Christmas Services

ImageThis Christmas I decided to attend a Christmas morning service.  I like going to church at festivals such as Christmas and Easter.  At school I was in the choir, and every year we replicated the King’s College Nine Lessons and Carols.  This repesented the cultural aspiration of the school: the first carol, Once in Royal David’s City, was sung by a first year boy, and each reading was performed by someone of higher status, concluding with the Chair of Governors. The penultimate reading – the visit of the Wise Men – was by the Headmaster, who maintained the title of Brigadier after his war service. The final line of the reading was always the most dramatic:

“And they brought unto him gifts: of gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”

The Brigadier would paused dramatically after “frankincense”, and remove his monocle before pronouncing “myrrh” in a rising tone that resounded from the nave to the chancel.

These school-day experiences left me with high expectations of Christmas services. The quality of the choral singing was high, and the readings (always from the King James Bible) filled my desire for wonder. I didn’t know what frankincense and myrrh were, but that didn’t matter.

Recent experiences of Christmas services have often seemed lacking in comparison. Even those (hard to find these days) that use the traditional Bible text and carols often seem a bit perfunctory, like a ritual whose death is lingering. Two years ago, I attended a service in Auckland at an Anglican church. The leaders took an informal approach but fumbled with a powerpoint presentation that often gave the wrong words for the carol or reading, and there was little recognisable ritual until near the end of the event.

So, as I entered the Teignmouth church on Christmas morning, my expectations were not high.  St James’ is an octagonal Victorian church with large stained glass windows: a bright, broad space where the congregation – about forty parents and children – sat close to the chancel. Behind the unobtrusive rood-screen sat an elderly man and woman: the man wore a bright red jumper, and the woman’s white hair fell in waves over her black top. She welcomed us and asked the children: whose birthday was it today? The children, who sat with their parents, seemed comfortable and several gave the right answer, which led to a further question: What do we do on someone’s birthday? “Sing Happy Birthday!” replied a child, and forthwith we did: “Happy birthday, dear Jesus!” I looked around and wondered whether to leave. The service proceeded with crackers (pulled by the clergy and children) that revealed jokes that drew on minimal Biblical knowledge: “How did Noah see in the Ark?” – “With floodlights.” “What did Adam say on December 24th?” – “It’s Christmas, Eve.” The children were invited to come to the front and show their Christmas presents. These were quite modest: a pair of slippers with a fabric animal pocket; a ukulele; some princess dolls. In between these child-centred events, we sang carols (mostly modern but with good tunes) and the children read short passages from the Christmas story. They had to use a microphone to be heard, but they read well enough and were clearly pleased and proud to do so.

Towards the end of the service, the atmosphere became more profound. The male leader read prayers firstly for individuals who were sick, lonely, or experiencing bereavement, and then for the problems of the wider world. These were not from any prayer book I recognised, but seemed to be meant, and many people knelt in prayer. The final carols were traditional, and heartily sung. As the parents and children left, they thanked the leaders and looked as if they had had a good time.

Despite its apparent frivolity, the service succeeded in engaging the congregation. It wrapped us in a homely, nurturing spirituality very different from the portentousness of King’s College Carols.

At the nursing home


The letter from my late uncle’s nursing home invited me to a Saturday afternoon celebration of residents who had recently died. The celebration would involve releasing small, tagged helium balloons to represent the departed. The letter enclosed a parcel tag bearing my uncle’s name, hand-written in black ink with a small line drawing – a heart? a balloon? a balloon shaped like a heart? Then there would be tea and cake and a chance to catch up with the staff “who played such a huge part in your loved ones lives”.  The letter was from a Rev. who styled herself ‘Pastoral Coordinator’. I have been told at the university that the term Chaplain is no longer institutionally used as it is not widely understood.

My uncle died nearly a year ago: the funeral and the scattering of the ashes were accomplished, and even the administration of the estate was nearly complete. Was this further memorial needed? It would be an opportunity to meet again some of the staff who had looked after him, and possibly some of the other relatives with whom I had exchanged a few words on my weekly visits. So I accepted the invitation.

I arrived nearly half an hour after the appointed time of 2 o’clock – I had had a busy morning and the route included an unexpected traffic diversion. Nearly every parking space was taken, and a large paper sign directed me to the ‘Balloon Release’. This was in the dementia area, a collection of houses around a garden enclosed by high wooden fences. As I entered the building, I met Maureen, a care worker who had treated my uncle well. She looked more tired than I remembered. As I walked into the large room to which Maureen directed me, I saw that was full of white-haired, elderly people sitting in a large circle of chairs. I thought: there are a lot of residents in this room. Then people began to rise and walk through patio doors into the garden, and I realised: These aren’t the residents. These are the relatives. These are us.

