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.
We have a new Information Commissioner, and she seems very exciting and hip. She keeps talking about how she wants to expand Freedom of Information laws to any group with a public contract. Which sounds great and everyone is excited.
I am not.
At the moment, trying to get information from a government department who is refusing to play ball is like drawing blood from a stone and the ICO are not helping.
If the system for getting information from the bits of the world that are already covered by the law is broken then expanding it is not only pointless, but likely to make the whole thing worse.
Ducks. In. Row. First.
Let me give you an example: I have now waited an extra forty days for the DfE to respond to a freedom of information request. Forty. That’s eight weeks. On top of the 20 days it takes to do the request (which was also late).
Imagine a kid not handing homework in and then being given an extra eight weeks to do it! Wouldn’t happen in my class. Detention would be almost immediate.
So why is the DfE able to get away with such behaviour?
Answer: Because the ICO seems to have no simple system for dealing with delays.
When you send an information request to the government the law says it has 20 working days to respond. After that point, the polite thing is to needle at them for a few days and, if still nothing, your only recourse is to go to the ICO where you can seek a ‘Section 10’ decision notice. A section 10 is effectively a formal letter to the government saying “you are out of time, you broke the law, don’t do that again, now hand the docus over”.
At the moment it is taking the ICO over thirty days to even reply to a complaint. And then they give the DfE a further ten days to respond. In my eyes this is the equivalent of those parents in the supermarket who weakly tell little Timmy not to eat the grapes, but who do it in such a lame voice you know that Timmy is going to swallow the entire vine as soon as their back is turned.
In my most recent case, the DfE did just that. Ten days came and went. No FOI. I like to imagine the department as a child gleefully skipping out the gates at 3pm as their teacher waits upstairs for them to appear in detention.
So I wrote to the ICO and pointed this out. And I called. And I have heard nothing.
All of which is ridiculous. Jesus beat the devil in 40 nights in the desert but apparently the organisation funded to protect our information rights can’t even censure the DfE for a blatant breaking of the law in this time.
So, Ms Denham, our new information commission overlord. PLEASE: I beg, implore, beseech you to come up with a new process for dealing with delays so that this rigmarole can stop.
In fact: I already have one.
When someone complains to the ICO they must fill in a form which asks what the problem is. If a complainant ticks the ‘no one is responding to me’ box, put that into a fast-track system.
This system would involve a person checking, quickly, if the request is, in fact, delayed. This should take, oooh, 3 hours? At most? If the answer is ‘yes’ then, immediately, write a Section 10 decision notice and send it to the government department telling them to get their arse into gear and respond within 5 days. Not 10. FIVE. And no ‘pre-warning’ faffy nonsense emails. Send the decision notice. JOB DONE.
Five days later do a simple check with the department. “Hi, did you send it yet? … Yes, great!” Or, “No… UHOH”and immediately give them some kind of serious notice.
If a public authorities get, say, three of these serious notices in three months then BOOM, put them on monitoring. Require them to fill in compliance documents. Insist on having long boring meetings about their record-keeping. Ask to see copies of all their request response. Make them uncomfortable with the sheer number of checks you will do on them.
Ultimately: Make their life harder than it would be if they just responded ON TIME and AS THE LAW SAYS THEY SHOULD.
Seriously, this is how consequences work. Watch any good teacher. Watch Supernanny! Getting people to do things they don’t want to do is largely about having quick, effective systems followed by quick sanctions that are less pleasant than doing the right thing the first time around.
Ducks. In. Row. First. Please.
Once that’s done, then the law can expand to cover all those other public authorities. And I will be up there with everyone else giving a big cheer.
Four weeks ago, on a Friday afternoon, I received a text saying the government had dumped me. After three and a half of years of head-to-head battle with the department for education over some free school documents – including endless appeals and even a court appearance – they were now giving in. I could have the documents, a subsequent email said.
Four hours later I received a text from my mum. One of her best friends, a dear family friend, was now in the hospice. The likelihood was that she wouldn’t come home. After four and a half years in her own battle with cancer, she was going to lose.
Tears in eyes I was suddenly overcome with the thought I wanted to give it all back. The government could keep the stupid documents, I thought, if we could just keep Jenny. Who needs paper when people are dying? What use a legal win if the people you love don’t get to be winners in more important battles?
It’s a stupid thought, of course. That’s not how death works. I’m not daft enough to believe that any action by me could have made a difference to her disease. It’s also why some people will have bridled at my use of the term ‘battle’ with regards to cancer: as if there is somehow an agency in these things. I’ve tried to find another word for it, but I can’t. I watched from the sidelines as Jenny went through endless rounds of chemotherapy, removal of organ upon organ, and hearing of the doctors who said over and again what a miracle it was that she lived so long after diagnosis. For every person who told me I was courageous for ‘fighting’ the Department for Education, there was someone saying the same to her. Different battles, with a strange helplessness and randomness to them, but battling is how they both felt .
On Tuesday, I finally received the documents. The Friday prior I attended Jenny’s funeral.
At the latter a memory book had been put together of photographs from her life. It was a surreal thing to flip through and see someone so familiar growing up over a series of pages. At one point I glanced at a picture. I was confused. It appeared to be of me and yet I couldn’t remember where it was taken. I looked again. It was actually of my mum in her thirties. How fast time flies. How little we notice it disappearing.
At the end of last year I wrote about the four Christmases I spent preparing legal documents to help get that free school information. Since Jenny went into the hospice I’ve mused whether it was a smart thing to do. Whether I should have been spending time on other things.
My dislike of Christmas is well known. I talk about it each year on social media and it’s been that way for a long time. There are several contributing reasons, but a major one is that I have very little family and those that do exist are not always good at spending time together. Hence, as an only child, Christmas day was often very quiet – just me, mum and dad. But Boxing Day? Oh, that was the day to live for. Jenny and her husband had four children and lived just around the corner. I could see their house from my bedroom window. Their daughter, Emma, was my friend. For a period of time, around the age of 6, we were best friends: forever in one another’s houses. I grew up watching Jenny shepherd those four children – born within just 28 months of each other – with a combination of military precision and beautiful fun. In comparison to our quiet, tidy house, theirs was one of chaos. People and animals everywhere. Hamsters, snakes, a bird of prey. Tables that pulled out of cabinets to make sure everyone had a seat for dinner. A car with seats in the boot so we could all be loaded in and taken to national trust days, or church. (I was regularly swept into the car with the other kids come Sunday afternoon).
