The Endless Cost of Love

“Death doesn’t end relationships, it changes them”

Megan Devine

Love, grief and the endless cost of love.

Although I am not an expert in grief, I know how life looked before and after it . Drawing on Megan Devine’s remarkable book It’s OK that you’re Not Ok: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand, these are my own reflections five years after losing my Grandfather (Dad/Aba’Jee).

A year of writing passionately and personally, 2020 has been truly unprecedented. I still find myself coming to terms with the privilege of platforms. Today I wanted to write from the heart about something, and more specifically someone close to my heart. It has taken five years to find the strength to write this piece. After spending a lifetime of trying to articulate emotions into words, grief continued to give me writers block. Sometimes words can’t do our feelings any justice, sometimes they can for others. I just hope it finds a fellow griever.

November 15th is a day that I will never forget. As a child, I loved the month of November as winter dawned upon us, as did Christmas. November 2015 changed my entire outlook. There was me, starting my PGCE placement in rural Northamptonshire. I rocked by usual check shirt, knitted-tie and Dr Marten combination. It was time to shine. Preparation, planning and the route to work all mapped out. On Friday November 13th, I received a phone call that I still recall word-for-word. Trembling with fear, I got straight into the car and hastily arrived at the family home which itself felt eerily different. My Grandad had been taken to hospital that morning and the regrets began to flood in. We always shook hands before bed, the night before I had forgotten. So much was said and unsaid. Little did I know that by Sunday he would be taking his last breath in front of me. All of a sudden the world appeared to be a colder place. No one could conceptualise how I felt, many I still consider as close still don’t understand how I feel the rawness of my loss five years on. The trauma of watching someone you love die never disappears. November was never the same again. I was never the same again. It is on anniversaries in particular that social and emotional norms just melt into thin air. Grief is so isolating, lonely and we are often left wondering “am I the only one feeling this way?” Although five years have passed, I still miss you like it was yesterday.

Before losing Dad I had attended dozens of funerals. In the Muslim community, we tend to have a prayer at the Mosque before the person who has passed away is laid to rest. This is often a final opportunity for others to console the family, see the face of the deceased and gather in unity. These moments evoke such powerful and raw emotions but prior to Dad passing away, I would shut them down. I could, and in hindsight I will say it was arrogance and immaturity. I still recall a distant relative dying and I was unmoved. This was an uncertainty, a world that contradicted my happy-go-lucky nature. It went against the normalities and checklists we set ourselves. Any outward expression of emotion that did not neatly fit into society’s expectation, it tends to be negated. You see, hurt changes people. Grief pushes us into a corner but we don’t decide when we can leave that corner.

There remains a paradox. We are either deemed “brave” if we talk about those who have left us or “negative” for holding conversation about our losses. In order for us to appreciate the finer things in life, acknowledging the existence of what causes us pain is a key part of this process. It isn’t bravery, it is basic human emotion – the type that remains misunderstood and badly misjudged. One of the kindest compliments I received is “Shuaib, you express your feeling so well.” I don’t. With grief, just like the rest of us, I am milling around in the dark, I still need guidance and I am lost without Dad. Grief is a bit like a left over meal. It is there, we were able to arbitrarily dip in and out of it but even if we throw it away, that does not deny its existence. I tried so hard to put my grief into some type of petri dish, scientifically and rationally dissect this emotion I had once never come to terms with. Even selecting the words, images and title for this piece was so exhausting. Deciding exactly when to publish it too was beyond difficult. How can I do grief any justice in just one blog?

At various points in my journey, I was told to research the Stages of Grief model which did not comply with how I was feeling. Kind of like a one-size-fits-all lesson plan, it did not differentiate and cater for my needs. In her later years, the founder of this Stages of Grief model, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross regretted ever writing the stages and did not want it to be the universal veneer from which loss is conceptualised. Grief cannot be pigeon-holed, it isn’t predictable and no two people grieve in the same way. When we homogenise the personal lived experiences of others, we oversimplify and thus misunderstand individual stories. Grief is, as Megan Devine tells us, incredibly misunderstood. The emotional illiteracy surrounding loss is pushing those who are grieving further away, trapping them into corners and creating an emotional distance at a time where they need to know someone is there beside them.

Why do you call him ‘Dad’?

In the South-Asian community and I’ll be careful not to stereotype, as a rule of thumb, the extended nuclear family is the norm. Grandparents hold a special and significant place in the family home. Growing up, everyone from aunties to uncles called my Grandad ‘Dad’. So, as his grandson, it fitted, it matched his position and given his place in my heart, being someone’s ‘Dad’ means something. He meant something. So, when I often refer to my Grandad, I, for my own personal reasons, call him ‘Dad’. He never liked the name/tag ‘Grandad’ anyway!

I don’t think words can do him justice. He was well built man with such strength. As children, we would sit in awe of him doing DIY and bragged that someday we would muscles the same size as his. Dad was simple, shy, humble and kind. He didn’t have the opportunity to go to school, he lost his father when he was just 10 or 12. After years of working in markets in our native Kashmir, he moved to Britain to build a better life from himself and his family back home. To this day I don’t for one second believe he ever wanted to settle here but it happened. A fiercely friendly and jovial man, he gave my siblings and I the most wonderful childhood. He used his pension to pay for my first car. Dad used to shop for our neighbours, check up on vulnerable members of our community and, always had a new joke to match his beautiful smile. We knew him as ‘Dad’ but everyone else called him ‘Hajji’. This is the highest rank in the community. His simplicity was his sophistication. His kindness was his USP. The slow-walking, Punjabi-talking, Dad loved his sweet dishes. If there was cake, Dad was there! Clutching onto his Afghan scarf, he owned few positions but wore his heart on his sleeve. If he spoke, you listened. He said it like it is, never sugar-coated the facts and the outpouring of emotion when he died was so moving. was Above all else, he loved his family.

He was the first to hold me as a newborn baby. Grandma said, “he delayed his retirement because he found a new love – his grandsons.” Of course, the magnitude of all his sacrifices I was unaware of until he left us. I never got the chance to say, thank you. There was no fairy-tale ending but I take some peace in the fact he was around his family as his time drew near. Ultimately he preached the notion of having a ‘small circle but a big heart’. This is now my motto. Dad also once said, ”we are all one misfortune from losing everything we have. If you can’t help, don’t ridicule others.”

Between us, I know 15/11/15 is not our last meeting. So much has changed but my love for you hasn’t died, it grew stronger with distance which is one of the saddest contradictions of loss. The unbreakable bond we shared has left me with unconditional grief. We will see each other again, Insha’Allah. I love you. May the Almighty grant you the highest place in Jannath ul’Firdous. Ameen.

Candles remind me of Dad. Their light, their scent, their warmth… gives me hope that you’re still here with me. 🕯

Five years, six lessons.

Five years is a long time but also nothing compared to the lifetime of joy, happiness, love and challenges I saw with Dad. I have six non-exhaustive points of reflection. Don’t get me wrong, grief is crippling. It punctures your heart and hold no prisoners. Managing that grief is what is key for us grievers. For me, no one comes out the other end of their grief journey the same but how can they? And also, why should they? It’s ok to miss someone who gave you so much to remember. It’s ok that’s it’s not ok.

Grief illiteracy is real.

We don’t live in a grief-literate culture. It is that simple. Grief is made to feel like a burden, something we should feel guilty for expressing. Grief is threatening. Even when we are meant to be ‘throwing kindness around like it’s confetti’, society is not sensitive to loss. Grief is a universal emotion, it is not spoken about universally. I do not believe this is specific to Britain but loss that remains a taboo, a conversation that is rarely aired and those who dare to openly share their experiences are often shouted down, dismissed or labelled as “negative.” This is because, not only do people not understand the gravity of your loss, but they are also never taught how to either. Grief is not something that is taught in schools, but rather it is a lesson that is learnt through the most heart-breaking experience. I recall group counselling sessions where I would try my best to revel and understand the grief of others but I could not. I could not see the “bigger picture” because I was consumed with my own emotions. Again, we don’t live in a grief literate culture because in a time of instantaneous communications, the veneer of “keep calm and carry on” remains as prevalent as ever. Grief is threatening. It challenges the rather banal expectations that we have a “stiff upper lip.” Even during my most basic interactions, grief would be written all over my face but very few people could read these tacit codes. Those who could, they understood and a mutual understanding of our losses connected us in such a significant way. To those who are grieving, we don’t know much different. These are such personal emotions that only a handful of people can approach in a sensitive manner. Not everyone will understand your grief and that is ok too. However, those who do remind is it’s safe to talk about someone who is gone, these people do exist, they are incredible and they have felt pain just like you.

Not everyone deserves to hear about your grief

When Dad died, I had to tell everyone. I would slip it into every conversation. The whole world needed to know his name. I would tear up easily and share personal information about Dad to anyone who spared an ear. I wore the pieces of my shattered heart on my sleeve. Revealing a broken heart does not mean your audience can piece it back together. No tannoy announcement was going to bring Dad back but I didn’t care! The world was my campsite, I wanted everyone to sit around the fire and listen to me tell them how much I missed my Dad. I knew the world could not feel my hurt which pushed me further away from others. I was desperate find someone who felt the same way. Someone else who had lost someone they loved more than themselves. I would search far and wide for every opening to drop in, “My Dad passed away.” This was often met with side-ways looks and silence. You see, not everyone has the emotional competence to understand your grief and that is ok too. When we lose someone we love, we are looking for an open heart and a kind ear to listen rather than clichèd Pinterest quotes to be read aloud to us or pinged to us via WhatsApp. I was abhorred when a fellow PGCE student told me she had gone out partying the day after her Dad had died. “How could she?” continued to play on my mind. That is how she dealt with her own grief. We are all different and all of us feel things differently but not everyone can just ‘get’ grief. It is a personalised lived experience. You cannot get anyone to feel your grief with you because just like our victories and our loses, there are our own. With grief, everyone cares and then no one cares. You go from being surrounded by fellow mourners to being alone. These days I rarely ever share personal memories or stories about Dad because I am still trying to make sense of his life and legacy. This was always my own loss and only until I realised that I must begin a new chapter without someone who I could never image even beginning a new book with – that is when it dawned upon me. My Dad was a special, kind and loving soul. No words could do his memory justice and that’s ok too so long as lives on in the hearts of those he inspired. Not everyone deserves to hear about your grief as the right ones, they will listen carefully and support unconditionally. These people do exist, trust me. It’s finding them, that’s the hard part.

It comes in waves

Grief does come in waves. Some days we are swimming merrily against the tide and on others, we are drowning. As loss is so personal, we never truly know how others feel, their anxieties, fears, insecurities and challenges. I still remember having a fantastic day at work where I had taught well and left with a huge smile of satisfaction on my face. On the drive home it would hit me that I could not share my successes with Dad. Other days I would visit the local Mosque and purely at random, I would glance back and I would feel his presence. I feel it when I pray and thus praying attains more emotional significance. The waves of grief can come in all forms and sizes. Some days we are surfing brilliantly, other days we are a shipwreck. I found it impossible not to look at photos, find new cues and spot something different each time I saw something with Dad in it. I asked neighbours, friends and everyone if they had any photos or family videos, I just wanted to see my Dad. I wanted to know what others thought of him to help validate my own views and place myself in his shoes. I was obsessed. Then there would come days I would just process losing him in my own quiet way. When Dad died, I was shipwrecked, I was drowning in a combination of heartbreak, regret, guilt, sadness and shock. Five years on, I still feel those emotions but his memory and all that floats around me, be they photos, letters, memoirs or stories, they float around me, giving me hope that this is just another wave. Although I hang onto a piece of that wreckage from that shipwreck, keeping my head above the water every time is a reminder to me that there is so much more living to do and so much still to honour.

The quotes and clichés

  • “I can’t image how you must be feeling.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “They are in a better place now.”
  • “It gets easier with time.”

All four of these messages were sent to me hours after Dad passed away. My eyes were blurry, my heart was heavy and my memory was hazy. Till this day I still failed to understand what those four messages meant. These were awfully reductive things to say to someone who had watched someone they loved pass away. I felt helpless as Dad died in my arms and as the family read prayers. I was in a state of shock. The most powerful person I ever knew was dying and there was not a thing I could do to stop it. When people began to send me quotes too, I got frustrated as they all had some tangible form of progress in them. I didn’t feel like I was making progress, the clichés weren’t working. These quotes were white noise and escapism for others to not fully understand the enormity of my loss. They were a neutral position. All I could think was “How can anyone be neutral? Why won’t you listen?” Again, not everyone can understand your grief which is ok, they aren’t expected too. Until you have felt the full gravity of a loss, you can never understand what grief is, let alone how to console a griever. You will find your own way and naturally gravitate towards those who understand. In Islam, we do firmly believe that this life is a test and that we shall all someday return to our creator. I continue to draw strength in my faith and with the current pandemic, I wonder if Dad, who was the most sociable person ever, could have coped with lockdowns or the incompetence of the government. Hindsight is a beautiful thing and I was thinking selfishly. I wanted more time with him but I had 23 years living under his loving guidance. Some people don’t ever have someone who loves them as unconditionally as Dad loved me. My grief still exists but we must remember that love is not measured by time, it is measured in moments. Those tangible accomplishments we all look for may not exist but spending time to mend your heart and gain peace of mind rarely attracts outward expressions. Again, that is ok. Keep healing, loving and mending.

Loss helps us connect

This sounds like an oxymoron, right? Grief connects broken hearts. When Dad died, part of me also left this world. Our connection was always powerful, moving and strong. Along the way I found that people could not comprehend the complexity of how I felt. Many joined my journey and then left but that is ok too. Losing Dad broke my exterior walls of resistant which cemented together by a combination of toxic masculinity and inexperience. This grief journey enables me to spot a fellow griever from a mile off which is unique gift. We carry the weight of our experiences everywhere we go. In essence, everyone has emotional baggage. It is just the case that some carry it better than others, whereas some struggle with their load. We all have baggage. The early weeks after Dad died, the messages from friends and colleagues stopped. There was an eerie feeling that I had somehow “snapped out of” my grief and everything could go back to normal. These friends and colleagues never once asked how I felt after the initial few days. For them, my episode of grief had ended but for me, the journey only just began. I’ve met people who I have really liked but when we talk about families, the awkward silence begins when I refer to Dad. Our stories are very powerful, they can move mountains. Making connections is not about suppressing who we are but rather embracing ourselves, our feelings and yes, our grief. Grief sits with us at the table and that is ok too. Loss does help us connect and reconnect with ourselves and others. We find commonalities with others through our loss, strike up conversations with fellow grievers and this helps us on our own journey. I remember reading Rio Ferdinand’s Thinking Out Loud: Love, Grief and Being Mum & Dad. Rio was an absolute monster on the football pitch. Fearless, brave, resilient, I could go on. Rio lost his wife, Rebecca, to cancer and struggled badly. Just reading his own account of grief, I could resonate, understand and empathise. Losing someone creates such a terrible pain and huge hole in our lives but also changes our outlook on life. I found myself connecting with others, with myself and my beliefs, all of which are very much a work in progress. With all the dark days where we struggle to get out of bed, and I can assure you there are many of them, loss softens the heart. I find it impossible to understand why Dad was so kind to those who openly disrespected him but I now I know. He once said, “the dogs pass on by but there will always be places for the humans, always.” The tragic beauty of losing someone we love is we only appreciate their existence when they are no longer with us. It’s what we do when they are gone and the connections we make in their honour, those last an eternity.

