Author Archives: Judith Gunn

Leaning Left

There has been some wailing and gnashing of teeth by our leaders on the current state of education. Not the usual stuff: terrible standards, grade inflation etc.

No this time it’s content.

Esther McVey and Gavin Williamson are bewailing the apparent left wing bias in education. Esther McVey stated recently: 

“I am now hearing that people aren’t teaching you what they need to – they’re overly indoctrinating you. It’s gone political, people are saying it has gone to the left, they’re forcing ideas on you.” The Independent

She says these attitudes are putting off “white working class pupils” who find that Miss or Sir’s beliefs are at odds with their family’s beliefs. Conservative MP for Tatton, David Lidington, suggests that “white working class lads” are turned off, because these beliefs are at odds with family views on Brexit – quite what Brexit has to do with it I’m not sure, it’s perfectly possible to be left wing and pro-Brexit.

Gavin Williamson talks about so-called “no platforming” I’m not quite sure what that means either, unless it means the teacher is not supposed to ask students to treat each other with mutual respect, that they are not supposed to stop them name-calling based on race, religion or orientation.

But Esther McVey is insistent that pupils are being “indoctrinated” and that “it has gone to the left”

Has it though? Has it really? Or was it always there?

Let me introduce you to Ignorance and Want – spoiler alert – left wing warning.

“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both,”

Do you know which book Ignorance and Want are characters in? That’s good teaching by the way, try to open by questioning rather than telling, not too pedagogic. That being said you probably do know – you were probably taught it at school, you will be taught it at school now, if you do GCSE English Literature, by most exam boards at least, and you will celebrate it every Christmas.

Ignorance and Want are the less famous children in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge. “Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?” 

Ooh snap Scrooge! The Spirit quoted your own Tweet, damn! Mic drop!

Ignorance and Want Public Domain

My point is this that Michael Gove, aided by Dominic “eye test” Cummings, has revamped the exam system. He took A Levels back to a two year course, minimised AS Levels and revamped the syllabus to be more “traditional” but “ay there’s the rub”- the tradition of English literature is, at the very least, social comment, if not socialist.

Dickens’ London, as explored in Oliver, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, or Great Expectations (which is on the syllabus) and of course A Christmas Carol, explore the poverty, injustice and the conditions of London at the time. Dickens’ exposed those conditions then, precisely to inform a society that wanted to ignore the treatment of its children, some of whom genuinely did not know and were appalled by that treatment. Dickens, like David Copperfield worked in a bottle factory, aged twelve while his father was in debtor’s prison, darn it! There I go again being left wing! 

Or there’s this: 

“With her two brothers this fair lady dwelt, Enriched from ancestral merchandise, And for them many a weary hand did swelt In torched mines and noisy factories, And many once proud-quiver’d loins did melt”

and a bit later

“For them the Ceylon diver held his breath, And went all naked to the hungry shark; For them his ears gush’d blood; for them in death                     The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark Lay full of darts;”

and a bit later

“Why in glory’s name were they so proud?”

That’s from Isabella and the Pot of Basil, by that bastion of English poetry John Keats.

The whole story is about a woman who marries someone below her social class, for love, thus threatening the inheritance of her two brothers, who murder her husband. I’ll leave you to discover the relevance of the pot of basil. That poem is on the A Level syllabus, hard to teach without slipping into social justice, class system, feminist issues. Then there is Thomas Hardy who was no fan of war Drummer Hodge is on the A Level syllabus as for modern poetry Maya Angelou, Benjamin Zephaniah, Carol Ann Duffy – all and many have social comments to make.

Death of a Drummer Boy Charles Moreau-Vaulthier Public Domain

There’s modern novels such as Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro’s vision of a totalitarian capitalist dystopia; Animal Farm, Orwell more totalitarian dystopia; To Kill a Mocking Bird, Harper Lee, racial and social injustice and to be honest Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte) is not a great advertisement for capitalism, nor Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) for a compassionate society. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) explores the transactional nature of marriage pre feminism, and back to Dickens the prison hulks of Great Expectations, haunt modern day discussions regarding where to house refugees… and don’t get me started on Film Studies… oh go on then.

Attack the Block (dir Joe Cornish) – poverty in Peckham exposed by aliens. Tsotsi (dir. Gavin Hood) (Oscar Best Foreign Film 2005) poverty in South Africa; Winters Bone, (dir. Debra Granik) Oscar nominated, an early Jennifer Lawrence, poverty in America; Slumdog Millionaire, (dir. Danny Boyle) Oscar Best Film – poverty in India; City of God (dir. Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund) – poverty in Rio; Captain Fantastic (dir. Matt Ross) – not poverty actually, but an alternative way of living; Little Miss Sunshine (dir. Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris) an attack on the American Dream. Even when you teach Rear Window or Vertigo (dir. Alfred Hitchcock), contemporary culture and society are explained and compared. You don’t have to know any of those films to know that they deal with life, with issues, yes Toy Story (dir. John Lasseter) is there and it is a little light on social comment but it is still a discussion of justice, mutual respect and cruelty.

These are all texts approved by the OfQual in the government revamp.

It is not necessary to know the texts I am referring to, to know that to teach them needs context – context is all – as Margaret Atwood says in The Handmaid’s Tale (on the A Level syllabus). Literature, the arts, and cultural studies require exposition of our world and teachers do that with an open mind, precisely to open minds. You cannot hide the poverty in Dickens or the rage in Keats or Hardy. You cannot hide the fact that Percy Shelley was sent down from Oxford for distributing an atheist pamphlet, Mary Shelley was the daughter of a feminist or the fact that Byron joined a revolution and died in its service (well okay not in the fight). Even Tennyson recounts England’s most heroic failure in The Charge of the Light Brigade, and Kipling may honour the Empire, but we still have to talk about the Empire.

Finally I’m still not terribly clear why David Lidington thinks all this is connected with Brexit, Brexit was and is a cross party issue, just because a piece of literature teaches compassion or explores issues of injustice does not mean we cannot have Brexit. The link between Brexit and a lack of compassion is in the ear of the beholder, it comes under of the heading “if the cap fits” it is not in the text or the teacher.

Teachers teach what’s on the page.

A Scrubber’s Rage

IMG_9017If you’ve clicked on this expecting to find a little light porn – spoiler alert – that’s not what this is about! I’m not using the word as an insult but as a badge (or mask) of honour. Why? Because for the past five weeks, I’ve been sewing scrubs. Scrubs for doctors, scrubs for ophthalmologists, scrubs for children’s nurses and scrubs for  carers, in fact scrubs for the world! Well okay just for a little bit of my county. Scrubs are that natty trouser suit (pant suit in the US), that medics wear to work. Scrubs can to be taken off and washed regularly and easily, and in times of crisis, like now, you need to do that a lot and a lot more people need to wear them. 

You would think wouldn’t you? That hospitals and care homes would be properly supplied with scrubs by the government we voted for, with the taxes we have paid. Apparently not, but hey it’s an emergency time for the public to step up. Which they did, hundreds of little ScrubHubs have set up across theIMG_9221 UK to meet the needs of local hospitals and care homes for scrubs. Scrubs that go on, come off, go into the washing machine go on again as often as need be, the cleaner the better, the more, the safer.

It is stressful though, sewing scrubs. I am not a hobby seamster, I had to dust off my nearly 40 year old Bernina to get going. The old machine has sewIMG_9160n a bit over the years, a few curtains, the odd dress – literally the odd dress – and children’s costumes. But the old machine has had a bit of a shock in the past five weeks, not least losing its ability to wind a bobbin. The bobbin crisis necessitated the purchase of a separate bobbin winder – result! But it’s not just the machine that’s stressed, its seamstress is a little frazzled too. I struggle with bias binding, overcasting and threading the damn needle (I need new glasses after this). Then there is the fitting in of the time between teaching online, making an online Film Studies course for a website (Teach All About It) and delivering groceries to my parents, since Waitrose can’t seem to offer a 91 year old man and his wife a delivery slot. Meanwhile, sewing scrubs requires printing out the pattern


on separate A4 sheets to be taped together… exactly. Then there’s the cutting (in my case three or four sets) the overcasting of all the edges, doing the pockets, the buttonholes and the dreaded bias binding round the neck, the neckline that is not my neck, hours of fun! 

So why do I do this to myself? Virtue signalling?


Maybe I just want to feel sanctimonious, in which case job done!

But it isn’t just that.

It’s rage, sheer bloody rage!

How has it come to this? How hard is it to do what must be done? Look around the world, look at the growing list of countries locking down successfully, minimising the virus, while even now our death rate is hundreds per day. Our initial response was pitiable when every week, day even hours counted. Cheltenham held a festival, Liverpool held a football match, Cardiff had a concert and government dithered and delayed, muttering about “herd immunity”, “taking it on the chin” and worse. Medics  begged for PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and still do, care homes struggled on with barely a mask between them, while residents were returned to them with symptoms, tracking and tracing was stopped. 

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had 18 million masks for 5 million people and they produce 80,000 a day.  Whilst in the UK, apparently there is limited scientific evidence for masks, in New York you will be shamed for not wearing one, or maybe we haven’t got any. At the time of writing the UK death rate per million is the highest in the world.   Meanwhile countries across the world keep their death rates in the low hundreds and even so called “equivalency” which sees us compared with Germany… 8,300 deaths or thereabouts leaves us standing, or falling over, the Germans and the Turks test and track rigorouslyIMG_9214 while we count the few tests we do do… twice.

Rage, rage against the dying of the many.

That’s why I sew scrubs to soothe the rage as well as to fill the gap left by government, to provide, what government should provide using our taxes – appropriate and sufficient clothing for the job  – sewing scrubs is actually stress relief. The gentle give of fabric as I cut the cloth, the rhythm of the sewing machine, the heat of the iron (and I never iron so this is massive); the satisfaction at completion. I hesitate to say a job well done – my scrubs are a bit like the first pancake, functional but not pretty. Still the knowledge that someone somewhere feels that little bit more cared for because the scrubs are hand made and better seamsters than I, embroider “thank you” or “heroes” on the sleeves or pockets. The knowledge that when the workers come home at night they can take off their scrubs, shove them in the washing machine, in the knowledge that a clean and dry pair are ready and waiting, no short cuts, no compromises.

As I write the hypocrisy of government rages – the apparent architect of lockdown and government policy, Dominic Cummings, is getting away with driving blind. Meanwhile millions of us miss our parents, our children, grandchildren our friends or we are stuck in with kids who don’t have access to a park let alone a second home with a garden … breathe. Good job my scrubs have been collected and the next fabric has arrived! Oooh Looney Tunes how appropriate!