Monday, 31 December 2012

I think, therefore I learn: Why Thinking Skills are a pointless waste of time

Black Belt in Bloom's. Can't spell 'Taxonomy'.

Here's my James Randi challenge to educators: Thinking Skills don't exist, at least, not in the way we are led to believe. Despite the fact that many schools like to flush precious resources on Thinking Skills days, they only serve to give teachers the illusion of what is often, terrifyingly called 'deep learning' (God save us). They are the phantom limbs of learning. They are a quite perfect waste of time, which is bad enough in the schools of the middle classes, but disastrous for any child who already starts with an economic disadvantage. The con is on.   

Now a proposition of that magnitude is going to take some propping up, so before anyone pops a vein, I'll issue the caveats. I don't mean that thinking doesn't exist. Descartes did a tidy job of showing us that it was perhaps the only truth that we could reasonably claim as being intuitively demonstrable. My man, who farted? buzzer sounds for the relatively modern claim that there are a specific set of skills that can be taught independently of the factual content of a topic, and that they can be taught in a meaningful way.

The first problem is that there is no consensus about what such a set of skills might even resemble. I get into a lot of arguments with indignant Thinking Skill fundamentalists who are perfectly happy to give me their definition of Thinking Skills, but who are then unable to show me why their taxonomy is superior (or even different) to alternatives. Before I discuss TS with anyone, I have to say, 'Wait, what do you mean, first of all?' So there's that.

Worse than that wobbly leg is that there isn't a table at all. What evidence is there to suggest that thinking skills exist as a discrete discipline of their own? I'm happy to advise at this point: none. It's an ontological invention. There is neither empirical evidence of their existence, nor are they demonstrably true by appealing to reason alone. As the Torquemada of Humanism, Richard Dawkins is tirelessly fond of pointing out, the burden of justification lies with those who assert the existence of the entity.

So that's a pretty big strike against them. But because I don't like to leave a job half done, I'm going to kick the non-existent skills when they're down: they assume that children need to be taught how to think. Which is completely absurd. Children don't need to be taught how to think. No one does. We think constantly. It's a pre requisite of consciousness, of cognition, of awareness. The very experience of experiencing, is thinking. It's the one thing I don't have to ask my kids to do. It's like teaching them to have a pulse.

What do people even mean when they say we have to teach thinking skills? Usually they mean 'to think in a certain way', or more commonly, 'to agree with what I think,' but that has often been the ambition of educational reform: not to teach children to be more intelligent than their tutors, but to conform to their specifications. Ironically, many people determined to inspire a generation of free-thinkers do so in a way that attempts to commit them to conformity.

Kill me.
As with most abstract, abstruse objectives of well-meant but essentially misguided reformers, demonstrating this in the concrete is the way to dispel smoke and shatter mirrors. Let's pick a skill. Say you want a child to become more discerning in understanding the veracity of historical sources. You start them off by teaching them...well, some history, just to be controversial. Then you offer them a variety of sources. The next bit's guaranteed to blow a few gaskets: then you tell them which source is better, and why. You heard me. Teach them. Don't fanny about getting them to thought shower it in discovery clusters; tell them. Then work through more examples at the same time as you teach them the most accurate stories you can impart. Start asking them which sources are most attractive, and get them to justify their answers.

Eventually they develop the abilities you are looking for, but none of it happens without the dissemination of facts: facts about what happened, facts about which sources support the narrative; facts about which source is virtuous, and which vicious. Knowledge is best learned in context. Context is a web of knowledge placed in an appropriate order. Children need to be told this stuff, otherwise you condemn them to perpetually repeat the efforts of the past. Which is fine, if you want culture and science to freeze at exactly the point at which you started this pointless, precious project.

These skills can't be taught, separately from content. They certainly can't be assessed on it. We don't even know what they are. They can't be meaningfully demonstrated without the possession of knowledge. Let's stop wasting time teaching something as tangible as Tinkerbell, and invest the time our children so desperately need on things they need to know. Let them deal with the thinking. They're fine on their own with that bit.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

The Importance of Being Santa: A Christmas Carol

Yesterday, because I am both Grinch and Gandalf, I taught a year 7 class about Santa Claus instead of the traditional first 45 minutes of Big Momma's House and Quality Street clusterbomb. As the rest were answering questions on Father Frost and Sinterklaas, one little girl put up a hand asked me in her secret voice, 'Do you think Santa Claus is real?' Her brow spoke of the cares of youth; her question suggested she was on the trembling verge of adulthood. Nothing was more important than this.

The Search for Santa

Who is Santa Claus? Most people know the jolly late 20th Century incarnation, broad of belt and prodigious of present, blitzing around the world in a single night of magic. But like Madonna or Doctor Who, this is only the latest in a series of regenerations. The 4th century St Nicholas of Myra, in Turkey, is the primary source. His parents died young, and the inherited fortune allowed him to embark on a life of philanthropy, like a Turkish Bruce Wayne: his first act of kindness involved saving three children from prostitution and slavery by providing their dowries (dropped down into socks, drying by the fireplace, giving us oranges in stockings). Already, we see St Nick as a patron and protector of children against the predations of adult expediency.

Then it gets crowded. Many European countries already had mid-Winter festivals, as an act of defiance and hope against the darkest, deepest time of cold, dark and death. In England it was called Yule, and lasted days as communities feasted with what they could save. Later, Christianity rescheduled it to coincide with the celebration of Christmas. This Germanic festival celebrated Odin, and his Wild Hunt across the skies. And many countries developed a remarkable number of mythical figures who represented this time of Solstice. In 17th century England, for example, it was Father Christmas, a merry man who is probably most familiar to modern minds as one of Scrooge's cautionary spirits in Dickens's classic A Muppet Christmas Carol.

These figures started to merge as the world grew smaller, until the Santa Claus meme ate the planet entire. Some countries still hang onto their Father Frosts, but it seems that any nation with 3G now views St Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas and Sinterklaas as the same guy who brings Coca Cola to our TV screens in the first week of December, giving everyone an ironic thrill on Twitter, and giving the shareholders of Coca Cola even more of a thrill. (Incidentally, it's a myth that Coke had anything to do with the modern portrayal of our jolly benefactor, although their marketing dollar undoubtedly had an effect on popularising the already existent image. Santa's had a red suit all the way back to St Nick.) A lot of the mythology arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the form of poems and songs. Santa Claus is Coming to Town gave us naughty and nice lists (and you thought they came from the Renaissance, didn't you?), and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer gave us...well, you know.

So what? Well, it gave me pause. Santa's been around, with different passports for centuries. Ideas don't last like that unless they have meaning and value for people. And it isn't just to sell Barbies and Smart Phones, although it undoubtedly also does that. Santa was always about helping people who needed it, not choking spoiled children with Transformers and chocolate. He went where he was needed. He represents a great spirit of pure benevolence; of love and life, no matter where or for whom. Notice his sleigh crosses the world in a night, invisible to radar and satellite. Every child anywhere who needs him is his charge, in war or peace. This is why he endures in the hearts of children and the scarred, scared hearts of adults who no longer dare to dream. Because he represents, past the adverts and the cynicism, the antidote to hopelessness and despair.

Most of us no longer believe in the man, because we were disappointed by the world, and its inadequacies, by its squalor and its suffering; by the lack of any evident cosmic justiciar; by the relentless way it crushes the kind and the gentle. This is rarely more clear than in the year of Savile, when modern protectors of children have been revealed to be the very worst of their enemies, when children are exposed to escalated sexualisation daily through advertising aimed directly at them.

There is a reason why he is immortal; because, like the Olympic Gods, he embodies something within us that, thankfully, always endures: the spirit of hope and love. As teachers, we need to remember this Pole Star. We are small but important links in the chains of their lives, with a professional part to play. Teach to the best of our ability; act as role models as much as possible, and and treat everyone we encounter with compassion and altruism (even if they don't understand or appreciate it at the time). As tears fall throughout the year, Santa Claus is working away to make toys for the desperate. And every time one of us commits an act of charity and benevolence, you can hear the hammers of elves and the tinkle of bells. At times it seems that humanity's factory settings are cruelty and selfishness. And at times, it does not, and for a night, we can imagine that something better is possible.

So I answered her as honestly as I could. 'There's no proof he exists,' I said. 'But maybe he's real in a way if you believe in him.'

And that seemed to satisfy her.

Merry Christmas


Sunday, 16 December 2012

It's a Wonderful Job: A Christmas Story of Teaching

 Note: this is an edited version of a blog I wrote for a previous Christmas. I thought it was still appropriate, though.
Finally watched Frank Capra's 'It's a wonderful life' last night, and if you are one of the two or three dozen that haven't yet met this charming American filmic myth, then let me be the latest in a long line of people to say, somewhat redundantly, that it's a masterpiece. (In other news: fire is hot). It's a tale of the little guy who makes a difference in his community, being rescued from the brink of despair by a poignant, Christmas Carol meme of 'what if?' Lionel Barrymore, I'm afraid to say, is as wooden as Patsy Kensit as the Guardian Angel. But Jimmy Stewart can play likeable everyman characters in a way that makes Tom Hanks appear edgy and controversial.

(I must add that, for the majority of my adult life, I was under the illusion that It's a Wonderful Life was directed by Franz Kafka. I always suspected it was a bit fishy, but I didn't want to say anything openly. I look forward to seeing Jimmy Cagney in The Metamorphosis.)
The central theme that rang a tuning fork in my hard heart: we barely notice the differences we make in other peoples' lives, and unlike George Bailey, we rarely meet a divine messenger to point out how things might have been. Coincidentally, yesterday two things happened that figuratively speaking, showed me the ghosts of Christmas past and future.

The first one was a simple card from an ex-pupil, one who had left several years previously. Because I'm not entirely a whore, I'll spare you the details, but in summary it was a kind, thoughtful thank you for helping him get through his A-levels, and for contributing in some small way to his present position at University. I suspect that in years to come I'll be greeted by boxes of flaming avian offal pushed through my letter box once students appreciate the debt they now enjoy thanks to my goading.

The card was nice; it came at the end of a day when I had to deal with some difficult behaviour that, while entirely routine, required the proportionate routine responses, paperwork, and colleague-bothering that we know and love when it comes to working the system. All resolved, lots of good outcomes and conversations, but tiring and time consuming. The sort of thing that eats away any spare time you might have jealously accumulated in the noble hope that you might actually be able to achieve something you want done, as opposed to meeting the endless requirements of working in any heirarchal institution.

The second thing was beautiful; a really kind reply from a correspondent on the TES Behaviour Forums to whom I had offered some of my unworthy advice several days back. Normally I don't expect replies, because, well because everyone's busy and frankly I (and many other regulars) do it both because we enjoy it, and perhaps because we should. I shouldn't be amazed- but I still am- how frequently behaviour in an internet context can degenerate so quickly into oddball aggression and nastiness.

Every week or so, amongst the grown-ups and the professionals, you get one of these, and they can make you think, 'Why do I bother? I don't have to take this sh*t,' especially if you've spent twenty minutes of your valuable, non-reclaimable existence crafting a response to their questions. But once in a while you get a response like the one I got yesterday, when someone tells you that  you were in some way instrumental to their perseverance.

I'm under no illusions about the depth or the quality of the advice I give on the forum; I'm just another teacher, like many others, plugging away and hoping that what we do is the right thing. I certainly don't claim to have all the answers, nor do I imagine that my opinions are either definitive or final. The same with my teaching; I work my ass off, care my ass off, and try my best to make sure that I'm doing exactly what I'm paid to do at least, and then some if there's time. Why? Because there's nothing more important than what happens to the kids in our care; that's our duty, and it's a sacred one. This isn't a job, that you walk into, and punch out at five o'clock; this is a vocation, like the priesthood or cabaret. You have to love your subject, love working with kids, and love teaching them. If you don't, you won't ever be truly happy doing it. But if you do, then you'll see that it's one of the best, most important roles you can ever have, outside of parenthood (I imagine).

Many new teachers enter the profession wanting- demanding- to change the world, to transform the lives of children like Samuel Jackson in Coach Carter; and good for them that they want to. But then they find their passion and enthusiasm are cold currency in a climate that requires tenacity, dedication and rigour before they can often even reach the ones they want to help. Many give up because their illusions are shattered. Many more persevere, but smoulder with resentment and disappointment that things weren't fair, that things weren't the way that they expected them to be; they stay on, they teach, they end up hating it. I have nothing but sympathy and professional camaraderie for both groups.

But teachers should realise that they will never change the entire world by themselves, no more than you could push the earth out of its orbit by putting your shoulder to a cliff side. That's not what we do; that's not what anyone does. The way you change the world is one square metre at a time; look in front of you and say, 'What needs fixing? How can I help?' Then you do what you are capable of, no more, no less; and you go home and sleep at night, not kept awake by guilt demons that whisper at you, 'You failed, nothing has changed, nothing is better. Give up.'

That's what we do; we plug away and we try to make the world a better place. You might never 'transform' a child's life; but that's not the benchmark of good teaching. You do your best, and you give them the best damn education you can. You provide them with safe, supportive environments characterised by discipline and tough love. You do your best. And mark this: your best will not, sometimes, be enough, and you will fail, and children will pass through your care and fall off the map, seemingly no better for having encountered you. But we must- we must- keep going, because many of them will be helped, and some of them will be helped a lot. We play the odds, we play a long game.

We are small, but significant links in other peoples' lives, in a chain that goes on forever in both directions. As supporting characters in the melodramas of the lives of others, we are required to ask one simple question: do we want to help, or harm? Everything else follows from that. It is an honour to be able to assist a student into adulthood; it is an honour to be able to offer advice to a fellow professional when they need some TLC, because I remember the times when I have needed support and assistance. Like George Bailey after his illumination, I am grateful every day for the chance to play the smallest part in the lives of other humans. That, dear friends, is why after moments like yesterday I felt like running down the High Street of Anytown, America, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and laughing in the face of Mr Potter.

It's a wonderful job. Merry Christmas.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

This engine runs on hope: why schools need to defy the destiny of data

Chris Cook has written an excellent sidebar to Fraser Nelson's enthusiastic love letter to the Swedish model (and if that doesn't make you wave a pretend cigar and wag your eyebrows like Groucho, then there is no hope for you). It's a cautionary note to the symphony of success that the Swedish Free School system, running parallel to the state sector, seems to exemplify. In summary, he advises that its benefits, while statistically significant, aren't exactly enormous. At the heart of this, and in other good pieces he's written, he describes how a huge part of a child's success is down to where they're from, not where they're at.  
Its a topic I often think about: what does it matter what we do? As Christopher rightly says, aren't the historical and economic narratives of the children's background the real levers of destiny? And in many senses they are, of course. But to be a teacher, it's vital that we....almost ignore this. I wrote about it here:

'In life, we often get what we expect, not what we deserve. We create cages within our own minds, and say that the horizon is as high as we lift our eyes. How many children sit in a school where the targets on their books say G, F or E? How many schools are judged by the damnable, damned engines of purported certainty that the Hellish FFT data suggests? How many teachers look at a kid and expects nothing from them? How many parents? How many schools? I set all my pupils two targets: one given them by the desiccated, blasted data that precedes them, and one of my own, which is far more important. And I let them know it.

