Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Distant connection

I treat my emotion like an indulgence. It shames. Cauterised melodrama. Empathy makes me feel like a vampire.

Drinking deep of the blood of innocence.

Everything happens at once. Tragedy at thrice remove multiplied.

Yet nothing ever happens.

The damp sofa stays upturned on the estuary, waiting for a high tide.

The warmth of the evening bewitches me.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Sticky note



Watching you draw the future.
Reaching on tip-toes to place the bright square on the board
A patchwork quilt of childish optimism.
You have faith, not in God but in the everlasting world.
A science fiction where everything can be fixed.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Alice

The song is dead.
There is only texture.
Layer of grainy image, blurred and overlayed.

Colour is dead.
There is only black, white and grey.
Clouds, roads, buildings from yesterday

Meaning is dead.
There is only a liminal space
Only hovering on the edge of things.

The future is dead.
There is only a chaos
Nothing planned, nothing dreamt.

We live in a dream.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Crowds

Watching the closed circuit
Playing myself backwards
To try to trace my own steps
Is that me?
Am I there?
Am I looking suspicious?
Do I believe myself any more?
Walk forward, walk backward
Upstairs downstairs
Yes sir yes sir
Three bags full
I'm following myself again.
Losing myself in crowds
Following myself again
Switching cameras
Changing lanes
Losing myself in crowds

Monday, 15 May 2017

Creativity is not just fun.


I attended a rally the other day about education cuts. Other people have written about the impact of cuts on education. I'm not going to retread their steps aside from to say that a government who say they are driving up standards whilst creating a real terms 8% cut but respond to any questioning about that fact with a blunt piece of deceptive semantics about 'funding never being higher' aren't my choice to sail the good ship 'HMS I Believe the Children are our Future' across the stormy oceans of economic upheaval.

I'm sure I could summon up some pithy paragraphs along the lines of 'stability? - for whom!' or 'stability? - try being an autistic child who loses their teaching assistant and then see how strong you feel Ms May!' or 'stability - try being a parent who discovers their primary school is considering delivering a four and half day timetable and then wonder how on earth you are going to sort out the childcare for that?' but we've been there and and back and there are some excellent campaigns dedicated to the opposition to the cuts which cross traditional political boundaries.

One of the things I heard at the rally quite frequently was that cuts to art, drama and music provision alongside the loss of free writing and story time in the curriculum make school less 'fun' for the children. This I don't doubt and I'm not going to argue that school shouldn't be fun - of course it should. Anything worth spending any time on had to have a degree of fun in it otherwise it should be done by a robot. What I am going to suggest is a lack of 'fun' is far from the biggest problem in a creativity starved curriculum.

When we take away the creativity of children, we deny them the opportunity of learning some of the most important lessons they could possibly learn. We prevent them from exploring the world around them on their terms. We stymie their language development by denying them the opportunity to experiment with words in different roles. We prevent them from finding different ways to express themselves, reducing the chances of them becoming autonomous communicators.

What possible logic is their in this particular time and place for a curriculum which spends very little time on the power of the image or the construction of meaning through anything other than written language?

It's not just fun that's being lost here, it's an essential skill for life in the 21st century.

If we remove creativity from our curriculum, how are we supposing our young people will explore their emotions and learn to manage their feelings? Creative subjects are almost inevitably a prelude to discussion. Young people create something and the adults involve them in a discussion about the 'art' created - what is it, what does it mean? Why did they construct it thus? Inevitably that discussion creates some kind of sharing of views and experiences, some philosophising, some appreciation and interpretation, some listening from the adult and a sense of the child being in control and engaged in a conversation which runs deeper than 'right or wrong answer'

If our children aren't to have these experiences in school, how are they going to learn to communicate properly, to value their view, to justify and explain and discuss their thoughts and feelings?

Creativity can teach empathy, painting a picture of someone or something out of our own immediate experience, considering a role in a drama exercise, writing song lyrics or poetry about a character invites us to consider life in the shoes of another. This is an essential skill for all sorts of life choices, not least roles in management.

