Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

If you've stumbled upon here randomly, then I suggest you check out my biography and other pages.

Please Note: This site, and the social networking profile pages connected with it, reflect my personal interests & views which do not necessarily represent those of organisations I am affiliated / associated with.


First march...

Today I went on strike with school colleagues from across north west England in protest at the government's policies on education. Most of the British media has portrayed this as primarily a strike about teachers retaining their perks but it is wider and much more heartfelt than that. Having spent a decade working in education, I have never seen teachers so demoralised and concerned.

The Guardian Teacher Network is proving to be a focal point in terms of teachers expressing their views about where they feel policy is going wrong. Here is one example:
Why I am going on strike with my fellow teachers 
Today, the main teaching unions in the north-west of England have called members to go on strike. It was up to each member to decide whether to answer that call or not. I have, because of the direction in which this Tory government and their Lib Dem partners are taking our school communities.  
Although some people may feel the strike is about "selfish concerns", namely pay, performance management and working conditions, for me these issues have become secondary. To be clear; I am in favour of reforming the long school holidays, which are based on an outdated agricultural calendar. I understand teachers' pay agreements may have to be renegotiated to assist with the current economic situation. I also understand teachers' pensions may have to be reformed, given increased life expectancy and the long-term economic pressures of an ageing population. 
However, I feel I need to register my protest for the following reasons: 
• The militarisation of schools, particularly those in poorer areas. The government is proposing that former soldiers without a degree and subsequent teacher training are employed as teachers in schools; with a big focus on discipline. This is a reflection of the Tory worldview. So while wealthier polite society children should be encouraged to lead, lower class unruly children should be programmed to work and obey.  
• Running alongside this, the influx of non-qualified teachers will reduce the pay across the entire profession. This may seem like a good way of saving money until you consider that a minimum wage workforce could lead to the same kind of issues we see in places such as care homes. 
• The privatisation and commercialisation of schools, particularly those in poorer areas. Schools are being turned into academies or undermined by new free schools, which are then run by trusts consisting of companies, religious groups (going under fairly bland names) and entrepreneurial types. 
• A further concern is as these schools are handed over, the land on which they sit, which is publicly-owned land, is also handed over. It is the greatest giveaway since British Rail and the energy companies were hastily privatised. 
• The target-centred culture where all children and their teachers are given a series of numerical targets to achieve within each academic cycle. If they're deemed to be achieved midway through a year, they're simply increased. If they're not achieved, the child and teacher are "red flagged" and forced to undertake various measures with very little account taken of context, mitigating circumstances and so on. This target-centred culture, rather than person-centred culture, follows a similar model in the NHS, which is now facing serious criticism. 
• The regulatory system within education run by Ofsted. This body is creating a "toxic culture" in schools due to its hard and fast, pass or fail method of inspection. One of the biggest open secrets in schools is that the inspectors working for this body also work as private consultants to the schools on how to pass their system. In other industries this would be regarded as corruption. 
• The changes to the national curriculum, which experts from various subject backgrounds have condemned as not thought through and shaped by a specific perspective – one of "our great country". Again, this reflects the Tory worldview, which it seeks to educate the great unwashed with. 
• The abolition of national and regional pay scales for teachers, resulting in schools being free to decide their own pay scales. Salary increases and decreases will be based on the subjective judgment and discretion of headteachers and middle managers. This will lead to cronyism; teachers playing whatever game their superiors require to pay their mortgages. 
• The increase of the retirement age to 68 in an organisational culture that at present does not respect age nor experience, favouring younger, arguably more "easily moulded" staff. I have seen firsthand the way staff deemed as "past it" (and too expensive) are moved on; forced to leave loyally served, hard fought careers by the back door for "health reasons" and forced to take a reduced pension. 
• The fires of bitter conflict that education secretary Michael Gove and Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw are deliberately stoking up within education. It seems that various academics and professional bodies have all raised concern after concern; Michael Gove has even received a vote of no confidence from the unions, which is in fact rare. But he and his government aren't listening.  
So today, in my own small way, I am registering my protest on behalf of my profession, my students and any future children I am lucky enough to have of my own.
Until today I had never marched before. 

I readily admit that I was one of those citizens who in previous days has instinctively taken a fairly dim view of protesters, believing them to be predominantly a mix of opportunist socialist ideologues and agitators. I recognise this is due to the way the British media portrays those who protest, particularly so those on the left of politics.

I also feel this Tory government, and their Lib Dem backers, are radicalising me with their policies. They have re-awakened a spirit within me. Today the turnout to the rally in Manchester was twice that expected. I think many teachers are feeling the same.

Growing up in Sheffield during the 1980s and early 1990s, I saw the Tories as 'the enemy' and passionately believed in a socialist-democratic future. As such I celebrated their total and utter defeat in 1997 to Tony Blair, staying up all night with my family rejoicing as the election results came in. In recent years though - as the Labour government became increasingly discredited, increasingly incredulous - I saw the Tories as less of a threat. Not someone I would vote for but no longer someone I would actively vote against. With my Labour heart finally broken by the Walter Wolfgang incident in 2005 and my membership resigned, I turned to the Liberal Democrats and became a member.

Now I have come full circle, returning to the social democrat left. Feeling a strong calling, alongside my wife who shares similar concerns and hopes, to become active. I intend to resign my Liberal Democrat membership. There will be no return to Labour but I intend to keep on marching for a fairer, freer Britain.


Waiting, not Seeking

Today was a difficult Meeting for Worship. Perhaps the most difficult I have attended to date.

The meeting felt depleted with Friends taking up responsibilities elsewhere. At times this can make for a deeper encounter but today it did not. It felt like there was a collective restlessness - with those that did  attend arriving late, struggling to settle into silence and so on. It took around 40 minutes, by my reckoning at least, for the meeting to become gathered.

Outside the wind blustered, periodically howling through the building, and the rain spattered against the windows. The cars whizzing past the meeting house could also be heard spraying the surface water, attempting to return the fallen rain to the air. I tried to focus outwardly on all of this to calm my mind - whilst also trying to embrace the seemingly noisy page turning, door slamming, feet shuffling and whispering from those around me as par for the course. 

In all honesty, I ended up for the most part frustrated, eventually mirroring the behaviour of others and  flickering through the pages of Quaker Faith & Practice and the Bible - quietly feeling a desire to be back at a more traditional service of songs and sermons, perhaps back at a Unitarian & Free Christian chapel somewhere, or even just off strolling somewhere in the nearby Peak District.

Having recently dipped into 'The Cathedral of the World' by quite recently passed Unitarian-Universalist minister Forrest Church, I have been struck by what he recounts is written on his father's gravestone:

"I never knew [anyone] who felt self-important in the morning after spending the night in the open on an Idaho mountainside under a star-studded summer sky. Don't forget to spend some time in nature, where you can bear witness to the wonder of God."

I suppose, on reflection, we can sometimes place too much expectation on our Sunday mornings, and there is something to be said for simply sitting out in the garden or walking a valley as an alternative form of worship. Again, a case of not-doing, waiting rather than seeking.

Pooh Bears and Lilies

I've been missing from this blog for some time now. I have not forgotten about it or lost interest in it, I think I have simply entered a period of listening rather than speaking in terms of spiritual, philosophical and ethical matters. This is also reflected in my presence at Quaker meeting as I've found myself not giving ministry, finding fulfilment in hearing the words of others and attending to things such as making the tea & coffee afterwards.

I have also reached a point in my working life where I am due to leave my position and move to another, one that I feel may prove very different and, I foresee, has the potential to eventually take me down a new path with regards to my work with young people - and people in general. As such I have a very strong sense of 'winding down' and have recently spent time, quite casually, putting together some short advice articles on my experiences to date (here and here) - they do feel very much like memoirs.

Last week a Friend who I haven't heard ministry from before stood to read the following from Advice and Queries:

"Every stage of our lives offers fresh opportunities. Responding to divine guidance, try to discern the right time to undertake or relinquish responsibilities without undue pride or guilt. Attend to what love requires of you, which may not be great busyness."

She then went on to speak how she has never felt comfortable leading a march, or even participating on one, but rather has felt her calling to be the one who quietly and gently provides food for the marchers. (There is perhaps a lesson in this also for our politicians as we consider how to support Syria - that our contribution should be humanitarian not political.)

This chimed very much in sync with my recent reading of The Tao of Pooh, an entertaining as well as enriching book, which looks at different approaches to life through the eyes of Taoism and the Winnie the Pooh characters. It seems an odd premise for a book but somehow works.

"While Eeyore frets ... 
...and Piglet hesitates 
...and Rabbit calculates 
... and Owl pontificates 
    ...Pooh just is."

The author Benjamin Hoff talks through the basic outlook of Taoism whilst making observations of Western cultures and habits. I found myself laughing aloud at certain points whilst at the same time feeling critiqued.

It's tuned me very much into the fact I have spent the past few years in a kind of turbo mode of seeking, striving, planning, building - doing, doing and more doing. It has been a time of tremendous growth but perhaps now has come a point where I spend more time simply breathing and appreciating.

This is not as easy as it sounds, for in not-doing there is a well-exercised nervous twitch to try get us going again - borne out of guilt and fear. I spoke to a colleague recently about another colleague (his partner) who left our place of work within the past year for a less pressured role, "How is she getting on now? You did say she was struggling when I last asked..." He replied with, "Well, in the first six months she basically struggled with the spare time on her hands. I likened it to an addict in cold turkey and then recovery and we kind of approached it in that way..." 

He then went on to relay a story about a plumber who built up a multi-million pound business in London and then deliberately stopped despite the encouragement from others to expand further, noting that for all the more riches that more frenetic work could bring - and we can define those riches in various ways - his next goal was certainly not to become 'the richest plumber in the graveyard.'

To tie all this back into Christian thinking, we see these themes in 1 Corinthians 12 with Paul's advice on different kinds of ministry - and that those who may appear weakest, perhaps we could also say most inactive, are often providing something of great value. We also see this in Jesus's advice to consider the birds of the skies and the lilies of the field.

There is something to be gained, and given to those around you, from practicing this kind of faithful stillness - even if it is just for a little while, now and then.