Wednesday, 29 May 2013


I ask you. A man with an avowed intention to give it all up and go and live on a commune somewhere, and then he only goes and gets himself an interview for some fancy arsed corporate job. “I hate the City!” he wails, “I need to get out!” and then off he promptly trots at the beck and call of the first besuited headhunter that happens to walk past.

I mean. Really.

I did ask myself what on earth I was doing and waggled the fickle finger of frustration, but then I reasoned to myself thus: it never hurts to talk to people, it’s only meant to be a short term thing anyway (three years or so), we can't just stop paying for stuff, and, well, yes it is quite an exciting role, and a wonderful opportunity, and, oh, well, they asked me. And of course having now been for the interview I’m fairly certain that they’re not actually going to ask me to do the job. In the spirit of détente I accepted that explanation and went for a drink.

Maybe it’s fear. Terror of the unknown. Scared that maybe the grass won’t be greener and I’m better off staying where I am, even if where I am happens to be stood ankle deep in mud and slowly sinking further. It has a name, you know, this hesitancy of mine. It’s a medical condition: Betterthedevilyouknowitis. From the Latin for ‘too lazy to act’. Disillusionment breeds sloth. Or is it sloth breeds misery? No fair, no foul? No jam, no bread, or something.

What a depressing day. Here, have some French ninja cats while I go and make myself a cup of tea and stare out of the window wistfully for a bit.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Sitting on the fence can be quite uncomfortable

This weekend (apart from getting very drunk and disagreeing with La Child about the merits of Romanian Castrato Vampire Eurovision entries) I ‘ave been mostly thinking about stuff educational.

In particular, we’ve had the great Gove brouhaha of course, with teachers unions standing on one side passing votes of no confidence and throwing rotten tomatoes, and Gove striking a decidedly lonely figure on the other side bemoaning the rabid Marxist ideology of teachers and generally chucking brickbats. The crux, so far as I understand it, is thus: Gove thinks that the only way to improve standards is to introduce rigour, insist on rote learning, and get the basics right, ensuring children know their adjectives from the adverbs and can recite their times tables backwards with confidence; teachers say that all sounds lovely, but in reality it would take us back thirty years and fly in the face of all accepted modern teaching practice, with its emphasis on Inquiry- and Problem-based learning. Children don’t learn, say the teachers, if what they’re learning appears to them to have no practical application. You have to make it interesting. You have to teach in context. Fine, says Gove, but first you have to give children the basic building blocks; you can’t be creative without knowing how first to express that creativity.

I’ve always been cursed with a lawyer’s mindset: there are always two sides to every story, there is merit in all arguments. Life is the navigation of an ocean of different shades of grey, and other such noises. And up until not that long ago that’s precisely how I would have viewed this particular issue. Yes, you teach in context, yes, you should make it interesting but at the same time children do need to know the basics. If you can’t read, you’ll find your ability to learn severely curtailed. If you don’t know your times tables, you’ll find that trip down to the greengrocer’s so much more difficult (and yes, that apostrophe is in precisely the right place, thank you). Both sides are right. Go away, kiss and make up, children.

Now, however, I’m not so sure. I’m becoming increasingly influenced by two quite remarkable men – Sir Ken Robinson and Sugata Mitra (if either name is new to you, look up their TED talks here and here) – and I now find myself falling off the fence towards the teachers.

The most successful people always seem to be those who can be creative. Those who can see things from a fresh perspective, those who are unafraid to ignore what came before and who can see what might lie ahead. The ability, in essence, to say ‘yes, I know that’s how we normally do things, but what if we were to do this instead?’ It’s a skill we’re all born with – it’s how babies learn about the world around them – and yet it’s a skill that the current education system chips away at. As soon as you enter the system you’re told ‘this is how it works’. Opportunities to discover for yourself are few and far between as you slowly but inexorably work towards first SATS tests, then GCSEs and A-Levels. This is how you write, this is how you add, this is how it is. I remember when I was at school, questioning why something was done the way it was done and being told ‘because that’s how you pass the exam.’ By the time children leave the system their ability to view life creatively has taken a beating, and yet at that point we then take them by the hand and say ‘now you are adults, now we expect you to go forth and shape our future world. Toodle pip.’

