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Category archive: Educational memories

Saturday July 12 2008

Today I was at a party, a very good one as it happens, and as is usual at good parties, what I remember most is the clever conversations I had.  Mostly , of course, I remember the clever things that I myself said, but I do recall the occasional thing said by others, to me.

I found myself talking of Party Questions.  What I mean by Party Questions are all the questions you can ask people at parties that replace the dreaded thing you don’t ask, namely:  What Do You Do?  The reason What Do You Do? is bad question is that Party Questions are supposed to subvert the usual social order, rather than reinforce it.  What Do You Do? plays right into the hand of the winners of the regular daytime game of life.  Oh, I’m the Chairman of Shellmex BP.  I’m Wayne Rooney.  I’m a Big Cheese at the Ministry of Enormous National Importance.  It’s not so much that nobody wants to hear such things.  Actually, such answers are quite good.  The problem is that they make all of life’s losers feel small.  What you want are questions that give us losers a decent chance.

Several good Party Questions involve celebrities.  Which celebrities have you been mistaken for?  (In my case the only answer so far is: Elvis Costello.) Which celebrities have you embarrassed yourself in the presence of?  (Me?  Jenny Agutter.)

But now here comes the educational angle.  My friend Antoine Clarke, also at the party, offered a particular insight on the matter of celebrities you’ve met.  Or was it somebody else, and did I merely discuss this with Antoine?  I can’t remember.  Anyway, the insight was this: celebrities you met at a posh school don’t really count.  The value of a celebrity you knew at school is inversely proportional to the poshness of the school.  So for me, that means scrub Richard Branson, Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Mark Phillips.  The fact that I knew (of) CMJ at Marlborough counts for very little.  Marlborough was bound to contain a few subsequent high achievers.  So all that me knowing (of) CMJ at Marlborough proves is that I went to Marlborough, but have not subsequently high achieved.  Big deal.  In contrast, the fact that Antoine met, and embarrassed himself in front of, the noted pop entertainer-ess Dido at Birkbeck College (something to do with his chess club evening clashing with her performing there) counts for a great deal more.

I agree.  Discuss.  Or not, as you please.

Wednesday July 09 2008

Nothing much to say here today.  I’d show you my sick note, if I had one.  So anyway, here are all the schools the cabinet went to, apart from one of them for some reason.  He also did Guardian journos, but that’s harder to find (here), so here it is:

Editor Alan Rusbridger (Cranleigh); political editor Patrick Wintour (Westminster); leader writer Madeleine Bunting (Queen Mary’s, Yorkshire); policy editor Jonathan Freedland (University College School); columnist Polly Toynbee (Badminton), sent the kids to Westminster; executive editor Ian Katz (University College School); security affairs editor Richard Norton Taylor (King’s School, Canterbury); arts editor-in-chief Clare Margetson (Marlborough College); literary editor Clare Armitstead (Bedales); public services editor David Brindle (Bablake); city editor Julia Finch (King’s High, Warwick).; environment editor John Vidal (St Bees); fashion editor Jess Cartner-Morley (City of London School for Girls); G3 editor Janine Gibson (Walthamstow Hall); northern editor Martin Wainwright (Shrewsbury); and industrial editor David Gow (St Peter’s, York), Seumas Milne (Winchester College), the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley - Rugby School and Cambridge University, columnist Zoe Williams (Godolphin and Latymer).

Ah yes, I needn’t have bothered.  I could have just said it was originally from here.  the Guardian kept deleting it, so Guido’s informant said, back in May.  I see that their arts editor-in-chief went to my old school, which didn’t do girls when I went there.  Shame.  I’d have liked that.

I remember a Winchester Milne.  A relative, perhaps?  Used to play against Marlborough at rackets.  Rather well.  Hell of a good game, that.

