Thursday, 30 August 2012

Enough opening ceremonies...

One a month will do me. I passed on the Paralympics ceremony last night, after a brief sampling, not because I thought it wouldn’t be good, as the Olympics one was -- I enjoyed that greatly (as a whole, I should add, being honest) -- but live television is no way to see it.

I appreciate that tv offers some sense of the occasion as it’s lived, and conveys something of the atmosphere and crowd’s excitement. Those aren’t nothing but overall I wish I could have watched an edited film of the event. The tv camera often get an inferior view: too distant, too underlit, too confusing, stuff in getting in the view. Too often I simply couldn’t understand or follow what was going on. The same event made into a film -- like the film of, say, Woodstock -- would have make the performances and spectacles that much more immediate and omitted a lot of the tedious parading. An hour would have been fine for the Olympics ceremony; can’t say for the Paralympics.

None of this is to take away from the significance and the generally heartening character of the two sets of Games. It’s been terrific all round.

For all I know, of course, there may be films in preparation.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Mina Road HIgher Grade School, 1903

We’ve just had the following from an Australian, Stephen James, who found this blog -- quoted with his permission:

Today my mother (in her eighties) gave me a prize book won by my maternal grandfather (now deceased) in 1903. I thought it might interest you. My grandfather, Charles Arthur Welch, was born on 24 February 1894 at 14 Kempstead Road, Camberwell, London. His father was a young fish porter/labourer and his young mother a seamstress, both aged 21.

As far as I can gather, Charles' father died when he was very young, at which point Charles left school for work, later joining the Sussex Regiment in the British Army which served in India. He had wanted to study chemistry at university but this was not possible. He later married a woman from Bath and emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, in the 1920s. Later, my mother excelled in science and I ended up doing a PhD (albeit in Politics) at Princeton. It is interesting to see the scholarly links through the history.

I know you are much more interested in the postwar period of the school, but I thought you, or a colleague, might find the details of the prize book interesting:

French-English English French Dictionary by A. Mendel (edited by G. F. Barwick of the British Museum) (Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, n.d.) Pocket edition

Presented July 1903 for Conduct, Progress, Attendce. at East Lambeth Division, Mina Road Higher Grade School to Charles Welsh [sic] by

Edward P. Paul, Head Teacher.

If you have any information on the history of the school, particularly during its early days until the end of the First World War I, would be much obliged. I'd also be interested in whether there might be any archives or information relating to students and their work. Also, did Edward P. Paul move on to another school or did he end his teaching there?

In a second email Stephen writes:

Charles' father was Thomas Henry Welch (fish porter/labourer who married at 21 and lived at 28 Longcroft Rd, Camberwell--now in Burgess Park). Nearby was Kempshead (not Kempstead, my mistake) Rd. Neither was far from Mina Road. Both Longcroft Road and Kempshead Road, Camberwell, were bombed during The Blitz and then subject to, I suspect, slum clearance later.

I recently read some of the original notebooks of Charles Booth (LSE collection) who said Longcroft Rd was a notorious (crime, alcoholism, etc.) and very poor area. Given that Thomas Henry Welch was a fish porter/labourer (working at the Borough Market) and his wife Sarah was a laundress I was wondering how Charles, his son, might have gone to a reasonable school like Mina Road--but as you say the fees were low (and/or there was competitive entry?).

We can answer some of the queries. Mr Paul was still headmaster during the First World War -- what happened to him afterwards I don’t know. (See my earlier post). Entry to higher grade schools -- where pupils could stay from 12 to 16 -- was by examination; there were fees but we believe they were affordable for working-class families. Unlike the ordinary elementary schools (including Mina Road Elementary School on the same site, taking children from infants upwards) the HGS had science facilities and taught French. The LCC wanted them to become a sort of working-class grammar school; the government preferred to keep the brightest members of the working class in their place -- in the trades and non-professional clerical and commercial roles. The school’s name changed to Mina Road Central School in 1911.

How it took 2 or 3 generations or more for the first family member to get to university is a story that continued into our period.

It would be good to have more on this: can anyone help?

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Walworth early 50s -- new evidence

Pat and I recently interviewed someone with a good memory of the school from 1948 to 1955, though her memories relate more to the school and teachers in general than to English and what went on in the lessons.

She was taught English by Arthur Harvey for her entire time at the school. She confirms what others have told us, that Harvey had his favourites -- of which she was one in that class -- though this didn’t lead to any unfairness in marking. Some of the favourites joined Harvey in the Quick Service Cafe after school but not our informant: she belonged to an alternative group that met in another cafe, on the other side of the Old Kent Road, around the biology teacher, Eric Palmer.

Palmer was a quite different kettle of fish and he and Harvey didn’t like each other. Alex McLeod was associated with his group. Palmer taught frankly about sex and is said to have favoured free love (though his relationships were entirely ‘appropriate’, as we say now). But his main educational concern was teaching pupils about life. He was devoted to open air activities on the lines of the 1930s German hiking and health movement. He was associated with the Woodcraft Folk, took his group camping at their site and called them each by their Woodcraft name -- he himself was Fox. By all accounts Palmer was a thoroughly good thing and pupils benefited by his teaching and personal attention. Our informant regards him as one of the teachers at Walworth who had a lifelong influence on her (Harvey was without doubt another).

Another set of impressions from the same source supports what we’ve been hearing often, that Miss O'Reilly, the school’s first real head, was an ‘authoritarian’ who ruled pupils and staff alike ‘with a rod of iron’. What puzzles us, however, is that she was certainly a progressive in her principles: she believed in a school giving a social education as well as an academic one, through the practice of friendly and respectful relations; she stressed constantly that all pupils were equally valuable; she enthusiastically embraced the concept of an experimental comprehensive school; she introduced form meetings and a school council, and an innovative social studies curriculum that involved individual project work (not a great success, it seems) and a great deal of choice. She made unconventional appointments like Harvey and Palmer, and also Sean O’Regan the art teacher.

What’s the explanation? we suspect that her principles were more liberal than her personality could tolerate and that there was a real conflict between the two. But what sort of evidence would help us find out?

Walworth -- more needed

Officially we’ve come to the end of our data-gathering: what remains is writing a book and, we hope, doing some presentations for interested people from our three schools. However, we’re aware there are embarrassing gaps in our coverage. In my last post I remarked how little we had on Harold Rosen’s time at Walworth (admittedly less than three full years). The same could be said of John Dixon (1959-63). So, we’d still welcome more and will add anything useful we receive to the pile we made publicly available in our archive (and also, ideally, via a website -- would some millionaire ex-pupil care to fund this?)

However, not every sort of written or spoken memory is equally useful. Compare,

I remember her as a sympathetic but strict teacher, and her teaching must have been effective because I passed my O and A level English


I enjoyed writing poems and [the teacher] often pinned them on the noticeboard


[Writing] was not my thing. Being creative to that extent was not my thing. I mean whenever we… had to write a poem, this became a family effort, and the family would gather around, and what we would do was we would gather together such old Christmas cards and birthday cards that still remained in the family archive, we would get those out and find all the words that rhymed, make a list of all the words that rhymed, and I would somehow try to work them into the requisite poem.

[Acknowledgements and thanks to Ken Russell.  I've edited that slightly from the transcript of his interview.]

That admittedly wasn’t about a remembered lesson, but memories of the experience of doing a particular piece of work are also valuable. We’re interested in not only what the teachers did but in what it was like for the pupils.

Or the following, from two emails -- thanks to Janet Midwinter:

He [Simon Clements, 1959-64] sometimes remarked that he'd 'enjoyed' reading something which was incredibly flattering and encouraging.  He fostered the idea that there was no right way or wrong way to do it which was liberating. It was all about ideas. The important thing was telling the story, including dialogue and descriptions of characters.  It was as if your exercise was to entertain.  He wanted us to not worry - just write.  In some cases, like the 'books' we had a second chance to go back and re-write after discussion.  It was satisfying to be able to improve yourself and immediately see the results.

We were told to describe characters, their feelings and  the streets they walked in.  We were encouraged to visualise our own areas for inspiration. Best of all we didn't have to use formal language when a character spoke.  We were allowed to use slang and portray them exactly as we wanted them to sound - even if that involved Cockney accents or others more exotic.

I recall that he often allowed noisy cross arguments where yelling would be briefly tolerated.  Then it would be stopped, started again when he pointed to someone who had not initially taken part, involving others who hadn't spoken, until it built up to another crescendo.  

It gave me the impression we were doing something we shouldn't have been allowed to do.  That's why it was exciting.  And he always seemed to enjoy it.  As if the heat of the moment promoted better debate.

Those are admittedly from an exceptional writer, but many people have been surprised at how well they can write when they sit down and give it a try after all these years. After all, Walworth pupils weren’t taught English just anywhere!

The things to remember are:

[what it was like] being there -- your thoughts and reactions as well as what happened.

Harold Rosen -- more

Those who remember Harold Rosen at Walworth (English, January 1956 to July 1958) will be interested in the blog that his son Michael is doing on him. The most recent posting is a wonderful picture of a young Harold in army uniform (US -- by a strange set of circumstances he was born on US territory).

The caption is wrong: he was a young Harold but his age was 26, not 16. He’d been working as a teacher for some time before being called up.

Our research evidence continues to be contradictory, often leaving us with no basis for deciding what to think. If we had lots more people’s reminiscences it would be easier, of course. Rosen is a case in point. Some of our informants remember him as a wonderful, inspiring, warm and humorous teacher, but one person -- recalls him, with Alex McLeod, as -- she felt -- looking down on girls like her as ‘common’. And, most astounding, one recent interviewee  -- admittedly not interested in English -- who had Rosen for all the three years that Rosen was there has barely any recollection of him at all and says that his friend in the class called him Happy Harry because he always looked so miserable, sitting at his desk at the front.

So we’d be glad of more memories of Harold -- you can send them as comments on our project blog -- click Comments here -- or by email to

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Olympics -- my mistake

‘Over a third of British medal winners…were from private schools, which educate 7% of the school population’ -- today’s Guardian. So I got it badly wrong a couple of days ago.

But, as you’d expect, the preponderance of privately educated medallists was higher in sports like rowing and lower in cycling and boxing.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Olympics, education etc.

Like so many of the commentators on the Games I'm a reformed sceptic/cynic. What I wrote before -revealed a tinge of respect creeping into my jaundiced outlook: the torchbearer I eventually glimpsed after the long procession of sponsors’ buses and corporate cheerleaders looked like an ordinary decent salt-of-the-earth kid like so many I’d taught in schools in London, Devon and Yorkshire.

I've in the event been impressed and moved by all the things the commentators have: a superbly managed and creatively conceived spectacle, lovely people on all sides -- athletes, helpers, soldiers, audiences, boring sport becoming interesting for the first time. Even the national anthems, podiums, flag-raisings. (What a pity Wales wasn’t a country for Olympics purposes: then, if their athletes had then done their stuff, we could have had the best anthem of all. As it was we had to make do with the runner-up, Russia’s. Shame about the British one, of course.)

What I liked is that despite the oppressive business presence (Coca Cola, Samsung), the dominant feeling was inescapably non-corporate, non-accountancy-driven, non-managerial, non-PR/HR/government-speak and instead human, decent, warm. Plenty of ‘excellence’ (hated term) was in evidence, but also respect for and recognition of ordinary people and ordinary virtues, like solidarity, love of city and country and respect for honest effort as much as for ‘achievement’.

I liked it that so many of the athletes were people from ordinary or even disadvantaged backgrounds, and so many from unregarded parts of Britain like the North and Northern Ireland. Few seemed to from public schools or even from well-known schools -- even the gold medal canoeist, which you’d think an expensive sport, got there by drifting along to a local club after his day at an undistinguished provincial school. If the list of schools topping the examinations and Oxbridge entry league tables include almost none that aren’t in the south of England, those contributing Olympic athletes is another story.

