The role of Ofsted in schools

Ever since I can remember, education in the UK has been measured through the use of exam results, at GCSE and A-level. Until the last year or so, some statistic about how many students received a certain number of A*–C (A–C grades before the A* was introduced) has been steadily increasing, giving the general public a warm and fuzzy feeling about how well the Secretary of State for Education is doing in his or her role.

During the same period, school qualifications have become more and more meaningless and valueless.

As I’ve said previously, this needs to change. The proportion of students achieving each grade in a given subject should be fixed year on year. Students should be evaluated against their peers. This is the only way in which grades can become meaningful again. If I received the CVs of two people, one of whom attained five As, three Bs and two Cs; and one of whom had ten As, I am unable to meaningfully compare them unless I know which year in which they took their exams. And even if I was armed with that information, I wouldn’t have sufficient information to be able to discern which candidate had performed better.

Children’s inherent intelligence is not fundamentally changing over the course of time. Certainly not to an extent that can be detected between one August and the next.

(The same is arguably true of employees, by the way. If your organisation is sufficiently large, you should be able to group a fixed proportion of people into each of a number of performance brackets. But that’s an aside.)

So if exam results were to be standardised, Ofsted becomes more important. The quality of education being offered by a school should be measured in two ways: its overall approach; and its outputs (exam results). (Arguably, a school that only accepts really bright students will demonstrate very good exam results, so perhaps a third measure, about its outputs compared to its inputs (11+ results?) might also be useful.)

The quantitative measure(s) involving exam results can easily be collated and presented based on hard data. But Ofsted’s softer role is ever more important in ensuring that this is backed up with empirical evidence about how a school operates on a day-to-day basis.

Eight years of BBC News reporting on rail fare increases

2006–07: Train fare rises draw criticism

Above-inflation price rises for rail tickets have come under attack from rail groups and opposition politicians. Many areas’ regulated fares, which include season tickets, have risen by 4.3% – about 1% above inflation – but some unregulated fares are up by 7.3%. The Tories said the “galling” rises showed ministers had failed to sort out the railways. Rail watchdog Passenger Focus said fares needed simplifying.

2007–08: Passengers face train fare rises

Passengers are to be hit by above-inflation rate fare increases. Season tickets and saver and standard day returns will rise by 4.8% on average, says the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc). Others, such as cheap day returns and long-distance open and advance fares will go up by 5.4%.

2008–09: Latest train fare rises attacked

Above-inflation rail fare increases of more than 6% are “completely out of kilter with the real economy”, passenger groups have said. Anthony Smith of Passenger Focus said hikes were “difficult to explain” as wages were not rising by the same rate. Train firms say more money will allow greater investment in services.

2009–10: Rise in rail ticket prices criticised by watchdog

Rail watchdog Passenger Focus has criticised the new year rise in fares, which have gone up by an average 1.1%. Season tickets and standard day tickets might see a “very small reduction” in cost, but some of unregulated ticket hikes were “quite stinging”, it said. Another campaign group said fares should be cut to the European average. The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) said the majority of passengers would see “a fall, no rise or an increase below inflation”.

2010–11: Rail season tickets for some commuters ‘pass £5,000’

The cost of some annual season tickets will exceed £5,000 for the first time when prices go up on Sunday, the Campaign for Better Transport has said. Season ticket prices across the UK will rise by an average of 5.8%, while London bus and Tube fares go up 6.8%. CBT said some Kent commuters would have to bear rises of nearly 13% and warned of people being priced off the trains.

2011–12: Commuter pain as rail fare rises take effect

Rail commuters preparing to return to work after the Christmas break face fare rises of up to 11% from Monday, watchdog Passenger Focus has said. Chief executive Anthony Smith said they should not have to keep paying for a “fractured, inefficient industry”. The annual rise will see the average price of regulated fares, such as season tickets, increase by 6%. The Association of Train Operating Companies said money raised through fares helped pay for better services.

2012–13: Rail commuters hit by 4.2% average fare rise

Rail fares for season ticket holders have increased by an average of 4.2% as the annual price hike, announced in August, comes into effect. Overall, ticket prices have gone up by 3.9% in England, Wales and Scotland, but rises vary between train operators. The TUC has claimed average train fares have risen nearly three times faster than average incomes since 2008. Transport minister Norman Baker said the government had intervened to ensure fare rises were capped at about 4%.

2013–14: Rail fare rise of 2.8% comes into effect

An average 2.8% increase in rail fares comes into effect on Thursday, pushing the cost of some commuter travel to more than £5,000 a year. The increase is the smallest rise in four years, according to the pan-industry Rail Delivery Group. Chancellor George Osborne said in last month’s Autumn Statement he would keep fares in line with July’s Retail Price Index (RPI) inflation rate of 3.1%. But campaigners say that fares are rising three times faster than incomes.

2013: When I found my creative mojo

The year 2013 has been an interesting one for me.

Work has been hectic yet rewarding. Proofreading has started to take off in a much bigger sense. And I have developed a new passion in the form of my mapping. (I know I keep wanging on about it, but it’s important to me for a few reasons, so please forgive me.)

First, to me it’s amazing to think that at the beginning of 2013, I didn’t have a creative bone in my body. Yet now, I am able to create pieces that I consider to be beautiful. And indeed, that others consider beautiful. The creative bone was always there. But my inability to draw in the traditional sense (my brother got those genes) prevented me from finding it.

In April, I had no demonstrated ability on the artistic front, nor did I have a desire. On 17 May, the desire suddenly came, as did the impetus to do something about it. I have no idea where it came from, but it was sudden, immediate. I realised that my life involved little in the way of creativity (in the traditional sense of the word), so I decided to do something about it.

So I drew some maps. I started on A4. I liked what I did, and moved up to A3, refining my approach. What I previously liked on A4 began to look amateurish. Such is the way with things, I guess. When you do them, you think they’re the mutts’. When you get better, you look back on your previous work with a more critical eye.

And I’ve now graduated to A1. Maps of epic proportions that look rather good, if I may be so bold.

I’ve given some maps away: one to my dad, three to some good friends and one to the lovely lady whose work inspired me to get into all this.

I’ve created an online shop. And I’ve sold some. Not that many so far, but enough to make me proud of the pieces I’m producing. The thought that someone wants to hang what I’ve created on their wall, and pay for the privilege of doing so, gives me a rather fabulous feeling.

And I’ve also been asked to do a commission: a work specific to someone’s interests.

It won’t pay the mortgage, nor would I want it to. But the thought that people are willing to part with their money to pay for things that I have created is special beyond belief.

Here’s to more of the same in 2014.

And here’s a link to the shop, for those that are interested.

Kindle or tablet? Silly question

I’ve been involved in a few debates recently over why people need a Kindle when they have an iPad or other Kindle-enabled tablet.

It’s a ridiculous argument, in my view. For two reasons.

First, battery life.

My Kindle stays charged for weeks. Literally. I’ll probably charge mine every three weeks or so, more to top it up than necessarily because it’s running low on juice. This is of massive appeal. I can pop it in my bag, just as I would a book, and forget about it until such time that I choose to read it. If I had to take it out of my bag each night to charge it, something would be lost. Something very important.

Second, and more importantly, experience.

When I read my Kindle, I’m reading a book. It’s the size of a book, and the utterly delightful E Ink technology makes it feel like a book. A beautiful, imperfect book, even with slight “printing” flaws owing to the technology.

When reading on a tablet, I’m reading a magazine. Even when the screen’s brightness is set low, the experience is completely different to that of the Kindle. It’s backlit, and that fundamentally changes the reading experience. My eyes are working, not dancing. I’m no doctor, but I expect that their state while reading a Kindle is very different to that when they’re reading a tablet.

And that’s why for now, there’s absolutely a place for the Kindle in your bag, even if you’ve got a tablet.

(Note: I don’t own a tablet. But I’ve borrowed them, from the likes of my daughter.)

Reuleaux polygons and tetrahedra

My friend Rob sent me this video today. I just watched it. And I loved it. Here’s the background.

Certain 2D shapes are such that their height is the same regardless of their orientation on the plane. The obvious example is the circle, meaning that your bicycle runs smoothly down the road.

But there are an infinite number of other shapes that share this quality. For the UK contingent amongst you, the 50p and 20p pieces are examples.

You see, they’re not quite heptagons. They’re actually Reuleaux heptagons. That means that where they might have straight edges, the edges are instead slightly curved. And the point on the coin that is opposite that curved side lies at the centre of the circle of which the curve is an arc.

To prove it, take a ledge (e.g. the bottom lip of a laptop screen, or the point at which a radiator guard meets the wall). Place two 50p pieces upright on the ledge. And grab a ruler. Place the ruler across the top of the two coins and drag the coins left or right. You’ll find that the ruler remains the same distance from the ledge at all times.

Simply delightful. And yet more so when you discover that there are Reuleaux triangles!

Now you couldn’t make a bicycle using these shapes, as the centre moves around as the coin rolls. So while the highest point of the wheel would remain a fixed distance from the ground, the point of the axle would wobble go up and down relative to the ground, and so the ride would be a little bumpy.

Now, it gets better. As well as there being an infinite number of Reuleaux planes, there are also an infinite number of Reuleaux solids, which share similar properties. So you can balance a board on a bunch of them, roll it around, and the board will remain a fixed distance from the floor.

You can buy a bag of them here. *reaches for credit card*

(Oh. I also love the guy’s enthusiasm for the subject.)

