Why we need to embrace the Global Village – TEDx video now online

The title says it all – my TEDx video has finally come online and I’m delighted to share it with you guys here on my blog.

I go this a way, I go that a way... (photo: Gary McKeating)

I go this a way, I go that a way… (photo: Gary McKeating)

The production team – Entilent Media – did a fantastic job and taking my ramblings and making them look like I knew what I was doing. Val Morgan and her team were also very lovely to work with on the day. They were the ones who should have been stressed and snappy as it was vital they got all the equipment set right and camera angles perfect. Instead they were very sweet and nothing was too much trouble for them. Val put us all at ease and is one of the nicest people I’ve had the privilege to work with.

Our amazing and lovely video director Val Morgan (photo: Gary McKeating)

Our amazing and lovely video director Val Morgan (photo: Gary McKeating)

Anyway, now you can see the video for yourself and judge what you think. Did they do a good job? More importantly, please share the link far and wide if you are in agreement with the message. I would really love it if this presentation was a small part of a wave of people promoting Bangladesh in a positive light. My heart-country and people have taken a battering in recent years and I would so dearly love to see that change.

Posted in Bangladesh | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Perfect Scapegoat: When accusation becomes a weapon

the-perfect-scapegoat-picRecently I reviewed Jessie Kyd’s book The Perfect Scapegoat. It is an honest account of one young woman’s tortuous life from the age of 16 up for the next 20 years or so. It was made tortuous because Jessie Kyd was accused of sexually assaulting a girl with special needs she used to help a family care for.

Of course it is impossible to know if this woman was as innocent as she claims – there are not many paedophiles in this world who willingly hold up their hands and admit “I did it” – but over the last three years or so I’ve been working with several organisations and researching the experiences of many men and women who have been falsely accused of sexual crimes and I can tell you that Jessie’s story rings true.

That’s not to say that Jessie’s story doesn’t have unusual qualities; it does, not least being that she was a young woman accused of abusing a girl. Most false accusations revolve around men sexually abusing someone else. Indeed, Jessie talks of some of the various authorities she had to speak to saying they had not come across a case like hers before. Likewise, the reasons for the false accusations were unusual too and, ultimately, a little unclear. In most false accusation (herein referred to as FA) cases the person accusing does so for revenge – the break-up of a relationship of some sort – or a vindictive act to stop the ex-partner from having access to their children. Sometimes it is jealousy – which can have its roots in many places. It is rarer, as Jessie hints at here, that the accusation is to throw off the scent of the real abuser.

She only hints at this for two reasons: one, she knows what it is to be judged without evidence and doesn’t make the same mistake; second, the most bizarre thing is that there was no real evidence to suggest any abuse had taken place at all. It is this latter aspect which perhaps saved both Jessie’s freedom and her life.

I’ll let you read my review of the book and would encourage you to buy it for yourself but there are broader issues her story raises which I felt needed a longer essay which go beyond the book and that’s what I want to discuss here.

There were two aspects to the years of troubles Jessie went through: The first was, of course, the accusers (the girl’s parents) who not only came up with story after story to try and frame her, but also openly tried to ‘run her out of town’ making life impossible for the girl (who was training to be a teacher) to work in schools or be accepted in her home town.

But the second was quite simply the state system.

Like something out of a Kafka novel, once Ms Kyd was ‘on the books’ as a suspect, there was no way of releasing her from the grip of being guilty as far as the authorities were concerned. The police investigation was, at least, mercifully short and, despite the horrible trauma of being under suspicion and investigating officers doing their job of grilling her as they should, they did at least exonerate her stating clearly that “There is no evidence that any offence has been committed by anyone, let alone Jessie Kyd.”

But the investigative work of the police was not enough for Social Services and it was this authority which caused such grief and turmoil to Ms Kyd during her early twenties. The social worker attached to her case had made his own judgement that she was guilty – at least of something – and refused to even consider that if abuse had taken place that some other person could have been guilty. Social Services attempted to wreck any chance of a career for her and only stopped when her solicitor began legal action against them – something which only the brave and desperate try to do.

