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

Friday 9 October 2020

The National Heartless Service

As regular readers may recall, the Tavern inmates have more than a few reservations about the NHS (see the 2009 post ‘10 ways the NHS is killing people’), so I suppose we should not have been surprised at what happened this week to an 80-year-old relative.

While out walking a couple of days ago, she fell and badly twisted her ankle. It swelled up immediately and was too painful to bear any weight, so she called a taxi to take her directly to the nearest injury clinic.

On arrival, in considerable pain and still wearing her coat, she had her temperature taken with a forehead scanner. It was - unsurprisingly - ‘slightly above normal’; based on this single reading, she was immediately told that she was a Covid-19 risk and shunted into an ‘isolation room’, where she was left alone for twenty minutes without any medication or ice to relieve the pain - this despite the fact that even government sources admit that temperature testing is unreliable as a method of identifying the disease.

Finally a nurse appeared and, rather than taking a second temperature reading, gave the ankle a cursory look and announced that, because of the Covid risk, it could not be fully examined or treated. The patient should ‘go home immediately, self isolate and order a test online’. The hospital would check to make sure she had done the test; as long as the result was negative, she could return for an x-ray in a week’s time if the swelling had not gone down.

The word she used on the phone to describe the clinic staff was ‘heartless’, without the slightest warmth or compassion; how else could you describe refusing treatment to a woman of 80, in severe pain and unable to walk unaided, and sending her back to an empty house to embark on the complicated process of ordering a Covid test online? To add to the frustration, she took her own temperature after arriving home and found it was quite normal - as a second reading in the clinic would doubtless have shown.

Fortunately she has back-up - not that the nurses bothered to find out; a friend was able to lend her crutches (since the clinic would not) and the Spouse, having ordered the test on her behalf, drove 150 miles to help out and join her in isolation as long as necessary. Now we just have to hope that her ankle is not broken and that it will heal without complications.

And if, in the future, anyone asks this well-mannered and respectable lady whether she will join in applauding our wonderful NHS, I suspect the answer will be unrepeatable.

Wednesday 5 August 2020

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words

(The sign next to the bicycle says 'Experiment with ETON, not with our FAMILIES & COMMUNITIES'.)

The image is the cover of the NEU magazine for July/August: link here.

Saturday 4 July 2020

A Lesson From History

Picture the scene, if you will; it is a Thursday evening in the mid-1980s in the home of a venerable seat of learning, and the smallest bar in town is hosting 'Red Shift', the weekly club night of University Left.

This political umbrella group embraces socialists of every hue, from earnestly myopic Fabians in ethnic scarves to donkey-jacketed hard-line Trotskyites, and this is where they all go to let their hair down among like-minded souls. It's not always easy - men can't ask women to dance because it upsets the feminists ('Don't you oppress me!') and, in any case, nobody wants to look as if they are having fun and ignoring the suffering millions.

But one thing is certain; as the strains of one particular track fill the room, the tiny dancefloor will suddenly be packed. This is the spiritual communion; the seemingly disparate united in song and dance, exhorting a detested regime to 'Free-ee Nelson Mandela'.

For three short minutes, everyone there is an honorary black South African, sharing the pain of an oppressed people and shouting the ANC's cause to the rooftops. The true cognoscenti alternate the lyric with 'Free Walter Sisulu', smugly demonstrating - albeit to the already converted - that their knowledge goes further than a mere song title.

It is, of course, compulsory; no one would dare sit this one out and risk the accusing looks and the taint of indifference to the cause or, worse, potential racism. It is the anthem that defines a generation of socialists, a manifestation of their political credentials as much as a genuine expression of belief; for those 1980s left-wing undergraduates, the ecstatic unity of purpose evoked by 'Free Nelson Mandela' may well have provided their closest approach to a religious experience.

(First posted here in 2013)


Some of those Red Shift habitués, of course, must have kept the flame burning; I suspect that, these days, they can be found in the higher echelons of the media, politics or the arts - remember, these are alumni of a prestigious university where influential contacts can be made by those with ambitions in that direction and the correct ideological leanings.

Others (like me) started to have doubts as details emerged of the ANC's actions and the philosophy behind the movement. Just over a year after the release of 'Free Nelson Mandela', the ANC's radio station broadcast a statement explicitly linking the party's ideology to that of Lenin, followed by a call to obtain weapons by purchase, manufacture or violence. 
“After arming themselves in this manner, our people must begin to identify collaborators and enemy agents and deal with themThe collaborators who are serving in the community councils must be dealt with. Informers, policemen, special branch police and army personnel living and working amongst our people must be eliminated." (April 1985: Radio Freedom)
While it might have been possible to doublethink one's way around accepting attacks on armed forces engaged in carrying out the policies of of an oppressive regime, even the most credulous and fervent of Red Shift's clientele must have struggled to find justification for black South Africans 'eliminating' members of their own community*.

