Bernard's weekly Journal pieces pre-September 2011

Amazingly, nation of grumblers didn’t go on about easy exams

Wednesday 24th August 2011

There’s a particular type of grumpy man or woman who, when asked how they are, growl, “Can’t complain.”  That clichéd response is not entirely honest because the tone in which they utter it is entirely negative: they’d like to complain really, but sadly things aren’t quite bad enough justify it.

Of course, the question isn’t honest either, merely polite. We don’t really want to know that their bunion’s playing up, or that they’ve got this strange aching joint that worries them in the middle of the night but they won’t go to the doctor about. We’re relieved that the worst answer we’ll get is, ”Can’t complain”. And we hope they won’t ask about us in return.

To avoid all this difficulty a friend of mine devised a strategy with his colleagues in a large office block. Meeting in the lift they’d simply nod and murmur, “Yourself?” Back would come the affirming answer, “Self”. Job done. Courtesy observed, no information shared, no offence given.

We Brits love complaining. It’s one of the things we do best. God knows we’ve had enough to moan about recently: economic gloom; phone-hacking scandals; riots (though not, significantly, on Tyneside).

Curiously, though, it’s not the big stuff that we choose to grumble about. We’d rather focus on small irritants. The weather is a constant topic of conversation at the bus stop, in the pub or the hairdresser’s, this dismal summer providing even more material than usual. Sport is another: we can usually have a real go about sport.

Hold on a minute!  There might be a few wobbles about the Rugby World Cup squad, and the jury may be out on Fabio Capello’s team selection: but other English (and I mean specifically English) sports are going well. England cricket is now best in the world, not just knocking India off its perch but looking brilliant doing it. Lewis Hamilton’s driving like a demon, and Andy Murray (he’s Scottish, but we English adopt him at the good times) has just beaten the world No.1 in the Cincinnati Masters.

Closer to home, unless you’re an Arsenal supporter club football’s going well. Notwithstanding pre-season anxieties about strikers, the season’s started well for the Toon.

Weather apart, then, things are looking good: we could find ourselves short of things to sound off about. This could turn into a crisis. Imagine a nation running out of things to moan about! Riots could follow: oops! No, we’ve had those.

Amazingly, even last week’s A level results failed to attract criticism. Nationally they were slightly better than last year’s, but not so much better as to warrant the usual accusations of dumbing down.  And at the A* top grade, boys equalled girls, so we avoided the customary “Boys getting more feckless and stupid” headline.

Our young people have played a blinder. With the greatest pressure ever to score top grades in order to get into university, they’ve worked like stink and gained the grades. It’s a slap in the face to them that so many have been unable to gain university places: blame bungled Higher Education policy for that.

An email from an appreciative parent at my school summed up for me what this year’s candidates have achieved:

“It frustrates me when the seemingly constant improvement in A level results is dismissed with comments like ‘The exams are getting easier’. It is sheer hard work that has got my son these results. I have had to tell him at times to do less work, as I thought he was working too hard and missing out on spending time with friends. Of course he ignored my advice. Typical teenager.”

Tomorrow the country’s 16-year-olds get their GCSE results. I expect they’ll be up on last year: they know that even GCSE grades are now vital in winning jobs or university places two years later.

I hope we won’t hear any more “dumbing down” arguments. And maybe, just maybe, we can do better than “Can’t complain”!


Everything changing in a new world of consensus politics

23rd June 2011

I like to watch TV crime dramas. They are invariably centred around a central character with a secretive, tragic past, a dysfunctional home life, various anti-social habits and an obsessive nature. A straightforward, brilliant but uncomplicated Poirot or even – relatively at least – Morse is a thing of the past. Nowadays our heroes and heroines have to be human, vulnerable, and seriously messed up.

I like that. But something is creeping into television drama and films that I find hard to cope with. It may be something to do with the modern obsession with realism, or some other factor (such as declining eyesight) that I haven’t spotted. Perhaps it’s just my age. Whatever the cause, I find that the characters, particularly youngish adults of both genders, seem to look alike. So I spend half the programme trying to work out whether the young blond woman talking to the detective was the one we saw behaving suspiciously ten minutes ago. Add to that the fact that, if I’m watching at the end of a busy week, I also fall asleep periodically, and you’ll understand that I’m finding it hard to follow plots nowadays.

In my defence, everyone is becoming more similar nowadays. Take politics. Having a coalition government for the first time in 70 years has been a shock to the nation. Alliances have been forged that would once have been unthinkable, and the media have had a field day lampooning unlikely policy bedfellows. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when Tony Blair, returning from his role as Middle East peacekeeper (and what a success that was), positioned himself firmly behind David Cameron and stated that the kind of tough medicine we’re swallowing is the only solution to the economic gloom. Next came former Chancellor Alastair Darling proclaiming that his successor George Osborne is on the right track: and then Alan Milburn, the social mobility tsar, urged the Government to hold its nerve on NHS reform.

If all those shocks weren’t unnerving enough, suddenly riding to the rescue on his white charger appeared the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s not unusual for leading churchmen to criticise government policy. It’s appropriate that the leader of the Church of England should occasionally remind policy-makers of their moral and spiritual duties. But it seems comical when so entirely an establishment body as the Church of England – its establishment credentials reinforced by the recent Royal wedding – should appear to ally itself through its spokesman with the left wing of politics. After all, despite a strong Christian socialist tradition, Old Labour is not typically associated with what used to be called jokingly the Tory party at prayer, the good old C of E.

The map has been re-drawn. Should we be alarmed by public figures, chameleon-like, abandoning their principles and changing their colours and spots to fit in with prevailing moods? I think not. In fact, I applaud all these sometimes baffling changes, moves and mergers. After so many years of oppositional, yah-boo politics, it’s great that two of the three parties are finally obliged to wrestle their way to consensus.

Understandably the media love to identify cracks in the coalition and prise them open when they can. That’s all part of the game: but a change from the old silo mentality of violently-opposed political opinions is surely a step forward. Who knows? Despite the huge difficulties confronting us –painfully slow growth, cuts affecting all walks of life, and a pensions confrontation looming – a political model that forces all sides to recognise the difficulties and to get round the table to solve them might bring both success and a lot more understanding along the way.

If we don’t like this brave new world, we could go back to the dying days of the Blair/Brown governments, where leaders’ own aides plotted against them, and positions of power and personality-based machinations took priority over the needs of the country. I know what I prefer.



Here’s to the happy couple, I say

2nd May 2011

I have a confession to make: actually, two confessions. I’m nervous about both, but confession’s reckoned to be good for the soul, so here goes. First, I confess I was very grumpy about The Wedding. I hated the relentless media speculation about everything from The Dress to what would be in the canapés, from whether the bride’s hair would be up or down to the colour of her mother’s outfit.

That stuff irritates the hell out of me. Karl Marx described religion as “the opiate of the masses”. When the press was at its most shrill, a cynic might have suggested that a royal wedding provided a similar kind of national tranquilisation: keep people buying and waving flags, planning street parties and getting sentimental about the royal couple and they’ll forget economic gloom, cuts, voting or NHS reform – for a while, at least.
As the hype was reaching its hysterical peak, I said I’d be happy to read in the newspapers a simple headline such as “Couple wed in central London: traffic disrupted”. I even muttered darkly that I wouldn’t watch the wedding, but might go for a long walk instead.
Who was I kidding? With 24 million other Brits I was glued to the TV: the family wouldn’t have allowed me to opt out anyway.  So that’s my second, more shameful, confession. No matter how I’d groused beforehand, I watched anyway and loved every moment.

