How to kow tow

If you haven’t had a childhood spent reading old books because there was nothing else to do then you might not know what kow tow means. There’s always Wikipedia, which tells you that one meaning is

the act of deep respect shown by prostration, that is, kneeling and bowing so low as to have one’s head touching the ground. … the highest sign of reverence. It was widely used to show reverence for one’s elders, superiors and the Emperor.

In English academic circles today, it’s widely used to show reverence for the money Chinese students bring. I’ve spent the summer teaching them. I’m now taking a break from teaching because my forehead is worn thin from being expected to bow down to students who flatly refuse to do any work, simply because their parents did pretty well out of the pretend capitalism China adopted over the past twenty years.

I thought for a while it was just me. Understandably, as the Brexit government has shown clearly that Europeans are at best problematic, a lot of them have stayed away this summer. Their places were filled by Chinese instead.

The last class was pretty much the worst I’ve ever had. I’ve been almost pushed out of the way by angry students before, but until this summer I hadn’t been pushed out of the way by students simply because I was where they wanted to stand or walk. In class their behaviour was more problematic. They didn’t do anything.

We’d been told that this batch were B1. In case you ever wondered what the EU does, one of the things that passes their time is developing common standards across lots of different countries, specifically here the Common European Framework of Reference for languages, or CEFR.

It’s a sensible arrangement, laying down common guidelines so that whatever the student’s nationality or foreign language competence you can assess what level they are and judge what level of lessons they should be getting.

According to the framework, B1 students:

Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
Can deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken.
Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

When someone can’t tell you their name, where they’re from and how many people there are in their family it doesn’t take an expert linguist to realise they aren’t B1 students. There is no shame in not speaking another language fluently at a language school. Learning how is what you’re there for; there’s not much other point in it. Where it goes wrong is when en bloc or singly, you lie about your capabilities then consciously do nothing at all to learn anything.

Almost all my class couldn’t tell me more than their names. About half had adopted what they thought were English names, some of them almost as bizarre as the Nissan Cedric, presumably named to impart some idea of superior class distinction regardless of the fact that not even Conservative Cabinet Ministers are called Cedric today. In a nutshell, most of these students were A1 at best.

Nobody knows everything

You go to school to learn things. I thought it was so fundamental it didn’t need saying, but time and again I’ve been proved wrong. Some learners are sent there for free daycare. Some to actually learn stuff that might be handy when they’re older. And some are sent there to impress the neighbours. Mine seemed to be the last category.

Saving faces

The concept of face is another Eastern thing familiar to any student of W.E. Johns, Conan Doyle or Sapper. It’s about making sure people continue to respect you. If you lose your job you still get on the 07:50 every morning so that next door don’t know you got canned. If your teacher did the language assessment for you then gave you all the answers, leaving you completely flummoxed then you can save face by not trying.

Can’t speak, won’t speak. Can’t write, won’t write.

Try it. You can never be wrong. It’s simple. But it’s not a good way of learning a language.

Naturally enough, I mentioned this issue to the Chinese teachers who accompanied the class. Three of the four of them had next to no English themselves. The one who did told me several students were uncomfortable in my class. Personally, I’m glad that a student who sits in class doing absolutely nothing for a week, wearing a surgical mask because of the disgusting level of air pollution in a rural Suffolk market town and doing her eye make-up at her desk instead of writing a single word of English feels uncomfortable. She ought to.

The reaction of the school when the teachers raised the issue was immediate. It was tough luck. Sure, the students might not actually do anything in class. They may refuse to speak. They might refuse to write. They may be totally unable to follow any instructions or to be anywhere on time, although miraculously, their English might improve at lightning speed when they want something, disappearing just as fast when asked why they thought it was ok to barge people out of their way. They’re paying the fees. Deal with it.

China in your hands

Hideously, I find myself agreeing with Chris Patten, whose Guardian article lays into Chinese government control of universities there and the way the current UK government seems to feel all this talk about standards and independence is all very well but doesn’t really fit with the demands of the real world. On Radio 4 this morning he went further, accusing Liverpool University of allowing a curriculum to be developed on its Chinese campus that would only teach things the Chinese government liked and nothing that it wouldn’t, in much the same way that the fearlessly independent creators of truth, justice, open source information and Google saw no difference in saying ‘first cause no harm’ and saying to the Chinese government sure, ok, of course we’ll block sites you don’t like on our search engine if you let us into China. He thought it was laughable that any academic institution would be so craven as to kow tow to the students. He ought to try teaching.

Billy Liar‘s tarty girlfriend Rita used to sneer at him ‘get off your knees.’ I didn’t realise that I’d be living in a world where grovelling only that low wasn’t low enough.

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Joe Shea; 1927-2019

I’m not a historian. I don’t know the reasons people do things, except that sometimes they do things for reasons they don’t quite know themselves; for reasons they don’t acknowledge; for reasons they say. And sometimes just because. Because everyone else is doing it. Because it seemed like the right thing to do.

He was born in Iowa. His grandfather rode a horse up there from Texas and it took two weeks. His father took a train up there too; that took two days. In the 1940s Joe flew a jet the same distance in about two hours.

