İki Dil Bir Bavul

Translated into English as Two Languages, One Suitcase, otherwise known as On the Way to School this is a fly-on-the-wall documentary directed by Orhan Eskiköy and Ozgür Dogan.  Over the course of an academic year we follow teacher Emre Aydın in his  first teaching job in a school in a remote Kurdish village, Demirci, in South East Turkey.  On arrival Emre is shocked by the lack of running water, and we see him setting off to fetch supplies aided by a young boy who arrives on scene to help him with carrying the containers.   We soon find that a lack of ready water is only one of the challenges facing Emre.  While  the water issue is tackled by the locals drilling a hole, assisted by Emre who learns some Kurdish words in the process, we are presented with the other day to day challenges that this new teacher faces.

Poster from İki Dil Bir Bavul from http://www.perisanfilm.com

When the doors of the school open at the beginning of term we see a sequence of shots showing an empty classroom set against that of Emre looking out beyond the school grounds surveying the landscape for the classroom’s absent pupils.  Faced with such poor attendance we then follow Emre as he is guided through the village by young boy, who acts as a Kurdish – Turkish interpreter, in search of the elusive pupils.  Pupils recruited, they are then crammed, sometimes four or more to a desk, into the small classroom. Like the school in Être et Avoir this is a single class school and children of all ages are taught together.  However, the challenge faced by Emre is vast as most of youngest children speak only Kurdish, while lessons are taught in Turkish.  Thus the film contributes to an understanding of the marginalisation of the Kurdish people and their language.

So, in this context Emre decides he must teach the pupils Turkish above anything else and as the youngest children learn to write by drawing zigzags the older children are set the tasks of memorising the Turkish oath.  Things don’t run smoothly however, and as some children persist with Kurdish, and struggle to comprehend Turkish, Emre manages his increasing frustration in the most productive way he can, by sending the children out to play.

The film shows us that Emre is isolated in a number of ways. The most obvious is through the representation of the language barrier, but in the the playground he is shown sitting on the wall, a distant figure while the children at play take the foreground of the scene.  His distance from his familiar world in the West of Turkey is also shown in the intimate scenes where he phones his mother to update and reassure her.

The film employs some conventions, along the lines of Être et Avoir  to indicate the passage of time.  For example the changing seasons and the transition from winter to spring are illustrated by the snow giving way to geese and goslings, the lack of coats on the children, and the appearance of greenery across the landscape.  But the coming of spring is also indicated by a more relaxed Emre and an improvement in the children’s reading of Turkish.

National Sovereignty and Children’s Day was celebrated on the 23rd April with a sack race and other collective expressions of Turkish identity.  It is worth noting that the establishment of a national Turkish education system, in turn designed to promote Turkish identity and citizenship, were influenced by French education as well as Durkheimian sociology (Gündüz 2009).

As with all fly-on-the-wall documentaries there is the question of whether İki Dil Bir Bavul is authentic (editing has necessarily taken place to condense the captured footage into  81 minutes). There is a narrative, a story being being told, about teacher Emre even though the context in which this story takes place is not staged (Çiçek, 2011). Though, as Çiçek (2011) discusses, this format is not popular form of documentary making in Turkey and that some critics may regard the film as ‘fiction’ in order not to not to have to address Kurdish marginalisation in Turkey.


References

Çiçek, Ã. (2011) ‘The fictive archive: Kurdish filmmaking in turkey’,  Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, 1. [Online] Available at: http://cora.ucc.ie/handle/10468/659 [Accessed 15th February 2015]

Gündüz, M. (2009) ‘Sociocultural origins of Turkish educational reforms and ideological origins of late Ottoman intellectuals (1908–1930)’, History of Education, 38(2):191-216.

 

NASUWT on the importance of Local Schools

This week NASUWT published the results of a survey, commissioned last year, seeking parents’ views of schools and colleges.   Alongside views of education the results reveal the most and least important factors that parents consider when choosing a school or college for their child, as well as the strategies they have used to inform their decision making. The following table reveals the responses to the question:

Which, if any, are the most important factors when choosing your child’s school/college?

(Comres, 2015: 7)
(Comres, 2015: 7)

In reporting these results NASUWT has highlighted location (referring to the school’s proximity to the family home, or parent’s workplace) as the most popular factor to be identified as important by parents.  In contrast, league table position is highlighted as being considered as important by only 21% of parents surveyed.   Clearly, in publishing these survey responses NASUWT are trying to challenge the importance that UK Government discourses place on quantitative measures of school ‘performance’.  The message  given is that parents believe other things are more important when considering the future education of their children and the Government should, therefore, focus on providing more ‘good’ local schools and focusing less on league tables:

“It remains the case that for the majority of parents the locality of a school is a key factor, supporting the NASUWT’s long-argued view that what every parent wants is access to a good local school.”

Aside from what is mean by a “good school”, while it may not appear a surprising result, the identification of locality may be more complex.  As Burgess et al (2014) discuss, while location may be an important factor in school choice decision making, this factor is itself influenced by the context in which the parents are identifying that location as an important factor.

“household location is a choice and may be endogenously affected by demand for high-quality schools. Suppose a family had moved to an area with good academic schools for this reason. This would give undue weight to proximity to the school in estimation, so the true preference for academic quality would appear as a preference for proximity.” (Burgess, et al, 2014: 7-8)

Location is clearly important, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that parents view academic performance as any less important, even though they may appear to do so when asked this question in a survey.  As Ball and Vincent (1998) observe, the school choice process may be a long term project, particularly for middle-class parents, which takes several years.  So, in the example from Burgess et al (2014) parents who may have moved house in order to be in proximity to what they view as a ‘good’ school would have done this because of the importance they place on academic standards.  However, they may well identify proximity as the most important factor if asked about choosing a school for their child.

When asked about strategies employed in school-choice decision making, 29% of parents reported they had checked school performance data tables, which is slightly higher, but not inconsistent with the percentage identifying this as an important factor in decision making.  School Performance Tables are provided by the  Department of Education and this facility allows anyone who is interested to view a range of selected data on schools and to compare this ‘performance’ with other schools. Presumably, if the statistics from the NASUWT survey are representative, around a third of parents are using this tool in their school choice decision making, meaning most parents, around two thirds, are not. Again, the results from this survey are far from nuanced.  As Ball and Vincent (1998) revealed in their study, school-choice decision making is a complex process and the importance placed on ‘cold’ knowledge, such as performance data is shaped by a range of factors, such as social class and gender.  The NASUWT survey  makes a valid point in highlighting that relatively few parents consult this kind of data when choosing a school or college for their child, but more information is needed.  An interesting question remains: what type of parent believes performance tables are an important factor in school-choice decision making and how do they interpret this data?  Or: Are some groups of parents being super-served via school performance tables

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Teachers vs Government: Seventy Years of Education Policy

BBC Radio 4 this week broadcast Teachers vs Government: Seventy Years of Education Policy.  Roy Blatchford, Director of the National Education Trust tells the story of developments in education policy over the seventy years since the Education Act of 1944. The half-hour broadcast can only be a brief overview of the key moments in education policy rather than an in-depth policy analysis.  However,  while useful as a documentary in that it provides an overview of key developments and asks key questions, this broadcast draws on and perpetuates some myths about the development of education after 1944.

Blatchford begins with the claim that the 1944 Act was a  “fundamental reform of the English education system”. Arguably, this was the case.  The legislation provided for universal, free, secondary education and this was distinct from what had existed previously when a secondary education was not an entitlement, but was largely rationed according to the ability to pay or obtain a scholarship through the passing of an 11+ style exam.

Blatchford goes on to describe how the new legislation “…meant pupils would  have a choice between a grammar, a secondary modern and a technical education”  which is only partially accurate.  The tripartite system to which he is referring reflects the ways in which the Act was implemented into existing contexts, rather than the Act itself, which did not prescribe specific secondary school types.