In the experience of those I’ve listened to over two years, Social Services are the constant bully who wreck marriages, partnerships and, most upsetting of all, families where they ruin the lives of children they’re supposed to protect. While it is right and proper that children come first and are protected, there’s more than one kind of way to abuse children and Social Services, in the opinion of FA victims I know, are guilty of doing this repeatedly. It takes just one person dealing with a case to have made a judgement against the accused to ensure the system works against the person permanently. As with Jessie Kyd’s case, the Child Protection team will often hold meetings and make decisions without any input or chance to plead a case from the FA victims. The accusers (parents in this case), police and other authorities get to have input but not the accused themselves – even after the Police have dropped all charges and consider the matter finished.

Even after the case was all over, Jessie Kyd lived in fear that she could never have children of her own because she was told there was ‘no guarantee’ they would not be taken from her at birth. Can you imagine living with that fear when you’ve barely begun your own adult life? I’ve seen children loved by their parents torn away supposedly to ‘protect’ them when actually the children have been devastated by the whole trauma.

If there was swift recourse to the law then it would not be so bad but the legal system is so unwieldy that it takes months for any change to happen, often at great expense and in front of a judge who may make judgement against you and make matters worse. It is a terrifying situation for an innocent person to live in.

Over the course of my own investigations it is obvious that despite much training, Social workers are not equipped to make the judgements needed to decide the safety of children nor the suitability of victims of FA to carry on their private lives unhindered. Social workers are usually overworked, underfunded and working in both distressing and stressful environments. At the same time, they wield such power that even solicitors are afraid of them. They are accountable only to the counter-decisions of a judge and they know that the expense and risk of losing is so great few will try to resist them. This combination of stress and power is a volatile mix which results time and again in great injustices against innocent victims like Jessie Kyd.

But there is a bigger dilemma here than just the unstoppable movement of the Justice and Social Services machine: that of the perception that FA is a myth.

This is taken from the official government Crown Prosecution Service page. The CPS are the people who choose whether or not to prosecute a suspect after the Police have finished their investigation and handed all the evidence to the CPS for judgement.


There is a vicious circle in reasoning here: Women can’t possibly cry rape for revenge because out of all the prosecutions for rape only a tiny handful were made for false allegations of rape.

This is a dangerous road to take. As Jessie Kyd found out, long after her case was dropped and it was clear there was virtually no evidence to suggest abuse had taken place at all, nevertheless her accusers were free to continue slandering her name and making accusations. This story is repeated again and again. It is well established that the police are reluctant to prosecute people who make FA because it might deter real victims of rape. All the CPS file quoted above reveals is a deep reluctance to believe FA is possible at all.

Similar statistics can be found for domestic violence except that here uncomfortable research has long revealed the terrible flaw in thinking that men are the main perpetrators of such violence. Among convictions for domestic violence only 7% are for women. Using the CPS argument, that would mean men are the most likely to perpetrate such violence. Studies however reveal that as much as 50% of all domestic violence is committed by women. A study in 2014 of 1,104 men and women even found that women were ‘significantly’ more likely to engage in verbal and physical aggression than men.

Erin Pizzey is well-known as an expert of domestic violence. She opened the first refuge for victims of domestic violence in 1971 and has written extensively on the issue. You would imagine that she is a staunch defender of the belief that women are victims and men the perpetrators. In fact the opposite is the case. Erin Pizzey states that around 62% of women who came to her shelters were at least as violent as the men they had left. In her own words:

“Such individuals, spurred on by deep feelings of vengefulness, vindictiveness, and animosity, behave in a manner that is singularly destructive to themselves as well as to some or all of the other family members, making an already bad family situation worse. These women I have found it useful to describe as ‘family terrorists.’”

There are many reasons why such information is not well-known and publicised in the media despite a wealth of research to back it up. A key reason though is the bias of the CPS and other authorities to assume that only women can be victims. It is interesting that an article by Ann Widdecombe recently highlighted a general societal prejudice against men. In it she says:

“Now, everywhere you have positive discrimination. That’s a way of saying negative discrimination against men… If I’m going to complain about sexism it should be from [men’s] sex not from mine.”

