Streaming: the new education policies made visible?

Department for Education home page, 25 May 2010
Department for Education home page on 25 May 2010: streamed from right to left

Not much happening on the new Department for Education website; they must all be too busy setting up free schools, abolishing quangos and the like. Their home page (which still, nearly two weeks into the new government, has the temporary feel that I commented on earlier) prompted my next article for NATE’s English Drama Media magazine. Not published yet – and members only: another reason to join NATE! There is a Twitter feed, to show they’re modern, though (bearing in mind the Prime Minister’s comments on ‘too many twits’, there aren’t many tweets so far and those are anodyne).

The photograph on this page becomes increasingly unsettling the more I look at it. Children are reading books – to resort to the demotic: what’s not to like? Look closer, though, and you see Tory streaming policy in action: right wing girl reads one book, commandeers another (it’s the Matthew Effect). Move left and the girls begin to close their books (closed minds). Left-wing boy can’t read, just suck his thumb – must be destined to be a hewer of wood or drawer of water – no doubt there’s some vocational training that an outsourcing company can devise to keep him busy.

One quango that they have abolished is Becta, the education technology agency. Whilst many classroom teachers might not know much about it, some of us will regret its passing. A keen young teacher wrote to NATE: ‘I’m disgusted by this frankly. If there’s one thing a country of this size and waning political influence needs, it’s surely the wider dimension of learning possibilities that ICT offers the common classroom teacher and pupil. What use is the structural investment without sharing the good practice?’ Another commentator with many years experience as a key player in the application of ICT to English added: ‘The worry is that this actually reveals a less-than-enthusiastic endorsement of ICT in schools in general.’ Let us hope not. As the Guardian leader commented: ‘Even if the staff now facing the chop at the Becta agency, which promotes technology in schools, are not deployed as effectively as they might be, they are more useful than they will be if they end up in the dole queue.’

It’s all over for the rainbow as it’s curtains for the DCSF

It’s goodbye to the Department for Curtains and Soft Furnishings – or: Education (and spelling) rules

DCSF rainbow logo 2
Quick, they're taking the rainbow away! It's winter without Christmas!
It may be a rainbow coalition but it’s curtains for the DCSF and with it the jolly rainbow logos. Yes, the the Department for Children, Schools and Families, fondly known as ‘the Department for Curtains and Soft Furnishings’ by those (like me) who struggled to remember the correct order of the letters, is no more.

Those of us with long memories (well, we oldies with fading memories) will recall various abbreviations for our masters in Whitehall. This might be a good time for Keith Davidson to revisit the astute article he wrote for NATE’s English Drama Media magazine back in October 2008 on the ugliness of the DCFS acronym. As he said:

There are linguistic reasons for any confusion, phonetic and pragmatic…. But there is also something wrong with the sequence of items in the full title. It’s a problem of collocation, the linguistic term for the company lexical items habitually keep, predictive in both coding and de-coding…. The new Department is styled as a market place for products not processes, the title naming the delivery outlets and the customers.

DCFS logo 1
Hurry up - there's a spelling test coming!
Meanwhile, you can still enjoy for a while the disjointed appearance of the new/old website and realise that all those sweet children on the old site are now hurriedly packing up all the bits of their rainbows and putting them away for the long hard winter ahead. Worse, this could well be, as in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, a winter without Christmas. Do also enjoy the appearance of a Twitter feed on the new DfE front page. When I began writing this it had a message to ‘boomnoise’ – a hip name at odds with the decidedly uncool message they’ve sent him: ‘We’re reviewing all web content now. Meanwhile all statutory guidance and legislation still reflects current legal position.’ Man, get with the Web 2.0 thing, even if David Cameron did say some very uncomplimentary (and rude) things about Twitter during the election. This no doubt explains why the unofficial David Cameron Twitter site was taken down in January ‘at the reasonable & very polite request of Tory HQ’. Of course it was very polite – but just imagine if there had been any argument….

Is it also ominous that the current home page refers to ‘Children’s workforce’ and ‘Schools workforce’? Does this mean the new guys can’t actually bring themselves to utter words such as ‘social workers’ or ‘teachers’? Or that they really are just workers now and not professionals? And I see that the ‘Schools workforce’ link goes to Teachernet not to anything on the DfE site. So: ‘Here are a few ideas and lesson plans other teachers have come up with, and some links and things. Sort yourselves out, we’ll be back in a bit with the new order and new orders.’ We can imagine they might be on these lines:

  1. Ties to be worn at all times 1 [Postscript, 18 May: Ros Asquith’s cartoon shows one reason why: ‘We introduce the old school tie to give them a head start in politics.’]
  2. Spelling: i does come before e. 2
  3. Sums: ‘If a banker’s bonus is £5 million and the new boss of M&S gets £15 million, how fair is that?’ (Answer on back page: it’s the market, stupid.)
  4. Drill: 8 am sharp in the playground for half an hour with the Sergeant-Major; any latecomers to be subject to Field Punishment No. 1 for 30 minutes, rain or shine (that’ll soon sort out the scrimshankers and oiks). 3
  5. Music: Eton Boating Song [Daily Telegraph, 17 May: ‘Eton is ready to push the boaters out for David Cameron.’ Yes, the chaps get a party because a chap’s in the right party!]
  6. Teachers Schools workforce to be sorted by degrees: all those with less than a 2:ii marched off by Sergeant-Major to be shot dismissed. Yes, novelist and former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo – that means you.
  7. More sums: lovely Carol Vorderman to make the jolly lower fourth as calculating as she is!
  8. It doesn’t add up: take 6 away from 7 to find that lovely Carol Vorderman has a third-class degree too, so where does that leave one?
  9. (No, I give up, I can’t take any more.)

