Thursday, 31 October 2013

That's what teachers do

"'Child,' said Aslan, 'didn't I explain to you once before that no one is ever told what would have happened?'
"'Yes, Aslan, you did,' said Lucy. 'I'm sorry. But please - '" (CSLewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, p 137). Sadly I don't recall the previous occasion that Aslan has a similar conversation with Lucy. (I have a feeling it's after the sacrifice of Aslan.) Answers below, please!

OK. I admit it. It doesn't take much to make me cry. But I've just been crying. I've watching this: It's an extract from the last episode of Educating Yorkshire, the fly-on-the-wall documentary series which has just ended on Channel 4.

Jane and I made the mistake (possibly) of watching nearly the whole series yesterday. We'd watched the first episode when it was broadcast and decided to record the rest after that. So it was time to catch up. I have to say I loved it. It's all about Thornhill Community Academy in Dewsbury in West Yorkshire, but it could be in any normal school in the country. In post for two years the first-time head, Mr Mitchell, has a clear vision, a lot of energy and a great affection for his students. There's a real vibrancy about the socially and culturally mixed 11-16 school. The students are like any other cross-section of youngsters of their age - sociable, loud, fun and usually friendly. What it had in common with the last school at which I taught is that clearly for some children it was the place of greatest security in their troubled lives. Learning that some adults in life really do want the best for you and are prepared to believe in you in spite of everything was a transforming discovery for even the most "hopeless" cases. It was really impressive seeing a team of teachers and pastoral staff really united in creating a compassionate and hope-full environment for the children. It is no wonder that the production team chose to reserve the story of Musharaf's GCSE English oral ordeal to the last episode, since it was emblematic of the school's whole philosophy and practice. 
It was by no means the only moving story of the series.

There was the posse of bolshy blond Year 11s who had "failed" their GCSE Maths on their first attempt, whom Mr Steer, the deputy, allergic to practically everything except teenagers, takes on determined to get them up to a grade C. There's a typically affectionate assessment of their teacher by "Shezza" (Sheridan) who reckons he's even cleverer than that Stephen Hawking guy! When their results come through in August, she's missed by 4%, but we're told they're having continuing tuition from their teacher, all determined to achieve that crucial qualification. Can I really have heard that Mr Gove is proposing denying such children the opportunity to resit exams?
Then there were the awkward lads like Tom and Jack who test the authorities to the limits of their patience and resources with their disturbed behaviour and bad language. There were teenage fallings out between best friends, Safiyyah and Hadiqa. I can imagine military men and leaders of industry "standing no nonsense" with such people, quickly throwing them out on their ear, letting someone else pick up the pieces. However these are young people, adolescents, and teachers are there to educate, to bring out the adult in them - and they will spare no effort and miss no trick to achieve the best for their charges. Not that they'd claim to get it right always, but they are honest hard-working professionals whose aim is transparently the children's best. (There's a local TV interview here with Mr Mitchell.) As Miss Uren, an English teacher, says, "When you go into the teaching profession, it's not just about teaching them English, or teaching them Maths. It's about teaching them how to become young adults, how to grow up, and we teach them just as many life lessons as they learn at home. That's part of our profession. That's what we do."

I sincerely hope that Channel 4 transmits a rerun of the series soon. When they do, I urge you to watch it. I trust too that the Secretary of State and his advisers examine it, and bite their tongues before indulging the all too easy and frequent pastime of politicians and lazy journalists of slagging off the teaching profession and comprehensive schools. (It's also on 4oD.)

An unexpected by-product of watching the programmes was that I realised what a buzz I used to get from my teaching especially in the later years. Maybe distance has lent enchantment, but I don't think I've experienced anything comparable in any other job. It made wonder what if....

The challenge of helping young people steer their way through the stormy formative teen years and the reward of witnessing them make a fair fist of the journey is unlike any other. People, among them some who should know better, like to smear the teaching profession as corrupters of the youth or as work-shy stick-in-the-muds do not know what they're talking about. They should take a leaf out of Mr Jon Mitchell's book - and instead write letters of appreciation to their children's teachers and to the staff of their local schools. I can assure you Thornhill Academy is not unusual among state schools. Its staff are like the vast majority of their colleagues.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

PC Plodgate

I'm listening to a fascinating conversation in our local coffee shop - I can't help it, I hasten to add, as it's being conducted in emphatic tones. The discussion concerns what's been dubbed "Plebgate".

