For thy servants take pleasure in her stones, and favour the dust thereof

What is a ruin? Some initial thoughts on applying Jane Carroll’s topoanalysis to Thursbitch and Ludchurch. 

Whether there are night-ravens or pelicans in one’s insomnia (the psalm commentaries spend some time on the animals in Psalm 102: I think I encounter them both sometimes) there is an undeniable power to the lament over the fallen city that marks the exilic poetry of the Hebrew Bible. It is the definining shock of the kingdom of Judah: the central symbol of trust is smashed into smithereens of hope and despair. The echoes comes down not only into Judaism but into the Catholic liturgy which in Tenebrae sings of the city that sits alone that was so full of people, and then of the destruction of a people and society. It gives us the beauty of the second Isaiah-poet, the wretchedness of Jeremiah: it creeps, too, into the landscape of “bare ruined choirs,” in post-dissolution monastic history and in Shakespeare. Just as it is woven into Judaism, the collapse of Romano-British society and then centuries later the destruction of the monastic presence have woven ruins into English history. The heritage industry feeds on the failing grandeur.

But Thoon and Thursbitch are not such a grand site. Upland clearances and enclosures bring about the same destruction in other, more domestic ways, and I guess the abandoning of the farm at Thursbitch is one of these.  A farm, discernible by a brook, grass meadows, higher hills. I am reminded of the deserted upland farm buildings in Cooper’s The Grey King. Domestic tragedy.

What did we go out into the wilderness to see?

When Looking for Thursbitch became finding Thoon on a windy autumn afternoon, we found last year what we had missed before, a place central to Garner’s Thursbitch, the high seat from which one of the central actions of the book is observed. In this first picture, Mat is looking down from just below Thoon to the green pastures by Thursbitch. If we are looking for Biblical parallels this is one of the unorthodox High Places so mistrusted by the prophets, now peopled, perhaps, only by working farmers, walkers and the curious. The ruin of the farm is poignant, some walls, a sense of rooms and purpose, but little else. Perhaps.

Jane Carroll’s point (in her book Landscape in Children’s Literature) is that a ruin connects as well as divides: “the lapsed topos …provides the strongest connection between past and present”… “by physicalizing the human past, the ruin, like the grave, becomes a memento mori.” She is writing about the Dark is Rising’s young hero, Will, discovering links to the Roman past of Caerleon, and is leading the readers through the ambiguity (I love how my predictive text wants first Mabinogion then LeGuin for my mistyping) of past and present to the powerful vision of a humanist future. Garner is looking elsewhere, not for the Matter of Britain (at least, not directly) but for the Matter of Humanity.  Story becomes the bigger thing, maybe the Big Thing itself, of which the þurs is only a metaphor. Sal and Jack are those who have “wrought that shall break the teeth of Time,” as Yeats has it, and Garner gathers us into this story, here – Carroll uses the idea of “poetry that contemplates the dust,” where death unites across time. For me, her most powerful section in the whole book is where Carroll argues around the ruin ( the cave, the grave) as a site of folkloric as well as physical excavation. It is in Boneland that landscape and memory jumble into so many half-told stories, and for us it was impossible to do more, on our last visit, than choose one path – Gawain – and dig with/travel along it.  In Boneland Garner all but passes (there’s another post to write) Thursbitch and links Alderley, that autochthonic centre of Garner Country with its myths and creations, to Lud’s Church, Ludchurch, that Garner renames Ludcruck. Can a crack in the Rock, the stuff of so many of the high rocks around here be counted as a ruin? It is no Caerleon and no Aquae Sulis this chill, mossy fissure, but when contemplated as the possible site a poet has given to a key encounter in English literature, is it in some way at least the same sort of space, claiming attention as a ruin? Is it possible for a natural phenomenon to move from what Carroll calls a sanctuary topos to a lapsed topos? Or (and this is where I think I’m coming to) can Carroll’s topoi all coexist in one place? Ludchurch, it seems to me, is sanctuary as  Green Chapel, green as a Wilderness and magical Green Space, a pathway (and it certainly has that, both in attaining it and passing through) and the sense of abandonment. Is it possible for a sanctuary to be a ruin? And what of that oddity of pilgrimage, the Camino, the ley, the sacred road?  Not to deny Carroll’s powerful assertions of the distinctions between her topoi, it is as if, as significant narrative elements in Garner, they can be seen as merging into one.

An indeterminate space such as Ludchurch  has a final challenge, the one we find (or look for and miss) when seeking something beyond the ruin. Carroll proposes the past-present-future of the ruin, the lapsed topos as not without hope. For me this is about the spiritual aspect of Ludchurch, centred for me on my final image: even in a damp evening, or (as it must be now as I write) a chill gone-midnight darkness, it still seems to me a place of immense significance, where, maybe “prayer has been valid” (another perhaps), or where at least some sense of transcendence is rooted in the slow fall of rock, the trickle of waters, the challenge the Green Knight gives Gawain to be honest, to grow, to meet Something Big and return wiser. Is there another topos, the place of enlightenment, or is this where Cooper’s Oldway Lane and the Mountain in Lewis’s Till We Have Faces and the selva oscura in Dante (and at Gradbach) show their narrative power?

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I wasn’t going to say anything about how wonderful it was being out in the snow at a school on Tuesday. After all, schools and their communities should be able to go about their business without intrusion except in particular and boundaried circumstances.  So, while this post isn’t really about School A and certainly not about Child B or Teacher C, it starts from my sitting on the cold ground in the school’s outdoor area, talking to a small person. She has a small, flaky bit of snow and sand mixture in her palm, and her eagerness to share with me is coupled with amazing patience and delicacy. And I’m mentioning the school, the teachers and the child here as a thank you: thank you for letting me back into the world I love of young people learning.

Hardly a critical incident, but scroll through the zero days of this week to a tweet which alerts me to the practice of a “no touch” policy towards snow. It might have stones in it, it might be dirty, children might throw it… and therefore it stirs me to ask

what do children gain from touching snow?

We could play the Curriculum Game, which goes something like this: we predict or observe along the lines of the current official curriculum system and structure. “Touching snow is about the following three things…” It is like a magnificent game where the children are the callers, the practitioners trying to score against this box or that on a complex and shifting bingo card of language and ideas and physicality. We could play the short game, based on spotting characteristics of effective learning, or the individual long game, based on Child A and their grasp of this or that developmental aspect. Similarly, there’s the predictive game, which starts from snow and guesses where the bingo tokens will come out: what a child can do becomes what the practitioners guess the child might learn.

We could play (insofar as it’s a different game) a Spiritual Game. Not to reduce spirituality (as some writers have done) to another set of learning goals, but to talk about children’s awe, the delight at novelty and uncertainty. It is, maybe, the same “sense of joy and opportunity” that lead medieval writers to think about what Marion Glasscoe has called the “games of faith.” I think this is what writers from Margaret MacMillan on have tried to express when they describe childhood in terms of innocence and freedom: it is the engaged encounters with the unfamiliar that engender delight.

Finally (for now) we might think about a Game of Life.  I have mentioned before, for example, the challenges of working with tactile-defensive undergraduates, whose world is (for me) limited by their ineluctable reticence around soil and mud and moss.  I also know that (quite apart from what the weather might do overnight) with a small amount of snow people talk about not being able to get to work, about a “snow day.” I do know people shouldn’t ignore real danger; I also know, however, that our divorce from nature leads to fear of it. Cold is cold; snow is snow. It is a sort of divorce: not just the split of a binary, but a loss of a whole lot of relationships. Two people break up and this friend  goes one way, that friend another; the music collection goes to one person, the dining chairs go to another. Who wants that vase?  Humanity (uppercase H) leaves Nature (uppercase N) and loses snow as well, and maybe slush and snowdrops. The disquiet I (and others) experience around loss of language and direct knowing of something as simple as snow is part of this schism.   Tragically we become first uncomfortable strangers then we grow unfamiliar, then mistrustful. What goes on when we reconnect is tentative but threshold-like: the snow becomes something we know, welcome or unwelcome as context dictates. This final aspect involves the other two: we learn the “snowness of snow” just as in early Maths we appreciate the “threeness of three,”and then we also see snow as wonder, as a source of fun, of poetry or science or expressive arts: we see it as snow.

