Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Uncool Reunion

A regal throne, complete with colonial portrait.
Peculiar banquet hall, decked with ivory tusks and silver goblets. I stole a lump of sugar.

Old Boys.

Two weeks ago, on a bleak Thursday evening I packed up my tote bag and wandered over to Mayfair wearing a t-shirt I had bought on eBay with a pair of exposed breasts on. 
This was a school reunion, an assembly of 'Old Boys' from my former school in Devon, an amusing misnomer given that we had been invited and that the majority of the attendees were wispy haired white men who attended in the 60s. Not my usual dig, I had spotted the event on facebook and along with an old school friend, we met in Soho before gracing the occasion around 8pm. Two smiley receptionists greeted us upon our arrival, thrusting name tags into our hands and gesturing towards the bar. There were no free drinks as the event had promised, and what the event had also failed to alert us of was the glut of UKIP advocating Old Boys; the chair of which bought us both drinks with some racist shrapnel and openly sneered when following questioning I informed him I was studying at an Arts and Humanities university. 'Most of our old boys go into Surveying! You'd be surprised! At some of these events there can be over 100!'. I couldn't think of anything more soul sucking.
My lovely companion, studying languages at an esteemed red-brick university was met with noticeably more marked 'ah!'s of approval at institution and degree, whilst I internally sniggered away my own anxiety and adjusted my cardigan, grabbing onto the cotton like my self-worth. True, I hadn't exactly aided the process through choice of t-shirt. 
After darting between various other conversations with former teachers and students (we were not only the youngest but the only women out of approximately 40) we made a deliberate dash to the toilets where we took it upon ourselves to explore the 'banquet hall', performance quarter and bizarre imperial bathrooms (see above images). Absurd silver trinkets and goblets alongside chandeliers and imposing ivory tusks, this exhibition of wealth and empire was light-years away from my charmingly gritty quarter of South East London I had grown so fond of.  
I left the occasion with a sour feeling of inadequacy, an ignored friend request, a cheek full of kettle crisps, and the sense of having been condescended on all components of my being through various conservative attitudes. A breeding ground for nepotism, sexism, and a perpetuation of outdated, quaint ideals.
There's no such thing as a free drink.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Reykjavíkurdætur make me want to punch the sky

Headlining at Peckham's DIY London community arts space, Reykjavíkurdætur or Daughters of Reykjavik stormed the quaint volunteer run venue with a rousing juxtaposition of jarring Icelandic rap against an amicable backdrop of fairy-lights and homemade zines. Support act Deep Throat, played a medley of beam-inducing covers with the sweet harmonies of the all female 15+ members, Deep Throat summoned the grrrl power neccesary for the proceeding Daughters. 
Lip curling, fist throwing, Reykjavíkurdætur were unapologetically pumped up. Expertly styled, the collective who consist of over 15 members introduced their songs with 'This is about being lucky!' and 'This is about the Icelandic government!' before tempestuously diving into a tirade of sharply delivered Icelandic fury. 
I speak Swedish? I thought, I'll know maybe some of what they're saying? [I did not, thought I caught a 'Ban Ki-moon' and a 'Fuck Boy']. This was international, meaning transcending lyrics through the snarls and thrusts, oozing a reclaimed feminity. 
Any fellow Grade 7 flautists willing to inaugurate a large-scale woodwind Feminist collective with me?

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

A direct attack on The Great British Academy

I have something on my chest. It's currently inflamed and looks like I have the onset of a terrible skin condition. It's as red as the red flag, gently restricts my breathing at worst, and over the years has provoked countless shrill exclamations of 'are you alright?'. I've had it as long as I can remember in times of heightened anxiety, arousal, anticipation, to go on. I am currently seething.

As a non-oligarch student of Literature at a London university I work part time. Following a brief stint back home over the Christmas period where I slotted back into luggage shop tribulations- a grave error- I put my foot down and secured a job as a tutor of GCSE English back at uni. The firm; based in Hackney are relatively newly fledged and fundamentally the loveliest bunch of young professionals keen on helping students of all ages gain confidence in academia in both private and group tuition in schools across Greater London. As a student who was once reliant on tuition to shoehorn me through GCSE Physics I understand the importance of getting through to a pupil who may not necessarily connect with the subject but is eager to work at it for the sake of a grade. So far, I have tutored GCSE students with abilities ranging from a D/E grade to A, and whilst I am still very much a fresh face to the sphere of tuition, I'd like to say I take immense pride and attention to lesson planning, listening to students and asking for their own feedback to sculpt the lessons round their areas of focus. To be totally frank, there are few things I enjoy more, and I can get an immense adrenaline rush out of it.

I have so far worked at two schools, one in West London and one in East London; both being light years away from my former secondary school. As a student who only left secondary education about four years ago, I'd like to say I was still fresh from the oven. I loathed my school wholeheartedly, having transferred mid-GCSE following a family relocation to North Devon. A rurally isolated private school; mine perpetuated a grotesque class divide with Damien Hirst’s darling tottering down corridors whilst I hopelessly attempted to integrate. 150 years old, the school held close Freemason ties [insert pun on school ties] shamelessly made known to pupils with the presence of the enormous Masonic rugs rolled up in the corner of the drama studio and 'special favours' that my Music teacher has mentioned that several of the male teachers would make for the sons of Masons. In fairness to my parents they were aware this was unsurprisingly going to be an awkward time to move any 16 year old from the costal metropolis that is Brighton so sent me here in the hope of an amicable environment and quick solution to salvaging an education for a furiously hormonal young woman.
My experience of secondary school, as most teenagers find in retrospect, was painful. I was distinctly made to feel aware of how much money my parents did or did not have in comparison with my peers, and as an extension I felt an enormous sense of guilt at being there and so insufferably miserable. Girls were forbidden from wearing trousers (there was no option), boys had to have hair of a certain length, my peers frequented homophobic and racist slurs so often I gave up on trying to call them out.  It wasn’t until I moved back to the city and discussed this with friends at university I could finally express my pent up frustration at a school so retrograde in its deeply conservative ideology.

What I would not understand until four hours ago is that arseholes are not exclusive to the private sector. Call me a fool.

The schools I teach at in West and East London are both Academies. I value my job, and in light of this I am going to abstain from referring directly to the school(s) in question. What I am not going to abstain from is the expression of the conversation I had today with a year 11 pupil, ‘A’. ‘A’ is a GCSE student in her final year of secondary school. She is diligent, has grubby fingernail, is the most methodical planner of essays I have ever encountered and quite honestly is absolutely charming. This said, half of the scheduled sessions I’ve had with her she’s called off or she’s had doctor’s notes. Today was evidently a lucky day and sure enough she was waiting outside as soon as I had finished with the previous group session. ‘A’ looked visibly drained.   

I open the school approved ‘tutor pack’ that the head of department has instructed us to use. A smarmy, deeply condescending woman; it is evident by her manner that she has very little respect for us tutors, let alone her students. Today in the earlier session she swans in making no attempt to speak to us privately and waltzes in mid-session to my colleague, asking if her students have been making ‘insightful comments’, then reprimanded another for slouching, both in the most poisonous tone I have ever heard a teacher speak to a student. The whole premise of tutoring is breaking the boundaries of formalities to tailor to the student’s learning and allowing them to feel comfortable to broach questions on the topic that they may find challenging. Two weeks ago she stormed into my session and in front of my entire group session and told me my whole lesson plan was incorrect in explicit earshot of my students. That evening I sobbed to my boyfriend and drew a tiny effigy in my journal.

I asked ‘A’ how her week had been. She gnaws on a biscuit in response, “it’s from study club miss” she says, embarrassed and wiping the crumbs from her mouth- completely ignoring my question. We propose to look at a creative writing question we had planned from the previous session; we look at the mark scheme. ‘A’ highlights the key words, slumped into her chair and I try to keep a chirpy tone, anxiously sipping on my own cold coffee.  When we finally commence writing a creative passage she slumps even further. “I’m really sorry miss” she confesses, “I’m exhausted.”.
I ask her what time she was in this morning, presuming 9AM; my own earliest lecture and a pain at that. She tells me that students must be in for 8:11 promptly every day. If a student is more than 1 minute late they lose their break time and their lunch time is halved. I gawp, and she continues, the other one-to-one student who my colleague is overseeing chirping up too, and before I know any better they are both outpouring.  Girls must have their hair in ‘one unit’ [one hairband- two are deemed unprofessional]. If a student is caught rolling their eyes or saying ‘oh my god’ they are excluded for a week. Any student put in isolation must ask permission to drink water. The school day is 8.17AM to 6PM, for 5 days a week plus compulsory Saturdays 9AM-1PM. ‘A’ informed me that the academy would be rolling this out over the Easter period as well.  What’s more is that before the start of every single of the six lessons that make up the day, the students stand behind their chairs and recite:

‘Throughout this lesson I aspire to maintain a calm disposition and an attentive air so that in this class and all classes I can fulfil my true potential’.

Whilst immediately evoking visions of a Dystopian 1984-esque institution, nay, prison, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the pupils I had taught in India, rote learning a Robert Louis Stevenson poem but who could barely spell their own name. The words are hyperbolic and pointlessly archaic to the extent that their meaning is totally redundant. It’s a literal fucking incantation to the ghost of the Grammar school.
I couldn’t shut my mouth if I wanted to.  
What is perturbing is that this academy is doubtlessly not exclusive. Gove’s upheaval of the UK education system now places immense pressure on students through the introduction of linear A-Level exams culminating in exams at the end of the 2 year stint meaning Universities shall have to consult a student’s grades at GCSE, exams typically sat when a student is 16 years old.

I asked ‘A’ if she thought the strictness of her school improved her grades? She said no.

Did the strictness of her school detracted from her enjoyment of her studies? She said a little.

I asked ‘A’ what she intended to do once she had completed her exams. Her friend sat across the room said she had been planning to ‘stick it out’ for sixth form. I tried in vain to stress that the levels of discipline at this age are far higher than at A-Level, let alone in university.’ A’ was keener to leave as soon as she had the chance to do so.

Well done Michael Gove, it’s working. You’re dissuading future generations from pursuing further education, apprenticeships will be on the up and A will secure herself a job through hard grit, providing she sticks at the same industry for the rest of her life.

I don’t know what I’m proposing, if proposing at all. I am documenting the perspective of a child emotionally and physically drained by a school fighting for funding like tigers over a buffalo.

This school’s principles are grotesque [as I’m sure hundreds other are] and the most perverse and industrious husk, devoid of humanity and nurture I have ever had the misfortune to teach at.

I am still seething.

A [my] sad puppy, as a reflection of the author's angst.