Shakespeare……..Master of Manipulation!

Shakespeare is the master. I’m not much of a reader, never have been, but he is my all time favourite writer and one I return to time and time again. Proclaiming the bard as your favourite literary figure is hardly a revelation but it’s not just his eliquant way with words or his many powerful tales of heart churning trajedgy or blood boiling violence which I love so much. What, in my opinion, make him the master is his undeniable and ingenious manipulation of us the audience. To understand his writings you have to see them, not read them and his, some may say, cynical manipulation of those watching becomes apparent but only if you look and listen closely.

I love his words, I love and admire greatly anyone who can say so much in so few a words. I love his deep meaning and dirty, complex view of the world. His stories of violent betrayal, savage retribution and the inevitable mind bending regret must have seemed as fresh and twist ridden to the Elizabethan era, as a Tarantino tale seemed to movie goers of the 90’s. Long drawn out self ponderings on suicide, mental breakdowns, murder, cross dressing and fantasy lands, which would make Tim Burton’s seem mundane, would all be controversial or shocking now but these are not his greatest legacy or literary strength. It is only when you see his plays you realise his genius, I learnt some of his best monologues, I watched some of his best movie adaptations but it wasn’t until I went to see his plays that I saw a different angle to his works.

Beneath many of his plays is a hidden game happening, either pointing the audience to an unspoken truth more related to the age in which the play is written, or on occasions playing games with the audience themselves. Some of his plays have hidden messages as relevant today as in the 1600’s. One of my favourite for this manipulation is Julius Caesar. For those unfamiliar with the twists of this particular historical tale, in simplistic terms Caesar is betrayed by those around him and is assassinated before, one of his now mournful killers, allows Mark Anthony to speak. In his rhetoric filled “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” speech he incites the crowds to turn on their would be liberators. There are many messages to the audience that can and have been seen in the play. Caesars failure to listen to the “beware the ides of March” speech may tell those in power to ignore the commoner at their peril. Caesars manipulation by his wife and then friend Mark Anthony may even suggest that those in power are still only humans and still fallible. A controversial message in the reign of Elizabeth I but no doubt the final blood soaked end, for those attempting to alter the natural order, may have reduced any offence taken by the then queen. Shakespeare likes making statements but for me his biggest statement of the story is how easy the crowd, and not just the one in the play, can be manipulated by smart words and clever management of a scene. Throughout the play we rarely see Caesar and instead only hear of his actions thus allowing us, as the audience, to only see him through the eyes of others. There is no reason why Shakespeare could not have shown us these scenes on stage but this would allow the audience to form its own opinion of Caesar. Instead it is important that we the audience agree with the assassins, their arguments of it being for the good of Rome must hold fast with no doubt in our minds. Remember those watching would not have known the outcome of the play and at the moment Caesar is killed it is important for us the audience to rejoice. Marcus Brutus is an important character as he is our moral compass, he fights with his own love of Caesar to do what is needed for Rome. We see this turmoil and must be left in no doubt that if even Brutus will pierce his flesh, for country and his people, then it is an act that must have happened. We the audience must be a part of that act, we must agree and be eager to see it through. I imagine Shakespeare wanted cheers as the words “then fall, Caeser” were spoken by the man himself in his final moments of life.

Now Shakespeare, having taken us with his players, turns the knife on them and us. Mark Anthony uses rhetoric to not only turn the crowd on stage but to turn us the audience. He uses phrases like “honourable men” in growing disdain as the speech progresses as if forcing this fact down our throats until we gag on it. He tells stories of the same moments we only heard of through others earlier in the play but now spun with different light. He uses every one of Caesars weaknesses, the same weaknesses that made us cheer at his death, to make him seem human and thus wronged by his premature mortality. Mark Anthony never aims his visible manipulation at us the audience instead at our mirror image on stage and he makes us blame the assassins rather than ourselves to allow us an escape from our own shortcomings. I think Shakespeare meant more than anything else for this play to prove his power of manipulation over us and us alone. He wants to show how easy he can have us baying for blood and how easily he can turn our lust on anyone he chooses.

In an era before “media” influence, the power of speech was almighty and as in so many of his plays, above his words or stories, his powerful manipulation and spin of us, the crowd, make him a master of his art. Was he simply flexing his literary muscles and indulging in his own power or trying to make a moral statement? We will never know but his art form and the messages it teaches us are as relevant today as they have ever been.

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A Brave New World………of Data!

