Honestly, it has got to the point where Michael Wilshaw's pronouncements: on how teaching should be done; how teachers should behave; how much of a gut needs to be busted in order for teachers to even approach doing their job properly; could be safely ignored by everyone within the profession and indeed anyone with a stake in the education system. His words are inflammatory, unhelpful, perhaps even incitement. He does have previous, though. He was the one who failed to notice the literal meaning of the word satisfactory when saying that schools that were satisfactory needed to improve to good.
It seems to me to be a form of playing to the gallery. For some reason, teachers are one of those categories of people who it's okay to be negative about in general conversation. It's a bit like the thing where you're allowed (ish) to say that you're useless at maths in polite company, and it's not challenged frequently enough. It's not a badge of honour to be useless at maths - it doesn't make you cool - and it's not a badge of honour to think the worst of teachers - it doesn't make you a deep individual sticking it to the system. So Wilshaw - who despite in theory not being a political figure during his time at Ofsted - weighs in on a range of political-to-do-with-education topics, and there aren't many occasions when you can see him saying: look, teachers do a reasonably tough job (mostly) reasonably well, and when you consider the hammering they get in the right-wing press (and off successive governments) it's a wonder they continue to educate your rather demanding kids. In fact, the teaching unions look after the interests of their members, rather than just existing to say stuff that's offensive to the Daily Mail, and those members are frequently let down by their ultimate paymasters in government, particularly when it comes to the frankly wild suggestions of how education might be improved, usually involving teachers working longer hours. And those kids who roll up to school expecting to get away with doing the square root of fuck all? I blame the parents, actually, not the teachers, who have thirty of them at a time to try to organise, and can't necessarily accurately monitor the amount of time each kid spends looking under the desk to text their mates.
You don't hear him say that. And the reason is there's nothing to be gained for a commentator to piss off quite a wide range of the electorate with the difficult-to-face-but-nevertheless-fairly-obvious truth that is the kids make the most difference to their outcomes, and the influence of an individual teacher on any given kid's trajectory is pretty minimal. You don't hear the discussion of the subtle points around peer influence, culture, the way the instantaneous gratification of mobile phones and immersive computer games make the rather pedestrian task of teaching Y9 Energy that much harder... Again, those are things that broadly absolve teachers of responsibility for the poor performance of particular kids, and bring it back around to the kid and the circumstances they exist in.
You don't need to spend much time investigating how parents feel about the return to school to find that what schools do is - any way you cut it - absolutely incredible. A teacher will take 30 or so kids at a time, easily bored, with short attention spans, with phones that are much more interesting than our subject, whose behaviour can at times be anti-social or even bordering on the sociopathic to be honest (and that's all just the teachers...), give up a decent amount of the punishments that might actually tell (particularly at the moment!) before we even get going, and somehow - somehow - manage to get through a lesson having taught most of them something most of the time. So - and I don't say this very often - Wilshaw can fuck off. He either said what he said in ignorance of its implications, in which case it just beggars belief that he was HM's Chief Inspector of Schools for five years on the basis of limited his competence. Or he said it in the full knowledge of what it implies - that teachers dying as a direct result of the decision to send all students back to school is an acceptable sacrifice - in which case he is spiteful, vindictive even. Interestingly, the same standard of willingness to die does not seem to apply to Ofsted itself, which didn't inspect any schools in the last term because of the potential danger of school environments.
Still, at least it brings an important point to the fore. Education has broadly carried on, and yes, it's not as good as what happens in the school building, but what we're there for - in the end - is to make sure that the economy can run as normal, because getting kids back in school lets their parents get back to work, and, by extension, buying sandwiches from Pret.
Whatever they say tomorrow (and I think by the time the presser actually starts at 7pm, everyone will know exactly what they're going to say because it's all been leaked to the press) it's going to have a limited effect on what people are doing. There are lots of people who are going out and doing outdoor-type things because the weather has finally changed its mind to something tolerable, rather than actively unpleasant. We have been locked down - give or take - for the last four months, and only had a few months of relative freedom before that. It's no surprise that people are using their opportunity to go out and exercise, and there were considerably more cars parked and people walking around at the various places I cycled past this morning than there have been for probably the whole of the last 12 months. And the effect on people who are being told that schools are safe to reopen and that hospitality is going to be reopening relatively soon seems to be that everyone is looking at the situation and thinking that they can start to get back to normal.
So why am I worried? Put simply, the criteria for making decisions about how to handle the end of lockdown seem to be how well an announcement plays with the general public. There's no will or desire at the top to lead, especially when the leading is along difficult paths. There's far too much of the playing to the gallery that Boris Johnson is used to being able to do, turning round to check how his jokes are going down with the crowd behind him, rather than - and I hesitate to put it bluntly and come across as partisan - the kind of statesmanlike behaviour that is on show from the leaders of other countries at various times. The shift is palpable, as far as I can make out from my own memories. Even the ones I didn't like (the PMs, the Chancellors, the Foreign Secretaries) would at least put some value on appearing to be above corruption and incompetence, even if at some level they weren't. Appearances now don't seem to matter, or at least not in the same way. The current UK government seems to be comfortable with lawbreaking, bullying, incompetence and instability, to the extent that these things are not resignation issues for ministers any more. Which is terrifying: because if you can be shown to be corrupt in office and yet somehow remain in that office in what is supposed to be a functioning democracy in this country, what exactly needs to happen in order for someone to be pressured to resign? And the truly terrifying thing, from my perspective, is how little this sort of stuff seems to matter to some people who can vote. It's all about this nebulous sense of what these people represent, rather than anything concrete about policy or competence. Keir Starmer, for example, is streets ahead of Johnson in his command of detail in the facts, and routinely makes Johnson look lazy, careless, even stupid at PMQs. But there is talk of him resigning or being ousted. And that talk is amplified, reported, trends on Twitter... Johnson has a higher approval rating than he has any right to expect, and it seems to come from the idea that he, despite being enormously privileged, having a very inflated sense of his own ability, and his history of lying and general brattishness, is a born leader. Starmer, not so much. We seem to be frightened of him exactly because all of that detail and precision in the argument is dull, whereas Johnson's shtick isn't.
There have also been a few instances of the horrific shithousery that is accusing the opposition of scoring political points over matters of real import. I suppose neither side is above using that line, but as a way of trying to avoid being held to account in the business of government, it should be instantly disallowed. As in, any interviewer or commentator should, at the point of hearing that, shut the person saying it up, and then repeat whatever the question is and demand an actual answer. Actually, that wouldn't be a bad start for a lot of political interviewing. The training that seems to be in place - how often have you actually heard a politician of any stripe use the word 'no' or indeed 'yes' in an interview? - to turn the question round to the agenda of the day is clearly doing something. After all, the current government seems to have developed it to a level where no question can be asked which forces someone to admit a mistake or a blunder post hoc.
Anyway, political commentary isn't really my thing, but I have found myself driven almost mad recently by the way that things have been handled. In particular, opening all the schools on the 8th March seems to be driven not by evidence that schools are safe and not contributing to the spread of CV-19, but by the fact that schools are this ludicrous political football that has enormous narrative power. Keep the schools closed longer than initially advertised, and it will be cowardly - indeed, it seems to be the case that the lockdown naysayers have laid the groundwork by saying that Johnson is overly influenced by his scientific advisers - rather than cautious. Open them all at once in a Big Bang and that phrase will sell lots of newspapers and make people feel like it's all going back to normal. Never mind that schools aren't going to be able to do some of the things that need to happen to keep us all safe; never mind that regardless of the danger to kids (which may indeed be small) schools are staffed by people who aren't - usually - kids and will be at considerable risk; never mind that kids in school are not only in contact with each other but their own home and family networks. What matters is that they have something to shout about tomorrow. It's a really sad reflection on government that it is done by this kind of focus-group-approval method. There's no leadership in it, just trying to be popular.
The world as it was a couple of years ago didn't feel as though you'd miss it particularly when it was gone. In October 2018, I lost a friend and colleague suddenly and unexpectedly. There were things I wish I had the opportunity - or the balls - to speak to her about before she died, but I didn't. I wasn't brave enough to ask the questions - or to hear the answers - and they are moot now. If there's a point to that, it's precisely to note that I am not the kind of person of whom others say 'he's not going to die wondering'. Indeed, I'm probably going to die wondering. About a great many things. I changed to another job just under a year later, and - whether that was the cause or not, I'm not sure - my depression hit me again. There was something new and difficult about winter, bookended as that one was by the first anniversary of one awful and probably avoidable death and the fifth of another. I was adjusting to the change of environment, from a place where I had been part of the furniture, perhaps not liked and respected by all but at the very least able to find someone or something each day to look forward to. Teaching felt very much like a job - and one that I wasn't very good at and certainly wasn't enjoying - and I spent some time looking at other things. None of which were ever serious, but perhaps I was more ready than I had been before to give up.
The world, then, as it was a couple of years ago, did not feel like it was going to be lamented. There were things about it - going to the pub, band rehearsal, sporting events, even school, that shaped the weeks and the days, that were little lights on the way, and it wasn't until March of 2020 that we perhaps realised the extent to which we all lived for those things. And since then, in various combinations, we haven't had all the things we were used to. For example, I have not taken my children swimming for all that time. The small one hasn't been to the big water for nearly half of his short life. My band's forthcoming 'album' is marked up as '2019' in the files. It's taken us nearly two years, and not because we've got some grand artistic vision, we just haven't been allowed to get together to work on it for most of that time.
So the desire to return to normal is strong, for everyone. But - and I haven't really got much else to say other than this - let's not fuck it up quite so badly this time, eh? Last summer felt like a welcome return to normality, and then the autumn (at school in particular) was so weird, disrupted, obviously leading to another lockdown, This time as spring rolls around and I can look forward to wearing shorts and shoes that don't need socks, let's not jump the gun and have to all this shit again. Please...
That Van Gogh episode...
I did not know, until very recently, that Richard Curtis wrote that Van Gogh episode. In any case, there's something about Amy Pond that means I don't quite buy the enthusiasm for his paintings, but I'm not sure what exactly. That may well be an unfair judgement made about a young woman with no justification. It's surprising, though, to find her captivated by something like that. Perhaps that's the point, that all the sass and cynicism hide someone who really is full of those emotional connections to stuff, someone human. The Doctor describes the plastic-Roman version of Rory as 'so human', and those with a sense of history or who have been reading back through this very blog may know that phrase as one said to me (and of me) by someone who had seen that in me. I don't always hide behind sass and cynicism, although I am capable of that, but I do have experience of hiding, and of being unable to hide what I feel. Depression and anxiety took my ability to hide my feelings for a while just around five years ago, and there have been a couple of people who I have come across who have seen straight through me even when I was supposedly wearing my professional mask.
It's the same with how Amy feels about Rory, that there is this imbalance in how physically striking they are, but that does not stop Amy's love for Rory being all-conquering. The trope of the man loving the beautiful woman more than she loves him is a common one, and Arthur Darvill captures the idea of the nervous boyfriend of the whirlwind, mercurial girlfriend really rather well. Anyway, all of this is just a preamble to the confession that once again, when that Vincent episode came to a close and Bill Nighy is talking about where he sits in the pantheon of painters, I cried, and I did all that stuff that you do - blinking, tipping my head back - to try to stop it or disguise it. And it all happened again when the Doctor tells the story of his suicide at the age of 37, probably battered by years of depression and insomnia, possibly bipolar disorder...
Sometimes you rewatch something and a bit of the magic has gone. Not this. Perhaps the fact of watching it with a 9-year-old who is seeing it for the first time is part of that, but it really does feel like there was a bit of a streak across the David Tennant and Matt. Smith series. I wonder what I'll think about Capaldi.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought