On Education

I watched Question Time last night.  I’m not sure why I do it every week.  I think I have some sort of inner desire to shout at the telly every seven days, and Question Time allows me to do that.  You also get to play games each week, guessing how many minutes it will take for the unemployed to be referred to as “scroungers” and for immigration to be viewed as the downfall of the country.  I guess it’s easier for the MPs to do that than blame themselves and the bankers for the mess we’re in.

I have to say last night’s discussions were a little less heated than I thought they would be.  After all, with Halloween monster Peter Hitchens seated at a table with Owen Jones, surely Guy Fawkes night would come early and there would be fireworks?  Well, yes there were some, not least because Hitchens thinks global warming is a load of nonsense, but it was still a relatively sedate affair.  However, the programme does allow me suitable cover in order to write about politics (well, education) in a blog dedicated to film, tv and music.  And without anyone noticing.

Much of the discussion last night centred on the issue of whether schools should be able to hire unqualified teachers.  The problem with these kinds of questions on this kind of programme is that the point-scoring politics comes first and the question itself gets shoved to one side.  I admit that I think all teachers should have the basic PGCE qualification so that they are given the necessary tools, knowledge and background information with which to teach in 2013.  That said, I don’t believe that anyone who passes that qualification is necessarily a better teacher than someone who doesn’t

I view teaching a little like I view acting.  You can attend drama school and there you can be taught stage craft, styles of acting, etc but at the end of the day if you couldn’t act when you started drama school you’re not going to be able to act when you leave.  You either have the basic gift to start with or you don’t.  You can attend singing lessons for ten years but, if you don’t have a decent set of pipes to start with, you’re not going to become a great singer.

Teaching is the same.  You’re either good at it or you’re not, and while a PGCE can help you develop that talent, you’re not going to become a great teacher if you don’t have that innate ability to start with.   I was taught by great teachers at school and some crap teachers at school – but they all had the same qualification.  Likewise, I have come across some great lecturers at university and some awful ones – and none of those have a teaching qualification.   So, while I agree school teachers should have a PGCE, I don’t think it necessarily means they are going to be a great teacher.

However, all of this is part and parcel of our school system, and has been for many years – it’s all about passing exams and not learning a subject.  Twenty years ago, I was studying A-level English Literature at sixth form – but actually what I learned was how to pass an exam by studying nine works.  I spent two years studying English Literature and yet was never taught about Dickens, Austen, Chaucer, Hemingway, Keats or Wordsworth. I wasn’t taught the history of the novel, or the development of drama from Shakespeare to the present day.  I was taught to pass an exam.  And this is the way the system works both within schools and beyond, from PGCEs to driving tests.

It appears that things are about to get worse.  Michael Gove’s reforms of the curriculum are going to ensure that some subjects concentrate more on facts than analytical skills.  One has to wonder what decade Mr Gove is living in.  We are not living in a time where knowing the dates of Henry VIII’s birth and death is going to achieve anything – we carry that sort of information around with us all the time now, as we can aceess it via the internet or on our phones.  Surely history is more about analysing the past than trying to remember dates?  Surely music is more about understanding the structure of Bach’s music than remembering where he was born?  And how is learning facts and figures going to prepare people for careers or university?  The only career this is going to prepare people for is a role on future series of Eggheads or The Chase.

Gove was recently criticised by Lord Baker for basing his education reforms on “his own personal experience”.  While it is nice that he looks back on his schooling so fondly, this is also the schooling that helped to create the man who gets booed enthusiastically by the Question Time audience each time his name is mentioned.  I’m not sure that being one of the most hated men in British politics is a recommendation for a trip back fifty years in the school curriculum time machine.

Gove has also presented us with his own hierarchy of subjects that matter and those that don’t.  The arts, apparantly, are superfluous.   And yet, the film industry alone employs an approximate 43000 people in the UK according to a report by Oxford Economics.  £2.2billion was generated through music tourism in the UK in 2012.  But, apparantly, still superfluous.

We have forgotten what our schools are for.  They are not to teach our kids simply facts and figures, although they must, of course, be a part of schooling.  But surely school is primarily there to teach kids the skills that they will need for life, their careers and for higher education if they choose that route.

School should be there to teach our children how to think, how to analyse, and how to criticise.

It should be there so that kids can explore all avenues, discover their aptitudes and learn who they are.

There are things I worry about in our schools much more than unqualified teachers.  I worry, for example, that qualified teachers will not be disciplined for refusing to teach about same-sex marriage in our classrooms.  Why should it be OK for a teacher to pass on his or prejudices to their pupils?  I worry that our kids are going to leave school being able to recite the dates of kings and queens and wars, but not have the skills to understand the implications of what happened between those dates.

I would suggest we should worry less about the very few unqualified teachers in free schools and more about the fact we have unqualified MPs, with no qualifications in teaching or education, setting a national curriculum based on their own narrow-minded views which the qualified teachers then have to do the best they can with.

 

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Ten favourite Horror Films

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Well, it’s that time of year, folks, where the horror genre comes to the fore as we all go a little Halloween crazy.  Actually, I can’t say Halloween has ever bothered me a great deal (and the original film even less so), but it is a damn fine opportunity to wheel out another in my occasional series of “ten favourite” blogposts.  As with the entries on 1910s and 1920s films, these are favourite films and I make no pretence that they are or might be the ten “best” horror films.

Waxworks (1924)

It’s true to say that Dr Caligari leaves me a little cold, and so if I’m looking for a German expressionist horror film it is Waxworks that I normally turn to.  This is a great little portmanteau feature which includes three stories within a framing device in which a writer is employed to write stories about the various exhibits in a waxworks museum.  The most famous sequence is by far the shortest, and involves the coming to life of the Jack-the-Ripper type figure.  The sequence only lasts six minutes, and seems like a bit of an afterthought compared to the other stories lasting nearly forty minutes each.  However, there are reasons for this.  Firstly, there was originally going to be a fourth story, although this was never filmed and, secondly, the order of the stories was changed due to the censors in Germany.  It is the resequenced version we have on DVD from Kino.  However, the film was shown in its original sequence at its USA premiere in 1926 – so perhaps a version with the pre-censor sequencing is hiding in a vault somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered.

The Mummy (1932)

For me this is the most chilling of all films in the first cycle of Universal horror films.  Dracula feels stage-bound and Frankenstein, though a brilliant film, is not one that ever unnerved me.  The Mummy, on the other hand, does just that.  Karl Freund’s direction is remarkably creepy, Karloff is superb, and the flashback sequence is as horrifying now as when it was filmed.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

I have always felt this was a most unfortunate title, as it is one that makes the film sound like a trashy drive-in type move from the 1960s.  It is instead a brilliantly executed horror movie inspired by Jane Eyre.  In all of the current crop of zombie movies, there is nothing quite as terrifying as the zombies portrayed here in what is probably the best of all the Val Lewton-produced horror cycle from the early 1940s.  It wasn’t an instant classic, however.  The New York Times review didn’t have much positive to say:  ‘To this spectator, at least, it proved to be a dull, disgusting exaggeration of an unhealthy, abnormal concept of life. If the Hays office feels it has a duty to protect the morals of movie-goers by protesting the use of such expressions as “hell” and “damn” in purposeful dramas like “In Which We Serve” and “We Are the Marines,” then how much more important is its duty to safeguard the youth of the land from the sort of stuff and nonsense that their minds will absorb from viewing “I Walked With a Zombie”?’

The Uninvited (1944)

I recently re-watched The Uninvited and was a little disappointed in that it didn’t live up to the distant memory I had of it from when the UK’s Channel Four showed it when I was but a nipper.  That said, this is still an engrossing mystery/ghost story that has achieved both classic and cult status over the years.   Ray Milland’s character might be a little too chipper and bright, often breaking the atmosphere the film tries so hard to achieve, but otherwise this is one of the best ghost stories of the 1940s.

