On the margins

I’m angry at the moment. I’m having a lovely weekend, on the whole, but I’m angry. There’s a lot to be angry about in education at the moment, let’s face it, but the thing that has specifically riled me today is the article published in yesterday’s TES about the schools visited by current and former education ministers since January 2022. It chimes in with various thoughts rattling round my head at the moment about teaching in a rural area, issues of rural deprivation and lack of opportunities, and how spectacularly unbothered our current government seems to be about schools in huge swathes of the country. So let’s have a look.

Callum Mason’s article points out, amongst other things, that the politicians concerned – the four different education secretaries we’ve had since then, plus three different ministers – were more likely to have visited a school in France or Spain than they were a school in the South-West of England. It’s true: the list of schools visited includes one in Paris, one in Valencia, and none at all in the South-West. But there are other omissions too. I was curious to see whether any schools in my own county, Lincolnshire, had been visited. Absolutely none. In fact, if you drill down beyond the broad geographical regions listed by the TES, you find some pretty striking facts. There were no visits at all to schools in the rural counties of Cumbria, Norfolk, Suffolk or Shropshire. No visits to any schools at all in some of England’s biggest cities: Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Bradford or Nottingham. No visits to Knowsley, where no A level provision has existed since 2017: if you live in Knowsley and you want to do A levels, you have to get on a bus and go elsewhere, with all the attendant worries that might bring. The only two visits that took place in the North-West were both to schools in Blackpool. In the East, two of the four schools visited were actually within the London commuter belt. Only three schools visited (the two schools in Blackpool and one school in Hastings) were in the top 20 most deprived areas in England. Most shamefully, only four of the 55 areas selected by the Government as Education Investment Areas were visited.

Big skies, narrow horizons

The issues facing young people growing up in areas of deprivation – especially rural deprivation – has been on my mind more than usual this week, as I’ve been reading Natasha Carthew’s brilliant, beautiful, angry book Undercurrent: A Cornish Memoir of Poverty, Nature and Resilience. Carthew writes powerfully of the many kinds of lack experienced by young people in rural communities, and it’s a list that all people involved in education should have at the forefront of their minds. The lack of opportunities. The lack of access to concerts, galleries, museums, theatres (which also becomes a lack of a sense of belonging in these spaces). The lack of public transport. The lack of support for marginalised groups. The lack of role models. The lack of anything to aspire to, because very few of the people you know have lives that are any different from your own. The lack of faith in any possibility of escape. It’s hard to get young people growing up in these circumstances to believe that achieving their GCSE target grades – those grades on which schools are judged, and that secondary school teachers up and down the country will be losing sleep over as we enter the last few weeks of exam preparation – has any kind of importance whatsoever.

My brain has a habit of making odd connections, and as I was reading Carthew’s memoir, I kept thinking back to the conversations I’ve been having with my Year Thirteen students about Tess of the D’Urbervilles. We’ve been looking at Tess not just as the victim of vile Alec and insufferable Angel, but also as a victim of circumstance: of having the misfortune to be born a girl, into a poor rural family, at a time when she has absolutely no means of escape. The odds are stacked against Tess from the start. And while we can think about Hardy’s concept of Fate, and of Tess’s lament about being born on a ‘blighted star’, we can also think of the many imbalances of power that make her story what it is: the story of a young woman stuck in the middle of nowhere, with limited opportunities to make decisions about her own life.

There is so much more that our government needs to offer to students in deprived areas, not the least of which is teachers who are valued, trusted, and paid appropriately. But they need to come and see us, to find out what we face.


You are enough. You see it on a thousand inspirational posters, swirly italic-effect fonts against backdrops of beaches and sunsets, spring flowers and rainbows and autumn leaves. Search on Etsy, and you can find it on mugs and sweatshirts, coasters and keyrings. It can be personalised, embroidered onto a cushion, painted onto something called a ‘positivity pebble’ that you can keep in your pocket. It’s the title of a book, with the subtitle ‘How to Love the Skin You’re In and Embrace Your Awesomeness’. There’s even a modified version, attributed to someone called Sierra Boggess: ‘You are so enough, it’s unbelievable just how enough you are’.

You are, really. (Source: Pexels)

The trouble is that it’s difficult to believe, in teaching, that we are ever enough. There’s always something else that we could do. Run that extracurricular group, read that article, try that new approach, sign up for that webinar, have that conversation with a colleague about that student who’s underperforming, contact that parent, think ahead to that trip we might run next year … We’ve heard a lot, over the last few months, about the feelings that have driven the current strikes: the real-terms pay cuts, the squeezed budgets, the crisis in recruitment and retention. And there’s the collective sense of burnout felt by a profession that is overwhelmed, accountable for far too many things with far too little support, battling poor behaviour and the after-effects of the pandemic, told constantly – by so many voices, but also by ourselves – that we are not doing enough.

I don’t want to claim special treatment for English teachers, but there’s something about English that is especially susceptible to this sense of not-enoughness. I’ve spent most of my career trying to describe what it is that makes English so complex – hell, I even did my PhD on it – and now, twenty-seven years in, I think I’ve finally pinned it down. In true English-teacher style, I’ve done it as a metaphor. English is a gas. Not in the sense of being funny, or enjoyable (although it frequently is), but because it expands to fill the space available to it. This is partly because in English we work with words, with texts, and words and texts, in all their various and wonderful forms, are what surround us. The conversations we overhear, the programmes we watch, the packaging on the products we buy, the songs we listen to, the websites we browse, the Twitter threads we read: all are grist to our English-teaching mill. And that’s before we even think about books, and everything that surrounds them.

The ever-expanding nature of English makes it particularly vulnerable to debates about powerful knowledge. It’s vulnerable anyway, because debates about powerful knowledge involve debates about issues that are central to English as a subject, not least the kinds of texts we teach and the ways in which we approach them. But if we take a text that is particularly powerful in the English curriculum – A Christmas Carol, say – it’s easy to see how the amount of knowledge available to us, as teachers, has grown massively over the last few years. Historical and biographical contexts, beautifully-produced resources, discussions of key quotations and motifs … It would be possible to spend a whole year teaching A Christmas Carol and still feel that you haven’t explored everything about it and its hinterland that is considered powerful. Except, of course, that you haven’t got a year, because there are three other texts – plus unseen poetry – to cover, as well as English Language. And so the guilt sets in. What if you miss out that key piece of information, that vital worksheet, that will unlock a particular concept for your students? What if that leads to them missing out on a vital grade? What if your department’s results plummet and Ofsted make their dreaded phone call? Your panic spirals. You stop trusting your own judgement, and before long, you’re paralysed, unable to make any decisions because it feels as though every decision is the wrong one.