He was a pilot. He was a short, slight boy whose family had been doing pretty well with their jewellery store, putting every present you could wish for under the tree at Christmas until the Great Depression. Then there was pretty much nothing. And the small, short boy wasn’t Mr Popular any more.

When Pearl Harbour happened in 1941 he told people he wanted to be a pilot. He told me most folk laughed their asses off at that idea. But he did it. He got to England in January 1945, on a ship that had to hang around off Le Havre waiting for a U-Boat to be dealt with before landing in England; the airplane he hadn’t yet seen went to Liverpool, like every other P51D Mustang. He told me that when he went to the airpark there with a buddy it was dangerous just walking down the street, two US pilots in uniform and what seemed like thousands of women whose husbands, partners, lovers, sons had gone to the war.

I met him in 2006. He stayed at my house for ten days or so in 2009 and again in 2001, visiting England for the memorial service the Friends of Leiston Airfield held every May. He kept his room spotless and silent, so much so that one morning we were convinced he’d died in his sleep after a long nigh drinking and flying World War Two over Germany and Czeckoslovakia. It opened my eyes. All I knew about military flying back then was based on Biggles and David Niven, 633 Squadron, the Dambusters, Twelve O’Clock High, The Night My Number Came Up and all the other plucky stiff-upper-lip Johnny Head In Air propaganda, where dashing American officer Gregory Peck always cops off with the local squire’s daughter and gets billeted in a house half the size of Kent. Joe told me it was a big day when they got a second stove to heat their eight-man wooden hut.

He told me other things too. The story of a local Suffolk girl he should have married, a girl he left behind when his squadron was sent to Germany. About the one and only time he dated a German girl there, and how when he kissed her gutten nacht someone emptied a magazine full of 9mm at him from a machine pistol when all he had was his service issue Colt, a nearby wood and fast legs. He told me about friends who died and friends who lived. He told me how the weather had changed from fog more days than not, winter into spring of 1945 and how we worked out together that it wasn’t fog, but coal fires. It’s hardly ever foggy here now.

And odder, darker things. He told me early one morning, drinking grappa at 2am, about a friend who couldn’t keep his airplane straight in a dive, practice bombing on the river Orwell; how his wings had folded back and come clean off. About friends who took off in a flight of three, pulled up through the clouds and found there were only two airplanes that came out of the top; the same thing happening to others setting-down through the cloud, with the North Sea waiting below. the flying over the coast coming home, looking for the river running parallel to the sea at Aldeburgh, flying up the coast from there until he found a radio tower at Minsmere, turning 210 degrees on the tower which would put you at the end of the main runway at Leiston, then putting-down through fog, cutting the engine at 50 feet over the place where two hedges met and hoping nobody had parked-up a jeep on the runway. It wouldn’t hurt for very long, he said.

He told me how the weather had killed more of his buddies than the Luftwaffe ever did. He told me about having to fly eight-hour missions, escorting thousand bomber raids, the escorts so much faster than the bombers that they had to cross and re-cross the bomber stream and its ten mile vapour trails every few minutes in flights of four, the inside aircraft having to throttle way back and turn tight while the outside aircraft had to speed up and turn on the outside of the finger formation, then a few minutes later the same thing again, the other way around. Over and again, all the way to the target. He told me about B24s, Liberator bombers, which had a nasty habit of exploding when their bomb doors open; and sitting, five miles high, watching the ten men inside fall to the ground.

And once, way deep into the bottle, when I said I wasn’t clear what happened in that story, he was almost across the table at me, angry, in my face, spitting ‘What do you mean? You were there.” And I wondered at that moment, not just who he thought I was from that time, but whether for a moment somehow I was, for him. Whether we’d called-up something that shouldn’t have been called after so long sleeping. The same thing happened to an American friend way back, visiting an abandoned 8th Airforce airfield one wet and boring Sunday afternoon, wearing an American leather flying jacket. He ordered his girlfriend a drink and almost choked on his own when an old man at the bar in an almost empty, strange pub in the middle of nowhere looked hard at him and said simply, ‘You’re back, then.”

Joe Shea never shot anyone down, although he tried. He left the US Air Force after the war, went home and built a bathroom onto his parents’ house. Then things went a little sour. He told me that little guy had been nothing in that little town outside the airforce; he’d gone back, he said, to being nothing there again, so he re-enlisted. He stayed in the Air Force all the way to being Lt.Colonel, although he hated being called that. I never knew why. He was part of the team that had to find the atom bomb the USAF lost after a plane crash in Spain, wondering if they’d ever find it or whether someone knew exactly where it was while they looked.

