All posts by caroline

The slow revolution that makes learning fun

It’s hard to feel like a covert revolutionary when hovering around a reception class on a chilly Thursday morning. But within minutes of arriving at St Silas’ Church of England Primary School in Blackburn, it is clear that I have stepped into a bold educational experiment that daringly flies in the face of much current accepted thinking. All around, four- and five-year-olds are playing energetically with water, building things or writing stories. So far, so normal, except that – compulsory phonics instruction apart – pupils are allowed to concentrate on one activity all day if they want to. Equally, they are free to wander from task to task.

I am not often in touch with my inner Nick Gibb but at first this “free play” approach leaves me feeling a little at sea. Don’t children need structure? I mean, what’s the plan here? Moving up through the school, my Hirschian jaw begins to relax. All parts of the national curriculum are being covered, in depth and, apparently, with huge enthusiasm. Some nine-year-olds show me the Anderson shelters they have built before reading from their spirited reimaginings of aspects of the Second World War. It is abundantly clear that by Year 6, St Silas’ has created a room full of independent learners, deeply engaged in what they are doing.

This is reflected in steadily improving Sats scores, despite the school losing many high achievers to two newly opened local free schools. This year’s cohort are the first to have spent their entire primary school life using the Slow Education approach.

Over at Matthew Moss High School in Rochdale, an 11-16 comprehensive, a similar revolution is in progress. A mix of independent project work, detailed feedback and group work, and an emphasis on genuine research skills, produces 12-year-olds who can talk articulately about whether we are at risk of running out of electricity, while sharing details of their ongoing correspondence with postgraduates from the University of Manchester.

The well-resourced music department is full of pink- and blue-haired teenagers playing loudly in studios, mixing tracks or creating promotional material for upcoming concerts. Senior leaders at Matthew Moss, under a new headteacher since 2013, are currently wrestling with the implications of the English Baccalaureate, reluctant to force students into taking subjects that don’t engage them. The school, in the top quintile for measures of deprivation, is keen to improve on its 2014 GCSE headline results (49 per cent of pupils achieved a C or above in five or more subjects, including English and maths). But one of its strengths is the way it encourages students to find out what they love, and pursue it.

National figures for the last quarter of 2014 show that 7 per cent of post-16s were not in education and employment. The figure for Matthew Moss (over one year) is 1.7 per cent. It performs strongly on value-added measures. In one sense, Slow Education is nothing new. It is the modern recasting of a progressive approach to education that goes back to the original “free schools” of Summerhill and Kilquhanity in Scotland or the post-war experiments of secondary-modern headteacher Alex Bloom in London’s East End. Sadly, these innovative educators have been caricatured over the years as part of the disingenuous Goveian rewriting of educational history.

But what strikes me the most about this modern version of “child-centred education” is its rigour. It mixes something of today’s “high expectations” culture with older ideas about having the time – and the freedom – to learn. At both schools, I found myself impressed by the commitment and self-critical reflection among school leaders, teachers and teaching assistants. It also offers an interesting way out of what is fast becoming a rather tired debate about knowledge versus skills. There’s plenty of “traditional” learning in both schools (what you or I might call “normal lessons”) yet the whole point of Slow Education is not to spurn knowledge but to anchor it more authentically.

As Mike Grenier, a teacher at Eton, and a member of the Slow Education network, argues: “To achieve mastery of a subject requires time to learn but also time to reflect on how learning has happened. Many simple tests/forms of assessment largely remove any thinking and become tests of memory. Thus, the so-called traditionalists rail against skills as if they are somehow nebulous and examples of lazy thinkers, and the socalled progressives see knowledge as damaging to creativity and of no lasting significance. Both positions are incorrect.”

Grenier adds that the “more nuanced synthesis of thinking and learning at the heart of Slow Education [is] hard to implement [in a] culture of ‘fast-food’ learning in which… measurement has become paramount”.

In other words: how can we balance the development of a love of learning for its own sake with the high, and some would argue obsessive, priority now attached to raw data?

A lot of the external pressure comes not only from government ministers or Ofsted but also from ambitious parents. During my tours of St Silas’ and Matthew Moss, I couldn’t help wondering how such pushy parents (there are virtually none in either of the schools) would react to Slow Education. Panic, I suspect.

Which is a pity. The corridors and classrooms of both schools hum with enjoyment, the ease of relations between staff and students and a kind of intellectual happiness. Matthew Moss set up a Saturday school: scores of Year 10 and 11 students come to revise, or tackle difficult bits of the curriculum, with volunteer “learning coaches” from Rochdale Sixth Form College. Such enthusiasm is not unusual in state schools, of course, but it is worth celebrating in contrast to the dreary drilland-kill approach currently so dominant in England’s education system.


This piece was first published in the TES in the issue of December 11th.

Vivian Gornick: one of the most significant writers you have probably never heard of

Vivian Gornick is one of the most significant writers you have probably never heard of. A biographer, journalist and memoirist, she is among the supreme essayists of the past 50 years, a writer who bridges the worlds of Joan Didion and Meghan Daum, Susan Sontag and Leslie Jamison, without ever having achieved the cultural glamour or worldly success of any of these figures.

In a recent interview in the Paris Review, Gornick, now aged 80, was candid about her marginal status for a large part of her writing life and how often she longed to be part of “the uptown parties, the New York Review parties . . . And then I’d have to recover from that nonsense and forget about it – really forget about it. And I did – over and over again.” These last emphatic admissions are typical of Gornick, redolent of the frank self-examination and literary and professional toughness that run through all her work, her ongoing dedication to the only thing that matters: the writing life, the process of turning “neurotic necessity into literary virtue”.