British sport had been helped by two obvious things: immigration, obviously, and lottery money that had been spent wisely and to the benefit of the provinces, e.g. the way funding had been used to promote cycling and the athletics training centre in Sheffield.

I was impressed by the bold creativity of the organisers (Seb Coe?) -- picking the risky Danny Boyle to do the opening ceremony -- and terrific graphics, design and architecture. It was the sort of genius that used at one time to inform the BBC’s comedy programming and their drama production (one-off plays, I'm thinking of). Lesson: let creative people get on with it without having to negotiate with ‘management’.

Cameron’s educational response has been to say there’ll be more money (which will mean the money they took away in the first place) for competitive sport in schools. Their other educational push is for ‘excellence’. But my understanding is that the money that was put into sporting activities by the last government (including lottery money), and that has paid off in the Olympics, was for fitness, health and active pursuits generally, not just competition, and that what these Olympics at their best have showcased isn’t just ‘excellence’ but sportsmanship and decent behaviour -- everything that bankers and corporate management aren’t about; and that the money went not just to the selected best (though that was important) but also to facilities for everyone. It’s the latter we want more of in schools and local areas -- swimming pools, for instance. We can have any number of Tescos, it seems, but no political party has the guts to say we’ll take half Tesco’s profits off them and put the money into an equal distribution of swimming pools -- or concern halls or train and bus services.

I think the lesson for education, since that’s what I set out to write about, is that the aim should be a general flowering and flourishing: make provision -- facilities and staffing -- for all sorts of potentially rewarding academic and cultural pursuits, from Greek and engineering to learning the bassoon and the high jump, make kids want to pursue them and show them how. Done right, this will lead to no end of ‘excellence’ (and university applications) but also to a population that knows what to do with itself and doesn’t easily get bored and reduced to daytime TV.

My absent best reader

I'm not sure how many readers I now have -- I won’t check again until I've resumed a more regular outpouring -- and of course I've never known who they all were. But a number have responded quite regularly, either via published Comments or by email to me. Of these some have been interested in the research about Walworth School that I'm involved with, others in my broader themes of education, English teaching, literature and the arts.

It’s worth mentioning that if people found it easier to work out how to add a Comment to the blog, or could do so without getting a Google ID, more might do it. I don’t know why signing on is necessary: submitted Comments come to me anyway and I decide whether to publish them or not. Those in Mandarin I tend to reject.

Commenting has never taken off big time on my blog and that doesn’t worry me since it’s principally a way for me to keep writing and the responses that seriously make me think and that I can’t not take account of if I'm really, as I like to claim, in search of understanding, tend to come from a few people I know well.

Or knew, because the best of them, Andrew Stibbs, died at the end of last year. Andrew read and responded so faithfully -- by email rather than Comment -- that he became a large part of the ‘envisaged reader’ who I felt I was writing for. I’d reply to him either by email or, without publicly declaring that’s what I was doing, in a further blog posting. The exchange was a continuation of a correspondence that had started in 1959 after we both left school and went to different universities. Andrew knew more than me, about more stuff, and was both cleverer and more creative, including as a painter and poet. I suspect that a large part of the faltering of my blogging over the last few months has been because I've no longer had him to hold in mind as my sympathetic, critical and rightly demanding reader.  I've seriously missed his reactions to my postings.

Another reason, by the way, that I don’t get more comments is that most people haven’t got time to ‘follow’ blogs but only manage to look in from time to time. I know this from my own dealings with other people’s blogs that I admire and enjoy -- I already spend more than enough time on the computer and not enough reading books, full-length ones, from cover to cover. There’s a new blog that I want to read regularly but the author’s productivity is such that I know I won’t keep it up although he’s a terrific writer and his stuff is of great interest and means a lot to me. This person has loads of time: he’s recently retired from a very full-time job that, unlike mine (university teaching and research), affords no way of being continued outside the organisational structure. He’s moved from the city to the remote countryside and he’s on his own all day while his wife is at work. It’s about his current and past life -- Bermondsey, Bexley, other places in London and now Norfolk -- but plenty more besides, a wide range of things a lively mind reflects on. I recommend it: here’s the link:

Incidentally, my exchange with this blogger -- on my side almost exclusively as reader at the moment -- is also a continuation. He and I have been corresponding since, I think, the late 1960s.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Teaching student teachers to teach literature

I taught PGCE (graduate teacher education) for only four years and keep thinking still, six years later, of how I might have done it better. I wish I’d had it clearer then how one might approach ‘teaching' a text like a poem, novel, part of a novel, story or non-fiction text treated as literature. Yesterday for some reason I started thinking how I might have laid it out in a session. Here’s a rough sketch.