The ceremonial was truly magnificent: “the sort of thing we do so well,” as playwright Alan Bennett once commented (very much in quotation marks). He was right. It’s hard to imagine any other nation putting on a better show. The service, processions, escorts, salutes, horses, carriages, fly-past and bells were flawless and impressive, while the music in the Abbey was stunning, part of a tradition unique in the world.

At its best such pageantry is awe-inspiring: yet somehow, conversely, on Friday it retained a human scale and quality. Neither the presence of the sovereign-cum-grandmother (-in-law), nor that of hundreds of dignitaries, ambassadors and heads of state, nor all the spectacular colour and pomp diverted attention from the couple at the centre of it all. On the contrary, everything combined to focus entirely on them.

And that is why, in the end, I forgot my grumpiness and enjoyed the marriage itself rather than the pizzazz and fluff that had so irritated me beforehand. Entirely won over, I even opened a bottle of bubbly as the wedding party appeared on the Buckingham Palace balcony. What a picture! The little bridesmaid covering her ears and the old Duke of Edinburgh clearly dragged away from the aforementioned canapés, still visibly chewing.

The new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge aren’t babies. In their late twenties, they are a very sorted and self-assured pair supremely ready to make a mature decision about spending the rest of their lives together; and dealing simultaneously with the privilege and burden of being royalty. True to the rest of the occasion, they combined formal dignity with personal warmth and evident love.

Above all, their transparent joy and sincerity combined to make us all feel good: that is arguably what the royal family is there for. More than that, the public exchange of marriage vows – in front of an estimated two billion witnesses worldwide – can have done no harm. After all, newspapers are full nowadays of high-profile divorces and zillion-dollar pre-nups, and Wills’s own father didn’t do too well on maintaining the troth he plighted in 1981.

Somehow one feels that the Cambridges’ marriage will be more successful, more like granny’s than dad’s. I hope so. People like me, married just five days before Charles and Diana and preparing to celebrate my thirtieth anniversary in July with my wife and children, can bear witness ( perhaps a little smugly) that a lifelong marriage is great. 

So here’s to the happy couple! If they continue to spread just a fraction of the joy they engendered last Friday the nation will be the better for them.



In a mess after much meddling

25th April 2011

It’s a time for u-turns, apparently. Health Secretary Andrew Lansley is in a mess, now the entire health profession has come out against his plans for NHS reform. He’s becoming the focus of anger not because he's cutting but because he’s seen as meddling. No one likes cuts, particularly when they’re affected by them: but everyone knows we’re in a financial pickle and that something has to be done. At least we can see where government is coming from.

To his critics, though, Lansley wants to tinker and redesign rather than simply announcing he’s got to save money, rolling his sleeves up and getting on with it. That’s what will probably force him to a humiliating u-turn.

It was the same with selling off the forests. I’ve no brief for the Forestry Commission, which seems to me to have spent the last few decades covering lovely countryside with conifer plantations, almost sterile and inimical to most wildlife. But we all love our forests, and the notion of privatising them – again, not related to the exigencies of the crunch – just hacked everyone off.

Do these messes stem from deeply held ideology? Or lousy political judgment? Or both? Whatever the reason, they seem to result in abject Coalition climb-downs.

Mind you, I wish we got the occasional u-turn in education.  Education Secretary Michael Gove is in a hurry to improve outcomes and to close the gap in attainment between the highest and lowest achievers. That’s a great motivation, but when it comes to education, politicians invariably mess it up because they are so dangerously certain.

Of course, everyone, or nearly everyone, went to school, so everyone reckons they’re an expert on education. I respect and share Michael Gove’s passion, but I despair when, instead of sticking to his job and running a system that’s fit for purpose (that should be a lofty enough aim on its own!), he insists on micromanaging in precisely the way he criticised his predecessors for doing; pronouncing on what periods history lesson should cover; how and when the study of Shakespeare should be compulsory; which books should be read in English.

On a recent trip to America, Gove visited a school that sets pupils a target of reading fifty books. True to UK political form, he breezes back home and announces that we should do it here. Why? Why fifty? Why his choice, not mine, or anyone else’s? Is Wuthering Heights so very special? Stop meddling!

Gove’s junior colleague, Schools Minister Nick Gibb, was under fire recently when experts slammed his insistence that schools must  test five-year-olds’ ability to read made-up words  as well as real ones - zort, koob, dar, ploob, pronk were among the examples.  “Synthetic phonics”, where children are taught to understand the sounds made by combinations of letters whether they’re real words or not, represent a respected method for teaching reading. But it’s not the only way that works: different children have individual needs, and any sensible teacher knows a variety of approaches is essential. Gibb, however, believes only in the one way and won’t listen. That unwavering political certainty gets me down.

On the big picture Gove is spot-on. He reported that the “smart and lively” American pupils he met were from disadvantaged homes. But “that didn’t mean that teachers lowered the bar. Quite the opposite. They wanted to give those children a chance to enjoy the glittering prizes - so they set expectations high, fostering a culture of excellence.”

Amen to that, Mr Gove! Set the nation’s educational sights high: that’s your job. But don’t tell schools what they should be teaching in lesson three on a Tuesday morning: that’s not leadership but interference.

Ministers should get the message and back off. Better still, u-turn!  But if they won’t make a u-turn on their dafter pieces of interference, and I fear they won’t, when I’m next faced by a politician suffering from a doubt-bypass I’ll carefully choose some synthetic words to use.

He may not appreciate my telling him his ideas are a load of ploob, and that he should stick them up his pronk: but I’ll feel better.



Children need their ‘pushy parents’

February 2011

The newly released film Black Swan is making waves. Described as a psychological drama, the film follows the rise to fame of an angst-ridden ballerina.

Why the angst? Because the pushy mother has driven the central character to her success, and the film explores the consequent damage done. Thus the questions are raised. Is that success worth all the pain? And is the mother, after all, not a dedicated parent trying to ensure success for her daughter, but rather a monster, a control freak living out her own fantasies through her daughter?

Hollywood nowadays leads real life, rather than reflecting it, so the media have been busy extrapolating the “message” from the movie. What about pushy parents? Are they a nightmare for teachers (ballet teachers, school teachers – any, really), let alone for the child?

It seems to me that class and gender issues come into play in this alleged debate. We laugh at fathers who have excessive expectations of their children: think of dads on the touchline - their abuse of the referee, their helpful shouts of “Take him out, Wayne” and all the rest!

But dads are forgiven for going over the top: it’s what blokes do. But when a woman is anxious that her child should succeed, she is labelled pushy and a control freak, like the mother in Black Swan. Sinister. Manipulative. Dangerous.

Despite ever-increasing gender equality, I suspect more women than men still do the job of making and managing the home for children than men do. (My goodness, how carefully I phrased that!) Certainly when my children were growing up it was not I who checked who was practising the piano in the sitting room while another was getting the maths homework finished, nor who made the sandwiches. I was far too busy being the breadwinner, the excuse for blokes to avoid household chores since the beginning of time.