From my own research among victims of FA it is clear that women are just as capable of crying rape as men are of actually perpetrating it. Logically, there is no reason why this should not be the case. It is human nature to want to control and to seek justice and the perverse side of this is to abuse and seek revenge. If a woman, looking for such revenge cannot exact this in physical form, then verbal is all that’s left. Just as school children from as young as perhaps seven or eight are well aware of the power they have to cry abuse at a teacher and cause unmitigating grief to the object of their dislike, so a woman is capable of using the cry of rape as the weapon of choice in a society obsessed with hidden sex scandals and high profile cases of celebrities who have got away with appalling abuse after decades of silence.

Of course a child who cries abuse at school is not always lying just as the woman who cries rape isn’t and this needs to be stated clearly. It is right and proper that the police and social services (where a child may be involved) should take every accusation seriously but it is also right that there is accountability in both directions. Currently when an accusation is made, the police are only interested in finding evidence for prosecution. There needs to be more willingness to search for all evidence and, where it is clear that evidence shows the accuser is lying, that the CPS is given opportunity to decide if there is a case which can be tried against the accused AND if the accuser should be prosecuted instead. There will be, of course, unresolvable grey areas – the his-word-against-her situation. But in many, many cases the evidence clearly points to the story being completely fabricated. As things stand, it is rare the police will do anything about that.

What is important is that neither victims are ignored nor that witch hunts are tolerated. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible should be required reading I believe for all police and social workers because not only is it a wonderful allegory of the ‘reds under the beds’ scaremongering of the McCarthy era but because it demonstrates just how easy preposterous accusations can billow into the deaths of innocents. Make no mistake, FA causes deaths; for some falsely accused the shame and depression is too much to bear.

In Jessie Kyd’s case, she managed to survive – even flourish – in the long run. But it came at a terrible cost which could so easily have destroyed her. It does destroy too many. If you buy the book I urge you to read it to the end. In a way, the most upsetting part for me was reading her epilogue. One final event occurred made it clear just how fragile her victories have been. It is a frightening reminder of what every single victim of FA has to endure – the trauma never goes away.

Posted in Corruption, Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Music to thaw the soul (A personal list)

Not everyone in this world is into meditation but we live in an increasingly busy world which is noisy and infiltrates our every waking moment. The birth of ‘social’ media, now firmly the main point for most of us to have mobile phones, looks after the twin contradictions about mankind – our need for company and our need for privacy. We can get both now 24/7 because we can take ourselves off to our rooms by ourselves and converse with others or watch endless streams of TV, listen to music or read motivational memes.

But the result is noise which never ends and can lead to fatigue even as we sit alone. I’m not sure we can do much about that but we can give ourselves time – if not to find silence (though I live in the Lake District area of England and so am blessed with many places to go and find that silent peace) then at least sound which helps us to be calm and relax.

As a musician by training as a young man, I’ve had the luck to encounter and study a lot of music and as such I realise that it is impossible to give a definitive list of music to chill to, relax or meditate with. Also, everyone’s tastes are different. So here I simply offer you the pieces I listen to when I feel my soul freezing through the bitterness of modern life. Our so-called ‘social’ media hasn’t taught us anything about being truly social. The opposite if anything. So we need something to reconnect us to humanity, I believe.

I’ve arranged this list by category so if classical isn’t your thing then scroll on and find the next category. With this in mind I’ve added a most unusual one at the end and it won’t be to everyone’s taste. Be warned! If nothing else this list might tell you something about me – make of it what you will…

Western Classical

Holst: Venus, The Bringer of Peace

There’s no better piece for doing what it says in the title. This movement from Holst’s deservedly famous Planet Suite is just pure peace in orchestral form. No agenda, no mischief. Just lie back and float away.

Barber: Adagio for strings

Since returning to the UK in 2014 my family and I have gone through the most awful torments which means that I’ve not been able to play this most sublimely beautiful piece without bursting into tears. It was bad enough as it is that this music accompanies the death of John Merrick in the film The Elephant Man. The real Merrick is one of my heroes and a man I hope I meet one day in heaven.

Khachaturian: Adagio from Gayane

I can’t say much more about this piece that isn’t repeating what I’ve said about the Barber and Holst pieces. Khachaturian has fallen out of favour in recent years but I rate him as one of the very best. This piece is much loved by film directors at least which is something. There is a great loneliness about this piece which empathises with my soul when I feel lost.


