Wednesday, March 29, 2006

today : I did this all by myself....honest!

I keep hearing about plagiarism. Yesterday, there were reports on the news about how schools are struggling to control the use of mobile phones in exams.

Am I the stupid one or is it really simple? If someone has a mobile phone in an exam and it goes off, then fail them. There are schools that are installing mobile blockers and I read on Dr Karl (see links) that you can make paint that blocks mobile signals.

But it's simpler than even that. Why do teachers pussyfoot around? If a student refuses to give up their phone (and many will be excluded rather than hand it over, don't let them in the exam room, get their parents on the phone and tell them. I have seen teachers in exams ignore students talking and basically treating exams in a fairly cavalier manner. It's not rocket science surely?

Mobile phones and such devices are all well and good, however there is still the problem of plagiarism in written coursework. Exam boards complain that students are fooling the system by simply cutting and pasting work from the internet.

I simply can't believe it. It seems to me that, in order to not notice plagiarised work, you need to do lots of things.
1. Not know the skill levels of your own pupils and therefore not be able to recognise their writing style or such things the range of their vocabulary.
2. Set essay questions that are so broad or so basic that students can easily find an essay on the internet that exactly answer them.
3. Be totally unable to use a computer and be completely unaware of what Google is.

A few years ago I was teaching an A level in creative writing. One student handed in a piece of suspicious work. I was already suspicious of him because he had been taught by two other English teachers in my school in Year 10 and Year 11 and, for each, had handed in work that was blatantly cut and pasted from a web site. He thought he could get away with doing the same with me. I typed a six word string from his story (which wasn't actually very good, being a piece of Deep Space Nine fan fiction) and instantly found his source. I printed it off, stapled it to his copy and gave it to the head of the sixth form. Nothing was done to sanction the student and six months later, at the request/insistence of the same Head of Sixth Form, I had to give up my after-school time to sit with him when he still hadn't written anything two days before his final deadline. I guess this is why he thought he could try his trick three times. By cheating he got the personal backing of his year head and extra personal tuition.

The bottom line is that this student had read about how to copy from the internet somehere, or someone had told him how to do it. He though he was cleverer than me. He thought I'd never heard of Deep Space Nine, or the internet. He wasn;t even clever enough to be obscure. I typed the words creative writing into Google and his 'original' work was on the sixth site on the results list. And I just don't buy that students can outwit their teachers. By definition, the teacher is cleverer. It doesn't seem possible. Unless...

...the teachers are complicit. In the English courses I have taught, students have to produce roughly five pieces of extended written coursework. It's amazing. But to get a fifteen or sixteen year old to actually come up with five pieces of work in two years is often a real struggle. I haven't known a time when deadlines are approaching and I haven't been desperately trying to get students to catch up with missing work, sitting with them in an evening reteaching them the plot points of An Inspector Calls or Twelfth Night,, negotiating them time away from other lessons (whose teachers are themselves trying to get the missing work out of recalcitrants), phoning and writing to parents, phoning and writing to them again. And again.

I have a stash of 'short' coursework tasks. A couple of pages summary of a novel or play, a page or two of dialogue and a series of questions that, when answered, look a bit like a low-grade essay. They can be done in an evening or an afternoon. Because if students are missing coursework, the blame is put onto me. Not the parents, who seem singularly uninterested in their child's achievement. Not the system, which gives nobody any time to catch up, and especially not the students themselves. I have often received orders from above. There is no excuse for missing coursework. Even from the students whom, at sixteen, still roll up to class without a pen, or who cannot be given anything to take home because they will always lose or discard it. Even the ones who are so unmotivated, they often don't get out of bed.

In these situations, is it not possible for a teacher to eyeball a piece of finished coursework and simply experience relief? Who cares where it came from? Who cares that it reads like it was written by Slavoj Zizek? Surely it is okay for the teacher to pretend they didn't notice or suspect its origins, mark it and pass it on? One more impossible job ticked off.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

today : apologies and useful information

I'm sorry but I racked my brains and couldn't think of anything useful to say.

So, for anyone who might want to know, I've posted a map of the middle east, so when people talk about Iraq and what-not, you can picture it in your head and know it's size, relative location etc.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Thursday, March 23, 2006

today: playing through the pain

A strange thing happens. I was watching the Commonwealth Games and specifially the English Decathlete Dean Macey. Macey is one of those athletes who has great potential. Except he's spent the whole of his career thus far injured in one way or another. In the Commonwealth Games he won, achieving a first ever Gold Medal. Yet even while he was winning, he had an elbow, hamstring and foot injury. In some events he purposefully underperformed in order to ease the strain on his injuries. Even when he doesn't have current injuries he has a raft of underlying stuff. The whole story of his two days and ten events was whether he would actually make it through.

Shaun Edwards, Wigan's Rugby League scrum half from the late 1980s and 1990s, famously smashed his cheekbone and eye-socket in the first few minutes of a Cup Final, playing on for the whole match and leading his team to vistory. Bert Trautmann, the Manchester City goalie, famously broke his neck during a Cup Final and played until the end.

I currently have an injury. As well as my usual chronic pain, I have something very painful in my ankle that has been around on and off for a few months now. I know how Macey feels. A strange thing happens. When I leave the door for the day I switch off the intolerable pain. Throughout the day I am careful, but kind of don't notice it. Some things I don't even attempt or purposefully underperform in order to ease the strain. The whole story of my day is whether I will actually make it through.

A strange thing happens. when I finish work and come home I keep my shoes and socks on so that I can complete any small chores I have to do. Only after I am ready do the shoes and socks come off. If I have any strapping I take that off too. It's almost a ritualistic process, in the same way as warming my deformed and arthritic up on a morning is a ritualised process. I stomp my feet around the kitchen floor, enjoying the cool of the tiles and pleasant slap as I exaggeratedly throw them onto the ground. Then I sit down and massage them, pulling and stretching them for a few minutes. There is no such thing as diving out of bed and rushing to work for me.

Anyway, the moment that my socks come off is the moment that the switch goes back on again. I'm not special, it's not a trick or even a skill. I don't consciously make it happen: it just happens. Over the next half an hour it is like someone turning the pain volume up slowly until it blares through my feet. Oddly, even though I don't enjoy it at all, I kind of like to experience it. It's like getting a bad report of something that you are totally expecting. I know the normal level of pain and this half-hour process is a report on whether I had a light or heavy day and what I have to do in terms of recovery.

After that I take some painkillers and, most days, nap for an hour.

My point is that it is amazing how it is possible to play through the pain, whether you have an unlucky condition like mine, or whether you are Dean Macey with your eyes on the Gold Medal. It's an astonishing and mysterious physical and mental feat, to ignore the most fundamental of distresses and just get on with what you've decided to do.

Dean cried when he got the gold. It looked a lot like relief to me.

I think I know how he felt.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Eurovision update

If you want to know what's really going on in European politics, don't read the newspapers or watch CNN, simply follow the machinations of Eurovision.

The whole thing is a shame, because as you can see from their picture, The Flamingoes, the Serbian
almost entry to this years songfest, are clearly just the kind of bonkers Europop band that we need to see more of.

this week's very old fashioned thing is...

Wright's Coal Tar Soap

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Today : perspective

In the past week, both Fred and Bob died. I didn't know them that well, in fact, both men I met only once. I spent a day with Fred at the wedding of my friends Guy and Jo, Bob and his wife Lynn once took me for a delicious Tex-mex meal in Austin. As locals they knew the best place at the other side of the tracks.

They were friends of some of my best friends and both, by all accounts were good people. Fred died suddenly one Sunday morning, Bob had cancer.

Yet both deaths were shocking. They were young men, in their fifties.

It's a cliche, but the older I get, the more people I know die. It's hard to accept when good folks' lives end prematurely.

What do we do in response? I guess we carry on, and try to be a little like them.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Friday, March 17, 2006

today : you don't like me! you don't like me!

Taking tea yesterday afternoon with my friend Eleanor, I noticed that she was reading a Dan Brown novel. She enjoyed it, she said. I for one don't have any interest in Dan Brown novels. I tried reading the first couple of chapters of The DaVinci Code once in an airport, but it bored me.

We are overwhelmed with choice and one of my arbitrary rules for not reading a novel is that it contains religious conspiracies and made up history of secret societies. Stuff about the Vatican is especially a no no. There seem to be a load of people obsessed with the death of Roberto Calvi. Am I interested? It's a bit like the films of Mary Steenburgen. For no particular reason I just don't like her, therefore don't watch films that she's in (actually I broke this rule when watching the underrated and unfairly cancelled Joan of Arcadia). Sally Field - don't like her, she makes my teeth hurt. Andie MacDowell, her either, can't and no amount of L'oreal products will maker her attractive to me. That woman out of ER, whatsername, don't watch ER since she became one of the main characters. Chevy Chase - don't like him and never watch any of his films.

We have access to thousands upon thousands of cultural objects. Books, music, TV, film, games, and somehow you have to whittle it down to manageable fields of choice. I think arbitrary rules based completely on your own irrational prejudices are as good as anything. After all, the canon of anything is simply that - often created by the taste of an influential few. The literary canon that I still have to teach is based on the bizarre 'moral' choices of folk like FR Leavis. So what's wrong with me dismissing, for example, any novel that features elves, goblins and wizards? Or where an Professor is the cental character. I am sure some of them are pretty good. But life's too short to find out.

I am not interested in the identity of Jack the Ripper. I just don't care who did it. I am not interested in The Holy Grail, which helps me avoid plenty of novels and films, because it seems to crop up quite a bit. I can't be doing with fantasy worlds of any kind. I can just about deal with Magic realism kind of fantasy, but anything set in an imaginary world of the author's imagination I can't be bothered with. (although I quite liked Michael Marshall Smith's sci-fi novels Only Forward and Spares) Gilbert and Sullivan, New Age music, prog rock - not interested. Set in a dystopian near-future - yawn, must-read! - must not!, critics rave about it - probably over-rated, imagining what would have happened if history didn't happen the way it really did - what???

We lead busy lives. Eleanor has a career, a kid and one on the way. Sometimes she just can't face 'literature'. I worked hard all week and in my downtime, y'know what? Most of the time I just want to relax with a good story that's not too taxing, convoluted and self-important. Tonight I will watching American Idol and Hustle. At bedtime I might read a couple of chapters of Michael Connelly.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Today : Other people don't understand

So anyway, I'm in a new class today - 14 year olds. There's this one kid with shades on in class. Usually this is a sign of Irlan syndrome or one of the many reading problems people have. So I say to him. "Those are pretty cool shades. Usually Irlan syndrome glasses can look pretty dorky. How come you have, like Oakleys?"
"They're not for reading," he says, " They're for the migraines. They don't know if I'm sensitive to light or if it's the drugs."
"Are you a druggie then, " I ask - jokingly, of course.
"Yeah," he says, "A real smackhead."
He reaches into his pocket and produces one of those pocket drug dispensers designed for elderly folk that you can buy from the Innovations catalogue, as if someone only just invented it yesterday.

"This one's hormone replacement. My pituatory gland's messed up. If I don't have it then I won't develop and all that. This one's to help my bowels, because some other pills I had to take messed them up. This one is for the fluid on my brain..." and so on. There are eleven different pills, many of them are to counterract the side effects of other pills. "I had this brain tumour," he says, "Now I'm walking chemists shop."

"Bloody hell", I say. "I've found someone who's more of a wreck than me!"