On Boxing Day their family would descend on ours, alongside my parents’ other friends and children, and it would be magical – there was chilli, and karaoke, and games, and fun. A melee of people giggling and chatting. Even now I think of Boxing Day as the most wonderful time of my childhood.
Growing older, Jenny became the person I saw at Good News Events. You know the ones: weddings, Christmas, birthday parties. I would always make sure to speak with her. Even as an adult I craved her sense of perspective, her ability to shake things off and be positive. She knew I was a worry wort and would wheedle problems out of me, forcing me to look at them differently. She would remind me of all the great things in life.
That she has gone: so young, so soon: has put a hole in our makeshift family. Good news events are now down a smile.
And back here in reality it feels like all I have left is a big pile of unconnected papers, which have absolutely nothing to do with her, and yet every time I look at them all I can think is that they are some unbearable consolation prize.
I’ve barely touched them since they arrived.
The problem of being a professional during stressful times
I need to get over this emotional blockage. The documents are vital and there a number of things, professionally, I want to do with them. There are articles to write, stats to compile, stories to tell. Having peeked the day I opened them, I can already see there are things the public should know about them and it’s my job to get on and tell the story.
This week has been tough, though. Processing the loss of someone, especially when that person isn’t an immediate family member and so there isn’t some expected and accepted level of upset, is a weird thing. On the one hand I keep thinking I shouldn’t be hard hit. On the other, I know that I am and that I can no more magic that feeling away than I could hand back those envelopes and get Jenny in return.
Every person with a job faces this problem. Some days, you just don’t have the same capacity as others. As a teacher there are days when you feel awful: you have flu, or an ill parent, or a bullied child, and yet you can’t take any time to deal with this – you have to go into the classroom at dot-on 9am and do your best caring face so that stressed-out bottom-set year 7 can learn their maths. School leaders face the same problem: it doesn’t matter if you’re worried about your husband’s ill health, you’ve just been told a supply teacher has hit a child and so you must pull together and go deal with it.
This goes for everyone, across all workplaces, pretty much ever. There is nothing particularly special about this circumstance. But this week I’ve wondered why we don’t talk about it? Is everyone else really just able to switch off their emotions and “be professional” at will? Or are there, like me this week, people in workplaces across the country steadying themselves for 5 minutes before putting on brave faces and wondering how everyone else is managing to keep things in?
It has also made me wonder how, in an economy where we increasingly put pressure on workers to do more – longer hours, be better, achieve higher, be efficient – do we make space for these very human dips. How do we find ways to deal with the down days? When teachers’ nerves are burned to a frazzle, what is the plan? If someone feels they can no longer cope with a full-timetable and the stress of exam classes – what’s the alternative? There have to be some levers for dialing down pressure as needed otherwise people are forced to walk away from their jobs when the going gets rough, even if it could become better again very soon, and that’s more of a loss than the education sector can take given the pressure of growing pupil numbers.
How we cope with bad times
Over the years I’ve developed two mechanisms for when things get bad.
The first is seeing experiences as learning opportunities. Shitty relationship break-up? At least you learned how not to end things. Terrible choice of career? At least you can work out what you don’t like, and move on. Taken to court for being vexatious under the freedom of information act? Well at least you had a chance to become an expert on tribunal law.
A second approach is making things into a funny story. “That will be a hell of a tale for the pub,” I would say to crying newbie teachers as they relayed disastrous interactions with a child.
But sometimes neither tactic works. Sometimes you can’t learn from a situation. Not if you’re too angry, or disappointed, or sad. So far, that’s how I have felt about the free school stuff. I’m aching over the lost time – the absolute waste of all those emails and documents just for someone after three and a half years to shrug and hand them over.
Also, some things just aren’t funny. And they don’t lend themselves to a story. This blog could be a story about Jenny, but I can’t find one. There isn’t a neat story of her life or how I feel about her. Hence this blog spiraled into being many things. There isn’t a neat story I can write and make myself feel better.
Thinking about this put me in mind of one of my all-time favourite books: George Vaillant’s Adaptation To Life. In it Vaillant describes his life work, tracking 268 super-smart university graduates over forty years, and discovering the ‘mechanisms’ they use to cope with life. Some are less ‘healthy’ than others – humour, for example, is considered more mature than hitting people – but even those we consider positive can be problematic when used to excess. As my favourite highlighted passage reads: “In adolescence, Tarrytown learned to use alcohol the way Goodhart used books – to escape.”
What Adaptation to Life shows is that finding ways to cope with change and discomfort is something every person must do if they are to continue feeling sane. Vaillant argues that mental health problems tend to derive from this process not going well, though they aren’t inevitably long-term. Think about physical health. People frequently get colds but overcome them quickly by keeping warm, drinking fluids, clearing noses. With mental health, we might be disordered in our thinking for a short period, but it’s possible that with simple actions – sharing time with people we love, or writing fears down – we can quickly get over them. In more serious circumstances our physical health becomes overwhelmed and getting back on track is more difficult. Maybe it involves chemotherapy, organ removal, intensive care. The same goes for minds. What we have to work out is how, over a lifetime, we manage changes in our thinking – in our adaptations to life – and figure out what paths are available to get back on track.
A problem of the book is that it doesn’t say exactly how we figure out what’s wrong or what we do to get back on track. There are a plethora of mechanisms we can use: intellectual pursuits, aggression, suppression. But no answer as to which one we should use. Why? Because there isn’t an answer. Vaillant’s last story is of a man named Allan Poe who, in his fifties, is living a life some would find objectionable but with which he is content. He calls Vaillant in and tells him that whatever his research finds, whether certain things match with mental health – a good income, spending time with family, doing exercise – it would nevertheless be possible to have those things and yet be miserable. It’s also possible not to have those things and be content.