At what point, then, does that highly organised homemaker turn into a pushy parent? Pushiness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Of course people like me, working in schools, come across parents who we think are pushing too hard or expecting too much of their child. Sometimes they attempt to manipulate the system to compensate for their child’s shortcomings. At others, they think the child is so perfect they cannot imagine how he or she can fail to win every prize, race or university place.

But those are the tiny minority. Surely all parents want the best for their kids, and fight to get it. Wouldn’t you? All truly supportive parents are ambitious for their children. They spend endless hours driving them, or travelling on the bus and metro with them, to ballet lessons for little girls, football for little boys, music, drama or swimming lessons for both. These adults aren’t pushy or controlling, nor middle-class (often a term of abuse). They’re just parents doing their best.

Parents are human, and get things wrong at times. We all lose our sense of proportion occasionally. So a parent will sometimes hope for too much for their child, or expect too much from them. To err is human.

But to love is also human. To want to protect, to nurture and to want the best for one’s child is human.

If you look at the biographies of supremely successful or famous people, some of them are truly self-made. They have risen out of deprivation or neglect, lack of understanding and lacking of support at school or at home, and have made a towering success entirely on their own. But for every one of those there are hundreds or thousands of others who have reached their level of success, happiness, fulfilment and comfort because home helped to get them there. Mum and/or dad did their best.

Parents get in a mess, and marriages fail. But where children grow into happy, well adjusted and confident adults they have invariably been helped to that point by parents who were, as youngsters say, “there for them”, whatever difficulties occurred along the way.

So if that’s pushy, let us sing the praises of pushy parents. Frankly, we need more of them.



Welcome to the world we live in

13th January 2011

In the run-up to Christmas we performed the annual family ritual of sitting down in front of the fire to watch Love Actually, a film that is only seven years old but seems to have acquired timeless status as an essential part of the festive season. We laughed at all the usual bits and sheepishly wiped away a tear at the sentimental ending: and, as always, we cheered when the newly-elected Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) told the US President where to get off. His fictitious refusal to hang on to Uncle Sam’s coat-tails struck a chord back in 2003, a time when many of us felt uneasy at the way in which Tony Blair appeared to be indeed becoming George Bush’s poodle in international politics.

It was, we were assured, a ‘special relationship’, about more than what Oscar Wilde famously described as ‘two nations divided by a common language!’ This special relationship was and remains, one hopes, a friendship. In general friends are well advised not to rock the boat by making personal comments or by presuming too much on the other’s patience. But a friendship is weakened if the truth is never told, if one side of it cannot pluck up courage to point out something that is wrong. The term ‘critical friend’ is widely used in the language of management and coaching: but Bush was surely too insensitive and Blair too fearful of straining relations for any such important conversations to take place. It had to be left to the latter’s surrogate, Hugh Grant, to speak for us Brits.

A special relationship closer to home – our Coalition Government - has come under strain recently. First Vince Cable was caught out saying what he really thought about the policies he’d supported unwillingly and, bizarrely, about his intense dislike of media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Next other Lib Dem cabinet members made fools of themselves, describing how David Cameron isn’t to be trusted and George Osborne hard to like.

Fancy falling for the old under-cover reporter trick! But these guys did, hook, line and sinker. The Daily Telegraph, whose journalists posed as long-standing Lib-Dem supporters, had a field day. The media circus climbed on board. That’s no surprise: ever since the coalition was forged, newspapers and TV have been hovering like vultures, ready to pounce on the first weakness, the first crack to show in the edifice.

That’s where I start to get cross. It’s as if those who feed us our news resent the fact that two parties, neither of whom won the confidence of the majority of voters, got together, achieved compromise and forged an alliance. Instead of being pleased, they’re affronted in some way, and rub their hands in glee whenever any sign of discord appears in the marriage.

Opponents of coalitions complain about ‘weak’ government. Me, I applaud it. ‘Strong’ government smacks to me too much of Stalin, Franco or Pinochet, neither of which would sit well even in post-recession-hit Britain (though they used to say in Italy that ‘At least Mussolini made the trains run on time’. That might help!).

I’ve never supported any one party because, frankly, none supports me, nor the work I do for a living. Coalition politicians have to give and take, horse-trade and argue until they find a way forward. That’s real life: it’s the world the rest of us live in, and it’s about time that politicians joined it too. They just might make some decent decisions based on negotiation and consensus instead of gut-feeling and dogma. Now, that would make a change.

Yes, those Lib-Dems were misguided (and a bit smug) and got egg on their faces. Yes, they should at least try to present a united face. And if they mess up this chance, we should punish them through the ballot-box. But to pretend that it’s all easy, that there are no differences and that everything is hunky-dory would be stupid, and dishonest to boot.

So let’s demand that they keep wrangling and negotiating. With even a modicum of increased honesty and realism, politics would change significantly for the better in 2011. We surely deserve that.

Happy New Year!



Youngsters show MPs how to behave

November 2010

“How do you know when a politician’s lying?”

“When his mouth moves.” That’s the old joke.

Well, now an MP really has been caught lying. Former Immigration Minister Phil Woolas was found guilty by a judge of spreading false stories about rival candidates in the general election and has been banned from sitting as an MP. For once, gross dishonesty has been nailed and punished. Hurrah!

Quick to jump on the righteous bandwagon the Labour leadership condemned Mr Woolas’s actions and announced that he’d be bunged out of the Labour party. But now it seems they have upset Labour MPs who claim Harriet Harman acted both hastily and beyond her powers. She was certainly quick off the mark. But the refusal of those MPs’ spokesman on radio to condemn Phil Woolas’s actions was hard to take, in my view. He hadn’t read the judgment, he said, so he couldn’t comment.

Oh, come on! What Woolas did was wrong, and is in the public domain. This kind of closing ranks gets MPs a bad, or even worse, name. It’s back to flipping homes and claiming expenses for dirty films, moats and duck houses. The Westminster club mentality is alive and well: a quick dose of self-justification and bluster, then off to the subsidised Commons Bar for a couple of large ones.

Self-justification is in fashion these days. Tony Blair’s autobiography and associated interviews were designed to show that he was right all along, and everyone else (mainly his parliamentary colleagues) was mad, bad or merely incompetent. Now former US president George W Bush has joined the memoirs party. He admits to being furious when no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. But he invaded regardless because, anyhow, Saddam was a bad guy.

Following the same twisted logic, Dubya also justifies his sanctioning of ‘water-boarding’ terrorist suspects. It wasn’t torture, he claims, because the lawyers said it wasn’t – besides, they needed to do it, and saved lots of people and places including Canary Wharf from terrorist outrages.

This form of doublethink (a concept invented by George Orwell in his futurist political novel 1984) reminds me of the old Billy Bunter/ Greyfriars School stories. The fat schoolboy would be caught by the fearsome Mr Quelch in possession of stolen jam tarts. ‘It wasn’t me, sir!’ he’d squeak. ‘I wasn’t even in the tuck shop – and I didn’t see the tarts when I was there.’ These moral tales invariably ended with the thwack of Mr Quelch’s cane on Bunter’s over-filled trousers. Yarooh!

