Literary charades: The Writing School, by Miranda France, reviewed

A recent YouGov survey found that 60 per cent of Britons dream of being writers, compared with 31 per cent who dream of being film stars. Although the chances of success, or even subsistence, are equally remote in both professions, aspirant authors flock to the country’s ever-proliferating creative writing courses. Miranda France’s splendid third book, blending fact and fiction, is set on one such course: a week-long residency in a rural retreat house, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Arvon Foundation at which France has taught. The unnamed narrator, a Spanish translator and travel writer with two novels to her name, leads an eclectic group of 12

Bernardine Evaristo sets a rousing example of ‘never giving up’

Bernardine Evaristo’s Manifesto — part instructional guide for artists, part call to arms for equality, part literary memoir —shimmers with unfailing self-belief and a strong vein of humility. When Evaristo won the Booker Prize in 2019 for her magnificent seventh novel Girl, Woman, Other, the first black woman to do so, it was the pinnacle of a career devoted not just to honing her craft but to helping others traditionally excluded from the literary world, through teaching, mentoring and activism. There is a great deal of style to Evaristo’s life story; her childhood has strong storybook notes. Her home was a huge, rundown house in south London with 12 rooms,

Why Sunak’s wrong on teachers

Pupils lost around a third of their face-to-face teaching during the Covid lockdowns. Downing Street has promised an extra £3 billion of catch-up funding, on top of around £100 billion spent on education in a normal year. Fixing a lack of teaching should involve doing a bit more of it — but when asked if he would extend the school day, Rishi Sunak said longer hours wouldn’t provide ‘value for money’. It’s one of few areas where, in tomorrow’s Budget, the spending taps will be turned off. But why, as the Children’s Commissioner recently noted, are British state schools routinely closing their gates at 2.30 p.m.? The length of the

Don’t blame teachers for this year’s grade inflation

Today’s A level results are unprecedented, but not unexpected. On Friday, Professor Alan Smithers  of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham said, ‘The early signs are that it will be another bumper year for grades.’ He went on to suggest that this might be, ‘justified as compensation for all the disruption suffered’. The impact of Covid-19 on the education of children cannot be dismissed as mere disruption. While adults might now be returning to the office after 18 months working from home, children struggled through two terms of lockdown learning and two more cocooned in bubbles. Grades will be high but they have been

The plot against religious education

Faith is not the declining force that some secularists believe or indeed desire it to be. Even here in the UK, we have our growing and vibrant black-led churches; increasingly present mosques, temples and gurudwaras; and believers arriving from Eastern and Central Europe.  This is why it’s important for religious education to continue to have a special place in the curriculum of our schools. Although RE is not a ‘core subject’, it remains a compulsory one. Successive Education Acts have stipulated that it should be taught in such a way that reflects the mainly Judaeo-Christian traditions of this country — while also covering the teachings and practices of other religions present here. It is worrying, therefore, that

Teaching unions shouldn’t be defining ‘transphobia’

A year of disrupted schooling means there are plenty of issues facing our schools right now. But delegates at last week’s National Education Union conference were more interested in another subject: developing a new – and presumably beefed-up – definition of transphobia. ‘Transphobic news stories are a continued and escalating blight on trans and nonbinary members’ lives, with severe consequences on mental health,’ said motion 22. The ‘Pride in our Union’ motion (you can read the full text here) called for a ‘definition of transphobia that goes above and beyond legal compliance and that supports and endorses trans and non-binary identities without resorting to the erasure or downgrading of ‘gender”. Make no

Ross Clark

The impact of lockdown on education

Just how damaging has lockdown been to children’s education? An Oxford University study has tried to quantify it by analysing data from Dutch schoolchildren — who, unlike in Britain where exams were cancelled, took tests shortly before and shortly after the first lockdown last spring. The level of parental education was a big predictor of falling performance If any country’s children had managed to get through lockdown with their education unscathed, suggest the authors, it ought to be those in the Netherlands. There, schools were closed for a relatively short period — eight weeks — and the penetration of broadband in homes is higher than in any other country. Yet

Why aren’t the teaching unions speaking out about Batley?

‘Sadly, his life here in Batley is over. Even if he gets his job back, how can he possibly return to Batley Grammar School? It will be far too risky. And how will he be able to walk around the town with his kids, doing normal things knowing that he could be killed?’ These were the harrowing words of the father of Batley Grammar’s suspended RE teacher yesterday. It’s hard to believe that a professional working in a liberal democracy like Britain, whose only ‘crime’ was to use a drawing to start a class discussion, is now facing a lifetime of police protection, unable to return to work and living

Remote lessons have been an education for teachers like me

I had a Post-it note beside my laptop during the online lessons I taught during lockdown. It simply said ‘shut up’. I have spent 20 years teaching maths in urban comprehensives, reflecting and refining my methods and trying to train others. I thought I was doing a pretty decent job, but the pandemic and the necessity of teaching remotely has made me rethink the whole process. Early on in May I realised I had to work out, from scratch, what I actually wanted my students to become and how, in the world of screen-mediated learning, I could help them achieve this. What do I want my students to become? I

Barack Obama will make you cringe: Renegades: Born in the USA reviewed

Barack Obama wants the world to know how much he loves singing. In his new podcast, which takes the form of a series of conversations with Bruce Springsteen, he’s rarely without a tune on his lips. ‘Further on up the road…/ you been laughing, pretty baby…’ A shower-singer, a bedroom warbler, an Air Force One air guitarist with an okay voice, the former president is proof that you really can be embarrassing without feeling an ounce of embarrassment. Oh, to have seen his daughters’ faces when he broke into ‘Let’s Stay Together’ in front of Al Green. The sound team at the fundraiser in Harlem urged him to do it,

