Supporting Corbyn is not naive

I am one of the hordes which has descended on the Labour Party in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for leadership and I’m not ashamed of it.

In the last election the Labour Party had nothing to say about the things which are important to me. I voted for them simply because I hated the Conservative Party more. Many of their policies were simply watered down versions of what we had already seen – continued cuts, continued austerity, continued lack of vision about foreign policy and don’t even get me started on their education ideas.

It seems that the party cannot shake off the dead hand of Blair and his Thatcherite betrayal of everything the party is supposed to stand for. We see this in the endless talk about Labour’s relationship with business and the refusal of the party’s right wing to engage with middle and low income voters. But it’s time to move on. The electorate looked at these policies and rejected them. More of the same won’t win them back.

So much of the Blairite approach is based on a belief in the trickle down effect; if we support business, then business will support the workers. We have been waiting for this to work for centuries. But the wealth isn’t trickling down from the most affluent; the most affluent are sucking the wealth out of everyone else. More and more families tumble into poverty while employers either find or are given more power to exploit their workers. We see this in zero hour contracts and in the scam of ‘self employed contractors’ working for companies and institutions who then don’t have to maintain even the most basic standards of health and safety. The system has failed to regulate itself so it is time for the state to step in.

At the most basic level, this means that companies have to pay their taxes. The current system of letting big companies decide when and if they pay for the services they receive from the state is ridiculous. It is not childish or naive to believe that the law applies to companies just as much as it applies to individuals. If Corbyn said nothing else, this alone would get my vote.

Much of the commentary about Corbyn sneers at his ideas about nationalisation and nuclear disarmament. These things are needed. If we are going to sneer at anything, let’s sneer at Trident. It’s both expensive and useless and 54% of the population thinks that we should ditch it. Let’s sneer at our rail system which costs more and delivers less than even the most basic nationalised system in the world. We know that the current situation is shit, so let’s start doing something about it.

So don’t tell me that things are more complicated that I understand. I understand just fine. I am neither idealistic nor naive: companies can pay their taxes; councils can provide housing; amenities can be nationalised; we can survive without Trident. Above all, this country can look after its people.

Footnote:

The articles below were written before the press started its sneer campaign. The first makes the case for nationalisation of the railways back in 2013. The second speaks about the rhetoric surrounding Trident in the general election. It doesn’t mention that any response by a Trident submarine would take several days. It is worth remembering that the missiles on Trident are 7 times more powerful than those dropped on Japan, which means that we could not destroy an enemy without taking out our allies as well, unless the threat came from Australia. Also, if America pulls out of the project, all that money will have been wasted anyway.

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/uk/why-are-uk-rail-fares-so-expensive-9678640.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/generalelection/trident-debate-there-are-16000-nuclear-missiles-in-the-world—but-who-has-them-and-does-britain-really-need-its-own-arsenal-10164387.html

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Supporting Corbyn is not naive

Tory-Proof Your Kids’ Education – You don’t have to go private!

Let’s dispel a few myths. The teaching in private schools is worse than the teaching in state schools. Having taught in private schools, I can promise you, I would never send my kids there for the teaching. There is a ridiculous amount of “Turn to page 34 and answer all the questions”. You pay for the other kids, not the teacher; so if your child can zone out Billy who has ADHD, he or she will do better in a state school.

Kidulthood was a work of fiction not a documentary. Your child is perfectly safe in an inner city London school, or at least, just as safe as she would be in any other school. Private schools have a nasty habit of not acting on sexual abuse and covering up their bullying problems. Their reputations matter more to them than your child’s safety.

You do not need to pay for private tuition either. It’s only going to be more of the same, so your kid will be bored, not enlightened. If your child needs more attention, give it to her yourself. You might not understand calculus, but you can ask “And what did the teacher do next?” and “Have you checked those answers by working the problem backwards?” or “Explain the whole Archduke Ferdinand thing to me”.

Your kid will have a better chance at getting into university if you follow these steps. They can be implemented at any stage:

  1. Not the kid, you. They will do what you do and if you only want to watch TV, that’s what they will do. Let them see you read and talk about the book you are reading. The more they read, the wider their frame of reference and the better they do across the board.
  2. Enrol them in some kind of club, Scouts, Guides, Cadets, Duke of Edinburgh, whatever. They will meet different people and have opportunities that you can’t provide. Plus it looks great on uni applications.
  3. Do free stuff with them. Walks, forests, galleries and beaches are all free (for the moment). Do something once a month. Again, it widens their frame of reference and gives them confidence.
  4. Encourage them to volunteer. Once again, it looks great on a uni application, but it will also increase their sense of self-worth
  5. If you are going to pay for stuff, make it amateur dramatics or sports. At least they are fun, healthy and give new skills.