Poor old Billy: the chubby snack-thief didn’t even have the excuse of the dreadful role models that today’s youth encounters. Celebrities who don’t see anything wrong in doing drugs, only showing regretting when they’re caught; footballers who cheat on their girlfriends almost as readily as they fake a trip in order to win a penalty. As for politicians - you know my views!

No, there is not much owning up done by public figures. So it’s small wonder that children too often try to fib their way out of trouble, if they think they can get away with it. Teachers call it learned behaviour. Still, I’m never too gloomy about the young, as in my experience they more readily behave with a level of decency that puts adults to shame.

In school last week someone set off a fire alarm. Following the evacuation procedure we trooped outside and stood miserably in the pouring rain while fire marshals checked buildings and teachers counted students. That done, the senior teacher they nickname The Sheriff started hunting the culprit. Immediately a small girl put her hand up. ‘Sir! Sorry, sir! It was me. I did it by accident.’

The Sheriff was nonplussed. He was all ready to deliver the lecture on honesty and start appealing to the children’s better natures. Put off his stroke by this instant confession, he managed only to splutter, ‘Oh. That’s fine. Thank you!’

Hats off to that girl! There is hope for us all.



What is so wrong with saying sorry?

September 2010

I‘m going to have a moan.  So, since I’m going to be so grumpy, I’ll start by apologising.  Sorry.

Wow!  At a stroke I’m out of step with the zeitgeist and entering rare territory, that of someone prepared to apologise - without being leaned on first.  It’s not fashionable nowadays. Tax boss Dave Hartnett saw no need to apologise to the 1.4 million people getting ununexpected demands for tax unpaid not through any fault of theirs but because of a monumental cock-up on the government’s computer. Worms started to turn, and it appears no less a figure than Chancellor George Osborne told him to do the decent thing. 

So he apologised - grudgingly, too late and with bad grace. Surely it didn’t hurt that much?  He wasn’t saying, “Sorry guys, we won’t charge you after all”.  Not even: “Our mistake. Pay when you like, no hurry.”  He’s still going to get the cash.  In fact, he merely apologised for his “insensitive” comments.

Insensitive?  That understatement is like the famously offensive Basil Fawlty saying to an outraged guest, “I’m sorry if I was a trifle brusque.”  The furious guest replies, “You were rude, Mr Fawlty. Rude!”

Rude. I never met a nanny (or any nanny, for that matter) who actually uttered the iconic warning to her young charges, “We’re not at home to Mr Rude.” But we need her now: a new mission for Nanny McPhee, perhaps.

It’s not just rudeness.  The refusal to apologise is also a denial of responsibility.  If I’m in a car park and scrape another vehicle, my insurance company forbids me to admit the fault. We all live and work under such prohibitions: nowadays you daren’t bake a cake for the church bazaar without taking out public liability insurance. 

To be fair, if I were the CEO of BP with an oil rig spewing zillions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, I might think twice before holding my hands up and saying, “Whoops! Sorry about the mess.” But, whether excessive caution or sheer stiff-necked pride is to blame, it is sad that apology is so rare.  Hardly a banker has apologised for the credit crunch.  Footballers always blame someone else. Celebrities only apologise for snorting cocaine when caught on film: “sorry for, er, being caught on film!” And Tony Blair’s just published a whole book of self-justification, definitely not apologising for anything.

Credit, then, to Gordon Brown for saying sorry to his party as he left No. 10. And to David Cameron, as a very new prime minister, for apologising on behalf of the nation for the terrible events of Bloody Sunday (cynics might however observe that those infamous events happened when he was barely out of nappies, so no blame could attach). Full marks, too, to the guard (sorry, train manager) on a recent London-Glasgow train who apologised for the increasing delay caused by the “tow-rag who nicked some signalling cable somewhere between Newark and Retford.” He was refreshingly honest and kept us passengers informed and cheerful as afternoon stretched into evening.

When we do receive apologies, they’re so carefully worded as to be meaningless.  My wife complained about the treatment her mother received in hospital: she eventually received a reply starting: “We are sorry if you feel that your mother received poor attention…” Use of the weasel word “feel” avoided admitting any responsibility.

When public figures fail so dismally, schools – and teachers, those role models so central to young lives - have to do the job, as usual.  When children are in trouble I don’t ask demand letters of apology.  I want them to look me, or the victim of their wrongdoing, in the eye, to say sorry, and to mean it. 

Asked by the Times Educational Supplement what the worst excuse he’d ever heard was, Glyn Lloyd, a 99 year-old retired head, replied, “None of my pupils ever made excuses to me.  As long as they said: ‘Please, sir, I’m sorry,’ I would say: ‘That’s all right.’ They were never afraid to say sorry – and that is the point.”

It worked for him from 1932 to 1976. It still works. Maybe public figures should try it.

Was I very grumpy?





Rural robustness fettles Jobsworth

August 2010

We’re into the silly season for newspaper stories.  The best front-pager so far was the story of the family in Bristol who, picnicking on the famous Clifton Downs, were told to take down a wind-break on the grounds that, as a semi-permanent structure without planning permission, it contravened several bye-laws.  The local council later distanced itself from the intervention, saying cautiously that one of its officials had been “overzealous” in interpreting the regulation.

Overzealous?  What a marvellous bureaucratic understatement!  It’s like saying that George Best was fond of a drink, or Casanova liked the girls.  Or even that England’s footballers failed to shine in the World Cup.

So who or what was this tin Hitler spoiling the family’s picnic?  It was, of course, a Jobsworth, a term invented decades ago by Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life programme.  “It’s more than my job’s worth” is the excuse given for enforcing some petty rule that spoils the fun of ordinary citizens.  In some ways I found it comforting to know that Jobsworth is alive and well.  There’s a cosy familiarity about having the hell irritated out of us by pettifogging officials: we’re used to it.  We live in a world where people don’t clear the snow from their patch of pavement in case someone slips and sues them; where schools, feeling the same pressure, ban conker fighting; where in schools even the kids ask, “Can we do that?  Or is it Health and Safety?”  And where, it appears, Soham murderer Ian Huntley can sue the prison service for tens of thousands of pounds for “failing in its duty of care” when he was assaulted by another prisoner.

If anything goes wrong, someone must be to blame.  Someone must be called to account – or, rather, required to pay.  There’s a nasty, mercenary spirit at the bottom of the blame culture, a belief that a price can and must be put on everything.  The commonsense view, that stuff just happens and can’t always be laid at an individual’s door, is beaten down by the legal process or (more often) by the threat of it.

The new government is pledged to bring back commonsense and put an end to Jobsworth’s reign.  It’s started slashing back bureaucracy. The bonfire of the quangos is underway: the number of unelected groups ruling our lives is being slashed, though some critics say that it’s not the number of ALBs (Arms-Length Bodies, God help us!) that should be cut, but the whole concept that should be revisited.  In other words, ask what all those ALBs are for.

That question should be asked.  A few years ago, in response to concern about the array of bureaucracy strangling schools, the previous administration promised to monitor duplication  and promptly set up two parallel bodies to do it!  It’s the sort of trap that governments need to avoid.