What do we gain from touching snow? Maybe we gain some facility with active learning, or some more vocabulary, or skills with moving or handling. Maybe we gain a sense of wonderthat the bright crystal pile in our hands turns (back) to water. Maybe we learn something simple about who we are and how we live.

But very little of any of the three ways of looking at our learning comes from looking at snow through the window or via a video link, but comes from what the first epistle of John says of Christ, that “which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.”

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How Wild the Space?

I saw a lovely student from another University today. She’s researching Harry Potter and wanted to chat it over. We met in the Weston Library and talked about her project, a reader-response exploration of an illustrated version.

It struck me as odd to be sitting in the Bodleian, in Hogwarts, doing this – odder still (but still a delight) to zip round the Designing English exhibition (I hope this link stays after the exhibition closes: it has been a treat), walk through the main Bodleian quad and then past Exeter/Jordan College (we discussed La Belle Sauvage as we walked). For me at least this is potentially an everyday possibility: to walk through film sets, through putative locations, through ghost stories and narrative devices: trees under which sundered lovers sit; pubs where the righteous and unrighteous plot; rivers that carry fugitives and storytellers. In a short walk to the bus from a cup of coffee I was able, with a light touch, to “explore the concept of investigating key locations within [my] own mythologies and their connection to the landscape and to the literature which they inhabit…” In other words I mirrored in a short and urban way, the Wild Spaces Wild Magic project. So here are some questions about my chat about locations and my walk this afternoon:

  • In what way does Wild Spaces Wild Magic differ from the solitary reader’s exploration of location?
  • In what way might it differ from the crocodiles of tourists on The Harry Potter tour?
  • Does it matter that Oxford provides an urban setting, and in southern England – in other words, do we need mud?
  • Does it need to be a “real” Oxford?

Of course, the solitariness of the lone scholar doesn’t preclude the investigation – but I think it’s about investigation, not just “being there.” If all we can say is that ‘[i]t was (you may say) satisfactory…” then we are mere tourists. If going to Gradbach and ascending to the Green Chapel is just about a tick on a score card we are a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal, as St Paul writes; if sitting in Thoon was simple finding and possessing, we see only through a glass, darkly. It may be that this superficiality accounts for some of the lack of engagement I suspect in the ungainly crowds who come to see where Daniel Radcliffe trod, and who find a busy city full of traffic and buses and the everyday…

Oxford isn’t Hogwarts – although I did draw the parallel with my visitor today. Rowling never intended it. For Philip Pullman, at least two Oxfords occur in his great His Dark Materials project, and the urban Oxford that is “our” Oxford is carefully delineated so as to distinguish between it and Lyra’s Oxford. But is Oxford magic? If the city cannot really provide, in its old lanes and towers, a setting that is full of a psychogeographic nostalgia (Brideshead, Sayers, maybe even a Pullmanesque wistfulness for les collèges d’antan) then why come here to tell the towers thereof? Perhaps it’s because the visitor hopes- perhaps I hope – not for the gods of the high moors with their new roads and secret gates, but the possibility of stories “that made us who we are and still design us.”  Oxford makes stories; it allows people to make their own stories. Maybe Oxford comes closest to the Wild Magic when it demands of us, as Mat and I have posed before, “What will happen to us when we stop looking back; when we can no longer dreamwalk into a history?”

So does Oxford need to be real? The College Myth I subscribed to from 1976 (until, really, I came back to my Grandpont interview in 1991 and stayed in the Fellows’ Guest Room at Magdalen ) was never real; we came and with our posture made some passing scribble on the air – and then left. Kings and gods of fantasy, we were that most temporary type of Ozymandias, cocky undergraduates.