There’s a disconnect between what we want children to learn, and how we think they should learn. A mismatch. A conflict. It just isn’t working. It may have worked once upon a time when we needed to churn out perfect little clones to go out into the Empire capable of neat handwriting and instant recollection of mathematical shortcuts, but it’s not working now that we have so much information available for almost instant recall. I’m not suggesting, of course, that there’s no need for handwriting or a knowledge of basic arithmetic, say, but the emphasis placed on these things, their importance, is overstated.

Let me give you an example from my professional background. When I started in law, there was a huge emphasis on library skills. We all had to be able to walk into a law library and find information. Physical research skills were vital. Now fast forward a bare 15 years, and find me a single trainee solicitor in any firm that still routinely (or ever) goes anywhere near a law library. Caselaw, legislation, textbooks, all available online. What once took half a day of concerted research can now be found in minutes from the comfort of your desk. Does that impact on the ability of new solicitors to do their job? No, of course not. It frees them to concentrate on doing it, rather than wasting their time looking stuff up. Experience, the ringing of vague bells in the back of the head, counts for more than rote knowledge. But in schools, at least if Gove has his way, it will all be about rote knowledge – and to a certain extent already is, because we already have SATS, and testing, and Ofsted, and observation and oversight.

This isn’t just a holdover from the Empire. This is our maddening need to score performance, isn’t it? Our modern desire to place things into a list. We must score schools, we must be able to tell how well they’re doing. Like some grotesque real life version of the X Factor we have to pit one school against the other and be able to find them wanting. And how do you measure a school’s performance? You test its product. You test the children. And if you test the children, then the children need to know how to pass the test. So they’re taught to pass it, and inquiry and curiosity take a back seat.

It’s fashionable to say the system is broken, but it’s not broken – it simply, as Sugata Mitra says, does a job that’s no longer fit for purpose. And while in some circles (particularly, I confess, one we find ourselves in with La Child who is, as I may have mentioned before, quite clever) it’s also fashionable to blame teachers for the lack of support for children who don’t quite fit the system, it’s not the teachers’ fault. It’s the system’s fault. It’s Gove’s fault, and it’s our fault for accepting a system that is not fit for purpose, and forcing teachers to work with it.

Sorry, a bit long and ranty for a Monday afternoon this. I’ll find a video of a cat being a Ninja for the next one.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Falling falling...

I do believe my work here is done. This explains why I want out more eloquently than I ever could:

In The Fall

Don't go changing your mind

So many options, so much hassle.

When you're thinking of getting a new job, the thought processes normally go something like this: I don't like my job, I want a new job, I'll get a new job. Mostly, this involves getting a new job that is moderately similar to the one you already have, so other than having to update your CV, get upset with incompetent recruiters and lie your way through an interview or two, the process is relatively straightforward.

You can probably see where this is going.

If, instead of being happy to just carry on doing the same thing for perhaps a slightly higher wage and a different route to the coffee machine, you want to be all difficult and reckless and stuff and not carry on doing the same thing, then it gets a little more tricky. I raise this because of course I have opted to go down the difficult and reckless and stuff path, and if anything illustrates the innate trickiness of my decision it's the letter I received this morning from the Department of Education. 'Hello,' it began, 'you've expressed an interest in possibly becoming a teacher.' 

Well, yes. Maybe. 

'That's great,' it went on, ''you can earn lots and it's brilliant for career progression.' 

Really? Please tell me more. 

