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')

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

'Strong leadership'


This word matters. I think it was chosen to describe the government's approach to finance for two reasons.

1) it's more appealing than 'efficiencies'
2) it's laden with good old post war, Brits in it together meaning.

The word was then largely dropped but the process remains in full force. (See the upcoming *massive* real term school budget cuts and the recent parks closure warning as just two examples)

The use of the word makes me angry. It irks me because it's being used as a justification for cuts.

It's become a reason why nothing can get done and the ultimate answer to 'why everything is shit'

Can't afford libraries, mental health service, special education support, disability benefit, buses to rural areas, care for the elderly, social housing and so and so forth? Austerity.

Pay freezes, withdrawal of subsidy for new technology, cutting educational subsidy for low income students, closing per school services and so and so forth? Austerity.

Yet, if we examine the word in the context of British political history we see a very different picture.

Think of Britain in 1945. Think of the depth of destruction, the sheer cost of rebuilding the infrastructure, the streets reduced to rubble, the creaking public services, the huge cost of the war. There is austerity. Life is austere. But it's not hopeless. It's not a procession of cuts, diminishing gains and rights in employment.

There is investment in housing on a scale unimaginable to the modern mind, there is the NHS, the widespread improvement in quality of life and wages. It's worth noting that creation of a meaningful welfare state is not just happening in the UK but is a condition of the reconstruction in the post fascist axis countries.

In essence, the word austerity in that context means 'yes, things are a bit grim, but this...'

It's easy to romanticise the Atlee government and it's wrong to suggest they were as radical or far reaching as they could be (it's the flippin' Labour party for heaven's sake) and I have much sympathy for the argument that in reality the establishment went as just as far as they needed to mollify a potentially revolutionary disillusionment but...

Whatever you think of that government austerity today doesn't have the promise of the reward and rebuilding. It doesn't lead towards any sort of future prosperity. We can question whether government debt really exists, let alone whether it should be paid off, but even this central tennant of the idea is empty. Debt has risen. Growth (which again, we can question as a useful measure) is negligible. By the terms used in conventional economics the policy is useless. It doesn't achieve its own (taken at face value) aims.

I think the point I'm making is this. If the question is 'how do we make things better' then I'm stumped that the answer appears to be a version of austerity that takes the grim bits of 1945 without any of the good bits.

I'm even more confused that for the average person some vague notion of 'strong leadership' seems to be more important than an actual strategy to improve anything.

I meet people in real life who say 'I just don't think there's any alternative' and the point here isn't to bang on about St Jeremy. Far from it. Corbyn is not the new Messiah, he's just a cipher for a lot of disparate (and desperate) hopes. Which is part of his problem really. Though, it is undeniable that he is an opponent of austerity. He might not be the best at pointing but what if he's actually pointing in vaguely the *right direction* as opposed to pointing with certainty and elan in *exactly the wrong direction*

The point is also not to say the answers of 1945 are the answers of now. Again, they're not. Some things would be welcome, but good luck with the nationalisation of the shipyards and the coal mines. Times have changed both socially and economically

The point is, that if we continue to be 'strongly led' down a certain path toward more austerity the only outcome is more cuts, more pay freezes, more dwindling living standards, more declining rights, more precariousness overall.

This is not to do with Brexit. This process was already in place. I'm not going to get into the ideological outrage about the rich/poor divide or who benefits from austerity because i think we often vote from self interest, even when we think we are voting in a socially responsible way. My point is, how on earth are the vast majority of people going to benefit from austerity? What exactly is in it for you?

You might be able to list some emotive arguments like 'scroungers won't get benefits' or 'immigrants won't get solid gold cars' and clearly those arguments are not invalid - you have to be completely blind to the concerns of actual people to right them off. But, (and this is a big point) whatever the rights and wrongs of benefits poverty costs more than keeping people out of poverty.

What essentially I'm saying is - if we stick on the same ideological course (with the strong, business like leader) we face not only losing all the services (and plenty more) listed above but we pay more to pick up the cost of poverty. Poverty equals crime. It equals illness, both mental and physical. It equals children who require more intervention, it denies access to education and self improvement, it equals, ultimately ghettoisation and gated community and unfortunately the bad news is, the majority of us are locked out and even if we aren't, it's a damn sight more expensive than the alternative.

Ok, we might not be contributing to fund 'feckless workshy people' (or people with terminal illnesses or youth clubs or rape crisis centres or jobs) but our private security is essentially equivalent to a tax (that doesn't go back to the government either, so can't be reinvested in anything that may potentially benefit us), as is our spiralling insurance costs and as is the feeling of dread every time we set out in the armoured Hummer.