If your kid is in 6th form, you need to start campaigning. The Tories have already made massive cuts to 6th form funding and are set to cut even more. This means bigger class sizes and fewer subjects. The government is hoping you won’t make a fuss. Don’t accept it. If your kid can’t choose the subjects she wants at the school she wants to attend, write to the papers, your MP, Nicky Morgan, everybody. Get together with other parents and raise hell – it’s the only way to make sure that everyone has access to a quality education.

Your local school will probably have to cut out pretty much all of its teaching assistants with the budget cuts, so it might be good to volunteer if you have time, and it’s definitely a good idea to stand for the board of governors so that you can keep an eye on things.

Ask about teacher workloads; a tired, over worked and stressed out teacher is not going to give your child the best education. If your child has a different teacher every five minutes, it means that the school has a problem. Ask what they are doing to improve teacher retention.

Boycott the SATS and the baseline tests. Testing your child at 4 is not in her benefit, it is just so a computer can make predictions about what GCSEs she should get. Keep a close eye on the school before testing time; if all they do is stuff for the SATS, your child is missing out on her education. Complain.

Don’t get caught up in the hype. Teachers work hard, they are trained and can be trusted; they are the ones who have a relationship with your child and care about her. School leaders, politicians and newspapers only see your child as a statistic, so they don’t care. Politicians and reporters are not educators, remember, they have no qualifications or training and they don’t know what is best for your child.

Tory-Proof Your Kids’ Education – You don’t have to go private!

Baseline testing for four year olds

Your four year old does not need a baseline assessment.

Both the Labour and Conservative parties currently say that testing four year olds will be in your child’s best interest. Phrases like “bespoke education” and “every child is unique and we need to know how” are thrown around and on the face of it, they sound nice.

But let’s think about what it really means. Your child has just arrived in school. She is possibly away from home on her own for the first time. The challenges she faces are the biggest in her life so far. Over the next few weeks she must learn how to learn, how to listen to instructions given to a group and understand that she is included in that group, how to follow a new set of routines, how to negotiate a complex set of relationships. This is before she even begins on the academic skills she is expected to master.

You will want her teacher to be attentive to her, able to respond to difficulties, to notice when misunderstanding or confusion are happening and correct them. You know that the most important thing during this very first experience of school is that your child is happy and settled.

Base line testing as soon as children arrive in schools stops any of that from happening. While the teacher is testing other children, what will your child be doing? Who will be noticing her difficulties? When your child is about to be tested, how will you be able to explain to her that she doesn’t need to be worried? How will you stop yourself from worrying?

Your child’s teacher already knows that she prefers football to dressing up. He knows that you have taught her how to hold a pencil properly. He is a trained professional and knows that the children in his charge are far more complex and vital than a set of statistics gathered so that the government can make a numerical prediction at four years old about their chances of success. Baseline testing won’t make him a better teacher, or your child a better learner; all they will do is make both your child and her teacher miserable.

We already expect the Tory party and their Victorian attitudes to happiness in childhood to be perfectly sanguine about the misery this policy will cause, but Tristram Hunt of the Labour Party is equally committed to it. I believe, however, that the Labour Party may be persuaded to change their minds were parents to voice their concerns.

If you believe, as I do, that baseline tests are not in your child’s best interests, please let Tristram Hunt know. You can email tristramhuntoffice@gmail.com, tweet https://twitter.com/TristramHuntMP or write to his campaign office at 88 Lonsdale Street, Stoke-on-Trent, ST4 4DP

Baseline testing for four year olds

We need diverse books, but we also need diverse publishers

When is the last time you read a Young Adult book that didn’t feature a feisty white female? (Harry Potter doesn’t count!) Feisty white female fights vampires; feisty white female fights magical crooks; feisty white female fights Nazis; dead feisty white female fights the human race.

The setting of my childhood was so bizarre that I can count exactly four books that have dealt with the area (see below for the titles). I grew up in the desert in the far North West of Western Australia, 200km from the nearest town. Every book I read was fantasy; to picture climbing a tree was the same leap of the imagination as Impressing a dragon, frost was as mysterious as melange. I was in my late twenties before I experienced the particular pleasure of finding home in a novel.

Yet while I didn’t find my setting, as a child I did see myself in the novels I read. I could picture myself in Alanna or Caddie Woodlawn’s boots because they were white girls like me. Now, as a lesbian in a mixed relationship, I rarely see myself represented in books or film, so I understand the reluctance of non-white readers. It’s a bit like having a friend who only ever talks about themselves. You can put up with it to a point, but eventually the friendship dies. No wonder my students feel like fiction has nothing to offer them.

This is why Malorie Blackman’s campaign “We need diverse books” is so important, but unless there is a lot happening with agents and publishers behind the scenes, it is not going far enough.

