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Monthly Archives: November 2013

Borisballs

Boris Johnson’s clown makeup slips off his face. What’s underneath the jolly ho-ho haystack is the same hard-right I-deserve-it just-world-fallacy you get everywhere else. People who are clever get everything they deserve; people who aren’t clever get everything they deserve; everything’s all right, because we need to have something to strive for, otherwise we’d all be happy with less.

It’s convenient, isn’t it, that the world should only reward those of us who try very hard and who are very clever, and punish those of us who don’t try or aren’t very clever. That there’s no point in thinking about anything like equality, because those of us at the top are there through our own graft, and those of us at the bottom are there because we simply don’t deserve anything more. Everyone finds the level where they belong. Everything is working perfectly fine. We need inequality to give people something to fight for.

It’s not just people born into a world of comfort, money and privilege who think it, of course, though it rather nicely rewards them for having had nothing to do with where they ended up. It gives a solid pat on the back to those who haven’t had to work at all to get where they are. It tells them that while it might seem from the outside that they didn’t do anything to attain their achievements, actually it was all down to their supreme cleverness. Don’t feel ashamed of getting that job – it wasn’t anything to do with the tie and crest from your school, or who your father knew or owed a favour to; it was all because you are so brilliant. You deserve it. Relax.

People who have experienced some kind of social mobility might be inclined to agree with Boris as well. After all, they have moved. It couldn’t be due to some kind of random chance, could it, or some set of circumstances that led them to find achievements where their peers couldn’t. No. It must be because they shone out like brilliant stars and their cleverness and guile took them to the top. That’s what it must be. If they can do it, why can’t everyone? The others who aren’t so privileged should just get off their sorry backsides and do some proper work, like what I did: I’m here because I did the right things and I’m getting my reward. You’re down there because you didn’t.

But the appeal of this message isn’t just for those of us who are fortunate enough to be in a position where we don’t have to worry about where the next meal is coming from or whether we’ve got enough money to heat the house this winter. There’s also an attractiveness in thinking that the world is just – that people do get what they deserve, on the whole – even when the evidence around us doesn’t seem to confirm it.

If you look around you, and see people who have tried so very hard, but failed, and see other people who have just turned up and succeeded immensely, that is a bit disheartening. The world can’t be like that, can it? We want to see the world as the kind of place where you can make a difference, where you are encouraged to do the right things and where if you do the right things you will get along – and where if you lie and cheat and steal and trample over others you’ll get punished.

The alternative would be a world in which politicians would be drawn through the same narrow funnel, from private schools through Oxbridge and PPE/PPS to interning in some government department (for no pay, of course, since you can afford it, which helps weed out those who actually need some money), who run the country in the interests not of voters but of those huge corporations, and conveniently end up on the boards of those corporations.

If that were the case, you’d need to back up this level of unfairness with a lot of persuasion. But that would be easy enough, given that the loudest voices in the media would come from giant corporations in whose interest you decide policy, staffed by people from the same private school/Oxbridge background as you, who understand that, look, this is simply the way things are, and there’s no point in trying to rock the boat, since we’re all doing so well out of it.

Even the state broadcaster could be co-opted into providing a safe mouthpiece for your unchallenged views, running dozens of daily documentaries about benefit scroungers and people cheating the system to give the impression that the problem lies with those right at the bottom, never those at the top. All the while you could constantly lambast it for being a Trotskyite enemy, despite the laughable lack of evidence.

And if all that were the case, people would have to buy into the narrative that you were trying your best. You’d need to bring out the jester – maybe give him a funny haircut to make him more of a clown, and make him say vaguely amusing things in a comedy voice to make people think he’s a figure of fun. Every now and then the mask would slip, but you’d soon paper over the cracks by making him wear an ill-fitting suit or bumble around on television, and everything would be all right again. Look at him! He’s funny! We really must get him running one of the biggest cities in the world! Maybe he could be Prime Minister one day!

That all sounds too far fetched, doesn’t it? It’s probably easier to accept that the reality is that rich people deserve to be where they are, because they earned it. It gives you hope that if you’re a good citizen, if you do the right things in the right order, you might get the four cherries on the fruit machine and end up winning as well. Everyone has the same chance, it’s just that you came along at the right time.

That must be it. It must be fair. If it wasn’t fair, what would that make it? And what could I do about it?

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Posted by on November 29, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Boys and girls

I was interested by this post the other day from the Secret Teacher, who wrote about discovering that certain educators, including colleagues, have a worrying attitude towards feminism.

It got me thinking about my own experiences in the classroom and how we as teachers talk about boys and girls. I’m a primary teacher so most of my experience comes from working with children who haven’t yet gone through adolescence and so haven’t had the confusion of hormones and sexuality added to the mix. But I think a lot of our programming and assumptions about sex have already taken place long before our kids have gone to secondary school.

There’s the preponderance of pink, for one thing. You can’t avoid gendered products by the time you’re going to school – I even saw some boys’ and girls’ santa hats at the weekend. A trip to Toys R Us is a trip into Boy/Girl Land; there are even pink and blue Kinder eggs and gendered Nerf guns nowadays. Even in the Sindy/Action Man days of my childhood, I don’t remember it being quite so siloed.

So then you get into school, and other messages take over, from which toys you choose to play with in nursery onwards. “That’s not very neat writing for a girl,” someone might say, or “Of course, boys can’t do more than one thing at a time.” A lot of the messages come from teachers or adults that you meet, which is why I think it’s really important how we use language towards children. Things like “don’t be such a girl”, for one, or “boys don’t cry” have a strong impact. You’re supposed to model good communication in so many other ways, so I think modelling good communication of equality is really vital too.

It’s very hard to stitch your own anecdotes into some kind of meaningful thread, but then again you can only talk about the things you’ve seen and heard. So with all the necessary caveats in mind about putting too much significance into any events I’ve been a party to, I’ve been thinking about what we expect from boys and girls from nursery age to the end of primary school, and what that means for them. Of course I’m not saying this is the case in every class in every school ever.

I think, also, that I notice things about expectations around boys more than I do around girls – which isn’t tremendously surprising, since I suppose I was a boy myself and I was not a girl. Someone else would probably notice something completely different.

But here’s what I think. I think we put pressure on boys to be ‘strong’ and not ‘weak’. We expect girls to cry and not boys; we look down on boys who have a tendency for tears, or who are sensitive, or who sulk. Some people might say this is because they are showing ‘female’ and therefore ‘bad’ traits but I tend to disagree; I think it’s because we’re simply saying that certain things are not meant to be shown by boys.

Boys are expected to react with their fists if they’re bullied; if they aren’t, they’re somehow ‘weak’ and are seen as less worthy. If they complain of bullying, I get the sense there’s a whiff of less sympathy for them than if a girl had made the same accusation. But boys are strong! Why are they upset by name calling? If they are, they are somehow less of a boy.

I think as a boy you do get a lot of messages, from everyone – your parents, your school friends, your teachers and everyone else – about what you should be like. It’s so important that these messages don’t make you feel bad about being who you are. It’s all right to be gentle, if you’re a boy, because gentleness isn’t a female characteristic. It’s all right not to want to fight, because aggression isn’t a male characteristic. It’s OK to be the sort of boy who hurts a bit sometimes, because if that’s who you are, that’s who you are. It’s all right.

I suppose I should explain something at this point. I notice all this particularly because, well, I was that overly sensitive, snivelling little boy, when I was younger. I remember all too well the ridicule that came with being someone who cried a lot, and the feeling of humiliation that teachers, as well as pupils, found it hilarious when I found everything a little bit too much. I was that boy. I remember the feeling of vast isolation when I realised that it wasn’t just some of the other kids in the class, but the teachers too, who were less than impressed. Tears were something to be punished, with shame.

Some of these attitudes still exist, and it hurts me deeply when I hear other members of staff muttering about how so-and-so is “a dick” because he started crying, as happened some time ago. It makes me furious when staff make fun of a boy who is quiet, or shy, as if these are somehow things that shouldn’t be expected of a male child, for some unexplained reason. It makes me angry, because I know how alone it makes you feel.

I don’t know what the answer is, other than constantly questioning the words that are coming out of your mouth or the expectations you have of the children around you. We’re so careful to be inclusive when it comes to different races and religions; I don’t know if we’re as careful with ensuring we don’t project expectations on boys or girls just because of whether they’re boys or girls.

On the other hand, I’m not filled with despair. Talking to children in schools, in PSHE lessons or elsewhere, you get a sense that they’re pretty resistant to a lot of messages flung in their direction. They’re really aware of the expectations on them and they are starting to become aware of things like transgender issues or gayness if they haven’t encountered them in their lives. Maybe one upside of the rush to make kids grow up so fast is that they are capable of considerable maturity. Whether that’s a thing to celebrate or not, I don’t know, but there it is.

 
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Posted by on November 25, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Schools and God

I’m an agnostic. (I used to be an atheist but I couldn’t handle the commitment.) Anyway, there is a part of me that feels deeply uncomfortable about teaching God in schools. I love teaching religion, though: whether it’s Rama and Sita or Buddha under the Bo tree or stories of the Prophet or Jesus’s preaching, there’s something that inspires wonder about having children of any age think about the Big Questions and how our main faiths have tried to answer them. Religions of all kinds have some of the best stories, too.

I struggle, though, with Teaching God, by which I mean telling kids that God Did This or This Happened. Elsewhere in the curriculum, we as teachers say that there are no absolute certainties, except in mathematics. In literacy, we learn about viewpoints and how to distinguish between fact and opinion. In science, we teach children that everything has to be tested and checked to make sure it’s right. In Key Stage 2 and even earlier, children learn that even a website such as Wikipedia should be viewed with a degree of scepticism since anyone can write an entry. So why then tell them that X happened because the Bible says so?

There’s a really odd split in schools, between developing a sense of nuance and critical enquiry on one hand, but on the other saying “THIS HAPPENED. THIS DEFINITELY HAPPENED BECAUSE IT’S IN AN OLD BOOK.” There have been times when I’ve seen in schools this kind of puzzled hand-raising met with a stern “because I said so” and I’ve been desperately disappointed. We’ve been trying to encourage children to have a critical kind of thought, and as soon as they show it, we squash it.

While other countries bin religion at the school gate, our schools are the result of a botched settlement in the 1944 Education Act, which brought (mainly rural) schools run by religious foundations under the control of the state, sweetened by a guarantee of teaching religious education. What that means in practice is that schools have to teach RE, but parents can withdraw children (and teachers can withdraw from teaching it, though we’ll come to why that’s a nonsense in a minute). Schools under local authority control are often pinned down into ‘daily collective worship’ as well, although that’s often fudged into a ‘celebration assembly’ or secular alternative with maybe a couple of hymns.

I can tell you that in practice it also means you can be asked at a job interview to be a teacher how you would ‘fit in’ to the ‘Christian ethos’ of the school. Schools can advertise for candidates as being ‘ideally a practising [Catholic]’. Some school interview panels or selection panels may contain a vicar or other religious type. Essentially, religious discrimination is not only tolerated, but completely OK. And no one seems to have a problem with this.

Maybe it’s me who has the problem. Maybe your religion is the most important part of being a teacher and I should either just lie about it or recognise that I will only ever be suitable to teach in the more secular schools. I can’t help thinking that some good teachers might be turned down because of their beliefs rather than because of their abilities. (Sure, you could apply to a religious school but excuse yourself from all religious components – I wonder how that would go down…?)

So with all that said, let’s talk about the situation in Staffordshire, where a school sent out an extraordinary letter (I’m linking to the Daily Mail here, but there it is) telling parents that their children had to attend a workshop on other faiths and cultures, and that if children were kept away, they would have a discrimination note placed on their permanent records.

First things first. Learning about other cultures is a good thing, whether it’s a visit to the local synagogue or having a priest come in to tell you what happens at their church. Education is all about opening children’s eyes to things they might not have experienced yet. In some areas where there’s a very diverse mix of different groups, children may meet a lot of children from other backgrounds; in others, they might not meet anyone else who comes from anywhere different, or is any different. It’s in the latter where I think it’s most important to do the reaching out, to stop children from being isolated in their own community and not seeing any further than a mile or two down the road.

So, a workshop on another religion is a good idea, especially in an area like Staffordshire where there have been a lot of tensions down the years. At some schools you might not meet anyone from a different background and it’s a worthy thing to broaden children’s horizons to show that, whatever they might have heard at home about other people, they can make up their own minds from what they see and experience. Some children stay in little islands of their own locality, never meeting anyone else, never seeing beyond a bus ride away; in that kind of climate, fear and prejudice can take over, if they’re allowed to.

Where the grey area comes in is making something about another religion compulsory – because for an ordinary RE lesson, parents have the right to withdraw children. Sure, you can say it’s topic work, or PSHE or something like that, but it becomes confusing. For example, I was teaching at a school recently where a letter was sent out telling parents at a (mainly Muslim) school that they had the right to withdraw their children from a part of the school play which had a nativity scene. Understandable, you might think. Imagine if that letter had said those children had to attend, under pain of being labelled racists.

It’s all about the tone, I think, and what it implies. Perhaps there had been a lot of resistance to the idea of a workshop on Islam in that area, and perhaps parents were threatening to take their children out of school. If you see that letter as a response to that, it becomes a tiny bit more understandable – though it is still painfully overbearing and threatening.

The problem is, on the one hand, some schools are allowed to be so religious they can basically discriminate on religious grounds. On the other hand, parents are supposed to have the choice. In my opinion, the problem comes from there not being a clear definition of where religion ends and school begins. If we knew all state schools were secular, and that was that, there would be some clarity. Church schools could opt out.

Heavy-handed and threatening letters from schools don’t help. They are easy ammunition for the likes of the Daily Mail to pursue a ‘political correctness gone mad’ agenda and portray education as a liberal-left bastion trying to enforce multiculturalism on parents. As ever, the extreme outliers are seized upon as evidence of a wider truth that doesn’t really exist.

Tone is so important. Choice is important. If parents want to opt children out of mathematics, they shouldn’t; if they want to opt them out of studying another religion, I think that’s permissible, even if I think it would be a good thing for children to study as many other cultures as they can before they leave school. You can’t force diversity on people; it doesn’t work. And as any teacher knows, if you try and use only negative sanctions to try and enforce compliance, all you will find is resistance.

In the meantime, there seems little pressure to try and secularise education, and we’re left with an unhappy compromise.

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Jobs

I don’t have a job. I haven’t had a proper job – what you could call a living – since June 20, 2011. I have work, for which I’m grateful, but work is not the same as having a job. Even a job you hate is better than not having a job, or at least it is for me.

I read a lot of things about the ‘hardworking’. Everyone is hardworking. Families are hardworking. Men and women are hardworking. Couples are hardworking. Children are hardworking. We’re all hardworking nowadays. But I know and you know what the term is there for – to draw a line between the deserving – the hardworking – and the undeserving – the shirking. Hardworking people are Good because they do the Right thing; shirking people are Bad because they don’t, and the Hardworking should be look at them for a source of anger, rather than those who pull the strings, ensure there aren’t enough jobs, that wages don’t keep pace with the cost of living, and so on. Fight among yourselves, but never against the people who really cause the pain.

I suppose I am hardworking, and I’m better off than many. I earn two or three hundred pounds a week, and I don’t pay tax because I haven’t earned enough and I don’t earn enough. It keeps me afloat, but nothing more. There is nothing but work and home and work and home and work and home and weekends and work and more work and work. That is all there is and all there will be for some time, it seems.

I’d give anything for a job. Just a job. A job doing something I’ve good at – what I retrained to do, but that seems impossible. People say something will come along. They mean well, but they can’t know it will. People say that I’m bound to get something because, in fact, everything is discriminated in my favour. But it doesn’t seem that way when your interviews are in double figures and you’ve failed at every single one. Again, I’m sure they’re trying to help.

Give me normality. Give me the everyday. Give me a week of knowing where I’ll be working and what I’ll be doing. Anything, anywhere. Give me meetings and appraisals and tedium and getting nowhere. Give me frustration and all the tiny sadnesses of having a job but not getting anywhere. Give me all of that. It’s all I want. I just want a job.

 
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Posted by on November 17, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

I don’t want to cry at Christmas

Fuck it, John Lewis, Christmas isn’t meant to be miserable. I don’t want to cry at Christmas. I want to be cheerful. Christmas is the one time in the year when you can just do whatever the fuck you want, see the people you love, get drunk and watch shit films on television while falling asleep into a box of Milk Tray. It is a FUN thing. Noddy Holder. Tinsel. Sprout farts. Joy! 

When did it begin, this “pulling at the heart strings with a pair of pliers”, this “nailgun to the tearducts“, this desire to make you bawl your eyes out rather than eat, drink and be merry? I am not quite sure, but over the past couple of years, there’s been an awful lot of it. Too much. Acousticising cover versions of songs that were all right to begin with, then making them glurge. CRY, CRY YOU BASTARD CRY. THIS IS SAD. BE SAD. CRY OR YOU ARE HEARTLESS SCUM. Advert breaks are turning into those text-on-a-picture crocks of shit you see on Facebook that say “Like this if you think mums are nice and children should die – if you ignore this, you want kids to be raped”.

This tweemongering sack of shit has to stop.

This is what a Christmas TV advert should be like. It’s Joe Brown, of “Joe Brown and the Bruvvers” fame, wandering round Woolworths and singing a jolly tune. There are MEN doing a CONGA in sensible knitwear. There are cassette tapes. There’s big value Quality Street in a jar – Hoorah. Old Spice Gift Pack… (£3.25)… that can’t be bad! (Pity the poor dad who ended up with that.) (Sorry dad.)

Actually I think a lot of the joy of Christmas fucked off when Woolworths left the High Street. I’m not saying Woolworths was ever good, but at least they pulled out all the stops in the run-up to Winterval. Those of a slightly older vintage might enjoy this 1970s effort with some wonderful stars of the era… Magnus Pike! Cuddly Ken Everett! Jimmy Young! Tremendous. These were the days when men could only wear two types of aftershave… Denim or Old Spice. Sure, we had beige ties and no money and the power was off and everyone was on strike, but we were HAPPY AT CHRISTMAS. We had Wizzard and turkey crowns.

Here’s Bob Carolgees (0:38) describing the time he won a turkey the size of a Mini Metro in a raffle to flog some Hellman’s mayonnaise. Again, you’re not going to have to reach for a hanky, but fucking hell, at least they’re trying to make you have some fun rather than blub and heave. Good.

 Wonderful. Fuck spending eleventy billion pounds sending someone with a melty face down a manhole so she can wander around in her pants to find a lost dog and meet Helena Bonham Carter (Paddington Bear face at Marks and Spencer). Just show me some things I might want to buy surrounded by tinsel and some minor celebrities. That will do, you know? I don’t want to cry. 

Thankfully, I have managed to find one contemporary Christmas advert that isn’t a slap round the face with a tear-soaked hanky: Ant and Dec advertising Morrisons!


See, they’re HAVING FUN, they’re not trying to MAKE YOU CRY. Fuck crying at Christmas, give me a cheerful Geordie decapitating a gingerbread man. That’s a bit more like it.

 
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Posted by on November 9, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

The Crusade

It’s now a ‘Crusade’. Note the capital C. A newspaper is launching a ‘Crusade’ against people (in headscarves) from the East of Europe.

Let’s talk about the paper-thin justification. The Daily Express’s emblem is a Crusader. Yes. I get that. Which is bad enough anyway, when you think about it, but fine, history and tradition and branding and all of that. OK. In the past it’s launched Crusades against all kinds of things, not just borderline Little Britain xenophobia. But calling a campaign against people from one group a ‘Crusade’… there is a whiff of something else.

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Crusade… flood… as I said yesterday, there’s a dehumanisation going on here. These people are being portrayed as less-than-people, as under-people, as people who it’s OK to lump together in one globular mass, a flood, a tide, a mass of headscarved people coming over here and taking our benefits.

Time and again, you have to look at the images used to illustrate the stories. Yesterday it was the image of a woman in a headscarf ‘being moved on by police’, with the subtle implications that brings. Again and again the same kinds of images are used.

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These people, these less-than-people, are often seen from behind – we don’t need to see their faces. They’re outdoors, with the implication that they’re not working. People aren’t coming to this country to work; they’re coming to hang around in parks and be down-and-outs and troublemakers. And to claim benefits, of course.

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If that’s too subtle, the Express today reports that its own readers overwhelmingly back what the paper tells them to – at least, those readers who could be bothered to express an opinion. This sort of thing is statistically meaningless, naturally, but is reported as if the whole of the nation rather than a few readers of a newspaper – backed and abetted by the usual ultra nationalists and knuckledraggers – is backing the ‘Crusade’.

Things are getting unpleasant. The demonisation and dehumanisation continues. All people from Romania and Bulgaria are depicted as layabouts, wasters, shirkers, malingerers, scroungers…

And in a few weeks’ time, when the stories come in about attacks taking place against immigrants, being beaten up (or worse) for their appearance, because they matched the demographic we’re being told to hate, a newspaper like the Express will look the other way, and pretend it had nothing to do with it, and continue to peddle its lies.