So we talked: about how some people try too hard and end up patronising you, how some people treat you like you're stupid, how some people are dismissive of things like pain. How lots of people can't face the reality of illness and disability.
"They just don't what it feels like so they don't know how to react," he says.
We talk about how you put on a brave face in public and have your angry, down times in private, how being victimised and punished by your own body changes your whole relationship with your physical being, how you get jealous of people who never experience pain, (earlier that day I dismissed a 13 year old kid who tried to get sent to the office by claiming to have a painful finger by luridly describing the pain I was suffering in my feet) ,how sometimes you get what you want by laying a guilt trip on people, how you end up talking in drug names like an episode of ER.
"You'd think teachers would be better at understanding, but they're not," he says. The boy across the desk has put his pen down and is listening in. The girl next to him follows suit soon after, dropping her pen and listening in without speaking.
I tell him the story about when I was in a staffroom and got out of a chair to walk about five yards. I wasn't in too much pain and the territory was very familiar so I went without my stick. Another teacher jumped from his chair and ran around the room shouting "It's miracle! He walks!"
"Sounds about right," the boy says.

The last thing we talk about is how we hate all those 'inspiring' ill-people stories. How anybody who has an illness or a disability and manages to do anything at all gets put on a pedestal as some kind of inspirational hero.
"What do they expect us to do? " he says, "Kill ourselves? I don't see how just getting on with things is so heroic. Not getting on with things would be the strange thing."

The thing is, even while I agree with him, I can't help but find him a little bit inspirational. He seems to have a much more considered and adult approach to this stuff than I do. I have bendy deformed feet and chronic pain that restricts some things I can do. He has a series of diseases that seem determined to kill him and a series of cures that only make him ill in new, more elaborate ways. In fact the only real thing we have in common is that we understand that other people don't understand.

"I spend all my time wondering what I'm going to get next," he says "Other teenagers worry over getting a spot or something."

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Update: They finally listened to me!

It seems the producers of The West Wing have been secretly reading Mediumselfesteem, although as yet, I have received no consultancy fees.

is a short video that shows Josh and Donna beginning to resolve their 'arc', as I suggested at

In fact, for the first time in WW history, Romance seems to be breaking out all over. Will (aka Nerdy Jeremy) and Kate (aka thrusting Justine) are also conducting a classified exchange, as evidenced by her leaving a brassiere at his apartment.

As a stupid old romantic, this is okay by me. I just hope they don't go over the top and forget about the War in Khazakstan.

today : Brrm Brrm Yawn

Is there anything more a complete waste of time than Formula One motor racing? I ask, because yesterday I was driving and thought I would listen to the radio. I am a bit of a radio person and listen to the BBC much of the time.

So there I was tootling along in my car in the snow and the CD I was listening to finished. 'It's Sunday,' I thought. "There'll be some exciting Premiership football on the radio." Football, strangely, is often much more exciting on the radio than it is on the TV. The fact is that the commentators are actually there, and even the most dispassionate commentator will ultimately allow themself to get caught up in it. And if the match is a tedious 0-0, a good commentary team can fill the time with general footballing chit-chat, of the kind you might indulge in if you were there yourself. Radio 5 have an excellent commentary staff, with knowledgable and skilled commentators matched with insightful and often amusing and eccentric partners. Steve Claridge is the best co-commentator, due to him being almost totally off his trolley.

Anyway, I digress. I knew that football was happening in the world, but for some reason was pained to discover that it was being ignored so that I could hear a wheelturn and automatic gearchange by wheelturn and automatic gearchange account of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Now, I have seen Motorsport live and it's okay. There's the noise, the glamour, the smell and the general atmosphere that's enough to make any Petrolhead turn somersaults of delight. But on the TV it is just little cars going round and round for two hours. On the radio, despite the best efforts of all involved, it is some people describing little cars going round and round for two hours. You might as well have someone describing their computer defragmenting. This is a sport where they spend several days deciding who will start at the front, and the person who starts at the front almost always wins. One hates to be nostalgic for death and disaster, but a couple of decades ago when someone crashed or something went wrong there was the possibility of a spectacle. Engines blew up, cars spun in the air, people were taken to hospital or the morgue. Nowadays, cars drop out due to a software fault in the fuel delivery system. They go round and round and then simply stop. How very exciting. That's before you realise that you can't remember a time when Michael Schumacher didn't win pretty much every race and championship, like some winning robot.

The essence of excitement in popular sport consists of two things. The first is that you can imagine yourself doing it and therefore identify with your heroes. No kid ever plays Formula One Grand Prix. These drivers are like Supermodels. There are only 20 of them in the world and normal people simply have no chance of ever egetting in the club.

The second thing is unpredictablity. Good sport means that the underdog can triumph through force of will, even if it hardly ever happens. In F1, the little guy has a crap car, or didn't qualify for the race. Each year there are only 3 or 4 people who can compete because it isn't a sport, it's an extremely nerdy engineering project.

So I listened until I got bored, imagining the excitement and incident that would be happening in football grounds throughout the land. It took about three minutes before I switched the radio off and enjoyed the muffled swish as my wheels skimmed over the snowy Chevin road.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

this weeks classic footie scrap is...

Billy Bremner chins Kevin Keegan during the '74 Charity Shield

today : Slobodan Milosevic....'nul points'

Well, good riddance to Slobodan Milosevic. It seems that European dictators can be spotted by their hair, be it facial or otherwise. In future we chould beware of any leaders who are especially vain about their hair, moustaches and beards. Milosevic had a proud and luxuriant mane of grey, as did Ceaucescu. Stalin had a carefully cultivated moustache and Hitler - well why people didn't spot the hair/moustache double whammy earlier is beyond my ken.

Of course, Milosevic's long lasting popular legacy is a linguistic one. The phrase 'ethnic cleansing' will haunt us for a long time. But we really should turn his negatives into positives. Let's not forget that, like Iraq, Europe as we know it is an unstable political project, packed with imposed boundaries, tribal loyalties, territorial disputes and unresolved historical spats. I am with another grey haired leader - Ted Heath - whose support of the greater European project was closely informed by what he saw during WW2, and his desire to counter such a thing happening again. Milosevic reminded of us how important it is to create a wide and stable Europe that gives people few excuses to take out their frustrations on each other.

To this end we must allow more and more countries into the Eurovision Song Contest. Okay, so their music is laughable and their costumes increasingly bizarre, but the fact that Eurovision is moving eastward is symbolic of a broad and inclusive Europe, as well as some of the more volatile and dangerous countries' desire to become exotic tourist destinations and to join in with the West. Let's face it, each show is a three hour video tourist brochure for the nation. I, for one, am seriously considering Riga as a credible holiday destination (apparently, its the new Prague).
For a start, Eurovision promotes democracy. You can't win, and therefore host next year, if your Parliament Square is ringed by military police and your farmers are using their rusty tractors to knock down the police headquarters. And then there are the votes. You also cannot win if you get 'nul points', a lesson that all dictators could learn.

Secondly, Eurovision promotes the building of large auditoriums. It's like a mini-Olypmpics for the winning country (famously, Ireland try to lose after a run of wins because it simply cost too much and they didn't need to build any more and already had a state of the art television industry. By losing and not hosting the Irish also inadvertantly spared the world the chance of any more Hothouse Flowers or Michael Flatleys being foisted upon it.) Large Auditoriums mean that U2 will play concerts, which in turn will lead to the promotion of World Peace.

Thirdly, Eurovision promotes Europop, which can only be a good thing. The world would be a lesser place if it wasn't for former Soviet people dancing around in flourescent mini-skirts singing nursery rhymes to a house beat, complete with balalaikas.

Friday, March 10, 2006

this weeks nostalgic confectionary product... Spanish, aka. red licorice aka. licorice laces aka. firemens' hosepipes. For the licorice lover who hates licorice. Interestingly, it's called Spanish because licorice originally came to England from Spain, along with Spanish Fly, package holidays, paella and Spanish Stroll by Mink DeVille. The beauty of Spanish was that it was cheap and you got a lot for your money. Something a foot long for 1p is pretty good value for any poor or prudent child. You could also play with it as well as eating it, making nooses and other torture devices for your friends, as well as various types of rubbish jewellery.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Today : How to be an insufferable wine bore

1. Relax with a glass of wine every day. More importantly; make sure everyone knows you relax with a glass of wine every day.

2. Be careful to distance yourself from people who drink beer or gin every day. These people are not wine "buffs", but common alcoholics.

3. Never refer to wine using the word "wine". Always refer to the grape variety instead. Add other impressive sounding detail that you read off the label for extra "buff"ness.e.g.
WRONG : "Mmmm, a glass of wine"
RIGHT : "Mmmm, a superb South Chilean clay-soiled Grenache!"

4. Make sure you talk loudly at dinner parties about how you loved the film 'Sideways'

5. Never admit that Paul Giamatti was better whilst painted blue in Big Fat Liar (you haven't even seen this trivial childish nonsense)

6. When drinking wine, spend as much time smelling it as you do drinking it.

7. Swish it around in the glass a bit. Practice this in front of a mirror so it looks natural.

8. Make ridiculous pleasure-style "mmm aaaah" noises whilst smelling, letting people know you detect aromas that their sad, uneducated palatte can only imagine.

9. Red says 'buff' so much more than white.

10. Talk about wine bargains as if you spend your life combing the supermarkets for them, when really you read about them in the Sunday papers or saw them tipped on one of the many food and wine shows with Z list presenters and D list chefs that you record from BBC2.

11. Talk about wine in the abstract, as if it is an academic subject. Never mention that you simply enjoy being pissed.

12. Whilst pontificating about the taste, invent new and absurd flavours at will. e.g. this subtle, maraudingly coquettish red has hints of musky lavender charcoal with barnacles and a tinge of old buttered potato peelings leaving a touch of swarfega and nitrous-oxide dangling teasingly on the tongue. This will make you look knowledgable and in no way will make you the laughing stock of your town.

13. When referring to makes and varieties, adopt a ridiculous Inspector Clouseau accent. "This Pinot Noir is from The Chateau de Battaille-en-Rouen" Use this accent even if the wine is not French.

14. Always stay ahead of the game by buying and championing wines from up and coming countries, even if it tastes like boiled chuddies coloured with beetroot and flavoured with Lenor.
e.g. "You really must try this Ulan Batorian Chianti!"

15. Purchase an elaborate and hugely overpriced corkscrew designed by someone like Phillipe Starck, that leaves bits of cork floating in your precious Chardonnay.

16. Learn that bits of cork floating in wine in the Chardonnay does not mean the wine is 'corked'.

17. Listen to Dido.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

today : A clear and presenting danger

I must admit that I don't watch a lot of TV. I watch quite a bit of TV drama, but hardly any of the popular prime time shows that seemingly make up the vast bulk of other peoples' TV diet. But in the past week I had a kind of headache and didn't feel like reading. So I plonked myself on the sofa watched a lot of it.

Maybe I am spoilt by being so picky in terms of quality but a lot of it is really bad.There's a show on at the moment that pairs 'celebrities' that I've barely heard of with singers and they have to compete, singing duets. It's based on the Strictly Come Dancing format. I watched it tonight. After that was finished I switched over and watched Dancing on Ice, which is also based on the Strictly Come Dancing format, but has ice dancing instead of real dancing.

I have to say that they were both, in their way, quite entertaining and pretty well produced. Yet I felt let down and a little annoyed. After a little thought I realised that it was the presenters who were the weak link in the shows. They varied from charisma free to just annoyingly bad.

I think the expansion of TV in recent years has led to a dilution of presenting talent. I don't think there was ever a golden age of presenting but we will never again turn on the TV and find oddballs like Attenborough, Robert Robinson or Jack Hargreaves. It is such a strange job. I guess up until about 20 years ago the presenters on British TV were either showbiz stalwarts or trained in radio. And I think the qualification for appearing on radio was that you sounded okay. Radio is so much less forgiving than TV. Strangely it exposes personality and intelligence flaws, lack of verbal skills and, crucially, insincerity. The same could be said of the music hall, cabaret clubs and regional theatres that produced the likes of Monkhouse and Forsythe.

I might just be getting old, but there are plenty of shows I can't bear because the presenters are so insipid. Take the two on the singing show. They are a married couple; Tess Daley and Vernon Kay. Here's the thing - they are both former models. They seem personable enough and scrub up well, but something is missing. With the wit, insight and interviewing skills of your average model, they add little or no value to the format.

The Ice Dance show has similar problem. The presenters are ITV stalwart Philip Schofield and another former model Holly Willoughby (that's her in the picture). Holly, especially, is the perfect example of presenter as meringue. Sweet but made mainly of air.

The absolute paradigm of this trend towards insipidness is, of course, Davina McCall. After building a career in ultra light entertainment and showbiz magazine appearances, her recently launched chat-show has tanked. Partly, I think, this is because of the guests. They are the same parade of B and C listers who crop up again and again. People like Ronan Keating, Neil Morrisey, and in a an act of reflexive genius, Vernon and Tess. But mainly, Davina comes across as someone who was desperate to be famous and is rather smug that she achieved her dream. It's as if she doesn't realise that her world is a false one ( and other people don't understand that perhaps she got famous presenting Big Brother due to the appeal of the Big Brother format, rather than Davina's supreme talent). If you look at Davina's biography, it is the classic of someone who has more drive than substance. She has no journalistic background, little grounding in showbusiness and hasn't actually done anything apart from trying to do stuff like be a singer and a Moulin Rouge dancer but settled on presenting. Chat-show hosts require a smattering of gravitas as part of their make-up. Davina is one of a breed of celebrities whose crowning, and only serious achievement, is to have a baby and subsequently not shut up about it.

The point is that TV presenting is a curious activity. A presenter does nothing, but actually does everything to drive a show forward. They are the fulcrum. Unfortunately for some, the job requires something more than a pretty frock and a reading age of about 12.

Friday, March 03, 2006

this weeks old footballer...

Could have been the late, great Peter Osgood, but is actually Johnny Giles.

today: Why Literacy must be our first priority

Britain celebrated World Book Day today. Actually 84% of Britain celebrated, the rest? Well...

According to the National Literacy Trust 5.2 million adults in the UK can be broadly described as functionally illiterate. That is 16 percent who have skill levels, in reading and writing, equivalent or lower than those that will get an 11 year old through their SATs exams at Level 4. (literacy skills in English schools are measured on a scale of levels 1-8, where 1 is first steps in reading and writing and 8 is complete proficiency. Success at age 11 is designated at Level 4)

That is 16% of adults who probably don't access newspapers and websites, who cannot easily fill in all kinds of forms, and who almost definitely don't read books.

Being a high school English teacher for ten years has shown me just some of the problems that help perpetuate this situation. Any high school teacher will tell you that most disruption is caused by pupils who are avoiding doing the work they are set. Avoidance is the easiest tactic to use if you want to hide the embarrassment of inability. There is a definite link between illiteracy and poor social behaviour.

In high school, the only time when you can really intervene and improve someone's literacy skills is in Year Seven, when the pupils are eleven. The National Curriculum gives a little room for a teacher to put in some extra skills work. In Years 8 and 9 the curriculum is too pointed towards the Year 9 SATs tests. Those few pupils who are unable to read become more and more alienated from the Curriculum content. Let's face it. It is hard enough to get middle ability, decently skilled students to engage meaningfully with Shakespeare at age 14. Those who have yet to read more than the simplest sentence have no chance.

Several times I have come across teenage pupils who are behind in their literacy development for reasons that are easily identifiable. There are students who changed schools in early years and took a while to settle in, or students who were ill in early years and simply missed the bit where everyone was taught to read. In some ways these issues are avoidable. But there are two reasons that are not only unavoidable, but inexcusable.

