The truth is that the problem with British education has nothing to do with how we’re teaching our children at all, but it has everything to do with what we’re teaching them.
The best summary of what I’m saying here would be to recount two stories from kids I’ve taught over the past few years:
I once asked a top set Year 11 boy, from an Outstanding school in Richmond, how well he thought his education had prepared him for his life. He said, “You know what, sir, it’s a disaster. I reckon I could calculate the velocity of a ball dropped from a tall building on a windy day, but I couldn’t tell you how to work out the APR on a credit card.”
More recently, I’ve worked at a struggling school in Brighton where a Year 10 girl said she was scared of a recession, “and I don’t even know what one is!”
The brutal truth is that the biggest blocker to students’ learning is disengagement from what they’re being taught. Teachers work tirelessly to bring their subjects to life, but that effort could be completely re-directed if we worked with a system that taught them anything that they were actually interested in. It is insane that we go to them with a curriculum that doesn’t include the basic skills or knowledge that they’ll need to function in a modern world.
The truth is that teenagers are very interested in anything that they can see the point in, but they can’t see the point in 99% of what they’re being taught at the moment. And this is leading to a disengagement that is immeasurably damaging their educations, our schools’ results, and wider society.
Normally, when I raise the idea of a useful-skills based education system, people begin talking about working class kids doing plastering courses, but I want to be very clear that this is NOT what I mean. It’s not just the struggling students who are suffering; and in many ways it’s the brightest who are being let down the most.
There is no reason why we teach them language analysis by using Shakespeare, with his strange 16th Century syntax and obscure Greco-Roman references, instead of teaching them to interrogate the subtle spin of the modern media, an understanding of which will underpin how they understand the world they live in. It seems ludicrous to prioritise teaching them how to calculate the internal angles of a triangle, while ignoring GDP or APR or inflation. It is insane that we don’t ever teach them the core values of the political Left and Right and then complain when they don’t seem interested in politics. And how can we live in a society where ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it, without ever teaching them what the law actually is?
The list goes on (and there a complete version of it here), but I do not believe you can overstate just how much of a game changer this would be.
So why isn’t this higher on the political agenda? Well, as far as I can tell, there are two main reasons…
Firstly, the teachers. I’m in the unusual position of being someone who became a teacher despite loathing my own education. Most teachers enter the profession because they loved their schooling and this fact makes change difficult for the industry: teachers will naturally try to preserve and protect what they loved. Opposition from the teaching unions blocks the Labour Party from any involvement in the debate, and stops schools making a fuss about it themselves.
And alongside that, what’s blocking the Tories, is the ruling elite’s desire to create a population who are intelligent enough to perform a task, but not educated enough to question why they’re doing it.
If our education began producing young people who were smart enough to interrogate the modern world, who were able to ask questions of those in power, who were given a stable enough foundation to actually begin affecting the world around, them then the ruling elite’s days would be numbered.
So there we have it: an education system drifting into irrelevance, that’s drowning children in mundanity while failing to prepare them for the world they’re entering in; but one that’s that’s perpetuated by the teachers and the policy makers.
But the real tragedy is that the students want change – ask any of them – and they’d work a hell of a lot harder, and achieve a hell of a lot more, if they could see the point in what they were being taught….
As a challenge, I’ve made a list of ten things that I think students need to understand in order to take part in contemporary society, most of which are only brushed over by the current system:
An understanding of the political process – including a broad understanding of the core ideals of the major political parties, and the responsibilities of MPs. I cannot believe that we can expect to run a genuinely democratic society while spending longer educating people about 16th Century poetry than we do the workings of parliament. In some utopian future they’ll look back on this fact with a mixture of bemusement and pity.
Economics, Macro and Micro – this is the most commonly called for subject by students, many of whom think you can rent a two-bedroom flat in Brighton for £150 a month – or is that too much? They should have experience running imaginary budgets for households and countries, which would include an understanding of GDP, APR and inflation, and would also include an understanding of the positive and negative effects of a loan based society; as well as giving them at least a rough idea of how much life actually costs. This kind of thing is also really useful to teach basic arithmetic.
