Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday 12 May 2015

"It must be right; I got it off the internet..."

Remember the Canvey Island nativity play?
The “Christmas Tale” stars a pair of robbers, named Bob and Bill, who raid a jewellery store in broad daylight to steal a manger full of rubies and emeralds.
There's a similar theme at work in a grammar exercise recently given to primary school children across the Estuary in Sheerness. We know this because one parent was so 'shocked' that she was apparently obliged to go to the local press and have it reported, complete with carefully posed photographs.

In an exercise designed to test the appropriate use of the pronouns 'I' and 'me', children had to complete the following sentence:
Hand ..... the money before ..... put a bullet through your head.
Could it, perhaps, be part of the continued attempt to reflect modern urban society in the school curriculum? And, if so, can we look forward to the same thing emerging in, say, Maths,
If Liam and Kane steal £140 and divide it in the ratio 3:4...
Sayeed takes a BMW without the owner's consent and drives it into a wall at 70km/h....
or Biology?
How can Shanice and Amii use this graph to record the growth of their cannabis plants...?
Educational orthodoxy demands that work set should be as relevant as possible to the lives and interests of pupils - though it's not clear whether that would extend to a crime-themed nativity play in an area which had recently seen several armed robberies  - which raises some interesting questions about the test paper's provenance.

We do know it was downloaded from the generally respected Times Educational Supplement resource-sharing site. It's an excellent example of the spurious authority lent by the imprimatur of the internet; an unquestioning teacher seems to have handed it out without the proof reading which would have detected the rank illiteracy (or devious trap) of asking pupils to use 'I' or 'me' to complete:
When I asked the Scotsman if he enjoyed haggis, he looked at me and said ‘Och .....’ 
I doubt the 'bullet' sentence caused any lasting damage, though it does seem unnecessarily crass to include it in a grammar exercise for primary-age children. What concerns me more is the idea of teachers indiscriminately trawling the internet for off-the-peg lessons and homework with no guarantee of quality.

Over the past 50 years, the nature of education has shifted from imparting knowledge and skills to teachers being expected to keep pupils - or 'learners' - entertained. The result has been a desperate scramble for novelty while trying to satisfy the demand for constant exhaustive record-keeping - senior management and inspectors do love a brightly-coloured progress chart or graph! - and a corresponding lack of consistency in what some of us would call the basics.

Borrowing back a comment I left at Julia's place recently, on a post highlighting the effects of this degeneration,
Truly we have an education system at which the rest of the world can only wonder!

Sunday 10 May 2015

The Sunday Songbook

A borrowed piece today:

A Pict Song
Rudyard Kipling

Rome never looks where she treads.
Always her heavy hooves fall
On our stomachs, our hearts or our heads;
And Rome never heeds when we bawl.
Her sentries pass on—that is all,
And we gather behind them in hordes,
And plot to reconquer the Wall,
With only our tongues for our swords.

We are the Little Folk—we!
Too little to love or to hate.
Leave us alone and you’ll see
How we can drag down the State!
We are the worm in the wood!
We are the rot at the root!
We are the taint in the blood!
We are the thorn in the foot!

Mistletoe killing an oak—
Rats gnawing cables in two—
Moths making holes in a cloak—
How they must love what they do!
Yes—and we Little Folk too,
We are busy as they—
Working our works out of view—
Watch, and you’ll see it some day!

No indeed! We are not strong,
But we know Peoples that are.
Yes, and we’ll guide them along
To smash and destroy you in War!
We shall be slaves just the same?
Yes, we have always been slaves,
But you—you will die of the shame,
And then we shall dance on your graves!

And,in case you thought it was fanciful to connect it with modern politics...

Friday 8 May 2015

Balls gets the snip

We would never normally stoop so low as to celebrate someone's defeat but, in one case, we are prepared to make an exception. As they say, 'Don't let the door hit you on the way out!'

There is one thing I shall miss about him: the fact that, according to in the conventions of headline-speak, his utterances are all reported thus...
Labour not anti-business - Balls
Balls - Labour Government will 'balance the books'
...and somehow I find myself mentally adding an invisible exclamation mark of disbelief each time. I admit it may be somewhat below the belt to poke fun at a chap's name but you have to agree that there has been a rich vein of satire to be mined here.

Given his previous appearances in this blog, there is, of course, only one possible victory song today...
As Labour takes a drubbing in every counting hall,
Let's raise a toast to seeing Brown's old enforcer fall
And cheer as Morley suffers the unkindest cut of all;
Who'd have believed it? Labour have lost their Balls!

Sunday 3 May 2015

'A Little Princess'

Back in the 1970s, when I was a child, princesses came in two varieties. There were the fairy-tale ones in books, whose royal status unaccountably enabled them to spin frogs into gold or identify stray vegetables in their bedding, and then there was the real-life home-grown version, an energetic outdoor type with a no-nonsense style and an HGV licence who was not above telling intrusive photographers to "Naff awf!"

Even her wedding, that ultimate opportunity for frills, furbelows and fantasy trimmings, was relatively devoid of story-book razzmatazz; as she walked up the aisle to the sound of trumpets, it would not have been a surprise to learn that, under the severe lines of her dress, she was wearing comfortable boots and possibly even a pair of jodhpurs. The fairy-tale stuff, it was clear, had no place in the real world.

Then, in the early nineties, an insidious invasion began. As new parents, we started receiving mailshots advertising toys, lurid home furnishings and videos with such slogans as "Disney was part of your childhood, now make it part of your baby's too".

It was all rather odd; beyond 'Disney Time' television programmes and rare trips to the cinema, Disney had been conspicuously absent from both of our childhoods and those of our friends. Unless we were very unusual, this was a startlingly cynical attempt to rewrite history in an attempt to drum up trade for the soon-to-be-opened EuroDisney Resort.

A key part of this mass marketing strategy was the 'Disney Princess' - a concept designed to sell merchandise, costumes, makeovers and, above all, the idea that this bedizened, doe-eyed fantasy figure in a long dress was a role model for little girls to aspire to on a daily basis.

Mothers who should have more sense have bought wholesale into this culture of all-things-pink-and-sparkly, indulging their daughters in ways that must have Disney's accountants rubbing their hands in glee - from the toothbrush and cereal bowl to the ballet bag, lunchbox and duvet cover, the stamp of the Disney princess brand can pervade a child's life from dawn to dusk.

Along with the glittery trappings goes a more sinister element - a sense of entitlement and imperious self-importance all too familiar to many teachers. Self-styled 'princesses' expect special treatment and, all too often, the material indulgence is symptomatic of undue deference to the child's wishes on the part of working parents too tired, busy or absent to argue. It's the perfect way to turn potentially sensible young women into appearance-obsessed chronic consumers with an inflated idea of their own abilities.

The apotheosis of this hideous cultural infiltration must surely be the official birthday party merchandise, a pink plethora of branded sparkly banners, tableware, 'chair bows', confetti, 'table sprinkles', tiaras and wands to celebrate the 'special day' in a fashion that Liberace would have dismissed as nauseatingly over the top. (There is a certain amusing irony that my source is the Middletons' website, which offers 'Gorgeous partyware to suit all little princesses' *.)

It remains to be seen whether the media will try to cast the latest addition to the royal family in the same mould by virtue of her paternal heritage or whether she will be seen as something separate. Her older brother's much-imitated appurtenances being more in the style of Ernest Shepard than Walt Disney, it will be interesting to see whether there is a rush on the part of new mothers to abandon the plastic glitz in favour of a classier image, re-evaluating the role in the eyes of the next generation.

*If they really believe this, the Palace staff might be advised to stock up on popcorn when the child's birthday approaches a few years hence; I suspect the paternal relatives may not be entirely in agreement.
http://www.partypieces.co.uk/disney-princess-sparkle-party.html (for those of a strong stomach).

Saturday 2 May 2015

'Victorian Poverty' - Spectre or Chimaera?

Teachers are bringing an extra packed lunch for poor pupils, washing their clothes and even cutting their hair as they warn of a return to Victorian poverty.
This, via the Telegraph, is according to a survey by the NAHT, which reports that, by their calculations, schools are spending an average each year of £2000 (primary) to £3000 (secondary) on basic school equipment, washing clothes and feeding children.

