Wednesday, 30 March 2011

More on the strangeness of grammar schools

At Bradford Grammar School the headmaster and ‘second master’ (deputy) maintained strict order and were feared. That went also for a fair proportion of the ‘masters’, but not all. One of the oddest features of the grammar school was that for all its lofty academic aspirations a teacher once recruited had a job for life. Quite a number were more or less incompetent; some couldn’t control the boys, some simply didn’t do their job. Yet I don’t recall any being sacked. You could be incompetent or lazy for forty years, no questions asked.

I suppose complaining parents, even three-quarters of them (I think) were paying fees and might be thought to have had the whip hand, could simply be told, ‘Well, take your child elsewhere if you don’t like it.’ An effective threat in that there wasn’t an elsewhere within reach that was thought to be as good.

I've just thought of a couple of other instances, to do with the morning assemblies when many hundreds of boys were seated in the faux-Tudor hall. With the head and prefects on the stage and the masters seated at the ends of each row in the body of the hall, the possibility of major disorder was effectively closed off. However, there were two sorts of occasion when it could at least feel real. One was when a master was retiring after long service in the school. The custom was that at the end of an assembly the head and staff would withdraw while the head prefect addressed an appeal to the school to contribute to a collection for a present. (One suspected this may not have reflected a spontaneous upsurge of affection and gratitude from the boys.) Though the prefects were re-positioned in the place of the masters down the sides, but standing not sitting, containing the erupting din of shouts, stamping, clapping and hilarity was a hopeless task and I imagine the head prefect simply terminated the proceedings and got everyone out as fast as possible. With a less constitutionally docile pupil body, the disorder might have bordered on the dangerous. Why was this practice tolerated by the head?

The other moment of potential carnival was when both the head and second master were off sick or otherwise absent. Then it was revealed there was such a being as a previously unsuspected ‘third master’ who -- his sole function in the post, it appeared -- had to take the assembly, marching through the back doors and down the middle of the hall to gasps and titters, then mount the stage and, when the prefects had peeled off one by one from their positions in the aisles and taken their seats up there with him, find a voice unshaky enough to announce that we would sing hymn number X.

An intimidating assignment for the poor fellow thus tasked, especially since he had evidently attained the post not on the basis of competence -- often severely lacking -- but of seniority, whether of age or service. The unenthusiastic quality of the singing was an index of the lack of esteem in which this person was held. So on one occasion I recall it was Mr Witham, the ancient, ineffective, boring and nose-dripping Spanish and French teacher, and on another Reggie Maddox, the unimposing senior art master. The situation was saved from disaster, however, by the continued presence of the masters in the body of the hall, a stare from some of whom -- the ones from whom the third master would have been chosen on any rational system -- was quite enough to quell any incipient uprising.

What’s interesting about these strange occurrences is that since the school was purportedly placed on, precisely, a rational modern basis in the 1880s, ending the long decline from its Tudor origins and its Stuart charter, the maintenance of what seem like ancient customary practices was a glaring anomaly. No comprehensive school of the time (there were a few), let alone an efficient business, would have ran such risks, or indeed have tolerated hopeless teaching and the promotion of people on long service alone.

But -- and this seems to be the key (I’m guessing) -- it was the decent thing to recognise long service, and allowing the boys to be on their own as a full body while not normally policed was a civilised procedure. In some nook of the official thinking these values must have still counted; to give them up would have been to surrender something important. These odd practices represented a minimal and symbolic resistance to the logic of enlightened progress. The retention of gowns and ritual assemblies were perhaps in the same class.

Perhaps, then, the way to see these these prestigious grammar schools might be as hollowed out shells of archaic custom in which lively and up-to-date proceedings could securely thrive in the odd classroom and some atypical teacher-pupil relationships.

Closing public libraries

On the Today programme this morning (Radio 4) Zadie Smith had these things to say amongst her comments about the closure of public libraries:

I would never have seen a single university carrel if I had not grown up living 100 yards from the library in Willesden Green.

[It’s] difficult to explain to people with money what it means not to have money. ‘If education matters to you, they ask, if libraries matter to you, why wouldn’t you be willing to pay them if you value them?’ They’re the kind of people who believe value can only be measured in money.

Like many people without money, we relied on public services... as a necessary gateway to better opportunities. We paid our taxes in the hope that they’d be used to establish shared institutions from which all might benefit equally.

Community is a partnership between government and the people and it’s depressing to hear the language of community, the so-called big society, being used to disguise the low motives of one side of that partnership as it attempts to renege on the deal.

To listen look for ‘People voting with their feet’ on library cuts Wed, 30 Mar 11 here.