An ability to interrogate the modern media – this would range from the ability to critically read anything from films and newspapers to an understanding of how the industry of the media affects the output – the relationship between the medium and the message. This should help them understand the narratives that they build their own lives around as well as being able to involve themselves more responsibly in their broader society. Infinitely more useful than another lesson spent learning how to spell onomatopoeia.
An understanding of the current effects of technology and an actual debate about the changes offered by near future developments – this isn’t actually as tough as it sounds. They just need to study sci-fi (and maybe watch Black Mirror.) Inexplicably, given the state of society, science fiction has never been a key genre in English literature…?? I’ll say that again: In a world driven by technological progress, a world where the very future of humanity rests on our ability to develop technology capable of saving us from ecological armageddon, science fiction has never been a key genre in English. The mind boggles!
Climate change and the ecology – this is currently covered I’m sure, but it needs to be cross curricular. This isn’t a problem that scientists can fix alone, and an understanding of how lobbyists and PR influence decision makers should be central to points 1, 3 and 5.
Emotional and social wellbeing – again, this is covered in parts, but doesn’t get anything like the recognition it deserves. Mental and emotional health, in a wide range of forms, is very real for today’s students and they’re far more capable of dealing with it than we think. We can’t brush this under the table any more. Implementing it might be seen as a hot potato, but, really, it might not mean anything more than reading contemporary fiction with them.
Literacy – this seems like a nuts thing to add to a list of changes to changes in education, but the reality is that a lot of the kids I teach don’t read and can’t really read. At the moment the problem is that ‘literacy’ isn’t separate from ‘literature,’ so before kids can really read properly we’re going to them with Shakespeare and Dickens. It’s like trying to teach someone to weight-lift by giving them 50 kilos to bench press. Literacy means reading and writing, plain and simple. Let them read contemporary fiction – and not study, but read. Just read. This way they can go through three or four interesting books a year, as a kind of reading group. They can reflect on the issues, explore the ideas and develop their understanding together. BUT they’ll only do this if the books are relevant enough to be enjoyed WITHOUT being studied. There are a number of nuanced differences being highlighted there, and it’s important to understand the difference between studying a book and reading one. That’s for another post, but the base line is in understanding that no text, really, should be so complicated that a kid can’t understand it on first reading. The depth can be eye opening, but their understanding of the plot and characters should come without teacher input. This means: retire the cannon from secondary schools.
Globalisation – really, this means studying the world today. Too many students are stuck in an ‘empire mentality,’ mainly because throughout their educations they’ve been taught about times in history when that’s what everyone thought; at the moment they’re not capable of looking at our world as an interconnected society where the news is real, it’s happening, and they can affect it, because they spend their days being told about things that happened centuries ago and are then expected – in some theoretical alternate-reality – to apply this learning to things that are happening in the real world, though no-one’s ever told them about that. This is also a response to the fact that, because history is a topic that’s covered in some depth, a lot of students will leave school knowing more about the 18th or 19th Centuries that the 20th or 21st. Madness!
Domesticity – this is a big one for me, mainly because it’s a chance to bring a bit of magic to the regular world around them. Into this bracket I’d stick DIY – so kids can team-build flat-pack on a timer (they’d love it) – and cooking, which they do already; but why not add car repairs, gardening, wiring a plug! It’s amazing to think that a bright kid could leave school and tell you what equation connects power, energy and time but couldn’t wire a plug. It’s shocking.
Exercise – again, I know it’s there already, but until you’ve spent an hour trying to calm down a room full of 14-year-old boys who are shaking they’re pumped so full of hormones (and Haribo,) you can’t appreciate the extent to which most kids need to spend a lot more time running their little socks off. They should physically work until they’re physically spent and then they’ll be ready to learn. Middle of the day is marking time. Lessons finish later. And we could certainly be a bit more imaginative with our nutrition training as well. They genuinely don’t understand what a diet of sweets and Lucozade does to them.
The Law – I know, there’s 11 here now but… really… we live in a world where ignorance is no excuse for breaking the law and yet we NEVER teach people what the law actually is. They know nothing about their rights, they know nothing about how laws are setup, arranged, or why they’re there and yet they’re expected to follow them – despite not even knowing what they are?!?!? This, for me, is surely, the maddest thing on an insane list…
I know that nothing comes without a price, and that making these changes might mean that future students leave school without having studied one 16th Century play a year for 6 years on the trot, or knowing how to calculate the internal angles of a triangle; it means they might know more about the digital revolution than the industrial one and they won’t understand the struggles faced by women in the 19th C. because they’ll have been too busy studying the role of women in the world they live in but … I guess, all things being equal, that’s a price I’m willing to pay.
