A Contrarian Questions…

It’s International Women’s Day, or Woman’s Day – there are lots of hashtags on Twitter for it. I have put my contrarian hat on and just have some questions (I’m not going to attempt to answer them, and I have attempted not to load them with commentary – well, not too much). No, they’re not the boring and boorish stuff from eejits asking why there isn’t a Men’s Day (apparently there is, but come on, chaps) nor it is about the pay gap in Education, although probably it should be: it’s just questions arising from having been in professional contexts all my working life where women have been prominent leaders and thinkers and managers, notably in Primary and Early Years education and then in Higher Education in a School of Ed.  I am not commenting here on opportunities for women to lead, or anything like this: I simply  celebrate my time being taught and managed by women who have inspired me.

Last year, very probably my final year in full-time employment, I had a male line manager for the first time since I was a student. It was a nice experience – Roger is a splendid manager, a lovely guy – at a difficult time, so this isn’t a moan about blokes as managers but it does lead me to my first question:

Was it me, or why did I never see having a woman as my boss as an issue?

I learned so much from having a series of headteachers to shape me professionally: Sr Anna in Esh Laude, Leslie Grundy and Elaine Smith at Grandpont. In very different ways they were thoughtful and mindful of my need to learn my trade. When I was a headteacher, I had advisers like Julie Fisher and inspirational figures like Rosemary Peacocke to nudge me, and writers like Tina Bruce and Kathy Sylva.  My next question then:

Should we prepare men coming into Primary and Early Years for some ethos-shocks, or, building on my previous question, might professional development for educators simply take female mentorship and leadership as read? Do men really need their hands holding because they might get told to do something by … a woman?

And finally: well, I continue to work with the School of Education at Brookes, and count its previous and current heads as friends, as well as delighting in working with a strong body of women as well as men. I also work with The Slade Nursery where Carol the head is an inspiration and the staff are a joy. I know umpteen reasons why people press for men to work in Early Years but my last question is

In pressing for men in Early Years are we in danger of seeing the thousands of competent, exciting (female) professionals who are already making a difference to children and families seem somehow lesser mortals?

I said I had a contrarian hat on.


Roll up, Roll up: time for a job.

“The new year reviving old desires…”  The new calendar year is here, spring is almost upon us…

And the desire to teach starts to stir in the trainee, impatient, maybe, with the rigours of the training programme, or simply thinking “It’s time” or “I’m ready for this.” And it is time, so here are some thoughts, unofficial, off-the-cuff, but stemming from my own experience. You may have other experiences yourself, and they almost certainly differ from mine, but this may at least help you formulate your ideas.

So here is my Polonius-like advice, the bloggiest blog post ever, in some ways, I guess, growing out of experience interviewing people for school and other education jobs. And I’d like to think first about the ambiguities of the interactions before you find yourself sitting in the Head’s Office for the half-hour grilling of The Interview. That’s about thinking on your feet, listening to the questions and having examples ready to tell the story of when you… Or when they…

First things first: selection procedures are not straightforward. They are a very particular set of human interactions, and therefore will have so many variables from the  unconscious bias of interviewer or interviewee to whether it’s time for coffee soon. They also have a definite start and end but they are not where you think. They start from the scrappy info the school puts out or the over-shiny telephone system before you get to talk to someone. They might also include the person who answers the ‘phone to you – was that the Head? Will the School Business Manager be the person on the ‘phone, and will s/he set you at ease or be so officious it puts you off? Breathe, and smile, even when you’re on the ‘phone. The relationship games are already starting. No-one really intends them, but they are there. Similarly, at the every end of the interview after the excruciating “Do you have any questions?” (see below), you have to get up and walk out of the room still looking like you are all in one piece. And then the ‘phone call that evening “Hello, Nick: well, we had a very full day, as I’m sure you realise, and the governors have asked me to call and….”

The task of establishing relationships also seeps into the tour of the school. This was my advice to a Brookes student recently:

  1. Be on time;
  2. Remember that whatever Equal Opps say, this look-round is part of the process;
  3. Listen to the hints: “This would be your class; Displays were Ms X’s strong point” is a hint;
  4. Be you: don’t be a pretend you (it really shows – trust me!).

Let’s expand them a bit.

Be on time. Schools are busy places. It may be that there are other people being shown round, or the Deputy or the School Council may have set aside time to see you. This is the first courtesy. The look-round is part of the process. You are looking at them, they are looking at you. It may be that the person showing you round will be asked their opinion, even if only very informally.  This leads into being genuine: don’t be a fake version you think they want. I’m afraid I’ve seen them, and they are excruciatingly embarrassing. But remember to listen to the hints. “This would be your class; Displays were Ms X’s strong point” might also be the less guarded,  less professional “This would be your class; I’m sure Ms Y’s class have been having a lovely time here today, and she will get round to tidying it up before the morning.” Yes, I have heard both – and worse. If you’ve read their last OfSTED report you may have picked up some the nuances already. Just don’t barge in by saying “Yes, I see the last OfSTED said a,b, c…” especially if the abc were critical. And if you see something you really don’t like, consider: could I be happy working here? As I said, this is you looking at them as well as them looking at you. But be courteous.

