Monthly Archives: March 2017

Us And Us Only

Unusually for me, and a blessing for you, this post is almost entirely free of poor puns and flippancy. I struggled a little with the title, eventually (and unexpectedly) choosing one from a Charlatans’ album for reasons I think – hope – you’ll understand. The alternative had been an allusion to ‘Love After Love’ by the recently-deceased Derek Walcott – a poem that always calls to my mind Frantz Fanon’s delineation of colonial psy-ops, and the self-hatred they instil in the subjugated. Walcott emerges from the other side to offer a more uplifting coda: an invitation to his reader to “love again the stranger who was yourself…whom you ignored/For another”.

The tension between self-perception and how others see us is a unifying experience, crossing time, space and culture. To be frank, it’s one on which I thought I’d given up, having decided, in the way of elderly curmudgeons, that life’s too short for it to remain an ongoing object of concern. However, the terror attack on Westminster Bridge, that has spattered blood over Wordsworth’s gilded vista, has brought it back to mind with some force…

…as has the release of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a horror-comedy that channels a Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner scenario through The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby, Black Skin/White Masks and Macauley’s Minute. I also witnessed – again – what I call a Cameron Thayer moment, after a character in Paul Haggis’ Crash: an instance when a person of colour was reminded that, while identifications may be multiple, perception can still be determined by a single aspect of the totality. However s/he behaves, Fanon’s colonised wo/man remains visibly – and, therefore, primarily – black to others.

In less than a minute, three bystanders and their killer perished, followed a few days later by one of the hospitalised. It’s hard not feel somewhat connected: the victim killed on her way to collect her children was an administrator in the Westminster college where a friend’s husband teaches. Another of the dead lived in the same area as me. I know people who work in the hospital to which many of the injured were taken, and the bridge is walking distance from several of the places in which I work. So far, so proximate. More unnerving is my place – our places – in the bigger picture.

One of the most frequent questions posed since 22nd March has been “Who or what turned Adrian Elms into Khalid Masood?” It’s a question relevant to our profession, as teachers are statutorily obliged to protect students from extremist ideologies, and to do so with an urgency not deemed necessary in the 70s and 80s, when far-right groups sought to recruit schoolchildren. The dissemination of British values is now a matter on which educators can be held accountable, and rare is the school website that does not advertise its commitment to the above. But it’s a big ask, and one that we can ill-afford to leave to teachers alone.

Thanks to the convictions he’d amassed before embarking on his murderous drive, plenty of column inches have been spent on constructing Khalid Masood’s etiological narrative. Much of this, by focusing on his time in prison and in Saudi Arabia, is comfortably discomfiting: the villains are brown men with unruly beards who, between them, create another villain from an already unstable man. And therein lies the problem. For, by concentrating on these episodes alone, we risk mistaking the moment of Masood’s recruitment for that of his radicalisation. The latter will, almost certainly, have started much earlier, and be a collection of many moments that, together, rendered him vulnerable to malign influences disguising themselves as empowerment.

We now know that, at various times, Elms had been one of a tiny number of black (or, in his case, mixed) individuals in an otherwise white environment: at school in Kent where, three to four decades ago, he was the only black pupil; in the Sussex village where he shared a home with the mother of his two oldest children. According to several reports, an altercation that ended with Elms slashing a publican’s face bore “racial overtones”. Some also state that Elms himself had, previously, been knifed in the face following a racially-charged dispute in another pub – the point at which he began carrying blades as a matter of habit.

The story of Elms’ metamorphosis into Masood speaks of a man quick to perceive racial slights and rejections. The racism he may have experienced does not excuse him: few are the people who turn from victims into homicidal perpetrators. However, as Judge Charles Kemp observed when sentencing Masood afterthe Northiam knife attack, it is a significant part of the explanation. Claims that “we’ll never know” how he evolved into the man behind the wheel must, therefore, be critiqued according to whether they are offered in recognition of the complexities at work, or with disingenuous intent to protect white societies from scrutiny.

According to Ofsted, the “fundamental British values” it is our job to instil are “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect for, and tolerance of, those with different faiths and beliefs, and for those without faith”. On all of these counts, Elms/Masood ended up un-Britishly wanting – by reactive choice, it would seem. Many of these values are common to several nationalities if, indeed, they need to be nationalised at all. Their characterisation as a means of in/exclusion risks creating a potentially corrosive them-and-us dynamic.

Because the truth is that assimilating said values does not guarantee that many British children won’t feel excluded from that category by other forces. Some may well be inside the home; others, without. The latter might include a history curriculum that, prioritising “our island story”, also attempted to whitewash the black from the Union Jack. Our pupils are connected far and wide, in acknowledgement of which we can choose to hashtag our tweets ‘Pray for Kano’ or ‘Pray for Peshawar’ as readily as we do ‘Pray for Paris/Brussels/Berlin’, when suicide bombers target black market-goers or gunmen slaughter brown schoolchildren. We can choose to tint our Instagram uploads with combinations other than red-white-blue or red-black-yellow..

Inclusion and its obverse require uncomfortable degrees of self-examination, and acknowledgement of the power asymmetries from which we, possibly, benefit. Liberals who believe them/ourselves to be without prejudice are not necessarily anti-racists; indeed, as Peele reminds us, educated folks wearing tolerance like sandwich-boards can, sometimes, be among the worst offenders. Addressing this is never more vital than when doing so remains as inconsequential for some as it can be life-determining for others.

It’s not enough to enjoy a curry, to listen to the blues, or to watch SNL skits sending up Trump. Or, indeed, to laugh at the Smug Family Armitage clod-hopping sinisterly through Get Out. Not if the only ‘others’ with whom we interact are on the far side of a counter or in service uniforms. Not if we squint in pre-emptive incomprehension when some people open their mouths, and then find that, by focusing so intently on how well they speak English, we’ve failed to register anything they’ve uttered. Not if, even with benign intent, we assume or attribute expertise – sport, dance or cooking – of our unimaginative, blinkered choosing.

And certainly not when we dismiss or pathologise awareness of the aforementioned as over-sensitivity. If people of colour carry as many chips on their shoulders as some would have us believe, we can only conclude that they must like potatoes as much as the Irish do.

Us and us only.


Back To The Tutor

Back in the days of dodgy dossiers and covert arms possession, I found myself seated near a cabinet minister at the theatre. With an official inquiry underway, and jobs – including his – on the line, most of the audience averted its eyes while hissing “It’s him!”. Against the susurration of whispering grass, R+J, The Splinter Group’s reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, rang true and clear: four schoolboys deploy their own secret weaponry, acting out Shakespeare’s play in their dormitory after discovering a copy concealed beneath the floorboards. The production opens with the pupils conjugating amare in the rote fashion demanded by their strict school. However, it’s through their private, unfettered immersion in the contraband text that the four leads learn what it is to love.

I was reminded of this a few years later when a parent, whose children I was tutoring, described me as the family’s “contraband secret”. How we laughed, as I surreptitiously checked for loose planks underfoot. Despite* being an erstwhile school governor, he had a keen sense of which way the policy winds were blowing, as well as a nose for distant pongs that could put Jo Malone out of business (*delete or not, depending on experience). With education becoming increasingly reductive in scope, he was convinced that more and more parents would seek out independent sources of ‘real’ learning. Walking home the other day, I was reminded of his witchy prescience by the number of tuition centres lining my route, some of which I’m not sure were there when I set out that morning.

Decked in the obligatory primary colours and not-at-all sinister pictures of smiling students, places offering supplementary education are proliferating like Fibonacci’s rabbits. Like the estate agencies whose names they often approximate, with their Primes, Premiers and Rights, they’re to be found in multiples on many a high street. And, like estate agencies, they all seem to be doing pretty well. No surprise, really, given that literacy and numeracy are fundamentals rather than decorative add-ons. It’s all ‘high-stakes’ these days, don’t you know; and, with everyone persuaded of the ills that befall those with less than top grades, additional help has become the sine qua non of getting ahead.

For long the commonplace of the privately educated, tutors have become even more necessary to the same, now that institutions previously accustomed to admitting students on a nepotistic nod and wink enforce more meritocratic entrance criteria (oligarchs excepted). However, it’s the demand for tutors among parents of far more modest means that is, perhaps, the most striking development – a tacit demonstration that, when schools replace departing staff with the cheapest option available, the lacunae of expertise that inevitably appear can only be addressed qualitatively and not, as the DfE’s numerically-obsessed refuseniks would have us believe, by quantity. Moreteachersthaneverbefore is no substitute for qualified, experienced staff who know their subjects inside out.

Assuming, of course, that leavers are replaced at all. With some schools simply distributing schexiteers’ timetables between remainers, the concomitant growth in class sizes swallows up those in need of personalised attention, however differentiated the lesson content may be. So, whether offering a cut-price service at the kitchen table, boasting a website like that of a modelling agency or insisting, as some do, that only high-net-worth parents need apply, the promise of teaching that focuses on the individual virtually ensures some custom to all manners of tutor.

Not only is the change evident in demand; it’s also apparent in status. Once was the time that engaging a tutor was tantamount to insulting the teacher. Now, it’s a reason for staff to exhale in relief and/or send detailed notes about what the tutor should cover. In my experience, this often amounts to requests that substantial parts of the curriculum be delivered – for the first time or, even, solely – by the one-hour-a-week private operator. Resisting the urge to remind them that they can dictate to me when they pay me, I understand the temptation that some teachers in schools must experience, to offload onto a tutor – particularly when the losses they stand to incur, should they fail to make the grades, are as as onerous as those borne by their students. For, whatever is stated on paper, many members of staff are now employed on de facto temporary contracts, to be renewed only on clearance of every hoopla and hurdle.

Never mind that they may have been directed to teach far beyond their specialisms; or that the CPD they were promised, to bring their subject knowledge up to scratch, has yet to materialise; or, indeed, that they may not have any qualifications beyond GCSE in subjects for which they are now held responsible. The post-factual fact in our ‘no excuses’ schools is that not knowing is no excuse for not doing, if not overdoing. Or something. Given that many of the old farts now working independently – former occupants of the upper pay scales who were shown the exit door – really do know their alliums, the temptation to pass off their ease with exam syllabi as one’s own must be huge, when jobs and pay rises hinge on results.

Percentages of students achieving 5 good GCSEs fall markedly in some schools when English and Maths are included. How much more would they do so if it were possible to discount the impact of tutors? As long as schools tacitly anticipate that parents will engage private teachers to make up the shortfalls created by questionable staffing practices, the latter will persist. In fact, they may even become official policy. Reform, a respected and non-partisan think tank, has recently suggested that graduate teachers are over-qualified to no good purpose, and that less educated apprentices would make for a more cost-effective “labour force”. Indeed, Reform goes further, mooting the possibility that the staffing crises currently faced by many schools are a consequence of arsey degree holders taking umbrage at poor conditions, rather than of the conditions themselves.

Thus, having established that it all comes down to arrogant pique, the problem is solved. No need to tackle the dissatisfactions that are leading Those Who Can to abandon this most indispensable of occupations, upon which so many others depend. No need to address what an educational researcher has termed “the proletarianisation of the teaching profession”. Just draft in staff who, with rectums free of their own heads and fewer prospects at their disposal, are unlikely to complain. Better still, hitch your cart to Lord Nash’s caravan of guff, and repeat after he: teachers do not need to be creative; they need to “embrace standardisation”. Or, as it is otherwise known, behave like the mindless factota he clearly thinks they are, delivering stuff created elsewhere.

So, back to the tutor. Whether problem or solution, you can be pretty sure that s/he’ll be Coming To A Cellar Near You.