The world is changing. Education is not. The answers are there for us. Let’s at least do the obvious…
After days of being aware of the computer sitting there; days
of me faffing around and dragging out mundane tasks because I wouldn’t know
what to say, and pretending that the weeks don’t pass, I’m finally back,
staring at the page and writing whatever first comes to mind.
It’s strange that this kind of writing used to be what I was
best at. It’s what I did as a teenager when I kept this accursed diary that
took on board whatever I thought for night after lonely night. But that was so
private, and without the ears of the outside world it allowed itself to drift
into the meaningless ramblings that did so much harm to me.
It’s important to have an anchor. Without it, it’s easy to
become lost. After all, without an anchor we drift and it becomes hard to know
who are we, really. And not just deep down really – and not as some spiritual question
of philosophy – but who are we in our world. Where do we sit? What do we stand
What do I stand for?
My writing expresses much of it… haha! But that’s tell and
not show isn’t it…
So what do I stand for?
What do I think will help?
A freedom of expression has always been my goal. A fearless honesty
that allows the human condition to experience itself and reflect on that being,
rather than cutting itself short with fears about our worth. We are worth it
because we are alive.
It’s ok to be who you are – and more than that: it is
essential to be proud of who we are; and a writer’s voice is a voice that we
have a responsibility to use… but it’s not enough just to tell yourself that.
Allowing yourself to be is only the first step in being.
It’s who you become; that’s where the living lies.
And so what stops me from doing that? What stops me from
I know the answer already.
I know why I don’t write.
It’s because most days I’m so fucking angry, about so much,
that I just want it all to burn.
And I think I’m ashamed of my anger. So I hide it.
I’m ashamed of the rage I feel about climate change, and
Trump, and Brexit; and our gender battles, and #metoo and my losing my kids; I’m
ashamed of sitting, stalled, on my couch and watching the world through a screen;
and dating online because I can’t find a life; and I’m ashamed of the impotent
rage I feel going into school every day and teaching kids about 15th
Century poets when technology is changing the world so fast that no-one can
keep up and the civilisation we’ve taken for granted for so long is spiralling
out of control so fast that I don’t see a way out of it for us… and yet I sit
on the couch and just manage my rage.
I’m ashamed of my anger. So I hide it.
Because rage is just passion misdirected. Like depression is
just passion misdirected. And anxiety is just passion misdirected. And sloth is
just passion misdirected.
But when I write, and I put it down and can see it again, I’m
ashamed of my shame.
Given the new version of Watership Down that’s currently airing on BBC this is a post from a while ago about the original film….
One of the keys to introducing kids to big ideas is making them accessible. There really is no point in going to a classroom with Thomas Aquinas if they’re left scratching their heads like WTF?
But that doesn’t mean big ideas can’t come into the classroom – in fact they really should – but the bigger the ideas, the more accessible they have to be.
I think that Watership Down is a kids movie with ideas that would have left even St Thomas himself with something to think about.
Let me elabourate…
The film opens with a short mini-saga about the rabbit religion, focused around the sun-God Lord Frith and his relationship with El-ahrairah, the Prince of Rabbits. Frith is a benevolent spirit who’s created perfection. But – as is the way with religious creation myths – ‘evil’ must be introduced to the world, and the opening explains how.
Like all religious myths the story tells as much about the civilisation that created it as anything else. In this case, it’s important to recognise that, despite the fact they live in constant fear of death, the rabbits don’t really see evil. In their world El-ahrairah – the founding rabbit (a kind of Adam figure) – committed the ‘sin’ of having too many kids and basically being too successful and maybe a little greedy. Most rabbits would see this as a natural enough mistake – they might even feel proud of him – and it’s reasonable for Frith to make a change.
At this point, the rabbits are ejected from Eden and other animals are given a thirst for their flesh. This is why rabbits are constantly hunted by hawks, foxes, weasels, etc… It’s a really classic religious story, fitting the mould of so many others.