What to wear for the tour? Well, not casual: if this isn’t a tour-teach-interview experience, save your interview clothes for the interview. And if it’s during the school day, dress like a teacher in case you need to get down to work with children at a table or help put a jigsaw/pile of maths equipment away.

Do you have any questions?  You will doubtless be asked that at the interview, and if you aren’t, then end on a bright note with “No, I think I’m fine for now: the information you have given me was very full, and this has been a very positive experience. Thank you again.”  Nervous giggles as “Not reeelly though” aren’t what you need. On a tour that isn’t attached to the interview, you might be more candid with your questions, but try not to sound like you are wary of hard work. I was once asked “How long to people stay in the evenings?” and while it was a very reasonable question, it did come over as “When can I leave?”  Questions on pedagogy, schemes of work, things you might be able to get involved in might work – but again: be yourself.


Now, assuming you’ve done all this, and you still like the school and you think they like you, it’s application form (or letter or whatever) time. I’m sure you get some guidance on this as you come to the end of whatever ITT you’re doing, but here are just three things to remember.

Application forms are often read at the end of the day by tired people. Don’t waste their time or energy with

  1. Misspellings and grammatical horrors. Come on: copy-edit ebfroe before pressing send. I’ve known good students lose out on an interview over this.
  2. Formulaic stuff that staggers from catchphrase to catchphrase. I know you have a limited word count, but buzzwords won’t help.
  3. Waffle that doesn’t show clearly how your experience and qualifications make you the person the job description is getting at.

“I know all this,” you say.

Good. Go for it.




To talk about Mindfulness I want to start with Thich Nhat Hahn. Here he is working – except he says it isn’t work – on calligraphy that conveys his central messages. As he says:

Breathe and enjoy the Kingdom of God in the here and now. Breathe and enjoy this wonderful moment.

I’ll stop there and do just that before I continue.





In preparing a class on spirituality for the Education Studies students at Brookes, I have a number of choices about how to approach mindfulness.

In terms of resources, there is the possibility of using words from Thich Nhat Hanh himself and the wonderful music and Nature graphics in the Great Bell Chant.   There have been times when turning the lights back on after showing those 7 mins to students has felt really quite a disruption to a sense of quiet: it is (for me and for some of them) a moving little bit of film.

The universal dharma door
is already open.
The sound of the rising tide
is heard clearly…

(3 mins ff)

and I will probably need to weave these in with this cute and thought-provoking footage from a school in Ireland.

But here I find myself in a bit of a quandary. There seems to me to be something of a divergence of expectations here. Quite what does Mindfulness (or spirituality in general) do in schools? Let’s look at what the children say, speaking of their jars full of sequins and other glittery materials that exemplify their minds – shaken and busy with ideas and feelings:

“Your jar is like your heart and there’s loads of stuff inside it….”

“Your mind is so busy it can’t think of a load of things…”

“…and then when you leave it to settle you take a deep breath and then it all goes to the bottom.”

Lovely stuff, and drawing on a similar story from Thich Nhat Hanh about watching apple juice settle.   I would hope that the children are the better in some way from practising this.

The clip goes on, however, to present the children’s acts of kindness and what they are thankful for. They are personal, domestic things – making breakfast, giving mum some peace, feeding the dog; being thankful for food, presents, a warm house. So with one short clip (we have to admit it is short, edited, &c.) we move from mindfulness through kindness and gratitude.

These are interesting values and practices for schools to promote. The way they are presented is that mindfulness makes you think more clearly, acts of kindness earn the approbation of adults, and we can be grateful for what adults provide. Of course, the converse might be things we want to avoid – chaotic thinking from ungrateful, unkind children (or adults), but is this really mindfulness, or a new, maybe more accessible and acceptable catechism? Christian children all must be/Mild obedient, good as He, as the Christmas hymn goes.  This is less than the commodification of spirituality that many are wary of, but it could be its schoolification.

So in terms of practice, how might we look at Mindfulness in schools? I think we might take a lesson from Forest Schools. An initiative is seen and adopted faithfully by some, with minor alterations by others, and a dilution takes place until a school calls the weekly visit to the pond at the end of the school field by a name that might also be used by a wide-ranging, risk-taking experience some miles from the classroom. Similarly, a teacher might be a committed follower of the Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, or they might be involved in some kind of sitting mediation themselves, or following a course of guidance on mindful meditation. I suppose That Candle Thing sits somewhere around this marker – and the original project for that was a largely improvised activity.  Or they might have read a book on the subject, or seen a bit of mindfulness practice as part of their Initial Teacher Education or some CPD and think that this is something they might spread more widely. I find I am thinking “Think Raisins:” the quick introduction to mindfulness many have experienced as CPD in schools where people contemplate a raisin. Is this enough to think about how one might adapt a practice to school life?

I’m not arguing for regulation and accreditation but for a recognition of foundational ideas and texts. Here – although Buddhist meditation can’t really have a foundation text from the 1970s (can it?) – I would want to refer back to The Miracle of Mindfulness. Not all books on mindfulness will acknowledge the source, something I find a bit disturbing, but here are some of the things Thich Nhat Hanh has to say, first about what mindfulness does and then what we do about or with it.

I like to walk alone on country paths, rice plants and wild grasses on both sides, putting each foot down on the earth in mindfulness, knowing that I walk on the wondrous earth. In such moments, existence is a miraculous and mysterious reality.

