Don’t let growing up ruin your dreams – Bristol Lit Fest Launch Logic

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STOP DAYDREAMING AND CONCENTRATE

After Primary School, lets face it, the fun is over. High school means you have to work out how to act like a grown up, or at least learn the ability to pretend convincingly you’re a grown up.

You don’t play games, not imaginative games. You learn to play social games. You’re made to stand up and read in front of the class. You’re terrified, and you have no idea what the words mean, not really.

You don’t understand the story yet, because you haven’t experienced anything yet. You’re learning to fit in and fake the emotions though, so you blend in with the crowd.

But you know the words mean something, so you start to wonder about them, usually secretly. You wonder what you can learn from them. The stories you hear seem to have the answer to something you can’t quite grasp.

BUT THAT’S NOT IMPORTANT

You have your set texts. GCSE’s are important. You need to hit the targets or the school looks bad, your parents will be disappointed, and you will feel bad.

If you don’t get your grades, how will you learn to tick all the other boxes ahead of you satisfactorily.

You’ll never get into college. You’ll never get a job. You won’t be a success.

Won’t I, you wonder? Really?

DON’T ASK STUPID QUESTIONS

They are not on the designated sheet. They are out of the scope of the reading list. Those texts that catch your imagination are too modern, those artists that intrigue you are too vulgar. Your opinions are not shared by the class, and your answers don’t fit the marking criteria. You don’t make the grade.

So, now there are two obvious paths to tread; because your imagination is broad and varied, but what the majority of people count as ‘growing up’ and ‘being successful’ is not.

That’s when you meet and court those most limiting of characters;

Fuck ‘em, and compliance.

Fuck ‘em says: The hell with ‘literature’ and ‘aesthetics’ and, all that other bollocks.

They’re for rich wankers anyway. For people with too much time on their hands.

They’re for armchair philosophers and self indulgent bastards who like to sound clever in front of their smug peers down the pub. Literature is for people with too much money who don’t have to get a ‘real’ job. If you wrote anything honest down, they wouldn’t understand it anyway, because they don’t go out and experience things.They just read about them. They read Shakespeare and Tolstoy and they haven’t a clue about real life.

Fuck ‘em says; If I don’t know the right words, they’ll never take me seriously. If I don’t read the right books, and have the right grades, they’ll make me feel small.

So you stop daydreaming, stop asking questions, stop getting lost in stories or writing anything honest, you just get on with it.

Then you feel sad and you don’t know why. Because you can’t express yourself, and you feel like you shouldn’t. You just want to fit in.

Don’t worry, a disheartened, tired voice inside you says.

Just get home, put on Netflix and it will tell you what you’ll like, based on previous selections. No need to discover or explore. No need to think anymore.

Work in the morning.

Or you can listen to compliance.

Suddenly saying Stephen King or Nick Hornby are your favourite authors is embarrassing. You could safely upscale to Bukowski or Hunter S. Thomson because they’re pretty cool. But you have to know they’re cool because of the drugs and the drinking, not really think about the message behind what they’re saying.

You need bite size quotes. Bite size quotes impress.

Who cares if you didn’t read the whole story. You can only tweet 140 characters anyway. Or you can just put a selfie on Facebook of you in black rimmed glasses, drinking a latte with the book next to you, you don’t even need a quote for that.

Later, of course, you will have to know the more ‘literary’ writers. You’ll need to be familiar with canonical texts and learn to  pronounce authors like Dostoyevsky* correctly.

You’ll need to know at least a summary of Shakespeare’s plays. Was Hamlet the one where he holds out the skull, and Macbeth the one where he goes murderously mad, or the other way round?

Just learn to remember the facts, and when it comes up at the pub quiz, over a craft ale, you’ll sound very intelligent indeed.

You learn it all, and you know all the best lines. You can say all the right words in the right places. You fit right in. You’re successful. A real grown up.

But you feel sad and you don’t know why.

You can’t express yourself, and you feel like you shouldn’t. You’ve learned so many second hand opinions, you’re not even sure what you think anymore.

Don’t worry, put on Netflix and it will tell you what you’ll like, based on previous selections.

No need to think anymore. Work in the morning.

So, readers, Small Stories is here to tell you you needn’t choose either.

Literature, in whichever way you choose to write it, read it, perform it, or listen to it, is cathartic.

It’s good for you.

It makes you question life, consider other points of view, and tell your own truth, however you wish to tell it.

Ask stupid questions, because that’s how you learn.