 Rarely do I set anything other than an A. Why? Because I bloody well expect it. I don’t care how poor a kid is, and I certainly don’t give a damn what some hypothetical bell curve says a kid is capable of. If they have a sound mind in the most general sense, I tell them where they’re aiming- an A. I know how to do it. I know how they can do it.  If we don’t get there, then I don’t waste a tear on it if everyone tried their best, including me. Especially me, sometimes.

I despair of our contemporary insistence that children submit to market models of tagets, when they are human beings; that teachers kneel before the tyrant of the perfectly elastic, infinitely expanding mad universe of the stockbroker. I’m not a middle manager in a branch of Comet. I’m a Teacher.

Until we have a system that demands- and expects- all students to try their best and do well, rather than concedes that they can’t, and so the bars must be set lower and lower until they bury themselves in the ground, then we will get exactly the children we deserve. You want social mobility? You want an end to generational narratives of endless, empty poverty?

Expect more.'
And I returned to it, like a nervous murderer, in this blog, and I quote: 
 'So when the FFT says that a given child is estimated a B at GCSE, based on prior attainment data, once social and circumstantial factors have been accounted for, what does it mean?

Almost nothing. Almost nothing.

What it means is that many children with similar socio-economic and attainment levels achieved that grade. So what? Most children in Mozart's street didn't grow up to write The Magic Flute, but he did. Most children from Omaha, Nebraska didn't grow up to lead a black consciousness movement, but Malcolm X did. I taught a kid who scraped a C in bottom set RS, who scored a U in AS, and then an A at A2. The human spirit is a genie; it is absurd, noetic, a screaming eagle of ambition and indeterminacy. It is a ghost, a comet, a nuclear furnace of optimism and ambition and impossibility. It is also a disappointment; the anti-life, failure snatched from the jaws of victory. House prices can go up as well as down. That is what makes being alive so glorious and terrifying.

I have a knowledge of my children's predicted grades that approaches telepathy, because I know my subject and I know my kids. But every year I am knocked sideways by kids who exceed my expectations and those who ridicule them. Nobody can predict the future. Guesses are fine, but let's admit that's what they are.


Let's stop pulverising children with our bureaucratic assumptions about their potential. Can you imagine what it must feel like to be told by your teacher that your prediction is a D?

F*ck. That.

You know what my expectation of my children is? An A. For everyone. That's the target I set myself, and if I don't get it, well, I try again next year. I don't cry into my coffee, I just try again.

Here's a thing: what does it even mean to 'aim for a C, or a B'? Have you ever seen a kid revise, and try to get a B? It's nonsense. Kids try as hard as they can/ can be bothered, to get the best grade they can. If you set a child to run 100 metres, and they really bash their guts out on it, can you imagine asking them, 'What speed were you going for?' No. They just run. They just run. Target setting has become the fetish of 21st century teaching. It is another ravenous, ridiculous imported imaginary animal from the paradigm of the market place, where ambitions are plucked from the air- and they are- and called 'predictions', when they should be called 'hopes'.'
I can't fix the world. I can't smash the time barrier with my bare hands and save Abraham Lincoln. But I'll cease to exist before I stop trying to show every child in my room that they can rewrite the book of their own lives. 

Monday, 19 November 2012

London Festival Of Education Part 2: Teacher Training, Flirtgate, and The Pale Rider

'Ah! The laughter of children!'
From the rural womb of Wellington, a post-modernist cement baby is born. If the Summer Edfest is James Blunt, the London Festival is Tuliza. Even the banners and livery of the event were spraypainted, Banksy style, on tarpaulins reminiscent of a CND march. If it had been any more metropolitan it would have had a roundabout.

After Gove, I bolted to see Charlie Taylor take part in a panel discussion about the future of teacher training. The former behaviour czar has been reincarnated, like the Doctor, as the head of the Teacher Agency in charge of the stuff, so I imagine this panel wasn't too taxing. 'Yeah,' he could say. 'It's like that. Touch me.' Taylor's a rare thing: a man up to his armpits in the education business who actually knows which way up a child goes. Everything he did and said as behaviour advisor was intuitively and demonstrably sensible, and I expect he'll be no slouch in training reform either.

He talked about School Direct, the school-based qualification system that emphasises practical experience. This has been criticised by some as dislocating teachers from the wealth of educational history and theory that underpins the profession. I'd respond by arguing that 99% of that theory is utterly useless until you have a bit of teaching under your belt. Sometimes even then. The consequence is  complete greenhorns walking into school worrying if they're meeting the 45 basic competencies, or satisfying the fifteenth spoke of the learning bicycle or something. Teaching is a profoundly practical activity. There is no tension  between whether it's an art or a craft or a profession or a blancmange; it has elements of the first three, at different times, in different proportions. It's an acquired habit; it's a character set; it's a body of learned content; sometimes it's even an interaction between all three. Sometimes it's like shaving a chin or planing a door; at other times it's as conscious and planned an activity as having sex on a ladder.

The Institute had never looked lovelier
Charlie's top tip for new teachers was to lie in a dark room for a few hours every week and think about what you've done, like a chastened boy in a corridor. Dennis Hayes, his co-panelist, suggested going to the pub, but I suspect most teachers won't take a great deal of prodding. Hayes, who spoke a terrifying level of sense about the intellectual poverty of much educational research, added that he thought every teacher needed to have read three core texts to consider themselves fit: Plato's Republic, Rousseau's Emile, and Dewey's The Child and the Curriculum. I have. The films were better.


Then it was my turn. After a clandestine coffee with OldAndrew I was contestant number three in a Gardener's Time Q&A on behaviour: me, Paul Dix and Professor Susan Hallam.  Michael Shaw, the assistant editor of the TES, hosted: a man who presumably keeps a painting of a wizened old man in his attic. He's the Benjamin Button of the teaching press, and every time I meet him I want to buy moisturiser and maybe lay off the smokes.

Q&A; minimum preparation, and you have to sing for your supper there and then: produce the goods or get out, much like a classroom. I did my usual schtick of saying 'Get them into trouble when they're naughty and reward them when they're good' in as many variations as I could. It's also the title of my next book.

Most questions were perfectly sensible; nobody wept. We picked over their entrails and poked around their chamber pots and divined and diagnosed. The standout moment came, however, when a lady in the front row asked us what should be done if students display, misogynistic and sexually aggressive behaviour. Professor Hallam, who is undoubtedly a woman of repute, intelligence and craft, gave an answer I can only describe as surprising. 'Flirt with them,' she said.

