Category Archives: education

Angry protestors attack Royal Coach… dateline 1795…

There have been a lot of historionics recently about the student protests, and in particular about the incident in which the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall were caught up in ‘the mob’ in Regent Street. This interesting article in the Guardian got me thinking, as well as this one on the BBC website.

One correspondent in my local newspaper even suggested that the protestors who harrangued the royal couple’s car were committing a treasonable act. Please… I thought we’d dispensed with the divine rights of Kings when we cut off Charles I’s head. Assault? possibly. Treason? no chance.

In fact, I would quite like to know what Charlie boy thinks, as the father of an ex-student, and another son who did so badly at A-Level he could never have got into Uni (even though he did make an officer in the Household Cavalry, but that is another class-based story for another day). Charles himself managed to get to Cambridge with very dubious A-Levels results, and hardly distinguished himself when he was there, so it would be interesting to know what his thoughts are – he’s got something to say about everything else that seems to happen in society.

Even well-thought-of national figures are by no means immune to protests. The Duke of Wellington, who ‘in retirement’ turned to politics, was more than once the target of the mob, including when the windows of his Apsley House residence were smashed by angry protestors while he was Prime Minister. It didn’t mean that they were ‘desecrating’ the Duke – many of the same protestors no doubt revelled in his victories and were tearful at his death – they were just mightily pissed off at that moment in time.

And for all the hysteria about students urinating on statues of Winston Churchill, it was the same kind of conservative Government that brought in the national curriculum years ago, which pretty much erased meaningful british history from education. No wonder people of my generation know so little about Churchill and the World Wars, they’ve not been allowed to learn about it. And… on a more biological level, if the Police cordon people off for hours at a time with no toilets, then maybe they might just go against anything that they can? Just a thought.

I’ve even read the usual opinions that we should ‘bring back national service’ to teach the wayward students a lesson in discipline. National Service was never about discipline, it was viewed as a necessary evil to plug a chronic manpower shortage while Britain slowly withdrew from its imperial commitments after the Second World War. It was unpopular, with the Government, with the armed forces, and with society. All it seems to have taught was how to drink and how to smoke, and a conscript military does not equal a professional military, which the modern age calls for. Britain has never really ‘done’ conscription, and an overblown moral panic is no reason to start now.


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The student protest: a historical perspective

I’ve found it quite amusing watching and reading some of the historyonics regarding Wednesdays student protests in London. Witness the howls in the blue-rinse broadsheets, and one newspaper even launching a name-and-shame the students campaign. At the risk of marking myself out as Brother Daly, or Red Jim, these are my thoughts.

Lets get this in perspective. Out of 50,000 students, about a hundred kicked off. And even then, I doubt many of them were actually students, more like rent-a-mob. Look at the film of the incident at Tory Party HQ – more photographers than protesters and police put together. Funny that, isn’t it? An angry mob always makes for good pictures and definitely sells papers.

A few windows got kicked in, the reception got trashed. We’re talking tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage – nothing to somebody like Lord Ashcroft. The damage being wreaked to this country – higher education, education in general, the nhs, the armed forces, welfare – goes way way beyond any sum of money. We’re talking about society, and peoples lives here. The problem is, the Tory party love to claim the moral high ground when it comes to angry mobs of erks rampaging. But if they weren’t hell-bent on wrecking British society from every direction, there would be nothing to protest about in the first place.

The problem is, nowadays protest-inspired damage is pretty alien to us. Yet hundreds of years ago – particularly in class-fraught periods such as the Nineteenth Centuryworking class people would routinely protest if they felt wronged. In the early Nineteenth Century the Luddites protested against the introduction of machinery by smashing it up. By and large, protests were against the wage labour system, and the class control system in particular. Property has always been one of the most visible symbols of class – think in terms of the haves and the have nots – so damaging property has always been a primal way of normal people making their feelings obvious.

Its funny also how the establishment is more concerned about damage to property than to people. This is almost a medieval, victorian attitude – one peasant can murder another peasant and nobody cares, but if a peasant steals a loaf of bread from a rich persons kitchen, then there’s hell to pay. So as well as working class people feeling a need to protest by damaging the property of the middle and upper classes, those classes in turn are ultra-sensitive about their class-symbolism being challenged. The fear of ‘the mob’ after the French revolution was electrifying.

So essentially, what we have seen this week is a return to early Nineteenth Century society – an embattled working class, and a middle class attempting to exert its control. Its all very well complaining about people protesting and getting angry, but think about WHY they are protesting, and WHY they are angry. If you try and shaft people, limit their options in life, restrict their social mobility and condemm them to a life of debt, you shouldn’t be surprised if they’re not too happy about it.

