Category Archives: schools

Another place with “too much history”

Yesterday to Durham and The Big Meeting (133rd iteration).

The Lady in my Life and myself are there, dead in front of the microphones, and about four rows back. The last time I went was mid-1960s, and the main speaker was Harold Wilson. There were still coal-mines working then. Durham’s very last was Monkwearmouth, where the last shift was worked on 10th December 1993. The site, today, is the Stadium of Light, Sunderland’s home ground.

In 1937 George Orwell was factually stating the importance of coal:

Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war breaks out it is needed all the more. In time of revolution the miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as reaction needs coal. Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking and shovelling have got to continue without a pause, or at any rate without pausing for more than a few weeks at the most. In order that Hitler may march the goose-step, that the Pope may denounce Bolshevism, that the cricket crowds may assemble at Lords, that the poets may scratch one another’s backs, coal has got to be forthcoming. But on the whole we are not aware of it; we all know that we ‘must have coal’, but we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves. Here am I sitting writing in front of my comfortable coal fire. It is April but I still need a fire. Once a fortnight the coal cart drives up to the door and men in leather jerkins carry the coal indoors in stout sacks smelling of tar and shoot it clanking into the coal-hole under the stairs. It is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental-effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines. It is just ‘coal’ — something that I have got to have; black stuff that arrives mysteriously from nowhere in particular, like manna except that you have to pay for it. You could quite easily drive a car right across the north of England and never once remember that hundreds of feet below the road you are on the miners are hacking at the coal. Yet in a sense it is the miners who are driving your car forward. Their lamp-lit world down there is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower.

It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal.

Eighty years on, 21st April 2017, Britain went a day without coal, while the lights stayed on.

There have been no active coal-mines, and no coal-miners in the County Palatine this quarter-century. But the Durham Miners’ Gala, the Big Meetin’, goes on, and this year was bigger and brassier than ever.

Durham has too much history for its own good. That’s an expression I have seen applied to Ireland, to the island of Cyprus and to Naples in recent times. It has degrees of truth in every case. In Durham, though, the history is close enough to touch:

… the miners who died in the many pit disasters of the Durham coalfields.

They number thousands, including 164 at Seaham in 1880 and 168 at Stanley in 1909, and are commemorated by a memorial in Durham Cathedral, a spectacular Romanesque landmark that this autumn celebrates the 25th anniversary of its designation as a Unesco World Heritage Site, along with the rest of the historic city. Next to the memorial to the victims of pit disasters is a book of remembrance that the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, was at pains to point out to me. “Here’s one 15 years of age,” he said. “J E Scott. Died at Shotton [in 1953]. This is a really poignant place.”

The Dean talked of “the big meeting”, the annual miners’ gala in July when the former mining communities pour through the city behind their colliery banners and wind their way up to the cathedral for the miners’ service. “It’s a kind of echo of the Middle Ages when people would flock into this place and believe they were part of something bigger than they were,” said the Dean.

Any rail journey takes one past acres of rough scrub that not too long ago were coal-tips. Railway yards and sidings stretch far, far further than any conceivable modern need. Few villages lack what once was (and may still be marked as) the Miners’ Welfare hall. In the streets and pubs one brushes past ageing faces and limbs, marked with the blue of coal-dust tattooed under the skin.

Scott and Scot

Yesterday, then, to Durham’s Racecourse. The site stretches past the Wear river-bank, and to its other side the massive ridge (as above):

Well yet I love thy mix’d and massive piles,
Half church of God, half castle ’gainst the Scot …

For sixty-odd years that tag has come to my mind, and mouth, every time I have seen an image or the reality of Durham’s great, looming cathedral. I somehow knew it was Walter Scott. That may be because anything so romantic had to derive from the same source that gave us swash-and-buckle, the Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood and even Tony Curtis’s fictional “Yonda lies the castle of my fodder“. Precisely locating the reference isn’t quite that easy. To save others the sweat, it is found in Canto Third of Harold the Dauntless of 1817.

