Things you need to hear when amid a social media storm

When people don’t like your opinions on blogs, or twitter, or any other form of social network, the backlash can be furious.
If it ever gets fierce I’m lucky that Dad McInerney puts things in perspective. As a shop steward for 30 years and a political mastermind from what seems like birth, his words are from experience. They also tend to be true.
For anyone who doesn’t have such wiseness around I thought it would be worth sharing what he says so that, if you’re ever in a social media tizwaz, you can walk yourself through the process. It helps, I promise.
Imagine someone is wrong on the internet. I know it’s tough, but try. They have decided that something you wrote, or said, or did, is terrible and the criticism or ensuing debate has upset you.
In this situation I phone my dad. And this is what he says:
First, he points out how positive it is that anyone cares one jot about what you think. 
He says things like:
“Isn’t it marvellous that they’re reading your stuff at at all”, or
“Blimey, they don’t like you and yet they’ve spent ages responding? I think that’s brilliant”, or
“Isn’t it good that someone disagrees? It’d be terrible if we went through life unchallenged.”
Next, he minimises the criticism.
“Wouldn’t worry though – I mean, who are they? What’s the consequence?”
“Sounds to me like they’ll forget about it tomorrow”
“Is anyone threatening to shoot you? Are you going to die? If not, I honestly wouldn’t worry.”
But he’s not an idiot. He knows upset can’t be magicked away. So next he empthasies.
“Of course, it’s always upsetting or annoying when people don’t understand what you say. But it doesn’t mean they’re right”
“You should be angry. Who wouldn’t be angry? Not worth being angry for long though, is it?”
“If someone said that to me I’d be upset for a few minutes. But if I knew I was right I’d get over it”
He also seeks the other side of the story.
“How many people liked it? … That sounds like a lot more than didn’t”
“So most people thought it was sensible but you’re upset about a few people who didn’t? Hmmmm.”
“What do the people you care about think?”
That last one is particularly important. If the people you care about don’t like something you’ve said or done then he will softly suggest a tactical error has been made and you should re-trace your steps. (“Sounds to me like your words came out wrong. You obviously didn’t mean that. Just explain what you did mean. Everyone gets confused from time to time”)
And then, finally, he reaffirms how it’s a good thing that people are engaging.
Anyway, as I say, it’s marvellous that you’ve got people thinking. They’d be half asleep watching telly if you weren’t and instead they’re having to think about hard things. That’s good. Well done you.”
With job done he inevitably remembers that Match of the Day/Antiques Roadshow or whatever else he wants to see is on tv and he runs off.
As never-ending and personal as a debate can feel, when it comes to opinions, if people are engaged, their criticism has zero consequence and the majority of people are non-plussed, it really isn’t worth getting upset about.
Should you ever need a reminder of that, do come back to this page. Dad McInerney’s words are here for everyone to use.

My dad when he was mayor at a Macmillan coffee morning. I think he slept in those chains.
My dad, when he was mayor, visiting a Macmillan coffee morning. I think he slept in those chains.

Learning to be homeless

Carriage of the Central Line Tube - by Mark Hillary
Carriage of the Central Line Tube – by Mark Hillary

Yesterday I got on the Central Line tube at Oxford Circus, one of the busiest parts of London, just minutes after a downpour started.
The carriage was sticky and warm, and quiet. I sat on a mostly empty row of seats. As the tube doors closed two figures dashed through the narrowing gap.
The first man looked old. Not because of his skin, although it was wrinkled, and not because of his frame, though it was stooped. It was more that he looked as if he had lived forever. As if he had swept through deserts in Biblical times and fought in bygone wars. His coat was black and long, his hair wild and matted, his trousers tattered to ruin. His nose bent forward, growing down, while his chin curled up. It was as if the two had been growing slowly towards each other in a facial continental drift happening over eons of time. Despite this, his eyes sparkled.
The other man was younger but more downcast. It looked as if he was in his 30s and his face was dirty in the way of an extra playing a peasant in films of olde England: it had a sort of greasy caked-on all-over grimness. His teeth were yellowed, his hair short, his clothes blackened, and dripping from the rain. He did not wear a coat.
The old man’s voice emulated Fagan from Oliver! – raspy, bright, cockneyed, charming.
“‘Ere you go,” he said to the young man as he pulled him through the squeezing door, “we can stay ‘ere for as long as we need.”
He threw his hands in the air and skipped into our palace of warm seats. The young man went to sit on one. Fagan looked alarmed.
“No, no. Don’t frighten the people,” he said, grabbing his protege by the elbow and guiding him to the small ‘perching’ seats at the end of carriage.
With his other hand he scooped up two abandoned freebie newspapers.
“‘Ere,” he said, thrusting the newspaper into the young man’s hands, “read this.”
The young man took it from him gingerly. The old man nodded at him encouragingly to open the front page.
“And afterward, it can keep you warm,” he said, patting his hand on a heavy black record bag hanging from his neck where the paper was destined to go next.
“I’m not much of a reader,” came the quiet reply from the young man.
His accent was difficult to place over the clanking of the tube. A home counties accent? A hint of well-to-do-ness, perhaps?
Fagan was not put off. “Al-wight,” he said, rolling his r sounds, “if you don’t wanna read, you can fink abaaart what flaava coffee you like.”
“Coffee?” asked the young man.
“Yeah. When you sit outside coffee shops, people are gonna arsk you ‘what flavour coffee do you want?'” – he laboured on the word flavour –  “and you gotta know what you want, cause they won’t wait for ya.”
The young man looked baffled. “Flavours?”
The old man put down his paper and started counting out on his hand.
“Well, you got your exsspressos, your americanos, your flat whites….”
The young man looked more perplexed.
“Look, don’t worry about it,” the old man said, lifting the newspaper back up again. “I always say there’s nothing wrong with an Americano. Get one of those. You’ll be fine.”
He went back to reading. The young man mouthed the word “Americano” as if to check he was getting it right.
Having been told not to stand and stare as a child, I felt terrible for my part in this conversation. By now I was pretty much gawping at the two – possibly open-mouthed – across the carriage.
I was watching learning. I was watching a person learn how to be homeless. It was not something I had seen before, or ever really thought about.
It was the most chi-chi, bourgeois, middle class thing to sit and marvel at it, but there was something amazingly calm and spiriting about the old man. This was proper mentorship. Guiding his learner to safety, encouraging him to read, encouraging him to think, filling in gaps when needed. He was making it look so easy and compelling I almost wanted to follow him around and learn how to be homeless.
As someone who has obsessively followed teaching for the best part of a decade it was quite something to be reminded that there are many things we don’t prepare children to learn, nor do I think we should (don’t worry, I’m not about to suggest ‘homeslessness lessons’ on the curriculum). But it was a reminder that whether or not we teach collaboration, or peer learning, etc – one of the most basic things humans do is show each other how to do stuff. And if we do it in a calm way, that keeps people’s humility, stops them from walking into too many walls, teaches them specialist vocabulary and skills, then we can make their world easier – even when it is unimaginably difficult, as I expect the life of a homeless person is to anyone who hasn’t experienced it.
There was something else interesting in the exchange. The older man showed a distinct pride in being able to show the younger man the ropes. It clearly gave him an opportunity to be respected. For all I know, though, he could have been buttering the young man up to use him later, in true Fagan style. He would easily have been able to do so. It was obvious the young man was grateful. Which was a reminder of the power that knowledge transfer brings to the teacher. It can make the learner feel indebted, and teachers must work hard not to take advantage of that gratefulness for their own ends but instead encourage the learner to use that energy to go on and teach others. In my ideal world, the old man was simply paying forward a good deed someone once did by showing him the ropes.
It was now getting near to the end of my tube journey and I was quite gutted to have to leave the masterclass.
The older man was now busily reading the paper. The other was still holding his limply.
“Jus’ look at the pictures if you can’t read,” the old man said, flicking his head to one side, encouraging the young man to open the pages. He dutifully did and began staring hard.
Both were soon lost in the pages that would later warm their bones. I stepped off the platform and changed onto another line.

Should I appeal this #FOI about the DfE's investigation into 'mass migration'?

“The Education Secretary reveals she has ordered a wide-ranging inquiry into the impact of mass migration on state schools, as tens of thousands of parents struggle to find school places for their children. “
Those are the words in a Telegraph interview with Nicky Morgan back in April.
It’s now the distant past, but these were the days when Nigel Farage was jostling for a sweep of UKIP seats, and David Cameron was paling aside the Miliboom (I know, I know, how deluded it all now seems).
At the time it struck me as strange that a Secretary of State, coming near the end of their term, would order such an inquiry. Especially when immigration has barely come up as an issue in schools.
So, on 22nd April, I put in a simple FOI request to the Department for Education asking for:
(1) The document describing this order in whatever manner it was delivered – e.g. email, memo, report, etc. If it was by speech to please pass on the documented minutes.
(2) The scope of the review – in whatever format it is available.
Mostly I wanted to check that the review was really happening and wasn’t just said in an interview for electioneering purposes. And two, I wanted to know what aspect of ‘mass migration’ we are talking about – especially as it doesn’t seem to me like school places are being particularly squeezed. If there is something of interest, however, it would be good to start looking into it sooner rather than later.
The request was due back on 20th May. After some haranguing a reply arrived on 2nd June.
The civil servant said the information was covered by Section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act. This section protects ministerial advice for decision-making purposes. Information that falls under this category faces a ‘public interest’ test. Thea presumption is that information should still be released even if under Section 35, unless there is a potential damage to policy-making.
The response argued that:

  • Ministers need to have a safe space to consider live policy issues. It is in the public interest that the formulation of government policy and government decision making can proceed in the self-contained space needed to ensure that it is done well.”Specifically, Ministers need to feel that they have a safe space to ask for information and advice candidly without worrying about the public presentation (or interpretation) of such requests and commissions for advice.
    “Furthermore, releasing information about policy considerations prematurely could put Ministers under pressure to make policy decisions before they have had sufficient time to consider all the evidence and options.
    Taking into account all the circumstances of this case, I consider that the balance of the public interest favours withholding this information.”

I wrote back asking for an internal review pointing out that if Ministers will go around telling the public through the pages of the Telegraph that they have a commission underway about mass migration into state schools then they have already snookered their safe (by which I think they mean ‘private’) space.
Also, I wasn’t asking for the advice itself. I just want to know what she’s asking about.
I asked for the internal review on 2nd June. I got a response today (after eventually complaining to the ICO about the delay).
They are still turning down the request on Section 35, and have given new reasons.
Here’s where I need your help: Does this rejection sound reasonable, or should I appeal?
I don’t think it’s cut and dry, and I don’t want to waste ICO time. So any help would be appreciated.
This is what they wrote:

  • “In favour of release:•         In general there is a public interest in having an open and transparent Government. It increases trust in, and engagement with Government which can help the policy making process.
    •         There is a public interest in understanding what work is being carried out by civil servants and in this case, it could be argued that there is a public interest in understanding the accuracy of media relating to Ministers and government departments.
  • In favour of withholding the information:•         The Secretary of State’s statement provided information about the scope and approach of the review, and so release of the specific commission does not add to public knowledge.
    •         Ministers at all times need to feel that they have a safe space to ask for information and advice candidly without worrying about the public presentation, or interpretation, of such requests and commissions for advice.
    •        If Ministers believed that commissions would be routinely released to the public it could dissuade them from commissioning detailed work on specific or sensitive policies areas. The chilling effect on Ministers and/or officials would lead to much more broadly-phrased requests for information, and broadly-scoped responses. This will inhibit effective advice and reduce efficiency if advice is actually needed on a more specific question. Additionally, Ministers are not able to make good policy decisions if they only have the confidence to commission high-level advice.
    •         With regards to this request in particular, the work being commissioned is likely to involve conversations with stakeholders, and remains a ‘live’ area of policy-making. If the specific detail of the commission is released into the public domain, this could influence the views that stakeholders give to officials and Ministers, and therefore undermine the quality and balance of evidence that is available to inform decisions.
    •         The Department’s view is that releasing the specific content of the commission could raise public expectations about the timing and nature of future policy. Doing so at this point could inhibit the quality of ongoing discussions with stakeholders to gather evidence; and could also prompt public discussion about policy options at a point when the ‘safe space’ arguments are still needed to allow for frank discussion, and when the chilling effect is likely to risk closing down discussion of some options.
    I hope the arguments set out above clarify the Department’s position that not only is Section 35(1)(a) is engaged, but that it is also in the public interest to withhold the information.”

So, any thoughts on appeal?