When asked for help or advice about publishing, Blackman’s standard response is to refer the enquirer to the Writers and Artists Yearbook, which is great but the last piece of advice I got from a workshop leader at a Writers and Artists event was that if I wanted to get my Young Adult novel published, I should change my protagonist to a white female. I said that my book was about football. The speaker looked at me and said “Bend It Like Beckham”.

My Young Adult Science Fiction novel about a black male protagonist with super football powers has been rejected consistently for over a year by twelve different agents and four competitions. I wondered if it was because it was just no good, so I had it edited by Alan Durant of the Writers’ Workshop. He said it was “commercial and riveting”.

After the Writers and Artists event, I started looking for agents and publishers who might support diverse books. Apparently, ‘diverse’ in British publishing means that both cookery books and murder mystery will be considered. So I thought I would look at the agents who represented the diverse books that I love. I looked at Malorie Blackman’s agency – The Agency. They do not accept submissions.

I wholeheartedly support the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign. We do need diverse books, but diverse books are useless without diverse agents and diverse publishers and better yet, diverse publishing contracts. It seems that there are plenty of writers and plenty of readers agreeing that we do indeed need diverse books, but the middle part of the process is missing. Agents and publishers remain convinced that only feisty white female novels will sell.

Post Script:

Books about the Pilbara: Walkabout, James Vance Marshall (hated it); Dirt Music, Tim Winton (everybody hates him); Red Dog, Louis de Bernieres and bits of Rabbit Proof Fence, Doris Pilkington Garimara.

I know that self publishing is an option, but it takes a lot of time and a large social media presence to promote your book effectively, and I have neither. I have a strong suspicion I will end up grounded on the shoals of Amazon.

We need diverse books, but we also need diverse publishers

Virtual Parenting for Virtual Kids

child

Our kids have an added dimension of self-hood; their virtual selves, yet we are doing nothing to shape it.

I have just returned from a very scary conference about child and adolescent mental health. The effect of the internet on young people’s mental health is terrifying: cyber bullying, the effect of porn on expectations of relationships, the increasingly negative perceptions of femininity, participation in trolling, creating and distributing sexual images, all are affecting our children at increasingly young ages.

As a teacher, I have often spoken to parents about monitoring their kids’ online activities. There are lots of basic things you can do – limit smart phone use, only allow internet access in shared areas of the house etc. Monitoring is great, but I have come to believe that it is not enough.

Just as we want our children to be self-regulating adults in the real world, we want our children to be self-regulating in their virtual realities as well, and it is not going to happen unless we actively socialise them on-line just as we do in real life (IRL, as the kids say). We do not expect children to gain the skills they need in real life just through monitoring, nor will this work in the virtual setting. I believe that parents must move to a more active engagement with the construction of their children’s online identities.

We must find a virtual equivalent of everything we do IRL, in effect, we must become virtual parents. We teach our toddlers not to run around naked IRL, it is just as hard and just as important to teach the same online. Lessons about kindness and feelings need to be taught in a virtual setting as much as on play dates. We must try and instil a sense of virtual right and wrong that will guide the child even when she is totally anonymous.

I have no real idea about how to do this. Off the top of my head, I would suggest modelling and scaffolding our children’s online experiences as we do other things. We guide their hands and narrate our processes when we bake cakes together, perhaps we need to narrate our own online choices, talk through our responses to a bad photograph or an opinion we encounter that we disagree with. We could work with them to help construct their own online identity through social media. Perhaps we even need a starter site, where parents can work with their children to interact in a monitored setting. I am very sure that if we don’t engage more actively than simply monitoring, the things that scared me so much over the last couple of days will become even worse.

If you have any ideas about what virtual parenting might look like or what we might do, please share them below. As I said, I have no proficiency in this field, I am simply aware that a need exists.

Virtual Parenting for Virtual Kids

I taught a terrorist

On Christmas Day in 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, boarded a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit with the materials to blow up the plane stashed in his underwear. His attempt at terrorism failed and he is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He is now known as ‘The Underwear Bomber’. I was his drama teacher.

I don’t remember him very well, just a vague impression of a somewhat morose boy who had to be bullied and cajoled into participating in group work. He was remarkable only in his ordinariness, even his vices were the standard kind; he was sullen and more than a bit lazy. He was not the boy who shook pocket money out of the younger kids, or the one who left a trail of dying lizards in his wake and tried to drown the school snake. There was nothing about Umar at thirteen to indicate a murderous instinct that would later attempt to obliterate himself and two hundred and eighty nine others.

The school was, and is, reasonably prestigious in West Africa. It is a private boarding school catering mainly to rich families from Ghana and Nigeria, housed in a failed shopping mall. My drama studio doubled as the assembly and exam hall. It was next to the kitchens, which was a special torture for my Muslim students during Ramadan. Umar was one of those who claimed that he could not participate in drama during Ramadan as he was weak from fasting. I interpreted this as an excuse not to do any work rather than as a symptom of extreme piety.