Boris bikes

Iain Sinclair, on a Thinking Allowed podcast, speaking of the London bike scheme introduced by mayor Boris Johnson and sponsored by Barclays Bank: something to the effect that ‘The bikes have a big sign on so we ride around advertising Barclays like sandwich-board men, and what's more, have to pay for the privilege.’
Image from

Jacob Behrens and my education

Behrens, Jacob: 19th century Bradford wool man. I'm finding myself, after my recent couple of days in Bradford, interested in the city’s 19th century history, to which Behrens was important. (He was apparently involved in reforming Bradford Grammar School and putting it on a modern footing.) An intelligent, vigorous, warm and humane man, it appears. I vaguely knew that the Behrenses were one of the German families who moved to Bradford and contributing to building up the wool trade and city.

I’ve just bought his biography second-hand and have read the first part, about his early life (born 1806), up until I think his late 20s, in Hamburg, and emerge from this with a few miscellaneous observations.

Germany at the time was a mess of small states run for the most part by an outrageously rich, privileged and reactionary class of nobles. I hadn’t realised, a point the book makes clear, what a huge improvement Napoleon’s administration had made in that, what -- decade? --of occupation: abolishing arbitrary customs levies, banning discrimination against Jews (the Behrens family were Jewish, hence in trade, practically the only occupation that had been permitted for Jews), providing schools, building bridges. (I knew something of this in relation to the French occupation of Yugoslavia, from Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, and have since looked for a book on Napoleon’s administrative innovations in France and beyond, but haven’t found one.) And then the callousness and stupidity of the restored princely and aristocratic regimes after Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna (did I ever do that in history?) -- under the ‘Austrian Peace’, so-called because it was mainly Metternich’s doing, and he was an Austrian -- I didn’t know that either. Not only the rulers but the old ways and privileges and bans were restored -- to the extent of pulling down the French-built bridge in Hamburg so the ferrymen could resume their customary trade and the people could resume their hazardous and expensive half-hour crossings in open boats in wind, rain and snow. (Big society?)

I also realise I know nothing about Germany. All those names: Pomerania, Saxony, Hanover, Silesia, Prussia... I've very little idea where they are. Nor could I draw a map of Germany which always seems to me to be a featureless mass without anything to get your bearings with. Well, just some rivers, I suppose, and the Black Mountains. So I need a geography book and atlas as well as a history. Come to think of it, we only did one year of geography in grammar school, and I think that was the British Isles -- which I'm glad to have done but it wasn’t enough.

Now a pedagogic observation. I sort of knew before opening the book that the Behrenses had been in textiles in Germany, and, having in mind I suppose that Jacob Behrens had a mill in Bradford - still there in my youth, perhaps it still is -- or I thought it was a mill (it may have been a warehouse) I simply assumed that the family manufactured yarn or cloth in Hamburg. Then I read without paying particular attention something about the firm importing its cloth from England, and only afterwards registered the significance of that statement: so they weren’t manufacturers, they were merchants, buying and selling.

Now: imagine -- I'm a teacher and my class has been ordered to read the chapter. When they’ve finished I might normally be inclined to ask them, ‘Where did they get their cloth from?’ ‘England, sir’ -- no problem. After the reading I’d actually had, in which on reflection I’d noted a particular significance in what I was being told, I might ask them rather, ‘What business were the Behrens in in Hamburg?’ -- in order for them to realise that, whatever they might have unquestioningly assumed, like me, it wasn’t manufacture. But what I should be trying to do is bring about in my students the sort of learning that I experienced -- and the difference is that no one asked me the question that made that happen. My learning, in fact, was precisely realising that there was a question to be asked.

A huge part of my effort in teaching humanities in school , including English, was to get the kids to have questions.

I was reminded of this the other day when Simon Clements, recalling his time as an HMI (inspecting schools, not just English), said that if he had one fundamental question for teachers in relation to their teaching, it was ‘Whose questions?’ Exactly right.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Stuart Hall idea

Stuart Hall, interviewed by Laurie Taylor on Thinking Allowed, said revolutions are not to be judged solely by their outcomes (assuming we are in a position to know what they are). 1968 may not have ‘succeeded’ -- but after it the world was different in various ways. So it was with 1848, and so it will be with the current Arab revolutions, whatever the ‘outcome’.

A hopeful message, no?

Monday, 14 March 2011

Arendt and English

Been re-reading The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt. I say re-reading because marginal marks indicate I've read it before, but for all the memory I have of it I might as well not have bothered -- these days I have to make notes if I’m to get anything out of a book.

A big theme in the book is the idea of the public sphere, as opposed to both family and intimate relations on the one hand and, on the other, the general mainly work-based swirlings around that constitute ‘society’, a formation and a notion that have emerged only in modern -- post-Renaissance, scientific etc -- times. In ancient Greece, she says, there were only the prized public sphere of the polis, where men (only) could be fully human, and the despised family or household sphere where women and slaves performed the labour (including that of procreation) necessary to sustain mere animal life. Virtue, honour, morality all related to one’s conduct in the public sphere, one’s action (e.g. in war) and one’s speech (in legislative and judicial deliberation).