Outside, fifty or sixty chairs had been placed in a large rectangle, but the relatives were reluctant to sit down. There were numerous care assistants in their white uniforms and blue badges, some wheeling and walking people whose afflictions (despite the excellent human and technical provision) were distressing to themselves and their companions. One face was red and distorted in a grimace of agony; another, cadaverously grey and attached to a stooped shambling body, looked only at the ground. As the chairs became occupied by the staff and the infirm, the Rev. appeared, distinguished by a clerical collar and a denim skirt. With an assistant, she carried a large curtain containing the balloons. I still carried the parcel tag in my pocket: it was now too late to attach it to its helium elevator. With scarce announcement, the curtain was opened and the balloons rushed into the air, as if seeking heavenly escape. Relatives clapped. The Rev. announced: tea and cakes are available in the clubhouse “if you want them”.

So that was it. I looked round and recognised no-one except one or two of the care staff. Perhaps, if I had arrived earlier, I would have felt part of the group, but nothing now held me there except perhaps the tea. But the cakes were the same as I had experienced on my regular visits, and I looked for the way out. Every door was security locked with a pin-pad, and I was beginning to feel anxious when I saw a care worker whom I knew and liked. She recognised me and remembered my uncle’s name, and we had a warm conversation as she led me along the corridors towards the main exit.

As I left, I had a welcome feeling of self-respect. I had attended the ceremony in memory of my uncle, and I had spoken with the two care workers whom I most liked. And I had spent no longer at the ceremony than I wished. I turned the car up the congested weekend motorway.

Dan or Dante? – infernal confusion


Visitors to searching for modern editions of Dante’s 14th-century epic poem The Inferno may be surprised to read some of the reviews of the Kindle edition:

I have read all of Dan Brown‘s books and this does not disappoint! I especially like the way he lovingly describes the art and architecture of Europe. It makes me wish I could tour the places with book in hand!

Clearly the writer doesn’t realise that she is on the wrong webpage.  Another has received Dante when she ordered Dan, and protests:

I didn’t order Dante’s inferno. I ordered Brown’s Inferno and was sent the wrong book!

A third takes a more critical approach to Dan:

The first third to one half left me wondering if I should continue. The premise is great, but the travels through Florence are very tedious.

Even those who (apparently) know that they are writing about Dante make some unexpectedly consumerist comments: “Pretty quick read”, “Great product that has stood the test of time.”  One tries to reassure the reader that, though a classic, the poem won’t be too difficult:

The language is archaic but anyone can make it through no problem.

Another tries to clarify the distinction between Dante and Dan, and gives a fuller account of the difficulties a reader of the former may encounter:

This is Dante and intense reading which requires knowledge of Renaissance time period and some knowledge of Catholic theology.

This is more helpful than simple acclamation of Dante (or Dan?) as “one of my personal favorite writers of all time” who “will always be awe-inspiring”.

Most surprising, however, is the comment from a reader who warns, in the title to his review, “Don’t get it for info about hell!”  Apparently looking for a travel guide to the afterlife, this reviewer is disappointed:

I am well aware that this is considered one of the great classics of world literature. But if you just want to read for INFORMATION rather than poetic feel, etc., this is a waste of time.

A commentator on this review points out rather intemperately to the writer (whom she calls a “dolt”) that he has got the genre wrong.  “Of course the language is literary – it’s an EPIC POEM!”

Humorous confusion can be found in the deepest circles of the internet.

Read and listen to Rowan Taw’s poem Can’t tell their Dan from their Dante.

Cream teas and the curriculum

I have often thought that analysing the language of schooling would be a dismal activity. Thinking of the language of reports, for example, what words would appear most frequently? Despite technological changes in modes of reporting, I suspect that over the years similar terms will occur: “work”, “effort”, “result”, and so on. At the present time, most political and media discussion of education deals in similar terms, with emphasis on students‘ success rates in examinations, skills acquisition, discipline and effort – and their teachers’ responsibility for ensuring constantly improved standards in all these. It is as if school is nothing but an endless process of work and effort to prepare oneself for an adult life of … work and effort. In fact, within the discourse of school, work and effort become goods in themselves, so a positive report may say nothing more than that a student “works hard” and “makes an effort”. My son was once told in a school report that he “made no more than the necessary effort”, implying that this was a negative characteristic. When I mentioned this to him, he replied, with impeccable reason, that there never was any need to make more than the necessary effort. (Why should I, writing this, tap any harder than necessary on the computer keys? A lighter touch might be more efficient.)

