Mrs Thatcher

Blimey. Where do I start with Mrs Thatcher?

I guess the most important thing is to say that I was only three years old when she came to power in 1979. My earliest memory of her was the day she took the decision to go to the Falklands back in 82 when I was playing with my matchbox cars on the carpet next to the two bar heater back home.

I suppose I am one of ‘Thatcher’s Children’, and she was part of my childhood right up to the day she was ousted by Geoffrey Howe and his cronies when I was 14. Around me, there wasn’t much support for the ‘Iron Lady’ or her policies. As a lad without any political knowledge of policy or its implementation (and why should I at such a young age?) it was quite a shock for me when my path crossed with a working class man who supported Mrs T wholeheartedly. I was shovelling potatoes on my Saturday morning farm job and I think he was sent to ‘assist’ me as I was a little slow. He liked to talk politics, and I just stood there in my oversized boiler-suit, nodding a lot. He told me of the ‘ills’ of the last Labour government; he told me how the bodies went unburied, the uncollected rubbish mounted up and the unions held the country to ransom. ‘Mrs Thatcher broke the unions,’ he told me proudly. This opinion surprised me, for all my short life I had thought that only the rich voted tory.

I got my first vote in 1997 (aged 21, and not knowing shit from putty) and, being tired of the managerially boring Major administration, decided to jump on the Tony Blair bandwagon. The left seemed happy with this newly regenerated (New) Labour, like the bull charging at something red without knowing why, but all they got was something that had grabbed power by being a lot less like Labour and a bit more like Maggie. I hated the New Labour administration and its Orwellian obsession with spying on the electorate and going to war with the motorist (I was working as a haulier at the time). Then in 1997 came Brown’s cynical attempt to jump on the ‘green’ bandwagon and introduce a raft of ‘green taxes’ – all of which were sidelined when some bankers got careless and created an even deeper crisis. The banks were suddenly in a place that was very wet and very smelly; saving the world would have to wait – rich peoples’ money was at stake.

Rather than the continual spin, rhetoric and cynicism of Blair’s administration, I felt somewhat reassured under Mrs T. She knew how to make a decision and stick with it, even in the face of those who opposed, opposed and opposed while offering little in the way of viable alternatives. She was upfront (or as upfront as one can expect from a politician) – a quality that Blair and Cameron (and wasn’t there a bloke in between?) were/are devoid of. I brought my four children up in a predominantly working class area and most people I knew worked hard for their money. It was, however, aggravating at times when I was working 12-15 hour night shifts to pay down the mortgage, to drive past the houses where I knew the guys who chose never to work resided. They always claimed to be skint, yet they still seemed to have plenty to spray against the wall on a daily basis. Of course, there were those that felt I was unreasonable in feeling like this when it came to other peoples’ ‘lifestyle choices’, but generally I found my critics to be sitting in armchairs a safe distance away in leafy suburbia. As the interest rates edged up, and New Labour continued to tax hauliers out of existence, while deciding that foreign wagons could use our roads free and gratis on their cheap fuel,  they welcomed in the ‘Working Time Directive’ to further curtail my earning power. Furthermore, to be fair, the Tories spent a while in opposition criticising New Labour’s method of collecting the stinkingly high fuel tax we endure in this country, yet in governance they have not seemed so enthusiastic to ease the burden.

In essence, I guess that what I’m trying to say in a rambling sort of a way is that Mrs T is probably the Prime Minister I dislike the least out of the six that have been elected in my lifetime. I was only three when Jim Callaghan left office and, unlike some people today, I’m not going to act as judge and jury with regards to a PM I don’t even remember.

I’m disappointed with human nature in general that there has been so much distasteful behaviour and disrespect over Mrs Thatcher’s death. I think it tells me more about the culprits than it does about her, and my reasons for thinking this are not rooted in any kind of partisan loyalty. I think her children, in particular, have a right to bury their mother without hindrance. As for ‘Ding Dong’, I don’t think she’d have given a tinker’s cuss, and if people don’t want to see the irony in parting with their cash to make a multinational record label a bit wealthier then so be it.

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Gove and stuff – my Sunday blog

I watched Mr Gove’s performance on QT last Thursday with scorecard at the ready. I’m not a supporter of his, but must concede that I marked him down for a points win. He is a better orator than I had envisaged, or indeed remembered – but then again, Blair was brimming with charisma when placed before an audience and look where he sits in history now.