It was not ours, really, to possess. In some ways, the cruel thing about Oxford is that it keeps growing – up, out, into a more modern place,  whether that growth seems pleasant or not. And we – I – grew too. All children grow up, anyway, and this was not Neverland, either. Oxford is, in that sense, not a city of aquatint, but a city of myth. Maybe, as Andrew Marr has suggested, this is why Oxford is the seminary for the classic fantasy writers: Carroll, Lewis, Tolkien, Cooper, Garner…

Because what would happen if we could no longer dreamwalk?

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End of the Matter

Spoiler alert: this is the Matter of Britain as explored at the end of the Dark is Rising Sequence, the last few pages of Silver on the Tree.


All good things come to an end, and the narrative that begins (tentatively or with deliberate simplicity) with three children in a tussle over Arthurian legend in Over Sea Under Stone comes to a conclusion in a wild confusion of drowning cities, wounded kings, Welsh and English topography- and the three original children with their guardian, Merlin/Merriman,  and his protégé Will facing off the Dark. Capital D, just as Will and Merriman and others are the Light.

What shocked and delighted me was the post-War humanism with which it concludes. Transcendence goes onto the ship with the previous guardians of the Matter of Britain, with Arthur “and all the hosts of the shades of Light.” Tir Nan Og, Tolkein’s Undying Lands, Aslan’s Country beckon, and the myths of Britain depart. It is a more dramatic rupture than in Tolkien or Lewis because of what follows:not Tolkien’s wistfulness or the hope of a new dawn in Lewis’ afterlife, but the rupture coming out of Auschwitz, of Hiroshima – and now the threats, ecological and military of our own time. The end of the matter becomes the start of a new struggle?

Bran, the boy who gives up his right to be part of the myth “stood watching until there was no ship to watch, but Will could see no regret on his face.” The charge laid on Will and the Drew children by the departing Merriman/Merlin is worth at the very least a tribute here: it is really worth reading the whole sequence of novels for, a humanist rabbit pulled from a transcendental hat:

“For remember…that it is altogether your world now. You and all the rest. We have delivered you from evil, but the evil that is inside men is at the last a matter for men to control. The responsibility and the hope and the promise are in your hands and the hands of the children of all men on this earth…

For Drake is no longer in his hammock, children, nor is Arthur somewhere sleeping, and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you. Now especially since man has the strength to destroy this world, it is the responsibility of man to keep it alive, in all its beauty and joy.”


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Le Guin

Thomas Merton could have written a poem worthy of the passing of Ursula Le Guin, as he did of Hemingway “Now with a true bell your story becomes final…” but I will post just two links, one via my good friend Mat, from 2014 when Ursula Le Guin, prophet that she was, accepted a lifetime achievement award, and one, a lesser vehicle, her obit from the New York Times.

Only her own writing and thinking stands as a decent memory at this point.

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Vocation II: love at the end of work

There was a point, I imagine, when only illness – long and debilitating or short – was what brought the working life to an end universally. “Grow old in your work” is the advice of a wisdom writer 200 BCE (Sirach ch 11) and I read it as an encouragement. However, I find myself wondering, as I start thinking about retirement: what is my vocation?

Sunday’s readings in Mass were about the call of the disciples, and yesterday we remembered three great saints, Paul the Hermit, and the Benedictines Maurus and Placid. The boy Samuel is called at the start of his mission, the earliest disciples move from John the Baptist to Jesus; Paul the Hermit flees to the desert; Maurus and Placid attach themselves to the Patriarch of Western Monasticism; the youthful Antony we remember today (17th Jan) disposes of his responsibilities and flees to the desert  – and somewhere inside me I wonder “what will I do when I grow up?”

And today more rows on Twitter about Bold Beginnings, with an  OfSTED spokesperson being bullish, and Prof Michael Rosen growling like a dog at a bullbaiting…  No: they are all really sincere, trying to make sense of their positions or trying to explain what they think and feel to others. Such is the (to go to the Hardyesque or Cold Comfort country fair metaphor again) cockpit of passion and professionalism. Most of the time I love it or at least follow it with a keen eye: today….