Friday June 20 2008

Professor Michael Reiss writes:

The Ofsted report on science in schools (report, June 17) raises a fundamental question. What happens to young children who start out their school days fascinated by nature, space, dinosaurs and robots? Why are so many of them disillusioned with school science by the time they reach the age of 16?

Teachers are the key to successful education, and specialist knowledge of their subject is the key to inspiring their pupils. However, more students in secondary schools are being taught physics by non-specialist teachers than five years ago and only 2.3 per cent of primary teachers on PGCE courses have studied science, mathematics, technology or engineering to degree level.

Attracting and retaining specialist teachers and ensuring that teachers at all levels can access ongoing professional development in science must be a priority.

Ah yes, a priority.  Presumably what the Professor has in mind is paying more and more money to qualified scientists to persuade them to teach, to keep up with the more and more money that qualified scientists can now get doing other jobs.  But what if the money is duly paid, but the inspired teaching fails to materialise?

To repeat a regular meme here, I suspect that if science teaching ever does revive it will do so as a branch of show business, with vast throngs of people being educated and entertained by a relatively small number of roving millionaire science teacher geniuses, whose DVDs sell by the lorry load to ambitious parents, and even to some children.

I hated school science, and it was the very things that you might think would liven it up, namely “practical” stuff, mucking about with bunsen burners and ancient electrical gadgets, that made it such an ordeal.  I never quite understood what was going on, was never on top of it, and it never seemed at all practical.

Saturday June 07 2008



In America we are currently living in a Kindergarchy, under rule by children. People who are raising, or have recently raised, or have even been around children a fair amount in recent years will, I think, immediately sense what I have in mind. Children have gone from background to foreground figures in domestic life, with more and more attention centered on them, their upbringing, their small accomplishments, their right relationship with parents and grandparents. For the past 30 years at least, we have been lavishing vast expense and anxiety on our children in ways that are unprecedented in American and in perhaps any other national life. Such has been the weight of all this concern about children that it has exercised a subtle but pervasive tyranny of its own. This is what I call Kindergarchy: dreary, boring, sadly misguided Kindergarchy.


Well, in the words of Vladimir Illych Lenin, who had no children, what is to be done? Not very much, I suspect. When such seismic shifts in the culture as that represented by the rise of Kindergarchy take hold, there isn’t much anyone can do but wait for things to work themselves out. My own hope is that the absurdity of current arrangements will in time be felt, and people will gradually realize the foolishness of continuing to lavish so much painstaking attention on their children. When that time comes, children will be allowed to relax, no longer under threat of suffocation by love from their parents, and grow up more on their own. Only then will parents once again be able to live their own lives, free to concentrate on their work, life’s adult pleasures, and those responsibilities that fall well outside the prison of the permanent kindergarten they have themselves erected and have been forced to live in as hostages.


Thursday June 05 2008

A central plank of present education policy is that school excellence can be measured.  But this has always been a dubious assumption and it is becoming more so.

Many parents have always helped with their children’s education, some a great deal.  I know mine did, as did my older brothers and older sister.  So, if someone measured the excellence of what the various schools I went to were doing when I was there, they might have missed the contribution made to my education by my family.  And now, with the inexorable rise of all kinds of out-of-hours clubs and top-up arrangements - like Kings Cross Supplementary and Hammersmith Saturday, the two Civitas enterprises where I help out - the process of measuring school excellence becomes even more complicated.

Suppose a regular school has a seriously bad maths teacher.  But suppose there is also a very fine Saturday maths school in the immediate vicinity, to which many of the pupils of the bad maths teacher go, to be rescued from utter maths confusion.  You can easily see how the incompetence of the regular teacher might be missed by the official testing regime.  He might not even realise himself what a crap teacher he really is.  Likewise his school might miss what was really going on.  After all, there are his kids, lots of them learning lots of maths, sailing through their exams.  Hurrah, he’s a great teacher.

The more supplementary privately-paid-for education there is, around the edges of the regular school timetable, the harder it will get for the schools or anybody else to work out how well they are really doing.