Imagination is required in all disciplines at their highest level. Even the 'hardest + coldest' subjects require imagination in order to advance. Innovation in these areas needs the sort of 'beyond the worksheet' spirit of enquiry and a degree of brave abstract thinking which is essentially creative. Music, Art, Drama and Science all share a sense of 'what if...' - It's just rather easier to ask the question with a few maracas and a glockenspiel than some hydrochloric acid when attempting to foster a spirit of enquiry in a small child.

Creativity in schools is essential if we want schools to be more than just attainment factories. There is for example, considerable evidence that learning a musical instrument can boost educational performance across seemingly unrelated disciplines. The broader evidence of the immediate impact of creative projects on broad outcomes is inconclusive.

I argue that we look beyond the immediate 'boost' to the deeper skills. We consider how (for example) skills learnt at 6 impact at 16. It seems fair to suggest that the construction of an art project of any form (the decisions, the choices, the self reflection and refinement involved, even at a young age in the construction of a song, a performance a picture or a poem) is a useful metaphor for challenges faced later in education.

Only in the arts are young people are faced with an abstract and indefinable notion of 'quality,' a situation where they need to judge the quality of their work on its intrinsic merit. Yes, of course a teacher will guide and shape work, but the arts teach us to be inventive and to trust our judgement, follow our thoughts, try different ways to 'skin the cat' in a way that a purely 'knowledge' based curriculum doesn't. It may seem a waste of time for schools to use drama if it doesn't boost SATs results, or dance if it doesn't immediately improve numeracy but when learners reach higher levels, if they have never had an experience in which they've been invited to respond creatively, where they answers are multiple and risky, how are they going to draw on their life experiences and find that buzzword of 'resilience?'  

The skill of identifying a goal, being self motivated and self critical as you try to achieve it is fundamental in education long after we've finished playing clay or dancing in a way the music makes us feel. The notion of valuing your own original thought or following an instinct sustains our confidence in the toughest moments of academic study. We make an argument that the maths we learn teaches logical thinking, even if the practical value of much of it is debatable. I think we could make a similar argument for creativity, with the added bonus that it is more likely we are going to dabble with painting, dance, music and so on, even if 'just' for leisure - such activities can form the crux of identity, the glue of our social life and give us a sense of connection to others or ourselves long after we've left school. I'm not sure we can say the same for the content of a higher tier Maths paper.

I'm not arguing against teaching long division or simultaneous equations. I'm merely pointing out we accept the arguments for keeping such skills in the curriculum, in we see them as having an innate and underpinning value to our cognitive development.

I argue that creativity and the arts have just as valuable a place if we allow them to. Cognitive development is for nothing if our minds don't function because we are fearful, anxious and unable to communicate or explore our own feelings. Brilliant young minds without the courage to communicate or the empathy to consider how to persuade is wasted brilliance.

We have a view that we have produced a generation of risk averse young people. Teacher's bemoan the 'spoon fed' mentality of young people seemingly rigid with fear in front of more challenging material that requires a degree of interpretation or a level of invention in the response. I suggest this if this true it is at least in part because we aren't giving anything like enough opportunities to be fearless earlier in the system and that a lack of creative education is denying the learners a lot more than 'fun' - It's denying them a chance to develop skills they will rely on for a lifetime.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Politics isn't Star Wars.

There's two things I'm tired of hearing and reading.

1: That Tories are 'evil'
2: That Labour's spending plans are 'insane'

For the first time in my life, we have a distinct choice at the ballot box in terms of how we want our economy run. I'm writing this in the hope of improving the debate a little bit.

Politics is emotional, clearly. People tie their identities to parties, or indeed to their disdain for the political system itself. The people in the first group who know what they believe in are understandably keen to express these beliefs. Therefore, those of us convinced of the truth and beauty of the socialist cause are prone to cast those who see the world as more about individual responsibility as 'scum' or 'eton wankers.' The latter group chuckle about 'money trees' and 'do-gooding sandal wearing social workers' or something. I don't know many of them, so I'm not that sure what they talk about to be fair.