What's interesting is that none of the participants is quite certain of the meaning of the word pleb. It is, I suspect, more familiar to those privileged enough to have received a public school and university education. Exactly what was said at those ugly gates blocking off Downing Street on Wednesday 19th September last year may never be known. One thing is clear and that is that the frustrated Andrew Mitchell did swear at the officers on duty (repeating the "f" word, so familiar from the lips of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It) for which he did subsequently apologise. Just as well in the light of the earlier comments of Boris, Tsar of London: "If people swear at the police, they must expect to be arrested. Not just because it's wrong to expect officers to endure profanities, but it's also because of the experience of the culprits. If people feel there are no comebacks, no boundaries and no retribution for the small stuff, then I'm afraid they will go on to commit worse crimes"! 

What is puzzling is where the offending word "pleb" popped up from. Is it in your ordinary copper's daily vocabulary, any more than it is around the table in this rather polite coffee shop? 

Last night on Radio 4, following the arraignment of the police federation representatives and the Midlands chief constables before the Commons' Home Affairs select committee, the very patrician Jacob Rees-Mogg MP declared that the police concerned ought to confess, "Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa" (sic - "Through my fault, my own fault, my own most grievous fault"). I'm not sure whether he expected the plebs to know what he was talking about, but he did at least reinforce the spin the opposition have been so keen to create, of a government of toffs out of touch with the majority of the population. At least Mr Mitchell avoided that and used gutter Anglo-Saxon instead. 

Personally I find it very sad when politicians undermine trust in the police, and/or vice versa. I know it's tempting to deflect blame on to others, but a cohesive society needs the mortar of trust. 

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Jumping to conclusions

I was struck by an interview this morning on Radio 5 Live with Romany journalist, Jake Bowers, about the potential demonisation of the Roma community following the Greek and Irish stories of authorities taking blond children away from their families. As you can see from his picture, he himself is fair-haired and so, he said, are his children.
Jake Bowers

He recalled the old nursery song, 
"My mother said I never should
play with the gypsies in the wood
and if I did my mother said 
she'd send me out to beg my bread...", part of our historic anti-Roma culture. Certainly, traveller culture is different from the Anglo-Saxon way of life. He commented that he was one of an enormous family (17 children). Children are at the heart of gypsy families. "Why on earth would they want to abduct others?" However it is easy to assume the worst of others who are different - a trap we are prone to fall into, including me.

So I was interested to read this article by Louise Doughty in the Guardian which I came across through Twitter.
An 'angel' captured by gypsies? In it she writes about the negative assumptions that so many of us have made in the case of the four-year old "Maria" in Greece and the seven-year old in Dublin. My friend Laurie Webb who runs a B&B ( in up-country Romania commented about it.

"Maria" and her adoptive parents
"A very good article. As I'm in everyday contact with Roma folk, I agree entirely with Louise Doughty. Yes, children in the village are often dirty but the living conditions are poor and soap is a luxury the families can't afford, but they are all loved by their families, and I rarely see a child who hasn't got a smile on their face. As for blond children, although there are none in my village, I know of two or three in nearby villages and they are the result of German genes in the Roma population from the Saxon Germans who occupied most of the villages in the area until the 1990's. The blond gene usually got into the Roma people through love affairs rather than marriage, but nevertheless it's there; so blond children do occur.

"Another possibility is that the blond children found with Roma families in Greece and Eire could have been unofficially adopted because they were the result of unwanted pregnancies in the extended family, or a close friend of the family, who had a liaison with a western European. Prostitution is all too common as a way of making money when jobs are hard to find or lowly paid if a girl/woman does find legitimate work. I've been approached three times while sitting alone in my car waiting for a friend by girls asking me if I want sex."

Racist assumptions are prevalent even in the bastion of Liberté and Fraternité that is France, as well as in our own country among whose most prized possessions is tolerance. It seems they lie only just below the surface. I suspect that excising them requires more than legislation, rather a divine transformation. In the meantime we can at least police our public consciousness in the way that Ms Doughty has done in this case.

Casa Cristina, Roandola, Romania