Covid could force a major schools shake-up

At some point in the next few months, life will return to something approaching normality. When that happens, the UK will have to confront all the problems that Covid has left behind: bruised public finances, long NHS waiting list and the rest. But the problem that Boris Johnson is most worried about, as I write in the Times today, is the effect on children of having been out of school for so long. This pandemic has probably wiped out a decade of progress in narrowing the attainment gap. There would undoubtedly be resistance from the education sector The government is hoping that small group tutoring can help make up much of the

Eton was right to sack teacher Will Knowland

Last week Eton College made the controversial decision to sack an English teacher after he refused to take down his YouTube video entitled ‘The Patriarchy Paradox’. In the 30-minute lecture, Will Knowland argues that the patriarchy results from biological differences rather than social constructs and that the system benefits women. Eton’s decision is not, as many people would argue, an attack on free speech and fundamental liberties. It is an attack on foolishness. If Knowland’s intention had been to encourage healthy academic debate, then there are many other outlets he could have chosen: an assembly, a debate, or one of his English lessons. Putting up a YouTube video in which

Too cool for school: beware ‘trendy’ teachers

I didn’t know Chris Todd had died until I saw his photo in the newspaper. I hadn’t seen his face for nearly 40 years but he still looked much the same. It was a kind face, decent and dutiful — everything you want from a teacher. I wish I’d known as a schoolboy what I know now — that the Chris Todds of this world are the teachers we recall with real affection, while the teachers we thought were so much cooler we merely remember with contempt. Chris Todd was my form master for several years at my state grammar school. He wasn’t all that strict but he had no

Real life | 11 October 2018

Teacher training is terrific fun. Oh yes, I am thoroughly enjoying myself on my evening course at Guildford College. Don’t worry, I’m not actually becoming a teacher. The Snowflakes of Britain are safe. No, I hit upon the idea of running a writers’ group. But of course you can’t just run anything in this country any more. Once you look into the Kafkaesque nightmare of having strangers in your house or of hiring a venue in which you will interact with other human beings, you start to fall into a dark and terrifying pit of equality and health and safety legislation. Naturally, the first thing anyone wants to know if

… and an awesome beak

The Enigma of Kidson is a quintessentially Etonian book: narcissistic, complacent, a bit silly and ultimately beguiling. It is the story of Michael George MacDonald Kidson (MGMK, as he was known), who taught history at Eton from 1965 to 1994 and was an influential tutor to hundreds of boys, often the wayward and the damaged. Jamie Blackett, who was taught by him there, has collected Kidsoniana from former pupils, colleagues, friends and acquaintances. What emerges is a portrait of a colourful maverick who bullied and consoled generations of schoolboys into success and happiness. Blackett conjures up a cheerful world where robust and affectionate Springers (Kidson’s Dougal, Boody, Bertie, Charlie, Jed

Life classes

It has taken much of a celebrated literary life for Elif Batuman to produce a novel. At the beginning of her wonderful 2010 book The Possessed —a chimera of memoir, travelogue and literary criticism — she declares: I remember believing firmly that the best novels drew their material and inspiration exclusively from life… and that, as an aspiring novelist, I should therefore try not to read too many novels. Selin, the Turkish-American protagonist of her first novel, is engaged in gathering writerly experience at Harvard, reading novels and falling for Ivan, a Hungarian mathematics student with a girlfriend. The pair begin an online relationship at the dawn of email. But

School report | 16 March 2017

CHINESE SCHOOL IS A FIRST IN EUROPE   Europe’s first bilingual English-Chinese school is due to open in London this September. Professor Hugo de Burgh, a leading authority on China, will be the chairman of Kensington Wade School and has been instrumental in its founding. He says the benefits for pupils will be numerous. Yes, it’s likely that China is the future for international business. But he also believes that learning the Chinese language is of huge benefit to children — both for the general benefits of being bilingual, but also because learning a logographic language — as well as an alphabetic one — expands their mental horizons. Finally, de

A new path to the top of the teaching tree

A few months ago I joined forces with Sir Anthony Seldon, the vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, to run an idea up the flagpole. Why not make it possible for senior managers from outside the teaching profession to retrain as heads? Anthony, who was a successful head himself, is in the process of setting up the Buckingham Institute of School Leadership to train the heads of the future. He proposed creating a mid-career and late-career entry track into this programme so successful managers in their thirties, forties and fifties can retrain as school leaders. This idea was met with some scepticism by teachers and I can’t say I blame them. It

School report

Teaching maths the Asian way English primary schools have received funding of £41 million to embrace the ‘Asian style’ of teaching maths. The method, used in Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong — all of which are at the top of Pisa’s study into the school performance of 15-year-olds — is more visual than the ‘normal’ British style of maths teaching, and focuses on children being taught in a mixed-ability group, rather than being divided into streams. The funding, announced in July, will allow 700 teachers to be trained in the Asian method, in addition to the 140 who have already completed their training. At the moment, the UK sits in

Northern exposure | 11 August 2016

As the festival grows, the good acts are harder to find and the prices keep rising to meet the throngs of showbiz refugees who surge north in the belief that the glory, this year, will be theirs. Arriving at my one-star hovel (no breakfast, no towels, shared bathroom), I was given a security key and a disc of see-through soap that I could have hidden beneath a tea-bag. The bill, payable in advance, was a third higher than last year. Glory in this city belongs to the landlord. Marcel Lucont’s Whine List is performed by a suave, self-adoring Frenchman who starts by asking if anyone in the crowd is new