Uproar in the court. Mind. Blown. I could see a hundred eyeballs practically detach from their retinas and pop out onto the carpet, mine included. I have no idea what possessed a woman to say such a thing, and perhaps it's unfair to expect a non-classroom practitioner to answer such a question, but I fear that this exemplifies a very serious point: the best people to advise on how to run a a classroom are those who actually do such a thing. Research is often a million miles away from practice, and boy, was it ever here. Flirting with kids who want to treat you as a sexual object will only do one thing: encourage further predatory behaviour. It demeans and insults the teacher, and provokes the aggressor to further heights of inappropriacy. The way you deal with sexual intimidation in classrooms is by shutting it down; by standing up to it; by crushing the merest flicker of it as it emerges. God help the child on my watch who tries to trash-talk a female teacher because of her gender.

The Good, the Bad and the Unsatisfactory

Finally to the Pale Rider himself, the outlaw Michael Wilshaw. I've written before that I rate the Bishop of Mossborne highly. Unlike most of his detractors, he has actually pulled off the Holy Grail of education: turning lead to gold, or low-achievers into high. He attracts ire like lightning to a copper weather-vane, seemingly for having had the temerity of giving thousands of kids a chance of social mobility where little seemed to exist before. I know, burn the witch, right? He also doesn;t give a f*ck about what people think of him or his methods, which practically has me screen-printing T-shirts.

Are you still using VAK?
If other rooms were packed, this was a gangbang in a coffin. He read from notes, perhaps mindful of the press tendency to surgically dissect the most controversial words in any of his speeches and randomise them into headlines like 'Wilshaw calls all teachers bastards' or similar. Everything I've ever heard him say was tough but practical. Criticisng the status quo doesn't imply blanket condemnation; merely that things can improve. In a room full of teachers, he spoke of how good schools came from good leadership, and I saw an entire room full of people nod at once. He's no fool. He seemed to go out of his way to congratulate teachers for being the catalyst of change in London, and foreshadowed the format of his annual report: more regonalism, more emphasis on the people who sit in the big chairs. A room full of people with little chairs lapped it up.

Then he launched into his new hit single: Oftseds with less box-ticking and more lesson observations. Inspectors trained not to look for specific teaching styles, gimmicks and legerdemaine. By this point the crowd were waving their hands in the air with lighters aflame. If he'd chosen to stand on the table, turn around and fallen backwards like Peter Gabriel, he could have crowd-surfed to Russell Square. He should do this kind of thing more often.Maybe he'll do another tour.


Taking questions, he explained how he was often taken out of context; that the Dirty Harry comments were just a throwaway remark, although the chuckling press corps next to me conveyed their suspicion that The Man With No Shame rather enjoyed the Judge Dredd caricature. They might be right: he comedy-checked himself as he said, 'I was marching- sorry, walking down a school corridor.' Riffing on his own stereotype? And he got the laugh he was looking for. By this point in his own session, the Sorceror of Sanctuary House was dogfighting with the Red Army. The Unforgiver, by contrast, was dropping LOLZ like Dean Martin at a roast.

Time will tell if he also has enough medicine to drive his army of inspectors before him, or if they'll continue to harrow schools with witless prescription, mono-dimensional metrics and snake-oil dogma. But he doesn't deserve the rep that a hostile press has brewed for him: I haven't seen a man more suited to the despotic reform that inspection needs, and schools should support his project in order to support themselves. They should expect inspectors to explain their judgements; they should expect them to be supportive and suggestive of ways to improve. An Ofsted Inspection should be seen as a chance to shine and improve, not an opportunity to pimp your data and get the FSM kids singing songs from Oliver, wearing flat caps with target levels painted on them.

Every Which Way But Home

The Wellington College party arrived with little fuss
If you live in an edububble it's important to escape at times and speak to normal people, so I left, although before I did to my joy I saw Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington Towers being carried down the stairs in a sedan chair by monks in white samite*, just in time for his final address. The country mouse was visiting the town mouse. I wonder what he thought? 

The Festival was a splendid thing. They should do it every year. It worked for Christmas.

*This may not have actually happened.

PS Thanks to Chris Husbands, Michael Wilshaw, Gerard Kelly, TES and the IoE for hosting the event, and for letting me come and caper.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The London Festival of Education: Good, with Outstanding Features. Part 1

London's first Festival of Education roared into Russell Square this weekend, hosting the capital's yoorban answer to Wellington College's fragrant mother ship. The Institute of Education, which hosted the event, is a great college inside a building that makes the elephant house at London Zoo look like the tea rooms at Kew Gardens. Stalin would have taken one look at it and said, 'Blimey, that's a bit brutal.'

I'd been invited to do my monkey dance in a Q&A on behaviour which gave me the double pleasure of participating and observing. Apart from comedy support acts like me, the organisers had pulled their fingers out and hustled up the biggest names in education- Sir Michael Wilshaw, Adonis, Charlie Taylor, Hattie- and even the Lord of Sanctuary House himself, Gaffer Gove. The headline act opened the show, in an inversion of normal rock gig chronological taxonomy. Logan Hall was packed to the rafters in a manner that normally only happens when PGCE students turn up for their annual lecture on behaviour management, if memory of my own PGCE serves. This was a Saturday morning, remember. It was the edu-equivalent of One Direction signing arses in Bluewater.

As Marx once said, 'You have nothing to lose but tiers of local bureaucracy.'

The mood of the crowd was...well, let's be honest, crowd moods are usually variegated, aren't they? It was the world's biggest staffroom: a few angry Trots wearing Michael Rosen masks*; a sprinkling of old-timers, part-timers, time-servers and first-timers. Some stalwarts decided to spend their Saturday morning outside the IoE handing out pamphlets and wearily waving a fairly piss-poor effigy of someone. You knew was meant to be Michael Gove because there was a note pinned to its straw chest that said so, in the manner of a satirical cartoon in Punch.

Gove is famously personable and charming, and so it proved. He was interviewed by David Aaronovitch who promised to be a spiky and intelligent host. Aaronovitch's father, Sam, was a prominent Communist. As a member of the 1975 Manchester Uni team on University Challenge, he answered every question from Bamber Gascoigne with 'Trotsky', 'Lenin,' and so on, in protest against Oxbridge colleges being allowed to enter the competition separately. Nowadays people just get pissy about voting protocol when the X-Factor judges go to deadlock, but back then, game show protests were cold war arenas for class struggle, it seems.

Aaronovitch offered a polite but firm rebuke to the Secretary of State's vision of the educated student, homing in on the predictable, but important saws of access, privilege, entitlement and offer. But the Grand Wizard of Surrey Heath did not, it is fair to say, fall off the back of a turnip truck, and he cracked every ball back efficiently enough. He was even wearing a tie as red as the spilled blood of revolutionary martyrs. But his master stroke was pulling out a book on British Communism from the fifties and quoting appreciatively about the sacred shrine of books that every home should have. For a moment I thought he would extend a black-gloved hand out to a weeping Aaronovitch and say, 'David....I AM YOUR FATHER.'

Every time Aaronovitch said something like 'Isn't it true that you plan to boil G-grade students to make soup stock?' Gove would nod appreciatively and say, 'Yes, you're absolutely right, I agree,' before then launching into his calm and careful refutation. It had the effect of making the discussion seem enormously consensual, and gave Gove the air of a man who was absorbing the interviewer into his own argument. All you have to do is leave out the word 'but.'

Poland! The New Educational Drinking Game

There was a bit of Poland, which appears to be the new Finland (take a shot!); a bit of vocational banter (Gove, quoting Blair: 'If you ever want to declare war on Iran, do so in a speech about vocational education.'); a bit of 'Why do you hate teachers?' and so on. One blade asked why Academies terms and conditions were so bad, and was sent scampering with the reply, 'Teachers in academies earn more,' which if true, is a Trump Card. He said 'Once you go to an academy, I've never seen anyone go back.'