And he told me about a time when his airplane just wasn’t making enough power taking off at Leiston airfleld, just down the road from where I sit on the edge of another Suffolk airfield. He switched off, ran over to a spare Mustang on the flight line and borrowed that to fly the mission. Except he was in a hurry to keep-up with everyone else taking off. He was short. And the usual pilot wasn’t, so when he powered down the runway his feet didn’t quite push the rudder bar as far to the right as they needed to, to counteract the torque of the engine pulling the airplane off the tarmac onto the wet mud it slewed onto. Slowing down would have meant that the wheels sank into the mud at about 120mph and cartwheeling across the airfield with full petrol tanks. It wouldn’t hurt for long but he kept the throttle open, the only thing that seemed sensible in that split second. He went straight through a hedge a few inches off the ground. There is still an airplane-sized gap in that hedgerow today.

On July 4th 2004 another Mustang went the same way in Durango, Colorado; once in the air the torque flipped it upside down. That one crashed. Joe’s machine inverted and he had the luck to push the control column instead of pulling it.

He nearly clipped the roof of one of the hangers before he finally, sweating, heart in mouth got the machine pointing the right way up and under control. The control tower laconically told him “You can put your wheels up now, Joe.”

His life for the past twenty years wasn’t easy. For a number of reasons he had to keep working and like anyone his age, while they say time loves a hero, illness and disease loves time, especially when it comes to human bodies and their frailties. Joe Shea died this year, one of a generation whose motivations and drivers, whose strength and resolve I can’t entirely fathom from here. He was not, he said, a hero. He did some things in that aircraft that didn’t help to win any war, that killed people who had done nothing to deserve killing. As people do in every war.

He could be abrasive, demanding and dismissive; he refused to help an old man in Yoxford re-visit a place where a young friend had blown himself up playing with a bomb dump by the side of the road. Apparently there were munitions dumps everywhere. He flatly refused to talk to a re-enactor who had spent thousands on a USAAF Military Police uniform at one memorial service; he told me he’d spent his war avoiding MPs and goosing his airplane up behind them riding motorcycles as they lead the Mustangs along the perimeter track around the airfield, so why the hell would he want to talk to someone pretending to be one now?

We drove him around some of the old sights he’d seen and helped him get some old pictures back home to a museum in America. We gave him a lot to drink and he told us stories he said he’d never shared with anyone before. Then we lost touch, moved house and life went on, the way it does. The way it’s supposed to. He died in his 90s. He felt bad for a long, long time, about the beauty of the colours of a German aircraft exploding in mid-air, this same man who when he saw a book cover with a photo of a crippled Me 110 said calmly it was on the correct course:

“Straight down into the ground with smoke coming out of it.”

In a little lane near Leiston there’s a concrete memorial to the eighty-two pilots who died while they were stationed at the airfield there. An inscription on it is from the King James Bible, the one I always thought was the one true text not as a zealot but because I didn’t know any better, which is maybe the same definition.


They fly away as an eagle toward heaven.

Proverbs 23:5

Who knows? Maybe they did. I remember the fear and the shame and the horror in his voice when he described the beauty of the colour of another man’s life exploding in front of his eighteen year-old eyes. I hope he found peace.

A long time ago a man in uniform said what I hope is true now, the way it was that wet, nearly final day in a Suffolk field: You can put your wheels up now, Joe.

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Oooom Pah Pah

It’s a nicely Boris Johnson-sounding phrase, isn’t it? Suitably, because it was the chorus of a music hall song about making-up stories, something the Prime Minister was sacked for, twice, at the start of his career in a world where clearly lying is no impediment to career advancement.

There is, according to the 1960s musical Oliver! (and how I hate exclamation marks compulsorily joined to words) a little ditty they’re singing in the City.

 There’s a little ditty
They’re singing in the city
Espeshly when they’ve been
On the gin
Or the beer
If you’ve got the patience,
Your own imaginations
Will tell you just exactly what you want to hear…

So far, it’s the story of Brexit, where the pub bore suddenly feels able to pontificate about sovereignty and trade deals while even its most ardent supporters can’t quite articulate what they will be able to do that they can’t do now that the EU is stopping them doing, nor exactly how leaving the UK’s biggest trading partner is going to usher in anything except the golden opportunity to re-start the ground-nut scheme, or whatever else someone can cobble together out of a trade deal with Tanzania.

They all suppose what they want to suppose

I’ve been reading about two very different stories where people heard, saw and believed exactly what they wanted to believe they saw and heard.

When I first went to High School we had to find, remember and illustrate a poem. I chose In Flanders Fields, in large part because it was short but also because thanks to the definitive historical text of the times, the Airfix catalogue, I knew, or thought I knew, a bit about the First World War. Finding a complete set of The Great War in all thirteen volumes and all its dated monochrome glory at an uncle’s house one excrutiatingly boring holiday had helped as well. I’d been taken to see a vicar who had actually served in the First War. I’d even been given what a strange uncle called a Commando dagger, adding enigmatically, ‘they’re cruel, those Japs,’ oblivious of the fact that the Japanese weren’t fighting the UK in 1914-1918 and as it turned out, the dagger was a German First World War trench knife and nothing to do with WWII British Commandos at all. So I’d heard of the Angel of Mons.

It was a fairy tale. If you haven’t heard of it, it goes like this. Battle of Mons, 1915, British Army about to get wiped out by Germans, angels appear, can’t seem to read ‘Gott Mit Uns’ on the Germans’ belt buckles, may or may not have muttered ‘here’s socks’ and turn back the dastardly Hun instead, with or in some versions without the aid of ghostly Agincourt bowmen.