Self-care is everything

As Megan Devine reminds us, grief is not merely emotional or psychological, it is also biological and physiological also. Weeks and months after Dad died, I found myself unable to sleep or eat. Grief attacks your immune system, appetite and the feeling of loss is tiring, exhausting even. Our personal and professional relationships suffer. Although I could no longer see Dad, hear his voice or speak to him, the true connection with those we love never dies. Our loved one may have passed away but we are still here. A griever tends to punish themselves and live in a world of self-denial, regret, heartbreak or a combination of all of these. I wouldn’t laugh too loud or smile too hard because I thought Dad wasn’t there to laugh or smile, so why should I? It is so consuming because when we deny ourselves the subtle joys of life, we lose so much. Dad would always smile and laugh, always. Simply dropping these traits like a bad habit did not honour him in any way. Such is grief and the juxtaposition of emotions it brings. It is unfair. It is shit. Life can feel as though it is stuck in reverse, that everyone else has “moved on” but you are still struggling. Self-care cannot be corporate packaged or purchased off a shelf. It is not something you can gaze at through a shop window. Self-care is personal, it requires reflection and individualised attention for our basic physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual needs. When you are grieving, recovery and self-care is not about just moving on or part-taking in middle-class pastimes like Yoga. Everyone heals in their own time, we must always remember that. Recovery and self-care are thus so important. Recovery is about learning to accept and understand exactly what grief is. In our often emotionless transactional society, we are taught a “stiff upper lip” or to “keep calm and carry on” is the veneer required to address our problems. When you someone close dies, we forget to eat, shower, take care of our basic needs and I often found myself so emotionally exhausted. We neglect our basic needs, often creating a hierarchy of these needs. What we really want is to ask more questions, learn more about the ones who have died and just more time with them. Grief can do this and self-care is so important in helping us find proactive steps to heal. Whatever works for you, I pray you find it. Self-care is so important and the ones we have lost would never want to see us suffer. Please look after yourself.

Supporting ourselves and our fellow grievers is a sustained and often lifelong process. Give yourself and others time and space.

In Summary

Megan Devine reminds us that we cannot fix grief but we can listen right here, right now. No matter who the author is, everyone has their own story to tell about loss but words have finite stages, grief doesn’t. Our grief never fully heals as when a heart is broken, it’s pieces cannot be placed back together in the original form. Instead, those pieces settle in new places and that is ok too. I just hope society begins to see grief as any other wound that needs tending to. No one chose to be a griever, loss chooses us, often at the most unexpected times.

My sincerest apologies that I have not provided any practical steps forwards but we are all making these painful strides to heal. When I hear of people losing loved ones or watching funerals via Zoom, it’s heart-breaking. I can’t give you answers amidst your pain, what I can offer if a smile amidst the rain. With this pandemic also, my heart goes out to anyone who has lost someone they love. Although I can’t provide you the answers to your grief, I can signpost you to help and lend an ear. Ultimately, when I get flashbacks of that cold November day, that’s all I ever wanted too. Someone to listen, to be patient, to remind me it was ok to remember my Dad. Please don’t ever feel as though you are alone or a burden. The life of those we lose deserves to be celebrated, cherished and treasured. Never forget that and never forget them. The world may never understand the gravity of your loss but that is on them. You should never underestimate the love you shared with those who are now gone. That will never die as Rumi reminds us, “Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation.”

Sometimes I feel like I am full of contradictions about grief but that’s it, grief is a contradictory emotion. As my favourite Rapper, Loyle Carner asks in his wonderful poem BFG, “must we love so much?” Grief is the true and endless cost of love, Loyle. Grief is the true and endless cost of love. I would just like to finish off with a poem I wrote for Dad. I hope you can find peace within these words too. Next Sunday will be tough.

Grief has infinite stages.

Thank you for reading.

Shuaib Khan

Twitter: @shuaibkhan26

For additional support, the following links and sites offer some great advice and practical steps forward.

Megan Devine’s – – Her work cannot be understated. Honestly, Devine is a superb grief advocate.

Thinking Out Loud: Love, Grief & Being Mum and Dad – By Rio Ferdinand. Such an important book and looks at how Rio reframed his grief through the process of opening up. A real 10/10.

The Good Grief Trust – they bring all grief and bereavement charities together –

BFG by Loyle Carner –

In The Line of Fire

How the announcement to go ahead with GCSE and A-level exams may impact on our disadvantaged students? A critical analysis.

“Education cannot compensate for society”

– Basil Bernstein

Last night I wrote about the British obsession with examinations but inadvertently unearthed something deeper in my reflections. This has been a truly remarkable year and not just in the world of education. 2020 will go down as the year where we had the most sustained dialogue about the attainment of disadvantaged children. However, the rhetoric could hardly be any further from the reality in providing equality of opportunity for our young people.

Yesterday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson gave the green light for the 2021 GCSE and A-level examinations to go ahead. After six months of remote learning, schools up and down the country are hastily trying to ensure pupils can plug gaps in knowledge. These gaps were inevitable but as is the case in education, there is no place to hide and no respite for teachers. As policy makers try to balance the economy and public health, teachers are on the back foot but our are most vulnerable and disadvantaged don’t have a foot to stand on at all.

It is estimated that by 2022, 5.5 million children will grow up in poverty. Are exams the best way to equalise this disadvantage? Are they even the most effective measure of a child’s progress? Imagine: JRF

Before I began to write this blog, a close friend said to me, “Shuaib, not another article about disadvantaged children.” He was referring to my piece called Enemy of the State in May. But it does feel like, apart from Marcus Rashford and teachers, disadvantaged children have been left stranded. Whilst our national treasure, Marcus campaigns to feed the neediest, we fight to give them a seat at the table.

The strain placed on teachers with Williamson’s announcement yesterday cannot go understated. Alongside the rising number of COVID cases in educational settings, the true practicalities of compensating for six months of remote learning by pushing exams three weeks further is beyond outrageous. Yet, as true professionals, teachers will plough on and put in the graft until the inevitable U-turn. Until then, teachers and disadvantaged children remain in the line of fire.

Yesterday the DfE have openly stated that, “students will have extra time to prepare for exams next summer.” Gavin Williamson later Tweeted, “Exams are the fairest way of judging performance. We’re giving students and teachers the certainty that exams will go ahead in 2010 with more time to prepare plus support from the COVID Catch Up Fund.” The ideological fascination with high-stakes testing and assessment retains it stranglehold on teaching and learning here in Britain. However, it must also be said that after the exam shambles this past summer, perhaps allowing our students to just sit exams really is the fairest way to allocate grades, as clearly the algorithms worked a treat! My concern with yesterdays announcement really is about equity and equality of opportunity. These three concerns are not exhaustive but an opportunity for us to critically reflect.

Misunderstanding and depolitcisation of disadvantaged children

Inequalities in society are a political as well as a social issue. This idea that education is the sole force for equalising inequalities and that meritocracy is ubiquitous must be questioned and analysed. Britain is a grossly unequal society and report after report illustrate the chasm between the wealthy and deprived. 2020 is the year where we begin to openly discuss about the role of schools and teachers in helping equalise the disadvantages for our most deprived children. Context is key. Do we ignore the brutal cuts to education funding and a decade of austerity where annually £12 billion has been taken from our public sector and frontline services to support the most disadvantaged and vulnerable? Gavin Williamson has said that exams are the fairest way to assess progress but does this empty rhetoric have practical groundings? The 10,000 laptops that were promised to our disadvantages learners are still missing and apart from the British tradition of throwing money at the problem, what has been done at the grassroots level to challenge inequalities? This idea that disadvantaged children exist in some sort of political vacuum is nebulous, misleading and depoliticising education at a time where the state has its ideological stranglehold over most aspects of state education. Disadvantaged children do not walk into school at the tender age of 4/5 and a decade later cleanse themselves of all inequalities and experiences that have shaped their life chances. Inequality just like education is political. The ability to heat and freeze discussions and use certain groups to thrust ideological stances is a pillar of privilege and platform. If there was any real effort to make education a real equalising force for society, then socio-economic disparity would be contested. With the Social Mobility Commission estimating that 5.2 million children will be living in poverty by 2022, Britain’s deliberate and ideological understanding of disadvantaged children will only continue.

Double disadvantage

We know that on average, children who are entitled to Free Schools Meals (FSM) underachieve compared to their more affluent peers. Even as former Education Secretary Michael Gove once rather crassly put it, “rich, thick kids’ achieve much more than poor clever ones.” This layer of disadvantage is historical and through decades of misplaced policymaking, it remains somewhat expected or a comfortable fact in British education. Richard Tawney even referred to social class as the ‘hereditary curse’ of the English education system and this was in 1931. Sociologists Jackson and Marsden wrote about the class-specific role of education to police and pacify the disadvantaged and educate and liberate the most affluent. Despite our education having connotations of social mobility, social class inequalities have polarised Britain, with schools being a microcosm of wider society. The double disadvantage includes what could be referred to as the COVID-induced disadvantage. Sure, exams will take place but is it really a fair process? Some regions across the country are facing stringent local lockdowns, student and staff absences are high as people self-isolate. This entrenches inequality even further. Our pupils have missed six months of schooling in its full-time capacity but for the most disadvantaged who may not have access to the internet thus remote learning facilities, therefore this disadvantaged is doubled. Historical disadvantages could be challenged by radical changes to policies but don’t hold your breath. The COVID disadvantage could be challenged by policy and providing adequate resources, timer and space for these disadvantaged children to adequately catch-up, progress and blossom. A three extension to exams is like expecting Pupil Premium to equalise generations of inequalities. This is absurd. We cannot address the post-COVID inequalities without unpacking and tackling those prior to the pandemic.

Remaining ‘apolitical’

The final thought I had following yesterday’s announcement was actually a comment directed at me. I was told to “remain apolitical” and “just get on with it”. Apparently questioning political policies were against “mainstream edu-narratives” whatever that means. It is 2020, the year where we have conversations that matter, where we become comfortable with the uncomfortable and reflect in a deeper and more profound way. When did it ever become “political” to want to provide young people the best opportunity to succeed? We wear the weight of what we hear and seem – our experiences shape us. Whilst children walk into my classroom hungry and whilst little attempts to create a fairer society are in place, “apolitical” helps none of these children. Someone even had the audacity to say, “we are fed up with hearing about disadvantaged children.” I am fed up and exhausted with policies that fail to scratch the surface, also that my fellow professions being scapegoated for society’s evils and the mass fence-sitting and selective populism when it comes to dialogue about poverty, inequality, deprivation and disadvantage. We have to always keep in mind the contextual factors that make up our classrooms. The fact that we can track and trace these inequalities before the first bell hits. Even if we don’t challenge them so openly, I know my fellow teaching professionals will do so in their daily practice. We have been helping our learners ‘catch-up’ and make up ground before COVID and we will carry on doing so until a cure is found. For me, I will never stop talking about disadvantaged children. This is a cohort I was I once part of and an intellectual world I once inhabited. A man in a suit could never conceptualise let alone compensate for these hardships. With platform comes privilege and these disadvantaged children don’t need saviours, they need their voice heard. Time to scream at the top of out lungs like a siren. Do we develop selective amnesia as schools reopening and forget the antics of the media and politicians towards teachers?

In summary

The global pandemic has put teachers on the back foot and the announcement that GCSE and A-level exams will go ahead must be carefully considered. No one wants another algorithm shambles but after six months of remote learning, three weeks are not sufficient for teachers and learners. The wider structure of the education system needs to negate from the ideological moorings of high-stakes testing and reintroduce some alternative form of assessment. We may never see coursework return nor will teacher discretion through CAGs ever be fully respected, but with time ticking away, a DfE U-turn is definitely still on the cards. A three week delay to exams of simply plastering over the enormous chasms and canyons in education right now. These are wounds that need healing by taking teachers and students out the line of fire during such unprecedented times.

Are exams the fairest way to assess student progress? Do we place their futures in the hands of Gavin Williamson after the summer exam shambles or just keep calm and carry on? The lesser of the two evils is the latter which is a damning indictment of the educational policy making that has perpetuated and entrenched inequalities. It is shocking. We have deeper questions and reflections as educators, including if exams are even the most effective measure of a child’s progress? People in this country have the uncanny ability to be the voice of those they have no social attachment to. It’s frightening.

A final note on this disadvantaged children narrative. It has been peddled downstream but avoided the rapids. Until we consider wider contextual factors, structures and policies that have caused, maintained and sustained disadvantage, we are dangerously simplifying and depoliticising a debate about inequality. Disadvantaged children have been trying to ‘catch up’ for several decades, it is time we provide their teachers the support and guidance to take us out the line of fire.

Thank you for reading.

Shuaib Khan

Twitter: @shuaibkhan26

Podcast with Becky Bainbridge –

Enemy of the State article –

Inglorious Poverty

When ideology supersedes humanity.

“Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn’t commit.” ― Eli Khamarov

As Sunday dawns upon us and the clocks go back, where have we gone back to? It appears the days of Oliver Twist, where brutal levels of poverty, hopelessness, degradation and hunger play a salient part in the lives of millions of children in Britain. Back to the days where silence and emotional distancing from those suffering pushes their cries for help further into silence. Perhaps these days were never a thing of the past but rather our uncomfortable relationship with poverty was suppressed for so long it became a “normal”, “expected” and dare I say, “common sense” way of life in Britain.

We are still in 2020 and the world is still on its knees. The glimmer of hope in such unprecedented times comes in the form of a Footballer – Marcus Rashford. The 22-yeard-old Manchester United and England forward has fought tirelessly to help raise awareness of and find proactive solutions to child hunger in Britain. His work has been remarkable, yet just days after being awarded an MBE, which was recommended by the Prime Minister himself, this week 322 MPs voted against providing the most disadvantaged children free meals over school holidays. Marcus Rashford has made us all think about poverty in a more humane way.

