Why I Love Manchester

manchester-vigil-9-1495564396I am Manchester born and bred. My ties with this amazing place go back several generations and I have always been deeply proud of them. The way Manchester people have responded to the appalling events of this week has made me even more so. Briefly, since so much has been said elsewhere on this theme, I’d like to mention a few reasons why:

  • Community. Guy Garvey said once that we have it in our DNA. It really does feel that way. No big city is perfect, and it would be wrong to idealise, but there is a reason why Manchester people are known for their down-to-earth, practical kindness.
  • Diversity. It’s nothing new in Manchester. Elizabeth Gaskell was writing about globalisation in her novel North and South in the 1850s. We have established, flourishing, tolerated communities from all over the world. When my kids both lived at home it was like the United Nations on a Saturday afternoon in this house. We learned so much together. We continue to do so.
  • Solidarity. It boils down to a healthy defiance. Tony Walsh got it exactly right in his wonderful poem: We won’t take defeat and we don’t want your pity. Manchester people don’t expect life to be a walk in the park. Our city was forged in an ethic of hard work. We recognise oppression and injustice and there’s a radicalism that fights back. In the American Civil War cotton workers here went hungry in solidarity with slaves.
  • Scepticism. Throw as much mud as you like, Westminster bubble – we know a thing or two about terrorism up here. The IRA blew up our city centre. Nobody condones that, but we’ve had a strong Irish community here since the 1840s so we’ve had to listen to both sides of that argument. It’s never simple. You can try to reduce it to slogans, but up here we have built-in shit detectors.

And finally, perhaps most important of all:

  • Culture.  Here in Manchester, a new entrepreneurial class forged the Industrial Revolution. They worked bloody hard and many of them came from humble origins. They took on the Establishment and looked them in the eye as equals. And they wanted the things that had been the preserve of the elite – a world-class  university, fine libraries, an international orchestra, culture. So they didn’t whine and say people had had enough of experts. They moved, and shook, and built those things. Today when you walk down Deansgate you see the neo-Gothic splendour of the John Rylands Library. Five minutes walk away from the Arena is the oldest public library in Britain. Manchester has always valued culture. We know the value of poetry, of music, of things that make the soul sing, whether it’s a great goal or Wonderwall.

Hate will not tear us apart. We’ve not idiots, and you can shut up now, Mrs May, because you’re wasting your breath.

 

 

 

 

 

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Costa’s Brexit breakfast

I’m a regular at Costa Coffee, mainly because I’m lacto-intolerant and they do a very good soya flat white. But I felt rather depressed by their new summer menu when I popped in this morning. Is it really necessary to label a chicken and chorizo toastie, “Made with British Chicken” and to advertise on your bags that the coffee has been roasted in London? God forbid that we should drink anything foreign!

Have the marketing team come to the conclusion that too much Continental flavour will send their patriots down the road to Greggs?

 

My tiny heart is frozen – La Bohème Revisited in middle age

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Vitalii Liskovetskyi and Alyona Kistenyova in Ellen Kent’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème

If it’s possible to be formed by the music you hear in your mother’s womb, I’ve been formed by Puccini’s La Bohème. Out of the blue, my father died at the age of 34 in my mother’s first weeks of pregnancy, and she got through it by wearing out her LPs of Puccini’s glorious opera. By the time I started school, I was already humming Che Gelida Manina. By the time I reached college, I knew whole arias word for word and I’m sure it was one of the reasons I taught myself Italian in later life.

So Bohème is probably the only opera I’d actually pay to see, and in fact I’ve seen two productions, spaced by 35 years or so. Last night I realised I’d changed more than the opera had.

I can still listen to Mimi’s farewell on Spotify while doing the ironing and find myself in tears. But seeing it staged seems to sharpen my critical faculties. No matter how glorious the singing (and last night’s Ellen Kent production was well sung, if a little scrappily staged), I can’t shake off the thought that this is basically the story of a dying woman and her abusive, controlling boyfriend trying, and failing, to break up. In fact, misogyny runs through the whole piece. Women are decorative, fickle, the source of moody male tantrums and broken hearts. They are also a tradeable and disposable commodity, guarded and policed by their possessive boyfriends who watch hawk-like for the revealing of a female ankle in public.