All very well and stirring stuff, and widely believed as fact, except that a man called Arthur Machen made the whole thing up, deliberately and openly. The angles and the Bowmen of Mons were fiction. He always said so right up to until the end of his life. The trouble was, nobody believed him.

Making-up is(n’t) hard to do

Much the same thing happened in France in June 1944. Hundreds of kilometres from the Normandy landings, local Resistance units rose and gathered on a plateau called the Vercors, near Grenoble. They had been waiting for the codewords on the BBC to take-up arms and fight to liberate their country. When the word came, they fought. Except the word definitively had never been broadcast. Some people, according to Paddy Ashdown (The Cruel Victory) claimed long after the war that they remembered the command in clear.

They wanted to believe it was true. It wasn’t. And it didn’t matter.

The problem being that it does matter. Newspaper after parish magazine after sermon after speech exhorted more young men to join up and get blown to pieces, drown in mud or line-up to die of flu by the hundreds of thousands, unsafe in the knowledge that angels or at least St George was looking after them specifically. On the Vercors, 4,500 French civilians stood-up and shot at the Wermacht artillery with left-over Hotchkiss guns and anything they could steal from a police barracks. They were both massacred.

Today we have a Prime Minister who makes-up stories and people who want to believe them too. Just like then, nothing bad will happen to him at all.

The end of the affair

The Overseas Food Corporation working party reported in 1950 that the groundnut scheme was costing six times as much to produce the crops as the crops were worth. Just like today they repeated the mantra that the administration in Tanganyika needed to be ‘much smaller and more flexible’ and released from ‘the burden of preconceived objectives and targets’, as well as ‘undue or premature publicity’. Plenty of time was needed to foster the growth of ‘viable economic units’ suited to the local conditions, which evidently needed to be shielded from both the public eye and eerily reminiscent of today, any particular expectations.

The groundnut scheme was folded in January 1951. Debts of £36.5 million – over a thousand million sterling today – were written off. Just like today, it was all nobody’s fault that people believed in it all.

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Scales of concern

I taught last year at Stowupland High School. I complained when a pupil who I disarmed after he had stolen a four-inch blade and threatened another pupil with it was given with a one day internal exclusion. That meant he didn’t have to go to lessons. It also meant I was very suddenly not asked back again.

It’s no loss. Except to the other children who have to spend the rest of their school days with someone who could, according to the law, go to prison for four years.

To quote directly, Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) 1988 prohibits having an article with blade or point, in a public place.

Section 139A of the 1988 Act extends the geographical scope of both of the above offences to school premises. A corridor in a school definitely counts.

Section 139AA of the CJA 1988 makes it an offence to unlawfully and intentionally threaten another person with an offensive weapon or bladed article in a public place or on school premises, in such a way that there is an immediate risk of serious physical harm to that other person.

‘Next time I’ll stab you.’

I heard him say it. He never denied saying it. I think that counts as an intentional threat. Saying ‘I was joking’ after you’ve jabbed someone with a blade and got caught doesn’t cut it in my book. I would also submit, m’lud, that the recipient telling the jabber to ‘fuck off’ doesn’t alter the fact of the threat being made.

The prosecution must prove that the defendant had a relevant article in a public place or on school premises, unlawfully and intentionally threatened another person with it, and did so in a way that there was an immediate risk of serious physical harm to that other person. For the purpose of section 139AA CJA 1988, ‘serious physical harm’ is defined as grievous bodily harm. The term “public place” has the same meaning as in section 139 above and ‘school premises’ has the same meaning as in section 139A above.

Unlike an offence contrary to section 139 CJA 1988, it doesn’t matter whether a person was initially in lawful possession. Stealing scissors from the Science lab doesn’t really count as ‘lawful possession’ anyway.

The school promises ‘outstanding progress for all.’ It doesn’t deliver it, unless you count not being reported to the police for a criminal offence and no record of if being kept in case they find out about it counts as progress. Just take a look at their Ofstead report.

Or if you’re like the minority of pupils there and can’t be bothered, read the highlights, if that’s the right word. I was there in November. The Ofsted inspection was in March. Nothing had changed nearly half a year later.

The behaviour of pupils requires improvement.
? The school’s monitoring records show that this year far fewer pupils are being referred to the internal exclusion room compared to last year. Furthermore, the proportion of pupils excluded from school has fallen this year. Records show that very few permanent exclusions occur.
? Pupils are concerned when their learning is disrupted by others. Inconsistent behaviour management by staff means that these pupils continue to misbehave. Leaders and managers are not fully aware of the scale of this concern, or of the negative impact it
is having on the learning of the majority of pupils who want to achieve well.

Ofsted report March 2019.

As in several other Suffolk state schools, the demands of the few are given precedence over the rights of the many. Disruptive and occasionally violent pupils are allowed to steal a decent education from every other child in the class with them.

And nothing at all is done to stop them.