For contemporary tastes, Scott’s romantic world contains too much “hied me home” or

Wrinkled his brows grew, and hoary his hair

That’s unfair in this case, because the 1817 poem is prefaced by a more-cynical Scott. He deplores O tempora! O mores, as Cicero did Against Catiline: —

Ennui! — or, as our mothers call’d thee, Spleen!
To thee we owe full many a rare device;
Thine is the sheaf of painted cards, I ween,
The rolling billiard-ball, the rattling dice,
The turning-lathe for framing gimcrack nice;
The amateur’s blotch’d pallet thou mayst claim,
Retort, and air-pump, threatening frogs and mice,
(Murders disguised by philosophic name,)
And much of trifling grave, and much of buxom game.

At the moment, the imposing central tower of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham has scaffolding all round, and wears a square white cook’s bonnet.

The proceedings

When we finally came to the speechifying, even that have to be after a brass-band rendering of “The Miner’s Hymn”, Gresford:

The story behind that is told here:

Written by a former miner, Robert Saint, to commemorate the Gresford pit disaster in 1934 it has been played at mining events ever since; most notably at the famous Durham Miners’ Gala.

What is too easily forgotten is that, in the days of working pits, the attendees at the Gala would have held silence to that every year and recalled the death-toll.

My first teaching job was in a boys’ grammar school in the County Durham. Male teachers in an all-male (with one brave exception) staff-room constitute a cynical lot. So, morning break, 21st October 1966, was eerily quiet. The news was coming through of the Aberfan disaster and the immolation of Pantglas Primary school. By no coincidence, Alan Plater’s Close the Coalhouse Door (originally intended as a BBC radio play) went on stage in April 1968:

A few years back I was at the packed Richmond Theatre for Sam West’s revival (lightly trimmed by Lee Hall). The same evocative, eye-pricking power was there. All the way from Thomas Hepburn and Peter Lee.

It’s the same tradition as Abide With Me before the Cup Final. It’s very much the mood of “those no longer with us”. But for industrial workers, especially in the heaviest industries, it’s also “those taken from us because of managerial mistakes and incompetence”.

This year the Miner’s Hymn had added plangency:

Not just an Elf

There is a message here; and it’s the box that most of the speakers at the Big Meeting ticked.

Disasters like Gresford in 1934, Aberfan in 1966 and the Grenfell Tower this year are “accidents-waiting-to-happen”. They derive from decisions taken, or studiously ignored, by bureaucratic processes beyond the control of us ordinary folk. What we have to protect us, to some extent, are Health and Safety Regulations. That is, of course, if they are policed and enforced.

Even then there are arrogant twazzles who mock them:

“We could, if we wanted, accept emissions standards from India, America, and Europe. There’d be no contradiction with that,” Mr Rees-Mogg said.

“We could say, if it’s good enough in India, it’s good enough for here. There’s nothing to stop that.

“We could take it a very long way. American emission standards are fine – probably in some cases higher. 

“I accept that we’re not going to allow dangerous toys to come in from China, we don’t want to see those kind of risks. But there’s a very long way you can go.”

The MP’s comments came in the context of a discussion about trade deals with other countries following Brexit.

Said twazzle now fancies himself to chair the highly-important Treasury select committee, and stamp Asian labour practices, and US water standards on post-Brexit Britain.

Too much history? Or not enough yet?

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How to molest children, 1955 style

One way to spend a pointless morning is to scan and send to Scribd this:


Just a sample:

Simplex (dragged) 1

More to the point, just when you might begin to believe we are now more child-friendly, more enlightened, the Department for Education re-invent grammar. It’s the SPaG test, folks.

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Educational Siphonaptera

A long while back I began a blog-post thus:

How Jonathan Swift well understood right-wing bloggers.

The vermin only teaze and pinch
Their foes superior by an inch.
So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ’em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.

Somehow, some when, that was contracted down to:

Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.

In truth, the slim-line version was courtesy of Augustus de Morgan, the twice-coined professor of mathematics at the newly-minted London University: a great man who was ineligible for Oxbridge tenure because of his atheism — though he went the same way as Willie Yeats, seduced into spiritualism by the love for a good woman. Correction there: since the Yeatsian seduction was via that Surrey minx, Edith Maud Gonne, and de Morgan married Sophia Frend, that should read “the love for a better woman”

Critics may observe I entitled that post “Syphonaptera”. Homer nodded. However, it allows me to use the correct spelling above. And I cannot bring myself to forgo the dig at WB Yeats.