Marcus Rashford with his mum, Melanie. This is the face of 21st Century Britain and we should all be so proud! Image: Metro

“Stick to football, Marcus.”

“He needs to focus on the pitch.”

“It isn’t your battle, Rashford.”

These are three comments I heard before Manchester United’s Champions League game on Tuesday. In the 87th minute, Rashford buried a beautiful winner to silence the doubters. Truth be told, he did stick to his job. A forwards role is to score and make goals – objective complete. Through interviews with Rashford, we know he wants to use his platform to support children who are entitled to free school meals, children just like him. When the results came in from the 2019 general election, the post-Brexit prosperity sentiment was wheeled out. The government assured us they would help “level up” Britain. Perhaps if they stuck to their job in this “levelling up” process, we would not have children starving.

My own experience of poverty is not something I have talked about openly. Growing up, whatever my family could not provide materially, they made up with love. However, it became painfully obvious that in our highly competitive playgrounds at school, not having what others had was alienating. I was ashamed to ask for help, the stigma was surreal but the hope that things would improve meant I placed all my faith in education. We reap the fruits of our labour but “making it” and having a voice only takes me back to the days of sharing a single bowl of cereal with my siblings. Also, the days where we would feel so ashamed to ask for seconds and thirds at lunch time. These pains were not just hunger pains, these are the pains of inequality that remain eternal.

Jodie and Melissa

I wanted to share two very powerful stories with you. Both stories made me reconnect with the inequalities I have faced during my own life. Please note that both people in this story were signposted to support by multiple agencies. Let’s call them Jodie and Melissa.

Jodie is a single mum of two. She works two part-time jobs, both on zero hours contracts and with the continued rise of living costs, Jodie struggles to make ends meet. As a regular food bank user, I met Jodie at a local café where she was waitressing. After finishing my newspaper, I spotted her gather an uneaten sandwich from departed customers table. Making nothing of it until later I saw her wrap it in foil and place it in her bag. She immediately began to tear up, knowing that I saw her doing this and said, “please don’t tell my manager, I need my job. This is for my kids.” As someone who has always been able to articulate their words, I was speechless. As the café emptied, I waited for her and over a cup of tea she revealed her awful predicament. As a single widowed mum, who also cares for an elderly family member, Jodie was balancing all of society’s expectations and the weight of her children’s dreams. She was adamant her children would not have to endure the poverty she was facing and faced as a child herself. I could see first-hand how this very malnourished lady was almost at breaking point where diving into bins at work was the only way to make sure she could get through a shift at work. We are the 5th richest country in the world and I can only imagine out of the 14 million plus people in Britain who live in some form of poverty, this is a daily reality.

Melissa was a teacher but after a mental health breakdown, she left her role. Unable to provide for herself, she moved into accommodation provided by the local authority. I met Melissa at our local food bank where I was dropping off some donations. We struck up a conversation after I mentioned being an educator and within minutes, I was wiping away tears. It struck me. Poverty and food insecurity can happen to anyone at any given time. Melissa explained how she went from a somewhat privileged white, able-bodied young professional female and within six months of purchasing her first home, her life was turned upside down. With no real family to turn to after relocating for her teaching post, Melissa’s mental health breakdown was the result of chronic stress and depression. I sat listening to her and it was heart-breaking. A teaching or any professional salary provides us with some form of comfort and status, losing it all in the blink of an eye is such a scary thought. It can happen to anyone at any time and we would hope that the system we endorse so blindly through taxation would provide us with a safety net if such times do come. Melissa was living off a mere £72 a week, which was to cover her rent, expenses and basic necessities. From living in a new-build home, she now lived off cans of beans, free teas and coffees at her support group and the kind donations at the food bank. This is reality for so many. I truly believe we wear the weight of the things we see and hear. I am Melissa, we are Melissa. Again, in one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, how are such levels of inequality accepted?

When did providing meals for the most disadvantaged become a matter of ideology and not humanity? Image: Kent Live

“Take some responsibility”

I did not want to bombard my readers with data and the fact we do have over four million children living in poverty. The global pandemic has exposed the deeply entrenched inequalities in Britain as well as the flaws in our approach towards humanitarian issues on our own shores. I just want to unpack this past weeks vote against providing the most disadvantaged children free meals over school holidays.

Culture of poverty – This is a farce and a fallacy. Whenever we read about poverty, the poverty porn or fetishisation of deprivation is the frame used to conceptualise, simplify and down peg the true complexity of poverty. Telling someone who is poor to, “take some responsibility” for themselves and their loved ones is the most reductive thing to say. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” Repeatedly providing this nebulous rhetoric brings exactly what to the table? It certainly doesn’t bring groceries to it or fill the tummy of a poor child. Britain does operate with this very neo-liberal Thatcherite veneer of poverty. At a time of austerity, cuts to mainline services and growing disparity between the haves and have nots, telling someone to “take responsibility” is such back-handed ideological commentary. When did it become a crime to cry out for help? When did we become so entrenched with political zealousness that we regurgitate the callous rhetoric of our political leaders who have denied the most disadvantaged children the basic human right to be fed? A commentary that is Dickensian in nature, built upon shaming the most deprived. Also, to depoliticise and individualise poverty, as if to render the polarised social structures invisible in dialogue about inequality. This ideological ping-pong is used as an “intellectual” argument to continue downsizing structures of support for the most disadvantaged and dismantle any form of opposition to a status quo that already represents elitist and corporate interests rather than those of the general public. I am sick to the core of the Vicky Pollard or Benefits Street tunnel vision we have of those in poverty. The notion of “if they chose to feed their children rather than smoke and drink.” This offers nothing. It creates further emotional distancing and pits us against people whose children may share the same classroom as our own. I am never one to deny agency but without considering the impacts of social structures, blaming individual’s and their lifestyles as opposed to inequalities simply exacerbate those inequalities further. How is it ever ok for MPs to get a pay rise whilst millions are trapped in poverty or in fear of losing their jobs during a pandemic? Poverty is political in the sense that it has been formed out of political choices and failures to adequately tackle structural inequalities around us. Blasé explanations and nebulous comments from people who have lived in their own realm of social prestige will never tackle poverty. In fact, this culture of poverty is the noose around the neck of the most disadvantaged who are grasping for every breath as Marcus Rashford fights for every meal.

Uncomfortable truths – I think since the pandemic started and Black Lives Matter began to expose the fragility in the psyche of the status quo, Britain has had to face some uncomfortable truths. Marcus Rashford has got us talking about poverty in a more humane and kinder way. His social media threads show people connecting, networking, supporting one another and helping find proactive solutions to many uncomfortable truths. Part of the British experience is the acceptance poverty and inequality with little efforts to tackle the true causes of it. A lot of this comes down to paddling through and being rewarded by our own hard work that we are self-driven success stories and “making it” means leaving behind generations of inequality. Meritocracy is a myth and this is succinctly illustrated by the stagnation of social mobility and underachievement of children who are entitled to free school meals. Poverty is the proverbial elephant in the room. It is also an inter-generational wound that will not disappear by providing children with laptops (10,000 which remain missing), through planting magic money trees, Pupil Premium coupons or broadcasting our donations. Confronting the uncomfortable truths of poverty is done through understanding, empathy and compassion, all of which Marcus Rashford encompasses. Only when we realign ourselves with these principles and not ideology, can we then mobilise and offer support to our most disadvantaged.

Are we being voyeuristic? Let’s face it, out of those 322 MPs, how many have experienced poverty or hunger? How many voted in favour of austerity? How many claimed to want to “level up” Britain but are now complicit in starving disadvantaged children? There is a clear and obvious disconnect between what is morally right and what is ideologically “right.” We watch on in disgust as Williamson, Gibb, Donelan, Keegan and Ford – all of whom have a vest interest in education and our young people voted against feeding our most disadvantaged children over the summer. I am going to make this crystal clear too, the way the disadvantaged children narrative was bastardised to unsafely reopen schools is absolutely disgraceful. These MPs should be ashamed of themselves and to hear former Education Secretary say that she took offence to being branded a “Tory Scum” thus out of contempt voted against the free meal scheme. Goodness gracious me. What an absolute disgrace. To be so triggered, fragile and incensed by accountability and social justice, beggars belief why these people even decided to go into politics. When Chancellor Rishi Sunak ploughed £500 million into his second-wave of COVID-inducing eat out to help out scheme, but they couldn’t spare £1 million to feed the most disadvantaged children, you cannot feel any more astounded. Or perhaps the fact we have lived under austerity for a decade, saving an estimated £12 billion annually, how on Earth has national borrowing gone up? How is the country still broke? Dearie me! This is not a lefty liberal intelligentsia critique, these are stone cold facts about how the country is being run. The fact there was a vote to feed our most disadvantaged is a damning inditement of this country. What a time to be alive! However, we can be the change as individuals and we are the change that Marcus Rashford is looking for and inspiring. Hundreds of businesses, many of which are on the brink of closure because of the pandemic have opened their door this half term to provide meals for these deprived children. We can be voyeurs, watch on feeling outraged or we can donate to a food bank, volunteer at a local charity, support our local businesses, the list is endless. Ultimately, if we carry on waiting for Superman to save us in the form of political personnel, poverty, inequality and hopelessness will only worsen. Nothing ever changes if we watch on from a position of comfort and detachment. It is on us to do what Marcus Rashford is doing. To be inspired, use our platforms in whichever capacity they come, to never turn our heads at injustice and create a better future for us all. We may not be able to solve all of humanity’s problems, so let’s make it our goal not to add to them either.

Let’s name them

This is important.

318 Conservative MPs: Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty), Bim Afolami (Hitchin and Harpenden), Adam Afriyie (Windsor), Imran Ahmad Khan (Wakefield), Nickie Aiken (Cities of London and Westminster), Peter Aldous (Waveney), Lucy Allan (Telford), David Amess (Southend West), Lee Anderson (Ashfield), Stuart Anderson (Wolverhampton South West), Stuart Andrew (Pudsey), Edward Argar (Charnwood), Sarah Atherton (Wrexham), Victoria Atkins (Louth and Horncastle), Gareth Bacon (Orpington), Richard Bacon (South Norfolk), Kemi Badenoch (Saffron Walden), Shaun Bailey (West Bromwich West), Duncan Baker (North Norfolk), Steve Baker (Wycombe), Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire), Steve Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire), Simon Baynes (Clwyd South), Aaron Bell (Newcastle-under-Lyme), Scott Benton (Blackpool South), Paul Beresford (Mole Valley), Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen), Saqib Bhatti (Meriden), Bob Blackman (Harrow East), Crispin Blunt (Reigate), Peter Bone (Wellingborough), Peter Bottomley (Worthing West), Andrew Bowie (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine), Ben Bradley (Mansfield), Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands), Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale West), Suella Braverman (Fareham), Jack Brereton (Stoke-on-Trent South), Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire), Steve Brine (Winchester), Paul Bristow (Peterborough), Sara Britcliffe (Hyndburn), James Brokenshire (Old Bexley and Sidcup), Anthony Browne (South Cambridgeshire), Fiona Bruce (Congleton), Felicity Buchan (Kensington), Robert Buckland (South Swindon), Alex Burghart (Brentwood and Ongar), Conor Burns (Bournemouth West), Rob Butler (Aylesbury), Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan), Andy Carter (Warrington South), James Cartlidge (South Suffolk), William Cash (Stone), Miriam Cates (Penistone and Stocksbridge), Maria Caulfield (Lewes), Alex Chalk (Cheltenham), Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham), Jo Churchill (Bury St Edmunds), Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells), Simon Clarke (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland), Theo Clarke (Stafford), Brendan Clarke-Smith (Bassetlaw), Chris Clarkson (Heywood and Middleton), James Cleverly (Braintree), Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal), Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe), Alberto Costa (South Leicestershire), Robert Courts (Witney), Claire Coutinho (East Surrey), Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon), Virginia Crosbie (Ynys Môn), James Daly (Bury North), David T C Davies (Monmouth), James Davies (Vale of Clwyd), Gareth Davies (Grantham and Stamford), Mims Davies (Mid Sussex), Philip Davies (Shipley), David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden), Dehenna Davison (Bishop Auckland), Caroline Dinenage (Gosport), Sarah Dines (Derbyshire Dales), Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon), Michelle Donelan (Chippenham), Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire), Steve Double (St Austell and Newquay), Oliver Dowden (Hertsmere), Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock), Richard Drax (South Dorset), Flick Drummond (Meon Valley), David Duguid (Banff and Buchan), Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green), Philip Dunne (Ludlow), Mark Eastwood (Dewsbury), Ruth Edwards (Rushcliffe), Michael Ellis (Northampton North), Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East), Natalie Elphicke (Dover), George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth), Luke Evans (Bosworth), David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford), Ben Everitt (Milton Keynes North), Michael Fabricant (Lichfield), Laura Farris (Newbury), Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness), Katherine Fletcher (South Ribble), Mark Fletcher (Bolsover), Nick Fletcher (Don Valley), Vicky Ford (Chelmsford), Kevin Foster (Torbay), Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford), Lucy Frazer (South East Cambridgeshire), George Freeman (Mid Norfolk), Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green), Richard Fuller (North East Bedfordshire), Marcus Fysh (Yeovil), Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest), Nusrat Ghani (Wealden), Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton), Peter Gibson (Darlington), Jo Gideon (Stoke-on-Trent Central), Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham), John Glen (Salisbury), Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby), Michael Gove (Surrey Heath), Richard Graham (Gloucester), Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald), James Gray (North Wiltshire), Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell), Chris Green (Bolton West), Damian Green (Ashford), Andrew Griffith (Arundel and South Downs), Kate Griffiths (Burton), James Grundy (Leigh), Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North), Luke Hall (Thornbury and Yate), Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon), Matt Hancock (West Suffolk), Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham), Mark Harper (Forest of Dean), Rebecca Harris (Castle Point), Trudy Harrison (Copeland), Sally-Ann Hart (Hastings and Rye), Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire), John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings), Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire), Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry), Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey), Darren Henry (Broxtowe), Antony Higginbotham (Burnley), Damian Hinds (East Hampshire), Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton), Philip Hollobone (Kettering), Adam Holloway (Gravesham), Paul Holmes (Eastleigh), John Howell (Henley), Paul Howell (Sedgefield), Nigel Huddleston (Mid Worcestershire), Eddie Hughes (Walsall North), Jane Hunt (Loughborough), Jeremy Hunt (South West Surrey), Tom Hunt (Ipswich), Alister Jack (Dumfries and Galloway), Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove), Ranil Jayawardena (North East Hampshire), Mark Jenkinson (Workington), Andrea Jenkyns (Morley and Outwood), Robert Jenrick (Newark), Boris Johnson (Uxbridge and South Ruislip), Caroline Johnson (Sleaford and North Hykeham), Gareth Johnson (Dartford), David Johnston (Wantage), Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough), Fay Jones (Brecon and Radnorshire), David Jones (Clwyd West), Marcus Jones (Nuneaton), Simon Jupp (East Devon), Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham), Alicia Kearns (Rutland and Melton), Gillian Keegan (Chichester), Julian Knight (Solihull), Greg Knight (East Yorkshire), Danny Kruger (Devizes), Kwasi Kwarteng (Spelthorne), John Lamont (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk), Robert Largan (High Peak), Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire), Edward Leigh (Gainsborough), Ian Levy (Blyth Valley), Andrew Lewer (Northampton South), Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth), Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset), Chris Loder (West Dorset), Mark Logan (Bolton North East), Marco Longhi (Dudley North), Julia Lopez (Hornchurch and Upminster), Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke), Jonathan Lord (Woking), Craig Mackinlay (South Thanet), Cherilyn Mackrory (Truro and Falmouth), Rachel Maclean (Redditch), Alan Mak (Havant), Kit Malthouse (North West Hampshire), Anthony Mangnall (Totnes), Scott Mann (North Cornwall), Julie Marson (Hertford and Stortford), Theresa May (Maidenhead), Jerome Mayhew (Broadland), Karl McCartney (Lincoln), Mark Menzies (Fylde), Johnny Mercer (Plymouth, Moor View), Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle), Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock), Robin Millar (Aberconwy), Maria Miller (Basingstoke), Amanda Milling (Cannock Chase), Nigel Mills (Amber Valley), Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield), Gagan Mohindra (South West Hertfordshire), Robbie Moore (Keighley), Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North), David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale), James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis), Wendy Morton (Aldridge-Brownhills), Kieran Mullan (Crewe and Nantwich), David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale), Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall), Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire), Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst), Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North), Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire), Neil O’Brien (Harborough), Guy Opperman (Hexham), Owen Paterson (North Shropshire), Mark Pawsey (Rugby), Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead), John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare), Chris Philp (Croydon South), Christopher Pincher (Tamworth), Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane), Victoria Prentis (Banbury), Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin), Jeremy Quin (Horsham), Will Quince (Colchester), Tom Randall (Gedling), John Redwood (Wokingham), Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset), Nicola Richards (West Bromwich East), Angela Richardson (Guildford), Rob Roberts (Delyn), Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury), Mary Robinson (Cheadle), Andrew Rosindell (Romford), Lee Rowley (North East Derbyshire), Dean Russell (Watford), David Rutley (Macclesfield), Gary Sambrook (Birmingham, Northfield), Selaine Saxby (North Devon), Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam), Bob Seely (Isle of Wight), Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire), Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield), Alok Sharma (Reading West), Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell), David Simmonds (Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner), Chris Skidmore (Kingswood), Chloe Smith (Norwich North), Greg Smith (Buckingham), Henry Smith (Crawley), Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon), Amanda Solloway (Derby North), Ben Spencer (Runnymede and Weybridge), Mark Spencer (Sherwood), Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley), Andrew Stephenson (Pendle), Jane Stevenson (Wolverhampton North East), John Stevenson (Carlisle), Bob Stewart (Beckenham), Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South), Gary Streeter (South West Devon), Mel Stride (Central Devon), Rishi Sunak (Richmond (Yorks)), James Sunderland (Bracknell), Desmond Swayne (New Forest West), Robert Syms (Poole), Derek Thomas (St Ives), Maggie Throup (Erewash), Edward Timpson (Eddisbury), Kelly Tolhurst (Rochester and Strood), Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon), Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole), Craig Tracey (North Warwickshire), Anne-Marie Trevelyan (Berwick-upon-Tweed), Laura Trott (Sevenoaks), Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling), Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes), Matt Vickers (Stockton South), Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet), Robin Walker (Worcester), Charles Walker (Broxbourne), Jamie Wallis (Bridgend), David Warburton (Somerton and Frome), Matt Warman (Boston and Skegness), Giles Watling (Clacton), Suzanne Webb (Stourbridge), Helen Whately (Faversham and Mid Kent), Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire), Craig Whittaker (Calder Valley), John Whittingdale (Maldon), Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire), James Wild (North West Norfolk), Craig Williams (Montgomeryshire), Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire), Mike Wood (Dudley South), William Wragg (Hazel Grove), Jeremy Wright (Kenilworth and Southam), Jacob Young (Redcar), Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon).

One Independent MP: Julian Lewis (New Forest East).

Tellers for the noes were Conservative MPs Tom Pursglove (Corby) and Leo Docherty (Aldershot).

In Summary

This has been an incredibly challenging year for everyone. However, alongside the pandemic, a double disadvantage has hit the most deprived in society. Instead of beating down, we should be helping up those who are in need. No child chooses to grow up in poverty and at a time where asking for help remains taboo, we must change how we frame the battles of others. The stories of Jodie and Melissa illustrate the fragility of status, the hardships of poverty in 21st Century Britain and how it can happen to any of us.

Poverty is inglorious and cannot carry on. No one becomes poor, unworthy or irresponsible overnight. This is political. It always has been. A u-turn is expected as the establishment has been given much food for thought whilst they deprived the most disadvantaged any food at all.

Our MPs have let is down, the 322 disgraced individuals have let down an entire generation of children. These are not leaders or role models. Marcus Rashford is everything they will never be. He is our national treasure. A remarkable human being who is using his platform for the betterment of society. Someone who understands the intricacies and complexities of being disadvantaged. I am inspired and I hope you all are too.

Together we can #ENDCHILDFOODPOVERTY. Ideology will never overcome human dignity. Ameen.

Thank you for reading.

Shuaib Khan

Twitter: @shuaibkhan26

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Good Luck, Charlie

Exams – a critical reflection

“Learning happens in the minds and souls, not in the databases of multiple-choice tests– Sir Ken Robinson

Last week I hosted podcast with Karl Pupe (@actionheroteacher). Karl spoke so eloquently about the Victorian nature of our education system and the need for innovation and context-centric pedagogical approaches to engage and educate our students. These are my reflections from that conversation and Karl’s underlying question, “What is the purpose of education?”

The curious case of Charlie.

I met Charlie during my NQT year. A tall lad who loved football, playing guitar and Philosophy. Charlie was in my boy-heavy Religious Studies class. This was a tough crowd, some serious behaviour issues and being in Year 11, the stakes were high. As an NQT I was keen work with this class and also adhere to the school teaching and learning policies which included fortnightly assessments. My class HATED assessments, exams and just the thought of sitting in silence with relentless pen-to-paper pressure. A handful of years on, I realise the anxieties of my students back then and the need for radical changes in how we assess the knowledge, and more importantly, the skills of our students.

Exams and assessments are the be-all and end-all of education. It is ‘common sense’ and rather banal that we can develop an understanding of our students progress through an assessment or exam. A grade, whether this is a letter or a number, it supposedly conceptualises all that our students know about a specific topic. From as early as reception, children sit assessments in their various forms which become numerically translated, added to data bases and Excel spreadsheets. Data, exams and assessments are big business. Many schools have roles and TLRs allocated to exams, data and assessment. However, with the exam debacle over the past summer, is it time we ditch exams?

We often draw upon Albert Einstein when dialogue about the disconnect the education system has from reality and the true complexity of learning. Image: Pinterest

At the heart of all pedagogical discussions come reflection, analysis and a broader understanding of context. Certain ideas, viewpoints and narratives have become almost biblical in pedagogical literature. A Head of Department once told me, “lesson, assessment, lesson, assessment, lesson, assessment.” This rigid bureaucratic structure made lessons feel somewhat like Groundhog Day. I prepared students for assessments, they either got their target grade or they did not. We would then spend a lesson using purple pen to ‘reflect’ and ‘improve’ their grade and we moved onto the next cycle. It was the cookie-cutter approach to teaching and learning. As schools begin to embed the much adored ‘retrieval practice’ and ensure students can retain knowledge for examinations, despite both ideas being completely valid depending on context, learning is more complex. Our cognitive development is more complex than to simply aim to improve our long-term memory. Finally, education is more complex than examinations and assessments. Most teachers I would assume step into the profession because they believe in developing their students both academically as well as to become active members of our democracy. The holistic and intangible element of pedagogy can be lost whilst there is such an over-reliance of examinations.

Since 2010, education has seen far-reaching changes as the disconnect between policy makers and educators continues to grow. But it has taken a global pandemic these cracks in the education system to become chasms and canyons. Many students have missed six months of school, so in GCSE and A-level terms, that is potentially a quarter of the time to complete their respected courses. Today, the DfE announced that the 2021 exams will take place which adds fuel to the existing ‘catch up’ programme fire. When ‘disadvantaged children’ falling behind were key rationale behind the hasty decision to reopen schools, this era of anti-expert has taken a turn for the worse. Fellow teachers are trying to help plug gaps in knowledge but the gap and gulf in attainment due to social class remains unspoken of.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson himself has said, “we know that examinations are the fairest way of measuring a student’s ability and accomplishments, including the most disadvantaged”. Summer 2021 exams have even been pushed back three weeks as that will clearly compensate for six months of lost learning won’t it? It’s almost as nebulous and absurd as to say Pupil Premium can compensate for generations of socio-economic inequality. Also, with declining social mobility, the children from disadvantaged backgrounds inheriting generational inequalities and international data all stating the opposite, are you sure, Gavin? That aside, perhaps considering such unprecedented times, a radical overhaul of how we assess the effectiveness of teachers and also teaching and learning is required. Examinations in their current format fail to bridge gaps, offer equality of opportunity, empower our learners, develop our teachers and provide an accurate broader picture of the knowledge and skills accumulated and cultivated in our learning environments.

Back in 2013, Michael Gove was warned about the pressures and dangers of high-stakes testing and assessments. Yet, with ideology rushing through the course of his veins, Gove pushed through with changes to educational policies that were never mandated by those effected by such policies on a daily basis. A ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum, changes to early years frameworks, obsessive and nebulous comparative international testing data (PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS), the scrapping of coursework, new GCSE grading systems and linear A-levels were hurried through under the veneer of ‘standards’. Education was being made ‘rigorous’ and teachers had to implement such these policies under our performative and competitive educational culture. Exams and assessments became the yardstick of success for both teachers and their learners. A simplistic correlation has been made and remained central in conversations about targets, appraisals, performance management, Ofsted frameworks and league tables. How do we know a student knows what we have taught them? Assessment/Examination. It is THAT black and white, apparently.

Do you have any alternatives?

From the vantage point of social justice and equality, no catch up programmes could make up for the six months schools were closed. Teachers worked tirelessly from the beginning of lockdown to now but the loss of time, routines and opportunities to ensure students are best placed to sit examinations in the summer of 2021 is questionable. With the additional workload in mind, alongside the obvious gaps in learning and disruption caused by the global pandemic, maybe it is time for a radical overhaul of our exam-reliant education system. Perhaps even, examinations could be altered, changed and supplemented with something else to judge our students, their knowledge and skills. Realistically, what options are available?

  • Externally- assessed coursework,
  • Teacher assessments,
  • Portfolios or e-portfolios,
  • E-assessments

These are just a few and a non-exhaustive list. Again, the straightforward correlation between assessment and knowledge is not so straightforward. I don’t have the answer but the solution certainly is not anxiety-inducing, do or die, high stakes testing. How many teachers are left disillusioned and disgruntled when a totally random exam question appears in a specimen paper or the real exam?! At the heart of any alternatives to moving away from rigid and inequitable examination and data-driven methods ideals, there must come greater professional trust placed in teachers. With the current political climate, this remains an incredibly unlikely utopia. But one day, maybe just one day, teachers and policy makers will meet somewhere in the field of unity for the students.

The late Sir Ken Robinson spent many years talking about the need to embed creativity and innovation back into education. As even with vocational education, the exam-centric nature of knowledge and demonstrating progress is creating a very standardised one-size-fits-all approach for teaching and learning. Teaching is so much more complex as is learning. Both deserve respect and their practitioners deserve the time and space to exert their expertise.

Back to Charlie

Charlie struggled to concentrate in class and his assessments and mocks continued to fall well under his predicted grade. I was under pressure, he was apathetic and intervention season sprung upon us. Charlie was a great thinker and could remember almost infinite details but suffered, in his own words, “a mental block” when he got to exams. He was anxious at the sight of an assessment and his class would do everything for “5 more minutes of revision.” It became painfully obvious to me that my class did not have the study skills to make notes, to revise, retrieve, reflect and then articulate their ideas in examinations. These snap-shot assessments could never conceptualise the engagement, love for learning, skills and discussions my students were developing in lessons. With this class, I changed focus and moved away from working to exams to helping students have the skills to attempt these exams. But when you are fighting external pressures to meet deadlines and expectations, we do get boxed in to a corner. Results are the only real empirical que for us to say, “I have done by job.” It is tough. In the end, Charlie got an 8 which was two grades above his target grade and on results day in his typically nonchalant manner he said, “Khan, I just thought out loud in that exam.” For a child like Charlie and we all know a Charlie, exams are not the best way for us as teachers to showcase his skills and talents as a student.

In Summary

I have sat over a hundred exams in my life. From infants school all the way to undergraduate level and at face value, they are the only tangible measure of my qualifications. This does not mean the knowledge and skills we develop are not of equal importance but rather, examinations and assessments take precedence. This year was a real opportunity to reflect, reconsider and radically overhaul our dated education system. Pen to paper examinations have existed for centuries but as Karl Pupe reminded me, education remains in a time capsule and teachers and students remain straitjacketed by traditionalists methods. Such methods do have a time and space but if we analyse education and its purposes more holistically, are exams really what education is all about? What is the purpose of education? Why do we teach? Is all knowledge objective? These are all questions we need to be asking ourselves as educators.

I also expect a U-turn from the government with regards to the 2021 exam season still taking place. The pressures placed on schools, teachers and students to ‘catch up’ is unparalleled. In some regions the infection rates are leading to many pupils having extended periods of absence. The cracks that appeared in our education system have had bandages placed over them but in reality, it is painfully obvious what needs to change. Learning is so much more complex than an examination. It needs to mean more and be worth more too.

Thank you for reading

Shuaib Khan

Rose-tinted Toxicity

“You know you’re in a toxic environment when… People use the word ‘fairness,’ when in reality, managing the appearance of fairness becomes the job.”

Richie Norton

Professional unity in unprecedented times.