I could get cross about all of this, but a summer week or two in rural Northumberland cures most ills.  At the start of August we enjoyed the delights of the College Valley Fair. This wonderful, homespun event, set in the most beautiful gateway to the Cheviots, featured dog shows, fly-casting, quoits, crafts, food and children’s races. The closing highlight was the terrier races. The dogs were roused to a paroxysm of barking as they scented the old fox’s brush that was then pulled ahead of them by a winch powered by an old starter motor. Now and then the race degenerated into fights over the lure, the dogs’ owners moved in good-naturedly to break things up, and the onlookers split their sides laughing.  And, you know, it all went ahead without accidents and without people being regulated or bossed around by people in high-visibility jackets!  Not a Jobsworth in sight.

So three cheers for the robust self-confidence of country folk.  They do a power of good to townies like me.  On the Glorious Twelfth I shall be far away from any pheasant shooting, on a beach in a hot climate: I trust no one will lecture me on windbreaks, sunburn or wave hazards. Nor on overdoing the foreign food and drink. They’d better not!



How can a bad teacher be valuable?

July 2010

I was gobsmacked. I wasn’t even planning to buy a Sunday paper.  But I was in the Milfield village shop, buying a pint of milk, and I saw the headline on the front of the Sunday Times: We need bad teachers, says schools boss.

We teachers aren’t good at switching off, even at the weekend: I bought a copy.  I was more than gobsmacked.  I was outraged.  There was the chair of OFSTED, the schools inspectorate and  government Rottweiler, saying that there would always be bad teachers and that it wasn’t so terrible: kids can learn a lot from a bad teacher (presumably, for a start, how not to teach).

It was an unhelpful contribution to a misinformed debate started a week ago by a BBC Panorama programme which painted the depressing picture of a profession riddled with incompetents and a complete lack of will to sort them out.  Then Zenna Atkins, self-professed social entrepreneur and professional quango member, added her daft two-pennyworth.  In part she had a point.  Kids deal with all kinds of different characters in schools, from amongst their teachers and their peers, and they become socially adept.  Some teachers they like instinctively: others they are wary of but still recognize their professional expertise and learn from them.  Mr X is strict and likes homework presented in one way: Mrs Y is smiley and likes it done differently.  Schools try to achieve consistency, but they are all about people, and people vary enormously.  Children learn that reality early and generally deal with it with ease.

Having had my spleen stirred by reading her comments on Sunday, I was suddenly asked to appear on the BBC’s Radio 5 Live Breakfast Programme the next morning in order to debate the issue with Ms Atkins.  By then I suspect she’d started to change her tune, though she didn’t accuse the paper of misrepresenting her.  But she said again that children could learn something from poor teachers, as long as the school was aware of their deficiencies and was working to ‘improve them or move them out’ (her repeated phrase). She managed a kind of pragmatic justification for her airy and patronising view that (a) children just have to get on with it and (b) schools and heads need to find the moral courage (currently lacking, by implication) to deal with underperformance.

What stuck in my craw was the fact that these statements came from the guardian of intolerance of failure, the chair of the very body that refuses to accept that even satisfactory is - er, satisfactory.  I’ve known good heads driven to stress and nervous breakdown and even hounded out of their job following a hostile OFSTED report that took no account of the difficulties they were facing in their particular setting.  In the past year we’ve seen schools doing a good job but still failed by, for instance, a fence that isn’t high enough.  It is the boss of that inspectorate who was saying, in bizarre contradiction to its agenda of the past twp decades, that children having a duff teacher is just one of those things. Deal with it.

No parent, no school head wants bad teachers. We don’t need lengthy General Teaching Council hearings to have them struck off: we just need them to improve or go. Local Authorities should back heads (which they don’t, not enough) to act firmly but within existing employment legislation (because teachers have rights too). And teacher unions need to be realistic and help the process – which, in my experience, they generally do.

This is a real issue, not a shock-horror tabloid story, and should be dealt with properly and soberly. The Chair of OFSTED – who admitted on radio that she only deals with the business side – should say something helpful or shut up.

Oh, and thanks to the Beeb for introducing me not once but twice as “Sir Bernard Trafford”.  It’s flattering, and made my family shriek with laughter (they think I’m pompous enough already): but I am plain Dr T!



Rights and responsibility on the timetable

April 2010

Over Easter the teacher unions are usually in a temper about something. This year, in an improbable alliance with the Daily Mail, they attacked so-called student (or pupil) voice.  Giving kids a say in their education has gone too far, we’re told. Student voice has gone mad; pupils stand on their rights and rule the roost; teachers are powerless and, if they dare to lay a finger on a child, risk disciplinary action. The Mail is outraged by what it sees as a Government ‘pupil power’ drive that is fatally undermining adult authority. 

On Easter Monday I was asked to join a debate on BBC’s Radio 5Live following Ed Balls’s new (actually, merely rehashed) guidance to teachers on using force to restrain pupils. Here, too, teachers’ unwillingness to restrain pupils for fear of legal action was blamed on student voice.

That anxiety has nothing to do with student voice.  Government constantly fails to back headteachers, putting pressure on them to keep in school disruptive young people who should not be there and for whom other realistic provision should be (but is rarely) made. In a mad world where a single parental complaint can trigger a hostile OFSTED inspection, where the Prime Minister sets up yet another complaint mechanism for parents via the Ombudsman, schools’ authority is indeed undermined – but by policy-makers, not by children’s rights.

In all this rubbishing of student voice there is a nasty growing orthodoxy which should not be permitted to spread unchallenged.  It is outrageous, if true, that a candidate for a job should be asked by a pupil panel to sing a song: but l would blame the school for a scandalously irresponsible lack of training given to those youngsters, giving them no idea what their role was or where the limits lay.  The grotesque examples given of silly interviews or pupils marking their teachers’ lessons out of 10 were not instances of genuine student voice, but of schools’ abdication of responsibility – or just plain bad management.

I know a bit about this. Twenty years ago, when I first researched school councils as a young head, I was out on the lunatic fringe.  By the new century student voice had become politicians’ flavour of the month, and for a few years I became a kind of guru, advising ministers on citizenship, writing books and articles, addressing conferences and training leaders of student voice in schools and local authorities.

Now it looks as if I shall be consigned to the lunatic fringe once again.  That’s okay: the Wilderness is often more comfortable than the politically correct mainstream.

But student voice is important. We must educate children to become the active and responsible democratic citizens of the future.  The near-meltdown in which we have seen parliament in recent years demonstrates that need all too clearly. So student voice should be about teaching children the democratic skills of negotiation and compromise, the limits of their rights and the burden of their significant responsibilities. We should allow them to learn by making real choices about issues that affect them – without overriding the legitimate interests of parents, professionals and society. 

Before term starts again I shall be in Strasbourg at the Council of Europe, working with representatives of the 46 member states on the Council’s programme of Education for Democratic Citizenship for which, in 2007, I wrote guidance with a Swedish headteacher.  Countries which have experienced true democracy only in the past twenty years know that young people must learn its skills and values as part of their education: they appreciate how fragile it is and how easily old authoritarian and inhumane practices can creep back in when a society is under economic or political pressure.  Coming from our tired, complacent, lazy, demoralised UK democracy I am constantly humbled by their passionate commitment to the ideal.  I know I will return from Strasbourg hugely reinvigorated. My belief in the rightness of giving young people real understanding and experience of both rights and responsibilities will be strengthened, and the weary cynicism I feel now will be relegated to the dark corners of my mind. Until, I suppose, the election race goes sour once more.



