On the 8th June there will be a General Election, you are probably already sick of hearing about it. Everyone is predicting a huge vote for the Conservatives, if like me you think this would be a disaster for the country, please vote.
According to my long ago schooling the word democracy comes from two Greek words; demos, the people and kratia, power, rule, therefore the rule of the people. The Classical Age of Greece, two thousand five hundred years ago, regarded as the foundation of European civilisation. Greece along with most of Europe is again facing turbulent times. What are the dangers that face democratic systems in the twenty-first century? Do the people we vote for actually rule as our representatives or is there some powerful force hidden behind closed doors?
Democracy is not something which arrived fully formed like an eighteen year old walking into the polling station. No it was born after an extremely protracted struggle lasting in the United Kingdom some eight hundred years, Magna Carta and all that. The one who was ruling, King John had every intention of keeping it like that, even after he put…
An afternoon visit to the theatre, watching real live men and women of the Birmingham Royal Ballet company moving with speed, grace, agility and strength, flesh and blood moving in amazing ways. These young men and women are athletes with the ability to convey mood and feelings with the face, shoulders, arms , hands, legs including a pointed toe or a stamping heel. Most of us spend a great deal of time controlling our emotions; toning down our affection or anger, turning an expressionless face to the people we meet, fitting in. The members of this company can converse without ever using words. Myself I am fascinated, thrilled and delighted by words but the expressiveness of the human body is a wonderful panoply of moveable parts to delight, have fun, respond or convey, an awesome power. One man dressed as a naval officer ‘ordered’ his men to line up, to march, to stand to attention. Their female partners went weak at the knees at the sight of this epitome of masculinity and fell at his feet. I had the same feeling myself !
The show was made up of excerpts from ballets which featured a large chorus of equal numbers of men and women. They were full of fun and thrilling leaps and pirouettes. Finally we came to Pineapple Poll, sailors and their girl friends plus the previously mentioned Captain what could be more romantic. Thank you Birmingham Royal Ballet for a delightful afternoon.
Newspapers have a declining readership, not in our modern world very surprising. There was a time about a hundred years ago, when to keep up to date with the events locally and nationally, a newspaper was an essential buy. The twenty-first century is different, the radio is everywhere, the smart phone is in the pocket or more likely in the hand, whether the individual is on the bus, in the street or even in the car, present danger pushed aside. Television is in every room in the house and the internet is available on many different electronic devises, the iPad, the desk-top computer and the smart phone.
Being of an older generation and somewhat lagging behind the latest developments, newspapers are still a frequent buy and my how many supplements are part of a Sunday newspaper: a whole forest of trees cut down! Of course paper is regarded as a valuable resource , indeed I have a desk, drawers and bookcase full of it, most regarded as too valuable to throw away, no, to recycle. How to pin-point this value exactly is something of a puzzle but I am sure one day the answer will be revealed to me. My other half is the same way about books, some have never been read, others never will be read, still only one or two can be spared for Oxfam. There are bookshelves with a double row of books parked along them, much like a crowded car park which only has the slimmest space for one car to withdraw at a time. I have always associated bookcases with order, books filed neatly, titles on display arranged in subject matter. This was the case some time ago in the distant past.
I know I am incredibly fortunate to be able to buy a book and even more lucky to be a girl in a country which thinks that girls education is a positive good for the whole of society. So forgive my little moan, I will get all in order.
The biggest problem with the News is it is so full of doom and disaster. There are so many crazy people around and many of them are politicians. The French election, will common sense prevail or will craziness triumph? Lets not talk about the USA. The UK are we going to be lead to division by some newspapers or is kindness and rational understanding going to appeal to our better selves.
When I was a small child, in the September of 1943 I started school. The school was just opposite the house I lived in, so it took just a few minutes to walk round to the gate. It was a large brick building with four school yards. I was keen to start school, my father was away in the army and mother was very busy, shopping, cooking and cleaning, looking after my little sister and me. All those jobs were very time consuming and physically demanding. I had a very nice young woman as my first teacher and it was very interesting to hear the nursery rhymes and stories she told. I soon discovered that there were a lot of things that were new to me. I don’t remember learning to count, or read or write, these things at first seemed puzzling but soon became familiar and allowed me to enter another world. My best friend had very blonde hair and blue eyes, she learnt everything very quickly, Joyce lived in the next street and like me she had a younger sister. I was a quiet girl and tagged along behind Joyce whenever I could. The big event was to join the free library, the teacher had to sign a card to say that you could read and would take care of their books. At that time books were in very short supply, most of the books in school and the library had been published in the 1920s and 30s. But being able to read a new book for free was very enticing, mother told me that I could only go to the library with my sister, she was in the class below me so I had to wait until she got her ticket, then we could both get on the tram to the library.