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And the consequence was…

I haven’t been writing much lately. I live in a country which has changed massively from the country I was born in.

We thought – at least we did in my house – that what we read was true. That Prime Ministers didn’t tell lies. Or at least, not as a habit.

That when people deliberately broke the law there was a punishment for it.

And that isn’t the England I live in, now. The Prime Minister, a man who was sacked from his first two jobs specifically for lying, for making-up stories about the EC and how dreadful it all was and how plucky Brits never, never, never should be slaves and what a corblimey honest working-class geezer eewozinnit, not one of them elites at all, what? Sorry, one means innit, again, has just been found to have acted unlawfully.

Meanwhile a man who looks improbably like Lord Snooty in the Beano isn’t laughed at, is elected and is a government Minister, who having staged a constitutional coup and lost it thanks to the Supreme Court, accuses the Supreme Court of a constitutional coup. US Presidents don’t serially seduce actresses or copulate with willing interns (I mean, nobody would, now); instead, they talk like six year-olds sugared-up at a birthday party. And nobody laughs. Nobody says ‘get tae fek’. Not that I’ve heard on Radio4. At least John Humphries isn’t there to genuflect to David Davies any more.

So the PM has broken the law. And nothing happens.

A big so what?

The Opposition doesn’t want a vote of no confidence, having demanded a vote of no confidence right up to the time they could win a vote of no confidence. Johnson broke the law. His Ministers say he didn’t, despite the Supreme Court saying he did. He isn’t going to prison. He isn’t paying a fine. He’s not even picking-up litter on the A12 wearing a hi-viz vest. Nothing bad will happen to him at all. This is an England where lying is absolutely fine.

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Running out of school

Despite the fact that the word is banned in schools now, stupidly I took a teaching job at Stowupland High School after a few days helping out on Reception. One of the duties doing that was co-ordinating searches for students who decided they were going to go into nearby Stowmarket instead of being at school. The consequence to the perpetrator, as with every other deviant behaviour at that school, was pretty much nothing at all.

Hidden away in a leafy part of Suffolk I’d listened dis-believing while qualified teachers had their time wasted trying to find children who had been taught it was completely acceptable in Stowupland parlance to ‘go for a walk’ if they felt that sitting in a class doing boring learning stuff was too much of an arse-ache. Two qualified teachers spent most of their day either sitting in a duty room waiting, or following walkabout pupils at a discrete distance in case they got upset at being asked, let alone told, to get back to the class they’d walked out of.

I thought it was a one-off, on Reception. I didn’t understand the key thing about Supply teaching; that you’re there because either a teacher has walked out (one did, but I stupidly didn’t register that in my mind) for good, or just can’t face it that day, week, or forever after. Occasionally, at other schools, a full-time permanent teacher might go sick, or get stuck in traffic on Suffolk’s laughable roads where one three-car accident can shut things down for a morning, or exams might mean that someone’s double-booked and needs another body to help out. At another Suffolk school for example, despite the fact that the school has two senior staff paid £150,000 a year, more than the Prime Minister, they’re permanently short of three teachers (combined salary under £70,000 p.a.). And yes. Both of them. Each.

And I didn’t clock it.

I saw the ex-member of staff slamming out of the security door and signing-out for the last time and I still didn’t clock it. I’d taught there before, filling in for General Science. I was going to say I was getting nowhere but I had actually persuaded a pupil that he didn’t actually need to carry a thick cane that would be pretty useful as a rod of correction if I remember my Rastafarian argot from Bath, a long time ago, home of the Lion of Judah.

Apart from that I was getting nowhere until I explained that the thing about things was that atoms and that, they all vibrate, all the molecules and stuff, doing little orbits at different speeds, which is why (cue demonstration) when I put my hand under this water coming out of the tap my hand pushes the water away and it flows around my hand, and when I push this plastic bowl my hand doesn’t go through it and the whole bowl moves instead. That seemed to work. Nobody had explained that. I thought it was the basic Stuff About Atoms that you’d need to know. Apparently it was, but nobody had told them about it. Instant ‘legend.’

Stabby Boy, the liar Billie Maddison

I met him on my first day in the English department. That was the name the boy wearing his coat backwards in the corridor and slamming doors gave, but he was a liar anyway. There was no Billie Maddison at the school.

So it’s entirely safe to call Stabby Boy Billie Maddison too, given that so far as the school was concerned it was no big deal and he didn’t really exist anyway.

“Next time, I’ll stab you.”

Billie Maddison, November 2018, Stowupland High School

Stabby Boy got his name because I caught him threatening to stab several other pupils in a corridor. That’s what he said he was going to do and that was the only reason I could see for him carrying four-inch bladed pointed scissors that he’d stolen from the Science Lab, first in his hand when he was jabbing them at other pupils, then in his front trouser pocket when he saw me. I decided there and then that if he did anything with the scissors other than hand them over to me slowly and now then job or no job, his next destination was going to be the floor in about half a second.  I am categorically not dying to keep someone else’s adolescent ego intact.

