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My book journey of 2019

My annual catch up of every book I read in 2019. Find the 2018 edition here and the 2017 edition here.

  1. Viking Britain: A History by Thomas JT Williams

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A history book that I admired rather than loved. This is a thoroughly expert look at the sometimes brutal Viking period of the British Isles. The book is at it’s best when it places the reader right there at the time through small narrative inserts such as catching sight of a longboat silently cutting through the river mist on a cold morning. The book successfully conveys the scale of the settlement from Scandinavia and I felt the author taking pride in addressing many of the misconceptions of the Viking period that have grown through history and modern media. Williams also successfully conveys the impact of the period and how this is still underplayed compared to other ages of these isles.

2. The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman

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A very rewarding novel with a lovely sense of place, time and character that, in it’s later stages, evolves into a thriller as a daring deception raises the stakes higher and higher. The depiction of the enthralling but ultimately repulsive artist Bear Bavinsky as the brilliant sun around which his meeker son, Pinch, and the rest of the characters orbit is a joyful one that turns sour. As a reader you want to be in those Italian restaurants just as much as the hangers on around Bear, listening to his stories and basking in his opinions before, as the novel progressed, you realise that his vices and relationship failures come at a cost. A very good book.

3. Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America by Will Ashon

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Enter the Wu-Tang Clan (36 Chambers) is a masterpiece of East Coast hip-hop and an album that blew my mind back in the mid-90s. This slight book contains interviews with the main players in Wu-Tang and contextualizes the album, its artwork and its skits in the city and upbringing of those Staten Islanders. The book captures the rawness of the initial ideas and recordings of the album and gives some useful depth to the stories behind the lyrics and the themes of the group. It’s niche, granted, but a must for Wu-Tang fans.

4. Any Human Heart by William Boyd

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The best book of the year. Recommended to me by my wife, this is a towering novel that will grip your heart and not let go. It’s rare to read a novel and find characters so well defined, so well drawn that you feel that you have always known them. Through the 20th Century we follow Logan Mountstuart who a brash, privileged young man who enjoys early success and the finer things in life but, as his disappointments and adversity stack up, your wariness of him diminishes and your empathy builds. It has been an age since I have read a novel with such exact and lifelike characters; they breathe from the page back at you. The diary format works brilliantly and captures the scale of a life well lived. Marvellous.

5. Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies by Hadley Freeman

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A more disposable sashay then followed through some of the classic films of the 80s, this is part autobiography, part film culture appreciation that feels like an extended magazine article. As a child of the 80s who will still, even now subject those around him to long diatribes on the value of Trading Places as a Christmas movie or the worthwhile lessons on self-reliability in Witness, I am prime fodder for this sort of book and I did enjoy it, yet it left me as soon as I had closed the back cover.

6. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

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A novel that I wanted to like but found the mix of brutal reality and fantasy hard to find believable. We follow the unspeakably hard early life of a slave on a Caribbean plantation who is given a wing to shelter under when his master’s brother chooses him for a manservant. The themes of freedom and the safety of home follow our hero to adventures in the Arctic Circle, the Eastern coast of America and then onward to Britain. There is plenty of adventure to be found but the narrative seemed haphazard to me while the mix of the viciousness of the early chapters on the slave plantation seemed at odds with the more whimsical methods of escape and exploration that followed.

7. Snap by Belinda Bauer

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I didn’t like this one. The mystery of Jack and his missing mum whipped along but I found the tenuous links between groups of characters jarring before the greater depths of connection were later revealed. Another negative were the police characters drawn right from the top shelf of cliche detective tropes.

8. The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni

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A novel with a lot of heart and a central group of characters who’s humanity and goodness shine through. Sam Hell is born with red eyes immediately singling him out among his peers for unwanted attention from bullies and mean spirited teachers. Through his perseverance and the support of his hardworking and religious family he is able to find belonging and acceptance in a small group of friends who then, in the second half of the novel set forty years later, assist him confront old demons. A worthy story with a lot of hope.