I haven’t read the whole proposed draft curriculum but I have delved into the history and geography sections to show willing for my humanities specialism as a student teacher. Of course, before giving it my BEd consideration, I looked at it through my eyes as a parent.

The content of this draft curriculum is, I believe, amongst many other things, a hot topic and source of controversy between the profession and Gove’s allies. As a parent, I don’t remember being consulted by either side on what things my children should be taught, and as both sides are in a position of public servitude, I find this disappointing. Perhaps we have been asked – in certain postcodal areas, but I didn’t get the memo.

As a parent, I would like to see Gove produce some evidence of why his plans will work in British schools  –  I’m sure Finnish education works wonderfully for the Finns, as Danish education does for the Danes, but what are you bringing to the table for my children and upon what evidence is it being brought?

Of the profession, I ask whether you think you can realistically win this war with Gove – a man whose office probably has only a little over two years life expectancy in it. He doesn’t have to worry too much about what happens between now and 2015 – in fact, having listened to him on QT, he may well be readying himself as a candidate for the next leader of the opposition. Before digging heels in on him for the next two years, the profession might want to consider that he might just dig his heels in too, creating a two year impasse that will do zilch for the children.

From my perspective as student teacher, I know what I like and I know what I don’t like, and won’t be coerced or seduced by either side through mere tribalism. For instance, in the new draft, I like the idea of teaching evolution in schools – high time that ‘where we came from’ was advanced beyond the supernatural. On the flip side, I’m saddened to see that World War II has been ripped from my grasp in both primary key stages. I see elements good and bad – so far, please note. I prefer to judge each different snippet on its merits. I kind of prefer to think of myself as apolitical, although I think we all feel a roar of some kind of inner partisan beast at some point or other, depending on which way the wind is blowing in relation to our personal circumstances at a given time. I am certainly no Conservative, and the complete mess Labour made last time is still fresh in my mind. The other guy, who managed to lose 5 seats and become Deputy Prime Minister will either defect or disappear in two years. As for the single policy fringe parties, nothing they say will tempt me to cross their papers either, and I don’t intend to waste my time at the church hall voting for who I think will be least damaging. It would, however, be interesting to see some of the action groups (perhaps like the one doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment) throwing their hats into the ring and putting their case before the wider public. Make your points – the people can then decide whether they want you to speak for them or not.

I haven’t blogged very much, but felt like saying some stuff today. I must go and do some ironing now.

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My Maths Demons

I think there will be a fair number of people out there who could empathise with me when I say that ‘maths is not one of my strong points’. How do I feel when people start talking about algebra and quadratic equations? Well, try to imagine Gordon Brown’s face when his personal assistant told him that he’d forgotten to turn his microphone off after the Gillian Duffy debacle, and then multiply that by a factor of six (you’ll need to find the missing value first though).

Earlier in the week, I was reading ‘Mathematics Explained for Primary Teachers’ by Derek Haylock (2010) who made the observation that claiming to be ‘no good at maths’ is almost fashionable, as if there is an element of social acceptance about it. I thought about this for a while, considering my own attitude toward the subject in the past, and I discovered that Haylock was quite right. Because the jobs I had done in the past only rarely called for a bit of simple adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, I had labelled all other maths operations as being surplus to requirements.

My maths GCSE was pretty much a disaster, and by the fourth year (that’s year 10 for the younger folks) I had already been told that I was being put into the foundation group – an ‘E’ was the highest grade I could hope for.

Following on from reading Derek Haylock’s insights, I tried to reflect on the maths I had done at school in an attempt to fathom out ‘when’ it had gone wrong and ‘why’. Some of my earliest maths memories are from what is today’s year 3, when addition, subtraction and multiplication was done via the column method and division was conducted by drawing a ‘step’. I used to get in such a mess carrying and borrowing, borrowing and carrying – and then there were those remainders… Towards the end of my primary days, I had discovered subtle ways of making it easier for me to get to an answer, especially as I couldn’t do long multiplication or long division. ‘My’ ways, however, were not appreciated by the teacher. ‘This isn’t the way I showed you…’ she said one day.

‘No,’ I said, ‘but I think it’s the right answer.’

The red pen swooped and she conducted the ‘correct method’ lightning fast – probably because she could. ‘You will do it the way you’ve been shown,’ she replied unequivocally.

