Argh! Algebra! The danger prescriptive learning.


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.


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.


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.

Event Review – Voices from Another Part of Town: Celebrating 50 years of Caribbean Independence @Watershed Bristol

Bunny Marret – What a Legend.

I had a great time last night at Watershed’s ‘Voices from Another Part of Town’ event!

The evening was organised to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Trinidad, Tobago and Jamaica’s Independence, and comprised of extracts from a documentary film about St. Pauls – ‘Voices from Another Part of Town’, produced for the BBC by Gavin Barrie in 1981 following the infamous St. Pauls Riots. The documentary recorded the thoughts and opinions of both young and old Caribbean residents in the area.

My Mother came over to England from Trinidad in the seventies, like many other women, to train as a nurse. I now live in St. Pauls, and it was really fascinating to see just how far the area has come since the eighties.

It was also really interesting to see how attitudes have changed, and how Caribbean culture has infiltrated Bristol’s urban culture and been adopted by the city’s young people, down to the many white youths who live in the area that have adopted a sort of amalgam of Caribbean and British accents. The arrival of Cabot Circus has also made a difference to the area in recent years, which has done a lot for the housing prices and the desirability of the area.

There were numerous complaints from the older generation in the film about the difficulty for Caribbean residents in finding work, and the assertion that putting your address down as St. Pauls on job applications was inclined to lead to immediate rejection.

This situation has no doubt improved in St. Pauls, and attitudes towards Caribbean immigrants have changed. The film made me realise just how difficult it must have been for my mother when she first came to England, being in a completely foreign country, initially without friends or family. You can see why St. Pauls is still such a predominantly Caribbean area; it’s nice to feel at home, and it’s easiest to do that if you are with people who share similar experiences and backgrounds. It was very moving to hear fathers speaking of the dream that maybe their children could one day have a job in the area, and employ some of their friends.

The documentary showed a garage in St. Pauls, run by Caribbean residents, which was, at the time, the only business of its kind in the area. It is still there, and running as such, but thankfully there are now many businesses run by, and for, the areas Caribbean residents.

The other amazing part of the documentary was the musical performances by Bunny Marrett (whose launch party for his new record ‘I’m Free’ followed the event) and the spoken word performances by some of the youth in the area.

It was the passion and frustration about their inability to find work, and the judgements passed on them by British residents following the riots that I found really interesting. The anger that drove the improvisation and beat spoke volumes, and spoken word is now something that has passed well into the Bristol underground music scene, with English youths mimicking the accent and style in performances all around the city. The purpose of the genre is still to vent frustrations and anger towards society and it is fitting that this accent and performance style has now been picked up by youth from other cultures in the UK. With recession, cuts to benefits, youth advice centres and facilities as well as high levels of unemployment, their frustrations are very similar to those experienced by Caribbean residents in St. Pauls 30 years ago.

‘Voices from Another Part of Town’ included a very interesting interview with a young man who spoke about the Caribbean community in Bristol feeling like the lowest of the low. He said he felt their only purpose was to make the working -class feel better, mentioning comments by the poorest members of British society at the time that relayed the attitude, ‘well at least we aren’t like these boys’.

Many of those interviewed also felt sure that it was society’s expectations, or lack of, that led to the anger and aggression of the Caribbean youth, and in part, to the riots. It is difficult not to draw a parallel between the situation in St. Pauls in the eighties, and the similar aggression and low expectation of the disenfranchised and often impoverished inner city youth today, (and the nations fear of ‘hoodies’ and the like) which many have implied may have led in part to last year’s riots.

The importance of race in that sentiment may have mellowed, but with unemployment so high, and so many of what were the working class now unable to find work, claiming benefits and living in the cheaper areas of Bristol with a reputation for trouble, the problem itself hasn’t disappeared. British youth are just as angry as the residents of St. Pauls were in the eighties. And with the government continually and increasingly penalising the poorest, the problem is shifting from racism to classism, and that isn’t an improvement at all.

It was great seeing so many people of Caribbean descent in the audience, as well as people of other cultures, all enjoying the film, and the great music afterwards. Bristol is a beautifully multicultural city, and everyone at the event seemed to be having a great time. There was an amazing atmosphere, and it was a wonderful experience to be able to celebrate my culture at such an event. It also reminded me just what an amazing and brave woman my mother is to have taken the leap of faith to come over here forty years ago.

