Michaela The Unconquerable

William Ernest Henley (23 August 1849 – 11 July 1903) was an influential English poet, critic and editor of the late Victorian era in England.

Back in July, just before the very end of the Summer Term when outdoor manoeuvres (AKA school trips) are in full swing, the Twittersphere exploded over a short video showing a group of young teenagers from THAT school in North East London – the one that seems to believe ‘All You Need Is Knowledge’ – standing on an above-ground underground platform vociferously and enthusiastically chanting their school poem: W. E. Henley’s ‘Invictus’. Some of those who saw the video online apparently responded with a salvo of abusive tweets, and consequently the teacher in charge felt the need to delete the video and make her account private. But the real flack came from the assembled ranks of shell-shocked traditional teachers expressing their undying support for the teacher, that teachers should be free to celebrate the pupils’ achievements, and that performing poetry in public was a fine and worthy thing to do. Which, of course, in itself is fair enough. Up to a point.

Now, to be quite clear, this post is not intended to be written as an angry attack on Michaela students, their hard work, politeness and consideration for others, their backgrounds or their success at gaining GCSE results – but it is meant as a considered critique of the school’s narrow conservative academic curriculum and strict behaviour policy.

At the same time, All Change Please! wishes to make it quite clear that it does not in any way support abusive tweets, although surely anyone who publishes anything on the internet should perhaps not be too surprised that they become liable to receiving such responses and then find themselves having to deal with the fall-out. And if the Headmistress wants other people to ‘LEAVE MY KIDS ALONE’, as she often Tweets, she should not be exposing them on social media in the first place.

Meanwhile in the Trads’ responses on Twitter it was apparent that none of them seemed in any way interested in discussing or even thinking about why some people might not have been as impressed and delighted by the public performance as they were. They seemed unwilling to accept that others might have a different viewpoint, or that there are complex politically motivated and culturally-infused issues involved.

 

However, All Change Please! did actually manage to catch the video before it was deleted, and has to confess it did find it somewhat sinister, and has since been wondering exactly why it felt so bothered by it?

Let’s change the scene slightly. In this version a group of similar aged school-children are huddled together in a group singing a popular song. A few more are standing apart from the group chatting, not wishing to join in. They are dressed, like the majority of school children today, in slightly subverted versions of their school uniform – formal blazers and ties are not terribly fashionable at present, even in the workplace where smart casual is now more the expected order of the day. All Change Please! can’t imagine anyone being in any way particularly offended by this scene, whatever school they came from.

But the actual video showed the children in the semblance of a straight line along the platform, facing the front, all very smartly turned out in their extremely neat and tidy uniforms. Their teacher was visibly conducting them, making sure they were chanting the poem to the beat.

And then there is the poem itself: ‘Invictus’ was written by Henley in the early 1870s as he was recovering from a tubercular infection that resulted in the loss of one of his legs. As such it’s typically full of dark and disturbing Victorian style and sentimentality and in particular is about the prospect of death and having the courage to gloriously fight on regardless.

The last two lines are the most frequently quoted as they potently remind us that we need to take responsibility for making sure we make the most of things whatever the circumstances. However the rest of the poem is not generally well known. It’s along the lines of Kipling’s ‘If’ or Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ – verses best suited to being learned by heart and taking a moral message from, as opposed to the study of more challenging poetry that explores more conflicting and ambiguous impressions and themes. Of course that’s not to entirely object to children studying it in the classroom and understanding it in the context of the time and religious culture it was written in – but to promote it as a celebratory ‘school poem’ with its dark, disturbing imagery of the darkness of hell and bloody bludgeonings that will be deeply embedded in their minds for the rest of their lives, seems somehow rather inappropriate.

Now perhaps All Change Please! has a rather over-active and vivid imagination, but the video clip it saw was somehow a scene from the turn of the early 20th Century, and these weren’t schoolchildren of Today, but regularly and neatly-uniformed, subservient foot soldiers lined up about to board a train for the front, keeping their spirits up under the stern leadership of their Sergeant Major, in preparation for the grim adversities that lie ahead, and the courage and fighting spirit that will be needed to conquer them. Is this the image of the future we want to project of what life is going to be like for these children in the 21st century?

Colourised photo of soldiers leaving Letchworth, 1914

While it’s not a scene that deserves social media abuse, it is one that deserves discussion as to whether it is an appropriate approach to education in this day and age, and to the imposition of supposedly ‘lost’ British values from Victorian times, that many would prefer to see remain lost. Do we really want to recreate and reinforce 150 year old Victorian values and behaviours in our children? Surely our children need to learn from the past to understand the present and prepare for the future – not to just blindly repeat it, line by line.

The worry is that Michaela’s children – and indeed all those from the growing number of similar schools that aim to follow their lead – will not be well prepared to deal with the values, behaviours and ambiguities of the real, complex, inconsistent, unstructured modern technological world that they will discover when they find themselves on their own, far outside the comfort zone of their safe, friendly and nostalgic school environment. Perhaps it might help if the school included some technology-related subjects in its curriculum (children do not study IT/Computing, or D&T) and aimed to teach their pupils when and how to use smart phones and iPads for appropriate and effective learning and communication, instead of just banning them outright?