Data has the power to change the world……and it is! I am a huge fan of DATA and in particular BIG DATA. For those of you unfamiliar with the phrase BIG data, it simply means the collection and interpretation of data streams traditionally too large to process in traditional ways. Our world is full of data, about us, about our habits, our likes and dislikes and our health but those utilising this data are mainly private businesses, who do so to maximise their business activities. Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, and the DfE recently released a White Paper with many dramatic changes to the education system but one thing it made clear was it wanted the education system to make better use of data and to improve teaching through research based development, but I will come back to this in a moment.

Firstly let me tell you what big data can do. I was first introduced to the term when I read about Carolyn McGregor a doctor of computer science, who having worked in data based decision support for big business, turned her attentions to research and healthcare. In 1999 she was asked to go to see a neonatal intensive care unit in Toronto to see if her expertise could improve care for the infants. She was pregnant at the time and her own child was born premature and subsequently died. Seeing all the monitors around the unit bleeping and flashing, recording endless streams of data she wondered what happened to it. The doctors explained that nurses recorded the data once an hour on paper but the data streams themselves simply spooled out of memory, so none of this data was recorded or analysed. Over the next decade she was instrumental in the foundation of the Artemis Project, named after a greek goddess who protected babies and pregnant women. The Artemis Project began recording these data streams for all babies in the unit and soon started spotting useful trends. About 20% of babies in the unit caught infections in the and around 20% of those subsequently died due to the infection. The data could see that the babies, normally erratic baseline heart rate, would become more steady and less erratic between 12 and 24 hours before infection presented itself in the child. Doctors could now see the infection happening in the infants heart rate, long before any outward signs and could administer medication earlier. This data  has helped save many babies lives and the project is now working with many more hospitals across Canada helping to reduce child mortality. That is the POWER of BIG DATA…….it has the power to change the world!

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So the Education Secretary telling teachers, in her white paper, to employ more data and research in our continued professional development (CPD) must be a good thing, and believe me I applaud this suggestion however in this brave new world there are pitfalls and dangers along the way. Collecting data is a skill, it needs to be done in a robust way which reduces contamination and increases depth and breadth of possible results. Also having data, no matter how robust, is only part of the challenge. Drawing conclusions from the data collected can be a hard task and one even “experts” get wrong. In the same week as the white paper was released the DfE also released a document linking poor attendance with poor academic achievement. In their press release Nick Gibb, Schools Minister, even went as far as to say that “this new research is further evidence that missing school for even a day can mean a child is less likely to achieve good grades, which can have a damaging effect on their life chances”. Now this assertion is WRONG and a DANGEROUS one. It also explains my point of why more research based decisions may not be the promised land after all.

So why do I say he is wrong and why am I concerned about this push for more research. Well this report is fairly robust in it’s collection of data, there are a few contaminating factors not addressed but let accept the data as correct. This report clearly shows a correlation between time spent in school and achievement at the end of KS2 and KS4 and that is as far as any good researcher would go. However the report suggests strongly in its wording that their is a consequential link between these two, a causal link between attendance and attainment. It also implies, and the MP’s assert strongly, that the lower attainment is a symptom of lower attendance. Every teacher believes that to learn a student needs to be in school, the more we see our students the more we can teach them which is why this report is so clever and dangerous. It takes a belief commonly held and then looks for data to prove it, some may even say it’s release and timing may also have more political reasons than educational. If we had irrefutable proof that more hours in school equals higher achievement we could justify say, longer school days, or fining parents for absence and because most teachers would easily believe higher attendance equals higher attainment they would not question it, especially when given figures such as this report headlines. However this, like so much research I have seen in recent years, is flawed. For one lets actually look at the data, for example at KS2 a student who has no sessions (half days) absent has a 51.5% chance of getting level 5 or above at the end of KS2, whereas if they have missed between 1 and 4 sessions they only have a 38.3% chance. Now we teachers are an amazing breed, we can inspire and impart knowledge at a phenomenal rate BUT do you really believe that missing one afternoon when you are 10 is going to reduce your chances of getting a particular grade by 13%. As a lover of research I would say there is a probable link between attendance and attainment but I would see the lack of attendance as a symptom of lower engagement in their education and thus lower attainment. This research should pose the question how do we engage young people and parents in their learning. Forcing students to attend school and fining parents will not increase engagement and making the school day longer will not increase results for all. Research can be dangerous and is leading many, like Alice chasing her rabbit, down holes that won’t lead to improvements. Ministers and dare I say it many teachers, make flawed decisions based upon their flawed understanding of what the data shows. Some may believe that ministers knowingly use flawed interpretations of data knowing few will question decisions made off the back of “robust” research.

