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Open letter to Michael Gove

An open letter to Michael Gove from an English teacher on a dark day for Education.

Dear Michael Gove,

You will never read this, but I feel compelled to put it out there in the faint hope that more people will realise the repercussions of your latest initiative.
I am proud to work at a small school, on a small estate, in the most deprived ward in the county. The life expectancy in this ward is a full 20 years lower than the neighbouring village, which tells you a little bit about our intake. Add to this that within our 530 students, we have 36 different languages spoken and over 40% of students do not count English as their first language. Effectively, we are everything you hate and everything you would like to abolish. We are the skidmark on the sparkling underpants of your brave new world of academies and free schools. It is no secret that you would like nothing more than to see us swallowed up by a nearby school which features higher in your flawed league tables, but we have worked relentlessly hard to maintain our independence and have done enough, miraculously, to keep our heads above your floor targets for the last couple of years.

This time last year, I got immense pleasure when watching my English group, all boys, opening their exam results. 13 of this class of 22 were learning English as an additional language and a further 7 were on the special educational needs register. I was delighted, as you would imagine, that 21 of them passed their English and English Literature Exams and headed off to college, full of confidence and ambition. They hadn’t had the greatest start in life, but had worked incredibly hard to achieve what may seem to you a modest grade C at GCSE level.

Today, I was excited to witness more of the same. The anticipation and excitement I feel on results day is something a thousand times more than when I received my own results. Anyone who teaches at my, or a similar school, will tell you exactly the same. We don’t teach students whose parents pay big money for them to learn Latin with private tutors, simply to be used as status symbols at social gatherings. We teach kids who have seen more turmoil and turbulence in their young lives than you or I will ever have to face and I can tell you that watching them learn that they have passed their GCSEs is the most satisfying, heart-warming reward you could ever imagine.

Fortunately, this year I was given a high set (where only about 30% of students were either EAL or SEN students) and they all performed exceptionally well. However, I spent the vast majority of the morning consoling students, who worked more than hard enough to achieve a C grade in English, had been predicted a C grade in English and effectively had earned a C grade in English, but had been credited with a D grade, thus scuppering their chances of going to a college which had conditionally accepted them based on their predicted grades. Just to be exceptionally clear, these are not privileged kids who were bright enough to get a high grade, but just couldn’t be bothered to work. These are students who are learning English as a second, sometimes third, language who have attended every revision session provided and still requested more, leading to some of us teachers having to put video lessons on YouTube to quench their never-ending thirst for knowledge.

The work ethic shown by some of these students to overcome their language barriers was breathtaking and awe-inspiring. When coming to collect their results, they were far too humble to be over-confident, let alone complacent, but deep down they were content with the knowledge that they had given their all. On opening the envelopes and seeing their D grades, each and every one of them covered their faces due to the shame that they felt. They should, of course, have been celebrating. But instead, a combination of devastation, embarrassment and confusion descended upon them and it was left to us teachers to try to explain to them what had gone wrong.

The wrongdoing, it has become clear, was not their own doing. It would appear that, in a bid to halt the increase in GCSE passes, particularly in English, you have put pressure on exam boards to ensure that only a certain number of students achieve a C grade or above. When the January examination results came out, it would seem that far too many students were passing, so something would have to change for those unfortunate enough to be entered at the end of the GCSE course, which is ironically something that you are trying to make compulsory. So, the marks entered for Speaking & Listening and Written Controlled Assessment (60% of the final grade) were moderated, and agreed. This gave a number of students false hope that they had already achieved a pass in more than half of the course and all they had to do was match that mark in their examination.

Incredibly, it has become apparent that the raw marks given for this part of the course, when converted, are now worth less than originally suggested and less than the credit given to those students whose identical work was submitted in January. This has, in turn, meant that these students were entering the exam, where they traditionally struggle due to issues with accessing the questions, on D grades. They never stood a chance, but they didn’t know. Unfortunately, they found out today. They can’t understand why someone would want to play around with their futures in such a cruel way and we, as teachers, should not have to be the ones to explain it to them.

You have not simply moved the goalposts. You have demolished them, sold off the playing fields where they once stood and left the dreams of these youngsters in tatters.
So, there we go. It appears that today you got what you wanted. The statistics show that GCSE passes are down and to you, statistics is all they will ever be. But to me and every other teacher I have had the pleasure of working with, these children are not statistics. They are young people who you have betrayed and will forever be affected by the contents in that envelope which they opened today. We teachers will continue to do our jobs and sleep soundly in the knowledge that we did all that we could and will continue to do so.