Tell your truths despite being a ‘proper grown up’, and never stop daydreaming and doodling at the back of class.

Thanks to everyone who came to the event, and thanks for getting involved and writing down your confessions. There’s a selection below and I’m sure there’ll be more from Small Stories soon… so keep in touch @smallstorybris

Confessions from the evening can be found below…

*My truth: Dos-toy-ev-sky. I had to do that in my mind when writing this. I also wiki searched the spelling. Just in case.

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A selection of your confessions from the Literature Festival launch:

“Sometimes at poetry readings I switch off and just think about myself” – Er, thanks for coming Graham

“I am as soft as down & as frightened as a chicken” – Carol

“I love Jonny” – Well Sophie, if he’s reading this, can I count matchmaking as one of the services provided by Small Stories? Keep me posted eh.

“I should have known I was a lesbian when I fancied Mary Poppins as a child”. Cassie

“I’m going to be an English teacher and I still don’t fully understand how apostrophes work”. Hannah

“I own hundreds of DVDs, but don’t have a DVD player”. Josh

“I am over 30 & I still can’t tell my left from my right. Now I have developed a system where I have to clap in order to know which way is left. It’s weird”. Yer tis Christie, but whatever works!

Thanks so much to everyone who came along, and to our amazing readers, Dean McCaffrey, Ellen Waddell & Bella Fortune, and to DJ BarrTheTruth

Also a massive thanks to out designer Sam Green, and our illustrator Ben Philips. You guys make us look so pretty.

Hopefully see you all at the other amazing Bristol Festival of Literature events on around Bristol this week…

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Green Fingers – Has decreasing farm industry increased the Cannabis trade in the Caribbean?

A while ago I interviewed a couple of dealers about the difference between the drug trade in the north, dealing in the south, and about the scene in good old Brizzle town. Although the towns varied, the reasoning behind dealers entering their particular trade was similar – as was their attitude toward dealing as not differing much from any legal business transaction. When I got the opportunity to interview a dealer in the Caribbean who briefly worked in New York but had to return for ‘business reasons’ I was intrigued. Turns out, we may be miles apart, but people’s motivations are similar the world over.

Bit of background – I met Jason in Trinidad. He lives with his girlfriend, (who he met in Queens, New York) and their two year old son. Jason grew up in Rio Claro, on the less wealthy agricultural side of the island. The divide between rich and poor in Trinidad is huge, and obvious. The housing ranges very visibly from traditional shanty accommodation on one side to Americanised gated communities on the other.

Jason moved to New York after getting into trouble with the Trinidad for growing and selling cannabis, and was told to either leave the country or face charges. He returned after getting into an altercation with dealers in Queens which ended in hospitalisation after a knife fight. Due to his girlfriend falling pregnant, he hoped to start a new life in Trinidad, free from the drug trade.

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Sign in a typical trini rum shop – one of the bars in Rio Claro

This is what Jason told me about his experiences and motivations for getting in to the trade to begin with, and why he remains in the trade now despite the trouble it has caused him.

“It first occurred to me that I could make a bit of cash selling [cannabis] because I was around it with my family all the time. They didn’t sell, but they smoked a lot, and bought from friends who came round to chill lout, have a beer and a smoke. It always seemed pretty normal and relaxed to me. The main trade by us was growing sugar cane but that all went, so it was just growing peppers and avocadoes and whatever you had space for in the end. It’s really easy to grow good stuff here, and when I planted a couple of seeds from some weed my parents bought it was really easy to get a good plant”.

“We never had any money, but we did have a lot of space, so it seemed kind of stupid scraping by trying to make money growing peppers to sell, which everyone can grow themselves in their gardens anyway. You can make so much more money growing weed in the same space. From one seed you can grow about a quarter of Mary Jane, and it’s so easy to get hold of, so it just made sense”.

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Weed grown from a couple of seeds – rather than grinding weed, Trinis’ smoke it pure, wrapped in a rizla and added to the top of a straight cigarette.

“Most of the police here smoke too, and the government and police make a lot of money off the sale of weed and coke. As long as you aren’t causing them trouble, they pretty much stay out of your way. I don’t really see what I’m doing as wrong. I’m not hurting anyone. I have a field out in the middle of nowhere, and people want to buy what I’m selling. I feel like it’s a pretty honest job. There are so few jobs available over here unless you can afford and education. It’s either selling stuff you grow at market, or trimming weeds or filling pot holes in the roads. I do that too in the mornings, before it gets too hot and so do most of my friends, but the money is bad and you can only do it when you’re young really. It’s really manual tiring work”.

