Sunday, 22 November 2015

Our Father...

It's Sunday, an appropriate day of the week to wake to a headline about the Lord's Prayer. Apparently the Church of England commissioned a cinema ad (at what expense, I wonder?) that the BBFC passed and which was cleared by the Cinema Advertising Authority but that Digital Media Cinema, the body that actually places the ads in cinemas, won't allow.

The word on Twitter this morning seems to be outrage - outrage at censorship, outrage at what can be advertised in the run up to Christmas and what can't, outrage at what is seen as an affront to free speech and another example of intolerance. 

But wait! Surely the rule book forbidding any religious content in cinema advertising was available for perusal before the Church in its wisdom spent £thousands (hundreds of them, probably) filming the thing? Shouldn't the outrage be directed at another example of CofE waste. There are churches with leaky roofs, not to mention hoards of the homeless and the hungry up and down the country. Is this the best use of the self-confessed impoverished church's money anyway? 

They say there's no such thing as bad publicity and - true - the so-called ban has certainly got people talking this morning. But I'm not so sure. Another example (there are plenty) of the established church getting its priorities wrong isn't good for anyone's image. If I were going to church this morning is certainly think twice before putting anything in the collection.

Store up your treasures in heaven, said Jesus. I'm not sure that needs any spin or advertising. But in the meantime here, again, is a letter from His Most Reverence-ness, the Archbishop of Titipu Canterbury that I like sharing...

Shows they care, doesn't it?

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

School's out!

I've just caught up with a fascinating interview on BBC Radio 3 as part of the Free Thinking Festival. Prof. Sugata Mitra thinks schools are obsolete and that teachers should be replaced by a friendly - but not necessarily knowledgeable - adult who simple asks the children questions about what they're doing, or else expresses enthusiasm and admiration for whatever they've discovered. In other words children should teach themselves, in small groups, using a computer and merely report what they're doing to a grown-up. Testing, rote learning, exams etc. are all out, cloud learning - the 'granny' cloud - is in.

As I listened I realised I had, in a small way, tried something similar many years ago. It was pre-computer, so it was based on that old-fashioned commodity, the book. At the start of each new topic or at the beginning of a new course I'd put all the books I could find on the subject in a big box and the pupils would spend a few lessons simply reading them, choosing whichever they preferred, not writing anything, just... well, reading. And, without realising it, learning.

Horrible idea! Ofsted (not to mention most Headteachers) would hate it. But the kids liked it. There were all sorts of books for them to choose from, ranging from the simplest primary school picture book to 'A' level and undergraduate texts. They could  go from one to the other and back again at will. And then, when we started the course proper, they were ready. Without knowing it they'd have prepared a framework for their future learning. And enjoyed doing so.

Prof. Mitra also claims exams have outlived their usefulness. They're part of a 'just-in-case' philosophy of education that's outdated now we're able to carry 'the entire human consciousness in our pockets' (his words). It all seems so pie-in-the-sky when written down like this, yet so obvious and inevitable when explained by Professor Mitra. And he's no ivory-tower academic, either. Much of his thinking was based on an experiment he carried out in Delhi, the results of which inspired the film Slumdog Millionaire.

After more than twenty years teaching, I have a rather ambivalent approach to education. There seems little doubt that what most schools do, most of the time, is wasteful and inefficient. At worst, it  leads to a fear and loathing of learning; at best, it seems no more than a means to an end. And the pressures the system heaps up on our children are enormous.

Most of what we know about the brain and how people learn has only been discovered in the last ten to fifteen years. Very little of that knowledge has filtered down to classrooms. And - like it or not - technology has changed everything. Except the underlying principles of what goes on in English school classrooms. Ideas like Prof Mitra's might just give us a tantalising glimpse of the future.  Catch the interview on BBC iPlayer here while you can.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

They shall grow not old

Remembrance, as we now know it, is not as straightforward as it might first appear. What would seem to us now as natural, inevitable - the individual commemoration of each fallen soldier - was in fact quite a new idea at the start of the Great War. The fact that each serviceman should have his own grave, with a stone and a name or - if his body couldn't be found - an inscription on one of the many memorials to the missing is largely thanks to the tireless work of one man, Fabian Ware, founder of what it now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The bugle call that is synonymous with remembrance was, in fact, merely the last of many signals that punctuated the day in camp, ensuring soldiers got to where they were required to be on time and, in the case of The Last Post, signalled that sentries had been posted and the camp was secure for the night.

And those great words by Laurence Binyon, without which no remembrance ceremony would now be complete, were written not towards the end of the Great War when the death toll mounted, nor in 1918 when the 'intolerably nameless names' were being remembered, but in September 1914 - within weeks of the outbreak of war, and well before the scale of the slaughter was even considered a remote - and awful - possibility.

The idea for this iconic poem came to Binyon while on holiday in Cornwall. ‘The stanza They Shall Grow Not Old,' (Binyon explained when interviewed in 1939 on the eve of the outbreak of another war) 'was written first and dictated the rhythmical movement of the whole poem.’ Interesting that, by then, Binyon seems to have settled on the word order 'grow not' rather than 'not grow [old]'. Both exist in his early versions of the poem, but I've always thought 'grow not old' carries much more meaning, and is indeed why the verse still resonates so movingly today, and has become an icon of remembrance day.

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

The name of the game

Another day, another reality TV show. This time, it appears, people are being asked to throw pots. (Make them, that is, rather than throw bought earthenware at the walls).

Now I like to see people bake cakes, dance, sing songs, dig allotments, create business plans and knit as much as the next man. Actually, I don't. I like to see people dance. We love Strictly in our house. But that's about all.

But what I want to know is, what's next? Because if they want an 'author-off' (or should that be 'write-off') I'm available. And I'd be pretty good at 'get the kids up, dressed and to school at the right time with the right kit and wearing the right clothes' too. And that really IS a challenge. Beats baking a cake any day.

Actually, I know what will be next. Or rather, I know how to find out. Because it's clear that the planners in telly-land have simply watched old episodes of The Generation Game and taken them apart, round by round, and made each stage into its own series.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, The Generation Game was a long-running Saturday evening TV programme hosted by Brucie ('nice to see you') Forsyth that involved family teams competing against each other after watching a series of experts demonstrating a variety of activities they themselves then had to do. Here's a typical example, involving a basket (case):

See? The expert makes it look easy! And the audience can't help laughing, anticipating the mess the contestants are likely to make of it. And, of course, they're right.

Clearly, to save money, the BBC has simply decided to recycle the idea. And maybe add some new games for good measure. I don't remember Alan Sugar ever appearing, nor the contestants having to close some ghastly business deal, but no matter. It's the formula that matters.So, in the interests of keeping the license fee low and maintaining the same cannibalistic spirit, here are a few more suggestions for reality TV programmes that I offer to the BBC (or any other broadcaster) with the proviso that, if any of them make it to screen, I get a cut.
  • The Apprentice... carpenter (or, 'plain-sailing with a plane')
  • Strictly Come Train-spotting 
  • The only way is Esso - in which contestants compete to see whose driving is the most economical
  • Any Parents Kitchen Nightmare (speaks for itself)
and finally, for now,
  • The Great British Bog Off - in which bargain-hungry shoppers compete to save the most money while doing the weekly shop.
Didn't they do well?

Life. It's the name of the game.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Getting the goat...

The lovely people at St Helen's Farm have sent us a hamper brim full of goat's milk and goat's milk products - including cheese and yoghurt and butter and, of course, milk in manifold variations (skimmed, semi-skimmed and so on).

I hadn't realised until I did a little online research that they're based at Seaton Ross in East Yorkshire. I used to have a Saturday job there, many - many - moons ago. At Seaton Ross, that is. It had nothing to do with goats. It involved pheasants. I was a bush-beater. Sounds alarming, I agree. And in a way, it is. My defence is it was all a long, long time ago.

Anyway, St Helen's Farm is a goat farm and dairy set in more than 500 acres in the Vale of York. It was established in 1998 to cater for people with an intolerance of cow's milk, a function it still fulfils.

This short film will tell you a little about the history of the farm and how they look after their goats and make the fresh milk, butter, yogurt and cheese that are distributed to supermarkets throughout the UK every day.

In the meantime, we're doing the most delicious taste test. Follow me on Twitter (@dotterel) to find out how we get on.
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