Blogging for the Common Good

On finding a voice and learning by doing

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I’ve lived through an educational revolution in England and I didn’t experience it as a good one.

I trained as a teacher in 1973, and my dissertation then was on Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society.  I also referred a lot to Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Postman & Weingartner and Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Try doing that nowadays in UK teacher education. Nothing to do with delivering the National Curriculum? Forget it! We can’t waste time encouraging our teachers to think, or worse still, dream! Why, it might rub off on the pupils, and what mischief might that lead to!

Whatever and whoever I taught, I wanted them to think. I wanted them to question. I wanted them to experience places and people outside their own limited surroundings. I didn’t want them to be trapped by fear of the unfamiliar, or intimidated by dogma or deceived by marketing and spin. I wanted them to be the best they could be. To be ready to take on the world. To know they mattered. To have their own confident voice.

I still want that.

I can’t change my ways. I’m obviously a bad old person. I won’t accept that I should just bow out of active life, shut up and wait for kindly euthanasia. I still value the sheer enjoyment and frustration of learning by doing, of jumping into new experiences, of finding out with the help of enthusiastic mentors and the company of others along the way.

While I may not be going out into the forest any more to plodge around in muddy streams and discover strange living things, I’m exploring the online world of blogging and social media, and encountering all its weird life forms, its good angels and its monsters.

And, by so doing, still playing my little part in fighting the grim Mr Gradgrinds in their dingy classrooms and their endless “Facts! Facts! Facts!”. Fighting for creativity and joy in learning and in valuing others for their unique humanity, not for what they can deliver to the economy of an all consuming state.

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It’s beginning to look a lot like………

Thank you so much for writing this. A lot of us must have been thinking of you and wondering how things were going
. You’ve bravely weathered a dreadful month and another Christmas. Wishing you and your family much less dreadful pressure and greater peace of mind in 2015 xx

Justice for Nico

If you’re ever offered an inquest 2 weeks before Christmas Day – say no.

As we walked from the train to the coroner’s court through the beautiful Christmas streets decked out with lights and with jolly Christmas songs and carols playing in every shop and on every corner, it only served to make us feel more desolate and isolated from the world around us.

I would like to apologise with all sincerity for not writing anything in the last two weeks. So many people have sent me wonderful messages of support and genuine concern in the days leading up to Nico’s inquest and I’ve hardly answered a single one of them or even acknowledged that I’m still here following the inquest.

Heart-warming tweets and some lovely blogs have been written in solidarity with us and I’ve not acknowledged a single one. This makes me feel terribly guilty. So I want…

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Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam

Advent 5  Remembering a time before skinny was good

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Although I dutifully attended Sunday school throughout my childhood and teenage years, it always struck me, that when some pious person announced that God had called them to a different way of life, it was seldom a change that they didn’t actually fancy for themselves.

Should somebody have renounced a highly paid, agreeable career and a sparkling social life hanging out in fashionable nightspots, I’d have been impressed.  But when someone sitting in an uninspiring office bored to tears, suddenly heard a divine call to travel to foreign parts and serve the poor, I did wonder that the Almighty’s wish had so mysteriously presented such a convenient and welcome escape

I was always a cynic I suppose.

This occurred to me recently while talking to a young relative who was confessing how much she hated school and the exam treadmill. Learning was no longer any joy to her.

But she saw no easy way out, short of Jesus calling her to be a sunbeam in some benighted area of the world.  She was desperately seeking a good excuse to escape the oppressive, spirit-sapping slog of A levels and the module upon module examinations that university education had become.

I thought how different my experience had been fifty years ago.

To be sure school was often monotonous, but it was not a prison sentence.  Only a few of us aspired to college or university.  There was full employment, so if you weren’t suited by school, you simply left and got a job.  You didn’t need qualifications for many jobs, so there was no inescapable pressure to achieve exam success.

For instance, my best friend left school as a young teenager with no qualifications and few skills. She lied and claimed to be able to type at a reasonable speed. After a few days her employer discovered her deficiencies, but finding her a cheerful, willing youngster ready to work and learn, kept her on and trained her up.

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Neither was there the extreme pressure experienced nowadays to be physically perfect, nor the competitiveness to sport expensive designer gear. We still made many of our own clothes and, while we wanted to be like the film stars we saw on screen and in magazines, this only amounted to stuffing padding in our bras! We actually wanted to put weight on!

Until Twiggy came along, being teenage skinny was not a good look!

My young friend, however, was model thin, but still far from happy.
“I hate the way everybody just wants loads of stuff!” she lamented. “All that matters is what you have and how much it costs!”

While she might politely listen to the memories of my teenage years, they were as far removed to her own experience as the Middle Ages.
In terms of material goods and career opportunities she and her contemporaries had, and have, so much more than we ever did.