Forget taking us back to the 1980’s, this Government is taking us back to the 1800’s. ‘Tory scum’ is an ancient cry in British class struggle; right back to the Duke of Wellington and the Corn Laws. And as much as I admire the Iron Duke as the greatest British field commander in history, do we really want to go back to that archaic age?


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Education and Military History

I’ve always been mystified about the near total exclusion of military history from history teaching in schools. I’ve never managed to work out exactly where it comes from, but my guess is that somewhere along the lines a liberal assumption took hold that teaching young people about wars and fighting would encourage them to fight each other. Bizarre, in the least. But so it remained for some time. And especially while I was at school – we only learnt about wars though abstract means – in medicine through time, for example, we learnt how wars speed-up medical advances. Even then, the emphasis was on ‘progress’.

But I have noticed something of a shift in recent years. Perhaps it is the passing of the last WW1 veterans, and the ever-decreasing number of WW2 veterans, that has brought home to society that when participants pass on, memory becomes history. I also suspect that the high profile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have changed how people think about the armed forces and war.

There have been great changes in Education too. Its no longer enough to simply visit a museum and herd kids round. Many museums offer more focused workshop sessions. HMS Belfast even lets school groups sleep onboard overnight for the ‘at sea’ experience. Its important to constantly look for new and interesting ways of engaging young people. I spent some time working with groups of young people in an informal setting, and I really think that approach works for military history. No ‘this is what you will learn, blah blah…’ – it has to be enjoyable and interesting, and relevant to the people you are trying to teach. If you enjoy yourself, you are more receptive, whereas if you feel you are being lectured against your will, you subconsciously put up barriers. I’ve always thought that history should be taught out and about, and using objects, clothes, and other ‘hooks’.

One of the best education projects I have come across is the Discovering D-Day Project. OK, I might be a bit biased, as I work for the Service that runs the D-Day Museum. But I have been so impressed with some of the work that the project has brought out. The project involves tailored study days at the D-Day Museum for schools and youth groups, an opportunity to meet WW2 veterans, handling WW2 related objects, and using mobile phone technology to take photographs. The sessions can be based on History, Maths or English, for example. All of the evidence suggests that it has been a major success. It’s helped the Museum attract a completely new age range – in particular teenagers.

Take a look at some of these quotes:

‘I enjoyed today because it was fun and enjoyable to see these things instead of having to read from the books that are provided in schools. You get to see from the veterans’ side what it was like. Amazing trip!’ – Year 10 pupil

‘[The students]… enjoyed talking to the veterans so much they chose to talk to them through lunch!’ – Key Stage 4 Teacher

‘Pupils who have participated in the project have articulated its success with insight, commenting on how they had been inspired to work harder, to reach targets and to see themselves as independent learners preparing for a world beyond school.’ – Claire Austin-Macrae Regional Adviser (Functional Skills)

I cannot help but be impressed by the group of young people who wanted to skip lunch so they could keep talking to the veterans. And not only do the sessions seem to have been fun, but there have been some major improvements in grades, in particular with young people who were previously underachieving. I can remember watching a veteran give a reading of a Poem written by a School pupil, from the perspective of a soldier landing on D-Day. Very moving, and exactly the kind of thing education and military should be about.

And its not just school groups either – some of the youth groups who have taken part have produced some artwork that I would be perfectly happy to use as publicity images or book covers.

Just one example of how to ‘do’ military history with young people.


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British History to make a comeback in Schools?

The Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the English/N...

Image via Wikipedia


The Education Secretary has announced that British History will make a comeback in the ‘heart of the national curriculum‘, in a back to basics move.

I have to say I broadly approve. Whilst I would not want to go back to the bad old days of names and dates of kings and queens, it seems absurd that children learn hardly anything about British history, but lots about politically correct history from the four corners of the globe. For instance, at GCSE I did about Cowboys and Indians – whats the point of that? For some reason, someone somewhere had the bare-brained idea that if we teach children about British history, they will turn out to be BNP supporters, and if we teach them about wars, then they will want to blow each others brains out. Actually, when it comes to military history, I think the opposite is true. But in general, history teaching in schools is mind numbing. I feel sorry for teachers who want to show some latitude but can’t, thanks to the curriculum.

As Al Murray said, British children seem to think that Nelson is the character with the funny laugh in the Simpsons. A sad indictment indeed. Basic elements of our history should be a given for everyone, and we should be encouraged to look back with pride on things that are worth feeling proud about. If we understand where we came from, and the world around us, we find it easier to place ourselves in it and be sure of who we are. It puts us in context. We do that by starting with our local area and our country, not the social history of the Umboto tribe of the Limpopo valley.