There are of course complex issues the election is going to be fought on. Of course Brexit is going to be 'a thing' and immigration is not going away (either as a political issue or a real world real problem) but these are the issues that the Prime Minister wants the election fought over.

Now, I would be the first to express cynicism about the democratic process but I've got just enough faith in the intelligence of people and the ultimate logic behind our process to think there is just a slim chance that in 30 years time this is remembered as the Election where Theresa May asked a question about Brexit and got an answer about austerity.

The question of austerity or not is far simpler and far more pertinent than remain/leave. It's also not just a question of whether 'you care more about other people' - it's about your self interest. If you want more grimness, anxiety and general squalor, go ahead and think there is no other way.

If you want to be route marched further towards a low tax economy built on debt repayment with few (if any) safety nets to catch you or your loved ones, go ahead and do what you think is best.

May wants this to be about Brexit and Corbyn's perceived competency. It actually really shouldn't be about either of those things. It should be a test (the first one) of austerity as that is the defining factor of this government and no one has yet (Scotland aside) stood up to this at the ballot box.

Please, stop playing internal politics, playing dumb, playing head in the sand, playing whatever game you play to distract yourself and just consider opposing austerity by the most effective means open to you. It is almost certainly bad for YOU.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Mental journey

Wire fences, pitiful defences against the metal thieves, arsonists, teenagers. Pausing to think. What this space could be.

We own nothing. Spend big, pay later. Tied to a desk, tied to an alarm call, tied to rope, weighted down and sinking. 

The water is murky. The gloom is Stygian. The buildings loom but the reflections are dulled, great hulks over black oil. 

Boarded windows. Bricked up doors. A blank slate. What do you want? 

It seems I cannot dream of flying anymore. Each morning I wake from dreams which are unedifying. Dreams of petty squabbling, dreams of jealous failings or abject mundanity. 

I want to dream of flying or not at all. 

This is England
A flatpack nation
Angry about nothing
that it can put its finger on

Friday, 7 April 2017

"There's always a cold wind here"

Image result for Blackpool spoon

I stop the car. I want a moment to myself. To be still. The space next to me is empty for all of 30 seconds. In a flash of recognition I see family members. We have aged. We have all aged. She has died. We are all here to gather together because she has died. When I see them there is a lurch inside me, a feeling of momentary horror. My moments peace, my chance to stop for a second or two and just be. It’s gone. Selfish thought. True thought. I wanted it. I thought I needed it.  

I think about her. I loved her. I really did. The frail bones and the quiet days of the last few visits nothing against the memory of the life lived, the warmth of a shared joke, the endless cups of tea, the treats, the trips, the gentle curiosity and the time at the age of 25 I pretty much broke down in her front room because I was so lonely and fed up and she didn’t make me feel awkward or stupid.

I steel myself for the awkwardness of a reunion. The stiff hugs and handshakes I can never master. It doesn’t happen like that though. We know why we are here and it’s suddenly ok. I am out of the car, I am cold, but I am glad. We laugh, we talk. I talk, a bit too much, a bit too keenly, but I want to talk, I want it to be ok, I want today to be ok, I want today to be great. Like she was. I want to put people at ease, I want people to feel at ease. I want her to be with us. I want her to be with us because she’d like that. All of us, laughing and smiling and teasing.

The day has already been long. The day has already been an uphill struggle, a trudging route march through surliness and strategic complements designed to put me off my guard. I’ve had to fight today, to sink my teeth into flesh and shake it, to run to stand still, to weigh up how to talk, how to respond, what tack to take. It’s exhausting. It’s draining. I wish I could pretend it didn’t matter, but today it did. I haven’t stopped to think of this moment. I haven’t gathered my mind at all and now I feel like I’m stood at the top of a hill about to career down it. About to head down a waterslide, blindfolded. Cold water. Darkness. The ladder behind me has gone.

Time ticks on. We wait, we mill, we wonder who is coming, How we all have aged. How we amaze ourselves as we look around and see those people we haven’t seen since our childhood. How they have aged we remark. How we have aged we think. Time ticks on.

We mill, we chat, then the doors open. People loiter, anxiously. There is an etiquette apparently. No one has explained it. Someone says something about ‘family first’ but family don’t seem to here and for a moment it seems like no one will go in.

Music plays. I don’t think of music when I think of her. She always gave you her full attention. Music was something she enjoyed in private. Something to keep her company. She was such good company. I think of her, on her own, years on her own, refusing a television, reading, thinking, musing, wondering. I know she was lonely sometimes. I know she was lonely at the end. This makes me cry. Her dying doesn’t make me cry as much loneliness. I see her favourite carer. I think that she wasn’t as lonely as some people are and I feel a bit happier.

I think about it all. It’s too big for me, this day. Too much today has been about the shuddering, shattering reality underneath the dreams we’d like to live. The rhythm of payments, the back and forth of incoming and outgoings, the balance of security, each debt and debit weighed in balance on the scales, all of this in doubt. Life is fragile. Life is frightening, but we cling to it, we skate on the ice, never sure of when it will break but we skate on.

I calm myself. All this seems small now. We have a life lived in front of us. All the detail and small print and the interpretations and argument over outcomes and possibilities stops for us all at some point. I think of life like a chain, each person’s experience overlapping with the next like a link. I think of how she was a connection to a world I could never know any more. Of Lyon’s tea rooms, black and white films, of celebrity Stanleys like Matthew’s and Mortenson (the former ‘self regarding’ the latter more approved of apparently,) of soot blackened Manchester and of handsome service men who would take your heart and walk it on the promenade of a breezy, beautiful bustling seaside town for the rest of his life and wouldn’t live, like you would, to see the brash optimism of your hometown turn from graceful art deco inspired civilised freshness, all green paint and civic pride to a faded, tatty remnant of some other time, all woozy and staggering uncertainly.

I speak. I speak second. The first speech is calm, measured and beautifully well prepared. This was your son. It was everything you thought he was and he does you proud. I don’t know what I’m doing on the lectern. I don’t like the lectern. I’m really not the kind of person to stand still and speak but I do. I can’t remember what I say. I’m good at speaking, but speaking feels like a deception. I’m good at persuading, explaining, cajoling but there’s nothing to explain, no-one needs persuading. There’s no argument with anyone. You can’t debate away the end. I want to say how much I loved you as a person. Your knowledge of art and history, your gentle conversation, full of facts and stories. Your interest in things. I wanted to you to know I liked you, not just because you spoiled me, but because you were like a friend. Not just because you’d press £20 into my hand, but because you made me feel wanted and loved by all that we did. I wanted you to know that. I don’t know if I said that. I have no idea.

The minister has a benevolent look as I step down and take my seat. Then he tells us to take a memory and hold it dear to us. I don’t actually know what he is - he has a collar, but someone said this was non denominational service. I shook his hand at the beginning, but I couldn’t process the information properly. I can’t focus, I can’t think of a memory. All I can do is look around, look at the people around, heads bowed, or staring past the space at front into the middle distance. I wonder what they are thinking. Right now, I’d like to borrow a thought from them, because I’m getting restless. I need a thought, a memory, but my mind is racing too quick and I can’t stop it to focus. It’s producing an absurd mix of strange dreamlike images and everything I try to fix on morphs into something else. I wonder at the thoughts of this reverend, this vicar, this strange man who leads a life of death and marriage, a schizophrenic leap from joyous beginnings to sad endings. I wonder if he is thinking pious and wise thoughts or if his mask is fixed to cover the same mundanity that goes through everyone’s head in their working lives. I shouldn’t be wondering this. I should be remembering.

Then he makes a strange gesture with his arm held out and fingers crooked. Some kind of blessing or a signal to someone else. I don’t know. The curtains close. So soon. It’s like everything from all the memories I could latch onto happening at once, like I’m going to visit on an autumn evening, like I’m a child in the garden, like I’m taking an arm to steady her, like I’m following round a department store, like I’m wanting to stay for another week and not go to school, like we’re being naughty and sharing a cake when we’ve already had an ice cream, like I’m laughing at the lock on the back door’s ludicrous mechanism, like I’m being told to put my coat on in case it rains, like I’m watching her watching my little boy and thinking of my dad watching her watch me and how I must have reminded her of my dad and so on and so on and it’s all there, all at once.  

I cry and my sister hugs me tight. She’s all shoulders and hair, firm and solid and I need her. Just for a second. Just for a moment. I need to cry. I need not to celebrate or remember or follow someone’s instructions on how to think or deal or feel, I just need to drop into the abyss and have someone pull me out. The darkness is like oxygen.

Outside there is more conversation and people are thanked for coming. I don’t know what to do, whether it’s my place to do this or not. I don’t know if they know what to do. I wonder if you ever get the hang of this sort of thing. I suppose, rather grimly, that you do.

I wonder, rather macabrely why we pretend that live isn’t the same as death, why we can’t just accept that life is fleeting and precious and why we wrap ourselves up in so many layers of complete and utter pretence. Why we give it so much pseudo meaning, when really, it’s just essentially that moment of oblivion and being pulled out of it by knowing someone is holding you. It’s just the warmth of someone else, the smile, the hand on the shoulder, the sharing of the burden.

That’s all that matters. I’ll miss her. I was lucky to have her for so long.