Monthly Archives: May 2012

Posh Lunch: Social graces for social mobility

The excited Year 3 children began by introducing themselves to each other. They’d already changed out of their school uniforms and into their very best clothes. Maisie had a brand new dress, there was discussion about Joe’s shirt and speculation about his shoes. Everyone agreed they looked good enough for Posh Lunch.

Posh Lunch is a Friday ritual at South Malling primary school in Lewes. Every week the meals supervisors choose four children who’ve behaved particularly well at lunchtime. Each child then invites a friend and the eight of them join head teacher Joanna O’Donoghue at a specially laid table in the dining hall. There’s a white table cloth and a big jar of freshly cut  flowers. The children either fetch a school dinner or place their packed lunches on their plates. Then Mrs O’Donoghue helps them with the unfamiliar paper napkins and the meal begins.

“It started as a reward for good manners, to encourage the children to be respectful to the adults serving them” says the head teacher. Her school in East Sussex, a couple of hours south of London has levels of deprivation – as measured by the numbers on Free School Meals – that are pretty much in line with the national average. Over the two years it’s been running, Posh Lunch has evolved. Now Mrs O’Donoghue says, “It’s a model for sitting and sharing a meal with other people”.

For many children that’s an entirely new experience. They love it and, not to make a meal of it, Posh Lunch has a lot of  value beyond encouraging good behaviour in the school.

The world of work is changing as the UK moves from manufacturing to service sector jobs. As the report on youth unemployment published this week by the Work Foundation says, that transition means “soft skills” such as communication or being able to work in a team are increasingly important when it comes to getting a job – and today’s school leavers just don’t have those skills.

 A similar conclusion was reached by some of Britain’s major employers in a survey earlier this year. Yes, businesses felt young people entering the work force could do with better English and Maths. But when asked what newcomers lacked most, 41% said “interpersonal skills”.  An absence of “respect for authority” was another big area of concern.

I’ll admit, you’re not going to sort that out over one Posh Lunch – but it’s a start. The children responded politely when Mrs O’Donoghue engaged them in small talk about weekend plans.  They also had important questions of their own. Why does the Queen cut her sandwiches into little triangles prompted a lively debate – and a resolution to Google the answer after the meal. I couldn’t quite follow all the twists in the tale of Poppy’s dog nor of why Maisie’s mum wanted to call her brother Claire though I did get that Elijah doesn’t like apricots. But that’s not the point. These 7 and 8 year-olds were talking confidently and comfortably with adults (including a complete stranger) in a relatively formal gathering.   

That I should praise good conversation around the dinner table is not just a reflection of my own middle class upbringing where such meals were routine – and it may not be to everyone’s taste. But Posh Lunch does provide children with a useful tool. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg said in a speech on Social Mobility this week that we “need to ensure that our school system as a whole promotes fairness and mobility”.  He was talking mostly about upping academic achievement which is of course any school’s main aim.  But social graces also promote mobility. And a sense of fairness, not snobbery means we should share those skills too.  

Posh Lunch ended with each child finishing in their own time and asking Mrs O’Donoghue if they could leave. She reminded them to come back and say goodbye to anyone still eating once they’d cleared their plates, and then they were off, out into the sunshine with one final treat: They got to stay in their posh clothes for the rest of the school day.

 (By the way, where are my manners? I should have introduced Mrs O’Donoghue. She’s my sister)

Looking for the “real” UK?

Photo: Andrew Billington

The phone rang about an hour after I’d completed my online order.

The woman on the other end – northern accent, friendly tone – sounded a little anxious. Had I just booked a ticket for a play at the New Vic Theatre?  Yes, I said, I certainly had.

“You do know we’re in Newcastle-Under-Lyme,” she said. I started to laugh. Yes, I knew. In fact I was just planning the train journey when she phoned.  

She sounded relieved. “Oh good, it’s just that we always check when someone with a London address books a ticket. You’d be surprised how many people don’t realise where we are. They think they’re booking one of those theatres in London with a similar name”.

 It was an exchange that in its own small way summed up what’s been bothering me for years: The gaping chasm not just in wealth and opportunity, but in understanding between London and the rest of the UK, particularly the north. 