The black hole of online car tax renewal

So. My car tax is due to expire on 30 November.

The trouble is, my insurance is due to expire on 26 November.

I am able to renew my car tax any time after 5 November, and received a letter to this effect from the DVLA on 5 November. So I went online to renew the following day.

The site said that I couldn’t renew online, as the motor insurance database did not have proof of my having insurance beyond the point of the car tax renewing. Apparently, I’m unable to renew my car tax within the last three weeks of my insurance policy. Coincidentally, that means I’m unable to renew my car tax after 5 November.

So I went through the process of renewing my insurance, with Privilege, and they have now confirmed that on 26 November, my insurance will renew with them for another year.

The trouble is, they are unable to inform the DVLA of my new insurance policy until my existing policy is at the point of expiry.

So I will instead need to go into a Post Office to renew my car tax; or else I need to try to do it in the four-day window between 26 and 30 November. And here’s the rub: the proximity of the two expiry dates means that this will be an annual “feature” of my relationship with the DVLA, unless I choose to pay an £11 premium to only renew my car tax for six months.

Utter madness.

My first ever sale

A little under four months ago, I made a conscious decision to become more creative. And I started creating maps.

I experimented with a few styles and did some pieces on A4 that at the time I was pleased with, but looking at them now, I’m less convinced. I moved up to A3, a size much more at one with the subject matter, and honed my style through nothing but iteration.

And I became comfortable. Comfortable in the sense that the act of creation was fulfilling, that it was therapeutic, that it was emotionally rewarding.

But as I guess is the case with anything creative, and indeed things beyond creativity, I was caught between two pillars. On the one hand, I thought that what I was doing was amateurish. On the other, I thought it was rather impressive. Maybe it was a bit of both.

And out in the field, the very few people who have been exposed to my “work” have had varying reactions. Some love it, some aren’t particularly impressed.

Anyway, I gave away prints of a couple of my early creations to friends and family as presents. One particular friend framed hers and put it up in her hallway.

And her girlfriend, who I don’t know, popped round at the weekend to visit her. And she loved the piece of work on her wall –my map of the UK mainland. So much so that she asked where it came from. Three days later.

Last night, she ordered a print of my London map as a wedding present, for the handsome sum of £30. She received it this evening, saying that it was “clever” and that “[she] love[d] it”.

To create something from scratch that someone loves is an immense feeling. For it to delight so much so that someone is willing to part with £30 for a piece of it is mesmerising and utterly humbling. And to know that the creation might be hung on someone’s wall, someone that you don’t even know, puts a spring in your step and a smile on your face.

It’s a feeling I’ve never experienced before. And I love it. I didn’t decide to be more creative to make money. But the money signifies the value that people place in the stuff I’ve created. And that, to me, is much greater than the money could ever be.

Here’s my shop, btw.

One in 20 million

I am one in 20 million. I genuinely believe I am.

Out of all of the people in the world, I would argue that I’m in the top 0.2% of people when it comes to Excel prowess. That equates to being one of the top 112,000 people in the UK, assuming equal global representation. Old Trafford plus White Hart Lane. A safe bet, I reckon. It becomes even more realistic if you consider that only around 50% of the UK’s 28m workers are office workers, so the majority of the rest will not even feature.

And out of all the people in the UK, I reckon I’m in the top 0.5% of people when it comes to proofreading prowess. Just look at a YouTube comments board and you’d struggle to argue.

Finally, I reckon I’m in the top 0.5% of people when it comes to unicycling prowess. An estimated one million Americans can unicycle, or 0.32%. So 0.5% is probably quite conservative, given that Americans are probably more likely than most to unicycle, and given that I might even be better than the odd one or two.

So assuming the three skills are not correlated (there may actually be some correlation between Excel and unicycling), if you’re looking for an Excel-trained proofreading unicyclist, I’m a better choice than the next person, and the next 19,999,998 people after that.

This isn’t arrogance, by the way. It’s intended to highlight that every one of us can identify certain skills that we’re better than most at. And when we combine those skills, we’re on top of the world.

(My ability to find the butter in the fridge, my cooking prowess and my creative artistic ability probably also combine to make me one in 20 million. But at the lower end of the spectrum.)

So find those skills. Hone them. And make sure people know how good you are at them.

(Oh, and as an aside, make at least one of those skills fun, and also choose one that can make you some money. If all three fall into both categories, you’re golden. I made 10 Deutsche Marks juggling in Köln (spelt thus to avoid aftershave gibes) in 1993. Not enough to pay the mortgage. But a fun experience nonetheless.)

Losing my creative virginity

On Friday 17 May, I made a conscious and important decision: to force myself to be more creative.

You see, I haven’t been creative since leaving school. Yes, creativity comes in various forms. I could easily argue that I am creative in my analysis of data. I love to make data sing. And I like to think that I’m more creative than most in my emails. I like to craft them and try to make them pleasing to the reader. Only their recipients can vouch for my success in this area.

And arguably, this very blog, all nine years of it, is a symbol of creativity.

But no. Here I mean creativity in the sense of art. I don’t draw, I don’t paint, I don’t sculpt, I don’t write music or make things. And I haven’t done anything in this field since leaving school. (At school, I made an ace keyring for my mum, which I believe she still uses to this day. It’s a rectangular piece of brass, maybe 3cm x 2cm, adorned intentionally with vice marks and drill holes. I also made a supremely shit owl in pottery class. I also happened to write a full orchestral symphony for my music GCSE. Pretentious doesn’t come close!)

But since 1991, I’ve not done anything remotely artistic.

It seems that my brother got all the creative genes. He can pick up a pencil and things just flow. He draws for fun. He’s created artwork for CDs. His works litter his own apartment—sketches, black and white ink work, watercolours, the list goes on. And it’s all fabulous. If we were both asked to draw a horse, any genealogist could only conclude that one of us was adopted.

A couple of months ago, I stumbled upon some work done by a Twitter follower/followee. She’s a friend of a friend who I’ve never met, and likely never will. But I liked her artwork and felt an urge to do something in a similar vein. So I did. (She was nothing but supportive of my endeavours, btw.)

I bought some paper whose gsm count would make my printer weep. I bought myself some tracing paper, traditional pencils (2B), some mechanical pencils and some fine-tipped black pens. And I set to work.

The idea involves tracing from printouts and a degree of creativity thereafter. (I’m not going to share any more detail at this stage, for reasons that I won’t go into. Suffice to say, I will share some of the pieces at a later date.) I like to think that I’ve taken the idea that formed the inspiration, and put a spin on it that has made it my own—although at first, I felt a small sense of guilt at the similarities.

I started off doing a handful of pieces on A4. And I’ve since graduated to A3, a size that seems beautifully suited to the style of work. Thus far, I’ve done three full-size pieces (ha, “pieces” sounds *so* pretentious).

At first, I was nervous. I was uncertain of my own abilities, scared of putting pencil or pen to paper, much like the act of hitting a key on a traditional typewriter. There’s no turning back once the ink is on the paper. But once I’d overcome this initial fear, things started to flow and form.

And now, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. I would guess that the big pieces are averaging about 15 hours each. The process is therapeutic. And liberating. And my production from scratch of something that I consider to be quite beautiful is rather exhilarating.

It’s also wonderful that one or two people have voiced genuine (I think) appreciation of the pieces produced. (I have always been the type of person who needs some form of external validation in life. Weak? Maybe. But honest.) So this goes down well. (Some people have even suggested that it’s saleable at a far from insignificant price. These people are deluded.) And as with everything, there are the nay-sayers (“it took you how long??”), and that’s fine. They’re welcome to their opinions, and I won’t foist my efforts upon them.

I have planned another piece, and have another variation on the theme to play with. And the nature of the work means that the only limitation to its possibilities lies in my own imagination.

So if you’re one of those people who, like me, is devoid of any true creative outlet, I encourage you to challenge yourself. Like me, you might be pleasantly surprised at what you find.

Accessing our information: are we asking the right question?

The rather farcical Where’s Wally/Waldo–style arm’s-length manhunt that is underway to locate Edward Snowden is, perhaps intentionally, deflecting from the important topic of snooping. But I think people are missing the important question.

The question being asked is:

Are the authorities breaking the law in accessing our information in the name of security?

The question that should be being asked, in my opinion, is:

Should the authorities be allowed to operate above the law in accessing our information in the name of security?

The problem is, the authorities have done little to engender our trust in the past. The police are never out of the news for their corruption and cover-ups, alleged and otherwise. The Stephen Lawrence case is the most recent example. Before that, phone hacking, Ian Tomlinson, Jean Charles de Menezes, the list goes on.

And in government, MPs are rarely out of the news for their own indiscretion: expenses scandals, selling of information, employment of relatives, cash for questions, their all too cosy relationships with the media.

And this behaviour, this reputation tarnishes the entirety of the security services. Few people nowadays trust that their information will be used in a responsible and positive way, and so there is uproar at the very idea that MI5 or GCHQ might go beyond the confines of the law in an attempt to thwart terrorist activity.

I wonder whether people’s perceptions of the security services’ use of data would be different if operational policing were better trusted, or if those that were responsible for the government of our country operated in a transparent and honest way.

My view is that if the public-facing sections of the authorities behaved in an honest manner, we would have little issue with the security services’ use of our data. Instead of asking whether they’d operated within the law, we’d be asking the extent to which they’d thwarted terrorist activity.

Perhaps this is a naive post, and that I’m ignoring the more fundamental rights we have to privacy. Perhaps. Only you can judge.

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