1 Michael Gove, this week appointed Secretary of State for Education, says it’s good for discipline. But does this rule apply to boys and girls – and staff?
2 Yes, Michael says this too. In 2009, the Telegraph reported that the National Primary Strategy’s Support for Spelling said ‘that the rule memorised by generations of children is no longer worth teaching’. Michael Gove, then Shadow education secretary, declared at the time:

Having systematically dumbed our schools down for a decade, it is no surprise the Government is actively telling teachers not to bother with proper spelling. I would reverse this nonsense at a stroke.

Well, now’s your chance, Michael!

3 You’ve guessed: Michael thinks this will be fun too!

Off to update my Twitter account now before it’s closed down too!

The winner’s curse: or why being a loser may not be so bad after all

This Friday’s Phrase from Word of the Day is topical, as always. I had thought to offer you hung parliament, but that is so last week – and anyway, it’s already been covered on the excellent World Wide Words site.

So instead I bring you the winner’s curse, inspired by Aditya Chakrabortty’s Guardian article in which his application of the term to the current political situation is of less literary interest to us than this comment:

If you want to see the winner’s curse close-up, saunter down to the discount section of your local bookshop. You’ll probably see a pile of celebrity memoirs, for which the publishers paid hundreds of thousands, only to see them flop.

So – being a loser may not be so bad after all!

A complete and final stop?

Verbal redundancy, alliteration – and demonstrations.

Socialist Worker waxes alliterative
A Socialist Worker waxes alliterative

‘Once the audible sound is heard,’ the Train Manager announced on the way down to London yesterday, the train will have come to ‘a complete and final stop’. I suppose this verbal redundancy (what kind of sound isn’t audible when it can be heard?) is justified in the interests of making absolutely, unequivocally and utterly clear to passengers the need to wait till the train was safely stationary. In the station. And not moving.

A speaker on a Radio 4 programme at the weekend resorted to a different linguistic trick. It actually felt more like a trap when a wine merchant said he wanted to ‘remove the mystery and keep in magical’. Fancy alliteration and fine aspirations are common in marketing – but it didn’t make much sense to me. Can something be magical without mystery?

And speaking of alliteration, the picture here shows that the Socialist Worker is happy to use tabloid tricks in a worthy cause. It was spotted at the Take Back Parliament Flash Mob outside the Lib-Dem Federal Executive Committee Meeting in Westminster yesterday (Monday). You can sample this good-humoured demonstration on YouTube here. It included the usual quota of bored policemen, noisy activists, rowdy drumming – and a purple cow.

‘Here’s a boat that cannot float’

As promised yesterday, there’s more drama – and poetry – to be wrung from this week’s election results. The Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy reflects on democracy in action (and on the current inaction) in her new poem Democracy in The Guardian today. As she implies by her reference to ‘a moat’, the expenses scandal seems to have led voters cast their votes in numbers that don’t add up to anything other than uncertainty at present (even if hers rhyme sweetly). As David Hare puts it in an article elsewhere in today’s paper, the basic message is: ‘not so much “a plague on all your houses” as “a warning to all your houses”.’ Notice how Shakespeare creeps in here?

Floating voters or not, who, in Duffy’s words, will be the ‘sacrificial goat’? Will he burst into tears when his fate becomes clear, as a recent post mentioned, Lord Curzon did?

And please can we have more poetic comment?

Poetic justice? Voters select the Keats option

Waking up today to an inconclusive election result, it seems that after all the voters have chosen Keats after all

Waking up today to an inconclusive election result, it seems that after all the voters have been doing some wider reading than the leaders’ choices of Blake (three votes) and Owen (one). A surprise declaration, then, for John Keats of the Negative Capability Party. As his manifesto says:

Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

And to think he wrote that in 1817, long before even the 1832 Reform Act! Still, to quote a more demotic voice, ‘it ain’t over till it’s over’, so keep your poetry books ready for more turns, conceits and tragi-comic outcomes.

Election drama: Clegg loves Beckett – waiting for Gordo?

Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg declares his admiration for Beckett

Not content with claiming Blake as his favourite poet, today Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg declares in the Guardian that his ‘hero’ is Samuel Beckett. Scarily, he writes: ‘I must have read Waiting for Godot – of course – a hundred times.’ ‘Of course’ it’s good to read Godot – but a hundred times, Nick? I think you must be preparing for a Lib-Lab pact: waiting for Gordo to come along and rescue you from a life on the sidelines. Or will it be David Cameron who gets to be Lucky?