The Innocents (1961)

Another film I remember watching when I was younger, and one that is still totally entrancing today.  Jack Clayton’s direction provides a spooky atmosphere from the opening credits and never lets up throughout the entire film.  Based on Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw, arguments still continue as to whether the narrative is a straightforward ghost story or the delusions of the governess.  In the end it doesn’t matter, for the film delivers no matter which reading you happen to favour.  The film is actually based on the stage adaptation of the novel with the same name (The Innocents), the 1950s production of which starred British child actor Jeremy Spenser (It’s Great to Be Young, Ferry to Hong Kong) as Miles.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

One of the best entries in Roger Corman’s series of horror films based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.  Like most of the other films, Poe’s story is used as the third act of the film, with the rest of the narrative built around it. Others might favour others in the series as better films, and they might be right, but nothing beats the brilliant, disturbing climax of this film.

The Changeling (1980)

One of the great unsung horror classics, this stars George C Scott as a recently-bereaved composer who finds that the house he has moved into is haunted.  This is stunning stuff, with Scott in great form, and the atmosphere built-up superbly throughout the film.  One of the few horror films I saw as a teenager and still find as unnerving now as I did then – and a good example of how atmosphere is what makes a horror film scary, not buckets of blood!

A Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors (1987)

Perhaps an unlikely choice, but I still feel that this is the best of the wonderful Nightmare on Elm Street series.  It sees the return of Heather Langenkamp as Nancy, the main character of the first film.  By this point she has become a dream therapist and joins a hospital where some kids are being treated for their nightmares (of Freddy Kreuger, of course).  For once, the kids are all likeable (who didn’t fall in love with Rodney Eastman as Joey?  I know I did), Langenkamp finally shows signs that she might be learning how to act, and there are some brilliant set pieces.  Sadly it was mostly downhill for the series after this one.

Idle Hands (1999)

I feel sorry for Idle Hands.  It’s one of those films that came along at the worst possible time:  a fun, irreverant horror comedy about a kid who unwillingly goes on a killing spree when his “idle hands” are taken over by an evil spirit or demon or…something.  And released ten days after the Columbine shootings.  It’s actually a fun teen horror comedy, with great performances from Devon Sawa and Seth Green, but this was not what American audiences were clamouring to see at that point in time.

Dead Silence (2007)

Ok, I admit it.  I was possibly the only person in the world who saw Dead Silence and really liked it.  It’s an old-fashioned horror film with ghosts, spooky ventriloquist’s dummies and a ridiculously good looking leading man.  But what I really liked about it was that it showed there was life in the horror genre beyond the torture porn which had almost taken over the market over the previous few years.  Dead Silence might not have been seen by many at the cinema, but it is good entertainment and helped to pave the way for the return of the traditional horror movie which has blossomed over the last few years with Dark Skies, Sinister, The Conjuring and Insidious.

Honourable mentions:

The Old Dark House

The Seventh Victim

The Haunting

Ghost Story

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

 

 

This Week’s TV: Supernatural & Glee

 

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Contains minor spoilers.

I’m not quite sure when it happened – at the end of season seven, I think – but Supernatural lost its way.  I remember looking forward to each new episode during the period when it was, first and foremost, a monster-of-the-week type of show, a Scooby-Doo for grown-ups.  Then it all got a bit convoluted with the introduction of angels, but we went with it.  Then there were angel wars and it all seemed to be getting a little bit silly.  Then there were leviathans and, despite the fact we never really understood what they were and never really found them such a menace, we went with that too. 

But season eight found Supernatural doing something I have yet to forgive:  it simply got a bit shit.  The scripts got weaker, the stars were at times looking visibly bored, and the whole thing was like watching Supernatural through a frosted window.  The first half of season eight wasn’t helped by the awful flashback structure or the introduction of Benny, a character it seems most fans didn’t warm to.  The second half was passable, but only because it was a TV series the fans loved and didn’t want to let go of. 

Now we have season nine – four seasons more than the original intention.  The way forward might have been to go back to the monster-of-the-week format, but this week’s first episode doesn’t point towards that happening as  one of the Winchesters is again at death’s door (literally).  How many times can they die or nearly die before us not shouting at the screen “just die and be done with it?”  We know they’re not going to die.  Or, if they do, they won’t stay dead.  There’s no suspense in these scenarios anymore. 