Despite its problems, I am very proud to be British, I’m proud of my Caribbean heritage, and I love the lively, friendly and vibrant atmosphere of St. Pauls. It’s our parent’s determination, optimism, sense of humour and hard work that has made that possible, and had made St. Pauls, and the change in attitudes towards people of Caribbean descent what they are today.

‘Voices from Another Part of Town’ was part of ‘Radical Bristol’, Celebrating Watershed’s  30th Birthday. As ever, there are lots of interesting events on at Watershed, check it out! Visit Watershed Bristol

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

Occupy Bristol News Report 26th Oct 2011

click this link for report

Occupy Bristol! The movement is still going strong, but can we really change anything?

On Saturday 15th October the Occupy movement set up it’s camp in Bristol, on College Green – right in front of the Cathedral. As with other similar occupations in various cities around the globe, the news was spread via social networking sites, and the local authority has obviously (politely so far) requested that they move on. The site has received regular visits from both the councils gypsy and traveller representative Ian Holding and the police representative Sargent Amanda Frame.

However, so far the only real problems either of them have had to deal with have been the lack of organisation concerning use of public toilets (Bristol City Council have refused to provide a portaloo) and the city’s Friday and Saturday night revellers who, after a few two many, have tried to get inside the tents on site. Not the first issues that spring to mind when most people contemplate a fairly large scale act of civil disobedience. However, the Occupy movement (which began on Sept 17th with Occupy Wall Street and has now stretched to over 1500 cities around the globe) has been unlike other protests. There have been fewer of the usual protest staples – violence, noise, disruption to public services, and more notably, this movement seems to have lasting power, and so far shows little sign of dissipating. Instead, the Occupy movement seems to have gathered pace, determination, and more importantly, organisation since its start. And each localised movement seems to be in support of the others. It’s a global phenomenon uniting people who feel genuinely let down by a powerful few.

When I heard that Bristol West MP Stephen Williams had not only addressed the protesters, but had after an impromptu phone call from one of them, taken time out of his busy schedule to visit them at the camp, it occurred to me that this really may be something different. Maybe politicians are starting to take notice. I ventured down to the site to see what was going on. I turned up on a dark and cold thursday evening for the agenda meeting, which was being held around a fire in a wheelbarrow, and to be honest, I was a little worried about it. I didn’t know anyone, and I was concerned that wandering into the middle of a field on my own to tell a group of angry protesters I was a journalist was not going to go down well. Firstly, I stood out like a sore thumb, i.e., I don’t look at all like a revolutionary, and secondly, some of the members were pretty riled up and clearly drunk. I decided to blend in for a bit and see what the meeting was about before saying anything. However, my concerns were completely ill founded. The drunk and rowdy contingent were immediately and politely removed by the other protesters, who made clear that drink and drugs weren’t welcome at the site – that wasn’t what this was about. What followed was avery well organised and democratic debate, and after confessing my journalistic intention to the group around the fire, they gladly agreed to meet me for interviews in the morning. Although, with no one in particular in charge, simply a group of people with shared concerns, I agreed to return in the daylight, and just wander round and speak to people about why they were here and what they hoped to achieve.

In the daylight, it was clear that it just short of a week, the protesters had achieved something very impressive indeed. Having initially no funds, and having never met each other, they had kept the green immaculate, kept the tents moving around in order not to damage the grass, set up a media centre, an information tent for passers by, a creative area where they were painting banners and a cooking crew. And it clearly wasn’t simply a bunch of hippies either. The people I spoke to, both just lending a hand, or camping permanently varied hugely in their background, personality and the skills they were lending. However, they are all bonded by one thing – disillusion concerning the elected few who are supposed to represent us, and more importantly, the unelected few who so greatly influence them. In short, those gathered were simply a disgruntled sample of the public who had chosen to betray that truly British trait of grumbling a lot but taking little action, and instead had made a stand to be heard. I spoke to people running various parts of the site, who were happy to tell me why they had decided to join the protest, but all were very keen to point out that as a gathering of people with common interests, they all had slightly different reasons for joining the occupation, and that the opinions they expressed were theirs, and theirs alone.

James – Originally from Salisbury, teaches English as a foreign language both at home, and abroad. He has been camping at the site since the protest started a week ago.

‘I hope this type of political action creates a space for a public forum and a new style of political discourse – because at the moment, no one is listening. I heard about it through Facebook. I see this as a way to implement change. Basically, the government is elected in to represent us, and at the moment, they simply aren’t doing that. Voting for a group of people, none of whom really represent you is a poor substitute for getting directly involved yourself. But at the moment, what choice do we have? We need to change the structure from the bottom, we need to move outside the normal political framework, and formulate a new way. I think if enough people can come up with a better process, and consolidate those opinions, we can take our suggestions to the government, and I don’t see how they can then deny the need to change. It’s going to be incredibly difficult, but that’s why everyone is here.’