For all these reasons, perhaps, we Gornick enthusiasts are a distinct, fierce tribe, each with our own favourite well-thumbed books and essays, proselytising to anyone who will listen about her brilliance. Recently, making contact with some other devotees through Twitter, I even discovered a couple of new books, recognising from the first page Gornick’s distinctive approach to her craft, her determination “to stay with a sentence until it has said what it should say”.

Raised in the Bronx by Jewish, communist, immigrant parents, Gornick began her writing life as a reporter on the Village Voice, where she worked from 1969 to 1977. Her early books, such as The Romance of American Communism (1977), chart the emotional dynamics of left-wing politics and she has more recently produced a biography of the great anarchist Emma Goldman.

But it was Fierce Attachments, a more personal work of non-fiction, first published in 1987 and now reissued by Daunt Books, that made her name. The personal essay was not then the ubiquitous form it is today but Gornick – even though she emerged from such a political background – was one of its early pathfinders, developing, in unique fashion, the less formal narrative voice pioneered by the “new journalism” of the Sixties and Seventies.

The book tells of her growing up in the Bronx, a childhood dominated by “Ma”, her frustrated and hypercritical mother, plunged by sudden widowhood into years of histrionic mourning. Scenes from her youth are interspersed with accounts of a now middle-aged Vivian, too often feeling “fat and lonely”, walking the streets of Manhattan with her mother. Gornick perfectly captures the brittle exchanges, mutual misunderstandings, disdain and occasional bouts of tenderness – “I feel pleasure when she says a true or a clever thing. I come close to loving her” – that flow between the two.

Gornick has often written about how the insights of feminism shot through her like a bolt of lightning, transforming her life in a single afternoon. In Fierce Attachments, she wanted to bring alive the visceral difficulties of cleaving herself from the values of femininity with which she was raised. From Ma and the women in the Bronx
tenement, she learns that sex is something to endure rather than to enjoy. The arrival of a beautiful young neighbour, Nettie, who is forced into a kind of defiant prosti­tution, introduces her to the power and danger of female sexual desire, including her own. Gornick takes these battles into her adult fierce attachments, including a troubled first marriage and a long, erotic, extramarital affair.

New York, with its eccentric characters and charming or explosive random exchanges, figures large in Gornick’s work and the city again forms the explicit backdrop to her latest book, The Odd Woman and the City, an artfully arranged series of portraits of urban life, friendship and our heroine.

If it feels like a more settled, surer-footed work than Fierce Attachments this is probably because Gornick, three decades on, is more reconciled to her “odd woman” status – a category that she borrows from George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women, a book much loved by her. She quotes her old friend Leonard, a gay writer: “Fifty years ago you entered a closet marked ‘marriage’. In the closet was a double set of clothes, so stiff they could stand up by themselves. A woman stepped into a dress called ‘wife’ and the man stepped into a suit called ‘husband’. And that was it . . . Today we don’t pass. We’re standing here naked. That’s all.’’

Love, work, friendship, community: she continually returns to our yearnings for these but our difficulty in achieving them on our own terms. In a brilliantly perceptive essay about the life and suicide of Clover Adams, an influential saloniste and Boston Brahmin in the late 19th century, Gornick delicately delineates the many ways in which work is a salvation, even for inwardly drifting depressives, and what it meant historically for women that they were for so long denied the right or ability to “do battle with the world . . . as a way of doing battle with themselves”.

But, for Gornick, the ability to work, even a dedication to it, is only ever a starting point. Like romance, like politics, it is not a form of abstract salvation but a grinding process of daily self-realisation, including the conquering of anxiety, the mastery of self-discipline, the search for internal freedom and meaning. Gornick is fearsomely honest about her wasted hours, days and years, the bad books as well as the good-enough books and the long, tortured process by which she learned to write well.

The Situation and the Story (2001), now considered a classic manual for the aspiring essayist or writer of memoir, explains how her experiments in writing taught her to achieve literary detachment in the service of the narrative.

All of this makes her an acute, highly readable critic. The Situation and the Story celebrates great examples of the genre, from Joan Didion on migraines to Edward Hoagland on turtles. Equally pleasurable is The Men in My Life (2008), her collection of often acerbic but always appreciative essays on some of the great male writers of the century, including Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Andre Dubus, James Baldwin and Richard Ford.

Her work pulses with memorable observations, brilliantly rendered conversations and original analysis. “Love as a metaphor [is] over,” she claimed in her seminal essay “The End of the Novel of Love”. The upheavals of the mid-20th century, from women’s liberation to the liberalisation of divorce and attitudes to sexuality, changed the internal dynamic and necessities of literature. The illicit passions that light up such great 19th-century works as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary are reduced in the modern world to the drear realities of extramarital affairs followed by second and third marriages. “Today there are no penalties to pay, no world of respectability to be excommunicated from.”

No one writes better about friendship, about the way that connection can blaze up and fall away, within the course of an evening or over decades. In a searing essay entitled “Tribute”, Gornick traces the course of her infatuated friendship with an older, celebrated feminist author, in whom she recognises some of her own failures: “I began to worship in her the incapacity I identified so strongly with.”

The beginning of the end of the friendship is signalled by a devastating argument over a meal at Gornick’s home, in which her friend abuses the men present for assuming conversational and worldly superiority. The scene is so vividly rendered that it is painful to read. “I can still taste in my mouth,” Gornick writes, “the sickening dry excitement I felt that evening . . .”

At the same time, she can grasp the larger point emerging from the unfolding human theatre: “That night I saw coming, as though for the first time, the death of sentimental affection between women and men. The familiar arrangement between us was at an end.”

Gornick has suggested recently that different generations cannot understand or appreciate each other – the contexts and culture shift so significantly. Essayists inevitably reflect and bear witness to the temper of their times; think Roxane Gay on the “bad feminist” or Lena Dunham on just about anything. Inevitably, then, Gornick appears as something of a semi-historical figure, a writer who bears witness to the battles and battle scars of a generation (or two) who helped dismantle western certainties about politics, love and family.

Yet she is so much more than that. Ma once complained, on one of their strained walks up Fifth Avenue, “The unhappiness is so alive today.” Gornick’s retort was: “That’s the first step, Ma . . . The unhappiness has to be made alive before anything can happen.”

Here, she nails the secret of her many-layered achievement: her ability to make vivid the difficulties of living fully and honestly but without a touch of coyness or evasion, uncompromising to the last, even about unhappiness. It is why her work will survive the time in which it was written. That she makes the reader feel so much more human in the process is just one mark of her genius.

This piece was first published in the New Statesman,issue of 8th December 2015.

Grammar school plan makes Kent a national battleground

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Sevenoaks in Kent, a quiet, affluent commuter town, is the most unlikely site for a teeming political drama. But as the county – and the country – waits for Nicky Morgan to make a final decision on whether to open the first “satellite” grammar school in 50 years, the profound political implications, either way, are beginning to sink in.

The original proposal, for a new co-educational annexe to the Weald of Kent girls’ grammar school in Tonbridge, a full 10 miles away, was rejected by Michael Gove in 2013 and a revised single-sex proposal submitted in November 2014. No one was surprised that the Conservative party fudged the issue in the runup to the general election. But nearly four months on, with no decision forthcoming, there is impatience on both sides, although Roger Gough, cabinet member for education at Kent county council, which is backing the plan, declares himself “hopeful”.

A government insider says: “The department knows it’s not watertight legally. They know it’s going to be subject to judicial review. My soundings suggest that they think they have, say, a 60% chance of winning. Essentially the decision is political.”

If the annexe is approved, it will open the floodgates to similar expansion plans from grammars from around the country. It will also mark a significant retreat from the Gove years, when there was a strong commitment to the principle of non-selective education and rejection of old-style Tory claims that grammar schools promote social mobility.

Gove’s departure, the regrouping of some backbench Tory MPs in defence of grammar education, and the fact that local MP Michael Fallon is in the cabinet, have shifted the balance of power within the party. It’s possible, says one policy expert, that a “few new grammars” are to be offered as a sop to rightwing backbenchers in the long-rumbling row over the European referendum. “Six months ago I’d have said that Gove settled the question of the grammars inside the Tory party and it wouldn’t come back. I was wrong”. However, if Morgan stays firm and rejects the proposal, it will “probably settle the question of the grammars for a generation. The government will make noises about legislation to allow new grammars but it will probably be like foxhunting. It will never happen.”

3555  Mary Boyle, above, head of Knole academy, Sevenoaks, says: ‘An annexe is an outbuilding or a shed on the school property. It’s not a spanking brand new building 10 miles away.’ Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Establishing a new selective school is prohibited under an act passed by Labour in 1998. The satellite proposal has to prove it “is a genuine continuance of the same school”. According to internal Department for Education guidance, this means it must answer such questions as whether will there be movement of pupils between – and staff employed on – both sites. “The more integrated, the more likely the changes can considered to be an expansion.”

However, David Wolfe QC, an expert in education law, believes that as Weald of Kent is an academy, the legal decision is not affected by the 1998 act.

Gough argues the proposed school is genuinely an annexe. “Weald of Kent already gets a lot of girls from Sevenoaks.” But for Mary Boyle, head of Knole academy, one of two all-ability schools in Sevenoaks, “an annexe is an outbuilding or a shed on the school property. It’s not a spanking brand new building 10 miles away”.

There are two main routes from the Weald to the proposed annexe: one along winding roads that go through the shopping centre of Sevenoaks, the other along the busy A21. According to Boyle, “it’s a 20-minute journey at best and more likely 40 minutes or more, given horrendous traffic. I don’t see how anyone could manage a school with that commuting challenge. It would involve considerable additional staff time – at a time of shrinking educational budgets.”

There are differing opinions in Kent as to who is the driving force behind the annexe. Some believe the plan was initiated and orchestrated by leading Tory councillors, but Gough is adamant it began with a parental petition. Certainly, in recent years the campaign has been publicly led by parents Andrew and Sarah Shilling.

Both the Shillings are beneficiaries of Kent’s grammar school system and the first in their families to go to university. Speaking at a debate at the Cambridge Unionin February, Andrew Shilling made the case for the return of selective schooling nationwide, describing the grammars as “a popular and acceptable part of Kent life”. Pointing to Kent’s relative success in the national league tables, in which the county performs above average, he argued that children are now rejected at 11 more kindly – by email, not letter – and that secondary moderns are much better resourced than in the past, with the local school boasting “gleaming new buildings that offer a hospitality suite and dance studio”.

But this is not a fair picture of the aims, achievements or ambitions of Sevenoaks’ two non-selective schools: Knole academy and Trinity free school, which, if the decision is a yes, will share a site with the new school. Boyle says: “We have striven to become an all-ability school and have established a grammar-school stream. In year 7, 8 and 9 we are truly all-ability. And we are co-ed. If the annexe goes ahead, we would lose all the more able girls.”

Boyle believes a new grammar school would also “lead to overcapacity in the area and falling rolls could affect whichever is the least popular school.”

Amanda Manuel is a founder member of Sevenoaks ACE, a group formed to develop a local educational plan that meets the needs of all parents in the area. In 2011, before the council backed plans for the new grammar, the group carried out a survey, getting replies from more than 900 families, representing more than 1,400 school-age children.

“While there was support for grammars, 57% of those polled would support a new non-selective school providing it taught in ability groupings,” says Manuel. “A significant majority also said that a co-educational school was needed.”  Manuel speaks highly of Knole academy, which she says “has won a lot of support locally and has gone from strength to strength.”

Rebecca Allen, of Education Datalab, an independent research team, says all the evidence indicates that “while grammar education clearly serves high-attaining children, it also raises very difficult questions”. She sees no point in comparing neighbouring authorities, comprehensive or selective, because, with so much cross-county traffic, the systems are porous. “Latest figures show that fewer than 80% of children in selective schools are in a Kent state primary; 7% came from another county, and that means probably 13% were in the independent sector,” she says. The tuition industry is another distorting element in the picture.

Allen disputes the well-worn claim that grammars benefit the bright, poor child, an argument confirmed by figures for those eligible for pupil premium in and around the Sevenoaks/Tonbridge area in 2014. Knole academy, for example, takes 21% of children eligible for the pupil premium; nearby grammar schools take 3%, 1% and 4% respectively.

According to Nick Kennard, of the Comprehensive Future campaign group, who lives in Sevenoaks: “People are not being alerted to the serious and negative consequences of a system that rejects the majority of children and segregates them into different schools. There is just so little information, a real lack of debate locally about the benefits of phasing out selection. The status quo is a powerful force and the national media have largely moved on from a debate that was had and won almost half a century ago, leaving the small number of areas in which selection remains largely forgotten.”

Plenty in Kent speak in private of their dislike of the social segregation, snobbery and depression of standards that such a divisive system engenders. But in practice, selection implicates just about everybody in the county: primary and secondary heads, children and parents. According to one mother: “It utterly dominates everything. From about year 3 or 4, the reality hits home. It permeates all conversations and the children’s relationships with each other. By the time you understand the system, it may be too late for your child.”

This piece was first published in the Guardian on September 8th 2015

Harry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith and Austerity Bites by Mary O’Hara – reviews

Big Society? More like Battered Society. Melissa Benn on two books that expose the ‘war on the weakest’ in Cameron’s Britain

36In a manner suggestive of Ken Loach’s magisterial 2013 film The Spirit of ’45, Smith sees the postwar era as Britain’s finest moment destroyed a half-century or more later by neo­liberal economics and unrestrained finance capital.

Right now, some inventive literary festival programmer is probably trying to set up a staged discussion between Harry Leslie Smith and Mary O’Hara. If not, they should – it would be fascinating. Smith, a mere 91 years of age, is boiling with anger at what he sees as the UK’s return to the indignities of his Great Depression childhood. O’Hara, an experienced reporter, brings a cool head to her story of the impact of the cuts over the last four years.

Yet for all the difference in age, experience and literary voice, these writers, both of whom began their lives in poverty, speak of remarkably similar things. And both books add to a mounting body of work on the growing economic divide in modern Britain: “an emergency”, according to Smith, “as dire as the economic crisis of 1933”.

Only a few pages in, I decided that the best way to read his unusually structured book was to approach it as a kind of epic poem, one that moves in circular fashion from passionate denunciation to intense autobiographical reflection. Smith’s early childhood – he grew up in Yorkshire in the 1930s – was one of almost Dickensian deprivation: his older sister Marion died aged 10 of tuberculosis in Barnsley’s old workhouse, and his unemployed miner father of alcoholism and loneliness. Wartime service in the RAF at least brought Smith regular meals and a reliable wage, and he met his German wife, Friede, in the ravages of postwar Berlin. The couple moved to Canada where moderate economic prosperity and ordinary family contentment rescued him from the bitterness of his early years.

In a manner suggestive of Ken Loach’s magisterial 2013 film The Spirit of ’45, Smith sees the postwar era, in particular the creation of the welfare state, as Britain’s finest moment, a compact between industry and labour, the middle and working classes, destroyed a half-century or more later by neoliberal economics and unrestrained finance capital. (Unlike Loach, he also puts a bit of the blame on what he sees as the over-mighty trade unionism of the 70s.) All hope of greater equality or genuine democracy is now being swept away, here and in the US, by greedy corporations, the heedless tax-evading rich and near-corrupt governments, who “act like acolytes from a cult who worship profits over common sense”. This has returned the UK to the landscape of his childhood, in which “food poverty, like a tidal flood, has begun to encroach upon both city and suburban dwellers”.

In one particularly depressing scene, he describes being picked up at the airport, on a return visit to Yorkshire, by a distant cousin who takes him on a tour of Halifax, where Smith spent his later childhood. As they drive the roads in drizzling rain, jet-lagged Smith is made gloomy by the dire economic plight of the town and his cousin’s Ukip-style rantings about immigrants.

Smith’s book may be more overtly political and emotional, but O’Hara’s lucid account of a year-long trip around austerity Britain left me reeling and somehow more ashamed. A reasonably well-informed citizen will have most of the jigsaw pieces to hand: the mean-spirited “bedroom tax”; the increased number of food banks; the dramatic reduction in local government budgets and public sector jobs; the punitive sanctions on job seekers in a labour market short even of insecure, poorly paid work; a battery of new tests for disabled people; and the erosion of legal aid.

O’Hara clarifies this jumble of privations in several significant ways. She never loses sight of human beings, too easily buried beneath the rubble of official acronyms and policy speak. There is a chapter devoted to the emotional fallout of austerity: the loss of identity, self-hatred, multiple suicide attempts and sheer hopelessness of those marooned without income or work – or any future prospect of either.

Petty applications of new benefit rules mean claimants risk losing already meagre sums for four weeks, 13 weeks or, “if it happens a third time”, for as long as three years. One job seeker tells O’Hara: “You’re five minutes late for your appointment, you show the adviser your watch, which is running late, but you still get sanctioned for a month.” Another says: “It’s Christmas Day and you don’t fill in your job search evidence form to show that you’ve looked for all the new jobs that are advertised on Christmas Day. You are sanctioned. Merry Christmas.” The devastation wreaked on the disabled, thousands of whom face up to six separate welfare cuts by 2015, has been, says the usually understated O’Hara, “jaw-dropping”.

By the end, she makes a convincing case that the coalition has in effect prosecuted a callous four-year “war on the weakest” in our society. You can’t help but share in her icy judgments of Cameron, Osborne, Gove and co, and particularly the hapless work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who didn’t even turn up for the parliamentary debate on the bedroom tax in November 2013. Tory high jinks during that same debate, with one MP pretending to nod off and another making jokes about the name of the tax, suggested too many MPs have become out of touch with common decency, let alone with vast parts of the country.

O’Hara also helpfully dissects the ways in which a Benefits Street-style political narrative has made welfare so much more publicly unpopular. Alarmist references to the size of the benefits bill fail to make clear that the figure also includes pensions and subsidies for the working poor; the extent of welfare fraud is vastly overstated; the much publicised, and apparently reasonable, “cap” of £26,000 punishes large families and saves relatively little money in overall terms; government press releases make continual use of emotive phrases such as “dependence”, “entrenched” and “addiction”.

Without robust enough challenge from either the compliant Liberal Democrats or the official opposition, the state has been slashed. Meanwhile, the official narrative has subtly shifted from deficit-cutting necessity and “We’re all in it together”, to a leaner, meaner state – oh, and let’s kick out the Romanian hordes.

What’s keeping people afloat are the remnants of the state and the real Big, but now Battered, Society: what’s left of voluntary and community action, and the numerous activist campaigns that have sprung up in recent years. Even so, such is the level of distrust and anger among large parts of the population, O’Hara warns, that a rerun of the 2011 riots is entirely possible.

Both books, but particularly O’Hara’s, should be required reading for every MP, peer, councillor, civil servant and commentator. The fury and sense of powerlessness that so many people feel at government policy beam out of every page.

Man-Made: Why So Few Women Are in Positions of Power by Eva Tutchell and John Edmonds – review

In the topsy-turvy world of British politics, with Labour seeking the centre ground and the Conservative party projecting itself as the party of the workers, Man-Made feels heaven sent. With an unerring lucidity, it lays out the multiple ways that inequality continues to frustrate the aspirations of half the population. Given that its female interviewees include the chief executives of the Association of Drainage Authorities and Yorkshire Water, the vice president of (environmental) Upstream BP and the chair of the Civil Aviation Authority, as well as a range of top lawyers, journalists, arts administrators and politicians including Harriet Harman, this book not only covers the centre ground but all that runs beneath, or flies above, it.

Tutchell and Edmond’s starting point is the gross imbalance of power in contemporary Britain, with women still heavily outnumbered at the top of public, corporate and political life. (The exceptions are primary school headships and chairs of magistrates.) The dismal figures on women’s representation are the direct consequence of three decades of stagnation since the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination acts, the implementation of which has been “patchy, uncertain and incomplete”.

The Conservatives place their faith in voluntary action, particularly in relation to the low number of women on company boards, and, while more women are elected to parliament and appointed to senior ministerial positions (particularly in the runup to general elections), we have achieved nothing like the near parity of the devolved parliaments of Scotland and Wales, which have also, incidentally, promoted strong female leaders.

Man-Made is a mix of tough empiricism, sound analysis and human storytelling. Through its extensive interviews (admission of interest here – I am quoted on a couple of occasions) the authors pick their way through the minefield of contemporary working life. How depressing to be reminded of the many pitfalls that still exist from the subtle and not-so-subtle pressures around dress (“avoid dowdiness, flamboyance and sexiness”) and behaviour (a strong woman is still considered a hard bitch; a more consensual female dismissed as weak) to the kind of shocking sexual discrimination that seems particularly rampant in Britain’s orchestras, of all places. It is interesting to learn that the informality of the new media companies masks some very old practices and prejudices.

Beware of wearing black and white, successful women are still advised, or you will at some point be asked to refill an empty glass or find a coat draped over your arm. Not so funny is the story of astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who made the momentous discovery of the first pulsar only to see her male supervisor win a Nobel prize, or the FT journalist who found her less experienced male replacement offered £10,000 a year more.

Secrecy about colleagues’ pay feeds one kind of discrimination but there is a fascinating section on what would emerge if we calculated pay differently. Factor in overtime, the pay of part-time workers and the salaries of high-earning men, and the currently “wide” gender pay gap becomes a chasm. With every child, a woman’s income reduces by 13% and the UK has among the lowest rates of maternity pay in Europe.

Is there a secret to success for women? Not really. There is often an encouraging father in the background but a supportive significant other is much more vital. For high-achieving women, the double shift is not the only challenge; some men just can’t hack a more successful partner. Virtually the sole common denominator among all those interviewed is a university degree (and often additional qualifications) but how important will this remain in an age of mass higher education?

Some interviewees call themselves feminists; a few quail at the term. A number have children but it is the second child, apparently, that proves the toughest hurdle. Most of those interviewed put their success down to luck. The authors disagree but do conclude that the “defining characteristic” of almost all they spoke to is “an extraordinary modesty”. Is it intolerably English of me to find this cheering?

The book includes several road-tested proposals for change. They include pay transparency, paid work breaks for both men and women (either to retrain or reproduce), tougher equal rights accountability within companies and the establishment of clear targets to achieve parity of men and women, whether in the House of Lords or on company boards. This last proposal draws on important lessons from Norway, which has, since 2008, required all boards to have 40% female representation. Man-Made is politically important, because it embodies, and makes vital use of, the hard slog on gender equality of many campaigners and researchers over decades.

It is obvious that our daughters and granddaughters simply cannot wait for equality to evolve naturally. It won’t. So, as the authors of this impressive book note towards the end, “We either fix the women or we fix the system.” Given that the women have shown themselves to be infinitely more creative, flexible, ingenious, reliable, productive and loyal than the system, there is really no contest.

Finding vindication: on the intertwined lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

Charlotte Gordon has managed to produce that rare thing, a work of genuinely popular history.

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Romantic Outlaws: the Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

Charlotte Gordon
Hutchinson, 649pp, £25

This ingeniously constructed double biography tells the story of a mother and a ­daughter, two writers, who did not know each other. Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, died of septicaemia ten days after giving birth to Mary Godwin, later best known as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Very different in character and interests – Wollstonecraft was more political, Shelley more scholarly – both women demanded a rare romantic and intellectual freedom that cost them dearly but pushed the boundaries of possibility for later generations.

Wollstonecraft was probably the greater pioneer of the two. Born the second of seven children to a drunken bully of a father and a passive mother, she felt keenly the absence of formal education for herself and her sisters, an injustice that inspired works such as Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and Vindication. A resourceful woman, she not only earned her own living from a young age but cared for her younger sisters for long periods of time.

Godwin had potentially more stable beginnings, as a daughter of Wollstonecraft’s grieving husband, the philosopher William Godwin, the author of Enquiry ­Concerning Political Justice. Thanks to her father, the young Mary received a better education than did many of her male peers. Yet her dead and already notorious mother haunted her. Throughout her life, she read and reread Wollstonecraft’s work and she and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley often met and talked at her mother’s grave in St Pancras. They may even, Gordon speculates, have first made love there. Gordon later suggests that Frankenstein is best interpreted as a story of the horrors that follow when a mother’s love is absent.

The profound perils of sex, romance and motherhood resonate throughout these pages. Wollstonecraft travelled alone to revolutionary Paris, at first enthralled and later horrified and threatened by Robespierre’s reign of terror. Here, she fell in love with a charismatic American adventurer, Gilbert Imlay, and became pregnant with her first daughter, Fanny. As a lone mother, she was a social outcast but went on to publish perhaps one of her greatest works, Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

Her daughter also suffered as both a lover and a mother. After she eloped with Shelley, aged 16, William Godwin mysteriously cut her off for many years, despite constantly appealing to Shelley for funds. The young couple lived in a kind of personal and artistic idyll in Italy for several years but the deaths of three of their four children precipitated spells of disabling depression in Mary and sparked Percy’s serial infatuations with other women. Mary’s stepsister Claire, who had a daughter with Byron, whose cruel treatment led to the child’s early death, wrote at the end of her life that the great Romantic experiment in free love had benefited only the men and crushed the women.

Both women’s stories are full of enriching paradox. Wollstonecraft, an ardent advocate of independence and freedom, was often a dependent and desperate lover but was able, eventually, to find happiness with Godwin, whom Gordon portrays as pernickety but passionate, brave but rather unkind. Mary Shelley was a highly gifted writer but, after her husband’s premature death by drowning a large part of her life was devoted to consolidating his literary reputation. Both women endured lengthy periods of depression, yet somehow always found a way to carry on writing.

Neither woman’s literary achievements were recognised during the 19th century, such was the whiff of personal scandal that still clung to their names. Wollstonecraft was not helped by Godwin’s decision, possibly for financial reasons, to rush out an ill-judged, partial and overly personal memoir of her soon after her death. And it was not until Muriel Spark’s critical biography of Mary Shelley, first published in 1951, claiming her as the founder of modern science fiction and a greater novelist than had been previously recognised, that interest in her writing revived. Second-wave feminist scholars finally rehabilitated the work and life of Wollstonecraft.

Charlotte Gordon has managed to produce that rare thing, a work of genuinely popular history. Her weaving together of the two lives – alternating short chronological slices, so that mother and daughter age together despite the decades that separate them – works beautifully.

More subtly, the book demonstrates the highly complex threads of political and personal inheritance at work in this poignant relationship. Mary Shelley was the daughter of two extraordinary people but she was also a remarkable and distinctive woman in her own right, inheriting her parents’ unusual drive and political values.

Her elder sister, Fanny – Wollstonecraft’s daughter by Imlay – tragically committed suicide at the age of 22. It is Mary Shelley’s bravery, emotional authenticity and commitment to her intellect, rather than any interest in status, social respectability or second-hand grandeur, that saved her again and again.

Primary politics: parenting advice from Toby Young and Michael Rosen

Two publications ostensibly designed to provide reassurance and wisdom to parents of primary-age children and perhaps to tap in to the ever-growing “pushy parenting” market.

What Every Parent Needs to Know: How to Help Your Child Get the Most Out of Primary School 
Toby Young and Miranda Thomas
Viking, 432pp, £14.99

Good Ideas: How to Be Your Child’s (and Your Own) Best Teacher 
Michael Rosen
John Murray, 368pp, £16.99

As an anxious new mother, I passionately bonded with Penelope Leach’s Baby and Child. With its pen-and-ink illustrations and Leach’s calming authorial voice, it guided me carefully through the terrifying and exhilarating early months. Now along come two publications, ostensibly designed to provide similar reassurance and wisdom to parents of primary-age children and perhaps – surely not? – to tap in to the ever-growing “pushy parenting” market. What is extraordinary is that such different writers (or their publishers) came up with such similar ideas, down to the very titles.

But there the similarities end. The book by Young and Thomas, which comes in at a hefty 400-plus pages, falls into two distinct parts: a detailed description of the new national primary curriculum, year on year, subject by subject, plus a list of supplementary activities for parents who want to boost their children’s learning. The calm, non-partisan tone of this volume (a stylistic departure for Toby Young) deftly obscures its political agenda. No mention here that two of the four expert members of the original panel set up to devise the new primary curriculum resigned in the summer of 2012, concerned about its prescriptive tone and lack of arts education or regard for oral development, among other things, as well as the government’s failure to consult on implementation.

In its place, Young and Thomas pour approval on all they set out to describe, parboil complex pedagogical debates down to simple statements of fact (“phonics is widely recognised as the most effective way of teaching young children to read”) and take easy sideswipes at previous primary curriculums, typically characterising these as demeaningly easy. One gets no sense here of how schools, or indeed parents, are to deal with those children who might struggle with – to cite just one example – the dense history curriculum in year five that covers, inter alia, “the Roman withdrawal from Britain, the fall of the Roman empire, the invasion of Scotland and the migration of Germanic tribes to England from the western coasts of Europe”. And although we know parents of all backgrounds are keen to support their children at school, a rather socially limited, and exhaustively busy, picture of family life emerges from this book, one that presumes “a well-stocked arts and crafts” cupboard and a child starting their own blog on some challenging aspect of the curriculum.

Michael Rosen is every bit as political as Young and Thomas but has written a far more spirited and absorbing book. Here, too, is the odd swipe at the educational enemy: Rosen deplores excessive testing and does not even deign to mention phonics. Instead, Good Ideas finds pedagogic inspiration in everyday things from coal holes to catchphrases, windowsills to shopfront lettering. It is punctuated with entertaining diversions and disquisitions on everything from the importance of civility to people who work the tills in supermarkets to what you can learn from country houses (Rosen the outspoken socialist has a counterintuitive fondness for these). Children, he believes, don’t absorb facts unless they can connect them to “real things” and are allowed to follow their own curiosity. He also makes a strong case for the importance of social and emotional relationships in learning, something that doesn’t make much of an appearance in Young and Thomas’s work.

Neither book can be finished easily in one go but they are not designed for easy reading; the sheer volume of information and variety of ideas for stimulation soon had me yearning nostalgically for the crashing boredom of my Sixties childhood. (“Something else that crops up on car journeys is the fossil fuel debate,” Rosen writes. Really? What about a longing just to stare through the window in silence?)
But, read together, these books subtly illustrate the struggle in education and politics between a notion of knowledge and creativity as things formally and sequentially constructed and one in which they are allowed to grow more organically, trusting children to follow their hunches and make their own connections from the get-go.

Surely, cries the super-anxious parent, we need to enable both? Of course we do. After all, Young, firmly in the blue cultural corner, has spoken of his admiration for the whacky flair possessed by the likes of Boris Johnson. (But he would say, as all those in the knowledge lobby do, that you need first to master the rules in order to flout them with brilliance, even if such brilliant flouting is granted to only a privileged few.) Meanwhile, Rosen – a supremely confident flouter – confesses to a weakness for testing his children’s general knowledge and gets quite irate when one of his children is sent home with an inadequate worksheet on Perseus and the Gorgon. “Why give the child only ‘part of’ the Greek myth . . . If it’s a story worth giving to children, then give it all the power it’s got . . .” It is a rare glimpse of an overlap between two seemingly distinct world-views and yet another sign of how entrenched the school wars continue to be after the departure of Mr Gove.

Women on the verge: Melissa Benn on Beatrix Campbell and Laurie Penny

Prepare to be depressed. We are living through the “end of equality”, the once-celebrated advances of feminism going into dangerous reverse.

End of Equality
Beatrix Campbell
Seagull Books, 134pp, £6.50

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution
Laurie Penny
Bloomsbury, 288pp, £12.99

Beatrix Campbell, journalist and activist, working-class radical and feminist, now in her later sixties, is in many ways the quintessential British writer. She has brilliantly reimagined Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, turned a tough and tender eye on Tory women, dissected Britain’s dangerous places and Diana, Princess of Wales, and, more recently, investigated the Northern Ireland peace settlement through the eyes of women and “the coalition of the committed”.

That she is not defined, let alone deified, as the quintessential British writer may be, at least in part, due to her being a working-class radical, feminist and activist – and now in her later sixties. . . Radical men (unless they are patently ridiculous) mature; their reputations settle and expand. Uncompromising feminists are too often faded – note the passive verb – into the background.

There’s a definite sense of kickback in End of Equality, her latest book. At 92 pages with nearly half as many again in footnotes, this slim volume packs a concentrated punch. It turns out that a potentially boundless mass of information from around the globe works best in pocket-size form, particularly when allied to a clear message.

Prepare to be depressed. We are living through the “end of equality”, the once-celebrated advances of feminism going into dangerous reverse. In the UK the pay gap now seems permanent, the multiple blows of austerity have hit women far harder than men, and men’s involvement in engaged fatherhood, though greater than it was, has not brought about the domestic democracy once dreamt of by second-wave feminism. Over the past four decades, men’s core domestic work has “increased by a rate of about one minute per day per year . . . a pace of change both palpable and pitiful”.

In the UK, decades of legal and campaigning work on equal pay for work of equal value, one of the most imaginative political strategies of class-imbued feminism, has led to some historic successes in Birmingham, Cumbria and Scotland, but cash-strapped local councils are unable or unwilling to pay up. Central government is not going to underwrite local councils as it did the banks, and certainly not in order to pay thousands of dinner ladies, carers and nursery nurses backdated settlements worth billions.
If this book’s theme can be captured in a single word, then that word is impunity: “exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action”. It’s a powerful trope, but a little puzzling. Campbell is clearly pointing the finger at the evil genies of neoliberalism – the bankers, global corporate power in general and the politicians whose collective complicity and weakness have ushered in so many horrors – but does she really want to imply that all men have benefited from the uneasy post-feminist sexual settlement, in which equality has gone into reverse? Either way, by the end, impunity is consciously invoked like a mantra, its meaning amplified to signify a “crisis of politics [that] incubates pessimism about the means of making a difference and . . . reinstates the sovereignty of sexism”.

The best bits of the book (for me) are the least familiar and come in a central section made up of riveting accounts of women’s lives, and their acts of resistance, from South Korea and Mexico to India and China. Campbell invokes the creepy world of the Taiwanese-owned Foxconn, the single largest manufacturer of components, whose factory estates in China are “eerily empty of children . . . a monument to masculinist economics that promises everything except liveable social space”. But she also summons up the heroic female train attendants and shipyard workers of South Korea, who have scrambled to the tops of towers and cranes, from there to wage months’-long protests at lay-offs and the absence of the women workers’ collective voice, and who, amazingly, have won their battles.

In a final tumble through associative space on the multiple links between the female body and contemporary capitalism, Campbell takes us from The Wire’s terrifying beauty Omar and Tracey Emin’s celeb­rated Bed, through a brief history of the veil in France, to Katie Price, whose reputation as that “rare phenomenon, a woman at ease with herself”, was, it turns out, all propaganda. She never really loved her body: she couldn’t stop altering it. And anyway, “Class will out – Price couldn’t pass.”

For Laurie Penny, too, the female body is the conundrum modernity has not solved, but only made more problematic. Today’s women “grow up learning that . . . however brave and smart and accomplished we are, however many millions we earn or lives we save, none of it matters if we are not beautiful”. Actually, I would quarrel with that assertion. What I wouldn’t quarrel with is her argument that beautiful women are at constant risk of denigration, that all women fear being called ugly and that women in public life, especially feminists, are at particular risk of being labelled ugly.

Penny is one of the first feminist writers to grow up within, and so instinctively understand, both the possibilities and the dangers of this relatively new cyber world, where such women are too easily the targets of vicious abuse. Just as worrying are the new modes of “patriarchal surveillance”, in which “one slip can disgrace you for ever”, be it a naked shot, a compromising email exchange or any number of “furtive late-night search histories”.

No wonder Penny writes as if she is on the run. At 27 she is a forceful presence not just online but within feminism and in the mainstream media. (My daughters read her and Owen Jones.) At the same time, she announces herself a proud member of a society of “broken kids” fleeing mainstream culture and its expectations.

Openly avowed contradictions abound in this mix of pounding polemic and autobiographical sketches of Penny’s life so far, including her harrowing descriptions of being hospitalised for anorexia and the humiliations of romantic and sexual rejection, as well as funnier, if equally frank, accounts of how she got thrown out of a ballet class for teaching the other little girls how to masturbate and why her alleged lack of “emotional boundaries” and predilection for large grey knickers have precluded the possibility of ever selling her body for sex. Declaring herself “always more interested in fucking than being fuckable” she is forever searching for love – just not the kind to be found in “marriage, monogamy and a mortgage”. And, indeed, many a middle-aged divorcee would consider that a highly useful realisation to have banked so early on in life.

Unspeakable Things may be soaked in feminism’s rational and radical plaints, from the emptiness of most waged work to the continuing official compliance in “rape culture”, but Penny’s pessimism surely belongs as much to her generation as to her gender: to the legions of idealistic and vulnerable young people, graduating into unemployment, homelessness and new forms of official oppression.
For young men, many of the old forms of masculine privilege, be it a job in the City or an apprenticeship, have been swept away, and to have a baby early is considered more than ever a poor girl’s choice. Young people are saturated with images of sex but have as little credible knowledge of it as previous generations, while “what really gets social conservatives angry . . . happens not in swanky fetish clubs, but behind the closed doors of abortion clinics”.

Unlike most fourth-wave feminists, Penny displays a militant, if slightly uneasy agnosticism about pornography. She rejects the term “prostitution”, preferring to talk of “sex work”, a descriptor that permits agency and rejects the status of victimhood. “Instead of asking what it is about sex that is so bad for women, we can start asking what it is about work that is so bad for everyone,” she writes. This just doesn’t cut it for Campbell, who counters Penny’s stance on sex work directly, asking: “What can ‘choice’ and ‘rights’ mean, therefore, to a girl snared by men who want to control her body?” At the risk of sounding like a referee (or a mother), I would argue that surely no single term can encompass the experiences of both a trafficked teenager and Stoya, the confident feminist porn star whom Penny quotes at length.

For all their differences, these two writers share an aggressive lack of optimism. You will find here no cheerful reckoning of the tremendous gains made by women in education, politics or culture, nor, funnily enough, much recognition of the ways in which feminist activists and writers have changed, charged or recharged the culture. Setting Penny and Campbell next to a work such as Alison Wolf’s The XX Factor (2013), which takes a triumphalist view of the growing global female professional elite, shows how a clear divide has opened up in 21st-century feminist discourse. Everything’s getting better: everything’s getting worse. Take your pick.

Emotionally, I’m with the Pennys and the Campbells, spirited outsiders who refuse to be bought off with empty dreams of female empowerment. Forty years apart in age, they embody the fantasy of the writer as heroine/rebel, moving from place to place with suitcase and laptop, truthful about the pain that exile from the establishment causes the true nonconformist. Both books aroused conflicting emotions in me – one part thrilling to, and grateful for, their uncompromising boldness, another part resisting the urge to duck, and so evade the sometimes discomfiting velocity of their prose.