Arnob: Amar Hariye Jawa

Arnob is a popular rock musician from Bangladesh. All his music is good and he’s a talented songwriter. This piece though just touches me in a very different way. It takes me back to Bangladesh every time.

Pink Floyd: Echoes

There’s so much chill out music to enjoy by the masters of psychedelia. You could, for instance, listen to the whole of Dark Side of the Moon, or Wish You Were Here and chill out forever. Here I’ll present just one side of an early album, Meddle. This is a little more upbeat than anything I’ve shared so far though it starts moody and spaced out. If you like something with a drumbeat then this is for you.

Kate Bush: And Dream of Sheep

Taken from possibly the most perfect album this astonishing musician made, Hounds of Love, the second half is my favourite part once we’ve lost the commercial Bush and got into her truly creative and unique side. This track is the beginning of the second half (from the days when you had to flip the album or change over the tape – yeah I’m that old…).

Non-Western Music

Apologies for those of you who don’t like being lumped together as ‘the rest of the world’. It’s true but there’s little I can do about it and have time to get this post written. Brought up in the Western tradition, to an extent all other musics will have a feel of being ‘foreign’ to me – I’m not sure if that’s justification or an excuse however! Apologies anyway.

Hariprasad Chaurasia: Raga Lalit

When I studied ethnomusicology during my degree I was introduced for the first time to Indian ragas – in particular, Raga Lalit. I fell in love with both ragas, Lalit and sitars which is an affair which endures to this day. A close rival to the sitar though is the Bengali flute and Hariprasad Chaurasia is the undisputed master of this instrument. This piece is sublime and I defy anyone with a soul not to be taken away to another world with this.

Ravi Shankar: Jogeshwari-Alap

Shankar is beyond doubt the greatest sitar player in modern times and I wept for his loss to the world when he died not so long ago. He is the reason I play the sitar today (badly, alas) and one of my great heroes. There are many parts to a raga but my favourite is the opening alap section which is calm, meditative and explores most creatively the whole range of the raga scale before the tabla kicks in and things get a bit more hectic! It is the alap I most enjoy playing because it’s just me and the sitar as one being.

Juana Molina: Tres Cosas

I heard this track late at night on Radio Three I think many years ago. It haunted me and I immediately bought her album. Though a second album was disappointing I loved her style and this piece is still most unusual and haunting in its peacefulness.


This last section is just a few pieces which I love to chill out to but…they are very strange and to some people even frightening. Listen to them at your peril!

John Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls

There was no doubting that 9/11 was a most dreadful day in history and we all live in the aftereffects of that. But this commissioned piece by one of the great composers alive today is haunting, challenging and peaceful in equal measure. This is meditative music for the thinker and the feeler. I burst into tears every time at “love you to the moon and back”. All the words are taken from the bereaved, victims or notice boards for the missing. Gut-wrenchingly beautiful.

Gyorgy Ligeti: Kyrie from Requiem

This is not an easy piece to listen to and only certain kinds of people – like me – can find it relaxing and exquisitely wonderful. Not saying if that’s good or bad! It just takes a certain type. For me, this is as peaceful as any of the pieces above.

Mongolian Throat singing – Kargyraa

This may be the strangest thing you will ever hear if you listen to it! Initially it just sounds like a bass singer gargling. But listen carefully – listen for the overtones not the obvious bass growl you can hear. Listen to the tune he is simultaneously singing through overtones. It’s like an angel singing a hidden melody of the universe. When I listen to this piece I find myself in awe of…well everything really!

Posted in Bangladesh, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

My TEDx Talk: Embracing the Global Village (in a skirt)

On the spot (photo D K Powell)

On the spot (photo D K Powell)

Well I got through TEDx somehow. Despite all my fears and worries as I’ve been writing about over the last few weeks, I manage to survive the event and lived to tell the tale.

In fact, the TEDx Whitehaven team put us all at ease. Myself and six other speakers turned up the evening before to ‘try out’ the stage and stand on the ominous ‘big red spot’. As we got to know one another the lighting and sound crew checked details, our requirements and went through making adjustments, so we relaxed and started to think “you know what? We might just pull this off!” Well I did anyway, I’m not sure about the others.

