Saturday, 27 November 2010

So, sue me.

The snow's started early this winter. An Arctic cold spell had produced a light dusting by the time I woke up this morning, although we've only had just under half an inch compared to the heavy falls in Scotland and the North of England (after all, it's known as the "frozen North" for a reason!). Anyway, with my boots on and armed with a brush, I swept our path clear in a matter of a few minutes. It's a not a particularly steep slope up to our house, but the path is on an incline which makes it tricky to negotiate when it's icy.

I remember when we first moved in, everyone would be out doing the same, almost vying with each other to see who could clear their bit of the street first. Nowadays, we don't seem to bother overmuch, and certainly when I popped out to the shops just after nine, none of the shopkeepers had swept their entrances clear - partly down to the 'elf an' safety muppets who've decreed that it's a hazard to do so (in case anyone slips over on it!). I daresay that only half-doing it is arguably worse than not doing it at all, especially when the remaining snow gets packed into solid ice, but that shouldn't really be used as an excuse for just leaving it and moaning about how long the council take to come round with a gritter.

The forecast, I see, is for more of the same, so it looks like I shall get plenty of practice in!

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Would you buy a used car from this man?

As night begins to fall, it seems apparent that today's wave of student protests have passed off in a somewhat more orderly fashion - no doubt due to a greater degree of preparedness on the part of the police this time round, the only spectacular casualty being a police van which somehow got trashed (and which the insurers will no doubt be called upon to foot the bill for).

The main 'target' appears to have been the hapless Nick Clegg. For a party which has traditionally commanded more of the student vote than either of the other two, the abandonment of his well-publicized promise over tuition fees is not going down well, whatever the rationale being offered for it. On that note, the majority of the present coalition government's policies seem to fall into one of three categories:
1. Things we want to do but can't do now because our coalition "partners" won't agree to it.
2. Things we don't want to do but must because of the mess the previous lot left behind them.
3. Things we wanted to do all along but didn't think we dared - but can do now because of the mess the previous lot left behind them.
Expediency rules! Makes a bit of a mockery of election pledges, but whoever believed any of that sort of stuff anyway? Plus ça change....

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Come back Inspector Clouseau, all is forgiven

Following their less-than-impressive policing of the G20 protests, the Met opted to go to the other extreme with the recent student protests and are now, it appears, trying to salvage what they can in the way of identifying and prosecuting those responsible for some of the excesses - in the form of issuing a set of mugshots. A couple are so blurred and grainy they could be virtually anybody. I didn't recognize anyone, and in the absence of any indication as to specifically what they're alleged to have done, I'm spared the possible moral dilemma of whether to 'name and shame', or frame a possibly innocent person. I'm not going to comment on the fire extinguisher incident other than to say it was a singularly irresponsible thing to have done, and it's more by luck than judgement that the consequences weren't more serious.

A somewhat dubious decision of the boys in blue was that to apply for the closure of an established blog site claimed to be "providing explicit advice to offenders". Like a Hydra with its head cut off, it's already spawned replicas of the offending advice, which it took me all of ninety seconds to find online. I thought most of what's there is fairly obvious and not exactly rocket science, while the remainder is simply what any halfway-decent defence brief would recommend. Once again, though, it serves only to reinforce the intrinsically uncontrollable nature of the internet.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Stating the obvious

Today's Sunday Times carries a feature rather grandiosely entitled "Definitive guide to Britain's top schools": I can't put a link to it, because their site is subscription-only. Although the introductory article by Chris Woodhead (former chief inspector of schools) takes pains to point out that exam results aren't the be-all-and-end-all of what makes a good school, their Top 100 "charts" of schools are based on.... you guessed it: exam result league tables.

The one that caught my eye out of the four published is the Top 100 State Secondary Schools, which ranks them according to A-level and GCSE passes. Of the 101 listed (two tied for 100th place), at a rough count 41 had "grammar" in the name of the school. No-one should be surprised by this: it simply illustrates the truth of the old adage that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, and if you take the top x percent of junior school pupil ability as your intake, you have a head start which those schools with an across-the-board ability range simply do not have any realistic chance of catching up, however hard they might try. Incidentally, on that theme, I noticed that only one school out of the Top 100 had "Academy" in its name.

But there are uneasy questions, I think, about the value of publishing something like this. None of the dozen or so state secondary schools in the area where I live got into the Top 100. Does that make them bad schools? Not necessarily, if they make the best of what they've got. But rightly or wrongly, parents latch onto exam result successes as indicative of what they want from their child's school and many will tend to choose it on that basis. And in those areas (the majority) which don't have any form of selection or streaming, that task is arguably made much more difficult, through no particular fault of the schools concerned.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Anarchy rules... OK?

I see from the news that Rentamob have featured heavily in the recent student protests against rising fees, and - inevitably - have left a trail of damage and destruction in their wake. It's harmed their case, in my view, because however jealously you regard the right to free speech and legitimate protest as being a fundamental cornerstone of a free democratic society, the right to go out to deliberately smash things up isn't, and reflects badly on those who do it.

I'm not unsymapthetic: I was a student myself once - more than once, in fact. At the age of 19 I travelled by bus and train from home to college in Birmingham every day for two years. I was lucky in that about two-thirds of my tuition fees were paid in the form of a grant (not a loan) from the Local Education Authority, but I ate my parents' food and used their electricity at their expense and subsisted off £1.50 a week which even in those days wasn't a lot of money. I didn't have the money to go out and get plastered on a regular basis, and they wouldn't have let me back in the house if I had.

Fast forward ten years, and I was working full-time with my own home - and with a mortgage and bills to pay. Doing a three-year part-time degree course was hard going and left little time for 'fun', but I thought it was worth it. I'd got my own motorbike, so getting to polytechnic on the outskirts of Birmingham once a week wasn't problematic. I can't remember how much the fees were, but since my employers decided that getting a (relevant, job-related) degree was for my benefit rather than theirs, they backtracked on a decision to pay for me to go, and I had to fork out the several hundred quid a year myself. So much for "investing in people", "workforce development", and all that claptrap. I did one night a week as a pools collector to raise the money - the old 'working your way through college' idea.

So yeah, being a student is no picnic. There again, there's no such thing as a free lunch - and there never has been.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Chalk and cheese?

When I was digging around recently, with a view to choosing a suitable course to further my study of Italian, one of the things which struck me was how diverse study opportunities have become over the years. When I took my A levels, it was with University in view, and it was the Careers Masters at school who were supposed to guide your choice of subjects to fit whatever ultimate aim or aspirations you had in mind. I remember the then-newish General Studies A level wasn't counted as a 'proper' one towards the required grades which an offer of a university place might specify.

Alternatively you could go to college - colloquially 'Tech' - to get qualifications in engineering, or 'Night School' for commerce and business studies, which I think were in many cases sponsored by employers. Colleges didn't in most cases run O levels or A levels apart from English or possibly Maths. But then as colleges became polytechnics and then Universities in their own right, and NVQs with their levels started being equated with GCSEs and A levels, quite a bewildering array of choice has built up, with in some cases students doing courses because they look interesting (or dare I say it, easy to get on) rather than with any particular employment prospects in mind.

I don't want to sound élitist, but one of the things I noticed when I was checking around was that a qualification such as a GCSE or A level was being equated to x hours of study. Even as a crude measure of the amount of work required to attain it, it's of very limited value: it's far too dependent on things like what the study actually consists of, how well information is used and retained, not to mention whether the student has any innate ability to start off with. It just seems to me to be in danger of becoming one of those 'lowest common denominator' things which seems to plague many aspects of modern education. I can't really see much point in offering a choice unless the options are significantly different. Or maybe I'm just old-fashioned?

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Flash bang wallop

Poor Raggs decided she needed to keep a low profile over the last couple of nights, avoiding the fireworks and bonfire night celebrations. It's odd in a way, because in previous years I've sometimes had to go out with her, and she seems far less bothered when she's out amongst it all than when she can only hear it from indoors.

This year, in contrast, there's seemed to be much less of a build-up to the actual night: I daresay the increasing cost of fireworks in a recession is curtailing some of the more prolonged activity - though last night in the sports ground across the way from us, I could see a quite spectacular display above the rooftops at one point. There are a few disembodied bangs and crashes around tonight, but most of it seems to be finished.

We went for a walk in the park this morning to make up for it. The weather was dry and quite sunny, but there was a distinct autumn chill in the air, and as we walked back through the woods afterwards, I noticed most of the trees were fast shedding their remaining leaves.

Thursday, 4 November 2010


As part of the Italian course I started on Friday, I had some homework to do. It may seem a little incongruous to refer to "homework" in the context of a course at Uni, but given that it consisted of three pages of written exercises doing things like conjugating verbs and inserting articles correctly into sentences - much like I'd done when I was learning languages at school - it certainly felt like homework as I'd remembered it. I even did it the night before, as I always used to, though having to get up early enough in the morning to do a piece of biology homework due to be handed in that same day lurks distantly in my memory (and may well partially account for why I failed O level Biology!)

It took me about an hour and a half, which was a lot longer than I used to spend on my school homework, but then I'm very much out of practice, of course, and I had to spend quite a few minutes doing a bit of hasty revision from the course textbook which as luck would have it arrived in the post this morning. (Unlike when I was a pupil at school, this time I had to buy my own). But I plodded on and was quite heartened when I wrote one answer which I thought looked wrong, and when I checked again, found that it actually was wrong. Instinct can be a very good sign of innate ability, I've always found.

I don't know what the tutor's going to do with the answers: it's probably very 'politically incorrect' to mark homework nowadays - some wonky theory about it being more important to do the work than actually getting it right, I daresay. Pffft.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Time zone

I remembered last night (or more accurately, my PC did it for me automatically) to alter the clock back to GMT or winter time. I must admit I was getting just a little peeved at having to get up while it was still dark in the morning and watching through the windows as the light slowly turned into day - more so than the difference between getting dark now at just past 5 in the evening as opposed to 6.

I remember the ill-fated experiment in the late 60s of a 'permanent' summer time: I was at college in Birmingham at the time, and in December it didn't get light till about 9.30 some mornings - halfway through the first lecture. And in the evening by the time I caught the train home it was almost five and already dark, so I couldn't see any benefit from the scheme at all and I was glad when it ended. "EU harmonization" or not, I hope it isn't resurrected!