“I have family now and I want them to have a nice home and look after them. I bought the house with the money I made selling and I couldn’t ever have bought it otherwise. Most people in their twenties are still living with their parents, the girls get married young so they get a house. If you are a man you need to have your own home or they won’t be interested. That’s what got me in trouble over here. One side of the island is still really poor, and no one wants to look worse than anyone. I couldn’t get a house over on the San Fernando side – that’s where all the educated people with the oil money go (oil has replaced growing sugar cane as the islands main export, and many of the men now work out at sea on the rigs). I wouldn’t fit in. But the guy with the pepper field next to mine got jealous that I was making money”.

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A traditional Trinidad market selling a variety of goods grown locally on the island

“People here hate seeing other people do well as most of the island is so poor. They don’t think it’s fair, and it’s not. It’s really hard for people here to get out of their situation because there’s so little else to do unless you leave the country. It’s getting better, and more people are getting educated now, but the island is small, and the inequality is so easy to see every day. It makes people angry and jealous”.

So for the moment, Jason is back in the drug scene but he is he is keeping that fact from his family. He hopes to find better work, and would like his son to get a better education than he did and stay living on the island.

The issue in this case is the cost of education and the limited number of jobs available. The culture on the island is changing fast and traditional Trini ways of life are being rapidly replaced by American values. With the biggest of those values being capitalist and material ideals – which are incredibly at odds with the islands traditional Hindu values – the wealth divide is an uneasy one. Combine that with a very public knowledge of a corrupt policing system, and it seem for now at least that illegal trades will take a lot to reform. There is currently government debate about legalising sale of the drug, and whether this will limit the problems that arise from widespread illegal trade.

<p><a href=”https://plus.google.com/112871526562974380630″ rel=”author”>Natalie</a></p>

Argh! Algebra! The danger prescriptive learning.

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I was pretty cheerful last month as I managed something that this time last year I never thought I would be able to do. I passed my Google Analytics IQ test. One reason among many that I would not have been able to do this last year, is that I had no idea what Google Analytics was.

I am not by nature a techy person. I did a degree in Literature and Philosophy and work in Marketing, so I’m used to having room for creativity and for shades of grey.

However, since I started working at a web design company, I have become aware of all sorts of things I never knew existed – techy things, you know, logical, geeky things. I have also really started to enjoy learning them, in large part becuase the people I work with are very encouraging and willing to teach me. I also enjoy them becuase now I’m teaching myself, I have realised logical things don’t exist in a vacuum. The techy stuff is in fact very creative, and more importantly, that logic and creativity overlap so completely that by learning many different areas, your knowledge of all of them is augmented and improved.

I have started to learn to code, which I am enjoying a surprising amount. I don’t have to learn this, it is just something I stumbled upon through work and which I wanted to learn more about. Thankfully, the internet is full of places that will teach you things for free. I went to a very traditional all girls’ school in Lincolnshire, and was from an early age made very aware by my teachers that I wasn’t any good at maths or statistics. For fear of my GCSE grades reflecting badly on the school (an 11+ streamed school) I was dumped into the bottom set where the teachers attempted to drag my dim mind up to at least a C-Grade for the sake of the league tables.

The thing is, as with many of the other subjects taught in a ‘traditional’ way, I had no point of reference to demonstrate how what I was being taught fit in with anything outside it. There was no creativity, or inkling to encourage an inquisitive nature regarding the wider implications of the lessons. That is why I was so pleased to pass my Analytics exam – it served as a reminder that the sight of anything that looks vaguely algebraic can still (17 years on!) strike fear and disillusion into my soul, but that the fear is in the main unfounded.

Through much effort, it seems I am better at teaching myself, and thankfully, due to the good old internet, I have the opportunity to do so. I can learn with people from all over the world, for free. There are forums where you can ask others who are learning, and work things out together. It’s interactive, subjects and cultures overlap, and the context of what you are learning can be applied in your life. You also have the opportunity to be inquisitive, and like never before, the ability to find things out for yourself.

This seems to be something that Michael Gove is keen to deny, despite evidence, expertise and advice to the contrary. Prescriptive learning simply doesn’t fit in today’s society. Learning by rote and limiting study areas to that of your nationality is surely a step backwards. It’s not that the topics on the curriculum are not worthwhile, as I say, I’m a literature and philosophy graduate so Shakespeare and romantic poetry get my thumbs up. But that can’t be it. Limiting what children learn and taking it out of context makes it inapplicable, and much harder to understand.  It also stops children’s natural inquisitive side wanting to learn more.

