Thursday 26 January 2012

League tables of inequality

These days I take more than usual interest in stories about education. It's that time of year for the schools' league tables. And the usual bollocks about 'failing schools'... 'failing teachers' and life chances.

You don't need to be a genius - or even a sociologist - to work out that whilst the odd working class hero might buck the system thanks to a few inspirational teachers, some innate talent and quite a bit of luck, your 'life chances' are pretty much determined at birth. It's called capitalism -  and it stinks.

For the terminally hard of thinking have a look at these two maps from that hot-bed of class warriors  - the BBC: The first shows the distribution of 'good' GCSE results - the second the distribution of child poverty. 

Friday 20 January 2012

Corduroy and leather elbow patches are out.

Strange coincidence - on the same day that the new head of the V&A museum is mourning the decline of tie-wearing by the modern  British male I went for an interview with a headteacher. In the nicest possible way he told me I could come back to do a couple of days in his school but only once I'd had a haircut and wore a suit. He wanted his staff to project a 'smart business-like image'.

I made a half-hearted attempted to tell him that in my previous life - 'in business' - nobody wore a suit and tie but I think his view of creative businesses probably stopped around the Mad Men era. Just to be clear I wasn't wearing my usual uniform of combats and t-shirts - I was actually in my 'smart mode'  - wearing a shirt and tie, black canvas jeans and a corduroy jacket. My hipster version of a stereotypical wannabe teacher's garb - circa 1970's I suppose.

Anyway that kind of 'history man' nonsense apparently doesn't wash in the post-Thatcher academy-ised era. Stepford-like conformity is everything nowadays  so that staff  and kids look like Mormon missionaries or sales assistants in Currys - or young offenders preened for their first court appearance. Maybe it is teaching the kids valuable lessons in preparation for post-school life after all....

At the end of the day I want a job and to help me get it I want as much experience of what modern schools  - for better or worse - are really like. So I'll grit my teeth, have a trim and dig out a suit - I just have to remember not to roll my sleeves up - a glimpse of my tattooed arms would probably send the head into apoplexy.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Keep the information super-highway open

I'm not joining in the online blackout in protest at the US government's attempts to keep control of information firmly in the hands of big business. But only because I'm sure that nobody gives a toss whether or not they can access this blog. Otherwise I'm right behind Wikipedia's stance today.

Copyright's is a funny old thing: Before Gutenberg and Caxton changed the world forever with movable type legislation wasn't really necessary - the Catholic Church had pretty much got the medieval media sewn up on its own. Printing blew that apart and the artisan printer / publisher (because they were often the same person) was often a fee-thinking radical too.  So the first copyright laws were all about ensuring control of reproduction by the state - such as the1534  charter from Henry VII to the Cambridge University Press. And nothing much seems to have changed.

For a  while the waters got muddied and we all got bogged down in the idea that copyright laws were there to protect the little guys. Certainly it sometimes looks that way in my former world of the 'creative industries'. Laws are there to stop designers and photographers having their work ripped off by bastard clients. But in the real world these laws are only as good as they can be practically enforced. And if you're a sole-trader designer pursuing a multinational brand from using the work you did as part of an unpaid pitch - then best of luck. 

But that's another argument - and not at all what the present rows over  SOPA / PIPA is about. The fact that Rupert-sodding-Murdoch and his empire of evil - the modern day version of the Holy Inquisition when it comes to media control - are behind the US government's attempt to police the internet is probably enough reason in itself to support Wikipedia.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Everything has a price tag

None of this is a surprise and bemoaning it is hardly original - even so it has struck me personally this week: 

For the first time for many weeks I am actually earning some money. I've been 'consulting' - a poncey name for casual labour - in my old industry of print and graphics. I've also been applying - without any success yet - for Teaching Assistant posts as a prelude to getting on to some sort of teaching training.

Of course I knew it all along - but it's a hell of a wake-up call to realise that this consulting pays something like five times the wages of a lowly teaching assistant.  And I'm only talking about doing a bit of freelance selling for a small printing buisness on a shitty industrial estate - I'm hardly some corporate reptile at McKinsey & Co.

I bloged some years ago about the value of viewing work through a child's eyes. To a child a teacher - and those who work alongside them - are the most important people in their world. Even in this celebrity fixated age - it's difficult for them to imagine anyone else more deserving of status. My own kids are reasonably aware of how things work these days - but even they struggle to see how a teacher can be rewarded less than a plodding junior manager or administrator. And they're quite right.

As a 'consultant' am I better academically qualified than a Teaching Assistant ? No at all; Am I more skilled ? Not really - only in the art of bullshit; Is the work harder ? Certainly not; Is it more socially useful ? You've got to be kidding.

Monday 2 January 2012

Roots 4: Water Lane.

Over the holidays,  I met up with an old mate to see the rugby at Twickenham. Afterwards we walked down to Richmond to enjoy a couple of pints of Youngs Special in the White Cross on the riverfront. 

It's a part of London that these days oozes affluence from every pore, so it's hard to imagine that a century ago the little streets leading down to the river were a  working community - and home to a very peculiar and distinct breed of artisans. It's where my mums' family lived for many years, in White Cross Yard with a boathouse on the river front, and before that in Water Lane - where another Youngs pub still stands - the Waterman's Arms. 

The family were Thames Watermen in Richmond going back to at least the 1750's for certain - and very possibly beyond that. It's easy to establish this continuity from the records of apprentices and licensed Watermen still held by the Company of Watermen. Amongst the few family heirlooms I have inherited are three generations of apprentice's papers - eldest sons indentured to their fathers. 

Even in my grandfather's time, this apprenticeship lasted for seven years, during which the waterman would  learn boatmanship and the complex geography and shifting currents of the river. In the upper reaches of the river the role of Watermen who conveyed people, and Lightermen who carried freight were combined - although down river in the docks the two trades were usually  distinct. 

By my grandfathers' time suburban omnibuses and railways had started to signal the death of the river as a commercial highway. The family concentrated on the pleasure-boat business and had a small boatyard with boats for hire. The business did not survive the depression and so in the 1930's my grandfather gave up the yard and put his skills to work as a river policeman and moved to the docklands.

Thus ended an incredibly stable way of life: Whilst other strands of my family led a  precarious existence ducking and diving over the generations in various trades and moving around  to scrape a living, the watermen part stayed  put in the same couple of streets for the best part of two hundred years - and in the case of my grandfather married a girl from the next street.

Relatively prosperous, fiercely proud of their status these Thames Watermen were notorious for their stroppiness and uppityness. Henry Mayhew records in his study of London's labouring classes:

'The character of the Thames Waterman... was what might be expected from slightly informed, or uninformed and not unprosperous men. They are hospitable and hearty to another ... civil if such fares are civil to them; but often saucy, abusive and even sarcastic'.

Then as now, there was nothing the do-gooding middle class feared more that workers with a few bob who wouldn't be patronised or take too much crap. 

Sunday 1 January 2012

Black Jacobins remembered.

Starting the year on an up-lifting note - I'm on a roll at the moment with yet another piece over at On This Deity - the anniversary of the Haitian Revolution of Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Black Jacobins. And a moment too to remember CLR James -  Trotskyist and sportswriter - a true revolutionary renaissance man.