Clearly there are a number of politicians, teachers and parents determined to live in the past and ignore the fact that we now live in a global, technological age. While there is choice in the system for those teachers, parents and children who do or do not wish to belong to such a school, then perhaps it doesn’t matter. That is as long as there is still such a choice in the system…

Meanwhile, the members of the Michaela Community Free School Fan-base seem to believe that their successful GCSE results are a worthy vindication of Michael Gove’s policies that will provide more than enough ammunition to silence the guns of their more ‘progressive’ critics: they are likely to be disappointed. Indeed just the other day this highly apposite cartoon appeared as a comment on the Df-ingE’s widespread use of the Michaela school’s GCSE results to promote its highly controversial Free School Movement:

Unsurprisingly it drew a ballistic response from Michaela’s Headmistress who continues to see any criticism as an attack on ‘her’ children rather than the values and methodologies of the institution itself and of the Df-ingE – and to fail to accept that there’s more than one way to change the world for the better.

 

‘If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow’
John Dewey, 1915

 

 

With thanks to Stan Dunn for his cartoon, currently appearing on Twitter, and AJ.

Image of WE Henley: Wikipedia

Image of soldiers at Letchworth: DanHillHistory on Twitter

 

 

Mr Glibbly Does Mastermind

Mr Glibbly seems to have been very busy recently. First there was the statement he made about Music Education, in which he revealed how little he actually knew and understood about the subject. Then there were his remarks on the need to ban mobile phones in school, in which he revealed how little he actually knew and understood about the subject. And this week he spoke forth his words of wisdom about getting more girls to study STEM subjects, which, not really surprisingly, revealed how little he actually knew and understood about STEM.

So after last week’s wasted attempt to sit Mr Glibbly down with a nice cup of tea and explain the facts of life as about mobile phones to him, this week All Change Please! thought it would challenge him to a session of Mastermind. Here’s what happened…

Your name is:

Mr Glibbly

Your occupation is:

Secretary in a State about Education

And your chosen specialist subject this week is:

STEM.

Time starts now…

1. What is STEM?

Glibbly: That’s easy – it’s the knowedge-rich study of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics subjects.

Incorrect. STEM is the practical study of the inter-relationship between Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics subjects. There’s not really any such thing as a STEM subject, just subjects that make a contribution to STEM.

2. What is STEAM?

Err. The stuff that comes out of kettles when the water gets hot?

No. The correct answer is the practical study of the inter-relationship between Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics subjects.

3. Has it ever occurred to you that including the Arts in STEM would help make it more attractive to many girls and provide a more balanced approach to future innovations in which human needs would be better matched to our technological capabilties?

Good Lord, No…

Yes, correct! It obviously hasn’t ever occurred to you.

4. What exactly are the ‘STEM skills’ to which you refer?

Learning more and more easily assessable knowledge and facts about Physics, Maths and Coding of course.

No. STEM skills are about things such as planning and organising, creative problem solving, working collaboratively in an inter-disciplinary way, and communicating information effectively.

5. Recent research published by the Df-ingE apparently shows that:

“15-year-old boys are more likely than girls to see STEM subjects as being useful when it comes to getting a job and that girls are less likely to consider a STEM subject as their favourite.”

Is it now government policy that in future boys should only be encouraged to choose useful subjects that will lead to a job, while girls should be free to choose whichever subjects they like doing best?

Well, err, no of course not.

Incorrect. Because that’s exactly what you just suggested it was.

6. You also said you were:

“funding programmes to increase the take up of maths, computing and physics”.

What are you going to do about Engineering, Technology and the other Sciences? In particular why is Design and Technology, which in many respects embodies the underlying inter-disciplinary nature of STEM, being completely ignored?

Err. Let me see. Wait, I know the answer to this one. Oh yes, that’s it: ‘We have reformed the school curriculum to make sure it meets the needs of employers.’

Are you having a laugh?

7. How do you justify calling on “teachers, parents and society in general to challenge and dispel misconceptions some girls have about Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects”, when you don’t even understand what it is yourself?

Well, as I said a moment ago – ‘We have reformed the school curriculum to make sure it meets the needs of employers.’ And what’s more I’ve started, so I’m going to finish…

No. The correct answer is that you obviously are not able to justify doing so.

8. How well do you think you have done as Secretary in a State?

Err. Pass?

Incorrect. You scored just one mark, and therefore you’ve not passed, you’ve failed.

If you’d like to be a candidate on a future edition of Mastermind… don’t become a politician.

 

PS. Mr Glibbly – perhaps some of these downloadable STEM Role Model Posters that celebrate Women Innovators as illustrated by Women Artists might help?

Stripping down STEM

All Change Please! is getting all STEAMed up about the latest government announcement…

Most of us would agree that for the U.K. to survive in an apocalyptic Hard Brexitland future we are going to need considerable expertise in technology and engineering in order to create innovative new products and services to sell to the world. That is, of course, everyone except for the D well and truly f-ing E.

STEM, as all All Change Please! readers will be familiar with, is an acronym for the study of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Meanwhile All Change Please! has also long been a supporter of the campaign for the acronym to become STEAM, with the A representing The Arts which are required to enable students to develop skills of creativity and to acquire an understanding of human psychological and emotional needs.

While the US seems to grasp the concept that STEM, or STEAM, involves the necessary study of the relationships between the component subjects involved, here in the U.K. we have consistently mis-understood it simply as the isolated study of the separate academic subjects involved. And, given that Design & Technology typically plays no part in STEM, many of us have often wondered where the missing Technology and Engineering subjects are?

Well at least now we know. According to yesterday’s D no f-ing clue whatsoever about Education announcement:


So if there is no Technology or Engineering in STEM, that leaves us with just Science and Mathematics. Thus, to ensure the government cannot be accused of misleading the country, can we now look forward to the STEM initiative being more accurately renamed as S&M?

All Change Please! can’t wait for the newspaper headlines: