31 May 2007

Last night in Helsinki

With my two colleagues doing other things this evening I was able to have a longer stroll around Helsinki and got a much better impression of the city.

All of it looked as though it could be somewhere else in north and eastern Europe and nothing really looked especially Finnish and there does not seem to be an obvious central place, like there is in, say, Prague, Gdansk or Copenhagen.

Because of this it is hard to recommend Helsinki as a holiday destination but it is a good place to work and I could see me living here happily too.

30 May 2007

A night in the old town

Had a good long walk around the old town of Helsinki (that's the bit at the southern end just to the east of the main docks) tonight and saw lots of nice buildings, including these which rather caught my attention. The rain and overcast sky take a lot of the colour out of the picture but some of the joy of these buildings still comes through.

Took a food break in a little bar that was probably trying to be English, there is a Newcastle Brown sign outside, but it sells Finish lager so it's OK. Had a seasonal pizza, i.e. one with asparagus on it.

Now back in the hotel busy catching-up with all my on-line duties :-)

I like northern Europe a lot

Work has taken me to Denmark many times and a few times to Norway, Sweden and Finland; which is fine with me because I really like the region.

I like the clean modern look to everything (even things that are quite old), the many open spaces, the abundant street art (like this in Helsinki) and the way that many people walk and cycle.

The old towns are very nice too and I am particularly fond of Riga and Gdansk, even though most of Gdansk had to be rebuilt after the wall and so is mostly new buildings that deliberately look old.

28 May 2007

First day in Helsinki

OK, so it's not really my first day in Helsinki but it's the first day that I've been here for almost eleven years and it is the first day of a full working week here (and, yes, I do know that it's a Bank Holiday back in the UK).

Work has started well and, as this is not a work related blog, that's all that I want to say about that.

I'm loving Helsinki already but then I knew that I would as I love the clean lines and modern look that pervades all of the Nordics.

Firefox knows that I am in Finland and is showing me all the menu items in Finish. Wierd!

27 May 2007

A sign of the times

I am not planning to turn this blog into a rant vehicle but the absence of an apostrophe in the phrase "childrens play area" really bugs me.

This is a new sign at the recently rebranded Springhead pub in Sutton Poyntz on the east side of Weymouth. Somebody has obviously paid a decent wedge for this sign but neither the writer nor the purchaser picked up the grammatical error. Sad.

The pub itself is only average but is in a great location with a duck pond at the front and views of the White Horse from the garden in the back.

Art Deco in Weymouth

The Riviera Hotel Weymouth is a rather impressive building with stunning views across Weymouth Bay to Portland. Originally built as a holiday park it has is now a hotel aimed, judging by its brochure, almost exclusively at the silver generation. Unfortunately the area it is in, Bowleaze Cove, is mainly a large caravan park with attractions aimed at that market, e.g. amusement arcades.

no cygnet committee*

I took this picture on the Dorchester Bypass today while Dad was driving and it's merely one of the many signs for Abbotsbury Swannery that is encouraging visitors to see the "baby swans".

I am not sure why the people behind this felt that the word "cygnets" would not have the same impact as "baby swans" but I take this to be another regrettable step in the ongoing dumbing-down of Britain.

(*with thanks to David Bowie for the idea for the title)

23 May 2007

Away from the office for a couple of days

The Selsdon Park Hotel is not a bad place to spend a couple of days networking when the warm sunny days allow you to spend a lot of the time outside. The formal grounds lead to the golf course and all you can see from this side of the hotel is miles of park lands; it's really hard to believe that you are in London.

I was there for a two day conference / workshop
that turned out to be one of the very best corporate events that I have ever been to. We all came away enthused and with some concrete actions to build our own careers in the company and to develop business opportunities.

And, catching up with my voicemails on the way home, I found that I am off to Finland on Monday for a new project. Magic!

20 May 2007

Captain America is angry

In the main line of Marvel comics, Captain America died recently, but in the Ultimates line he's still in charge of the Ultimates and his anger is directed at Loki, Norse god of mischief.

The second volume of The Ultimates has just ended with issue #13 which was several months after #12 but well worth the wait.

The creative forces behind The Ultimates are Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch which is a guarantee of a good action story.

This is not really a spoiler as if you are into comics you'll have read this by now and if you're not then this won't mean that much, but the highlights of the final episode are the confirmation that Thor really is the god of thunder, Hawkeye killing the Black Widow and Tony Stark's comment, "never underestimate the healing powers of a blonde".

Great stuff.

19 May 2007

Richmond under Thames at 5am this morning

Not sure why I agreed to this but there was a very high tide (5.0m) in Richmond at 05:09 today and I agreed to be woken up by son 2 (aged 13) at 4am so that we could walk there to see it.

The walk started getting difficult just past Ham House as the water was beginning to come over the footpath and when we got to the water meadows at Petersham we had to walk along the wall as the footpath was completely covered.

Most of the path was covered in Richmond too as this view from the bridge shows. The path is submerged between the grassy bank on the right and the railings in the middle.

18 May 2007

Nan at the Orange Tree is unmissable

I went to the Orange Tree Theatre last night to see Nan by John Masefield and it was a fantastic performance, even by the Orange Tree's high standards.

