The end of the world

In an adult life that has been for the most part not boring, it should have come as small surprise that I’d be working at the end of the world this week. Or rather, where the end of the world would have started and very nearly did.

I’m teaching a ten year-old actress who turned out not at all to be the bratty monster the words “ten year-old actress” suggested before I met her. If you’re under 16 and out of school you have to have a minimum of three hours of tuition each day. Or you’re not allowed on set. And in this case, given she has a key role, no film.

It struck me that my usual panoply of George Formby-based vocabulary learning might possibly not be entirely appropriate, great for giving Italian nineteen year-olds a thorough grounding in 1930s smut but with entirely forseeable problems here. I bought some Key Stage Two books. I bought some maths puzzles that were so horrible I couldn’t do them. I mean, I designed a formula-based software application, so I’m not exactly dense when it comes to maths, but I can’t do hardly any of the problems in that book.

Even Al the trusty green fluffy alligator that hormone-pumped Continental youths fight over didn’t appear to be making his normal contribution. I did what I usually forget to do when I have a problem. I went for a walk.

This old airbase is haunted. The last base commander said so. On night shifts his guards at the main gate would intercept some hapless pilot who didn’t have his papers and seemed disconnected from things. They’d keep him there while someone who should be able to vouch for him came on down to pick him up. And when they got there the airman had gone, vanished, disappeared to wherever he’d come from, where no-one saw him go. This was where the Rendlesham Forest UFO sighting happened, whatever that was. This was where in WWII a German aircraft crew came in, made a perfect landing, taxi-ed neatly off the runway, switched off and only realised they actually weren’t five minutes from their end-of-flight debriefing when people pointed guns at them. Ooops.

When I went for a walk the base was haunted by deer, a small herd that had managed to get its young one side of the perimeter fence and the rest of the herd the other, both groups running away from the gate long left open that had split them up.  I found machine-gun posts, looking new and clean and free from graffittee but surrounded by new growth pines planted since the airforce left in 1992, without a single footprint marking the sand that had crept in to cover their floors. Nobody has been here for years.

Parts of the base are empty. The decrepit sentinels of rusting watchtowers overlook workshops re-purposed as a hospital film set. A small reservoir oddly sports a dozen Georgian cannon, resting silently in a foot of clear water. And the planes are still here. An aviation restoration company shares the space with the deer, bringing in airframes that its hard to see could ever possibly fly anywhere or be any use to anyone except as film props.

Deception is something Suffolk has done before though. Patton’s fake decoy army was stationed all over this area too, the inflatable tanks and cardboard huts and plywood planes convincing the German High Command that the invasion of Europe would spring from here, via Great Yarmouth and Felixstowe and Ipswich, presumably. You could walk to Shingle Street, where if a German force wasn’t incinerated in local legend then a huge propaganda coup was carried-off, not even ten miles from here. Now rabbits hop around the empty huts where American voices ran through the drills that would launch the jets that would stop Soviet tanks rolling through the fields of Northern Europe. Which luckily for all of us, they both never did.

And today, my pupil has nearly, very nearly completed a 1,000 word story-writing task. The day isn’t over.

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We don’t need no education

We’re all a bit tired of experts, after all. The Minister for Education said so. Which tells you pretty much all you need to know about Britain, about how politicians feel about the people they’re supposed to represent, about education in Britain and the reasons for its place in the world.

It’s a country which has always pretty much despised education and cultivated the idea that decent people don’t know much, don’t want to and don’t need to, along with the idea that education in itself is suspect. It’s a country where you can definitely know too much for your own good.

At school I was advised by my Careers master not to do Psychology; employers would think I was always trying to find out what was in their heads. This wasn’t said as a joke. It was very definitely serious careers advice, at what was then a decent-enough school that produced some seriously rich adults, if not that many academics.

Any study of comparative educational attainment shows the UK lagging far, far behind in pretty much everything, starting with literacy. You can see the government’s own comparisons here. It lists the countries we’re encouraged to sneer at, the bad haircut Koreans, the we’re-absolutely-terrified-of-them-so-hush-Chinese, the hippy Finns, the close-to-communist-yet-inexplicably-affluent-and-modest-and-happy Norwegians, chocolate-munching Belgians, clog-wearing Anne-Frank-betraying-Dutch-who-we-helped-so-much and the dangerous-to-bankers-Gordon-Brown-defying Icelanders. The best of them have kids whose reading age is a year and a half above that of a British child of the same age. On average. Twenty countries do solidly better than the UK in mathematics, presumably ones which don’t pretend to be American and call it Math. Likely. Ten countries race ahead of the UK at Science in schools. And we get exactly what we deserve. With a UK population whose collective reading age is about nine years old perhaps it’s not surprising that social policy is dictated by the tabloid press.

I haven’t worked in all of these countries, but I’ve taught a fair few Chinese kids. They do things differently there. Here, we spend hours trying to work out new ways to involve the kids, how to make the lessons appeal, integrate learning into their life experience, make it bogusly ‘relevant’, because obviously knowing how to read enough to get a job compared to say, Pa knowing the boss, isn’t relevant to anything in the UK. In China the approach seems to be much the same as the one I remember from a rural primary school when it wasn’t just films that were black and white: sit down, shut up, open your books.

I’m not convinced that’s always the best way to do things. A practical lesson I did on how to make and lie in a hammock goes down as the happiest and most productive I remember, where even the ‘bad’ boys got involved. And were suitably chastened, even downright frightened when I told them about the last stitch at sea, the one through the septum to close the hammock over the dead sailor prior to chucking him over the side, just in case he wasn’t able to move or speak. Over, under, around, through, back over, up, down, we learned them all. Relative prepositions of place, in a sunny field by a stream one August morning. That time, Pink Floyd got it wrong. And some days, dark sarcasm is the only thing that keeps you going. I’m English, after all.


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