From Chris Edward's blog

  • Written by Chris Edwards
  • Category: Comment

Olympics - sport, politics, schools

I really love many kinds of sport. What I don't want or need, though is to be told that the people I must admire and support belong to this or that nation or this or that team. I want that to be my choice and for me to flex my own biases and leanings. So sport for me is not about me being willing to be recruited for this or that cause that is greater than this or that sportsperson or greater than this or that team.

And the person or team I follow for that particular event doesn't have to be the best or the one that someone else says is culturally nearest to me. I want to enjoy sport so I want to bring to it my own feelings, not something being engineered as part of a national effort, say.
Some of the things I like about sport are: the intensity of the effort that precedes the event; the skill and cunning and thinking involved in doing it; the co-ordination and synthesis involved in partnerships and teams; the ultimate unpredictability of the drama of the event; the fact that there are three stages of a sporting event - the event, the commentary and the report - and that there is so much room for debate in between.
In truth, these Olympics weren't better than any other. They were an Olympics. There is absolutely no need to pretend that they were better. As one would expect, some of the sports and events were world best, others weren't.
Then again, there is really no cause or need for some kind of massive examination of significance here. If you sink a lot of time, money and effort into elite sport, you will produce some performers who perform at world class level. The two areas of the world that did that in previous games were the Communist countries and the USA. The Communist countries did it through state funding, the USA primarily through the Universities. Both methods showed quite simply that given the time, money and effort then human beings will perform better, faster, further etc than before. Alternatively, in combat sports and the like, they will mostly but not entirely outperform those who have had less time, money and effort put in.
The significance of the UK earning itself more medals per capita of population than other places needs to be traced back through the relative levels of funding between different countries, and, very importantly, what particular sports were targeted. So, is it likely that you will get more medals for your buck if you train up a group of cyclists than it is if you train up a group of sprinters?
So, this is about economics and politics. Decisions are made to back elite sport for political reasons. It's deemed politically desirable or expedient for the UK to be at a particular position on the medal table.
That doesn't have very much to do with whether everyone in the UK has access to a pool, a pitch, an indoor space for games and exercise. It has very little to do with what actually goes on in schools.
Again, that is economic and political. What needs to be spent to give everyone in UK access to these things? What kind of exercise should go on in schools?
On this last matter, we had the disgusting spectacle of rather unfit Tory ministers and representatives lecturing us on what should take place in schools: it should be competitive, it should be two hours a week etc etc. And even worse, we had that casual piece of racism about 'Indian dancing or whatever' as if schools were prisoners of a crazed multiculturalism instead of fostering a love of competitive sport. It was nasty and it was crude, trying to ride the crest of national sentiment by throwing in a bit of sneering at the 'other'...not 'ours'. Well, Indian dancing is 'ours' as much as Morris dancing, running, jumping, climbing or anything else. And, ironically, various forms of  dance were on display at both the Opening and Closing ceremonies with Asian dancing commemorating 7/7 and 'interrupting' Eric Idle singing 'Always look on the bright side..'
Some people loathe and hate competitive sport. They are afraid of it, they are humiliated by it. Some people who feel like that may love other kinds of physical activity. It is crazy and illogical for such people to be prevented from expressing themselves physically. Some people who love competitive sport, also love certain kinds of non-competitive activity. Again it's crazy and illogical for such people to be prevented from doing it. There is also a crazy illogic to thinking that great competitors at the elite level are produced by putting children through competitive sport at a very young level. There is a body of thought which argues that the acquiring of skills is at least as important as doing the sport. People who acquire physical skills may well be ones who find it easiest to carry on using the skills later in life - for fun whether that's playing beach cricket with their family, table tennis or whatever.
However, having to listen to unfit Old Etonians lecture us about such things was painful in the extreme and another reason to loathe the fact that the Olympics gave them the platform to do it. I'm quite happy to listen to Steve Cram or Pele or even Sebastian Coe talk about sport and what it means to them. I'm extremely happy to listen to anyone far removed from elite sport who is enthusiastic about exercise and moving of the body  because that person is nearer to me in sporting culture ie like that person I've never been an elite sportsperson. And I'm extremely happy to listen to someone who has worked out how to engage all children in a school (I mean all) in various kinds of physical activity which every child enjoys and looks forward to.
To tell the truth, no matter how much I enjoyed Usain Bolt, Mo Farah and others, I don't see the connection between what I saw on the track and this last point. Bolt - like hundreds of other runners before him - has had the effect of small boys saying in the playground, 'I'm Usain Bolt' and running like hell for forty yards. Great. I was like that about Roger Bannister. The serious question is how to get everyone enthusiastic about something physical and from that base elite sportspeople can and will be found. What happens after that depends on how a society juggles its public money. Ironic of course that at this very time the government is trumpeting the Olympians, it is cutting at the very notion that public finance should exist at all.
  • Written by Michael Rosen
  • Category: Comment