'Thanks. Here's how you can do it,' it explained, and then went on to detail what turns out to be a two year process from initial application, to starting the course/training in school, to qualification. And at the end there's a possible job. And all the while surviving on, er, just a tad less than I'm currently earning. It's not just a move into teaching, of course. I'd commit acts of gross indecency on sweaty hoofed animals if it got me a commercial pilot's licence and a job flying 737s in return, but that would take (a) even longer, (b) a lot of money, and (c) a great deal of luck (commercial pilot jobs are somewhere near rocking horse do dah in the rare stakes). And I'd have to get over my tendency towards motion sickness. Bit of a bugger that one.

Anyway, the point (which I do get to eventually) is simply this: I don't yet know what I want to or can do - I'm still adjusting to the possibility of being able to do anything other than be a lawyer - but I am acutely aware that whatever it is it will take time, money and effort to get to the point where I can do it. What an odd society we are where it's so very hard to change your mind. 

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Easier said than done

Oh, this is all a bit new and different, isn’t it?

Been trying to write a follow up to my first blog post and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sighed, stopped, electronically scrunched up the page and chucked it with a frustrated harrumph into the bin. You want to get something out, you feel the urge to express yourself, but by Gove it just doesn’t want to come.

Bit of a metaphor for life right now, then. I know I’ve said we’ve figured out how to step off the treadmill, but as the Italians might say, tra il dire e il fare c’é di mezzo il mare. Or in other words, easier said than done. All our savings are tied up in the house, so the only way to get at them is to sell the house. That means getting rid of the clutter, doing all those little annoying bits of DIY you’ve been meaning to do for years but never quite got around to it, tidying up the garden (something else that’s easier said than done), convincing The Child that no, selling your home isn’t the end of the world, yes, most of your toys will come with us, and yes we might just need to do something about all the animals.

We have a lot of animals. At last count we have something like 20 chickens, 6 ducks, 2 geese, 11 rabbits, 3 cats and 1 dog. Yes, they do limit our flexibility a bit. Yes, we might eat most of them. Yes, it’s going to cause all sorts of heartache and pain with The Child. No, we won’t eat the cats and the dog.

All minor stuff, though, really, and so very necessary. Been back at work for the past three days after a week off and I’ve only just managed to hold off doing something completely silly. I have access to implements of murder. I could do some serious damage with my oversized stapler. So far I’ve limited myself to simply using it to staple random bits of paper together, rather than, say, beat my team members to death with it or staple a post-it with the words ‘Ow, this really hurts’ to someone’s forehead. But it won’t be too much longer.

I really do need to get going. Push forward. Press the button. Action those to-do points. Grab that low hanging fruit. Make the most of my results driven ethos and deliver some outstanding results.


They say the hardest part is deciding to act. No it isn’t. The hardest part is actually doing anything.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

It had to start somewhere


You've heard it all before, of course. Man is about to hit 40, man starts wondering what it's all about. You work all hours, he reasons, for five or more days a week, for some forty seven weeks a year, for forty or so years, and for what? The chance to spend your last ten or twenty years - if you're lucky - doing stuff you want to actually do? Except of course you can't, because by then you're tired and old and your body can't and won't do the things you could before. But by the time you realise it, it's too late. Those forty years have gone. Man wakes up in a cold sweat most nights from a recurring nightmare where he's lying on his death bed, moments from croaking, and someone says 'so, any regrets?'

We're all mad.

So man starts thinking about what else he might do instead. He's already decided that his stupidly well paid City job doesn't cut it any more, that the daily two hour commute there and the two hour commute back really isn't worth it. He knows, deep down, that the big house, the nice car, the shiny new kitchen and the oversized HD ready, 3D enabled smart TV aren't worth the pressure from unpleasant clients, the day to day small minded politics of his office, the inane ramblings of his career obsessed colleagues, the constant stream of pseudo management wank-speak, going forward to this, picking the low hanging fruit from that, actioning the to do list of issues that point strategically to the collective melting of a million brains...

God, thinks man, I'm so very tired of it all. 