But Frith is also forgiving and he finds El-ahrairah and gives him gifts which, if used correctly – with cunning and tricks – will allow him to escape from the killers. Again, this is classic creation story stuff that can be used to look at other religious stories from around the world as a foundation for understanding why religion exists: to help the people find inspiration.
Really, the fact that Richard Adams could create a religious story that echoes so many others is a very interesting window into religion – turning it into a story which has its own reasons for being created. There is a case for saying that some children may look at this as belittling for other religions, but this is both underestimating the reality of religious belief – which often accepts story as being apocryphal – and because the author was smarter than that, for reasons I’ll come to.
The heart of the story is about a group of rabbits who need to re-establish civilisation after having been kicked out of their own home by developers. The drive comes in the form of a prophetic vision from Fiver, a neurotic who’s blessed with the gift of foresight; this is the first of a few lovely lessons in learning to listen to even the strangest amongst us.
The obvious reference to developers starts a theme that runs through the story: a celebration of the wonderful countryside that exists all around us. By seeing the hedgerows and fields as being more than just areas to produce our food, and turning them into smaller ecosystems within which entire communities thrive we’re teaching kids to love and respect our world in a way that is still desperately missing at the moment.
But the real reason I think Watership Down needs to be canonised is that although the above exist, the real heart of the film is about civilisation. Because while the rabbits search for a new home, they discover no less than five different social orders; each of which displays a completely different way of life.
The original home of the rabbits is basically fine. They have a ‘normal,’ patriarchal hierarchy: an owsler, which is a kind of police force, who maintain order and eat the nice food, while a chief rabbit lords over them all. The chief isn’t really that interested though and he’s a little lazy – he gets Hazel’s name wrong twice in the opening exchange. Initially, in many ways, Sandleford is probably the warren that is closest to our own society: Basically fine, but the leaders are lazy and the police slightly oppressive.
For me, this is one of the most interesting warrens in the film – and it’s the one I said I’d return to and talk about religion.
Cowslip’s warren is on a local farm, and the rabbits here live in a kind of luxury. They are given all their food by the farmer, their warren is HUGE and they’re never under threat. Fiver doesn’t like it there, though the other rabbits all think it’s fine; Fiver says there’s an air of death, but then he looks at things on a different level.
You see Cowslip and co have struck up a different deal: they’ll accept food and safety from the farmer, but they know that they’ll be killed when he’s hungry. They’re almost like a society under a spell. They accept an illusion of safety in exchange for deferring to a new god: Man.
In a nutshell, they’re domesticated: looked after, cared for, but killed when the farmer decides.
At one point, Hazel asks to read some stories of El-ahrairah and his trickery – “Rabbits will always need tricks,” he says.
Cowslip brushes him aside. “No,” he replies. “El-ahrairah and his trickery don’t mean much to us. We need dignity, and above all, the will to accept our fate.”
He then reads a poem, about death, that reveals the truth: although they are free, they’re depressed as fuck! Their acceptance of their place, their acceptance of their position as being below man, and the fact that they’ve given up fighting or trying to survive have left them without a meaning to their lives. Without the desire to fight death, what reason is there to live? Without the fear of losing everything is there any reason to celebrate having anything?
What is lost when you’re handed everything in exchange for an agreement to die when requested?
In some ways, this is a society without religion. It’s a desperate place where life has no higher purpose. Life is lived and then given up, without challenge.
In a lot of ways, Cowslip’s society seems even more like our own than Sandleford. A kind of dark caricatured version of what some people live…
On their way to Watership Down, the rabbits come across a farm with a litter of hutch rabbits. Again, comparisons with human society abound: trapped but looked after, scared to leave – terrified of the outside world – but prepared to accept pacivity in exchange for their safety. But again… maybe it is this the society that is really most like our own?
Stalinist. That’s all you can say. Pure, dark, nasty, oppressive dictatorship. And General Woundwort – what a fantastic villain!
Efrafa is the first time a lot of kids will be introduced to the pain and villainy of a dictatorship, and whether through Blackabar and his torn ears, Captain Holly’s tales of fear, or Hyzenthlay’s whispered terror, the horror of the place is obvious.