The people in the second group are then faced with a choice. Choose 'evil' or 'insanity' or perhaps just don't bother. 'But it matters!' we shrilly pipe, whilst churning out frothing paens of praise to our chosen one and bile filled rage about our enemies. It matters because of 'evil' and 'insanity'

So - what I'm going to do is try to make a short and reasonably well reasoned case for not voting Conservative. I'm going to try to avoid the man traps of emotion and sentiment and explain why it's probably in your self interest to avoid Conservatism unless you are really well off and that's all your really fussed about.

Firstly, lets deal with the idea of debt, borrowing and fiscal responsibility. The way I see it is thus: Failing to invest money costs money. Austerity as an ideological model simply doesn't work. It generates cost which are at least concealing how little money the cuts save (thus, throwing their 'human cost' into increasingly stark relief) and at worst actually impact negatively on the public purse.

Lets take some examples to back this idea up.

There is considerable evidence that the cuts to disability benefit have had an impact on mental health. This impact was quantified into the headline figure of '590 suicides' linked to the cuts. If we take a very cold and clinical view we can assume that each suicide was attended by an ambulance, that there was some police involvement, some kind of coroners enquiry, perhaps counselling services for the surviving family members and so on. I think what I'm trying to say, is even the bluntest, bleakest outcome of suicide has hidden costs.

We could also reasonably assume that there were a number of failed suicide attempts alongside the headline figure of 590 deaths. The World Health Organisation estimates that the rate of failed suicide to successful suicide at a ration of 20:1 - I'm not going to be so trite as to suggest this means that there must have been 11800 attempted cases, but we can reasonably assume their were at least *some*

Again, if we avoid the cliche's like 'heartless' and 'inhumane' and assume the Conservative policy was attempting to save the country money, we can actually make a stronger argument. How much does a suicide attempt cost the NHS? How much does say, 3 nights in intensive care, a paramedic, a crash team, the mental health counselling and so on cost? According to NHS Wales, the cost of an intensive care bed is approx £1900.

What of the less dramatic stories? The prescription anti depressants prescribed? (the NHS spends 4.4 million per week on such medication) The children of the people who suffer mental health problems requiring additional support at school due to the sudden instability in their family life?

Lets go further and link mental health issues (and indeed financial precariousness) to homelessness. How much does homeless accommodation cost? How much does treatment for alcoholism or other drug dependency cost? (The National Council on Drug Abuse describe risk factors for addiction as including 'poverty and mental health issues.') Drug use is in turn linked to crime which again, costs money, both in terms of policing and punishing. The government's own Department for Community 2016 figures identified a 53% rise in homelessness amongst those vulnerable via mental health and a 49% rise amongst those physically disabled.

The point here is, economics isn't straightforward as the Conservative party would like to say. We don't just 'make savings' by cutting things and then counting all the lovely money. We also occur costs (actual costs, not just lovely liberal 'human costs'.) The costs above are speculative but real. Policing, prison, hospital admissions all cost money. They are an inevitable result of cuts.

We can't simply make people 'un-dependent' or 'liberate them from themselves' by desiring it be so. It might be 'well meaning' or 'what the government thought was the right thing to do' but the statistics suggest it simply doesn't work like that. It's an attitude that denies the actual situation.

Let's look at a slightly bigger picture: If the government have presided over a rise in inequality and poverty, then we can make a broader causal link to some mental health issues. We can extend this far beyond disability benefit to the zero hours contract culture (note, 2/3rds of children in poverty come from WORKING families), the failure to invest in technology and industry (low pay, low quality work), the cuts in allowances for a wide variety of circumstances and so on. Inequality has risen, poverty, homelessness and so on has risen. This has a commensurate impact on happiness and well-being, both physical and mental.

Source: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Spirit-Level-Equality-Better-Everyone/dp/0241954290

Every other cut is the same. The money might be saved in one place, but the cost crops up elsewhere. If we 'can't afford' educational investment of 6bn, it might be interesting to reflect that mental health ALONE costs the economy around 50-100bn per year (depending how you read the statistics). It would be sensational and foolish to link that entire figure directly to poverty and government policy, but equally it would be folly to not ascribe at least SOME of that cost to the economic circumstances described above, given as the W.H.O is clear in linking poverty and mental health issues.