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 08.05.02My school is ahead of the data initiative, we have been completing research projects as teachers for some time now and many gains have been made with student engagement and attainment but none the less it can still mislead people. Lets take a similar thread to the DfE’s “attendance equals attainment” one above and look at revision sessions. We have always allowed our students study leave and put on revision sessions for them within this period. These have been optional and statistically those that attend these sessions get better overall results than those who do not. There is correlation between attendance at these sessions and attainment in exams, this is not in doubt. However I have heard a number of people assert that attendance at these sessions increases the students results based upon that data. This however is simply not proven in fact. Take my class from last year as a microcosm of this theory. Of 12 students 3 attended the optional revision session I put on and those 3 students all got A* in the exam, while no-one else gained a grade above a C. If we concentrated on headline figures of C grades of those who did not attend only 3 got a C so I could claim that my 1 hour revision session increased their chances of gaining a C grade by 67%, data backs this up. Many in the light of statistics may accept this. Data also backs up my assertion that the ONLY way to get a A grade is to attend my revision session. Less will believe this even though it is the same statement. Both of these assertions are not what the data really shows. The data really shows that those students who are already engaged with their learning and already working tirelessly at home doing revision and practice papers, are also those students who will likely attend optional sessions. Are those A*’s a symptom of my session? Of course not, they are a symptom of those students hard work for 2 years of GCSE study. Their attendance at my sessions is a symptom of their engagement in their education and future, which by the way is what also causes them to get A*’s. Those students who got less than favourable grades would, in my mind without doubt, still have got unfavourable grades even if they had attended my session. I like to think my sessions are worth while and help the students but to assert they were the difference between C’s and A*’s is ludicrous. This year our school has made these sessions compulsory which I for one think is a great move, a chance to refocus all of my students and give them last minute advice a day before the exam is a chance I am glad to have and  keen to fully utilise. It is a good decision, but not one backed by data. No data can show this approach will increase results because academic success is more complex than any one single factor. It is equally possible that forcing all students to attend will reduce these sessions effectiveness for those who are engaged, as more time may now be spent managing the behaviour of those who are not. I often hear teachers say “studies show attendance at extra curriculum clubs” increases students chances of exam success. Again this is not true, the best that can be said is there is a correlation between the two. It is highly likely that attendance at clubs is a symptom of an engaged student, and thus of course those that attend clubs get better grades, as they are the most dedicated students. To suggest attendance at extra curriculum clubs has a causal effect on a students results is simply not backed up by rigorous data. Many will see the flaw in these two arguments but these are the basis of the DfE’s argument about attendance. If i told you in 1 hour I moved students from a C to a A* in their future exams you would feel uneasy, you may question the data. The government say missing one afternoon at school when your 10 reduces your chances of a grade 5 by 13% and no-one delves deeper. As much as data can lead us to enlightenment it can also be used to blind.

So a brave new unstoppable world is coming and data is driving it forward. As I said at the beginning big data has the power to change the world. Imagine the possibilities! I recorded my heart rate for a month and published a typical week in the life of a teachers heart. I learnt loads about myself and the effect teaching has on me, imagine if every teacher was monitored, or every year eleven. Imagine if we recorded every students heart rate, sleep patterns, activity, state of mind and ultimately results. Imagine the patterns we may spot, imagine the ways in which we might help students to learn. Grab this new found opportunity with both hands, do research, collect data, question everything and learn so much. Data offers endless horizons to explore but watch out for dangers along the way. For me, I am excited by the prospects it holds and am keen to get involved, but for all you other keen researchers out there remember this.

Never try to prove a theory, instead collect data, as much as you can, and then see if any patterns emerge. From these patterns shape a theory to fit the data and then most importantly work your very hardest to disprove your own theory. If you can’t you may be on to something great!

 

It’s not just hammers and colouring in!