Thankfully, children are more imaginative and intelligent that Mr Gove gives them credit for. More realistic and knowledgeable people like the quite brilliant Sugata Mitra have realised the potential of children to learn without the restrictive and outdated methods proposed by the education secretary. In this brilliant TedTalk, he shows just how capable children are if given the freedom and opportunity to work things out for themselves. He also shows the way in which globalised learning – and learning about places and events unrestricted by geographical limits – comes quite naturally. Surely this is hugely important in an age where global trade, travel and communication are so intrinsic to the way we live.

The curriculum Gove proposes harks back as many people so often do, to a fictional ‘golden era’ of education and national pride. Even if such an era did exist in the way it seems to in Gove’s mind, it is limiting, and it simply doesn’t fit anymore. We should encourage children to use the new resources they are so comfortable with to learn about the wider world, about how disciplines overlap, about how people have progressed throughout history without propaganda. They should also to be given freedom to see how what they are learning really applies to the world around them.

If we do this, odds are they will be much wiser and more tolerant than the generation before them, not to mention a lot more confident about their skills.

Natalie

How Good Goal Setting can Support Teachers and Boost Morale

There have been many reports in the press recently about teacher morale being at an all time low, and about many teachers leaving the profession all together. I wrote this article which looks at the ways in which good performance management could help boost morale and help teachers. You can read my article here – written for Carbon360 who provide a great goal setting package for schools. 

Blue Smile – Cambridge Children Need Your Support!

If you have read this blog before, you will know that education and giving children from all backgrounds a fair start in life is a topic that is very important to me.

That is why I wanted to write about a wonderful charitable organisation in Cambridge called Blue Smile. Blue Smile is a new Cambridgeshire children’s charity that provides counselling and therapy for pupils in schools between the ages of 3 and 13 during a critical window of opportunity for change.

I realise I usually write about Bristol companies, events and general goings-on, but you can still show your support from Bristol, you know.

Location, in fact, plays an important part in the necessity for support provided by Blue Smile. Outside Cambridge, most people’s immediate thoughts about this lovely area are to do with its prestigious university and its affluent and well educated inhabitants.

Cambridge is quaint old England, the England that the tourists visit and the spectacularly clever move to in order to study.

That is exactly why children who come from difficult or impoverished backgrounds that live in the area are overlooked.

They are overlooked when it comes to governmental and local area authority provision of funds due to the prosperity of the area as a whole. They are also often overlooked by independent parties who would be happy to provide support for the same problems in other areas.

The fact is that (as is the case in all areas overall affluence) there are pockets of deprivation. And it is because of this necessity for help that Blue Smile was set up in the first place, and it is why I am writing this post to try and help publicise the great work they are doing.

Blue Smile was born out of increasing requests from head teachers for support for emotionally vulnerable children. The charity was set up in 2010 by a local child psychotherapist seeking to address the lack of local children’s health provision – a lack which was identified by the director of children’s services for the local NHS trust. He is now chair of Blue Smile’s trustees.

The wonderful thing about Blue Smile is that the organisation started on the foundation that it would address a genuine need – children were consulted about what they needed and wanted from the service, and also decided on its name. An anonymous donor believed in the cause,  and provided £50,000 to launch it – which sounds like a huge sum – but given the growing need of children in a climate of recession, and the shrinking of statutory funds, that set up money was put to good use very quickly. It also means that Blue Smile is reliant on donors, sponsors  and volunteers in order to keep the charity going.

Among the world’s richest nations, the UK has the highest number of children living in poverty (second only to the US). This seriously affects educational attainment, mental health and well being in general. And if these problems are not addressed at an early age, they pose much more long term and serious threats for both the individual and society in general.

80% of adult crime is committed by those who had behavioural problems as a child – and it is these problems and countless others that can be addressed early by charities like Blue Smile.

They provide therapy and mentoring to children aged 3 – 13 in Cambridgeshire, and rely on fundraising, donations and corporate sponsorships to survive. The charity has kept going due to the dedication and very hard work of a few passionate people who really care about their cause. But, obviously, dedication and hard graft alone can only go so far.