Everyone wants simple answers for how we should feel better and get back on track. I’ve wanted one all month. What I actually need to do is figure out how to feel okay even without such an answer.
So, what does any of this mean?
I can’t make sense of Jenny’s death and that is not a surprise. Death isn’t easy to rationalize, or laugh at, or learn from. My usual techniques are all out. In weeks of trying to do so, I’ve mixed up the freedom of information stuff into how I feel about her because the time periods overlap and story-telling is one of my defence mechanisms. The unfortunate consequence is that they’ve now become so intertwined it has been a struggle to engage with the documents even though I need to.
I’d love to tell you at this point that I’ve figured out some solutions, but the sad truth is that even after writing 2,000 words – which you have now trogged through – I’m afraid we will both leave with limited wisdom. But, I also figured, if we only share thoughts once they are ‘clear’, then we will rarely share the things that can’t be written about in clear, sensible blocks like death, and loss, and change. And if we never speak of these complicated things then we risk giving the impression that the world is full of completely together individuals – when none us really are. And if we believe that everyone else is dealing with the world better, and we are somehow at fault for struggling, then that is also alienating and unhelpful. Far better to write, even without wisdom, if only because doing so might clear the blockage and maybe start a conversation about how we help, support, and build capacity for dealing with our down days.
Beyond that, after weeks of pondering and upset and trying to make sense of everything, the best I could get to was that sometimes you win a battle and get a box of documents in your hands, other times you lose and get a box in the ground.
I’d do anything to change the way round it went but death doesn’t operate on rules of justice. No legal document in the world can be written to get its decisions overturned.
We are hiring over at Schools Week.
We know exactly the skills we need, we just have to find them. Please share liberally. And remember: the better the person we get, the better Schools Week will become. What greater motivation do you need?
(Pay: Depends on experience, but not stingy)
Who are we?
Schools Week is a print and digital newspaper covering the schools sector, with a focus on investigative journalism. Since our launch 18 months ago, our stories regularly make national news, featuring on Radio 4 Today, BBC TV and radio, and across all major national newspapers – including the front pages.
Every senior reporter received at least one award at the 2015 Education Journalism Awards and our readership continues growing at speed.
Our founders, Shane Mann and Nick Linford, cut their teeth on the incredibly successful FE Week and are the only shareholders in the company. So there’s no loans to pay back. No distant investors to keep happy. The editorial team can simply concentrate on writing quality news that keeps the school community knowledgeable.
We are apolitical: giving an equally tough time to all parties and ideas.
We are data savvy: beating out the Financial Times and the Times Higher Education Supplement to win this year’s Outstanding Data Education Journalism Award.
We know our community. The editor, Laura McInerney, spent six years teaching in challenging schools and three battling the department for education in court to get secret documents.
But we still want to improve, and we need an extra team member to do it.
Who do we need?
We already have business savvy, reporting chops, deep community knowledge and graphic designers who could improve the Sistine chapel.
What we need now is a Deputy Editor who loves words. Loves them. And combines that passion with the organisational skills of a military commander and an intense joy of social media.
Words. Organisation. Social media.
Sound like you? Read on.
What will you do?
As a weekly print and daily digital product our stories must be led from reporting stage into final format. We need someone to support the editor in this process, and be ready to step into her shoes when she’s away.
Along with the sub-editor you will package stories: creating perfect headlines, re-writing, style-checking. Making a story sing by changing a hyphen to a comma.
You will also be responsible for bringing the pages together, so will need a love of deadlines, following-up and making everything just so. We are looking for a polisher more than a sculptor, although we’ll expect you to jump in with writing when needed – just like we all do.
Finally, we need someone excited about social media. A big part of your role will be working with designers and reporters to push out stories in different ways. We already use Twitter and Facebook but are looking to experiment across more platforms, and do so in a consistent, timely and attractive way. There is lots of scope for doing better here so the more excited you are by this part of the job, the better!
What do you get in return?
- The pay will reflect the importance of the role
- A committed team, totally serious about what we do
- Super smart readers, who really care about the product
- Feedback. We are passionate about schools because we are passionate about learning. That goes for staff, too. You will become a better journalist with us, and we want you to take an active lead in helping others become a better journalist too
- A spot in a growing, evolving, successful, innovative newsroom.
You want to apply? Excellent. Here’s how…
We have a no-CV policy. Clearly, we think schools are important. But only because you learn in them. What you know and can do for our company is more important than where you learned it (or when).
So don’t send a CV. Instead write a letter to the editor (firstname.lastname@example.org), which includes:
- What you do currently
- What evidence suggests you’d be good at this job (the more links you can send showing us this, the better)
- Why you think Schools Week would be a good fit for you
- 3 people we can call for references
If the letter piques our interest, we’ll follow-up with an initial phone call and go from there.
Want to know more before applying?
Good! We like curiosity.
If you’d like to speak to any of our team you will find us all on twitter.
Editor Laura can be emailed at email@example.com or you can organise a call with her by visiting www.calendly.com/lauramc/15min.
Our website is www.schoolsweek.co.uk. An example of the printed paper is available here and here.
The closing date is advertised as January 29th however we will review applications once they are received and may appoint before the period closes. So don’t wait too long!
January 1st 2015: A new year, a new name, a new editor.
That’s how last year began and it was terrifying.
After just 13 weeks in journalism I was made editor of weekly newspaper
Schools Week which had already become renowned for breaking smart, headline-grabbing, important stories about what was really going on in schools and education policy.
Like a teacher facing a new class for the first time, or a headteacher taking on a new school, the possibilities for doing well – and for totally screwing up – were almost overwhelming.
Since then it’s been a hell of a year.
I’ve been on the six o clock news, the Today programme, endless numbers of radio shows. I did the first major interview with Nicky Morgan after she re-entered office as Education Secretary. Just before Christmas, Schools Week even made the front page of a national newspaper.
I got to interview some of my education heroes. To name a few: Dylan Wiliam. David Blunkett. Carol Dweck. (All of whom were brilliant and inspiring).
I was called names by directors of communications at multinational companies; had strips torn off me by a politician’s aide; I was told umpteen times by tweeters and online commentors that they were “disappointed” in me.
I encountered situations that seemed like cliches created by script-writers of political dramas. My life has been more Thick Of It and House of Cards than I thought possible, and yet it has also been wonderfully human, too. For every person who phones to yell, there are those who go out of their way to tell us what we are doing well. For every person flouncing, there’s someone else acting with breath-taking magnanimity. For every cross word with a person in power, there’s also a humorous text – often from the same person.
The main lessons of the year have been simple:
1 – Sometimes you have to be pushed to become a leader. As a teacher I swore I’d never want to be a headteacher until 100% ready. Now, I think that’s a mistake. I don’t think most people are ever 100% ready. Sometimes you’ve got to leap, and build your wings on the way down.
2 – Don’t doubt your team. The Schools Week crowd are an amazing bunch – the directors, the designers, the reporters, the office staff, all of them. For a workaholic perfectionist like me, it’s tough learning to give other people the reins but the team have consistently stepped up, and their efforts were duly rewarded this year at the CIPR Education Journalism Awards.
But I did a stupid thing. Before the event I told senior reporter Sophie that she musn’t be disappointed if she didn’t win the Outstanding Education Data Journalism Award. In my head I was trying to point out that her amazing competition (not least a stats guy from the Financial Times) was not something to worry about if you lost.
Naturally, she won. And no one in that audience was more proud than me when they announced her name. (I nearly clapped my hands off). But I also realised what an idiot I was. Sophie is not a sensitive year 7. She didn’t need me sugar-coating reality, nor pre-empting it. A hard transition for teachers going into management is the line between treating adults like pupils, and as colleagues. The teachery-ness I have in me is sometimes brilliantly useful. It helps me notice needs and push people further. That is good for management. But I’m still working on dialing it down as necessary. Thankfully, it’s something I’m aware of and so I don’t mind when people point it out, and thankfully I have a forgiving team. (Sophie had the courtesy not to stick her award and two fingers in my face afterwards). And in the end it taught me lesson 3….
3. You just have to keep on learning.
With that in mind, on to the Nurture stuff…
Review of Last Year’s Nurture 14/15 Hopes:
I wanted to do more, especially about journalism. I haven’t.
Why? Well, I’ve agonised over it. I want to open journalism up more, and get people understanding how and why newspapers (particularly Schools Week) do what they do. But in this first year I was also aware I’d make lots of mistakes and I wasn’t ready to share them. Like many people who say they want to blog, but feel reluctant, I worried that I’d give away things about other people that might make them uncomfortable and I didn’t want to talk the business into corners that it couldn’t remove itself from.
In October, I did share one piece about being a journalist in the crowd at the Conservative conference. It went viral. So viral I even got asked on to the Daily Politics to talk about it – a show I have adored forever. (Annoyingly I couldn’t do it due to prior commitments, but still – an invite!)
The piece was tough to write. As a newbie to the media industry I’m still intrigued by the silence around the way it operates. Journalists are uneasy, I think, with turning the tables on themselves.
I was criticised by Louise Mensch for what I said and called an apologist by a few others. But, as I’ve written before, I grew up in the shadows of Ogreave and Hillsborough. The complicity of the press in both those incidences means saying what I see, even if it’s different and awkward, is fundamentally important to my sense of justice.
2. Reading more blogs
Done. I check out blogs recommended on Schools Week and I try to read at least one each day from the echo chamber.
Commenting has been less frequent largely (and lamely) because I have incessant problems logging into wordpress on my phone – especially now I have 2-step verification.
It has been great to see more bloggers stepping into the limelight this year, though. (And if you want to know my ‘never misses’: Nancy Gedge, Michael Tidd, Stephen Tierney, Jane Manzone, Joe Kirby and Tajinder Gill all come to mind).
3. Raise the voices of otherwise ignored groups
This happened. From our Schools Week ‘league tables for disadvantaged pupils’ which re-ordered performance tables based on schools best serving low-income children; through to our 6-part vulnerable learner series; to our celebration of A-level results at secondary modern sixth forms (yes, they exist, 88 of them); and right on to our front page story regarding the free school PRU that locked pupils into classrooms – we did absolutely everything we could on this throughout 2015.
In my Guardian columns I wrote a few times about special educational needs (here and here), in no small part due to the encouragement of brilliant educators in the special needs sector like Simon Knight, Nancy Gedge, Jarlaith O’Brien and Mark Baker. Each time they pointed out the important stuff and didn’t leap on me when I got things wrong but instead coaxed my thinking through calm debate.
I was particularly proud that my piece on child poverty, and its changing measures, received over 10,000 shares and featured my all-time favourite joke about politics.
4. Build more subscribers and brand awareness for Schools Week.
The television, radio, newspaper appearances helped. As have the panels, meetings, dinners, coffees, conferences. So thank you for the many invites, and for listening. The yellow jacket has become a celebrity in its own right.
Our readership numbers are now waaaaaay up on this time last year. But there’s so much more growth possible. A year into editorship I’m finally at that stage where I feel like I can catch my breath enough to think about how we improve next. We have big plans. Keep an eye out for more.
5. Upper Tier Tribunal in January against the DfE regarding secret documents.
That happened. The battle rumbles on. New Year’s Day was spent writing documents for another tribunal. It is all extraordinarily mind-numbing. But also important. (If you want to know more about my court battle with the DfE – here’s the latest post)
Hopes for 2016:
1. Sort out my workflow (and get a bit more down-time)
I’ve struggled this year with the onslaught of tasks and information I’m managing on a daily basis. Social media is wonderful. It has helped create our newspaper. But trying to keep up with tweets, Direct Messages, facebook, emails to my work and personal account plus traditional mail (at home and work), has become a bit much.
Likewise, I can struggle to keep perspective on what matters in short, medium and long-term. Partly that’s because when you’re new in a role you tend to not know what is going to matter; partly because I get waylaid with the urgent but not always important.
I’ve taken steps in the last few weeks to improve the situation. I’m automating more tasks, taking internal work conversations out of my inbox and into Slack (a messaging service) and putting more specific goal lists together.