Design can lead to employment opportunities! Design can get you a job, I know this from experience. From the day I graduated I’ve never been short of work and after 5 years in industry I had to turn down a job as an engine designer to become a teacher, a fact my students find verging on the insane, but the best decision I ever made. Design took me around the world, earnt me good money, indulged my love of solving problems and was ridiculously good fun. Being a designer can lead you into so many fields and give you a life long, well paid, well respected career. That all said sometimes convincing parents, students and even colleagues that we are more than just a “fun” subject can be a hard sell. We have good links with Maths, Science, IT, History, English, Marketing, Psychology, PE, Art, Media, Business and we lead everywhere. Everything we touch, watch, read, listen and wear in life has had a designers influence so we offer almost endless opportunities but still our value can be underrated by so many. So this year when educating your students about options and career choices let facts and figures aid your discussions.

Each year the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU), Prospects and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) carry out their annual Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey (DLHE). This simple survey is sent to all graduates in the UK to find out what they are doing 6 months after graduation from their degree. This survey normally gets around 80% return and gives a good impression of what the graduates are doing and what sectors of the economy are buoyant and which areas of employment are less in demand. They publish their findings in the “What Graduates Do!” document, which is well worth a read, to give young people advice on career paths. I have taken the raw data from this lengthy document and put all the key figures into a single page document so comparisons are easily made. Please feel free to download this document and use it to help options discussions with your students.

Download Graduate_Careers document in pdf format.

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Understanding the figures!

To make best use of the page above you need to first understand a few key points. Firstly it has boiled down the figures into 3 basic categories, employability, unemployment and career path destination. On the left is the 28 headings the survey splits all degree’s into and the figure of graduates who have employment 6 months after their graduation. I have ordered the categories in rank order of employment so Marketing graduates have a 82.3% employment rate while Physics graduates have only 46.1% but this is not the entire story. The second set of columns ranks the categories in terms of unemployment and like the first set of columns highlights the best five in green and worse five in red. Now you may wonder why you need to see both, well it isn’t as simple as who has a job. For example Sports Science are about mid table in terms of employment but are top of the table for unemployment meaning although not all graduates are employed only 4.3% are not being productive (unemployed) while the rest are in further study, training, research or in unpaid positions. In contrast IT and Computing has a far better employment but the worst unemployment of any subject so while more get jobs more also simply end up unemployed and few go on to further study. It is important to look at both employment and unemployment to understand the table fully.

The final set of columns are looking at what type of employment the graduate has, so I have given you the top sector for each category, i.e. once graduated what is the most common job those graduates get (including the percentage in that sector) and then I have added all the employment types together which are related to the degree they hold. This gives you and your students and idea of what those graduates do, for example for History graduates almost 60% get jobs and of that 59.9%, 19.1% are working in retail, catering, waiting and bar staff and only 8.4% get jobs relating to their degree. After all it is not just about getting a job, it is about getting a job doing the thing you trained to do and some career choices are far better for this than others.

A few things to remember!

Firstly these 28 degree types cover a huge variance within each of them and can only give a snap shot of the sector, for example Hospitality, Leisure, Tourism and Transport covers a huge amount of varied careers and although the figure shows us on average 81% get employment it won’t tell you figures for chef’s or catering graduates in particular. In equal respect Design covers everything from set design and interior design to CAD and industrial design all of which have very different employment prospects but for clarity are merged to one figure. Also some careers are very noticeable by their absence for example medicine is not in here as Doctors have to complete at least one year foundation after graduation before being registered to practice medicine so this survey would just show all are still in education. It is worth noting though medicine has a very high employment of around the 90% figure but this is career average rather than 6 months post graduation so the figure is not really comparable but still very high ranking. Also remember when deciding which sectors were “using” the degree I had to make assumptions about which sectors were relevant but this last column is the only data created by myself, while the rest is direct from the survey results. Last but not least remember just because a degree in a subject does not lead to a job does not mean a GCSE or A Level in that subject won’t. For example Physics is pretty poor in terms of job opportunities for graduates but an A Level in physics leads to many very employable degree’s such as engineering.

How does Design and Technology compare!

Well this is where I think we can all sing the praises of our beloved subject. On the table in grey are the DT subject, all of which are in the top 10 for employment, a few of which are also in the top 5 for unemployment and employment destination. Noticeable stand out careers are Architecture and Civil Engineering. Architecture took a little dip in around 2012 but now looks like it is now fully refreshed and once again offering excellent career prospects. Civil Engineering continues to grow and continues to offer good pay, good progression and good employment opportunities. Design is also looking buoyant as are the prospects for our dedicated young hospitality students. Engineering continues to be a shortage subject as highlighted in “Professor John Perkins’ Review of Engineering Skills 2013” suggesting a year on year need for around 100’000 STEM graduates while other Government publications suggest a specific shortfall by 2050 of 36’500 Engineers. The catering industry also employs around half a million people while the restaurant industry alone is set to be worth £52bn by 2017 so all in all the creative industries as a whole are looking good for the future.

