Thursday, 23 October 2014

"Let me have men about me that are fat...Yond' Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: Such men are dangerous."

Julius Caesar, 1(ii)

Fat is getting to be more than just a feminist issue, it's fast becoming a national obsession.  Today's media reports show that the National Health Services sees those of us who are obese to be a menace, and that our behaviour has to be addressed if we're not to cost the nation zillions of pounds.

Hmmm.  Fat may not be just a feminist issue any more, but it's one hell of a contested one.

As I estimate that I'm currently about 4 stone overweight, this is a subject close to my heart.  And my fat arse.  I am, actually pretty healthy.  I'm fairly active, although due to my time considerations as I move towards the death throes of the thesis I've had to make the hard decision to stop going to the gym until after I submit.  But, I still do a lot of walking, and I do try to keep moving as much as I can.  I have a good diet, although I do accept that my portion control needs work, and I could do with drinking less alcohol.    But this is a temporary state of affairs for me.  After I finish the thesis, I'm going to have more time in my life - at least until I get a full time job.  I should also suffer less immediate stresses, which will also help in that it'll reduce the amount of comfort eating that I do.

But food is an obsession - not just for me, but for everyone.  We're surrounded by the bloody stuff, and unlike other things that are bad for us, we can't go cold turkey and cut it out all together.  The television schedules are full of cookery programmes - for heaven's sake, the Great British Bake Off is a 'must see', and there are entire television channels devoted to cookery programmes.  Our celebrities (ok, maybe calling Peter Andre a celebrity is stretching it a little far, perhaps) make their money from advertising the Iceland chain of shops which seems to specialise in flogging frozen pizzas, several different types of chips, and the kind of buffet foods which you only now see at the worst kind of conferences.  KFC and other purveyors of fast 'food' are ubiquitous in every high street and every retail park.  Pizza Hut finds new ways to add more sugar, fat and calories into every thing that they serve up, and have you seen the grease at the bottom of a Dominoes pizza box?

So, why do we eat this crap?  That's easy - it's cheap, and it tastes good.

This really does seem to be a phenomenon of our current age.  Back in the 1970s at the school that I used to attend, there were very few fat children.  My middle school had a broad cross section of children from all kinds of backgrounds, including some of the roughest parts of the city in which I lived.  Why were there so few fat kids?  Well, partly because we walked everywhere and we played outside at games that didn't include some form of electronic gizmo.  The vast majority of us ate school dinners - hearty, simple, food, which usually involved some form of meat, potatoes and vegetables.  We may have hated what we ate, but it had reasonable nutritional value.  Fizzy drinks were for special occasions - I cannot remember having fizzy drinks at home, and we certainly didn't have them at school.  If we were thirsty we drank water, milk, or occasionally fruit squash.  The only takeaways in our part of the town were fish and chip shops, and a solitary Chinese.  It being the 1970s, we also enjoyed vile creations such as Angel Delight and jelly made from cubes.  I also remember the excitement of eating my first fruit yoghurt - which seemed amazingly exotic.

Supermarkets too had less choice.  I hate the hypermarkets that are situated outside Seasidetown, and I rarely visit them - they're too big, and there's too much choice.  I remember shopping with my mother on Saturday, she with a wicker basket held in the crook of her arm, as we visited the individual shops to buy the constituent parts for meals for the weekend.  She wouldn't have considered buying a ready meal - they didn't exist for one thing, save only for things that came out of cans.  I still have a bit of a thing about a Fray Bentos pie, served with lashings of tomato ketchup.

So, we were thin, and we were active.  We didn't drink fizzy drinks, and we didn't have ready meals.  But, we ate chips.  Not oven chips, mark you, but chips deep fried in a pan that lived on the top of the stove.  We ate meat - a lot of it - with a lot of fat on it.  We ate cakes, homemade sometimes, although I did nearly break a tooth once on one of my mother's home-made flapjacks, and the nearest that we ever got to ready meals were Campbells' tinned meat balls.  We didn't worry about eating five portions of fruit and veg a day - peas would be frozen, and fruit typically came out of tin, preserved in sugar syrup.  Fresh vegetables were limited to what was in season - if we wanted to eat strawberries in December, we'd have to accept that it would be mushy, and covered in sugary syrup.  Disgusting.

I think that this is one area where progress is making us go backwards.  The availability of every possible food that we could desire whenever we want it may be affecting our ability to be discerning about what we eat.

And, that's if you have the luxury of being able to choose what you can afford.  Why would any young person take the effort to learn how to cook from scratch, when you can get a beefburger  for under a quid, or at home, unwrap a packet of chicken dippers and put them in the oven?  Why would a parent on a limited income spend £1.50 on a decent loaf of wholemeal bread if you can buy a cheap, white sliced loaf for pennies?  Why would you pay to put the oven on for an hour to bake a jacket potato if you can microwave one that's been half cooked already?  Why would you fight with your children to get them to eat vegetables if you could make them happy and quiet with a KFC bargain bucket?  Why would you struggle to get your kids to drink milk if you can let them guzzle a cola drink which is cheaper than milk?  Why cook a meal at all, if you can buy chilled pre-cooked sausages and eat them on the go?

I don't know what the answer is.  Businesses are going to continue to find ways to tempt people to eat substandard ingredients by deep frying them, adding chemicals and/or sugar to make them taste good.  A sophisticated palate (by which I mean one that enjoys broccoli as much as a BigMac) is going to become increasingly rare.  Personally, I think that those councils who are restricting the number of takeaway food outlets near schools are on to something - the availability of cheap, crappy food needs to be controlled.

The last time that I spoke to my GP about my weight issues, she asked if I wanted to be referred to dietician.  I refused, on the grounds that it's quite straight forward.  I need to eat less, and move more and I don't see why the NHS should spend money on telling me the obvious.   But, it's not that straight forward for every one who's carrying a couple of extra stone, and I worry that demonising those of us who are overweight is not going to help anyone in the long run.

Friday, 17 October 2014

"My life is one demd horrid grind!" - Mr Mantalini

Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens

Bloody hell this is hard.

I'm fighting with the work that I've done this far to try and get it into some kind of order so that I can get a draft submitted.  Seems quite a straight forward process, but no.  No.  It is not.

I'm back, once again, re-visiting the damn theoretical framework - until I get this sorted, there's not a lot of point in re-writing anything.  When I read the other, later, chapters it's increasingly obvious to me how much this framework is needed if this thesis is ever to be anything more than 100,000 words of description.  I'm pulling my short, grey, hair out.  Really I am.

My problem is that I'm not very good at the conceptual - I'm far more of a practical person.  I understand what it is that I need to do (I think), but every single word is a real labour.  The Supervisor's not helping much, I have to say.  I saw her earlier in the week and she gave me a lecture as to the fact that I'm intelligent, and that I'm capable of getting this done, all of which is very nice, but doesn't really help me.  She's promised to email me her written notes on my last draft, but they haven't arrived and I've emailed her several times with no reply.  I've started to construct in my head a defence to murder, and even to think about the most effective means.

In the meantime, I sit in front of my laptop surrounded by mindmaps and pages upon pages of notes.  I create pretty plans in pink and turquoise ink, and every so often I wring a single sentence out of my laptop.  I pat myself on the head and go and look at pictures of cats on the internet as a 'reward'.

When I drag myself back to my draft chapter, I discover that what I wrote not 20 minutes ago has turned into rubbish.  And, the longer that this goes on, the more I despair and the more likely I am to get back onto the internet to look for a job a long, long way away from academia.

God, I really hope that this is a phase that I'm going through.  I really hope that I'm going to get this theoretical framework sorted out, and that when I do that the end of the thesis will be in sight.  I also hope that I'm going to find a job teaching - it's what I really love to do.

But I'm tired.  So unbelievably tired.  It's been nearly five years since I started this, and it looks like it's going to be another six months or so before I get to the end of my journey.  While I've really loved the experience so far, every synapse is aching for a rest.  While my brain is slowing down my body's not far behind it, and I yearn for sleep, for the opportunity to spend the whole of a day not thinking about my thesis or feeling guilty that I'm not at my desk working.

In fact, if it weren't for the teaching and the appropriate adult stuff, I think I would have gone completely mad by now.  Plus, today I had a welcome ray of light - a friend sent me lovely brooch, for no real reason.  I don't know if she'll ever realise what a difference that has made to my day and it certainly has helped stop the downward spiral of negativity, for a while.

But, right at the moment, I hate my bloody thesis.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

"What's that coming over the hill? Is it a monster?"