English, as a subject, needs to change. It needs to change in many ways and for many reasons. Lots of these will be familiar to us: the inadequacy of GCSE English Language, the lack of diversity, the absence of any meaningful opportunities to develop vital oracy skills. But one that we must also address is the need for clearer boundaries around the knowledge we teach.

This is something I never thought I’d call for. I love exploring alternative readings and different approaches: there’s nothing I enjoy more than getting my A level students to examine varying interpretations, to play the unending game of critical debate. Yes, but … Well, okay, but couldn’t you also say …? But it feels, at the moment, as though the possibilities of what we could teach in English are growing at an exponential rate; and, as we all know, the stakes in English are so high that it’s easy to become completely overwhelmed by the scale of what we have to manage, the complexity of the landscape we have to navigate.

I’m mixing my metaphors wildly here, and that’s probably because I am swamped, at the moment, by the kinds of decisions I’m trying to describe. Everything in education, at the moment, feels like that other metaphor: a lethal mutation, spreading wildly, out of control. I think a lot of us feel as though we’re not enough. We might not have to walk through the desert on our knees repenting, but it certainly feels that way, sometimes.

The Bone Sparrow, The Arrival, and empathy

My Year Sevens are just coming to the end of their study of Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow, and it’s a long time since I’ve found a book that has gone down so well with a class. It’s a difficult business, choosing a new class reader. You find a book that you think your students will adore, spend ages developing a scheme of work and resources, and sometimes it just doesn’t play as well as you think it will. Some novels are Marmite, loved by some students but leaving others cold. Some fall a bit flat. What to do?

One of the difficult things about teaching English is that the subject blurs the boundary between academic domain and personal pleasure. Like all subjects, it demands that students spend time engaging with concepts and topics that they might not choose to engage with in their lives beyond the classroom. But there’s something about studying books that makes English different from Maths, or Geography, or the sciences. We are supposed to enjoy reading in a way that we’re not necessarily supposed to enjoy solving equations or exploring coastal landforms. It’s far easier for students to see these subjects as something that they simply have to learn. But reading has a different kind of existence, as something people do for pleasure, out of choice. What people read – indeed, if they read at all – is seen as more a matter of personal taste. And therefore students often really resent having to study a text they wouldn’t choose to read outside of school.

Sometimes, I growl that English is an academic discipline and that issues of personal preference shouldn’t matter. I talk about the reasons why we read and the fact that studying a text is about a whole range of complicated things: the ability to read closely and attentively; the critical exploration of novels and plays and poems that are culturally significant; the willingness to engage with lives and situations that are not our own. I talk about intellectual resilience and the need to push beyond the question of whether you like something or not. But, let’s face it, there is nothing quite like that feeling of teaching a group who really enjoy the text they’re studying, who are intrigued by it and relish the challenges it offers. There’s an energy to those lessons, a buzz. Eyes light up and ideas bounce around. The bell goes and someone comments ‘Is it the end of the lesson already? That went really quickly!’

The Bone Sparrow has been fabulous. We’ve explored narrative methods and analysed the creation of character; we’ve learned about the situation of the Rohingya people and researched the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We’ve also discussed critical literacy and the reasons why people think that particular books should be studied in schools. One of my students contacted Zana Fraillon, via her website, to ask some questions about the novel, and was beside himself with excitement when she replied, less than twelve hours later. (He declared, ‘I feel as though I’m famous!’) And we’ve also talked about being an outsider, about feeling strange and unwelcome, and how that feels.

I’ve been thinking about The Bone Sparrow a lot this week because of Rishi Sunak’s desire to make all students continue with Maths until the age of 18, and also because of two books I’ve read recently: Peter Bazalgette’s The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society, and Michael J. Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, which was explored by Claire Stoneman in her brilliant blog post last week. One of Sandel’s key arguments is about the rhetoric of rising, the idea that if we work hard and play by the rules then there is no limit to what we can achieve. Achievement is seen as a mark of merit, of worth, rather than as the result of a constellation of lucky accidents: having a supportive family, being of good health, having the kinds of talents and abilities that are valued by society and will be rewarded with a high-paying job. As you might expect, I have lots of thoughts about the valorising of subjects that are seen to lead to higher earning power, as if earning power alone is the sole criteria that should be applied when deciding which subjects we prioritise, which departments to fund, which courses to cut. Discussions about the value of the arts and humanities often defend the study of the arts by pointing to the huge earning power of the British creative industries, which, in 2020, contributed £13 million to the UK economy every hour. And yet: should this be the only measure?

From The Arrival by Shaun Tan (2007, image licensed for non-commercial use)

We’ve followed up our study of The Bone Sparrow with some creative writing based on Shaun Tan’s book The Arrival. If you don’t know The Arrival, this is something you need to remedy right now, because it is stunning. It’s a graphic novel, but contains no words. (My students love the idea of being able to tell a story without any words: when I showed them the book last week, I had a little huddle of them round my desk at the end of the lesson, wanting to have another look and note down the title so they could track down their own copies.) It’s a story of exile, of a man who has to leave his family and travel to a different country. The illustrations, which are beautiful, are in sepia tones. Some – a tearful woman saying goodbye to her husband, a man getting onto a train, a crowd of people on a ship – carry echoes of particular historical situations, most notably the Second World War, and migration to the USA in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But the country that the man finds himself in is like no other. The writing system, the buildings, the vehicles, even the animals: all are utterly estranging. And that’s the point. No matter who you are, no matter which language you speak or what kind of cultural background you’re from, this new country will be alien to you. We talked about the weirdness of an alphabet you’ve never seen before, and how significant it is that Tan does not privilege any of his readers. Nobody will find this strange world easier to navigate than anyone else. We are all equally disorientated.