The broadcast also draws on the idea of a ‘post-war consensus’ claiming that “there was certainly a strong political consensus around the ambitions of the 44 Act” though, in relation to the aftermath of the 1944 Act at least, this has been contested (see for example, Jones, 1990).  Blatchford continues:

“What then disturbed the postwar consensus was a seemingly mild but radical request from the Labour Government in 1965 in the form of the infamous circular 10/65, a request to abolish selection at 11+ and end the divide between secondary moderns and grammar schools.”

However, this oversimplifies the process by which comprehensivation became a popular means for LEAs to organise secondary education.   Circular 10/65 did request that LEAs submit plans for comprehensivisation but there is evidence to support the claim that “[t]he drive for comprehensive education in England and Wales was a ‘bottom up’, rather than ‘top down’ initiative” (Crook, 2002: p. 257).

Nevertheless, featuring interviews with former Ministers and LEA  personnel the documentary offers some interesting insights to key policy developments.  It is broadcast again on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 27th April at 17.00 and is available to listen to here.

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Primary National Offer Day

Last week saw the first ever national offer day for primary school places.  This is the day when parents of children due to start primary school in September are informed of the schools to which their children have been offered a place.

News values (Galthung and Ruge, 1965) are apparent in the responses of the news media.  Using emotive language to highlight an apparent ‘crisis’ over the availability of school places the news reports focus on the personal stories of families who are not offered a place at their nearby, invariably ‘good’, school. ITV runs with the story of four year old Lily, ‘denied’ a place at a school 400 yards from her home. To claim that Lily was ‘denied’ a place effectively simplifies the policy process, making it easier to digest.  The family may have chosen the nearest school, it being their preference, but places were offered to other children, on the basis of the admissions criteria.

The Guardian runs with the headline: Class war in English villages as lack of primary school places hits families.  The article features the Beevers, a family who were drawn to move to the village of  Stotfold partly because of the ‘good’ schools.  The class strategies (Ball, 2002) of such parents are normalised, and the discussion of the ‘good’ school  is depoliticised (see for example Exley, 2013). We are invited to assume that the existence of a ‘good’ school is coincidental to the socio-economic status of the people living in the locality.  Yet, the evidence suggests otherwise.  While dated,

Lacey, in his classic study on Hightown Grammar neatly highlights the reproduction of social class advantage inherent in seeking out a ‘good’ school:

“Middle-class parents who are education-conscious try to register their children at the best junior school in the area….In doing so, they inadvertently ensure that the school remains the best junior school in the area…” (1970: p. 35)

There is an almost disregard of the ways in which policy of allocating school places may be implemented at local level aside from some cursory comparisons made between the rates of preferences offered by local authorities.   For example, The Guardian focuses on the different rates in different local authorities while the Daily Mail highlights how a few select (mainly southern eastern) local authorities have not been able to offer as many first preferences this year. In short, the coverage goes no further than description of differences in rates, and is therefore decontextualised.  There is very little coverage on the admissions criteria of the most preferred schools, this information might explain why Adam Beevers and four year old Lily have not been offered places at their nearest schools .  While the frustrations of, almost exclusively, middle class parents are highlighted in news reports there is an absence of discussion on how the policy of school choice works within each local authority. How are school choice advisers used, and how might these street level bureaucrats (Lipsky, 2010) help parents make informed decisions about choices?  How might these advisers translate policy to provide advice to parents on choosing a school where the contexts in which families live constrain the choices they can make? Researchers, as opposed to journalists have explored these issues. Burgess et al (2011) consider that first choice preferences from some parents from disadvantaged backgrounds may be “resigned” (p.542) meaning that parents choose the school they know they are likely to get) while Exley (2013) found that choice advisers themselves felt their role should be to encourage parents to make realistic choices.