He handed them over. Oddly, I didn’t want him in the class after that. I called Security, or whatever fact-hiding name the two qualified teachers whose job it is to pander to anarchy were called that week. I explained the situation and told them I wanted Billie removed. They removed him.

He’s back inside five minutes.

Billie walked to the back of the class, propped his chair on two legs and leaned back against the wall. I told him to sit down at the front. Why? Well, firstly because I told him to and secondly, I don’t trust him and want to see exactly what he’s doing.

He doesn’t have to. According to him.

Call Security again. When they turned up, obviously after I’d been unable to give Billie’s real name, and confirmed that yes, as it was me again then the room hadn’t changed either and nor had the subject not being taught thanks to Billie Maddison, they asked him what the problem was. He was being picked on. I told him again to move down to the front and added that he didn’t decide where he sat, I did.

This was the cue to start throwing desks. Sadly, Billie beat me to it. Security laughably stood there watching. When he eventually consented to be moved and after I’d made it clear, as it obviously needed to be, that I was not having him back in the class we could finally get on with the lesson.

The Ultimate Price

Billie wasn’t in class next day. He was the day after.

He’d paid the school’s ultimate price: a one-day internal exclusion. If you’re an adult carrying a bladed article in a school you can go to prison for up to three years. You don’t have to threaten anyone with it, or steal it, or keep it in your trouser pocket for a quick draw, or jab people with it. All of which Billie Maddison had done in front of me. You just need to have it on you.

So we taught Billie Maddison an important lesson that day. Unfortunately, the lesson was that if you don’t want to go to classes, all you need to do is steal a weapon and you don’t have to.

Which is why there’s a teacher shortage.

Incidentally, if you’re the Head at Stowupland High School and think there is anything even vaguely inaccurate about this account, look at the internal exclusion records for last November. I’m more than happy to talk about this in public.

Silence only protects the guilty. Just the way Billie Maddison likes it.

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School Blues

There’s a book by Daniel Pennac, winner of the Prix Renaudot. Which isn’t anything like a Fiat Punto, despite the funk-eh name.

Michael Morpurgo reckons “Every education Minister, every teacher, every parent should read this,’ even if he did miss the last comma.

It’s all about how Danial Pennac didn’t do well at school until a teacher told him to write a novel, when he realised that nobody has to be a failed student for ever. It’s about “how fear can make children reject education” and how ‘inventive thinking and inspired teaching can lure them back’ from being ‘struggling students adrift in a faltering system.’

I’m not French. Sorry, but there it is. I never went to a French school although I did eat tongue in the uni at Rouen. Not like that. She wasn’t having any, then or ever after, notwithstanding that was pretty much the point of me going. I never even went to France until I was 21. It was all translated by Sarah Ardizzone, whose Mum I know a bit from when she used to live down the road.

There are lots of good bits of dialogue in the book but overall it put me in mind of Clint Eastwood talking to that chair. To be fair, he didn’t say the thing that teachers aren’t now allowed to say.

Come on, punk. Make my day.

Sincere or not, it comes over as a well-practiced party piece. And there’s lots to like about it.

“What improved my mistakes was that…teacher who refused to lower his standards by allowing spelling mistakes.” Dear God man, you’d better not come out with language like that in a Staff Room these days. You’ll stunt someone’s freedom of expression with that kind of bolshy talk.

He also says the thing that utterly, totally, absolutely can’t be said: it’s the sodding parents.

“Our “bad students,” the ones slated not to become anything, never come to school alone.” For once, a schools commentator isn’t talking about Mrs Proudly blocking the pavement with her leased Range-Rover while she ?Evoques (ooooh, see what sir did there?)  her kids’ heart attacks 40 years later by making sure they never walk more than 48 feet per day.

“Look, here they come, their families in their rucksacks. The lesson can’t begin until the burden has been laid down and the onion peeled. It’s hard to explain but just one look is often enough, a kind remark, a clear, steady word from a considerate grown-up, to dissolve those blues, lighten those minds and settle those kids into the present indicative.”

Quite good at the old wordage, isn’t he? And as any decent teacher knows, a lot of that is absolutely bang on. He didn’t add ‘and un-fuck the fucked-upness that your fucked-up mum and dad fucked you up with, they may not mean to but on the other hand, they did’t really give a fuck what was going to happen to you either,’ to paraphrase Philip Larkin.

What really got me was two things. Pennac goes to considerable trouble to damn other people who say how dim everyone thought they were at school but look at them now, before going on to do pretty much the exact same thing himself. Repeatedly.

But what really got me was the poetic little end-piece about the swallows that fly, if he lets them, through his bedroom windows, across the room and out the other side.

It’s not that he doesn’t once namecheck the Venerable Bede, which seems an obvious and curious omission; perhaps it was because Bede wrote of a single sparrow, not entire squadrons of more graceful, somehow entirely more Gallic birds.

It was really nice. His point was that if he didn’t open the windows at both ends of the room the sparrows would charge in and brain themselves against the closed windows; you have to help them to live.

You could watch Minnie Driver in Hunky Dory and get the same, but hey. French. Comprendez?

