Sunday, May 30, 2010

today : crime and the city

As the 'Crossbow Cannibal' case still unfolds, and still appears high in the headlines, it is all anyone is talking about in Bradford. There's not too much to say really, apart from sympathising with the victims, pointing out that they didn't deserve their fate. Then there's the mention of the Ripper, and the fact that Bradford only ever seems to be in the national news for negative reasons. The Ripper, The Fire, The Riots, The Sharon Bezhenivsky shooting, and now this.

On the way back from dropping my car off for a service yesterday, that's what the taxi driver and I discussed. In the background the local radio played vox pops of people saying much the same.

I spoke to a couple of friends. One works at the University and his journey to and from work took him past the cordoned off areas where the police are still searching. The TV satellite trucks and occasional news helicopter are, even after a few short days, routine. The reports on Saturday of a new set of body parts found in the River Aire inspired more pictures of the scene on the news channels and more activity was evident when I drove past there on the way to and from a friend's house on Saturday afternoon.

But there is something else. However macabre and unpleasant the reason, there is a measure of excitement to be had from being physically close to the news. Even in the modern age where media so saturates our society that giving an on-mic or on-camera interview almost comes as second nature to members of the public (in the past I remember that people behaved differently when cameras and microphones were around. There was lots more mindless waving behind the reporter's head, and whatever the topic, the general public would intersperse their comments with outbursts of nervous laughter), the sight of the TV trucks and the fact that familiar, routine places are up there on the screen, is to a degree glamorous.

A few years ago I was teaching the first lesson after lunch when we heard a number of sirens fairly close by. Soon after, a police helicopter swooped low over the school and hovered low for several minutes a few hundred yards away. It was a hot summer day and the classroom windows were open. The noise from the helicopter was pretty deafening and the lesson plan went completely awry.

It was only later that, on the way home, I found out what had happened. The local petrol station, just up the road from the school, was completely cordoned off and police were everywhere. It was the one I'd been to at lunchtime to buy a sandwich and a drink, and that particular day I'd also volunteered to collect cigarettes for a few of the staff. Stopping off at another nearby shop - the pharmacy, I soon found out what had happened. Two women waiting to collect prescriptions told me. A car containing two people had pulled in to fill up. As the driver went into the shop to pay for the fuel, another car screeched onto the forecourt. Two men got out, approached the first car and fired several shot into it's side window, instantly killing the man inside. They then calmly got back into their own car and screeched away in a haze of blue tyre smoke.

It was a drug-gang execution. Another customer's car took a a couple of bullets but there were no injuries.

After a couple of days, things just carried on as normal. I'd often stop there on a morning to buy cigarettes or a drink. Many times I'd use it to fill up. And of course, I parked on the exact spot where the murder happened. The exact spot where someone was shot in the head several times in cold-blood. Executed.

Even now, a few years later, I occasionally drive past or stop off there.

At the time, the proximity to myself, my colleagues and my students, genuinely disturbed me. The petrol station shop relied on the school for much of its trade. There was a daily, pretty much constant, stream of people going from school to the shop and back. Even though the rules said they should not have, plenty of students would walk the few hundred yards from the school during free lessons or break-times, to buy their own drinks, sandwiches and cigarettes. I was there that day, just about 15 minutes before the murder. Any of my colleagues could have wandered or driven up there to buy some mints or matches or milk.

I am currently a witness to a crime myself. I can't really talk about it as it is ongoing,but it's a crime of violence. I saw and heard some stuff and the police asked me if I would act as a witness. Talking to the cop who took my statement he said that about 60 percent of the cases he was called out to involved violence. Domestic assaults, drunken fights, people beating others in the street, arguments between neighbours, gang stuff. If we look for it there is plenty of violence around. Lots of it. We like to pretend that we live in a cosy little world. Civilisation, if you like. But it's all a question of perspective. Ask a detective, or an A&E doctor and they will tell you that civilisation is not quite as civilised as we imagine.