Not just shit but dangerous

I knew Kim Gavin’s Closing Ceremony would be the antithesis of the crazy-beautiful joy that Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce brought to the opening night: I knew it would be predictable and mainstream. But that was fine, we’d have a laugh, enjoy the music acts we like and I honestly thought it would still be funny after three hours. Witnessing the pop stars and lickspittles trying to equal Boyle’s heady brew. Art is subjective, after all.

I was mistaken: it was a numbing, disheartening disaster. The biggest floating turd we ever did whiff; reducing, demeaning and re-squishing Britain, at the very moment we’d felt shifted long-term for the better by these liberating Olympic Games. In one fattened pig of a gong-show, Gavin forced us back into clunky shackles that Boyle and Boyce briefly, tantalisingly freed us from, only a month ago. Far worse than just being bad, what unfolded was – I think – proper fucking dangerous. You know that phrase: the banality of evil. So.

There’d been rumblings that Danny Boyle didn’t put enough Churchill in. Our war leader, fast deposed in peacetime, wasn’t given enough of a strident voice for organisers’ tastes. Because obviously we need thoughts of conflict and top-down triumphalism, not co-operation and shared effort, to show us off to the world on the eve of a big sports pageant. Dur. Anyway, Kim Gavin kicked off by correcting that error, with admirable actor Tim Spall bellowing something from The Tempest, stretched over a noisy background canvas in awful parroting rasp, reprised in broader strokes from his performance in The King’s Speech. Not a fresh moment then; instead lifted from someone else’s casting and someone else’s process.

This flags up clearly what was about to happen for fucking hours: piles of stuff presented as unique, weighty or historical that was actually just re-staged ubiquity; hackney carriaged bits and bobs, flung up-and-out on stadium scale, nothing new added. Constantly disappointing, the show repeatedly heralded musical legends who weren’t there; Bowie, Bush, they didn’t appear, just backing tracks over a tannoy. Desperately a commentator tells us Kate Bush re-recorded her vocal part for the ceremony. Why even bother, though?

Another outing for Emeli Sandé. In the Opening Ceremony she performed too but it wasn’t so much about her, then, as what she was singing: The Meaning had little to do with her domestic fame or career path. This time it was the opposite: entirely about Sandé as a PR machined product – and she went on for ages. I have to believe both Adele and Leona turned down Gavin, for Emeli to have got this length of slot; I’ve forgotten anything about the song except the totally Adele-ish solo piano accompaniment. Foghorn Florence was too edgy to appear, or too smart.

Gavin couldn’t get Oasis to reform; instead relying on Liam’s Beady Eye to karaoke ancient song Wonderwall. And what the fuck has happened to Liam’s voice? Once perhaps the greatest sneering, louche roar this country has produced – a rich, northern counterpoint to Johnny Rotten – yet now I guess ravaged by cocaine,  inactivity, far too much soft cheese, it’s a horrible whining dither. Like when The Fast Show one week swapped Jazz Club for Indie Club (ha, there’s a boring, outdated 90s reference for you) it was a disinterested parody of ‘alternative’.

I reckon George Michael’s live auto-tune was still on as he spoke between his two songs, so his voice glitched out as if he’d breathed helium.

And the most audaciously lazy bit of all: the entire audio track of the opening section then replayed as backing soundtrack to the athletes arriving and partying. Gavin couldn’t even be bothered to pick some different tunes to play out over the PA. Even the shittest amateur wedding DJ wouldn’t pull that stunt. So cheapskate, one almost expected the Spotify adverts to interrupt halfway through.