Our writing, which we’ll be developing next week, focuses on one specific image, of a family walking through silent streets in a town haunted by a tentacled creature that twines itself around the rooftops and lurks menacingly round corners. We’ve discussed whether the creature is real or metaphorical, and decided on the latter. It could be war, we said, or prejudice, or some kind of idea that’s making people feel they don’t belong any more. We talked about what the characters could see, what they might smell. (That kind of rotten smell like a market at the end of a hot day when all the vegetables have been out for too long, one boy said.) We wondered whether the family would be talking to each other, or if there were thoughts running through their minds that they couldn’t put into words. Would there be people in the houses, staying away from the windows, too afraid to look out? What memories might they have of the time before the creature arrived?

In The Empathy Instinct, Peter Bazalgette writes of the capacity for empathy as being one of the foundations of a civil society. He highlights the role of fiction in building empathy, fostering our ability to imagine and to understand, to project ourselves into the lives and experiences of people who are not ourselves. Studying The Bone Sparrow, and then exploring The Arrival, has been a real journey for my Year Sevens. They’ve learned a lot academically, but they’ve also developed their understanding of a whole host of issues and situations. It would be difficult to measure this in terms of grades, or earning potential, or contributions to the economy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t massively important to the good of our society.

Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females

One of the most important books in my life, for reasons far too complicated to go into, is David Lodge’s 1988 novel Nice Work. One of the main characters is a lecturer in nineteenth-century English literature called Robyn Penrose, who is working on a book about women in the nineteenth-century novel, called Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females. Work commitments being what they are, Robyn doesn’t get enough time to write. At one point in the novel, she finds herself in a hotel in Frankfurt: a luxurious space, geared entirely to the comfort of its guests. And she thinks, idly, if I had three weeks here, I could finish Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females.

I first read Nice Work when I was sixteen, and over the years, there have been times when I’ve been somewhere, and thought: if I had three weeks here, I could finish Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females. Well, obviously not Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females, but whatever it is I’ve been working on. I wrote a chunk of my PhD in an anonymous hotel in Lisbon where we went one very rainy Easter, and another chunk in a lovely café in the Oud St-Jan complex in Bruges, fortified by beer and coffee and apple cake. I wrote significant bits of the Book That Didn’t Find a Publisher in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, one of the loveliest places ever, and there are coffee shops all over the place where I’ve squirrelled myself away in corners to read, and think, and sometimes to write.

I am not writing Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females right now, but I am writing, one of the biggest and most exciting things I’ve worked on. We spent half-term in Oslo, in a beautiful apartment with a comfortable nook for writing, and if Oslo wasn’t so darned expensive I’d happily base myself there until this book is finished. The best place to write that I’ve found this year, though, has to be the Mareel Arts Centre in Lerwick, a light, airy space looking out onto the water, with fabulous coffee and a quiet gallery where people sat with laptops and did whatever they wanted to do.

It’s going to take me far longer than three weeks to finish my own Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females, whose title is still undecided. I’m trying to set aside one day every weekend for writing, but it’s hard. Work intrudes: we’ve just had a department review that’s taken up huge amounts of time and emotional energy, and there is always planning, and marking, and other stuff to do. It’s a balancing act.

Virginia Woolf wrote about the need for a room of one’s own: Cyril Connolly said that the pram in the hall was the enemy of good art, and Susan Bassnett described trying to work with the washing machine’s thrum in the background. Space, and time, and the chance to think: to not have to pack everything away at the end of a session of working, or get up to check what’s in the oven, or break off because there’s something that needs doing for tomorrow.

There are lots of us doing this. We carve out space and time; we lose ourselves in the lovely flow of words and ideas. It’s exhausting. But we do it. We write, to paraphrase Charles Hamilton Sorley, because we like it: we do not write for prize.

Big shout-out to all teachers who are writing. My blogging has been less frequent, of late, because of Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females, but I am still here, and still thinking.

8 September

8 September 1997. It’s a Monday, the first Monday of term at the start of my second year as a qualified teacher. I have all the confidence and experience that comes from having spent one year in the job. I have my own classroom and I know how things work. I come home from school and sort out my planning for the rest of the week. I am twenty-four years old. I am meticulous and organised and in control. And just after half-past six, the phone rings. It’s my brother. He asks me if my partner, Matthew, is home from work yet. I want to know why. He says that he doesn’t want me to be on my own, that the reason why he’s calling – at an unexpected time, just after half-past six in the evening, on a Monday – is because our mum died, about two hours ago, completely unexpectedly.

She had been taken ill, apparently, at about midday. She’d managed to phone her friend down the road, but hadn’t been able to talk. Her friend had hurried round, but there had been no answer when she’d knocked on the door, and so she’d rung for an ambulance. My mum had had an aortic aneurysm, massive and unsurvivable. She’d been rushed to hospital for emergency surgery, but she’d died, seven weeks before her sixtieth birthday, at about four-thirty in the afternoon.

8 September 2022 was an odd day. Twenty-five years ago. Anniversaries are always hard, but this one was particularly tough, an official marker of half a lifetime without any parents. And so when I looked at the news on my phone at lunchtime, thinking of what would have been happening twenty-five years ago, and saw the announcement that the Queen’s doctors were concerned for her health, I kind of knew how it would all play out. And when the announcement came, at just after half-past six in the evening, I wasn’t surprised.

My mum was lovely. Kind and warm and quietly dignified. My dad had died just over three years earlier, and she was just getting things back together again. The last time I saw her was on the day Princess Diana died. We’d sat in the garden in the late summer sun, everything feeling a bit weird. I’d been planning to go up at half-term. Everything was knocked out of place, out of shape. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.

A lot has been written about the way that private griefs are brought back into focus by the death of public figures, how collective mourning allows personal sorrow to resurface. There’s a sense of catharsis, a purging, a healing. There’s space to think.

My mum was a knitter, and one of the things I have from her is a cardigan that she made for me in my second year at university. I wear it when I’m cold, and sometimes the Dude wraps himself in it if he’s feeling sad, a hug from the grandmother he never knew, who never got to meet him.

I am thinking, tonight, of everyone who lost someone on 8 September. I am wishing them whatever strength they need to get themselves through what they’re going through at the moment. And I am hoping they have a cardigan to wrap themselves in.

