Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A statement of the obvious

WATER SUITABLE FOR VEGETARIANSI was looking for sparkling water the other day, and came across this. 

And there was I thinking that all water is suitable for vegetarians!

Monday, November 03, 2014

The Gatekeepers

One of the worst things you can do, in my opinion, is write someone off academically on the basis of their achievements so far. It's an easy way out – far easier than being imaginative and looking at things in a different way. 

These thoughts were prompted by a visit to an event at the House of Lords on 30th September. Having been invited by Professor Margaret Cox, I attended a Reception there. This event, organised by the National Conference of University Professors (NCUP) was hosted by the Right Honourable Baroness Blackstone, the purpose being to discuss matters of education, and in particular higher education. Universities, we heard, not only have a preference for students to have three A-levels, but to have them in particular subjects at particular (high) grades. 

Nothing new in this, of course, except that what struck me was the inflexibility of the system as it seems to be now. It's always dangerous to use one's own experience as an example, but I'll do it anyway. When I was applying to read a degree, I was given a conditional offer by a university of: 

  • Economics: grade B minimum
  • Economic History: grade B minimum
  • English: grade C minimum 

Unfortunately, I obtained a B in English and a C in Economic History. I sent them a pleading letter, and they accepted me anyway. I have a strong impression that were I applying today I may not have been so fortunate. 

There are two unfortunate consequences of all this. One is the obvious one that students who could do well at university given a chance are not given that chance. Another is the fact that there is little point in exhorting schools to be more imaginative and innovative in what they offer their students, because university entrance seems to be dependent on such a narrow range of achievements. 

I understand the universities' point of view in some subjects. If, for example, a student has not achieved an A Level in maths, how will they even begin to cope with a degree in physics?
Now, I have no experience of dealing with university entrance, but I do have experience of teaching kids who have, in effect, been written off. Young people who have been placed on unchallenging courses partly because nobody really wants to bother with them and partly, mainly, because nobody thinks they would be capable of achieving much in a more challenging course. 

However, students know when they are on a "Mickey Mouse" course, and they also rise to the challenge of a more demanding one. Obviously, some students will not do well on a more challenging course, even with lots of help and guidance. But at least they will have had the opportunity to do so and, if the course has been organised properly, will still come out with a certificate of some description that shows the skills and knowledge that they have acquired. 

It seems to me that most universities could definitely do more. How about, for example, pre-course courses to bring promising students up to the requisite standard? If they don't pass, they don't get to do the degree proper. 

I realise that there would be potential problems with such an approach, but I am arguing for a twofold change: 

1. Look at a broader range of achievements than A Level grades alone
2. Put into place extra courses or support where necessary

If I, as a humble schoolteacher, was able to get around 90% of "written off" students a GCSE grade C or higher in Information Technology, I'm sure university professors could achieve something similar. 

Mirandanet was also represented at the event, and you can read a more dispassionate view by Sarah Younnie on the Mirandanet website.

If you enjoyed reading this article, please visit the ICT in Education website at, where I write about education technology, ICT and Computing in education.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

No accounting for taste…

I visited a cousin of mine recently, so I thought I ought to take her a present. What better gift, I thought, than the spread illustrated below?

After all, it is, to say the least, unusual, and I was pretty sure that she would not have come across it before. And I also thought it would be a bit of a laugh.

snot “Oh wow!”, she exclaimed when she opened the wrapping. “My favourite!”

“Eh?”, I said. “You mean you’ve come across this stuff before?”

“Well, the stuff, but not called that.”

“It’s not really… well, that, you know. It’s lemon curd.”

“Yeah, I know”, she said. “I gotta show my family this!”

And then she proceeded to take a photo of it on her phone, and send it to her husband and kids.

I was disappointed that she didn’t express complete disgust. But I have to say I held a sneaking admiration for her unflappability.

It reminded me of a comment reported by a review of “Oh! Calcutta!”, a play designed to shock audiences with full-frontal nudity. Apparently, one teenager, emerging from the theatre, commented to his friend,

“I think my parents would like it.”