By the time, a year later, that Winnie Mandela announced, 'With our boxes of matches and our necklaces [...] we will liberate this country', the magic was wearing off fast; the bravado of an armed struggle against oppression may sound attractive in the abstract - and while packed safely into a tiny bar in Britain - but the reality was far more problematic. Vocally supporting the ANC wasn't quite as cool as it had originally seemed.

While the club-goers still danced and sang about Nelson Mandela - after all, the terms and circumstances of his imprisonment were manifestly unjust - the ANC t-shirts were folded away, the badges quietly removed from lapels and a number of youngsters learned the valuable lesson that, before proclaiming allegience to a cause, it's a good idea to read the small print.

*The first 'necklace' killing caught on camera was that of a young woman, Maki Skosana, burned alive by a 500-strong mob of activists who suspected her of being a police informer. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission later found that Skosana was innocent of the charge and concluded that she had been made 'the scapegoat for growing rage'. I still find it hard not to think of that quote when I read of the 'anger' of some pressure group with large numbers and the potential for violent action.

Friday 26 June 2020

The madding crowd

In the last couple of days, this quote has once again* sprung irresistibly to mind:
'Now that all the seals and their wives were on the land, you could hear their clamour miles out to sea above the loudest gales. At the lowest counting there were over a million seals on the beach – old seals, mother seals, tiny babies and holluschickie, fighting, scuffling, bleating, crawling, and playing together – going down to the sea and coming up from it in gangs and regiments, lying over every foot of ground as far as the eye could reach...'
Rudyard Kipling: 'The White Seal' from 'The Jungle Book' (if you thought it was all singing bears and dancing monkeys, do take a look!)
The media are, of course, doing their best to swell the numbers with a nifty bit of reverse psychology that seems to have stirred trippers from impossibly far afield (did that woman in Bournemouth really say she had come down from Macclesfield?) - 'if all those people are there, it must be worth the trip!'  (Since such reasoning tends to be the province of the least discerning citizens, it's small wonder that residents of seaside towns are despairing in the face of inconsiderate parking and used nappies (or worse) being dumped in their gardens.)

The more people on the beaches (and the larger the amount of residual litter), the greater the news value; what better incentive for a paper to pay cursory lip-service to the government warnings while publishing happy vox pops and abundant images showing hordes of jam-packed sunbathers stretching into the distance, families scoffing ice-cream or bikini-clad young women blithely frolicking in the waves? 'Wish you were here!'

It's one of the more worrying aspects of instant mass media - show the event and, within minutes, people are setting out to be part of it. To that we can now add social media - a whole new platform for attracting people to a gathering, whatever its purpose; the resident who described young men arriving in Brixton en masse in a series of taxis as the police came under pressure may have chronicled a phenomenon which will, in future, be all too familiar.

It's over ten years since I wrote this...
In 1973, Larry Niven's novella 'Flash Crowd' featured rioting and looting as the unforeseen consequence of mass teleportation; in the near future, we may see it happening as a direct result of 24 hour rolling news.
... and nine years since we saw it happen here, aided and abetted by Twitter and Blackberry messenger. In Niven's version - where, among other events, a crowd gathering on a Californian beach causes a 'major incident' - the authorities are finally advised to stop all travel into a 'flash crowd' area, which is probably not an option open to our thin blue line, even if their high-ups were prepared to give the order.

Since, according to the late, great Terry Pratchett,
“The intelligence of that creature known as a crowd is the square root of the number of people in it.” (Jingo)
and we can't put the social media genie back in the bottle (more's the pity!), I suspect we are likely to see a lot more of this kind of thing in the future.

*Originally used in this post

Friday 12 June 2020

"We got a meeting with some guys from outta town..."

My inbox has been relatively free, recently, of missives from 'Kevin and Mary' of the NEU, although Kevin has been indulging in a certain amount of triumphalism elsewhere, hailing the decision to postpone opening schools as a "win for science and for every member" (which is odd, given that this member, at least, considers the continued disruption of education to be an unmitigated disaster).

Now, however, I have been invited to join a Zoom call - sorry, a 'very important Zoom call'; I forgot the customary NEU hyperbole. The Union has arranged an 'exclusive BLM solidarity webinar' to discuss, among other things, 'systemic racism and COVID-19' - an impressively prescient (or suspiciously well-informed) anticipation of the findings of the PHE study which have just appeared in the press.

Having filled in the registration form and answered the vital question 'How do you self-identify in terms of ethnic origin?'*, one may sit at the virtual feet of some notable speakers: Kevin and Mary must surely be beside themselves with oleaginous smugness at having secured the Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr (accompanied by - of all people - Diane Abbott MP.)

What intrigues me, however, is the appearance part-way down the list of an unnamed 'Chicago Teaching Union representative' - is it me, or does this phrase have a slightly sinister ring, given the history of US labour unions? And why Chicago, of all places? After all, it's hardly as if things are going particularly well there at the moment...

It seems an odd use of Union funds - I understand that Ms Abbott, for one, does not come cheap, even in digital form. Our glorious leaders clearly see a window of opportunity (or possibly a handy political bandwagon) but I find it difficult to understand how the Reverend Jackson or the mysterious 'Chicago Representative', however inspiring as orators, will be able to speak with any authority on education in the United Kingdom.

*Surely a triumph of ideology over DNA: do you think I could get away with 'Vulcan' - or possibly 'None of your business'?

Tuesday 9 June 2020

Sowing the seeds

From a previous post:

Many years ago, I was working in a school in an ethnically diverse area with significant discipline problems and poor exam results (some of the reasons for that are discussed here). Homework frequently presented a problem - I had one pupil who did his at a table in the corner of a takeaway restaurant - and a certain flexibility was often required.

Sometimes, though, it was necessary to complete an assignment in order to understand the next lesson. In one such case, I told a boy to come back to the classroom at lunchtime, when I would be at my desk marking and could give him any help he needed. He looked doubtful:

Pupil: Is this a detention, like?
Me: No; it's so you can finish that work before this afternoon's lesson, otherwise you won't understand what we're doing.
Pupil: So I don't need to report it then?
Me: Report it?
Pupil: To Mr H.
Me: (baffled) Who's Mr H?
Pupil: He runs my Saturday school.

This was the first I'd heard of it, so I asked him to explain. The boy told me he had started attending a Saturday school intended to improve the academic achievement of afro-caribbean boys. So far so good - I told him how pleased I was that he was taking his education seriously - but there was more:

'Mr H says that we have to tell him if a white teacher gives us a detention. If there are no white kids in the detention, that's racist. If you tell me off and don't tell any white kids off, that's racist too; Mr H said so.'

I asked for more details; it turned out the boys had been instructed to give Mr H the names of any 'racist' teachers who told them off - a worrying prospect for staff living in the catchment area. The same applied to white teachers who criticised black pupils' behaviour or even asked them to tidy their appearance

It was only after I left the school that the full irony of the situation became clear to me; I found out that the Saturday school in question had been started with contributions from a national televised charity appeal. Well-meaning people from all over the country had put their hands in their pockets to enable Mr H to undermine the teacher-pupil relationship.


That boy must now be in his mid-forties; I wonder what he thinks of the current situation - and, more pertinently, what Mr H is doing now.

Friday 29 May 2020

'O judgement, thou art fled to brutish beasts...'

Oh dear! I promised the Spouse I would stop thinking about the Dominic Cummings affair (I was getting very grumpy; I hate seeing anyone bullied, particularly where a young child is involved) yet here I am sitting down to write about it - tangentially, at least.

For anyone who has spent time in teaching, there's something very familiar about the way certain journalists are behaving. While I agree that the broadcast media have a duty to question the actions of those in power, there comes a time when their continued aggressive persistance starts to look more than a little juvenile: "Yes, Laura, I am well aware that Dominic jumped the lunch queue and no, that does not mean everyone else can do it too."

Over the past decades, over and above the demands of the curriculum, there are three things about which I have tried to teach all of my pupils: Occam's Razor, Utilitarianism and the Tragedy of the Commons (with a dash of Socrates thrown in).  The idea is to give them a toolkit with which they can approach and objectively analyse whatever life throws at them.

Having a framework of this kind is particularly beneficial for those pupils who, while capable and intelligent, find themselves permanently cross-threaded in the machinery of life. Frequently - but not exclusively - this is associated with something like high-functioning ASD (Asperger Syndrome), where being less able than most to rely on intuitive or conditioned grasp of societal norms means you frequently end up trying to work everything out from first principles on a logical basis.

Now, it is certainly not my place to speculate about Mr Cummings, but I'd guess from the 'weirdos and misfits' job description (and his reported lack of 'people skills') that he is no stranger to that way of thinking; in fact, his approach all along has been characterised by a willingness - or determination - to take things apart and question everything.

That being so, it was almost inevitable that, faced with a unique and complex combination of circumstances (including potential threats to his home and family), he would go back to basics and attempt to find the most rational solution possible rather than simply obeying the shorthand general advice that he, among others, had promulgated.

It's the tragedy of the commons, of course; one family group changing quarters makes little or no difference but a multitude doing so is a very different matter. Cummings, by reasoning from an individual rather than a collective viewpoint, opened himself up to the spittle-flecked (and somewhat ironic) bellows of 'Hypocrite!' from the crowd besieging his home.