To be fair, the first episode of season nine was better than the first episode of season eight, but that’s not saying much.  There’s no inspiration here anymore, and certainly no logic – just scatterbrained ideas with no rhyme or reason to them.  It’s almost as if the writers have got together in a panic having learned yet another season is on its way and they have no idea what they are going to fill twenty-two episodes with.   I’m not even sure they understand the storyline anymore and how we landed up at this point.  Even the re-cap at the beginning of the episode gave up on reminding us of the story so far, it was just 60 seconds of snippets that could have been thrown together by a kid at a computer. 

To be fair, there were some highlights of S09E01.  Ezekiel seemed like a nice chap, but it doesn’t look like he will be around on a regular basis.  Castiel is present and correct, but he’s gained and lost his powers more times that a recurring guest star has found themselves filming a death scene.  And it’s always nice to see Bobby (killing him off in season seven was hardly the programme’s most sensible decision), but his appearance seems to have been to delight fans rather than to serve any great purpose.  Finally, there was Castiel recreating a famous laundrette-set advert – the episode’s highpoint and one reminding us that the surreal humour that used to a be a trademark of the series has been sorely lacking of late.   Castiel with his kit off, though, actually makes us realise he now looks younger than Sam (who hasn’t had a haircut since the last season, in case you were wondering).  

I wanted to be drawn back into Supernatural, but I now sit here and wonder if I can really be bothered anymore. 

I talked about the return of Glee a couple of weeks back, and last night saw the broadcast of the anticipated episode dealing with the passing of Finn Hudson, following Cory Monteith’s death in the summer.  Reviews of the episode have ranged from luke-warm to very favourable.  Glee might miss the mark quite a bit these days but, unlike Supernaturalit does seem to be trying its best.  There have been comments that there was no explanation for Finn’s death, and that the series could have force-fed us a drugs-related issue-of-the-week episode.  But this probably wasn’t the time or place for a drugs-related episode (although the absence of such a storyline is a mysterious omission over the last four seasons).  Instead, Glee played a blinder dealing with an issue that effects more teenagers than drugs does:  grief.

The episode starts three weeks after Finn’s death, with both old and new members of New Directions coming together for a private memorial to Finn.   The supposed leap in time from the last episode makes one wonder why this wasn’t the first episode of the present season, as it would have made more sense given the summer break.  Even so, this was played to perfection…mostly.  The teen audience was told that there was no right time or right way to deal with grief when someone close to you passes away, and that is something of a valuable (and rarely mentioned) lesson.  

The sequence near the beginning of the episode where Kurt returns home and he and his Dad and step-Mum (Finn’s mother) start to go through Finn’s things, deciding what to keep and what to not keep, was superb.  Romy Rosemont gave a stunning, heartbreaking  performance, and the writing was spot-on as those of us who have been in similar situations will know all too well.   Amber Riley’s vocal performances reminded us of just what a fine singer she is.  Perhaps the big mistake was affording so much screen time to Puck – Mark Salling’s acting was never exactly stellar, but seems to have got worse since he has been away from the show, and his performance seemed to be the only weak link in the episode.   The show didn’t forget it was a comedy at heart either, and there were some unexpected but welcome comedic moments (most notably when Tina goes to grief counselling).   It’s hard to imagine how the episode could have been dealt with better, especially remembering this is, primarily, a show for teens.   It would have been all too easy to pull at the heartstrings every thirty seconds but, oddly, the whole episode seemed less manipulative than normal – and that was a welcome surprise. 

 

Name Change

Well, the blog has been running for a while now and “Silent and Classic Movies” didn’t really work as an overarching title for my waffling, and so the name has been changed to Beyond Boundaries.  Rather awkwardly the url remains the same – but you can’t have everything.  This will also allow me to merge the not-very-active music blog with this one, and so all my posts on the arts, culture and, occasionally, more personal issues/thoughts are now under the same roof (for better or worse) – and in the same date order as when originally published.  Thanks to those of you who follow the blog for your support.