It is essential that all students explore the terror of a dictatorship and, as a contrast to the other societies – as a recognisable way to live that might even be better than Nuthanger or Cowslip’s nameless warren – it’s a great way to introduce them to the idea.
But it is Watership Down that is the hero of civilisation: created by Frith, found by Fiver, fought for by Bigwig and won by Hazel. A symbol of teamwork and togetherness, safety and, most importantly, longevity.
In the way that Sandleford was patriarchal, Hazel’s warren on Watership Down contains much of the traditional feminine.
Because the hero of Watership Down, despite Bigwig’s strength or Fiver’s mysticism, is undoubtedly the pragmatic, reasonable Hazel. His diplomacy and pragmatism make him the only person who could lead that group. His focus is survival. He reminds me of a kind of serious version of El-ahrairah, who’s capable of plotting and scheming for the bigger picture.
In one of the most touching scenes in the film, Hazel looks to the sun and asks Frith – God, in effect – if he can exchange his life for theirs; offering his own ultimate sacrifice in exchange for the future of the warren. God looks down and says no. “There is not a day or night that a doe does not offer her life for her kittens, or some honest captain of owsla, his life for his chief. But there is no bargain. What is, is what must be.” And above all the other deaths in the film – some of which are horribly brutal – it is this moment that exposes the real, harsh truth of life: there are no deals with God.
Living creatures die, and civilisations fall if no-one fights for them.
And that’s the key, for me, to Watership Down. It isn’t just about different types of civilisation, it’s about someone who was prepared to fight for a civilisation that was fair. He founded a new civilisation because there wasn’t another one he could really support.
Hazel fought for a civilisation that was right, fair, open, honest and, at the end, when the Black Rabbit of Inlay comes to take him away it doesn’t present his death as tragic or painful; it presents death as a beautiful end to a life well lived.
I don’t believe that Watership Down should be taught in schools because I like it – though I clearly do – I believe it needs more attention because it both challenges deep and important ideas about our society and because, more than anything, it presents a hero who is prepared to sacrifice himself not just for “another” but for the preservation of an imagined future that he will never know. I believe that we should teach Watership Down because this is what our world needs at the moment.
The best blogs are these kind of constant streams of thought that let you into someone’s world. The ones that make you feel like you’re listening to an honest friend who’s whispering into your ear.
I keep trying that. I’m so angry though, and I don’t know where to start.
Am I angry at the world?
Is it Trump – who’s become exactly the kind of bogieman that I think he’s always wanted to be; or is it the shit-storm that is Brexit; is it race-relations, or gender, or capitalism, or the environment…I mean fuck, where do you even start?
Do I write about the fact that I see nothing but pain ahead for my species? Not my race, you understand; not my family, or my friends, or myself, but my entire species; and every other species on the face of this planet. We live in an age that could bring about the end of all life on planet earth.
The trouble is that when I write that I always feel a little trite. Melodramatic. OTT.
But it’s not though, is it.
Haha! Fuck. It’s not even melodramatic to say that humanity is going through an existential crisis – and I don’t mean we’re all smoking in rain coats, it’s that there’s an actual threat to our existence.
So what do we do about it?
Haha! – again. Because I don’t know. I wish I did. I think I keep delaying writing my posts because in truth I don’t see a way out of it for us, and I don’t want to start talking until I can see some kind of solution.
But that idea itself was against what I wrote in my first post.
What I said then was that the blog should speak with whatever voice I wanted to express and just speak it. So maybe the solution is just to start with that simple truth, and to see writing this as a kind of therapy.
So I’ll say it: I don’t see a nice way out of this for us. This time we live in. I see a lot of pain ahead because we’re not listening to the collected voice that tells us not to… cause so much pain ahead!
Haha – fuckit… just fuckit
But it’s weird, because this wouldn’t really happen if we all didn’t secretly want it to. It wouldn’t happen if we all stopped looking at what made us different and started reminding ourselves about what made us the same: we all want to survive this fucking crisis.
Surely that’s one thing we can all agree on.
So maybe we need to calm down, and learn to love the Trumps, and the Brexitiers, and the misogynists and the racists… Or wait, hold on…???