The Automatic

I'm at the SLS conference at the moment, very much enjoying a lot of the papers.  My stream (Legal History) hasn't started yet, so I've been dipping in and out of areas of law with which I don't usually engage.  So far, I've been surprised to understand (and enjoy) some Company Law, got very enthusiastic about Jurisprudence, was fascinated about the links between dystopian literature and the law, and completely wowed by a paper on the use of robot weapons.  Not to mention some dangerous dogs, which had some spooky synergy with my work.

I've come a long way.  Five years ago when I attended my first conference, I hated it.  I was convinced that I'd never understand what was going on, and that intellectually I couldn't hack it and that I wouldn't make it as an academic.  Clearly, I can hack it, and there is a possibility that I might make it as an academic.  This week I've asked questions, made comments, and the change in me is quite amazing.  On Friday, I'm giving Dr Barnardo a day out, and after that he has to return firmly to my files until I've submitted.  I intend to enjoy myself.

The theme of the conference is 'Judging in the 21st Century', and today I listened to two papers that discussed the disparity in the number of women in the judiciary.  Baroness Hale chaired a Plenary session given by Erika Rackley (and I fear that I am getting old if Professors are looking that young), and a response was given by Christopher Stephens, Chair of the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC).  Erika Rackley's paper - excellent as it was - covered depressingly old ground; not enough women being promoted and that there remains disparity in representation, and it's difficult to disagree with any of what she said.  Christopher Stephen's response was to show how much progress has actually been made, and to apologise that it wasn't any better.  But because steps are being taken and they are trying, presumably we should feel more comfortable and trust in the system.

Well, I don't.  Not because the JAC isn't making efforts to level the playing field, but because that, I feel, is the least of our problems.  Most women of my age are aware that the playing field is not level.  Because we are the age that we are, we have seen significant changes.  Young women can now opt to do things that we couldn't have dreamed of - for example, when I left school I couldn't have joined the RAF to be a fighter pilot.  Today's young women can, if that's what they want.  In the 1980s when I had just been appointed to my first IT job, a colleague from another department demanded of me why it was that I thought it appropriate to take a "man's job" - twenty years later I ran an IT department in which I was the only woman. We don't enjoy equal pay, and there are not nearly enough women in senior management positions in the city, but we're starting to get there.  Young women don't see the obstacles in the same way as did we.  To them, they're an irritation - to us they were a seemingly insurmountable challenge, and the sweeter for that when we smashed them.

So, if things are so much better than when I was a lass, why do I remain in fear of that monster coming over the hill?  Well, because in my opinion, the  monster is becoming more insidious, and more scary.  In 2014, a woman's selfie went viral after a strange man smashed her in the face because she objected to him groping her.  The assault is an criminal offence as is the groping, under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.  I hope that he is brought to book, and that he is punished, and shamed.

In Rotherham in the region of 1,400 young people were exploited by men for sex.  In that case there's clear race dimension which I think is likely to reverberate through the CJS and Local Government for some time, but let us not lose focus that the main offences were committed by men who considered that they had a Lord's right over vulnerable girls; and this included passing them round between friendship groups as though they had ownership of them.

I still have to grit my teeth when I read in the Daily Mail that a female celebrity is "displaying their enviable assets" as though they were cattle in the market, or that a pretty young woman is "flash[ing] a hint of side boob".  It's no wonder that the number of women being arrested for drink driving is on the increase.

But, hasn't it always been thus?  Don't we have an awful lot of historic sex offences under investigation and before the court?  Well, yes we do.  And, that's progress.  But until somebody doesn't think that it's easier to invent anti-rape nail varnish than it is to educate society that RAPE IS NOT OK, then I shall continue to despair.  As I shall until all men in our society realise that they do not have any kind of droit de seigneur over any woman.

Until every woman in our society is valued, empowered, and taken seriously, we will not win the war of equality.  Chipping away at the institutions of state is a start, I suppose, but there's something in me that's screaming that I want to address the fear, and to stop the violence - whether in fact, in film, in pornography, or by implication.

And, if the only reason that Murdoch is considering winding up Page 3 is because it's old fashioned, and not because of the message that it sends to society, we've still got a bloody long way to go.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Auspicious Days...

Today is the day when the newspapers print lots of photographs of 18 year old girls jumping for joy.  Although, kudos to the Daily Express who hasn't forgotten that some boys take A' Levels, although these particular young men have been pictured with amusing expressions on their faces, while the girls are still expected to look winsome.  That is irritating on so many levels, I don't know where to start.  So I shan't.

Listening to the radio this morning, reading the newspapers and following the universities on Twitter, I was taken back to 1983 when my A' Level examination results arrived.  I'd taken two subjects, with two different examination boards.  By a quirk of fate, my English Literature results arrived a day before the French.  I'd scored an E in English - and I was pleased with that as I was hoping to study Drama and Primary Education at College, and two Es would have allowed me to do that.  However, the next day, the French result arrived.  An O grade - I'd failed.  My mother was sympathetic, and practical - which response is somewhat amazing considering that the sole reason for my lousy examination performance was my overwhelming laziness.

My mother and I met in a cafe in Unitown that lunchtime to discuss my options.  The obvious one was to re-take my exams the following year, although she favoured consideration of my qualifying to be an electrician or motor mechanic and of leaving academic study behind for a time.  At the time I wasn't surprised by this, and I think that it was truly indicative of a parent who really knew her child - she knew damn well that I wasn't ready for university study, but respected me to make the decisions that I needed to.  Not bad for an academic librarian working for a university library, knowing that most of the people that we knew expected that I would follow in the family footsteps to get a degree and a teaching qualification.  No, she was prepared to face the inevitable questions from her peers and the sympathetic glances from those whose little darlings were packing their trunks to depart for University education and she was going to have to admit that I had failed.  I didn't appreciate it at the time, but that must have been somewhat galling for her.

Anyway, guided by her I made the decision to return to school to re-take that damn French A' Level, and to cut a long story short, after another year of dossing around, I passed it - with another E grade.  To fill in my timetable, I learnt to type - a truly useful skill which has seen me employed between jobs, enables me to type pretty much as fast as I think (sometimes faster), and certainly was incredibly useful working in the IT industry.

Teacher training college, I was also to find, wasn't right for me - I really wasn't ready for a degree at that stage in my life, and after a particularly stressful teaching practice (which I passed with distinction), I made the decision to drop the Education part of study.  The final crisis for my degree education occurred at what would have been the start of my third year of study, when I made the decision not to return for my final year.  Again, my mother didn't turn a hair (well, not that I could see), and her only questions to me regarded what I was going to do to earn my living and where I planned to live.  Again, the practicalities were of the utmost importance, and not the navel gazing in which some people lose themselves.

I was lucky - I had enough nous about me to get a job as a secretary and later to blag my first IT job, and I was to discover that my legendary laziness was a positive attribute in the career in the IT industry into which I fell.  It wasn't until some 20 years later that I decided that it was time to complete that unfinished business and return to University to get my degree.  The rest we know about.

So, I'm really pleased for those young people who have got the grades that they need to go to University, and to use that experience as part of the road to growing up.  I know that for many of them it's going to be the time of their lives, although as I've blogged before, University isn't a universally positive experience.  Some young people become aware that they've made a terrible mistake, and they have to carry that knowledge around with them as well as the stress of completing their degree studies.  I was lucky - when I realised that I was wasting both my time and public money, I had the confidence to turn my back on it.

But, on this particular day, my thoughts aren't particularly with the achievers - heaven only knows I'm going to see enough of them this academic year (five seminar groups in the autumn term, with an additional three after Christmas - I must be mad).  No.  Today, my thoughts are with those who didn't get the results that they expected or needed.  I'd love to be able to tell them that yes, they've fucked up - but that really needn't be the end of their world.  I'd like to be able to tell them to take a cool look at themselves, their abilities, and the possibilities that are there for them.  I'd like to tell them that academic study at 18 years of age isn't the only way to make a career.  And, I'd like to tell them, that if they don't feel ready to go to University, then they shouldn't feel obliged so to do.  It'll be there, waiting for them, when the time is right.

But, most of all, I just hope that they've got a parent in their corner, like my mother was for me on that particular day.

When I get my PhD (assuming that I do, of course), it will be the ultimate achievement for me.  I'm the girl who failed to get her A' levels first time round and who only achieved 60 UCAS points (if I read the tariff properly).  I never dreamed that I'd ever get this far.

But, it won't be my achievement alone.  I've only got this far because of the education and experience that I've had - and a huge part of that comes from my mother.  Not just the practical help - keeping a roof above my head and food on my table - but the long won knowledge and confidence that I am capable of meeting all kinds of challenges and overcoming most of them, while not panicking when faced with one that is beyond me.

And for that, amongst many other things, I thank her.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.

Macbeth, 4(i)

I sometimes worry about the way the law is seen, not just by the usual suspects of the Daily Mail and other less than quality newspapers, but by politicians and the wider public.  I get most of my information from the newspapers (strictly speaking the websites, but these days it's broadly the same thing), supplemented by the rest of the media, and increasingly Twitter.  People are interested in the law - in what happens to those convicted of serious offences - and it's rare to find anyone who hasn't got an opinion as to what is going on.

Today's trawl through the news includes the hyperventilation over the fact that Lee Rigby's killers exercised their rights to appeal against their sentences and that this cost the taxpayer £200,000 in legal aid.  The media appears to be shocked that someone incarcerated should be helped to test the system that put them in there in the first place. But, if we don't test the system, how can we be sure that it's working?  Rather than seeing these two young men as exploiting the legal aid system, surely we should be watching the legal aid system being used for the purpose for which it was intended.  A tested legal system will be a stronger system and a system in which we can have more confidence.  Or, at least, that's the theory.

So, forgive me if I don't join in with the condemnation.  I happen to think that this particular money was well spent.

However, I am slightly worried about some whispers coming through Twitter that, in one Police Force area, guidance is being given that people accused of Domestic Violence should routinely be denied bail at the police station.

Blimey.  Routinely.  Remanded on the basis of the alleged offence, not the alleged offender.  Without being produced in front of a court and regardless of the circumstances of the alleged offence.  If this is true, then I think that it's the thin end of a very dangerous wedge.

I'm not sure how that fits in with the Bail Act, or the principle that someone is considered to be innocent until the point at which they're proved guilty in the court system.  Obviously, I can see that there are reasons why someone should not be granted bail - I stand in front of the Custody Desk often enough when bail is refused by a Custody Sergeant, but the reasons for this refusal are always considered on the facts of the specific case and the people involved, and not applied in a willy-nilly or blanket fashion.  If there are reasons why someone should be excluded from a specific location or prevented from contacting a particular person, then these are included as bail conditions - breach of which is an arrestable offence which would lead to a remand in custody, and that seems entirely reasonable.

But to deprive someone of their liberty, and to put increased pressure on the custody and prison system because someone's been arrested for a specific kind of offence would be very dangerous for our legal system.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not an apologist for those who commit domestic violence, it really is the scourge of a civilised society.  But the Justice System needs to ensure that there are checks and balances in place to protect all of us.  There is currently official guidance that says that if Police attend a DV call, they have to arrest the person deemed to be the instigator.  If this guidance is then supplemented by a policy of refusal of police bail, I can see that the number of people remanded in custody is going to spiral.  And, let us not forget, not everyone who is arrested is guilty; not everyone who is arrested is charged with any offence; and possibly more often than the public is aware, some people who are arrested are more in need of help and support than they are of punishment.  My time as an Appropriate Adult has taught me that it's very rare that any situation (including domestic violence) is cut and dried - things are rarely as straight forward as they seem.

If this rumour is true, then it smacks of a knee-jerk reaction, and a bloody dangerous one at that.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

"None but the lonely heart knows what I suffer"

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Recently, when talking to a friend whose life is incredibly full outside her house and work, I was slightly surprised that she told me that she was lonely.  It seems to be a 21st century epidemic at the moment - today's Independent includes an article that suggests that we're more likely to be lonely in the UK than anywhere else in the world.

Wow.  All those lonely people.

I suppose that it's not difficult to understand why this should be - more of us live alone than ever before, families are increasingly fractured as they move around the country to find work, and more and more of us are divorced and face life on our own as we get towards the end of our life.  Parents get left behind as their adult children move around the world, and it's not unusual to hear of pensioners learning how to use Skype so that they can maintain contact with their loved ones.  When I volunteered on the local phone-line, most of our calls were from regulars who needed to hear a voice on the other end of the phone, just so that they could tell us what they'd done during the day.  For some of those people, I suspect that we were the only point of friendship that they had.

As a card carrying introvert, occasionally I have the opposite problem.  My need is for solitude from time to time.  Since I became single some four years ago now, I've holidayed on my own - choosing to rent cottages in the countryside to enjoy the peace and negate the necessity to make small talk except when I choose to, and I have to say that I really enjoy that time to myself.  I've just booked my latest conference for November, and took a long time to work out which of the three (!) conference dinners I'd be able to avoid - I know that I won't be able to face three evenings of jollity and enforced cheerfulness without wanting to implode.  For one evening I know that I'm going to need to be able to spend time on my own to re-charge my batteries and take some 'time out', and I'm going to make sure that I get it.

But, being comfortable in my own skin isn't to say that I don't worry about what's going to happen to me in the future.  At the moment I live in a neat little family unit (me in the basement, my mother on the ground floor and 'Auntie Chris' on the first floor), but time and fevers prove us all mortal, and the odds are that I'm going to be the last one standing.  As the summer hits Seasidetown, I'm very aware of the elderly couples walking hand in hand along the sea front, and I love to see that togetherness still intact.  I'm also acutely aware of the elderly people who walk through the town on their own, and I always try to catch their eye, smile and say 'good morning'.  One day, that's probably going to be me.  Maybe this is why I have a somewhat cavalier approach to my health and don't particularly aim for longevity.

Going back to my friend at the top of this post, I wonder if our very busy, full lives don't in some way contribute to our feelings of loneliness - certainly I have a suspicion that she fills her life full of activity so that she doesn't have to face the essence of herself.  I also suspect that she's constantly looking for 'the' answer to her problems outside herself - but that pre-supposes that there is a problem and I'm not convinced that's the case.  How to meet new people is a frequent trope in the media, and the growth of internet dating is quite phenomenal.  If you're single and you're not actively looking for a partner, you're seen to be really quite strange.  Some people see it as a 'project', hoping for feedback from unsuccessful encounters, presumably to hone their dating techniques.  Some people try to change themselves in order to attract a mate - thinking that maybe trying a new hairstyle or style of makeup will attract that elusive other.  Truly, I feel that is the saddest of all; if we can't be happy in our own company how can we be happy in the company of someone else?   That's one of the reasons that I shan't be internet dating again - I did meet some complete nutters, and I no longer feel the need to search for an elusive other and I'm actually quite enjoying being on my own!

We're more and more connected with the world - checking emails, twitter, Facebook through the day, shackled to our smart-phones and tablets, and never able to leave the digital chains behind.  If we post something witty on Facebook, do we feel slighted if nobody 'likes' what we've said?  Do we worry if nobody reads our tweets? We tend to live our lives full of background noise and/or music and we rarely just sit, or think, or consider what it is that makes us, and how we can learn to value that essence of our being.

For the next six months however, this probably isn't going to be my problem.  You're never alone with a thesis - and sometimes it seems as though there aren't enough solitary and silent moments in the day to help get your thoughts organised, and your purple prose recorded on the laptop.  But, after the writing up is finished, what then?  The scary thing about the spectre of completion is that I'm going to have to find another overriding purpose for my life, and I have a strong suspicion that I'll never find anything as satisfying as what I now do.

When the chips are down, is it going to matter if I'm found weeks after my death with my corpse having been eaten by my notional cats?  After all, I'll be dead and I won't know anything about it.  It would appear that the truly alone can really die in peace.  I'm interested by the guilt of the neighbours quoted in that particular article - terribly guilty now the lady is dead, but not interested enough to be in contact with her when she was alive.

Solitude or loneliness - are they two sides of the same coin?  When does solitude become loneliness, and does this matter for those of us who like to be alone?

Monday, 16 June 2014

"Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

H.G. Wells

I've just spent the last half hour or so reading this morning's edition of The Times - anything to put off the task of defining 'bio-power' and 'bio-politics' in a snappy 2,000 words or so - and I'm really struck by how much of the current newsfeed relates to education.

From Michael Gove's problems with his advisors and resistance to the changes that he wants to make to the structure of the educational system itself ("General Gove ready for education wars"), to criticism of the ways that schools teach some of the most important issues of our history (by using the Mr Men books as a tool for learning about the rise of Hitler - really?  Surely that can't be true, can it?), to a profile of Dominic Cummings, Gove's advisor, not to mention David Cameron's comparison between the allegations of plots to take over the running of schools in Birmingham and the criminal activities of Boko Haram.  And, this morning I heard on the Today programme that there are proposals to teach primary school children the basics of starting and running their own businesses.  Add to all of that the article entitled "Pupils losing in life because schools cut sports", and you get a very clear picture of the latest battles for the country to be fought on the playing fields of our schools.  Except that many schools are struggling for playing fields - in a town close to Seasidetown, a local school has effectively lost the use of part of its playing field due to it being registered as a village green by the local people.