Today I want to try and figure out what I’m doing here. What does it mean at this end of my working life (and do I mean “end,” given my first comments?) to find my work “rewarding,” or to say “I love my job”? This is given added flavour by the fact that tomorrow’s class for my PGCE students is about writing a personal statement.   What does it mean to be a professional?

The first question might be whether vocation and profession are coterminous. I shy away from the statements about “passion” and “reward” when describing my job. I have no passion for much of the paper that litters my desk and my reward is fundamentally pay. How about taking pride? Yes, I take pride in a class that goes well, I enjoy talking to  all sorts of students and coworkers, and it has come as something of a surprise at this end of my working life to find I have friends deeply woven into my appreciation of a working day. But was that why I became a teacher in the first place? To have friends? If so, I think I have waited a long time. I wonder whether this is a half truth, or a simplified story. Maybe teaching appeals because of the relational aspect of the work.

This particular hare was started by my good colleague Georgina Glenny, whose research seminar today talked a lot, in among her subject (the difficulty of designing for “interventions”) about pedagogy and relationships. I did not become a teacher – in any of the sectors I’ve experienced – because of the standards agenda. I did not become a teacher because I read a book on teaching. I don’t even think I principally chose to teach to “make a difference.” I think I became a teacher because I discern that I am good at getting on with people, by and large; I enjoy people’s company. I really enjoy watching people learn, and helping people to learn, and the best places I’ve found to do this are Nurseries and Universities. As part of that I came, through my own children and then through those I worked with, to love their worlds, and drawing on my own reading history the literature that illuminates it, from Moomins to present day reading such as Raymie Nightingale. I know other people see the job differently, and other people who share my kick from watching learning see it better in other places. Is this vocation? I come (back) to the early monastics, to the advice from Abba Nisteros:

Not all good works are alike, For Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable and God was with him. Elias loved solitary prayer and God was with him. David was humble and God was with him. Therefore whatever you see your soul to desire according to God do that thing and you shall keep your heart safe.

Even without God this makes sense. Do what your heart tells you and you can keep it safe. Love your work is at least part of this.


This takes me to a good (although not conclusive) place, but won’t do for a person spec. and a personal statement.  What we need is a way to communicate passion, commitment, love without cliche or threadbare argument, or laying ourselves open to overwork. This is as true of the profession as a whole as it is of the novice looking for a first job. Except for the mere contrarians, this is true of The Twitterers; except for the pale pen-pushers this is true of policy makers and enforcers; except for the person who has lost their way and should have left the profession years ago, this is true of teachers and educators from one end of the sector to the other. We need, bluntly, to know what we profess.

But I wonder – I worry – that we are so individualist that the personal statement is just that: a personal vision, squeezed and pushed into the different shape that may be acceptable for a job.

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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.

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It’s a while since I thought about Merlin, that mystagogue wild man.  There is a good (to my mind) outline of the legends and sources on Wikipedia. There’s already surprise magic. Maybe it’s time to look at the ageing, failing Cole Hawlings and Merriman Lyon. Mention of Susan Cooper’s Old Ones and the confederacy – brilliantly unexplained by Masefield- of the opponents of Abner Brown, makes me think about these patriarch/matriarch mages, the Solomons, the Moseses, wisdom and power opposing the greedy destroyers and dispensing justice, dilexisti iustitiam… It is what messiahs are for. 

Melchizedech is one of the more complex of these to ponder. He has a cameo role in Genesis 14 where he greets Abraham. He is a king, maybe attesting (for the early audience) to a particular set of cultic practices, whose placatory actions assume a significance picked up (via the apocalyptic literature that also feeds much of the images of Jesus as Messiah) by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews. By now he is a curious figure, “without father or mother, without lineage, without end.” His homage to Abraham, offering bread and wine, is an attestation of the Messiah to be born of Abraham. C S Lewis, who knows his mythic history, places him in his adult science fiction with Arthur, assumed, undying, to the planet Perelandra.

With these mages maybe we have to place the great saints of  early Western monasticism, people like Ss Martin and Benedict: sages, counsellors, priests, demon-defeaters. And since it’s Christmas, we have to bring another thaumaturge in here, with his reindeer prancing and pawing, his gifts, his rescues. Maybe in the collapse of the great Pax Romana, people looked for rescuers. My Medievalist daughter Lizzie reminds me of the categorisations that come at the end of the Middle Ages, of the Nine Worthies: Arthur is there, with Alexander. Merlin has faded from sight.

But here for us is Merlin, himself, or rather Merlin I and II, Myrddin, at times the companion of Arthur, the fallible and complex magician, druid. For me, this is the Merlin portrayed so brilliantly in C S Lewis’ adult fantasy That Hideous Strength,  a “real” Merlin, maybe one we can construct precariously from later stories and images. Maybe we discern here Merlin II,  although I am not sure who comes first really, in Welsh legend, in the creation of Stonehenge, one of the many attempts to site Merlin in something concrete, from Tintagel to Roslin.

And then another set of creations: via T H White’s magician living backwards through history and therefore privy to all its follies and tragedies, to his comic (but diminished) role in the Disney version of the Sword in the Stone, and then into  more recent versions, and the one I’m trying to explore, the Old One, Merriman Lyon, in Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence, a sort of Merlin IV, if Masefield’s Cole Hawling is Merlin III.

Maybe this taxonomy doesn’t work. What we have is a magic patriarch, not always the omniscient rescuer we might want, but a rescuer nonetheless. I need to draw this, and if I can manage the graphics and put something here, I hope to do so, but it becomes very clear that the rescuing patriarch is a cultural meme, replicating, transforming as a society has need. The Man in Boneland sings the seasons round in Ludcruck: Colin explicitly watches the stars with MERLIN, the “multi-element-radio-linked-interferometer-network.” Ur-Merlin and Merlin V?

And as Cole fades with that final, beautiful Christmas Folk-carol in salute, and Merriman climbs the hill, we have not got to forget Gandalf, ageing and fallible and passing into the West, or his more modern counterpart, Albus Dumbledore – and we have to acknowledge the sudden swerve into the younger Merlin, whose secret magic powers and attachment to his master Arthur are a cover for an undisclosed and unrequited gay love. Merlin VI and VII? And more?



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Not Quite Bold Enough Beginnings

This is going to be just a blog post in preparation for the discussion I’m going to have with the Brookes 3-7 Pathway PGCE students this week. I think it’s important we read Bold Beginnings together and take a close look not only at its implications but at some of the voices raised against it. Here are some, for reference:

Kym Scott in Nursery World, is here, suggesting that “a very clear political agenda for introducing more formal learning” is at the heart of Bold Beginnings. There is that: the storm crows are gathering, maybe. TACTYC talk of how adherence to recommendations in Bold Beginnings will [sic] have detrimental effects on children’s confidence, motivation and disposition to learn.

Jan Dubiel from Early Excellence – again in Nursery World – expresses concern that EYFS’ “clear set of expectations and outcomes in order to ensure that YR provides the most effective and significant learning opportunities” are narrowed by Bold Beginnings  which “creates a very real danger of misinterpretation and the limiting of effective practice to achieving outcomes in three Specific Areas of Learning and Development at the expense of the importance of the wider YR curriculum.”  Jan cites his organisation’s Hundred Review and its findingshere he is in video format reporting on the massive sample size and other methodological issues.  He is right, I believe,  to talk about how “Reception almost lives between two worlds.” Here is the tension. It was the same issue that exercised me as a Head, in the last days that many free-standing nursery schools had five year olds, and I’m not sure that, even with Forest School and everything else we worked with, it was quite right. I understand this remains a contentious area of education.

CREC  likewise gave Bold Beginnings a Paddington-like long, hard stare, as I read it; in their response the Centre there is a clear key message:

Emerging developmental evidence reveals that an ‘earlier is better’, more formal, didactic approach may be misguided and will not make a difference in the long term. In contrast to the focus on early, didactic instruction, current research into early emotional and cognitive development suggests that long-term well-being and success at school may be more dependent on children developing executive functioning and self-regulation abilities, and exercising autonomy in their learning. The evidence sharply indicates that play and participatory approaches should be seen as key vehicles for learning throughout the early years.

That long-standing bastion of quality in the Early Years, the British Association for Early Childhood Education (founded by the great Margaret McMillan in 1923) calls Bold Beginnings a “hit and miss affair,” and I suppose that’s my view. A curate’s egg. – but remember that the joke there is the luckless curate is desperate to find something good in the face of someone in power. Here the situation is somewhat different, and  ITT and our trainees need to read, to ponder, to see direction of travel, isthat we are aware not just of policy but of its practical implications. There are good thing here – transition, the mention of play in a number of contexts, the highlighting of confusion (dispowerment?) about time allocations. And we have to take voices that raise concern seriously.

So on to OfSTED’s report. It is drawn from their analysis of practice in the schools OfSTED has deemed of high quality, visiting 41 schools. While we might be a little nervy about a self-justifying methodology here, I suspect readers will understand this is their way of working: an internal piece of review not an EdD.

It is clear the authors see that “Reading was at the heart of the curriculum in the most successful classes. Listening to stories, poems and rhymes fed children’s imagination, enhanced their vocabulary and developed their comprehension.”  There is, maybe, a lack of clarity further down the summary where the authors state (time for a long quotation):

 “The schools visited understood that teaching had different purposes. Play, for example, was used primarily for developing children’s personal, social and emotional skills. They learned to investigate the world around them, both physically and imaginatively. However, around two thirds of the staff inspectors spoke to confused what they were teaching (the curriculum) with how they thought they were supposed to teach it.

To pick some holes for starters. We might look at “play was used” and the broader issues about quite what play is. I suspect the authors think “fun activities” set up by the teacher equates to the classic Tina Bruce Free-Flow Play model, or that play is primarily a space to hang out with your friends: a “playtime”or “break” model of play. This is where it gets tricky, because I begin to worry that what we have in Bold Beginnings is a battle zone, where Teaching and Play a Balancing Act is in a struggle with a more formal model, and where ‘no one way’ (here is a compilation video but I note it has been archived) is set aside for a more authoritarian involvement. I have written about this before.  This shift in itself seems to contradict a recent TES Blog. Again, here is the message on YouTube. How we think about play- and how we prepare for an OfSTED inspection when we value it highly – was one of the tensions that worried me most in 2000 in my own last inspection as a Head: I had a sympathetic Lead Inspector who instructed me very firmly not to dress up for them. We might also note the confusion between curriculum, used here to denote the intentions of the adult, and complexities around ethos, approach, professional judgments around what is developmentally appropriate…

But let’s not. There are some great things here: singing, reading for pleasure and loving stories, CPD, extra support for SENDI… But for me, Bold Beginnings simply isn’t bold enough: in wanting to divide Reception from the rest of the Foundation Stage, it doesn’t bring Early Childhood Education (Birth to Eight) together: it highlights some good practice, but is in danger of plonking four and five year olds on the other side of a Primary/EY watershed.

It is undoubtedly important, in Jan Dubiel’s words, that we should all be about the business of finding “a broad consensus on what the priorities and practices in YR should be,” and Gill Jones from OfSTED (30th Nov, again in Nursery World) is equally passionate about how important this experience is. However, she is not above taking the “not good enough” line that educators have heard so often from OfSTED, from Ministers (in all parties, I think):

But too often it is a false start for young children and leaves them exposed to all the painful and unnecessary consequences of falling behind their peers…

Primary schools should be introducing an element of formal teaching in Reception. It should not just be an extension of pre-school…

Gill Jones stresses “we are not criticising pre-schools, nurseries and childminders.” Just Reception teachers, then. Bit of a faux pas that one, I’m afraid, but let’s move on, because this lays bare for me the problem with the whole debate. We are back with (I think it was) Ken Clarke saying that it was “time to set aside the happy chaos of sandpit and water tray.” She is echoing the key, revelatory speech of Amanda Spielman of the same date.