To the Sea

I have become the custodian of our family photo album, the lever arch file of yellowing holiday snaps that my dad took in the early 1970s. There are pictures of me as a baby and in various stages of toddlerhood, and pictures of my brother and sisters in clothes they’d rather not remember: giant flares with patch pockets, orange nylon shirts, matching knitted cardigans and crocheted ponchos. It’s a delight, and I have – of course – made the Husband and the Dude sit through the whole lot, with an accompanying commentary.

Little me, Blackpool beach, summer 1976

Some of the photos are of the house that I grew up in, a 1920s semi that came with my dad’s job, as Safety Engineer for Parkside Colliery in Newton-le-Willows. He spent long periods of time on call in case of accidents, so a house near the colliery was a necessity. Parkside opened in 1957, and didn’t have the exposed winding gear that you’d normally associate with northern pit towns: instead, everything was enclosed within two enormous concrete buildings that reared up above the surrounding fields. They could have been office buildings, or strange, windowless blocks of flats. They were a soft beige colour that turned pale apricot in the sun. In rain, they darkened to dull purple, and then faded back to beige again as the water evaporated. When we went on holiday, they were the landmark we looked out for to tell us that we were almost home.

My brother and sisters, 1970. Parkside in the background.

Most of our holidays were in Blackpool. Blackpool wasn’t our nearest seaside resort – that was Southport – but it was where we went, largely because my dad’s cousin owned a series of guesthouses up near the North Pier and allowed our family of six to have a cheapish week away every year. Later, we used to go to Blackpool twice a year, at Easter and then in November, for weekends organised by the National Coal Board. These were an odd combination of quizzes, team-building exercises and first-aid competitions that involved gruesome mock-ups of underground disasters. Each colliery sent a team to investigate, treat the casualties and show what safety procedures they’d implement. These competitions were fiercely contested, but often, it was the Parkside team, led by my dad, that won. In the evenings, there’d be a dinner dance at the Winter Gardens, a washed-up comedian, and – each November – a Coal Queens of Britain competition, where the daughters of various miners would parade in swimsuits and evening wear. This was in the late 70s, and nobody batted an eyelid at the miners’ daughters and tired old jokes. I don’t remember much about our summers at Aunty Lilian’s guesthouses, but I do remember the miners’ weekends, the donkey rides and trips to the Tower, and the unusually cold Easter when there was snow on Blackpool beach.

On the beach, 1975

My brother and sisters and I went to Blackpool last weekend. It’s the first time since about 1977 that all four of us have been there together, and we wanted to find the guesthouses where we used to stay. The last time I went to Blackpool was in the summer of 1989, the day before the GCSE results came out. That was the summer I lost myself in the Brontës, and the garish lights and sounds, the smells of candyfloss and fish and chips, clashed with the thoughts in my head about the Yorkshire moors and escaping to somewhere where I could hide in a library for three years and read.

The lights and sounds and smells are still exactly the same, but the way to approach Blackpool is to take it on its own terms. It was a beautiful day, with wide blue skies and the sun glinting off the sea, and we had a fabulous time finding the spots that we’d been photographed in so many years ago.

Julie, Peter and Susan in Blackpool, summer 1970
Peter, Susan and me, Blackpool, summer 2022; Julie took the photo

Simon Armitage has been on Radio 4 recently, exploring ten of Philip Larkin’s poems to mark the centenary of the poet’s birth, and one of the poems he chose was ‘To the Sea’, published in Larkin’s final collection, High Windows. It describes ‘the miniature gaiety of seasides’, and it marks a rare note of positivity for Larkin, as the people he describes aren’t being sneered at for their tawdriness but celebrated for taking part in what is ‘half an annual pleasure, half a rite’. The people on the beach are all happily coexisting, doing their own thing: families playing games and making sandcastles, elderly people in wheelchairs being taken for a day out, swimmers gasping at the cold, and Larkin himself as a child, ‘happy at being on my own’. There’s a beautiful description of toddlers ‘grasping at enormous air’ (and what else do children do, when they’re learning to walk?) At the end, there’s a typically Larkinesque nod to human imperfection, but also a sense that for all their shortcomings, the people he describes are doing something important, something that absolves them of anything else:

If the worst
Of flawless weather is our falling short,
It may be that through habit these do best,
Coming to the water clumsily undressed
Yearly; teaching their children by a sort
Of clowning; helping the old, too, as they ought.

‘Teaching their children by a sort of clowning’: isn’t that gorgeous? And look at the rhymes, too: they’re there, not shoving themselves in your face, but just gently, under the surface, holding things together like the informal rituals they describe.

I’d like to think ‘To the Sea’ was about Blackpool, but apparently it’s about Rhyl, on the North Wales coast, where Larkin’s parents met. We had an annual trip to Rhyl when I was in secondary school, to the Sun Centre. I remember shingle and grey skies. I think we were sold Rhyl on the grounds that it was in another country, and was therefore exotic. It seems an appropriate place for Sidney and Eva to have had their first encounter, somehow.

Larkin, Zahawi, and arguing with texts

Well. I started planning this post a fortnight ago, when Nadhim Zahawi made his statement that removing the works of Philip Larkin and Wilfred Owen from the curriculum was an act of ‘cultural vandalism’. But then life got in the way, in the form of a weekend away with our Gold DofE expedition and various other things, and it’s only now that I’ve had time to actually write it. And after one of the most turbulent weeks in politics I’ve ever seen, Nadhim Zahawi is now two whole Education Secretaries ago, and it all seems like yesterday’s news. I’m playing serious catch-up.

Actually, though, coming back to things after the event is entirely in the spirit of what I’m going to say here, so that’s okay. What I want to do is to look at the writers we study and the way they influence us – which is not necessarily in the way Nadhim Zahawi might think.

Let’s deal, first of all, with that issue of ‘the curriculum.’ As many people have pointed out, Owen and Larkin haven’t been removed from the curriculum at all. What’s happened is that OCR has removed one poem by Wilfred Owen (‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’) and one poem by Philip Larkin (‘An Arundel Tomb’) from the poetry anthology that students study for its GCSE English Literature specification. But an exam specification and ‘the curriculum’ are not the same thing. Each individual school is free to develop its own curriculum, and therefore to teach as much Wilfred Owen and Philip Larkin as they like. Schools following the OCR specification can still use these two poems (and really, teaching one poem by each poet is hardly the same as ‘studying Owen’ and ‘studying Larkin’). You’d have hoped that Nadhim Zahawi would have known the difference, being Secretary of State for Education and all, but why let reality get in the way of an attention-grabbing headline? Maybe James Cleverly will grasp which is which: Michelle Donelan didn’t really have time.