Preparations for the big day!

Preparations for the big day! (Photo D K Powell)

The speakers came from all walks of life with a range of experiences. All their talks were fascinating, if not actually heart-rending at times. From good advice on how to run a small business well to dealing the crisis of the Cumbrian floods, we all took our own take on the overall theme of ‘Human connectors’. I would love to tell you about each talk but I don’t want to prattle on longer than necessary nor would I do justice to the speakers themselves. But when the talks come online I will make sure I post and give you all the links.

I was fortunate (or unlucky depending on your point of view) to be given the closing slot of the event, I think because mine was the most global of the talks and made a ‘big picture’ of the day. ‘Big pictures’ are my speciality really…

Over the weeks leading up to the day, on Facebook and Twitter, I made a bit of a thing about ‘wearing a skirt’ and while that was deliberately provocative, it was also true – well, sort of. There was a reason for it and some of you, when you see the pictures below, will understand instantly what I was doing. For the rest of you, you’ll have to wait for the talk itself to find out, ha ha. What was funny however, was that during the rehearsal there was so much talk of my skirt-wearing that the other speakers began to joke they would wear skirts too. At one point I thought the men might just follow through! Thankfully they didn’t; after all that would have upstaged me something rotten.

So what did I talk about? Well, in summary, my talk traced a little of my journey from coming from a very white-centric upbringing which was fearful of other cultures to living in Bangladesh and learning from a culture so alien to mine that it actually helped me see my own culture clearly. From this I went on to argue that we all need to embrace the ‘Global village’ of which we are automatically members and lay aside our small-minded nationalistic and cultural boundaries.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with a slideshow of the best pics from the day, some professionally done by the amazing Gary McKeating and others either by myself or the speakers. My thanks to all who took them. If you want to see the full set of pictures by Gary then you can see them here.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Posted in Bangladesh, British, community, Life, Philosophy, Review | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Why Schools need a radical re-think and why the British Government fails to understand

In the news yesterday and today is the UK government’s announcement to bring back more Grammar schools – in essence schools which can select students based on academic ability.

On Wednesday I gave my TEDx talk and although the subject was ‘The Global Village’ I touched briefly on education and how working in Bangladesh challenged my preconceptions as an educationalist.

I’d like to expand on this a little and present my view on why the Government is continuing to go down the wrong route with this latest news. To be fair, it’s just a long line of wrong moves which have been followed by preceding governments too. No one, it seems, really has a clue. It’s a shame because if you asked the teachers on the ground floor – not the heads or those who’ve worked their way up the career path but those who are just classroom teachers day in, day out – you’d probably come up with the right answers; some of them at least.

And that’s an appropriate point, before I begin, to mention that in no way am I criticising the good work carried out by teachers all over the UK. I’ve been there and done that and know it’s a shitty job at times while also being the most rewarding work in the world. Teachers have to jump through the hoops they are told to by those in power above. All they want to do and care about is give the children the best educational experience possible.

That said, after too long in the system, teachers can fall into the trap of believing the rhetoric that government bodies preach. As I said in my talk, I came away from Bangladesh questioning why I was teaching in a UK system which demands qualifications at all costs. Am I providing children with the means to a happy and secure future, I asked, or am I merely churning them out because society and politics demands it?

This is the heart of the problem with the announcements today. There is this assumption that there are ‘good schools’ and there are ‘bad schools’. While there are, no doubt, exceptions, the whole idea of such labels is a nonsense. There are schools where you have elite, well-educated and well-brought up children often from affluent areas (but not always) and such schools inevitably do well in results tables regardless of the quality of teaching.

Today Teresa May said she wanted ‘all children’ to have the opportunity to go to ‘good’ schools. That’s absurd. All children all at so-called ‘good’ schools instantly makes all schools ‘good’ and we know from history that this is simply not allowed. OFSTED and the like immediately reset the boundaries when this happens. While I was still teaching in the UK, OFSTED declared that ‘satisfactory’ for a school was now no longer satisfactory and actually meant ‘failing’. It’s really very silly. No, the reality is that the afore-mentioned elite go to schools already perceived to contain such children.