If he was correct, then that is unflappability!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A bad week for cafes

My favourite cafe when I’m away has huge windows which, if you sit near one, let in a tremendous amount of light. Light is good for creativity, I have found, and I am at my most creative when I’m in a cafe, so a cafe with lots of light is indubitably a winning formula.

This particular cafe also has reasonable food at reasonable prices, by which I mean they are less unreasonable, when compared to how how little the food actually costs if you have it at home, than a lot of other cafes. They do a nice latte too.

But this week the cafe is closed.

There was a sign up which said they are closed for staff holidays and would be open again on the 7th December. On the 7th December I raced down there — well, ambled along there at a snail’s pace if I’m honest — only to find that it was still closed. The sign had been replaced by one which said, less definitely, that they were closed for staff holidays. No hint of when they would end.

On Saturday I discovered that the cafe right at the end of the beach was actually open. Astounding! Chairs only, mind you. I asked what had happened to the tables and was told that they only bring them out in the summer. They did a very nice latte; cheap too. Sitting there watching and listening to the sea, and feeling the sea air, was pleasant indeed. But with no table to work on, creativity was, again, somewhat stifled.

It hasn’t been open since anyway.

On Monday I dithered outside another cafe, trying to decide whether the menu and the light would be conducive to creativity. Just as I came to the conclusion that they would, I was virtually knocked over by a horde of octogenarians. That settled that then.

Dunwich December 2013
The guidebook didn't tell me this!
According to my guidebook, there is a cafe not a million miles away where they do fish and chips to die for, accompanied by a hot steaming mug of tea. What my guidebook did not tell me is that it is now closed until March.

All is not yet lost: there are a few cafes in the vicinity that I have still not explored. Perhaps I will try one or two today.

But if recent experience is anything to go by, any surge of optimism is likely to be misplaced!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Knighton Wood

We discovered Knighton Wood by accident, just over a year ago. We’d visited Bancrofts School, and drove into a side road in order to turn round and go back the other way. That side road was Knighton Way, and at the end of it is the beginning of Knighton Wood. We promised ourselves  visit, and yesterday we fulfilled that promise.

Knighton Wood is an enclosed part of Epping Forest, and has some interesting history associated with it. Adjoining it is Lords Bushes, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. We happen to like it for its beauty and solitude, although that was marred temporarily by a couple of dog walkers shouting into their mobile phones!

You can read more about it on the London Gardens Online website, and see more photos in my Knighton Wood set over on Flickr.


Knighton Wood (23)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Seen on a t-shirt

I saw a great t-shirt today worn by a bloke in Romford, Essex, England. I should have taken a picture really, but wasn’t in the mood to have my face rearranged. It read, in huge letters:

I gave up fags, booze and sex.

And then, in tiny letters underneath:

It was the worst hour of my life!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Head in the clouds?

I do a lot of writing, but at least 50% of it is in my head. Like Borges’ protagonist in The Secret Miracle (though happily without the conclusion), I can write reams without putting pen to paper.
It’s quite handy to be able to do that, because it means I can “write” while I’m travelling or swimming or shopping. I don’t claim any great credit for this facility: it’s just something I have, not something I’ve worked at.
If you write in your head, deadlines are not a problem!
So, why not publish my mental efforts? Several reasons.
First, if I write a diatribe, I have to weigh up whether actually publishing it will have a beneficial outcome. It may help me to get things off my chest, but that side of things is taken care of by the act of writing anyway. There’s no point in fuming in public unless something is likely to change as a result. Much better, in my opinion, to weigh the pros and cons carefully, and then take the most cost-effective course.
Second, I would have to spend time writing it out properly, and that is usually time I don’t really have.
Third, a much more prosaic reason: by the time I put pen to paper, as it were, in all likelihood I’d have forgotten what I actually “said”!
Nevertheless, from a personal point of view, mental writing is good exercise, it’s enjoyable, and allows me to try out different beginnings and endings without going to the trouble of actually bashing it out.
It’s self-directed, in that doing mental writing means, in effect, that you have an audience of only one: yourself.
Nevertheless, I’d highly recommend it.