The Horse’s Snigger

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The following italicised section is straight from the horse’s mouth: Ofsted head Amanda Spielman speaking at the Festival of Education on 23rd June, 2017. For those of us who for many years knew Ofsted mainly as an instrument of policing successive government dictates about exam-based target setting and verdicts of school progress/success focused entirely on this – for example, arriving to inspect an establishment having already decided a judgement on the basis of pure data – this has all the sound of a classic snigger.

Speaking about her experience of inspecting schools, Spielman observes,

In some of those, I have seen GCSE assessment objectives tracking back into Year 7, and SAT practice papers starting in Year 4. And I’ve seen lessons where everything is about the exam and where teaching the mark schemes has a bigger place than teaching history.

That is not what will set our children up for great futures. Nor will the growing cannibalisation of key stage 3 into key stage 4. Preparing for GCSEs so early gives young people less time to study a range of subjects in depth and more time just practising the tests themselves.

We have a full and coherent national curriculum and it seems to me a huge waste not to use it properly. The idea that children will not, for example, hear or play the great works of classical musicians or learn about the intricacies of ancient civilisations – all because they are busy preparing for a different set of GCSEs – would be a terrible shame. All children should study a broad and rich curriculum. Curtailing key stage 3 means prematurely cutting this off for children who may never have an opportunity to study some of these subjects again.

It is genuinely repugnant for Spielman to act like an enlightened critic of such practice when she will know the dark history of its existence. Whilst making some comic capital out of this in my previous posting – though I trust the disdain underpinned – I do think this, and the rest of her observations which can be read here, take the art of patronising and platitudinous comment to obscene levels of contradiction.

Irony and Baloney

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In the annals of being late – which is a litotes as well as a double entendre and also a straightforward exasperation – the announcement by Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, that schools should not be exam-factories and will be inspected and reprimanded/punished/flogged/ridiculed or whatever if they are, because if they are, and I quote, This all reflects a tendency to mistake badges and stickers for learning itself.  And it is putting the interests of schools ahead of the interests of the children in them has to be the most absurd about-turn, volte-face, U-turn, back-track, back-passage pontification of effluence from those responsible for decades of misery in education that I have heard for, well, decades.

I know there are knowing people out there in education who have said this might be a ‘groundbreaking’ announcement [teachers forever live in hope and fantasy and good intentions], but for all those students already harmed by years of exam-factory education, and all those teachers who have been harmed by exam-factory education [yes, my hand is waving in the air], this is the grossest example of a monumental dung-heap of irony I have smelt in nearly 40 years of being an educator and sniffer-outer of rank baloney.

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In Media Res

There’s a sudden roll and roar
of percussion in media res on
Disc 6, which is Symphony No. 9
by Vaughan Williams, having
heard the 8th in D minor, this one
in E, the Moderato maestoso,
so just into the first movement,

yet it isn’t and instead a plane
passing overhead with the window
opened at the desk where I listen,
marking students writing in Latin,
yet they don’t and instead – like this
sound not in media res which would

be near the end of the 2nd, Andante
sostenuto, as if I understand
Italian – are playing with terms
like drum-thunder in a narrative
making noise flying above and so
unable to hear the real words below.

Radiohead at Glastonbury, June 2017

[for Ana]

I lost myself
is a chorus
echoing from the crowd
as the concert ends

and I wonder when
it hit you,
that plaintive note
amidst the reverie

where nostalgia is both
joy and pain,
remembering how years
have gone –

and, of course,
my refrains played out
so many times before,
lost or found.

For you it could have been
at the metaphor of an
Airbag, its sudden
jolt on how those dreams

are lost
even if in what was found.
And did we think it all OK
together in the dining room,

my discovery of a new
psychedelia in the Paranoid,
you having already

Tonight, Karma is
resolution rather than
retribution, an evening out
of lives

late into the dark.
Music always held us tight and
you’ll have missed being there,
and me, you here.


21st June, 2017

On this longest day of summer
when the adjective qualifies the

I have had my own significant
length of time examining
a naming of parts

as students respond to two
unseen poems about

and whether personification
is spotted before the

like a light flashing its
desperate hope for

They have – well trained –
and most get the gists too:
one negative,

the other not, so an
extra mark for positive, perhaps
even the wind

blowing it into antithesis
and a move up
the ladder

which is an assessment metaphor.
Do not think this a
quiet rage

or unquiet one either –
it is just one long hot day of

until the enjambment kicks in.
So many felt the chill, and
the thief who

stole summer scaring them
with palpable fear,
then a summer so perfect

if only they could have
read it today
in sweltering school halls

sweating out names
to explain
just in case, just in case

feeling and sharing feeling
is not enough anymore,
the glistening of japonica

more about the verb
than how a camellia smells
of a different name

but is the same
in its beauty
being beautiful.



The Perfection of Baler Twine

When I worked for three years full time on a farm in Suffolk back in the 70s, I was always told you needed to have three things with you always to deal with unexpected problems: a hammer [my recollection is this was called a cuthpit, but I can’t find that term anywhere online], a five pence piece, and some baler twine.

I think a knife was considered a prerequisite and these were the extras! The hammer was for bashing things into being fixed; the five pence piece was like a screwdriver [if you haven’t got one on a Swiss army knife], and the baler twine was handy because that could just about repair anything broken and be used for a multitude of supporting purposes.

Handy indeed. I used to ride a Honda 50 around at the time and when it rained I wore a huge black oilskin coat that I acquired from somewhere and this was fastened up [it had no buttons/zip/snap or similar] with bright orange baler twine. I wore this all the time in winter. Sartorial oblivion and pragmatic bliss.

So when in the Lakes recently, I thought this amazing repair job on a farm field gate exemplified perfectly the extreme effectiveness of baler twine. Why buy a new one when you can…..


The Inspector Continues to Call

As will be obvious, I need to be circumspect, but in currently examining students’ responses to GCSE English Literature, I continue as I have done for nearly three decades to be impressed with the empathy and understanding so many demonstrate at all levels of their ability to engage with and respond to literary texts.

One of the perennial favourites is JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls and it has always seemed to me important that young people engage with its important message about social inequality, the palpable harmful impact of that on vulnerable and poor people, and the author’s hope of how in our recognising and putting this right we can all create and live in a better world. There is always a relevance to this message, sadly, whatever decade in which students have read and responded, yet that message has been heightened now by the recent events of London’s Grenfell Tower fire and tragic loss of life.

Whilst I will avoid the more explicit political relevance of this event to Priestley’s play and contemporary student responses, as I read their empathetic and knowing indictment of all that Mr Birling represents, as well as the just purpose of the Inspector’s exposure of this, I cannot help but be particularly moved by both that youthful appreciation of Priestley’s message and the poignancy of its absolute relevance to the tragedy symbolised by the Kensington disaster.

When students write about the theme of social responsibility and how this is displayed as such a divisive issue in a world polarised by political proclivities, I am sure it resonates for them as much as me in light of these recent events. I have over the years been reassured by their overwhelming support for the notion of and need for change at the time Priestley was writing and in the future – especially the acceptance of universal social responsibility – but it is personally sad for me to read this now when I know that change has so tragically not occurred.