Tag Archives: education

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.


Breaking Mad


This weekend as is the time of year I went to a party,  mince pies , mulled wine and good company. I met with friends and came across an older acquaintance who I had not seen for some time. The wine flowed, the mince pies mulled and I made the mistake of asking my old acquaintance what it was she did now. ‘Oh” she said, in all innocence. ‘ I teach a PGCE course, I teach young people how to be teachers.’ I’m afraid to say, that somewhat to my own surprise, I greeted her with incandescent rage!  How could she tempt innocent young people into a career so devoid of reward or prospects, a career to span decades of their life at the mercy of political criticism for the whole their working life? I reiterated my dearly held view that under no circumstances do I want my children to enter teaching.

‘Why?’ said my new friend, not without understanding. The answer was not unexpected.


Setting aside government (temporarily) it seems that there is an increasing lack of respect for teachers as individuals and professionals,whether this is just a reflection of my age and gender, I don’t know, but increasingly teachers are used as timetable fillers, increasingly non-contact time, remission for skills development or other contributions is being destroyed, such that some colleagues who are part time are paid only for the time they spend in the classroom, not for their preparation or marking, all that is done in their own time. Is this the ‘extra mile’ that Sir Michael Wilshaw was so keen to impose on teachers, if it is, it is a guise for exploitation and protests to managers are met with the response that if you fail to produce individualised lesson plans (one for every student) if you don’t set and mark that homework, if you don’t improve your results and if you don’t do it in the time that they consider appropriate you are not only a failure, but you are letting down the institution, you may find yourself responsible for the failure of the institution at Ofsted.


In this now non existent, non contact time, teachers now must not only plan, prepare, make resources and mark, they must also break down the data, make Excel documents on results, find funding codes, get data on gender, trends, find out what students do when they leave the institution. Apparently, now Ofsted requires secondary schools to have data not just on where school leavers go when they leave – university or a job, but which student took what subject at university and if they did no take your subject why not? Not only that where do they go after they have graduated from university, do they pursue your subject as a career? This is data-mining worthy of GCHQ and big institutions have information serivces who are supposed to provide this data, but increasingly they regard teachers as having nothing better to do than find and assess data and if they don’t, if they are not familiar with every nuance of their data and the institution’s data then Ofsted will know. FAIL!

breakingbadOne of the reasons that I think that the character of Walter White of the hit US series Breaking Bad, has become so iconic in the US and then by stealth here, is that he gives the lie to that old adage ‘Those who can’t do teach’. Because hell! Walter White can do! He knows his subject, he knows his subject so well he can cook crystal meth with a purity that dominates the world and he can back that up with a bad guy strategy worthy of Keyser Sose. He can cook the best of the best and be the best of the worst and why does he do it? At one point in the series he just says ‘I won’ and he won because he could, it was just up until that time he chose not to, so why does he break bad? Because after years of sharing that knowledge to bored, unappreciative, incapable students, after working faithfully, and effectively as a teacher, changing people’s lives, qualifying them for life and work and a good future, better than his, he earns so little money that he can’t even give himself a chance against cancer. While we do have the NHS, our government press, parents and students all think that teachers are bad in the first place, teachers are considered failures both at life and at teaching, – why wouldn’t you break bad?

While teaching might have been Walter White’s career of necessity, millions of people work in public service or in the ranks of the private sector and everyone of them is treated as if “they should do better” and yet they do their best and without them society would collapse, just ask anyone who lives in a society with no education, buses, rubbish collection, health care, firemen even good bureaucracy, ask them how well they manage without public servants how easy is it to go shopping in sniper alley. And yet generations of teachers and public servants don’t win, no wonder so many break mad!

That being said Walter White didn’t give up teaching, Jesse Pinkman was his best student!