It is possible that his judgement was impaired by the virus - the speed with which he succumbed to the illness on arrival suggests he may have been his usual incisive self - but, whatever the case, it is hardly reasonable to suggest that what he did entitled any Tom, Dick or Harry to pile the kids into the car and head off for a jolly day out at the coast, whatever the pundits may say.

Reason, however, has been taking a holiday, at least as far as a certain sector of journalism is concerned; think of the closely-packed mob shoving microphones and cameras in his face (are we allowed to say 'the pot calling the kettle black' these days?) or the endless attempts to shoe-horn criticism of him into unrelated news stories. Selective reporting - and what looks increasingly like the opportunistic settling of scores - has pushed the story onto the front pages and kept it there.

The end result begins to look more and more like an unrelenting attempt to unseat Mr Cummings (and possibly the Prime Minister) at all costs. Another thing I teach my pupils is always to ask 'cui bono?'; whether it's because of Brexit, the BBC, No. 10's internal affairs or simply party politics, Mr Cummings' problem is that, in his case, the answer is a very long list indeed.

Wednesday 20 May 2020

Teaching and the Union Stranglehold

For anyone who has read the recent headlines on reopening schools and wondered why 450,000  supposedly intelligent men and women seem to be unquestioningly endorsing the NEU's machinations, a little background might be helpful.

For many teachers, union membership has nothing to do with collective bargaining, solidarity or marching under the glorious banner of a united brotherhood (or sisterhood). It's much more like having breakdown insurance for the car; you pay up regularly and then forget about it - expensive, but necessary in case anything goes wrong.

In a tight spot, the backing of a union can make a huge difference to the outcome; this, remember, is a profession in which head teachers rule an effective fiefdom where their word, however unreasonable, is law (the press can furnish abundant examples of those promoted beyond their moral and intellectual capabilities) and an unsubstantiated allegation by a malicious or disturbed teenager can lead to crippling legal costs or end a career.

The gross over-simplification that says children never lie about abuse has put a powerful weapon into the hands of dishonest pupils who want to settle a grudge or avoid disciplinary sanctions (it is almost always the strictest teachers who are on the receiving end of false allegations). While every school must have an effective safeguarding and reporting structure in place to protect pupils, there is a very real danger of cynical exploitation for nefarious purposes.

There is also the possibility of an unscrupulous - and possibly delusional - adult in search of a compensation payday or revenge for a perceived slight in the past. To that threat can be added the third-party element, such as a school administrative worker reporting a teacher for giving a stranded 17-year-old pupil a lift home or over-zealous police officers primed to give full credence to the 'victim', however far-fetched or antiquated the claims.

Until recently, union membership was effectively the only form of insurance available to cover specialist legal expenses and expert advice for a teacher facing an allegation of abuse. There's no such thing as the presumption of innocence here (suspension is a frequent first step in dealing with cases) and an accusation could come out of the blue at any time and relate to any period of career history; how do you prove your alibi for a date 30 years in the past?

The last is really the key to union membership; support over historic allegations is only available as long as teachers remain with the same union. Changing allegiance at any point in your career seriously reduces your options if a past pupil suddenly makes an accusation. The unions scramble for newly qualified teachers with massive introductory discounts and incentives, knowing that, once signed up, members are generally cash cows for life (as well as adding weight to the demands of the leaders).

Like many others, I made a conscious choice at the start to join a non-striking union; I disagree profoundly with the idea of putting politics before pupils. Unfortunately, the most suitable option, the  ATL (formerly the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association), was already under threat thanks to the infiltration of activists who did not share the majority ethos; in 1999 it affiliated to the TUC and, with the arrival at the helm of Mary Bousted, the leadership abandoned the moral high ground and began the downward slide - via its first ever strike - towards the eventual merger with the far more militant NUT.

The turnout of ATL members for the merger ballot was 25% (with 73% of those voting 'yes'). A minority of activists carried the day, while the 98,000-odd teachers who did not vote in favour were dragged willy-nilly into the placard-waving world of 'one out, all out!' and the sort of industrial action some of us wouldn't touch with a barge pole, all so that the joint general secretaries could proudly proclaim that they head the 'largest education union in Europe'.

Now my mailbox is bursting with e-mails - chummily designated 'from Kevin and Mary' - instructing me to sign petitions or e-mail my MP endorsing the NEU's stance or, this week, inviting me to join the 'biggest ever online union meeting'. There's more than a touch of self aggrandisement in their endless hyperbole as they set about furthering their political ends; the satisfaction they appear to derive from the resulting power kick is almost indecent to watch.

As one of the 'nearly half a million' the union leaders are so fond of using as their justification, I'd like to point out that I, for one, am not at all happy about it.