Why read? To understand, to connect. Why read fiction? To imagine, to empathise.

My mantra is a pale reflection of the powerful messages in Steve Rifkin’s talk on building an empathic civilisation. With it, we have a future; without it, we’re doomed.

of course!

One of the pleasures of living where we used to live, which was just behind my daughter’s school, was the sound – and occasional sight – of the children playing.

The girls (there were only girls) were allowed to do what they wanted to – and if that meant climbing the trees that surrounded their playground, that was fine. So amidst the branches I would occasionally see the grey-blue of uniform or an excited head. Of course, all that had to stop.

But not in New Zealand, where a school has experimented with abandoning all rules at playtime. Children can do what they want: adults simply keep them safe. The results are as astonishing as they are (when you really think about it) obvious. Incidents of vandalism and bullying dramatically shelved off and time-outs became unnecessary: quite simply, children were engaged and not bored.

See for yourself.

Women Pilots? Heaven Forbid!

I went along to my daughter’s school speech day a few years ago. The main speaker, an old girl, is a young pilot. She flies commercial jets, the kind most of us use routinely.

She described the response of one female passenger who, when she saw that the pilot was not only a woman but also blonde, asked to leave the plane before the doors were closed.

I hope for so much for the children I encounter – boys and girls. I hope that they will grow up to be who and what they want.

And interestingly, when – as a diplomat’s brat – I was jetting to and from boarding school, I aspired to be a member of the cabin crew. I liked the uniforms and the idea of looking after people. Flying seemed a glamorous life.

Here is an article from (you’ve guessed) the Guardian that focuses on female commercial pilots. It fills me with some hope as well as frustration.

The comments are interesting, including one ‘essentialist’ view:

I don’t think this is a sexism thing. Its just that girls and boys are different. The grow up wanting different things.

What do you think?

Speaking of Maths

…which I don’t do often enough, do your read Alex Bellos? He writes regularly in the Guardian and published one of my favourite non-fiction books, Alex’s Adventures in Numberland

I found his New Year’s challenge stimulating and, well, very hard. All you had to do was insert operators into the digits 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 and 0, keeping the digits in the same order, and arrive at the answer = 2014. Could you? Have a look at the responses and see the many, many different ways of doing it. Fun!

That’s just where it began. His online column introduced me to these mathematical thinkpieces. Why not fritter away a few minutes with them…

The only thing “sexy” about this is the title, which is a cheap way of introducing fun with prime numbers.

Here’s a game that had me absolutely hooked. So simple and yet so clever.

Two accessible videos that make maths so exciting!

A polite debate with the Daily Mail

I occasionally like to read The Daily Mail. It’s like eating a vindaloo curry, inflaming me and reminding me what my brain is for.

So as I was sitting in the cafe yesterday morning, I picked up a copy on the table, flicked through the frankly very silly articles and reached Andrew Pierce. Here’s what he said about us. You know, teachers.

With his radical plans for hundreds more free schools, Education Secretary Michael Gove is the chief bogeyman of the Left.

But it’s not just his enlightened mission to end their decades-old stranglehold on the schools system that inflames the powerful teaching unions.

They claim Mr Gove is unwilling to meet them to discuss their grievances.

Teaching unions claim Michael Gove is unwilling to hear their grievances. But he has met with officials 28 times.

But they are — as usual — in denial of the facts.

For the truth is that, as an official document shows, Education Department civil servants have held 146 meetings with teachers’ union officials in the past two years to discuss ‘pay, pensions and conditions of service’.

As for Mr Gove himself, he met union officials on a further 28 occasions over the same period.

The document also reveals that Mr Gove has invited the general-secretaries of the two biggest teaching unions, the NUT and the NASUWT, to ‘attend a programme of talks about the implementation of education policy, including in those areas covered by their trade disputes’.

Such co-operation seems very admirable — although some people might argue that the Education Secretary’s willingness to meet up so frequently has given the unions too much, not too little, input into Government policy. meet up so frequently has given the unions too much, not too little, input into Government policy.

The beauty of the modern age is that I could sit there and reply to him. I find that the best way to approach a debate is with an empty mind, setting aside any antipathy. So I treated it as I would a piece of extended writing, to be remarked upon for its merits as well as its shortcomings. And I replied:

Dear Andrew,

Here are two points to consider.

Firstly, inviting people to a meeting doesn't necessarily equate to accepting their point of view. I spent twenty years in management consultancy, in the public and private sectors, was seconded to an agency of the Treasury for two years and consulted with those opposed to the CrossRail Bill. I've seen a fair few meetings that had little to do with consultation.

Secondly, "halfway" implies a balance in points of view. I must exclude myself from a personal interest in this as I gladly gave up a six figure salary to become a primary school teacher and I teach out of love for my calling and for the children. But as a newcomer, with my experience of introducing change to organisations, the government's position cannot be met half way without rendering the teaching profession a singularly unattractive prospect for the young, bright people alongside whom I trained for a year.

Finally, I'd like to congratulate you on your eye-catching editorial: however much I may disagree with it, your writing held my attention and got me thinking.

Regards, etc

So far, so “Disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells”. And here, as a digression, I must mention my A level history teacher from back in the 1970s. He told us that he used to pen letters to The Telegraph from supposedly retired army officers, taking such obviously reactionary views that he daily expected to be uncovered, but instead found himself published in the ‘Readers’ Letters’ section, and agreed with by the paper’s regulars. And now back to the main feature.

As I sat in my car at the local recycling centre, this message pinged at me. The name at the top caught my eye. Andrew Pierce himself!

You make some interesting points and thankyou for the compliment about the writing. Im in every Monday so I hope you if you’re not already, you become a regular reader. And belated Happy New Year.

Now, apart from the ‘next steps’ I’d be writing at the bottom of this hastily Blackberried message, I was delighted that a) I’d kept my cool and actually engaged in civilised debate, and b) civilised debate occurred.

I’m not sure I’ll be a regular reader (and for all I know, Mr Pierce may have some starving intern managing his email traffic) but it sets an example that I may well use at school. We need more respectful debate amongst our current and future citizens.


One of the joys of teaching ‘Britain since the 1930s’ is that it so neatly fits my personal experience. My Dad began quite close to the beginning of the topic (and my father-in-law even before that). I kicked in somewhere in the middle. And my daughter is following on behind, ushering the children in my class before her.

So when I get to watch the creaky BBC videos about the period, and they reach the 1970s, I think, “Yay, this is MY history! I can do this from memory!”

And one of the exciting aspects of the period, for me, was the promise offered by North Sea oil and gas at the end of the 1979s. We’d lived through a rubbishy decade in which we’d begun to realise that a) we didn’t have an Empire any more and b) we were nigh on broke. Then the big rigs started to go up and the flares appeared on our TV screens. Future generations were going to be OK!

This Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ article tells another story, comparing our country’s approach to that of Norway. Bias alert: it blames the Conservatives, but I think the black gold was still pouring out of the ground in 1997. In fact, the article and the comments thereupon, on reflection – offer a marvellous exercise in ‘spot the bias’.

But as I said to my class at the time, “Sorry, we used it all up while you weren’t there.”


Here’s a word or two about science, from a hero of mine: Carl Sagan.

I love science: I love the childish way it questions everything. My parents didn’t always appreciate my habit of taking everything apart and asking “Why?” But it helped my intellectual growth, and continues to do so.

As educators, we must foster this impertinent curiosity; otherwise, as Sagan tells us, we will be prey for charlatans.