Cases like the recent Bradford murders are fascinating because they remind us of how close we are to the things we don't like to contemplate.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

today : close to home/down by the river

Just as I got to the south side of the river on Baildon Bridge there were police in the road, about 10 of them. I was slowing for the lights anyway so I just stopped to let them cross and they ran in front of the cars. At first I thought it was a traffic accident, but couldn't see any debris or the tell-tale signs of people standing around looking a bit bewildered. Plus ten police was way too many. As I pulled up to the lights, on the left I could see a WPC guarding the entrance to the path that led down the side of the glass-fronted luxury car showroom to the river. Behind her the narrow gap was cordoned off with some blue and white crime scene tape.

I drove the short distance to my house and went inside. After I checked the mail and my messages I made a coffee and switched on the TV. I flicked through the channels and found nothing of interest. So I switched to the CD player and spooled through to see what discs I'd left in. I settled on The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and as it played I went and pottered in the kitchen, sharpening knives, arranging a stack of plates in the cupboard, washing up a few dishes and filling a pan of salt-water with new potatoes, ready to cook them later.

The album wasn't quite finished but I went back to the TV, lighting a cigarette and switching back to News 24. There was a breaking news item scrolling along the bottom of the screen, announcing that remains had been found in the search for a missing woman.

As the story unfolded over the evening things grew clearer. After a couple of hours the TV trucks arrived and live reports were coming from the scene. Human remains had been spotted in the river by a walker on the footpath at about two o' clock. That made it less than half an hour prior to when I'd driven over the bridge and let the policemen cross in front of me.

Later, just after midnight, I went out to the petrol station to buy ten cigarettes and on impulse decided to drive back down to the bridge to observe the scene. I drove past and all there was to see was the measures taken to stop people from seeing anything. Steel fencing had been erected on both sides of the bridge. It was tall; the kind that's used to keep people out of rock festivals. All access to the river and the side roads was now cordoned off with blue and white crime scene tape and each point was guarded by a uniformed constable. Through the buildings I could see the peaks of the white tents set up by the police in a car-park next to the river.
Just past the bridge the road curves sharply to the left and after the bend there is the entrance to a DIY superstore car-park. I used the entrance to U-turn the car, and was amused to see the six or seven cars following me did the same. Our curious little convoy crossed back over the bridge and stopped at the lights. I noticed the WPC guarding the pathway down to the river look at her watch and yawn.

24 hours later and the Sun had the headline. "Uni Boffin Questioned in Crossbow Cannibal Murders"

Only last weekend, a friend and I were discussing 'True Crime' - specifically a blog-post of mine that discussed some of my childhood memories about the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper. For the people of places like Leeds, Bradford, Shipley, Heaton, Baildon, Huddersfield and Halifax the Yorkshire Ripper murders still exert a strange power. Much of it comes from geography, and the fact that for many people, one and sometimes several of Sutcliffes crimes happened closeby. My friend Jane had lived on the same street as him. They were childhood playmates. In my blog piece I described a bus I took as a teenager from the central Leeds police station at Millgarth, back to my school. From the top-deck of the bus we could see two of the murder scenes and the route passed within about half a mile of three more.

Since I moved to the village of Saltaire, on the North Edge of Bradford, I am within a couple of miles of Sutcliffe's house, and a short drive away from where several more of his victims were found. And now I live about a quarter mile from the river where the remains of Suzanne Blamires were spotted floating in the water. Friends of mine attend Bradford Uni, where Stephen Griffiths was apparently studying his Criminology PhD. His flat is just behind the music shop where I buy guitar strings.

Over three days my locale has become the centre of the news world. If I want to see what the weather is like outside, I can just turn on the news.

And then today David Cameron popped up in Saltaire, the 19th Century industrial model village where I live, to give his first major speech as PM. He spoke in a meeting room at Salts Mill where I once attended an educational training course. The horribly congested roads around here were further snarled by temporary closures and an influx of police and media.

Interestingly, nobody on the news mentioned that Cameron was speaking just yards away from the River Aire and only about 400 yards from where frogmen were still searching the waters for the corpses of two women whose original disappearance never made the news because they were from the part of society that is ignored, forgotten and dismissed.