News media are trying to sell a story, so emotive language,  focus on personalities, and an oversimplification of policy are to be expected.  However  as Wallace (1997) points out  “The output of the mass media is a key resource” (p. 148) in the policy process.   According to the  Daily Mail article the fault lies with immigration, along with a baby boom.  Funding by central government is highlighted, particularly its claim that more ‘good’ schools are being created through free schools and academies. On the other hand The Guardian appears to more supportive of local authorities, highlighting the “[s]trenuous efforts by London boroughs”. It is not too difficult to work out where those ‘unseen hands’ (Wallace, 1997) are trying to guide policy.

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The Bricks of Burston

The Bricks of Burston is currently touring East Anglia, marking one hundred years since the beginning of the Burston School Strike.

Written by Anthony Cule and Emma MacLusky and directed by Cordelia Spence it is a three hander, with Georgia Robson playing Annie (Kitty) Higdon, Tom Grace as Tom Higdon and Alex Helm as Rev Charles Tucker Eland.  The play is presented by the Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company, a relatively new East Anglian based theatre company which draws on the stories and heritage from that region.

 

Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company – The Bricks of Burston

This is no stage reproduction of The Burston Rebellion, instead it chooses to focus on teachers Annie and Tom Higdon, their relationship with each other, as well their fraught relationship with the Rev Charles Tucker Eland.  It is an emotional exploration of the events leading up to the strike, and beyond, as recollected by the three characters.  It is, at times, challenging, examining the frailties of the heroes as well as the humanity within the anti-hero, the Rev Charles Tucker Eland.  It would have been easy to present a hagiography of the Higdons to please a sympathetic audience.   However, Georgia Robson and Tom Grace’s performance tackles Tom Higdon’s temper as well as the tensions between the couple as one expresses exhaustion with challenging authority while the other urges that strength be found to continue. There are some comic moments, such as the Higdon’s  joint bewilderment at the support the strike school received from people they had never met (…a real life communist, I wonder if he knew Marx).   Alex Helm as the Rev Charles Tucker Eland was convincingly aged beyond his youthful looks with a ghostly appearance and a commanding presence throughout.  It is a story about who controls education, the purpose and relevance of education for working class communities and is as relevant today as it was in 1914.

Prior knowledge of the story of the Burston Strike School may well be helpful to appreciating the play, though it may be the case that this prior knowledge of the story is what attracts a potential audience.    The play continues to run until May 15th at various venues across East Anglia (information from The Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company).

Farewell to Summer

Proposals to allow schools to set their own term times, announced earlier this month, have provoked numerous responses both in favour and against.

There may will be sound arguments for a six-week summer holiday, just as there may be for shorter breaks, and schools which have chosen either of these ways may well feel justified in their decision, especially if they perceive positive results as a consequence.  However, the argument for or against this proposal is much more than a debate over the educational benefits of the length of time spent in school.

Here are just two of the arguments for a change, which I find specious:

Shorter holidays and more terms will help prevent the most disadvantaged pupils from falling further behind their peers.

There are a number of limitations to this argument.  Firstly, the argument recognises that socio-economic context can impact on educational opportunities.  Yet, it then minimises the impact of socio-economics with the belief that schools can compensate for society.  While there is a body of evidence which has examined the difference a school can make in terms of outcomes, it remains an ambitious claim that poverty, which may involve for example, poor quality housing and high levels of morbidity can be mitigated by school attendance and high quality teaching.

Secondly,  this argument renders socio-economic inequalities as natural and inevitable.  If, as a society we really are concerned with socio-economic inequalities we would work to produce a much fairer society all round.  Instead, we deal with the symptoms of those inequalities and naively hope this will produce that fairer society.

Yet, despite these problems, realist policy responses to gaps in educational outcomes are the only responses available in the absence of more fundamental social reform.  But, as generations of educational reform have shown, those gaps will remain.

The current system of  school terms was designed to meet the needs of an Agricultural economy

This is Gove’s claim. However, Gove emphasises a partial view of history.

The development of state schooling intensified at the end of the nineteenth century and, one explanation is that this was to meet the needs of a changing, though not solely an agricultural economy. Even in rural areas, factories and mining existed side by side an agricultural, and domestic service economy. Six weeks holidays taking up the whole of August was not universal across England.  For example, in nineteenth century Teesdale schools, attendance during August was a common practice, with the midsummer vacation running through July.