Nowadays we have film and video easily available they are amazingly effective teaching tools. It can be argued that we need to know the individuals and organisations who are producing these films. A film can be extremely selective about the truth it reveals and indeed omits to reveal. Worse than that it can actually tell lies.
The horrors of the way the very poor live in this country and many others, are such that we don’t want to know. Very few people are interested in watching sad and upsetting pictures and the rulers are fiercely against such stories becoming public knowledge, even democracies such as the UK have methods of preventing such unpleasant information coming into the public domain.
The same thing is true of the printed book, every historian looks at the facts and sees some facts that are more important than others. Who was the Prime Minister: Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron. What were the decisions made: who paid more tax, who paid less, who paid for the educational system? The middle class who did they vote for and why? The daily lives of the ninety-nine percent are frequently left to novelists and poets. Of course there are now more historians who themselves came from the working class and often they give us a different view of history. We learn the truth from many different histories and sometimes these change over time.
Myself I looked to history to learn something about me and my family and how we fitted into the wider society. I still have a lot to learn.
The government thinks that a few children, from ‘ordinary working families’ need a good education therefore the solution is to bring back grammar schools. The majority, say 70% would of course not be selected so we can save money on most secondary schools. These children would be told that they were failures, as they were in the days of the 11+. Of course no-one is saying that all children have the same talents and abilities but selection presupposes an elite, maybe 10%, or 20% or even 30%. The remaining 80% will some how find their way through a fragmented education system and the large number who are functionally illiterate can mind a machine. Oh I forgot our clothes and equipment are made in China or Korea, so we don’t have any machines in factories. The kind of jobs we did 10, or 20 or 30 years ago don’t exist any more; the jobs we want people to do nursing, caring, looking after the very young or the very old, we can’t afford to pay for. Rich country that we are we prefer to reduce the taxation on the very, very rich because they are the people who talk to the politicians every day and they are the ones who pay their election expenses.
There are some countries that have the revolutionary idea that all children matter, mostly these countries are in Scandinavia. In Finland, which comes very high in the Pisa educational ranking: ” the Finnish strategy for achieving equality and excellence has been based on a publicly funded, comprehensive school system without selecting, tracking, or streaming students during their common basic education.”—– ” Inclusive special education within the classroom and instructional efforts to minimise low achievement are also typical of Nordic education systems.” [ this information is taken from Wikipedia]
It seems to me that the most important words here are ‘ without selecting, or tracking or streaming’. This is so different from the UK educational system where these same three words are the basis of all secondary schooling, with the addition of one other, testing. All children are told frequently where they come in the pecking order of the classroom, for the majority that is below the six boys and girls at the top. This is entirely their own fault. There are no resources to provide the help they need. It is entirely predictable that the result is bullying, which it appears is accepted as ‘normal’ behaviour in the classroom. I speak from experience my eldest son was bullied on a daily basis, he was a very bright boy with a great enthusiasm for learning. But such are the tragic results of unaddressed bullying, he had to leave school without completing his education. Of course there are many more like him going through the same kind of experience today.
The pleasures of being a digital voyager, I can sit in my chair and my knowledgeable guide Michael Portillo has made all the arrangements for me to explore; Latvia, Estonia and Finland. Modern technology brings the world to me, in earlier centuries the printed book did the same thing without the amazing panoramic pictures of the beautiful lakes and the interesting buildings in towns spread out before me. And perhaps the most amazing thing is these strangers speak to me in English, the only language that I understand, they probably also speak German and Russian. These countries have a long history of being ruled by their neighbours, in recent years these small countries have been in charge of their own affairs. Finland has made enormous strides both economically and educationally. The PISA report by the OECD has found that the education of all Finnish children to be very high in ; maths, science and reading. Finland also tops the ranking of Global Information Technology growth rate, one of the highest in the OECD, since the 1990s economic growth has been dominated by electronics and the electrotechnics industries. Investment in Research and Development has also been high.
It is clear that the government of Finland has come to the conclusion that the best resource the country has is its people, all its people, not a tiny percentage of the elite but everyone. Teaching is a difficult profession to get into, very high standards are set. Therefore teaching is a highly regarded profession with a reasonable standard of pay.
There are no standardised tests in the early years and the children are not in competition with each other, the reverse is true. Children who have mastered a task are encouraged to help those who are having difficulties. My understanding is that this leads to an absence of bullying which is common in far too many classrooms in England. Indeed is accepted as ‘normal’ with the extreme distress that this causes many individuals, not to mention the premature failure of some of the brightest students. I have experienced this with my own family.
The Scandinavian countries are geographically close by and historically share much of our history, yet we always look to the USA which has a dismal record of treating the many different minorities who live there. A broader outlook has much to recommend it.