What to wear for a TV interview

TV appearances are exciting, but they have a major downside: people can see you.
This is good, because it means the brand you are representing (yourself, or an organisation) is getting exposure. But if you’re not prepared for the fact that people can see everything about you – including your clothes – then you can end up inadvertently distracting from your message.
Hence, over the past three years, as I’ve increasingly done tv interviews on behalf of Schools Week I’ve gathered together some handy tips for avoiding fashion faux pas and putting viewers at easy.
A small caveat: I get this may seem vain. Not caring how you look is liberating and cheaper.  But many viewers will care how you look regardless of your feelings about fashion. Those viewers will then end up distracted by outfits that don’t quite work and stop listening to your message because they are wondering who told you beige was flattering. So, for everyone’s sake, whether vain or not, I suggest you care at least a little about how you look if you’re appearing on people’s telly screens.
Also, what I’m writing here counts for radio broadcasts too. Many media outlets are multi-channel, and will have cameras in studios, or expect to take pics of you for twitter, or want you also to appear on a tv news channel. Hence, if you’re going in a building with producers, follow these rules!
So, if you are going on television/radio, what should you wear?
Anyone who tells you the only rule is that you must feel comfortable is lying. You can’t even rely on the rule that if an outfit looks nice in real life then it’ll look nice on telly.
The first time I went on the news I almost didn’t accept the invite because I was wearingrubbish clothes a sweatshirt with a tuxedo jacket which, in the office, seen as a full outfit, was very cool – ironically combining sports and elite formal clothing with little accessories (belts, shoes) to pull it off. Shh, it was great.
On camera, where you could only see me from waist up, it was weird. Also, my hair was greasy. And my make-up was old and thin.
I knew it was going to film horribly and I was correct. (see right)
But the actual rule number 1 is: never turn down television just because you are wearing rubbish clothes. If your hair is a mess and your clothes don’t match, STILL GO ON. But, if you have any chance of changing clothes before you get there, do.
What to wear if you have the time?
What you want is one major item that is at least colourful (not black or white, or beige, or cream). Do not take this to mean you should wear LOADS of colours. One sensible but brightly coloured item is what you want. A coloured jacket. A coloured tie. A coloured shirt. ONE OF THOSE.
Patterns are possible, and good, but can be tricky (see below), so for the main tip I’d say pick one strong colour and use it with other neutrals.
But, frankly, if you want my NUMBER ONE killer tip…
WEAR NAVY BLUE. If in doubt, get the navy out. There is a reason why male politicians almost universally wear navy blue these days, and it’s not because they follow fashion fads. Navy comes across warmer on television. It’s not as harsh against the skin, and it can more easily mix with other colours. Wear a yellow shirt with a black suit and you look like a bumblebee. Wear a yellow shirt with a navy suit, and you’re the forefront of Italian chic. Bellisimo!
My second tip is WEAR SOMETHING WITH POCKETS. This is less of a worry for men. Most of your clothes come with pockets, and you have no idea what a privilege that is. Women’s clothes rarely come with usable pockets. At best you might have a centimetre of fake pocket on a jacket or a pair of trousers. But if you’re going on telly then you’re likely going to have a microphone pack on your person which is about the size of an old-school walkman. If you’re wearing a glam shift dress that sucks you in and makes you look like a shapely goddess that might be good for your self-confidence, but it’s going to be super awks when you’re handed a microphone pack and you’ve nothing to hook it to. At the very least, if you must wear a shift dress, wear a belt so you can latch it to that. In an ideal world, however, wear something with substantial pockets. (A jacket over the shift dress can work well for this – just make sure the pockets are deep).
My THIRD tip is THINK ABOUT YOUR NECK. This goes for men as much as for women. From about the age of 35, no-one’s neck is their best asset. So you need to think about how you are going to deal with it, because it’s right underneath your face, which is where the camera is pointing. Men typically cover theirs with a tie. That’s great, but ties can go wrong. Tie it too tightly or too loosely and you’re going to look like you’re at school. Too much pattern will distract the audience. Too dull and it’s going to look like you’re going to a funeral. And, for heaven’s sake, AVOID TWO-TONE TIES. (Those are the ones which appear to change shade depending on the angle you are looking at them). If you wear two-tone then half the audience are going to be busy crossing their eyes trying to work out if there’s a magic eye pattern around your neck rather than listening to what you are saying.
Women have a harder time with the neck problem. Theresa May has been a genius on this, employing what I call the ‘Harriet Harman’ principles of fancy (often chunky) jewellery OR a scarf OR a stand-up collar (on your jacket, shirt, or polo neck). May is also queen of the jazzy asymmetrical necklined outfit. Andrea Ledsom is also good on this. (By the way, if you want a guru of women’s political fashion, you can’t go wrong with Harriet Harman: she gives great suit). Remember: what you want is ONE of those things – not loads. No one needs to wear a polo neck, a necklace AND a scarf. I know this because I’ve made that mistake. You’ll be overly hot and you’ll go pink on screen. Just cover your neck – with ONE.
My fourth tip is: DO NOT FORGET ABOUT SHOES. Most of the time on TV, no one will see your shoes. But if you do Channel 4 news, or Newsnight, or any other ’round table’ discussion, then cameras often pan back and show your shoes. Hence, something that matches your outfit is helpful. At the very least it needs to match the genre of what you are wearing. Smart suits need smart shoes. A streamlined outfit needs streamlined shoes. NEVER WEAR TRAINERS. You are not in PE class. Do not wear heels you cannot walk in. Copy that for overly tight skirts. Producers need you to take your seat quickly and quietly, often while a short video is playing. No one is going to be chuffed if you’re clomping like an elephant and shuffling like Morticia Adams. Finally, always remember to check for labels on the soles of your shoes. Again, this is one I’ve forgotten and happily informed the world that my shoes were £35 from Next. Bargain marketing for the retailer; not so good for keeping people focused on my message.
All of the points so far work for most people. Here are a couple of extra bits which are more specific:
Clothes which don’t move much are a good thing. As trainee teachers we were told you should be able to ‘reach up to the blackboard’ and’ pick litter off the floor’ without any part of your clothing coming untucked or hitching up. It’s a pretty good tv rule too. Once you’ve got your outfit on, reach up high, then bend down to feign picking something off the floor. If your outfit doesn’t move, it’s going to feel comfy on telly, and you won’t have to worry about it. If it does, change it. Or start buckling it down: belts, pins, brooches, buttons, whatever you need to do. Honestly, when you’re worried that Emily Maitlis is going to start asking you difficult questions, you don’t want to have to be pulling your skirt towards your knees. Also, check out how your outfit moves when you sit down. Men: some trousers have a terrible tendency to bubble up around your groin. It’s not a good look! (Nope, it’s not). Women: shirt buttons have a tendency to gape when we sit. Do a quick sitting-check. If anything gapes or bubbles, change the clothes.
Bright colours are great … as long as you are not delivering bad news. Wearing bright clothes is good. They look great, you stand out, they attract attention. BUT, you cannot always wear them. Last year I was invited onto Newsnight to discuss why free lunches for all children in primary schools is not a great policy. I was literally going to say that we shouldn’t feed children. (I know, I’m awful; except I’m not, as explained here). That same day Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, was also doing lots of media and she was wearing a bright lime green jacket. Picking my wardrobe for the interview, it struck me that if I wore a bright pink or yellow jacket (as I usually do) then we were going to look like the buffet at a 7 year-old’s birthday party. Also, how can you say you don’t think you should feed children while wearing a bright pink jacket? If you’re going to deliver bad news then you need a sombre outfit that shows confidence, but not arrogance. Smart, forceful, but not flashy. Hence, I wore a navy blue jacket with white piping. The piping gives authority (Amber Rudd wore lots of it during the election), because it outlines form and so makes you seem more present, but doesn’t do it in a flashy way. The jacket was also devoid of fancy buttons or jewels or anything that says I AM POSH AND HATE CHILDREN. (I know, I know, but read the piece, honestly, there are good reasons for not implementing that policy).
Finally, and because some douche always asks, I’m going to address the whole ‘who cares anyway, isn’t it your opinions that matter’ thing.
Frankly, the answer is that lots of people care about how things look. It has an evolutionary basis; it’s about scanning for clues, it’s about how we determine authenticity, and it’s about basic science. (Some patterns, for example, cause havoc with TV technology and that’s when you get that whizzy effect on the clothing).
Good clothing on TV is not about looking beautiful. It’s simply about not distracting viewers from the central message you are delivering (which is what our brain is wired to detect). Hence, while you don’t want to look mismatched, you also don’t want to look over-done. Turning up in a glitzy jacket with shoulder pads and a ballgown is unlikely to be useful for your average performance on BBC South. A tidy shift dress, with a belt, and bright jacket with pockets will work better. Stick a chunky necklace around your neck and boom, you’re done.
BUT – and I say this with real, genuine seriousness – no matter what your clothes are like never ever turn down telly because of them. I have appeared on telly looking dreadful. The world coped. Women in particular fall prey to the idea that if their hair isn’t perfect they can’t go in front of a camera. That’s daft. I can’t think of a single man who would turn down an opportunity to go on telly because of his hair. So don’t let what I’ve said here control if you do something. But, when you get the chance, use it to look the most congruous version of your fabulous self.
 
