sing/ Mrs Simpson stole our king,” after the abdication of Edward VIII. And my grandmother’s version of the National Anthem went: “God save our old tom cat/ Feed him on bread and fat.”

Janet and Allan Ahlberg have a nice take on this theme from a teacher’s point of view in ‘The Headmaster’s Hymn’ from ‘Please Mrs Butler’. (Animated version)

Do children still do this? I can’t think of any from recent times. I’d love to know if anybody else can remember some, recent or past. I’d love any comments at all, even if correcting errors.


A Capital Omission

At the cafe in one of our local supermarkets, we came across signs reading something like: “We cannot except card payments because of a computer error.” I was about to look for any old red pen I might still have about my person to correct ‘except’ to ‘accept’ when I noticed that, this being leafy Hampshire, two of the three notices had already been amended by customers.

POOur local Post Office has its opening hours dsplayed on the door. All the text is in lower case, even the days of the week. I harrumphed about this, then realised I now have time to complain….. so I did, to the amusement of some of my friends, who think I have too much time on my hands. 28 days later there has been no reply. I speculate that the Post Office think this format looks ‘striking’ or ‘modern’.

This is just a very blatant example of the frequent ‘incorrect’ use of language in the public domain, which often used to concern me as a teacher. What a bad example this is for children learning to punctuate. As a teacher, your eye gets super-sensitive; which at another level can be amusing. I spotted a hospital sign saying ‘Visitor’s Parking’. Presumably they only have one visitor at a time.

How important is the ‘correct’use of language? What do we mean by ‘correct’ anyway? At times, I am reminded of an old adage about driving. Anybody driving slower than me is over-cautious. Anybody faster than me is dangerous. Similarly, anybody more ‘precise’ about language is fussy. Anybody more careless is sloppy.

Certainly I do not always use language accurately, even by my own criteria. You just have to look at this blog to see that, both technically and in terms of style. My argument is that I am so proficient that I can break the rules for effect. Hmmm.

Language is always changing. From Chaucer to Shakespeare to Austen to Rosen we can see the development. Spoken language, I believe, tends to lead written language, which is also changed by changing technology, from the printing press to text-speak. But language is a tool for communication, and a medium for communication. For it to be effective, there have to be shared, agreed and accepted forms, however transient they are. (For an example, look at the confusion experienced by one of our politicians over whether LOL was to do with love or laughter.)

So, once more, we come to the question: what does this all mean for us, children? Tentatively I would suggest that we need to stick to the rules or forms that are widely accepted. Without them, we usually make communication more difficult. Sticking slavishly to them, especially where there is a mass movement to change, is probably counter-productive. Perhaps the key questions should be: Is the meaning clear? Are we communicating clearly?

I’m glad I no longer have to wrestle with this one in the classroom context. In the wider world in which I now find myself, pedantry and pernicketiness over punctuation is possibly not well accepted. I don’t think I’ll be challenging market traders over the greengrocers’ apostrophe. However, I’m still not happy about that Post Office notice, as I feel it makes the sign less clear if the days of the week are not clearly identified, in the widely accepted common format. I’ll let you know if they eventually respond.