On a related matter, it appears that the renowned Historian Simon Schama has been asked to advise the Government on history teaching. This is a very positive step, to have a history academic advising rather than some shadowy policy advisor. Schama’s background is in Dutch Art and French Social History during the revolution, but he did also of course present the succesful History of Britain series on the BBC. Not always easy to watch, and a bit ‘top-down’, but hey its a step in the right direction.

On a more light-hearted note, the BBC News Magazine has posted a 7 question quiz on British History… I’m ashamed to say I only scored three!


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History, Teaching and Britishness

I’ve just seen an interesting article on the BBC website about the debate raging in Education circles about proposed changes to the History syllabus. Having come through the full gambit of history teaching in the Britain over the past 23 or so years, I’ve got some interesting experiences to pass on.

On the whole, my experience of History teaching in schools has been pretty uninspiring. My abiding memory is of working on a particular time period or civilization – the ancient Egyptians, The Tudors, the Victorians, etc – and doing it to death for a few months. You got the feeling the teachers were doing it by rote, because its what they were told to do. Most of the worksheets were so heavily photocopied you could tell that they had been used for the past 10 years! Even as a young person in school, i enjoyed history, but what we learnt in school bored me to death. Its hard to see exactly what the point was.

I guess the problem is the national curriculum. Granted, there has to be some kind of structure involved in teaching, but I cannot help but feel that its so rigid that it leaves no space for lateral thinking from teachers. There is so much pressure in terms of getting children ready for exams and in terms of results that teachers don’t have much choice but to forcefeed children in classrooms. Theres simply very little time for an kind of innovative work, let alone taking groups out of the classroom.

I cannot help but be surprised that most people’s memories of history in school are of extreme boredom. I enjoy history, but I found it pretty boring too. How many dull and inspiring history lessons have turned people off learning about the past for life? Much like the word ‘Museum’ has a negative stigma, does ‘History’ carry the same kind of baggage?

So, History needs to be fun, it needs to be innovative, and it needs to be delivered in a young people friendly manner. But what of the subject matter itself? My parents generation will remember learning about 1066, and endless lists of Kings and Queens and the dates of their reigns. Its hard to see what exactly the point of this ‘great man’ school of history was, but an overwhelming emphasis on monarchs and grand political events suggests that it was meant to imbue children with a sense of national heritage, but also a ‘know your place’ sense of identity.

With the coming of the national curriculum things changed a bit. There was still a lot of focus on royalty and politics, but social history began to creep in. In some senses, there was almost a revisionist strand – in all my time in school we never studied wars directly, only in passing. I cannot help but feel that this was due to a naive liberal assumption that if we teach about wars then children will want to blow each others heads off – our experience shows that in fact, the opposite is true. For my GCSE History I studied Cowboys and Indians, Medicine through time, Portchester Castle and Apartheid, all of which seems to have been inspired by political correctness. The emphasis on methodology, learning lessons and cause and effect was refreshing, however.

So what do we want History to be? What is it for? Is it for imbuing children with identity, in the manner of citizenship, or as a social science? There have been calls to teach more British history, as young people know so little about World War Two for example – no doubt a result of the apparent embargo on military history. People should be able to grow up knowing where they come from, being able to understand their own heritage, and to be able to ask questions about life in general.

But kneejerk edicts from politicians about what exactly history lessons will involve are not the answer. How exactly do politicians expect teachers to transform history teaching when most schools can only afford it a few hours of lessons a week? Due to the obsession with English, Maths and Science all other subjects have become poor relations.

School history needs to tacke important issues in British history, it needs to be done in a way that is young people friendly, and teachers need to be given enough latitude to innovate, to use technology and to take children out and about – the classroom is the least suitable place to learn about the past.


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teachers union: ‘pupil voice being manipulated’

I was very interested to read this report on the BBC news website, and subsequently how it has been reported by various news channels and newspapers.

As Leader of Portsmouth Youth Council – back when I was actually young! – I spent a lot of time having to try and teach adults that the old ways of ‘do as I tell you, because I say so’ are no longer good enough. The world has changed. No longer is it right to expect young people to ‘respect your elders’. Respect should be earnt, not demanded based on age alone.

Unfortunately, I cannot escape the feeling that the teaching profession is having to be dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century when it comes to a more pupil-centric approach. Schools are NOT about teachers, teachers are NOT the most important thing about a school. Its like a hospital where no-one gives a damm about the patients, or a library where no-one is allowed to touch the books – what would be the point?