“Yet it still happens: three or four of the idiots fly straight into the fixed panes. Our proportion of dunces. Our deviants. They’re not in line. They’re not following the path. They’re larking about on the edge. Result: fixed pane. Whack! At which point one of us gets up, picks up the stunned swallow – they weigh hardly anything, with their bones of wind – waits for it to wake-up again and sends it back out to join its friends. That’s what I believe love looks like, in the context of teaching, when our students fly like crazed birds.”

Leaving aside the fact that Pennac would be back on his mobile to the Supply agency in pretty short order if he used that vocabulary about the most disruptive and violent students in any British school I’ve been in, it’s lovely. And I think that’s what love looks like too.

Except I never, ever, ever saw a swallow throw a desk, nor pick up a chair and try to smash another child over the head with it and regard it as completely acceptable behaviour.

I never, ever, ever saw a swallow jab other swallows with a stolen four-inch blade and tell them it would stab them next time. But I’ve seen all that at schools, with next to no consequences.

Tolerating that behaviour isn’t love. It’s rewarding hate. And when it gets that far gone then frankly I don’t care if they hate themselves or someone else. It needed to be stopped before it got to that. Hard. Life is not about infinitely tolerating bad behaviour, making excuses for it, accommodating and adapting to it. Unless you’re Boris Johnson, of course, when it gets you as far as Prime Minister. For the rest of us, we do people in schools no favours when we pretend that’s what real life is all about.

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Somewhere else

A friend asked me if I wanted to look into my past. “Don’t you want to know about your father?” But the answer I come up with more and more, the older I get is no, not really.

What for?

I think she imagined it would give a sense of certainty, something I’ve never really had in my life, in large part due to the web of stupid lies and silence woven carefully around pretty much everything from the time I was born until I left home shortly before my nineteenth birthday. A cold-water shared room in a crappy bit of Cardiff wasn’t anyone’s idea of a palace, but at least I knew what was going on. A bit, anyway. I’ve never known exactly what was going on, it seems to me.

Proving yourself

I’ve had to re-apply for my DBS. I teach, and if you work with children you have to prove you don’t have a criminal record. Not that that would have stopped Jimmy Saville or Cyril Smith, both of whom happily sexually abused children for over forty years without the slightest stain on their reputation, let alone a criminal record but it’s considered rude to mention anything of the sort. Last time I did I was accused of ‘talking about paedophiles.’

You pay about £60 to get the Criminal Records Bureau to agree that no, they don’t have anything on you, guv, so you’re not a million to go in the frame, as they used to say in The Sweeney.

The frustrating thing is that while that’s the law and fair enough apart from the fact it doesn’t cost £60 to read ‘computer says no,’ the law isn’t good enough for some teaching agencies. You could have gone out and got yourself convicted after the records check, couldn’t you? Hmm? Get out of that. At which point you might feel, as more and more people do in the UK, that actually, all this teaching stuff is pretty much bollocks. It’s not the actual teaching part but all the rubbish that goes with it, from being expected to be a mental health therapist (obviously untrained and totally obviously unpaid; it’s the UK, after all) to having to prove I’m not a criminal, with the obvious implication being that in the absence of contrary evidence, I am.

Of course there have been teachers who abuse kids. And they were always, are now and will always be massively outnumbered by the number of parents and parents’ families and friends who abuse children, mentally, emotionally, physically and sexually, not a single one of whom will ever have to prove anything to anyone, until and unless the statitically unlikely happens and they go to court.

Naturally, I have a DBS. An Enhanced one in fact, that I presume doesn’t just mean I don’t have a criminal record but I really don’t have one. I also paid to make sure that it was registered on the Update Service, which is a simple way the government can screw yet more money out of you for something that should be yours free: it tells people you still haven’t been convicted of anything. To be fair, the DBS people are more than happy to give this information to anyone who asks if they can be bothered to phone up and ask. Which is obviously more than can be reasonably expected of any HR or compliance department.

I got a new bank card last November when the old one expired. There has always been money in that account. Do you have a funny feeling about what was going to happen?

I didn’t, because I was ill. I don’t even remember much beyond the day before Christmas Eve when I went to the carol service at draughty, lofty, cold Norwich Cathedral after getting us lost walking through drizzling sleet and turning a ten-minute walk into a half hour. I had a cold before. It turned into something else. I saw the email from DBS that they sent on Boxing Day, but I didn’t bother to read it. I was on the Update Service. On standing order. So it got renewed.

What about it?

The problem was it didn’t. The bank decided that obviously, anything I’d agreed to be paid with the old, expired bank card was just a passing fancy and if I really wanted anything to continue to be paid I should have thought of that before I didn’t stop time and the old card expiring.

So I’m not on the Update Service. Ok, said one teaching agency, then you haven’t got a DBS. So you can’t work.

I’ve pointed out that’s not what it means at all. That if anyone could be bothered to phone DBS they will learn in seconds that no, there is no subsequent information about convictions because there are no subsequent convictions to the DBS check being done originally. But God forbid HR or Compliance should ever do anything like take responsibility and check something themselves. That would be anarchy or something.