So, who should be deciding on school quality?  No prizes for guessing that I think it should be the parents.  At the end of last Tuesday night at Kings Cross Supplementary I had a quick chat with Small Boy’s Mother.  I asked: Am I teaching him anything?  I can’t tell. He is definitely learning things. But it could be you (Small Boy’s Mother is herself a teacher), or his regular school, and not me at all.  Oh yes, said Small Boy’s Mother, he is definitely learning things here.  It isn’t easy to get here, and I wouldn’t keep bringing him and keep paying if it wasn’t doing any good.

Small Boy’s Mother is my personal OFSTED inspector.  A better, less nerve-racking and more efficient version of the real thing, I think.

Saturday May 24 2008

Today I was at Hammersmith Saturday again.  Apparently there was some confusion in parental minds about whether this was the half term break, which for Hammersmith Saturday is not this week (as it already is for regular schools) but next week.  Present were a mere five pupils, and five teachers (assuming I count), plus one teacher’s daughter, who joins in as a pupil or not as she pleases.  So, I was pretty much surplus to requirements.  I myself will not be attending Hammersmith Saturday for one Saturday in mid-June.  When I revealed this news to Other Man Teacher today, he hardly panicked at all.

So, what did I actually do today?  One thing I did was sit down and, as a pretend pupil, do some of the arithmetic tests that Miss Maths sets her charges.  I did this because (a) it will make me better at teaching arithmetic, which I want to get better at, and (b) because it does the children good, maybe, some of them, the ones who care, to see just how very very quickly, compared to most of them, mental arithmetic can actually be done by someone who is quite good at it.  As I told Miss Maths, Rachmaninoff used to teach the piano by just himself playing the piano to his pupils.  He didn’t make his pupils play, or tell them how to play.  He just played.  He set a standard.  I was, in a somewhat more mundane setting and far more mundanely, attempting the same technique.  It didn’t work, though.  The ones that didn’t care didn’t care.  The ones that might have were busy doing their own sums.

But the main thing I did was just get to know a few of the children who were there that little bit better.

I have long held to the theory that one of the Great Educational Divides in Humanity is between People Who Were Confused At School, and People Who Were Bored At School.  Education Theory, for instance, is either elaborated to solve the problem of Confusion, or of Boredom, the Traddists being the ones who were Confused and the Progressive being the ones who were Bored.  Two of the girls present were classic “I’m bored!” pupils.  “I’m bored,” they said.  “This is boring.” But one of the boys in particular is a classic Confused type.  He doesn’t mind being bored, so long as he knows what he is supposed to be doing, and is left to get on with it.  Children are different from each other.

Talking of children being different, another basic divide in educational theory concerns whether education means focusing on strengths, or on weaknesses.  Are teachers supposed to bring out spikes of super-achievement from their pupils, while those same pupils continue, e.g., to do sums by counting on their fingers?  Or are teachers supposed to home in on weaknesses and try to correct them?  Miss America, who is a very capable and much loved teacher of English at Hammersmith Saturday, is, so it appears to me, a weakness correcter.  My lazy, fun-loving instincts tend towards playing to strengths and dealing with alleged weaknesses by just going around them.  My understanding of a lot of home educators is that they feel this way too, not just out of laziness and not wanting to have perpetual fights, but because they think it’s for the best.  (I recently read an HE-er’s posting about a son who learned to hand-write very well but in his own good time, without being pressurised.  But, I can’t now find this.  It has a picture of his writing.  Anyone?)

So, for instance, those two Bored Girls were being driven almost foetal-position with the tedium of the sums that Miss Maths was giving them.  So after their ordeal, to cheer them up, I just sat down and had a conversation with them.  This worked well.  They are both highly witty and stimulating conversationalists, and conversing with them is playing to one of their strengths.  (Women love to talk.) They soon cheered up.