Can we love someone, but fundamentally disagree with them? Can we see their human heart, but still hate what they stand for? Can we fight for our ground without worrying about it falling out from under us?
Can we hate each other, but learn to love ourselves enough to learn to live together?
I guess that’s the question that I don’t have the answer to.
And I guess that’s why I don’t blog. Because I don’t know the answer.
But this evening, I’m wondering whether or not the first step is simply to ask the question.
So… I’ve had a blog for a while, but I’m not sure I was really ‘doing it right.’
I’ve always written – I’m 40 now – and over the years I’ve gathered together forty or fifty short pieces that I’m really proud of, written two novels and some plays. I guess I thought that I’d stick some of them online and an adoring world would come running. That didn’t happen, obviously, and I became a little disenfranchised with the whole thing – writing and blogging. I retreated, basically.
More recently, I’ve started to do what I should have done before and actually started reading other blogs rather than just publishing on my own. It’s left me a little embarrassed about what I was doing – and my reasons for doing it.
The internet, and blogging in particular, isn’t about just a wall upon which you can post your own internal monologue while you peacock around it. The internet, and everything that’s great about it, is about sharing and sharing only exists if people are reading as well as writing.
So for that, for the years I wasted stuck in a bubble of my own making, I’m sorry – to myself as much as to everything the internet stands for!
Anyway, I’ve decided to change – a new approach is required –
and I’m very excited.
A bit about me:
I’m an English teacher who hates education – I was expelled from school myself, and only went back into it with the hope of changing something that it’s become increasingly obvious doesn’t really want to change
I’m a father, who’s suffered at the hands of the family court – a mess of legality that damages children as much as their parents and is, I believe, an elephant in the room for gender equality
I’m fascinated by religion! I’m a fundamentalist agnostic – which is to say that I’m definitely, passionately and emphatically not sure what to believe. But religious symbolism is amazing!
Love a bit of sci-fi – Black Mirror is coming people!
Very involved in politics – like everyone I regard myself as being reasonable, balanced, and blessed with common sense. But, as I say, everyone says that so what do I know?
And despite everything I believe about gender, politics, technology or education I honestly think that the only real horror facing humanity is coming from the environment. I might have fallen for the biggest scam in history, but given the size of the gamble throwing my lot in with the planet is a risk I’m prepared to take.
At the heart of western politics is a simple divide: Left and Right. Amongst other things, the Right believe that competition will drive society forward, while the Left believe that by working together the sum total of our achievements will be greater.
The Right thrives by dividing people, and then saying ‘look, we told you that humans are inherently selfish! The Right is the only system that fairly reflects the real way that humans are. Capitalism is only natural and fair.’ This is the world we live in. And if we’re not careful, advances in technology combined with an unstable environment will make those at the top of the system powerful to the point of being totalitarian.
And yet, the left is dying at the moment.
The problem is that in the past, the Left – in Russia and China – has tried to enforce a cooperative environment. This was forever doomed because you can’t enforce equality – simply because, by definition, whoever is doing he enforcing isn’t equal to the rest. Unfortunately, a lot of the current Labour party still believe that the only way for the Left to succeed is by enforcing their beliefs rather than demonstrating them.
But the truth is that the only way the Left can succeed at the moment, and it must – we are currently threatened by the Far-Right in a way that hasn’t been seen since the ‘30s – it must lead the way by displaying the cooperative, socialist values that it holds at its heart and, before anything else, this means proving that people can work together.
The Left would have us believe that bankers can give up their bonuses for cleaners they’ve never met and have no personal connection to; they want the rich to share their wealth with the NHS, a place where smokers and non-smokers are received equally, while regular joggers and the chronically obese are treated without judgement; they want us to pay for the education of other people’s children, and put their own children into classes with them.
In a nutshell: the Left wants us all to get into bed with each other, and trust that, as a group, we will be stronger together.
But at the moment Labour party isn’t even prepared to get into bed with the Greens, a party who have repeatedly shown more of the kind of Left wing values that many people traditionally voted Labour to support! And they won’t countenance cooperation with the Liberal Democrats after they betrayed everyone by working within (arguably taming) the Tories during 2010-2015 coalition. And don’t mention the SNP…
I’m not disputing that some Green party members are fanatical (perhaps with good cause,) or that Tim Farron’s views on Homosexuality were retrograde, or that working with the SNP would lead to all kinds of challenges in Scotland, but learning how to work with other people – despite their flaws – is exactly the challenge that Socialism must overcome if it is to ever prove that its most basic philosophical belief is even possible.