“Londonitis” is what Neil O’Brien of Policy Exchange called it in a recent piece for The Spectator. He argued that economically and socially “the capital now has little in common with the rest of Britain”.  That’s true for incomes, house prices, rents, higher education. You name it, we’re in a league of our own. Or at least, those of us with good jobs and a solid roof over our heads are. London produces a fifth of the UK’s total GDP, and you’ll find the nation’s richest households here. 

The capital’s unemployment rate is one of the highest in the country and London’s also home to the three areas with England’s highest levels of income deprivation. But it’s the high-end that drives the national conversation. Westminster and the City exert an irresistible gravitational pull on the media and on politicians (not to mention on Russian Oligarchs) because they dominate national politics and finance. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg once promised reform.  “We are now” he said, “the most centralised country in Europe bar Malta”.   That was 2 years ago and as any disillusioned Liberal Democrat will tell you, nothing’s changed. Nor will it if the government goes ahead with plans to let poorer regions hold down wages for public sector workers.  Roll on the north-south divide.

I say all this with both affection and dismay. I am a Londoner born and bred. But I have spent a large chunk of my career seeking nuance “beyond the Beltway” in the United States, searching for the “real” America as Republicans like to call the small towns scattered in the vast space between the Democratic-minded north-east, and the west coast. Now I am wondering, what and where is the “real”UK?  

Photo: Andrew Billington

Which is why I found myself in Newcastle-Under-Lyme on a wet Thursday evening watching a staggeringly good play. Where Have I Been All My life? was about talent show contestants  in Stoke-on-Trent. The characters were real people interviewed by playwright Alecky Blythe, who then edited the interviews and constructed a narrative. But the actors didn’t get a script: The interviews were played to them through earpieces during the performance and they spoke the words verbatim a second or so after hearing them. The result – hesitations, pauses, stumbles and all, was electrifying.

Almost as electrifying was the discussion after the show with cast members, the director, and the Chief Executive of Stoke-on-Trent Council. The play was essentially about aspiration in a post-industrial city. What struck me in the conversation that followed was the pride and optimism about the region despite years of economic decline. There was passionate talk about various local regeneration projects and about how to attract the kind of investment that would produce up to 40,000 desperately needed jobs. Nobody suggested the government in London might have the answers. Come to think of it, nobody mentioned the government at all.  

Is that the “real”UK? I don’t know, but whether it’s Hackney or Humberside, Brent or BirminghamI’d like to try to find out.

The perfect public library

I have seen a future for the public library – in the centre of Stoke-on-Trent.

I’ll admit, until now I’ve taken no interest in the campaigns to save Britain’s libraries from closure. Supporters say hundreds are threatened because of cuts in local council budgets. 115 disappeared in the last financial year alone. But the library-loving rhetoric is too often couched in romantic middle class memories of a long gone past. Even those who haven’t been in a library for years wax lyrical about the joys of children’s storytime or the day they first “discovered” a particular book.

When reminded that ebooks and internet learning are now popular alternatives, their response is (rightly) that not all homes have access to the web. But providing those additional services at a library simply isn’t enough. Especially as you still have to get people through the door. Long before the current round of cuts, a Parliamentary inquiry  said public libraries were a “service in distress” .  The cost of running the drafty Victorian buildings was going up, the number of books being issued was going down. 

Stoke-on-Trent’s Local Service Centre and Library says it’s reversed the trend.  Stoke was once the centre of a thriving pottery industry. With those jobs gone for good, it now comes high on national lists of deprivation and you can feel it on the streets. Charity shops compete for customers alongside endless discount stores and numerous fast food outlets – and we’re not talking about the big chains.  (My favourite, “Aladdyn’s” hedges its bets by serving American fried chicken, curries, baltis – and fish and chips).  

And in the middle of all that is the library, an eco-friendly conversion of the old market building  that opened in 2009.  Library membership has increased by 1,200 since then and it’s not hard to see why. The big, bright space has lots of seating tucked in amongst the books. Computers are arranged in circular hubs to one side, and there’s a separate area with computers for children and a “quick email” point. 