The aim is to share more information about this over the year as a way of getting back into blogging about work (and journalism), while also giving away useful information about getting on top of information mountains – whatever your setting.
2. Become better at prioritisation
Newsrooms, like schools, have the problem of ‘immediacy’. In a school, if a big fight breaks out, you can’t leave it for later. It’s urgent and must be dealt with immediately. Likewise, in a newsroom, if news breaks then hands are needed on deck.
Having people available for such incidences requires a glut of resource hanging around doing nothing. But no one can afford that. A school can’t have extra senior leaders awaiting exclusions. A newspaper with 3.5 reporters and an edition to get out each week can’t have someone sat round waiting on breaking news.
So how do you manage such events? (Heads, I’m genuinely asking here: how?! – let me know in the comments!)
I’m experimenting with a few ways of prioritising tasks for myself at the moment, and am going to start sharing with my team over the next month. The aim is to blog afterwards about what works.
We’ll also be thinking more about how we prioritise stories and resource that we put into them. A question I am constantly grappling with is: What belongs in our newspaper? How should we make that decision? thoughts on this most welcome in the comments.
3. Be a better friend
School life can be over-whelming, and my family and friends took the brunt of my workaholism this past 18 months. Because they are family, and fantastic friends, they have been very good about it. But I miss them.
Now the kitchen is (nearly) sorted, the aim is to have people come sit and eat in it more often. And yes, online peeps, friends on social media are real friends. Don’t be surprised if you get a brunch invite soon.
Here’s to a great 2016. Good luck with the return to work.
Another Christmas Eve, another Education Secretary’s annual reading list.
But this year there’s a problem: Nicky Morgan doesn’t seem to like books.
She almost never mentions them. Her speeches seldom quote books. She rarely singles out ideas from authors. Admittedly, a few days ago, she asked everyone to buy their children a book for Christmas. But what book would Morgs like them to buy? Not obvious. She never says.
Still, as is tradition, I have used my best detective skills to work out what books our edu-sec Nicky has been reading over 2015. If you want to understand her, it would be worth you reading them too.
1.Paul Tough – How Children Succeed (aka ‘The Grit Book’)
When asked by the TES for her recommendation of one book every teacher should read, Nicky Morgan picked this: the yawn-tastic Paul Tough ‘grit’ book. First appearing in this list in 2012 it’s the sort of choice that a special advisor makes for you: just classic enough to make you sound knowledgeable about schools, not wayward enough to mark you out as actually having a personality. Next!
2. David Didau – What if everything you knew about education was wrong (aka ‘The wrong book’)
After reading this I like to imagine Morgan sending it on to schools minister Nick Gibb who returned it with the words ‘IT’S NOT’ scrawled on the front, and told her to stick it in the bin.
3. Jonathan Simons and Natasha Porter (Eds) – Knowledge and the Curriculum: A collection of essays to accompany ED Hirsch’s lecture at Policy Exchange
This doesn’t have a catchy name, which is a shame because it needs one. The title does accurately tell you what it is about though. It’s collection of love letters (sorry ‘essays’) to ED Hirsch, the elderly American academic, who has led the thinking of successive Conservative education politicians and particularly captured the heart of Nick Gibb. The book does a good job of exploring his ideas. And it’s not all positive. Chris Husbands in particular needles at some of his thoughts. There’s also a rather fabulous passage where James O’Shaugnessy (leader of an academy chain, and recently made a Lord) bemoans how some pupils have never visited the seaside: “They lacked any of the shared cultural reference points that many of us take for granted – fish and chips, the sailing metaphors that abound in spoken English, a basic understanding of marine plant life”. His solution is that they must be exposed to “the best that has been thought and said”. If you can figure out how that helps them understand fish and chips, you’re a better person than me. (Also, next time I meet O’Shaughnessy I’m asking him to name five types of marine plant).
4. Philip Tetlock – Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction
Got a problem? It’s okay. Nicky Morgan has a solution. EXPERT GROUPS. This year she started 12 of the things, and it sounds like more are to come. Sometimes the groups are diverse, sometimes not. The strategy has also been criticised for being diversionary – making it look like things are happening when they are not.
Tetlock’s book provides a fascinating overview of research showing that ‘accurately selected amateurs’ can often make better predictions and recommendations for the future than can so-called ‘experts’. Perhaps these groups will use the wisdom of crowds to solve all our education woes after all.
5. Disney – Finding Nemo: A Personalised Adventure
Like her predecessor, Morgan knows how to turn a cultural reference to her advantage. Asked in an interview earlier this year if she liked the nickname ‘NiMo’ given to her by people in the media with a penchant for shortening names, she wholeheartedly agreed, though she was at pains to point out that her son preferred stories about fish Nemo, than about her.
Books Nicky Morgan probably didn’t read this year… but should
6. John Kay – Other People’s Money
Far removed from the world of education, Kay’s book takes a critical look at the finance industry, and why it got so out of control. The title refers to the way decisions are made in banking secretly, and for the benefit of traders, n the back of “other people’s money”. There are lessons here for schools. When it’s “other people’s kids” and “taxpayer’s money” decisions about education, especially when not open and transparent, can quickly become self-serving. The descriptions of ‘gaming behaviour’ have relevance for the school sector and a smart education secretary would be getting ahead of them.
7. Eric Dezenhall – Damage Control: The Essential Lessons of Crisis Management
Schools minister Nick Gibb can tell people there isn’t a teacher recruitment crisis until the cows come home. But if people feel there is, then that has to be dealt with. Plus there’s plenty of other crises coming: the total curriculum, assessment, performance table, and exam reform revolution is about to come home to roost, and some of it isn’t going to be pretty. This classic of the genre describes how to explain the difference between ‘a nuisance, a problem, a crisis and an assault’. Knowing this before heading into parliamentary question sessions over the next year is likely to be vital.
8. John Baldoni – Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up
Finally, 2015 was the year when Morgan intimated that she might want to run for leader of the Conservative party when David Cameron steps down. In doing so she has made George Osborne quivery (he’d deny this, obvs, but I reckon it bothered him). Subtle moves will be needed to keep the upper echelons of the party onside in the coming years, but if she can manage it – she could, one day, be a contender. This book might just help explain how.
