This famous quote from General Ferdinand Foch, when he held firm to prevent the French Army being overrun at the first battle of the Marne, 5 and 12 September 1914, is one that causes me to smile and reflect. There is no doubt that as our old Registrar, Anita Roberts used to say, ‘Life is hard and then you die’. I am not so taken with writer David Gerrold’s addition – ‘Then they throw dirt in your face. Then the worms eat you. Be grateful it happens in that order.’ Those that know me understand that my almost permanent state of mind is ‘ruthless and relentless’ optimism, which is why I guess I have stayed at the helm of this great school for over 30 years now.
I imagine the quote really does not adequately cover the Department for Education’s mood music in November 2012. Here is what Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union which represents civil servants, has to say, “Gove appears to want to run his department as some kind of nightmarish right-wing experiment, playing politics with people’s livelihoods and putting at risk the very important services DfE civil servants provide to schools, teachers and the public”.
Let’s inspect what is happening within Gove’s department just now – as reported by the Parliamentary Education Select committee “staff morale in the DfE is flagging as a result of extensive restructuring over the past two years“. A further review has shown that up to 1,000 people are at risk of redundancy as a plan to reduce administrative spending by an amazing 50 per cent by 2015. Half of the buildings the ministry uses will go, and ‘everyone will be told to focus on ministerial priorities’. Over the weekend, schools learned via Mr Gove’s stooges at OfQual that the January GCSE resits for English won’t publish their results until August, so that we won’t have a repeat of this year’s crisis. This is utter nonsense, because the January resits are vitally important for those candidates who are post 16 and need to gain a C grade in English to ensure they can apply for Uni, or for work with employers who demand C and so forth. This morning, the exam board has notified us to confirm this and to say candidates can have their money back if taking the exam in January is no use to them. Throughout the country then, umpteen hundreds of candidates whose results were blighted by the unfair upwards readjustment of grade boundaries will learn today that actually what ever efforts they have made, they won’t hear for another year what grade they have been awarded. Expect trouble at mill all around, particularly in hard pressed English departments who thought that they had got it right last Summer, have been accused of cheating and over-marking by OfQual and Mr Gove subsequently, and who have spent their own time and energy to put right this wrong this term. Perhaps they will be encouraged by Mr Gove’s words last week “Exams matter because motivation matters. Humans are hard-wired to seek out challenges,” he argued at the Academies’ conference in London last Wednesday. “Our self-belief grows as we clear challenges we once thought beyond us. If we know tests are rigorous and they require application to pass, then the experience of clearing a hurdle we once considered too high spurs us on to further endeavours and deeper learning. There is no feeling of satisfaction as deep or sustained as knowing we have succeeded through hard work at a task which is the upper end, or just beyond, our normal or expected level of competence. Exams show those who have not mastered certain skills or absorbed specific knowledge what more they need to practise and which areas they need to work on.”
Our candidates don’t have any memory of where they went wrong last summer (they did not go wrong, of course, just scored lower than the revised higher score to gain a grade level implemented to lower overall pass standards) but what will irk them further is that there will be no chance of remembering what they did wrong in January when they get the results in August. The wonderful thing about politics is that when the ballot is taken on a Thursday, our masters know our feelings within 24 hours or so – no waiting around for 7 months or so!
*From Wikipedia 1914
On the outbreak of the war, Foch was in command of XX Corps, part of the Second Army of General de Castelnau. On 14 August the corps advanced towards theSarrebourg–Morhange line, taking heavy casualties in the Battle of the Frontiers. The defeat of XV Corps to its right forced Foch into retreat. Foch acquitted himself well, covering the withdrawal to Nancy and the Charmes Gap, before launching a counter-attack that prevented the Germans from crossing the Meurthe. Foch was then selected to command the newly formed Ninth Army during the First Battle of the Marne with Maxime Weygand as his Chief of Staff. Only a week after taking command, with the whole French Army in full retreat, he was forced to fight a series of defensive actions to prevent a German breakthrough. During the advance at the marshes in St.-Gond he is said to have declared “My right is hard pressed (“driven in” in some versions). My center is yielding. Impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent. I attack.” These words were seen as a symbol both of Foch’s leadership and of French determination to resist the invader at any cost, although there is little evidence that Foch actually said them. Foch’s counter-attack was an implementation of the theories he had developed during his staff college days, and succeeded in stopping the German advance. Foch received further reinforcements from the Fifth Army and, following another attack on his forces, counter-attacked again on the Marne. The Germans dug in before eventually retreating. On 12 September Foch regained the Marne at Châlons and liberated the city. The people of Châlons greeted as a hero the man widely believed to have been instrumental in stopping thegreat retreat and stabilising the Allied position.