People usually consider walking on water or on thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or on thin air, but to walk on earth.

and then, more practically

Your breath should be light, even and flowing, like a thin stream of water running through the sand. Your breath should be very quiet, so quiet that the person sitting next to you cannot hear it… To master our breath is to be in control of our bodies and minds… Each time we find ourselves dispersed an find it difficult to gain control of ourselves by different means, the method of watching the breath should always be used.


And of course there’s much more.

Is this what the children are doing? Should their eyes be open or shut? Does it matter and if so why?  Do the foundation texts need to be in play? And is this spirituality?  Well, it will depend (cop-out phrase coming) on what we mean by spirituality. Is it about making sense of self and our relationship with others, in ways that Ursula King or Andrew Wright might recognise? Is it about transcendence, devotion? What are its links to communities of faith?

Some mindfulness practices – sitting quiet, listening to your breathing, trying to just be rather than plan dinner or think great thoughts, or fight feelings of inadequacy (yes, this is me, in meditation) – can be seen as practices arising from spiritual traditions in East and West. In that sense they are part of spirituality. They differ from some (largely Western) attempts to define spirituality in that they do seem, in their purest forms, to lack a goal. Sitting to sit, washing the dishes to wash the dishes: someone who sits in meditation may find clearer water in which to view their past and present (and maybe their future), but they are chasing a bird to put salt on its tail if they think meditation will automatically give that. Sometimes when I sit it’s like sitting on a block of ice, and I am desperate to finish, or I spend all my time chasing what I should have said, how I might have looked.  I certainly am not “better” when I get up. It is not Penicillin or Novocaine.

Martin Laird’s books are a good way to see some synergy between the goal-orientated or biography-centred definitions of, say, Wright or King and the goalless sitting of Zen. His (Christian, monastic) perspective looks at the therapeutic outcomes of silence in which arises an awareness of our own psychological states:

The specific focus of this book [Into the Silent Land] will be on the practical struggles many of use face when we try to be silent – the inner chaos going on in our heads, like some wild cocktail party of which we find ourselves the embarrassed host. Often, however, we are not even aware of how utterly dominating this inner noise is until we try to enter through the doorway of silence.

Just sitting, for me, needs my eyes to be open: to sit where I am and see things come and go, rather than plunge myself into the interior cinema of deadlines or wishful thinking or regrets. I’ve written about this before when reflecting on birdsong in the morning. It also needs me to see the things that worry me as the “weather on the mountain:” not me, just the stuff that swirls about me (this is another image from Martin Laird).


Back to the classroom – both the compulsory-age children’s rooms and the HE classroom I’m preparing for.   Although it’s a lot to ask, I think I would expect spirituality in an educational context to encompass three or more aspects:

  • Awareness of self and others
  • Compassionate attitudes
  • Practices that encourage these two.

Compassion and spirituality are sometimes artificially linked: Christian warrior monks, for example, in the twelfth century had compassion for some and not others, and coupled this with intense religious practice from Cistercian roots and combat to the death. Similar attitudes might be seen in religious groups today. Nevertheless, in general, spirituality is linked often to the awareness of others we might describe as compassion. It’s a tall order to “get schools” to do this work, but it has been represented in OfSTED guidance and in local curriculum materials. It is there in germ in the aims and objectives of Oxford Brookes and other Higher Education organisations – although I have critiqued this before.  Compassionate attitudes, spirituality, real vision and purpose: they might be enunciated but not embodied. Children are wild, students are on their ‘phones, teachers and lecturers are overworked or grumpy, systems prop up systems rather than support users. It is, as I say, a tall order.

If a bit of quiet sitting does form competent, reflective, self-aware compassionate students (and staff???), I’m happy. If a lot of quiet sitting is needed, well, maybe schools and Universities need to think this through and ask what the role of education is. If sitting quiet and sparkly jars help, then fine, whether they have the backing of a training group or no. If, however, sitting and the rest is tokenistic and without wider ripples into school, then I don’t see the point.

So while my class for the  Values and Religion in Schools module will have mention of mindfulness, will look at the SACRE on spirituality, and at thinkers like Wright, and Eaude, will mention outdoors and wellbeing and read some Thich Nhat Hanh, I do not see piecemeal adoption of spiritual practices as a cure-all, any more than I think a bit of woodland exploration will save the world. But it’s a start.





Up to my (shall we say?) knees with marking and just want to consider one little word. Actually it’s a word that stands for a whole set of assumptions about academic writing. Whilst.

It reminds me of the Grandma who once, in the springtime of the world, came to pick up her grandchild from Nursery. The unfortunate dialogue went something like this:

Granny: Hurry up, Mikey, we need to go.
[Mikey continues to play]
Granny: If you don’t come soon your headteacher will smack you for being naughty.
[I don’t normally intervene and certainly not to contradict a carer but I wade in]
Me: I’m sorry, Mrs S, but we don’t ever smack children; please don’t give Mikey the idea that we do.
Granny: But I’m giving you permission to smack him. Insofar as you are in charge in this establishment I am permitting you to exercise your rights in loco parentis.