9. American War by Omar El Akkad

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Again, a book I wanted to like but one that left me a little cold. Set in a future after a second American Civil war, the novel depicts a believable world full of distrust and danger but one without the necessary empathetic characters to really draw you into that world. Sarat, who grows to become our principal character, has guts and determination and battles through a whole world of hurt but never quite managed to gain my interest.

10. The English and their History by Robert Tombs

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This was a great history book but one that took me a long time to get through. Tombs takes the approach of looking at how the English history has shaped itself, how our national stories and mythology have become separated from the reality and, in turn, affect the ongoing story the country is building for itself. Many times throughout the book, Tombs skillfully explains how the actual events have become detached from the popular history that has then flourished with interesting detail.

11. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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A wonderful, epic novel that follows a Korean family from 1910 who, through twists of fate, eventually emigrate to Japan and strive to improve their lot against a society reluctant to embrace them. Pachinko is the name given to public arcades full of games machines which are associated with Koreans in Japan. The themes of chance and opportunity that spring from this are tightly woven throughout the book. The list of characters is long and a mix of family, friends and enemies but one, Sunja stands head and shoulders above them all. We first meet her as a young girl, diligently working in her parents guesthouse before her life is irrevocably changed first by the death of a parent and then by the attentions of a wealthy businessman. Throughout the novel surprises you with sudden twists of fate both hopeful and tragic and, by the end, you can only admire the scope of humanity that a even a simple tale of a family can include.

12. Straight White Male by John Niven

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Throughout Straight White Male it is clear that Niven is a dexterous and skilful writer with an ear for dialogue and accent but, looking at his wiki now, I can understand why he has adapted so many of his works as film scripts. Our hero is Kennedy Marr, a mid 40s writer with oodles of success in his past, a brash, flash LA lifestyle and a daughter he barely sees back in England. Debts and events conspire to bring the two together as Kennedy moves back to work on big budget blockbuster and take up a teaching post at a University. There’s plenty of fun to be had here as Niven does build a main character holed with flaws but one who still holds your empathy even when making clearly terrible decisions.

13. How To Be Right…in a World Gone Wrong by James O’Brien

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O’Brien is not a broadcaster I discovered through his radio show or the short, viral clips of him finding that some people who call talk radio during the day are not the sharpest tools that LBC use across their social media. I became aware of him through the podcast interviews he conducts with guests from a wide range of backgrounds. I liked his empathy and ability to draw thoughtful conversations out of guests and could understand where his brand of logical reasoning could find an audience in today’s polarised media landscape. The book is briefly entertaining in its clear sighted approach to some of the major political issues of recent years but I found the transcripts of radio phone in conversations less agreeable. It’s certainly true that modern politics is losing the war against opinion dressed as fact, falsehoods spread as truth and voters minds already being pre-set against opposing views but O’Brien struggles to find the most difficult tightrope of all to tread; to expose the fallacies behind the opinions of his challengers while also bringing them with him.

14. The Destroyers by Christopher Bollen

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I admired this novel rather than liked it. Following a group of wealthy young souls all escaping to (hiding on?) and reconnecting on a Greek island for a summer where past lies and misdemeanors come out. None of the characters are especially likable and so their problems in life and with each other don’t really engage or entice. It’s a long book without much payoff.

15. Elmet by Fiona Mozley

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A book I rattled through in ten days (which is quick for me) which I very much liked in places, this is a seemingly simple tale of a brother and sister and their initially idyllic country life with their hulking giant of a father. A man built for fighting and the outdoors but who is still able to show compassion with his children. At times the descriptions of nature and of the simple meals the family prepare reminded me of Enid Blyton’s passages about prosaic day-to-day events before the brutality of the outside world invades the novel in the final third to end with more mature themes. It’s a sad novel about the loss of family and the safety of home.

16. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez

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I finished the year with a head spinning run through the consequences of the hidden data gap and biased data collected around gender and the enormous effects on women across the full spectrum of modern, daily life. Sometimes a book comes along that investigates an issue of such importance or striking obviousness that much reaction to it struggles to move on from disbelief; this is one such book. At time the statistics and figures come so thick and fast I found it hard to keep up with the impact and implications of such overwhelming evidence. Along with books such as The Spirit Level, a publication that you hope anyone interested in working in politics or public policy would read.