Monday, May 24, 2010

today : fish are jumpin'

So, even though it's not actually Summer we had a couple of days of glorious Summer weather here in rainy old blighty. Blazing sun by day, a cool 72 degrees at night. Girls broke out their French Bikinis and the car air-con went on full blast. I always like to play The Beach Boys when Summer comes around as there really is nothing better. Is California Girls not (along with Brigitte Bardot, bien sur) one of the most joyous things of all time?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

today : self reflexion

Whenever I look at my blog I am always surprised that anyone else ever looks at it. But the numbers don't lie. Whatever the counter says, needs to have 5200 added, because I changed the counter and lost that number of recorded hits. Last time I looked closely I have had visitors from 90+ countries.

I started blogging as a way to discipline my writing. I was struggling with what I guess people call writers block and thought that some commitment would do me good. A friend of mine showed me the blog of a Professor of New Media. I was struck by how much of it was cross-posted from other blogs or even just plagiarised. It made me wonder if this particular Professor of New Media was actually an Emperor of New Clothes too.

But I could see the usefulness for myself. Publishing to the world - to a potential but basically imaginary audience, would instill a sense of responsibility in my writing. My initial plan was to write very extended pieces - maybe even book length, and post them as I wrote. But that Dickensian ideal fell by the wayside pretty quickly.

I was never under any illusions that I was adding anything original to the tide of noisy opinion that now sweeps the world via the Blogosphere, the Twittersphere and all the other spheres that seem to grow exponentially as each month goes by. That is why I have tended to shy away from the daily comment model, where I give my instant reactions to news events, politics and the like. But as a teacher I have a special interest in teaching issues and my experience gives me enough insight that I feel writing my thoughts is legitimate and useful. And as I grew increasingly disabled in the last few years I also felt it important to write about that. Partly, this was writing as therapy. It's pretty hard to come to terms with the onset of disability. Your entire relationship with the day-to-day world changes quite profoundly. For me, things like using a wheelchair also re-opened my eyes to the kind of prejudice that I didn't previously encounter, and thought was on the way out.

But mainly my blog has been an exercise in writing for writing's sake. As such I looked back over the (including this one) 452 posts and it also serves as a diary of sorts. There have been pieces contemporaneous with the events of the day. Sometimes I have posted in anger, frustration or excitement. You can't help but be influenced by current events, but I am happy to be more circumspect than most. So don't come here for my take on whatever happened today (today - 18th May 2010 was the 30th anniversary of the death of Ian Curtis and also Mt St Helens exploding).

One of the things that does surprise me is that I get so many hits even thought I have deliberately stayed anonymous and done nothing to advertise or monetize (Google's term, not mine) my blog. This is despite me advising other people on how to maximise their hit-rates (my main advice is to make your links section into an indispensable set of bookmarks on your chosen specialist subject - a place that other folk will bookmark instead of compiling their own links list). Of course, I have deliberately not taken my own advice. My links are pretty random, just stuff I like or have found interesting, which isn't really a specialist subject. A small circle of friends know where to find me, and the fact that it's me. But beyond that I've made no effort to gain a wider readership. Interestingly, my greatest hits - the posts that literally received the greatest number of hits - are mainly to do with religion. A comment on Islamic bathing costumes somehow was posted to a liberal Muslim discussion board and received almost a hundred hits in 2 days. My piece on the death of Baroness Nicky Chapman from a few weeks ago got forty in a day. I put that down to the fact that the newspaper obits were really rubbish and some people were looking to find info on her.

But many of my hits come from the fact that I always accompany each post with an image. I guess these pictures, which I generally harvest from the Web, retain their original hidden information and tagging stuff, and so appear on image-searches. It looks like at least 40% of hits on my blog are to do with the pictures.

As I have said, the international hits and the few regular readers who show up, when once in a while I do the Analytics thing, are a bonus. If someone is amused by something I posted, or diverted, or made to think, then that is excellent. But that is not why I am proud of my 'umble little blog. What gratifies me is the notion that I have followed through with my plan.

It's an odd feeling, but I feel responsible to it. When I have not posted anything for a while I feel a tad guilty. Sometimes I use a tried and tested stop-gap, like a one or two liner about something nostalgic, or a Youtube video of some groovy music. But even these are kind of planned. Music is something that I am deeply involved with and have been posting a lot of recently. But this reflects a recent surge in my own interest in new artists and songs.

Which is perfectly acceptable. My blog should reflect me. Which, in a selective way, it does.

Anyway, the reason that I ended up posting this tribute to myself comes down to a beautiful young woman whom I shall call Katrine. Katrine was one of those women who are so beautiful that they stay in your mind forever - frozen in time like Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not. I was simply driving down the road the other day and saw a sign that reminded me of a restaurant which reminded me of a meal I'd had there with Katrine; which reminded me of the fact that the meal developed into a surprise tryst. And because in the natural order of things, these things don't happen to me, or guys like me, or almost nobody outside of the letters page of Forum magazine in the 1970s in fact, the two nights spent in hotels with Katrine have - even though I've hardly ever thought about them - stayed with me for many years. But actually it wasn't the two nights, but a few seconds that must have been ingrained. Just a few seconds of her coming out of the bathroom. Initially, it amused me because I was with a woman-friend at the time I drove past the sign and seemingly went into a kind of reverie-induced shutdown to the point where she got a little upset, thinking she had done something wrong. But I couldn't explain to her that I was simply lost in the years-old pictorial memory of the sublimely beautiful Katrine in a state of deshabille. Now that would have cause some upset.

Which got me thinking about two things. The first, that of all the things that have the power to stop men in their tracks, the main one is the beauty of a woman. Whether in memory or current reality the power that beauty holds is pretty much immeasurable. Added to that was the idea that somehow these days it isn't the done thing for men to be seen appreciating the beauty of women. It's a tricky path.

The second thought I had was how difficult it is to have any kind of relationship with someone else, without sometimes finding yourself in a position where a lie is the best course of action.

Which got me writing on both topics. Except, what began as a short piece grew and grew. Frankly, to think that 'The Immeasurable Power of the Beauty of Women' is a topic which could be covered in four hundred words is at best very optimistic and at worst obviously insane. Given that a large percentage of the poetry and prose written throughout history is pretty much on that topic, as well as most art and many, many songs, and nobody seems to have managed to exhaust the seam yet.

And the one about relationships and honesty. Well Shakespeare had almost 40 goes at that one and still didn't run out of angles. So what hope do I have?

So of course, what started as blog post grew and grew. I'll let you know how it goes. But it's already heading towards 10,000 words. And with there being necessary erotic elements it could take forever, as they are almost impossible to write.

But I don't mind. It means that my initial impulse to use this blog to discipline my writing has worked. So far I have spun off 12 or 14 significant pieces of writing from blog ideas. Some of them (such as the piece on The Ripper Room - 14 hits in 3 days) appear here. Some, like this piece ,inspired by Katrine and the hotel room, don't really.

Maybe I'll find a way to put them up somewhere, sometime and see if they become hits.

Anyway, if I can write one tenth as well on my chosen topic as Billy Bragg does in The Saturday Boy, I'll be doing pretty well.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

today : Aaaaaaaaaaaaagh!

My question is: How the hell did the Tories not win the election with a resounding thump? Everything was in place. They were up against a 3rd term government and could exploit the natural boredom of the electorate. They had the solid backing of the press. The Tory papers (Express Mail Sun Times FT Telegraph) mounted a two year long mud-slinging attack on Gordon Brown, the non-Tory press were at best restless and generally frustrated with Labour and the 24 TV and radio news relies so much on the papers that all this was reflected throughout the 'media'. The country has gone through a hideous recession and is still teetering. Labour was responsible for a war that many many people disagreed with and this was then highlighted again with Blair and Brown up in front of hearings just weeks before the vote. The Tories had a huge amount of cash in their election war-chest and Labour didn't.

What's more, Cameron has steered the party well. He pretty much put the finishing touches to the rehabilitation that the Tories needed, building on the incremental progress made by Hague, IDS and Howard. Probably the most moderate Tory leader of all time, he managed to keep a lid on the anti-Europe wing, discuss immigration without unleashing an unreconstructed spasm of racism amongst his members and MPs, offered a New Labour style commitment to social justice and tempered and ignored the ideological dogmatism of the Thatcherite rump.

He even seems like a nice enough chap. Young and virile enough to impregnate his missus, touched with compassion and the tragedy of the loss of his son (these things are, I'm afraid, important for public sympathy although I imagine he would have sacrificed all of it to have his son live). People called him the new Tony Blair. But even then I think that's a bit unfair. Cameron doesn't seem quite as slick as Blair. In fact, he comes over as more honest, if anything.

So what went so wrong? It certainly points to one thing: that the press no longer possess the power they used to. Whether this is due to the increased embedding of 24 hour news in the culture or the increasing ubiquity of the internet as peoples' source of information. (Without researching this, and only using mine and my friends' habits as a model) the internet also seems to have changed the way we consume news and information - cherry picking individual articles and pages from here, there and everywhere. This negates the power of a newspaper's bias, as we are as likely to consume a story from one place as much as another, rather than read the Daily Mail or The Guardian each day and buy into their overarching narratives.

Perhaps the fact that media increasingly eats itself means that we are all, in a sense, media studies students who are aware that, for example, Murdoch owns The Sun, The Times and the NOTW, as well as Sky News.
Maybe the papers have just lost their grip. How many people flick through the freesheets rather than spend on a 'real' paper. We can see this is in the tantrum-like behaviour of the Tory press since May 6th. They are like the hare, unable to believe that they didn't win the race. They just can't handle it. The response has been hysterical at best and actually more like a spoilt brat throwing a tantrum.

If they 'thqueam and thqueam' any more, like Violet Elizabeth Bott, they are in grave danger of being sick.

The apotheosis of this is the way Brown has been portrayed as some kind of Hitler figure, holed up in his bunker, desperately trying to maintain his grip on power whilst the world outside crumbles. They are either disingenuously ignoring that he is simply following constitutional convention, or they are too stupid to understand it. Who knows? If he had resigned on Friday, leaving the country leaderless and something like 7/7 happened on Saturday, he would have been held personally responsible. If the Greek deal had fallen through at the weekend and there'd have been a serious run on the pound, the same would have happened.

The Mail, Express, Sun and Telegraph seem to be so stunned by their impotent inability to claim victory (it was the Sun wot hung it, as some wag pointed out) that their only response it to howl and stamp in frustration at their own diminishing influence. They also seem to be so in the habit of portraying Gordon Brown as some venal, evil monster that even on his resignation - when usually even the most one-eyed of papers will offer sober reflection on a lifetime of public service and at least acknowledge the good intentions of a leader - they continued with their caricature. It seems seems the press believe the propaganda they've been printing every day for the past three years, even as the election result shows the public don't.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

today : listen to this

In a totally figurative and entirely non-stalkerish way, if Paloma Faith wished it, I would, of course, gladly marry her.

Her first record was really excellent. And more, the more I heard her speak last year, the more I thought she was clearly an intelligent, naturally funny and extremely talented performer and personality.

If you get the chance, catch the performance she did with The Guy Barker Orchestra, broadcast on Radio2 this week. It was outstanding, and will have done a lot to promote her into a whole different stratosphere - not just another female pop-star, but an artist with rare depth and potential. A clever and knowledgeable choice of 'classic' tunes, interpreted with character, skill and charisma. At the end she says to the crowd "This is the best day of my life so far" and the performance was so good that I imagine it wasn't just a platitude.

The iplayer link is here

today : the weight

I found it very interesting that Peter Harvey, the teacher who attacked a pupil was treated so sympathetically by both a jury and a judge. I've only read the press reports but it appears like they understood his position.

At the time of the incident I speculated on three things: firstly that the teacher would have been hard-working, commited and long serving/suffering with a recent history of stress illness. Secondly, that the pupil would be the kind whose existence was dedicated to misbehaviour, disruption and disrespect (I actually surmised this from seeing a photo of him on the news. The kid had a look on his face that so many teachers would recognise - a mixture of gormless arrogance and superiority), and that thirdly the school management would be somewhat implicated in the incident.