Of course, a dialogue is less scripted than a speech, and a Q&A less still. There were, of course, the usual sad sacks who somehow imagine that 'asking a question' means 'tell us your life story and put a question mark at the end.' It was also an opportunity for a bit of tub thumping. In his answers we saw more shooting from the hip. Some answers possessed his usual precision, others pressed the predictable buttons on a few in the audience who were wriggling for a fight and a sound bite they could hate properly.

He gave them it when he said, 'You can't have education without assessment', and some of the crowd visibly quickened, taking their safety catches off. So far, so reasonable: what country would invest 5% of its GDP on something without a means of regulation and evaluation? Then, the House of Commons pugilist came out as he added, almost an afterthought, 'Without assessment, it just becomes play. We need to know.' Cue: Oktober Revolution. 'What an idiot!' hissed an unhappy woman behind me. 'A fucking idiot.' A great deal of rhubarb, rhubarb followed.

Gove was unbowed; instead of retreating he advanced. Answering the challenge that focussing on the Ebacc would kill off the arts, he replied that he hadn't seen a single academically excellent school that didn't; also promote outstanding arts and sports - which is probably true, although when asked if that was true in Singapore, his reply that they had lots of after school clubs prompted  snorts of derision from a lot of people who, apparently, knew the Singaporean school system intimately.  There was a question from a woman who rocked our worlds by saying, 'Bonjour Monsieur Gove,' and everyone clutched their partners and thought, 'My God we're somehow in France'. She wanted to know if Gove valued 'Community Languages,' and he scored points by explaining to Aaronovitch what that meant. He just emphasised how important languages were in general, sidestepping the whole 'Why don't you teach Urdu?' argument quickly. Mainly because there isn;t anything you can say about the topic without alienating someone.

He explained why RS wasn't in the Ebacc by referring to its existent state of being a statutory subject in all schools, out with of the National Curriculum, and he didn't want to unpick too many stitches otherwise the whole tapestry would fall apart. Aaronovitch made a funny face and pointed out that Gove didn't normally seem too bothered by tugging on the odd thread with all his might. But no politician wants to either drop RE completely, and lose the entire religious vote, nor defend it too openly, alienating the secular demographic. Leaving things alone and not talking about stuff is the safest bet for a man who answers to a ballot every five years.

Full Pelt

Somebody wanted to know why he insisted on demoralising schools by using critical language about some schools, and there were nods from a few; he responded by saying, 'There are schools that aren't good enough and my job is to point out that some schools are inadequate.' Which seems fair enough. I scratch my pointy head at people who get upset when someone in charge of something criticises the status quo. What's the alternative? Say that everything is great? Clearly it isn't so, and if the Boss of Schools said it was, I'd think he was a bit simple.

By the end, he probably hadn't won over any hard liners, but he probably didn't make too many enemies either, and possibly showed a few that he, just like them, wanted the best for children and schools. Aaronovitch's earlier point that he wanted to simply replicate his own school experience could be answered by saying, 'Well, good: I wish everyone got the chance for such an education,'. The educational debate polarises so easily in this country that it practically shatters into two suspicious satellites, revolving around each other in perpetual enmity. The truth is that both camps have more in common than they think; there are no enemies of children in this discussion, simply two tribes, going to war.

Later on, I congratulated Chris Husbands on the Festival, and he replied, 'It was 'a hairy ride, but worth it.'

At least I hope he was talking about the Festival.

IN PART 2: Charlie Taylor; My session; Flirtgate; Pale Rider, Michael Wilshaw; summing up 

*not strictly true. Or even loosely

Friday, 2 November 2012

The Empire Strikes Back: Ofqual, and the omnishambles of assessment

The edu-interwebs were crackling with fury this morning. Glenys Stacey, Head of Ofqual, has published her report into this season's controversial GCSE results, where accusations of dumbing down and political expediency have been volleyed back and forth across the net. Ofqual's response has been the equivalent of two neighbours arguing about each others' dogs, and one of them goes, 'Ah, but you've been burying postmen under your patio!' Ladies and gentlemen, this hoe-down just got interesting again. The claim, in summary, is this: some teachers in some schools have been routinely over-marking coursework in an effort to obtain higher grades. My poor iPhone nearly melted through Earth's crust when I turned it on; the most common response was that of 'teacher bashing.'

Let's take a closer look at that. What did she actually say?

"Children have been let down. That won't do. It's clear that children are increasingly spending too much time jumping through hoops rather than learning the real skills they need in life," said Stacey. "Teachers feel under enormous pressure in English, more than in any other subject, and we have seen that too often, this is pushing them to the limit."

This is clearly the kind of retaliation Sean Connery would have advocated in the Untouchables- 'One of them pulls a knife, you pull a gun; they put one of yours in the hospital, you put one of theirs in the morgue.' This is a damn-your-eyes, balls-out, attack-as-defence come back, make no mistake. But to be fair, it isn't naked teacher bashing; in fact, it sounded more like an attack on the system inside which teachers operate than a direct claim that teachers are shifty.

And let's be clear: the system has been shifty; it was designed, if anyone can't see it, to facilitate and encourage systematic grade manipulation, for the following reasons- if you create a high stakes school assessment facility, where the metric of 5 A*-C becomes the sole difference between damnation and salvation AND you simultaneously provide the participants of that system with the means by which they can avoid the former by fair means or foul, then, as any economist will tell you, you have created a fertile plain upon which manipulation can occur.

I have heard some people describe this as 'not cheating', because it is within the regulations; that because it is permitted by guidelines, it is therefore just. I can think of few things more depressing than people doing something they know to be wrong and calling it right because the law permits it: see adultery for details. It is cheating. To give a pupil a higher grade in the school-entered component of a GCSE in order for that student to obtain the magic C, is cheating.

I'll tell you what else has been immoral- targeting borderline C/D students. In what world, other than one obsessed with 5 A*-C, would schools target only students who will obtain a benefit to the school? I'll tell you who I target- ALL my kids, because they all deserve an education, and to do the best for themselves, not because my grades look groovy. The message anything else sends is: are you stupid? Then we don't care about you- you're a lost cause. Are you bright? Good luck, we don't give a damn about you either, thanks for the C. It's educational apartheid, and children become instrumental to the school's interests. I didn't come into the profession to make schools look good.

Course work is a rotten system of assessment for academic subjects- even if only a few schools practice the dark arts, through a process of Darwinian competition, pressure rises on other schools to do the same. To quote Hobbes, 'It only takes one thief for all men to bar their windows.' Or to inflate. Such is the damning legacy of a one-dimensional metric like league tables.

I have heard people bluster, 'Oh, how can you say teachers would do that- we're better than that.' That is unbearably naive. In a system designed to reward only the winners, it is inevitable that the rot of inflation sets in. And let's not forget that grade inflation is a fact accepted by all parties, and by Ofqual itself. Unless you believe that teachers are made of finer moral material than the majority of people- and I don't; we are human- then you cannot imagine that teachers are not just as subject to the vices of the human condition as much as the virtues. Even if you did believe such a thing, competition to achieve would drive many to sin.