All this is by the by, though, because the main thing I want to do is to look at the idea of literary study that underpins Zahawi’s comments. It’s one that’s influenced heavily by Matthew Arnold’s view of literature as ‘the best that has been thought and said’, something to be handed down from one generation to the next. It’s a bucket-filling model that casts students as passive recipients of the glories of the past. And it’s one that contains all manner of problems, many of which will be familiar to anyone who’s ever grappled with the basics of literary theory or tried to construct an English curriculum. Who decides what is ‘the best’ and what isn’t? How are new texts admitted to this sacred canon? How do we balance the important texts of the past with those that are fresh and urgent, that represent a more diverse and plural world? Creating a curriculum that is genuinely varied, that allows space for a range of voices, is a complex job.

Let’s not forget, either, that the most important voices in there belong to the students. Because even when you’ve decided on your perfect curriculum – diverse, challenging and thoughtfully-driven – you should be very wary of treating the texts within it as objects of reverence. Texts are not there simply to be admired. They can be, yes – but they should also be questioned and argued with. They should spark conversations and our teaching should allow space for this. Sometimes, those conversations will last the length of a unit of work. Sometimes, they’ll stretch over years.

It’s fitting that Zahawi should have mentioned Larkin, as he’s a writer I first encountered when I was at school, studying The Whitsun Weddings for A level English Literature, and I’ve been having a conversation with his work ever since. Larkin’s poetry had a huge impact on me as a teenager. This was partly because the places he wrote about – the ordinary towns with their large cool stores and mortgaged half-built edges – were very much like the place where I grew up. It was also because of his poetry’s obsession with elsewhere, anywhere, as long as it wasn’t wherever you actually happened to be, which appealed to me as a restless seventeen-year-old. And it was because of the way he played with language, hyphenating and compounding, starting with the concrete and moving to the abstract. There was a sense of words being carefully chosen, being weighed for their effect. Some of his descriptions still shape the way I see the world: vast Sunday-full and organ-frowned-on spaces; piled gold clouds and shining gull-marked mud; smells of different dinners; an enormous yes. I can’t go to London on the train without thinking of the city’s postal districts packed like squares of wheat, and I’ve spent a lot of time, in my part of the world, looking for places where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet. (Confession: I even went up to Hull for the Larkin 25 celebrations back in 2010, to visit the giant fibreglass toads that took over the city, and to see exhibits that included Larkin’s enormous slippers, his saucer-souvenir, and the actual lawnmower that features in ‘The Mower’, complete with an artfully-poised fluffy hedgehog. I am a literary nerd.)

‘Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world  Unmendably.’

But this isn’t the only Larkin, and as most people will know, the man himself was neither admirable nor wholesome. Many of his views were deeply unpleasant, and you don’t need to dig too far to find them out: the racism, the sexism, the Thatcher-worship. And you can’t teach Larkin – you shouldn’t teach Larkin – without addressing this. His work opens up questions about whether a person’s writing can ever be separated from their life, whether the unsavouriness of the man undermines the brilliance of some of his poetry. This is an important question for teenagers to consider. What kinds of awfulness are we prepared to excuse? How much leeway do we allow?

My Year Twelves explore a range of Larkin’s poems as part of their work on the AQA Theory and Independence unit, which involves looking at texts from a range of critical perspectives. We examine four poems through a feminist lens, looking at the male gaze, the representation of women and the narrative personae in ‘Wild Oats’, ‘Self’s the Man’, ‘Afternoons’ and ‘Broadcast’. We discuss Larkin’s own tangled relationships with women, which gives us the chance to talk about the place of biographical knowledge in the study of literature, and consider the different attitudes conveyed in these poems. We think about whether an unmarried childless man could ever understand what it is like to be a young mother like the women in ‘Afternoons’, and I talk about the different reactions I have had to that particular poem since I first read it at seventeen: first shuddering at the idea of a life bound by domesticity, then indignant that Larkin was undervaluing women’s experiences, then – as a mother myself, pushing my son on the swings in an appropriately Larkinesque playground that was bound on three sides by graveyards – finding his description all too resonant. We question and pick apart, and I remind them that no interpretation can ever encompass everything, that no reading can be the final one.

And so, nearly three weeks after Zahawi bemoaned the removal of Larkin from one particular exam specification, I’m going back to his words, and picking them up, and feeding them into a discussion I’ve been having with Larkin’s work for over thirty years now. Because studying literature isn’t about passing on ‘the best’. It recognises that texts can be contested, no matter how great they may once have been held to be. It gets young people to think. Above all, it opens up a conversation, and hopes that that conversation runs and runs, looping backwards and forwards, long after the last exam has been sat.

On meanings and complexities

Years ago, I observed a lesson on Ciaran Carson’s poem ‘Belfast Confetti’. It’s an incredibly powerful poem, conveying the confused aftermath of a bomb blast and the narrator’s sense of disorientation as he tries to make sense of his changed surroundings. The lesson itself, however, conveyed none of this. Part of the problem was that the teacher had started the lesson with a glossary of words and phrases that he thought the students needed to understand. What this glossary essentially showed was his own lack of understanding of the poem. Carson refers to the labyrinth of Belfast streets – ‘Balaclava, Raglan, Inkerman, Odessa Street’ – that the narrator is trying to navigate. In his glossary, next to ‘Balaclava’, the teacher had put ‘A form of knitted headgear’. ‘Raglan’, meanwhile, was ‘A way of fixing the sleeves to a jumper or cardigan’. Cue a group of very confused students, wondering why the poet had suddenly started banging on about knitwear.