But Gove’s partial view of history skims over the power relations inherent in any economic system.  The schooling system that was developed at the end of the nineteenth century reflected power inequalities and it would be naive to suggest that contemporary educational policies and proposals for future policy do not.

Therefore, it is important to note where this proposal is coming from.  The proposed change is to be found in the Draft Deregulation Bill presented to Parliament earlier this month.  In the forward to the draft Bill, Kenneth Clarke and Oliver Letwin state:

“Publication of the draft Bill is the latest step in the Government’s ongoing drive to remove unnecessary bureaucracy that costs British businesses millions, slows down public services like schools and hospitals, and hinders millions of individuals in their daily lives.”

This makes sense if you believe that bureaucracy is unnecessary, costly, slows down services and hinders the daily lives of “millions of individuals”.  If, on the other hand you believe that so-called ‘red tape’ is a necessary albeit imperfect means of working towards fairness, public safety and accountability then this statement is highly disturbing, revealing the ideology behind the Government’s intentions.

With regards to setting of school terms, the proposals are as follows:

(1) Section 32 of the Education Act 2002 (responsibility for fixing dates of terms and holidays and times of sessions) is amended as follows.

(2) Before subsection (1) insert –

“(A1) In the case of a community, voluntary controlled or community special school in England or a maintained nursery school in England, the governing body shall determine –

  1. (a)  the dates when the school terms and holidays are to begin and end, and
  2. (b)  the times of the school sessions.”

This means Local Authorities will no longer be responsible for setting school terms  (Academies and Free Schools already have the power to set their own dates).  This deregulation, and apparent freeing from bureaucracy does not do away with the need for decisions to be made about term dates and session times. In other words, it replaces one form of bureaucracy with another.  The key difference is the transfer of responsibility from local authorities to school governing bodies.  This is the real deregulation, and it further marketises schooling. The move will not bring increased freedoms other than the illusion of parental choice in the school market place.  Local authorities, however imperfect local democracy may be, are a means by which we can exercise power and can hold our representatives accountable.  Deregulation takes this away.

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Gove stands up to the ‘Blob’

There are so many problems with Michael Gove’s recent article in the Daily Mail that I am not sure where to start.  I am also not sure whether I have the inclination to engage with something that I consider to be diatribe.  But here goes:

After opening with an invocation of Cyril Connolly, Gove appeals to fear:

“Because there are millions of talented young people being denied the opportunity to succeed as they deserve. Far too many are having their potential thwarted by a new set of Enemies Of Promise.”

Gove is trying to claim that he is concerned about the educational prospects of our young people.  Perhaps he is only concerned about those who he deems as talented, and therefore deserving of success?  Nevertheless, he is concerned about them.  Yet, Daily Mail readers should be warned, there are people out there, these  ‘Enemies Of Promise’ who threaten to stand in the way of these opportunities to success.

So, who are these ‘Enemies Of Promise’? They are:

“a set of politically motivated individuals”

These individuals do not agree with Gove, therefore they are enemies, and, moreover they are politically motivated, and worst of all, they are ‘Marxist’.  Helpfully, the Daily Mail has included a picture of the bearded man himself.  Presumably, in describing his enemies as “politically motivated,  Gove is suggesting that he is not similarly motivated.  This is clearly nonsense.

Gove goes on to outline what he believes is evidence of the poor standards of education in our schools with this rhetological fallacy:

“Survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance”

His appeal to authority conveniently fails to identify which surveys uncovered this ignorance.

These poor educational standards, according to Gove are concentrated in our most disadvantaged communities, such as East Durham. (you may remember that this is a place where Gove claims to be able smell defeat).  Given this observation of differences in educational achievement, Marxists may point out that in capitalism there are winners and losers, and that within this system lies the explanation for differential education attainment.  However, Marxists are the subject of this attack, so anything they have to say is subject to further opprobrium in the remainder of the article.