Design Technology is under pressure, in these times of austerity we are expensive, in these times of EBacc we are not on the guest list, and in these times of reform many of our “specialties” are soon to be on no list. Underlying all this pressure though we still have lots to shout about. We offer undeniable transferable skills, we teach the kids to think not just listen, we help them with their english, add purpose to their maths and teach them more science and IT than they every realise. Best of all we teach them what it is to evolve, to embrace new challenges and new technologies, we teach them never to ignore the past but always look to the future they want to create. We talk about the big issues of climate, morals, money and greed but never lecture. We are designers, we question and we want them to do the same and we know education is the most powerful gift anyone can possess. So this year when talking about options educate them about employability, educate them about prospects but educate them about the love of design, tell them about Mia Lundstrom, Stuart Craig, Jonathan Ive and the million other amazing designers doing what they love and touching each and every one of our lives. Ohh and don’t forget to tell them its fun!

Umbrellas and Books!

We need teachers, schools and an education system that can adapt to and more importantly enhance new ideas, new strategies and new thinking. As a teacher I know education is an ever changing world with new ideas filtering down from government or senior leadership on what can seem like a never ending stream of change. Stress can have a profound effect on a schools ability to take on that change and excel within it, which is why stress should be high on the agenda for all change makers be it deputy heads, headteachers, ministers or education enthusiasts.

As teachers we have all sat through meetings being shown the future, a new idea, a better way and like many, I am sure, I have mentally groaned at the idea of yet another thing to do, to learn, to try, to be judged upon. I have sat through meetings when audible groans have been heard and some were mine. So does that mean I was scared of change, or stuck in my ways? Does it mean I was a trouble makers or pessimist? I am lucky enough to work at a school where ideas do not only trickle down from senior leadership but more often than not trickle sideways from teacher to teacher, so I have also been on the other side of that scenario. I have been the one espousing the virtues of new ideas, trying to gain support and use of everything from augmented reality to iBooks in class. I have shared what I felt were umbrella ideas, ideas no-one could fail but to see the benefit in and most have been met with enthusiasm and support but, and there is a but, they have failed to be adopted widely. These ideas were sure fire winners in my mind, as clearly of benefit as is an umbrella in a rain storm but they did not catch on. Was I a victim of others pessimism? Were others scared of change, stuck in their ways? Was karma simply paying me back for my lack of enthusiasm in historical initiatives? Quite simply no. It is no more other staffs fault that my ideas were not adopted than it was my fault I felt so lumbered by others ideas in the past.

Throughout teaching we have stresses to carry, like books. These books vary in sizes, some large but lacking content like Ofsted and others small and heavy like Value Added. We carry many of them, Pupil Premium, Extra Curriculum, More Able, Differentiation, Marking, Child Protection, Reporting, National Curriculum, Subject, Form, Performance Reviews, the list is seemingly endless and each of these books slowly fills our arms until we are burdened by the weight. This is what stress does to us and while some may stroll through life with nothing more than a notebook in hand, for others huge libraries are acquired and carried on a daily basis. Now ask that person standing in the rain with arms full of books if they want an umbrella. No-one in their right mind would turn down the offer of an umbrella but when your arms are full even an umbrella in a rainstorm can seem like a burden too far. Stress reduces our ability to adopt new ideas. When struggling to carry those stresses we are familiar with, new ideas no matter how good, no matter how fail safe, no matter how beneficial become impossible to lift. They become a burden we are too scared to attempt to carry. The answer for change makers is not to force those changes on us but to first ask how to take away some of those burdens. Teachers with empty arms have more capacity for new things and we need teachers happy and willing to grab that umbrella and run out into the storm. We need teachers willing to get soaked through in the pursuit of trying new things, of experimenting and that will only happen when stress is higher on the agenda for headteachers, deputies, education ministers and all of us.

Stress, Teaching and Life!

Teaching is a stressful job!………..Let’s get that statement out there from the beginning. Teaching is a stressful job.