I cannot help but feel that opposition to the student voice programme is based more on fears that the age-old uberlord status of the teacher as an authority figure is changing, than any genuine concerns. If anyone goes into teaching because they like the thought of being some kind of unassailable lord of the classroom, I think they are in the wrong job. If you can’t work with young people constructively, then you shouldn’t be there. I’ve seen, with my own eyes, countless examples of how work that empowers and involves young people is the most rewarding.

If the reports given by the teaching union are true then it looks like teachers and pupils alike need to be given a lot more training in precisely how involving students in running schools can work. While its quite wrong for anyone to be asked to sing in an interview, thats not about the young people themselves, thats poor facilitation. Examples need to be made of good and bad practise, and more research needs to be produced, and guidance disseminated. Sadly, we in Britain are far behind most of the rest of the word in involving young people.

As for fears that pupils reporting on teachers performance might undermine teachers confidence, I almost can’t believe what I’m reading. If I was a teacher, I think I would want to know what pupils think of the way I was teaching. If I was struggling, I would want to know, and why Just because they are children, it does not lessen the importance of their views. In a lot of ways I would suggest that their views are more important than OFSTED.

Of course its always going to be difficult making such a massive culture change to any profession. But the problem is that for years Schools have stuck to an almost Victorian mode of teaching, where the adult is god, and the child is half a person. Such an approach might have been OK in 1867 (read the Parliamentary Reports into the condition of schools, that led to the Education Act in 1870), but in 2010, its just not good enough.

Maybe the problem is that many in the teaching profession are still expecting young people who have the internet and ipods to conform to Nineteenth Century principles?

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Mandelson: ‘more will miss out on degrees’

Regular readers will know that I invariably have a lot to say about Education policy, particulary regarding Universities. As someone who grew up and went through University in the first generation to be charged to study for a degree, I was very intrigued to read this report on the BBC News website.

Lord Mandelson – who has had the role of Universities Secretary added to his plethora of titles – has said that there will be more disappointed would-be students than usual this year, adding university had always been competitive. The answer is not to guarantee places for every university hopeful, he said. This is ever so slightly hypcrotical, as he was a member of the Labour Government that turned Higher Education into a business, and tried to force as many young people as possible into studying for degrees, regardless of whether they could afford it or even need it.

He even goes as far as to say that the traditional degree should no longer be a focus for future growth. Funnily enough, the Labour Government was responsible for making the degree such a fundamental part of education that there are more people with degrees than without, and plenty of people with meaningless degrees out of work while we have a shortage of skilled workers. Plenty of people with poor degrees in media studies of computer games science would have been better off doing an apprenticeship or some kind of vocational course.

Mandleson also had this to say: “It makes no sense either in terms of the cost to the public purse or the provision of quality teaching, which remains critical to the credibility of higher education. A large scale, untargeted further expansion of full-time three-year degrees without any real attention to what these additional students are studying, or how well it equips them for life at work”.

Well I’ve got news for Lord Mandelson – that is exactly the situation that his Government created, and has been ongoing for over 10 years now. Speaking as someone who entered University in 2002 and graduated in 2005, Higher Education is, quite frankly, in a mess. People are going to university because they can, because their mates do, because their parents want them to, or because of the misguided belief that it makes them ‘grow up’. Studying at University should not be a ‘walk-in’, you should have to earn the right to be there. The sheer numbers have diluted quality to the point where a degree is next to worthless.

Whilst I applaud the general idea of making University accesible for all regardless of their background – especially as someone who is the first graduate in my family – I think the Government went the wrong way about it. Higher Education was undoubtedly for the privileged few, but throwing the doors open to all and sundry was not the way to change things for the better. The sheer number of students forced the Government into introducing loans and fees, whereas Scotland has proven that Higher Education can be provided without charging the earth for it. And while Higher Education became a business, it never acquired any kind of customer focus – Universities still revolve around lecturers and research. Even though the students pay their wages.

Chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry Dr Richard Pike said: “No longer should the government be paying 18-year-olds to start courses on celebrity journalism, drama with waste management, or international football business management. These courses should be “kicked into touch”, especially at a time when the UK was desperately short of funding into areas like Alzheimer’s and renewable energy.” Wise words indeed.

What is needed is a complete rethink of Higher Education, in terms of how it fits in with society and industry. Lord Mandelson’s comments are the closest we will get to an admission that Labour’s Higher Education policy has failed. My worry is that an incoming Government full of Old Etonians will use a sledgehammer to crack this particular walnut.


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