Then there are the schools which are left with those who don’t fit such categories. Those schools are usually where you find the very best teachers because they have to work bloody hard to teach at all. I was at one such school for eight years and loved every minute of it with the kids (not with the politics among the staff however). It was hard work but while I was there the school was just getting better and better (why I’ll explain shortly). But in some schools (and even within schools getting it right like mine) the atmosphere is more like a prison – in terms of how the kids behave and how they are treated.

This where the Government gets it wrong. It’s all well and good allowing schools to select on ability but when you do that you guarantee both excellent schools (those that select) and the schools from hell (those that are left with the rest).

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not actually advocating schools which are completely mixed in ability – that can work but it can be bloody awful too! I’m saying that the powers that be are aiming at the wrong goalposts.

Interestingly, what I hear from those in the business sector (and indeed at the TEDx day one of our speakers touched on exactly this point) is that schools continue to fail to train students in the qualities businesses actually need. These kids may well have the degrees and other qualifications needed but they’re hopeless in other areas – such as the ability to work with others without being, as Dr Brian Little puts it, a complete asshole. Why is that?

In my experience, those that are going to do well academically are naturally going to be teach themselves. At least, that’s the best way to do it. A teacher’s job with such students is to open the door, provide the materials and stimulants needed and be mentor and guide to facilitate their own self-learning. When this happens and parents support too you’re more or less guaranteed top results all from the student’s hard work and self-motivation.

It IS possible to force a student to obtain higher grades – pushing with extra classes, one-to-one sessions, additional coursework and so on. But the results are inevitably awful especially if one push leads to another. I’ve seen this at its worst in Asia where there is a determination among parents that their children must be doctors or lawyers and so on. From kindergarten through to university many children are pushed onwards with the expectations that they will be the best and obtain the highest marks. These children buy into their parents’ dreams and even though each step of the way gets harder and harder they try to live the dream as though it’s their own. the lucky ones buckle at the pre-university stage where they simply cannot obtain the grades needed to go on to those high-level courses at university. At that point the dream ends and though it is painful at the time this is a good thing because then they get to go on to courses more suited to their own characters and interests – as well as more appropriate for their academic ability. With a bit of luck they go on to have happy careers.

While such intense parental pressure is less common in the UK, still similar things occur – students either creating their own pressure or bowing to parental or school pressure to be brilliant. I believe that the reason we have (some) incompetent doctors, teachers, lawyers and so on is because many of these people should never have been attempting to work in these professions in the first place. My handwriting is truly appalling and I always used to joke with my students that I should have been a doctor (the medical profession being known for its illegible medical notes) but added “had it not been for the fact I would have killed patients”. The last part isn’t a joke! I don’t have the kind of brain that can handle remembering everything a doctor needs to in order to make proper diagnoses. I would have made a terrible doctor – thank god no one in their right mind ever thought otherwise! In truth, I’ve seen too many kids grow up and lead miserable lives because of making a completely wrong career choice. The pressure to try and keep up in an area just not your thing must be immense. Depression and feelings of ‘not being any good’ well up until something has to go – either mental stability or the job.

I do not believe in pushing for the highest qualifications as the goal of education. I believe in giving children a positive and rewarding experience which results in lifelong learners, people who love learning and to equip them to be the best they can be – but nothing more.

When I was a teenager, just embarking on adult life and feeling particularly socialist and anti-elitist, I was determined I would never go to university and instead would get a job as a binman. It was my local vicar who, wisely, pointed out to me that I had a mind that wouldn’t be satisfied with that kind of job for long and instead I would be taking the job of someone for whom being a binman was the right level. This is not to denigrate the intelligence of those involved in waste disposal but to say he was right – I had an academic brain which would never have suited that kind of job – I’d have been rubbish at it (excuse the pun) – and I would have stolen the job from someone who would have been right for it. For once, I listened to good advice and did (eventually) go to university. I found my niche and I’ve worked within, pushing boundaries where I feel so inclined and not allowing anyone to dictate what kind of person I’m supposed to be as a result.

In 20 years of teaching I’ve seen this work time and again. Help students be the best that’s right for them so that they’re equipped (and, yes, qualified) to be in the right place for them in society – whether they be doctors, politicians, cleaners, farmers or even lead alternative lifestyles with which they are happy.