But, bombarded with the relentless advertising for Christmas stuff, all she longed for was the comparative simplicity of a different age!

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Simple Pleasures – A Winter’s Tale

Advent 3  Playtime BH&S (Before Health & Safety)

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This was my best primary school. I attended there after we yet again moved house.  There were fifty six in my classroom, I do not tell a lie, and one poor teacher sitting at her high desk in front of our straight rows of single desks. On Friday afternoons she used to open her desk lid and, hiding behind it, have a silent cry.

To ensure discipline when she was really stressed she would issue stern warnings that anybody who talked would get the belt. On bad days she could collect a small queue. I was only caught once. It was mostly the boys who suffered.

The great advantage of the playground was that it sloped. The building was at the bottom of a hill. This ensured that winter playtimes held the promise of unlimited joy.

As soon as the weather turned bitter and the ground icy, we would make a series of slides. At the steepest end of the playground was the most demanding of daring and skill, then there were five or six others in descending levels of difficulty. You queued up at the one matching your ability and took turns. With practice you could improve your standard and progress to a more prestigious level.

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I can’t remember any adult supervision. It was much too cold for any sensible person to leave the staffroom until the bell needed to be rung.

At secondary school we only had one outdoor area that sloped.  This was an enclosed square yard fortuitously created when a new building had been added. It was bounded by the girls toilet block, a window fronted corridor where the men’s and women’s (separate) staff rooms were situated, and the rear wall of the gym.

This was a hazard when it came to winter slides, as there was very little run-off space between the ends of the slides and the brick wall. However we had seven years of sliding practice behind us by this stage. It was just an added challenge.

Nevertheless one particularly icy winter, somebody fell more awkwardly than normal and even we could see that adult help needed to be summoned. This was a problem. There were notices on the staffroom doors threatening dire consequences for any disturbance.

Two brave messengers were deputed to knock at the men’s staff room. We watched anxiously through the windows.

A gowned figure, cigarette in hand, threw the door open. Billows of smoke issued from behind his impressive outline. The messengers pointed towards the injured figure on the freezing ground and stuttered apologies.

“How many times have you been told to be careful?” was the bellowed response. We were in no doubt at whose door the fault lay.

Nevertheless medical help was summoned and the careless culprit removed to have his leg set at the cottage hospital.

After that sliding was banned.

It posed too great a hazard to the comfortable sanctuary of the staffroom.

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The Perils of the Shivery Bite

Advent 2 On the unintended consequences of freedom to roam

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I told a lie yesterday when I said I had only a single childhood memory of Christmas. I woke up thinking of another one.

It must have been well into December and in North East Scotland that meant it was dark and cold by the end of the school day. Nevertheless on Tuesday afternoons after school I went to swimming classes. In Aberdeen in the 1950s every school child began swimming classes as soon as they started in the Infants.

For some reason (I think it was the prevention of child drownings plus the enthusiasm of some counsellor to produce an Olympic champion) Aberdeen had set up a free swimming programme for all children and built an Olympic standard pool. It had the deepest deep end in the country and proper diving platforms. The city was very proud of this.
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I just thought all swimming pools were like that and swimming was what all children did.

Nobodies’ parents (that I knew anyway) ever took them or collected them from these classes. Mothers were far too busy cooking tea and fathers were at work. We just walked to the baths from school and then daundered home afterwards.

But first, and always after swimming, we had our “shivery bite”.

There was a chip shop conveniently opposite the baths so we always stopped for a 3d poke of chips before we made our way home. This could take quite a time, hanging around relishing the steamy aroma of the fryer, sharp with the tang of the vinegar.

This particular evening I ate all my chips before starting for home. I walked on my own, because by this time we had moved house and I was no longer on the tram route. I had to cut through the back roads to our new flat.

It wasn’t a brightly lit route lined with cheerful houses. I went down a steep narrowish wynd at the side of the baths, then along an ill lit lane of storage depots towards the rear of the main shopping street. Even I thought it was a bit spooky, but it was usually deserted and you had good sight lines if anybody should appear, so it would have been no problem taking to your heels. I often dawdled, hard as this may seem to believe.

This particular evening I was just getting towards the end of the lane when I saw a figure advancing from the distance.  I was horrified to realise it was my mother!  I was immediately struck with dread. I must be in trouble if she had come looking for me! What forgotten crime had come to light that I had committed?

It never occurred to me that she might be worried!

Nor was she!  She was furious!

As a great surprise treat she had bought tickets for the pantomime, and now it was so late we would never make it. We hadn’t got a car and public transport or Shank’s pony would never get us there in time.

I was marched home in disgrace, doubly guilty for dawdling and wasting precious money.

I was just coming up to nine years old!

I never did make it to a pantomime, but, on the plus side, I could dive and life save by the time I was ten!

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