Thank goodness for the honest language of children!

Spemser Turner, and eloquent and thoughtful young man, whose honest use of language has much to teach adults.

Spenser Turner, an eloquent and thoughtful young man, whose honest use of language has much to teach adults.

Driving into the university this morning I was listening to the radio, a regular routine that keeps me abreast of the news, when a report came on featuring a ten year old schoolboy from Newcastle in the north east of England. Spencer Turner who attends Farne Primary School was being interviewed at the National Arboretum located in Staffordshire in the centre of the country.

The National Arboretum is a focus of memorial for people who have given their lives in service of the country. Fifty thousand trees and a number of commissioned memorials represent not only military personnel, but also those working for the police and emergency services or involved in rescue or support services overseas, who have lost their lives doing their duty. This memorial landscape attracts visitors from around the world, and provides a centre for contemplation and an opportunity for people who wish to pay their respects to those who have died, both known and unknown.

Across Europe this year there have been many events organised to commemorate 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War. Today at the National Arboretum, Prince William will unveil the latest memorial which will recall a significant event during that terrible time. At Christmas 1914, English and German soldiers who had been facing each other from their trenches across a battlefield, put down their arms, declared a truce and crossed into “no-man’s land” to exchange gifts. In the midst of this temporary cessation of hostilities, a number of the soldiers from opposing armies produced a football and proceeded to enjoy a spontaneous game. This event has been variously reported in newspapers and history books and through theatrical and media productions over the intervening years, but particularly this year at the centenary of the event.

As a permanent means to commemorate this makeshift football match, the Football Association and the British Council organised a competition for school children to design an appropriate memorial to be located at the National Arboretum. Children up to the age of sixteen were invited to submit their designs and there was a huge response. Ten year old Spencer Turner, who featured on the radio this morning, won this competition and along with others from his school will be present at its unveiling today.

This in itself is a touching story of enabling children to participate in a practical way in commemorating the tragedy of a dreadful war. But rather than the event, it was the interview with young Spencer that I found most moving this morning. To their great credit, the Today Programme, a daily news magazine on BBC Radio 4 gave Spenser time to explain his inspiration for the design and to express his feelings about the finished bronze sculpture and his involvement in the day.

Spenser through his articulate and straightforward account of his experiences and emotions painted a vivid picture of what this day means to him. He described how he started with a design featuring a footballer with a ball, but then realised that most of the children entering this competition would be making similar images. Eventually he opted to produce a drawing that shows English and German hands, clasped in friendship within the cage of a ball. This he stated represented these two groups of men coming together through an image of peace that shows that you “can actually stop war.” Having won the competition he says he was shocked and proud, but it was evident from his interview on this morning’s programme that he was also moved by what the memorial that he has designed represents. He talked about knowing little about the First World War until a pack of information arrived in school. From this he had clearly learned much and this shaped his work for the competition.

There are always dangers that commemorations of war can become jingoistic or simply a token gesture which has impact for a short time, and is then forgotten. I am quite sure that in this instance Spencer Turner and many other school children who entered this competition will have learned much about the horror and futility of war. I also hope that the many thousands of people who listened to Spenser on the radio this morning will have noted the eloquence with which he expressed his ideas and the reasoning behind his process of design.

Coming at the end of a week in which the news has been dominated by the extent of the brutality that has become a feature of modern warfare, and in particular the inhumane means of interrogation used to extract information from prisoners, it is opportune to reflect upon different perspectives of war that were reported on this morning’s news. In particular I feel we should stop for a while to consider the contrasting straightforward and honest expressions used by a ten year old school boy who was obviously moved and thoughtful about what he had learned, with those mischievous terms such as “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “coercive methods,” used by adults in positions of power as a denial of torture, which were heard in an earlier news item.

It is only fitting that we should remember the suffering endured by servicemen and civilians during times of war. But it is to be hoped that we can learn lessons from children like Spenser that may govern the ways in which we behave in the future.



Arguing with the radio may just help to maintain my sanity!

Tuning in ready for an argument!

Tuning in ready for an argument!

There have been occasions when I have found myself arguing with the radio. Now before you say anything, yes I do know that it is completely irrational to get involved in a debate with an inanimate object, even when the broadcast voice has become the source of some annoyance. However, I sometimes find the experience cathartic, even though I know it has no real impact. Having over the course of thirty eight years of marriage become accustomed to this somewhat eccentric ranting, Sara normally sighs and raises her eyebrows at this familiar and largely harmless behaviour, or at times when it seems to be verging on the extreme she may remind me that whilst the voice from the box has raised my hackles, my own contribution to this non-existent dialogue will have absolutely no effect whatever.