If the Labour Party can’t learn to work with other political parties then they’re really just proving that Socialism itself doesn’t work.
In their defence, behind all this is a party who are hell bent on dividing us. The Tories will divide parliament and then use a weak opposition, combined with a First Part the Post electoral system (that is designed to only work with an effective opposition,) to tighten their grip on power. They will divide us all and then introduce oppression to maintain social order in a society they divided.
If there is a future for us all it relies on society learning to be social, and if the Labour Party can’t learn to work with those with whom it shares its house then they can’t display the kind of values that we need, and, what’s more, they have no right to call themselves socialists.
You can’t enforce cooperation. You can’t enforce respect for other people. But you can display it, and, have faith, others will follow…
Two years ago I left a successful career as a copywriter to become an English teacher, and now I feel like I’ve entered Room 101. It wouldn’t be so bad except that I’m expected to teach 1984 while standing in the middle of it…
Not long ago I saw a grown woman break down in tears because she’d spent the afternoon desperately trying to teach Macbeth to a group of year tens who couldn’t care less about the Bard. In the end I comforted her in the only way I knew how and made it clear that it didn’t really matter, none of them would have any use for Shakespeare anyway. Through the tears she asked me why we even bothered, and I struggled to answer that.
Six months before I’d been asked to teach Midsummer Night’s Dream to a kid who’d not long moved here from Eastern Europe. He couldn’t speak modern English, but I was supposed to teach him the Elizabethan variant. He was just getting to grips with grammar, and I was turning it on its head.
I knew a teacher in London who claimed she could get a student a C in literature even if they couldn’t speak English. I’ve been reassured since then that she wouldn’t get away with that anymore because of the terminal examination system, though that doesn’t change the question of why we teach Shakespeare, with his topsy-turvy syntax and out-dated vocabulary, to kids who can’t master the modern language and will only find their lexicons expanded to include halberds, codpieces and perfectest reports.
Not long ago I put a range of people on the whiteboard and asked which one of them was most likely to vote for the Tory Party – we were doing an exercise in characterisation. The year tens sat in silence for a minute or two, until one asked who the Tory Party were. Another barked that it was obvious – they were something to do with the government… weren’t they? I smiled and reminded them that they’d have the vote in three years. They all agreed that they didn’t care, and, to my shame, I hoped it would stay that way. If they didn’t even know who the parties were, how could they be expected to make an educated choice on the subtleties of policy? Democracy’s great, but only if anyone’s being taught how to use it!
I put the matter to my then head of department who made it clear that educating them about the world wasn’t our job. Our job, he said, was to get them through their GCSEs. He offered to lead the class for a starter a week later, and made it clear to the kids that they’d be using what he taught them for the rest of their lives – right up to university, if any of them decided to go. In that moment I understood the depth of education’s aspirations: their job is to get them through as many exams as possible, and it ends after the final one. The world stops at the school gates. Teachers teach what they were taught, and if there are problems, they lie with the government, the parents or – worse still – with the kids themselves.
The idea that the problems with teaching lie with the kids reminds me of an old David Cronenberg horror called Dead Ringers in which a radical gynaecologist realises that his problems are because women are built in the wrong way. The simple truth is that the learning must service the kids, and although it’s possible for a dynamic teacher to keep a class enraptured with a well written shopping list, it’s not the most efficient way to work. In most cases kids aren’t engaging with what’s being taught, despite our best efforts, and the reason for this, I believe, is the matter, not the method.