Literary Connections cannot but give credit to a public figure who shows unabashed admiration for a great writers. Furthermore, as Charlotte Higgins pointed out earlier in the week he also ‘adores Schubert and Chopin… Fabulous choices: this man is obviously a big German song fan, with the wonderful Schubert Erlkönig, sung by Fischer-Dieskau, in the line-up, as well as Strauss’s Four Last Songs.’ Cue inevitable joke: ‘As someone said on Twitter: Clegg’s obviously making a Liedership bid.’ Just let’s hope it’s not like Schubert’s last song-cycle – his Schwanengesang (Swan Song).

Rhyme and reason – during an election?

More votes for poets? Not if they’re dead….

Gordon Brown called on ‘the great poet William Blake’ to support his campaign, as noted in an earlier post. Not to be outdone, the other contenders have brandished their poetic sensitivities on the National Poetry Day site. It looks as if this could be a coalition squabble, since Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg also wants to lay claim to Blake, citing ‘Eternity’: ‘it’s a fantastic way of saying “seize the day” and the perfect poem to read in times of trouble, really uplifting.’ It’s time to ‘seize the day’ yourself, Nick!

David Cameron chose Wilfred Owen: ‘I still remember the first time I read his poems and the incredible power and anger about the First World War. For me, they were literally an eye-opener.’ Literally, David? Were you normally asleep during poetry lessons at Eton? I can feel a Lear moment coming on:

Get thee glass eyes;
And, like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not.

This politician can hear Owen’s anger about about the First World War but is still happy to press ahead with buying Trident nuclear submarines, I recall. Alexander Pope in Rape of the Lock actually preferred a good drink, his politicians only pretend to be blind:

Coffee, which makes the politician wise
And see through all things with his half-shut eyes

Can we have both rhyme and reason at election time? See and hear Danny Chivers’ lively ‘Election Day’ poem here (and on YouTube) and decide where you’ll cast your vote!

Does Gordon Brown read this blog – or: would Blake vote Labour?

Prime Minister goes for the poetry (and nursing) vote

I suspect the Prime Minister has been reading this blog. Today he addressed the Royal College of Nursing Conference in Bournemouth. It seems that like William Blake he’s been seeing angels, for he said: ‘We feel like parents who have been in the presence of angels dressed in nurses’ uniforms, performing the most amazing works of mercy and care. And I will never forget seeing in real time every minute of the day that idea of service and selflessness summed up by the great poet William Blake:

Can I not see another’s woe?
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief?
And not seek for kind relief?

‘That is the spirit of nursing,’ he said, to (of course) rousing applause. Only last week this same William Blake was quoted on this very blog. He, being dead, cannot be canvassed (not that that stops politicians, of course). I haven’t checked but I doubt Blake ever had a vote (he died before the 1832 Reform Act, though would probably have been too poor to qualify even then). If he had, would he have supported New Labour? As I noted this morning, the Green Party has already laid claim to Blake’s own words in ‘Jerusalem’ about a ‘green and pleasant land’. Blake was a free spirit, unwilling to bound by the chains of a mainstream party – I suspect he would have sympathised with the Greens but probably fallen out with them after a while.

Next question: who would the following poets have voted for? Give chapter and verse – or at least verse, in support of your answers:

  • Keats
  • Byron
  • Dylan Thomas
  • Shakespeare

Further suggestions welcome!

At the hustings: more etymology – and Tory praises Beast of Bolsover

Today’s Word of the Day is inspired by attending an election hustings in Glossop last night. The Oxford English Dictionary (thank you Derbyshire Libraries – don’t let them say you never do anything for us) tells us that hustings is ‘from OE. hústing, a. ON. hús-{th}ing, house-assembly, a council held by a king, earl, or other leader, and attended by his immediate followers, retainers, etc., in distinction from the ordinary {th}ing or general assembly of the people (the OE. folc{asg}emót, FOLKMOOT).’

My own impression of the would-be MPs was that they were a rather less sophisticatedly fluent bunch that I fondly imagined the ‘kings, earls, or other leaders’ of yore. Perhaps a folkmoot is more in tune with our less heroic times? The Green Party candidate, Peter Allen, was the most articulate and passionate and seemed to have done more homework on the questions. Literary Connections has to warm to someone whose slogan, ‘for a green and pleasant land in High Peak’ echoes William Blake and who also strongly recommended The Spirit Level, a book already mentioned here. The Conservative candidate said that now he’s canvassing he doesn’t have time to read books (I pointed out to Andrew Bingham that, rather cheekily, David Cameron cited the book in his Hugo Young lecture last year – though the authors of The Spirit Level rejected the conclusions he attempted to draw). The Tory’s real shock, however, was his praise for arch-left MP Dennis Skinner, the fabled Beast of Bolsover who represents all that Conservatism, even in its new guise, is not. Unfortunately, he bracketed him in his commendation of independence of spirit with Sir Nicholas Winterton, the Macclesfield MP who recently described standard-class rail passengers as ‘a totally different type of people’ to persons of his ilk. Clearly Sir Nicholas is not a man for meeting folk or even a folkmoot.