Now, this isn’t about smacking or school-based discipline or home-school relationships, but voice. I can see what I did wrong there – but I still think Mikey needed to know I wasn’t going to hit him – but listen to Granny. She didn’t normally talk like this, but she changes gear massively with that Insofar. The awful phrase in loco parentis just adds to the sense that this person is claiming some kind of authority by sounding, well, as if they have some. My dreaded signal while (sorry: whilst) marking does the same. What it too often introduces – like Granny’s insofar – is a sort of strangled over-writing (I still feel much the same about the new(ish) translation of the Roman rite liturgy, if I’m honest, with its sub-Cranmerian verbosity but that is by-the-by).

When I see whilst I have to acknowledge that sometimes it does sounds better.   I suppose I could write “don’t use this:” after all, I do have a button in Grademark that just says “Avoid,” but whilst has so much hanging on it I feel I need to explain myself.  No-one (in my modules at least) will get marked down for just using whilst, or even (usually) for the occasional “you” or an odd lapse in references. My hunter instincts may be roused, but I will not routinely chase the hare. Does that metaphor work?

I could have called this blog post “please consider keeping your sentences shorter and more straightforward: you will be able to “lead your reader” more effectively if you make less use of phrases such as ‘through this research journal article  it has been discovered…'” but I don’t think it’s as catchy, even though I use that phrase (or similar) often enough when I give written feedback. What whilst says to me is “I’m drowning here: how the fuck do I make myself sound like the kind of people I’ve been reading?”

And that is a challenge that assignment feedback can hardly start on. How do we give the complex and sometimes mixed messages about how to join the writers’ club? What about the comment “missing apostrophe” or “italics not needed in Harvard”? How is a student to know where to start with all of this? Or, to make this personal, how do I take my chatty, ranty blog posts and change the voice to get an article from this idea or that?

Students, young writers be aware at least of this:

You are not joining us in an exercise of perfection, but in a struggle for clarity.

Compassion, Charity, Grace and a Hug

I have a big book on my lap. Well, it’s no Codex Amiatinus and actually claims to be concise. At 1840+  pages the Encyclopedia of Theology: a Concise Sacramentum Mundi might be full of “major articles on theology, biblical science and related topics from the (six volume) Sacramentum Mundi,” but concise it isn’t.

It’s also interesting to see what words it homes in on and what it does not. The apparent gaps and highlights show us, in part, how language changes and how with it (before it, after it) beliefs and attitudes. So I turn to the contents. A is for Afterlife, Agnosticism, Angels… M is for Magisterium, Man, Mariology… and it finishes with W: World and Worship. Compassion, I note, is missing, as is Love (if you’re wanting to know, Sex, Celibacy and Marriage all have sections). But Charity is there.  Reading Charity is interesting for what it says about language, as I mentioned (“Men feel bound to love others in proportion to their ‘social proximity'” reads as stickily old-fashioned) and its dryness is something of a challenge: “Love of the neighbour determines the basic structure of the moral act;” “The ‘transcendental depth’ of man in the encounter with the ‘other’ always points beyond itself, at least implicitly, to God…” It is clear the author (Waldemar Molinski) is talking about an active love of a real other person, but the vision seems to lack all sorts of attributes, not least everyday attention and  affection. There is no coffee here, there are no hugs: love with no humanity. In some ways that was, of course, the brief: this is an encyclopedia, after all.

Looking beyond Christian theology there are sources with more immediate appeal – even ones mentioned in this blog: vulnerability with Mike Armiger; Geoff Taggart’s compassionate pedagogy; and then Dennis Tirsch whom I quote in this blog post on sacredness:

A good relationship is a sacred space that can safely contain how we think and feel, along with our potentially painful histories + the whole of who we are.

In calling for a recognition of the sacredness of a good relationship we are actually closer (in thought if not in language) to the Charity article than it at first appears: recognising the reality of the other person is at the heart of Christian living. But Tirsch, I think, and my atheist and agnostic and Buddhist friends would not see Christian morality (when shaped like this) as having a sufficient language in itself. This is partly because Molinski is thinking in terms of individuals: this man [sic] and his neighbour, and their several relationships with God. Some of the appeal of Buddhist writing comes from its refusal to compartmentalise. Thich Nhat Hahn writes of working for peace in Vietnam during the War:

We were able to understand the suffering of both sides, the Communists and the anti-Communists. We tried to be open to both, to understand this side and to understand that side, to be one with them. That is why we did not take a side, even though the whole world took sides.

Being Peace

Thich Nhat Hahn sees us as trying to solve problems when things go wrong for a child, rather than blaming the child. This may be part of the issue (aka bitter arguments and name-calling)  around discourses of behaviour in schools: I don’t know. I do know that at home and at work it can be very hard and that I’m not very good at it in either place: I am too needy of other people’s approval and affection, too jealous of my own misplaced sense of equilibrium.

Perhaps in a search for Compassion in the Encyclopedia I should be looking more at Grace, the active giving “which divinizes the essence, powers and activity of man.”  A gift of freedom in the deepest sense.  As Thomas Merton warns:

…We only have as much as we give. But we are called upon to give as much as we have, and more; as much as we are. ..Love alone can teach us to penetrate the hidden goodness of the things we know.

