Standing Up for Education and Cavell

I was somewhat surprised and more than a little nervous to be asked by the local NUT rep if I’d speak at their strike rally this lunchtime. Having got my head round the idea though, I agreed to give it a go. Despite the rain there was an amazing atmosphere outside the Forum with plenty of inspiring speakers to get behind in the cause of standing up for education, defending our teachers and getting what actually matters for our children. And chanting “Hey, ho, Michael Gove has got to go!”, “Gove, OUT!” etc was rather fun too.

NUT Strike Rally, Norwich, March 26 2014

For the benefit of anyone who wasn’t there and is remotely interested, here’s what I said, with added sound effects from the audience (warning, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you just may be familiar with the basic material):

So what is Save Cavell all about? In a nutshell, we’re a group of parents fighting to stop a good local, community school from being forced to become an academy. One of the biggest ironies of the situation is that all the rhetoric coming from Michael Gove and the DfE around academies is about democracy, empowering heads and giving parents choice. On the ground, however, here at Cavell and at other schools across the country, the reality is more like being sold into slavery. {Boo!}

We love our school. It has a strong pastoral ethos, an award-winning allotment and freshly cooked meals using produce grown by the children. Everyone who visits – even Ofsted! – recognises the buzzing atmosphere and the pride our children take in THEIR school. {Cheer!} Our children feel safe there, the staff know them and look out for them and the children know each other across year groups far better than we ever did when I was at school! It’s heartbreaking to think that all this could be taken away.

Cavell went into special measures in March last year after the Ofsted blitz across the county, and according to government policy, schools in special measures should become academies wherever possible. This stems from the dogma that market forces are the answer to everything. But because primary schools in particular beg to differ and are not exactly queuing up to convert, Gove’s running out of willing volunteers for his academy experiment. Now he’s actively looking for conscripts. {Boo!}

Meanwhile, Norfolk County Council seem to be desperate to appease the DfE for reasons of their own. In fact, their actions have made the situation considerably worse. They have been a massive distraction to the job of improving our school and educating our children. They have waged war on the school instead of supporting it, and apparently regard us as a pawn to be sacrificed to Gove’s ideology to save their own skins. {Boo!}

We have been bullied by Norfolk County Council and the DfE to try and make us accept their flawed, unproven and anti-democratic so-called solution. Yet we have a better alternative of our own, one that has the support of parents and the community, and one which has actually been shown to work. {Cheers!} We were within days of entering a Co-Operative Trust with the other schools in the Hewett Cluster {Cheer!} when the Council stepped in to sack the governors and impose an Interim Executive Board. {Boo!} This Board is made up of three members, with NO parent representative and NO staff representative – what do they care about our children? It’s just another job for them! In fact two of the members are former employees of the Council and the other still works for them. Clearly, their sole purpose was to do the DfE’s dirty work and apply for an academy order, which they duly (or unduly) did. {Boo!}

Unfortunately for them, by the time they got round to this, Ofsted had visited again and taken the school out of special measures. {Cheer!} This means that nobody has the power to force an academy on us. {Loud cheer!} BUT… {pause} they’re choosing to ignore that fact! {Boo!} Michael Gove has made an academy order – and a special fast-track one at that, apparently as punishment for standing up for our school against his bullying. {Extra loud boo!}

Potato with ears

Remind you of anyone?

There are so many things about the situation that don’t make sense if you look at it without Gove’s ideological blinkers. How is a remote and out of touch secretary of state supposed to know our school better than we do ourselves? {Cheer!} Why are they so sure that giving our school to one inexperienced outside sponsor is going to be better than working together to strengthen existing partnerships with five local schools? Why do we have to go blindly down the one-way academy track? Why take such huge risks with our children’s education for generations to come? What happens to the deeds when they give away our school and its land for 125 years? {Too right!} What happens if it all goes wrong, as we’ve seen with high profile academies lately? At the moment, the school is OURS, a central part of our community.{Cheer!}  Once it’s handed over to some outside sponsor, it becomes THEIRS, just another arm of a business empire. {Boo!}

We have been told that a Co-Op wouldn’t work, wouldn’t be strong enough, yet we’ve recently seen and celebrated the success of John of Gaunt school in Aylsham which, as part of the Aylsham Cluster Trust, has been rated outstanding across the board. {Cheer!} This is precisely what we want to achieve for Cavell, but sadly we are now going to have to take legal action to get there. The process of seeking a judicial review has begun, but there is still time for the County Council to save face. We call on them to acknowledge the hard work put in to improving the school by the teachers and leadership team and to step up to their duties to support our school and others like it across Norfolk. {Cheer!}

We call on the Secretary of State to withdraw his academy order before tens of thousands of pounds of public money are wasted on enforcing his market-driven ideology. {Cheer!} Will he live up to his own fine words and accept the democratic will of the people? {No!} Empower heads to decide the future of their schools for themselves? {No!} Free schools from bureaucratic interference and give us as parents genuine choice? {No!}

In the meantime, the campaign continues. If you are not doing so already, please follow us on Facebook and Twitter for news and updates on events, meetings, protests etc. This case has national implications – if Cavell can be railroaded like this, no school is safe. We must continue to protest against this damaging and distracting agenda and hold all those responsible to account for their actions. {Cheer!} Staff at the school may not be able to speak out individually, but that is where your Union comes in. We are hugely grateful for your support, and theirs – huge thanks to the NUT for giving us a voice while everyone else is trying to take it away! {Massive cheer!} – and we will fight on. We CAN win this, and we WILL win this! {Cheers, applause etc}

NUT Strike Rally, Norwich, March 26, 2014

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An Academy Order for Cavell but We Fight On!

Coloured pencils in a potA letter from Michael Gove was sent out this afternoon saying that he has made an academy order for Cavell to become an academy by 1st July.

We are massively disappointed, but sadly not surpised, that the Department for Education have ignored the clearly stated wishes of parents and staff, and the judgment of Ofsted that the school is “well placed to continue to improve”.

An academy order is not the end though, as there will now have to be a process of consultation. We call upon the DfE and Norfolk County Council to undertake this consultation honestly and – in contrast to all their actions to date – to listen to concerns arising from the process and act on them to halt this unnecessary and undemocratic, politically-motivated intervention.

We also contest the legal basis on which this decision has been made as the school was already out of special measures and thus no longer “eligible for intervention” when the Interim Executive Board, imposed after the school’s governors were sacked for opposing the academisation process, requested an academy order. This will be tested in court, and we are also appalled that the government is prepared to waste tens of thousands of pounds of public money on legal action to compel a school to accept its flawed and unproven ideology. The very fact of the “fast track process” mentioned in Gove’s letter is contemptuous of the ongoing legal challenge. It shows that they know they have no case and are trying to force this decision through as rapidly as possible. As with everything else in this sorry saga, it smacks of desperation, coming as the academy and free school programme is rapidly and publicly unravelling.

We must continue to subject this damaging and distracting agenda to further scrutiny and hold all those responsible to account for their actions. If Cavell can be railroaded like this then no school is safe. Governors can be sacked, puppet IEBs installed and Gove will continue to be told only what he wants to hear.


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Baking Cakes in Kigali

Baking Cakes in Kigali (Atlantic Books, 2009) is the first novel by Gaile Parkin, who was born and raised in Zambia, and has lived and worked in many African countries including Rwanda.

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

I didn’t quite know what to make of this book, and I see from other online reviews that I’m not alone in that. The story of Angel Tungaraza, a Tanzanian grandmother raising her five grandchildren in Rwanda after the deaths of her own children, it clearly owes a lot to Alexander McCall Smith’s Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency in tone and manner. Where Precious Ramotswe sets out to solve mysteries, Angel has a business baking cakes. It brings her into contact with people and their problems in a similar way though, giving Angel a chance to chat with her customers and often to help them in other ways besides baking. Each chapter is centred around a particular cake for a particular event so there is no overarching plot to the novel, beyond the general theme of reconcilliation after the genocide, highlighted by the relationship between one young couple whose families were on either side of the conflict.

