I have fingers in many pies. Mostly, these pies are metaphorical (though as I have chronicled relentlessly this year, the literal ones are also problematic and gout-o-genic). I am not complaining about having many pies; I have actively worked myself into this polypied corner. I operate best when my workload resembles a platter rather than a hog roast; I like to nibble at a smorgasbord rather than gorge for hours on one carcass.
The problem comes when slightly too many pies appear at once, or when all the pies look equally delicious/important/necessary/timely or when all the pies look equally gross/objectionable/pointless/avoidable. These situations lead to me to this situation, presently.
Here are my pies at the moment.
- PPA Cover for all of Year 5 and some of Year 3 (three days a week)
- Organising a Parents Curriculum and running after school classes for parents on Politics, Democracy and Citizenship
- Overseeing an effective School Council of Year 2 – Year 6 kids
- Organising a five-school residential Year 5 Writers Retreat with Adisa
- Putting together an outdoor learning visit to Spitalfields and Sky Garden as part of an SLE Deployment
- Organising all the CPD that goes on as part of our Teaching School
- Running another Geography Bee
- Running a basketball club with some of my now secondary-age kids coming back to help me as Assistant Coaches
- Putting together TeachMeet Newham
- Putting together a conference on Religious Literacy and Diversity with Claire Clinton
- Being a governor at Sarah Bonnell School
- Planning a whole school Refugee Week
- Planning an International Mother Languages Day
- Facilitating TeachFirst training as part of the Leadership Development Programme
- Leading CPD on Assessment for Learning on the UCL IOE NQT Primary Partnership
- Leading CPD on Knowledge, Mastery and Differentiation for our Mastering the Basics course
You can see why I have gout.
I am self-conscious that this appear like some kind of plea for attention, a request for praise or a cry for help. Like most things I do, it is probably all of these, as well as a load of other psychosocial flotsam. But actually, it is really necessary.
There are many forgotten individuals lurking around in the educational mainstream system whose professional role means that don’t have ready access to a network of people who do the same work and can sympathise. I know when I teach a stressful maths lesson, I can slam my way into the staffroom, hurl myself onto a stool and have a rapid-fire moan about it with teachers who get it. Like Mid-Day Assistants, School Office staff and perhaps SENCOs, those leading Teaching Schools don’t have the same thing.
Without a soundboard, it can become too much, and the pies can swell.
I have found just one thing that work to raise my productivity and to allow me to begin to tackle the work-mountain that resembles the Sisyphean pie above. It is to do nothing.
It is very easy to convince yourself that you are doing the right thing when you are doing something, but in the act of doing something, you begin to think only of that which you are doing and not that which you are not doing.
At a day of such high stress that colleagues approached me to comment on my contorted face, I found myself sat at the computer desk, the broken air-con parping stale warm gusts into my eyes as I stared at a list of emails that got longer the longer I spent tending to it. As I read one email, four more arrived. I just carried on ploughing through them as the important stuff remained on my To Do list.
Looking back at what ended up being a completely wasted day, where I worked solidly at the computer desk for probably about 9 hours and achieved about 10% of what I needed to achieve, what I needed to do was to stop doing. Stop, recuperate, make a list of tasks like I did above, and to date them and categorise them.
For each task, grade it between 1-5 for Urgency, Required Time to Complete It and Importance.
So planning for my sessions to Newham NQTs on the IOE programme is a 5 for importance (v important to get it right), but a 1 on urgency because it doesn’t start til February and a 3 for required time, as it will need for me to meet my co-facilitator, plan two sessions, resource it, print it and set up the training rooms.
Thinking, proper thinking, sometimes need to happen in isolation; even if only for 15 minutes a day, having some time to stop everything else to evaluate is just about keeping my little boat afloat.
Make time to step out of the work you are doing, to look objectively at yourself doing it. Is it the right work; if so, is being done well and if not, why are you doing it?
We have just had our first Student Council of the year and it was fascinating. Twenty pupils had been elected to represent their class, from Year 2 to Year 6, and this first meeting had a quite mischievous agenda; I wanted to explore what would happen if they were left to their own devices to self-organise. What principles would be deployed by the kids, ageing from just 6 up to 11? Would they display the values that got them elected in their classes? Would this be a Corbynian ‘new politics’ of cooperation or would we witness a Malcolm-Tucker-managing-a-reshuffle level of Machiavellian behaviour?
I rounded up all the kids and brought them to the conference room. I welcomed them warmly, showed them the agenda and explained that this is the last agenda I will be writing; the next ones will be written by them. I told the council that from this point on, my main role is to facilitate rather than to lead. This first session would be about the children finding a way to organise themselves into roles. Whilst they would have the ability to change the role structure later, should they opt to do so, I set the first expectations so they can find their feet.
The task was to organise their group of 20 (plus one child without voting rights acting as Clerk) into the following roles.
Leader – Responsible for chairing the meetings and preparing the agenda, as well as overseeing the effective work of the four work groups. Can delegate to Deputy Leader. Spokesperson for the Council.
Deputy Leader – Responsible for supporting the chairing and agenda of council meetings, as well as distributing the agendas to all Councillors ahead of the meeting. Also oversees the effective work of the four work groups. Deputy Spokesperson for the Council. Becomes Leader if the Leader is unavailable, or if they receive a Vote of No Confidence from more than 50% of Councillors.
Media Group – These children are responsible for creating media content about the life of the school on behalf of pupils. This could include something like a Newspaper, blog, vlog, photo essay, films, interviews. They give information each month for the main School Newsletter, as well as anything they produce themselves.
Communications Group – These children have responsibility for being the ‘Face’ of the council in school. They are expected to have a presence in assemblies, talking with pupils about the work of Council and holding ‘rallies’ to inform pupils. Communications group also meet termly with the Headteacher, Caretaker and Kitchen Staff.
Research Group – These children prepare short surveys, interviews and small-scale research projects to identify ideas for future policy changes. They research into pupil voice, and collect evidence to support their recommendations, and the ideas of the Council.
Charities and Fundraising Group – These children oversee all pupil-led fundraising in the school, and are responsible for ensuring there is no ‘rogue’ fundraising taking place. Each term, children decide to support one local charity and one international charity; these two charities will receive an equal split of any donations and collections undertaken during the term.
I went through this information and had simplified summaries out on the meeting table. Then I told them
“And now it is up to you to find a fair way to decide who does what. I don’t want you to speak to me for the next fifteen minutes, or until everything is decided. I am going to be watching carefully. Off you go.”
Immediately, about 8 of the children, aged from 6 to 11, all began calling out that they wanted to be Leader. The girl who would eventually become Leader immediately stood up and spoke to one of the other children,
“Right we need to have some kind of vote. You, could you pass me some paper.”
She immediately took to the role of organiser. Three of the Year 5 girls who also wanted to do it then began to mirror her, encouraging other children to be quiet and trying to get a voting system going.
The boy next to me, a Year 4, quite quietly turned to me and to the boy next to him and said “I am going to be leader.”
She-Who-Would-Be-Leader got a list together of all the children who wanted to be leader, and included herself on the list at the end. She got the Y2 children to go first. For the first speaker, the children listened to each other and clapped respectfully. But by the time the third speaker spoke, the Year 2 children were loudly having their own conversation and the older children paid him no attention.
As I listened, the boy in Year 3 nervously but with lots of clear thought explained why he should be leader. Unlike the other children, who spoke about themselves and their personal qualities, this boy spoke about ideas for making school better. He began to stutter and looked at me nervously; it was as though every child had stopped listening, so I smiled and nodded him along encouragingly. He finished and I began to clap just because I couldn’t bear seeing his little crestfallen face as everyone ignored him, in what was a really considerate and thoughtful little speech.