I received a phone call last week from a scam artist.
It was obvious from pretty early on that he was going to pretend I had a bunch of computer problems and then either sell me a really expensive download to stop the alleged problem, or allow him access to my computer so he could steal personal data.
Scams like this annoy me. My grandparents are both in their 80s but try to use computers as best they can. (They like facebook, and Skype). Calls like these could easily bamboozle them into thinking something was wrong and handing over money for something they really don’t need.
So I figured the best thing I could do was waste some of the callers’ time.
Which is what I did and I recorded it.
PS – What I tell him near the end, which finally pushes him to hang up, is genuinely true!
It was 9.05am when I rang the tribunal office to find out if the Department for Education would be appealing the Information Commissioner’s decision against them. Again.
I wanted to know if I would find myself in court defending a request for information I first made to them in 2012. Again.
For a short moment a reprieve looked hopeful.
“No, can’t see an appeal listed here,” said the man with a polite but gruff voice.
But I’ve been here before. I remembered his polite but gruff voice. And I awaited the next step.
“Just hold the line while I check to see if anything came in the final post last night,” he said.
This is where it all fell down last time. Back in December 2013 I’d called at 3.05am from a kitchen in Missouri, USA (where I lived at the time). The exact same man had said the exact same thing about checking the post then too. I was silently dancing on the kitchen tiles – careful not to wake the neighbours at such an unholy hour – when he came back with the news he presented this time too.
“Oh, no, I’m wrong! They have in fact put in for an appeal. Yes, it’s here.”
The little rotters. That’s what went through my mind on both occasions. What an absolute pain in the arse.
“Have they asked for an on-paper hearing?” I asked, hoping, fingers crossed, that perhaps we could all be spared the courtroom dramas and have the whole thing finally finished off by email.
“No, they’ve asked for an oral hearing in London,” the man said.
Ugh, I thought. Deep super not-dancing-on-any-tiles ugh.
And so it is that for the fourth December in a row I am reading up on case law and preparing arguments, all just so I can get my hands on a set of school documents that up until 2010 had always been open to the public.
So let’s rewind. How did this happen?
December 2012 – Earlier in the year I had asked for the decision letters sent to groups applying to open new state schools (also known as ‘free schools’). On a whim I also asked for the application forms submitted by the groups – something I would later regret. Reasons for why new school proposals were accepted and rejected were publicly open until 2010. (Just like they still are for, say, putting up a conservatory on your house or opening a pub). At the time I assumed the government simply hadn’t published them because the Department for Education (DfE) kept shifting their website and the free schools process was quite new.
By December 2012 I learned the DfE were adamant they would not release the documents even though every FOI expert I spoke to told me transparency in this case should be a no-brainer. Hence, I spent New Year’s Eve in 2012 writing to the information commissioner’s office (ICO) for an independent review.
December 2013 – After waiting 11 months for the ICO to rule, they finally ruled strongly in my favour. The public interest would best be served by the documents’ release, they said, and ordered the Department for Education to hand over the docs. Only, the DfE decided not to hand them over and instead appealed. On the grounds that the request was ‘vexatious’ because it would cost too much to comply with. A fact they hadn’t mentioned once in the previous 14 months of wrangling. I spent that new year writing my first ever court submission.
December 2014 – On a rainy day in June I faced the DfE’s claim that my request was vexatious, and as I boarded a flight in July I found out they had won – sort of. Because I had asked for the letter and the application forms, – and the removal of personal data from the former was so extensive – the judge decided the entire request was ‘burdensome’. But the head of the DfE’s free school group clearly said while on the witness stand that if I had asked just for the letters on their own (the thing I most wanted) that these would not have been considered too burdensome. The day after the judgment I submitted a reduced request for just the letters. The DfE refused to budge. Again. Twice. Last Christmas I wrote again to the ICO asking for another independent judgement.
December 2015 – All of which takes us to now. After waiting another 10 months for the ICO to make the exact same decision they made in 2012 – (no, I can’t fathom why it took that long either) – the ruling was exactly the same. The public interest was in favour of disclosure and the DfE had to hand over the docs. Only this time the DfE added a twist: they had lost 41 of the documents. (No, I can’t fathom how that happened either).
And then they appealed. The rotters!
Hence, for the fourth year in the row, I will spend the upcoming family holiday writing yet another court submission which this time, coincidentally, is due on New Year’s Day.
Forget rotters. From now on I’m tempted to call them the ‘Grinch’.
The Department for Education have literally stolen my Christmas. Four times.
After three years, two court cases, endless emails, and a new interpretation of the law to try and stop it, the Department for Education have been ordered – yet again – to provide me information about free schools.
The independent commissioner at the ICO has ruled that releasing the rejection letters sent to free school applicants is strongly in the public interest and outweighs purported disadvantages.
But: there is a new twist
I have now been told that the DfE has ‘lost’ 41 of the letters.
How this has happened is unknown. The ICO judgment states that “searches” have been undertaken on both the DfE’s old and new servers. And yet: nothing.
To say that I am disappointed isn’t just an understatement. It’s untrue. I am bloody furious. Not throw-things-at-a-wall furious. More boiling seething mad-at-the-injustice fury.
- The lost documents aren’t in just one set of information. I asked for letters sent to three different cohorts of free school founders and some have disappeared from each group. Which means this wasn’t just one isolated incidence of incompetence. It wasn’t a box left on a train or some ‘water damage’. It is, at best, administrative incompetence across three years.
- WHY THE HELL DIDN’T SOMEONE TELL ME SOONER? When I asked for the information in 2012 Wave 3 rejections had literally only just happened. Deleting information after someone has requested it is a breach of the Freedom of Information Act and, if found to be done intentionally, is a criminal offence. So this information has presumably been missing the entire time for the last 3 years and – what? – no one checked? How is this possible? Information had to be handed over to judges. The files were counted and calculated in agonising detail for their ‘burden’ levels in the court submissions. It was on that basis I lost my original court case. So how is it only now that someone has realised so many of them, across so many different cohorts, are missing?
