Ursula K. Le Guin, Unsurpassed

Reading the Earthsea Quartet is like tuning into a frequency of awareness just underneath conscious thought. It is easy to become immersed in Le Guin’s world of wizards, sodden barren landscapes and dark ancient cults. Because her characters – even the wizards – are totally human. And their experiences are realised in such detail that, sometimes, I forget I am not them. After reading Le Guin, it’s not unusual to dream myself in her world.

I read A Wizard of Earthsea as a child. Then revisited her when my own daughter began reading longer more complex books. I couldn’t remember much about the book, but still in my memory, the name Ursula Le Guin almost possessed magic power. As names do in Earthsea: the secret true names of things work like spells.

We started with an audio book on longer car journeys. When I heard the description of the witch’s hut in A Wizard of Earthsea, from the perspective of a young boy about to become a wizard in training, it felt like a place I’d actually been before rather than something I’d read more than twenty years previously.

He sat while his aunt bound back her uncombed hair, and knotted the belt of her dress, and again sat cross-legged throwing handfuls of leaves into the firepit so that a smoke spread and filled the darkness of the hut. She began to sing. Her voice changed sometimes to low or high as if another voice sang through her, and the singing went on and on until the boy did not know if he waked or slept, and all the while the witch’s old black dog that never barked sat by him with eyes red from the smoke.

A Wizard of Earthsea

Le Guin enwraps you in the detail of her characters’ experience and thus creates a world of magic that I almost feel I’ve visited.

This must come partly from her knowledge of religion and varied cultures. Le Guin was the child of anthropologists and deeply read in mythology.

At a young age, Ms. Le Guin immersed herself in books about mythology, among them James Frazer’s “The Golden Bough,” classic fantasies like Lord Dunsany’s “A Dreamer’s Tales,” and the science-fiction magazines of the day. 

New York Times, 2018

Her knowledge fed the original world she created where belief is natural and power, concentrated in the hands of those born to it. But Le Guin’s magicians are not noble or obviously important. Her first hero – Sparrowhawk – is a penniless black goat herd. Le Guin complained that, after the first edition, he was consistently depicted as white on book covers commissioned by publishers who clearly paid more attention to their own prejudice than to the text. (“Earthsea was bathed in bleach.” Le Guin, The Books of Earthsea, Gollanz, 2018) The heroine of her second book is a teenage girl of poor parents. The reasons for her character’s powers are strange and deep. We accept their power as we accept all of her world as it comes: cold, harsh and vast; where every stone is charged with significance.

I recommend her as a superior version of (and source for) many of the wizard stories we’ve gotten used to over the past twenty-five years. Though more complex in terms of meaning, her books are not difficult to read. An older child can easily manage A Wizard of Earthsea.

Around the third Earthsea book, her characters get older and their internal lives become, possibly, less accessible or relevant to children. Le Guin gave up writing just for children as publishers usually required fantasy writers to do, preferring instead to follow where her story led:

The notion that fantasy is only for the immature rises from an obstinate misunderstanding of both maturity and the imagination. So, as my protagonists grew older, I trusted my younger readers to follow them or not, as and when they chose.

Ursula Le Guin, The Books of Earthsea, Gollanz, London 2018

Reading these aloud as an adult I have been transported as well as made to see myself and my own world differently through inhabiting the experiences of her characters. It is an enlivening experience for me, though often opaque and turbulent. But children – people – don’t need books to end peacefully. They don’t have to understand everything. Vagueness is part of existence. Le Guin keeps things vague whilst driving at the meaning contained in everything:

When I was young, I had to chose between the life of being and the life of doing. And I leapt at the latter like a trout to a fly. But each deed you do, each act, binds you to itself and its consequences, and makes you act again and yet again. Then very seldom do you come upon a space, a time like this, between act and act, when you may stop and simply be. Or wonder who, after all, you are.

Sparrowhawk, The Farthest Shore

Le Guin gives her readers space to contemplate. She deserves a large amount of shelf space in every school library. Especially as modern publishers push their more recent books in a way that can make it hard for young people to discover classics – or anything written before Harry Potter.

Some thoughts from Solzhenitsyn

Writing between 1958 and 1968 about his own, and others, experiences of Stalin’s gulags, Solzhenitsyn reflected that – unlike Germany – Russia was unwilling to admit any crimes committed by Stalin. (And still being committed under Khrushchev.) It is worth asking if such a reckoning ever took place. I don’t know whether the full history of Stalin’s regime -as chronicled by Solzhenitsyn – is, or ever has been, taught to Russian children. I know it is not taught to British children in the same way the crimes of the Nazi regime are. I wonder why this is? And if, to understand what is happening in that country now, it might make sense to ask whether crimes that are not admitted by the state are likely to be repeated. (I mean this with reference to Western Europe as well as Russia.) Solzhenitsyn says:

“In a declaration by the Soviet government dated December, 1964, we read: ‘The perpetrators of monstrous crimes must never and in no circumstances escape just retribution…The crimes of the Fascist murderers, who aimed at the destruction of whole peoples, have no precedent in history.’

This was to prevent the Federal German Republic from introducing a statute of limitation for war criminals after twenty years had elapsed.

But they show no desire to face judgement themselves, although they, too, ‘aimed at the destruction of whole peoples.’

But in the U.S.S.R. no one would have to answer. No one would be looked into.