In the next 5 years, Cambridgeshire County Council is required to make savings of £160.6 million (the £50,000 set up seems pretty small now, right?) £44 million of which is being cut from children and young people’s services.

That is why Blue Smile needs support, sponsorship and donations. Whether you want to make an individual donation, help with fundraising events, or provide much needed corporate sponsorship , the dedicated team at Blue Smile would love to hear from you. Even if you can’t donate, you can raise awareness.

So pretty please, spread the word, and get in touch.

You can follow Blue Smile on Twitter @BlueSmileCam

 

Don’t Blame Each Other

I have been thinking a lot about education recently.

So much so that I just sent an impromptu email to my old high school with the hope of thanking my English teacher for putting up with the amount of crap me and my teenage group of friends caused her, and for getting us to actually learn something.

I wanted to thank her for encouraging me to stick with English (which I really enjoyed, but wasn’t a ‘cool’ interest to have at the time) something that, among other things resulted in me going to university and led me to pursue a career in writing.

And it wasn’t an easy job I’ll bet.

The school I attended was a pretty good one for the county. And I remember clearly kicking up hell when my parents suggested I attend.

I was leaving all my friends, who were going to the comprehensive in the village.

However, I thank them greatly for it now – despite feeling at the time out of place in a ‘posh’ girl’s grammar.

The thing is, there were plenty of those friends I left whose parents did not suggest they do anything out of the norm. And I’m not saying they necessarily should have, simply that the educational standard provided should be good for everyone, no matter what school they attend.

I know that sounds idealistic, but I believe it is an attainable goal.

But only if people really want that to be the case.

I genuinely believe that it is that desire to give kids from all backgrounds an equal chance that is severely lacking. In the government, and consequently in many members of society who have bought into the blame culture both the government and the media foster.

After reading SecEd’s article, The Postcode Lottery Laid Bare, which confirmed many of the views I have held for a long time concerning education (some of which I have written about on this blog) I started thinking about my own education, which is what led me to try and get in touch with my old teacher, and to write this post. (If you’re reading this Mrs Perry – drop me an email!)

Despite growing up in a small village in the North East (which I’m sure falls into the lower average bracket concerning educational attainment), I did get good A-Levels and go to university. And I now, after many years doing menial and terribly paid jobs, have a job I enjoy.

But it was bloody hard work, and no doubt some of it was luck.

Firstly, I managed to get into a decent school without having to pay to do so as good old-fashioned Lincolnshire still had the 11+ system in place when I was 10 years old.

This was a system which meant that being the youngest in my year, I got good enough grades to get in, despite some of the older students who got the same grade failing to meet the required level.

This in itself made no sense to me, even as a child. However, similar tests are the basis for entry to many ‘higher class schools’ to this day. And I know many parents who pay for extra tutoring so their children will do well in these tests.

Not only do the parents who enter their kids for this kind of obligatory and meaningless testing believe in it, they often by default raise kids who continue the believe those who fail at this early stage are below them intellectually.

Even at ten years old I was confused by this. We had all been taught the same curriculum, so what on earth did a few months difference in age make?

Secondly, as I said, I had parents who really (and immovably) encouraged me attend.

Also, I did go to university, but it was really was difficult, and that was before the government in their infinite classist wisdom decided to raise tuition fees to a level that only the best off could afford.

I worked throughout my degree in pub and service industry jobs. I also worked for free for breakfast radio shows, newspapers and local magazines to gain experience.  And I think it was that experience that allowed me to be considered for the kind of work I wanted, not the degree.

Despite the wonderful job prospects the university promised me when I was thinking about enrolling, and signing myself up for the following debt plagued years.

I’m sure I would have got a better grade if I hadn’t had to do some much work outside my course. If the work experience roles paid even a little. If I had parents who could afford to pay my rent.

I realise it’s much easier to say this is a resentment issue than admit there is a fundamental inequality in opportunity here.

But it’s not.

If I had the money, I would most likely pay my children’s way if it meant better opportunities and prospects for them, despite my moral objection to situation. But not everyone does have the money. And it is no way fair to penalise those poorer kids who have aspiration for their parent’s economic failings. It’s not fair to blame those parents either.

Poor kids aren’t stupid. They are no less deserving of a good education. They are no less hard working. In fact, in all likelihood  many are more so, despite the current government trying its damndest to convince the better off that the poor have brought it on themselves.

Where would this government be if they hadn’t happened to have had parents with money?

People often state that we shouldn’t resent them for having a great education – after all, you want someone with a great education to be in charge of the country, it makes sense.