Photo credit: Ted’s photos – For Me & You 2017 – Vancouver – CBC News Photographer via photopin (license)

The Gift of Mr McGee

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Written February 2017, after the terrible year that was 2016
Twenty-one and a half years ago my English teacher, Mr McGee, gave me a gift.
It was autumn 1995 and he made our class write about the summer holidays. But, he said, we were not to write in the normal way. No listing activities or saying what a nice time we had. Instead we must write with our senses. ALL of our senses. We had to feel memories. Taste sunshine.
Twenty-one and a half years later and I am alone in a place far from the bad times that followed me lately. I’m on the Andaman Islands, an Indian outpost so remote that some islanders have never communicated with the outside world. They live in a permanent Stone Age, intransigent to change. After the Tsunami hit in 2004, rescue boats were sent to help the Sentinelese people who, in turn, sent back arrows and jeers.
One cannot outrun the bad times, however, any more than one can force kindness on self-sufficient people.
Hence I find myself, after four days of travelling, sitting on the far side of Havelock island, on Radhanagar beach number 7 – one of the most beautiful coastlines on earth – ready to burst into tears. The only thing stopping me is that I hear Mr McGee’s words.
Those words have helped a thousand times when my mind is racing and the anxiety of a thousand fears blooms in my skull.
“Think like a writer,” says my distant memory-version Mr McGee. “Listen to the sounds. Taste the air. What are you feeling? What can you hear? Tell me what you hear.”
And in my head, I start to write.
I scramble for words describing the mint green waves ahead: rising and pluming, bubbling forwards, grasping for the beach with outstretched fingers. Then, the sounds. The hissing as the sea sploshes the sand like spitballs on hot plates. Psht. Ptth. Pfft. Waves evaporate on contact, as if the beach’s fervent beauty makes the water sigh towards heaven, exalted at last.
Tastes are more pedestrian. Salt, grit, my tears. In the smell there is nothing at all, except an occasional whiff of burning wood, similar to old-man musk worn by granddads on Valentine’s Day. Except, in fact, I am sat by a granddad. I realise it’s Valentine’s Day. And his wife is down in the sea calling for him to come and join her as she might have done every Valentine’s Day for the past fifty-seven years. Yet here he sits alongside me in stony silence. Why won’t she sit down, his face says. Why, for once, won’t she sit next to him and enjoy this wood-dank cologne he’s daubed every February 14th for fifty-seven years and which she has resolutely ignored.
Old-man musk smells of hope from now on. Hope, steeped, fifty-seven years.
I am disappointed by the sights. Or, rather, with my inability to form words adequate to describe the sights. Not good enough even for a Year 8 English assignment. The only metaphor coming to mind is of the 1980s quiz show, Catchphrase, which would play video clips if a contestant won the final round. Bugles played, lights flashed, a voice boomed – YOU HAVE WON THE HOLIDAY OF A LIFETIME – because, somehow, in 1980s England, everyone had the same dream, And lo! Up would rise movie shots of crystal-blue waters, perfect white sands, stripy fish by a snorkeler, a man in a white suit and sunglasses. At home, viewers would simultaneously put down their forks on their Saturday tea-tray and turn to one another and say “we’ll go there one day, when we win the pools”. Except, of course, no one ever won the pools and real holidays were spent in Malaga with Stella Artois and techno clubs, which are also holidays of a lifetime, in their own way, but it does mean that when one is suddenly struck with the superlative version it can be hard to find the right words. Saying what you see is harder than it looks.
As for feelings? Sadness is sticky. Tears leave residue. Snot gums my sleeve. In my heart I hold nothing. Except, perhaps, a strange fondness for the tiny Andaman beach crabs, thousands of them, scurrying on the sand, traversing their way between the minty open ocean and a Jurassic Park-jungle that at any moment threatens to throw a pterodactyl from its canopy.
The crabs are fretful. Wobbling at speed, dashing in and out of sand holes, scared by the slightest sound. Worries flit across my brain that way. Appearing and disappearing. Hiding, watching, waiting. Wobbling. The crabs meet the water, then panic and run back. They dash to the jungle and feel uneasy on the soil. Waving their claws they hurtle again toward the sea. A never-ending path, strewn with imaginary dangers; their shells not hard enough to withstand trampling, their exteriors not soft enough for warmth. It is tiresome always being a crab.
Beaches do not play well with pen and paper. Words come thick and fast but remain in my mind until several hours later when I finally bash them onto a screen using my phone and a portable keyboard in a small beach shack, engulfed in power-cut darkness, while I imbibe paneer masala with a spoon and the other patrons – struggling without light – express surprise as I flick on my pocket headlamp and continue unmoved.
(The note was interrupted by an unhappy German come to tell me I must turn my light away as it is shining in his eyes. Is it beyond expectation that HE shift HIS seat?)
In England it is now 2pm and the BBC tells me it is raining. Here, we sit outside without shoes.  The sadness creeps back in. But tomorrow I will sit on a beach so perfect the sea screams with excitement and dies a fizzy, happy death. The crabs are all asleep now in their deepest holes. The gift of words will accompany me until I finish dinner. The headlamp will light my way home.
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A Christmas Carol: The Exam

Amazon ran a competition to re-invent A Christmas Carol as a 1,000-word children’s story. For fun, during a tube journey, I decided to write  an entry on my phone. What fell out has a difficult message, and made me cry on the tube, and I didn’t win. But I sort of love it anyway. 
So here it is. Merry Christmas, every one!
*
Headmaster Gerald Fezziwig glared across the cold, dark dining room of Grays Boarding School. His children, Tim and Jessica, were passing something under the table instead of finishing their spelling test.
“Freeze!” yelled Gerald, marching towards them, hands locked behind his back.
Tim reached out a trembling palm. In it was a crumpled Christmas present, wrapped in glittery paper.
“It’s for you”, said Tim. “It’s for Christmas tomorrow”.
Mr Fezziwig looked down.
“Children,” he asked in a menacing tone, “what do I learn from a present?”
Jessica shrank in her seat. “Nothing, daddy. We just thought it might make you happy.”
“Happy?” said Mr Fezziwig with surprise. “What use is happiness? The best children know that how you feel isn’t important. What matters is in your head. What do I always tell you Timothy?”
Tim sighed: “Happiness is fleeting, but learning lasts forever?”
“Exactly!” said Mr Fezziwig. “And because I love you so much, we will spend tomorrow doing multiplication tests.”
 
*
 
Later, as Mr Fezziwig sat in his cold, dark study, he looked at the crumpled present and frowned, before tossing it into the bin.
His eyelids became heavy and he fell into a deep sleep. Until a noise shattered his snoring.
“WooooOOOoooOOOo….”
“Who’s there?” Mr Fezziwig shouted.
“Wooooooooooooooo-oooooo,” came the reply.
Mr Fezziwig’s heartbeat grew rapid. “Stop this at once,” he shouted, “who’s there?”
“WooooooOOO… hee hee hee,” the ghostly voice cracked into a peal of laughter.
In the dark, Mr Fezziwig’s furious face changed. Suddenly he was soft, and quiet.
“Nora?” he whispered.
A figure glowing with light stepped from behind the Christmas tree. It was Nora: his first love, his only love.
“Oh Nora,” he said, running towards her. But her radiant body was untouchable.
“Shhhh….” she said, translucent eyes shimmering. “We must go!”
She clicked her fingers and the room faded. A scent of mince pies filled the hallway in which they now crouched, looking into a brightly-lit kitchen, bursting with toys, hams, and cakes.
A tinier Tim and Jessica sat at the table. Jessica was throwing her Christmas pudding across the room, while Tim rubbed some into his face, making her squeal.
“There’s me!” said Mr Fezziwig, catching a glimpse of his past self. A tall, young Fezziwig smiled and twirled Nora across the kitchen to the strains of a brass band playing Christmas carols in the background.
“Look children!” young Fezziwig exclaimed, “We are dancing!”
“Dance again! Dance again!” said Jessica.
“Without you? Never!” Whisking Jessica from her chair, Mr Fezziwig waltzed her around the kitchen with glee.
“Teach me! Teach me!” said Tim, wriggling from his chair.
“What is there to teach?” Gerald cried. “Feel as you go, Tim. Dance from your heart!”
In the cold hallway, a tear dripped down old Mr Fezziwig’s face. Who was this young man with such hope in his soul?
“Nora, what happened to me?” he asked. But she was gone.
“Nora?” he cried. “Nora!”
Above him the roof melted away. Rain fell on his head. Mud squidged around his slippered feet, as he realised he was stood in a familiar field.
A wreath of flowers passed by. Two children, dressed in black, stood beside their father. He was holding all his emotions inside so they did not fall out and hit those two little people below.
In the background, from beyond the church door, he could hear the hum of a Christmas tune.
A tearful Jessica looked up: “Daddy, it’s mummy’s favourite song. Should we dance?”
Her father avoided her gaze as he replied: “Not anymore.”
“But we can dance using our hearts, daddy,” said Tim.
“There is no more dancing,” said their father. “From today, there is no more heart.”
In his slippers and robe, the present-day Mr Fezziwig lurched to hug his grieving children, but as he did, the church melted away.
“Why have you left me again, Nora?” Mr Fezziwig cried, “What are you trying to show me?”
Stood once more in the draughty dining hall of Grays Academy, Mr Fezziwig could see Tim at the master’s table. He was older now, a grown-up, but his eyes missing their sparkle. Two children sat before him in the hall, writing furiously with one hand and passing a crumpled-up gift with the other.
“Father, what is Christmas?” the small boy asked.
“It is something for other people,” said the no-longer tiny Tim.
“But… we found this,” said the boy. “Is it a present for us?”
Tim took the gift and looked at it, long and hard. After a moment, he opened the glittery paper and pulled out its contents. It was a tiny porcelain figure of a man and woman dancing.
Tim softened, momentarily. Then his face grew angry.
“Of course this isn’t for you! Happiness is fleeting, but learning lasts forever. All good children know that. Carry on with your test,” he snapped.
Mr Fezziwig knew, at last, what Nora was trying to show him.
 
*
 
It was early morning at Greys Boarding Academy when Jessica and Tim dragged themselves to the dining hall. Their father waited with a stopwatch.
“Today, we are going to have a test,” announced Mr Fezziwig.
The pair sighed and waited for their papers.
Instead, their father held out a Christmas Pudding.
“First task! Who can rub the most pudding into their face in one minute?”
The children looked confused.
“Really?” asked Tim.
“Really!” beamed Mr Fezziwig. “And then,” he said, pulling out a large turkey and presents wrapped in glittery paper, “we are going to cook lunch, play pass the parcel, and…” his voice trailed off as he brought out a music player and pressed the button, springing forth a rambunctious melody of brass bands. “And… we are going to dance. We are going to spend lots of time dancing. We are going to dance from our arms and our legs and, most of all, our hearts.”
The Fezziwig children sat, open-mouthed. In his heart Gerald finally felt something. It wasn’t learning. It was happiness.

13 Teacher Gift Ideas That Are Cheap, Useful & Unusual


Buying gifts for teachers is a nightmare. If you’re a parent you want to avoid replicating things. (And do they like chocolate/wine, etc?) If they’re your partner/sibling/parent/friend, you don’t want to have to deal with them judging you against some internal mark scheme they carry around.
So here are some things that teachers almost always want/need, but are still reasonably priced and make a nice change from getting yet another box of All Gold.