Scrapping G&T scheme leaves a sour taste

January 2010

I’ll start with a confession.  On a Friday evening after a busy week I’m fond of a long, cold, reviving G&T.  I’m not about to give up that little indulgence: but as a nation we are about to abandon another G&T.

The Gifted and Talented initiative, launched amid fanfares by the Blair government in 2002, is to be wound up, saving £20 million a year on the national academy for gifted and talented, which provides weekend and holiday courses for exceptionally able children. Instead will come an online information source for disadvantaged children.  Well, times are hard: but is this a sensible economy or a terrible piece of educational vandalism?  When people look back at Tony Blair’s education, education, education agenda, will they say that G&T was one of the jewels in the crown sacrificed in cash-strapped 2010, or a costly irrelevance all along?

Early proponents of the G&T scheme were perhaps the same people who criticised “bog-standard comprehensives”. Tony’s cronies, always disposed to teacher and school-bashing, reckoned children with particular abilities were being denied appropriate stretch and challenge. So schools were ordered to identify 150,000 boys and girls, the top 5%, singled out for special, extra stimulating sessions within the school, after-school and, if they were very lucky, in holiday time away at the national academy.

Fair enough.  Every school has some pupils who are exceptionally able in some area. With 30 in a class it’s hard for teachers to keep them stretched, stimulated, developing at an rate exponentially faster than their peers.

Predictably, in some places the scheme fell foul of the sort of old-fashioned pseudo-egalitarian attitudes that put bogus equality before the individual needs of bright children.  That’s an age-old problem. Right across society we are suspicious of those who stand out from the crowd, fearing that somehow they’re trying to put one over everyone else: only in English is there the expression ‘too clever by half’.  Elitism is used as a term of criticism, not of finding appropriate opportunities and reward for those who are best at something. 

Blair was right to challenge those prejudices. He asked tough questions, but failed to provide real answers. ‘Gifted and talented’ was one of those grand visionary phrases politicians love to use: the devil was in the detail. A working definition emerged with difficulty: gifted children were those who are academically very bright, while talents were those enjoyed by outstanding sportsmen and women, musicians, actors.

This government has been obsessed with ‘delivery’, but this scheme didn’t deliver. A minority got some fantastic experiences through the national academy or the nine dreadfully named ‘regional excellence hubs’. Many just got a watered-down version, extra sums or the odd theatre trip. Besdies, few kids liked the G&T label: they, too, hate standing out.

At the heart of the system lay a contradiction. Specialist schools are allowed to select a proportion of their pupils by ‘aptitude’ in sports, music, drama, even languages. But they aren’t allowed to select by sheer academic ability.

This blind spot bedevils UK education. It’s the elephant in the room that no politician, Labour, Tory or LibDem, is currently prepared to acknowledge. UK selective schools – both independent and state grammars – are the best group of schools in the world by objective international measures.  But our leaders consistently duck the issue.

I admit my bias. I run a selective academic school where gifted (yes!) boys and girls learn alongside their peers, and fly intellectually: that’s real G&T. Some people are uncomfortable about this: others hate it so much that, come the revolution, I’ll be first against the wall.

It works, though. No one has to accept my argument at face value: but let’s at least talk about it!

In these pre-Election months we should ask politicians hard questions about all the opportunities that are or should be available for all our children, all individuals with all their individual gifts, talents and needs. We should challenge the parties instead of allowing them to reiterate their pet themes.

Why has this government suddenly closed the door on the most able pupils and switched its attention to the disadvantaged? Surely both have vital needs: why ignore one group? Why are Tories so hung up on ‘new models’ - Swedish, US-style Charter Schools or the next imported fad? 

We should insist that candidates engage with real issues in real schools in the UK, not just the bits they’re comfortable with and make fine speeches about, ignoring the rest.

Then maybe, just maybe, between now and 6th May they’ll have to start listening.



Pleasure at seeing a spirited protest

December 2009

I'm often in a rage about the news.  Indeed, my wife is fed up with me shouting at the radio.  But there is plenty to be cross about.  Still, one thing that left me unmoved was the seeming inevitability of Simon Cowell's latest protegé becoming the Christmas Number One.  I wasn't bothered, but it clearly roused many people to fury that Cowell should have it all stitched up year after year. So an unholy and rather magnificent alliance of Facebookers and Twitterers combined to boost a band I'd never heard of, the splendidly named Rage against the Machine, to steal the top spot. The song was nothing special or new, dating from 1992, while Joe McElderry’s contender was also second-hand, taken from Hannah Montana: The Movie.  So we're not talking about a great musical breakthrough, just a battle for market-share.

I derived a frisson of pleasure from seeing the system beaten.  It was a small revolution, and it worked, for once.  Other rebellions have come to nothing.  John and Edward Grimes, a pair of artists so charmingly untalented that the British public - with its unique and delightful sense of the ridiculous - got behind them, were finally squeezed out.  Rather cleverly, Cowell and his X-Factor sidekicks started taking them seriously: the fun the public was having in supporting the clearly hopeless became dissipated, and Jedward had to go.  Back in 2008 the magnificent John Sergeant, a very clever man whose deadpan dreadful dancing took the British love of the absurd to new heights, withdrew from Strictly Come Dancing when it became clear that he was in danger of undermining the format.  It was honest of him, but disappointing to would-be rebels who don't like being told what to do in a competition that is manipulated in any case.

So well done, Rage against the Machine, though I’m sorry the lad from South Shields didn’t enjoy a double triumph.   Personally I hate Rage’s song.  Variously described as punk metal and rap metal, it leaves me cold. But, then, I'm an old git who prefers Mozart to Metal, thinks Garage is somewhere you park your car rather than a musical style, and buys his jeans at Marks and Spencer. 

But I love the spirit of protest.  And it piqued my sense of irony that this happened at a time when political leaders, all gathered in Copenhagen with a chance of saving the planet, failed so miserably.  Failed to save the planet?  I wouldn't mind so much if they had given it a serious try.  But their failure lay in their inability to show any leadership whatever. 

Leadership is about negotiation, compromise, working with others, seeing the best way forward for everyone, working for mutual benefit.  Did we see any of that in Copenhagen?  The hell we did.  Even the golden boy of modern politics, Barack Obama, flew in with a pre-written, inflexible, selfish message.

Copenhagen’s failure was abject and almost total.  I don't think the situation is hopeless, because the imperative to sort out climate change - as far as we can - is so overwhelming that it will have to be done.  It will be individuals, pressure groups, rebels and the hard-working people behind the scenes who will make it work, perhaps driven by righteous rage at our politicians, the people we elect to represent us and give us leadership, who have shown themselves to be entirely ineffectual. History will judge them harshly – or should do, unless their spin-doctors get at it.

It's not been a good year for government.  Impotent in the face of financial crisis; feeble and indecisive in the face of the need to compromise and plan a way forward for mankind; is there anything they can do? Answers on a postcard, please.