And who is to blame? Why, the evil Tories!
"This is money that schools are having to find to help families who have been left high and dry by cuts to public services."
Though the union spokesman is generous enough to share the responsibility around;
“We know that whichever political party holds power after next week, deeper cuts are coming.”
Now, I admit I am slightly puzzled. This country has a long history of people who, in conditions of abject poverty, kept the doorstep spotless and the children well-scrubbed, while more widely-travelled members of clan Macheath have seen youngsters in immaculate school uniform issuing from tiny mud huts in the African bush or slum dwellings in India.

What, then, are we to make of this?
He cited a case of a teacher in Hackney, east London, who had to teach a child how to brush her teeth after the pupil came to school with food in her teeth and toothache. 
Other teachers had to provide their students with toothbrushes and monitor that they brushed their teeth during school hours.
Or this?
“Teachers give pupils new clothes while they wash their dirty clothes and prepare breakfast for them..."
According to the NAHT spokesman, poverty and poor parenting are inextricably linked:
If you’re a poor child growing up in what seems like Victorian Britain at times, schools have to provide basic parenting and other services.”
With a certain interesting irony, I could borrow the Left's customary modus operandi and protest that this is deeply offensive to the many parents who, despite desperately straitened means, manage to give their children breakfast and bring them to school as clean and neatly-dressed as possible without any outside help.

This seamless elision of poor personal hygiene with government policy is at best simplistic. Teachers report that there are children arriving in Reception class unable to use a knife and fork or hold a pencil and some are barely toilet-trained (possibly the real reason for installing school washing machines); the level of support required to overcome such monumental parental inadequacy is surely beyond the means of any UK government.

Meanwhile, far from being an extra mouth to feed on limited resources, a British child can now be a goose that lays golden eggs. For some low income households, the weekly child benefit (£20.70 for the first and £13.70 each for the rest) may be doubled or trebled once benefit payments and tax credits are taken into account; under the circumstances, although poor money management undoubtedly plays a part, the term 'Victorian poverty' is hardly appropriate, however appealing to headline-writers.

There have, sadly, always been parents who neglect their children. In previous centuries, poor sanitation and malnutrition compounded the damage done by parents too busy, idle or intoxicated to care or whose mental or physical incapacity rendered them unable to meet the needs of a dependent child. Where possible, relatives or neighbours might step in to help - plenty of today's pensioners can testify to the once-common practice of taking in someone else's children.

The advent of the Welfare State quite rightly ensured that, along with healthier living conditions, practical help and support were available to those on the margins of society but, however well-meaning its founders, the twin evils of unwieldy bureaucracy and poorly-targeted benefits have conspired to undermine its function as far as child-rearing is concerned, complicated by the vast burden placed on the system by early parenthood, fragmentary family structure and deliberate exploitation.

Throwing money at the problem is not the answer, however. My own dealings with Social Services and benefits offices (as both 'client's representative' and temporary employee) revealed a monstrous logo-ridden, Left-leaning, meetings-with-biscuits office culture which, though it would definitely benefit from substantial pruning, is likely to have been preserved as a safe haven for those wielding the knife while front-line services bear the brunt of 'government cuts'.

In any case, according to a document from HomeStart* (a charity which arranges for volunteers to work with families in difficulties):
The volunteer thought that it did not matter how wonderful an array of services you can have on offer for families. If they do not have the emotional ability to be in a place to recognise that they need them, or how to actually go and ask for help, it can be a waste of time.
That the Welfare State is fallible is undisputed; that teachers or schools will quietly step in to help deprived children in genuine emergencies is, I should hope, a given. However, such necessary assistance cannot and should not be conflated with regular measures to counteract ongoing parental inadequacy, incompetence or laziness, least of all in the interests of generating political capital.

*The document provides case studies of families in crisis - a sobering catalogue of teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness, sometimes repeated over several generations. The State simply could not afford to fund what HomeStart volunteers are doing unless other public services were cut to the bone.
I know someone who, having been helped by HomeStart, has herself become a volunteer now that her own children have left home - that is surely the way forward, rather than relying entirely on an overstretched welfare budget. The crucial thing is to break the cycle so that the children can avoid the same problems and a formal welfare system is not necessarily the way to accomplish it.