No Man is an Island

Back, then, to sacredness, to self-giving and realising a huge Oneness, what Thich Nhat Hahn calls “the presence of the entire universe in ourselves.”  Back to meditation. Following the breath and hoping that this will free us from what Martin Laird calls “inner chatter,” from preconceptions and old pains.


Wonderful. But here I am blogging when I should be marking, wondering how useful it would be to mark an essay with the feedback “seeing and loving are one” (Thich Nhat Hahn again) or “We humble ourselves, crying for his mercy and grace” (Julian of Norwich). Of course it would not be what was needed: the compassionate act is to help the student understand what is working in their assignment , and where they might look next for ideas or for techniques to make their work better. Writing “Look at your sentence structure” becomes a more compassionate act than suggesting that “the rays of the sun and of the moon touch the earth, and yet the earth does not contaminate the light”  (St Augustine, if you’re interested).

This is a reductio ad absurdum, I know, but it does highlight a problem I struggled with as Programme Lead at Brookes and continue to struggle with as I talk to people who are still there: how to be compassionate in a system that is not compassionate. Not wicked, not prone to abuse, just that greyest of things: not compassionate: on Twitter tonight (17.12.18) I mentioned how

Lots of teams… can…find it easier to rely on a “just get on with it” culture where student needs are met by frontline staff but those staff are not themselves given regular help.

I am beginning to think that the uncaring or even the cruel system or the oppressive system might be easier to be compassionate in. I’m not advocating we should move to this, just that “compassionate as an act of defiance” is maybe easier to see or to see opportunities for than it is to see compassion or a need to exercise it in a system that talks about caring but actually cares very little: where the see-saw of the task and the group means that management-speak is about staff experience but where the systems leave little room for genuine compassion-focussed practice. This isn’t to say that Higher Education (or any educational project) should give itself over to the needs of the team  (though a hug is nice, sometimes) because teaching needs to happen, budgets need to be balanced, buildings tidied… – but that compassionate practice cannot be an add-on, and cannot be the hobby of a few.

However (and I’ll end here) this comes at a price, a real price that institutions, I think, have to step up to. The Twitter conversation this evening centred on a lovely animation from @KellyCanuckTO in which she asks, really, who looks after the people who do the looking after?  To provide this support in busy working lives takes time, takes people with time themselves, and skills and insight – and who are willing (because this is what Grace does) to risk being hurt, to risk that second asking of “Are you all right?” – and the time to sit and listen when there is an answer that needs an ear.

Not Brookes Branded?

This is a brief (ish) reflection on the joys and trials of being a Principal Lecturer and Programme Lead as I come to the end of my service in the role. Trigger Warning: contains opera lyrics, I’m afraid.

Starting from First Principles, from Values, and while for me this is Oxford Brookes, the lovely and infuriating and supportive and dismissive organisation that has been my work home since I moved from being a Headteacher  in 2002, I don’t think I am alone in education in any phase or sector in the joys or the frustrations I’ve met with. As an aside, I’ve only just seen this piece in the local press: my comments on leaving Bartlemas bear a striking resemblance to what I am about to say here! This link, in any case, takes us to the Brooks strategy and vision of the University: https://www.brookes.ac.uk/about-brookes/strategy/strategy-2020/ and I’ll pick out some important ideas.

…committed to leading the intellectual, social and economic development of the communities it serves…
We will continue to enhance the value – and the perception of value – of our social as well as educational mission…
Oxford Brookes University will provide an exceptional, student-centred experience which is based on both internationally significant research and pedagogic best practice. We will build on a tradition of distinction in academic, professional and social engagement to enhance our reputation as a university which educates confident citizens characterised by their generosity of spirit.

This is fine stuff, but perhaps I would amend it to warn against the rise of what Paul Gilbert referred to recently as “non-compassionate processes.”  There has to be room – as Helena Mitchell and I are pointing out  in a forthcoming chapter – for compassion and self-reflection as a way of cutting through what one  writer calls the ‘semantic mess’ of educational values.

It would be easy to cite some of the less compassionate processes, and the UK is not alone in seeing managerial/administrative creep introduce these to the cost of staff and (very possibly) student experience. Say this to many public-sector (or quasi-public-sector) workers and a car parking debate will not be far behind. I will not dwell on the negatives, in case it looks like I am giving up the role out of pique, which is emphatically not the case. Instead I want to think about three phrases from my quotation above. Let me put the first two together as parts of the same idea:

Leading the intellectual, social and economic development of the communities it serves…our social as well as educational mission. 

The Programme Lead is really responsible for a rather odd set of  tasks that make up a bigger picture – not so much a mosaic as an anthill of duties of various sizes: performance development review; watching over quality returns of all sorts; chairing meetings, sitting in others; teaching and supervising; that knock in the door or the call that says “can you just…”; selling the programmes from first enquiry to beyond graduation…  It is sometimes  hard to see how the little tasks fit with the grand schemes, especially the aspirational stuff about leading social development and student-centredness.  Gregory the Great (d 604) complained of the tensions and the perils of the distracted (Pope or Programme Lead) have not lessened, as the Barber of Seville noted:

Tutto mi chiedono, tutti mi vogliono,
tutti mi chiedono, tutti mi vogliono,
Qua la parruca, presto la barba, presto il biglietto, ehi!