On the whole, schools are doing this. Where that fails though hits hard and not necessarily in the so-called ‘failing’ schools. It goes wrong in the top schools too. In fact, though I don’t have statistics to prove it, I would guess it goes most wrong in the public school sector. I’ve met hundreds who went through public school and my own two children experienced it for a couple of years so I do at least have first-hand experience. What is it I think goes wrong? Well that leads me to the title of this post: what the real radical shake-up is needed in the UK education system.

Schools have more than adequate systems for monitoring progress and qualitative development of school children. It doesn’t matter how many times you reinvent the goalposts – it just isn’t going to get any better than what teachers and schools already do. So forget league tables based on SATs and GCSE results. They tell you nothing other than how clever the students are.

What’s ignored by measures and society in general, is the well-being of students. I don’t mean how current OFSTED measures look at how much the kids ‘like’ the school or what the parents think of the teachers. I mean actually changing how the whole curriculum is delivered and conceived.

What is needed are ways to monitor and develop inner confidence, love of learning, supportive natures, citizenship, team-working, approachability, inner security. Make these the priority over development and results. 

I said earlier that the school I worked in for eight years in Cumbria got better and better while I was there. Part of this was a brilliant discipline system they introduced in the last few years where consequences for misbehaviour were firm but also very clearly laid out and gave opportunities for students to walk away from where their disruptive behaviour was leading; and rewards for working well and cooperatively were also clear and supportive and available for all types and ranges of ability. The result was everyone felt safer.

But there was also the community feel of the school. My department was the Music department and myself and the other members of the staff made it a place for family and friends, not students and teachers. Time and again I was told by parents that their children had found a home within the department where they felt safe and valued. Ours was not the only department to be doing this and as a result the school grew in friendliness and, at times, joy.

This was a difficult school, in an impoverished area with lower working class students often from very broken home backgrounds. When I first arrived at the school I was verbally abused by some of the older teenage boys (whilst truanting lessons but remaining on site!), a lot of the school was vandalised, I had students walk out of the middle of my class with a “fuck you” at top voice and one student was expelled after a long list of misdemeanours over several years when he aggressively shoved through me in the corridor on the way to classes. Many other students were expelled for much worse. I even had one kid throwing rocks at my car as I drove in the streets in an attempt to make me crash.

I don’t think there was a conscious management decision to work on community spirit. I think I was lucky to be there at the right time (in recent years, that same school has suffered a great deal and from what I understand is now in a worse spirit than it was when I first worked there which I think is a great shame but shows what happens when management loses its way). But as the kids felt happier and rules were stuck to, so their development soared and grades improved. When children feel safe and valued, then they want to work. The results will always follow. Every year for eight years I worked there, I enjoyed my work more and more thanks to the improving positivity of the environment. I left out of the frustration that management didn’t want to do more to foster this. There was more work to be done and it’s a shame that years later, the school seems to have lost much of what was built up.

This is what Teresa May et al need to concentrate on. There are many students in some of the top schools who feel miserable, under pressure and worthless. They may or may not come out with top grades but sooner or later, whether at school or in adult life, they become depressed and unable to handle life. Some commit suicide or attempt it. Others turn to drink or otherwise soldier on for years or decades with their souls destroyed. It’s awful to see and I’ve seen it too often. In the schools from less affluent areas, the effects are crime, vandalism, unemployment and a general inability to function in society. The lives are just as disaffected and miserable. Again, I’ve seen too much of this – even more of it, in fact.

Forget selection by ability – actually nobody wins in the long run with that. Turn instead to nurturing and monitoring how well students cope with life. If little Johnny is struggling with handwriting, sure give him extra support. But if he is struggling to know how to interact with his peers, support him and train him in that first. Teachers are doing this but the pressure to turn out results overwhelms the desire to make sure their wards are doing well within themselves. Johnny needs to feel good about himself much more than he needs good handwriting. That boy may just grow up able to work with others in a career as an adult in ways which are rewarding and fulfilling. And if his handwriting is still bad? Well, he can always become a doctor.

students and teachers gathered at the cars for a meal out in 2013

students and teachers gathered at the cars for a meal out in 2013

Posted in Bangladesh, British, children, community | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments