Tag Archives: well-being

Eclipse road trip 2017

Great Basin View from I15 near Fillmore, Utah

Great Basin View from I15 near Fillmore, Utah

This is a diary of my Eclipse road trip in August 2017 from Las Vegas to Idaho and back to Las Vegas via many canyons, an eclipse and a visit to my friend Derek in Sedona, Arizona.

I arrived in Las Vegas on Thursday 17th, with plenty of time for the long drive north to Idaho to find a good spot for the eclipse on Monday the 21st. After that, I planned to drive to Sedona to meet Derek and then back to Las Vegas and home.

Thursday 17th – Manchester to Las Vegas to North Rim

I flew to Las Vegas from Manchester at 9:15am, partly to get a good price and also to have the chance the night before to enjoy the company of friends Stephen, Joy & Lily and dine with them and niece & nephew-in-law Sineád & Adam, recently moved to Manchester.

I turned up at a reasonable hour, but neglected to plan accommodation in the US, intending to sleep in the back of the SUV I hired. I was surprised that the check-in desk wanted to know where I was staying in the US, but quickly located a motel and told them that – nobody cared whether it was the truth! I was flying with Thomas Cook on a budget and didn’t expect a meal, but they did serve two and ‘tap water’. You could buy drinks.

As we flew over Canada and the northern mid western states and finally Wyoming and Utah, I could just about work out where we were using Galileo and its offline maps. I had downloaded them earlier in England to help me navigate when I feared that out in the midst of the American West I’d be without a network to access Google maps. The last part of the flight, coming in over Utah, Arizona and into Nevada was really beautiful, although looked scarily desertified and hot – we landed around midday Pacific Time.

Las Vegas McCarran airport has a shuttle bus to the hire car centre, some blocks away, and I hired my SUV and set off to a nearby Walmart to shop for cooking gear and food, water, beer and ice. I got the cheapest sleeping bag for $15 and a foam mattress cover to sleep on for $2 instead of the inflatable bed I’d planned. Other camping purchases include a saucepan, frying pan and propane stove. I got two gallons of water in plastic containers.

Las Vegas Strip reflected in my sunglasses

Las Vegas Strip reflected in my sunglasses

I headed out of La Vegas via the Strip on Las Vegas Boulevard and drove north on the interstate freeway I15, passing through the awesome Virgin River Canyon and paused in St George as evening descended, the first of many stops at Walmarts along the way to benefit from their free Wi-fi.

Las Vegas to North Rim

Las Vegas to North Rim

I drove on before finally stopping around 10:30pm along the state highway 89A, just before Jacob’s Lake. I was so tired, I could only drink a beer for supper.

I slept until 2:30am and woke to see the moon rise. With the clock in my head disrupted and feeling wakeful, I decided to drive on to North Rim to see the sun rise over the Grand Canyon. I had to refuel at Jacob Lake around 3am and arrived at the North Rim visitors’ centre around 4am in the black before dawn. I walked the path to Bright Angel Point in the dark and waited alone to watch the sun rise over the Grand Canyon.

Sun rise at Grand Canyon

Sun rise at Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon lit by sunrise

Grand Canyon lit by sunrise

Walking back, I realised how precipitous Bright Angel Point was, with sheer cliffs either side of the path and at one point a narrow bridge. Take a look at the link above and move the mouse around to shift your view! I suffer a little from fear of heights, and felt a little dizzy and out of breath on return to the car – later I learnt that it was most likely contributed to by the altitude, around 6,000 ft.

I drove back up the beautiful road, seeing wild bison, and then turned off to the East Rim overlook to cook breakfast in the forest.  After eating, I took a short walk to see the East Rim view over the Grand Canyon: behind me, a delightful alpine scene of forest, meadow, deer and antelope; before me, a flat desert plain scarred by the Colorado River’s canyon cut-in deep, dark and devilish looking.

East Rim Overlook

East Rim Overlook

Friday 18th – North Rim to Ogden

Rested and well fed,  I started the drive back through Jacob Lake and then Fredonia, Kanab and to visit Bryce Canyon.

North Rim to Ogden

North Rim to Ogden

Unlike the North Rim, Bryce Canyon was heaving with tourists and I parked and took the shuttle bus around to the viewpoints, again feeling the thinness of the air at around 8,000ft.

Bryce Canyon from Inspiration Point

Bryce Canyon from Inspiration Point

 

It was a most dramatic scene, demanding many photographs.

The road back from Bryce Canyon went through Red Canyon, remarkable by the standards of any other place, but overshadowed here:

Red Canyon panorama

Red Canyon panorama

Then north through Panguitch and across for the I15 to Salt Lake City and Ogden, reached in the dark, where I stopped, exhausted. I found a quiet place next to the freeway on an old main road at junction 341 on the I15 with West 31st Street and slept as long as I could.

Saturday 19th – Ogden to Forest Road 142, Mackay, Idaho

Waking again to the moon rise, now a slim crescent, I drove on.

Ogden to Forest Rd 142 Mackay Idaho

Ogden to Forest Rd 142 Mackay Idaho

Short of Pocatello, I took a turn to look for a breakfast spot and found myself in the South Mink Creek and stopped in the Slate Mountain trailhead car park to make breakfast and read a book for an hour.

Back on to the I15 and through Pocatello, I visited the Shoshone-Bannocks tribes’ museum at Fort Hall, notable for the abstract patterns on the Native American art:

Shoshone-Bannocks museum example of Porcupine Quillwork

Shoshone-Bannocks museum example of Porcupine Quillwork

Through Blackfoot, where I turned north west on the US26, I crossed the Snake River plain and passed Atomic City. This small village was built to house the scientists operating the many nuclear research establishments scattered widely over this desert plain as part of the Idaho National Laboratory. I visited  the EBR-1 nuclear reactor museum near Arco which was the first Uraniam breeder reactor to generate electricity.

Four famous light bulbs lit on Dec 20 1951 proving the potential for nuclear power

Four famous light bulbs lit on Dec 20 1951 proving the potential for nuclear power

Filled up with petrol in Arco, I drove up past Mackay and its reservoir, an area I had scouted out on Google street view, but it was already pretty busy, so I drove on and turned off towards the hills on the west side of the valley. After seeing Ospreys with fish in their talons by the side of the road, I discovered a track and stopped to ask two men in camouflage clothing where it went.  They turned out to be hunting with bow and arrow and advised me it would lead to the top and that there would be good camping spots there.

They were absolutely right – I drove up and found an excellent camp site in the shade of some pine trees and set about eating dinner. I had established my eclipse camping spot a day earlier than I had left time for, so felt really pleased to get some good rest and enjoyed the sunset illuminating the Lost River mountain range to the east across the valley, which included Borah Peak, the highest mountain in Idaho at 12,661 ft.

Lost River mountain range sunset

Lost River mountain range sunset

Sunday 20th – day of rest

After a good sleep, I still woke up early and watched the moon rise – so thin now as it neared the sun that it was almost invisible.

After breakfast, I walked along the road and then sat down to read Analogue Mountain, a gift from friend Doireann for Derek, but here I was with nothing to read and a day to fill!

For some reason a little later I discovered that the car wouldn’t start – the battery had run down. I blamed the sidelights.

After much worrying and thinking – I was a good way off the road and from the nearest habitation – I decided to make a sign to invite help. Every hour or so, a vehicle might pass on its way further in to the forest – there may have been as many as 12 people camping within a mile or two of me by the time of the eclipse.

Flat battery sign

Flat battery sign

The first encounter was with two quad bikers who couldn’t help, but promised to pass on the message.

Then a Mercedes van stopped and Dan Stempien got out, full of good cheer and had the jumper leads needed to start the car. Phew.

He travelled, lived and conducted his work in the summer months from his converted van. He was pleased to have found a mobile signal, with the help of an extra arial on the roof, which meant that he decided to camp next to me – welcome company.

A generous soul, he also gave me a spare pair of eclipse spectacles to watch with the next day.

Me and Dan waiting for the eclipse

Me and Dan waiting for the eclipse

Later, four other friendly eclipse watchers from Salt Lake City came along to say hi to us as their ‘neighbours’ and we enjoyed a discussion of stars and constellations over a drink.

Monday 21st – eclipse day

I was up early to watch the sun rise – no sign of the moon!

After breakfast, Dan and I watched the eclipse together and agreed it was both fantastic and emotional. The reduction in light and warmth as we watched the sun being ‘eaten’ was remarkable, perhaps exaggerated by the mountain top location. At totality, I was surprised that I could see the photosphere (atmosphere) of the sun with its coronal flares so comfortably and so brilliantly. The moment of the ‘diamond ring’ was phenomenal, a genuine jolt of adrenaline and cheers and whoops where audible from our neighbours, who were at least a mile away on another hilltop.

Me trying to photograph totality

Me trying to photograph totality

I set off for Sedona shortly later, finding modest queues as I exited the valley to Arco. Traffic was light until arriving in Blackfoot, where I mistook the northbound I15 slip road to Idaho Falls for the entrance to Walmart, so wasted time finding the next exit back to Blackfoot and to Walmart to pause and connect to the internet. Traffic on the I15 south was so bad that getting out of Blackfoot proved very slow and so I drove on side roads to avoid the masses. Eventually it picked up and I drove until nightfall to the same spot in Ogden, just North of Salt Lake City, that I had slept in on the way north.

Forest Rd 142 Mackay Idaho to Sedona

Forest Rd 142 Mackay Idaho to Sedona

I didn’t sleep long and woke in the night, deciding to drive on. This was premature, and I had to stop again just south of Salt Lake City to sleep some more.

Tuesday 22nd Salt Lake City to Sedona

I woke early and drove on, stopping to breakfast just off the I15 outside Fillmore, and then visited the statehouse museum in the city (town).

Territorial Statehouse State Park Museum in Fillmore

Territorial Statehouse State Park Museum in Fillmore

The museum had interesting original artefacts and explanations of the history of Mormon settlement and Native American relations in the early days. Particularly miserable to hear of the slave trading undertaken by a local chief, and his burial, which entailed the slaughtering  of his two wives and his favourite horses to lie in his burial site with him. Also the staking of a young Indian child to district wolves from desecrating the grave. Shocking.

I then drove on a bit and stopped to visit the Kolob Canyons – remarkable rocks.

Next to Jacob Lake again and more petrol before descending the East Rim of the Grand Canyon and visiting Marble Canyon and the Navajo bridge as the sun was going down.

Marble Canyon

Marble Canyon

Then a long drive to Flagstaff, passing mile after mile after mile of Vermillion Cliffs and seeing many Native American homes and villages. In Flagstaff, I paused to connect with the Airbnb host for the place where I was to stay in Sedona, and tell Derek I was an hour away, before driving down to Sedona. Derek met me outside the house I rented and we eat takeaway and locally brewed beer and had a good talk before a much needed sleep.

Wednesday 23rd – Sedona

Derek came round in the morning and we went to buy a pass to visit sites in Sedona and breakfast in a nice cafe with traditional Mexican food.

We visit the ruined Sinagua dwellings in the Palatki Heritage Site and a grotto with cave paintings and a house built by a more recent settler who planted fruit trees in the canyon. We returned to drink in a lovely cafe and talk about micro worlds.

Later we visited Derek’s mum, talked butterflies and then went to sit on a rocky platform near Chimney Rock, not far from where I was staying, and enjoyed the sun set, talked about Derek’s condition and made a video for the Italian teachers in Urbino, who we were missing.

Derek and the sunset

Derek and the sunset

Finally, we enjoyed a delightful meal at the Mariposa (butterfly). A real pleasure to have such quality time with Derek.

Thursday 24th

Set off at 6:20 to drive to Las Vegas, with a brief visit to the Hoover Dam. Cool and rainy for the first time, flight home uneventful.

I drove 2,332 miles all told.

A response to Secret Teacher’s breakdown

Dear Secret Teacher,

I found your report in the Guardian moving and important – recognition and acceptance that we have a problem is vital to recovery and I wish you well with yours.

I, like you, subscribe to Hargreaves’ “unconditional positive regard” and I am an unreformed “new romantic”, tempered with a little “lion tamer” and “entertainer” when needed!

Nevertheless, I was troubled by this paragraph:

“They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. At last I can admit that, yes, I do have a mental health problem. I don’t know what it is about me but, without my daily dose of antidepressants, I stop being the man I should be. There is a chemical inbalance in my brain that needs this but I have stopped wondering why: I just accept it. I have depression and, like my asthma, it’s something I have to learn to live with.”

I rewrote it in my own words as though speaking for society rather than as an individual:

“They say the first step to improvement is admitting there is a problem. At last society can admit that, yes, it does have more people experiencing mental health problems. We don’t know what it is about society but, without daily doses of antidepressants, people stop being as functional as they should be. There is a chemical inbalance in their brains that needs this but we do not need to wonder why: we just accept it. They have depression and, like asthma, it’s something they have to learn to live with.”

I find this rewrite unnacceptable!

It is not good enough for society to be satisfied with recognition of illness: we must challenge the root cause. In this case, the currently accepted model, that there is a chemical imbalance in brain, is not supported by the scientific evidence, as most psychiatrists will now agree ( see http://joannamoncrieff.com ).

An obvious alternative explanation for society to consider is that ill-health may be caused by the increased complexity and demand placed on teachers, especially if they are child-centred in their approach and subject to ever increasing inspection, parental demands and concerns about risk. I experienced a little of this stress recently as a school governor (my teaching days were in the seventies): we were expected to take responsibility for and annually review over twenty school policies, all with the threat of imagined risks if we were to put a foot wrong – and we weren’t even doing the day-to-day job!

My view is that we, society, needs to take this seriously: that we are placing too high a demand on teachers. When this is combined with teachers’ dedication to every individual child, management by targets & competition and a media habit of blaming teachers for problems in education, it can surely explain the kind of breakdown you report. It is in my view society’s responsibility to find solutions through better organisation of education. Sadly, it is simpler to blame the individual’s biochemistry and hand out unproven chemical ‘cures’ to paper over the cracks. It remains to be seen if it is cheaper or more sustainable.

I hope you do not take my words as suggesting that you were not up to the challenge of modern society and that if only you could “pull your socks up” you’d be able to overcome your condition – I am anxious here to show that the argument that we should “man-up” as individuals to modern problems is ignorant and inadequate. My purpose in writing this is to say we, society, have created the conditions for people to suffer and we should take our collective responsibility seriously. I suggest that for every person like you, there will be many more who aren’t able to recognise a mental health problem, but who are quietly self-medicating with alcohol.

With unconditional positive regard and the greatest respect to all those suffering,

Richard

PS Thanks to @Yorks_Bunny for alerting me to this, and for giving me this link to a Secret Teacher blog from a year ago which also addresses this issue.

The Bitterest Pills: The Troubling Story of Antipsychotic Drugs

The Bitterest Pills: The Troubling Story of Antipsychotic Drugs cover

I have recently read this excellent book  about research into the drug treatment of mental health conditions.

My review which offers an overview and my opinion is at the end of this post, but you may find it even more useful to listen to the author speak about the issues in this video made by the Open Paradigm Project.

The book made me think hard, and raised some very serious questions for me about our confidence in the ‘gold standard’ – double blind medical trial research data – which is held up as such a paragon of reliability. It is particularly annoying to think that education research is criticised as not being rigorous enough in comparison, when such a large scale failure of scientific thinking is reported.

The story, which tells of hubris and ambition amongst scientists, corruption from big business and the damage done, especially in relation to children, is enough to make me angry, but it also inspires me to look for parallel concerns in education.

One such concern is about the confusion between the organ which we call the brain and the phenomenon we call the mind. The story of drugs used to treat complex disorders of the mind is one of treating the brain with blanket interference at the level of the neuron and synapse, and then trying to explain the effects at the level of the mind.

It’s a bit like suggesting rain as a solution for society’s ills. Clearly rain has an effect on society’s functioning, but it has an indiscriminate dampening effect which doesn’t explain, predict or cause something like war, for example, although it may make for a temporary cessation if heavy enough. Indeed, it could be that such a break from the routine of war may help peace efforts to succeed. But nobody is confused that the rain is curing society’s problems in the way that ‘antipsychotic’ drugs are foolishly thought to target mental conditions.

These two things, brain and mind, are for me on completely separate ‘trophic levels‘, using the language of the ecosystems of food chains, just as rain and society are. One affects the other but not in simple ways that can explain the function of the mind through specific events in the brain nor vice versa, for that matter.

So, this analysis leads me to be cautious of any scientific report that attempts to relate brain biology directly to teaching and learning, although I have every confidence that hydration is important for our brains to work well and thus we should provide safe drinking fountains in schools, just as I find at Trinity College Dublin on every floor. Did I mention I now work there? 🙂

My review of The Bitterest Pills: The Troubling Story of Antipsychotic Drugs

A must-read for anyone concerned with the well-being of society

In this book, Dr Moncrieff explains carefully, soberly and with considerable academic integrity, how the world of psychiatry has become distorted by its own desire for recognition as a medical profession, its dubious assumptions about the nature of mental conditions and by the efforts made by drugs companies to increase their business.

Dr Moncrieff explains how the desire for psychiatry to be as scientific/medical as other areas of health has led to rushed conclusions about the link between brain chemistry/biology and complex mental conditions of the mind such as schizophrenia, manic depression and anxiety.

The assumption made is that a chemical imbalance in the brain requires toxic ‘antipsychotic’ drugs to counter it, and like insulin for diabetes, over a lifetime since it is a permanent deficiency in the brain. This assumption is shown to have little or no evidence to support it, yet is the mainstay of modern psychiatric practice. Dr Moncrieff proposes an alternative view, that the drugs are simply suppressing brain activity, and thus appear to ‘cure’ mental conditions. The trouble is, whichever view is taken, the drugs have toxic effects which are in many ways no different those from the illegal drugs taken for pleasure that we criminalise in society. These effects are downplayed as ‘side effects’ despite there being substantial evidence of long term damage to body and brain health.

Dr Moncrieff shows how drugs companies, keen to maintain and improve their business, have funded research which shows marginal and questionable improvement through their drugs and have suppressed negative reports. Despite contradictory results, this ‘research’ is followed by advertising and efforts to shift the wider society understanding of mental health, so that patients demand ever more drugs to ‘cure’ their sometimes modest problems, now made to sound like serious illnesses.

The distortions to academic practice, pyschiatric prescription and most damning of all, the attempts to treat young children with toxic drugs are revealed by Dr Moncrieff with careful attention to the published record in a convincing manner, providing a solid basis for further debate.

But, most damning of all, is the experience that Dr Moncrieff reports of a refusal in the psychiatric world to engage with these issues or to properly discuss the ethical dilemmas that arise. I found myself intrigued, challenged but ultimately enraged by the failure of the academic/medical professionals to ‘do no harm’.

I recommend this book without reservation to anyone prepared to think hard about these issues, and who perhaps has been unaware of concerns about mental health treatment and the huge cost to the well-being of society. It is then for us to take up the challenges Dr Moncrieff has described and ask how are we and society to respond?

Heaven

On Friday, I left my meeting in London and set off from Liverpool Street Station to Essex (the only way is Essex, I live in Brentwood).

“It was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye; perhaps all of these and other things happened together for all my senses were bewildered all at once and could give me no explanation.”

from the The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan)

I didn’t get out at my usual stop, but instead the train continued towards Southend and I disembarked (thanks Sasha) at Southend Airport.

Had I fallen asleep on the journey? Was I in a dream?

I got on a plane to Dublin and found myself inveigled into a secret-service plot to surprise my friend Boyd for his birthday. A black limousine met me at the airport with good friend, colleague and Boyd’s partner Eileen and Tom ‘No. 1 son’, who whisked me to a pub to mark time with Eileen’s old friends (and a Guinness). Then we collected Zac ‘Besty’ (George Best? Animal? or simply the best?) and finally we hid in Findlater in Howth to await the birthday boy. Hosted by Sabine, we enjoyed a fantastic sea-food skillet and laughed and lived our love of family. Aoife offers me a bed for the night and she and I have a cracking conversation long past my bed time.

A very good dream indeed.

Saturday, like in all my best dreams, was spent at a stimulating Association of Teachers’ / Education Centres’ numeracy conference, re-connecting with Eileen Two and meeting the vibrant Dolores Corcoran (where were you Elizabeth?). I guess I should have been suspicious of the conference title – ‘Does it All Add Up?’

Later the birthday party continued with Boyd and Eileen’s neighbours and friends – more cracking conversation and such warm, good people.

Boyd's birthday

Boyd blows out the candles watched by Eileen, Tom and Chantal

Food from Joan (now known as Jo-an-issima) was spot-on, with the shiniest cutlery and glasses. Sing-songs and good company. Shared a brilliant falling star with Aoife and I had to be taken home by the delightful Nessa. It’s not usual to sleep in dreams and I didn’t sleep much before Sunday morning. On waking to a dawn over Dublin Bay, I am off in another limo, to the airport, to fly to London Gatwick.

Dublin Bay

Dublin Bay and Howth at dawn

I then enter another level of dream – ‘in transit’ – like the novel by Brigid Brophy, that I marvelled at as teenager. Vana arrives and we work on categorising future trends in TEL before a flight to Turin, Italy.

We meet Katherine, who drives us to Pollenzo in Bra, to L’Agenzia di Pollenzo ‘si fa in quattro’ the international headquarters of ‘slow food’. The ‘quattro’ are our hotel Albergo dell’Agenzia also housing Guido Ristorante Pollenzo, the Banco Vino (wine bank) and best of all, the University degli  Studi Scienze Gastronomische (University of Gastronomic Sciences) – “the first academic institution to offer an interdisciplinary approach to food studies”. The whole campus is built on part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of King Carlo Alberto’s 1835  Savoy Estate, which in turn is built on the Roman town of Pollentia.

Universita degli Studi Gastronomische

Universita degli Studi Gastronomische

I sit down to dinner with Vana and Katherine:

antipasto – Sformato di verdure con crema di Roccaverano

primo – Tajarin al sugo di salsicca di Bra

secondo – Brasato al Barolo con patate al forno

dolce – Panna Cotta

with a powerful Barbaresco from close by, and we speak all night of creativity.

wine and panna cotta

Barbaresco wine from the local region and Panna Cotta

In this heavenly dream, I wonder how did I deserve or manage such a dreamy, surreally wicked dream weekend, at such times in higher education…

“…with the drink trade on its last legs and the land running fallow for the want of artificial manures” ?

from the The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan)

I began to realise, unlike the narrator in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, who doesn’t know he is in hell, that I must be in heaven and that I passed in my sleep on the train from Liverpool Street.

 

Brentwood Community Print

I have been volunteering with Brentwood Community Print, working to advise Paul, their web developer, as he created a first web-site for them. First and foremost the company is a print shop serving the Brentwood area – they are quick, friendly and competitive – I ordered and got 250 business cards inside an hour. I recommend them without reservation.

Secondly, they offer a place for people recovering from mental illness, providing a challenging, supportive and happy context to build confidence and meaningful work to develop skills. I have really enjoyed my time helping Paul and getting to this point has been Paul’s success. It was particularly rewarding today watching him complete ‘job 1’ – a published web-site. Everyone pitched in with proof-reading, critical feedback and ideas for improvement, some of which will provide tasks for ‘job 2’, the next stage in what is an unending series of revisions to keep the web-site dynamic and increase its quality.

Well done Paul and all the team!

 

Could Brentwood schools be more like Cambridge University?

Downing College, Cambridge

I have just read Derek Wenmoth’s blog ‘The Wrong Drivers‘ in which he comments on Michael Fullan’s concerns that we are pursuing ineffective school improvement strategies.

Much as though I find it easy to support Michael Fullan’s ideas for the right drivers, Derek Wenmoth’s commentary and Darren Sudlow’s comment, I am not so clear how to overcome the contradictions between a society’s call for accountability and the huge value of open and transparent data as a means of directing improvement in education.

In the UK we are being driven to the mistaken belief that a market should exist for education at every level.  If so, in order for this market to operate properly, the consumer needs to know who is selling the best value product. Unfortunately we don’t fully understand how educational quality is defined, in a way that can allow effective comparison, nor are we clear what price it is to the community (unless we buy private education). The consumer is persuaded to make judgements based on a muddled and (old) fashion-conscious set of beliefs, with narrow and misleading data sets.

This position has encouraged the development of ‘free schools’ (charter schools) based on parental demand rather than community need, but paid for by the community. Recently, one such secondary school is being proposed on the site of the closing Sawyers Hall College, a comprehensive secondary school which is closing this August and of which I am a governor here in Brentwood.

Over the last decade I have witnessed at first-hand the long and detailed deliberation about what our community in Brentwood needs and the extensive efforts to find sponsors for the kind of learning provision identified. One outcome was the realisation that there were too many schools for a declining demographic and so after consultation an agreed, supportive and professional school closure has been carried out over three years with an emotionally moving focus on safeguarding children’s well-being. The new free school proposal takes no notice of this in any way.

In fact the new free school is not needed by the community as a whole, has the wrong mix of values and educational provision and will cause another school closure if successful –  or its own if not – causing further expense and disruption to the community. My concern about this has lead to the formation with four others of the Educating Brentwood group, who are trying to hold educational developments in Brentwood to account (and highlight good practice). For further reading, my response to its unprofessional and poorly reported consultation is appended to this post. I believe the parents who are behind this new school are persuaded that schools in Brentwood are inadequate, and that the only way to improve their children’s life chances is to demand a new school. The basis for this is false evidence of  failure in current schools in Brentwood (the closing school recently received outstanding judgements from OFSTED), naivety and a deep selfishness – ironic when the school is proposed as a church school.

Darren’s call in his comment on Derek’s blog to “make the learning visible to the community” will only help if the institution is seen and trusted as an important partner in whole community development, as Keri Facer suggests, rather than a service to that community.

I suggest that institutional leaders must move from building their organisation as a coherent community in its ivory tower, to becoming more incoherent but embedded locally and in solid partnership with all other institutions in the neighborhood, committed to raising mutual quality hand-in-hand. Parents may then believe that their child’s future is solidly safe in the school most convenient to reach, because all schools in the neighborhood are working together to facilitate the transformation of that most precious of society’s assets – the child.

This call for incoherence and embeddedness challenges the orthodoxy of competitive institutions, walled-in shiny buildings, safeguarding policies, militaristic uniform, faux community engagement (seen as a kind of missionary work), technological firewalls and many other outward signs of institutional power, but not at the expense, one hopes, of the value of the family that school offers and the focus on knowledge sharing & acquisition as an end in itself.

What if there was only one educational institution in Brentwood for all learners and trainees of any age and say like Cambridge University, you attended and ‘lived’ in a college that was modest in size, local to you, but part of that larger institution with its comprehensive opportunities?

Perhaps we can learn from the best university in the world – I think the benefits are obvious.

 

APPENDIX

My Response to Becket Keys, Brentwood Consultation
20th April, 2012Dear Sir/Madam

I am respondng as an individual, I am a governor at Sawyers Hall College and the parent of three children.
I am also a Reader in the Institute for Educational Cybernetics (sustainable education systems) at the University of Bolton and a Director of a nonprofit education consultancy based in Brentwood.
My postcode is CM15 9BZ.

QUESTION 1: Should Becket Keys enter in a Funding Agreement with the Secretary of State?
NO

QUESTION 2: Please give reasons
The Secretary of State should not enter into a Funding Agreement with The Russell Education Trust because the impact on other local schools has not been fully evaluated nor publicly shared with the parents whose demand is the basis of the proposal.

As a governor of the closing school in Brentwood, I fully appreciate the detailed care and attention that must be paid to the children and their parents due to the disruption of closing – a process that has carried on over three years. It is vital not to recreate the situation in Brentwood that causes there to be another closure in a few years – it would be ignoring the lessons of recent history and the real need for vocational education that has been established by extensive analysis and consultation over the last ten years.

The Secretary of State should recognise that the proposers of the free school have deliberately misled the public and parents about this, by publishing incorrect information about admissions, overstating the likely continuing admissions at Sawyers Hall College if it were to remain open. In addition they have incorrectly speculated in their publicity to parents on the numbers of children likely to take up places in selective, independent or other maintained schools, contrary to the evidence.

Furthermore they have propagated the popular myth that an academic approach to teaching and learning is in the interests of every child, when it is clear from the research evidence that there is a diversity of learning styles that require a diversity of teaching approaches. The schools in Brentwood already offer clear pathways to academic children, all of them above average in their results. But there is room for improvement, and this is particularly in the area of learning-by-doing. This does not necessarily sacrifice the opportunity to follow academic pathways as the learner matures and gains confidence. There is also a need to improve the mix of vocational education offered in Brentwood as recognised by more than one extensive, professionally run consultation over the last decade. Our country must improve its position as a manufacturing force in the world, but we seem prepared to ignore those children who would be delighted to put their practical intellectual capability into use in learning, and thus develop the high level skills through this route that the country needs.

The company who are promoting this free school, not the instigators and parents who I believe have acted in good faith, have followed a marketing path to make money, with a reckless disregard for Brentwood and indeed the country’s needs. Their credentials to successfully run the school are unclear and are not revealed when asked. The Secretary of State would be ill-advised to risk our taxpayer’s money on such a funding agreement and should recommend to the company involved that they form an independent school and seek private investment, where their record and experience will be examined very carefully by investors before taking such a step.

As a resident of Brentwood, a parent, a taxpayer and a voter – hence an investor of sorts – on the basis of my own due diligence enquiries and their failure to establish any confidence in the proposing company, I can see no merit in the proposal.

Ultimately, I believe they have established an inflated parental demand on false information – a practice that no reputable business in Brentwood High Street would get away with for long.

QUESTION 3: Should Becket Keys adopt the proposed 2013 Admissions Policy without any further changes?
NO
QUESTION 4: Please give reasons
The admissions policy is over-complicated, will confuse and ultimately obscure the basis for admissions. The schools chosen are not all the closest to the site and it is a significant omission to ignore the demands of parents at St Mary’s Shenfield.

QUESTION 5: I would like to suggest the following change(s) to the proposed 2013 Admissions Policy.
The Admissions policy and its catchment area must be rejected and rethought.

Richard Millwood

Old lobster almost boiled

Learning on the Beach 2011

The second annual Learning on the Beach unconference #lob11 has just scattered – I am blown away, boiled, invigorated and inundated – and that was just the weather. We were a self-select group of ‘old lobsters’ like me @richardmillwood and some fresh faces like @squiggle7 – the value of this mix in challenging the norms of indoor education was enormous.

Activities included:

  • a scene setter on flat-lining and free-learning from John Davitt
  • collaborative presentations by teams of participants on themes (and genre) as diverse as Irish History (sing-song), The Salt Marsh (tragedy) and Tides (rap)
  • a tour of the beach with Seán and Matthew to understand the nurturing approach to the ‘machair’ or sand dunes found on the west coast of Ireland and particularly in Mulranny, where we were staying
  • the Explainer Olympics – a chance to hone with a sharp stick in the sand our skills in capturing a concept
  • a Ceilidh to let it rip -thanks to Jim and Ann, @angedav @JamiePortman @mlovatt1 @magsamond @johndavitt
  • Postcards from the Edge, scribed on the beach – to let us shout about our findings
  • thoughts to challenge suppliers – what do we need to support learning outdoors in the design of equipment and infrastructure? Peter at @westnet_ie made it possible for us to connect from the beaches around Mulranny so that we could benefit from our vast array of gadgetry to support our inquiry including TouchaTag an RFID technology, but there were many issues addressed regarding weatherproofing, robustness, daylight viewing and power supply that would enhance outdoor activity anywhere
  • hot tub, sauna, steam room, cold plunge and swimming pool – four facilities that were welcome 😉
  • the sharing of Guinness, Google, kindness, camera-derie, Twitter, time, humour and happiness ( to say nothing of black and white pudding, fresh air and fine rain)

There are not enough wild sea-horses to hold me back from attending #lob12  – I already miss the lobsters: @squiggle7 @magsamond @JamiePortman @mlovatt1 @andyjb @dughall @VickiMcC @johnmayo @johndavitt @angedav @katherinedavitt @timrylands @sarahneild @susanbanister

Is society presenting a ‘still face’?


This article about ‘brain science’ and policy relating to early childhood development by Chris Corrigan is uplifting and affirmative, but the ‘still face’ video showing a child interacting with mother and then being shunned is heartbreaking, saved by a happy ending. The notion that interpersonal relations start early is tacitly obvious to many, but this video articulates it so clearly.

The extension, to ask whether society presents a ‘still face’ to young people may be a leap to far, but it could be argued that ignoring the interests of the young leads to upset, perhaps amply demonstrated by the recent action by students in response to a reduction in government funding of further and higher education in the UK.

Thanks to Jonnie Moore for highlighting this.

Surprise, surprise

Times Higher Educational Supplement logo

Tara Brabazon in the Times Higher Education Supplement when discussing coursework masters degree courses:

“They are squeezed between the crowd control of undergraduate education and the over-bureaucratised doctoral programmes that dislodge the historically functional relationship between a PhD candidate and supervisor.”

She draws attention to the remarkable creativity of her students, when unleashed with a little flexibility:

“Although there is a science – and craft – to curriculum, we never know how our students will remix our aims and riff off our structure to create melodies and syncopations beyond our lesson plans.”

I know what she’s talking about and we have designed this thinking in to our new degree framework for batchelors, masters and doctorate at the University of Bolton.

Although her article is flowery in its language and this begins to grate as I get to the end, the sentiments and concepts are important:

“These students want a second chance to remake their careers and lives. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and their examples show that change and creativity emerges when courageous students decide to live their lives differently.”

Our take on this fertile opportunity is Inter-disciplinary inquiry-based learning founded in an action research philosophy.

At this point in her article, Tara switches to talking about the link between research and teaching, through the students’ inquiry referencing the HEA report Linking Teaching and Research in Disciplines and Departments.

My worry is that this paper, and her language, are not radical enough in conceiving students as co-researchers in the 21st century. Surely now, ivory-tower academic authority is no longer seen as the know-it-all top of the pyramid (to mix a few metaphors myself), but still has a vital role to play in gathering the best, modelling excellence and rigour and wisely critiquing and deferring to the evidence base from professional practice.

Tara pleas:

“I hope that through the stress and the marking, the stress and the moderation, the stress and the exam boards, academics feel buoyant at their teaching achievements but humbly reflective about what our students can teach us.”

Agreed, and I suggest we should focus on how to make these important teaching acts as delightful and stress free as possible.

Why British universities are limiting the experience of secondary education. How can they be doing a better job?

 Haberdashers

This was the title of the Thirteenth Askes’s Education Lecture held in the Haberdasher’s Hall, West Smithfield, London, given by Dr Anthony Seldon, Master, Wellington College.

Anthony delivered an impassioned plea to sit up and take notice of the damage done by league tables and subject examinations to the notion of a broad education and the well-being of future citizens. He observed that education had improved markedly in each of the preceding three decades, but that the whole child was only being developed in few schools and without proper acknowledgement. Part of the blame was placed on the university system with its exam expectations, narrow academic focus and selection processes.

I asked Anthony (and others): where is innovation in higher education to spring from to improve the situation? Imaginative action is needed – I’m ready!