- This entire request was based on a conversation I had with a leading academic on US free schools back in September 2012. She studied them for over twenty years and told me that one of the most important things for ensuring quality is transparency and analysis of decision-making. Back in 2012 when I made the request that was my entire aim: analysing the information to improve schools. That is all I have ever been trying to do. But as the information no longer exists we have lost one of the best learning opportunities for our school system forever.
- The completeness really matters. There was a reason I asked for all the documents and not just some. I wanted to compare the consistency of information and how it changed. We will never know if these 41 letters had contrary advice that could give an insight into the policy or if they showed a particular change in direction.
- Finally, to put it bluntly, I am pissed off that time has been wasted. I pushed on because I believed all of these documents existed and that the public interest would be served by their release. To make it happen I spent nights away from my family writing submissions. I spent weekends immersed in law books. I talked to endless numbers of free school founders who wanted answers to how and why rejections or acceptances were made. If the DfE think dealing with me is a burden they should have seen how frustrating it was on this side of things. What it was like to constantly harangue the courts for information because no one properly explains it to you. To read dismissive legal documents written by well-educated lawyers tearing into your inevitably non-professional arguments. To be talked down to by a judge – in a packed courtroom full of civil servants – who interrupts the moment you start talking, patronisingly telling you that while non-lawyer people don’t normally get to ask questions he’ll “see how you go”. Because I can say that, from this side of things, to have gone through all that, and then to be met with a ‘Oops. We no longer have all the things that we thought we did – MASSIVE SHRUG’ leaves me utterly, achingly embittered.
The upside is that this judgment should now secure the release of the 590 letters which the department do have. To avoid it the DfE would need to go to court again and while I can’t count that option out, I hope they won’t.
Instead, what I hope is that persistence has won out and that the public can have the information they should have had all along. It’s just a shame that 41 files, and my trust in transparency, have been ‘lost’ in the process.
On Sunday journalists were spat at outside the Conservative conference in Manchester for doing their job. At the same time, in the same place, I moved around the protest without experiencing any of this. In fact, I’d already written the first half of this blog before I even knew it had happened.
It is plainly not okay for anyone to be gobbed on as they go about their business.
But here’s the protest as I experienced it.
The crowd around me explodes into noise.
“Stop taking pictures of us you f***ing *****”
“Do you have the right to do that? Do you? Wankers!”
A young lad, about 18 with auburn curly hair and baggy grey jogging bottoms, makes the loudest comment.
“Why are you doing that from four floors up? Come down and take our picture if you want it.”
I’m stood amid a group of men aged 18 to 40, almost uniformly dressed in grey hoodies. They are part of the People’s Assembly protest gathering in Manchester’s Great Northern Square outside the Conservative party’s annual conference. It’s 10.45am on a Sunday morning.
The group caught my eye as I walked down the road from the Radisson Blu hotel – a place so swish it smells of expensive perfume. Pootling around ready for a fringe event I would later be chairing I’d collected my conference press pass a few minutes earlier and was walking back towards my hotel.
As I did, I noticed an angry bearded man with matted hair, holding a pair of black trainers in his hands, and walking in threadbare socked feet as he yelled at a policeman. Men in hi-vis jackets (working for an acronymed security company) were leaping out of vans and setting up barriers around the plot of grass which sits right in front of the Great Northern Quarter, overlooked by a huge brick converted warehouse, and alongside the conference entrance.
More dishevelled men were walking across the road. All white, all male, all looking as if they’d slept little for days.
One of the men asked if the police were completely blocking off the square. At this point I was curious. Were they being stopped from protesting? Aware that I was tottering in heels, wearing a bright pink coat, and holding a conference brochure I was a bit hesitant about asking further questions. The get-up shrieked I’m a tory. But a press pass isn’t just there for access to nice-smelling hotels. So I started to follow them.
“Is something going on in the square?” I asked the man, who later told me his name was Andy.
“It’s the People’s Assembly, they’re having a protest,” he said in thick Mancunian accent.
“Are the police going to stop it?”
“They can’t,” he said, nodding to the converted warehouse, “there’s an AMC cinema in there, and businesses. They can’t afford to stop them being open. They won’t mess with the businesses”.
I explained I was journalist. They seemed fine. We kept talking.
A small group showed me the tents on the square where people had camped overnight, and described the protest’s centre at Piccadilly Gardens from where they had arrived.
I explained I wrote about schools. They told me of the Facebook page where I could look to see People’s Assembly’s education events and asked me about prison education. (They are worried about cuts).
Callum, the oldest-looking in the crowd, with a startling similarity to Timothy Spall, talks bluntly but smartly about Noam Chomsky, totalitarianism, Trident. His points are astute even if I don’t always agree. The whole group are excited that Corbyn is due to visit.
During the conversation people wander in and out. Some look as if they are struggling with drug addiction; one has tobacco-stained fingers the colour of a chain-smoking 100-year-old. But they are sensitive to one another and keen to help me. They are worried that violent tendencies will mean the loss of their message and talk about the police with calmness, “They largely do their job well, just on occasion they go overboard.”
And then. It explodes.
From several floors up in the warehouse they hear a shout. I don’t hear it. But they seem to.
Camera lenses are suddenly pointing out of several of the windows – snapping away. Producers, photographers, on-lookers, all looking down from their lofty positions. The anger among the crowd swells.
Andy pulls his hood up, Callum starts pacing, many of them start shouting.
The young auburn-haired lad, circling from around the edges, now steps out in front of the crowd and starts yelling skywards. In his thick Manchester accent he wants to know from the camera people what rights they have to photograph him. He swears. He tells them he’s going to go up there and batter them.
Two men come out of the tents, waving sticks and middle fingers.
My heart sinks. Every time one of them throws their arms out or points their stick, I know the photographs are getting better and better. Every swear or insult proves their unreasonableness.
Andy and Callum know this too. “Stop being so aggressive,” they hiss at the young man.
“It’s a public car park. I’m going to go up there and get them,” he replies, shrugging his shoulders furiously and puffing out his chest.