Next up was the kid next to me. This boy is fairly new to English, and is in that beautiful stage of language development where he has started to realise that he is getting it; rather than struggling most of the time for words, he is now able to communicate quite fluently most of the time, and is tripped up only by unfamiliar words. He is a quirky and popular boy who makes a lot of his classmates laugh because of his confidence.
When it was his turn to speak, he threw his coat to the floor and took to the empty space in the room. He glided around the space dramatically as he spoke, and the younger children began laughing at him.
Implicitly, the group dynamic made it OK to laugh at this boy and devalue his contribution because they thought he was just clowning about. One of the Councillors shouted out, heckling him,
“You can’t be the leader if you are not serious.”
This absolutely stopped him in his tracks. He trailed off, his voice faltering. The kids clapped and moved on quickly and he came to sit back down next to me. He didn’t look at me, but I watched him shuffle quietly beside me, chewing his lip.
Whilst his delivery may not have been conventional, his language was less fluent due to his comparatively earlier stage of language acquisition, and whilst he was making people laugh, it was wrong to say he didn’t take it seriously. He was the one child who kept finding me in the playground all last week talking about the School Council and on his desk in front of him, he was the one child who had planned a speech. I read it over his shoulder and got a lump in my throat.
hello my name is ______ I think I shoot be the leader I am not bad
at all I just so exsitit what i will do is leasen to your things that you want to do i will help everyone and thenko for leasen
And then, at the side, after he had spoken, he has scribbled on the page and written,
its so bad why oh why
I had to break my rule of non-involvement again to pat him on the shoulder and tell him he did really well, but without much outward display of it, he was clearly quietly crushed.
The eventual leader got up and did her speech and it was so relaxed, confident and self-assured. She was essentially saying that she has all the skills needed, she will work well with everyone and that she is the safe pair of hands and the only person who ought really to be doing the job.
Once she had finished, she ushered herself and all the other candidates outside so that all the Councillors who did not stand for election could vote privately.
As the door closed, the child who was serving as Clerk stood up of his own accord, having just been chilling out watching proceedings with me throughout since he doesn’t have voting privileges. He repeated the list and got everyone to do a hands-up vote.
The leader was elected by a landslide.
Her words on the situation.
“I feel like I’ve been given a great opportunity to take charge and to help others. We want to achieve many things through our working groups.”
After the meeting, I brought together the new Leader and the boy who wrote the note so that they could talk about how they both felt in the meeting. It is important that leaders understand the emotional climate of those they work with, and that they understand the powerful impact that their words can have on others. They shook hands and moved on, and our unsuccessful leader with the note now looks forward to hosting some kind of School TV show.
The quietly self-assured Year 3 child who was ignored by the group will hopefully soldier on. I spoke to him after the session too, to let him know that he did a phenomenal speech and that I was looking forward to seeing what he can contribute. He nodded silently and ran off.
In a few weeks, I am taking them to the Why? What’s Happening For The Young? Festival, and then on to Westminster.
It will be an interesting year.
‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ chant the choir in the song.
And sometimes you can, and sometimes you do, and I did and sometimes that isn’t perfect either. I am now doing a job I love, splitting my time between running the Teaching School and class teaching, with oversight on SMSC. It is pretty much what I wanted and what I still want.
With the Teaching School, I get to work across different schools and set up new and exciting collaborative learning projects, like the Year 5 Creative Writing Retreat in the New Forest for five local schools (oooh), and the Newham Speechmaking competition (ooh). I get to work with SLEs and headteachers, experts and facilitators, researchers and academics and at different times, kids across the age range from 3 to 18 across Newham and East London.
My time is split 50:50 so this year will be the first I don’t have a class of my own. Last year I was tiptoeing towards this point by class-sharing with a trainee but this academic year, I have no brood to call my own. I will be covering all of Year 5s PPA, meaning I carry on with this year’s kids as I am currently in Year 4. I will have one random slot and one morning a week teaching an intervention group for Maths in Year 3.
Those who know me know that I am fiercely sentimental. My cupboards and drawers are littered with tidbits and bunkum – crap, some would say – that were once deemed salient . Little bits of scrunched up paper on which are written things a kid has said that have made me snicker to such an extent I felt I need to commit it to paper.
Sir I just … I like seeing the sweat on a bald man’s head.
The only fights I like are mouth fights.
How come your legs move so slow but you walk so fast?
I’ve got the catalogued exercise books of kids who are now teenagers whose writing was so good I wanted to keep it for myself. As end of year gifts for the kids, I made DVDs of our year using footage taken on all of our school trips and odd events (Queen’s Jubilee, Olympics, Performing at Royal Albert Hall etc).
I’ve got my class photos on my office wall, and they form a line of 5 photographs representing my first half-decade of being teacher, 150 faces plus mine – rapidly decaying – five times. And then the line of photos stops. And will it carry on?
I have become a Mother Hen with no chicks. I sit proudly atop a nest that contains only the cracked shells of what once was. Lament. Lament. Lament.
It is just so typically me that I climb the greasy pole only to begin pining for the bottom rung (mixed metaphor but you get the gist). It’s not so much that I didn’t think about which wall I was leaning on when I started to climb the ladder, it’s that I imagined I would be able to split my DNA into another me, or a few more even, and just buy loads of ladders and find loads of walls and wave at myself from atop each of them, not questioning which was the authentic me because I would be so busy doing good stuff on top of my ladders, like a little sky community of high aspiration and learning etc where only I lived along with the other mes.
I think I have application addiction. Now that I have applied for the promotions I have no choice but to apply for demotions. Silly man I am.
EYEBROW RAISED JONNY: Pull yourself out of this you douche. One, you are being indulgent and nobody wants to hear it. Two, you are missing opportunities to actually achieve stuff whilst you stage this odd grief ritual.
Thanks Eyebrow-Rasied Jonny, trusty friend within me. I need you even though you hurt me.
EYEBROW RAISED JONNY: Move. On.
I have to see this as an opportunity. As a challenge. How can I get the kids learning, engaged and committed to the curious pursuit of knowledge and critical consciousness when I lack the freedoms, authority and positioning of being their class teacher. Well for one thing, I will be making sure that my lesson plans are tight and well-resourced in the extreme, as I can’t rely on the luxury of catching up the time if my temporal slackness means we don’t get things done. But as well as that, I want to be flexible and responsive; I want to have the gusto and self-assurance to allow the children’s useful contributions to redirect the lessons when appropriate.
I was teaching a lesson at the end of last year with Year 4 talking about media literacy, for an SMSC job interview no less. I was encouraging the children to think about the effect of the news in determining what they do and do not know about, and what they do and do not care about. Why is it, I asked them, that all the media was covering the Calais Jungle in November and December, but now – when the problems have only intensified – it is not receiving anything like the same coverage?
A hand wiggled up out of the crowd. Y____ had a question he wanted to ask on a similar topic.
“Is it a bit like Black Lives Matter?”
“I can see how it could be yes – what do you mean, Y___?”
At which point, Y____ displays such a virtuous connection with, care for and knowledge of the social world, such a powerful and crusading sense of righteousness that everyone was with him completely, (and as an aside, he all but guaranteed my success in the job interview, but this by-the-by). The pace and direction of the lesson was fruitfully steered by Y____, enriching the discussion and through his example – explained in the way that it does and does not make sense to him – more children were feeling the refreshing wave of understanding. They were getting the point that media coverage of ‘the news’ is socially determined; that somebody somewhere is in the position to choose what is and is not worth sharing, and that this is a phenomenally powerful position to be in.
I want to do that in my lessons with Year 5 next year. I want to model the kinds of pedagogy that support my values as a teacher and as an individual, and which enable pupils to develop, re-structure and experiment with the knowledge and skills they are acquiring.
And as for the Year 3 maths intervention group, who I am to be teaching each week for just one hour, I want to set myself a bit of a challenge. It may be a challenge in and of itself, as I haven’t ever taught kids younger than Year 4 and I have tended to work with children in the top set for maths. I am reliably informed that the children I will be teaching one day a week do not yet know their times tables.