Such relentless, vacuous prioritising of burger van iconography over real-life performance (or talent) is summed up by Russell Brand’s song’n’dance number. I like Brand but he is a stand-up comedian, television presenter and sometimes a useful cultural commentator. None of these are here, instead we rely on his hyperdriven celebrity itself to carry something that is patently (and self-knowingly, since he played it for laughs) drivel. Now I’m getting carried away slagging it off but there is a more important thing needs highlighting about this show, with a direct comparison:

From the Opening Ceremony, take Atkinson-as-Bean’s comic bit around Sir Simon Rattle conducting Chariots Of Fire. Whether or not you enjoy Bean, this was an undercutting and re-humanising of an epic ‘classic’ piece of music that – without fundamentally lessening its power (it was subsequently used throughout the Olympics) – took it to a previously unseen, interesting, funny place. THAT is how to treat an icon. It was Gerard Hoffnung-esque, de-mythologised the orchestra and took itself lightly without deadening itself. Meanwhile, there was Akram Khan’s powerful Indian dance in near silence, linked to Emile Sande singing Abide With Me in tribute to fallen comrades. Here, crucially, the ethnicity, or ‘exoticism’ of the dance is not the point of the dance, rather it is presented as part of a bigger ‘us’, while the emotion in the dance is its strength and focus.

Compare those two sections to their near parallel in the Closing Ceremony; where Eric Idle flounces through Python smash Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life before being interrupted by, again, some Indian dancers, who befuddle and confuse him, throw dust on him, leave him distracted. On a quality level; again nothing new or rare. Performances of this song take place every night somewhere across the UK as part of Spamalot. On a political level, it no way captured any of the subversive silliness of the original from Life Of Brian. All reference to the film’s edgy content exorcised, of course.

But far worse, this routine was entirely about the otherness and exoticism of the Indian dance juxtaposed against Idle’s familiarity; this was the dancers’ sole point; to be alien where previously there was comfort. This is deeply malignant. Idle’s uncomfortable adversity was cultural diversity, because that is how this ruinous establishment needs us to feel about multi-culturalism, even as we pay lip service to difference. We already saw clearly – for example in far-right Tory arsewipe Aiden Burley’s “multi-cultural crap” tweet and a Daily Mail piece so bursting with racism even they re-edited it – how Boyle’s opening work was drastically radical by comparison: ethnicity and background properly enmeshed and un-highlighted.

Kim gave a similar bashing to gender, sensitivity perhaps heightened by how the past three weeks has been an extraordinary Olympic Games for women; with significant, real steps taken. The ‘fashion biz’ segment in the Closing Ceremony was an unfathomably regressive bit of choreographed objectification. It felt deliberate, as if designed to rein in any aspiration or hopes that briefly glimpsed light this past month. Huge photos of girls in posh frocks. Superstar models appear, celebrified, apeing their runway work on flatbeds. It wasn’t a fashion show in itself, or a true celebration of design (which would’ve told us something about design). It was more like the revenge of the owner of the commodified clothes-horse: as if womankind needed to be ritually re-objectified, after a short respite month of being valued in a better way. Ramming back home the wider truths of rape culture and wealth-based costumery idealism.

Appalling on both fronts: politically (not party-politically but in its representation of us as a people, a nation, to the world) and culturally, through its sheer, gobsmacking lack of material. Kim Gavin’s ceremony contained not a single new or unexpected idea. Not one! Just relentless looping of overly-seen bits from other big recent shows, produced by the same hegemony. The Who perform. Tick. Brian May does a big guitar solo. Tick. Ed Sheeran. Tick. There is no content and no meaning here whatsoever.

They were perfectly within their rights to produce a poor show – or rather, a show I personally didn’t enjoy: one person’s piece of crap is another person’s fun party. But what they weren’t within their rights to do was claw back the goodness. They stole our rapture and they put John Lennon’s dead face onto commodified conventionalism. Kim Gavin is the perfect example of an endemic disease in the modern British arts industry: a hugely powerful establishment creative director who is not actually a creative person, or if he was, long ago outsourced it for status and pies. His show was not cookery but mere assemblage – a Lego house built from bricks we all saw already, outdated values and the co-opting and commodifying of grace. And not even an interestingly shaped whole.

What Boyle’s Opening Ceremony had done was open up the doors; a box of delights; the best of what we are and what we can be in Great Britain, how we built this motherfucker. Showing us our truthful crazy-beautiful spirit and heralding in two weeks of sport in such a way that we felt something could be reclaimed and changed. We repaid him by being the best athletes, volunteers and audience in history.

What Gavin’s Closing Ceremony has done is to throw Britain back in the box and slam it shut; fiercely and unquestioningly placing current hegemonies back in charge; re-infantilising and re-exoticising all that Boyle had tried to unlock for us; a revenge for the otherness and the hierachy and the celebrity-for-its-own-sake, just as these bullshit Cowellian things had seemed to be proven unneeded. It was a boot on our face. I wonder how we’ll repay him.

from Chris T-T

  • Written by Chris T-T
  • Category: Comment

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