Sunday, 27 August 2017

"The State" - A Warning to Daily Mail Readers

If the Daily Mail comments disparagingly on a TV programme, the programme can't be all bad, especially since the criticism is usually inaccurate. An example of this is the Mail's reaction to "The State", which was screened on Channel Four over four evenings last week. For those who did not see it, the programmes follow the fates of two British men and two women who go to Syria to join Isis, where they are segregated with only the men being trained to fight, and all four are encouraged to forget their past lives in the UK. The Mail thundered that:
"The State is no sort of truthful drama, as it claims to be. This is a recruitment video to rival Nazi propaganda of the Thirties calling young men to join the Brownshirts."
Having watched all four episodes, I can testify that the Mail got it wrong. As far as I am concerned, after watching the final episode, I was wondering (briefly) how to enlist with the Kurdish troops fighting ISIS (I'm overage). There is nothing in any of the episodes that could remotely be considered pro-ISIS propaganda. If anything, it is very much the opposite.
The four ISIS recruits arrive in the Islamic State radiant with enthusiasm for the cause, but disillusion rapidly sets in.  These recruits are Ushna, 18, a timid student; Jalal, 19, whose brother died fighting for ISIS; Shakira, 26, a mother and doctor; and Ziyaad, 19, Jalal's friend and a school dropout. The two girls are "encouraged" to find husbands, which Ushna accepts, but Shakira doesn't. Shakira, who goes to the State to practise medicine, finds herself restricted in all manner of ways. She escapes being pressured into marriage to the Hospital Director (a nasty piece of work) by marrying a doctor who is secretly gay. After he is killed (doctors have to fight), and her 10-year old son is training to go to the front line, she escapes back to the UK, where she is pressurised by security forces into becoming an informer in the Muslim community.
Jalal witnesses some of the vile atrocities of ISIS: public execution, beheadings, etc., and is forced into beheading a prisoner (guilty of helping his Christian wife escape) but cannot bring himself to do it. He attempts to escape by car with a woman, presumably Yazidi, whom he bought for $200 along with her child. Alas, they are caught escaping in the final episode. Their car is stopped, the poor woman and her child are shot, and he is dragged away to an uncertain future. It will take another series to find out what happens.
As you may gather, this series pulls no punches and no ISIS atrocity is excluded. The writer, Peter Kosminsky, who wrote "Wolf Hall", has said of The State:
  “I absolutely hope it will have a deterrent impact”.
I concur in this, although there is a point to be made about the timing. Was it right to show such a series after the terrorist outrages that happened so recently in this country and in Europe? As The Guardian comments:
" Kosminsky, who directed the successful BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, said this month he feared being “accused of being an apologist for a truly nasty organisation” because to understand why young Muslims joined a “horrific death cult” he had needed to show what attracted them to it."
It has to be said: there would have been no good time to show this series and others like it, as terrorist attacks are so frequent.
But there is one possible negative point that neither the Guardian or Mail have considered. ISIS have a small, secret, but dedicated presence in this country. They are significant enough to have planned and mounted terrorist crimes, and active enough to compel Britons who have fought for the Kurds, after returning to this country, to change addresses. Peter Kosminsky has succeeded in creating a fictional warning against Jihadist radicalisation; Mr Kosminsky had better watch his back.

Monday, 7 August 2017

OFSTED and Adventure in the Playground

For those who do not know, the lady in the adventure playground pictured above is Amanda Spielman, the new Head of OFSTED, the schools inspection service. Like her predecessors, Ms Spielman has begun her tenure as OFSTED Supremo by making an amazing non-discovery about something amiss in education unnoticed by previous holders of the post. Well, it's one way of making an impression, I suppose. 
Ms Spielman has set out to stamp her authority upon schools and education in general by accusing schools of mollycoddling pupils. As the BBC says:
"Teachers must stop trying to wrap children in cotton wool with over-the-top health and safety policies, the chief inspector of schools has said.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Amanda Spielman said it stopped the children developing resilience and grit".
She notes with displeasure that schools are over cautious in their Health and Safety measures such as banning conkers, yo-yos and making children wear high-visibility jackets on school trips. The Chief Inspector goes on to say:
"My message to schools is this - keeping children safe from harm should always be your overriding concern but... make sure you distinguish between real and imagined risk.Trying to insulate your pupils from every bump, germ or bruise won't just drive you to distraction, it will short-change those pupils as well, limiting their opportunity to fully take advantage of the freedom of childhood..."
On the surface, this appears to be fair comment; those of us over a certain age often remark that today's children don't have the freedoms we had, but I'll leave that for later.
We should first take a look at Ms Spielman and the way MPs reacted to her application to become OFSTED boss.Put simply,the Education sub-Committee did not want to give her the job. Ms Spielman is not a qualified teacher and thus lacks experience of schools and school administration, which is not ideal training for her present role. I am no fan of OFSTED, as readers of this blog well know, but at least previous Chief Inspectors had worked at the chalkface and taught in the classroom. Without that experience, a crucial understanding of the pressures upon teaching staff is lacking.
Besides this, Ms Spielman, as the BBC says:
"... failed to show "passion" or an understanding of the "complex role", education select committee MPs said". 
In spite of this, Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, overruled the sub-committee's misgivings and Amanda Spielman was given the job. Hardly a promising start!
It is also useful to examine Ms Spielman's concerns about excessive Health and Safety regulations in schools. These measures receive a good deal of attention in the media from time to time, and it's worth looking back over some of them.
1. There was a primary school in Leeds which banned the game of "Tig".
2. The old playground game of "British Bulldogs" is seemingly banned in many schools. In 2011, over a quarter of 653 school staff surveyed by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said it had been banned from their school.
3. Schools in Wiltshire, Cumbria and Clackmannanshire introduced a ban on conkers over fears the horse chestnuts could trigger anaphylactic reactions.
4. In January, birthday cakes were banned at a Blackpool primary school as teachers "do not have time" to check ingredients for pupils with allergies.
On the face of it, our schools are overrun by rules that are preventing a whole generation of our children from having fun and experiencing the world. As a primary teacher for 34 years, now retired, I can attest that this is a purely superficial impression. If we examine the evidence, it is only one school out of thousands that has banned "Tig" - I have never encountered such a ban on this game or "Bulldog". As for the conkers ban, please note: only three LEAs banned conkers. In my experience, children do not play conkers because they regard this activity as being old-fashioned or simply do not know of the game. I have known birthday cakes to be banned for some children, but as a result of parental pressure, rather than a busybody school administration.
It is ridiculous to single out schools as over-protective agencies holding children back from becoming seasoned adventurers. If anything, the whole of society plays this role. Most people of my generation think we remember a golden age when our parents sent us out to play in the morning - but with firm instructions to be back in time for tea. That golden age, if it ever existed, has been transformed into abiding fears for children's safety - Mary Bell, the Moors Murderers, the killers of Jamie Bulger, Rhys Jones, Millie Dowler and many other young victims have seen to that. Schools simply reflect the anxieties of wider society on this issue.
To conclude: I am not impressed with Amanda Spielman's debut on the educational stage. In this, she is no different from previous holders of the post of Chief Inspector for Schools.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Passchendaele - No Comforting Blanket