  1. Board Marker Pens  – about £12 for a massive pack

Debate rages over the best brand of board pen, but Berol have been around for years and are considered one of the most enduring. You can buy a cheaper brand, or a more fierce-sounding one like Staedtler, but everyone is happy when they see the name ‘Berol’ and this particular box, for around £12, has the added bonus of having two colours on each pen. Winner.
 

2. A Personalised Mug – £6

Teachers get loads of mugs, but they usually don’t mind because they go missing or get broken a lot.
Help your teacher by getting them a mug with a defining mark, like these personalised letter mugs from MYOG. Works particularly well if the teacher is called Xavier, or Yvonne.

3. Tissue Dispenser

This is not a joke. Tissues are one of the most important pieces of classroom equipment. Having them inside a fun item helps to brighten up a class, and also stops the box from going walkies into someone else’s room.

Tissue Balloon – £6

For those teachers who like their classroom to be full of fun and colour.

Serious – £3

For those with a bit more class, bamboo is a cheap alternative!

4. A ‘no-hands’ water bottle

Teachers can’t easily sneak away for a drink, nor can they always be supping on a big bottle of water while keeping an eye on their class. Enter: the Camelbak! Using technology designed for cyclists, you just bite on the end of the bottle and the water jets into your mouth. I used to use these while flying around for break duty or between lessons. Also, they can’t spill on anything and they’re practically indestructable. Woo!

Camelbak – £15

5. Large Bag For Carrying Books

One of my favourites is the ‘I’m a teacher, What’s Your Super Power’ bag
They also have a teaching assistant one, and the super teacher autograph bag. 

6. Aroma Diffuser – £10 to £20

Getting your classroom to smell nice is really important. And difficult. Plug-ins have weird chemicals in them. Pot pourri isn’t strong enough. Candles have flames. And so on.
Diffusers are the perfect compromise because they can quickly pump out nice-smelling stuff using just water and aromatherapy oils. You can change scent frequently enough that it doesn’t make the room cloying, and it overcomes the smell of Year 9 boys – woo!

Expensive & solid (I use this one) – £22

Cheap (but highly recommended on Amazon) – £12

 

 

7. Edible Insects – a great behaviour management tool

In my desk I used to keep a tin of roasted ants. When difficult kids came for detention I would whip them out and ask if they wanted one. Most said no. I’d shrug and then chomp a few. It always worked. The kids went silent. ‘Miss eats ants,’ they would tell their friends later, ‘I think she means business’.
Of course, this only works if your teacher gift-receiver will actually eat the ants. But if they’re an unfussy eater, then for a few quid you can give them the gift of silent detentions.
A bag of crunchy ants from Amazon is about £4

8. A Talking Clock – £16



Sure, you can use google and your phone and various programmes as a timer, but this talking clock has the added bonus of yelling the time at you. In countdown mode it alerts you every ten minutes, then – near the end – each minute, every ten seconds, and a final countdown.
Less useful with pupils (it gets them all riled up), it’s very useful for sticking to time when lesson planning or marking, as those can become absorbing. On the rare occasion you want to add a little urgency to a classroom task it can also be used then too.
 

9.  Visualiser Camera – £39

In a recent Teacher Tapp survey, a visualiser was the item people most said they would like to have in their classroom. Given they are reasonably cheap, it’s interesting that more people don’t already have them. It could be because they aren’t allowed to add their own software to a classroom, so worth checking in on this before buying it, (especially as it’s the most expensive item on here), but it’s definitely something that teachers say they want.
They are around £39 on Amazon
 

10. Stapleless Stapler

My mother-in-law bought one of these in Japan about a decade ago and turned my teaching organisation life around. I’m useless at remembering to buy refills for anything, but especially staples. These gizmos staple pages together without the use of any extra item. (It uses the paper itself for binding). Helpful for about a million things in school

Staples 5 sheets – £8

Staples 10 sheets – £13


 

11. A Paper Cutter/Guillotine – £12

As with the stapler, I don’t think any present made me happier in years than a personal paper cutter/guillotine. It came in useful for a million things: making homework notes, cutting up resources, creating A5 out of A4 for an activity, and so on.
Having to run all the way to the reprographics room is not as convenient as getting this baby out of your drawer.
 

12. What Every Teacher Needs To Know About Psychology – £12

There are loads of teaching books about activities, subjects, how to ask better questions, etc. I could recommend bundles of them. But What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology is useful for every teacher – regardless of subject or age – and is looking at topics in psychology that are often missed in regular teacher training. So if you’re looking for an intellectual gift, I’d recommend this one (I will warn there are a few typos in it, but nothing that stops your understanding).

And finally…

13. A Foot Spa! – about £30

I know foot spas were popular about ten thousand years ago when we all had 4 telly channels and nowhere to go on a Sunday, but teachers still get tired legs! A major perk of the job is that you don’t have to sit at a computer all day. A downside of that is having to stand up all darn day.
After each half-term, the first few days can be agony as creaking muscles get used to being flexed again. A warming foot spa doesn’t half help. (And you can use those aromatherapy oils from the diffuser to help you out too!)
Right, I’m off to start ordering!
 
 

My Year In Books 2017: What I Finished (& Didn't), and Liked (& Didn't)

For the first time this year I’ve kept an eye on the books I’m reading, and thought I’d share lessons from the worthwhile & highlight those which weren’t. I’ve left education books out, as I speed-read those for my job, so I can’t always say if I’ve finished or liked with accuracy. Plus, I’m always talking about those.
So here’s everything else:
 

Finished, & Liked

  1. Option B – Sheryl SandbergMy Book Of The Year 

When Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, lost her husband to a heart-attack when he was  47, her word fell apart. Two weeks later, a friend offered to attend parents’ evening with her. Weeping, she said it was a kind offer, but she simply wanted her husband back. “Option A is no longer available,” said her friend, “so you’ll just have to kick the shit out of Option B.”
That line is devastating. So is this book. And yet, it’s oddly hopeful. Because it’s not a self-help book about dragging yourself up. Instead, it’s about how to lift others when they find themselves destroyed and on the floor. What you should text a friend in need. (‘How are you today?’ is a good example). What not to say. (Sandberg describes the many people who tell her about a friend who never got over the death of their husband – not helpful, folks!)
Be warned. It’s sad.  I sobbed for two weeks on the tube while reading it. But I also became a better person afterwards. If you’re naturally good with distraught people, you may not need it. Everyone else, get it. Just be sure to carry tissues.
 
2. What’s Your Message – Cam Barber
Do you think you’re good at presentations? Yeah, me too. Then I read Cam Barber’s book which lays out the most effective way to do presentations, and suddenly realised I don’t know anything. Ultimately, most people will go away from a talk with only a few memories. How you shape those is what will matter. Focus on one big message, and then sub-messages, for best effect. Sound obvious, but Barber shows its power.
 
3. Fashion Journalism – Julie Bradford
Fashion? Yeah, fashion. I can’t tell you how many people tell me in one breath that  fashion is unimportant, and kids shouldn’t judge each other by looks, and how dare I mention how politicians dress; then, in the next breath, tell me how important it is that kids wear blazers.
Why is that? One of my theories is that we’re not good as a country at talking intelligently about fashion because it’s often treated as an irrelevance. Hence, when events occur like this year’s rule change, allowing MPs not to wear ties in Parliament, few people could give any context as to why the rule was even there in the first place.
I therefore went looking for a history of fashion. I didn’t find it in Bradford’s textbook for fashion journalism students but I found a good foundation for understanding how fashion media works, and how intelligent the journalism can be. And then I found…
 
4. Costume & Fashion: A Concise History – James Laver
This book blew my mind. Did you know there are statues from ancient Malta in which the women are wearing ballgowns almost identical to those in fashion thousands of years later? Did you know the history of fashion divides down two axes: hot/cold countries, draped/tailored outfits. Note: gender isn’t in there. For much of history, and in other countries, it simply isn’t a thing! Mind-boggling when you think how important fashion is in gender identification in Britain today.
Then there’s the constant theme of royalty and politicians and power leading the way in fashion. The tale of how the modern-day suit came from Charles II’s declaration shortly after the Great London Fire of what the royal court must wear. (Not even mentioned on his Wikipedia page, by the way). Stories of booms and busts: how one decade there’s no collars, then one appears, and thirty years later collars are so flouncy that people can barely see. Fashion changes so fast across the decades of all centuries that it left me believing that our idea the pace of change is faster now than ever before is probably a lie.
 
5. The Ethical Slut – Janet Hardy & Dossie Easton
This one might raise an eyebrow because it’s about sex, and having lots of it, potentially with multiple people at the same time. For that reason, I almost left it out. BUT, not only would that be dishonest, it’s also a bloody brilliant book and I’d really like other people to read it and talk to me about it.
Also I can’t think of a better year for people to be reading a book about the ethics of sex, especially given all the sex scandals, plus compulsory relationship and sex education on the horizon for schools.
The book is twenty years old and onto its third edition. (I read the second). Essentially, it’s a manual for ‘open relationships’. But don’t jump to conclusions! That doesn’t mean polyamory (though it can), or hippy communes (though it can), nor labelling yourself as pansexual, or hyperflexible, or anything else. (Though, guess what? It can!) Instead, it starts from the premise that sexual relationships are interesting, and fun, and can be healthy and helpful. Also, given that people spend a lot of time thinking/worried/at it at any one time, then how can we best talk about sex and act in a really clear, ethical (but still sexy) way?  Unlike other relationship books it doesn’t suggest monogamy is an aberration or to be avoided. It merely puts it as a very good option along with lots of other ways of relating. What it is absolutely clear about is THAT EVERYONE NEEDS TO BE CONSENSUAL and it does a great job of being honest about the complexity of relationships. If you are going to be in charge of sex education at school, I would urge you to read it, even if you end up disagreeing with parts of it.
 
6. The Invention of Angela Carter – Edmund Gordon
The most unlikely book I’ve ever enjoyed, this is a biography of feminist author Angela Carter. Except, is she actually feminist? I’ve no idea. Because, weirdly, I’ve never read any of her work. I can’t stand most fiction and she writes those ‘magical realism’ books where people sprout wings while they’re flying around Sainsburys (or something).  BUT this biography, by the incredible Edmund Gordon (who is the same age as me – weep), is astounding. Carter is a truly independent woman who runs around the world having slightly strange relationships and writing books. It’s as much a guidebook for how to live your best life. Second, Gordon’s writing is a masterclass in getting to know a subject and checking and re-checking sources. For someone whose background is philosophy and creative writing, Gordon has the tenacity and care of a ruthless historian. The way Gordon gently explains how he knows things, without ever taking away from this being Carter’s story, is breath-taking.
 
7. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
Somehow, I never heard of Truman Capote – the celebrated writer – until I was in a journalism class in the US. This book, In Cold Blood, was mentioned as a classic of the ‘real crime’ journalistic form. It tells the tale of a grizzly (true) murder, starting with all the characters and leading up to arrests and the final punishments. I read while on an Indian island in February without any power, using only a head-lamp because it was so gripping. I was utterly bereft when it was finished.
 
8. Effective Investigation of Child Homicide & Suspicious Deaths – David Marshall
This is an expensive, technical and reasonably long British police textbook on how to investigate child murders. And yes, I finished and liked it. As a teacher, and while a journalist, I’ve been faintly obsessed with asking the best question to get the most useful answer so that something unknown before receiving it becomes known afterwards. One of the most difficult cases for police to prosecute are child murders – particularly those of babies. They usually happen at home, motives are harder to ascertain, and the line between accident and intention is murkier because children’s frailty means things that wouldn’t kill an adult nevertheless cause kids to die (for example, a fall down the stairs).
Hence, I went looking for clues of how to deal with ambiguity. What I got was a glimpse into the incredibly difficult job that police investigators do and the care, and smartness, and interpersonal skills needed. It reminds of the absolutely horrific circumstances families can sometimes find themselves in. I found I kept thinking about the siblings who survive, and how it must affect their schooling. Not a widely recommended read, but a definite pause for thought.
 
9. Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Survive – Jared Diamond
This book has changed my mind about geography as a subject. For years I’ve found geography a strange anachronism on modern-day timetables. Its inclusion in the EBacc continues to baffle. The absence of many geography teachers on social media, or among headteachers, means I’ve rarely heard counter-narratives. But Jared Diamond’s book, which uses geography – really uses it – to show how island civilisations across the world have faded out of existence is mind-blowing.
For example, he talks at length about the Easter Islands and how the giant stone statues that are now a tourist trap were a form of annual competition between tribes. However, the tribes became so obsessed with winning that they started using all their resources on the statues, never thinking that the island’s preciously-limited items were being extinguished for no greater gain than winning a game with no long-term purpose. Starting to sound eerily familiar? The rest of the book takes that line and keeps smashing you with it in the most powerful way.
(And if you’re wondering how this is geography, and not history, it’s because these island civilisations disappeared without trace centuries ago – so most of the work to figure out what was going on involves looking at soil, rocks, the stomach contents of birds, etc).
 
10. Coalition Diaries – David Laws
This book is 600 pages long and you feel it. It’s a mammoth. In its pages, we learn of David Laws’ years at the education department with Michael Gove. We learn of Gove’s madcap assistant, Dom Cummings, who went on to become famous as a spearhead of the Leave campaign; and you learn of the times Laws tried to stop some of Gove’s crazier ideas. (He lost on Mary Seacole and sex education).
The funniest part of the book, though, isn’t actually related to education, though. Throughout the entire thing, no matter what is going on, the backburning issue in Laws’ constituency is the widening of the A303 in Somerset. It’s like a constant boil that keeps flaming and needs lancing. One minute Laws is at a summit on world peace, and the next he’s posing in a hardhat while looking sad about the A303 for the local newspaper. It reminds what a nuts job being an MP really is.

 

Didn’t Finish, Did Like

11. Goebbels – Peter Longrich
The people behind the people are endlessly fascinating to me, and none more so than Goebbels. This is a wonderful and rich book, and I got all the way to him meeting Hitler (which took a long time), but then it all got a bit military textbook for me and I lost interest.
12. Strong Woman – Karren Brady
I love Karren Brady. She’s straight-talking. And interesting. And correct. The book is a good overview of her life. But she’s so straight that it gets a little plain and I got a bit distracted and ended up leaving the last four or five chapters.
 

Finished, Didn’t Like

13. The Gay Talese Reader – Gay Talese
Frank Sinatra Has A Cold is the greatest profile interview I’ve ever read. (With this one, about R Kelly, a close second). I’d also become more aware of 81-year-old journalism-god Talese after the bru-ha-ha over his book, The Voyeur’s Motel. (Netflix recently released a great documentary on that incident which is worth watching too).
This book includes Talese’s most famous profiles over the years. There’s Sinatra, but also Mohammad Ali and Joe DiMaggio. Plus a few others. However, I’ll be honest: I didn’t like a lot of them. Too meandering, and too sportsy, and too something-I-dont-know but it felt dull. HOWEVER, there is one story, about an incident in his grandfather’s tailors in Italy which is just wonderful story-telling and leaves you rolling with laughter. Almost worth it just for that as the tale is not online. (Unlike most of the rest).
 

Didn’t Finish, Didn’t Like

They all bored me to tears. I have no more to add.
14. Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thein
15. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There – Marshall Goldsmith
16. The Early Stories Of Truman Capote – Truman Capote
 

Re-Devoured

Finally, I  re-read these books this year because I’ve loved them so much in the past. They are very close to being on my ‘classic texts’ list.
17. Believe In People – Karel Capek < Essays from the Czech writer who invented the word ‘robot’. I went back to re-read his essay on why he isn’t a communist, after I had spent a weekend getting beaten up by Corbyn supporters for writing a blog about why I don’t agree with free university tuition. Capek’s reminder that humans, not political ideologies, are what really matters is always a comfort.
18. Good Self, Bad Self – Judy Smith < Smith is the Hollywood ‘reputation handler’ that the TV series Scandal is based on. This book talks about the qualities that ultimately bring down celebrities and politicians. It’s always a useful reminder to keep ones ego in check.
19. Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste – Carl Wilson < This book is about Celine Dion. Wilson, the author, is a cool music journalist who hates her and sets out to discover why other people love her. This is the most well-written book I’ve ever read.
 
 
**

Goals for 2018

You may have noticed the distinct lack of fiction.
The problem is that I have three beloved fiction authors: John Irving, Maeve Binchy, & Terry Pratchett. Two are dead and the other averages one book every three years.
So, if you feel moved to do so, make me a fiction recommendation in the comments.
It needs to be written in unfussy language and, ideally, peppered with a slightly sarcastic tone. If it’s sci-fi, it has to be funny. If it’s set in another country, the names have to be easy to read and remember.
 
 

Journalists don't need to self-flagellate about Corbyn, but they should about Grenfell

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SHAME”! by Rochelle Hartman – http://bit.ly/2tc3tCj
In recent weeks journalists have spent an inordinate amount of time beating themselves up for not guessing the outcome of the General Election. This is bizarre. Journalists are contestants on Catchphrase: we say what we see. The news is not Family Fortunes, in which we try to divine what is in the minds of a hypothetical 100 (or 60 million) people. Sometimes, we are given clues about people’s intentions: through polling data or interviews or protests. And so we report that. Other times, we are asked to give an analysis and a prediction based on this information, and we do the best we can. But the idea that journalists should be humbled because they didn’t predict an outcome that John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, didn’t even believe at 2am after the polls shut, is arrogant and weird. Presumably McDonnell had spent weeks suffused in Labour land – talking to thousands of people on doorsteps, looking at every bit of polling data – and he seemed as surprised as the rest of us. So let’s not be freaked out that the people whose job involved trying to report on one of the most unexpected, shambolic, rapidly changing elections of the past forty years didn’t guess the upshot.
On the other hand, I’ve yet to hear a single journalist speak of the profession’s failure to predict Grenfell.
Did you read that? Did I just suggest journalists might have cocked up on a fire that killed people? That instead of tuggling locks over Corbyn we might want to look a little guilty about some actual deaths?
Well, yes. Because as Mark Horvit, the ardent former chief of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc, once yelled at our investigative reporting class, “It’s no use us standing outside a collapsed building asking questions about why a man died. That won’t bring him back.”
Horvit was incensed after a walkway on the outside of a multi-story student residence at the University of Missouri collapsed, killing a firefighter as it went.
The university is famed for having a huge journalism school which operates a fully-fledged television news channel, a daily newspaper and a world-famous investigations department.  In the days since the collapse, it had emerged the university had been aware of structural issues of the residences – which were mostly occupied by international students with families – but had failed to follow-up with maintenance and repairs. None of us had spotted it.
He was furious. “This town is crawling with reporters. The documents were all there. We can clearly see from the records the university knew about this and had done nothing. But had any of us looked? Had any of us followed up?”
“It’s no use standing outside with a microphone, ‘Good evening, the collapse of a walkway has caused the death of a firefighter’… That’s no use to anyone. We can put in a thousand freedom of information requests now, and we’ll get answers, but we can’t change that a wife and a child no longer have a husband and a father.
“That is what happens when we are not paying attention.”
I remember thinking this was harsh. Everyone in the class was working hard. We were filing information requests like crazy. No one was complacent. We were not the ones who neglected the maintenance on that walkway. We didn’t cause the firefighter to lose his life.
But the speech did its job. It reminded me that journalists need to keep an eye on known problems. Since we started Schools Week I cannot tell you how many times we have reported an organisation saying they were going to do something to solve a serious issue, then, when we’ve gone back a year later, nothing has been done.
Why do we go back? Because I learned that day in Mark’s class that follow-up matters. That’s why, in 2015, when the government promised 13 expert reviews as part of its general election campaign, we meticulously tracked each one to completion. It’s why we printed the outcome of the one they were going to keep hidden. It’s why we made the Department for Education hand us the agreement with the Home Office that they wouldn’t use information about pupils to deport illegal immigrants rather than just let them away with saying they’d made the agreement.
Did investigative reporters, particularly on the nationals, screw up by not noticing fire safety issues before Grenfell? Yes. Inside Housing has been reporting on it for ages, including cladding issues. The government was ordered eight months ago to review fire safety standards after other deaths in high-rise flats. That report still wasn’t out 8 months later – and who questioned that delay?
The government have been woeful in the past twelve months at publishing information. They have hidden consultations across the board (we have three outstanding ones in education). Why? Because they didn’t want difficult information put out before a general election. Grenfell shows why that is downright dangerous. When ministers forget that real people are waiting on that information, to make real decisions, and instead treat them as a political end, this is where we end up: unintended consequences writ as large as headlines.
Why didn’t we see newspaper stories about this inaction? Partly because it is hard to cover things not happening. Attention focuses on action: walkways collapsing, dead firefighters. But, as journalists, we have to plug away at the dull stuff. Keep timetables on our computers of decision dates. Check back to see if things are being done. Write loud words when they are not. Talk about the boring-but-important and find ways to make it interesting. That’s the job. It’s not chasing glamour and scandal; it’s making the important into something interesting.
Second, it partly got missed because political reporting has become a quasi-celebrity form of reporting, minuting what the powerful do. And the politicians pander to it as much as the reporters. A juicy quote here; a contrived feud there. It keeps the papers busy and stops people asking or reading about the boring-but-important stuff. But if there’s a lesson of the general election and Grenfell it is that political reporters would do well to pay attention to policy over politics.
Popularity spins on a dime. Guessing the future of politics is astrology: using snapshots of the past, fragments of light in the dark, in order to predict a tomorrow no one can really glimpse.  Policy, however, stays as is. The workability of grammar schools, or free lunches, or a dementia tax, or renationalisation of rail, can be predicted based on data, and history, and stakeholders, and case studies. Those don’t change with popularity. Likewise, the Grenfell cladding was going to be dangerous whoever got into power. It is a problem anyone could have faced – and one everyone should have been asking about.
Journalism is Catchphrase. It involves saying what you see. But you have got to be looking in the right direction to know if Mr Chips is drowning, not waving. Journalists didn’t really miss the election story; they missed a massive, brewing tragedy.

On why I disagree with universal free lunches and scrapping university fees

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Over the past week or so I’ve disappointed a lot of people. I know this, because they’ve tweeted to tell me.
The problem was that Labour announced two policies, and I have issues with both.
The policies are:

  1. Free school lunches for all 7 to 11 year olds, and
  2. Free university tuition for undergraduates (maybe even graduates)

Both sound amazing. Who doesn’t want a world where we feed children and educate everyone? Sign me up!
BUT, the introduction of both largely amount to one thing: giving something for free to people who, by and large, are already able to afford the service.
The twitter critics disagree. They say I’m missing the point because the policy is about giving everyone free access to something. But in both cases we already have targeted support for families most in need. Hence, in both cases, the addition of making it free for all is, literally, about giving it to more people – most of whom are already able to afford it.
If the policy was “help more people who can’t afford to do something” then my reaction would be different. But so far, that’s not what is being proposed.
 

A word on socialism

One of the things people have spent time telling me, at length, on twitter is that the principle of universalism is a good thing, in and of itself. They are right. I get it. If you’re asking me where I would like to get to in the end, a place where everyone has equal access to food and education is great.
But that’s not what Corbyn is offering me. Because this isn’t a religion. It’s politics. This isn’t about what I want from Nirvana but what I think someone who holds power from 2020 to 2025 (probably before) ought to do with their time in power.
And me, well, you may not believe it but, largely, I sign up the Marxist maxim: ‘From each according to ability, to each according to need”. And if a child is already being provided with a perfectly good meal by their family, then I don’t think they are in need of a £2 plate of sausage and beans. But what I do think is that there are very real and immediate social issues that Labour could instead focus on. Social issues needing pragmatic socialist solutions, which would enable society to start flourishing in precisely the way that the people who are disappointed in me want.
I think we need solutions for homelessness. I think we need to use any available cash raised from taxation to bring back vital services which have been lost – SureStart, children’s trust boards, sexual health services, walk-in centres, in-between homes.
This is where I would begin if I was outlining Labour’s vision for 2020-25. Not with policies which, as I said above, are largely about giving free things to people who already have stuff.
And if you don’t believe that’s what these policies do, let me explain them one by one…
 

The Problem With Free School Meals for Primary Children

At present, if you are in a family on benefits, free lunches are already covered for your child.
If your child doesn’t get free meals, and you can’t provide food, the likelihood at primary level is that this will be picked up. Primaries are small enough, with enough dinner attendants, that if a child isn’t getting fed, people notice, and this is remedied in a variety of ways. (Sometimes the school pays, sometimes liaison workers work with the kid etc).
But, here’s the really important bit, we know some families aren’t able to feed their children at other times. The thirteen weeks of holiday, plus breakfasts, are particularly difficult.
We might also argue that families just above the benefit line – the ones recently defined as ‘ordinary working families’ – may struggle to pay for the meals. This is particularly the case in the casual labour market where earnings are lumpy for some parents.
These are both real social issues. So, instead of spending £1billion on a policy which includes paying for meals for families earning millions, I would instead start with extending the threshold for free meals upwards and using any leftover cash half-term and breakfast food for struggling families.
But what about ethos? Isn’t it better if everyone sits down together for lunch? If Labour want to do that, (and I think it’s a strong shout), then there’s a solution that doesn’t cost anything much. Just write it into legislation. “Schools must have children sit down together at lunch”. It sounds hideously controlling, but it’s no different than what universal free meals actually involves. It just doesn’t cost a £1billion.
And if you wanted to go further you could do. Some schools already make it a requirement that children eat school food, altogether. Personally, I find this a step too far. But if you’re a fan of everyone being made to eat lunch together, and eat the same food, why not simply require it just like we require parents to kit out their kids in uniform? (Or are the Labour party also going to start paying for uniforms?)
 

The Problem with Free University Tuition

This is the one where I upset everyone with a tweet which, as someone fairly pointed out, wasn’t one of my best.


And I get why this annoyed people. It’s very un-me. I’m not usually a “but why should I pay for X’ type person. And I used private school kids as a proxy for “ones from wealthy families”, which isn’t entirely fair and has distracted people from the main point.
So, let’s pretend I’d said what I intended to say, which is:
“Why should LOW INCOME PERSON pay for QUITE SMART PERSON WHO IS LIKELY TO COME FROM DECENT INCOME FAMILY to have thing which is LIKELY TO HELP THEM EARN EVEN MORE?”
The reason why people don’t like this sort of whataboutery is because it is usually said by someone claiming:
“Why should I (RICH PERSON) pay for X (VULNERABLE PERSON) to have Y (SOMETHING THAT IS A BASIC NEED)?”.
In that case, the reason why I usually say a rich person should pay is because there is a greater cost if we don’t. Hence, there’s a collective benefit to paying for the thing. For example, why should a rich person pay housing benefit to a care leaver? Well, a homeless person has a financial and social cost. If we take from a person who can afford it, and give to the person who can’t, then we stop this cost, without anyone being too badly affected.
My tweet spins that around. It is now a low-income person giving to a person who is (more likely) to be wealthy in order to have a good which is (somewhat likely) to make the wealthy person even wealthier.
Yet, people still use the same argument as above. They say there is a benefit to university education, and we would have problems if we had no, say, doctors or teachers.
Clearly, this is true. University educated people are a social good.
But there are also significant individual benefits of a degree. Graduates are still, ever so slightly, more likely to earn more in their lifetime than non-graduates. They are also, most definitely, given more options in the labour market. They have more autonomy over what job they can do. This is a substantial individual benefit. One worth paying for, in my view.
Furthermore, there’s no sense, at the moment, that the collective benefit collapses if we keep tuition fees. In the case of a rich person paying for a low-income person to have, say, a home, we know that unless this basic need is met the other person cannot provide it for themselves. In the case of degrees, however, that hasn’t happened.
Tuition fees have not (yet) put off the poorest students. Heaven knows how many times I said they would. I really believed it. I marched over it. I wrote articles about it. But – so far, up until the £9k fees, that didn’t happen. Instead, bursaries amped up, fee waivers came in, universities got better at doling out cash, and the poor kids kept going. It’s awkward, I know. But it is what it is.
With the new £9k regime, I suspect this might change. But I’ve said that every time before and always been wrong. So who knows?
Certainly what we can say is that a system where students were paying between £3,000 and £6,000 – so were part-subsidised, part-paying – reflected both the collective benefit to society, but also the graduate premium and individual benefit.
The way repayment works also means that the repayment of fees essentially works as a form of income tax. No one pays until earning above a threshold. (So if you never benefit, you never pay). It is, in essence, a graduate tax, but with an expiry date.
It is the sort of progressive taxation that I always thought Labour were in favour of.
The other beef people had with my tweet and arguments was a belief I was presuming everyone who goes to university comes from a wealthy family. That’s wrong. I know they are not. I am one of those kids. But I’m afraid they are much more likely to go. That’s because universities are selective, so they are a service more often used by children of middle and high income families who hold the grades to get in. This isn’t a conspiracy by me. It’s just true.  If Corbyn wants to change who goes to universities, that’s great. But, as it stands, scrapping fees disproportionately helps young pupil who had the triple advantage of growing up in a family with a decent income, with educated parents and who, by 18, were already smart enough to get a gaggle of decent grades (because, whether you like it or not, that’s who tends to go to university).
Could we change that? Yes. Is Corbyn suggesting that? No. Hence, as it stands, I don’t love the free fees policy.
Now: are there problems with the current university loans system? Yes. You betcha. The interest rises are tantamount to misselling. There are serious issues around the costs of living versus grants and loans available. And don’t get me started on quality, the offers systems, etc. But none of those are solved by making fees free. Which is another reason I find the policy so annoying. There are actual problems out there in higher education land. And yet Labour, so far, is silent on them. If they were talking about making universities set rent-caps, I’d be applauding. If they were talking about how to fund university when you are there – I’d be all ears.
What we also know is that there is an issue with mature students. And this has been a focus for me in my writing – not least this article, where I point out how horrific the numbers are.
We need to think very seriously as a country about how we sustain people in employment until they are (basically) 70. And one way to do that would be funding re-training.
It is all very well for people to harangue me on Twitter and say we can have those things as well. We can have free first degrees, and second ones, and third ones, and free childcare, and free everything. But, these are expensive things and without knowing where the cash will come from, I’m not satisfied that by 2025 we actually can. And it would be awful, really awful, if Labour promise something they cannot deliver. Look what happened to the Lib Dems on this point!
So, what I would like to see the National Education Service become is something like an Individual Learning Account with a fixed amount for everyone, and perhaps a redistributive top-up, which can be spent at any time across life. This could be used to support a first degree, but also later training. It could be used to help support people when they are low-paid apprenticeships (another neglected area by Labour).  These policies haven’t worked well in the past, I know. Both Blair and Brown tried. But we have much better technology to enable it now and I think they are the genuinely egalitarian thing to do. Individual Learning Accounts for all is better than free university fees for some.  
Hence, it isn’t that I have given up on Labour or on education or on the principles of redistribution. It is simply that I think pointing at services which, so far, would largely give a cash transfer to middle and high income families is not the way to solve the ills of today.
Might it be one day? Maybe. But we have to accept where we are now. We have to see today’s issues and solve those. Because if we try and jump to the heavens too quickly, reality will remind us – rather quickly – that clouds are made of water and we will come back to earth with a bump.
Building a ladder to the skies today is a much safer approach, even if less exciting, than promising universalism and free things tomorrow.
 

A side-note on aggressive tweets

I know my tone has upset people. It wasn’t intended to. But that happens sometimes, especially on twitter. If it did, I regret that. I like engaging in an open and honest conversation, and I hope people see my subsequent tweets have tried to do that. My aim is never to be dismissive.
One thing I don’t agree with, though, is how many people have aggressively suggested over the past day or so that, because I am a journalist, that this means I must never question Corbyn or McDonnell. Or at that I must only ever write very serious tweets.
It would be a very dangerous thing if people insulting me because I’m picking holes in Labour policy actually stopped me doing so. Politicians must always be treated as people who one day might take over every instrument of power in the country and be questioned appropriately. It’s much worse to treat them as if they’re irrelevant or to unthinkingly believe every word.
So, challenge my opinions, sure. Tell me I’m wrong, or missing a point, no problem. But require me to simply stop because you don’t like what I say? That’s not something I can agree to.
Likewise, I won’t stop with my use of satire and sarcasm, even if it’s not to every tweeter’s tastes. Five years ago, when I left the classroom and moved to America, I used to get up in the middle of the night and tweet education select committees attended by Michael Gove. The tweets were part-newsy, part-sarcastic, and they had two functions. One: inform people of what was said. Two, remind the audience that people in power are still just people. That second one is what satire and sarcasm does. Satire is what keeps power grounded. It’s the kid at the parade pointing out the Emperor was naked. It’s Charlie Chaplin pointing out the absurdity of Hitler. It’s the reminder that no one is above humour, no matter how beloved, because – in the end – they are just people operating in the same constraints of every other politician who went before them. And if I think their assumptions or values are wrong, I will say it. And if I think humour can punchly get the point across, I will use it.
No-one has to agree with my politics or even with how I conduct myself.  But please know my opinions and actions are not because I am unthinking, or because I believe in right-wing thinking, or because I’m being glib. They are because I believe the world is better when we ask questions, point out absurdities, make jokes, question fiercely, debate harshly, and – crucially – when we take from each according to ability, and give to each according to need.

What to do when you feel out of your league – #WomenEd #IWD17

A week ago I gave my first ever talk at a WomenEd conference. I’ve written before about not particularly enjoying doing things “as a woman“. So the talk was less focused on gender, and more on the unifying fact that we all feel out of our depth sometimes – especially in work situations.
Feeling out of my league has been fairly common as I moved from being a classroom teacher, to being taken to court by the government, to editing a newspaper. I’ve also watched carefully as other people have gone on journeys which pushed them out of their comfort zone. After all, the education landscape changes quickly – politicians are parachuted in and out; union secretaries rise and fall; successful superheads are praised one second and mutinied the next. Watching that happen gives you a good sense of who pushes ahead, and how they did it.
From all that watching, the main thing I learned is this:

EVERYONE IS OUT OF THEIR LEAGUE

SOME PEOPLE JUST LET IT STOP THEM, WHILE OTHERS DON’T

No matter how big or hardy the edu-celebrity, every single one I’ve interviewed admitted things they worried about. Michael Wilshaw, the former chief inspector of Ofsted, did a stint in a ‘middle-class’ school and was flummoxed by the level of intervention by parents. He left and went back to working class communities where parents didn’t question what he said.  Dan Moynihan, the chief executive of Harris schools, famously paid over 400k a year, is pretty short in height – and that mattered to him at school. He was a scrapper until his teens. His stature meant he couldn’t prove himself by physically fighting anymore. He was outclassed by taller, stronger kids. Instead, he figured he could be clever – hence, he traded fists for textbooks and went on to university. Dylan Wiliam, the demi-god of education research, was so surprised when he heard that he was being promoted to an academic position he dropped all the files he was carrying when he found out.
Everyone feels out of their league sometimes. But opportunity comes, they are pushed from the top of the building and, as the adage goes, they build their wings on the way down.

So what can you do when you feel yourself shying away from the big leagues?

It is normal to be afraid in situations where you feel out of your depth. I suffer as much as anyone on this.
Three years ago I returned from a period of study in the US and was invited to a roundtable at the Department for Education to be held by David Laws, who was schools minister at the time. I was reasonably well-known as an education blogger by then, but I still hadn’t met most of the big education names face-to-face.
At the meeting were journalists, CEOs, union leaders and so on. Of the 16 people around the table that day – I was one of only two women. That rarely bothers me, but that day I let it get at me. I felt smaller. I felt my voice would be squeakier. I felt… different.
And I let it freak me out.
The discussion was about the pupil premium: why it wasn’t closing the achievement gap despite its vast sums.
I had an answer. But after forty minutes I still didn’t have the guts to speak up. This wasn’t like me. I’m renowned for being gobby. And yet… I just felt completely outclassed. As if my idea wasn’t going to be impressive enough for a debate which was, so far, pretty theoretical and involved a lot of highfalutin words.
After about fifty minutes, I worked up the courage to speak and said something along the lines of ….
“Well, see, isn’t the reason that the pupil premium doesn’t work is because we don’t know what to do with the money? I mean, we give schools 700 pounds… but what are they supposed to do with it? It’s not as if you can feed the money to a child and the problem goes away. It’s not as if there’s a supermarket with 700 pound products where you can go in and say – ‘hi, my poor kid has x need, which solution can i buy for them?’ – and then you buy it and you know it will work. It seems obvious to me the reason the pupil premium doesn’t solve inequality is because we don’t actually know how to solve inequality.”
It’s not the most sophisticated answer. It doesn’t mention evidence, or data, or collaboration, or all the other dreadfully polite and on-trend words that people in education like to use.
I still don’t think it’s wrong though.
The room fell silence for a beat. Then a senior educationalist said, “Well, I think that’s a bit simplistic…” and everyone went back to their discussions of long abstract phrases.
It wasn’t mean in tone. But it was certainly dismissive. My stomach flipped. My cheeks flamed red. I couldn’t hear much for a few minutes. It had taken me fifty minutes to get the guts to speak up and I felt totally shot down.
Even worse, I’d left it so late to speak the first time that by the time I gave myself enough of a talking-to that I felt confident enough to re-enter the conversation, the meeting was wrapping up.
I promised myself afterwards that I would never allow myself to feel so totally helpless in a meeting again.
But how? How do you make yourself speak up when you feel so outclassed? And how do you avoid the dreaded fear that something will go wrong?
*

Three things to tell yourself when you feel out of your league

 

1. Be 10% Braver

I first heard this saying from Jill Berry although I know it’s widely used across the WomenEd sector. It’s a little lifesaver. I use this one whenever I am just about to complete an action and then find myself self-sabotaging with negative thoughts.
Back in April last year, for example, I really wanted to do a profile interview of Toby Young, the journalist who set up one of the first free schools. Having battled with him for years, and given that our newspaper is often quite scathing towards free schools, I didn’t imagine it was a proposition he would leap to take. Nevertheless, I wrote an email to send on the basis the worse that could happen was that he would say no.
As I was about to send it, the doubt demons visited. My fingers hovered over the send button. Was I being an idiot? Why would he do the profile? Were readers really interested? What was the point?
And then Berry’s words floated in: WOULD YOU SEND THE EMAIL IF YOU WERE BEING JUST 10% BRAVER?  My brain immediately answered: YES. So I sent the email, and secured one of the most successful profile interviews Schools Week ever published.
The nice thing about 10% braver is that it gives your brain a question to overrule the doubt demons. I find that if I ask it of my brain the answer always comes back quickly. Most of the time it is a yes, sometimes it’s a no – which usually points up to me that my reluctance isn’t irrational fear, but a genuine concern. Had I asked myself in the David Laws meeting to be 10% braver, I have no doubt my brain would have said – WE CAN DO THIS – and I would have spoken sooner.
 

2. The 4Ws: Some Will, Some Won’t, So What?, Someone’s Waiting

I use this phrase when making decisions I will have to live with for some time. The 10% braver statement is good when you need to do something quickly. The 4Ws is for those moments when you’ve got a good idea that you want to implement but you know you will have to live with the consequences – for example, publishing a blog post or announcing a change in departmental policy.
The fact is: some people will like what you do, and some won’t. The question is whether or not you can cope with that.
And if you’re not sure ask: So What? So what if everyone hates it? So what if everyone likes it? Will you lose your job? Will you feel uncomfortable for 24 hours? Will absolutely nothing at all happen and the world will go on spinning? (This is the most likely).
Finally, remind yourself that you are unlikely to be unique. Out there in the vast universe there is probably another human being, just like you, who is hoping someone might say or do the very thing that you want to say or do. The world will never move forward if we are all politely waiting for someone else to articulate our thoughts. So you articulate them. Chop, chop. Someone’s waiting.
 

3. Is this your _____ moment?

Six years ago, when I was still teaching, I was asked to attend a TeachFirst ‘strategy’ meeting. I didn’t really know what it was but the invite listed lots of big names – Michael Barber and Andrew Adonis among them – and I was very excited to go.
When I got there I realised it was an afternoon to plan TeachFirst’s strategy and I was the only teacher in the room. I felt  totally out of place. I observed the enormously influential education people, who all knew each other and seemed so normal with each other, in the wide-eyed way that children watch animals at the zoo. At one point someone was texting Michael Gove’s special advisors AND GETTING AN INSTANT RESPONSE. I was bowled over. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? I remember thinking.
The seat next to me was empty at first but half-way through the first session a young woman appeared, apologising for her boss’s absence. He was sick. She had been sent in his place.
As the session continued she leant over to me, introduced herself and said, “I really have no idea why I’m here. Have you seen these people? They are all amazing.” I leaned back towards her and empathised entirely.
Over the day we warmed up but we spent the whole day shaking our heads as to what we could possibly be contributing and questioning if we should be there.
That woman, it turned out, was Dr Becky Allen, now chief executive of Education Datalab and this year listed on DeBretts as one of the most influential and powerful people in education.
Which goes back to the point that everyone is out of their league.  Everyone had a first meeting where they sat around a table and wondered WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HERE? Today you might feel uncomfortable but it is entirely possible this could be your Becky Allen moment and, in a few short years, you’ll be the one at the head of the table getting calls answered and having apologetic newbies rush in the door.

But what if it all goes wrong?

This is the thing that can put us off the most. If we screw up by being 10% braver or saying ‘so what? someone’s waiting…’ then won’t we pay for it?
In all honestly, the answer is probably no.

 

Three things to remember about why being wrong doesn’t mean the end of the world

 

1. The Trump Pussy Principle

Last year, Donald Trump made a ridiculously crass comment … and he still became the President.
That’s a terrible indictment on many things. But it highlights two truths:

  1. No one is that interested in other people, they are more interested in their own lives, and
  2. You can really screw up and still get to the top.

Please don’t take this as me saying you should therefore abandon all morals and not give a stuff about anyone else. I’m not.
What I am saying is that if you are well-intentioned in your actions, and you mess up, the chances are that you will be able to recover the situation. And the reason I say that is because even when people are not well-intentioned, and they don’t do anything that proactive to try and make the situation, they often still recover given enough time. Ultimately, your mistakes are not other people’s priorities hence, they are not likely to damage you too greatly.

 

2. You Have More Resources Than You Think

Secondly, if things do go wrong, you have more resources than you imagine with which to cope.
I realised this a few years ago when I noticed I had a really weird, quite embarrassing habit. When I first moved to London, every time I visited a decent public toilet in the city I would mentally log it in case I became homeless. I would note how easy it would be for me to get to it without being seen by a security guard. Or how easy it would be to wash in the basins.
One day, I mused out loud about this on Facebook.
My friend Pia responded almost immediately: “Laura, if you were homeless you could just use our toilet. Also, you wouldn’t be homeless, because you could come and stay with us.”
She was right. Yet it was only then that I realised my mind had kept catastrophising what might happen if I lost my job to the point that I had decided that by losing my income I would also, apparently, lose every friend I had ever made, plus their kindness. Plus any ability to get another job too.
When the chips are down you will not be able to count on everyone. But the likelihood that your action at work – your asking for a raise, or saying no to a new responsibility – will lead to a catastrophic outcome is pretty darn low. Don’t let irrational fears of loss stop you from gaining.

3. Flip The Script

I owe this one to my dad. The master of ‘flipping the script’ – he is able to turn almost anything negative into a positive.
If I call him to complain about people writing horrible things about me on Twitter. He will point out how great it is that people are engaging with me. If someone is mad at a story in our newspaper, he will point out how great it is the paper is influential enough for people to be so worried.
And he’s great at perspective – including the game of 5s:
Will it matter in 5 hours? 5 days? 5 weeks? 5 months? 5 years?
Frankly, in work, almost nothing will still matter five years later. So don’t let a dip in fortune, or a mistake get you down. After all, it probably just means people will notice you – and, to Dad McInerney’s optimistic mind, that can always be turned to your advantage.

So, in conclusion: Everyone is out of their league…

In the end, none of this adds up to magic beans. You will find yourself paralysed sometimes, unable to act, feeling outclassed and beating yourself up for being such a wuss.
But, I hope it is helpful to know that you are not alone. That almost everyone has felt that way at some point and that, when it comes down to it, you can either let it stop you or you can carry on anyway. And if you want to carry on anyway then ask yourself: Can I be 10% braver? So What? and Is this my Becky Allen moment?
Remember, someone’s waiting for you to speak up. Hop to it.
PS – I did talk about a few women-only issues in the talk, but I’m going to save that for another post. 

Think Like An Education Secretary 2016

In a tradition that now spans three education secretaries, it’s this year’s Education Secretary Christmas Reading List. (Gosh, aren’t we all getting old).
This year we have a new overlord, Justine Greening.
She’s actually really smart, and interesting, and seems ‘nice’, if that isn’t an offensive word to use about people these days. Almost everyone who has met her says this. Which is really good for the sector, but a bit rubbish for anyone trying to write a funny book list related to her foibles.
Still, because it’s Christmas, I did what I always do and used my professional judgment (best guesses) to discern (totes guesses) what Justine Greening has been reading this year.
And this is where the clues led….
1. The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving A F*ck – Sarah Knight
It takes a special sort of person to be the first comprehensively-educated education secretary and then, for your first policy, announce you are bringing back selective schools which is basically the evidence-equivalent of saying you don’t believe in climate change or that you are about to replace the NHS with homeopathy. One can only presume this is because J-Green read this best-seller by Knight which launched last New Year’s eve as a book for people whose only resolutions for 2016 were not having any resolutions. (As it turned out this was probably for the best, given most dreams for 2016 have been comprehensively defecated on all year).
The book is a dirge on the importance of not really giving a stuff about other people’s opinions. Greening has shown she can do this with panache, having sent out an email saying the government were defo going ahead with its mad grammar school plan less than 72 hours after it closed its consultation. Sad that you spent so long writing up your consultation response? Sorry! You should have spent more time life-changingly not giving a f*ck!
One of the greatest pieces of advice in this book is to “offer your regret” (for being a terrible person) “in a timely fashion” – which also made me think that former education secretary Michael Gove has been reading this book this year. Six YEARS after he cancelled a bunch of buildings for schools in desperate need of new shelter he finally ‘fessed up and said that he had made a hash of the thing and he regretted it. Well gee, thanks Michael. But, having read Knight’s book, I find it rather magical to say I don’t give a monkeys for your inadequately late regret. Cheers anyway, love! *thumbs up emoji*
 
2. The Myth of Meritocracy: Why Working Class Kids Still Get Working Class Jobs – James Bloodworth
Okay, okay. Greening is nice, so the barbs above were mean. (They were also true, but yes, a bit mean).
What Greening actually seems motivated by is working under the radar in order to make inching improvements in life conditions. She has announced six “opportunity areas” around the country where the government is going to put cash and elbow grease with the aim of improving the lot of poorer kids in the area. The approach is neat and gets to the heart of meritocracy chats which have come up all over the place this year but nowhere better than in James Bloodworth’s The Myth Of Meritocracy, which talks at length about the fact that people often work damn hard but their employment and wages are still often pitifully unstable. Bloodworth gives ideas for changing schooling (and the workplace) to help. Greening’s plan to trial these sorts of policies in areas of need, with eventual scaling if they work, is right out of Bloodworth’s leftist playbook even if the blues want to recapture social mobility as their right-wing baby.

 

3. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way – Katharine Birbalsingh and assorted cast members
Justine Greening will have had this book thrust at her by Nick Gibb whether she likes it or not. I know this because Nick Gibb needles me about how marvellous Michaela Community (Free) School is every time I see him and I don’t even have any actual power.
Our conversations tend to go like this:
Nick Gibb: Hello, Laura. That was a mean thing you wrote about me the other day. But, more importantly, have you been to Michaela School yet? I went recently and the children there eat with knives and forks and it is brilliant and you should go.
Me: I haven’t been. Also lots of children eat with knives and forks. But good for them.
Nick Gibb: Oh no, they don’t eat with knives and forks like the children at Michaela. There they eat so beautifully, altogether and in time, that it makes middle class people weep. Have you really not been?
Me: No.
Nick Gibb: Well you really should. Also, did I mention about how they learn facts?….
And so on…
Admittedly this is a little bit of a paraphrase (though not as much as you might think) but if you’ve never had the joy of running into Nick Gibb, or otherwise learning about Michaela, then you need to know it is a comprehensive secondary in north London with an obsession for structures and practices to aid learning and an evangelical zeal about sharing them. It’s a bit draconian in its implementation of policies for some tastes but there’s nothing fundamentally evil about what its staff are doing. Many practices are just old wine in new bottles and some of the new innovations are rather handy. The team have done a particularly good job of creating sexy new terminology that I expect Gibb will encourage Greening to drop into speeches next year to show how hip she is for having consumed this book. Keep an eye out for “knowledge organisers” as the new word for “schemes of work” and watch as “summer school” becomes “bootcamp” and anything now debunked gets replaced with “cognitive psychology”.
 
4. Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong With The Language of Politics – Mark Thompson
Nicky Morgan (remember her?) was also guilty of this crime but Justine Greening has continued this year’s fad for having a single strapline and sticking to it: damn all context, truth, or even sense. While Morgs was always hamming up “educational excellence everywhere” we have had that replaced with Greening’s insistence on using two key phrases. One: “schools that work for everyone”. Which is hilarious, in part because the document it is based on only talks about bright children and doesn’t give two figs for children with special needs, but also because there’s scant evidence grammar schools work much for anyone at all. (There’s that magic of not giving a f*ck again!).
The other phrase Greening has clung to like a limpet in a tidal wave is the fact there are now 1.8 million more children in good or outstanding schools since 2010. Putting aside the fact this is largely down to a baby boom and immigration (shhh, don’t wake the Brexiteers), it’s also because the Ofsted frameworks changed and they are incomparable now anyway. Forsooth!
Still, as Mark Thompson’s rollicking read on the language of politics points out, “word work” can make or break politics. Hence the current trend is for hammering home a simple point – damn its truthfulness – and doing so in a way that is less about actual persuasion and more like an algorithm which works out just how often someone needs to hear a message before believing it. Saying schools are ace and grammars “work for everyone” enough times and it turns out people might just believe it’s true. Greening’s own soul might even start to believe it, eventually.
 