My little project is this.
With this small group, which is I think 18 pupils, I want each and every kid to be fluent in their times tables up to 12 by Christmas, and want to get there by whatever means proves to be effective for each kid.
That might keep this (surrogate) mother hen occupied atop her empty nest atop the ladders.
When I was a sixth form strapling with a burgeoning interest in teaching and education, they gave me permission to have a week off school to volunteer in a Montessori school. It was interesting and fed my interest in schooling. One of the things I remember most about it ten years later is one particular kid. The staff were all raving about him as an incredibly gifted seven year old who was fully fluent (as far as 7 year olds are fluent) in English and French. I loved it, because his level of competence in French was about the same as mine, so I could ask him all the kinds of grammatically garbled burning questions I was likely to encounter in my speaking exam.
‘Ou est la biblioteque?’ and ‘Decrivez votres opinions dans l’absurdité de Meursault’ and ‘Quelle est ton passe temps préfèré’.
I called him a ‘petit singe dans les arbres’ and he laughed and I felt like God’s gift to global comedy.
Oh how we cooed over him and his bilingualism, that came from having a French dad and an English mum. It genuinely is an achievement and not one I want to downplay or take away from the kid.
But it got me thinking about how much esteem he had pinned to him because of his particular bilingualism. Even now, I remember the kid fondly because of it.
In the five years I’ve been teaching so far, I have taught fewer than ten children who are not bilingual. All spoke English but only a few speak it as their first/main language at home, with many speaking a mix with family and having the ability to shift codes freely between the their first, second and in some cases third and fourth languages.
I had one pupil whose family migrated to Britain from Bangladesh with a two year stop in Italy along the way. This kid spoke Bengali, Italian and English and was making good ground on Arabic through his classes at the madrasah. But he’s not very good at language because he can’t underline the split digraphs in a sentence like ‘Kenneth and Judith ate Quince Tartlets at the Regatta’ (probably didn’t happen but you get my drift).
My kids generally speak both English and their other language better than the kid from ten years ago, so where is their parade? They don’t have one because their additional languages/mother languages are Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Sylheti, Gujurati, Pashto and Arabic.
Every nine year old in my current class has a level of bilingualism that £36,000 worth of tuition fees, an immersive year in an Asian country and four years of study at SOAS would still not provide me with.
The man who drove me to the hotel I am in had the kind of bilingual fluency you would expect of a languages graduate and I haven’t enough knowledge of Portuguese to ask where the toilet is.
So the question is not about whether or not a kid is bilingual but how they are bilingual, and whether their languages are culturally esteemed enough in society to merit the plaudits given to kids who can speak multiple European languages.
Do our schools do enough to celebrate the achievement that bilingual pupils have made? All bilingual pupils, not just those whose ability enables them to order a hearty meal in a boulangerie?
And also, to what extent could/should schools be supporting pupils to maintain their other languages? What benefits could schools bring to their pupils and the school community if they could do more to celebrate and foster bilingualism in all its forms?
Next year, despite my love for Geography, I have decided to give the post away to pick up something different; now that I won’t be doing anything like full-time class teaching, I thought it would be better in the hands of someone who is.
Instead, I am picking up responsibility for SMSC and the School Council. I love the focus on SMSC, and as many of us know from our own schools, it is something that can so easily slide when the pressure mounts up and the timetable gets a battering. To focus on the Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural development of kids, as a whole school approach, has lots of opportunities. I’m really looking forward to this.
And also the School Council. I am informally co-opting whichever of the kids from Year 2 – Year 6 get democratically elected as ‘my class’ for the year. I am going to add a cabinet structure – there will be a leader and deputy who stay in post all year, but everyone else will cycle between Cabinet posts regularly (in the style of Corbyn circa the betrayal).
I like that my job is so eclectic, and that I have a million little bits and bobs to do rather than one big thing. Here are some of the things I am doing next year.
- Running the DebateMate League and Cup for Newham
- Organising and attending a Poetry Creative Writing Retreat with kids from five local primary schools and with the poet Adisa
- Organising TeachMeet Newham
- Doing all of Year 5s PPA cover
- Taking 28 of the Y5 shubunkins off camping in Epping Forest
- Put together a CPD opportunity I am speculatively calling ‘CPD: Coach of Professional Development’ – a coach trip for teachers around England visiting schools with as diverse a range of school cultures/school values as possible
- Funding permitting, run the Newham Primary Speechmaking Competition again.
8. Spend some days on SLE deployment at Dersingham Primary supporting middle leadership in the humanities
9. Run an effective school council, where the kids actually have some clout and money to spend. Take them to the Houses of Parliament and get them to meet some other effective change makers and leaders.
10. Work with colleagues to put together another donation drive and visit to the refugee camps around Calais.
How can an education system consistently produce steady patterns of inequality whilst either being, or giving off the illusion of being, a democratic lottery of effort and ability?
Bourdieu’s ‘Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction’ is excellent, and those who wish to dive deeper into it can find it in ‘Power and Ideology in Education’ by Karabel and Halsey, and also in ‘Knowledge, Education and Cultural Change’ by Brown.
Just like every dinner party in the 1980s needed hors d’ouevres, every analysis in the 2010s needs Bourdieu. As Grammar Schools edge back towards reality, questions of social mobility, social equality and social justice need to be looked at with fresh eyes, and the Bourdieusian lens is an interesting one to peer through.
As Loic (Menzies not Wacquant) has already indicated in his Uncle Steve post, everyone can point to an example of a working class kid done good through the grammar schools. The follow up questions ought then to be about what set ‘Uncle Steve’ apart from his classmates and what happened to his mates, and then the focus should shift.
Who is it that gains from the sharing of these trope-like stories about the poor kid done good; why are they so public when they happen? Who benefits from these stories?
My standpoint is that a tripartite system as it existed before was steeped in injustice, and that it stratified pupils at age 11 on how much social and cultural advantage they had accrued through childhood, considering this to be intelligence.
Undoubtedly there will be pupils from poorer backgrounds whose ferocious intellect and dedication to study saw them climb the greasy pole of social mobility through grammar schools. Congratulations to them – genuinely. There are still children from less affluent backgrounds whose intellect, flair and knowledge can see them reap opportunities from the selective education system, but in the average classroom in a poorer area, these pupils would be the genuinely exceptional ones who have a thirst for knowledge and learning that is rare even amongst their other high-attaining less-affluent peers.
But within their new grammar school class they will be joined by more affluent children whose parents poured tuition down their throats from childbirth. They will be joined by children who grew up in homes full of books, whose cultural education is intuitive rather than something that needed to be grafted at. The 11+ is the ultimate apparatus of selective education, but what it selects and judges is not necessarily what it says it selects and judges.
So to Bourdieu.
Education and Social Reproduction
Bourdieu argues that the purpose of the sociology of education is to be a ‘science of the relations between cultural reproduction and social reproduction’ – he is concerned less with correlations between such things as a child’s academic success and their parents wealth, than he is with the ‘study of the mechanisms which tend to ensure the reproduction of the structure of relations between classes’.
[The substantialist mode of thought] is unaware that the controlled mobility of a limited category of individuals, carefully selected and modified by and for individual ascent, is not incompatible with the permanence of structures, and that it is even capable of contributing to social stability in the only way conceivable in societies based upon democratic ideals and thereby may help to perpetuate the structure of class relations.
Bourdieu is highlighting that the fact an individual from a low position in the class system can end up climbing their way to the very top is not evidence of the dissolution of class-based educational outcomes; actually, people’s support for our education system, in its flawed form, actually relies upon the exceptional upward mobility of a minority of pupils, in order to present the system – in total – as a democratic and level playing field (though it is not).