A sad aspect of British schooling is how few opportunities for pleasure it offers many students, and possibly also their teachers. When comprehensive education became widespread in the 70s and 80s, it was assumed by many that the homogenising social ethos of the grammar or independent school had no place in a school of diverse students of varying aptitudes and social backgrounds. It is not clear, however, that the new schools always imported enough social glue of their own kind to create a functioning community. The nineteenth-century designers of the US high school made no such mistake. It was an all-ability, neighbourhood school, but it was also socially attractive, so that even an indifferent student would gain pleasure from the many sports and social activities that have become a traditional part of American life. Indeed, the ‘prom’, graduation ceremonies and parties, school year books and similar institutions are increasingly found in UK schools.

The British school, however, still lacks sufficient institutionalised sources of social pleasure. Many “academic” problems would be solved or ameliorated if students simply wanted to be in the place, rather than wanted to disrupt it. Some teachers understand this and improve the school experience for all concerned by foregrounding student activities. These may involve expensive foreign trips, which are less inclusive than they should be, or they may involve something as simple yet demanding as putting on a record-breaking (in terms of size) cream tea event for the local communityThis video, from Tiverton High School in Devon, has a wonderfully symbolic stop motion sequence where an examination hall is transformed into a tea room for hundreds of people and then returned to its academic shape. The video was made by the students themselves, led by a former student of the school who has made a name for himself as a producer of news bulletins that follow standard generic forms in an entertainingly local manner. If we can forget (for a moment) the language of ‘work’ and ‘effort’ with its implication that these things are good in themselves, we could consider what the students involved learned from putting on this highly organised social event.

Time to call Gove to account

I’m writing early in the morning, after an exceptionally disturbing dream.  In my dream, I was driving in bad light through countryside and came to a section of road where I knew I had to stop because ahead was something unknown and indistinct.  The road ahead was exceptionally dark, and, as I edged forward, I found myself approaching a scene of massacre.  Farm animals – horses, sheep and cows, their skins all a dense, shiny black – were lying in tortured positions,  scattered over the road and on the fields on either side.

I’m sure there may be many reasons for my disturbance, but one of them is the BBC news bulletin that I watched shortly before going to bed last night. In a short item, towards the end of the news, the reporter explained to the newscaster (on behalf of the audience) the government proposal to return GCSE examinations to something resembling the O-level of 50 years ago.  Assessment, we were told, would be entirely by end of course examination, and there would be a new grading system.  The current A-E scale will be replaced by a numerical scale, 8-1, where 8 represented the highest achievement.

I have recently published a paper analysing in detail the professional views of the 730 English teachers who responded to an online survey on the government’s current changes to teacher training.   Trying to find a title for the paper, I came up with “Surveying the Wreckage”. These changes to teacher-training, which shift the burden of responsibility from university Departments of Education to the schools, in which trainees will normally be employed as unqualified teachers, are regarded by the vast majority of respondents to the survey as disastrous.  Now we have to contemplate 50 years’ work improving assessments, making them more fit for purpose, making them more sensitive to the range of real life work that pupils will undertake, being similarly wrecked effectively by the fiat of one man, Michael Gove.

The intellectual paucity of these proposals is signified by the absurd belief that changing the assessment system from an alphabetical to a numerical progression will somehow improve matters.  What matters is the kind of work that students are asked to do, and the way it is assessed.  Certainly, moving from an alphabetical system where A (a letter universally recognised as signifying high achievement)  is replaced by the number 8, has less than nothing to recommend it.  One understands that room has been left for the addition of further numbers in the future, to allow for a further refinement of the grading system.  A kind of institutionalised grade inflation, in fact.

David Cameron must call in his Secretary of State for Education and prevent him from single-handedly destroying cultures of teaching and assessment that have been constructed over many years by professionals concerned to improve the education of young people.  Rab Butler tells in his autobiography The Art of the Possible of the day in 1942 when Winston Churchill, Prime Minister during the Second World War, asked him whether there was anything that could be done to make schoolchildren more patriotic. Butler told him that the curriculum was the responsibility of the schools and that ministers should not interfere.  Churchill rejoined: “Oh, quite.  But can’t we at least tell them that Wolfe won Québec?”

An element of Conservative reticence, building on rather than destroying the best that has been thought and said, would be welcome at present.

