Watch your Grammar!


Justine Greening, our still relatively new Secretary of State for Education, is a competent and approachable politician with a track record of working in a collegiate and constructive manner. She will need to be in her task not only of challenging but, crucially, of reinvigorating teachers – in particular, traditionally moderate school leaders- who feel battered by the increased politicisation of their once noble profession and concerned about their ability to guarantee excellence for students in the face of real cuts to education spending on the one hand and, on the other,  a perception of policy novelty on the hoof. But on one of the staples of the educational narrative – Grammar school expansion –  Ms Greening has already expressed an open mindedness which will delight some and worry others.

Grammar schools can be powerful promoters of ‘hard working’ but less well off families whose children work hard and receive the leg up that saw the grammar school ‘cadre’ increasingly taking their place in public life from the 50s to the 70s. However the Grammar school as local ‘winner takes all’ produces negative externalities. We need to accept the fact of the creation over night of many thousands of children who regard themselves as failures.

Wherever one locates oneself in this debate the bigger issue appears to be the fall-out in terms of a lack of strategy around schools which has gone hand in hand with the new frontier (Wild West?) of choice and diversity. Clearly the dismantling of Local Authority involvement is a significant issue, predicated on an apparent need to ‘free up’ schools and ‘remove red tape’ and dispel ‘low ambitions for children’. However dubious the empirical veracity of these various bogeymen, the return to a totally state managed school system is unlikely and by no means obviously desirable. However , the marketisation of free at the point of need education, whether through sponsor academies or grammar school expansion,  can create injustices in children’s opportunities and outcomes in a ‘market’ that ‘clears’, as the economist would say, about as well as the rail industry – in other words not well at all.

‘Brexit’, ‘May-Day’, ‘Corbynistas’ and a European called ‘Jackie’


During last summer as my mind wandered to a chilled Burgundy in the land of Rousseau and Voltaire it was the more recent French radical controversialist, Jacques Derrida, whose work seemed germane as our nation faced unprecedented political choppy waters. Derrida, the twentieth century Jewish-atheist, French-Algerian, post-structuralist was a philosopher who relished contradictions though, in his later, more political thinking, not for their own sake or as fashionable ‘left-bank’ philosophy, but rather as an antidote to a world dominated by the hubris of short-term ‘solutions’, so often benefiting the strong to the cost of the weak. Derrida’s method was to construct thorough readings of philosophical and literary texts, to determine what aspects of those texts run counter to their apparent structural unity or original intention. By demonstrating the contradictions -the aporias,or impasses – in much of what we think – he aimed to show the infinitely subtle ways in which apparent resolutions collapse into themselves, morph and transform. And never more so than when thinking about democracy.

First there is the aporia of democracy and sovereignty. Democracy – the will of the people – immediately has to collapse into the exercise of sovereignty; of power exercised by the few. To protect the demos, the process must be curtailed, limited. Whether it be curtailed to include – through the exclusion of the ‘other’ – the card carrying conservative or labour party voters on the one hand or, to exercise the power to say No to a second referendum. Democracy is as much about exclusion and (dis-)entitlement as it is about franchise. And democracy contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Second, the aporia of democracy and freedom. Democracy requires freedom, however (mis-) understood. Should card-carrying labour party members enjoy an additional freedom to vote for their leader not enjoyed by the [democratically elected] parliamentary labour party whose role, partly, is to secure power so as to make changes it perceives as ‘for the good’? And in the Brexit debate, how free were voters when the information they used to make an ‘informed’ choice– a key element in the exercise of freedom – is subject to the warp and refraction of the lens of the media? And how is freedom understood differently when the immigrant is perceived as the one providing an essential service [whether in the NHS or as, perhaps, one’s nanny]as against those who, right or wrong, perceive the same as a threat to their economically precarious and socially excluded position. Freedom is not satisfied by the existence of the ballot box.

Finally, in the employment of the In-Out referendum we have seen not an exercise of pure democracy but a fundamentally mistimed exercise of sovereign power. The sovereignty was the Government’s power to ‘grant’ the referendum at the time and in the form it was placed. It was curtailed, highly managed ‘democracy’ offered by and on the terms of the few which, on this occasion, back-fired spectacularly.

To use Derrida’s language, democracy is never present but is always deferred. In its claim to presence (“this is democracy here-and-now”) democracy evokes the sovereignty that calls forth its destruction. While democracy may be the best we have, it must remain subject to a critical eye and not become a secular deity.

The Metaphysics of the U.S. Constitution tends to baffle us Brits


From a UK point of view the possibility of walking into a shop and buying an assault rifle seems at odds with, well, living in the twenty-first century on the planet earth!The United States Constitution was written for the purpose of establishing an effective but limited national government, a government that would be capable of dealing with national and international problems, but that would not be able to violate the traditional liberties of the people. The Second Amendment stipulates that “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” In Caetano v Massachusetts 2016), the Supreme Court reiterated its earlier rulings that “the Second Amendment extends, prima facie, to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding” and that its protection is not limited to “only those weapons useful in warfare”. Therefore assault rifles are, by definition, part of the mix. In Teixeira v County of Alameda the Ninth Circuit ruled that the right to keep and bear arms included being able to buy and sell firearms. The court ruled that a county law prohibiting a gun store being within 500 feet of a “[r]esidentially zoned district; elementary, middle or high school; pre-school or day care center; other firearms sales business; or liquor stores or establishments in which liquor is served” violated the Second Amendment. The duty of care shown to a constitutional stipulation – even at the (apparent) expense of a school full of children points to the ‘sacred’, metaphysical -almost theological regard shown to such stipulations. In a society emphasizing a formal distinction between church and state, the human need to inculcate one’s (dry) laws with immutable, hard won ‘objective’ principles is crucial to understanding the inability of the US President – any President –  to change the law and, hence, offers the ongoing possibility of easy access to firearms with the atrocities that may then follow.

Less hubris, more kindness. The children are watching.


Pavel isn’t his real name but he is no less a real student at my school. Engaging, bright, full of fun and carrying the confidence and contentment of a child who is loved by his family. On Friday morning as he searched for his PE kit – mum having had a go at him for leaving it in school the night before –  he asked me a simple and sobering question: Sir, will they send me home? Still bleary eyed from my 4 am alarm clock and still reeling from the tsunami of political metaphor crashing onto the beaches of the nation’s collective consciousness – ‘Seismic Shift’,  ‘Game Changer’, ‘New Britain’- it took me a few moments to reclothe myself in the self-assured garb of the Headmaster. ‘Of course not, Pavel. No one would dare do that to you!’ He smiled, less than convinced, and continued his search.That Pavel could ask this is the product of one of two things: perhaps it is naivety resulting from his age and lack of political sophistication. After all, isn’t the UK decent, honourable, welcoming, fair and tolerant? Or perhaps his question was motivated by his awareness of the deficit of kindness and the relentless creation of bogeymen [migrants, political elites, bankers] which has, for the last few months, characterised our political debate and infused our media. [Anyone who works with children know two things to be true: they have a phenomenal sense of fairness and an intuitive sense of whether someone likesthem or not].

Bogeymen are, of course, traditionally designed to scare children and we will do well during the coming weeks of uncertainty to remember the potential fall-out, the unintended consequences of this referendum and what led to it. As our history has taught us the quickest way to dehumanise the other is to ‘other’ them – to emphasise their difference. To dis-entitle them.

It is surely incumbent on all people of good faith – whatever their politics – to ensure we drive out any xenophobia from our democratic decision. But let us particularly remember the young – those who trust us to act in good faith.

After a bruising period of often aggressive electioneering and a deeply divisive result, let us hope at least that we don’t allow a deficit of kindness to ossify our debate and lead to a sclerotic and toxic culture. The world is watching. Our children are watching. Pavel is watching.

‘Tales from the Sand Pit’




Social Media Harms Moral Development  Or so this link from the BBC’s coverage of the result of a survey from the excellent Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues suggests. The survey focuses on parents’ views that social media is not, necessarily, such a good thing in the development of morals. Now of course the parents surveyed could be wrong – antediluvian, Luddite etc etc but when one remembers that a goodly proportion of the parents concerned are, themselves, pretty much digital natives such an easy critique does not seem up to the task. So what might be going on?

The joy of blog posts is that they encourage a word limit and therefore I will dispense with empirical research, learned papers or newspaper trawls. I will simply vent, albeit as a Headteacher who is lucky enough to spend much of his time among those High Priests of social media – teenagers. Socialisation, I think,  requires accountability which, at its most primeval, requires physical proximity. And social media requires no such proximity; indeed it often feeds off separation, the joy of sounding off or, in its darker manifestation, the troll. Hence in this separation, the possibility at least of stunted socialisation with the concomitant harm to moral development.

Ever since our earliest forebears disagreed over who should occupy the most luxurious cave there has been a recognition that disputes can end, quite literally, in death. Consequences can be dire if one rushes roughshod over the sensibilities of the other person and, in community, we quickly learn to play a percentage game: is my cave man’s club bigger than my opponents? And if this crypto-phalo-centrism, to coin a (new?) phrase, suggests that women and girls are somehow excused from such reasoning then, I would suggest, you’ve never had to do a Truth and Reconciliation job among a group of Year 9 girls following a social-media-inspired fall-out.

Of course the development of culture, the rule of law and religious sensibilities somewhat airbrush the cave person’s  club in favour of the scales of justice or the generous heart yet, at our most unreconstructed, the club device remains potent, as those MPs voting on the replacement for Trident undoubtedly appreciate.

Socialisation, the learning of virtue, the recognition of the very physicality of those others with whom we rub along, sometimes ingloriously, in what we dare to call civilised society, is a messy, intimate and proximate mystery. It starts in the sandpit and, please God, it rarely ends in the Somme. So get your young person out there; in the mess, in the scrum, and let them go Greek.