Bourdieu outlines how our focus must be on the production of the habitus – ‘that system of [individually held] dispositions which acts as mediation between structures and practice’ – and that as people interested in studying social reproduction…
it becomes necessary to study the laws that determine the tendency of structures to reproduce themselves by producing agents endowed with the system of predispositions which is capable of engendering practices adapted to the structures and thereby contributing to the reproduction of the structures.
The social structures of the education system are reproduced when the pupils passing through them become imbued with the dispositions and motives that may lead them to self-stratify into the existing configuration of things. For example, we should be looking at how a school like Eton can so reliably produce pupils who are predisposed towards possessing the traits that would allow entry to the higher professions (professions which welcome such pupils into their existing networks), as well as looking at how schools in disadvantaged areas can reliably and consistently, over generations, turn out pupils whose ambitions are stymied enough that they see themselves as best placed in low paid work, or the trades.
To paraphrase, Bourdieu is asking ‘How can an education system consistently produce steady patterns of inequality whilst either being, or giving off the illusion of being, a democratic lottery of effort and ability?’
There is no solution to the problem of the transmission of power, argues Bourdieu, that is ‘better concealed, and therefore better adapted to societies which tend to refuse the most patent forms of the hereditary transmission of power and privileges’ than the education system.
Education reproduces class distinctions, and can conceal the fact that it does so.
The Role of Culture in Social Reproduction
Bourdieu holds the function of cultural reproduction to work with the function of social reproduction within education. Bourdieu spends time outlining how cultural practices such as theatre attendance and reading are stratified along the lines of occupational categories, to bolster his suggestion that ‘the inheritance of cultural wealth which has been accumulated and bequeathed by previous generations only really belongs…to those endowed with the means of appropriating it for themselves’. The ability to accumulate cultural-goods as a form of ‘symbolic capital’ is an ability available only to those who ‘hold the code’ and know how to decipher them.
In this way, he presents tables of information which show ‘Cultural Activities and Level of Education’, showing that 69% of those surveyed who completed Higher Education regularly attend the theatre, compared to 18% among those who left school before the end of secondary education.
Bourdieu is making the point that the level of education an individual has aligns, generally, not only with their socioeconomic position but with their cultural practices.
Such a powerful and exclusive relationship between the level of education and cultural practice should not conceal the fact that, in view of the implicit presuppositions that govern it, the action of the educational system can attain full effectiveness only to the extent that it bears upon individuals who have been previously granted a certain familiarity with the world of art by their family upbringing. Indeed, it would seem that the action of the school, whose effect is unequal (if only from the point of view of duration) among children from different social classes, and whose success varies considerably among those upon whom it has an effect, tends to reinforce and to consecrate by its sanctions the initial inequalities.
What Bourdieu is saying then is that the education system validates, rewards and structures itself to cheerlead for the forms of cultural knowledge that are already unevenly distributed along the lines of social class, and that the correlation between early exposure to art and ‘high culture’ and the subsequent level of educational success is a forceful enough correlation to suggest that ‘what is measured by means of the level of education is nothing other than the accumulation of the effects of training acquired within the family and the academic apprenticeships which themselves presupposed this previous training’.
By doing away with giving explicitly to everyone what it implicitly demands of everyone, the education system demands of everyone alike that they have what it does not give.
What a quotation.
Here, Bourdieu is speaking primarily about the cultural practices of school-based transmission. He is thinking of linguistic and cultural competence and a familiar relationship with culture which can only be produced by family upbringing when it transmits the dominant culture. Education is tasked with teaching children about the best our culture has to offer, yet it neglects to pass on the ‘instruments indispensible to the success of its undertaking’, meaning that those with the cultural inheritance borne of cultural and financial wealth are the ones best-placed to confirm their monopoly over these esteemed forms of cultural knowledge.
The symbolic/cultural products of the different social classes have different value on the educational market, Bourdieu argues, and in the economic market, based on how far they stray from the ‘dominant mode of production’ or ‘from the educational norms of those social classes capable of imposing the domination of criteria of evaluation which are the most favourable to their products.
My old sociology teacher proved this point by calling Eton College during the lesson, sticking it on speakerphone, and seeking a beatboxing scholarship for his niece. The musicality required of a gifted beatboxer is perhaps no less than that of a gifted flautist – the technical range of processes is arguably more complex – but Eton is in the position of a cultural arbiter and can – and did – refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of beatboxing as an esteemed cultural practice.
The Appearance of Legitimacy
The effectiveness of the education system as a sociocultural sieve owes itself to ‘the appearance of legitimacy’ that it brings. An investment in the academic market, through investment of ‘time and enthusiasm for education on the part of the pupils, investments of time, effort and money on the part of families’ is expected to bring future profits on the academic market, which can be exchanged for alternative forms of capital.
Bourdieu argues that negative predispositions towards school ‘result in self-elimination of most children from the most culturally unfavoured classes’ must be seen as an ‘anticipation’ of their low objective probability of succeeding, based on their category position.
The system of dispositions towards the school, understood as a propensity to consent to the investments in time, effort and money necessary to conserve or increase cultural capital, tends to redouble the symbolic and economic effects of the uneven distribution of cultural capital, all the while concealing it and at the same time, legitimating it.
Here we find analysis of notions such as high aspiration and high expectation, with our contemporary familiarity with the idea that one can ‘inspire oneself out of poverty’ and ‘aim high’. Bourdieu, taking a structural view at this, concludes that the laws of the academic market determine aspirations by determining the extent to which they can be satisfied.
Legitimating Social into Academic Hierarchy
By making social hierarchies and the reproduction of these hierarchies appear to be based upon the hierarchy of “gifts”, merits or skills established and ratified by its sanctions, or, in a word, by converting social hierarchies into academic hierarchies, the education system fulfils a function of legitimation…
Judgements of academic qualification serve to lineate our society not by inherited wealth, but by achievement. The fact that wealthy professional parents are fare more likely to have children who will grow to become wealthy professional adults is not the simple the handing down of wealth from one generation to another, which rankles in a democratic society. The children of the well-off will have to ‘fake-earn’ the privilege they already have through academic success, and the Grammar School is a great platform for this. And its free.
Who is it that gains from the sharing of these trope-like stories about the poor kid done good; why are they so public when they happen? Who benefits from these stories?
Expect to hear many more stories of how grammar school education saved particular individuals from the brink of the social abyss. Those who feature in such stories may believe this themselves, and in an individual case-by-case basis, this may well be true for them. But as for who benefits, the issue is much more cloudy. To what extent is the success of one poor kid used to justify the failure of other poor kids, by perpetuating the idea that ‘Well _____ managed to do it, so any of us could have done it’ which completely ignores the role that wealth plays in stratifying society.
When I was in primary school, the teacher was trying to explain about extreme weather to us, and how it might be influenced by our actions and pollution. We weren’t quite getting it – we couldn’t quite grasp how the process worked. The teacher decided a different approach.
“OK look out of the window. Now, imagine a huge wave – a tsunami – rising 50 feet high and smashing through all the houses.”
I did imagine it and it absolutely terrified me. The thought stayed with me when I was quiet. When I had my head on my pillow, my mind would return to this idea. When I picture the bit of grass at the end of the road, I can see that once-imagined wave casting us all into shadow just as clearly as I can picture the road signs, the overgrown bush and the kicked-down fence.
Knowledge, in and of itself, is not empowering. Knowledge aligned to power, to reflection and to social action can be.
Some would argue that knowledge does not need to be empowering – that it is an a priori good – but for me, if knowledge can be constructed and shared in a way that inspires understanding without generating doom, that is preferable. Surely there is a way to teach about the realities of reality, the good and the bad, in a way that empowers pupils to seek to build a better world, rather than causing them to feel utterly powerless in the face of it.
Education ought to be hopeful, and for this to happen, teachers need to be hopemongers.
Education that operates in a void of hope, in a vacuum of optimism, castrates its own potential. We want children to be knowledgeable; whilst there may be debate about what is taught, it is fair enough to say that we want children to know more once they have been to school than they did before arriving at our gates.
Some of us want them to be empowered by their education. When I spoke at the UKLA conference today, I suggested we all want this, but perhaps I was too hasty. Some actively don’t want this, and many might say they want it, but would not endorse the changes that would need to take place in order to engender it. Some feel children are not responsible enough to make decision for themselves, and whilst there is truth in this in some contexts – you wouldn’t hand control over the school budget exclusively to kids in Year 1 – teachers are perhaps too willing to deny children opportunities to take more ownership over their own decisionmaking.
Empowerment of pupils does not necessarily gel well within the current education system, which can promote control-rituals to the point of absurdity. Empowered students don’t sit placidly through meandering lessons which may be worth knowing or which may just be crap lessons. Empowered students question why they need to walk in a perfect line from the classroom to assembly. Empowered students cast their critical eye over the arbitrary nature of so much of what passes as sacrosanct; over the need to put their fingers on their lips when told to do so and on the need for adults to be allowed to cut in front of them in the lunch queue, for example. Empowered kids want to know why, and not all teachers are willing to engage in answering.
And because of all of this, empowered students have the potential to help teachers unpick their own practice, and to become more powerful educator – to force us to recognise what is and is not important in our teaching, to sort the wheat from the chaff, and to streamline our work so we don’t need to spend time on things that don’t matter, that don’t help pupils, don’t contribute to learning, and don’t deploy our talents as educators.
Empowering pupils and empowering teachers is not a zero sum choice. To desire that pupils are empowered does not mean teachers necessarily become disempowered; and in any case, some of the teachers who consider themselves monarchs of their classroom-kingdoms are the least empowered I know, because behind their authority there is a lack of self-driven purpose, a lack of spirit and a lack of hope.
Some are empowered as much as a microwave is empowered, they have several predetermined functions, and have been designed to fulfil them, and as soon as they don’t, they are redundant. In both senses of the word, often. And also like a microwave, they become more dangerous the longer they are allowed to decay and break up from within.
Some teachers like control for the sake of an easy life; teaching for the sake of routine; mechanised doing in place of specialised thinking. We can blame punitive systems of accountability, but we shouldn’t use these to justify our complicity with them. Passsive complicity is the lifeblood of dysfunctional systems – inertia, whether through indifference, protest or even agreement, keeps the whole system afloat. The edicts of Ofsted, the DfE, Pearson and so on may be a valid target, but without legions of hardworking teachers begrudgingly teaching in ways they disagree with, none of the BS would ooze its way down from the realm of a policy wonk’s imagination into our classrooms.
No amount of Secret Teacher resignations will fix society. We need those with a grievance to reflect on what they disagree with, propose something different and just do it.
Our school system is prescriptive and many experience it as oppressive, but it has more than enough space for rogue practice. Michaela is a good example of this, I suppose, as is School 21. When rogue practice can demonstrate its effectiveness, it can change the narrative. Every staffroom harbours its rogues who, either quietly or loudly, rebel and ignore the directives the rest of their colleagues live by, and allow themselves to be judged against. All that is needed for things to be different is for teachers to reflect and act differently.
So when we think about something like control, we ought to look hard at what we do and the reasons we do or do not have for doing it. After all, when we attend conferences as teachers, we don’t hurl tables and chairs at each other and call each other wastemen, and that is not because the facilitators have a well-embedded traffic-lights system and a ClassDojo account.
We behave because it makes sense for us to do so. We are here because we want to learn, because there is a respect between us, and because it is in all of our interests for it to work out. Is it in all of our pupils interest to sit through our lessons? If they were not forced to do so, would they? If not, why not?
Empowerment, as the collaborative act of creating power, can equip and mobilise the strengths, skills and aspirations of children and teachers at once. Both of us learning and unlearning together. Both teaching and unteaching together.
We need children to develop criticality. Criticality should not be confused with just being a prick, as often it appears to be interpreted. Criticality is the ability to see a situation from multiple perspectives, to suspend judgement, to question the seldom questioned, to seek context and backstory, and to have your bullshit detectors locked and loaded at all times. Critical people can and do see things differently from one another, but what unites them is that they have gone through a critical process in order to reach their standpoint.
You can go all the way through the education system, from the first time you hang up your bag in nursery school to the day you throw your mortarboard in the air at graduation, without having any criticality. The exam-centred nature of our curricula and the teaching that feeds into it all reward a certain kind of diligence that requires recall over reflection. Where what counts is what can be measured, the quantifiable becomes king. Criticality really does help, and it requires a base of knowledge, but you can sail through very effectively as a pupil by playing the exam game; digesting past papers, formalising your thoughts and opinions rather than forming them. And yes, the virtuoso students succeed too, but most students are not modern day Renaissance people, with a wide base of knowledge and experience to draw upon. Most successful pupils sit down, listen and absorb and then regurgitate, ordering whatever comes out against their notion of what some unknown marker will have on their mark scheme.
Hopeful classrooms feel different to hopeless ones. I feel no remorse about calling out my absolutely dire Geography teacher at GCSE, whose approach to pedagogy was sitting in his chair, making us read bland paragraphs from a poorly-designed textbook, and making us write them out. He seemed to rejoice in our misery, as though he was a meme of himself. Few were rejoicing on results day, and I doubt he turned up. He didn’t even know our names after two years of teaching us. Nobody in that classroom had a motivation to learn that came about through an interest in the subject, through a desire to learn more or through having their interest piqued by the actions of a knowledgeable teacher. Many flunked the subject, and only the kids who were already good students who could craft an essay out of any old shit managed to pass. I include myself among this fortunate group.
Education should create happiness. Happiness can take many forms. The happiness of achievement and growth; or receiving intrinsic and extrinsic reward, is a powerful form of happiness. Classrooms should have laughter and smiles in them – school is not preparation for a happy life, it isn’t preparation for life… it is life. The life of the teacher is shared and spent with pupils. Pupils aren’t just the people of the future, they are people already, and they were people before we met them.
The people in our schools – the teachers, the students, the parents, the teaching assistants, the cleaners, the mid-day assistants, the education psychologists, the tutors and mentors, the coaches… these are all people living their lives within our walls. Happiness in the workplace is something we ought to hold in higher esteem, especially given the amount of time we spend there.
We need hope as teachers, and we need our education to be offering hope for pupils. Exactly what this means, and what it looks like needs a lot of unpicking. And that will need a blog all of its own.
We have been subjected to the Milgram Experiment, but instead of a red button, we were given a vote.
I am not suggesting that the only reason Britain voted to leave the EU is because people don’t understand the election. That would be patronising in the extreme when more than half of those who turned up at a polling station decided to give their X to Leave. There are a range of reasons why people voted for Brexit. Some of them may include a genuine belief it is better for Britain, a distrust of European institutions, a sense that Britain is not making its own decisions, a distrust of migrants, a feeling of being ‘taken over’, a general malaise about the status quo and yes, in some cases, blunt and unadulterated racism and Islamophobia.
In effect, there were two campaigns to Leave, and I don’t mean the Farage one and the Boris/Gove one – in practice, they merged quite fruitfully and both benefited from each other. The mainsteamness of the Tories gave authenticity to UKIP. The reputation of UKIP allowed the Tories to push an increasingly extreme agenda whilst not being ‘the real bad guys’. Classic Good Cop, Bad Cop, essentially fighting the same campaign.
The real division was between the campaign of what was said, and the campaign of what was heard.
Some could suggest that the politicians are not responsible for how the public interpret their words and pledges, but I think this lets them off the hook. They would love this argument, and we ought to get used to it, because with every idiotic instance of race hate that is likely to proliferate in the coming weeks, in our big cities but especially in our smaller towns, we will see the same arguments peddled by the Brexit politicians. They will condemn it unreservedly, they will be outraged at the insinuation and they will keep wilfully ignorant of the fact that the heightened anxiety felt by the young Muslims in the street, the gritted teeth of galvanised bigots in town centres and the racist graffiti are all part of the same package of outcomes that includes the out-vote.
Because although the Out campaigns just about steered clear of explicit hate speech, they self-consciously fed the concerns that they know reside within many Brits.
It’s like when people say the ‘f-word’ or ‘effing’, forcing you to do the swearing yourself in your head, without them having uttered the profanities.
So Farage can say there is nothing wrong with this Breaking Point poster. It is merely a real and undoctored photograph of some people trying to get into Europe. Farage hasn’t said much more than that, because he doesn’t need to.
People have the story they want in their heads already; he knows this, as we all do, and that awareness serves his needs perfectly.
For some of us the story of this poster is a detailed tome of the history of empires. For some it is a terse political analysis. For some of us it is a Bravo Two Zero-esque military page turner. For some, it is some apocalyptic manifesto of the death of civilisation. And for some, it is an Oswald Mosley speech.
Just look at Nigel in the picture above. He knows what you are doing. He doesn’t need to point and get red in the face. He can stand their, innocence-in-pinstripes, whilst you get yourself frothing with indignation, fear and rage.
Devoid of the context that these refugees are fleeing the ISIS that we are also expected to fear, Farage plants the idea in the head of the masses that there is not a humanitarian crisis, or if there is, the crisis is the one where A MILLION JIHADIS ARE MOVING INTO YOUR LIVING ROOM, SO GET MAD.
The Leave campaigns flirted with hate rather than propagating it openly. They provided the dot-to-dot and gave the disillusioned and let down white communities the pencil, nudging them to join them up to complete the picture.
Today, just two days after the vote was announced, we have seen attacks on the Polish centre in Hammersmith, women have reported being racially abused in the street in Walthamstow and it appears that two Polish men have been beaten to a pulp in a racially-aggravated assault elsewhere in East London.
Polish ctr in my Hammersmith neighbrhd smeared w graffiti overnight. First attack in its 50 yr history. Depressing pic.twitter.com/1cfmQzMCEd
— Zanny Minton Beddoes (@zannymb) 26 June 2016
@PostRefRacism Yday morning a woman called me a “dirty paki”, “scum” and said “pakis need to be rounded up and shot” among other insults
— Ayesha (@ayesha_sk) 26 June 2016
father has a broken arm, and possible neck trauma, son has severe facial fractures, broken jaw and nose. my god. pic.twitter.com/XFCSUzhVcN
— carlos (@b0redinbucks) 25 June 2016
But this isn’t the politicians’ fault right?
Imagine the incredulity spreading instantly all over Michael Gove’s rubbery Pob face if anyone attempted to allege a link between the words of politicians and the actions of individuals out on the street. How patronising of us to think people can’t make their own decisions. How naive.
‘Ridiculous!’ shouts Farage, blowing the froth of his pint over you.
Imagine the hands flying up into the air, open-palmed and wide eyed, hoping we don’t see the thin threads of silk that wrap around their fingertips, cascading down to the high streets where politics moves from words to actions, the site of consequence.
The British people are being duped. We are so easily manipulated, and we have been primed to be this way.
We have voted, and I think the vote should stand. I don’t want us to leave the EU but to my mind, the referendum as an exercise in direct democracy, has spoken. My criticism is not with where we have ended up, but with the duplicitous route that brought us here.
You know what? There are many convincing economic arguments for Brexit actually – from the left as well as from the right – just as there are many for remaining in the EU, but this is not the level at which most people experienced this election. Behind the insulating layer of economic argument, which shrouds all behind it, lays a phantasmagorical array of ideas which the public and the politicians dallied with: national pride, alienation, fear of difference, diversity, global competition, autochthony and belonging, inclusivity and exclusivity, hate, rage, suspicion.
If the election was conducted with anything like democratic integrity, I would be pissed off with the outcome but that would be as far as it would go. It would be like losing a horse race – my gee-gee didn’t win, but I don’t need to see it as some kind of equine conspiracy.
Instead we have witnessed a mendacious dive in standards, politicians competing to see quite how much the public will take in and tolerate. And we proved ourselves to be pliable, gullible and manipulable playthings.
We have been subjected to the Milgram Experiment, but instead of a red button, we were given a vote.
We deserve more from our civic life, and from our political representatives, but we should hold ourselves to higher standards too. We have allowed ourselves as a society to become increasingly politically illiterate.
In primary schools, Citizenship has become non-statutory meaning that in most schools – which are already starved of time for their curriculum – it has slipped off the agenda. And with the loss of Citizenship, there has been the loss of discursive space in the most formative years of a child’s life.
It is notable that despite the government putting so much stock on the importance of what pupils know at the age of 11, it is not thought necessary for them to have even the most rudimental knowledge of their own contemporary society and its workings until 11. Most useful for them.
This may sound odd for those who don’t work in primary, but I suspect many primary teachers would back me up here – 11 is too late to begin a child’s social and civic education. Children have an acute sense of themselves, their place in the world and of those they share it with, and this is in place considerably before they are 11. Primaries are sometimes good at teaching the wider positive social values, but few have the ability to tackle society head on – to get stuck into the hard graft of unpicking injustices, -phobias and -isms that may be present in the school communities. And even fewer schools develop an understanding of politics that moves beyond the general value of a voting system to elect a school councillor.
Our political leaders are all elected this way, but it doesn’t mean they serve our best interests. By just saying to children that voting is good and fair, we validate all that slips through the cracks in our democratic system.
We have just had a referendum on an issue of sovereignty, only to realise (and I am guilty of this one too) that it is in no way democratically-binding, but it is essentially a very expensive focus group. Funny that many of us are learning this after the vote which shapes the life chances of our and future generations.
A real political literacy is required among all of us as citizens if we are to fully enjoy the benefits of living in a democratic society.
Perhaps we placate ourselves by looking at banana republics, rogue states and cartoon despots overseas, and then look proudly at Big Ben, and at our voting slips, and remind ourselves that our system is comparably great. If we are to really love Britain, we should expect more of it so that it holds true to the values it purports to represent.
We should expect great integrity from our political leaders and we should see a wider representation in parliament; we should be critical, we should hold them to account and dispose of those who overstep the line; we should be able to spot the bullshit and call them on it; we should have an intellectual resistance to the roles, politics and biases of the media, taking nothing at face value; we should understand the money behind political parties; we should understand how the voting systems work and what different parliaments do and do not control; we should understand the force of rhetoric and persuasion and how it can cajole us as well as inspire us.
Political literacy among the electorate is a vaccine against the bullshit that politicians can weave into threats and promises. Political literacy among the electorate is a catalyst to a more grounded and realistic understanding of society and all of its challenges – wealth, employment, migration, diversity, community and so on – and it would allow for discussion and debate in the public sphere to take place from a foundation of knowledge rather than conjecture, and of optimism rather than fear.
But fear, threats and bullshit are the order of the day.
And for that selfsame reason, political literacy among the electorate is anathema to the status quo of our political system.
The politicians won’t help us to be informed. The media converts our ignorance into their wealth, and the gutter press long since gave up the pretence of any kind of public service. We need to be the ones to push for this. If it isn’t on our curriculum, political literacy should be. Our responsibility as educators goes beyond the consistent delivery of a scheme, or the regular adherence to a DfE directive. Our responsibility as educators is ultimately to society itself, through the young minds we encounter and cultivate. It is to the children who will be sitting in your class this week, perhaps all too eagerly seeking your view on things to guide them to make opinions. Don’t let them get away with it.