Ask the group (the student teachers) the following questions about a text it’s proposed to teach in school:

  1. What do you think it’s important to notice, feel, mark, note or register about this poem etc? what noticings (etc) would in your view constitute an adequate reading or mean the kid has ‘got’ the poem?
Two notes to add here:

(a)        Distinguish between the noticings etc that a school student or reasonably responsive English speaker might be expected to come to on his or her untutored own, through such resources as a lay person brings to bear, and those that might result from concepts (‘scientific’ lit crit concepts) and knowledge that an English teacher might impart. Consider, as a possible general rule: should we be starting with the first sort? (A whole discussion is needed on this.)

(b)        ‘in your view’, I said above but you have to take into account that that might not be their view. See below.

2.        What would need to go on between you, the class and the text for those noticings to occur, those aspects or features to be felt? What processes and activities might you instigate?

  1. How then will you know what has been registered, noticed, marked or felt? How will you get those results, that learning, to show? This is a question about evaluation, in the sense not of grading but on ‘formative’ evaluation or getting the information by which to proceed effectively.
Now the only way a student’s experience can show, so you can be aware of it, is if it’s materially manifested in an overt sign, which may be anything from a smile or uneasy shifting in the seat to an essay. Whatever it is that’s happened in the students has to come out in the open and enter the ‘space of appearance’ in Hannah Arendt’s phrase. A whole lot of discussion is therefore required on the forms of productive activity that could be encouraged in the classroom which will indicate what has been going on in the student’s head.

I suggested in point 1 that teachers begin by identifying the things they think students should ‘get’ in the text but observed in 1(b) that students might well have a different take. Now you don’t want to preempt or cut off reactions that are different from the ones you think they should have that are the same as yours, or give the sense that yours are right and theirs somehow not legitimate. Devising forms of productive activity that will allow responses to appear that you’d no way of anticipating is a difficult matter and one of the hardest and most important thing English teachers have to learn to do.

        4.        There’s an extra complication: it may take some form of expression for the student to become aware of the nature of his or her response. For it to become known to the experiencer, the experience may need to be manifested out there, in the public (accessible to others) ‘space of appearance’, in, for instance, spoken or written words. Indeed, it may only be when ‘semiotically anchored’ or attached to signs that some sorts of experience may be said to come into existence at all, or at any rate definite existence as realities to be mentally entertained and contemplated. It may be in giving expression to the response to a text that the response happens ‘in the first place’.

And here we have to note that the notion of ‘expression’ is profoundly misleading, as if something that’s inside (mental, psychic) gets outside, by a process of ex-pression, pressing out. In fact there’s no way that what’s inside, a thought or feeling, can itself be made visible or apprehensible since what is perceptible is material and those inner occurrences aren’t. (Except that some thoughts are already ‘encoded’ internally in language to varying degrees….)
What actually happens in so-called ‘expression’ is that to whatever is ‘inside’ is added something else, something of quite a different, namely material, order.

As a responsible PGCE tutor I would want to supply references to articles and books in which the authors give serious thought to, and report their classroom experiments relating to, (a) forms of production to give ‘expression’ to responses, ones that could be set up without preempting those responses; and (b) the theoretically difficult issue of the disjunction between experience and the expression of it and the way in which it may only be in expression that experience may be said to come fully into existence at all.

But I'm now so out of touch with the whole business that no such references come to mind. But I'm also willing to bet that none of the main ‘method books’ on English teaching of the last, what, twenty years, at any rate in Britain, have anything substantial to say on these issues.