Before you become alarmed by the strangeness of my actions I should, in my defence, state that this aberration is not a daily occurrence. Most breakfast times in the Rose household are passed quietly over the muesli, listening passively to the morning news without recourse to such idiosyncratic dealings. Unfortunately yesterday’s breakfast was not passed so quietly.

Perhaps you, like me, may find some expressions that have passed into common usage within the English language particularly grating. The kind of expressions that particularly irritate me are those that damn with faint praise and often have a hidden barb – “she did very well – for an older woman”, “a good performance – for a boy from the back streets of Liverpool”  – you get the idea. In recent years one such expression is “stacking shop shelves in TESCOs”. For those of you who may  possibly be unaware, TESCO is the name of a large chain of supermarkets to be found in most towns and cities across England. Let me be clear, I have no difficulties with TESCO or any other supermarket chain for that matter, but I have grown weary of the implications that have become associated with the phrase “stacking shop shelves in TESCOs”. The reason for this is simple; the expression has become synonymous with failure. The implication of the expression is that if you are  completely useless, incapable of doing anything else, you are likely to end up stacking shelves in the supermarket.

Yesterday I  heard the expression twice. In the first instance, on a morning radio news magazine programme a politician stated that young people were making bad decisions in choosing what they should study at university. Too many are apparently choosing esoteric subjects such as drama and archaeology with limited career prospects with the result that many could well find no better employment than “stacking shop shelves in TESCOs”. On the same day, but a different radio programme a journalist suggested that many young people leaving our schools today have such poor levels of literacy and numeracy that they are unable to acquire “decent” jobs and were likely to  find themselves (yes, you guessed) “stacking shop shelves in TESCOs”.

Why is it that these two seemingly trivial comments have got me (as Sara would say) hot under the collar? Well, let me explain. In the first instance I have never believed that studying for a degree should have a purely utilitarian purpose. Whilst it is important that young people attend universities to gain the skills required to become doctors, teachers or engineers, preparation for the work place is not the sole function of these institutions. Whilst there may be fewer opportunities to employ graduates of ancient English, Sanskrit, medieval history or palaeontology, the importance of maintaining and increasing knowledge in these areas is essential in ensuring that we continue to be able to interpret the world in which we live and gain new understandings of the development of civilisation. Students gaining degrees in these apparently “esoteric” areas of study are also developing transferable skills of learning, investigation, interpretation and communication which mean that even if they do not find careers directly labelled with their areas of study they are still able to make a contribution to the societies in which they will live and work.

It is however, a second consideration of this abominable expression “stacking shop shelves in TESCOs” that gives me greater cause for concern. When customers arrive at the supermarket I am sure that they want to find that the shelves are well stocked in an orderly manner, with goods well displayed and easily accessible. The people who are performing this task are providing a service to their community, for which I suspect they are poorly paid. If this task was not done I would imagine that many customers, and possibly this would include those very politicians and journalists who appear to see shelf stacking as a worthless occupation, would complain bitterly.

In our modern society we need highly skilled medical personnel, dedicated teachers, compassionate nurses, truthful politicians and honest bankers. I would contend that we also need waiters, auto rickshaw drivers, street cleaners and yes, supermarket shelf stackers who are committed to their work and proud of the service they provide to their community. If we as a society begin to accept that it is right to demean those individuals who offer these kinds of services, perhaps we do not deserve to have those services provided to us. Rather than belittling their achievements why don’t we all make a point of saying thank you when next we see them at their work.

I thought, (I hear some of you saying) this blog was about inclusive education! Hasn’t this piece rather wandered off track? Not at all, I would argue. I wonder – if we are committing ourselves to an education that is inclusive, don’t we perhaps need to ask questions about how well prepared society is to adopt more inclusive attitudes?

Incidentally, before I am accused of giving too much publicity to TESCO, I should perhaps point out that Sara and I do our weekly shopping at Sainsburys.

Today’s blog felt a little bit like arguing with the radio. Glad to get that off my chest,  – very cathartic!

All we hear is Radio ga ga
Radio goo goo
Radio ga ga
All we hear is Radio ga ga
Radio blah blah
Radio what’s new?
Radio, someone still loves you!