Despite the media rhetoric of long holidays and short days spent drinking tea while sat at a desk, it is a strange and stressful job. It is not the only job I have had. I have had jobs that involved very tight deadlines, large amounts of money, international flights to deal with non-english speaking factories, international trade shows, magazines scrutinising every product I designed and at times very long working weeks but of all these things I have done teaching has proved to be the most unrelentingly stress ridden job I have had. Do not take this as an anti-teaching article, for I love teaching. I really do love it and I hope to do nothing else but it, but from bitter experience I have seen what stress can do to the career I love so much. In 2012 I had a nervous breakdown which changed my outlook on life and also on my profession and the stresses which it brings. Prior to the day it happened I had always had a mental image of a nervous or mental breakdown as being someone sat in a darkened room crying because life had become too much for them. I guess like many, wrongly, I had seen it as something that happens to weak people. I am not weak! If you knew me you would know that to be the case. In my life I have been very active, I have written motorcycles off in crashes, nearly drowned down a cave, been a thousand feet up a cliff with no ropes, been coughing blood after a fall climbing, had hypothermia, been hospitalised for dehydration, run cross country marathons and been involved in mountain rescues and of all the things that have happened to me, or I have inflicted upon myself rarely have any even slowed me down. I don’t mention those things to boast or big myself up and many of the people who know me will not know much of what I just mentioned but I say it here to illustrate the large void between how I thought breakdowns happened and who I was. In 2012 however I got first hand experience of a breakdown and it involved no crying and no sitting in a darkened room, it was far more physical than I could have imagined.

What happened next set me on a path, knocked me on my back and propelled me back up. It also led to research, awareness and some personal truths about teaching and stress. To read more and to see my research project and the end of the story read my new iBook for free now.

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Exam Utopia?

Like many teachers across the country today I got up, checked the A level results on the exam boards website and then went in to school to see the students pick up their results. It is a routine that many teachers share and for some it is as nerve racking as it is for the students. Did your class get the “right” results? Did the exam board moderate you down, or in most cases “how much did they moderate us down this year”? Will the students be happy with what they got? Will the school? All things teachers think but for me the only thing I thought was have results lost their meaning?

For many students their explosive joy or abject misery is based upon if their results facilitate their progression onto their desired next stage. Education as a whole is, or dare I say has, become a means to an end and little else. It has become the motorway to the future, hopefully getting you where you want to go but of little intrinsic beauty in it’s own right. We send students along that motorway pointing out a far flung land that may be reachable if they stick to the road ahead, don’t stall and don’t run out of petrol. Motorways are the easiest and quickest way to reach a destination but no-one enjoys being on them. Junctions are spaced far apart and the only sense of satisfaction one gains from reaching them is knowing another section of road is now behind you. If you take a wrong turn or get off too soon it can seem disastrous as can any “fails” along the education treadmill to a “successful future”. So are we doing it all wrong? Is their a better way?

I love learning. I struggled at school in my early years and then found secondary school boring but now I absolutely love to learn new things no matter what subject. Being a teacher is a great job as we are always pushed by our students to answer all “those questions” kids ask and it makes for a very fulfilled life, but the education system as a whole seems to focus on the future more than the now. I dislike motorways, I much prefer country lanes. On a country lane their is always something to see, the journey in itself is enjoyable and if you take a wrong turn you get the benefit of seeing even more countryside. I like to see education in this same sense, enjoyed and as much about the journey as it is the destination, which once reached simply becomes another stop off along the next journey. So how could we enhance that feeling in students and change the exam factory into a tour company?

Well at their most basic what is the point in results and grades? Ultimately it is to separate students into groups so others can judge them for their suitability for something. For companies looking to employ students straight from A level many members of the public have a very limited understanding of the exam and course structures. Also the media feeds the confusion fire by constant claiming of devaluing or lowering standards so most employers take A level results with a pinch of salt. I feel a students personality, willingness and attitude have more bearing in an interview than a letter on a piece of paper. So do we need results? Well yes we should celebrate and reward the effort shown by young people but it should be a celebration of the journey not simply a ticket to escape. So why not have less grades? We could use the boundaries universities use with 1st, 2nd and 3rd class being the only judgement placed. After all A levels are GCE qualifications which stand for General Certificate of Education not VSCAP (Very Specific Certificate of Academic Prowess) which is what they seem to now be, so why would we need more division than that? Well in a word universities. They need a way to judge very quickly the thousands of students that apply to them each year. That said universities are always commenting that A levels do not prepare students for their further studies so do A levels really help or hinder universities. What about having a university entrance exam separate from A levels? So divide the two tasks they currently do to a mediocre standard and have on one hand A Levels which celebrate education and then separately exams for those students wishing to go on to university.