My playing-to-strength way of teaching arithmetic would be to find out what a kid really, really cares about, and find the arithmetic in that.  Miss Actress, for instance, would be asked things like: how many lines are there in this Shakespeare play?  How much money did Angelina Jolie get for her last film?  If she got this for her last film, and this for the one before, and this for the one before that, etc., how much did she make in the last decade?  Things like that.  And as for all those boys who are going to be international footballers ...  (By the way, the England team is going to have thousands of young men in it in fifteen years time.) Well, the Premier League is an absolute hotbed of arithmetic.  I learned a lot of my mental arithmetic listening to cricket commentaries on the radio, and reading the scores in the newspaper.

Well, that is what I would do with the Bored ones.  With the Confused ones, I simply let them get on with their arithmetic, helping them with any confusions.

Sunday May 18 2008

David Friedman, while writing about egalitarianism, includes a reference to the intellectual atmosphere in which he grew up:

In interactions with my father when I was growing up it was always clear that what mattered was who was right, who had the better argument, not who was older - status was simply irrelevant. Many years later I was shocked to hear an intelligent elderly man tell a child not to contradict his elders. From the point of view I had grown up in, the statement was not merely wrong, it was close to obscene.

I recall my own father, who was a lawyer, telling me about a case which he was adjudicating, where he found the expert evidence of a junior doctor more persuasive than that of a more senior doctor.  The senior doctor was outraged, because as far as he was concerned he was the senior doctor and he outranked the junior doctor, and he was therefore right!  My father tried to explain, but there was no meeting of minds.

Friday May 09 2008

Simon Hoggart (quoted by Iain Dale) writing about the Prime Minister’s latest performance at Prime Minister’s Questions:


It was awful, and it’s getting worse. When I was at secondary school we had a temporary teacher for a term. He was hopeless. There is no group more cruel than young teenage boys, except young teenage girls, and we treated him unmercifully. At the end of term a friend and I saw him cycling down our street, and, separated from the feral pack, felt great pity. We stopped him, apologised for our class’s behaviour, and said we hoped his next post would be happier. I would have told us to go to hell, but he seemed pleased, which was more than we deserved. I haven’t had that feeling since until watching poor Gordon Brown.

Iain Dale emailer:

The analogy is wrong in one vital respect. GB isn’t some hapless young temporary supply teacher. He has been the all powerful deputy head at the school for the past eleven years who has bullied all the pupils and the staff and plotted every day to remove the head. Having done that pupils and staff have discovered that he is nothing more than, to use the old Scottish expression, “a big Jessie.” Hence with merciless desire for revenge the pupils are taunting him and the staff plotting to remove him. He deserves everything he is enduring!

Okay, it’s not really about education.  It merely uses education to talk about politics.  But insofar as education is a power struggle, and it all too often is, education is itself highly political.  And whatever you think about that, these quotes are just the kind of spread-the-net-a-bit-wider stuff that I like to feature here.  When I notice them, that is.

“GB isn’t some hapless young temporary supply teacher …”
Paul McCartney, George Harrison and someone’s dad in an old school photograph
Neil Turok on teaching the best maths students in Africa
Teacher as hero
Homophobia was not a problem at Leeds University – student housing was
Mariana Bell talks about Romanian education under Communism
Therefore God exists
Talking maths with Michael Jennings
The teacher who saved Jonas Kaufmann’s voice
The diamond geezer says goodbye to Grange Hill
Maths on a Russian pavement
Clive Woodward makes the most of Jim Greenwood and of Loughborough University
Dave MacLeod loves climbing but hated school
Celebrity death and morbid teenage poetry
Clive Woodward learns to play by their rules
Not much education blogging in the UK?
J. P. Rangaswami - gracious in victory
David Thompson on the obligation to mingle
Andrea Bocelli on Amos Martelacci
Jon Morrow regrets getting straight A’s
John Louis Swaine remembers the educational equality debate