Turns out I was right on all counts.

From what I read, after the incident Mr Harvey immediately confessed to clubbing the boy: willing to take whatever punishment was deemed necessary.
Teachers suffer stress. I left the profession due to it, and I've written at some length about the sheer numbers of teachers who are suffering - the schools I've worked in where 20 percent of the staff are on sick leave at any time, the people who seem to cope at work but have devastated personal lives. Those who are no good, not because they are untalented or don't care, but because they've chosen survival, which means doing less at work in order to survive at home. Those whose alcohol and drug use is the only way they can cope.

I don't know the exact reasons why teacher stress happens at such a rate (and of course they are not the only ones who are overworked, under-resourced and subject to burnout). But I have a theory that for teachers it is something to do with the sheer volume of people you have interact with on a daily or weekly basis that provides a special kind of mental and emotional tiredness. I might be wrong, but I've worked long hours in both physical and non-physical jobs in my time and come nowhere close to to the stress levels I experienced as a teacher. I imagine medics and police might suffer the same kind of thing. Add this emotional drainage to overwork, constant changes in working practises and expectations and all the other stuff that teachers have to endure whilst performing their jobs and it can smash you apart.

I've noticed some of the black humour the Harvey case has inspired. Much of it is based around teachers taking violent revenge on misbehaving pupils. And I think it comes via a recognition from many school staff. When I was at my worst my temper outside school was constantly on a hair trigger and would explode quite violently over the smallest random thing. Thankfully I never quite lost control and caused any damage. Other people I know - placid, pleasant people - have reported the same symptoms. Peter Harvey gave into the frustration and countered the violence of intimidation and bullying with uncontrolled physical revenge. Many teachers will be thinking that it could easily have been them. How much further did they need to be pushed before they picked up a heavy object and used it to shut a taunting, arrogant, shit-eating teenager's gob? A millimetre? A mile?

You don't know your breaking point until you reach it.
I could easily have been in his position. Again, it's something I've written lots about. The taunts, the physical attacks, the threats, the disruption, the bullying, the sexual harassment, vandalism of property, continuous undermining. It happens in all schools. In some it is the norm. But there's also the patronising and ineffectual management, the cowardly refusal of school managers to deal effectively (or at all) with pupil misbehaviour, the sheer ignorance of special and behavioural needs that leads to tokenistic sanctions and meaningless, pathetic behavioural support systems rather than real but difficult and resource-hungry solutions.

I've probably mentioned this before, but I worked in a school where one head of year - I shall call him Morton - seemed to believe that success in his job was measured by the lack of misbehaviour by the pupils under his charge. His way to achieve this was not to tackle and solve misbehaviour but to ignore it. If one of his year 8 students was cited for disruption he would quietly destroy the paperwork and tell everyone he'd counselled the child in question. Which he didn't, of course. The consequence was that the worst behaved pupils not only continued to cause mayhem and stress for everyone in the school, but did it with stated impunity. Teachers would try to go over his head to deal with problems, but then found themselves badmouthed and threatened with complaints to the union. If year eight students were referred to the isolation unit without his consultation they would go and complain to him and he would just pull them out and put them back into thei regular classes. He would also tend to blame either the teachers or the pupils themselves. One of his mantras was that Year 8s were the most difficult and disruptive in any school. It was well known.

When he moved to become head of year ten, year ten students suddenly became the most disruptive in the school.

There were two issues that arose. One I can understand; one that still baffles me.

The first one is that he himself was allowed to get away with not discharging the responsibilities of his job because the people above him were as paranoid and weak as he was. They did exactly the same for disruptive and lazy members of staff as he did for the pupils.

The second, which baffles me, is that he spent so much time and effort not dealing with misbehaviour properly (by properly I mean in line with the stated school policies that everyone else followed. The policies are never perfect but it's a decent start when the whole staff start to follow the same hymn sheet) that it would have been easier for him to simply deal with the issues. There must have been something else at play - something specific to him.

Notably, Morton was high up in a school department that consistently got the lowest grades in the school and never improved. Because here is the truth - classroom disruption takes the highest toll amongst the teachers who care most about their students. They are the ones who make up the time lost to disruptive lessons, they are the ones who empathise with the pupils in the class who turn up to school prepared to work and achieve but are themselves constantly scuppered by unruly classmates. They are the ones whom, above all, are driven by an altruistic impulse and invest personally in the achievement of their charges.
This is fine when an institution collectively acts together, but when breaks in the chain are apparent and nobody addresses them, then caring teachers are left to fight the battles alone.

It becomes worse, because the more they fight back against those who are determined to disrupt and feel immune to sanctions across the school, the more those elements will try to 'win' in your classroom the way they have won elsewhere in the school (sometimes their winning against other teachers isn't about causing mayhem, but in being left alone. Sometimes the victory is to force a teacher into not putting any effort into trying to educate you, or address the special needs you are embarrassed about. Sometimes it is in succeeding in getting the teacher to turn a blind eye to non-classroom behaviour issues such as bullying or truancy. Many teachers are relieved when the potentially disruptive element fails to show up and it is always easier to let bullying happen on the periphary than to challenge it). The teachers in Morton's department would boast about not reporting truancy from their lessons. The pupils boasted about what they were allowed to get up to when they did attend. They loved those lessons because there was no work involved.

The weak managers in too many schools repeat the same behaviours. that allowed Morton to continue unquestioned Firstly they lock themselves in offices and actively don't engage with either pupils or teaching staff. The excuse for this is that they are dealing with budgets and meetings and the like. The second thing they do is turn a blind eye to difficult problems. The third thing they do is to is to turn everything back on the regular staff. More specifically they turn it onto the staff who work the hardest and commit the most, as they are the one who are wont to highlight problems and shine a light on weak management.

In no area is this more stark than in dealing with illness. Hard working teachers are more likely to eventually get exhausted and stressed and take time off ill. For many this signals the end of their career. Not because they don't recover, but because they are pushed out. Partly, this is heads finding an easy budget cut that looks good on their own CV. Force out a 10 or 20 year veteran and you can replace them with a newly qualified and much cheaper youngster. But partly this is also a good way to explain away failure. Push the blame onto someone who is ill with stress. It's easy. You can explain away league-table underachievement by putting it onto the member of staff. And it's not only heads. If someone in a department disappears for a few months other teachers can overstate the impact on their own performance in so many ways. 'We were carrying them for months before they were signed off. We had to cover their absence and work so much harder to plug the gap. It's unfair that on their return they get special treatment." And, oddly, there is still an attitude amongst many that stress illness is a sign of weakness or a pointer to incompetence. I have heard people who've been ill themselves espouse this point of view.
Peter Harvey likely suffered this. There is also a cavalier attitude to confidentiality. Managers and other backstabbing staff often gleefully tell the students that someone is off with stress (in my experience these are people who will point the finger at anyone for any reason to deflect from their own insecurity or incompetence). Many's the time I've been supplying and been told in great detail about the medical history of the person I'm covering for, as well as which teacher revealed it to the pupils. It was given in evidence that Peter Harvey was being taunted by the pupils for having time off for stress. Who told them why he was off?

I remember when I was at school and we had a student teacher. Clearly a nice guy but not tough enough for our school (which was in an odd geographical position - it took about 60 percent of students from one of the poorest council estates in the country and the other 40 from the other side of the tracks: decent middle-class kids). The student was fine with my class - the decent middle class set one, but suffered the worst the others could dish out to him. Eventually he left, having been physically attacked a few times and gone through all the threats, intimidation etc. At the time even I believed that certain individuals had caused him to quit, rather than institutional failure or any other factors. They were the ones in my own school who perpetrated the violence, the disruption, the bullying, vandalism and chaos. These people are like Al Qaeda in that they will try to cause as much chaos as possible and, even if something is nothing to do with them, will claim the credit anyway. Two or three years later they continued perpetrating the myth that it was they who caused his demise, and wore it as a badge of honour. I am wondering if Peter Harvey's victim was maybe one of these types.

