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Hobbies – being true to yourself

August 30, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized


Ken Loach, Producer of such acclaimed films as Cathy Come Home and Up the Junction, in commenting on the recent riots wrote, “I think the underlying factors are plain for anyone to see… now there is no place for kids, and we also don’t seem to have a political class that understands, on any level, what it is like to face unemployment.” Loach recognises only too well that society is leaving young people to grow-up unprepared to deal with the challenges of modern life.

As a young, untrained teacher in a small boys’ boarding preparatory school in 1960, I heard the Headmaster of Rugby address the school on speech day: “The only advice I can give you as you think about the future, is to develop two hobbies which interest you so much that you stick with them all your life. Providing they are nothing to do with your career they will give you the sheet anchors to provide stability however much your career may go up and down”.

That comment meant much to me. As an eight year-old I was taught to wood-carve by an old Naval stoker, whom my father employed to carry out odd jobs around our house. I found old MacFadgen fascinating; alongside telling me extraordinary stories about life in the Navy, he showed me how to sharpen chisels, and work the grain of a piece of wood. He taught me well, but I was disappointed when I discovered there was no proper workshop in the boarding school I was sent to at the age of 13. But there was an odd-jobber who encouraged me in my woodwork over the next few years.

I needed Latin to get to university but I failed it three times. I had one more chance. Then one day this odd-jobber congratulated me on being chosen as the best schoolboy woodcarver in England. My work would be exhibited at Olympia; my excitement was subdued as I realised that the school would take no notice of this result – it wasn’t an Oxbridge reward or sporting record. If I can be the best woodcarver for my age, why couldn’t I pass Latin? I knew it was because my teacher got in the way so I went to see him.

Self-reliance therefore became the best lesson ever learnt.

“Because I have to pass Latin O-Level in six weeks’ time I’m not coming to any more of your lessons. I’ll teach myself”. Pupils did not talk like that in the 1950s; I was virtually ostracised by the staff but confined myself to the library at every possible moment and forced myself to memorise vast chunks of Virgil’s Aeneid, and Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and learnt my conjugations and declensions parrot fashion. I went into the exam hall up to my eyes in them. When the results came out I was told I had got 89%, but I couldn’t remember any of it. But it got me to University, and convinced me I needed to become a teacher to ensure that other children had a better opportunity than I did.

Self-reliance therefore became the best lesson ever learnt. While I have few opportunities now to indulge in wood carving, I have never lost my love of carpentry and for a lifetime have sought relief to the tensions encountered in a long and interesting professional career, by creeping away to my workshop at the bottom of the garden. Six weeks ago I was able to give our granddaughter a little hand-made rocking horse that took me hours to make, but felt so much better than spending £29 on a similar piece currently on sale in Ikea.

Effectiveness

August 24, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

It is more than two weeks since endless television coverage of young people smashing shop windows, and looting the stores of everything they could carry away. Why they did this, and what needs to be done about it, will continue to be the stuff of conversation for weeks and months.

Two things appear obvious – most of the rioters were neither homeless nor starving. Whatever the deficiencies of our social security system to a very large extent everyone’s physical needs are satisfied. It wasn’t loaves of bread or cartons of milk that were stolen… it was high-end, portable consumer goods – televisions, music systems, clothing and the like. These are the ‘things’ the young are encouraged to see as the artefacts of a material heaven.

There is an ancient Chinese proverb that seeks to show the difference between heaven and hell. Hell is a large room in the midst of which large cauldrons emit the most tantalising smells, and bubble furiously. Around them are frustrated people each with such long chopsticks that by the time they pick up a tasty morsel there is no way they can get it into their mouths, and it falls to the ground somewhere behind their shoulders. Heaven is exemplified by exactly the same shaped room, and the same cauldrons of enticing food; the chopsticks remain long, but everyone is fed and happy as, in pairs, they feed each other.

A couple of days ago in Bristol my taxi driver, a tall well-built Jamaican who had come to England in 1964, was anxious to give his explanation for the recent riots. His language was colourful, with almost every other word referring to various forms of copulation, but the essence of the case he made bares repetition. To people like him England is a veritable Heaven in comparison to where he had come from for in England we have so much and it’s not difficult to survive, and where necessary get more. But to many people, he explained, be they English or Caribbean, they have become so envious at what other people have got that in their frenzied lust they will tear other people apart to get more status goods, rather than working out how to create what they need for themselves. Removing the numerous expletives, he said ‘In England we have turned heaven into hell, and we appear not to have it within ourselves to know what is the right thing to do’.