But what is to say these privileged politicians are right for the job? There could be many people, far smarter and more capable given the chance.

Maybe that is what scares them.

If everyone had a genuinely equal chance to gain access to educational attainment – to the level they had so easily bestowed upon them – I’d bet my student debt that they would come up short.

So go ahead students.

March. Protest.

Why the hell should a rational, intelligent person fork out nine thousand a year that they don’t have, without even the guarantee of a job at the end of it?

I finished university in 2008, and only this year found a job that I enjoy or has anything to do with my degree.

And again, this involved an element of luck.

I started in my current position as a part time administrator on minimum wage.

I worked my ass off to incorporate some of my writing skills into the role, and I am now working as a full time copywriter.

But it was not simply my skill or hard work that got me there. I have been lucky enough to find a company that dares to employ non-graduates, and people with proven, not paid for, skill.

They also encourage and train their staff, and give opportunity and promotion where it is due.

But I was lucky to get them to take me on in the first place. Having spoken to my boss since, he admitted that he was genuinely surprised and a little depressed by the number of graduate applicants applying for such a menial and lowly paid role.

I am still hugely in debt, not just from the fees, but because in addition, despite having worked as much as I could during study, I had to take out student credit cards and student overdrafts to get through.

And with no guarantee of a job afterwards, that’s a heavy burden – even more so now.

I would like to make clear I am not putting people off gaining a degree.

That is what the government is doing, and very well I might add. Anyone with an ounce of sense would think it is a good thing to have an educated nation.

But not if you are scared of a real democracy, not if you are protecting your own privileged position. And, as is the case with the current government, certainly not if your only strength lies in having PR skills barely able to hide your lack of strength in leadership.

Making education unobtainable to the majority simply demonstrates that the small elite are sacred they will be shown up for the ignorant, selfish charlatans they are if they were to award everyone equally that privilege.

And this (as ever) is only my opinion, but these aren’t the sort of people I would trust to run a country, or represent the requirements of the majority.

Michael Chessum wrote in the Guardian about the student protests this week;

“It is becoming increasingly clear that this situation is fundamentally about class. The system being designed by the coalition – which rewards prestige, high tuition fees and research concentration – will strip funding away from universities that are disproportionately populated by working class students, forcing them to close and cut student numbers”.

And I couldn’t agree more.

Students can’t let the government continue to crush the ambition and prospects of the less well-off and unfairly reward privilege.

Surely they are too intelligent to believe that, after having been denied the opportunity to gain a degree, and consequently failing to find work that they deserve to be branded as lazy, or scroungers when they have to claim benefits as a result.

No matter how little or how much money we have, and despite what the government and media tell us to believe, we can’t blame each other.

We must blame them, and hold them accountable.

Otherwise the potential talent that could change the situation will remain in the gutter, and the pool we have to fish in for the next leader will be a shallow one indeed.

Natalie

Education News – New Guidelines on Teacher Appraisal: How to make them work

This article is written for Carbon360, The HR company I work for and published in the September Issue of Independent Schools Magazine. The new appraisal rules came into effect for mainsteam Schools on Sept 1st 2012. You can read my article on Page 7 by clicking here

As you know if you have every read my blog before, education is something that is very important to me, so if you have any comments, feel free to post them.

You can read the connected article about the new guidelines for teachers, also written for Carbon360 and published in HR Magazine here: Performance Management Changes for Teachers aim to Make Classroom Obesrvations Less Prescriptive.

Education News – Come on Gove, give the poor kids a chance.

Tough luck kids. You can stick your bottom lip out like this, but no one cares. Maybe you should just turn to the bible…

I am having a lovely weekend away in Cambridge, staying with the fella’s parents. I’m currently sitting in his living room drinking red wine and listening to him and his brother talk about philosophy in the garden, which is why I have time to write!

It’s been a good week all in all; work has been hectic, but in a good way.

I started my new job as a part-time administrator at the end of April, but have since been working my arse off to get involved in everything I can within the company in order to prove myself as someone who is useful in areas other than filing.

This has both been great fun, and has gladly paid off. I’ve been doing a lot of writing work for a couple of new campaigns for the company, as well as blog posts, articles and web re-writes, and it’s the first time I have really had the opportunity, thanks to my very supportive bosses, to really get my teeth into a job I enjoy.