In some cases I know of, the returning teacher is simply punished by the management until they quit. Someone I know had three months off and was then put under an observation regime for six months. This meant, despite a decade of truly excellent performance, a requirement for them basically to prove their competence on a daily basis - turning in detailed lesson plans to management (thus even more workload), accounting for every moment of their time, having senior managers and even outside observers randomly placed at the back of their lessons. It was a campaign to make him resign.

It worked.

Which leads to paranoia. All that I've read suggests that Peter Harvey returned to work too early. I am willing to bet that he was also in fear of his job and maybe claimed to be coping when he wasn't. Show one chink in your armour and the self-serving vultures start circling. When I got really ill, I'd seen it coming a ways of and had already approached the school asking for help. I was ignored, of course. After I was signed off on the insistence of my doctor it quickly became clear that the local authority occupational health and the head of the school were acting in cahoots to offer the opposite of the support that I deserved and was expecting.

Others in my school suffered the same threats and ultimatums as I did. It was clearly policy to use illness as an excuse to 'weed' people out.
One teacher I knew, John, was stalked and terrorised by a small gang of sixth formers. They had caused endless problems in all their classes and throughout the school but the school refused to kick them out because the head of sixth form didn't want the hassle and it cost a cut in grants to have them leave. Tacit instructions were issued to let them drift along until they voluntarily dropped out in the last few months of their course, after the grants deadline had passed and the school was therefore allowed to keep the money. John cared about his other students and grew sick of these wasters disrupting classes, distracting others and risking everyones' hard work. So he stuck his neck out and insisted they be thrown off his course. When this didn't happen they lorded it over him, causing deliberate disruption to punish him for standing up to them. They were really only in sixth form to get the weekly EMA grant as free spending money and couldn't have a teacher spoiling it for them. He refused to let them into his classroom. His car was vandalised. The school took no action of course. (we were all supposed to fill in 'violence to staff' reports which the head then sent to the LEA for recording. It was well know that these were always binned, so people just stopped filling them in) Continuing with his classroom ban he took the argument to his union and threatened to get the police involved over the vandalism. Somehow the students involved got wind of the union complaint and the threats of calling the police so he then found himself followed home and stones were thrown through his windows. The students and their gang would stand nightly outside his house shouting threats and insults, turning out his bin and throwing stones at the house. One night he set out to walk to the local shop and was jumped and beaten up.

On recovering and returning to school a couple of months later he was treated to the interrogation and given the blame for abandoning his pupils in the lead up to exams. The entire department's poor results were pinned on him and, as a 30 year veteran of the school, he was placed under a similar observation regime to the one I detailed above. It cracked him and his doctor signed him off again. An agreement for early retirement was reached and at 55 he was thrown on the scrapheap to be replaced by a cheaply paid 22 year old.

As I said when the Harvey case first came to light, it is a surprise that these kind of things don't happen more often. Maybe the positive is that there are plenty of schools that look after their staff and students and take everyones' welfare very seriously. Extremely poor behaviour by individual pupils is generally dealt with in some way or another. There is a cohort who simply get moved on every six months or so, bouncing in and out of Referral Units and into a neverending series of new schools. But I know there are plenty of schools who do not take staff and student welfare as seriously as they should. Maybe the sheer numbers of teachers who leave the profession after only a short time is a self-regulating safety valve. Most get out before they reach the position Peter Harvey got into.

Monday, May 03, 2010

today : a pretty good stop-gap

Haven't been able to finish anything recently - sleep pattern's gone and all that. I thought about breaking my election embargo but instead I'm posting Lissie's song 'In Sleep', which has got under my skin recently. Imagine if someone told you this was some long lost Stevie Nicks song from 1978 then you might believe them. In my opinion Lissie has a better voice than Stevie, and it would be a travesty if she didn't make it big time. It's nice to have so many excellent female artists around at the moment. But Lissie is a bit different: her voice and music doesn't sound like a girl, but like a proper woman (like Lucinda Williams next to Taylor Swift, for example. Or Lily Allen next to Kate Bush, or Jenny Lewis next to Harriet Wheeler).