In the meantime, let's hope for something better from the guys in charge in 2010.  Otherwise it will be time for another rebellion: perhaps a bigger and important one than a squabble over record sales. A very real rage against a very big machine.

Happy Christmas



Time to experiment with education

October 2009

Recent news headlines complained that schools aren’t doing science experiments anymore. The old excitement for kids of moving up to secondary school and doing “real” science in proper laboratories is apparently no more. What a shame!  Surely every school had its apocryphal story of the eccentric chemistry master [sic] who would fix a pupil with his beady eye and say, in his gravely voice, “Ah, Smith, you’re doing that wrong. Ah, Smith if you carry on like that it will ….” Flash, bang, mess on the ceiling. “… explode!”.

Throw away those white lab coats holed by acid and stained with potassium permanganate. Those days are over. The newspapers blamed the demise of practicals on Health and Safety, but I don’t think it’s the culprit here. What has caused the decline in experimental science is not fear of accidents but exam pressure. Teachers are under such pressure to cover syllabuses, tick all the boxes and “deliver” (a horrible word used all the time in education nowadays) dependable exam results that they daren’t waste lesson time on the uncertain outcome of an experiment. 

Back in 1991 my 7-year-old daughter was one of the cohort who sat the very first national tests (SATs). In science these tots were watching what happened when an apple was put in a bowl of water. It floated, of course. Except that my daughter’s didn’t. Her surname began with T, so when it was her turn the waterlogged apple sank.

There was consternation. The headteacher of her nursery school caught the child’s mother after school. “Mrs Trafford, we have a problem.” You’d have thought it was a space mission in peril. She had observed what happened and described it: but what happened wasn’t supposed to, so it was a wrong answer!

Experiments do go wrong: they are meant to. Scientific enquiry is about watching what happens and trying to find reasons for it: a 7-year-old can do that as well as an 18-year-old or a Nobel prize-winner.

But in the years since the apple debacle, which caused hilarity rather than concern at home, things have only got worse. Exam pressure is so great, and exams so prescriptive, that children must be told what’s supposed to happen: we can’t risk the element of chance and experiment messing it up. Simpler, then, for the teacher to demonstrate and the class simply to watch. Better still, why mess about with those smelly, expensive chemicals at all? Just show them a video of an experiment done properly. Now that’s proper education: packaged and delivered!

Fortunately those headlines weren’t accurate. Yes, some teachers have lost their courage and gone down this passive path. Some schools have trouble with disruptive pupils which makes practical work difficult and possibly dangerous. But those are the exceptions. There are still lots of inspired and inspiring science teachers making sure that every week there is a practical element to children’s science lessons. Thank goodness! If science is not a subject full of exploration and discovery, what’s the point of it? Science “delivered” according to a strict syllabus isn’t something Albert Einstein would have recognised.

That brings me to the newly published Cambridge Primary Review’s recommendation that young children should continue with learning through play to the age of 6, rather than being nailed to a desk and being made to read, write and count as soon as possible. Ed Balls and the Tories, sharing a breathtaking degree of arrogance, immediately rubbished this important, visionary report. But that’s government, folks: education policy is pretty Stalinist nowadays!

Do parents really want their tiny children forced to write and spell before they can tell left from right or tie their shoelaces? Do they demand the drudgery of “delivered” education so early? Well, who cares what they want?  Government doesn’t.

Good teachers still try to keep alive the joy of learning for children. But it gets harder by the day. We may be in the crumbling last months of a morally and fiscally bankrupt government, but the masters of the Gulag are still firmly in charge of education.



Will we learn from Harry Patch?

August 2009

A chapter of history was closed last Thursday when Harry Patch, last survivor of the Great War, was laid to rest in Wells, Somerset. My father lives in the same sleepy little city.  Mind you, Dad is only 88.  Unlike Harry he saw just one World War, serving as an army doctor.  When he retired he gathered together his father's letters home from the WW1 trenches into a book.

My grandpa joined up in 1914 with all his mates from around Deptford and Blackheath and marched proudly off to war.  By Christmas 1915 he was writing sadly to my granny, "Nearly all the old gang are gone now."  He listed only five still alive from the great bunch of friends: curiously two of them were his brothers.  He was lucky. He got a piece of shell in his foot at the end of 1916 and was invalided out. He died in 1972, aged 80, not a bad age for a man born in the reign of Queen Victoria. 

Grandpa never talked about the trenches. It was years before people like Harry Patch and Henry Allingham, who died only days before Harry, were finally persuaded to say what they thought about the ‘war to end all wars’. 

Harry Patch’s funeral was dedicated to peace.  The Armed Forces turned out to honour his memory: but not even ceremonial weapons were allowed inside the cathedral.  Harry didn't believe in weapons, not any more. He died a pacifist, believing that the only sensible way to resolve conflict is through negotiation and compromise.

By speaking out at last, people like Harry Patch rewrote the history books.  They described from first-hand knowledge a futile war, a carnage that changed nothing but in which where young lives were wantonly thrown away in one ‘last great push’ after another.

They were abysmally led. By contrast, our present-day troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are led by consummate professionals. Superbly trained and highly experienced, they know the odds, the risks and the likely cost of every operation.  What they suffer from now is incompetent leadership from their bosses, the politicians.  The military has to respond to every knee-jerk reaction from politicians.  I've spoken to senior officers who quit in disgust.  Disgust not at the quality of their troops or their superiors, but at the total lack of strategy.

As a teacher I’m depressed that we refuse to learn from history.  My childhood was dominated by the Vietnam war.  That was America’s nightmare, not ours.  American sent troops into Vietnam to smash the communist threat.  But, whatever their political leanings, America's alleged enemies had the support of most Vietnamese citizens.  To them, American soldiers were uninvited, unwelcome and the cause of untold bloodshed.

Are Afghanistan and Iraq any different today?  The same spirit of gung-ho militarism took us in there, too, in our case with Tony Blair hanging on to the coat tails of George Bush.  Did no one read the history books?  Did no one look to see what happens in unwinnable wars, where the soldiers of an alien race are required to fight their way through a country that they don't understand in an attempt to impose a political system that doesn't necessarily belong there?

The Taliban regime is evil. Its intolerable treatment of women, its senseless hatred of learning and technology (except the technology of weaponry) and its relentless xenophobia make me furious on behalf of the people they oppress.  But some of my impotent anger is directed too at those who decided they had a God-given right (the Christian, right-on God, of course) to go and play the self-appointed role of global policemen.  As a result our soldiers become cast as invaders, disrupters of life, even murderers to those whose lives are destroyed by the warfare. They are heroes, truly: but they deserve to be given a better job than to be left fighting the wrong war in the wrong place, sent there by straw men puffed up with their sense of self-importance and self-righteousness.

Lessons from history?  I laugh when politicians get excited about what should be taught in history lessons, as they frequently do: I've never known them learn those lessons themselves.

Meanwhile Harry Patch, man of peace, is finally at peace.  I wish I could believe that we, the succeeding generations, will hear his wise, humane message and learn the lessons from the history of which he spoke directly to us.  But I fear we are not ready to, not yet.  We’re too busy making too much noise of our own.