Figaro… Figaro… Figaro… Figaro...Figaro

Where does coffee fit? The chat on the bus? The head round the door to “just check…”? How do I find time to further the grand purpose when I have these minutes to review? Or how does tine management becomes so lacking in compassion?  Or how might I discern an ethical aspect to these procedural tasks?

Uno alla volta,
per carita!


A university which educates confident citizens characterised by their generosity of spirit.

It’s interesting to see the parallels between this statement from Oxford Brookes and Geoff Taggart whose vision for the Early Years is that “Compassionate pedagogy seeks to nurture children who are vocal, capable citizens as well as secure, well-adjusted people.” In the same way, at Brookes we educate [sc “people to be”] confident citizens in the midst of what some have described as a Mental Health epidemic. Is an academic a Canute, failing to hold back the tide? I would argue not, despite growing calls for better engagement from academic staff with the mental health of students, although I do think Paul Gilbert’s warning about processes that are “non-compassionate” is worth remembering: to redress the balance in what are potentially non-compassionate situations we need “intentionality and commitment:” vague notions are not enough.  What struck me most, in a personally significant, moving (and manic) few days in May, was the Compassionate Mind conference in which leaders in all sorts of sectors were united in a plea to return to first principles, to re-examine practices and attitudes that were toxic: overworking; rising levels of stress-related illness; the extra hour’s emails when you get home… Generosity of spirit can feel a bit like a drive to work harder and harder, from a position in which the individual is the slacker. If our first principles include generosity, we must consider emotional and physical wellbeing as key to that, and leaders (including Programme Leads)  have to see that generosity includes gentleness, and role-modelling concern. If “what will survive of us is love” (a line I cited earlier but with added poignancy as I start to pack up) then it starts now or more likely should’ve started years ago, before the packing boxes, or crisply worded email or the exasperated comment, or receiving these and storing them away (yes, Nick, that means you – and yes, St Benedict thought this all over in Ch 4 of the Rule  centuries ago…) or even the setting up of the shiny new system for this or that: its chrome plating does not guarantee its ethical worth. Gosh, that was a long sentence!  I think very often- and this year or two in particular- I have seen (like I have never seen before) where love and compassion are, and where they are not, in my own work life. Partly, where they are not are in the internal and external drivers that make me feel bad when I cannot deliver. Where they are, are among the trees on my lovely campus, green places, the student whose need or query I can meet, the quiet (or not-so-quiet) time with friends, the mind-stretching afternoon thinking through research. Wild Spaces, Wild Magic has to have a mention here – and brings me to my leaving.

While this song does go through my head from time, this

Notte e giorno faticar
per chi nulla sa gradir;
piova e vento sopportar,
mangiar male e mal dormir!
Voglio far il gentiluomo,
e non voglio più servir…

is not really me…  A gentleman – even of leisure- doesn’t seem to suit me, although the old designation of Gentleman Scholar would be fine.  I think I am sorted enough in my going that I will not be an Independent Scholar, at least, a phrase that reminds me of the Abbot in Brian Moore’s Catholics, adrift and alone, prelatus nullius, nobody’s prelate. As Julie Fisher has said “Independent Learning is not Abandoned Learning” – and I hope my plans for reserach and writing are the same. Not to see Thursbitch again would be painful.

But  since I’ve launched into one other language, and while the clouds lower over this blog, here is the gloomy Chorus from the end of Anouilh’s Antigone:

Et ceux qui vivent encore vont commencer tout doucement à les oublier et à confondre leurs noms.
Cest fini.

Finished.  This is the greatest fear, I guess, of humanity, and it does, in some way, strike me as I write this: the fear of being asked “Who are you?” when one expected to be recognised.  Will I continue to contribute or merely haunt? The revenant in stories usually has some name, whether (in my family) their vision is now reckoned as beatific (it’s his feast day as I write this section and I will confess I have always wanted the hat he wears) or something less rewarding.   The notion is that these spirit-presences at least are not forgotten…

Let’s not end there. Let’s search for another, livelier, image. More from Don Giovanni?

Finch’han dal vino
calda la testa,
una gran festa
fa preparar.

Or is that too out-of-context, too frenetic?  There is no “great feast” but maybe there are friends and people without whose love and support my world would be a greyer place… and maybe a beer or two. I’m back from the greyer thoughts of leaving to the much richer  remembering how lovely these last few years have been, genuinely connecting with people whose love and friendship sustain me. To move away from grand opera to Gershwin:

They can’t take that way from me.

I’ll end by reflecting on the title of the blog. I started from core beliefs and values, and nothing has exemplified how easy it is to lose that vision of “enhancing the value – and the perception of value – of our social as well as educational mission” than the criticism that a student-initiated  project on Mental Health was “not Brookes Branded” and “untidy.” I won’t rant, but since this has been so much about music, here is a piece of beautiful, lively, moving – and tidy – music. A bit of Bach never comes amiss. And here is something else – also moving, well-thought-out, heartfelt, beautiful, but much less tidy: Vaughan Williams in a piece I’d like to think of as the soundtrack to walking to Thursbitch.  Is tidiness per se part of the University mission (I don’t just mean Oxford Brookes)? Does corporate image drown out how we relate to the individuals? Does single spacing in  a Programme Handbook serve to advance or inhibit student satisfaction?

We might argue that tidiness allows for things and people to know where their best chance of flexibility lies, and that untidiness makes for reaction-led work, chasing around stables locking the doors. I think this has been my problem for some time, and I also think that reactionism is maybe where UK Higher Ed finds itself at the moment on student and staff mental health, but as we contemplate shaving down resources, focussing on core business, we must go back to the core ideals of “exceptional, student-centred experience.” And I have come to realise that student-centredness has to include the open ear, the compassionate stop in the cafeteria, the smile… and it starts with the people who work in Higher Education, just as it does in Early Years: it comes down to genuine interest in Nursery and Reception and it comes down to it in seminars and classes at Oxford Brookes, too.  Buzz-phrases to finish with then: I stand up for relational pedagogy and compassionate pedagogy wherever I may find them, hand-in-hand as they must be, and will continue to do so.



Hard not to be mawkish today as I set down my burden, and I will confess more than a lump in my throat when I think of what I have done as an educator since I was that clumsy Reception teacher in 1988 – but really, what will survive of us is love, even if it is only a butterfly in a bigger turning world. So a final remark in this phase of the blog: individuals all have their songs on my YouTube Playlist, but this will do for everyone for now. No more time to stay and dream.

Or do QA paperwork.


Vocation I: thoughts in a bleak time.

A first thought on what makes me do what I do – or rather to voice something much deeper than curmudgeonly impatience at the world of work we face as the new year starts.

It comes in response to a sense that the world around me has changed so much, so quickly and in such ways, that I seem to have fallen out of it, to misuse Tolkien’s phrase about the fall of Gandalf. Higher Education is subject to market scrutiny and handed over to hugely paid leaders and  people frankly unsuitable not because of past misdemeanours but because of attitudes that seem at their heart a monstrous parody of past views of class and merit.  Early Years is again subject to the kind of battlegrounds I thought we had left bloodied but unbowed. Literacy will get some bits of funding to make hubs but schools continue to be short of money to do the everyday job which really would improve social mobility. It is acceptable for the pedagogologues who enjoy the attention to characterise children as “in need of a good slap” (this post so disgusted me I can only link to it obliquely: why give such stuff the satisfaction of hits?) and a young person who seeks inclusion as  a “functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six.” This is painfully and angrily expounded in the heartfelt blog “Troglodytes in the chocolate factory: the disabled child as rhetoric linked here.  So to go back to that sense in fantasy – in Le Guin’s Earthsea, in Garner’s Elidor, in the elves in Tolkien’s Middle Earth – the glory has departed, my time seems to be past.

And if this gloom and doom were all there was, any sense of vocation would seem lost. What is the point – other than the salary – of going in tomorrow? I sound like Fungus the Bogeyman, rather than Elrond.

And what can I say to my students? Dispassionately I can observe we have been here before. Personally I can go back – as I did in a previous blog post – to the teachers and leaders who inspired me or spurred me on. I look at them with gratitude.

What about the longer view, however?  I find my answers – and I don’t presume to say they are anybody else’s – in literature, especially in the heady punch of Alan Garner and the clear waters of children’s literature. As Cooper works to “unriddle” the world,” Garner too talks about the truth of story. His despair at the collapse of the culture of the Man in Boneland captures it in mythic form:

I have a Story.

Tell me your Story, said the other.

The world was full, and the people hunted, and the sun was young. Then two people of the Crow held each other, and the Stone Spirit wept and the sun moved its face. Then came cold, and the herds went. The Hunter and the people followed them and the world was empty; but the Bull stayed. And every night of winter he comes above the hills, watching to see that there is life; and the Stone Spirit looks to send out eagles from its head to feed the stars.

And because the Crow flesh brought the cold they stayed to dance and cut and sing in Ludcruck to make new the Bull and the beasts on the wall of the sky cave above the waters for the time when all will be again, with the Hunter striding. But if we do not dance and cut and sing and make the beasts new on the sky wall the Stone Spirit will not send eagles.

And who is it that you hold? said the other.

No one. She and the child went to the ice. No one is left to hold. No child to teach. I am alone. After me, no one will give my flesh to the sky, take my bones to the nooks of the dead. The sun will not come back. The Stone Spirit will not send eagles. The world will end.

That is a true Story, said the other.

Garner (and Cooper, and Pullman) are explicit about how storytelling takes you back to the universal, a window into truth.”  This particular storytelling shows a man, The Man, despairing as his world closes around him: some hope is also coming, however, as we read on, but it is longer term than we could possibly imagine.
If fantasy provides a heady mix of images and hopes and fears, I would also choose the clear stream of children’s literature because – well, at one level the lampoon of adult nostalgia that is Moomipappa is enough to prick any bubble of self importance and regret.

We’re (still) Not Scared

Politicians in the latest attacks on Higher Education have stated that we should be “accountable” for what we teach. I am not shrinking from the veiled threats here; this is not a bear I am frightened to meet. Indeed I don’t think I’ve ever taught about Brexit except to deplore the disjuncture between Fundamental British Values and recent reports of increasing xenophobia and homophobia.

However, in case we are to face a purge from those who see themselves as our Lords and Masters (sc. to include our Ladies and Mistresses) here is a list of possible offences (they are bit inconsistent, and I have deliberately mixed them up so no priority is visible) I may wish to have taken into account:

I am a traditionalist; I believe, with the founding mothers and fathers of Early Childhood Education, in the role of the imagination, in art, in play and being outdoors;
Funding is linked to taxation of society and intimately connected to society’s duty to work for the good of all;
Libraries are a good idea;
It’s not down to Reception;
Knowledge is a vital component in education;
Staff-student ratios are key to interactions, themselves key to quality;
There is no single action that makes children readers;
Children’s rights are human rights;
Schools as organisations are on the whole staffed by people with energy and vision;
Class and social capital matter;
Qualifications do not ensure quality;
School uniform is about control;
English spelling has evolved under a number of influences that are not always internally consistent;
Some children’s lives are deeply shit and even where that is not our fault as educators it is our responsibility;
You can learn more about children’s learning by going out for a walk with them than by quizzing them about how they match data projections;
Planning and data may inform but are not in se quality at any level of teaching;
Developmentally appropriate practice is an ethical position, not the whim of “middle class do-gooders;”
Skills and attitudes are vital components in education;
Children’s chances are not improved by debates that distract teachers: trad/prog is too often poisonous timewasting by the pedagogologues;
Reading high-quality children’s literature is enlightening for adults as well as children;
Politicians (of any persuasion) who seek to pontificate about education should be invited to spend considerable time in schools that have not been smartened up for their arrival.

Bite me.

A Litany

“Who first made you want to be a teacher?”

A not dissimilar set of occurrences to the one I’ve discussed before about memory of books I have read springs immediately to mind. Here, rather than a narrative, is a brief litany of the saints whose practice suggested teaching (in some form or another) might be for me. Not included are those teachers whose dodgy or eccentric behaviour made me think “I could teach – but not like that”), nor yet those teachers who made a bad call and, for example, taught me I was useless at maths – so, sorry, Miss Thorn, Fr Lobo, Mr Lawson, Mr Foley, you gave me lots to think about, but your inclusion would have raised more questions for me.

Mrs Newsome: my kind and gentle Reception class teacher;

Mr Kilner: allowing drama and voice recording and C S Lewis more or less at the drop of a hat;

Mrs Rawlins, my Y6 teacher: for giving us the best end-of-day story times;

Mr Brown: you had no idea what you were getting from a very hands-on school to see me through the last, unhappy months of Primary – but you listened, and you tried and you talked to me and my parents;

Miss Parkinson: for allowing huge swathes of time to let Y7 and 8 be times where we all explored stuff together;

Mr Gunningham: for the Latin, and the patience, and the wit;

Fr Flannery: for the Latin and the Greek and the RE and the humorable impatience at our adolescence;

Mr Barlow: for not fitting the frame of teacher or Jesuit with much compliance but still getting us there with energy and engagement;

Mr (now Fr., and Professor) John Saward: for tutorials in which he displayed a real interest – and did so in meetings that extended well beyond the time allocated;

Fr Brian Findlay: every boy should have such a mentor. I think you can see some of his mannerisms in Ian Hislop and I have to admit a great deal of my fake erudition is put on in mimicking Brian’s real depth;

The great Maggie: her imaginative planning and ideas sustained me in my first job; her PGCE dissertation on ecology and storytelling sits on my office shelf and still gets read; her anecdotes are recycled in many of my lectures;

Leslie Grundy: visionary headteacher who made me want to do nursery and taught me how to do it;

Julie Fisher: who gave me the framework to try to put intelligent pedagogy into action;

and Brookes colleagues who taught or continue to teach me how to do it, day after day. But I’ll stop with just my first leader and mentor at Brookes, Helena Mitchell, so this doesn’t become an Oscars list.

Thank you to all of them, living and dead.


Hiya Ed

When I started at University, I spent the first, painful term, calling my tutor, Dr Taplin, “Errrm,” because I didn’t know what to call him. I now see from his College bio entry that he was frighteningly old (to use a phrase from Lucy Boston): in his mid-thirties. Maybe as old as some of my younger colleagues, such as Jon or Mat. I was completely in awe.

But that was 1976. Oliver Taplin was a young, successful academic in the only University I knew. Heir to C S Lewis (who also taught Classics at Magdalen) , but very willing to shake us out of the reverential classics of school by getting us to look at Archilochus, or to try for an appropriate modern word for “pedicabo” in Catullus. As I said, I was completely in awe: when Dr Walker said hello to me outside Blackwells Bookshop, I was dumbstruck. When we last met, at a Widening Participation event a couple of years ago, I called him Ralph, and even then wasn’t sure if that was sacrilege.

Language changes, status changes, and with both of those forms of address change. As we get ready for a new academic year, as we read the comments from students of last year – cards after graduation, the Trip Advisor that is NSS – I wonder what this cohort will make of me. It’s (just) possible this is the last group of first years that I will see through to graduation: how will I appear to them? To rub it in, I look for my own staff page, and find a “Page Not Found.” Absit omen.

Which brings me back to my jokey title. How will the emails address me and my colleagues? “Dear Professor”? “Hey, Nick”? And does it really matter? Is respect something that goes hand-in-hand with cautious forms of address? Should formality be demanded? What does it signify? What is gained, what is lost?