I had a meeting on Friday which resulted in me being offered a full-time position. A ‘proper’ grown up job, as it were. So this week, I am very happy. I’ve never been one of those five-year-plan types, but I suppose it’s all about the big three. You know, a flat I like, a bloke I like, and now, a job I really enjoy. And anyone who is a regular reader of this blog (I think I flatter myself there, but self-delusion helps!) will know I have been looking for a job I like for a long time.

As I’m sure is the case for many, many graduates, the search has been interesting. And irritating. And at points downright depressing. However, I am finally working for a lovely company where people actually treat you like you may have a brain in your head. Unlike the various pub jobs I have had over the last ten years, (shit. ten years.) people actually ask your opinion about things, listen to you when you suggest something, and they don’t expect you to flirt with them while they make annoying, and usually crap innuendos in front of their mates. And it’s even paying above the minimum wage, which to me is bloody spectacular!

I actually managed to suggest, research and write an article for a HR Magazine (the previous post to this if you’re interested) about appraisal in secondary education. After my meeting on Friday, I headed off to Cambridge to stay with my boyfriend’s parents for the weekend with the intention of picking his Dad’s brain on the subject. He is the headmaster of a very good private school in Cambridge, and I thought he would be a great person to speak to, who was bound to have an interesting and informed perspective. However, it’s been a battle to get up the confidence to even ask.

You see, the thing that I have found, (although I’m slowly getting better at it) is that no matter what job you are doing, or your knowledge of the subject in question, if you’re from a working-class background, academics are intimidating. And it’s frustrating. It’s just that their whole lifestyle, accent, way of speaking to each other (and incalculable other little things) are so different from what I’m used to that I still feel like I’m faking it.

My fella has come home to (among other things, Father’s Day etc.) help his little brother with his A-Level revision. He is about to sit a philosophy exam, and my partner is training to be a Philosophy Lecturer at Bristol University, so it’s good practice for them both.

However, the thing that amazes me every time I venture to Cambridge to meet the family, (who are always lovely and welcoming, by the way) is our irreconcilable difference in attitudes, and consequently, the difference in not just academic attainment, but in the confidence you need in order to feel entitled to it. And this is not just me, it’s a difference in attitude I share with many of the people I know.

Cambridge is an obvious place for educational aspiration, being a world renowned centre for academic pursuit, but it’s not just the setting. All members of the family speak to each other. And I’m not judging my family here, we do speak, but we also shout, disagree, talk over each other, and nine times out of ten, miss the point of what each other are saying. I still don’t think my parents know what job I am doing, or what I did at Uni. And don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have it any other way. My point is simply that there certainly weren’t any in depth discussions about that sort of thing when I was growing up.

However, in my fella’s family, they sit together – quietly – and read the paper. They have discussions about art, literature, philosophy and politics. And this includes the little brother. I don’t think I really spoke to my parents at all (unless you count numerous arguments, but that’s normal, right?) when I was a teenager, and certainly none of those topics would have even vaguely entered the discussion, but that was normal for most people I knew. But the real difference is in the way they talk. It’s grown up, civilised, encourages debate. The little brother speaks fluently, eloquently, about his subjects, and the rest of the family join in, inviting discussion and consideration.

This is where I struggle. Despite being having started my A – levels ten years ago, and having done a degree since then, I can’t help feeling like a little kid, and totally unable to join in. Because coming from where I did, I never had discussions like that. And in Lincolnshire, if you did it was likely to get you taken the piss out of at the very least. This is something I don’t think I have ever shaken off. If I’m around people who have lots of money and a good education I panic. And I think this is a huge problem, (ignoring money for the moment) with the classist system in British education.

Had I been encouraged to speak like this, to discuss things in this way, at school or at home, I don’t think I would have this problem. I think it is part of the reason I’m a writer (I can’t see the reactions of people if they’re just reading what I’ve written down, and therefore I don’t feel intimidated) and I really believe it’s the reason many less well-off children struggle. I don’t believe that grades reflect the intelligence of an individual in many cases. And they often don’t reflect that person’s ability to perform well in various types of employment. They simply reflect their environment, upbringing and approach to academic work. In the main, they reflect the opportunities people have been given, and the money they have.

The way my partner’s little brother talks, even at eighteen, is bound to gain him an exam pass, as long as he can articulate himself the same way in writing. But it’s the confidence behind his speech that surprises me. It is the confidence of someone who has always been encouraged to express his opinion, and to discuss his knowledge in an adult way. It is the confidence of someone who has been supported to re-think when mistakes are made, rather than encouraged not to try. And this is what money (and good parenting) achieves. But if our education system was truly representative and democratic, this wouldn’t be the case.