But more importantly, at the back of the library is a door into the offices of the Public Health Information Service and at the front is the one-stop-shop for all council and other official services. For housing benefit, council tax, local enterprise schemes and job training – you go to the library. So while you wrangle over some tedious local government form or talk to someone about a possible job, your kids can look at the books. Or perhaps having come in for a council service, you might be tempted yourself to have a nose around the shelves. Suddenly the often elite world of literature and learning is truly accessible to all.  And for those of us used to books but not benefits offices, we get to see as a matter of course a different side of our community – not just the claimants but the Council workers offering the services for which we pay. 

I have bad news for the romantics: there’s no reverential hush in this library, only the gentle hum of people going about their business in a clean, airy and truly communal space. Now that’s a library worth saving.

Ofsted and the teaching unions: The kids deserve a truce

Why can’t teachers and school inspectors play nicely together?

In theory they share the same goal: The best possible education for all children in England and Wales. In practice, they’ve been descending into the kind of name calling that should get them sent to the head teacher’s office for a stern telling off.  

The Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw frequently implies that our schools are full of bad teachers and malign heads intent on thwarting children’s progress.

The teaching unions accuse him of bullyboy tactics and say his rhetoric is creating a climate of fear in schools. And the press happily reports the ruckus. “Schools face talent drain as teachers’ morale dives” says the latest Observer front page headline.   

You can see why. Shortly after his appointment as head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw called for improvements saying “we have tolerated mediocrity for far too long – it has settled into the system”. Some schools judged Outstanding would have their status reviewed and all inspections would be unannounced.  Sir Michael also said about a quarter of head teachers were underperforming. That’s one way of interpreting Ofsted’s gradings but if he had wanted to make friends he could have said that more than 75% are judged Good or Outstanding.

But Sir Michael isn’t out to make friends. He’s kept up the onslaught telling a conference just last week that head teachers “too often make excuses for poor performance”. He added that they didn’t know the meaning of the word stress.  

It’s not surprising teachers and their representatives haven’t exactly warmed to Sir Michael, a former head himself. But more importantly, he’s fuelling an already destructive relationship between government and the teaching profession which does nothing at all to help improve schools.

That is after all the point: To improve the quality of teaching and learning for all children. It’s laudable – it’s vital – and if he dropped the insults for a moment and talked to head teachers as professionals, Sir Michael might be surprised to find the majority of them are just as keen on rigorous standards and good teaching as he is.

The question then is how to get there. Well, we could do worse than consider suggestions published late last month by the House of Commons Select Committee on Education. It concludes that good teaching is the key to good education and considers ways to attract and retain the very best. The bit that made the headlines was, unsurprisingly, the suggestion that good teachers should be rewarded with better pay than weak ones.

Reported (wrongly for the most part) as a proposal to pay teachers according to results (which would be unfair) the response was a cry of horror from the main teaching unions and much of the press. “Payment by results is total nonsense,” said Christine Blower, head of the National Union of Teachers, “Children are not tins of beans and schools are not factory production lines”.

Nobody said they were.

What the committee actually recommends is that the Department for Education “develop proposals (based on consultation and a close study of systems abroad) for a pay system which rewards those teachers who add the greatest value to pupil performance.”

The notion of added value is tricky because it’s hard to agree on how to measure it. But the idea is to look at school results in context. That way, pupils from deprived backgrounds or those with Special Educational Needs can be assessed as having achieved if they make good progress, even if they don’t attain the required SATS level or other formal test results.

And what’s wrong with rewarding the teachers who through skill and hard work bring about that achievement? As long as the assessment criteria are fair and the judgments transparent then why shouldn’t teachers get the kind of financial rewards and incentives that most of us expect when we perform well at work?

Surely that would enhance the professional status that most teachers rightly crave.  It’s what many heads want but are too frightened to say out loud. They’re the ones who know how well their staff perform, and they’d love a more effective system for offering incentives to hang on to the good ones while easing the really bad ones out.

 So maybe it’s time for a deal. Sir Michael, stop referring to teachers, particularly heads, with contempt. Talk to them, you’ll find many have the passion and ideas that drive success.  Teaching unions, get real and recognise that along with the respected professional status you want (and deserve) must come rigorous evaluation and acceptance that bad practice must be dealt with quickly.   

Now, no more fighting. Go and play nicely or some children could get hurt.