“Why don’t you just ask them to come down here?” Callum says sharply, “Tell them if they want pictures of us to come down and ask us what we’re doing.”
The weariness of the group is palpable. I feel entirely torn by it. On the one hand I know why the photographers are four floors up. They’re awaiting the march. A fourth storey is a perfect vantage point from which to record it. While waiting, it makes sense to get some other shots. The group’s over-reaction is perfect.
At the same time, I can see how it feels intrusive. Here we are talking about Chomsky but me and the young men know that if the pictures are printed they will simply say ‘yobs’.
“They don’t even know our name”, says Andy.
Shortly after leaving the group I head to a fancy coffee shop on a parallel road. I order a flat white coffee and a bakewell slice. It costs six quid. The room is filled with smartly-dressed people who, like me, are here early for conference and who, also like me, are hiding in the comforts of somewhere warm, clean, ‘civilised’. It’s the sort of place most of us spend our lives, I suspect.
I think about Andy, Callum, and the angry young man. It strikes me that perhaps the ‘new politics’ isn’t so much about a lurch to the left as it is about recognising that the people on the ground want the people on the fourth floor to know their names. Or at least have the decency to come down and ask.
By 2pm I have watched my first fringe event within the boundaries of the actual conference. Education secretary Nicky Morgan has said all the right things and I have tweeted and written and clapped.
As I walk towards the exit reading social media on my phone I notice that journalists are rightly furious because one of them has been spat on by a protester. The picture lays bare the grim reality. Up ahead the police are telling people to hide their passes. There is panic in the air.
Knowing I must go back to my hotel regardless of the situation I decide to walk back across the square. If things turn nasty I hope I might be able to find Callum or Andy. Or that someone might remember me as the girl with the pink coat from earlier and go easy.
As I head out onto the square the protest is snaking around it. A choir of middle-aged women stands along one side of the road singing an adapted hymn about the bedroom tax. It is haunting and powerful. The tent group are mostly wearing face masks. I can’t see anyone I know.
I start talking to two security guards from the Great Northern building who are out on the square for a better view.
One has a thick scouse accent: “It’s all fine. The worse thing is when it gets violent, then the media will start saying that it’s everyone, and the words get lost, that’s bad, that means you’ve lost the message, but there’s good and bad in everyone, and look at all these people, and it’s fine.”
They complain that health secretary Jeremy Hunt purposely came through the square where the protesters were standing.
“Everyone else has gone the other way but he came through here and he wonders why people are at him and that, but he came through here on purpose.”
I have no idea if he did or didn’t, but it does seem an unusual route compared to other politicians.
One of the security guards bristles as he sees two ‘leaders’ of the camp emerging from the protest, and heading to sit on a low wall by the grass. They’re the men I saw earlier coming out of the tents; waving fingers at the press. One is heavily tattooed, leaning on a walking stick, wearing a t-shirt with a comic cover, his eyes slowly rolling. The other is neatly dressed in jeans and a black bomber jack, but he’s agitated and gaunt. He has one visible tooth.
I wander over and ask whether anyone has told them to move their tents. They start explaining about Section 60s, and police ‘force’, and spraying down pavements. I don’t know what any of it means. I explain that I’m a journalist. We talk for a while about their grievances.
One of the pair, Tom, is angry that his sister’s benefits have been cut dramatically and she is struggling to feed her daughter. She was forced to attend a food bank last week, he says.
“Meanwhile they’re ordering 3,000 bottles of champagne into there at sixty quid each and yet they’re the ones using the police to protect them.”
I don’t know if his figures are accurate nor why his sister’s benefits have been cut. But it’s an anger-riling sentiment if you, like Tom, believe it to be true.
The other man, John, talks about his homelessness in the 90s. Eventually he went to university (John Moore’s in Liverpool) and wrote poetry for a while. He had a book contract, once. But he lapsed when his sister got ill. Now he is angry with the royal family.
“Things like the first world war were caused by royalty” he says, “We send our poorest to die for them… But why aren’t their children ever the first into battle?”
I have no answer.
After an hour of ducking and weaving in the crowd I head to my hotel, then back again, each time without a hint of anyone shouting directly at me. Across roads I see people in suits being heckled and others on mobile phones diving under police barriers and being escorted away. The chants of Tory scum are happening as I walk up to the entrance. I can hear them. I just don’t think of them as personal insults.
Inside everyone is sharing their experiences of being yelled at; of being called a Tory c***, of being intimidated, of the awfulness. I feel guilty for pointing out my take was so different. On Twitter someone suggests it’s because I’m northern and scary. In my ludicrous outfit and with an accent considered normal for the area, neither is true.
Instead, the fourth floor metaphor keeps coming back to me.
Protesters simply see people in suits walking away. It’s the symbol of what makes them most angry: being ignored by the wealthy. That’s why they yell. And, to them, a media who sticks a camera in their face to get a story without first seeking to understand is a parasite. Not Tory scum, but journalist scum. A part of the establishment that ignores its people. It doesn’t matter whether the nuance of that is true or not – that’s how they feel, and so they shout.
Sadly – inevitably – inside the conference gates I learn that the spitting, the yelling, and the aggression has only served to build the walls up further. “They don’t deserve my attention,” says someone who has been yelled at repeatedly. “Welcome to the new politics,” remarks another with disdain.
And so we waddle into the age old battle of the powerful and rational deciding that unless you can have a ‘civilised’ conversation then you’re not welcome at their door and the emotional crowd outside become angrier and angrier as their voice is dismissed for not being what is deemed civil while the people in power continue imposing cuts – a behaviour the protestors would argue is uncivilised – and they do so while applauding one another in a fancy conference centre.
No one should be spat on. No one should be dismissed as unimportant.
We must guard against the fourth floor crowd, who have the keys to the kingdom, barricading themselves in and dismissing the mob below. If that happens, the mass will increasingly want to come up and batter the ignorance out of them. And while, somewhere, on a metaphorical stair landing between the two, there’ll be me and Callum hovering around in our pink coats and grey hoodies trying to work out how the hell we get the two groups to talk sensibly, the fact is we have no clue of how to even begin. Writing up this experience was really all I could think to do.