My further protests earned me the rest of the afternoon, working on sums I didn’t understand, in the cloakroom.

I’m not saying that this was ‘the moment’ that I lost interest in maths, but it was episodes such as this that developed my apathy toward the subject. My progress wasn’t grinding to a halt because I couldn’t come up with the correct answers; it was grinding to a halt because of my teacher’s inflexibility and unwillingness to permit any method but her own.

I revisited maths in 2009 when training to become a teaching assistant, taking the level 2 City and Guilds exam in ‘basic numeracy’, before sitting a further three exams on my Access Course (GSCE equivalent) in 2011. I spent a whole year rote learning all the procedures, only to find that I’d forgotten half of them by the time I came to take my university maths audit last year. Needless to say, when I looked at the timetable at the beginning of my degree course, maths lectures were what I looked forward to least.

Happily, however, I am delighted to say that the lectures and seminars I feared most have been among the most enjoyable and rewarding ones I’ve attended thus far. A revelation. No longer are we stuck in that old rut of following ‘one method’ to the bitter end. I can explore options now, and that makes me feel a lot better about maths – not just for me, but especially for my future pupils. For the first time, I’m not just learning ‘how’ we do things in maths; I’m learning ‘why’ we do things in maths, and beginning to understand the reasons behind the rules rather than ‘just’ the rules is allowing me to feel as though I’m embarking on my own private little renaissance. You see, I’m starting to realise that the idea that I’ve been rubbish at maths for nearly thirty years was in fact not true: I had thought I was unable when I was merely apathetic.  Furthermore, this new window through which I’m seeing how the subject is taught now has also negated the negative memories of my own primary school maths. What I wanted to forget I am now trying to remember – to ensure that I never embrace a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the subject – focussing on pupil strength, not weakness. I don’t want to teach maths ‘how I want to teach maths’; I want to teach maths ‘how the pupils need me to teach maths’.

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Teaching and Politics

I am now in the second year of training to become a primary teacher and must admit to finding the politics quite baffling. Perhaps, at this embryonic stage of my career, I am not meant to nail my colours to any particular mast. I find myself confused by both the rhetoric of the policy makers and the profession alike, both of whom seem seldom able to agree on proposed reforms and policy decisions.

I do not want anyone who might read this blog to perceive it as a series of statements supporting either side, but rather a series of questions from someone of neutrality. One impression I get is that there are ardent supporters on each side, neither of which would agree with each other even if the other had a valid point of view. Then, maybe, there are those who wait to see which way the wind is blowing before lending support to either side. I may well be naive, of course, but I worry sometimes that reputations and agendas, on both sides, are prioritised beyond what really matters: the needs of the children in the classroom.

I make no secret that I dislike politics, although I do find it very interesting – in much the same way as I watch crime documentaries with a certain morbid curiosity. I’d like to think I could rise above politics and never become involved, but even then I would feel uncertain that I was doing the very best for the children I was teaching.

One area I watch with particular confusion is the Gove Vs The Profession war that appears to be rumbling on, and this is based on the fact that when a Conservative government has the reins I can never decide whether the ensuing battles are conducted with the good of the nation’s children in mind or whether it is simply a case of class warfare: the privileged right scoring points against the left and the indoctrinated haters of conservatism (with Mrs Thatcher still indelibly imprinted on their minds) embarking on blind inverted snobbery  against the ‘Eton posh boys’. For instance, Mr Gove, I believe, is proposing to make teachers’ pay performance related, and this has stirred up robust viewpoints on either side. On one hand, I can see the merits of rewarding teachers who excel and get the very best out of their pupils – surely a logical step to encourage success; on the other hand, would this system not see the best schools bagging the grain while the failing schools get left with the chaff?

There’s a lot for me to think about, and, thankfully, I have another two and half years to learn, read and prepare before I graduate – by which time of course it could be all change again in Westminster, such is the thinness of the ice on which coalition governments skate. I’d be interested to know if there are others who share my bemusement in failing to understand some of the mechanics behind the politics of it all, and I sometimes wonder if it would be beneficial for student teachers to meet and discuss/debate such matters, with, perhaps, an expert on hand to guide them through some of the terminology and possible policy ramifications (for both them and the pupils) in order to form their own objective opinions away from the press and social networks that sometimes pedal both personal and commercial agendas.

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