So wrong, in so many ways (Image: Pinterest)

I’ve been thinking a lot about meaning lately, partly because thinking about meaning forms a huge part of what I do but also because of that cursed Ofsted research review. The review places a lot of emphasis on the direct teaching of vocabulary. It states, for example, that ‘While pupils of all ages will gradually learn vocabulary through repeated encounters as they read, there is evidence showing that it is beneficial to identify and explicitly teach some vocabulary.’ And given the review’s clear affinity with models of education predicated on a ‘smooth ramp’ – do this, read that, and you’ll understand this – it’s easy to see why this approach to vocabulary would have such an appeal. Teach students the meanings of the difficult words they’ll encounter in a text, teach them the text, and they’ll sail through without any problems. Get them to use these difficult words in different contexts in order to consolidate their knowledge, teach them about word roots and affixes, and you’ll be building their word power. Add in some spaced recall and you’re ticking a CogSci box as well. Simple!

And there’s nothing wrong with this, as far as it goes. I’d hazard a guess that the vast majority of English teachers will approach some vocabulary in this way. The emphasis there is firmly on the some. As English teachers, we have an array of approaches to vocabulary to draw upon. Sometimes we’ll pre-teach particular words, and we might especially do this if there’s a particular reference that we need students to understand. (Think, for instance, about the word ‘equivocator’ in the Porter’s scene in Macbeth. It links, of course, to the theme of appearances-versus-reality that runs throughout the play, and to the wider concept of equivocation in Jacobean society, but it’s the first time students will have met it, and therefore it probably needs some explanation.) Sometimes we’ll choose texts that have marginal glosses, or create our own versions, so that students get used to glancing across or down the page and picking up a reference without the need for too much intervention: it’s an important aspect of working with texts and one that they need to know about. Sometimes we’ll reach an unfamiliar word and ask the class if anyone has come across this word before: a way of empowering students and moving away from the idea that the teacher is the only source of knowledge in the room. Sometimes we’ll look at words in their contexts and work out what they mean. This isn’t an exhaustive list: it’s not difficult to think of other strategies we use.

There are a number of problems, though, with what the review says about the explicit teaching of vocabulary. I’m just going to look at two of them here. The first is the evidence base that the review draws upon. One of the sources they cite is a US report, A Review of the Current Research on Vocabulary Instruction, published in 2010 by the National Reading Technical Assistance Center. But as we’ve seen with other sources (as Barbara Bleiman demonstrates in this Twitter thread, and as Gary Snapper, Andrew Green and I have experienced in the review’s misuse of our book Teaching English Literature 16-19), the review uses this report to fit an agenda that it doesn’t necessarily support. The headline findings are there: direct instruction, multiple exposure, active engagement. But look more closely, and you’ll see that it is based on studies of children no older than Grade 3: seven of the fourteen studies it draws on focus exclusively on children in preschool and kindergarten, and two further studies focused on older children with weak literacy skills. One of the studies focuses specifically on scientific vocabulary, one on nonsense words, and several on early literacy. One focused on the learning of just three target words. Yet Ofsted present this as research whose findings can be generalised to the teaching of English at secondary level.

The second problem is just so screamingly obvious that it really shouldn’t need saying. It’s that meanings can be connotational as well as denotational. In fact, in English, it’s the exploration of connotational meanings that occupies a significant amount of our time. Nowhere does the review refer to this. It’s as if meaning is all simple, straightforward, univocal. There’s no space whatsoever in the review for the associative, the ambivalent, the strange.

In English, it’s not necessarily the ‘hard’ words, the unfamiliar words, that make us pause. It’s often the words whose meanings we think we know, used in contexts that are unexpected. Think of ‘Death of a Naturalist’, for instance, and Seamus Heaney’s description of ‘the warm thick slobber / Of frogspawn’: my Year Eights all know what ‘slobber’ is, but they’ve never seen it used to describe frogspawn before, and they also wouldn’t normally see it in the superlative light that Heaney does. We needed to think about the colour and texture of frogspawn, to imagine scooping it up and trying to contain it in our hands, to understand the sense of delight captured in that description. Or the way Ted Hughes uses ‘raw’ twice in the first two lines of ‘Bayonet Charge’ – ‘raw / In raw-seamed hot khaki’ – and, in doing so, suggests not only different meanings of the word itself but also the dazed state of the soldier as he drags himself into action, with no time to think of an alternative word. Words don’t just mean things. They can hint and gesture, be playful and ironic. We and our students know this, because we experience it every day.

My Year Twelves are starting to look at different critical and theoretical approaches to literature, and one text I love using to explore the idea of multiple readings is another of Ted Hughes’ poems, ‘Lineage’, from his 1970 collection Crow. (I’ve got Gary Snapper to credit for this particular lesson: he introduced me to it years ago, and it is now one of my absolute favourite lessons to teach.) Here’s the poem:


In the beginning was Scream
Who begat Blood
Who begat Eye
Who begat Fear
Who begat Wing
Who begat Bone
Who begat Granite
Who begat Violet
Who begat Guitar
Who begat Sweat
Who begat Adam
Who begat Mary
Who begat God
Who begat Nothing
Who begat Never
Never Never Never

Who begat Crow

Screaming for Blood
Grubs, crusts


Trembling featherless elbows in the nest’s filth

I don’t tell the students anything about the poem beforehand, because I don’t want to guide their responses. Instead, I give them five minutes on their own with the poem, to read and annotate and see what they think it means, and then give them some time in pairs or small groups to discuss their ideas. It’s a brilliant example of how meanings are constructed as part of a shared process of discussion. One thing students often spend a lot of time on is the presence of nouns such as ‘Violet’, ‘Guitar’ and ‘Sweat’: they know what these words mean, but they’re obviously being used by Hughes in a way that doesn’t correspond to their simple denotational senses. They clearly have a significance that’s given to them by their presence in this particular sequence and the fact that they’re being treated as proper nouns, but beyond that, what they mean in this poem isn’t clear. Do they point to human culture, to industry and toil, to a sense of beauty? We talk about all these possibilities, and about the other images and suggestions in the poem: the sense of unmet need, the violence and squalor, the apparent rejection of God. All of this takes a long time.

Do they know what the poem means, by the end of it? Do I know what it means? Should I be able to tell them what it means, give them a nice neat knowledge organiser? We talk about all of this, too. In the end, they decide that the important thing is not arriving at one final meaning, but the process of exploration. It makes your brain hurt, says one of them, but it’s really interesting. And they’re right. This is what makes English such an incredible and complicated and bloody amazing subject to teach, and the Ofsted review contains none of it.