Of course capitalism is not to blame! Gove much prefers to point the finger at the ‘Enemies Of Promise’. One hundred of these apparent enemies are signatories to a letter in The Independent in which they warn of the potential dangers of Gove’s new National Curriculum  (which explains why Gove doesn’t like them).  Some of these enemies, according to Gove, inhabit a “Red Planet” (they are Marxists after all!).  This, according to Gove is proven by their research interests:

“One of the letter’s principal signatories claims to write ‘from a classical Marxist perspective’, another studies ‘how masculinities and femininities operate as communities of practice’, a third makes their life work an ‘intergenerational ethnography of the intersection of class, place, education and school resistance’.”

This is nothing more than an ignorant attack on the social sciences, and one which, presumably Gove hopes the readers of his derision will agree with.

Gove then goes on to describe ‘enemies’ as a ‘Blob’ consisting of “ultra-militants in the unions who are threatening strikes”. This choice of language purposefully ignores the reality that unions are made up of their members, in this case teachers who have collectively chosen to withdraw their labour in summer of strike action.

In short, a fine example of Govian ad hominem reasoning.  No wonder the ATL (Association of Teachers and Lecturers) has recorded no confidence in him.

The History Boys

This week’s screening in Film and Education was The History Boys (2006) directed by Nicholas Hytner, and based on Alan Bennett’s stage play of the same name.

At Cutlers’ Grammar School a group of boys have just obtained the school’s highest ever A Level Grades. Returning for one more term they are coached for Oxbridge entrance by ‘General Studies’ teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths), history teacher Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour) and the newly appointed Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore).

The opening scene tells us the film is set in ‘Yorkshire’.  The non specificness of ‘Yorkshire’ reflects, for me at least, a sense of  placelessness; Posner refers to living in Sheffield yet Irwin lives in Horsforth (Leeds) which, we are informed is on Hector’s route home and so presumably we are in the environs of Leeds, not Sheffield.  The city scape we see is a shot of Elland, near Halifax, again suggesting we are located in West Yorkshire. Hector, Irwin, Lintott and the boys go on a day trip to Fountains Abbey (Ripon), while Roche Abbey (Rotherham) the other Cistercian monastery on Irwin’s agenda, might have been a more convenient location for the outing. Perhaps this geographic licence is deliberate? Ostensibly we are in Sheffield, yet at times were are in Leeds where Bennett is from. So, while The History Boys is drama, fiction, there is a hint of a Bennett autobiography.

Unlike the location, the year (1983) is specified in the opening scene.  The soundtrack features ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Mustapha Dance’, the inclusion of these reaffirms the events as occurring in the early 1980s.  This film could not be set any later however, as shortly afterwards the seventh term Oxbridge exams ceased to exist. Not only are Hector, Irwin, Lintott and the boys spending one final term together, the final term is itself coming to an end.

Other themes explored in the film could easily fit into later decades.  Hector’s humanist teaching contrasts with Irwin’s technocratic approach (Talburt, 2010) and is reflected in the mise-en-scène. Hector’s classroom follows a ‘traditional’ liberal arts theme furnished with wooden desks with pictures and photographs covering the walls.  There is one of Orwell which appears in some scenes to be looking over Hector’s shoulder, a signal that Hector is being observed, his teaching style giving rise to suspicion.  It is a sign that his days are numbered.  As the headmaster says:

“Hector produces results but unpredictable and unquantifiable…There’s inspiration, certainly, but how do I quantify that?”

In contrast, Irwin’s classroom looks functional and modern with bare walls; it is suited for a different purpose (Jays, 2006).  Irwin is there to get results in a competition with the best, even though the headmaster is confused over who the ‘best’ are:

“We’re low in the league. I want to see us up there with Manchester Grammar, Haberdasher Askes, Leighton Park… or is that an open prison?”