For a while I wondered if his actions were my fault. September 11, 2001 was just after the start of the new school year. It was all my classes wanted to talk about, so I did a series of lessons about it. I couldn’t bear to listen to child after child wailing “Why?” as the families of those who had lost loved ones, so I focussed on the situation of American Muslims in the aftermath; people who had been ordinary who suddenly became the enemy. Had this examination of the hatred directed towards Muslims given Umar his push into extremism?

In hindsight, my worries were not just narcissistic, they were plain wrong. It wasn’t anything that any of us had taught Umar that caused him to become a terrorist; it was what we didn’t teach him. We didn’t teach him anything about himself, we just taught him about us, about our culture, our history, our philosophy. We ignored his Nigerian Muslim identity completely.

Our silence meant that Umar found his education as a Muslim elsewhere, on the Internet. I’m guessing that his loneliness and sense of alienation made him a perfect candidate for recruitment by Al Qaida. They talked about the things that we ignored, welcomed him where we had rejected and excluded him. It is not surprising that he agreed to join their jihad.

I wonder how many more Umars are out there, unremarkable kids alienated and frightened by the hatred they hear from every level of society, from politicians down to the bigots who leave comments on the Daily Mail website. The police are running the ‘Prevent’ programme, which asks ordinary people to spy on their Muslim neighbours. Schools are policed to ensure they are not giving too much encouragement to Muslim student groups. Parents are urged to lock up their kids’ passports. These actions treat Muslims as though they are already criminals. I can think of no better way to radicalise young people.

I taught a terrorist

Education for all – Taking action against homophobic bullying

Manchester is planning a separate school for LGBT students. I’m beyond furious!

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jan/16/school-for-lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-pupils-manchester

There is no earthly reason why mainstream schools cannot support their LGBT students, except that they lack the will to do so. There shouldn’t need to be separate schools where students can be safe; every single school should be safe for every single student. The end. For always.

Homophobic bullying has very little to do with sexual orientation and everything to do with gender stereotyping.  Homophobic bullying punishes children for not conforming to gender stereotypes. Many teachers and parents let homophobic bullying slide because they think it will encourage the victim to conform, to ‘man up’ or ‘be more ladylike’ (you think I’m kidding – I wish I was).

If homophobic bullying is happening in your child’s school, it will affect your child, regardless of their sexual identity or orientation, or even whether or not it is happening to them directly. It will reinforce every single gender stereotype and all the consequent limitations they place on your child.

So, wearing my teacher (“behaviour specialist” actually dahling) hat, here is what you can do, regardless of your child’s orientation.

  • All schools are bound by the 2010 Equalities Act, which defines certain ‘protected characteristics’, including sexual identity and orientation. They have to set Equality Objectives which show what they are doing to promote equality in the school. The majority don’t bother, but if you ask what their Equality Objectives are and where you can read them, it may be enough to spark a reaction.
  • All schools should have policies relating to homophobic bullying, again, many don’t. Ask to see the policy
  • Ask what the school is doing to promote community cohesion – this is a great tactic where there may be perceived conflicts of opinion. I use this to justify my work for LGBT equality in a school where the majority of students come from hostile religions. The promotion of community cohesion is another legal obligation covered by the Equalities Act.
  • If all else fails, bring out the big gun – Ofsted. Schools are required to show what they are doing to to tackle homophobic bullying. Indicate that you would be prepared to discuss any lack of action with Ofsted.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, if your child is experiencing homophobic bullying, this is a child protection issue. This is a really important phrase to use when dealing with the school as it has massive legal implications. Once you have raised something as a child protection issue, the school is compelled to investigate and take action. If they don’t, you can contact Ofsted directly, which can result in a “We’re at the gate, let us in” no-notice inspection. If you are a student experiencing homophobic bullying, you can use this phrase too and it will have the same effect.

There are lots of organisations which help schools to tackle homophobic bullying. “Educate and Celebrate” and “Schools Out” are just two. A quick internet search will give you loads more. I’m happy to share what we do at my school, just leave a message below. Just don’t feel that there isn’t anything you can do. There is.

Post Script

Just after this blog was originally posted, Grindon Hall, a Christian school in Sunderland, was put into special measures for failing to protect its students against homophobic bullying.

The Ofsted report actually states the following in the list of reasons why the school failed: “Prejudice-based bullying, while reported on, is not tackled effectively enough. Discrimination through racist or homophobic language persists.”

I’ll admit, I felt rather smug!

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/education/article4333360.ece

http://reports.ofsted.gov.uk/inspection-reports/find-inspection-report/provider/ELS/138567

Education for all – Taking action against homophobic bullying