So quite apart from the separate issue of the fairness or otherwise of the June boundaries, what Stacey is saying is correct: coursework and 'controlled' assessments (aye, there's an oxymoron) are some of the worst ways to obtain a fair result in examination. The alternatives are imperfect, but less than these. Having work marked by class teachers also results in one of the worst possible detriments to the principle of fairness: partiality. The subconscious temptation to mark according to what you already think of a student, is well documented by research- which raises all sorts of discriminatory issues.

One final point; while I agree broadly with Stacey on this point, isn't it odd that, back in May of last year, she was complaining about the term 'Grade Inflation'? I blogged about it here, when she said:

"I don't find 'grade inflation' to be a very helpful expression," she says.  'Inflation' has a negative import whereas in fact we may be seeing young people being taught well and working hard."

Has she been converted, like Malcolm X in his cell? It seems like she now concedes there might well have been inflation, 'unhelpful' or not. But we need to keep these two issues separate- the GCSE results controversy, and coursework/ CA manipulation, and not pretend that the moral ambiguity of one cancels out the other. If we as a profession cannot condemn bad practice when we see it, then we will never learn, and improve. It behooves those of us who disagree with a system that encourages cheating, and the cheating itself, to say so.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

What do we want? More rigour! How do we want it? We don't know! Leaky cauldrons, draughty doors and the English Curriculum

'I want them doing bare Homer an' Ovid an' that.'
There's a draft English curriculum floating around, in advance of actual proposals in the next few months. How do these things escape from the laboratory? They should frisk everyone leaving Sanctuary House. Or just stop telling people, which ever's easier. If there's a draft, shut the door.

As usual with such things, a bunfight has emerged. Dame Gove has been castigated by Stephen 'Equaliser' Twigg for, among other things, an apparent lack of rigour. It is, La Twigg claims:
'..preparing to introduce a narrow and out of date curriculum that will take us backwards.'
What definition of narrow he's using, I'm not sure; the curriculum is, if anything, becoming more fluid and open to interpretation and personalisation. It's becoming less prescribed. If that's narrow, then I wouldn't like to see him reverse a Transit Van backwards into a parking space. And 'out of date'? Please, God, don't let this be another allusion to the apparently essential 21st century skills that so many have unwittingly adopted as dogma. Alas, it probably is, as the cult of the 21st century (or now, as I like to call it) appears to count the Labour spokeman as a celebrity member, like Scientology, but without the evidence base.
'Incredibly there is no mention of the importance of spelling...'
That takes balls, I tell you. Marks for spelling, as a government source mentions (check his pockets, by the way, there's draft documents just walking out here) were removed by the previous opposition's predecessors. So that's a funny thing to get all cocky about.
'There's no mention of creativity and being able to think critically or understanding opposing points of view in any of these sources.'
Now that's odd: to criticise something for being too narrow (and previously, too prescriptive, too didactic) but then to try to finger it for being lacking in substance, is a tricky piece of legerdemain, and I salute the attempt. But it doesn't make sense. The proposed curriculum (and of course, it might look nothing like the finished article) looks set to be far less set in stone, and far more open to teacher and school customisation. It's Gradgrind in reverse.

The complaint continues: the draft 'makes no mention of the importance of taking part in structured group discussion or listening skills to judge and interpret what a speaker has said.'

That might be because the teacher should decide how best to teach their own students, and not be subject to the donkey-headed assumption that group work is the only or best way to learn anything. It's a strategy, nothing more, and not always a particularly effective one. It seems to me that the only ones talking from the hip today are the opposition benches, and carelessly at that. And the only ones who seem to be suggesting that the government issue Mosaic tablets of what kids should and shouldn't learn, and how, are Labour. 

Every ministry, everywhere wrestles with this demon: do we allow individuals to have power, or do we centralise? The temptation to inhale all autonomy into the centre is understandable- why go into politics if you intend to give power away?- but history teaches us that this is the struggle between tyranny and the barbarism of the state of nature. Teachers have trudged like yoked cape buffalo for decades in a curriculum that seeks to obtain almost daily direction, in a witless attempt to generate precise, mathematically calculated results. The recent moves to loosen these chains has the potential to transform teachers from galley slaves to, at the very least, the bloke with the tom-toms and the broom handle, if not actual captains.

That's something to be desired, not feared. Of course, for many of us, it will be an uneasy transition. We're so used to be being told exactly what to teach that having the cage door opened will terrify. I saw an experiment once; monkeys, bred in captivity are offered an open door for the first time. As you might expect, it takes a while for any to dare to poke their noses outside, even when tempted by bananas. Some of the stalwarts who do so pad around nervously in their brave new world before....going back into the cage. And then closing the door behind them.

If the door is being opened for us, even a crack, we need to be bold enough to cry freedom and tear through, pushing it hard with out shoulders to allow others to follow. I mean, have you seen the bananas out there?

Quotes from article here

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Skyfall- rebirth, resurrection, and reboots. My review.

*****Warning: Spoilers throughout. This article is MADE of Spoilers******

Bond: Everybody needs a hobby.
Silva: So what's yours?
Bond: Resurrection.

James Bond, famously antipathetic towards bureaucrats, nearly succumbed to the entropy of MGM's financial troubles, and Skyfall was in the freezer for two years until it emerged from the shadow of bankruptcy. Quite how the studio behind cinema's second biggest golden goose could find itself collecting coupons from magazines is entirely beyond me. What I do know is that the Commander's latest expedition of self-loathing and violence is a spectacular success. It is that rare thing- a reinvention that is actually inventive; and a homage to its serial identity, that doesn't wallow in its own history like Miss Havisham sadly thumbing through her scrapbooks.

When Fleming wrote the Bond books, international travel was still impossibly glamorous and expensive. They were outlandish windows into overseas Narnias, when planes were still the luxury liners of the skies. Today, stag parties bounce back from Iceland in a weekend, and air travel is something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Skyfall nods towards this franchise default with an immaculately framed middle act in Macau and the Chinese coast, and a opening dash across the rooftops of Istanbul that had me hoping he would run into Liam Neeson, pursuing his family's tormentors like a grizzled Celtic Nemesis. Presumably someone in the Turkish Tourist Board had a rocket up his ass a few years ago, because they brought in two tent poles for us to chew on as we consider our holidays for Summer 2013.

'Is that Tom Ford?'
Longevity in any field necessitates reinvention: see Madonna for details. Bond's unique depiction of gender politics, international d├ętente, and a thousand other media theses are time-capsules of their eras. Each Bond has to be a reboot; each film is a tribute to the vices and virtues of the release date. And, as things change, so too does the Commander. But as many philosophers have considered; if something changes, is it still the same thing it was before? In other words, does it have an identity?

I am not the person I was twenty years ago; every cell in me has been reconstituted from newer atoms, shepherded by the chemistry of ingestion, digestion and excretion. I look different. Am I the same man? Football teams display this turmoil; does a life long Arsenal fan support the same team now as his father forty years before him? Can you step in the same river twice? Can you do it even once? As in Zen Buddhism, so in the Tao of Bond. Who is he now?

The writers confront this directly in Skyfall; the scaffold theme is rebirth, both as a franchise, and as a character. We've seen this done before- as the USSR disintegrated, Bond films often directly asked this question: 'You're a relic of the Cold War, 007' etc. In Skyfall, it isn't merely an afterthought (with the Russians replaced by omni-ethnic terrorists or shadowy conglomerates); it's the central motif. Bond is slotted by a witless colleague at the start, and topples to his apparent death, although this turns out to be no more fatal than Holmes toppling from the Reichenbach Falls. Possibly such ends merely invigorate fictional superheroes.