There is a more difficult theme played out during the course of the film which revolves around Hector’s relationship with his pupils.  Hector rides a motorbike and routinely offers a boy (with the exception of Posner) a lift home.  On the first occasion that we witness this offering each boy in turn quickly gives a reason for declining leaving Scripps who, seemingly out of a sense of duty agrees to ride pillion.  As they ride home Hector gropes Scripps and this scenario is repeated each time one of the boys becomes a passenger. It is clearly a sexual assault, yet the boys do not consider themselves victims, with Dakin even intervening to save Hector’s career after his behaviour is reported to the headmaster.

It is not clear what message the film gives about Hector’s behaviour.  The boys, in other words his ‘victims’ remain supportive and the film clearly invites us to share the affection they have for Hector. Should we follow the boys’ lead and turn a blind eye to Hector’s behaviour?  Should we feel guilty for mourning Hector’s demise?

Hector, of course tries to minimise his actions, to which the only sensible response comes from Mrs. Lintott:

 “A grope is a grope. It is not the Annunciation”

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Armed Teachers? South Dakota passes Sentinel Bill

This week The New York Times reports that South Dakota has become the first US state to enact legislation authorising the carrying of guns by school employees and volunteers (rather than, in the case of some other states, allowing staff to carry arms).  The law, which comes into force on July 1st devolves the decision of arming teachers to the local school boards.   This ‘sentinel’ legislation follows the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton Connecticut last December, though the bill was being drafted prior to the killings.

While the South Dakota Legislature voted 40-19 in favour of the bill it is not similarly endorsed by South Dakota educators.  The Associated School Boards of South Dakota has consistently opposed the bill.

Être et avoir

This week’s screening on Film and Education was Être et Avoir, the 2002 award winning ‘fly on the  wall’ documentary directed by French film maker Nicolas Philibert.

Filmed across the course of a school year Être et Avoir tells a story (whose story it tells is a matter for discussion) of a single class, all-age primary school in the village of Saint-Étienne-sur-Usson, Puy-de-Dôme in the Auvergne region of France.   We witness the quiet dedication, concern and authority of Georges Lopez, the school’s teacher of twenty years as he approaches retirement.  We watch the children learning to write, sledging, flipping pancakes, supporting each other, pushing one another over, as well as falling out and making up.  At times the intrusion into this intimate space becomes uncomfortable when the camera focuses our attention on the emotional distress experienced by some of the children. The observation style briefly deviates when Lopez, tending the school’s garden (it is also his home), turns to the camera, and in an interview style tells the story of him becoming a teacher.

Être et Avoir is a distinctly French film, not only because it is French, but because, as Powrie (2005) discusses it reflects recent French cinema’s concern with the preadolescent child as potential victims of dysfunctional families and failing state institutions. Also, it would be difficult to take the nurturing, intimate, often tactile, yet clearly asexual relationship between the male Lopez and the children in his care and place it into an English primary school.  This taps into another idea discussed by Powrie; that of the theme of retrospection and heterospection as seen in the spaces we view the children inhabiting.  For example, the film presents a rural idyll, resonating with freedom, supporting a nostalgic and romantic vision of childhood (Aitken, 2007).   The outside shots show the cycle of seasons, suggesting, simultaneously, continuity and discontinuity.  The same seasonal cycle is reflected in the life of the school, the transition of the older children is a disruption, yet a new intake introduced towards the end of the film highlights continuity.  However, we are also shown contrasting spaces where children inhabit more of an adult world.  For example, we see Julien reversing a tractor on the family farm, and later cooking for his siblings. He is, as Lopez says ‘strong as an ox’, but this does not stop him assuming responsibility of caring for young members of his family.  The freedom associated with the open space is inverted, briefly, when we see the search for Alizée, seemingly lost in a field. We are reminded that open spaces are mysterious, disorientating, and that freedom is potentially risky.

Student responses to the screening included, amongst other comments, that it was ‘boring’,  and that ‘nothing happens’ but this is an effect which this example of cinematic ethnography has tried to achieve.  However, far from accurately representing the mundane reality of this small village school, être et avoir is a construction of reality, with ten weeks worth of filming condensed and packaged into a one-hundred minute DVD.  Lopez and the children may be ‘stars’ of the film, but the film may not represent their stories.

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