We've not even touched on the physical costs of poverty to the healthcare system and we're already encountering numbers which dwarf some of the potential savings made by cuts. If we want to make things even more clear, then a report for the Joseph Rowntree foundation estimates that 20% of all money spent on public services is paying for the IMPACT of poverty (Healthcare, poor educational attainment, policing)

It's clear (to me at least,) if we accept the causal link between healthcare spending, lost economic productivity and poverty/insecurity, we need to invest, not simply in the NHS, but also in the infrastructure of society. It's also seems fairly logical to suggest that that investment would have some return in terms of reduced pressure (costs) on the services we are told we can't afford.

If you want *less* people in prison, hospital, surgeries, dependent on social security to top up rents, reliant on medication to exist or whatever form of so called 'dependence' you care to identify, then people have to have their basic needs met. It's a simple piece of psychology to understand that if our basic needs aren't met (security, safely, shelter) then we simply don't function to our capacity. In short, we make bad decisions. If we create a society which creates those conditions for others, then bemoan their bad decision making, we become stuck in an endless loop of repeating blame and by anyone's standard that doesn't seem to be the epitome of that buzzword for rational 21st century economics 'efficiency'

My point ultimately is - investment isn't insane - it's the opposite - Austerity is a blind alley we walk down, expecting to see the open road, but instead hitting a brick wall. It would be insane to walk down it again, expecting the same.

The Conservative economic policy is misguided as it takes a superficial an approach to saving money - and it fails to meet its own goals (taken at face value) of empowering individuals and freeing them. Whether they are guilty of 'evil' is a moot point and one I'm not interested in as it reduces the whole argument to some kind of Star Wars level debate about 'goodies and baddies' and I'm not sure how useful that is apart from affirming our own beliefs in the side we've chosen.

Whatever else the election is about, the choice between investment and not is the very crux of everything. It shapes the entire culture and in my opinion, it's time we rethought about what is and isn't 'sensible'

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Bad satire, some maths and a bit of literature at the end.


I really get annoyed with the 'Now Show' on R4. When I occasionally catch it I am struck by its mediocrity and the image it evokes of its audience irks me too. I presume the audience to be people with nice big oak kitchens baking a recipe from a guardian supplement chuckling to themselves about how witty TV rejects Punt and Dennis are about the government mishandling of social care which is a terrible shame. Sigh.

This is the attitude of envy. I consider myself to be a cheeky banter monkey with an eye on the topical pulse but as yet R4 haven't offered me a contract. I haven't asked them but trying is the first step to failure and we all know a chip on one's shoulder is a serious medical condition worthy of a living allowance and ideally a medical prescription for two or three pints with someone who agrees with you about things. Plus I've got a shit kitchen.

Anyway, I'm going to take the brave step of attempting to create my own 'Now Show' style sketch. Granted, it's a radio show and my sketch includes visual imagery but again, if politicians don't have to live up to their promises, why should I? (that was a warm up gag. See, it's going to be a doddle...)

An office setting - two people dressed in business uniform. Gender and ethnicity of cast is unimportant but they must be well dressed. An air of anxiety pervades. This could be politicians, leaders of a school or hospital or the management team of a large business. 

A: There's a serious structural crisis in the heart of this organisation. Our systems simply don't work.
B: Call a branding manager
A: But... couldn't we go and Google something and make the decision ourselves - It can't be that hard surely?
B: No, because then we'd be responsible for something if it went wrong + the whole exercise would be over in about 15 minutes and then we'd have the rest of the week to fill.
A: That's what I call strong leadership
B: We owe it to the organisation to do this properly.

I'd carry on but I can't be bothered. My teeth are getting blunted with all the biting savagery contained in these words.

Frankly, the sketch is awful, but I do think it contains more truth than much of what passes for communication in our lives. I'm all for well being and positive thought, but it feels like we've passed through a looking glass into a world where everything is what someone says it is and not what it actually is. Linguistic games matter more than truth.

Now truth is a tricky concept, I concede this. We can wrestle over 'the truth' but I'd suggest that it isn't to be found in branding exercises. Recently I conducted some independent research (I googled stuff for a bit) and found that the average UK school has a marketing spend of about 2% of it's budget. This is a questionable truth, but even if the figure is closer to 1% it's quite a spectacular figure if we do some maths.

There will be some maths in a moment.

I absolutely understand why school managers would pay this money. It is after all, essential to attract learners to schools as the funding of the school and therefore the jobs in the school depend on it and so on and so on. We could even probably do some maths to decide its money well spent in a lot of schools.

This is an extract from the first result I found when I googled 'school marketing budget' 

It isn't this 2% figure that scares me per se. It's the fact that this sort of policy is required as schools need to compete with each other. It's that no one questions it seriously beyond a little griping.

Here's a little maths exercise. If we assume (falsely) that teachers work 40*37.5 hrs per week then what time benefit could that 2% have if the money were spent on teaching? Let's just assume the money is spent on more teachers thus freeing the existing teachers up a bit.

Neatly enough 2% of 37.5 is 45 minutes. 45 minutes X 40 is 1.25 days. Someone from Pisa (the global education league table people) suggested (in an article I can't find but does exist) UK education is stuck in the doldrums because UK teachers lack reflection time. Without reflection time, teachers mentally can't produce the high quality lessons, engage in the professional development required to improve, consider their learners as individual people and the things that every decent teacher aspires to do. Without reflection time, teachers are 'getting by' or 'burning out' (or climbing out if any managers are reading this, I see you!)

According to government figures there are over 450000 teachers in the UK (statistical equivalent if we add up all the part time ones to make full time ones)

This means that, if schools stopped having to pretend to be businesses and spending money on glossy brochures, adverts, staff managing outward facing social media accounts and painting the face of a teenager on the back of a bus with the slogan 'Thropp Academy - a pathway to your future' we, the UK publicly funded education profession would be gifted with precisely 571125 days of reflection time.

That is 47500 months of reflection or over 1500 YEARS of reflection time every year.

So, lets remind us of my sources.

A) PISA (I assure you, there is an article! - but the point works anyway even if there isn't, reflection = better teaching, PISA state quality of teaching is vital)
B) Government figures. (I even linked them)

The above isn't taking into account the time that goes into meetings and 'fact finding missions' worrying about 'what the competition are doing' that doesn't appear on the balance sheet by senior staff (on larger salaries) or the cost of time spent by teachers on marketing exercises - it is clearly a conservative estimate of the true cost of competition. Whilst the 2% figure is a fairly educated guess (coming from a survey in which 300+ schools were surveyed to attempt to establish 'best practice' in marketing schools)  the fact that academies and free schools are likely to push marketing spend UP not down makes disputing it's precise accuracy a fairly moot point in the humble opinion of this blogger.

In other words, my shit sketch is trying to show that applying the logic of capitalism to something that isn't essentially capitalist costs money. Costing money costs teachers time. Teacher time lost costs learners. Marketing might be cost effective for school A but school B either improves its brand image (spends money on marketing) or suffers the lost students (loses money.)

This is the trap we are in.

A business whilst also trapped in capitalism is essentially different - It can expand exponentially or alter its product fundamentally if it loses market share. Whilst of course a school can change its character or build another building, ultimately it is a school, providing GCSEs, SATs tests and various other aspects of the national curriculum to a local population - it is a service and its 'product' is strictly defined by external factors and it's customer base is defined by demographics and geography. Whilst these limits exist in a sense for a business, they aren't absolute limits. Finally, the 'price' charged by the school is fixed. The school can't offer a 'luxury' or 'budget' option for example. Why then force it to compete like a business and not question if that actually works financially?

My final point occurred to me as I wrote. It seems the homogenisation of education created by first a national curriculum and second, a stringent regime of pseudo 'standards' (measurement would be a more apt term) coincides almost precisely with the boom in school marketing. It's almost as if we collectively believe that being told we have choice and freedom in our education means we have choice and freedom in our education!

To badly paraphrase Kafka, the door is open, but for some reason, we just don't seem to see it.

We are trapped by our imagination. By perceiving what is as what has to be.

I want to rebrand the word 'efficiency' I want us to really work out what it means to us.

(Now work through the exercise above and change teaching to 'the railways' or 'the council')