Tuesday, March 25, 2014


Tomorrow, I won’t be in my classroom. Instead, I will be taking part in national industrial action for the fourth time under the coalition government, and will be at a rally of striking teachers in Brighton. It has got to the point where Michael Gove’s stewardship of the state education system has been so divisive, it is quite hard to separate out all of the wrongheaded decisions he has made. What is clear though, is the impact those decisions are having.

We now have a GCSE system in disarray. Constant disparagement and change has left students unsure of the worth of the qualifications they have studied for. Subjects such as Art, Music, Drama and Design and Technology, that fall outside of the notional ‘English Baccalaureate’, have been traduced and reduced, and core subjects have been tampered with mid-stream to the point where students sitting the same English exams at two different points in the year were being assessed on an entirely different basis. But meddle enough with a system, say it was broken all along, and then any changes you wish to make will look like the cavalry. And next year, the tier-less, 100% exam-assessed, one-size-fits-all GCSEs, so reminiscent of the ‘O’ Levels Gove sat at his Aberdeenshire independent day school, will come galloping over the hill to make it all better.

Making it all better was what academies and free schools were supposed to do; but they have just ushered in inequitable selection, unqualified teachers and education for profit – in short, all the things the Tories love about private schools. And this is what Gove is really all about: replacing the inclusive ethos of comprehensive, state education with the rancorous mantra coined by Gore Vidal: “it is not enough to succeed, others must fail”. Everything that has helped to widen access to academic qualifications - modular courses, second chances at exams, an element of teacher assessment – are anathema to Gove and his fan club. ‘They’ must not be allowed to succeed – just sup up their beer and play their bingo.

Back in 2011, it was changes to teachers’ conditions that prompted strike action. Paying higher contributions for a lower pension and working to 68 represented a retrospective and punitive change to teachers’ contracts. Since then, a freeze that has seen pay fall by 15% in real terms has further eroded conditions and is having a real effect on recruitment to the profession. Presently, 40% of new teachers are leaving within 5 years and this will only get worse.

Those teachers who stick it out are already finding the job changing rapidly. As Ofsted inspections narrow their focus to the policies, systems, data and audit trails that schools have in place, what takes place in the classroom – helping young people learn and develop - becomes less important. The Department for Education’s own workload survey, that they were reluctant to publish, revealed that secondary school teachers work an average of 56 hours a week. Most will teach lessons for 22 of those hours. Much of the remaining time will be spent planning and marking; but increasingly teachers are being expected to form-fill, box-tick and number-crunch. And that’s why tomorrow, in protest, I won’t be doing any of it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Homo Longis

It is not known with any certainty when the Long Man first gazed down from Windover Hill on the South Downs, just north of Eastbourne. Local legend says that the faceless and unclothed figure, supported by two staffs, was a prehistoric fertility symbol sanitised by the prudish Victorians; for some, he was originally a helmeted and armed Roman or Anglo-Saxon warrior; while others insist that he was the work of artistic medieval monks from nearby Wilmington Priory. Whatever the genesis of the Long Man, with his 235-foot frame he is an enigmatic giant, standing guard over the village of Wilmington and travellers on the busy A27 beyond.

Having seen him from a distance many times, I naively thought that his outline was downland chalk; but walking right up to him for the first time last week, I discovered that he is in fact painted concrete. This was confirmed by The Sussex Archaeological Society website: the Long Man has been made from pre-cast blocks since 1969, replacing yellow Victorian brick. Prior to that, he was only visible as a grass outline – another of his names is the Green Man - accentuated in certain lights or by a dusting of snow. This is supported by the earliest pictorial record of the Wilmington Giant, an 18th century illustration by the surveyor, John Rowley. His drawing, from 1710, suggests that the figure was an impression in the grass rather than a solid outline; it also reveals that there were once facial features and a helmet-shaped head gives some credence to the idea of a first millennial warrior.

The most enduring interpretation, though, is as an ancient Pagan site of worship. At dawn each May Day, or Beltane, Morris Men still perform their ritualistic dance, and there are regular gatherings throughout the year to celebrate other festivals in the neo-Pagan calendar. However, there is no evidence to suggest that there was any connection between those who observe pre-Christian rites at the Long Man, and an incident in 2010 when an erect phallus - in the style of Dorset’s Cerne Abbas Giant - was added to the Long Man a few days before the summer solstice with a football pitch marking machine.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Funny Guy

Standing in the queue to get a beer at the De La Warr Pavilion last night, I started to get beard envy. My permanent three-day stubble was no match for the thick, dark lustre of the hipster beards that seemed to be on display everywhere I looked. If I were to attempt such fulsome whiskers, they would be a very unedifying grey and ginger piebald affair. Luckily, American singer-songwriter John Grant seems to be the sort of person who would not be impressed by tributes to his own facial hirsuteness. If the lyrically acid put downs directed at those who have wronged the Denver musician are anything to go by, he is not one to suffer fools gladly.

In ‘Black Belt’, from his 2013 album Pale Green Ghosts, he addresses one of his past tormentors: “You are supercilious, pretty and ridiculous…Etch-a-Sketch your way out of this one, reject.” Coming halfway through a beautiful set at the De La Warr, it was a perfect example of the second-person accusations that fill Grant’s lyrics as he seeks to come to terms with a past of growing up gay, failed relationships, drink and drugs, and a present of being HIV-positive. But set to a thumping electronic beat, it was musically atypical: most of the songs are tender piano-led ballads, with sweeping classical crescendos and sudden bursts of retro synthesiser.

Grant’s relocation to make music in Reykjavik, after the demise of his band The Czars, is well documented. He seems to be at home there and has acquired new friends: the five Icelandic musicians that worked on his last album are all introduced by name with perfect pronunciation. But there are no backing vocals from Sinead O’Connor: she is at home, Grant tells us, waiting to pass a kidney stone. Ouch. I know this from experience.

Despite the deeply personal confessional balladry, and Grant’s rich baritone voice, it is not all sombre. The bitterness is often contrasted with moments of absurd humour. ‘GMF’ is driven by a melody that could have been written by the Carpenters but is hilariously juxtaposed by potty-mouthed lyrics. I sing along to the chorus -"I am the greatest motherfucker that you're ever gonna meet" – with others queuing for another beer, one of whom tells me the song is a favourite with the community choir she sings in. Referring to a time when he suffered from low self-esteem, he dedicates the song to those people who seem to have too much of it. And there are funny couplets: “I should've practiced my scales/I should not be attracted to males”.

In the heartbreakingly stunning ‘Glacier’, the penultimate song in the set at Bexhill, the pathetic metaphor descends hilariously to bathos: “This pain/ it is a glacier moving through you/ and carving out deep valleys/ and creating spectacular landscapes/ and nourishing the ground with precious minerals/ and other stuff”. Grant closes the set with the title track from his first solo album, ‘Queen of Denmark’, with the frustrated and self-deprecating line, “I had it all the way up to my hairline/ which keeps receding like my self-confidence”. And then he goes and encores with Abba’s ‘Angeleyes’; funny guy.