Anger and frustration are of very limited utility here, but they can be made useful is channelled into action. Inform yourself and inform your children. Engage with politics. Criticise the news, and encourage them to do so. Encourage them to use their freedom of thought and their freedom of speech.
Shake them from the docility of ignorance, and armour them against fear and hopelessness.
By which I mean my career (so far) defined by music obviously.
10. Hello – Lionel Richie
I took my kids to a city farm earlier this year, and one of the kids in my group went missing. Cue an immediate panic. I look around and the boy is squatting next to the goat enclosure. I walked up to him to ask him to keep up, and heard he was singing “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?” to the goat. Glorious moment – as long as something like this happens maybe twice a year, I can carry on teaching.
9. Dizzee Rascal – Sirens
In the Summer of 2011 I trained to be a teacher and was left in the less than brilliant situation of having just under two weeks until school started and nowhere to live. I was probably one of a very small number of people who chose the day of the London Riots to go house hunting in East London. As we moved around Hackney and Tower Hamlets, visiting flats and estate agents, the sirens were ringing out. We found a house on Buckfast Street, and put down a deposit and as we left the house, the police cordoned off all of Bethnal Green Road, including our street. It felt like a mistake. We went to Brick Lane to celebrate the house situation, and then the Bangladeshi shop owners all had to take to the street to defend their businesses against the rioters (and did so successfully). This was a completely unrepresentative picture of life in the East End, but at the time, it felt not unlike the video below, and I felt like I was moving into an edgy war zone.
8.Emeli Sande – Crazy in Love
When I am at school, I find myself unable to do all the admin work. My brain can’t focus that way, and instead, despite it ruining my work life balance, I always found it easier to do all the marking etc at home and at the weekend. So long as I was happy at school itself, I could get by. As such, mornings before school were to be spent doing flamboyant jazz dance with my friend Ellie last year, and the Electroswing version of Crazy in Love was perfect. The kids would walk in initially confused, and would then join in. An energetic start to the day.
7.Anywhere in the World – Mark Ronson and Katy B
My first year teaching was 2011-12, and this meant that my summer term was the London Olympics. For one thing, it meant we got an extra week of holiday, but it also meant that our school was hit by Olympic fever and we got free tickets to take the kids. This annoying crap song was an official Olympic song, and we had it blasting out for the final term of 11-12. I used it in a video yearbook for my first class, and it just brings that merry training year back to me.
6. One Pound Fish Song
Whilst the One Pound Fish man has long since faded into obscurity, for me and I suspect for our local school community, he is still there, as fresh as his fish. The ‘One Pound Fish’ man is essentially a fishmonger in Queens Market, around the corner from where I work, and he became viral famous after being filmed with the One Pound Fish song he invented to sell his fish. A short X factor stint and one song followed, but he remains a local favourite.
5. Something Inside So Strong – Labi Siffre
Already one of my own favourite songs, we used this as part of our work in Black History Month, looking at the idea of resistance, strength and self-belief. Music gets me sentimental at the best of times, but when I’ve got a room of Year 4 kids singing this, I am emotionally destroyed. They love it – they hear the opening notes and literally cheer.
4. The Power of Yet – Janelle Monae
Super twee – the Power of Yet is a less than helpful oversimplification of the idea of growth mindset but as a reminder to the kids not to give up, it is super cute. The song is infectious as anything and Sesame Street is just great.
3. The Passenger – Iggy Pop
An odd choice I know. In my training year, as trainees often do, I had a weird idea. I decided I wanted a class song that we could bond over. It was decided that this would be it, so we spent ages trying to come up with an Acapella backing to it. It reminds me of when everything was fresh, new and exciting.
2. Listen – Beyonce
Oh my, this song. It has become a self-perpetuating meme that I am obsessed with this song, and I really do like it, but on multiple occasions I have belted this song out at school. I have been lip-syncing long before it became fashionable, and this is the ultimate song for it. At the camping trip last year, I jumped out of a bush with a Prince Phillip mask on and lip-synched this at the Camp Fire (terrifying). On a holiday with Ellie, we lip-synched it on the cliffs overlooking the Parthenon in Athens. Long after the memories of my current school have faded, this will remain.
1. Candy – Cameo
Well. This song, and the accompanying Candy Dance, simply are Elmhurst Primary School. Every Christmas party, every birthday party and every staff gathering, everybody knows this will happen. Despite it being an absolute cheese fest, and with its heavy allusions to illicit behaviours, it is as much a part of our school as the bricks and mortar. It especially brings up Abi, one of our longest serving members of staff, who always leads the dance and will next year be leading it in another school.
As I emerged from beneath a borrowed dinosaur-duvet at a friend’s house on the hazy morning of Monday, clambering my 6 foot frame out of the rickety bunk-bed her son usually sleeps in, the enormity of the day before hit me: I had had an East London Sunday. A big one. Life-affirming, perhaps. An unexpected, largely unplanned, spontaneous day which led me to soak up the strangest of blends of experience that the East End can yield. No eels were eaten, but aside from that, it was authentic. See.
It was Sunday morning, and like every day, my waking ritual involved grappling for my iPhone, trying desperately to hold it at an angle which wouldn’t rotate the screen, but wouldn’t require me to move my head. Checked the Guardian for any life-changing news -same old Brexit. Checked Twitter – not much going on. Checked my WhatsApp – no messages.
I made a coffee and entered the living room. I couldn’t find the TV remote (later discovered it under a pack of crisps) so started live-streaming The Andrew Marr show. I watched the bit with Yanis Varoufakis, saw that Blair was coming up, so turned it off, thus protecting my Sabbath.
The day plan involved popping along to the Ahmadiyya Walk for Peace, then going for lunch with a friend, and then in the evening, ambiguously ‘going out’ for drinks. Little did I know the adventures which would befall me.
I messaged my friend Aisha, who I would later be going to the Ahmadiyya event with. She suggested we meet for coffee beforehand. I agreed.
I walked through Wanstead, the place I have called home for close to two years. It is an odd pocket which is central enough to call itself London, East enough to be called East London, and historically wealthy enough to not be called gentrified. It has been stiflingly tweely middle class for an age. A five minute drive north of Forest Gate, Wanstead is a pocket of affluence and we happened to find an unusually reasonably priced flat here. I walked past a Labour Leave campaign table and a Labour In campaign table. I walked past the Manor House which yielded me a Saturday breakfast so large I literally had not eaten since. I got down to Wanstead Station and went west to Stratford.
In Stratford station, armed police with machine guns chilled slouchily at the balcony overlooking the atrium. As I hope is a normal response for most humans, I immediately worried that I was looking really suspicious. This was only multiplied by my inability to find DLR platform 17; this confusion forced me to walk past the aforementioned officers three times each.
I found it and hopped on, sad not to be able to sit at the front and pretend I am on Rollercoaster Tycoon. Luckily, I had a lot to keep me entertained.
I’m on the tube with Hermione Granger, Luigi and a soldier from Call of Duty: Black Ops. I hope and presume it is a Comic Con day.
— Jonny Walker (@jonnywalker_edu) 29 May 2016
Clearly, my planned quiet coffee at the Excel with Aisha had not accounted for the fact that today was Comic Con. Already perturbed by the armed officers in the station, a gentleman wearing full military gear from the Call of Duty: Black Ops game, also yielding a machine gun, sat beside me. My mind began to race, thinking very macabre thoughts about how it was that a legion of geeks (used here in an empowering way) can march onto public transport armed with machine guns and katana swords without anyone checking them out. This thought only continued throughout the day. Aisha messaged me to tell me to stay on to Royal Albert Docks; we would meet at the Ahmadiyya Peace Walk first, and then go for coffee. The armed soldier, the wizards, anime creatures and furverts all got off, leaving a more soberingly empty carriage, looking out on the industrial wasteland.