This year has thrown many obstacles at us. Amidst a global pandemic, many of us are finding this ‘new normal’ incredibly challenging. Unquestioned routines, unchallenged traditions and the uncontested rigidity of the British education system is under increased scrutiny. As we approach the final two weeks of the first academic term this year, one aspect of education that remains prevalent is toxic cultures, bullying, unattainable workloads, mental health breakdowns and teachers leaving the profession.

The teaching profession comes with its various demands, pressures, expectations and challenges. Since schools closed in their full capacity back in March, our profession has suffered wave after wave of condemnation and disapproval from everyone from the Kirstie Allsopp to Andrew Adonis. At a time where we should be rolling out the red carpet for our teachers, the disconnect between society and its educators has grown exponentially. The Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson continues to deliberately misunderstand the demands places on teachers and with threats of Ofsted visits lurking in the background, who would be a teacher right now? The best profession in the world is undoubtedly teaching but do we have the best systems to support our teachers? This varies considerably from school to school and leadership to leadership. We should be supporting rather than competing with one another and our schools should be safe havens and not basking in toxicity.

Ironically for a wellbeing secret Santa event I received his.

What is a toxic working environment?

Before I even heard of ‘toxic schools’, I was the ever-optimist. Schools were placed of social mobility, a chance for every child to get on and progress, run professionally, held together by good moral practices & everyone sang from the same hymn sheet. Stupendous.

A toxic working environment by definition is: as any job where the work, the atmosphere, the people, or any combination of those things cause serious disruptions in the rest of your life.

I want to make this clear, any conversation about toxic schools is not an attack on school leaders. It is unfair, unjust and wrong to attack fellow professionals but we must focus our dialogue on practices and cultures. Since we returned to school, I have seen some incredible practice and ideas. The positivity and sheer hard work our teachers put in during such difficult times is heart-warming. However, in order for us to enjoy the true beauty of teaching and its rewards, we must also consider all the elements that make our lives challenging. Through personal experience, research and conversations, I have the following non-exhaustive list of traits toxic schools adhere to. Again, this is a working list and in constant reflection but also an effort to sustain dialogue.

•No time for lunch,

•Sporadic Meetings,

•Backstabbing, untrustworthy, gossipy & cliquey Staff,

•Poor morale,

•High Staff turnover,

•High Staff absences/sickness,

•Lack of/no communication,

•CCing email culture,

•A threat-ridden culture,

•A lack of empathy

•A predatory begrudging culture,

•Violation of privacy,

•Fear of speaking up & the rising sense of voicelessness,

•The exploitation of goodwill,

•Empty staffrooms,

•Attendance registers taken at briefings,

•Blind CCing into emails,

•Staff carpark full at 6pm,

•Behaviour policies that undermine teachers,

•Continuous & sustained monitoring.

NOTE: some schools will have several of these characteristics, others are more nuanced. Either way, once you know that where you are working is causing grave anxiety, it is time to take action.

It is clear that at the heart of toxic school cultures is a lack of professional trust. When we have anonymous features in Tes, or desperate teachers seeking advice on social media, it is clear we have a national emergency. With over 39,000 teachers leaving the profession in 2019, our retention and recruitment crisis will not disappear if we stop talking about it.

How can we support colleagues?

Where do teachers who are struggling go? I have three of ways we can support colleagues who are finding work more difficult.


Nobody wants to keep hearing sob stories but no one wants them to be their daily realities either. If only every school was supportive and we had a sense of professional unity, such stories wouldn’t exist. Many teachers who are struggling, being bullied, even grieving or overwhelmed, they simply need a safe space to discuss and relay their concerns. Our work colleagues can become friends but at a time of competitive rhetoric, circumstantial and transactional relationships are often the norm. At the very core, we must give fellow professionals time and space to unload and thus gain support. Listening to others is not about providing them with the answers but rather helping them find a solution by initially articulating their concerns. There has to be a greater sense of normality around our rights as teachers and the challenges that make our lives difficult.


As teachers, we place great emphasis on our jobs, we want to give it our all. However, this does not mean we are immune to the stresses and strains of every other profession. Many teachers who are struggling, they need to be signposted to some form of support. How many times have we been unable to advise colleagues, either out of a lack of knowledge or perhaps fear? At times we quite simply don’t know how to support others and that is fine! We can still signpost possible avenues of support rather than be another wall of silence for our colleagues and fellow professionals. I would personally signpost fellow teachers to both the NEU and NASUWT, the Education Support and the Facebook group Life After Teaching. All of these are a real source of information, advice and support. I will leave links below.


Many teachers need to know that it is not just them and their struggles need to be acknowledged. Some of them are seeing the toxic positivity which can downplay their own struggles. Downplaying the battles of others, it reductionist, nebulous and a really Rose-tinted view of the painful realities others have faced. Comments like ‘my school is nothing like this’ or ‘get a new job’ are so nebulous. This also trivialises the precarious predicaments of teachers who are struggling and individualises the concerns as a personal dysfunction rather than a wider symptom of poor practices. Acknowledging and addressing these issues, highlighting concerns and allowing teachers who are not having a great time of it, some time and space is how we can proceed. The number of times people who, often out of last resort are crying for help, are labelled as ‘negative’ is just wrong. Their negative experiences simply mean they want you to prosper and blossom and not suffer the way they may have. We need to acknowledge what is wrong and thus rectify it to right those wrongs. Help provide solutions rather than add to grievances.

Not an official front cover. Still a working progress but this WILL be published.

In Summary

Right now, during these difficult times we need professional courtesy and unity. Listening to one another, signposting and acknowledging are of paramount importance as many of struggle with this ‘new normal’. Yes, teaching is the best job in the world but also the demands and challenges we face are like no other. If anything, Covid should have taught us to reconnect with one another. Downplaying the battles of others does not brighten our own.

I can assure you that we all know a colleague who has,

∙been signed off,
∙struggled with their classes,
∙felt overwhelmed by their workload,
Even amidst your own battles, mindful of your colleagues. A rose-tinted view really doesn’t help anyone.

Finally, a note on the book. Toxic SchoolOur Antidote is complete. I am just waiting on a handful of reviews, a CPD session and a few loose ends to tie up but I can assure you, it is close.

Thank you for reading,

Shuaib Khan

NASUWT Helpline: 03330 145550

NEU Helpline: 0345 811 8111

Education Support Helpline: 08000 562561

Life After Teaching –

Sir, what about us?

Teaching Black History Month – A critical reflection.

”Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”

– Booker T. Washington

On a cold day in October 2005, a group of Year 9 lads hurried into History class. As pencil cases and planners began to be pulled out, Mr M walked in and said, “It is Black history month. Every lesson this month we will be learning about an element of Black history.” I was ecstatic! This was my chance to learn about my childhood hero, Malcolm X. After every lesson I darted to the library to find out more and fill the gaps in my curious 13-year-old mind. Mr M had us! He got us engaged and History was the only lesson I wanted go to. In English too, Mrs W began to teach us about the poetry from the South African Apartheid by Tatamkhulu Afrika and introduced Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackmore. The pride this induced was so overwhelming.

These four weeks were enlightening both spiritually and academically. Yet, by November, we were back to textbook learning and it was like Groundhog Day. On repeat, History lessons focused on pre-19th Century ideas and English went back to Shakespeare. Don’t get me wrong, I love all histories and all Shakespeare but it could not capture our social experiences as young BAME children the way, say, Benjamin Zephaniah or the case of Stephen Lawrence could. Every single lesson I would put my hand up and say “Sir/Miss, what about us?” This disconnect I felt from the curriculum was so painful and alienating that I opted out of taking History at GCSE and disengaged from my love of poetry. A real opportunity was lost.

Indeed, Malcolm was right.

In 2020, it does feel like since the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement that it has been Black History Month for almost six months. Rightly so, conversations and dialogues about: privilege, power, race, inequalities and unity are on the public agenda. As the momentum for the Black Lives Matter winds down and Critical Race Theory remains under attack under the false pretence that everyone who believes Black Lives Matter blindly follows CRT. Black History Month could not have come at a better time. However, in my own planning and focus, I am conscious of including all BAME cultural ideas into this month of celebrating Black History. Each group, culture, race and religion deserves time and space in the curriculum to enrich our learners with a broad and balanced view of the world.

Teaching Black History

From my own experiences as BAME Humanities teacher, I have taught and deeply reflected on how I teach all elements of the curriculum. Black History Month has been such an important part of my own educational experience too. Following my conversation with Audrey Pantelis on #antismalltalk and articles Nothing New, Open Letter to Educators, White Noise and Dark Clouds, it remains important to use this very sensitive time appropriately to support our teachers in the classroom. I have three non-exhaustive precautions ahead of Black History month from personal experience.

1. Time and Space

We set a very dangerous precedence when we pigeon-hole thousands of years of history into a month, a PowerPoint or an assembly. The idea of celebrating the achievements as well as learning about the atrocities deserves time and space. What type of precedence do we set by, often out of unconscious tokenism, to relegate history to a 30-day segment of the academic calendar? I remember learning about Civil Rights at school and this monumental epoch was streamlined into two weeks but we spent over a term on World War Two. If history is to be taught accurately, teachers must give it time and space. The message given to our young people when, say, Colonial India is taught in a matter of days but Ancient Egypt is a term-long fixture in our schemes of work, this message is misleading. No history should be considered as greater importance to any other but the consistent allocation of time will allow teachers to remove this misconception. If the history of your ancestors is demoted and neatly compartmentalised into a calendar month, it creates the feeling of worthlessness and a lack of belonging. A view that any contributions our ancestors have made to the world should and may not be celebrated beyond this month. A slide on a daily staff briefing really do not provide these histories the time and space they deserve.

2. Embedding and Infusing

Black History Month should not be a haphazard peripheral token knee-jerk reaction to new Ofsted guidelines or what is trending on Twitter. Any movement about diversity, inclusion or equity must begin at the very grassroots and within our daily interactions. Analysing the wider school curriculum and considering where we can include, for example: the contributions of Black Scientists, Sociologists, Musicians, Sports people and Academics. Any efforts to reshape the curriculum need to be done with reflective practice and a commitment to diversity and inclusion. For me, learning about successful BAME people was at the heart setting higher aspirations for myself. When I was introduced to the case of Stephen Lawrence by Mr P, it struck such a chord in my life and made me realise the importance of representation and inclusion in the public sector. A few years later I found myself training to become a teacher. By presenting intellectual ideas of BAME academics, it does raise aspirations. Also, when completed in a non-tokenistic manner and inclusion is the ethos of the school, everyone thrives and every child is enriched. Just imagine going through school having no idea about the contributions of Black people to the world we live in today. Frederick Douglas, Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, George Carruthers, Anna Julia Cooper, Stokely Carmichael, Marcus Garvey, Olaudah Equiano and I could go on and on. These are all Black people who I only gained knowledge of by completing a Social Science degree. Their contributions were hidden from history and until such incredible people are celebrated and given time and space, the curriculum remains an inaccurate reflection of the history and the world around us. Embedding and infusing the ideals of inclusion and diversity into the curriculum is a cultural change that I hope we all can embrace for our students and the future.

3. Heroes and histories that are rendered invisible

I knew little about slavery in Britain or the fact that Black people lived in Britain before the Windrush generation! It took a conversation with the incredible Audrey Pantelis and reading Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni-Eddo Lodge for me to realise this. Britain has its own uncomfortable history with race and to continue to project light onto the USA downplays the tragedies and victories for BAME people here in Britain. How many times have I read a book, article or podcast and thought “why did they never teach me that at school?” So much history and the contributions to history are lost and it is the role of schools to accurately inform our learners. We celebrate Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela but what about Fatima Bernawi? Bernawi is an incredible activist and many Black feminists like bell hooks have argued how BAME women in virtually rendered invisible in mainstream academia. What about Patrice Lumumba? The man was the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Black History Month alone cannot conceptualise the rich history of Black people. I still remember as an NQT picking up a Black History Month folder from 1995 and it had gathered dust. Alarmingly, twenty years on, the school were still teaching the same four or five components of Black history. Year after year, students were taught about Civil Rights, featuring the same actors and heroes with little or no room for maneuver. This is not reflective practice and the dangers of failing to teach histories and about relatively unknown historical figures is also frightening. There should ne no ‘go to’ figures or epochs we slide into October to fill a quota or tick a diversity box. Teaching about hidden histories is also helps create a deeper understanding of the world as it is today.

In Summary

There is some absolutely incredible practice going on in our schools. The reflection and work so many educators have put in to understanding inclusion, diversity and representation is unbelievable. Black History Month is a time for us to showcase how far we are willing to take these principles.

This is the year of difficult conversations, let’s hold them together and empower our students with knowledge and understanding of the world around them. So, whenever a child say “Sir/Miss, what about us?” in relation to the curriculum, we can give them a authentic, non-tokenistic and inclusive education. Finally, to any teacher that is struggling to embed anti-racism and/or Black History Month into their planning – please just ask. Your BAME colleagues are more than willing to offer a helping hand. No one is asking you to move mountains but rather to consider how those mountains got there in the first place. Love and solidarity to all.

Black Lives Matter.

Thank you for reading,

Shuaib Khan

#antismalltalk – A Conversation about Inequality with Audrey Pantelis –

Uncritical Classes

A critical reflection on the new PSHE guidelines

“Write hard and clear about what hurts”

– Ernest Hemingway

I feel like I’m in something from Kafka.

Britain’s status quo is fragile and in constant need of reassurance and reinforcement. It seeks to remain unaccountable, unrepresentative and hoping to create an uncritical public who acquiesce to its every word. The winding down of daily COVID briefings is synonymous with a decade of politics that is driven to represent personal ideological gain and not in the best interests of the general public. However, September 24th marked a new chapter in the history of British education. The Department for Education published new guidance for leaders and teachers in setting the relationship, sex and health or PSHE curriculum.

I think it is important to say it like it is. There appears to be an ever-widening chasm between policymakers and teachers. The global pandemic was a clear opportunity to bridge this suspicion and work together to support our young people. However, I do believe the formation of the new PSHE frameworks are built upon this mistrust of our nations educators. Our professional discretion was totally rendered invisible over the past summer with the algorithms exam scandal. Teachers are micromanaged to the point of despair under our performative, autocratic, Ofsted-pleasing. Even with greater autonomy and privatisation, those in Westminster retain a vested interest in education. The current educational context is the lovechild of 150 years of political intervention in state education.