Oh, how can you, people will cry? The music’s gorgeous. Puccini was only reflecting the social mores of the period. Actually, Puccini’s philandering caused emotional carnage in his lifetime and led to at least one young woman’s suicide, but nobody said you had to be perfect to write wonderful music. Besides, the more well-informed will argue, in Muger’s original La Vie de Bohéme, Mimi’s a nasty little tart on the make, and Puccini remodelled her as an innocent victim. But I don’t think that feminist argument convinces. The view of women in La Bohéme swings between cynicism and sentimentality; both are the breeding ground of abuse.

I’m probably just getting on a bit. I’m old enough to be irritated by people who text in the stalls, who leave so rapidly after Act I that they forget to take their fags with them, who grumble that it’s not in English. I’m old enough to think that when Colline, looking every inch the hipster in this production, sings an ode to the greatcoat he’s about to pawn to buy Mimi a muff for her cold hands, he might as well wrap her hands in the coat and hang on, she’s going to be dead and gone in five minutes. The Who hoped they’d die before they got old, and maybe they had a point.

Or it may just be that yesterday Downing Street played host to more operatic drama than even the stage of the Palace Theatre, Manchester could manage. I really wish I could stop deconstructing things, but that’s a baby boomer English graduate for you.

I think I’ll stick to Spotify in future. It’s cheaper, anyway.

 

The Divine Leader Does Cornwall

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Even by contemporary (ie, post-2016) standards there is something very worrying about the blatant stage-management of Teresa May’s election campaign. Journalists shut out, forbidden even to film her entering or leaving buildings, get-togethers filled with the Party faithful shamelessly promoted as meet-and-greet sessions, photographs of her surrounded by dead-eyed workers, their expressions a study in guarded neutrality more familiar from pictures of North Korea than beloved Blighty.

Is all this simple control-freakery? I think it’s even worse. I read it as a provocative statement of indifference, even contempt for, the democratic process. I can do what I bloody well like, it says, and you’ll still vote for me because all the other tossers out there are even worse. Go on, grumble about it. It won’t matter a hoot. I can be who I want, say what I like, treat you like utter shit but you’ll come crawling back for more.

And increasingly, even the party affiliation is being airbrushed out – this campaign is about May, it’s a dictatorship in waiting. She is merely the least incompetent option on offer. And our national indifference to our duties as engaged, democratic citizens, has brought us to this. Politics is left to the extremists and those on the make.

I have donated to More United. I hope they manage to make some kind of impact. I suspect that they won’t be able to dramatically change the outcome of this little lot, though I’d love to be proved wrong, but we must keep the flame of resistance alive, the hope of a better way. I know many people out there who are hungering for it. I may not live to see it (I’m 58 and these things can take a long time). But mine was the blessed generation, and anything I can offer to those after it is worth the investment.

Above all, we must not give up hope. People lived through the Holocaust, Stalinism, the Cultural Revolution, the Killing Fields, and that in the 20th century alone. Not all of them, but enough to rebuild, and not to lose hope.

 

What English schools will be like 10 years from now

It’s a funny in-between existence, being a school librarian. You’re a semi-detatched member of staff in many ways. A bit like being a governess in a Bronte novel, not quite upstairs but definitely not part of the servants’ hall – you get to sit in a corner, occupied with your metaphorical sewing, and hear a lot of what’s going on, and draw your own conclusions.

It’s generally best not to take sides, at least in public. Not to say anything that could be regarded as political. Social media is fraught with dangers. You observe the harried, basically decent and well meaning professionals around you with a mixture of pity, rage and growing despair. You realise how impossible the demands placed upon them are, how inadequate the resources available. I have seen three or four good people burn out over the last 10 years and need lengthy periods of sick leave. Sometimes they don’t return, sometimes they do but you feel they are only just managing.