More chances to grind joy out

June 2009

Last week I came across a small item of news that brightened the otherwise unremitting gloom of credit crunch and MPs’ dodgy expenses claims.  A regular dose of what is now Britain's dish of choice may stave off the onset of dementia, we’re told.  A substance called curcumin, a component of turmeric, a spice essential to any self-respecting curry, helps to stop the wiring in our brain cells from becoming degraded.

Professor Murali Doraiswamy of Duke University made the claim, advising, "if you have a good diet and take plenty of exercise, eating curry regularly could help prevent dementia."

He gets my vote.  Nowadays it seems all our favourite foods are bad for us, so this is great news.  Curry has overtaken fish and chips, steak and kidney pie and Cornish pasty to become the iconic British meal.  Remember, the flavours of Balti and of chicken tikka masala were not imported from Madras or Bangalore, but emanated from Birmingham.  And now it's good for us.  Hooray!

I wonder if government will take note of this, and what it will do about it.  After all, it’s keen on healthy food: so keen, in fact, that yet more food initiatives are currently getting underway in schools.  First there is cookery, already required in primary schools, and now becoming compulsory in the secondary phase.  The Department for Children, Schools and Families (since its rebranding, it’s become the Department of Almost Anything and Everything except education) wants to make sure that "pupils can master simple, healthy recipes using fresh ingredients."  It would be hard to argue against that, in all fairness.  But my heart sank when I read that the new cookery curriculum will also include “diet and nutrition, hygiene and safety and wise food shopping”. 

It's not that those aspects of cooking don't have an important part to play: it's just that politicians and mandarins insist on over-regulating and grinding all the joy out of things. Government always gets heavy-handed. 

The second food change in schools is a case in point.  After several years of visionaries like Jamie Oliver dragging up the quality of school dinners, ministers are set to undo all that good.  Stringent new nutrition standards will keep school caterers so busy feeding their menus into a special computer system that they won’t have time to cook the stuff.  A bureaucratic nightmare for them, and the result will be healthy food the youngsters won’t touch: “Yes, kids, it’s Brown rice Balls Knight tonight!” (Sorry: that was awful!). They will vote with their feet, and the lunchtime queues outside burger bars will be at an all-time high.

It's the snack of firm government! We shouldn't be surprised.  They do it with proper subjects, too.  A recent report from OFSTED, the government's Rottweiler, bewails the fact that improvements in literacy levels have stalled.  Three out of ten English lessons aren't good enough, they say, and teaching is mundane and unimaginative, failing to interest boys in particular.

Why would that be?  Do teachers set out to bore the pants off their pupils?  Or could it be that, with OFSTED constantly on their backs, they've lost the nerve to be adventurous and take risks?

It gets worse.  The pressure to hit targets and follow approved lesson models has given rise to a whole new language of classroom gobbledygook.  A sad little story appeared in the Guardian a few weeks back, written by Leonora Klein, a bright ex-lawyer and novelist who wanted to become a teacher and share with children the magic she had sensed as a pupil learning English literature.  She followed a class of excited 11-year-olds into their first English lesson in secondary school.  To her dismay, the first question the teacher asked was, "Hands up who has heard of assessment focuses?"  Assessment what?  If that is what teaching has become now, said Leonora, it’s not for her.  The system would say she is not cut out for the real graft of teaching: it's the system that’s getting it wrong, not Leonora.

So I shall be fascinated to see if government catches onto the curry thing.  It will be its ultimate test.  Will ministers intrude as usual, insist that children have a regular dose of low-fat chicken anti-dementia masala, and succeed in turning even a Vindaloo from something full of spice and zest into a bland, tasteless experience that is devoid of interest and merely adds to kids’ boredom quotient? 

Probably. If you love your curry, pray that no one of the Department for Tedium spotted the news.




Teachers celebrate the demise of SATs

May 2009

So what was all that about?  That must surely be the question that many parents will ask when they hear that the dreaded SATs are likely to disappear in 2010. Twenty years after they were launched and heralded as the single answer to raising standards in schools and giving parents the information they want, the 14-year-old exams went this year: as ministers drag their feet and teacher unions flex their muscles, it now seems almost certain that the much more contentious (and widely despised) Key Stage Two National Curriculum Tests (to give them their proper title) will go next year.

I’ll start by getting off the fence.  I shall rejoice in their demise.  I'll join many other colleagues, heads and ordinary teachers alike, in dancing on their grave. In my view they shouldn't have been introduced in the first place.

I’m angry about the whole business.  For years professionals have complained about the damage done to schools and to children's education by the pressure of SATs. Politicians, however, would have none of it.  "Parents want to know how their children are doing," they said.  That is true.  But I haven't met many parents who have a real feeling for what those National Curriculum “levels” even mean.  Recently a friend of mine - a fellow head - overheard two men in a pub discussing their eleven-year-olds’ SATs results. "My lad got all fours and fives," said one.  "I gave him a rocket for not getting ones and twos." The two dads noticed my friend smiling. They quickly discovered that he was in the trade and amused that they hadn't tumbled to the fact that, in this case, a grade one is a low score and five is very good. Fortunately, for that parent the discovery was good news. "Trouble is," he confided, "We just don't understand all these numbers."

Of course they don't.  The whole system is impenetrable and tells parents little about what they actually need to know about their children or their progress.  Schools have always tested children: but the purpose of the SATs was always to measure schools.  Politicians had become obsessed with what they called accountability, so those SATs scores became high-stakes.  Now schools were under pressure as politicians got tough about naming and shaming schools they reckoned were underachieving.

As a result it became common for schools to start practising SATs in October, ready for the real thing in the following May. Not all schools, of course. Strong, confident institutions have always taken SATs in their stride. But for many children Year 6 became a pretty boring experience in their last year of primary school. I sympathise with schools in tough settings: what would you do if you were running such a school and were being leaned on by government, both local and national? 

All this might have been acceptable if the results had really improved across the board.  Sadly, it doesn't work like that.  Governments always lay claim to raised standards: what actually happens under such pressure is that schools concentrate just on “borderline” children to turn them from fail grades into passes, easing the school over government thresholds.

What leaves me still angry is the lack of honesty from either major party.  The Tories introduced the National Curriculum and accompanying tests: Labour continued them, and both parties insisted till they were blue or red in the face that they were necessary and good.  When last year they discontinued the tests for 14-year-olds ministers refused to admit that they had been a mistake.  No, they said, it was simply that life had moved on and alternative measures were now in place. It was codswallop, of course, but politicians believe their own distortions.

There will probably be a change of government in 2010.  Will a Tory government relax that dead hand on schools?  They talk the talk: but it's not a common feature of new governments to loosen their grip.  Only recently Shadow Education Minister Michael Gove was proclaiming his intention to set primary schools free to develop their own curricula instead of being told what to do by government diktat.  Then, without any discernible sense of irony, he said that schools would still have to concentrate on reading, writing and numeracy.  Sounds like a recipe for no change.

Meanwhile, what are parents to make of it all?  Those tests that so bitterly divided teachers and government left parents more often bemused than informed.  We were told that they were necessary and right.  So when they go, will we be told that they were a ghastly mistake?  I doubt it.  Except in cases of MPs’ expenses, apparently, governments are not good at saying sorry.  So we’ll be left without any apology, and will be left to wonder, what was all that about?