Obviously I am not suggesting each university holds its own entrance exams but instead national exams are held, similar to now but not tied up with A levels. We could even have them at a different time so a student wanting to do Medicine for example would sit a medical exam with elements of biology, english, chemistry, maths and whatever else was seen as needed for a course of that type. Design technology could have elements of maths, physics, problem solving, engineering, business and english whereas the the maths entrance exam might be more specifically biased to maths. The entrance exams would be tailored to the type of career they want and would be marked nationally. Then universities could publish what pass mark they require to join their course rather than the complex UCAS Points system we have now. Gaining that pass mark would then allow you to apply for that course and then interviews and the such would then take place. If you did these exams in year 12 it would give students time to organise, apply and be accepted to their chosen course before leaving school. This would mean school staff could help them with their choices rather than these frantic meetings we have with students on results day when time is of the essence and emotions cloud decisions. It would also do away with clearing and as the exams are on a variety of subject matters no one teacher or subject could teach to the exam so the results would be a much clearer assessments of students ability. Then by the time results day arrives those wishing to go on to university would have already decided upon their future choices and the certificates would be a pure celebration of their journey.

Could an exam utopia ever exist? Where education and learning in it’s own right is held with as much value as an envelope containing a piece of paper. Who knows but for now try to promote that journey and lead your students down a few country lanes once in a while.

Energy Matters

In January 1889 one of the worlds first modern power stations, as we would recognise it today, opened in Newcastle upon Tyne. The Forth Banks Power Station heralded the birth of the modern era of power generation, building on principles first used in the early days of steam in the seventeenth century, but allied with modern, almost experimental technologies.

The basic principles of the process used remain the same in the majority of power stations today. Something is burnt to produce heat, in this case coal, this heats water, producing high pressured steam which in turn spins turbines. These turbines are connected to huge turbo-alternators, which are essentially banks of magnets spinning within large coils of wire. The movement of the magnetic fields within the coils produces electricity, which in itself is the basis of nearly all power production today bar photovoltaic solar panels. The opening of this power station, although a leap of faith to some extent, must have been quite an occasion with dignitaries coming from far and wide. Although not too far as air travel had another 14 years before the Wright Brothers would take their first 12 second flight into history, and with 19 year until the first Ford Model T rolled off the production line it is unlikely that any came by car. The event would also only receive printed press coverage being another 33 years before BBC would make their first radio broadcast. A lot has changed since then, our thirst for energy has grown exponentially and our life styles changed beyond recognition but 125 years on our reliance on burning fossil fuels for power has not dwindled. Today 63.8% of the UK’s electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, with another 19.8% from Nuclear and finally 14.8% from renewables such as wind, hydro and solar. These figures also do not include our personal use of gas, which most households have relied upon since the 1920’s for cooking and later heating. So is our present and future energy production stuck firmly in the past? Well, no. I don’t think so.

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Being a Design and Technology teacher I take a keen interest in energy, it is after all what a large proportion of my subject is built around and I am lucky to live in a time when energy production has never been so diverse or interesting. Within the UK we have schemes harnessing almost every imaginable renewable energy source such as wave and tidal power, hydroelectricity and wind turbines are becoming more and more commonplace. Scotland has gone for these in a big way, as anyone who has driven the M74 recently will know. They have invested large areas of land in remote mountain and lowland areas to these monoliths. Teaching in Milton Keynes I am lucky enough to have a wind farm only 15 miles away just off junction 15 of the M1. Finally but far from least we have solar energy or Photovoltaic (PV) cells to give them their proper name, which are becoming more cost effective and more popular for domestic and commercial production. Again close by to MK is a solar farm hidden away in the countryside no more obtrusive, or noticeable for that matter, than fields of rapeseed or corn. All of these technologies utilised within the UK are a great resource for me teaching my subject. I am lucky that the national curriculum asks for the study of new and emerging technologies and their social and environmental impacts, while at GCSE all exam boards ask an understanding of the social, moral, ethical and environmental impacts designers have. So for me I get the chance to look at and discuss with students the various choices for energy production and we learn that although not simple decisions to make they are important environmental and crucially economical decisions which must be made now and in the future.