Today the Department for Education has “updated” (a late twentieth-century expressed in British English — so much more efficient and concise than “brought up-to-date” or “modified” or “changed” ) an important document:


Work-load is going to be reduced — wait for it! it’s a good’un! — by setting up three review groups, to consider the “workload challenge”. As a further result there will be:

  • tracking teacher workload by running a large-scale survey every 2 years – in February 2016, we invited a representative sample of schools to take part in the first survey, which will run from 29 February 2016

So, dear Ms Bloggs, we know you’re already frazzled by the burdens our bureaucracy imposes on you, but we ask you to postpone any relaxation while we go through a check-list with you. Will 4 p.m. on Friday do?

It all reminds me that I once complained at a senior staff meeting of the proliferation of hateful meetings. All seemed to require an extended Powerpoint presentation (much more trendy and ego-inflating than circulating a memo), breaking up into groups to discuss it, and then reassembling for a “plenary”.

The result was:

  • a meeting to discuss whether we were having too many meetings;
  • a further meeting to schedule further meetings …

I guess my early retirement intervened around then, so the process may yet be replicating itself.

Here’s a question for Mrs Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, one of her six under-strapper ministers, her three SpAds, or her fourteen “board members”, her 45 “communications staff” (i.e. PR types) and 3840 other staff:

How many review groups are needed to change a light-bulb?

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Filed under Conservative family values, education, human waste, politics, schools, Tories.

The brick of aspiration

Saw this (H/T Twitter) , and had a memory:



The school was having an extension built.

The reinforced glazing (yes: it was that sort of area) [❉]  had been installed, but there were still loose bricks about the site.

One evening a passing youth wanted to show his enthusiasm for state-financed education. He took a sand-faced fletton, as thus —


and chucked it at one of the windows.

Sadly, the youth must have missed the class on “angle of incidence” equals “angle of reflection”.


Our hero was straight-on to his target.

The window promptly pinged the fletton straight back.

It laid him out.

The real laugh was when the youth’s aggrieved mother tried to sue.

I can’t help wondering if that’s not a parable for the whole “Free School” business.


[❉] This is a well-constructed narrative. And here we see an example of “fore-shadowing”.

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Filed under blogging, Conservative Party policy., education, human waste, schools, social class

Real auld acquaintance

Look what I’ve just found!

Simplex, cover

All the way from 1955. Still usable. Batteries not required.

Pity I don’t remember much of it.

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Filed under education, schools

Streaming and setting

Now that I am retired, I can wryly wince when this old perennial pops up again.

I don’t intend to prescribe or dictate: I’m passed all that. I do know that setting has no overall advantages in many academic disciplines. I was prepared to ignore what went on in the Maths department. It just didn’t work for mine.

New Yorker

The current issue of the New Yorker, no less.

Sheeping and goating

Here we are, then. The two right-wing parties are hell bent on being more and more selective.

UKIP “official” policy has been torn up, but, at the last count went like this:

The United Kingdom Independence Party advocates the retention of all existing grammar schools and encourages the creation of new grammar schools and specialist schools, which would be called ‘professional schools’. UKIP states that they would not return to a pass/fail 11-plus test but introduce a ‘Comprehensive Test’ to assess merit across a wide range of academic and non-academic abilities including vocational skills, crafts and sport.

Sorry, Kippers, if that ‘Comprehensive Test’ determines whether the student is admitted into the prestige group or not, that’s a pass/fail test. Nor will you convince us that there won’t be a prestige in-group, and a demeaned out-group, because that’s not the way parents see it, and it’s therefore not how our society works.

Note, too, the strange term ‘professional schools’. Does that mean:

  • they are the preparation for the ‘professions’, and all the out-group are doomed to wood-hewing and water-drawing (jobs in steep decline these recent centuries)?


  • any other schools would be staffed by ‘non-professionals’?


When we get to the ‘official’ Tory Party, there is still a clear division.