3 books Justine Greening probably didn’t read this year… but should
This is the bit where I pontificate about what books the education secretary probably should have read. [NB: Special advisors, this bit is for you. Just stick them in her bag. It’ll work a treat].
1. Don’t send him in tomorrow – Jarlath O’Brien
The parts of the school community dealing with children outside the mainstream – whether that’s special needs schools, pupil referral units, hospital schools, whatever – are commonly missed from political discourse. That’s stupid. Because it is one of the areas where there is the most good to be leveraged even just by talking about them more. Why education politicians fail to get this point is entirely beyond me. Even more crazy is that O’Brien’s brilliant book, which gives all the facts and figures to show why this sector matters, AND practical solutions for improving it, is a ready-made speech for a politician with the cojones to give it. Sod letting Edward Timpson read this and steal some future glory where he tries to tackle the alternative education system. Greening should be all over it as soon as the turkey is finished and scribbling down notes for her next big speech.
2. The regulation of standards in British life – Gillian Peele and David Hine
Should you ever wish to invoke raised eyebrows from the staff and visitors at an entire spa, I do suggest reading this gloriously titled book while lounging by the jacuzzi and shouting “oh good point” as you turn the pages. (What do you mean have I ever done this? Pfffsshh…. *noticeably doesn’t answer*).
Peele and Hine’s book looks incredibly dull and, let’s be honest, because it is written by academics and published by an academic publishing house, it’s overly long and a bit pretentious in parts. BUT, there are neat summaries at the end of each chapter and the actual content is glorious. Looking at the trend for regulation the points out what the consequences are for trust, accountability, public services, costs, etc. In a sector where we love a good regulator – come on now, who didn’t send a Christmas card to Ofqual? – this is a particularly apt read.
Academies are particularly affected by regulation as intrusion by Ofsted, the schools commissioners, and the education funding agency are the main ways ministers are trying to ensure academy freedoms are not used for piss-taking (also known as: paying yourself a second salary, or failing to teach science, etc, etc). But, as Peele and Hine point out, if this regulation is poorly done or, sometimes, overdone it can actually undermine policies. The education department are very very far from having perfected regulation of academies. This book won’t solve that. But Greening learning more about the latest thinking on this topic certainly wouldn’t hurt.
 

3.Passing Time In The Loo – Steven W Anderson
Finally, if I can give Greening a bit of advice for future speeches, it would be that she needs a bit of oomph. She’s not the greatest speaker, and that’s in comparison to woodentop Nicky Morgan (ouch), and because of that she’s coming across a bit… impersonal. Which is a shame because, as I said at the start, there’s a very likable and smart politician hiding inside her. If she doesn’t let it out, though, she’ll lose the broader sector and I fear a louder, more charismatic, possibly madder and certainly less competent politician will try and wrestle the education brief from her. So, my final recommendation for the year is that she gets herself a copy of the brilliant Passing Time In The Loo – which is a huge compendium of 2-page summaries of novels and classic texts, and pages and pages of funny quotes. A little humour and pop culture might just be the thing to elevate her speeches from being good in her head, to also being ones that people engage with.
I know, I know, it’s very uncool to say that you have to grab people’s interests these days with fluffy analogies and a wisecrack. But as any headteacher who takes assembly will tell you: the way you pass on the message really matters as to whether or not the kids take it home and tell their parents.

*
Right, folks. That’s 2016 almost done. Go get a survivor’s t-shirt.
See you in 2017 to do it all over again.

A Love Letter To Miss Watson

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Miss Watson emailed me recently. Miss Watson!
She was my form tutor in year 9 and 10, and the only woman who taught me anything about how to break a wild class. She had poker straight hair, and huge glasses, and always wore a burnt orange jacket that she would only take off if it was 53 degrees and even then we still had to ask before we could take our blazer off.
I hated Miss Watson. And loved her. Because that’s how it is when you’re a teenager. The teachers who spend all their time moaning at you for your own good are often those you come to love most.
My typical crime at school was listening to my walkman. Miss Watson hated it and would steal my earphones if I refused to put it away.
Plus I was forever in the wrong queue. Miss Watson would make us line up outside her class on either side of the door. Boys on the left. Girls on the right. I would queue with the boys every time. If boys went in first, I would hang near the end, and she’d make me swap over when I got to the front. If the girls went in first it was a victory. I’d swan in last, with all the boys, to make my point. Miss Watson was smart enough to know this victory made me feel good. And I was dumb enough to believe I’d gotten away with something.
It was autumn 1996 when I first met her. Our form arrived in the stark blocky room of 9C. Unlike other form groups, whose letter reflected their tutors’ surname, we were exotically named after Miss Watson’s first name, Carole. Yup, with an ‘e’.
Our form group was not pleasant. We had decimated tutors over the year and become known as the ‘nasty’ form. Later, when I taught in London, I met the karmic reincarnation of our 9C selves in 9MO.  It was only then I realised how horrific we had been and felt terrible for every teacher we made flee from our classroom in tears.
Miss Watson was never going to cry. She basically told us as much when we arrived.
Her thick Wigan (Wig-uhn) accent clipply told us that she had heard how awful we were, and that we were going to stop it. Now.
She was about 4 feet 10 tall and blind as a bat. We were terrified anyway.
In one of our first form meetings she whipped out a record player and played ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to us. After the song she told us about how, at university, when the world felt a dark place, the  person she could rely on was Freddie Mercury. With the few pennies she had, she’d bought enormous headphones and spent days at university lying on her bed, listening to his voice. She hoped we all had Freddie Mercury’s who helped make our lives better. And she wanted to hear about them. Each of us was going to have to make a speech, just for a few minutes, over the next few weeks, about a thing we really liked.
We were flummoxed. And a bit outraged. What was this bullshit? We were used to swinging on chairs, and throwing things at each other, and boys pinging girls’ bras, and reading David Hughes’ copy of the Daily Star which he got from some builders on the train to school each morning. Reading speeches to each other sounded rubbish.
It was and it wasn’t. I don’t remember many of them, really. They probably weren’t very good. But I remember being amazed that we did it anyway. We actually listened. We didn’t shout, or throw things. We snoozed a bit. But we were placid. A definite break-through.
I don’t remember making my speech at all but I know it was about Terry Pratchett. A few weeks later Miss Watson gave me a page of the Sunday Times magazine featuring an interview with him. It was the kindest thing a teacher ever did for me. I’d never seen the Sunday Times. I didn’t know authors gave interviews. I kept marvelling at how she could have thought of me, on a Sunday, when she wasn’t at work. And I wondered what sort of human being does that? Who bothers to pull a page out of a newspaper, and put it in their bag, and carry it to work, and get it out at the right time and say “I saw this and thought of you”. I remember thinking, right then, that I wanted to be that sort of human being.
Years later, in my own classroom, I was forever doing the same thing. Giving pupils books that I thought they might like once I was finished. Passing them magazine articles; sharing music of bands they loved.
I still have the Terry Pratchett article, too. It’s in a small memory box I keep of the most important things from my teenage years. It’s a permanent homage to Carole-with-an-e.
*
More amazing, perhaps, than Miss Watson’s form tutoring was being in her French class. Here, she was Madame Watson. Not Miss. Never Miss. And never Laura, for me, but always Laure. In fact, she diligently called us all by our French names: James was Jean-Jacques, Clare became Severine, David … Daaarveeed.
I hated learning French. I still hate it. Languages are my Achilles heel. I don’t care for them, they make me uncomfortable, every time I utter a foreign phrase I feel like a hippopotamus trying to pirouette.
The amazing thing is that Miss Watson didn’t solve that. She just taught me anyway.  She taught me that a truly great teacher doesn’t make you love a subject. She just gets you an A* whether you liked it or not.
*
Ten years after I started in that blocky form room, I had my own form and subject classes. My classroom emulated everything I had learned from Miss Watson. Clear instructions on the board, rigorous routines for starting the lesson, constantly asking questions, giving resources out, ending the lesson in a clear and consistent way. I stole her clippy matter-of-fact way of speaking, and the way she always did fun games at the end of lessons and vocab tests at the start. And I wore jackets. Lots of them.
I gradually came to see how she had got our form on side. After those initial speeches, she broke us into teams. We were selected each half-term by raffle and the groups competed against each other for points in mini-quiz activities. My favourite was the A-Z game, where we wrote all the letters of the alphabet on a piece of paper, and then had to complete a word for each letter based on a theme. The team who could complete the most letters won.
Topcs included chocolate bars, car manufacturers, capital cities. Cries of “Rome? Is Rome a capital city? It’s got a football team…” would fill the air. And instead of 30 pupils battling the teacher – our prior modus operandi – there would be 5 groups each trying to work together and outpit each other.
Somehow she would mark the papers by breaktime and we’d pile into her room to see who had the glory. (I look back now and presume she had a free period, but to us it was magical). She would take the moment to check our ties, shirts, blazers, the walkman. It was only as an adult I realised she made several points in the day when she would see us (she would let us eat lunch in her room for the first 15 minutes of our break, for example) – not just because she was “cool”, as we thought, but because she wanted to reinforce her expectations for us, and also be there in case we needed her.
When I was 15 and split up with a dear boyfriend, (young love is intense, isn’t it?), I went to school 20 minutes early and put all the chairs down in our form room and flopped on a chair and sobbed in the corner. And all she said was “you’ll be okay, Laure” and she made me help her put some worksheets out. It was exactly what I needed.
*
The high-point of Miss Watson, however, was The Day of the Nail Varnish Incident. It is the story I have told most often to new teachers I have trained about behaviour.
The Nail Varnish Incident began like every other autumn term blustery morning. We piled into our form room: shirts had to be tucked, trainers changed to shoes, walkman taken from me again. Grr.
And, as was the ritual every morning, Emma had arrived wearing nail varnish. Loud, red, luscious nail varnish. Which Emma lovingly painted on her fingers almost every night and which, for weeks on end, Miss Watson had required her to remove each morning.
The routine never changed. Miss Watson would go into her stock cupboard, produce a bottle of nail varnish remover and plonk it on Emma’s desk along with a series of cotton wool balls. The removal would begin.
Only this day, there was a problem.
Two minutes into the cleaning Emma thrust the bottle onto the desk with force. Her eyes gleamed, her mouth smiling, her tone defiant. She announced: “It’s empty”. And leaned back in her chair.
For a moment we froze. For the first time it was possible: one of us might win.
That possibility was tantalising. But incredibly short.
In one swift move Miss Watson strolled from her desk, swiped the bottle with one hand, spun, threw it in the bin, caught the stock cupboard handle, swung it open, grabbed a second full varnish remover bottle, spun again and placed it in front of Emma. She slinked  back at her desk before the stock cupboard had even closed.
Emma never wore nail varnish again after that. And I learned that persistence is about 90 per cent of achievement when it comes to improving teen behaviour.
*
Someone asked recently if a teacher had changed my life. I’m not sure that Miss Watson did anything that changed my route through it. My french grade never mattered. I didn’t become a teacher because of her. No major change in my circumstances occurred because I was in 9C.
But I do think Miss Watson changed me as a person. She modelled a whole new type of human. Determined, smart, curious, fierce. But always, always intentional and kind.
After twenty years, I am glad I finally get to say a proper thank you.
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