Caught up in a massive traffic jam I realised that I had a good five minutes to tell him about the research dating from the late 1990s on evolutionary explanations for human motivations and behaviour. We were not born to be happy, states such research; we were born to struggle to be effective – to sort problems out for ourselves. In so doing we become masters of our own environment and at that moment each, in a very different way, suddenly realises the satisfaction that comes from sorting out a problem for ourselves. It is when we have the opportunity to prove our effectiveness that we then get a glimmer of what true happiness is all about.

It was a good job we were stuck in that traffic jam because my Caribbean friend pushed both his hands through the partition, and grasping me in his firm grip almost cried out with excitement. Again – and missing out the expletives – he told me that I had provided him with the clue to what all the troubles were actually about. We had forgotten that to search for happiness on its own is a waste of time; what matters is to construct a meaningful life which, in conjunction with others, enables the individual to achieve great satisfaction because they know that they can simply do things for themselves.

At the station he refused to take a fare because he said this was the idea that he was going to take back to his community, and he grasped my hand so firmly that I thought the bone was going to crack!

Grandparents’ Wisdom

August 19, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

Today’s talk is all about A-Level results. What do they really mean, and are our children being properly prepared for the future? By themselves the statistics are confusing. “Why can’t it be like it once was?” pine those whose instinct is that our young people leave school less prepared than they. But what if we go back further, to our grandparents’ generation, to the days of the Higher School Certificate taken only by a tiny proportion of young people; how well educated were they?

In an article entitled “What should every school-leaver know” published in the TES in September 1948 sixty items were listed. These were not specific to any subject, nor were they examined, and they were intended for every school-leaver. How well would you do on some of these?

  • How to buy, take care of, and wear clothes to the best advantage; darn socks and mend boots. How to clean a room, make a bed, use an iron or light a fire.
  • How to behave at a concert, a church service, in a railway carriage or at meals.
  • How to grow and store ordinary vegetables so that there is an all-year-round supply.
  • How to mend a frozen pipe, a blown fuse, a blocked-up drain, a leaking tap, a broken window, a smoking chimney or an over-flowing WC.
  • How to read an ordinance survey map and use rail and bus timetables to plan a journey across the British Isles.
  • How to get the best out of a police, the postman, the doctor or the refuse collector.
  • What to do about a stranger asking the way, or a person who is quite destitute.

You may no longer need (as they did in 1948) to know “how to kill a rabbit or a chicken humanely,” but what about “looking after public property – e.g. library books”? And then, perhaps the most demanding of all, “how to detect ordinary tricks of crooked thinking – e.g. suggestion, tabloid thinking, rationalisation, emotional language, confusion between ‘or’ and ‘some’, arguing from selected instances, begging the question, illegitimate extension, or false analogy.” (try thinking about the phone-hacking scandal in this context).

So how well did you do?

Did you achieve 95%, 70%, or were you just stumped? Does that mean you should go back to school and take more A-Levels, or does it remind you that there is far more to education than what can ever figure in exam results? In this day of sat-navs, mobile phones, emails and instant access to the internet –not to mention deep freezes and the lengthy supply chains to supermarkets – how would you cope if the electricity were turned off… not just for an hour or so, but for weeks, or even months? Perhaps you are now seeing more clearly the limitations of league tables, and why the instant sound bytes of politicians resemble the sailors who were trying to reorganise the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic.

Ill Fares the Land

August 16, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

“Ill fares the land…” wrote Oliver Goldsmith in 1770 as he looked out over the poisonous by-products of the Industrial Revolution, “where wealth accumulates, and men decay”. Two hundred and forty years later (2010), Tony Judt, one of the world’s leading historians and intellectuals, takes these first four words of the poem as the title of his critique of today’s world and writes, “something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today” where the rhetoric of our materialistic society appears based on an uncritical admiration for “unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, amid the delusion of endless growth”.

“Ill fares the land…” makes uncomfortable (if essential) reading for a summer’s afternoon on the beach. Especially is that the case when we are haunted by the recent news items that have shaken that serenity we always hope for on holiday – the Parliamentary expenses scandal, the bail-out of the bankers, the phone-hacking scandal and the sheer horror of the gunman shooting down young people in Norway. Now we face the horror of the vandalism and wanton destruction of the urban rioters of the past week.

Rioters with a cause are one thing, but rioters still in search of a cause after torching buildings, buses or cars defies our normal appreciation of civil unrest. The speed with which those riots have spread, and the enthusiasm of large numbers of school children, or recent school-leavers to join in the hunt for further targets, has rocked the comfortable complacency of middle England which wants to believe that – in a well-ordered society – good management and appropriate social programmes can isolate all of us from the human passions of those ‘on the other side of the hill’.