I’ve been working with someone this week who is fantastically professional and good at her job, but so overwhelmed that she didn’t realise the school had £600 worth of commission vouchers to spend from previous book fairs. I’ve had to email an overdue letter to the school administrator to print out because there was only one person who could put toner in the school printer and they weren’t around. And the schools I’m working in are pretty good – in fact one was rated outstanding in the last Ofsted inspection.

I don’t think things can carry on as they are, and I’m sure many of my colleagues would agree with that statement. I do what I can, when I can, try to switch off, not to take too much work home, and not burn out. I also work vast amounts of unpaid overtime. None of this is at all unusual. Quite the reverse, in fact.

And here, quite simply, is where I think state education in this country is heading if the Tories win the next election.

The migrants are going home. That seems certain. We will need armies of English people to do their jobs, and it will suit the Government very well if those people are not very well educated. They are not just pushing through education cuts to save money. They want people who aren’t well-informed and won’t rock the boat. In 10 years time, ordinary working class kids will get a part-time education in classes of up to 120, learning literacy and numeracy by rote on-line. The software to facilitate this will be written by large multinational corporations, removing the need for experienced and qualified staff, at least in theory. That is just as well, because anyone who enjoys teaching and wants to do it well will find it soul-crushing to work in such a system, rapidly burn out and go elsewhere. This is already happening. Even those who stick around are likely to lose their jobs because, once experienced, they will be replaced by cheaper NQTs.

Academy chains are the ideal vehicle for this type of industrialised education. They are outside LEA scrutiny and will find it straightforward to replicate their soul-destroying formula, providing the basics at minimal cost and with minimal interference. There will be notable exceptions, places of innovation and passion, but most of these will be the preserve of the middle classes.

The only hope of escape will be top-up classes in everything else – science, arts, drama, basically anything other than the 3Rs. These will all be chargeable to parents. There may be some patchy scholarship-type provision financed by charities. But for most kids, that will be an impossible dream. As will a university education.

Anyone aspiring to a decent secondary education will have to get into a grammar school or go private. Kids don’t need GCSEs to empty bed pans or pick potatoes and strawberries. So why pay for them? Libraries and school trips will only give them ideas above their station. Special needs children will either have sharp-elbowed and determined parents or end up in institutions.

Far-fetched? I wish it was. But all the signs are already there. I can’t see any other way that the current trajectory of educational provision can end. I’m just glad that my kids are old enough to miss the worst of what is to come – although, as it happens, they could both well end up as teachers. And I hope to God I’m wrong, but unless young people wake up to what is happening and get out and agitate, protest and vote, I don’t hold out very much hope for the future.

 

Labour’s Education Dogma

The Labour Party’s new proposal to fund universal free school meals by charging VAT on school fees shows that the triumph of populist ideology over common sense is not limited to right-wing parties. I normally have a lot of respect for Angela Rayner but this piece of Corbynite dogma is both unfair and ineffective.

Not everyone who sends their child to a private school is a wealthy oligarch. The collapse of mental health services for children and the hollowing out of support staff by repeated rounds of education cuts mean that state schools are intolerable for a growing number of pupils. Even a special needs diagnosis is no longer a guarantee of the daily support that allows a vulnerable child to feel safe and confident in a pressured school environment. Many parents on modest incomes make huge sacrifices reluctantly to send such children to independent schools. They see their child falling apart and who can blame them?

If we really want to hammer elitism in education, it would make more sense to tackle the scandal of elite public schools being able to tax-dodge by defining themselves as charities and, of course, to call our Teresa May’s obsession with grammar schools for the divisive vanity project it is.

But I don’t just have issues with that side of this policy. I’m not sure free school meals for all are the best way to improve outcomes across the board either. Many of the children who would be entitled to them don’t like school meals, don’t want them and don’t need them. When the Liberal Democrats introduced the policy for KS1 children alone many schools struggled to upgrade their kitchens and recruit staff for the growing numbers – a situation that labour shortages post-Brexit is unlikely to make any easier.