Education certainly is a hot topic in the political landscape.  And, maybe it should be - OK, my life at the moment revolves around education, but apart from that, what else is more important to a country that then future and preparation of its children and young people? Obviously, I'm interested in education - both as a consumer (ergh....), and as a potential professional for the future, and I find myself wondering what the answer to all of this is.

Educated as I was in the 1970s and 1980s, I had a funny mixture of an education.  Some of the schools that I attended were of the 'trendy' end of the teaching spectrum, but the bulk of my secondary education took place at a traditional grammar school.  Add into the mixture parents who taught (my mother), or lectured in primary education (my father) and who were keenly interested in what I learnt, both at school and at home and who filled in some of the gaps that school left.  My dominant memories of education are of the more formal variety - of 'chalk and talk', and of a presentation of learning as being important and an end in itself.  It wasn't always perfect - I've blogged in the past about the deficiencies of my history lessons - but as one commenter on that post noted, some of the skills that we learnt in those lessons (such as note-taking) were directly transferable to professional life later on.  I certainly got a 'good' education, history notwithstanding, I am well read and school gave me the start that I needed and a life-long desire to continue to learn and explore the world around me.

I see the differences too at university.  Again, I've blogged before about my shock that some of our students don't seem to have been prepared for university study, and whose knowledge of the basics of history are sadly lacking (as was mine).  Today's Times reports that "Universities to tackle 'essay mill' plagiarism", and it's not before time.  The Sweetchild and I noted that this year's tranche of students were the most 'needy' that we've ever known - we've been inundated during office hours with students desperate for guidance in preparation of their essays.  I wonder whether this need for hand-holding and a lack of confidence in their own abilities is indicative of the ways in which they've been taught.  Will the students that I see continue to read, to question and to stretch their minds, or will they always desire the guidance of others?

It's obvious that schools and the teachers within them are the answers to some of the problems.  But, this in itself brings more problems - what kind of schools, and how should they teach?  Should religion (of whatever kind) have any influence over the curriculum? What is the place of politics in the decisions made for our schools?  Should we be 'engaging' with our students, or should we be concentrating on 'outcomes'?  And for me, what is most striking in all of this congested and contested discourse, is that nobody mentions the sheer pleasure of learning and the importance of communicating this pleasure to pupils and students.

The most influential teachers in my life were some of the most traditional.  In particular, my english teacher to O' Level who instilled into me a love of Dickens and the confidence to not only despise Jane Austen, but to know why.  Her methods were strictly chalk and talk, but she was able to transmit her enthusiasm for the subject matter to me and to some of my fellow pupils.

When I lead seminars, I try to emulate what she did.  During my teaching appraisals, the module convenor was bemused that I teach 'on my feet' in front of the white board rather than sitting around the table with my students as do a lot of my colleagues.  To her, it seemed old-fashioned, but the students seem to like it.  I provide for them a visual focus - recording the salient points of the discussion on the white board - and it's so much easier to communicate enthusiasm if you can use the whole of your body by moving around or waving your hands about.  Certainly, my student satisfaction levels are 98%, and attendance at my seminars is high.  Discussions flow, and because I'm mobile I can literally step back to allow them to control their own learning, refereeing only when necessary.

So, is traditional best?  I'm not sure.  Is Michael Gove right?  I doubt it, but I do think that some of what he says has merit.  Unfortunately, any good in his message is going to be lost behind the political use that is being made of our educational system, at the highest levels of government.  Who should be running our schools?  Should we be concerned about the possibility that governing bodies are being highjacked by special interest groups or religious factions?  Hell yes, we should - if it's true.

What's really interesting about today's articles in The Times is the lack of input from teachers, and I think that's quite significant.  Education is to be 'done' by them, and they're to be told what to do and how to teach.  It is alleged that our deficient educational practices are driven by fashion (see my comments on the Mr Men approach to history above).  We hear horror stories of a lack of control in our schools - teachers are physically attacked by students and parents.  The reports of the Birmingham educational crisis speaks of teachers under fire from governing bodies hell bent on their own religious agenda.  I love teaching, but there's no way on this planet that I'd want to teach in school.

Education - it's too important for it to become a political football.  I fear, however, that it's too late.