Monthly Archives: November 2014

What’s the Private Sector ever done for us?

IMG_2709I’m all for breaking down the barriers between private and state education.IMG_2709

But I can’t help feeling we in the state sector may have more to teach exclusive fee-paying schools than they have to teach us.

An example? Well, put your science hats on for a moment – as we were asked to do last night, in a hall packed with excited kids and proud parents celebrating science and technology at Gillespie Primary School.

The north London school (full disclosure, I’m vice-chair of governors) is the first in the capital to set up a fully equipped science and “making stuff” space under an innovative programme called Lab_13.

Class teachers use the purpose-built lab for routine science lessons. There’s a kitchen in the corner for cookery club and a space for creating art works on the other side.

But more importantly, there’s a “Scientist in Residence,” employed two-and-a-half days a week to help children explore scientific questions.

Anything goes.Slug

The questions are posted on the lab’s notice board, or a child might come up with something interesting on the fly. Like, how long would it take for a snail to travel a mile?

“How are shadows made?” one group of children wanted to know. “Why is the sky blue?” asked others. Year 3 was interested in making crystals. So Year 4 showed them how, while some children in Year 6  have been looking at how virus’s replicate in the human body.

Which questions are answered is determined in part by the lab’s Management Committee, made up of children elected each year from throughout the school. The children wrote the job ad for the Scientist in Residence and took part in the interviews. The entire project is theirs.

Those shadows for example. The kids didn’t just want a scientific explanation. They wanted to create something artistic at the same time. So they did, projecting light through shapes to create beautiful shadow-pictures on stretched canvasses.

IMG_2706That was just one of the projects shown to the crowd of more than 100 last night. Another linked an interest in astronomy with a love of music. Press a star in a galaxy painted on a cardboard night sky and an electronic piano plays a note. Press two or three, you get a chord.

Then there was the question about the impact a meteor strike would have on the surface of the earth. It’s amazing what you can demonstrate with a home-made catapult, a box of Maltesers and a pile of sand. Or it would be if the catapult hadn’t failed. No matter, as our Scientist in Residence calmly explained, sometimes experiments don’t work. That’s how scientists learn.

All the demonstrations were introduced and explained by the children who, keen to show us that science is also fun, filled the gaps in-between with science jokes. (Question, what’s an astronaut’s favourite key on the computer keyboard? Answer, the space bar!)

The entire evening was entertaining, informative and above all inspiring – for children and adults alike.

So why doesn’t every primary school have a Lab_13?

Well, because it costs quite a bit of to set one up and there’s no money in tight school budgets for even a part time Scientist in Residence. The whole project requires a big fund-raising effort, from kitting out the space to buying in an experts’ time.

Which is where, you might imagine, the private sector comes in.

For some years now, businesses have been bemoaning the state of education. They’ve called for schools to turn out more inquiring minds. Britain’s economy will only thrive if high-tech manufacturing takes off, they say, so where are the children who’ll make that work?

Yet shown those very children and a project aimed at addressing some of the problems they’ve identified, businesses are largely nowhere to be seen.

The CBI was invited to get involved in the early stages. They came to the school, told us we were fantastic and made a film used at the launch of their big flashy report on the future of education.

We never heard from them again. A simple request to connect us with one single company that might want to contribute to the lab went nowhere.

We tried a couple of the giants of the corporate world but got a standard response: we don’t work with individual schools. Even though that school is doing something pioneering and is set to become a hub for science teaching borough-wide.

In the end (with the notable exception of Dixon Glass) the money came in bits and pieces mostly from private foundations and grant making bodies. The Royal Society did their bit, the British Pharmacological Society chipped in.

But the biggest support by far came from the local council. Without their financial contribution, Lab_13 would not have got off the ground.

Now we need funds to keep it going. We’re lucky in having a handful of dedicated parents prepared to fill in forms, send begging letters and bash the phones. We’re hugely grateful to the philanthropic foundations and societies that respond. (An organisation representing local businesses was invited to last night’s event, they didn’t even reply).

Having Lab_13 means children of varied abilities and backgrounds are collaborating brilliantly on science projects. Those from disadvantaged families have access to areas of learning they wouldn’t experience otherwise.

Next up, they’ll be working on a three month investigation into the health benefits of Manuka Honey. Their research will even be peer reviewed.

In the meantime, if you want to know how long it takes a snail to travel a mile, ask a Gillespie child. They’ve already published those results.

Outraged by the Outrage

White Van ManHere’s how politics now works in the UK.

A politician sends out an ill-considered tweet. It is insensitive but not criminal. Politicians, political journalists, bloggers and academics comment on it. Twitter comes alive. The politician realises she’s been a bit of a fool. Her hapless boss has a meltdown and forces her out. The established media and punditocracy go bonkers.

And the rest of the country says – Eh?

Of course Labour’s Emily Thornberry shouldn’t have tweeted a picture of a white van outside a house draped with English flags. It was way too open to interpretations of condescension or snobbery – which is exactly what happened.

But who did those interpretations come from?

Well, amongst the first 15 to tweet responses were: A blogger for The Spectator, a UKIP local party secretary, two self-described “libertarians,” a Daily Star journalist, a “media planner,” a Tory government relations consultant and two more who call themselves Conservatives (one of whom adds for good measure “anti-EU”) though it’s not entirely clear what they do.

Not, as far as I can tell, the supposedly offended flag-flying working class.

Westminster’s mischief-maker-in-chief was quick off the ball too. Guido Fawkes put the offending tweet on his blog and rapidly followed it with an update, “The internet reacts.”

A bit of the internet anyway.

The reactions selected (from twitter) were those of a leading politics academic, a Telegraph columnist, a Telegraph leader writer and someone who’s twitter profile is a little opaque but includes the phrase, “not a fan of the EU.”

And then the Internet really did start to react – most noticeably with anxious Labour MPs already aware of their party’s failure to offer anything constructive to its core vote. And then with political correspondents telling us “what it all means.”

A twitter storm in a tea-cup was brewed. Ms Thornberry fell on her sword.

Elsewhere in the country meanwhile, nobody seems to be taking much notice. This morning’s (internet) editions of the major regional newspapers barely cover the story – if at all.

Nothing in the Liverpool Echo or the Northern Echo. I can’t find anything in the Norwich Evening News. There are a couple of lines buried deep in the Yorkshire Post’s story about UKIP’s win in Rochester and Stroud. Sometime after 9am, the Manchester Evening news added two sentences on Thornberry in its Breaking News section.

The Sentinel in Stoke ran the story. It garnered one comment from a reader who couldn’t understand why the MP had had to resign her shadow cabinet post. The only other public comment was on a Bristol Post account of the fracas – though in that case, the reader was critical of Labour and its “Champagne socialists”.

I couldn’t find much anti-Labour white male wrath on quick flick through local radio either.

BBC Radio Norfolk’s morning phone-in was discussing a local row about skateboarding. In Leeds the host wanted to hear listeners’ “claims to fame.” I tuned to Radio Newcastle just as caller and host reached a peak of indignation over the film board’s classification of the Paddington Bear film. In Cambridge meanwhile, they were talking politics. A female caller felt UKIP was dividing the country with its anti immigrant stance.

None of which is to justify or defend Emily Thornberry and her ill advised tweet. We all do stupid things sometimes, on Thursday it was the turn of the Islington MP.

She demonstrated all too visibly the disconnect between politicians and voters for sure. But the general public aren’t up in arms about a daft tweet – it’s the navel gazers in Westminster who decided on our behalf we should all be outraged.

Meanwhile, most people are trying to get on with making ends meet. It would be good to see a similar level of outrage from our politicians and pundits about just how hard that is.