I wondered how the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele would be remembered; such occasions can so easily become sugar-coated exercises in nostalgia. However, as Michael Morpurgo, who played a key role in the commemoration events on Sunday evening, said: "You can't draw a comforting blanket over the First World War." That is very well said and can surely not be contradicted. As the Evening Standard says:
"Although it is difficult to calculate exact numbers, around 325,000 Allied and 260,000 German soldiers died in the Battle of Passchendaele.
Among the Allied deaths were 36,000 Australians, 2,500 New Zealanders, 16,000 Canadians. Some 42,000 bodies have never been recovered."
The Evening Standard is wrong here; the figures it quotes are for all battle casualties, dead, wounded and missing. Nevertheless,such statistics, and the terrible conditions in which the Allies and their German opponents lived, fought and died, are no cause for sentimental indulgence. The remembrance services, and the secular commemorations by singers and actors, have been conducted with good taste and respect for the fallen. No attempt has been made to gloss over the conditions and horrors of this appalling battle, even though some awkward facts about it have not been stressed enough.
The battle is sometimes known as the Third Battle of Ypres. Two previous battles, in 1914 and 1915, had led to the creation of an ongoing slaughterhouse for the Allied armies, known to history as the Ypres Salient.  Salients, in simple terms, are little more than bulges in a defending army's front line which can be fired upon from three sides. This happened in the Ypres Salient and much worse - the Germans held the high ground around the fringes of the salient which gave them an unrestricted view of all Allied activity. Even during "quiet" periods, their artillery and snipers had a ready supply of targets; in the build-up to the Passchendaele slaughter, their observers were able to detect signs of a coming attack. The Allies are said to have clung on to Ypres for symbolic reasons - it signified a last vestige of unoccupied Belgium and (I can't believe this!) prevented the Germans from reaching the Channel ports. The fact that this created a perfect killing ground for the Germans was overlooked for reasons of prestige.
Lyn Macdonald, in her marvellous book, "They Called it Passchendaele", comments:
"The sensible thing would have been to withdraw from the salient, abandoning Ypres, and to establish a stronger line in the rear beyond the (Ypres-Comines) canal bank".
General Horace Smith-Dorrien, regarded by historians as one of the few able senior British officers of WW1, advocated just such a move in 1915 and was sacked for it by the Commander of the British Forces, Sir John French.
A number of factors are said to account for the costly slowness of the British advance. Chief among them is the mud. It is undeniable that the August rain contributed to this, but the heavy artillery bombardment before the initial assault played its part by destroying the underground dikes that drained the local terrain. Another is the famed incompetence of British generals. As the Liverpool poet, the late Adrian Henri, said:
It seems that Haig was misled by his Intelligence chief, Brigadier General John Charteris, who kept providing Haig with optimistic reports about a German collapse, encouraging Haig to continue attacking. How that excuses Haig is beyond me - it was his responsibility to check the truth of those reports.When it came to intelligence reports in any case, Haig seems to have ignored information that he did not want to believe. Norman Dixon, in his book "On the Psychology of Military Incompetence" says:
"Haig's intelligence service knew that the Germans expected the offensive. Haig was evidently undismayed".
Lloyd George, the prime minister, was said to be critical of Haig - but did nothing to get him to call off the offensive, either before or during the slaughter.
There is one factor, however, that was not mentioned during the memorial events, and that is the effectiveness of German defensive tactics. Before they went over the top on the first day, British troops were astonished to find themselves under artillery fire. The German batteries had not been knocked out in the preliminary bombardment. As the "Time Team" stalwart, Peter Barton, says:
"We had been unable to cow their artillery...The British were amazed that the Germans were still able to fire back. The Germans had carefully sighted their guns and moved them at night sideways and backwards, and they had fake batteries as well. They would light a fuse in these fakes to draw the British fire."
The Germans had been preparing defences for two years, which gave the attacking troops some nasty surprises. Barton again:
"When the attack started ...whole battalions along here were reduced to husks. The British had no idea how many of these pillboxes the Germans had because they were covered by earth and so were almost invisible to aerial reconnaissance. But there were 15,000 of them and as soon as the British bombardment ended the Germans would rush out and place their machine guns on the top of them, cutting swathes through the British lines. The pillboxes were so well concealed the British would run over the top of them and then be shot in the back."
Anyway, the battle petered out in November, 1917. Passchendaele village, after which the battle is named, was captured by Canadian troops on November 6th. The high ground around Ypres had been captured.  The many thousands who fought, suffered and died won a five mile advance of the Allied front line, making the name of the battle a symbol of the futility of war. The stated aims of the offensive - to break through the German line and capture the Channel ports - were not achieved. Strangely, no-one spoke of a partial Allied success or a German defensive victory. Perhaps they all knew it was a shattering blow to both sides.
A bitter postscript for the British survivors of the battle was the fact that when the Germans went on the attack in the spring of 1918, Passchendaele and the ridges around Ypres were abandoned. The British and Empire troops fell back over the bloodsoaked ground of the salient to a small defensive position around the town of Ypres and its outskirts. As Lyn Macdonald observes at the end of her book:
"It was precisely the size to which General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien had proposed to reduce it in 1915.He had been sacked for his pains. But no-one remembered that. By 1918 that was a lifetime and some 200, 000 lives ago".
I fully support the remembrance of the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice at Passchendaele and honour their memory. Their names and voices live on in memorials, memoirs and the memories of relatives. It does not dishonour them to point out that much of their suffering and sacrifice could have been avoided. The last word goes to Siegfried Sassoon from his poem, "Memorial Tablet":

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight
(Under Lord Derby’s scheme).  I died in hell—­
(They called it Passchendaele); my wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back, and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards; so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.
In sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare;
For though low down upon the list, I’m there:
“In proud and glorious memory”—­that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France for Squire;
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed;
Once I came home on leave; and then went west.
What greater glory could a man desire?