Educating our students about the wide and complex issues surrounding our energy needs is important but I often wonder if we as an education system could be doing more to lead by example. I used to work on an industrial estate and often wondered why the government didn’t effectively rent our roof space to install solar panels. They would gain green low cost energy and we could be given a small reduction in energy tariff as rent so we could both gain from the joint venture. Mine like many schools is heavily energy dependant, with computers, projectors, interactive whiteboards and God only knows how many lights and like many is a building utilised by the local community. We rent out large areas of the school to local groups on evenings and weekends and thus it is open and being used nearly 24/7. Even at nine or even ten in the evening the 500m long building is still fully lit and heated and I often wonder if the government and we as a school are not missing something. Why doesn’t every public building have solar panels on it? Ignoring the environmental benefits to this, energy prices are increasing year on year. As supply (of fossil fuels) gradually reduces and demand steadily increases prices will continue to rise and the amount of our taxes being used to heat and light public buildings like prisons, schools, council offices etc. is set to continue to rise. Surely it makes financial sense for the government to push for a much larger roll out of solar panels across Britain’s roofs. They could go one stage further by making it a planning condition that all new builds would have to have a given percentage of roof space dedicated to solar paneling. With this guaranteed demand the government could fund UK businesses to design, manufacture and install these panels bringing in jobs and taxes to the UK and higher demand would lower costs making them more affordable for the domestic user. So is this going to happen, well in a word no, but the government have published their “Roadmap to a Brighter Future” and their plans could go someway to starting that process and schools should definitely show interest in their scheme.

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Within this “Roadmap” the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) set out a few plans, which should be of interest. Firstly they plan to work with private companies as well as community projects to implement as many solar photovoltaic (PV) installations as possible, as they put it “opening up the solar market for the UK’s estimated 250,000 hectares of south facing commercial rooftops”. Another element of the strategy sees the Cabinet Office leading on implementing solar panels on much of the governments estate, while the Department for Education is working on ways to improve efficiency and reduce their annual £500 million energy bill. Importantly for schools they will encourage the deployment of solar panels on schools as well as promoting energy efficiency. The Rt. Hon. Michael Gove said “Solar panels are a sensible choice for schools, particularly in terms of the financial benefits they can bring. It is also a great way for pupils to engage with environmental issues and think about where energy comes from.” This is an encouraging step for the education system going “green” and DECC have already supported 300 schools in securing finance for PV schemes. DECC have produced a document called “Power to the Pupils” which lays down the benefits and options for schools converting to renewable sources of energy and is well worth a read for all schools.

So why are the government pushing solar panels on our roofs? Well there are a number of reasons. As our energy production diversifies from a few huge power stations into a larger number of smaller, variable input plants this puts strain on the National Grid. The grid is not a battery, it does not have capacity for storage, it simply moves energy from one place to another so supply and demand must always be in equilibrium. Ever wondered why in high winds some wind turbines are not spinning? Well this is because when the wind farm is making too much energy due to limits, grid capacity or simply a lack of demand they use brakes to stop the turbines turning. We throw away energy because we cannot balance it out against demand, but at the adverse we can not rely on wind turbines completely because at that peak demand when we all get up in the morning and turn on the kettle there may be no wind. So the grid has to rely on fossil fuel power stations, which produce a steady output but are not quick to react to fluctuations. For this hydro is great as the electricity can be turned on in the time it takes water to fall down a pipe but it is reliant on rain. Nuclear however is always on, always producing a given amount, day and night regardless of demand, so 4 hydroelectric plants in the UK use surplus Nuclear energy to turn the turbines on in reverse over night and pump water back up to the reservoirs ready for peak demand the next day. Inefficiencies are born within the system where conversion and transportation occurs. Every step of the way from digging up the fuel to transporting the finished electricity along a network of wires dissecting our countryside, energy is lost. The advantage of solar power is it can produce electricity where it is needed, at our houses and places of work. No transportation is needed, no moving parts, no noise, no by-product, no waste, less demand on the grid and no fuel. Just clean, green, free energy from the sun and with panel and installation costs reducing dramatically over the last few years it would seem to make economic, environmental and educational sense. The Department of Energy and Climate Changes “Power to the Pupils” pamphlet says a main benefit of going solar is “Education and engagement: being able to communicate to pupils the benefits of sustainability through a working example of renewable technology in their own school will provide more direct engagement, particularly in the subjects of geography, science, design and technology and IT. This can also help to inspire the wider community to take action to address climate change. Taking these benefits into consideration, the business, moral and educational case for installing PV in schools is very compelling”. So read the pamphlet, show it to your head, discuss it with your colleagues and lets move our schools away from nineteenth century technology and towards smart economic, environmental and educational twenty first century choices.

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