There are a lot of issues brought into play – more than McCall Smith deals with – such as HIV, war, child soldiers, street children, female genital mutilation, genocide, reconciliation, ethics… While sometimes moving, there was too much for such a slender book to bear. Again, there were interesting thoughts on the roles of other nations and ideologies in Rwanda, sometimes thought-provoking but sometimes glib.

The dialogue was also in the same manner as the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency. I have no way of knowing whether or not it’s an accurate reflection of the way people speak in Rwanda or Botswana, but it risks coming off as stilted or descending into parody.

On the other hand, I was reading it at a point where I wanted something positive, and it does a very good job of being charming and life-affirming too. There is plenty to like about Angel and her cakes, and the way she is always ready to help her neighbours and friends. There is plenty of joy and celebration too, and we all need some of that. Not to mention the cake…

So on the whole I’m inclined to like it, with reservations. Has anyone else read it? Do let me know what you thought!

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Bar Flaubert by Alexis Stamatis

Bar Flaubert by Alexis Stamatis, translated from Greek by David Connolly, was one of a lovely parcel of books sent to me by the publisher Arcadia Books. First published in Greece in 2000, the English edition was published in 2007.

Bar Flaubert by Alexis Stamatis, tr. David Connolly (Arcadia Books, 2007)Yannis Loukas is editing his father’s autobiography. Going through the family archives, he discovers the manuscript of an aspiring novelist named Loukas Matthaiou. While reading it, Yannis feels as if someone has put to paper his innermost thoughts. But who was the writer of this amazing story and what happened to him? Following in the tracks of this elusive stranger, Yannis’ life takes an unforseen turn. He finds that everyone who met Matthaiou was profoundly affected by his charismatic personality. Driven by his quest to find Matthaiou, Yannis must first unravel the codes in his writing.

Yannis’ quest to track down Matthaiou takes him across Europe, bringing him into contact with a fascinating array of characters and places. There are literary puzzles and personal confusions, and a twist at the end. The setting is over a decade ago now, which added an almost historical element, back into a pre-Euro world.

I quite enjoyed reading this, but find I can’t now remember much about it, having been distracted from reviewing it straight away. Perhaps that’s to do with the detachment of Yannis as a main character, or perhaps it’s just because I’ve been busy… Still, although it was fun, I didn’t find it as satisfying as I’d hoped.

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Not a Word out of Place – Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

After Snow White Must Die – another book where I was itching to get out my red pencil – I discovered that it was the 70th anniversary of the creation of Raymond Chandler’s iconic private detective Philip Marlowe. I’d been meaning to rectify the fact of never having read any Chandler for ages, and got 3 of the books for Christmas, so this seemed like a good moment to do so.

In the foreword to my Penguin edition of The Big Sleep, Ian Rankin warns against writing these books off as pulp:

What sets it apart from the crowd, however, is the quality of the mind which conceived it. Chandler’s pulp credentials shows in the twisting of the plot, yet it reads with the simple inevitability of classical tragedy [...] Few writers have come close to matching him. [pp. v-vi]

Boy, is he right to do so! Every single word is perfectly pitched and the dialogue never falters. It wasn’t something I could race through as quickly as I expected because the slang is so very much of its time and place that it was sometimes like reading a foreign language, but the slight effort is well worth making. Yes, it shows it’s age in terms of sexism, homophobia, racism etc too, but Chandler laid the foundations for so much of what followed and is referenced so frequently in films, fiction and pop culture in general that if you’re a crime fiction lover and haven’t read these books, you’re seriously missing out.

Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (Penguin 2011)

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Travesty, treachery, betrayal!

So, things had quietened down a bit. I was getting back to work, back in the swing of blogging about books and translation and other matters that this blog is supposed to be about. We had started to breathe a little more easily about the school – the IEB seemed like they were honest, Ofsted were due in soon and we had good expectations that they would take the school out of Special Measures.

Cavell fort and allotment

The school playing field and new fort looking gorgeous in the sunshine, with the allotment to the right.

And then, wham! Today we learnt that the school has indeed come out of Special Measures. Hooray! Congratulations to all concerned. Nobody can force us to become an academy any more. Except, wait… What’s this?

The Interim Executive Board (IEB) has decided, at the behest of the County Council and the DfE academy broker, to apply for an academy order anyway!

Of all the shocking and outrageous events in this whole sorry saga, this is the most appalling. The school is no longer “eligible for intervention” so the IEB has no mandate or authority to do this. Throughout the process, they have done a reasonably good impression of having the best interests of the school and our children at heart. This flagrantly political action, however, shatters any good will they might have built up and removes the last vestiges of positive spin that could be put on the process. This is nakedly political. The IEB have done their duty to the County Council and the DfE and can walk out, move on. Go on to the next school to slip into Special Measures and leave us parents, teachers and the local community to pick up the pieces.

Well it ain’t gonna happen. We will fight this through the courts. The example of Galton Valley, the Warren School and many others show that we can win.

To quote the press release just sent out by the campaigners:

“We are being used as a plaything by people who have no interest in the long-term future of Cavell, but only see the school as a vehicle to promote their ideology. This is nothing less than an outright abuse of power. We teach our children to say no to bullies, and we will do the same.”

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Snow White Must Die

Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus, tr. Steven T. Murray

Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus, translated from German by Steven T. Murray (Pan Macmillan, 2012), certainly benefits from an eyecatching title and cover as well as “international bestseller status” and inclusion in Richard and Judy’s Book Club. Weirdly, it’s the fourth in the Bodenstein & Kirchhoff series yet the first to be translated into English.

Tobias Sartorius was jailed for the murders of two girls, Laura and Stefanie – the latter being his beautiful girlfriend, known as Snow White. He had always protested his innocence and the conviction was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. Now he’s served his time and returned home. His presence in the small village reopens old wounds and stirs up the events of the past. Then a girl who bears a striking resemblence to Stefanie goes missing. Is history about to repeat itself? What really happened back then, and can the truth be revealed before more harm is done?

Steven T. Murray is best known for translating Stieg Larsson‘s Millennium trilogy and has certainly done well out of the current craze for Nordic noir. I wasn’t convinced by the translation here though and it annoyed me that I couldn’t tell whether it was the original writing or the translation that was sloppy. I guess I’ll have to start again at the beginning of the series in German to find out. A couple of my own key words to watch out for when translating from German are “energisch” and “irritiert”. They have obvious cognates in English, but “energetic” and “irritated” aren’t always the best options. “Energisch” can be vigorous, forceful, emphatic or trenchant. “Irritiert” sometimes actually means “confused”. There were a lot of people doing things energetically or irritatedly in the book, and that always worries me! Actually, I was nearly lost on the very first page when German students were doing A-levels yet driving SUVs and using flashlights. I’m glad I persevered past that though.

As for the plot, I was very sceptical about Tobias getting 10 years as the maximum sentence for a double murder, and it took 100 pages before it was made clear that that was the maximum juvenile sentence. But he was 20 at the time, which just adds to my confusion, and indeed irritation! There was also an overwhelming number of characters to contend with, and a rather sprawling central storyline combined with the personal lives and professional tangles of the investigating team. But for all that, it was a gripping story, particularly strong on the claustrophobic atmosphere of a small village where everybody knows everybody else and their business, and the corrupting effects of power and influence in such a place.

Tobias is a well-drawn figure as we see the effect the past events have had on him and his family. The murders of Laura and Stefanie have destroyed the lives of so many people and the repercussions continue to trickle through the village in one way and another touching everybody to a greater or lesser extent. I liked DI Kirchhoff and DSI Bodenstein (note to the publisher, calling him DS as you do on the blurb demotes him to Det. Sergeant!) and certainly didn’t mind the digressions into what makes them tick. It’s a shame to have come in on their story three books in though.

All in all, it was a good if flawed read, and I really hope the rest of the series will be available in English soon.

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