So we come to what I am posting this for: the glancing blow from Headteachers that NQTs are ill-prepared for key parts of their task. Read, mark and inwardly digest.

I do like the recommendation that all Primary trainees should

have sufficient knowledge of Reception, so that they understand progression from the early years foundation stage onwards

In other words that “they know nothing when they come to me” should be a phrase that dies the death.

I am less sure of the emphasis in the next point, that ITT should:

devote a greater proportion of their training programme to the teaching of reading, including systematic synthetic phonics as the route to decoding words, and the composition of numbers, so that all newly qualified teachers are competent and confident to teach early literacy and mathematics.

(OfSTED emphasis). If we think back, we were told earlier this year EY didn’t do enough nursery rhymes. We can do both, I know, and maybe the are intimately linked –  and this one will run and run, and really here we need to look at the messages far more than my opinion. I just don’t like the the, I suppose.

But to end on a (sort of) positive note from Bold Beginnings:

Play was an important part of the curriculum in all of the schools visited. The headteachers knew which aspects of learning needed to be taught directly and which could be learned through play. However, except for literacy and mathematics, the schools were not clear about the time they devoted in a typical week to the different areas of learning.

Clarity and self-reflection: the key to an effective profession.

And this is the challenge for us as we prepare more people for the key work at the disputed end of the Foundation Stage. Language development, including reading and writing, is key, absolutely key to my work, and has been since I first went into my Reception class in the late 80s: it continues to be. I agree that we all together need to “raise the profile of early mathematics teaching” although I am less sure about adopting a formalised one-size-fits-all approach. I also agree that school A may limit play to Golden Time (aka “leave me alone: it’s your reward for being compliant” whereas school B may have the space, staff and expertise to organise for much more exploration by children and with them. This is the challenge for Heads, for Phase Leaders, for Governors, for ITE – and ultimately, my PGCE students for you: if OfSTED are right (and they most assuredly are) that the wellbeing and progress of the children is at the heart of a quality curriculum, that’s the baton we are all passing on to you. Learn to enunciate your support, your objections, your insights in all sorts of directions in such a way that you do not lose sight of the child you joined the profession to teach.


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Nature Books

The AHRC Favourite Nature Books project closes its nominations at the end of November. I made a nomination in the end, but with a very heavy heart: it felt like taking one book and saying goodbye to the others. I am wary of lists, as I’ve said before, back in April. However, I do feel I want to record some of the books I considered, a sort of cheat list of ten books I have thought about as contenders for my “favourite.”

  • Rob and Jackie’s The Lost Words
  • Roger Deakin Wildwood
  • Caspar Henderson The Book of Barely Imagined Beings
  • Oliver Rackham’s Woodlands
  • Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts Edgelands
  • Philip Hoare The Sea Inside
  • Annie Dillard Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
  • Richard Fortey Life: an unauthorised biography
  • Richard Mabey Weeds
  • Robert Macfarlane Landmarks

and of course there are others I’m sure I’ve overlooked. I couldn’t really decide: we live in an age where Nature Writing (if we want to think of this as a genre: there’s an essay there for starters!) is of a very high quality and justifiably well promoted. There were criteria in this selection, in that I wanted to choose only one from each author but cheated with Robert Macfarlane because of how different Landmarks is from Lost Words and is anyway the latter is a joint creation – but in the end I wonder how different they are…

But I didn’t include writings that indirectly provoke me to think about nature – novels, for example – or poetry, so no Heaney or Thomas.  So that indirect provoking also means no Garner, no Cooper, no Paver, no Pullman… I noticed after I’d compiled it  that there are no children’s books unless Lost Words counts.

This is a lot harder than it looks, but at least my one nomination is in, for what it’s worth.

It was Landmarks, in case you wondered. I just can’t think of the other nine (and then some) not getting washed up on the desert island.

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