Yet, there is an underlying sentiment that the teaching profession is marred by a ‘misguided liberal lefty snowflake intelligentsia’. Where staffrooms are cesspits for socialism and education is losing its role as an Althusser-esque ‘ideological state apparatus’. This is neither true or remotely a reflection of a profession that under continuous pressure and scrutiny. I truly believe teachers are not class warriors who are intent on a Marxist revolution. Being honest, I think most of us just about survive everyday on the frontline and hoping to return to our loved ones safely. Far from the idea of beret wearing, banjo strumming, kumbaya-singing, Communist Manifesto preaching, Noam Chomsky following and Che Guevara admiring stereotypes – every teacher just wants to do their job to the best of their ability. They can and do leave their political allegiances at the door and aim to retain objectivity in their professional lives.

George Orwell in with his infinite wisdom is more relevant now than ever.

This is a brave new world. With no genuine opposition to government policies and where the ghost of Thatcherite neo-liberalism has manifested itself into every nook and cranny of society. This is a brave new world and what a time to be alive. As teachers return to schools, which were never truly closed during the pandemic, we have an Education Secretary who appears to have gone AWOL or in complete self-isolation and the new guidelines are evidential of the chasm between political rhetoric and pedagogical reality. ‘Common sense’ appears to be the yardstick of policy making. The same ‘common sense’ that is rarely found in a country where people are still unwilling to wear facemasks and acknowledge that we are amidst a global pandemic. Also, that it’s ‘common sense’ that we should uphold our democratic right to protest against injustice but not ‘common sense’ to say that Black lives matter. Common sense, hey?

Broad and Balanced

What does broad and balanced actually mean? Could something so obviously clear be made to seem nebulous by policymakers, like, say, the phrase ‘world-beating’. Broad and balanced at the very core for me, as a Sociology teacher is about presenting evidence. It is about presenting both sides of every story, its merits and pitfalls and objectively allow students to access a plethora of worldviews. Our role as teachers is to present the arguments/facts and empower our students with the thinking skills to assess the validity of the information we have presented them. Broad and balanced does not mean narrow and partisan. No teacher with a vested interest in improving the life chances of young people peddles personal agendas in favour of providing a balanced worldview. Objectivity and teaching go hand-in-hand.

According to the DfE (2019) themselves “Ofsted inspectors will spend less time looking at exam results and test data, and more time considering how a nursery, school, college or other education provider has achieved their results. That is, whether they are the outcome of a broad, rich curriculum and real learning, or of teaching to the test and exam cramming.” The new RSHE guidelines are incredibly contradictory of the ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum Ofsted themselves waxed lyrical about back in 2019.

We are all a by-product of our social surroundings. We are hold innate biases and wear the weight of what we have seen and heard. Being ‘apolitical’ is certainly desired in education however, the new the relationship, sex and health guidelines not only add to the straitjacketed view of education. This framework is evidence of a status quo that is fragile and has a vested interest in creating compliance rather than liberating young people with a broad and balanced curriculum.

New Frameworks and New Issues

Reading the new frameworks gave me flashbacks to George Orwell’s 1984 or Franz Kafka’s The Castle. Both incredibly powerful books are about authoritarian and suppressive regimes which police and pacify their inhabitants. Whereas 1984 is about the Big Brother-esque nature of social order in creating uniform conformity. In Kafka’s, The Castle follows the main protagonist ‘K’ who is entering a village dictated by a despotic and draconian state. Can this dystopian literature be used as a template to understand the new insidious DfE guidelines? The entire framework is full of contradiction, loose-ends and edu-jargon but I would like to add a critical analysis to three elements in particular.

  • Promoting the overthrown of capitalism Let’s not be daft here and bring Corbynism into discussions. If capitalism is this utopia then why do we have such stark inequalities in society? If capitalism really should not be critiqued or any alternatives be taught, then why have we had to endure a decade of austerity? Capitalism has failed and in its current neo-liberal phase, capitalism has created both great wealth and also inequalities and injustices. If we embed pro-capitalism ideals into the curriculum, we are explicitly teaching students that there are no viable alternatives. Again, I am not talking about the Robin Hood socialism but how have countries like Sweden used elements of socialism and capitalism to create a fairer society for all? This uncritical dogma of not assessing alternatives to current economic systems fails to acknowledge the advantages and disadvantages of other economic structures which could someday make Britain a better place for us all. As a Sociology teacher, how do I teach about Marxism? These frameworks may neatly fit the ideological ties of the government but do not neatly fit into the classroom realities of so many teachers. Also, just to add, point one is quite literally undermined by point two. As surely not teaching viable alternatives to capitalism contradicts the notion of “opposition to the right of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly or freedom of religion and conscience”. The fragility of preventing young people to learn about alternative economic structures is alarming. To critique and overthrow are two very different things but in the era of anti-expert, who can tell the difference?
  • Victim narratives – The frameworks clearly state “promoting divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society.” Who is in the position to decide which of these ‘victim narratives’ is acceptable to teach? Having taught the Holocaust and Slavery many times, where do I draw the fine line? Denying victimhood and the existence of these narratives is disingenuous and misleading. History comes with both heroes and victims, our young people need to know this. The idea of being able to uniquely cherry-pick which histories are worthy of time and space in our curriculum itself is a bastion of division and harmful to British society. Young people need to know why the world is shaped the way it is. Our students need to know that racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, ageism, Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination make up the life experiences of so many our fellow British citizens. This is not promoting victimhood, it is giving victims the time and space they have been deprived of for so long. Britain is a deeply unequal and divided society, so how do we challenge this? The elephant is in the room, the longer we tip-toe around it, the more the social distance between us will grow. Fundamental British values is all about respect and tolerance but ignoring historically disadvantaged groups, excluding them from the conversation and curriculum, it is also divisive. Where do we draw the line? Within the framework there is also the notion of “accusations against state institutions”. So, do we stop teaching about the MacPherson Report following the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence? This uncritical gaze at history does not serving the needs of the multicultural society. If we don’t hold institutions that have been historical foundations for inequality accountable, how on earth is this a democracy?
  • Extreme political stances – I am in total agreement that we do need to safeguard and protect our young people from such views. However, simply denying their existence does not mean they will disappear into thin air. I remember about Nazism and the awful tragedies of World War Two. This was an extreme worldview which required both context, analysis and for students to engage with it for the purpose of the exam specification. For far too long, taboos have manifested across education and teachers have felt uncomfortable holding conversations that truly matter. However, holding these political views accountable in the safe space of a classroom lead by a highly-educated, incredibly skilled and very talented reflective practitioner, this is where we can challenge these taboos and worldviews. If they are left unchallenged and we fail to acknowledge them, how can our students decide if they are wrong? Again, this is not calling for every single political view to be broadcasted but rather a reflective dialogue to be held to educate our students. Opening up intellectual spaces should be on the agenda to protect our young people. Ducking and dodging such discussions pushes them away from the arena of education and into dangerous underground places where our vulnerable young people are at a greater risk. Leslie R. Crutchfield in her How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t, notes the dangers of failing to acknowledge suppressed voices and how they can later be more divisive than political parties. There is incredible merit in trusting our nations educators.

After creating this yesterday, it’s true. As a Sociology teacher, how do I adopt these new frameworks into my practice. My subject centres on evaluation and critical analysis.
The new RSHE frameworks.

In Summary

With any new initiative or framework, we have to ask yourselves how it will impact on our students and staff. Also, who has mandated these new guidelines and whose interests do they serve? Uncritical acceptance at a time where compliance is the norm cannot be internalised for our students. The RSHE element for all our subjects is so intricate and important. These new guidelines are nebulous, woolly and really, where do we start? Does our English department begin to dispose of every copy of An Inspector Calls or Animal Farm? Teachers need guidance and not more authoritarian policies that are ideologically leaning rather than researched informed. Every subject deserves time and space to develop a child’s knowledge and skills. A ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum incorporates multiple ideas and world-views that we must present objectively and in an accessible way for our students to engage with.

Tell me an educational policy that hasn’t been formed on ideological foundations. What was ‘apolitical’ about?

-Performance related pay


-Free Schools

-9-1 GCSE grading

-Linear A-levels

-Obsession with PISA

-Scrapping EMA

-Tripling tuition fees

-Cutting TAs.

If you want teachers to refrain from political ties, cut your own during policy making. All driven by ideology and thinly veiled under the veneer of ‘standards’. It is simple, policymakers should not be reflecting their ideological fragilities onto our young people.

I want to end with a conversation I had with my little brother which went something like this.

Me: “Honestly, reading these guidelines from the DfE is so scary. I feel like I’m in something from Kafka.”

Little brother: “Kafka? Looks more like H&M to me, Shuaib.”

With the ‘common sense’ wailing uncritical masses should never come uncritical classes. Why should blind compliance and passivity be the norm in a world where so much is so obviously wrong? I have work to do with my younger siblings too!

Thank you for reading.

Shuaib Khan

Plan your relationships, sex and health curriculum – New frameworks –

Ofsted’s new inspection arrangements to focus on curriculum, behaviour and development –

Leslie R. Crutchfield, (2018) How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t 

Dark Clouds

Black Lives Matter revisited – my lessons and reflections.

“I can’t make people not afraid of black people. I don’t know what’s going on. I can’t explain what’s happening in your head. But maybe if I show up every day as a human, a good human, doing wonderful things, loving my family, loving your kids, taking care of things that I care about—maybe, just maybe that work will pick away at the scabs of your discrimination. Maybe that slowly will unravel it. That’s all we have, because we can’t do it for them, because they’re broken. Their brokenness in how they see us is a reflection of this brokenness. And you can’t fix that. All you can do is the work.”

– Michelle Obama

On May 25th we saw the death of George Floyd. A vicious, inhumane and awful killing of an African American man at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. The outcry, protests and uproar was like nothing we have seen before. The world finally appeared to unite and Black Lives Mattered. However, let’s get this clear too, it was not just about George Floyd. It was about Breonna Taylor, Tarika Wilson, Trayvon Martin, Stephen Lawrence, I could go on. We are four months on, so where is vigour, energy and drive to reshape the social fabric of society?

Black Lives Matter is everyone’s issue because racism is everyone’s issue. However, some say that’s it’s impossible to retain the same level of vigour and energy for any movement. For the majority of BAME people, the social trends of late autumn and the summer were as close to a breakthrough as we were ever going to get. A breakthrough to challenge cultural norms, values and traditions that have for so long been the bastion of implicit racial biases. Tearing down statues was a symbolism of the removal of racial divisions and the celebratory rhetoric of the evils of empire and slavery. With over 21,000 public complaints against the dance group Diversity for incorporating Black Lives Matter into one their routines, people now appear to be triggered by Alesha Dixon wearing a garment. Britain’s uneasy relationship with race grows more uncomfortable. But where are we now? What’s next? Where do we go?

It wasn’t just about George Floyd.

Let’s make this clear, there have been inroads and I am so proud to say that I know teachers who are continuing to fight for a more socially unified future. Without naming anyone, I know of teachers have been campaigning with exam boards to address racial stereotype within specifications. BrewEd’s are becoming increasingly diverse, inclusion and equality are also permeating into daily dialogue. The BAME Ed network is also growing and not forgetting how hard teachers are working to embed anti-racism values into their pedagogical toolkits. There is some absolutely incredible practice and this article should never detract us from that. Thank you to everyone who is still working at the very grassroots to create a more socially just society.

However, alongside the victories, we must also confront some trends that also need to be considered, highlighted and analysed. This is a personal reflection piece and based upon personal observations. There are three themes I am seeing and becoming aware of everyday. Slacktivism/selective populism, gatekeeping and the homogenisation of BLM.

Slacktivism and selective populism – The notion of slacktivism has been with us since the mid-90s. The idea of real-life pickets and protests being replaced by micro-protests through the algorithms of petitions or hashtags. Indeed, there is a time and place for both methods of protest. However, with Black Lives Matter it became painfully obvious for many BAME people that, sadly, for some, this was a mere # and a selective form of ‘discontent’ to attain validation. One of the pillars of privilege and platform is to freeze and reheat debates based upon what fits your own personal narrative. This ability to selectively decide on what issues deserve acknowledgment and public attention is also a nugget of privilege. Those who were once ‘standing by’ and saying ‘I got you’ have now retracted, ghosted and BLM is now a mere three month trend. Almost like a new pair of shoes which looked fashionable, attained great reviews but once they were no longer so desirable, they are swapped for something new. This is selective populism. But Black Lives Matter is not a pair of shoes. It is a movement for social justice and racial equality that campaigns on behalf of racialised minorities. This ability to select and then emotionally detach from the grim and often fatal realities of so many is beyond frightening. Joining a movement of equality means you are aligning your values with the principles of equality. When you begin to consider yourself as an ‘ally’ in the dialogue about equality too, your empathy aligns itself with those who have been the victims of inequality and injustice. The notion of ‘victims’ is not intended to imply a lack of autonomy but rather the weight of historical systemic oppression. True allyship does not need to be broadcasted. Allyship is not about standing on soapboxes or public acknowledgments – it is about how we interact and treat others. If you joined Black Lives Matter for validation and not equality, then I suggest you reconsider your allyship. Reconsider your stance as Malcolm X once said, “you are in the middle of an ocean and you can’t swim yet you are worried about someone that’s in a bathtub that can’t swim.” That bathtub of populism you are struggling with is someone else’s ocean – a ocean of inequality that generations before them have downed in. If you have the intention to help create a more socially just society, then your allyship will be cherished by those who will someday meet you in their field of unity. That is the destination we should all be striving to get to – a unified future and not a divide past. The BAME community and BLM movement are acutely aware of this selective populism and it will never derail their message. Don’t work too hard or spend too long trying to suss others out. Eventually people just reveal themselves.

Gatekeeping – I have written about racialised gatekeepers in my Different shades of BAME article. However, it was Musa Okwonga who brough this phrase to public attention. Gatekeepers have come out in their numbers to solidify the historical structures of injustice. Their sustained conservative mindset fits neatly into Okwonga’s assertion about the premise of their existence. Okwonga stated gatekeepers are validated in their opinion through the idea of “look at us, we have found a non-white person who agrees with us, our policies therefore do not have racially regressive effects.” Their ‘representation’ in discussions about equality is tainted by their efforts to attain validation and provide an ‘intellectual’ veneer for others to project their implicit biases on. These people gain enough attention but as Black Lives Matter was an opportunity to reflect on historical behaviour, these gatekeepers are brought in to discussion not to add expertise but to glad-handily agree, endorse and ‘validate’ elitist opinion and commentary. Reni Eddo-Lodge in her incredible Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race warns us that “representation doesn’t always mean that the representer will work in the favour of those who need representing”. Gatekeeping has become a prominent feature of derailing conversations about race to create a narrative that we live in a world that is somehow free of inequality and oppression. They rigidly align themselves with the worldview that a meritocratic society is available to all. Their privilege, status, wealth, influence and endorsements create a rigid tunnel vision view of the world that “If I did it, why can’t you?” or “We all have the same chances, I just made the most of mine and you made excuses”. Who does this support? Black Lives Matter was an opportunity for BAME people of influence to help promote meritocracy and equality but why rock a boat when you profit from its voyage? Fragile monopolies of power need constant validation, reassurance and approval. Who better to attain it from than those who have emotionally detached themselves from a community they allegedly ‘represent’?

The homogenisation of BLM – I continued to hear how ‘Marxist’ Black Lives Matter was. How there was the use of ‘reverse racism’ and ‘white bashing’. I am aware of the aggressive overtones of telling people to ‘recognise their privileges’ as well as the nebulous nature comments. My White Noise article actually focuses on incorporating everyone into dialogue about inequality in a progressive manner. Black Lives Matter is not a monolithic and homogenous movement. Intersectional Feminists, the LGBTQ+ community and people from all theoretical and political positions believe that Black Lives Matter. Brandishing BLM with the one-size-fits all critical race theory argument is beyond misinformation. Does every single member of the Black Lives Matter movement follow critical race theory? Absolutely not. Even if the movement itself was built upon this theory, does this not mean there is a multiplicity of world views? Critical race theory was found in the 1980s and aimed to dispel the idea of a ‘colour-blind’ and reappropriate the dynamics of race into conversations about inequality. Commentators who have said Black Lives Matter is built upon the false pretence of white privilege and white supremacy are denying the existence of these power structures that have caused generations of division and inequality. Black Lives Matter is not a homogenous movement but rather an amalgamation of ideas and beliefs that are looking to challenge racism and inequality. As Martin Luther King Jr once said, “unity has never meant uniformity.” There is diversity within the movement. Not everyone who takes a knee in protest wants to politically indoctrinate your children with Marxism or create a socialist revolution! Black Lives Matter is so much more than just police brutality, it is about systemic racism and inequality, with vested stakeholders from all walks of life.

Where next?

The excellent practice can never go unnoticed. Keep up the good work. Keep collaborating, sharing resources and retain your focus on the questions that truly matter. So many people are holding conversations that matter, critically reflecting on their positions and platforms. What comes next is in our hands. We have a choice to continue to support one another, share a message of unity, seek justice for those who are oppressed and continue the fight. It was never just about George Floyd. Yet, we have a golden opportunity to make this a landmark era. This starts with reflecting on our own interaction, challenging our own biases and working to realign our principles with equality. It truly is in our hands. History will ask us, what did 2020 teach you? The answer should be; Black Lives Matter.

Malcolm’s message towards the final few months of his life was about unity. How we find that unity, that is question Malcolm left us all to answer.

In Summary

This year has been truly unprecedented. A global pandemic met with more civil unrest that has once again revealed the scars of inequality. Black Lives will always matter even when the movement itself is not trending on Twitter or sportspeople have stopped taking a knee or wearing a badge. All life is precious and to prevent history from repeating itself, a unified approach is what is required.

Four months have passed and every fragile monopoly of power continues to solidify its walls. These walls were built for a purpose but are in desperate need of dismantling. With the fall of autumn comes dark clouds but also rays of sunshine.

Thank you for reading.

Shuaib Khan

Musa Okwonga article –

Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, London, Bloomsbury

Lost Christmas

A critical analysis of the narrative of normality/loss of Christmas.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”

Charles Dickens

I love Christmas. Even as a Muslim, I love celebrating with my form class. Secret Santa is my absolute favourite. Members of my form always seem to get me socks and I always seem to have more than one Secret Santa! The holiday season brings staff together, it allows students to have a well-deserved break and the euphoria and excitement in the Khan household is unparalleled! With East 17 and Wham playing, I love Christmas time. However, whereas Xmas 2019 I was still licking my wounds over the election result, this year Christmas will be unprecedented.

We appear to be engulfed in the anxiety again as any economy-stimulating policies have backfired with an almost inevitable second wave now pending. For many of us, the COVID pandemic and lockdown has enabled us to gain perspective, realign our vision and reflect on the taken-for-granted lives we once lived. However, as ‘normality’ ensues, the deaths from coronavirus have never halted and with rising cases and the R number teetering between 1-1.4. Half-term for schools looks bleak and with the festivities of Christmas beginning soon, the narrative of normality requires a critical analysis.

The Mirror ran with both of these headlines as there is a national scramble to ‘save’ Christmas. Image: The Mirror

The Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer have pledged to do all they can to make sure we have Christmas. No lockdown on Earth should impede the festive period and no one wants to be labelled as the proverbial ‘Scrooge’, do they? Ebenezer aside, new social distancing rules have been put in place. The ‘rule of six’ which, as a teacher, I still do not understand as I have several classes of over 30 students. This ‘rule of six’ could be lifted to allow families to unreservedly celebrate Christmas. At face value, this should be applauded and fair but Britain is a deeply unequal society. Therefore, any policy making must be considered in relation to these inequalities and addressing these inequalities. The fear of losing Christmas is very real and as Britain enters a critical time, policy makers appear to be in some form of unity. A unity with patriotic and economic overtones rather than informed by scientific or medical advice. Calling a spade, a spade, the political consensus isn’t about Rudolph landing on a snowy rooftops. This is about economic gain.

Neither Johnson or Starmer want to be the antagonist from the beloved A Christmas Carol. However, in the grand scheme of things, the loss of Christmas really is a normality for those socially excluded from festive periods through no fault of their own. Image: Evening Standard

The congratulatory veneer where we were made to believe COVID was a historical event, where we were to grab a pint and a vindaloo in pleasing Rishi Sunak’s #eatouttohelpout scheme. This idea that ‘the worst has already come’ and ‘we have control over the pandemic’ falsely empowered the already confused public to return to the, happy-go-lucky compulsive consumerism to stimulate economic growth. After a decade of austerity in the name of national debt, the country has fallen into a recession. Of course, no one could have forecasted a global pandemic but the handling of the pandemic cannot be understated. We now find ourselves in a predicament not too dissimilar to the one in February, whereby lockdown is a certainty and the public are almost like sitting ducks as they go about their daily lives of work, family and leisure. However, stimulating the economy by a government that seems to know the price of everything and the value nothing. Over 40,000 COVID deaths, thousands still shielding and national guidelines changing every few weeks, what is the public really afraid to lose? Xmas together or losing their loved ones by a life-threatening illness? The political narrative to save Christmas should be replaced with saving lives, livelihoods and protecting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society. The absence of empathy is the malignant part of British politics.

All I want for Christmas is…

Some sense of social justice. I don’t want this article to be a general critique of political policy or individuals. However, I have found three arenas of reflection from this ‘losing Christmas’ political narrative that I would like to discover. This is not an exclusive list but an opportunity to begin a critical analysis of current socio-political narratives.

Inconsistent energies – Britain does pride itself on being a multicultural society and albeit token gestures, there was some level of acknowledgement for the death of George Floyd earlier in the year. Lifting the rule of six for Christmas but then also vigorously opposing the Muslim households in the north of the country on the eve of Eid al-Adha (July 30th-31st) really does represent the systemic bias in this country. Two hours before Eid, several relatives, who I have not seen since last summer were so excited to come see the rest of the family. Weeks before, we saw the beeches packed with thousands flocking to the seaside to top-up tans and enjoy the sea and sand. Eid was cancelled and Eid ul-Fitr (May 23rd) was also one for the WhatsApp and Zoom archives. If the Black Lives Matter movement has taught us anything, it is this inconsistent energy, which includes both praise and condemnation that is one of the pillars of racial inequality and systemic bias. Did Muslims ‘lose’ Eid? Absolutely. The parallels between Christmas and Eid should not go unnoticed here as both, at the very core, include a union of families to celebrate an event of religious or spiritual importance. Let’s strip away the aesthetics for a second- you know, the eggnog, baubles, mango lassi and Eid hugs. At the very core, families and loved ones just want to reconnect but when it is safe. With nebulous guidelines, one rule for one and another for the rest and continuous pursuit for post-Brexit economic prosperity, these inconsistent energies are dangerous, alienating and divisive. At a time where we do need unity, Johnson and Starmer are so keen to reopen schools and not lose Christmas, this unity should be geared towards reopening schools safely and making sure Christmas 2021 is COVID free. Also that I can celebrate Eid, with my Grandma and preferably not in a pub!

Celebratory distractions – Christmas is a religious holiday but not to the economy. The economy has commercialised entity. We know this and are fully aware of this cult of commercialisation. Research from the Bank of England found that, on average, in Britain, families spend £2,500 a month but this skyrockets by over £800 in the month of December. The Brits are the highest spenders per household across Europe over the festive period. Christmas is a financial gamechanger. With increased demand for products and services, the retail, hospitality and many other sectors begin to recruit seasonal employees. Research from 2015 found that of the annual £114bn made by UK retailers, £24bn was made over the Christmas period. Boxing day and January sales, the holiday season is a time of giving, sharing and of course, crucially for our political elites, spending. Christmas by its commercialised and family-centred nature stimulates economic growth. I am sure Mr Sunak will be able to account for more recent figures from his battered leather coffer! For many, Christmas is a time to return to some form of normality and with pending lockdowns, normality as we once knew it perhaps does not exist. My fear, not as an economist because I am not an economist, but as a concerned citizen. Just like #eatoutohelpout, reopening pubs, allowing places of leisure and hospitality to begin taking in customers, these distraction methods. We are supposed to be celebrating ‘normality’ after six months of anything but normality. Watching Boris Johnson pull pints and Rishi Sunak cuts the furlough scheme, I am yet to be convinced that isn’t a mere PR stunt another ‘act in haste and repent in leisure’ policy. The rise of COVID cases, which was an almost certainty now means another period of uncertainty for the public. Should we buy into these celebratory tactics? If anything, we should be socially distancing, wearing our face masks and preparing for the inevitable. Unless it neatly fits the neo-liberal economic narrative, there is no place for dialogue. Again, the focus on economy is at the heart of the rise in cases and not because a handful of ‘#COVIDIDIOTS’ fancied a pint, a korma or a night out at the pictures. This makes us experts but who listens to the experts, hey? This is the era of anti-expert! I’m not trying to be (Chris) witty!

A lost Christmas or a Christmas of loss? Many have already endured such grave losses this year. They may have lost loved ones to COVID and regardless of compensation, nothing can ever replace someone we have lost. To the over 40,000 who will be spending Christmas without their grandparents, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, uncles, aunties, friends and loved ones, we must be considerate of them. Abolishing the rule of six does not compensate for the tragic loss of life. The failure to protect care homes, the millions squandered on unusable PPE, allowing unelected government officials to unapologetically flout lockdown rules to have their eyesight checked at Barnard Castle, to unsafely reopen schools, public transport and work places and the continued disrespect for scientific advice. None of this brings any solace to the grieving families. The loss of Christmas narrative is a underhanded disregard and unempathetic projection of the often cold culture we have towards loss and grief. I would also like to bring the disadvantaged children into this discussion too. According to the charity, Buttle UK, as of 2019, absolute poverty amongst children has risen by 200,000 to 3.7 million. For the 6th richest country in the world, such levels of deprivation are nothing short of a national emergency. With the pandemic, the sense of despair, fear and anxiety is only heightened for the most disadvantaged. For the disadvantaged children who have grown up with a sense of loss, having Christmas and all its trimmings taken away is all too often a reality. Some families cannot afford Christmas as it is often a struggle between paying and purchasing groceries, if not using foodbanks. This loss of Christmas narrative that is being peddled is vastly simplified, wholly disrespectful and failing to account for the losses from both this pandemic and generations of inequalities. These are not generation losses, these are generational grievances with scars of austerity that have yet to heal.

In Summary

The rise of COVID cases was inevitable as soon as the economy is given priority over human life. This will be a Christmas of loss. We should mourn the 40,000+ who have sadly lost their lives, which includes over 600 frontline NHS staff. ‘Normality’ will never be the same as we become wary of everything we touch, mindful of every interaction we make and wary of every cough or sneeze we hear. These are truly unprecedented times and one would love to wrap the things we love in cotton wool and protect them from COVID. Sadly, we don’t have enough cotton, lives continue to be lost and we are being sold promises that no one can really keep. The cross-party consensus on Christmas feels very similar to the one on reopening school and that has gone so well hasn’t it? We may have lost this Christmas to COVID but many have so much through a decade of austerity and deprivation. This Christmas will be like no other but for the most vulnerable, it will be like Groundhog Day. Another year passes with poverty and deprivation marring life chances and another lost Christmas. It’s a national disgrace.

The ‘loss of Christmas’ narrative also needs to critically assessed. The losses many have endured can never truly be compensated by presented under a tree. Yet also, for those who have never experienced the magic of Christmas, their loss and generational experience of structural inequalities can never go unaccounted for.

I pray we can have Christmas with our loved ones, and Eid and every other celebration, religious or not. To also note that many of the religious festivals of the BAME community have been rendered invisible over the pandemic. However, we must start with us taking precautions, analysing our surroundings, calling out those policies and practices that undermine the sacrifices of so many. Finally, I hope we can realign ourselves with empathy and compassion. In a world full of losses, we can never afford to lose those.

Thank you for reading,

Shuaib Khan

Twitter: @ShuaibKhan26

Cost of Christmas –

Child Poverty 2019 –

What’s all the fuss about?

The Prog/Trad dichotomy from the viewpoint of a Centrist

Dr Valerie Daniel


The trad/prog dichotomy appears to be heavily based in ideology that is shaped and influenced by a set of principles that individuals and like-minded people hold dear. These principles could be based on personal philosophy, political affiliations, religion and/or circumstances that contribute to a person’s opinion of the government, our economic system and the country’s various social structures.  I strongly believe in the mantra ‘if you don’t stand for something you fall for anything’, so I am not averse to people with strong opinions. However, despite the passion of both sides of this issue I found it necessary to explore my response to the current situation regarding Traditionalist educational approaches and Progressive educational approaches and the volatile and unhealthy space it occupies on twitter.

We are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle
    and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night

          —Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”

The battle rages on but, are we clear about the the precise nature of this cultural, ideological, and psychological war that is being waged, presumably in the best interest of children and their futures? We have to agree that there are some irrefutable facts that come to bear on this issue:

  • Socio-economic disparities in income, health, social class, educational achievement, professional backgrounds and demographic deprivation.
  • Grave inequities in the funding systems for education
  • Unprecedented population growth and endemic pockets of multi-culturalism or ethnocentric mono-culturalism which add to the demographic challenges of standardising education.