Polly – Studying a masters in international political economy, and currently studying political finance, which is what made her join the occupation.

‘It’s not a protest. It’s not a case of we will go if these things change. The problem is too big for that. We need a space to voice our differing concerns. One of mine is the monopoly that first bus have in Bristol, if they didn’t have such a monopoly, the fares would be much more affordable. The Council are being fairly amicable, but they simply aren’t addressing what we want. We’ve set up a communication and networking centre, and we are trying to keep in touch with all the other occupation sites, to gather their views. I believe in the movement in general – there needs to be some kind of change. I’m not a revolutionary, there are people here with much more extreme views than mine, but we are all united in feeling that something has to be done. We need accountability in politics, and a change concerning lobbying – that money needs to be taken out of politics. I think a lot of people have been waiting for something, and this seems to be it. We need a proper investigation into what happened with the banks. It’s fraud, and thats a crime. The parliamentary watchdogs are a joke. The bankers, the government and the regulators are all involved.We need independent scrutiny of that. If people in government commit a crime, they should go to jail. If we commit a crime, we go to jail. We want to show the government that we aren’t stupid. We can see whats going on, and we aren’t happy. We’ve been printing leaflets, building mailing lists, setting up social networking accounts. We want to show we are rational, organised people who are ready to implement a change. And it’s not just the people camping here, the public and local businesses have been really supportive.’

Sasha Patterson – Previously a public servant in London who now runs community projects.

‘None of us knew each other, I heard about it on Facebook, and just turned up, and now I’m running the information tent! I was aware of occupy Wall Street, and people kept sending me information about Occupy London Stock Exchange. When I heard about Occupy Bristol, I wanted to show my support. It’s all getting more organised as we go along. There was hardly anything here when we arrived, and now there are all these sections working together – it just show what you can achieve when you try. It’s like a real democracy should be! We’ve had agenda meetings, we’ve come to consensus agreements, and we’re getting on with it. At the moment British economics and cooperations are questionable to say the least. There are solutions available to the economic crisis, but the 1% at the top keep ruling in their own favour, and thats why we’re in this mess in the first place. People aren’t stupid, the public simply aren’t given the information to understand whats going on, and if they were, they would get more involved. For me this is a movement. It’s not a protest which is going to last for a week, a month, it’s a movement against something that has been very wrong for a while. It’s not just a bunch of people in a field, it’s a meeting of people who have debated, raised issues, and are trying to make a difference in an informed way. It’s really exciting. I just want to say to people come here and have a voice, or even just come along because it’s a moment in history – this isn’t going away. People are genuinely worried about where we will be in two years. I worked for ten years in a very well paid senior service job. But I got fed up of dealing with bureaucracy and people who didn’t care, fed up of hearing about Blair’s targets all the time. People don’t realise how corrupt public services are now. That’s why I decided to run community projects. People there are honestly trying to come together to achieve something, they support each other. People are ready for change, good news, hope. Personally, I want to know how long it will take us to get into the general British public’s consciousness an understanding of the real issues. People know the economy is in a mess, but many don’t know why. All we need is a clear explanation, and time for it to seep into public understanding. I really think there are solutions to these problems, and for me, this movement is about raising awareness. The government need to realise we’re in for the long haul, and this is just the beginning.’

Sophia Collins – Runs a science education project

I heard about Occupy Bristol through Twitter. I think social media is the way most people find the news they trust now. People no longer trust the mainstream media. I came down on my own because I believe in what’s being done here. It’s such a positive thing. I was amazed by what a diverse and interesting group of people had joined forces. There’s a sense of people being united. It’s not just extremist political people, it’s just normal members of the public who have a sense that what is happening to them is unfair. I’ve never done anything like this before. One of the most interesting things about this for me is that Steven Williams (Bristol West MP) actually came down to talk to me, a trainer in non-violent communications has been down to run a workshop for the occupiers, and members of the public who aren’t involved in the camp come over just to talk. They’re really happy that we are here as it provides a space for conversation. People can discuss the things they care about – they have somewhere to discuss their frustrations with whats happening to them and to hear other peoples experiences. The government need to recognise that we have a lot of support. The important thing is that this is only the visible part of Occupy Bristol. It’s so much more that just what you can see here. So many people stop at the welcome stand and donate money, blankets, food – they just want to show support. We’ve been deciding between us how best to use the resources to keep this going. Interestingly, there seems to be more of a democracy here that there is within the government who are trying to criticise it. What we need is more consensus decision making and a move away from playground politics. We’re getting more organised all the time, we’ve set up a bank account with the credit union, there’s someone at the camp employed as treasurer, we agree on the amount of money we can spend on what – and that’s all been achieved in a week between a group of people, most if whom have never met before. It’s not just a bunch of wasters – it’s a group of committed people, and there are so many people around the world doing the same. There’s a real sense of being part of something bigger. ‘