It was as the early factories took work away from the self-respecting craftsmen of the late 18th and early 19th century that the old expression “the devil finds work for idle hands to do” became a frightful reality resulting to an ever increasing array of legal prescriptions on what was deemed as unacceptable behaviour. Yet last week it was not simply the unemployed who were involved, nor were most of them without money or social benefits. Significant numbers of the rioters were of school age and on their summer holiday. The largest age group were those in their mid-20s through to the age of 30. Virtually what all of these had in common was that they had attended an English school, and had gone through the English national curriculum.

As the former Headmaster of a large comprehensive school between the mid 1970s and 80s, my generation is to a considerable extent responsible for the chaos. Let me explain: I well remember being tempted to respond positively to my staff’s wish for me to recruit extra ‘support staff’ over the lunch hour so as to prevent pupils leaving the school premises to go into the town. Once there they hung around the fish and chip shops, where their behaviour very obviously upset many of the locals. When I told my Chairman of Governors what I proposed he was furious… “do you have so little faith in what you are teaching your pupils that you dare not trust them out of your sight for 20 minutes? Rethink everything you’re doing because if you’re not giving them the skills to learn appropriate behaviour of their own volition by the age of 15 or 16, God help this society by the time they’re 18 or 20.”

Do you have so little faith in what you are teaching your pupils that you dare not trust them out of your sight for 20 minutes?

I quite rightly felt ashamed of myself and found recourse to that doctrine of the Catholic Church which has since become the underlying principle of the European Community – that uncomfortable world ‘Subsidiarity’. Uncomfortable as it might sound its meaning is very clear; “it is wrong for a superior body to hold onto responsibility for making a decision that an inferior is already able to make for itself”.

Think about that very carefully. Schools should not be in the process of making ‘good’ pupils; they should be in the process of creating within school young people with all the ability needed to adapt to the ever-changing challenges of whatever lives they choose to follow outside of the school. It is not simply good pupils that schools should be concerned to produce… it’s the creation of good citizens with skills that will last a lifetime that is education’s real task. Neither school nor school teacher should ever hang, leech-like, onto a pupil.

The task of school and teacher is comparable to that of an old-fashioned boat builder who puts all of his skill and understanding into building a ship which, so well designed and constructed, can survive the roughest seas, and in circumstances that the shipbuilder might never have experienced. The skilled shipbuilder creates a vessel that, once launched, severs all connection with the person who built it and is strong enough in the hands of a good sailor to go almost anywhere.

So, having been saved from making the wrong decision about the fish and chip shop, my life as a school teacher since then has always concentrated on how to give young people that variety of skills needed to take responsibility for themselves.

While I had been in danger of making a fundamental error, unfortunately in the years that have followed politicians have made an even worse error. Rather than directly facing the problems created by parents’ reluctance to stick with their children as they grow-up and experience all the difficulties that this can involve, politicians have found it easier to state, time and time again, that “parents should hold the school responsible for the education of their child”. While there is an element of truth in this statement progressively it has reached the situation where parents take the soft option, and shrug their shoulders and say, “let the school discipline my child”.

There have to be three partners involved in the bringing up of young people – it is not just the parents and the school, but it is the community as well (or should be). I was disappointed over the weekend when someone for whom I have a high regard said that it was no use my quoting the comparative success of Finland, and attributing this to the liveliness and sense of responsibility of their communities, “because England is different… we are much larger, and our communities are more heterogeneous”.

This is almost the tap-root of the problem. “The deserted village”, which Oliver Goldsmith wrote about in 1770, has given birth in the last 25 or 30 years to the assumption that it is more important to structure our towns and cities around the need for workers to work longer and more efficiently, than it has been to create environments which so hold together that they create the social capital on which, in the final analysis, we are all utterly dependent. There has been a tendency – one that has grown rapidly over very recent years – to centralise all forms of services and political decision making into increasingly larger groups. It was obvious this last weekend when political leaders at Westminster sought to be over-prescriptive of the responsibilities of local Chief Constables. It has been seen in the past 15 years in the gradual eradication of Local Education Authorities, and the replacement of 100 or so Chief Education Officers by endless ministerial writs emanating from Westminster – like that, there is no sense of community responsibility. Accepting that England is 8 or 10 times the size of Finland should surely encourage us now to apply the principle of Subsidiarity right across the whole of our nation. Mayors of towns should be very important people with the powers to do appropriate things locally, and not be dependent upon central ministerial direction.