While in the records office they carry out a leisurely inspection and destroy all unwanted documents: lists of people shot, orders committing prisoners to solitary confinement in the Disciplinary Barracks, files on investigations in the camps, denunciations from stoolies, superfluous information about practical workers and convoy guards.”

The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956 Abridged in One Volume, Collins Harvill 1988, p. 453

Solzhenitsyn outlines the horrors of Stalin’s regime in terrifying detail; I won’t disturb you with more graphic quotation here – you can read the book.

It is worth also mentioning that Solzhenitsyn does not spare the West for abandoning Russian people to this brutal regime at the end of the Second World War.

“…how could we readily believe that the Western allies had entered the war not for the sake of freedom in general, but for their own Western European freedom, only against Nazism, intending to take full advantage of the Soviet armies and leave it at that? Was it not more natural for us to believe that our allies were true to the very principle of freedom and that they would not abandon us to worse tyranny?…True, these were the same allies for whom Russians had died in the First World War, and who, then, had abandoned our army in the moment of collapse, hastening back to their comforts. But this was a lesson too cruel for the heart to learn.”

The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956 Abridged in One volume, p. 342

What is the reason for the West’s inability, or refusal, to see Stalin’s regime in as clear focus as it saw, and sees, Hitler’s? Solzhenitsyn repeatedly equates the two regimes, calling the Stalin the pupil of Hitler. He jokes that Stalin is the big moustache and Hitler, the small moustache. Maybe you could not call it a crime to ‘abandon’ the Russian people ‘to worse tyranny’. But it might be time to recognise that is exactly what happened. And that, this past two weeks, the current Russian regime has reminded us in the temporarily peaceful West that history cannot be so conveniently forgotten.

Book Review – ‘We’: Yevgeny Zamyatin

My blog will now include reviews of books relevant to the endeavour of thinking for yourself and teaching children to do the same.

The place to start is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s sparkling, terrifying, portrait of a society committed to “mathematically infallible happiness”; preparing to launch a rocket towards “alien planets” – to either deliver this happiness, or “force them to be happy”.

The author was arrested, aged 21, as a Bolshevik student activist in 1905 by Tsarist police, kept in solitary and exiled. After the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, Zamyatin was arrested by the new authorities both in 1919 and 1922.

He wrote We in 1920, amid the transformation of Russia after the Revolution: “1920 was perched at the dawn of film, radio, and the automobile. It was also the year the word robot came into being (originating in the Russian and Czech word rabotat’, which means to “work”). The Bolsheviks with their militaristic, urban-centric, industrial aggression were conquering all of Russia.” (Natasha Randall, Introduction to We, 2006)

An engineer himself, Zamyatin observed technological advances and transformed them in his vision of a highly efficient society, 600 years in the future, in which the authorities sacrifice citizens using “the fission of the atoms of the human body”. His workers’ lives reflect experiments that were happening at the Soviet Central Institute of Labour in 1920 – attempts to turn workers into human robots.

Zamyatin’s prose style can feel crazy. He aimed to write in the essential, fragmentary, ‘language of thought’ rather than the ‘old slow creaking descriptions…of the past’. We jump from moment to moment by association and thus enter into the mind of an orthodox cipher of the One State who finds himself falling in love with a member of the underground resistance. He speaks as an orthodox citizen; whilst drifting further and further into forbidden emotion and mental – as well as physical – ramblings. He writes his confession for the benefit of the State and in doing so reveals the depth of himself, without gaining conscious insight.

The narrator is strange: a mathematician who thinks in numbers; in whose mind sounds are coloured. There is some speculation about whether Zamyatin had synesthesia (a condition where stimulation of one pathway in the brain leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway). Hence the symbols of the book enable the narrator to convey his state of mind without having to articulate it. For instance, his fondness for a conventional woman named 0, is safe, known and permitted, but also empty; he fears the ‘irrational’ square root of -1: ‘This irrational root had sunk into me like something foreign, alien, frightening.’

Huxley and Orwell stole a lot from Zamyatin. Orwell reviewed We in 1946 after struggling to get hold of it. In his review there is much comparison with Brave New World; you get the sense Orwell himself was getting ideas for 1984 (published 1949). Orwell  argues that Zamyatin’s political insight is greater than Huxley’s, he suggests Zamyatin’s portrait of a mindless comfortable society was not so much a satire of the early Soviet state as “a comment on the implied aims of industrial civilisation.”

But then, as Solzhenitsyn documented, “by the spring of 1918 a torrent of socialist traitors had already begun” to be arrested. (Gulag Archipelago, 1976) So the book could have been about enforced political orthodoxy.

In many ways, We is better than 1984. Zamyatin captures his character’s combination of blindness and intense human feeling. His character’s love for a mysterious woman is convincingly crippling, all-encompassing and confusing; Winston’s emotions in 1984 are, by comparison, somewhat distant.

One of the things Orwell notices is that the characters of We live in glass apartments; he explains “this was written before television was invented”. In 1984, Orwell replaces glass walls with telescreens that keep watch over citizens. But glass is an important symbol for Zamyatin: “we live in full view, perpetually awash with light, in among our transparent walls, woven from sparkling air.” Mired in an unorthodox secret life, the narrator longs for openness.

For Zamyatin, glass equals openness; wiling orthodoxy; the “instinct for non-freedom”; a human being’s longing to submit to external control.