So it seems Occupy Bristol is not just a bunch of hippies shouting about capitalism. And despite the objections of the council, there appears to be a dogged determination to stay put. The very different thing about this movement is that the vast majority seem happy to let them. In this case, no matter what they think about it, the government have been outvoted, and their decisions seriously called into question by an electorate who really appear to have lost the faith. It simply remains to be seen wether the unelected members of the community can call their elected representatives to account. They should be accountable for their actions – after all something is very wrong if people cannot trust elected officials ability to govern to the extent they feel they have to take matters into their own hands. At the very least the government must now know that their people are watching.

‘Ere Dave, what shall we do about ‘Broken Britain’?

Oh, ahem, I, erm, well…

I have just read something appalling.

Now, I must admit that I did read this I the Daily Mirror, but I’m at work, and I work in a local boozer, so we have to have the red tops. Further fact checking aside, today’s paper contains an article about the terrible wages paid to the cleaners, pantry-dining room staff and the like at Eaton College, despite the head master being on a £180k a year salary. And as appalling this definitely is, the most worrying piece of information in the article was the assertion that David Cameron (who, in case you missed it, is currently roaming the country doing his usual PR speeches suggesting ways to fix ‘Broken Britain’ while gesticulating with his usual patronising flair) is the 19th British Prime Minister to be educated there. Now, pardon me if I’m wrong, but how the hell is someone who has spent their entire life happily hidden away dressed in a bow tie and tails, ignoring the poorly paid bastards that keep their immaculate little group of friends clean and fed supposed to have any clue what the hell is going on with the majority of the country? Do they even realise that some people earn a fraction of what they pay to attend this bastion of upper class Englishness per year? And these people still manage to raise children, work, and do their own cooking and cleaning all by themselves.

It seems quite possible that Cameron and his kind only noticed that people were a bit ‘miffed’ when they started lobbing Molotov cocktails through shop windows and nicking stuff. Not that I am defending looting and violence in any way. It just seems that it may have been avoided if the country was run by someone who had at least a vague idea about the majority of people who live in it. And I don’t just mean the poorly paid under-classes, but the working classes, hell, even the middle classes who had so little faith in the running of their country that they decided to clean up the riot mess themselves, and took to the streets, brooms in hand. After all,if you want something doing properly, you’d better do it yourself. Since he was eleven and started having his mess cleaned up by the poorly paid cleaners at Eaton, I doubt Cameron has lifted any domestic object other than the silver spoon he was given into his overfed mouth. And worse than that, he feigned horror and buddied up to those many Britons who condemned the thieves at the riots – prescribing tough measures for our ‘sick society’.

In his speech outside number 10, he spoke about the ‘complete lack of respect shown by these groups of thugs,’ about the ‘mindless selfishness and lack of responsibility’, and about how ‘their rights outweigh their responsibility’. We’ll, as appalling as their behaviour admittedly is, I wonder where they learned that set of values Mr Prime Minister? Maybe it would be a good idea to get off your moral high horse and level some of those judgments at the powerful structures in the UK, like politicians and the press. Although, at least all this ruckus has taken the heat off you and your pals for a while eh? Even your well-paid publicity officers couldn’t have orchestrated a distraction this epic. But just so you know, robbing expenses is just as much theft as nicking trainers from footlocker. You want to strip these ‘gangs’ of their uniform, ban their hoodies and scarves, well maybe we should do the same to you, and ban the dickie bow and the elocution lessons from the Eaton crew. Then we’ll all look the same, and sound the same, and maybe then there won’t be, as you put it, such a ‘culture of fear on our streets’. Although God forbid, you might get mistaken for a normal member of society, and have to pick up a broom and clean up some of the mess on the street yourself, rather than just spouting some well planned PR bullshit about it.