— Jonny Walker (@jonnywalker_edu) 29 May 2016
I arrived and met Aisha at the main council buildings in Docklands. What a place and what a building. Overlooking City Airport and the huge Tate and Lyle sugar factory, and beside all the rowing and watersports clubs, it is a striking spot. It was heaving with people.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim community organise an Annual Peace Walk, and this year it was taking place in Newham. In an act of phenomenal generosity, the Ahmadiyya community match-fund anything raised by all the charities taking part – the day would raise thousands and thousands of pounds. It is a stunning example of community-mindedness. The area was a mirage of busy people directing people everywhere and everyone was in Hi-Vis, like a rave. Aisha showed me in and got me signed up and it was clear that this was a huge event. Aisha helps to run one of the small community organisations which was being supported by the walk: I like going to these events, and will be working with Aisha, so wanted to come along.
Ahmadis from across the UK had come to Dockside and were eager to start their walk. The Mayor of Newham was there, as was Stephen Timms, the MP for East Ham. The crowds gathered outside, Quranic readings rang out over the loudspeakers, and then they were off, much to the delight of her restless sons.
Then came a surprise. It turns out, that despite my amused messages about Comic Con earlier, we actually were going to Comic Con, and they had an extra ticket for little me. Back to the DLR I went, again sharing a carriage with some eccentrics and again marvelling (get it) at the characters. The joyful weirdness of seeing the costumes in the mundane surroundings got me, so like a good citizen journalist, I began discretely photographing everyone.
— Jonny Walker (@jonnywalker_edu) 29 May 2016
— Jonny Walker (@jonnywalker_edu) 29 May 2016
— Jonny Walker (@jonnywalker_edu) 29 May 2016
I found Aisha and the gang, and we headed in.
Don’t ask how it happened. It did. pic.twitter.com/IHaSo0h9Rr
— Jonny Walker (@jonnywalker_edu) 29 May 2016
We entered and immediately began searching for coffee. I haven’t been into the Excel Centre before, and it is an absolute monster. It is one of the largest and most prominent exhibition spaces in the UK, and it hosts a whole world of massive events that bring people to this little bit of East London. As well as the MCM Comic Con, of ‘Revenge of the Nerds‘, as the Express termed it, the centre will soon be hosting the Annual European Congress of Rheumatology, the Safety and Health Expo, the dubious International Conference on Men’s Issues and the World Modelling Convention (or as I called it, ‘My Moment’).
As with the Olympics, it is funny who many people with so many different motivations descend on Newham.
So we managed to find a table and get some coffee, and had fifteen minutes chill time, in the middle of 135,000 nerds dressed as Stormtroopers, The Incredibles and a dinosaur.
Then we took the kids around the exhibitions steering away from any stall which might tantalise them to want to buy anything. Again, the whole place is heaving with characters. For me, as someone with no investment in the world of comics, it just was joyfully surreal and I had no idea what was going on. I saw the Zombie stall and immediately veered away (I have a deeply irrational fear of zombies – fun fact) and absent minded bumped into two men dressed as zombies, screaming with purely white eyes as they ate a mans face for a selfie (see Trauma).
The kids came away with some Minecraft swords and then we headed back to Dockside for the rest of the Ahmadiyya event, which for me involved eating a lot of food and thanking people for the food. Biryani, rice, saag aloo, lamb, chicken, rice pudding. Dream.
Time had ticked on, so I bid farewell to Aisha and the kids, and hopped back on the DLR. I had plans to meet for lunch (thereby making the Biryani a Starter, or perhaps a Palate Cleanser). I had planned to head back across to another of my little East End spots – Spitalfields. In about a million other blog posts I have glorified Spitalfields, so lets just say I got on the DLR, got off at West Ham, awkwardly greeted one of my pupils on the platform, then hopped on the District Line for a few stops to Aldgate East.
Aware that I almost always am late for things on weekends, as though I cram all my punctuality into the ‘Not Getting Fired’ time of the weekdays, I was power walking down Commercial Road to meet Nasima.
Nasima is a friend who works as a Senior Lecturer at the University of East London – I met her when I was mentoring and she was Professional Tutoring Mr Rocky Singh (@MrSingh_Edu). We had a loose plan to eat some Turkish food on Brick Lane, but as soon as we reached our agreed meeting place (“That gentrified sweetshop on Petticoat Lane where all the kids are probably called Sebastian”), we autopiloted towards Zengi, an Iraqi/Turkish inspired restaurant. I love Zengi. Their food makes my eyes roll back in my head, in a good way. We chatted life, jobs, work, and that ghastly Last White documentary, before necking some Mint Tea, and ambling around Brick Lane.
Brick Lane on a Sunday is a living counterclaim to the idea that there are no white people in the East End. There are millions of them; they keep the vintage-jacket market afloat and gladly spend fifteen quid a pop for a block of sustainably-sourced vegan chocolate served on a range of rustic logs. Brick Lane on Sunday is a mix of European tourists, Bangladeshi touts, cockney stall-holders and throngs of hipsters. My children documented this phenomenon on a school trip, where we played Hipster Safari and they took photos.
We meandered our way past the Cereal Killer cafe, the nexus of all that is wrong in society, beyond the dreams of Nathan Barley himself, and parted ways. Nasima headed off past Boxpark – shops and food joints all together in shipping containers – and I headed off to meet my chums from school for what I thought might be a few hours of sociable tipples.
Whilst one of our group perused for vinyl in Rough Trade, we met in the alarmingly poo-scented surroundings of The Big Chill. For some reason there was a large group of Tottenham supports there, chanting ‘Yid Army’ – this sort of thing would never have happened around these ends when the Krays were knocking about. We became a group of five and for multiple enjoyable hours, we veered around watering holes around Brick Lane, Shoreditch and Hoxton, moving dangerously close towards ‘mindless drifting’.
The weather was decent and much of the merriment was outdoors merriment. In one venue, a white singer unironically sang about Rastafarai in a broad deep Jamaican voice to a mostly indifferent crowd of halloumi-munchers and beer drinkers.
The streets were thronged with a casual Bank Holiday crowd. We ambled on and found a decent little place with a free jukebox which I couldn’t understand, so kept on accidentally playing Kate Bush songs, which whilst brilliant, were not ‘the right vibe’. Restlessness hit our little East End drinking evening, and it was the crisis point. What to do? Head home? Call it a day? Head back towards home for food?
Then the idea for the Boat Party was floated (get it?). Sure it was far away, and sure it was hard to get back from, and sure it was getting late, and sure it was a weird thing to do, but … yes, so we decided to go. We popped to the shop and I bought some Space Raiders and ordered an Uber XL. The Spotify playlist droned out the hits of the 70s, and we passed around a jolly bottle, as we cruised through area after area, back to the Dockside near City Airport in search of the elusive party boat, the Tereza Joanne.
And then it materialised.
The crowd was a slightly older crowd, and despite my Athenian boyish youthfulness, I somehow managed to pass easily by the Over-30s rule. It was hot, sweaty and full of a soul-funk-HipHop loving older Essex crowd of black and white displaced Cockneys. The tunes were on fire and it rumbled on into the wee hours.
Who knew that a stationary boat, fully equipped to respect the existential virtues of HipHop, can be found on the random little riverbank of Newham? The taxi was called, we headed back to one of our homes, and the party quickly ended, with a flourish of vinyl and a conclusively passed out friend.
Waking up the next day, it dawned on me that it was a fundamentally East End day, far more in tune with the reality of the times rather than the nostalgia of yesteryear. It was gentrified and traditional. It was dirt cheap and overpriced. It was religious and irreligious. It was peaceful and it was loud. It was black, white and Asian. It was a day of fusion and blurred cultural boundaries. It was halloumi, biryani, late night chicken and Space Raiders. It was lassi, gin and water. It was heaving crowds and moments of calm.
It was exhausting.