  • The Cameroons want the grammar school debate to go away. The water has been well-muddied by the Govean “Free Schools” and “Academies” — which, by all accounts are intended to germinate into something selective, if only because, when that difference can be monetarized, the sponsors can reclaim  their investments. And Free Enterprise rules, OK.
  • When we drill into the grassroots of the Tories, the enthusiasm for ‘bringing back the grammars’ is a general ailment.

Even weirder?

All of which brings us to the protean Nicky Morgan, the pale understudy for the late, unlamented, departed Gove. Here we have to read between the lines, at least the lines of yesterday’s Guardian report:

Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, has slapped down suggestions she is on the verge of endorsing compulsory setting in secondary schools based on ability, as the special adviser to the former education secretary Michael Gove said No 10 wanted to announce the policy as a Conservative manifesto commitment.

David Cameron has long been a personal supporter of setting, a means by which children are put in classes for specific subjects based on ability. The prime minister believes it will be popular with parents and help bright children excel.

Gove’s former special adviser Dominic Cummings said he had been told Cameron wanted to back compulsory setting.

But Morgan told MPs “there is absolutely no truth in these rumours” after the Guardian reported she was due to make an announcement, prompting an outpouring of criticism from teaching unions, Labour, the Lib Dems and some thinktanks. She said people should spend less time on Twitter or talking to journalists.

It was suggested she wanted the proposal enforced by the inspectorate Ofsted, so schools that did not bring in setting would not be given the status of outstanding.

If we were marking that checklist, it seems to look like this:

Cameron   ✔︎

Cummings ✘ (but apparently because a DfE diktat would run counter to the longstanding Conservative commitment to enshrine the independence of academies)

Morgan      ✘ (now) but may have been semi-✔︎ previously

Gove           ✔︎ [“We believe that setting by ability is the only solution” etc.]

Wilshaw of Ofsted ✔︎

To the conspiracy theorist, this whole she-bang only makes real sense if Cummings leaked the notion of compulsory setting to the Guardian, to head off a gross policy mistake. If Morgan has been sequentially sat upon by Cameron, then by press reaction, she is indeed the political arse defined by e.e.cummings (no relation, I suppose).

So, here are some inescapables:

  • Heaven knows there are enough social divisions in English schooling already.
  • Creating new grammar schools, or having rigid streaming inside whatever system you devise, means even more social divisions than now.
  • In such divisive segregation there are inevitably more losers than winners. The old grammar/secondary modern segregation creamed off the 20% notionally “more able”. This greatly pleased the parents of the privileged few, but severely annoyed everyone else. This is not good mid-term politics.
  • All this was explained when, in Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh sent Paul Pennyfeather to the educational agency:
  • “We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly,” said Mr Levy, “School is pretty bad…”
  • So far every “good school”, by the simple rules of comparison, there has to be a “less-good school”. Accost any secondary-school student, and ask him or her to rank all the local schools. You will discover she/he knows the scores on the doors and his/her place in them.
  • Setting may work in some situations. It does, however, mean a “bottom set”. Oh, the joys of Eleven Gorilla, last double on a Friday afternoon! I bear the stripes to this day.

We can, then neatly sum up the two right-wing parties’ education policies:

  • UKIP want more sink schools;
  • Some Tories may want more sink schools, but some of them are insistent on more sink classes.

The only good news here is that, come next May, we should be rid of both flavours



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Filed under David Cameron, education, Guardian, Michael Gove, New Yorker, schools, social class, Tories., UKIP

The homosexual flag came out of the closet…

Ever since Oxford and Cambridge Joint Board GCE English Language A made us explain “what is wrong in the following sentences?”,  I’m a fan of weird misplaced modifiers.

  • There’s a man at the door with a wooden leg called Phil. [What’s his other leg called?]
  • The antique dealer put her large chest at the front of the shop.
  • The statue’s erection completed the town’s square. [Those two guaranteed to raise a laugh in any classroom.]

Not to mention the “half-Shropshire chicken” on a local pub’s lunch menu. [What’s the other half of its ancestry?]

An all-time favourite, from an actual examination script:

  • Henry VIII wanted a divorce because his wife wouldn’t give him a son. So he asked the Pope, who wouldn’t give him one either.

But this one had me totally pole-axed, for more reasons than one:

Gay flag

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Filed under Irish Times,, prejudice, schools