“Ill fares the land” sounds desperately prescient as we move into the second half of what has been a very troubled year. The lesson I was forced to learn some 35 years ago has now to be applied right through society for unless we become a people able to think through, and make responsible judgements for ourselves, there is no end to the issues that could antagonise the next generation who, quite rightly, feel that their rights and responsibilities to think for themselves had been negated.

Oliver Goldsmith was an Anglo-Irish writer, poet and physician born in 1730. He was best known for his novel The Vicar of Wakefield, his pastoral poem The Deserted Village, and his plays The Good-Natur’d Man and She Stoops to Conquer. Goldsmith’s works earned him the company and friendship of Dr Samuel Johnson, who wrote an epitaph to accompany a monument to him in Westminster Abbey following his death at the age of 46.

Tony Judt, born in London in 1948 to secular Jewish parents, was a historian, essayist and Professor in European Studies at New York University. He was a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the British Academy. His works include the highly acclaimed Postwar, a history of Europe after the Second World War, and Ill Fares the Land, the last book to be published in his lifetime, in which he describes the recent past as “lost decades” marked by “fantasies of prosperity”. Judt died in 2010, aged 62.

The principle of Subsidiarity asserts that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority and any central authority should perform only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate level. Political decisions, functions of government, business, and other secular activities should be as local as possible. Subsidiarity is a relationship of trust, not control, and is based upon the autonomy and dignity of the human individual. Applying this principle to how we bring up our children, education would seek to give the youngest children a progression of skills and attitudes which would put them, as they grew older, more in charge of their own learning, and able to take responsibility for themselves.

The Phoenix

August 16, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

The whole world stands aghast as it sees England’s shame in the frightening scenes of urban rioting and sheer wanton destruction that has at its routes the frustrations of apparently thousands of young people who, having come out of our schools in the last 10-15 years, have so little empathetic understanding of their neighbours and a frightening absence of the significance of their own lives.

The inspiring cry, not for revenge or an eye-for-an-eye, by those who have suffered most is a powerful reminder that society is held together by bonds that can be only made stronger by a sensitive understanding of the feelings of everybody – the fortunate and the less fortunate. The plundering of wrecked shops is somewhat comparable to the plundering of the world economic system by those in financial services who, whilst still technically working within the law, seem to be running off with valuable resources which don’t actually belong to them.

In ancient mythology a phoenix is a mythical, beautiful and colourful bird that has a 500 or 1000 year life-cycle. Near the end of this it builds itself a nest of twigs. It then ignites, burns fiercely and reduces the nest and the old bird to ashes. Out of those ashes a new phoenix arises with the energy to build a totally new life. Without pressing the analogy too hard, it wasn’t actually the schools, the stock exchange or the banks that have been burning so fiercely over the last three or four nights. However the flames were too often fed by bored teenagers and those who, having left formal schooling in the last ten or so years, have little empathy with their fellow citizens and already feel failed by society which, by placing too high an emphasis on examination results, creates a sense of failure and purposelessness in those who are not academically gifted. And the horror of all this is that too often the so-called academically gifted have themselves so little empathy with their compatriots that they simply stand and watch indifferently the fate of their former peers.

Whist politicians urge the strengthening of the police force and harsher punishments to be issued by magistrates we should all pause and remember that at heart this is a spiritual rather than a political issue… it is about what each of us, as individuals, believes our own life and the lives of others are all about. We must rebuild our society on the basis of what John Milton called a “complete and generous education which prepares a man (and a woman) to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices, public and private, of peace and war”. Seventeenth Century language this may be, but none of us is so weak a linguist that a moment of thought cannot enable us to challenge the vacuousness of a way of life excessively materialistic, and even more excessively individualistic.

As it happens ten days ago I was preparing a Paper which, later this month, stands a fair chance of being passed to the Cabinet. Parliament has been recalled and later today will be debating the riots and the hooliganism. Already eminent writers like Simon Jenkins in his splendid piece yesterday, “In this Crisis, our cities need local leaders with real power” are forcefully arguing that recent political decisions have concentrated more and more power in the hands of Ministers with even less opportunity for local people to shape local policies… and this surely has happened as well to the world of education where the formerly influential LEA Directors of Education, of five or more years ago, have been replaced by the ever increasing power of the Minister of Education and his Department. There is a massive gap between the man in the street, the child at his or her desk, and the distant policy-making of Westminster.

My Paper “A Complete and Generous Education; Creating Big Society” will not reach Ministers until later in the month. However I would like to take the opportunity to publish this on the website now to enable as many members of the public as possible to think these issues through and then be able to add their voices, as appropriate in a democratic society, to the national debate that must surely follow. To those of my many readers who are outside the United Kingdom please do encourage us as we attempt to shape a new Phoenix.