Working class kids, no matter what their level of intelligence, are never encouraged to converse in this way, and this seems to be an area in which schools are failing. I realise that many parents of working class kids don’t have this level of education, and don’t have the knowledge about the subjects their children are learning at school in order to get involved in this way. And that is not a failing on the parent’s part. Neither is it an unfair advantage that parents with better educational attainment encourage their kids in this way. However, what is unfair is that our education system is as such that children from better backgrounds, or those who can afford to attend private schools are being put at an unfair advantage from a very early age.

This is because schools fail to encourage poorer children to think they are capable of learning to converse in a way that encourages debate and that their opinions and knowledge can be of equal value, despite having less money or a different accent. I would like to make clear that I do not think this is the fault of the teachers. It seems to me to be a problem that has arisen because power in schools has been prescriptive and centralised, which limits teacher’s freedom to do their jobs in a way that fits the pupil. And it is certainly not a way that encourages improvement.

That national curriculum is currently being reviewed, and Michael Gove has been advised by an expert panel from some of the country’s top universities, headed by Cambridge University’s Tim Oates. However, Gove seems to be unwilling to take into account their findings and make changes that make the national curriculum fairer for all. Gove wrote in his letter to Oates following the consultation that he aims to;

‘Raise attainment for all children and help the poorest most of all’.

But, like many other decisions under the current government, there seems to be in practice a gap between what they say and what they in fact do. The poorer people in the country, once again seem to be neglected, and are from the start at a disadvantage that the education system seems keen to perpetuate.

Gove proposes to make sure his aims ‘embody our sense of ambition, a love of education for its own sake…[and a] determination to democratise knowledge’. However, he is planning a curriculum that doesn’t really fit in making this the case. Andrew Pollard, one of the four education specialists recruited in the advisory expert panel described Gove’s new curriculum plans as ‘punitive and controlling (Guardian Article, June 17th 2012). So once again the result seems to be saying one thing and actually meaning another.

Gove consistently makes reference to giving schools greater freedoms, both in his academies and in mainstream schooling, but this freedom is yet to materialise. If schools do not give teachers the freedom to teach in a way that is fitting to their pupils, then the system that currently disadvantages those from poorer backgrounds will simply continue.

In his letter to Oates, he proposes that the new curriculum will put a stronger emphasis on ‘reading widely for pleasure’ […] and children will learn to ‘master formal English through poetry recitation’. This is all well and good, but given that the expert panel were assembled in order to advise on the curriculum, and seem to be against these prescriptive measures, it’s odd that he has continued to forge ahead regardless.

Gove mentions in his letter that the new curriculum should allow ‘as many children as possible [to] lay claim to a rich intellectual inheritance’. However, by prescribing the curriculum in this restrictive manner, he assumes all children approach academic pursuits in the same way, and from an equal footing. This simply isn’t the case.

Encouraging children to learn by writ; down to prescribing them a spelling list – is not applicable, or fluid enough to engage pupils from these backgrounds. Neither does it give teachers the freedom to make education and confidence in their own intelligence accessible to working class students. For someone from a poorer background where there is not a culture of ‘reading widely for pleasure’, or reciting poetry, this kind of restrictive teaching makes what children learn inapplicable, outdated and potentially disengaging.

Once children have been put off or alienated by schooling, or taught by teachers who do not have the freedom to engage them in a way that they can really relate to, it is easy for their confidence to be knocked. And in my experience that can last a lifetime.

However, I would like to thank my lovely bloke for giving me the opportunity to meet many people who I would not have otherwise met, attend many academic functions and get involved in discussions that I would not have otherwise had the confidence to enter. Also, for making me realise that people from better backgrounds, with better educations are not as scary and incomprehensible as I thought. They are actually lovely, supportive, and simply often unaware that in the lower classes, any such lack of confidence exists.

Hopefully, if the people employed to improve the situation listen to advice, rather than assuming they are right and asking others simply as a token gesture, confidence will improve. Then whatever their background, children will have a little more faith in their ability.

 

Education News – The New Appraisal Rules for Teachers and what that means for schools

A new set of requirements has been put in place for Teachers from Septemeber 2012, but what does that mean for schools? – Atricle written for Carbon 360 Click for Company Site and Published in ‘HR Magazine’- written for Director Iain Rhodes Click Here for Article