Curriculum and assessment

The ongoing debate about student assessment now has an international dimension.  Owing in part to the agenda of the current Secretary of State for Education, comparisons are increasingly made between assessment systems in the UK and other countries.  The US system often gets a bad press in the UK because it is so dependent upon the judgement of the individual teacher.  Having worked in an California high school and as a moderator/examiner in the UK, I think the US system would have much to commend it — if a proper local system of moderation could be developed.  Local assessment, which becomes part of the teaching and learning process, is surely better than the spurious objectivity of a national “external” assessment system which (one hopes) could never be made to work in the US.  I want to quote a paragraph from the NATE  book text message:  the Future of A level English (2005), which emphasises the importance of a community of practice:

So how can curriculum, pedagogy and assessment best be integrated?  How might an effective community of practice be realised?  Clearly, the way forward is to recognise teachers’ expertise and experience in this area, and, by doing so, to acknowledge the usefulness of assessment in promoting teaching and learning as well as in measuring achievement.  Recognition of teachers’ roles in assessment also means giving credibility and status to this activity.  Logistically, if for no other reason, this is the only way forward, as the present system is unsustainable, even if it helps protect the Post Office from bankruptcy.  Validity and reliability could be achieved through the provision of regional networks (perhaps along the lines of the consortium system already run by the AQA) and through the accreditation of appropriate individuals and institutions.

The language of school (and not of school)

Recently there seems to have been a surge of news and comment about the ways in which young people speak and write, and the relation of these to academic success.  A few weeks ago, the headteacher of a Middlesbrough primary school released a list of words that children were to be discouraged from using, in case this affected their chances in job interviews in later life.  Parents were enjoined to monitor their children’s speech and to correct them if they used local dialect forms that could make them sound uneducated (   More recently, the children’s writer Jacqueline Wilson was reported as saying that the children who wrote to her from Eastern Europe, Spain and Portugal expressed themselves better than those from the UK: “They’re writing in English, and apologising for their English, yet these letters will be more grammatical and spelt more properly than [those from] our own children (” Bizarrely, another letter that came under fire for illiteracy was that written by 100 academics from a number of British universities criticising the Secretary of State for Education‘s s proposals for a new national curriculum.  Neville Gwynne, one of the judges of the Idler Bad British Grammar awards, claimed that part of the letter was “simply illiterate” because of a failure of cohesion between two parts of a sentence (  Toby Young, one of the other judges, commented that the academics’ “grammatical blunders” had inadvertently made an argument for precisely the kind of formal education that their letter was opposing.  And now the relation between formal, or academic, language and children’s everyday utterances is the subject of a two-day conference at Aston University towards the end of June (  So what is all this really about?  And should we be concerned?

The view that schools are not doing enough to prepare students for the language requirements of the outside world is not new: the 1904 Newbolt report on English teaching cites employers’ comments that their apprentices are unable to speak and write appropriately in the working situation.  However, there is a view that, in the 1960s and 70s, English teaching became less concerned with grammatical and formal correctness and more in favour of creativity and personal expression.  It was at this time that Basil Bernstein made his famous distinction between the “restricted” language codes of everyday life and the “elaborated” codes of school language.  He argued that access to and facility in the elaborated codes that, he posited, characterised middle-class language use were necessary if students were to progress at school.  Bernstein was not arguing for the teaching of formal grammar, and his analysis was taken up by some of the progressive educational writers who were advocating more student centred and expressive English teaching: Paddy Creber’s 1978 Lost for Words, for example, argues that rich experience of literature and creative writing assignments of various kinds would assist students who suffered from a language deficit.  Many other writers across the English-speaking world made similar arguments, and, even today, most English teachers would regard wide reading and exercises in various forms of writing as central to school English.

Within this progressive tradition, a desire to make students consciously aware of the workings of language has never really disappeared: Peter Doughty’s Language in Use materials were popular in the 1970s and 80s and “Knowledge about Language” has been an intrinsic part of the National Curriculum since 1988.  Most recently, Debra Myhill and Helen Lines’ project Grammar for Writing has shown ways in which teachers can help students become aware of the resources of language in order to improve the range and appropriateness of their writing in various contexts.  Nonetheless, the complaint is often made, especially from outside the profession and in political discourse, that students “don’t know grammar” and that this is the cause of lamentable standards of speech and writing.  The academics’ letter to the Secretary of State appears to demonstrate that this grammatical disregard has reached the highest levels of academia.

To an outsider, English teachers’ apparent reluctance to place a great deal of emphasis on formal grammar teaching may seem merely perverse: surely their job is to make students aware of and capable in the resources of their native language?  Significantly, there is a political dimension to this debate.  Just as a conservative political orthodoxy holds that early years teachers have an unreasonable aversion to teaching children to read through the method of synthetic phonics, a similar orthodoxy holds that later primary and secondary teachers are refusing to do their job of grammatical instruction.