A really enjoyable year of reading!

New Year, new role

With the start of a new year and a new term, I have moved to take-up a new role as Careers Leader at Milton Keynes College.

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It’s new role in the College staffing structure as the team look to meet and surpass all of the Gatsby requirements for Further Education Colleges.

So, over the forthcoming months this blog will still continue (although perhaps a little more sporadically) with a Further Education and Secondary CEIAG focus.

I hope that 2019 will bring you the challenges and successes that you desire!

My book journey of 2018

I really enjoyed looking back over my 2017 reading list about this time last year so here’s this year’s edition!

  1. Think Small; the surprisingly simple ways to reach big goals – Owain Service & Rory Gallagher (2017)

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Which I posted about here.

2. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution – Robert Middlekauff (2007)

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The history of the United States fascinates me as it is a nation I can still see evolving today. From the debate over the 2nd Amendment and it’s applicability to a time of assault rifles to the legacy of slavery and it’s implications still on the life chances of Americans of colour, this is history with a pulse. The Oxford History of the United States series of which this was the first edition, is a wonderful collection of superbly researched and written books. This is right up there with the best as Middlekauff covers the build up to, the battles within and the settling dust of the Revolution. Giants of nation building and war craft such John Adams (about which there is an excellent HBO drama series covering much of the same period), George Washington and Benjamin Franklin all play their part in the drama and the monumental decisions they take is given the context for you to really appreciate the scale of the tasks they set themselves. Glorious stuff indeed.

3. The Nix – Nathan Hill (2016)

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A long but fairly diverting novel following a number of separate but not so separate stories of a range of characters including a failed writer, reconnecting with mother after 20 years to use her news worthiness to grab a new publishing deal but instead hearing about her counter-culture protesting days in the 60s. I enjoyed it, but the characters haven’t stayed with me.

4. Breaking Bad 101: The Complete Critical Companion – Alan Sepinwall (2017)

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After finishing the (outstanding) show I ripped through this stocking filler book really quickly as it covers, episode by episode, the behind the scenes and writing background for each and provides some interesting titbits about the making of the show.

5. The Explorers: Stories of Discovery and Adventure from the Australian Frontier – Tim Flannery (2000)

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The most disappointing book of the year. After travelling through Australia in the early 2000s, I have been fascinated with the explorers who saw such a huge , undiscovered country and thought to themselves, “Yep, I’ll walk across that.” This is a compendium of first source writings that cover many expeditions across various parts of the massive continent and, while some offer glimpse into the hardships and sense of a disappearing wilderness, in total I was left wanting. I felt that I had not gained an insight into the sense of wonder, trepidation or bravery that those explorers sensed as they first stepped into the un-mapped and the unknown.

6. The Nightingale – Kristin Hannah (2015)

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Reminiscent in tone and subject matter to another WWII novel, All the Light we Cannot See, The Nightingale follows the traumatic tales of two sisters in war-torn France as they, in their own different ways, do what they need to survive through the German occupation. About a third of the way in to the book I remember still feeling skeptical about it as it felt more of a Hallmark movie than a serious novel but, by the end, I was a blubbing mess praying that someone, anyone left in story would find a glimmer of happiness.

7. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI – David Grann (2017)

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Soon to be filmed by Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, this is a history book that is so utterly outlandish in the unfairness, corruption and depravity of human nature it describes that, even now, I struggle to believe the story it tells is true. The terribly sad thing is though that the story of what happened to the Osage people after oil was discovered on their Government given land in the 1920s certainly happened. A brilliantly crafted work.

8. Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders (2017)

I tackled the 2017 Man Booker prize winner not knowing what to expect as many reviews had commented on the “experimental” nature to the book and was left extremely moved by some passages (particularly as the broken Abraham Lincoln visits his dead son’s grave in the dead of the night to say his final goodbyes) but mostly finished nonplussed by the ethereal nature of the prose and the setting.

9. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era – James M. McPherson (1988)

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More US history from the Oxford Press series but this time concentrating on the fight amongst themselves. This is a simply wonderful book, perhaps the best in the series I’ve read yet. The scholarship on display to present so many sources into a coherent narrative is amazing and the history breathes because of it. Both the motivations and areas of disagreement of the North and the South are presented fairly and such that the reader can see why they believed they were standing up for the “freedom” described in the Constitution. There are no easy villains or heroes here. The slow movement towards the unthinkable of civil war is captured brilliantly as are the giants of Lincoln, Grant and Robert E.Lee.

10. The Bellwether Revivals – Benjamin Wood (2012)

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A slight novel about a mismatched group of friends in Cambridge following them as they fall in love, deal with a family member’s delusional behaviour and battle with the implications of their own disparate upbringings. I liked it but didn’t love it.

11. Pure – Andrew Miller (2011)

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A book that had been on my reading list for a long time and one that delivered when I finally got around to reading it. A cracking novel of intrigue, love, friendships and unwilling heroes as an engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is tasked with clearing the overflowing and putrid Les Innocents cemetery in Paris in 1786. It’s a novel that conjures the atmosphere of the world it is describing before you while also hinting at bigger themes and events beyond the page (the spectre of the soon to come Revolution hangs over everything).

12. How Music Got Free: What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime? – Stephen Witt (2015)

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An interesting look at four different true stories that encapsulated the reasons, actions and impacts of the death of physical format music and the rise of piracy in the late 90s. We follow an employee at a CD pressing plant who became the most significant leaker of new music, the file sharing collectives who raced to be the first and the best at getting pirated music out there, the creator of the MP3 whose engineering genius and commercial tenacity enabled the whole format transition and the record company executive who learned to adapt through this chaotic market. As an ex record store employee, this book was an interesting insight into a story I thought I knew but clearly didn’t.

13. The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld – Jamie Bartlett (2014)

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Another non-fiction book, this one looking at how the dark web enables anonymous trading, communication and collaboration across the globe. Reading in 2018 its sections on cryptocurrencies , trolling and 4chan already seem a little dated as these areas moved into the mainstream news after the Brexit and Trump votes.

14. Mountains of the Moon – IJ Kay (2012)

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This novel wasn’t one I enjoyed. It has it’s moments of tenderness and brilliant use of language as it follows a young lady through various stages of her tough life always narrated in her own voice. Through the sections following her as a child this stylistic technique allows for some gut wrenching moments as too late you realise the severity of the traumatic scenes being described but overall so much of the text is simply expendable.

15. The Careers Leader Handbook: How to create an outstanding careers programme for your school or college – Tristram Hooley & David Andrews (2018)

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Which I posted about here.

16. Disraeli or The Two Lives – Douglas Hurd & Edward Young (2014)

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An engrossing look at a politian who, in many ways, broke the mould of the time (his Jewish heritage, his less than salubrious or honest youth) and yet is held up today as a beacon of statemenship when, at his pomp, he was more respected for the sharpness of his Parliamentary take downs. I enjoyed learning about a period of history that I now want to delve further into.

17. The Making of the British Landscape – Nicholas Crane (2016)

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I finished the year with yet another history book but one that looks at past events through a different lens. By concentrating on the changes (both man made and natural) to the landscape and climate of Britain, Crane is able to present a history of these isles like no other I’ve read. The sheer amount of change the land has accured is staggering and tests your imagination as first you are taken back 1000s of years to before these isles became isles. The impact of hunting, of the initial attempts at agriculture and the medium term changes in climate all have their impact on the land. The mysterious landscaping of these peoples as they bury their dead, protect their lands and throw up the odd henge or two is decoded all thousands of years before The Romans and their frantic building schemes arrived. Onwards, the Black Death, enclosure and the Industrial revolution, all leave their indelible mark on the landscape. A brilliant book that left me bereft at all that has been lost in our landscape never to be reclaimed.

So, that was my 2018 reading journey. I’m midly impressed at myself for getting through 17 books and will hope to conquer a similar amount in 2019!

My book journey of 2017

Stealing an idea from the excellent Laura McInerney, here is the list of books that I consumed through 2017

  1. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History – Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)

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A fascinating take on the disaster facing many species around the world as they deal with a contended man-made or “sixth” extinction event currently occurring. Not a cheering read as the impact of human expansion and disinterest in how our species impacts others is laid bare. The predicted loss of between 20% to 50% of all living species on the planet by the end of the 21st Century is hugely sobering. The mix of author travelogue and scientific analysis is very well done.

2. The Good Immigrant – edited by Nikesh Shukla (2016)

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An unflinching and demanding series of essays that force the reader to consider how immigrants of colour are perceived by mainstream British society and media. The impossible balancing act of trying to please a society that demands assimilation but will forever distinguish ‘otherness’ is highlighted by each author, some focusing on their own stories and family history, others on the wider societal clashes of having to conform to a stereotype not requested by individuals. I’ll admit, some of the essays seemed trite or lacking in weight to me but I hope that was only because of the sheer brilliance of some of the work. “Airports and Auditions” by Riz Ahmed in particular, was breathtaking in laying bare the contradictions we demand.

3. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow – Yuval Noah Harari (2017)

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A kind of road map of the human journey of the future, Harari looks at what humans have found important throughout our history and how those interests will shape our tomorrow. The talent of humans to find meaning in our collective experiences and constructs but also to place importance on the desires of the individual are forces that will drive our progress towards medical advancements in living longer or automation and artificial intelligence. Harari is a clever man but I found the book attempted to cover too much, the themes too big for the message to have any real impact. It reminded me of Gleick’s The Information as the central ideas of the book seemed too big for the author to wrestle under control.

3. Television: A biography – David Thomson (2016)

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Thomson is one of my favourite writers on film and I loved his previous mix of media and personal history, Moments that Made the Movies (2013). This, unfortunately did not live up to me expectations though as many of the touchstone television series or moments focused on are very American (Lucille Ball for example) and the personal stories seemed more jumbled up. The joining thread in previous books isn’t there and the whole project could have done with a firmer hand by his publisher.

4. Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II – Mitchell Zuckoff (2013)

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After previously devouring Unbroken (2010), I was on the look out for another book that illustrated the remarkable true stories of survival and perseverance in World War 2. I wasn’t disappointed with Frozen in Time, the truly amazing story of two US planes that crashed into Greenland in 1942, the epic survival of (some of) the crews for 148 days on the glacier and the 2012 mission to locate one of the rescue planes that went looking for the crews only to also crash into the ice. The feats of endurance are remarkable and, while at times it’s difficult to keep track of which crew or rescue or location is being discussed, the narrative is kept driving on for the reader to truly care about each man and their outcome. An astonishing tale of human spirit.

5. The North Water – Ian McGuire (2016)

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Apparently continuing my need to feel frozen, I then moved onto a novel set in the violent and gruesome 19th Century whaling industry. The novel follows the misadventures of a harpoon ship called the Volunteer and the men abroad each with their own dark histories particularly Sumner the doctor and Drax, a seaman with a heart of darkness. The book is bloody and filthy in places, not scrimping in its descriptions of the work of whaling or the evil actions of its protagonists but, through the horror comes a character that you do end up rooting for. A man willing to put the effort into surviving but also attempting to hold onto a shred of decency and moral goodness through it all. A brutal but worthy read.

6. The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell (2014)

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As a massive fan of his earlier novels number9dream (2001) and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010), I was looking forward to this almost Neil Gaiman like story. Mixing mundane reality with fantasy and otherworldly aspects such as immortal warriors and psychic abilities is tricky to pull off and I never felt totally comfortable that this novel achieved this. Other readers who might be more enthusiastic fans of fantasy might disagree but, for all the clever jumps in time across the chapters, I could never quite shake off the feeling that this was a little silly.

7. The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land – Thomas Asbridge (2010)

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A wonderful work of historical non-fiction that manages to lead the reader through the Medieval period 1095-1291 and multitude of characters, faiths and empires that battled across the Levant for control of religious sites and trading routes. As well as being a fascinating period of history, The Crusades now have modern connotations placed upon them and Asbridge is excellent at cutting through the noise to describe the motivations of the main players and the historical detail that illuminates the period. Major characters of history such as Saladin and Richard the Lionheart are painted with the precise pen of author who has done the research and is able to humanize these giants of history. The individual motivations of leaders, the internal politics of both the Franks and the numerous Islamic sects and the religious zeal of many of the crusaders is all discussed to paint the complex picture the period deserves.

8. Work Like Any Other – Virginia Reeves (2016)

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The book I finish 2017 reading is a novel telling the story of a farmer in 1920’s Alabama caught siphoning off electricity from the grid when a tragic accident occurs. It’s a thin book that failed to grab me like other spare, sparsely written novels. The story seems stretched over its pages, the tale of Roscoe T. Martin, a quiet man, is perhaps too quiet for its own good with too much unsaid for an emotional impact or resonance with this reader.

So that was my 2017 reading, it strikes me that I haven’t actually got through many this year and will have to improve my numbers in 2018.

The blame game

In a speech earlier this week (note; speech, not the publication of the actual delayed careers strategy) the Skills Minister, Robert Halfon outlined his intentions for CEIAG under his watch.

The venue the Minister decided to use for this speech about careers advice, the parity of vocational routes and the importance of Apprenticeships was Westminster Academy because,

It is worth noting though that the school, while achieving some outstanding Progress 8 scores in it’s 2016 academic results, failed to get any students to progress into Apprenticeships at 16 in 2014 (the most recent destination data available) and the % of pupils staying in education, employment and training was below both the Local Authority and National averages.

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The Minister outlined his vision of an all age Careers offer, said that the long promised careers strategy would come later in 2017 and that CEIAG formed an important part of the recently published Industrial Strategy. He also, as a representative of a Government that has been in power at least in Coalition for 6 years, blamed Headteachers for the poor state of CEIAG provision in schools.

He questioned the variability between organisations, stating: “I do not believe it is just a question of funding, but how a school chooses to spend its funding.

“Schools that deliver high quality careers advice do not do so because they have a greater share of the pot, but because they see it as a vitally important future part for their pupils.”

which is a position which does have an element of truth. Headteachers are budget holders who do have freedom to spend on priorities. What provision can count as a ‘priority’ though needs to be placed within the context of the overall budget envelope.

So here is that context:

The £200m annual funding and wider structure to support careers work in schools was cut and the responsibility without the funding for provision was moved onto schools.

The expected levels of provision that schools should be offering from current budgets would cost around £186m with £181m of that to be found annually. The £90m promised for Careers (mainly the Careers & Enterprise Company) across the 5 years of this parliament, pales in comparison.

Yet current school budgets are under huge pressure. The stories from individual Headteacher’s about crumbling, unfit for purpose buildings and cutting not only support but even teaching staff are tough to read.

Surveys of teachers report that 80% say their school has made cutbacks or is planning to.

These anecdotal reports are bad enough but it is the overall figures that I find staggering.

In December, the National Audit Office concluded that schools will need to find £3bn of savings by 2020 which will equate to an 8% real terms funding cut or a loss of over £400,000 to the average secondary school.

And this will be on top of a period of 6 years of previous cuts during which schools have already been reducing their spending on teaching staff.

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Budget holders are clear, all that can be cut has been and now staffing is on the chopping block.

If budgets are so squeezed that numbers of teaching staff are being reduced when pupils numbers are not falling then, when the Minister complains that Heads are choosing not to spend their funding on CEIAG provision, he is failing to acknowledge the reality in schools.

It was even telling that, on the same day as a speech including a vision for all age careers support, consultations were published proposing the closure of 78 Jobcentres across the country.

In this climate, the pleas from Unison that any universal careers service is

  • is properly resourced with a stable funding system;

seem from another age entirely.

Taking Headteachers to task for not spending their budgets on CEIAG provision when they are cutting such fundamentals as teaching staff and building maintenance seems a tad delusional.