Almost all high schools have an intake that comes from a small selection of primary schools. For about every four Primaries there is one high school. It is common to find groups of studentsin high school who have a similar lack of skills, and sure enough, upon further investigation, these students all attended the same Primary School. One time I found five students who told me they had been taught by a series of temporary teachers for almost three years of their early education. Nobody had taught them how to read and write. In plain terms, the management of their school had allowed them to pass through without learning the basics. The worst case scenario is a student with special learning or behavioural needs. In high school you will often meet students of great potential who are stuck in the bottom set and written off, and have been on that track ever since they were routinely ejected from class when they were five or six. Nobody cared enough to tackle their underlying problems and uplift them. Or people did care but the systems to help simply weren't there.

The high school Curriculum is predicated on a certain set and level of skills. Yet the GCSE grading system acknowledges that some pupils reach 16 without making much progress. The two things are contradictory. High schools expect a certain skill level yet know they will not get it. The existence of Grade G at GCSE (the grades are A to G) is an admission of this failure. The extremely low threshold of skills and knowledge needed to pass at G grade sometimes gives schools the excuse to write off a swathe of difficult or underperforming students.

The second is one is more controversial. But the evidence I have seen suggests that sometimes whoever is teaching early reading and writing is simply not doing a good job. This may be down to incompetence and laziness or lack of training and experience. But whatever the reason it is not good enough to send pupils off to high school with a patchy and incomplete skills base.

Because at High School the same thing happens.

The notion that every teacher is a teacher of literacy is fine in theory, but in practice simply doesn't pan out. I've met few, other than English teachers who are trained to systematically improve literacy and many who have poor spelling and grammar skills themselves. There is no room in the system for remedial work and even many English teachers are not routinely trained in remedial literacy.

The bottom line is that, for those who struggle with learning for whatever reason, the system lets them sadly down. I don't assume it is easy to give everyone the skills they need, but it seems absurd to not invest money in making sure every Primary School pupil has the best trained specialist teachers and intervention with basic skills. It also seems absurd that the High School Curriculum is designed in a way that means 15- 20% of students flounder their way through it and leave school functionally illiterate. School is the best place for people to learn to read and write. Schools should be set up to do this job before any other. How else are we to break the cycle?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

today : unloading

Just some things I want to get off my chest.

1. To the makers of Grey's Anatomy. You have good characters and a nice rhythm to your scripts. Your show is enjoyable. But enough with the Lilith Fair mixtapes already.
2. To footballers. You work in a business worth billions. You earn millions. Is it too much to ask that you can't buy a decent set of black arm-bands just in case someone dies? Is it really a measure of respect to the dear departed to wrap black
gaffer tape randomly around your sleeve?
3. To my local supermarket. What is the deal with the kiosk? Why is it so important that I cannot buy a drink, a sandwich, a magazine and a packet of cigarettes and pay for them all in one go? Do you think that having to spend time and effort joining two queues - one to buy the sandwich and drink and one to buy the ciggies and a magazine - and making two transactions for 3 items is making me happy?
Do you think that makes me want to buy more stuff from you?
4. To the person who "parks" at the end of my street. The theory is that you park
at the side of the street, therefore allowing other road users to actually use the road, rather than just abandon your car somewhere in the middle of the street making other vehicles, unable to fit through the three inch gap, to drive around the block. And just so you know. Custard yellow is stupid colour for a car.
5. To the NHS. If you write stuff down, then the patient who is visiting you for the fourth appointment in an ongoing process won't have to repeat their
entire history to the new person they see at each appointment, and essentially start the process over again four times without acheiving any apparent forward movement. After a while you might find that you can make some progress with their problem and they will go away happy and pain free rather than fuming and in bloody agony.
6. To Americans. It's difficult to take your brand of freedom too seriously if 20% of you believe that your first amendment gives you the right to own a pet.

Today : Mardi Gras woman exposes America's biggest pair of tits