The reticence to foreground formal grammar teaching comes indeed from a libertarian regard for young people that does contain an element of political opposition.   There are three main elements of this stance.  The first is the recognition that, in Peter Trudgill‘s words, native speakers do not make grammatical mistakes.  The child who tells his mother “I runned home” demonstrates an implicit awareness of a grammatical rule (the formation of the past tense by adding -ed to the stem of the verb) that he (without instruction) will shortly learn does not apply to the irregular verb run.  The second element is an awareness that dialect forms contain their own grammars, which, again, young people learn without formal instruction.  (I like to argue that the verb to be, when conjugated within Devon dialect, demonstrates an advanced form of linguistic simplification characteristic of the most mature languages.)  The third is a professional memory of the dismal experience of trying to teach disconnected grammatical exercises, separate from the context of writing. I once tried to teach a class of young secondary school students, recently arrived from their primary schools, a few parts of speech.  They were adamant that they had never been taught these before, and had no idea what an adverb might be.   It was only when I wrote a few on the board, and explained that they usually ended in –ly, that they remembered: “Oh, yes, Mrs Brown was always going on about those!” On another occasion, I asked the students to give me an example of a question, as distinct from a statement.  One of them offered: “When will this lesson end?”

The regard for students’ implicit grammatical knowledge of their own dialect may appear to be leaving them in a weak position and indeed to be denying them the advantages of education.  Again there is a political dimension to this: the proponents of selective grammar schools speak of their role in promoting social and mobility by freeing students from the chains of their local language.  (Many proponents of comprehensive education will make similar arguments.)  Currently there is a good deal of discussion of ways of promoting students’ knowledge of academic registers: Bernstein’s arguments are finding new followers, and teachers’ reflections on these issues are expressed in blogs such as Alex Quigley’s Hunting English ( .  The Aston conference tagline – moving learners from everyday language to the academic language needed to succeed – focuses these concerns.

The problem with these arguments is that they may assume too easily that the only thing that is holding students back is their incapacity in formal, academic language.   It is worth considering why UK students do not always appropriate “elaborated” language forms as readily as the European students who wrote to Jacqueline Wilson appropriated formal English. Humans have an extraordinary capacity to work simultaneously in several languages and dialects, as anyone who lives in a multicultural area will testify.  If students are less inclined than one would wish to adopt what Bernstein (in his  recent formulations on academic literacy) calls the “vertical” discourse of the Academy as opposed to the “horizontal” discourse of everyday life, it may be because they know that academic and economic success require more than learning a new register.  Academic literacy, as described by Brian Street and other writers in the field of new literacy studies, involves the capacity to negotiate the power relations of the academy and to inhabit a very separate culture from the everyday. It is not a matter of “language” alone – unless one regards language in the much wider sense of a semiotic domain within which one must construct an academic identity. A student who wishes to inhabit this domain needs the confidence to explore not only a different language from that of their previous education and experience, but also what is in many ways a different social geography.   Merely “learning grammar” at school will not give them the keys to the academic kingdom.

Bristol Radical Film Festival

Today was the last day of the Bristol Radical Film Festival at the Cube Microplex, a wonderfully rundown small theatre converted into a centre for creativity and debate.  Mike Wayne and Deirdre O’Neill showed their film The Condition of the Working Class in England, based on Engels’ original analysis of the baleful effects of contemporary (1840s) class structure and relationships.  The film’s subtitle is: “Everything changes, everything stays the same.”   Its mixture of film and theatre (working people dramatising their own condition) was inspired by John McGrath’s 1970’s BBC Play for Today The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil:

Google glass

There’s been a lot of worried comment about Google glass(es), such as the creative good blog, and some good video parodies  I think that what we are witnessing is the beginning of a change in consciousness that will transform human life. A thousand years ago, people knew only their immediate surroundings. Very few travelled, and those who did lost daily contact with home. Now we have the potential that everyone can be constantly in touch with other people and places anywhere in the world. What will life be like in another thousand or even 100 years’ time? The glasses are a clumsy prosthesis, but we can already imagine ways in which future consciousness will be transformed. And hopefully communication and mutual understanding will help put an end to tribal divisions.

Anyway, Google’s own demo of young men and one young woman parachuting on to the  Google building, all keeping in touch with each other and with the audience in the auditorium, is impressive in a geeky-athletic way.