The agency wanted me to re-apply for a DBS. Apart from phoning DBS (which can’t be done, because either nobody has 10p for a phone call or see above), the only way of proving I still don’t have any convictions is to re-apply for a DBS and then put it on the update service. Again. Which makes no sense, apart from costing me £60 to prove something I’ve already proved, which as a safeguarding measure makes suspected criminals out of people doing their job.

I applied for one anyway. Not so fast, said the agency, our requirements are it has to be an enhanced one. Not the law, obviously. Snag. I can’t apply for one. Nobody can, said DBS. Only an organisation can. You’ll need two forms of identification, like your passport, driving licence or birth certificate, something governmenty. Let’s call it List A. It was nearly good enough for Radiohead, after all. Then something like a rent book or mortgage agreement or an electricity bill. Something corporate as well. List B.

That’s the law

Three documents.

Obviously, the law wasn’t good enough for the teaching agency, who stipulated that all three documents had to be from List A. One of the things that really, massively, instantly irks me is people who don’t know the law telling me what ‘the law’ says. Especially when absolutely anyone with internet access can find out from www.legislation.gov.uk. Anyone. No excuses.

I have a passport. I have a driving licence. Somewhere I had a birth certificate but when my father did his ultimate bunk he stole mine for reasons unclear to me. I was told it was so that people couldn’t find out who he was. If so it was spectacularly ineffective, as a simple visit to Somerset House in 1986 not only got me a copy of my birth certificate but also yielded his death certificate and his father’s name. Albert, if you really want to know. I couldn’t be bothered then or now to check out more, but one thing was clear; he hadn’t been born in Australia at all.

The other thing clear over Christmas was that I couldn’t find the copy of my birth certificate. So I couldn’t provide the three documents from List A. Which isn’t a legal requirement. Which is an agency requirement. Which is made-up. Which leads to an argument with them every single week.

I found it today, under a pile of books in a bookcase. Why it was there I have no idea. It uncovered another lie. I wasn’t born in Stratofrd-on-Avon at all.

I was born in Tiddington, a little village where until the 1980s there was a maternity hospital. Not far from Stratford, but definitely not Stratford. So why the lie? I’m not sure I can be bothered to find out.

 

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Blame it on the boogie

I’m talking about sunshine, albeit on a day when the temperature is going through the floor here in Suffolk where the wind blows straight from the Urals. Or that’s what they claim here, every winter. Maybe it’s even true. What is definitely true is that once again, it’s time to book the tickets to the Django Reinhardt festival in Fontainebleau. Which gives me two problems.

Problem One: It’s not there

Sure, there really is a Django Reinhardt festival in Fontainebleau, along with nobody who can remember Robert Louis Stevenson and DH Laurence living there in the artists’ colony at Barbizon. There was last year too, when I went for the first time. But the proper festival is up the road in Samois-sur-Seine, the tiny little ‘Allo ‘Allo town where the man lived the last few years of his life after the war, and where early one morning, walking back from the station and Saturday night gig in Paris, he collapsed and died.

This was a man who transformed music. A man who as a gypsy, as a Swing musician and often enough in those days as someone who looked Jewish would and by the lights of the times should have ended his short days ten years earlier, in a camp when the Nazis took Paris. A man who the Nazis ignored, despite people like Heydrich specifically banning pretty much everything that made Swing swing.

The Fontainebleau festival you pay for. That’s not the problem.

Problem two: The Fontainebleau django reinhardt festival isn’t about Django Reinhardt

Now for me, this is something of what I’d call a big problem. It’s corporate. They’ve got flags and chairs and army guys with shooty guns walking around a lot, but they go for that stuff in France to post a letter some days. More to the point, the music isn’t Swing. It’s not that it don’t mean a thing if it’s not, but I don’t really see how you can have a festival named after and for a specific musician playing a specific type of music then churn out music that sounded like the theme from Shaft, which was what happened one Saturday night last year. Sure, it was still real and it was still fun, but it still wasn’t real fun.

Problem Three, that it clashes with a summer job I really like doing, is even more problematic. I did something to my Achilles tendon last year which solved that problem, but still. It’ll be summer here again soon. The music will be hear again soon. And Fontainebleau, and walking in the woods nearby with a friend in a thunderstorm, making the coffee while she got the croissants from the boulangerie, hiring bikes to ride through the woods to listen to that marvellous music, free, at the real festival, all that will be here again soon too.

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Total and Utter State

Another day teaching at what’s described as a High School, a title which now seems to mean simply that it’s not for tiny little children, although some of them physically are. And another day where for all the pious policies in the Teaching Manual, you can’t fight a culture where the majority simply don’t want to learn anything and where there are no sanctions to change their views.

Given I won’t be there after the end of term then luckily that isn’t really my problem for much longer. But it’s sad that so much of what so many kids do actually know is only the internet-sanctioned stuff.

Talking about gun control, nobody had heard of Andy Murray, the tennis player. Not for his tennis, but because he survived the Dunblane massacre, in Scotland. Which they’d never heard of either. Nor knew where it was.

But they could give full-fact disclosure on Columbine.

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