Posts Tagged ‘schools’

UK flag A newsletter alert from a nursery school was shared on Facebook: “Prevent duty: From the 1st July 2015, all schools and childcare providers must have due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism…”

Comments were scathing.

“They’re literally assessing the children to check they’re demonstrating British values… *shudders*”

“I hope they’re also teaching [toddlers] how to root out and report illegal immigrants at nursery. Hmmm. Which side of the Iron Curtain were we on?”

We need to get past the clichés. Prevent strategy contains several worrying bits – but I see an opportunity to connect all British young people with a magnificent heritage of story (eg traditional folktales) and some rather important bits of history. Plus of course we can make clear what we’ve learned from national mistakes of colonialism and exploitation.

I sighed with boredom at school over the list of Factory Acts created in Victorian times. Only recently have I understood how important that legislature was: locking into law the protection of workers’ rights; saving childhood and guaranteeing children the right to education.

Now our rest days and right to withhold labour are being whittled away. There isn’t even a Workhouse for people to go and die in when cut off from essential benefits … But that’s another story.

A sense of belonging (or not) really does start among small children. People who feel part of a nation, and who feel they have a chance to contribute to and profit from that national community, are less likely to want to blow it up!

Hmm… What are ‘British values’?

Cleverly, even the Prime Minister who ringingly asserts their importance has shied away from defining British values in his public utterances. But of course there is Department of Education advice for grant maintained schools.

 My version includes a nice cup of tea; generosity and quiet kindness – sometimes, admittedly, only when things are dire; respect for privacy; and an irrepressibly wicked sense of humour!

My British values encourage everyone to be self directing individuals within their group of family, cultural and social circles: to think clearly, form their own opinions, build resilience to life’s downs and ups, treat people fairly, protect the vulnerable, know the difference between authority and bullying, and to have the knowledge and courage to speak truth to power. Or at least to lampoon the powerful – and those who try to control us – without mercy, until they get over themselves…

So here’s a cliché for you: as a pro storyteller working with British cultural stories, I’ll be putting Prevent front and centre of my approach to schools. So there.

A nice cup of tea

“My idea of heaven is a nice cup of tea”

• What are YOUR British Values? What mindset do we need to live together well in the 21st century?

Poster for 28 July 2015 Storytelling Dragon Tales at Sutton Coldfield LibraryA rare flying visit from the Dragon Whisperer brings a morning of fantasy and magical adventure to Sutton Coldfield Library (Birmingham, England) on Tuesday 28 July.

As part of the Record Breakers themed Summer Reading Challenge 2015, gorgeously costumed Agent Green the world’s only living Dragon Whisperer tells Dragon Tales from around the world to age 7+ at 11am. At 12.30, Agent Green breaks out the drawing pens to show age 9+ How To Draw Your Dragon – bring your favourite sketchbooks, pencils and colouring pens.

Both sessions are free thanks to sponsorship from Sutton Coldfield Charitable Trust. The Library is at Lower Parade, B72 1XX. Tel 0121 464 2274.

Thrilling legends and folktales include a dragon in hiding and the dragon who was really a lost princess, ranging from Eastern Europe to Bamburgh Castle.

Agent Green, who is alleged to work for DCHQ, Dragon Conservation Headquarters, also reveals hot tips on dragon care and training, and talks about her mission to find and save the world’s last dragons. You’re welcome to ask everything you ever wanted to know about dragons – because the Dragon Whisperer has the answer!

Behind the bling is Chloë of the Midnight Storytellers, a storytelling entertainer and writer/illustrator from the Cotswolds. Celebrating 15 years as a spoken word artist, Chloë sets a new record this August as the first ever Dragon Whisperer in Residence at Sudeley Castle (Gloucestershire).

Chloë’s performances for children take her to primary schools, community events and festivals all over the UK. Her story cabaret shows for adults are acclaimed from Cheltenham Literature Festival to cruise ships on the Mediterranean. For her 15th anniversary celebrations Chloë has launched a new contemporary story cabaret show Scheherazade’s Shed which tours to Kidderminster Arts Festival 14 August and Windsor Fringe Festival 24 September. The Dragon Tales CD is available £5 from Chloë, while the fully written out and illustrated Dragon Tales are available as a Kindle ebook (£2.99).

  • The annual UK Summer Reading Challenge, an initiative from the Reading Agency and the Arts Council, encourages UK children aged 4-11 into libraries to read up to 6 books during the long summer holiday. The scheme is designed to maintain reading skills and confidence which can otherwise weaken during over that time.
Photo on 2012-02-03 at 18.11

From my fluffy little paradise…

I’ve just been horrified by reading a book from the Teen section of the library. I’m researching what publishers think teens want. Because I don’t wish to publicly attack an author about whom I know nothing, I’m not going to name the work.

The story, first published in 2007, zooms past in 134 pages of big print with gulfs of white space between lines. I read the thing in 20 minutes.

It’s about an Edinburgh ‘hard man’ who tries to save an ex girlfriend from a gangster. The action unrolls like something low budget out of Hollywood: starts with a road rage incident – showing us how ‘hard’ the hero is – and continues with guns, murder, assaults, kidnapping a mum in front of her children, and all the trappings of lowlife subsistence, to the final shoot-out in which the mother dies.

Every page – and I mean every page – is splattered with expletives. Someone has to shout  “f—–g” in almost every paragraph, and “c–t” is thrown in every three pages. This in a book for teens and, unavoidably, children. When women the world over are battling a tidal wave of hatred, I really don’t think it helps to use anyone’s body part as a swear word.

Vomit and violence

Presumably the layout is meant to make the book ‘cool’ for a target market with poor reading ability. Ditto the brutally short sentences. Stabbing phrases. Scenes barely set. Colours and faces sketched without detail. Done for pace and hard boiled effect?

It’s like Philip Marlowe for 12-year-olds. ‘Spender’ (Jimmy Nail) dumbed down for the semi literate. A highlight comedy moment, b t w, features a small girl vomiting in the back seat of a car and the hero’s dog trying to eat the result.

There are some … jokes. The bad guy is called Banksy and his sidekick is a Jack Bower. Ha very ha.

There is nothing here to show impressionable young readers that life can be anything other than a sewer.

Nothing in this story suggests that anyone can escape a sordid existence of fear and violence. Indeed with its humour, swearing and slick style, this book glorifies the worst of everything. Guns are admired, chopping off a finger is a spinetingling tale, smashing up someone’s car is shown as a thrill – and justifiable.

But the young people who are likely to read this book are exactly the ones who, I’d say, desperately need to see that life can change. That they DON’T have to endure being bullied and used and terrified. That they DON’T have to endlessly say fuck and cunt, and hurt people, to gain status.

Wallowing in negativity

Yes, I know, my middle class is showing… Yes, I know my life is a fluffy little paradise compared to what millions of inner city kids go through.

But I keep my eyes and ears open as I float around being all posh and useless. I happen to think pretty much everyone gets scared and pressured. Sometimes it’s at knifepoint or by social media; sometimes it’s over years working for lousy bosses who constantly threaten unemployment.

People need hope – especially our young people. Grim school environments don’t help. From my admittedly limited experience with a widely spread sample I’d say that large numbers of students throughout the UK currently see education as pointless. Punishment for existing. The OECD recently identified that English young people start adult life with nearly the worst literacy and numeracy skills in the developed world [see ].

I think that writing about decay and despair became necessary during the 20th century, especially after the first and second world wars, into the Cold War. But I also think that wallowing in negativity and/or sleaze became worthy – “read these books because they’re good for you” … and then intellectually fashionable… Think (in slightly random order) Crome Yellow succeeded by 1984Kes (originally A Kestrel for a Knave), A Clockwork Orange, Lolita, Lord of the Flies.

We don’t want Pollyanna but neither do we now need hopeless-and-horrible fiction. We all have bad times, friends with troubles. We watch international tv news: we bloody well know life is hard. And science has made it very clear:  if all you can imagine is failure – then that’s all you’ll get.

Our teenagers need stories that help them imagine how they go about success. How to think their way out of difficult situations and how to overcome disadvantage.

As far as I can see, this book fails its teen readers. Miserably.

  • So, you tell me: what does a story like this do for (young) people whose lives are affected by violence and/or real hardship? Does this story glorify brutality or does it warn against it? I am trying to understand: what good is a book like this?
  • If you’re itching to know title and author, message me via the Contact Form.

Writing: not a proper job, is it?

Writing: not a proper job, is it?

Last week young adults in England were revealed to have very nearly the worst literacy skills in the industrialised world. In the same week, an author making a school visit in England was so shabbily treated that she drove home afterwards thinking quite seriously of jacking in the whole lonely, poverty stricken game.

My friend is no celebrity author. Let’s call her Fiona. Now in her sixties, she has steadily and rather quietly developed her craft over a lifetime with a modest frisson of success in the last 10 years. Fiona’s books for very young children are loved so much, they have to be cuddled in bed… Her series for young adults has won fans who like their fiction to contain thoughtfulness and compassion as well as swashbuckling action and evil magic monsters.

Fiona has also raised four highly intelligent and extremely challenging children alone, surviving on a low budget for decades.

Risky – but the only chance

Author visits are slightly notorious as cheap ways for schools to provide high quality inspiration for their pupils. Sometimes the publisher can afford to pay the author’s travel costs; the pocket sized publisher now producing my friend’s books can’t. What’s more, if my friend wants to sell books at festivals or in schools she must first buy them from the publisher. This is the real world for most authors.

The school in this incident contacted Fiona asking her to visit but declined to book her for formal workshops, for which she charges a perfectly fair, non-celebrity day or half day fee. The school insisted it was “too small” to find that kind of money. Nonetheless Fiona was required to prepare and provide four hours of sessions with various classes. Lunch was not provided. Neither were travel costs.

However, Fiona believed she had an agreement with the teacher who contacted her. They had discussed notifying pupils and parents to bring money in that day to buy Fiona’s books at the end of her visit. It’s risky because you can’t know if sales will cover your travel and book purchase costs, but for many authors it’s the only chance they get.

No customers

As Fiona drew breath between classes, the teacher forcefully demanded, “We’d like three books for our library. You will sell us three for the price of two, won’t you?” Perhaps the teacher didn’t know that Fiona doesn’t get her own books free of charge. Taken aback, Fiona stalled.

Having delivered four cracking sessions of inspirational literary creativity – Fiona is an experienced and rather brilliant tutor – she was disconcerted to see teachers vanishing after her last class. Where was she to set up her book stall?

The school office knew nothing about her arrangement and directed her vaguely to the library, where the only available table was in a corner behind a screen. Unsurprisingly no customers came in.


While packing her bags and book boxes back into her car, Fiona chatted with pupils she’d met earlier and several parents. It became clear no-one she spoke to had known in advance about the author visit – and they certainly had no idea they could buy her books that day. The school had made no attempt whatsoever to fulfil the arrangement that was Fiona’s only means of covering her costs, let alone earning an income to pay her bills.

Exhausted, nearly in tears, Fiona drove the near 30 miles home wondering why she bothers with any of it… She’d make a better living filling shelves in a supermarket.

This school effectively stole from Fiona the value of a day’s work and her costs of doing it – as surely as if they’d snatched her handbag or burgled her house.

I suspect that school did this knowingly. Even if not, they’re guilty of blinkered ignorance: they treated Fiona as some kind of lady writer of leisure, floating around schools for the fun of it…

Anyone who knows publishing will know the crushing commercial pressures of the modern industry. An author is a business not a charity.

Not a proper job

“Well,” you say, “She’s not a dentist or a plumber. We don’t NEED what she does. She’s not doing a proper job. She could write in her spare time.”

And there you have the core attitude in Britain – the reason why our young adults compare so abysmally in literacy skills, falling an eye wateringly long way behind students in the Czech Republic, Estonia and South Korea.

Writing professionally can’t be a hobby. It’s nine to five graft. You’re engaged in complex tasks: factual research, character and plot development, and simply stringing together words in ways that will keep readers turning pages. Yes, authors enjoy much of what they do. And it is demanding – sometimes all consuming – work, easily equivalent to the strategic planning and management of a large business.

Then – just like a ‘real’ business – there’s the promotional and marketing work. If you’re filling shelves or teeth, you don’t have to write press releases and interact with social media; you don’t have to flog around the country speaking to audiences in the uncertain hope that enough people will be moved to pay out less than a tenner each, so that you can eat and keep warm this winter.

Because somebody gets job satisfaction, is that a reason not to pay them?