So here is man, about to turn 40, desperately wanting out. But man also has other things to worry about. Man has a daughter. And daughter is clever. Oh Lordy, daughter is so very clever; IQ so high it makes his nose bleed. Man knows that most people will think this must surely make his life easier, but most people would be wrong. In fact it makes life much much harder. Daughter is 8 years old and already has been through four schools, each one with its own particular brand of incompetence and lack of understanding. The first saw misbehaviour where in fact lay simple curiosity, the second thought that to spare the rod would lead to the downfall of man, the third was convinced that intelligence bred contempt and did everything it could to pretend that children had none, and the fourth...well, the fourth wasn't, isn't, bad, as it happens, but it costs just a little less than a third of man's take home salary each month and forces man to share breathing space with 4x4 driving nice-but-dim types who think it perfectly normal to wear full hunting garb to drop off little Rupert at the school gates and moan loudly about how much effort it is to have to go off to the pad in Bermuda again next week, but on the plus side they're so looking forward to seeing Camilla again at the weekend, and she's really a lovely person and it's so wonderful that Charles is finally free to have a life with her and oh, must dash, such a fag, they've brought my tennis lesson forward this morning. 

So. Yes. Where were we? Oh yes, man wants out and man has excessively clever daughter. Still haven't explained why clever = difficult, have I? Well, imagine a young couple. They have a child. Never had one before, no idea how that little bundle of joy is meant to behave, or what it's meant to do, or when. So when little bundle turns itself over from its back to its front and lifts itself up at the one week check they think nothing of it, even when the health visitor says 'oh, that's quite unusual.' And when little bundle starts following the words in that book daddy's reading quite intently, well, they all do that don't they? And when little bundle starts walking, or talking, or reading, or doing all those other things that parents think are miraculous milestones, the young couple don't stop to think that they're all happening months before little bundle's friends. Why would they? All children develop at different speeds, but they all get there in the end, don't they? 

Then imagine that same young couple two or three years later. Imagine them, one night, watching a documentary on television about remarkably clever children. Imagine their dawning realisation when the documentary concentrates on one young girl, about 4 years old, high IQ, described as a genius. As they watch, they realise that the things that the little girl is doing, the things which, according to the documentary, make her a genius, are things that their little bundle can do. Has been doing for months, in fact. Little bundle at this point is just about 3 years old. 

From then, life changes. The young couple have little bundle assessed and little bundle, it turns out, has a nosebleed inducing IQ. Little bundle, they're told, will need some support as she grows up. Little bundle will get bored easily. Little bundle will not go quietly into the night when told to do something, she will want to know why she needs to do it. Disciplining little bundle will not be easy. Keeping little bundle stimulated will take effort and devotion. Keeping up with little bundle will be a challenge. The young couple realise that life has suddenly become rather more involved

So, thinks the young couple, we'll enlist the help of the school system. Surely little bundle cannot be the first very clever little girl that schools have had to deal with. Schools will be experts at this sort of thing, they'll help us. But the young couple very soon learn that schools don't cater for very clever little girls. Some don't understand how, some don't believe that they need to, some think they can but in fact can't. Four years later, after so many meetings with so many teachers, young couple come to the realisation that schools really can't deal with little bundle.

And so here we are. Man wants out, man has had enough, man thinks that if the world wants to carry on being mad it can do so without him. But man has daughter to worry about. Thankfully, man has figured that one out (or, to be honest about it, wife has figured that one out, because wife is far more cleverer than wot man is, and man is more than happy to go along with it): daughter will be home schooled. If schools can't give her the support she needs, then her parents will. And with that, suddenly man's eyes are opened. Suddenly man realises he doesn't need to be tied down to where he lives. He doesn't need to live within spitting distance of a railway station, because he doesn't need to go up to London to work, because he doesn't need to earn a small fortune to live near a good school, because he doesn't need to send his daughter to a good school. Suddenly man realises that he's free. He can go anywhere, because his daughter can learn anywhere.

This is the story of a man whose life has hit the brick wall of mid life crisis, the tale of a family in flux, the continuing voyages of the Starship Who-The-Greasy-Poop-Knows-Where-We'll-End-Up. 

Join me.