You could say, Zamyatin’s glass city captures what the Chinese state plan to achieve using the internet. In a recent article on China’s use of the internet, John Lanchester argues that “China is about to become something new: an AI-powered techno-totalitarian state. The project aims to form not only a new kind of state but a new kind of human being, one who has fully internalised the demands of the state and the completeness of its surveillance and control.” (LRB, 10 October, 2019)

We are not immune in the UK. As Lanchester outlines, we have all the same technology ourselves: “It wouldn’t be a Dr Evil move on the part of Western democracies to access all the new information; they would just take it because it was there, because it suddenly became available.”

Zamyatin knew that humans can easily be manipulated by a totalitarian state and he knew something more frightening – we like it.

Zamyatin’s response to the revolutions of his time was to describe perfectly how humans watch and control each other; also how we long to abandon our individuality, to be controlled.




If you know of any other dystopia, science fiction or speculative fiction I might be interested in, please get in touch! 


‘Only machines make no mistakes’

‘The dead-alive also write, walk, speak, act. But they make no mistakes; only machines make no mistakes, and they produce only dead things. The alive-alive are constantly in error, in search, in questions, in torment.’
Yevgeny Zamyatin

Part of the reason I finally decided to abandon teaching was the awfulness of A-level preparation. The same moment that stacks of great books were at long last brought out of the cupboard, I was forced to reduce my teaching to training young people to produce essays that met assessment objectives. Students encountered Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, George Orwell, Christopher Marlowe, Aravind Adiga, Jane Austen and Emily Bronte, only to be told to consider what they read in terms of a short list of bullet points. Teaching A-level degenerated into a glorified version of filling out forms; as they get closer to exams all conscientious students want is to complete past papers and see break downs of their scores. A-levels do not equip young people to think for themselves.

My first complaint is that the focus on assessment objectives encourages young people to ignore their natural intuition as they read. Assessment objectives are set by Ofqual (a non-ministerial governmental department that ‘regulates qualifications, examinations and assessments in England’) and incorporated into A-level and GCSE examinations by the various boards. They are a list of bullet points, which supposedly measure a student’s achievement. A good student (by which I mean one who gets high marks) is likely to read with half a mind on what the assessment objective wants them to say. Hence the phenomenon of students fixated on filling the margins of books with annotation that corresponds to specific AOs: ‘Miss! We haven’t got enough notes in our books! We can’t do the essay!’ A student reading Act Two of Macbeth might need to know the term ‘dramatic irony’, but the effect of writing ‘dramatic irony’ repeatedly in the margins, with (AO1) carefully added next to the phrase, is to remind the student they can only score highly by referring to AO-focused notes, rather than their own feeling about Macbeth’s failure to stand up to his wife. Most do have their own feelings – even some vague thoughts – about Macbeth’s feebleness, but prefer to focus on what they know the exam requires, because that will get them a better score.

My second complaint is that the author’s meaning is disregarded. A book is rendered dull and impotent by A-level study, because whatever interpretation you might want to make is fine, so long as it ticks AOs. After finishing my PGCE, I taught Death of a Salesman in a sixth form college, sharing the set with a more experienced teacher. I was given a load of essays to mark in which many of the students had said that Death of a Salesman was particularly poignant, because it was performed before an audience who were going through The Great Depression, hence would share in Willy Loman’s suffering. But the play was actually set, and first performed, in the late forties, when America was experiencing post-war economic growth. I asked my colleague how we could fix the problem, how we could give the students a better idea of exactly what relationship the play had to The Great Depression. My colleague suggested it would ‘be alright’ to let them leave that in even though it wasn’t accurate. It met the AO for referring to the play’s ‘context’: more important for their grades than a real understanding of what Miller was writing about. There were 25 in the class and many of them spoke English as a second language; we had enough problems as it was. I could see my colleague’s point of view, but I was left wondering what exactly I was meant to be teaching them; disliking the answer – we were only teaching them to pass tests.

In state schools there is hardly any time to allow students to reflect on books through open class discussion. I have experienced the difference. In a private school you teach small groups and see them a lot; in a state school you might have an A-level class of over 20 and fewer lessons with them. In state schools, there’s huge pressure from management on results in English. And in the state sector you have more basic problems before you can even get to talking about the books: reading the books, grammar, paragraphing. Basic writing is difficult for any teenager habituated to text message grammar, especially if their class is big and their teacher is over-stretched; especially if their parents can’t, or don’t, help them at home. In the state sector I felt permanently wrecked. So it’s easy to understand why teachers fixate on the AOs – sometimes from week one of the A-level course – anything to get the kids a decent grade. But our students pay too much, if the price of a decent mark is forgetting their natural curiosity when they read; learning to reduce books to a list of points and quotes, which answer AOs. Books are transformed into tedious tangles from which students laboriously extract threads; reading becomes a task rather than an experience.

I wonder if the recent fashion for aggressive political correctness in universities might, in part, be down to students being taught at A-level not to think for themselves, or at least not being rewarded for expressing real thoughts from their own brains. Many young people can’t bear to be offended, to the extent that long-time gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was no-platformed in 2016 by Fran Cowling, the NUS’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) representative, ‘who said that she would not share a stage with a man whom she regarded as having been racist and “transphobic”’ (Guardian, 2016) In a debate on safe spaces at the Oxford Union the following year, Tatchell commented, ‘all ideas should be open to scrutiny and critique.’ (YouTube, 2017) It is bizarre that making such a statement in a university should be controversial. If someone says something you don’t like at university argue back! Is that so very upsetting? Maybe it is, if you have never learned to defend your own views. Or if you have been trained in thinking according to a list of correct ideas.

Because a student who is not encouraged to notice and describe their own natural response to a book will be left waiting to be told what the correct response is. They will allow the authority to tell them what they should say and what they say will become what they think. An ex-colleague of mine is a moderator for one of the exam boards. He recently drew the attention of the Chief Examiner to a school whose students had followed a memorised essay formula for answering exam questions; they had expressed similar ideas in similar patterns. The students on the whole achieved good marks, because they had ticked off the AOs. But they had clearly not thought for themselves. The Chief Examiner suggested that my friend should mention this in his moderator’s report, but did not adjust the grades, or seem to think there was anything really wrong.

Teachers may be inured to the authoritarian character of English A-levels and too over-worked to fight back. But A-levels have a serious effect; the way they are assessed must be open to question. A-levels are supposed to be the beginning of thinking like an adult, of really learning. But the English A-levels students sit today do not encourage individuals to think for themselves, or to seek to understand the thoughts of writers.

We should teach students to comprehend the ideas of other people whilst developing an ability to weigh those ideas for themselves. How can we know our own thoughts if we can’t discern the thoughts of others? Real reading is encountering people: past people, foreign people, old people, people in prison. If we don’t want to understand anyone else’s thoughts, then we don’t want to know our own. We may not want to think – fine, it’s not required. But we must not dress up ticking off AOs as thought. We must not pretend we can get anything from reading books using AOs as a guide. That’s like pretending speed dating is a deep and genuine encounter.

A-level markers work for roughly three pounds per paper. They tend to focus on a single question, which they mark over and over again from scanned-in papers; they ‘get blisters… from repeatedly pressing the same buttons.’ (Guardian, 2014) Can they be measuring much apart from a student’s ability to meet government criteria?

We must not fool ourselves and our children that studying for an English A-level involves real grown up thought, unless real grown-ups think what they are supposed to think and say what they are supposed to.

‘Long-famous glories, immemorial shames’

‘Mama, what colour paper should I use to draw The World War?’


‘I’m going to use purple because of the darkness and the gas.’

And I’m thinking, ‘who told her about the gas? She might have a nightmare.’ Tiny bits of information leave powerful and lasting impressions in children’s minds: the few facts they learn at school might become all they know about a subject. How do teachers find their historical information and where do they send children to find out about the past? There can’t be many adults whose hands do not itch for a smartphone as soon as they want to know something.

Wikipedia is the first website that Google offers a truth-seeker who types in ‘World War Two’. It is common to send older children than my daughter off to research online, which in effect means ‘read Wikipedia’. Less conscientious students just print out the Wikipedia page and hand that in.

There are obvious problems with our reliance on Google, and Wikipedia, for historical knowledge. I will consider two…

The first problem is, you need knowledge before you search – to both select information and to understand it. Daisy Christodolou convincingly argues that “you can only rely on being able to look something up when you know quite a bit about it to begin with,” (Seven Myths About Education, 2014.) She explains that you can neither select appropriate sources, nor make sense of the vocabulary or content, without substantial prior knowledge.

I noticed how my GCSE English students struggled with researching history online when I encouraged them to include ‘context’ in exam answers. The exam requires students, “show understanding of the relationships between texts and the contexts in which they were written” (AQA, 2018); diligent students would do their best to supplement the little I had time to convey in class by reading online. But the poor things rarely could say much that was sensible based purely on lone efforts. They mixed up writers of fiction with characters; comical misinterpretations were easily drawn from complex general statements: one student desperately wrote in an exam essay on ‘Of Mice and Men’ – “Curley didn’t like his wife, he didn’t even give her a name”. This statement sounds like a confused paraphrase of text on the first website that comes up when you search ‘women Of Mice and Men’ on Google, which describes women’s role in 1930’s America vaguely and sentimentally – “women are completely disenfranchised: of dreams, of friends, of family, of community, even of name.” (E-notes.)

The second problem is that we don’t always know whose point of view we are reading online. Everybody knows that history is written by the winners –  that used to be true anyway, in the bygone age of books, when the winners were the ones with publishers. But at least the winners announced their bias by the very fact of their identity. In my father’s Encyclopedia Britannica from 1929, The British Empire is described as possessing “one faith…in the field of political and social ideals.” A contemporary Indian might have disagreed, but the broad reasons for that disagreement would have been clear to both sides.

Internet historians don’t necessarily announce their bias. When I enter the terms ‘British Empire’ into Google the third article suggested by the algorithm comes from ‘The New World Encyclopedia’, which makes the astounding claim, “The underlying goal of the encyclopedia is to promote knowledge that leads to human happiness, well-being, world peace” (NWE, 2018). By looking up the founder – Sun Myung Moon – elsewhere I am able to discover that (according to the New York Times obituary) he “…founded numerous innocuously named civic organizations. To his critics, he pursued those activities mainly to lend legitimacy to his movement, known as the Unification Church… In 2004…he had himself crowned “humanity’s savior” in front of astonished members of Congress at a Capitol Hill luncheon.” (NYT, Sep. 2012.) A teenager would probably not have uncovered this encyclopedia’s eccentric bias. There are many influential people who bury their influence far more deeply than Mr Moon did.

Historians on the internet are not necessarily individual writers. In the case of Wikipedia, we defer to an amalgamation of anonymous voices. Wikipedia relies on the idea that consensus is the best way to truth on any subject. Jaron Lanier is “one of the most respected voices in tech, a visionary who helped shape our digital culture.” (Observer, 2013.) Lanier has written about the danger, not of Wikipedia itself, but of the way it is regarded. Lanier argues, in an essay from 2006, that the idea that collective opinion should be held in great esteem, has been dangerous historically and is just as dangerous now it is being reintroduced by technologists:

“…the problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it’s been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods.” (DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism, 2006)

He is asking us to make a link between certainty of crowds on Wikipedia and the certainty of Mao’s Red Guards, the certainty of crowds applauding Hitler in the 1930’s.

Lanier’s essay is worth a read – especially for parents and teachers concerned about their children’s reliance on Wiki-truth. He looks at the value of the ‘hive-mind’ as well as its limitations; he suggests ways that the dangerous aspects of collectivism can be controlled by democratic processes, like those used in scientific research. Lanier’s concluding thought is that we should always remember the value of individual voice for advancing knowledge – “always cherish individuals first.”

When studying – and teaching children about – wars of the past, we need to be conscious of whose point of view we are reading. Perhaps more than in any other subject, the the truth about a war will depend on who you ask. This is why poetry of World War One remains one of the most common and powerful ways to approach the subject. Those who summarise what all the slaughter meant weren’t there; those who were there didn’t pretend to understand it.

‘I’ve got thoughts and secrets and bloody life inside me that he doesn’t know is there’

It’s hard to wake up after half term. My daughter is tired; she gurns, claims to ‘hate school’, ‘hate porridge’ and ‘hate babies’ (a dig at her brother). I lose my temper before we leave the house. Alas we don’t live in a utopia where all adults are kind and reasonable, all children go to bed early and school is fascinating.

Any parent knows that children become more difficult when they are unhappy. Any teacher knows that the children lined up in front of them are not necessarily having a wonderful time in their lesson, or outside of it. I have taught many children who sometimes seemed seriously unhappy, and I don’t think it was only because of my teaching. The tragedy is that the unhappiest children are often the ones who get punished, excluded from class and, potentially, excluded from school.

The last thing an over-worked teacher needs is a pupil who constantly disrupts the lesson with their phone or their rudeness. Teachers impose sanctions, follow their school’s discipline policy. But punishment doesn’t usually work unless someone also talks to the student: acknowledges them as a thinking, feeling, human – even a little.

When a child is excluded, that is likely to be only the start of their suffering. Barnardo’s “is calling for the Government to urgently increase high-quality support for excluded children, to ensure they stay in full-time education.” Research published by them last week states, “‘alternative provision’ for excluded children is at breaking point. Forty-seven of the councils across England which responded revealed they had no vacant spaces in state pupil referral units as of 1 July 2018 (PRUs). Even where there is space, there is a postcode lottery in terms of the quality of education they will receive.” (Barnardo’s, 2018.) Excluded children could find no place to go, be taught for only a short time each day, or be taught badly.

Exclusion can be the point when a child gets involved in violence. Sarah Jones, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime said “Professionals talk about the ‘PRU to prison pipeline’. The system is failing these young people.” (Barnardo’s, 2018.) Today, “tributes have been paid to two teenagers who were fatally stabbed on the streets of London within 24 hours.” (The Guardian, 2018.) According to government statistics, knife crime increased by 6% between 2010 and 2017. In the year ending March 2018, “there were 21,044 disposals given for possession of a knife or offensive weapon. Juveniles (aged 10-17) were the offenders in 21% of cases.” (House of Commons Library, 2018.) Children are killing each other on the streets.

Ofsted’s new focus on behaviour – Amanda Spielman’s preference for a “tough stance” (TES, 2018) – is not likely to help the most disruptive children while they are still in school. There is always a reason why a child does not co-operate. If a child is unhappy, addressing how they feel is more useful than a detention. Few teachers have much time to talk to their students. The Government recognise the benefits of school counselling, “what teachers and support staff say is that they often don’t have either the time or the expertise to help children and young people when they begin to show signs of distress. Studies show that school staff can appreciate the availability of a professionally qualified counsellor…” (DfE, 2016.) In the same document they recognise that, in 2016, only 62% of schools offered counselling services and comment, “we do not underestimate the difficulties” of funding. An increased focus on providing good quality counselling for disruptive children would make more sense than an increased focus on ‘behaviour’.

Children also misbehave because they don’t want to do the work. The work might be boring, it might be too difficult, it might not have any relevance to the child’s own life. It’s a tricky problem. It doesn’t help that teachers have very little time for individual students, or that students are locked into narrow schemes of assessment.

Another flaw with taking a “tough stance” is that children exist in the present. Threat of punishment – and ultimate threat of exclusion – may not deter a child from rudeness, violence, constant texting or bullying as they pass through each stage of their school’s discipline policy. A child will not realise what exclusion could mean for their future. A girl I taught (famous for her extravagant rudeness to teachers) told me she was hoping to get a place at the local pupil referral unit, because they ‘let you go out for a fag’.

Teachers are struggling desperately. And many – like me – have quit. According to the Guardian, in 2017, “Almost a quarter of the teachers who have qualified since 2011 have already left the profession” (Guardian, 2017.) Of course teachers need to deal with students who make it hard to get through a lesson: for the sake of the rest of the class and their own mental health.

But is a “tough stance” really the best way to deal with the most difficult kids? Difficult students are also people, probably unhappy people: people whose lives could be severely affected if they are treated as a failure or a problem. If they end up excluded, their lives could be completely ruined – even over.



‘At best, he learns how to avoid punishment.’

While reading about Octopus behaviour, I was reminded of my daughter. Peter Godfrey-Smith relates ‘famous octopus anecdotes…of escape and thievery’ (Other Minds, 2016, p. 55). For instance, a certain octopus, when fed with thawed-out squid (‘second-rate food’), waited for the scientist who had fed it to walk back past the tank: “It had not eaten it’s squid, but instead was holding it conspicuously…the octopus made its way slowly across the tank toward the outflow pipe, watching [the scientist] all the way. When it reached the outflow pipe, still watching her, it dumped the scrap of squid down the drain.” (Other Minds, p. 57). I recognised, in that octopus, rebellion against rules imposed by an alien being who has no empathy at all for its dislike of thawed-out squid.

My daughter rebels against rules she does not like. While being made to eat vegetables, she is much more likely to pick her nose, interrupt and wander away from the table. She responds better if rules make sense to her – talking about scurvy helps with vegetables. (If an octopus did understand why they were being kept in a tank and fed tasteless squid, I doubt they would agree to it.) We should only impose rules on children if we have a clear reason; rules always work better when the child understands the reason and agrees on the rules they have to follow.

The recent Ofsted reforms to school inspection include an increased focus on behaviour: “The other major change involves looking at behaviour and pupil attitudes in a single category, signalling a more critical view to how schools deal with classroom behaviour.” (Guardian, 2018.) Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector, said in June at the Wellington College Festival of Education that she believes in a “tough stance on behaviour”. She added, “I think it’s entirely appropriate to use sanctions, such as writing lines, ‘community service’ in the school grounds – such as picking up litter – and school detentions…where they are part of a school’s behaviour policy, they’ll have our full support.” (TES, 2018.) Spielman’s view of discipline is hierarchical. She comes from the world of business; she has never taught real children.

Surely we should be looking at why many children don’t co-operate at school rather than ramping up the punishment. As a teacher I was aware that there was always a reason why a child did not co-operate. Non-cooperation was common among those who felt that the system had nothing to offer them. Teaching bottom set GCSE, for example, to students predicted E’s, forcing them to read Dickens when they had no idea what quarter of the words meant, punishing them for not co-operating, felt worse than futile. Punishing those students only proved to them that school was against them, that the GCSE was an impossible struggle and (possibly) that they themselves were deficient. It would have been more useful to find a way to study with which the students wanted to cooperate: to read something they could understand; to sort out their basic grammar; to talk about the relevance of English to application forms or constructing arguments in real life. Instead I had to slog through termly assessments toward the GCSE and to enforce the school’s discipline policy when students did not behave. I watched two or three individuals become increasingly cynical. I don’t think a “tough stance” would have helped them.

Being “tough” on those who won’t fall into line doesn’t work. Good behaviour should flow naturally from the work of pupils and teachers, who agree on the value of the work. This is particularly the case in primary school. Younger children’s natural curiosity is strong, easier to harness; it is tragic to imagine children at primary school becoming cynical because of tough discipline.

John Dewey saw good behaviour as a natural aspect of cooperation between pupils and their teacher. Dewey was adamant that pupils and teachers should agree on the purpose of activities: “there is no defect in traditional education greater than its failure to secure the active cooperation of the pupil in construction of the purposes involved in his studying.” (Experience and Education, Dewey, 1938, p.67.) He argued that when pupils and teachers are in agreement, pupils regulate their own behaviour: “control of individual actions is effected by the whole situation in which individuals are involved, in which they share and of which they are co-operative or interacting parts.” (Experience and Education, p. 53.)

Dewey thought cooperation with the teacher was especially effective with younger children. It did not need explanation: it worked because the children know they are not being controlled. Children, he said, are more sensitive to “the signs and symptoms” of dictation and control than adults, They “learn the difference when playing with one another.” (Experience and Education, p. 55.) There must be rules in a school, but – as in children’s own games – rules work when children want to follow them.

The danger of this new Ofsted ‘behaviour and pupil attitudes’ category is that it implicitly encourages harsher punishment, obedience of the ‘Taming of the Shrew’ variety. Students who are not co-operating in school might be made more passive by punishment; they might be made more resentful. Neither is useful for their education, or the education of their classmates – excessive discipline could create a cynical culture. Pupils must be enthusiastic about what they are learning; even if they don’t love the subject, they need to see the purpose.

Bertrand Russell, like Dewey, saw very little use for punishment in education. (He includes “speaking harshly” as punishment.) Russell argues that a child’s natural curiosity and desire to fit in with a group should be used to encourage good behaviour. He saw Victorian methods of discipline as damaging:

“To win the genuine affection of children is a joy as great as any that life has to offer. Our grandfathers did not know of this joy…They taught children that it was their ‘duty’ to love parents, and proceeded to make this duty almost impossible of performance…Consequently human relations remained stark and harsh and cruel. Punishment was part of this whole conception.” (On Education, 1926, p. 117.)

Russell’s idea could be applied to a school in which students are told to value their education, then made to write lines, sit detention and pick up rubbish, if they do not sufficiently value (what the school calls) education: thus making the ‘duty almost impossible of performance’.

As a teacher I found harsh punishment usually unhelpful. I avoided it where possible, though I was bound by my contract to follow the school’s discipline policy. As a parent, I am more emotionally involved and more prone to shouting – then regretting it. Both in school, and at home, it is better to explain rules; to rely on voluntary co-operation; to be flexible. If punishment is ever needed, the milder the better.

‘I am dealing with people and not with things.’

My daughter’s teacher had a quiet word after school about how she gets upset and declares, ‘I can’t do’ Maths. As we walked away, my daughter covered her ears, shut her eyes and half shouted, ‘I know what you were talking about!’ Her teacher only wants to help. It is especially important just now as they head for the SATS at the end of Year Two. That’s when the Government start putting children into categories. Parents won’t necessarily know these SATS results, but we will know if our children are above or below the ‘expected standard’. And the results are used again at the end of Year Six: “to measure the school’s progress score.” (gov.uk.)

Children notice. They notice their own level and each other’s. Though results are not directly given, children start putting themselves into categories. Hence they might believe they are deficient in some way. If they feel deficient, they are likely to be passive and bored, burdened by the compulsion to memorise. For those children, school will become (at best) a drag.

Paulo Freire was “known for his adult literacy programs in impoverished communities and for his classic early text: Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” (Oxford Research Encyclopedias.)  Freire noticed that the opinion of teachers becomes internalised by students. He worked in South America in the 1960’s alongside radical Christians, believers in liberation theology, teaching peasants to read in order to “raise consciousness, understand their own oppression and recognise that you don’t have to be passive and oppressed.” (Noam Chomsky, 2013.) Freire explains the effect of a teacher’s opinion on a person: “They call themselves ignorant and say the ‘professor’ is the one who has the knowledge and to whom they should listen.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970, p. 37.)

British schoolchildren may not be oppressed to the same degree as peasants in 1960’s Brazil. But our test-based system does not inspire many with curiosity; we do not teach children to be critical, to think for themselves. “Passing tests doesn’t begin to compare with searching and enquiring and pursuing topics that engage us and excite us.” (Chomsky, 2012.)

Each six or seven year-old achieves a certain amount at the end of Year Two depending on their ability or interest, but also depending on their level of disadvantage and how they feel that day. The situation is particularly bad for poor children (who are often hungry at school nowadays) and tired children. It could be bad for a girl who expects to fail in Maths. They are given a level, which will then colour their experience for the following four years: ‘everyone at my table is bad at Maths’; ‘the ones who could do it went out into the hall.’ The results of the SATS taken at the end of Year Six stay with children right up until GCSEs.

This week Ofsted, in their great beneficence, decided to stop using test results as one of the four main areas of inspection. They have noticed the problem: “the new quality section would focus on the curriculum taught within a school, rewarding those that offer pupils a broad range of subjects.” (Guardian, 2018) How visionary! But our education system is still entirely based on testing: SATS at the end of years Two and Six; GCSE preparation begins at 14; most schools I have worked in also test throughout Key Stage Three.

Ofsted’s Chief Inspector has never been a teacher! “She previously spent more than 15 years in strategy consulting, finance and investment at KPMG, Kleinwort Benson, Mercer Management Consulting and Nomura International.” (gov.uk.) My guess is, she doesn’t really understand how continual testing manacles teachers. Teachers cannot waste much school time on the curiosity of an individual student, the class or themselves.

In independent schools (I briefly worked in one) it is possible to offer a varied curriculum that allows children to work beyond the test, to study subjects that have no connection with the test, to take part in enriching extra-curricular activities: to learn for the sake of it. Sussex House, a top prep-school for Eton (londonpreprep.com) lists “Architectural Modelling”, “Mandarin” and “Jazz Ensemble” among their activities (Sussex House). In independent schools there are smaller classes; teachers with a higher level of education tend to be employed because the pay is much better; teachers have a decent amount of preparation time. It’s not fair!

If ‘quality of education’ is going to be offered in state schools, teachers must be freed from the constraints of constant testing. I want to stress that the teachers I know do their best to protect children from the worst effects of tests, but they still have to prepare them for the racecourse.

I am not proposing we abolish all tests. We just need to recognise their limitations: they are a measure of what a person has committed to memory and how well they can prove it. They are probably most useful in factual subjects; I have found GCSE and A-level English examinations unreliable measures of a student’s understanding or ability to think for themselves. But that’s a conversation for another day.

In primary school, at least, children could be encouraged to discover for themselves within a framework set by their teacher or school. Bruce Alberts (Editor-in-Chief of ‘Science’) is involved in improving the teaching of Maths and Science in American schools. He argues that encouraging children to discover and to think is far superior to making them learn lists of information. I will quote him at length:

“Inquiry-based science curricula for children ages 5 to 13 have been undergoing
development and refinement… These curricula require that students engage in active investigations, while a teacher serves as a coach to guide them to an understanding of one of many topics. This approach takes advantage of the natural curiosity of young people…can be highly effective in increasing a student’s reasoning and problem-solving skills. In addition, because communication is emphasized, inquiry-based science teaching has been shown to increase reading and writing abilities.”  (Science, 2008.)

I can imagine an equivalent English class in which seven-year-olds were allowed to read (with help if needed) from a selection of books and discuss them with one another in a seminar. There would be no worksheet and no judgement.

There is so much tests don’t measure: thought, curiosity, joy, hunger. Most teachers know that.

‘moanday, tearsday…’

Knowing my daughter’s education was beyond my control felt odd when she first started in reception. After two years I’m used to that – most of the time. Apart from when she has to read an eye-wateringly dull book; or when I ask ‘what did you do at school today?’ – ‘I can’t remember. Nothing can I have a snack?’

Who is in control? It’s complicated. First Blair’s government – in 2002 – then Gove – in 2010 – with the introduction of academies and free schools, altered everything. I will identify who pulls which strings and ask whether we want our children to be their puppets.

Teachers in maintained schools are weak. A teacher is constantly observed and managed, pressured to meet targets. Almost all the content at my daughter’s maintained school is set by those at the Department for Education who write the National Curriculum, though teachers work late at home and on weekends to prepare their own resources. Boring reading books teachers dutifully issue exist because they are useful for measuring how near, or far, a child is from the Government’s ‘expected level’, not because the stories engender a love of reading.

How much power does a teacher at an academy or free school have? Let’s look at how these institutions are run (the same rules apply to both). Academies, like private schools, don’t have to follow the National Curriculum. There are only some stipulations: “Academies must teach a broad and balanced curriculum including English, Maths and Science. They must also teach religious education.” (gov.co.uk).

Academies and free schools benefit from extra funding: up to ten percent more, which used to be held back by local authorities for provision of extra services (BBC, 2016). This is part of the reason for the explosion of academies in recent years: “At January 2017, 68.8 per cent of secondary pupils and 24.3 per cent of primary pupils in England were attending academies.” (House of Commons Library, 2017).

The Government describes academies as “publicly funded independent schools.” (gov.co.uk). The structure of their governance mimics that of a business. ‘Members’, at the top of the hierarchy, are like shareholders without the profit:  “shareholders, like members, have a real interest in the success of a company…members will judge ‘success’ against how much the trustees are doing to achieve the charitable objects of the charity.” (National Governance Association, 2018). The government recommend there should be at least five members, but there can be as few as three, (RSA, 2017).

Beneath members are ‘trustees’ who run the academy, like school governors,  though they have additional responsibilities, such as finance and admissions. The trustees are not supposed to be the same people as the members, but this does happen (Schoolsweek, 2017).

In multi-academy trusts, ‘local governing bodies’ are delegated responsibilities by trustees. LGBs can control one or more academies.

Overseeing all these academies, supposedly, are regional schools commissioners. Though, when they were set up to take over this responsibility from the Department for Education a leaked document revealed how little power they actually have: “ministers are advised that plans to devolve oversight to new regional schools commissioners will expose how little sway the department has over existing free schools and academy schools in England.” (Guardian, 2014).

In academies teachers work under an iron rod. The control exerted over teachers in maintained schools is frail by comparison! When a school becomes an academy, there is no longer the requirement for a teacher governor (or trustee in the new jargon) (NUT). Decisions are made by trustees who may have no experience, many of whom are appointed by the academy trust or its sponsors.

Academies do not have to honour statutory teachers’ pay and conditions. Teachers could have very little sick pay; they might be required to be in the building for long hours; even heads have been ‘ordered to leave’ with little warning, (Guardian, 2017).  Respect for teachers, the acknowledgement that they care about their students and usually do more than their contracted hours, is gone.

In 2010 Gove rushed the Academies Bill through parliament using a procedure that some claim is usually reserved for anti-terror laws, (BBC, 2010). By 2016, nearly a third of the teachers who joined in 2010 had left; Schools cannot recruit enough teachers (NUT, quoting DfE figures).  It isn’t surprising that so many teachers are desperate to escape.

The problem with academies is that they are extremely hierarchical – essentially mini-oligarchies. Members and trustees lay down the law and they are answerable to almost nobody; unless their school fails an Ofsted inspection, but by then damage has been done. Mary Bousted (General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers) commented this year: “Since 2010 the government has spent at least £149.6m on the setup costs and capital funding for 66 free schools, university technical colleges and studio schools in England that have either closed, partially closed or failed to open at all.” She suggests that the £149.6 million could have been better spent, (Guardian, 2018). (A salient point given the protest of hundreds of headteachers at Westminster on Friday, BBC, 2018.)

Academies have led to corruption. There have been several cases of members bending the rules for their own benefit: Ian Cleland, chief executive and founding member of the Academies Transformation Trust, oversaw the disappearance of millions from the trust’s reserves over four years, was put on temporary leave, then used his powers to sack the chairman and have himself re-instated, (Schoolsweek, 2017).

I am an escapee. I have worked in both a free school and a recently converted academy. In the free school, I was conscious of the incompetence of trustees. They didn’t think there needed to be a head of English, so I began with no scheme of work. The experienced head could influence decisions, but was ultimately subordinate to trustees and members.

There is some hope in co-operative schools. Championed at one stage by Conservative, Francis Maude, and now Angela Rayner in her speech last week at Labour Party Conference: “And where parents and staff want to go further in launching and leading their own schools, our own movement already has an answer: co-operative schools.” (Labour.org.uk, 2018). Co-operatives provide a way for teachers and parents to take more control of schools.

Mervyn Wilson (Principal of the Co-operative College) wrote one of four essays in a collection commissioned in 2013 on the subject: “Today’s generation of co-operative schools…provide opportunities for new models of ownership involvement and community engagement, and an alternative to the rapid development of the top-down command and control chains.” (Making it Mutual, 2013).

Greater involvement of teachers in running schools is badly needed.  Maybe a new kind of management would help teachers dread Moanday less. If I were involved, I would have something to say about reading books.