Evoking Abrahamic motifs of baptism and rebirth and Greek allusions towards rivers and the afterlife, Bond emerges from the water, harrowed and scourged. In London he is missing, presumed dead; M writes his obituary for The Times and his flat in the King's Road is sold. Back in Greece, the resurrected Bond recuperates by reverting to his factory settings: promiscuous sex, drinking down to his soul, and tempting death. Simultaneously, one shouldn't wonder. This is as far from Roger Moore's Chelsea fop  as can be imagined. This is a Bond more savage, nihilistic and solipsistic than even Connery's muscular hit man and serial rake.Then: a bell rings that draws him back to the worn groove of meaning that motivated his previous incarnation: danger in England.

Bond 'getting better.'
M, too, is teetering on the abyss. Embarrassed by her department's security failures, she is surrounded by the forces of change, hungry for her chair. Her ministerial line manager (Ralph Fiennes) draws a picture of her resignation and retirement. In a manner unimaginable for the M of Goldfinger, she is summoned to an open committee grilling, in scenes reminiscent of the Leveson crucible. Frustrated by the red tape, she is chastened by the Minister who reminds her, 'This is a democracy; we are accountable to the people we are responsible for protecting.' This is not a message that finds much purchase in the high stakes, damn-your-eyes world of men like Bond, but it is an important one, and the tension is compelling.

The antagonist reinforces the theme of rebirth; an agent from a previous decade, and Bond's predecessor for M's favour, he embodies a different kind of reinvention; his plan is simply an enormous, exhaustive revenge against his former department mentor, whom he perceives as having abandoned him.

Abandoned: now that's an interesting lens to observe the Bond story. Orphaned at 11, Bond is an avatar of rootlessness. 'That's what happens to unmarried agents with no family,' says M to Bond, having just told him his flat has been sold posthumously. Later, she tells him, 'Orphans- they make the best agents,' and Bond can only say nothing by way of agreement. Part of the utility of this isolation is to play to the themes that make Bond so attractive as a character: irresponsibility, the perfectly free individual, unworried by the tethers and ballast of kin. He can shoot, couple and quaff with abandon, with no one to whom he has to defer or justify himself. Even his department nomenclature, '00' indicates the libertarian fantasy of exemption from the most basic of society's prohibitions- killing.

But flip the lens, and the privations of this existence are obvious: Aristotle said that any man who lived without society was either a God or a Monster, and Bond is a fascinating blend of both. Loneliness is the counterpoint to privacy; and carelessness results in having no one who cares for you in return. Intemperance of alcoholic appetite is the path to addiction; aggressive promiscuity fails to satisfy the itch that inspires it, and leads to loathing. Even M, apparently his closest colleague, sends him to his death with barely a heartbeat of hesitation; not once, but repeatedly.

In the third, careful act of Skyfall, Bond grabs M in an attempt to steal ground on Javier Bardem's perfectly pitched villain, takes her home to Scotland (a hastily appended addition by Fleming to Bond's pseudo history after Connery absorbed the role so completely in Dr No) but to his family home in Glencoe: Skyfall. That he does so in the original Aston Martin from Goldfinger is just another beat in the great plan driving the narrative: Bond is going back to his roots, to be reborn. Mendes provides one of cinema's greatest indulgent shivers of joy when the car is revealed, and John Barry's surf-rock fanfare raises the score from background mood music to palpable protagonist. Moe than just a nerd's nod, it's also the most appropriate vehicle Bond could have chosen; going back to where it started, in his most emblematic wheels, to be reborn.

The moment when M asks Bond 'Is this where you grew up?', and he barely answers her, sweeping his gaze across the foggy, heroic valley of Glencoe, is poignant. Bond could never have been born somewhere petty or common; he was forged somewhere as mythical and epic as himself. But even here, we haven't reached the heart of Bond's roots, and we are led back in time to nearly- nearly- the core of Bond: Skyfall Manor itself (surprisingly not an audacious macguffin of pseudo-Armageddon technology as the film's titles usually are, but the family pile).

A knacker's yard of a house/ castle, it hides, almost like a ghost, Kincade, the family gamekeeper, and seemingly the last link between Bond and his past. It's interesting: we can barely visualise him as a traumatised boy, and we can see the walking scar tissue he becomes in the films, but it is impossible to imagine Bond as anything other than his invincible adult incarnation, reminiscent of the way that the gospels skim almost entirely over the figure of Christ, fast forwarding from his birth to the adult ministry via a pitstop at the Temple. Kincade, we find out, taught Bond (described in the novels as the best shot in the branch) to use a shotgun. He also describes to M how Bond, when informed by Kincaid of his parents' death in an avalanche, hid in the Priest's Tunnel. 'And when he emerged again, he was a man.' Kincaid is the witness, if not the midwife, to Bond's first regeneration. It's appropriate- maybe essential- that he's present for the second.

So: we have a surrogate father in Kincaid (whom Bond now amazes, and therefore surpasses in marksmanship), and a surrogate mother (albeit a pragmatic one) in M. 'Mommy wass ferrry bad,' Bardem hams earlier in the film. 'You've got a soft spot for Bond, and it's clouding your judgement,' the former Minister for Magic, Fiennes, chides her. Clearly M stands for more than just Emma.

Fans of rebirth and resurrection metaphors aren't disappointed. Bond's home is driven to rubble by incendiaries, but tellingly he finishes the job himself with the tools from his past: gas cannisters and sticks of dynamite, channeling the A-Team, perhaps. Backed into a rathole, with no weapons, facing massively superior odds, Bond upgrades into the Nietzschean lion that resists all defeat. He blows up his past, retreating into the Priest's Hole once again to reincarnate. First fire, then ice: moments after he emerges, he- again, deliberately- throws himself back into water for a second time in the frozen loch, where he re-emerges in full third act unstoppability. What is left after the cremation and baptism is Bond, distilled to the purest form. Nothing weak or mean or petty remains.

And finally, in the chapel, the last pangs of the birth: M succumbs to blood loss and dies, evoking a rare tear from Bond. Is it significant that the father figure remains? Is Bond so closely aligned to masculinity that only the male warrior remains, the one who taught him to shoot? Perhaps. It's an interesting resolution in the end: Bardem attempts to kill M and simultaneously commit suicide with the same bullet, but Bond stops him with his father's knife. M dies anyway, and we obtain the same results as the one Bardem was seeking. Perhaps the only significant difference is that one scenario was done to the protagonists, and one was chosen by them. Both paths led to death in the chapel, but one is seen somehow as victory and one defeat. Moral ambiguity has always been Bond's world.

And in the end, where have we come? Full cycle, it seems. Fifty years of Bond marked by burning down the family home until nothing is left but the minimum: Bond, cold, cruel and therefore powerful as before, Monneypenny back in admin (so much for liberation, it seems, but then misogyny has always been in the DNA of a man who feeds on the warmth of others) and a man back in M's seat. Westminster has always been a boy's club, despite recent innovation; perhaps Bond's environment simply reflects this.