So what if we changed it…
What if poetry was swapped for song lyrics, leaving Shelly, Byron and Keats shelved for Lennon, Dylan and Eminem? Because is it really ok to teach To His Coy Mistress or The Laboratory, but claim that rap is immoral? I’ve taught Cleaning Out My Closet and had the classroom in raptures – opening up and sharing their inner selves in a way that I’ve never managed with any of the Romantics. And I’m not saying it’s impossible to access a class with poetry from ages past, but it’s harder to emotionally engage a teenager when they’re completely divorced from the themes of the verse in front of them. In the same way, it’s possible to climb Everest with a ball and chain around your feet, but why would you bother? What are we trying to achieve by teaching them straight poetry when there is more fantastic, lyrical verse being produced today than at any other time in human history? Again, I’m not having a go at the classics but I’ve had more success sharing ideas about depression using Elbow’s Some Riot than I ever have with Keats’ Ode To Melancholy.
And what if plays were replaced with film? What if, rather than studying the language of the stage, students learnt how to read narrative and character using one of the biggest and most influential industries in the modern world? And I don’t say this because I don’t like theatre, but I did once know a 15 year old who thought that the robots in Transformers were real, and I had to explain to a whole class how Avatar was really about the damage that we’re doing the rain forests. “Sir,” one said. “They’re nine foot tall and blue. It’s not even about this planet. I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.”
And what if we replaced an emphasis on reading fiction – which is vastly overrated in education – for an understanding of press bias, the role of advertising, and the language of PR managers and lobbyists? It’s shambolic that most kids leave school knowing what onomatopoeia is but have no idea how a well-worded press release can make someone doubt human involvement in global warming, despite all evidence to the contrary. I once heard a stroppy, smart year 10 complaining about To Kill a Mockingbird saying: “So racism’s bad, tell me something I don’t know!” Given the fact that he was Indian, liberal, well educated and absolutely lovely I did rather think it was a case of preaching to the converted. Alongside the rest of the class, though, he came alive when I did a ten-minute plenary and explained who the Anonymous group were. Suddenly they all had challenging opinions, and as they left one asked me what actually happened in the financial crash. It broke my heart to know that I’d never have the time to explain it.
And it’s not that I’m putting down any of the classic art forms, I just feel very strongly that in order to genuinely prepare our children for the world they’re entering into we should, at least sometimes, refer to the world that they’re entering into. I recently taught Frankenstein to a set of year 7s and although they embraced the philosophical question of what makes something truly alive, the class didn’t really come alive itself until someone started surreptitiously passing round a copy of Blade Runner, and I’d shown them HAL’s death scene in Kubrick’s 2001. In the end I had to apologise for the fact we needed to return to the two hundred year old novel that many of them would have loved to study at degree level, but didn’t want to read at the time.
I find it astonishing that we teach centuries old texts, when the world is drowning in intelligent, relevant, mind blowing, world changing art, and science is taking steps that are both profoundly dangerous and awe inspiring in their scope. But the kids don’t know any of this. Most of them don’t even know who the Tory Party are, and some think Transformers are real.
I am aware that a lot of this was covered while Gove was making his changes a while ago, but my experiences in teaching have led me to believe that Gove was really only giving the educational establishment what they secretly want. The reality is that while pay, pensions and working conditions made headlines during Gove’s push the idea of dropping Shakespeare, poetry and an emphasis on Victorian literature didn’t. At its heart this is because the teaching establishment still connects the classics with rising standards when this simply isn’t the case.
The truth is that English teachers like poetry, Shakespeare, Dickens and Tennessee Williams. They like them because they were taught them, and they became teachers because they liked school. It’s a self-preserving model, and it’s tough to break down. Teachers don’t want to embrace change anymore than the government does, but someone needs to push this through because at the moment the world is changing fast, and the kids we’re sending into it aren’t even remotely ready.
The solution has to be, as Gove rightly put it, to return to basics: what do we want to teach these children, and how do we best do that?
If I’m honest, I have no interest in teaching them Shakespeare – he’s dated to the point of only ever being relevant in the broadest sense. I hated Shakespeare at school and still think British education has done something unique in overrating the greatest writer to ever have lived. I want to teach them to read and write though. I want to help them become worldly, open-minded members of a progressive society that is ready to take its role in a globalised economy. I just don’t see how they can do that when the majority of what they’ll need to know to do that is going to have to be self-taught.
Education as I see it is a self-serving, self-preserving form of social conditioning that’s been (accidentally) designed to create the illusion of education while keeping anything of any real value away from the people who need it most. And I wouldn’t feel so bad about this if I didn’t think that teachers were as complicit as the government in preserving it.