It’s surely those features of Greece (and of Rome -- essentially similar in its ideas and values, she says, apart from eventually losing democracy) that made classical education so irrelevant to people of my generation who got a load of it at grammar school. The likes of us were a good two centuries into a world -- society, capitalism, individualism, prizing of intimacy -- to which ancient social structures and values were irrelevant. Horace feeling fulfilled because in his poetry he’d ‘built a monument more lasting than bronze’ -- how could a British teenager be expected to care about that? Or glory in war?

The British ruling class in the 18th and 19th centuries still, it’s true, maintained its adherence to classical ideals: politicians wearing togas in their statues, Parliament seeing itself as the equal of the Roman Senate and so on. But that adherence was already being undermined by the quite different set of ideas, values and preoccupations embodied in the new novels, such as those of Fielding and Richardson.

So, classics being no longer capable of performing its traditional educational function, English had to be invented -- though it took some time for novels to gain the valued position within it that they now, rightly, hold.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Manningham & Heaton (Bradford) photos

I've posted photos of my recent Bradford trip here, entirely buildings and views. Since photos are poor (dull weather, new camera) this is only for those with an interest in Bradford or architecture. Not sure how to suggest you view it: slide shows are nice but you have to set the time per slide and some of my captions are longer than others. So perhaps best to view one by one, on Full Screen setting. (The album title is wrong, by the way: my visit was at the end of Feb, not in March.)

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Perfunctory didactics

Outside Hampton Court a couple of days ago, at the gate into the forecourt, a cluster of junior school pupils (aged 9-10) being got into the zone by their teacher: ‘And as you were approaching that massive great gatehouse, what would you be feeling?’ Confused muttering. ‘What would you be feeling?’ Kids indifferent, gazing around at the river and at nothing. A girl offers something I can’t hear. ‘Yes, exactly, that’s a lovely word.’ Not clear that the others find it lovely.

It’s now standard practice to ask, instead of ‘Who was the first Tudor king?’, ‘How would you feel if you had to serve Henry VIII his soup without spilling any?’ But it’s evident that this newer pedagogy, if implemented, as here, in the same perfunctory and ritualised manner, is no more effective. That teacher doesn’t want to know how they’d feel, and they know she doesn’t want to know and there’s no point in expending the effort to satisfy her. Except for the same one or two there still is and always will be.

There are circumstances -- we all know them -- in which A can ask B ‘How would you feel if...?’ and it’s a real and legitimate question, one that puts you on the spot or invites you into interesting speculation. But questions that have degenerated into stock elements in a teacher’s routine don’t work like that. Devising non-routinised ways of eliciting kids’ engagement is a perennial problem for teachers, and one, it seems, as no nearer solution -- or even recognition -- than it ever was.

And how would you feel if you received the following response to your response to such a question?

‘How would you feel if you’d been stuck at home all day with crying kids and dirty nappies and I swanned in two hours after I’d finished work stinking of beer?’


‘Yes, that’s a lovely word, isn’t it! Resentful.’

Neil Oliver

He’s a BBC TV presenter known mainly for the boring Coast but he’s just done a two-programme series, A History of Ancient Britain. It follows neatly on the geological programme, The Making of Britain (I think), presented by Tony Robinson, and takes the story forward into (human) prehistory.

In this series Oliver is, at last, terrific, and the reason is that he’s dealing with his own specialism: he’s an archaeologist. Accordingly, he can ad lib convincingly, talk knowingly to other archaeologists and react appropriately to the uniqueness or run-of-the-millness of the finds they show him. And he has an archaeologist’s emotions of delight and wonder. I wish we’d had six programmes, not two, so he could have taken time to discuss at more leisure such items as the significance of the construction of the Dover boat relic of which the huge, axe-hewn planks were sewn together with withies, not nailed or jointed. (Was this because nails hadn’t been invented, because wooden nails were too difficult to make or ineffective or because metal ones -- bronze, they would have been at that point -- were too expensive?)

He stopped with the bronze age, 1500BC, but I wish he’s gone on the iron and difference it made, and the Celts.

BBC, learn the lesson: give us experts setting their expert minds to work in their own field. Wouldn’t anyone prefer this to the middle-brow blandness of mere tourist stuff like Coast -- which is worth watching, if at all, for the aerial filming? We want to see archaeologists being archaeologists, and physicists (Brian Cox) being physicists -- same as in fictional form we like watching police being police and hospital doctors being hospital doctors.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Finding a netbook

I wrote before somewhere that I could do with a very small and light laptop that at minimum would provide for typing text and storing it for transferring to a serious computer, and beyond that might provide internet for browsing -- maybe email but that’s a lower priority. This would be to take on trips, into libraries, just while out of the house.