And finally a word about the year of Skyfall: a year in which a tired, recession-battered UK surprised itself by remembering that it can also celebrate and succeed. The old relationships- Ruler of Waves, Favourite Auntie of America- no longer succour. Acts of Union grow brittle, and 60 million people wonder what we have in common with each other when our metropolises ripple with languages and values. If ever a nation needed a reinvention, to burn down the rotten wood of a leaden heritage, it's us. The Olympics were a tiny example of how this might be achieved; not by pretending to be better than anyone else, but by having the self-respect and integrity to be excellent in ourselves, and never mind if we led the board any more. Send a gun ship to burn down the timidity and narcissism of uncertainty, of comparing ourselves to the world; what remains might be worth something.

It's being described as the best Bond film by some. It may well be. It's certainly the best Bond film now.

The director of Bond 24 has a hard job ahead.

 *Note: This was meant to be a blog on the education of Bond. It ended up as this. I blame half-term fever.


Saturday, 20 October 2012

Step back in time: The Chamber of Secrets, Dungeons and Dragons, and saving children from Satan

Who needs to Hang Around? I've got the Internet.
I uncovered some weapons-grade gold this week: under a stack of boxes, unmoved for decades was a dusty, discreet red book, innocently titled 'RS Department Minutes 1980 ff'. It might sound unremarkable, but to the steam punk edu-enthusiast that I am, it was crack. To me it was a time capsule, a message across the decades from one teacher to another. I've even been reading it in bed, that's how good it is. Like a prospector hand-sieving lakes of dirty water, much of it is as gripping as a Ukrainian phone book. But every so often, a flake of purest magic gleams in the silt. Now I can see why Tony Robinson spoils his knickers whenever someone pulls out a grimy sliver of pottery from an dismal ditch.

1980. Imagine the world then: Jimmy Carter signs a $1.5 billion bail out for Chrysler, and the USA boycotts the Moscow Olympics; the Iranian embassy in London got its clock cleaned; and Jimmy Saville's chair was the relic of a saint as opposed to an emblem of disgrace. The Berlin wall was still mercifully unaware that David Hasselhoff would conduct a concert from its apex, years later, as a final humiliation for Communism. Duran Duran signed with EMI; and in Glasgow, an eight year old boy sat at a desk, waiting for blogging to be invented. A world as alien and intimate as 2044 is to us.

The Diary Of Tom Bennett
Playah's Handbook

It's a fascinating chronoscope; a window in time. It feels like the Diary of Tom Riddle, and at any moment I'll tumble through the fourth dimension and land in a world where Pac-Man is just arriving in pubs, and I have to avoid meeting myself in order to prevent the end of the galaxy. I could write a book about this book: this is a reality before Ofsted; before the National Curriculum; before Citizenship and VAK, levels and damned sublevels; before unsatisfactory and 21st century learning; before flipped classrooms and robber-baron consultants.

There's too much in there to cover in one blog: for instance, there's a report from the Inner London Education Authority (which I believe Boris has, just this week, floated the idea of a resurrection, because few politicans can resist the lure and bait of autonomy for long. A devolved power doesn't last long when someone reckons they can scoff it themselves) to the school, a sort of Ofsted report. The staggering thing about this is the level of detail and effort that's gone into it, as opposed to the cookie-cutter approach these days where the inspectors essentially decide the school grading in advance from the data, and then look for the evidence to confirm it. There's an enormous amount of discussion about O-levels, the rise of multiculturalism, secularism, and also, to be fair, stationery. The whole damn thing is typed or written, in an era when only NASA could muster a word processor. It really is a very impressive piece of book keeping.

Gelatinous Cubes

Another time for all that. What caught my eye last night was an excerpt from an RS department meeting, which is a joy to read, and read around:

'...all members of the department had been asked quite a lot of questions on the subjects of the devil, the occult and mysticism; it seemed there was a growing interest in the school on these matters. The department felt that a role play club based on the game, "Dungeons and Dragons" would be most unwise.'

I was hugging myself with pleasure at this. Oh for an era when Dungeons & Dragons was the most worrying cultural influence on our children. In 2012 if a kid hasn't seen 2 girls 1 cup by the time they finish primary school, they're deemed to have had a sheltered upbringing.

Level 5 Teacher/ Lion Tamer
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), as the less popular among you will know, was part of the role-playing game phenomenon, which now seems impossibly quaint and old fashioned to a generation used to Grand Theft Auto, Skyrim and Resident Evil. Essentially a Lord of the Rings rip-off, you pretended to be a wizard, a warrior, a thief and so on, in entirely fictitious scenarios generated and administrated by a 'Dungeon Master (DM)'; you would be expected to face challenges and battles using spells, weapons and wits, moderated and circumscribed by game rules. The element of chance was delivered via a series of spectacularly silly dice: four, eight, twelve and twenty sided shapes.

Has the internet been invented yet?

You would sit around a table and glumly act in character as you navigated the imaginary perils the DM put in front of you. Like this:

DM: You are in a dark room, with a treasure chest and a coffin in the corner.
You: I open the coffin.
DM: *rolls odd die* OK, it opens. A MUMMY jumps out at you, groaning *makes groaning noise*
You: My character says 'Go back to the eternal rest from which ye spawned!' I cast a Fireball spell at him.
DM: *rolls some more dice* OK, he's toast.
You: Does he have any treasure?
DM: He might have had some, but the fireball melted the whole coffin.
You: Aw, man! Is there any more Pepsi in that glass?

Etc. It was a lot more fun that it sounds, maybe. Essentially it was a way for young nerdy teen boys to get together while they poured over complex books of spells and rules, drew monsters and improbable damsels with dimensions that would require scaffolding to support. It was almost always boys, in my experience. Perhaps girls had grown out of playing Let's Pretend by then. But it was sociable, and added meaning to endless nights drawing comics, writing cod-fantasy stories, and pretending to save the world, night after night. These days being a Geek has been rescued from opprobrium by virtue of the fact that geeks grew up and colonised the media. Now, it's so hip it's commonplace.

Not in 1980. In 1980 if you were a geek you were marked with the sign of Cain, and no one would go see Smokey and the Bandit 2 with you. Believe me. So we did what sub-cultures have always done; banded together. Which is exactly how vulnerable, sensitive children who read Le Guin, Moorcroft and Burroughs but who lived in goals and never got picked for the team have survived. If you're lucky, you invent Microsoft; if not, you spend your life hiding your comics and queueing for autographs at sci-fi conventions.

(On an unrelated note: I tweeted this week that I thought Red Dwarf was, to be honest, a bit pish. Five minutes later one of the writers of the thing had retweeted me to his army, and I spent the rest of the night watching as pale-faced, unshaven, grown men filled my timeline with poorly punctuated insults. Given that I hadn't  @ed the chap I presume he must have been scouring the timelines for references to his masterpiece theatre. I only hope that, in the dystopian future of Red Dwarf, it's still OK to dislike fart jokes and say so publicly. Smoke me a kipper! Hilarious.)

Yeah. That didn't happen in 1980.
Do you renounce Old Split-Foot?

The idea that teachers could save children from El Diablo by preventing them from role playing as Caradoc the half-elf magic user now seems twee beyond expression. And with apologies to my predecessors (all of whom had immaculate administrative skills) I hope they never see the lessons I do on Wicca, Norse Gods or the Gods of Mount Olympus. I even, in response to a class vote, made a lesson on Dawkins, Hitchens and Bertrand Russell, and we debated atheism. Next week we'll all be raising spirits like the Witch of Endor and attempting to kick-start our broomsticks. Or not.

It would appear that the geeks did inherit the earth. I can only imagine what my predecessors would have made of it. Sorry.