My dad’s been on my mind. It’s coming up to ten years ago when he died, after a long and valiant fight against Leukaemia. His consultant was talking about a miracle, they’d never known someone of his age recover from AML (Acute Myeloid Leukaemia). It had been 9 months since the very aggressive chemotherapy which had saved his life the previous Summer. Then it returned. He got pneumonia and died.
For me, he’s always there, in music. He loved music. He used to come home from a stressful day at work (in the City) with a new LP (or CD once they had come in) and sit and listen to it on his very expensive hi-fi. He knew so much about music. He knew a great deal about a lot of things. He was eternally curious, hungry for knowledge. An insatiable hunger. At least until after the Chemo. It slowed him down, slowed down his hunger. He spent much more time watching the telly.
I was talking to a very old friend yesterday. We were talking about our dads. He said he always remembered my dad and his knowing, his gentle way of introducing some snippet of knowledge into a conversation – it was never bragging. On any subject, he knew stuff – but he really knew his stuff, I mean academic level knowledge, on Music (classical, jazz), History but especially military history, Art, West Ham, Cricket, Politics. He read voraciously and absorbed knowledge.
And the amazing thing is he had a fractured and short formal education. Born in 1933, when the war, the Blitz, really hit East London in 1940 he was 7. The schools closed and didn’t re-open until 1945. Critical years of his education were lost. Or rather he learnt in a very small group, sitting with someone’s mum in a house away from the wreckage. He learnt about unexploded bombs, and what to do when the engine on a doodle bug cut out, he learnt what a 500kg bomb did when it landed on an Anderson shelter. He learnt how to cope with a father who was away working for months at a time. He learnt how to look after his mum.
He passed the eleven plus which must have been in Spring ’45 and went to the local Grammar School. Four years of (very good) education there and that was it. No A levels. No university. He went straight to work at 16. Years later he did a couple of A levels in evening classes and moved to a good job with a merchant bank. But he never stopped learning.
Coronavirus means most schools and sixth form/FE colleges will close today or have closed already – aside from providing a place for the children of key workers to be looked after, and also to keep their minds active. The curriculum will not be relevant. That curriculum that Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings spent so much time shaping, designing, down to the last detail. Which books are to be studied, in what way. Which periods of history are to be investigated, which sources are to be used. The phrase social engineering comes to mind. And don’t get me started on abandoning assessed coursework for end of syllabus exams. The teachers generally do their best with what they are required to teach, despite the straitjacket of the curriculum, the endless testing, the terror of Ofsted, the oppression of league tables.
Will the schools open again in September? That is just one of the many unknowns that swirl around us now. I wouldn’t assume that they will. We are in uncharted waters.
What can we do, as parents, to encourage our children to continue to expand their minds, and develop useful skills that they will need in the future, in their lives. Leaving aside the apocalyptic visions (“this is how you set a snare to catch a rabbit), there are lots of things we can do.
1. Get outside. Nature is out there. It’s depleted, it’s damaged, it’s suffering, but it is there, doing its own thing, and also as a resource for us. Firstly being out in the fresh air, listening to bird song, smelling the smell of new growth, enjoying the flowers. These are all good for our mental health and wellbeing, they reduce anxiety levels (which are sky high).
2. Learning the names of the animals and plants is not necessary to enjoy their existence. But it is a good thing to do, as it stimulates our brains. Learning new things keeps our minds active, in childhood and adulthood.
3. Take up a musical instrument. The simplest cheapest one is your own voice. Everyone can sing. Playing music, singing, especially together, is one of the most fulfilling experiences we can have. It’s no wonder those images and sounds of spontaneous collective singing from Italy captured the world’s imagination. If you learnt to play something but dropped it years ago, have another go. There are more and more groups forming online where you can join in via facetime or skype or whatever.
4. Be creative in other ways. Write, paint, carve a piece of wood – do these things with your children. All of these things bring joy but also distract us from the awful reality and the anxiety, which can be worse than the illness.
5. If you have a garden, make the most of it. Grow food of course, but also flowers. Or just sit and notice all the wildlife that is also living there. If you don’t have a garden, find someone who does. Or join local community farms, gardens, allotments.
After all this is over, we need to rethink education. What is it for? Who is it supposed to benefit? It feels like we have gone a long way down the wrong path. Our education system is failing too many children, leaving them with very serious mental health problems. There’s been far too much emphasis on testing, on performance, encouraging ridiculous notions of a market place for schools.
For a Government so obsessed with testing in the education system, this lot seem remarkably unenthusiastic about coronavirus testing. Why is that?
Get rid of stupid school league tables. They do nothing for children’s education, other than place additional burdens on them.
Get rid of Ofsted – it’s a toxic presence in the country’s educational bloodstream.
Get children out of the classroom more.
Encourage creativity – as an end in itself.