And of course you can’t get such a thing without paying for a load of extras like webcams and more power than you need. I was thinking there should be something for up to GBP100 but I'm going to have to pay 250 for what is called a netbook.

Best bet seems the Asus but deciding which version is a nightmare. The thing I think I want is called the Eee 1015 -- but do I want the 1015PE or PX or PEM...? and what difference would the differences make? Then, there’s tracking down where in London I can see and try them, which I'm told is essential with such devices because some keyboards and trackpads don’t feel right, some have screen glare or casing glare...

It’s one of those situations in which I’d like to just send my man out with instructions to come back with the right one. Can’t quite manage that but I am benefiting from expert handholding from an old friend, James. But it’s not convenient for him to come shopping with me (Totten Court Road next week, I reckon) since he’s in Hong Kong, where of course I’d be better off getting it. (No sales tax, he tells me -- I didn’t know that.)

The more I browse on the topic the more complicated it gets. Now I find a forum where it’s stated (in 2009) that tech support for Asus in the UK sucks. But what can you do?

Slideshow forthcoming

My pics of Bradford (Manningham and Heaton) will be available ‘before long’ but I'm learning as I go and it’s a slow business. Where do I publish a set of photos that can be viewed as a slideshow? I tried Apple’s Mobile Me Gallery and iWeb because they were linked handily with iPhoto, but they seemed a bit quirky and minorityish and in any case I find I'm now using the software that came with my Nikon Coolpix for editing and organising.

So then to Flickr, but too complicated and a slideshow on it doesn’t display captions as far as I could see, and what I have in mind -- a tour of places and sights -- needs them. So I'm settling for Picasa: uploading to it is straightforward from the folders that the Nikon creates, and some of our family stuff is on there anyway.

So now I'm selecting and editing and captioning. But don’t raise your expectations: I'm no photographer, I wasn’t used to the camera and the weather was dull till right at the end.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Jamie's Dream School

Jamie Oliver -- good guy -- has set up a small school that’s to run for two weeks and attempt to rescue 20 teenage ‘academic failures’, and to ‘light their fire’, as he puts it, he’s engaged distinguished experts as teachers. Just seen the first programme and they didn’t do well, except the yachtsperson who only had four kids to deal with -- and no school subject to teach.

Might that be something to do with the fact that the experts aren’t teachers? might they not have been more successful if they’d been shown how to do it on a PGCE?

To which, sadly, Jamie’s answer might justifiably be that the people the kids have just come are all trained teachers, and what good did that do.

His scheme isn’t silly because we know that there are loads of ‘born teachers’ who aren’t teaching as a job, and some of his experts might have turned out to be among them as well as being expert in science, art, history and sailing.

Still, it’s also rather typical of the standing of the profession that the idea can even get a hearing that non-teachers could be given a bunch of kids to teach, whereas we wouldn’t (or would we, these days?) set non-medics to do surgery or non-musicians to conduct... Etc.

Shows we lack a clear concept of what the expertise in teaching actually is. But a prerequisite must surely be that someone understands teenagers and is used to being with them. I got the impression that none of these four did, except perhaps the yacht person whose name I should know but have forgotten.

Come to think of them, Jamie himself seemed by far the best with the kids, but then he’s taught similar kids for years in his restaurant.

Manningham Part 2

Click to get photos a decent size.
It was good to find this small 17th century cluster (weavers’ cottages?) well preserved, while up in the village there was a bakery, the Village Bakery, of a type I've never yet found in London, with homemade pies and proper confectionary like jam and raisin slices (that’s two items) and Eccles cakes. And the rec at the top of the hill had views of Ilkley Moor.

Turning back I inspected a row of high-quality back-to-backs on Heaton Road.

The two houses you see don’t go right through to the back: half way back, another one-room-per-floor house starts, with access to its ‘front’ door through the tunnel that was required by Bradford’s by-laws from the 1860s.

Finally I called in at Lilycroft Primary School (Bradford School Board, 1872-3 -- thus very early; I’d done my preliminary teaching practice there in 1963 when I lived just down the road) and admired the angels in the hall.

By this time the sun was out, everything looked wonderful -- and my battery ran out. So I'll have to go back. As if I need an excuse. Bradford, if often shabby, is magnificent: topography exhilarating -- unlike Leeds it’s a true Pennine town, on the edge of the big hills; the buildings a feast for the eyes; and the history -- which I now know a bit about for the first time (why didn’t they teach me it in school? typical grammar school...) -- adds such richness to what’s there to see.