School leaders face the crushing weight of political machinations on a daily basis, they have to become adept at knowing how to traverse a shifting educational landscape, they have to learn the skills necessary to control and navigate paradoxical situations alongside constantly contemplating differing situations, theories, facts, techniques, skills and educational approaches.These are only some of the issues that school leaders face, never mind the enormity of an ongoing pandemic and a hostile attitude towards teachers in general. So, amidst all of this I find it difficult that as educators we don’t appear able to debate what is essentially a philosophical standpoint and moreover, adopt and adapt good practice where it is evident. We appear to have become entangled in the context of relativism, employing questionable loyalties, seeking to quell thought, voices and actions that do not conflate with our own, mounting ill-informed or outdated scientific ‘facts and figures’ in order to shut down meaningful debate. As educators, collectively, we need to be mindful of promoting and adhering to notions of truth that don’t stand up to scrutiny and public debate.

My Understanding

I am prepared to accept that I may have totally misunderstood where traditionalists and progressives are coming from especially as I do not find myself leaning towards the extreme of any of these two approaches. To be honest I hate labels but if I had to choose a label for my personal belief system I would choose the label of ‘Centrist’.The general definition of the word ‘traditional’ is ‘following, conforming or adhering to past practices or established conventions’, and the general definition of the word ‘Progressive’ is ‘favouring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform toward better conditions by employing or advocating more enlightened or liberal ideas, new or experimental methods as opposed to maintaining things as they are’. It appears then that the traditionalist/ progressive divide is grounded in material or social facts on the traditionalist side, and as cultural or subjective interpretation on the progressive side. Meaning is derived from the same turbulent social circumstances that surround schools in the current climate but the context of ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ emerges from the analytical lens through which the situation is viewed.

The traditionalist standpoint places emphasis on knowledge, memorisation, formal teacher-led schooling and unquestioning compliance while progressives value critical thinking, less formal schooling and the capacity for students to exercise some agency over their learning. Ideas and how they are interpreted have divided the philosophical world since the days of Plato and Aristotle, so in that respect we are in good company. This is essentially a discourse of educational structure, culture and agency. Education is controlled by a hierarchical structure of social groups (Government, school leaders, and influential stakeholders) who are intent on saturating it with social relevance. Education has cultural meaning. Culture consists of values and beliefs that influence practice and an individual’s approach to education, and ultimately determines how society educates its citizens. Education has a unique property that derives meaning from how individual agents interact with it and sadly in a lot of cases bears little resemblance to the cultural meaning given to it by society.  Therefore, the current context holds the dichotomy of ‘fact’ whatever that is, or subjective interpretation depending on who you are and the context in which you receive education.

The Traditionalist education approach

The traditionalist education approach focuses on the values that are deemed as ‘culturally important’. Cultureis a complex concept that is inclusive of different aspects and can have different meanings in different situations. Institutional culture directs the policies, teaching standards, and educational methods used to bring about academic and social success in schools that employ a traditionalist educational approach. School cultures within the traditionalist paradigm are broadly defined by the standards set by school leaders regarding behaviour and the positionality of the teacher as the expert and the dispenser of knowledge.

The main objectives of a traditionalist educational approach

I have done quite a bit of reading on the topic and this is obviously not an exhaustive list but these are the elements that stood out for me.

  • Enable the young to understand the customs and traditions of our society
  • Instil moral and social conduct such as independence and respect for authority, that educators consider necessary for future material and social success
  • Encourage the mastery of skills such as sitting quietly while listening to a teacher, showing up on time, taking turns while talking and respect for historical and classical figures
  • Focus on basic key skills like reading, writing, math and science and preparing students for the workplace
  • Create or generate individuals that are economically viable within the context of wider social norms and values
  • Approach education as a mental discipline that requires “rigorous mental involvement to strengthen the mind” (Majali, 2014)
  • Improve student knowledge through memorisation and apply a universal school curriculum to all students
  • Acknowledge the curriculum as a learning plan that is applied in the classroom
  • Define the curriculum by content and subject matter and base learning on identification, selection, organisation and evaluation (Majali, 2014)

The Progressive education approach

Progressive education focuses on the uniqueness of every student as an individual and advocates for respect for diversity; “recognising each individual for his or her own abilities, interests, ideas, needs, and cultural identity”. The culture surrounding progressive education is “child-centred” and defined as valuing experiential learning rather than formal rote learning.  Progressive education encompasses a broader social agenda and operates on the assumption that education should not be coercive or imposed on the child as an external force but rather draw from the latent potential within each child and to concentrate on the development of a child’s talents. “Progressive education established environments where civics and democracy were embedded into school life reflecting the larger society. Progressive educators pointed out the importance of diversity, multiculturalism, multiple intelligences, cooperative and collaborative learning” (The Children’s Sangha). This concept relies on the democratic principle of individual worth and the development of independent thinking skills and critical reasoning to enable each student to understand and participate effectively in their learning. Students access and engage with knowledge that is complex and stratified with the emphasis being on the ability of the learner to interpret and apply knowledge in a practical sense and not just about acquiring knowledge; therefore, learning is about engaging with both intellectual intelligence and social intelligence.

The main objectives of a progressive educational approach

Again, I did extensive reading and these are the points that stood out for me.

  • Emphasis on learning by doing – hands-on projects, expeditionary learning, experiential learning, problem solving and critical thinking
  • Focus on the students and how they learn
  • “Attending to the whole child: Schooling isn’t seen as being about just academics, nor is intellectual growth limited to verbal and mathematical proficiencies” (Kohn, 2008). Understanding and action as the goals of learning as opposed to rote knowledge
  • Integrating the curriculum and focusing on thematic units
  • Group work and development of social skills alongside collaborative learning and cooperative learning projects, a sense of community: “Learning isn’t something that happens to individual children — separate selves at separate desks. Children learn with and from one another in a caring community, and that’s true of moral as well as academic learning. Interdependence counts at least as much as independence, so it follows that practices that pit students against one another in some kind of competition, thereby undermining a feeling of community, are deliberately avoided” (Kohn, 2008).
  • Incorporating education for social responsibility and democracy (The Children’s Sangha) and developing a sense of social justice: “A sense of community and responsibility for others isn’t confined to the classroom; indeed, students are helped to locate themselves in widening circles of care that extend beyond self, beyond friends, beyond their own ethnic group, and beyond their own country. Opportunities are offered not only to learn about, but also to put into action, a commitment to diversity and to improving the lives of others” (Kohn, 2008).
  • De-emphasis on only textbooks in favour of varied learning resources
  • Emphasis on lifelong learning and social skills
  • Assessment by evaluation of child’s projects and productions

So, what’s all the fuss about?

Attempting to synthesise the discussion of traditional and progressive educational approaches has been an interesting process especially in regard to the question ‘what’s all the fuss about?’ The fuss seems to be about a clean and clinical approach to teaching and learning as essentially the domain of school life and the classroom where the teacher reigns supreme on the traditionalist side as opposed to learning that is organised around “problems, projects and questions” integrated with a social agenda and where teaching is interdisciplinary on the progressive side. Traditional schools centre their ethos on the teacher and what they teach while the focal point of progressive schools is the students and how they learn. Traditionalists emphasize, “what information is taught to students, not how it is taught”, (Majali, 2014).

I stand with Kohn (2008) when he states “It’s not all or nothing, to be sure. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a school — even one with scripted instruction, uniforms, and rows of desks bolted to the floor — that has completely escaped the influence of progressive ideas. Nor have I seen a school that’s progressive in every detail.” I firmly believe that education is whatever works to allow learning to happen for each child and essentially, that relies on my expertise as a teacher to know my students, assess their learning needs and support them in whatever way allows them to thrive. This is where I am centrist in my views. I have no issue with viewing education as the pursuit of knowledge and from my reading on schools like Michaela, I don’t perceive that learning is solely about memorising facts and dates and definitions but where I part company with the traditionalist approach is the idea that the undertaking of students is mainly to understand how the teacher has interpreted or applied knowledge and then model or reconstruct the teacher’s thinking. While this may be appropriate for some students it is not appropriate for all students and in this regard I lean towards the progressive approach as I firmly believe that students should construct their own understanding of ideas for sustained learning.

My understanding of traditional teaching methods is a lecture style approach which assumes ‘a one size fits all’ approach. “The time-honoured method of “presenting” factual material to a class of passive learners is still considered good teaching. We may even judge a passive lecture that is well organized, clear, relevant, and up-to-date as being high quality” (Blouin et al, 2009). My question is whether this approach maximises learning potential for all students considering passive lecture style learning is known to produce the lowest knowledge retention rate of any method of learning and learning in these circumstances operates at the lowest levels of cognitive function. It is often argued that the traditional approach is not conducive to providing students with valuable skills and there is a strong viewpoint to suggest that traditional methods lead to students not retaining knowledge after exams – they have little or no recall of the body of knowledge learned (Tularam, 2018).  In contrast, active learning that involves practice by doing, discussion and teaching and learning from others is more effective in knowledge retention and higher levels of cognitive function. So, I suppose the question is ‘are we just getting students through exams or are we encouraging learning as deep understanding?’ One feature of the traditionalist approach is the promotion of being beneficial for students from low income families and families from the non-majority population.  This deficit model persists despite studies that have found “that an “inquiry-based” approach to learning is more beneficial than conventional methods for low-income and minority students” (Kohn, 2008), so questions need to be asked about the resistance to sustained learning for students who are viewed as socially deprived. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead concluded that “A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth.” So, while facts matter they are useless without context or purpose. The idea of learning surely must centre on the ability to think deeply about issues that matter; seeking to understand concepts and make connections in a meaningful way.

The biggest issues of this debate appear to be attack/defence from both sides and the eulogising of the traditionalist approach to evangelistic proportions. There is also a “tendency to paint progressive education as a touchy-feely, loosey-goosey, fluffy, fuzzy, undemanding exercise in leftover hippie idealism — or Rousseauvian Romanticism. In this cartoon version of the tradition, kids are free to do anything they please, the curriculum can consist of whatever is fun (and nothing that isn’t fun). Learning is thought to happen automatically while the teachers just stand by, observing and beaming” (Kohn, 2008). This is erroneous at best and propagandist at worst! The notion that ‘out of control’ students are running through the school corridors and hurling desks and chairs in classrooms is heavily promoted by traditionalists and the idea of oppressed students existing in a prison style environment where the authority of the teacher is akin to a prison warden is heavily promoted by progressives. What needs to be considered is who benefits from keeping this toxic divide in education. Steve Watson, Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge says, “…progressive or traditional is a false dichotomy. It hides the real issue. It has become an expression of confusion and anger relating to the complex wider picture. And this is why I am reluctant to engage in it, because there is a much bigger fight to be had. That’s with the people who perpetuate the myth, policy makers pursuing ideological privatisation of our education system and with those who have vested interests and something to gain out of the current policy direction. It is time to see through the myth.”  It is very interesting that very little is being done by anyone to effectively move this debate forward.

The more I work through this lengthy blog and the more I draw from Kohn (2008) and the Children’s Sangha, the more certain I become that I am centrist in my views but with a very strong lean towards progressive educational approaches. I am a strong advocate for social justice and I find it strange when educators view this as negative and start throwing labels of hard left political affiliations to what I perceive as education working for the greater good, and I say this while wearing the hat of a black female and all the societal challenges that goes with that dynamic. Then I am reminded that education does not exist outside the political arena and is in fact a social macrocosm in itself. A progressive approach to education values “scepticism, questioning, challenging, openness, and seeking alternate possibilities” which bears the hallmark of challenging the political system and in the current political climate it is clear that the people who are in power do not like being challenged. Questions about curriculum content persist as progressive educators continue to argue for better representation, a broader and more relevant history curriculum and more contemporary issues to be present in the traditionalist approach to education. This argument is not about excluding what is being taught now but rather about including what is not being taught and to ask traditionalists to consider the damage to students whose diverse backgrounds are perceived as sub-standard and not good enough to be addressed in the classroom although they live these realities on a daily basis outside of the classroom and school life.


I do not feel like I have nearly scratched the surface of this fascinating debate even with the length of this blog! Despite my ‘centrist with a progressive lean viewpoint’ I am aware that schools are located at any point on a continuum between the extremes of total progressive and total traditional. I am also aware that as people we frequently fall into the habit of accepting narrow definitions and we are equally guilty of a stubborn resistance to broadening the narrative around contentious social issues, but as educators we have to commit to being ‘comfortable with uncertainty’ and we have to ask ourselves the uncomfortable questions about our personal drivers and motives. Kohn points out that “a school that is culturally progressive is not necessarily educationally progressive. An institution can be steeped in lefty politics and multi-grain values; it can be committed to diversity, peace, and saving the planet — but remain strikingly traditional in its pedagogy”. Such is the intricacy of this debate which we throw around in a public space like twitter with little regard to the damage it may be doing to our noble profession.

This thought keeps popping into my mind, would I go to a dentist whose only skill is to extract teeth? My answer to that is a resounding no! If the dentist had no skills or expertise in how to preserve teeth then I would go to a dentist who does. Extracting teeth does the job no doubt, but it is not an appropriate course of action for teeth that can be saved. Traditional education does the job and no doubt it is an easier option because progressive education is far more demanding on teachers and requires a deep understanding of pedagogy because no amount of expert subject knowledge can inform you of how to facilitate learning for a diverse student cohort. The belief that anyone who has expert subject knowledge will automatically make a wonderful teacher “is a corollary of the belief that learning is a process of passive absorption —a view that cognitive science has decisively debunked” (Kohn, 2008). We as educators need to think deeply about what it means to be a good teacher. That ‘feel good’ factor you enjoy about being a knowledgeable lecturer looking over a sea of passive, enrapt faces hanging on your every word, is purely about you and not about the children. It smacks of egocentrism and not of learning. Contrary to popular belief, progressive teachers need to have expert knowledge, their goal is the desire for their students to deeply understand the subject matter and be able to make connections and apply their knowledge in different contexts as opposed to simply memorising knowledge. We have an enormous, diverse world with limitless possibilities; let’s open up the windows and the doors to these possibilities instead of closing the net around the limits that are comfortable for teachers which results in reining in potential and locking it all into this narrow field of  power, subjectivity and context of the traditional classroom.

Dr Valerie Daniel

Further reading

Blouin RA, Riffee WH, Robinson ET, et al., Roles of innovation in education delivery. Am J Pharm Educ (2009) 73(8). 

Kohn, A., Progressive Education: Why It’s Hard To Beat, But Also Hard to Find (2008), Independent School

Majali, D., Introduction to curriculum theory (2014), Muta University

Tularam, GA, Traditional vs Non-traditional Teaching and Learning Strategies – the case of E-learning! International Journal for Mathematics teaching and learning (2018) 19(1).

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