It is undoubtedly true that far too many children arrive at school too hungry to behave themselves and concentrate in lessons. But a more effective way to help them would be to fund a nationwide network of breakfast clubs. That would help children who haven’t eaten properly since their free school meal the day before. Schools that have introduced breakfast clubs have seen significant increases in attendance and improvement in the behaviour and learning of their most disadvantaged children. They are an incentive for parents with otherwise chaotic lifestyles to get their kids into school, and can be introduced quickly and easily as part of wraparound care provision.

If Labour really want to tackle deprivation and its impact on children’s learning chances, this would meet the goal far more effectively than school dinners for the middle classes.

 

The library as alternative playground

The school library can be seen as one of the only spaces in a school which is truly free — the space that is not ‘home’ or a ‘classroom’, and which can be without academic, sporting, or family expectations…….School libraries have long been a place of refuge from the playground for many students.

Kay Oddone, Scootle Lounge

When I was doing my A-levels, I did not feel at all comfortable in the rough, loud environment of the Sixth Form Common Room. Instead I turned to the library as an alternative space to relax and socialise, and made some wonderful literary discoveries and lasting friendships in the process.

Kay Oddone’s point above pinpoints a very important feature of a good school library. Our schools are highly stressful environments where kids are pushed through a frantic schedule and one-size-fits-all initiatives. I can only speak for primary schools in the UK, but I’ve seen many children who struggle socially due to introversion, special educational needs or simply the need to chill out in a relaxed and safely supervised space.

Sadly, this is something I find it increasingly difficult to provide, even though I am that vanishingly rare phenomenon, the salaried primary school librarian. Here are a few of the barriers I face:

  • PART TIME LIBRARIANS I work across three different schools, so none of them have a full-time provision. In fact children have to be discouraged or even banned from the library when I’m not around, due to the technical difficulties of them borrowing and returning books without using the right procedure. I simply don’t have time to sort out a pile of little post-it notes on my desk or search for a title a child insists they have returned. All my time goes on class sessions – sometimes up to six a day.
  • SAFEGUARDING In some ways this is the most intractable issue. It makes it impossible to employ unsupervised pupil librarians. In one school I am not allowed to open the library informally over lunchtime and breaks without a second member of staff being present at all times. I do not feel I can pull already overloaded teachers or TAs out of their much needed lunch breaks, so the doors stay closed.
  • LACK OF TIME I can only run one lunchtime club per school per week. A number of the children who would benefit and would love to come have clashes with other activities, such as swimming. It is very difficult for them to get my individual attention at any time. Schools are run like airports these days, at 100% capacity. There’s no down-time, and it’s never acceptable (for understandable reasons) for children to spend even a couple of minutes without staff knowing exactly where they are.
  • UNSUITABLE ACCOMMODATION Libraries, where they exist at all in primary schools, are often in open areas where privacy and a calm atmosphere are impossible to provide. There can be an element of wanting to impress visitors and inspectors with a beautiful library. In one case this has led to money being lavished on a lovely one in the reception area of the school, but less than 50% of the children are borrowing books. One reason for this is that there is almost always small group work or other activity going on in the library space.

I could go on, but the general picture is clear. Just having a library is not enough – there has to be a shift in the school’s culture that will accommodate a library. All these problems are ultimately based on a scarcity of resources, and one result of that is that there is no slack, no emptiness, no down time in the system any more. I cannot tie up staff to man a library unless I can guarantee children will come in and use it. I cannot insist that the lunchtime staff, who already have too much to do, go out of their way to identify children who would enjoy lunchtime in the library. Schools are incredibly regimented these days for all kinds of reasons – safeguarding, curricular demands, staffing shortages – the list goes on. And making children into confident readers takes time. All the schools I work in want me there and go out of their way to make me welcome. However, that doesn’t entirely dispel the suspicion that sometimes they don’t quite know what to do with me.