Smooth ramps, adequate comprehension, and bumpy roads

I am exercised, at the moment, by Ofsted’s research review on English. I am exercised by this in many ways, but I’m just going to focus on one of them here. It’s the metaphor of the ‘smooth ramp’ as a way of articulating progress in reading, with the curriculum being designed to ensure that ‘each text bootstraps the language and knowledge needed for the next’. It’s a model derived most clearly from the work of E.D. Hirsch, in which teaching – and therefore also learning – follows a well-ordered sequence. Everything that students need to know in order to understand a text is taught carefully and explicitly, and attention is paid to the texts that students encounter as they make their way through their education: ‘An effective English curriculum will explicitly identify what it is that pupils need to learn in order to understand progressively more complex texts.’

Dentdale, photo taken by me, 2019

I’ve been teaching English for over twenty-five years now, and the thing I find simultaneously most frustrating but also most rewarding about the subject is its messiness, its porousness, the fuzziness of its edges. Students don’t only ‘do’ English in school. Their work in English will draw on, and be influenced by, all the many areas of life in which they speak and read and listen and write, by the narratives they engage with (not only in books, but on screen, in films and on television and, increasingly, in computer games) and the stories they themselves tell. Take writing, for instance. Behind the very narrow pieces of writing on which my current GCSE students will be assessed in their exams there lies a vast hinterland of written texts, only some of them produced in school and read by teachers: fanfiction, blog posts, contributions to forum threads, reviews, song lyrics, stories. Not all of these texts will ever be read by anyone. Some of them are highly ephemeral. But all of them are important, because they are all part of who my students are as writers, as people who use the written word to engage with the world beyond themselves.

We sometimes try to make links between English and other subjects – History being the most obvious one, because of the literacy demands it makes of students – but actually, I’d argue that English shares more similarities with PE. We want students to exercise in their spare time, because exercise is a good thing, just as we want students to read in their spare time, because reading is a good thing. We lament the fact that we live in a society that presents young people with easier and more attractive options than exercise and reading as ways of spending their free time. We recognise that there are barriers that prevent some young people from exercising and reading as much as we (and often they themselves) would like them to. We also recognise that young people who exercise more and read more outside of school perform better in PE and English within school. We note that young people who are encouraged to exercise and read – by parents and other adults who guide them, take them to sports clubs and fixtures and libraries and bookshops, talk to them and provide support – receive an unfair advantage. But in the end, we have to accept that we cannot control how much our students exercise outside of school, or how much (and what) they read, however much we might wish it otherwise.

I’m not sure I can stretch this analogy much further. One key difference, of course, is that English is a core subject that carries extremely high stakes at GCSE for individual students, as well as their teachers and schools. Another is that English also relies, to a large but largely unexplored extent, on students’ emotional maturity. This is why the Ofsted research report’s definition of the ‘components of comprehension’ is far too narrow. According to Ofsted, comprehension depends on students’ knowledge of vocabulary, context, narrative structure and syntax. But – as we all know – it also depends on far much more than this: on imaginative engagement, empathy, a willingness to enter the worlds of characters whose lives might be very different from one’s own. Students don’t just draw on what they’ve been taught, on what has been presented to them in a carefully-structured and sequenced manner, in order to make sense of texts. They draw on their own lived experiences, on events that we as their teachers might be privy to or might not. They visualise settings and characters in particular ways and build interpretations that are shaped by their world-views, in a manner that has long been acknowledged by reader-response criticism. The Ofsted report mentions that ‘through reading itself, pupils can find out about the world beyond their own experience’. But there is no mention of what students bring to reading from their own experience. Or how they share these experiences with others: my teaching of Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Pike’ to Year Eight, earlier this year, was made all the richer as a result of one boy’s account of pike fishing at night with his dad and his uncle, how unnerving it was and how every sound resonated through the darkness.

The failure of the ‘smooth ramp’ model of the curriculum is that it doesn’t take account of all these complexities. For one thing, they can’t be planned for: you can’t include a student with a penchant for fishing as an essential resource on your curriculum map. They also rely so much on the parts of students’ lives that take place outside of school, not only their reading and viewing and interacting with other people but also their thinking and daydreaming. This means that reading – understanding texts and making sense of them – isn’t a neat and tidy process at all. If there’s one thing I can say about my life as a reader, it’s that it’s been incredibly messy. It’s included periods of rapid progress, like when I discovered the Brontës the summer after my GCSEs, and times that were relatively fallow, when I devoured horse and pony books and teen fiction because I didn’t know what else to read. It has twists and turns, and huge variations in complexity, because I am a great advocate of comfort-reading as an antidote to stress. It’s also contained moments when I’ve encountered texts that were within my intellectual comprehension but very definitely beyond my emotional reach. I remember, at the age of eleven, reading a novel that featured the death of a main character, and how unsettling I found it. This wasn’t because of the way the death itself was described, but because the central character’s reflections on what this meant for her own life – her recognition of her own mortality, and that of the people she loved – made me think about my own world in a similar way. It was a reminder that everything – including me – would come to an end, and that, at eleven, was a big thing to get to grips with. I remember putting the book away in a cupboard where I wouldn’t have to see it. I didn’t return to it for several years, and only then with a sense of trepidation. No pre-teaching in the world, no comprehension activities or vocabulary exercises, would have helped me.

And in any case, those activities wouldn’t have happened, because this was a book I read on my own, at home. It was part of my own world and not something I talked to anyone else about. Because this is another thing about reading. In school, it is part of the curriculum, but outside, it’s often deeply personal and private. Sometimes, as teachers, we try to gain access to this private world. We want students to keep reading journals and write up their thoughts; we ask them what they’re reading and what they think of it. They might, occasionally, want to answer. But I can remember being thirteen or fourteen, and immersed in books that I wouldn’t have wanted to discuss with my English teacher in a million years. The thoughts and feelings I had about them were often so complicated and half-formed that I’d have hated feel compelled to share them. Leave me alone, I’d have thought. It’s none of your business what I’m reading.

So the idea of a ‘smooth ramp’ to an ‘adequate comprehension’ seems to me to be deeply unsatisfactory, an attempt to simplify and rationalise a complex process that replies, in part, on things that are beyond the teacher’s control. In a discussion on the work of Arthur N. Applebee on the English and Media Centre website, Barbara Bleiman refers to Applebee’s belief that ‘some of the seemingly neat and tidy models don’t necessarily succeed in offering the more complex learning that really constitutes knowledge in the subject’. As English teachers, we can structure and shape our students’ journeys through the texts they encounter in school. We can offer them signposts and instructions; sometimes we can metaphorically hold their hands. But we can’t control every aspect of the journey they make as readers, and nor should we try to.


‘Cracked. We’re cracked, Wilfred.’
Alan Bennett, ‘A Cream Cracker Under the Settee’

My plate is cracked, but, to quote Wendy Cope, I have decided not to make a big tragedy out of it. I am going to mark the occasion, though, because this plate has been mine for a long time. Internet shopping means we’ve lost the habit of remembering when and were we bought certain objects, how we chose them and how we saved for them, but this plate – one of a set of four – came into my life at a very particular time, as a result of a very particular set of circumstances. And so, while I may not be making a big tragedy out of it, I am going to write about it.

It’s December 1991. I’m nineteen and back from university for the first time. I’m a bit of a mess, partly because I’m exhausted from the intensity of my first term, but largely because the guy I’ve been going out with has decided to end things and it’s my first big, horrible, painful rejection. I am coping with the culture shock of being back in Newton-le-Willows after two months at Oxford and it’s every possible shade of weird. There are no doors I can knock on, nobody to meet for coffee or cake or a trip to the bar. I need something to do, to take my mind off things.

Therefore, I get a job. I’m in Warrington one day with my mum and I spot a poster in a shop window. The shop in question is Warrington’s only independent department store, a proud institution in a Georgian building on Bridge Street. They want extra assistants for the Christmas period. I go in to see if I can find out more, and ten minutes later I’m in an interview being asked about my GCSE grades and previous work experience.

I start two days later. I’m in Jewellery, to start off with. Jewellery is basically a huge white rack, fixed to a wall, on which I’m supposed to hang earrings. This is meant to take me all morning. The earrings are mostly plastic, in various colours. I decide to arrange them by colour, and work my way through from white at one end of the rack to black at the other, with a special section for silver and gold. It takes me about half an hour. I find my manager, a morose woman called Pauline with frizzy hair, and ask what I should do next. ‘Find something to do’, I’m told. ‘Just make sure you look busy.’

There’s a stand of books near Jewellery, an odd mixture of recipe books, road atlases, romantic fiction and children’s stories. I’m at home with books. I arrange the books, first by genre and then alphabetically within each genre. There aren’t many of them. I take them all out and rearrange them. Then I rearrange the earrings, starting with white at the top this time, and silver and gold at the bottom. I am more bored than I have possibly ever been before.

At about half-past eleven another assistant comes over with a cardboard box, and asks me to unpack whatever’s inside and arrange them on the shelves. What’s inside turns out to be a collection of fake bonsai trees, made of some kind of translucent resin, their leaves attached with wire. The wires have all been flattened and therefore they need to be twisted artfully to make them look as realistic as a fake resin bonsai tree can possibly look. I put a lot of effort into my artful twisting.

I have a forty-minute break for lunch. I eat my sandwich and slink off to Bookland, my favourite bookshop, to decide which books I’m going to buy with my wages. Then I go back to the shop, and try, again, to spin out whatever tasks I’m given so that I always look busy. I’m not allowed on Tills, because I haven’t been trained – ‘We don’t train temporary staff’ – and apart from helping occasional customers to find gloves or handkerchiefs, there isn’t much else to do.

I have a lot of time to think. This hadn’t been the intention. I need something that will take my mind off the Big Rejection and stop the ache that it has left me with. I keep replaying lines from our conversations, the we-can-still-be-friends ones, the it’s-not-you-it’s-me ones. I am probably not the bouncy, cheerful kind of staff that the store wants. There’s another student working there too, and when we’re working the same shifts we take it in turns to mix up each other’s displays so that we’ve got something to rearrange, her on Fancy Goods and me on Accessories. We joke that there should be a Leotards and Handbags department, in honour of Victoria Wood. But then Pauline gets wind of our alliance and puts us on different shifts, and I go back to trying to make a half-hour task last four times longer than it really needs to, tweaking and reorganising and keeping an eye out in case anyone tries to shoplift a fake bonsai tree.

Lunch breaks, and the half-hour between finishing work and catching the bus home, become the focus of my days. I spend a lot of time browsing in Bookland, and decide that if I can buy one book, every day, then working at the department store won’t seem quite so mind-numbingly awful. We’re doing the twentieth century next term, so I buy Woolf and Joyce, E.M. Forster and Dylan Thomas, books that still remind me of that Christmas holiday and the bookshop glowing like an oasis, the hush and smell of paper, the low lights and tactful quiet. And I decide, too, that I need some plates for university. I’d taken mugs, the previous term, but not plates. We were catered for, living in college, and I hadn’t thought I’d need them. But cooking with friends, in the tiny kitchen in our accommodation block, had become part of the glue that held life together. So I wanted my own plates, and in the Homewares department in the basement of the Co-op I found a set of four plates – deep, white plates, with a blue floral border – that, to my nineteen-year-old mind, seemed exactly right.

My dad’s reaction was predictable. ‘Why are you buying plates in Warrington and taking them all the way down to Oxford? Do they not sell plates anywhere in Oxford that you can buy?’ He had a point. But those were the plates I’d decided on. They came home with me, and eventually, when my four weeks at the department store were over, they came down to Oxford with me as well, wrapped carefully in tea towels and packed in a box.

They’ve survived a lot, those plates. A year in a shared house off the Cowley Road, another year back in college, and then four house moves. They’ve been our everyday plates for over twenty-five years. And then, a few days ago, one of them cracked.

It was on the worktop, next to the hob, and whether it suffered from some kind of sudden temperature change or not I don’t know. At least it wasn’t dropped, at least it’s still basically intact. But we’re not going to risk using it any more. It’s now got a safe place in the sideboard, with the proper dinner service we got as a wedding present. And there it will stay, a reminder of that holiday when I tried and failed to cope with the world’s dullest job whilst nursing a broken heart, and returned to university bruised, but with several new books and four blue-and-white plates.