Nan is a drama set in 1810 on a small tenant farm in a village by the river Severn, where Nan (pictured) lives with her uncle and his wife.

I'll not spoil the plot as I hope that you'll go and see it for yourself but it's a very intense drama that revolves around the tensions between Nan and her Aunt, the amorous ambitions of a young man and the reflections of an old man, Gaffer Pearce, who still dotes on his wife who died 50 years ago.

There is a strong plot, and a dramatic finish, but the main drama is in the dialogue and in the contrasting styles of dialogue. There are scenes of high tension between Nan and her Aunt (I don't think I have ever hated a theatrical character as much) and periods of long reflection between Nan and Gaffer Pearce during which the story's direction is set.

The Orange Tree claims that Nan is "a discovery not to be missed" and they are absolutely right.

16 May 2007

The Mount Governing Body

The third education meeting in three nights, this time it was the Governing Body of The Mount Primary School in New Malden. We had a wide ranging discussion over two and a half hours, which included:
  • Delivering services through school clusters, the new Children's Centre and Extended School
  • Revising the school prospectus
  • Our budget for this year
  • Process for reviewing and approving policies
  • Assessing whether we should look at moving to Foundation/Trust status
  • Building Schools for the Future capital programme
  • Equalities and diversity
  • etc. etc.
Unusually we seem to have won two of our minor battles against the Local Authority. The proposal to move us from the New Malden Cluster to the North Kingston Cluster appears to have been reversed (we are still waiting for written confirmation of this) and our new School Improvement Partner (whose role is to help us to raise standards) will not be the same person as our Link Inspector (whose role is to push the Local Authority agenda). These are minor victories but victories none the less and that's good news for our children and parents.

Willoughby Arms is worth a visit

After the Kingston Schools Forum meeting last night I went to the Willoughby Arms to meet some friends who were there watching the Derby v Southampton game.

I had not been there for some years for various reasons (including being banned from the place!) and was not particularly looking forward to going back. How wrong I was!

The pub is larger, brighter and livelier than it was and has good beer too. Definitely recommended.

Kingston Schools Forum (May 2007)

I spent rather longer than I expected at a meeting of the Kingston Schools Forum last night where we had a long debate on our response to the DfES consultation on school, early years and 14-16 funding for the years 2008-11. we discussed about 25 of the 38 questions before we ran out of time, but by then we were mired in some of the more detailed technical aspects.

I spoke rather more than I had expected to and found other committee members agreeing with me far more that I am used to! I hope that the greater understanding of the subject by my colleagues is in some part due to my contributions to the funding debate over the years, otherwise there is little point me being on committee like this.

My overall perception is that having painted itself into a corner on schools' funding a couple of years back (when some schools lost heavily under the revised funding scheme for which Local Authorities and the Government blamed each other) the Government is now trying to loosen some of the strings to allow more of the extra money that has undoubtedly gone into education to go to the places where it will do most good.

Funding for deprivation was again a large part of the discussion and the main problem is that we are being asked to identify the factors that should direct funding without first defining what precisely we mean by deprivation. In particular it is unclear if low-level Special Educational Needs should be included.

An issue with deprivation funding are that the main indicator used for this is entitlement to Free School Meals (FSM) but that only has two values (yes/no) whereas, clearly, deprivation is a wide range. Another factor is that the cost of meeting deprivation is exponential, 2+2=5.

We do seem to be making some progress on this issue and the next step is a workshop with Heads on 12 June.

15 May 2007

Governors' Partnership Meeting

The first of three schools meetings in three days ended as I expected, because that's how these meetings always end, with me feeling frustrated at the Local Authority's lack of understanding of the situation in our school. At least this time I had the satisfaction of talking after the meeting to two other chairs of governors who agreed with me.

But let's begin at the beginning. The meeting was the Governors' Partnership meeting which is where the Local Authority meets with all the chairs of governors at the start of the term to update them on current issues. These meetings used to be called "briefings" and that is a better description of what they are as we governors sit lecture style while a succession of Local Authority officers present to us. Last night's topics were finance (yet again), School Improvement Partners and Clusters.

These are the main points that I noted down during the meeting:
  • Even in Kingston, some 100 children leave school each year with no GCSEs
  • Schools funding is not working and we are unlikely to fix it as it is not understood at all well
  • The performance gap between groups of pupils is widening
  • Does intervention by schools really make a difference?
  • "Targeting resources" to help one group of pupils means taking resources away from another group.

The inherent contradiction is that we are being asked to both raise standards overall and to close the achievement gaps but the two outcomes require resources to be allocated differently so you always address one at the expense of the other.

13 May 2007

Discovery at the Wych Elm

I have started to refresh my summer wardrobe by drinking Fuller's Discovery. As part of a new promotion for the beer they are giving away branded polo shirts for the mere achievement of drinking eight pints of the lovely beer.

The card you are given to collect stamps each time a pint is drunk contains a warning, "this promotion does not require you to drink all 8 pints in one session". Wise words; I took two sessions on consecutive nights at the Wych Elm!

The bonus on the second night was missing the Eurovision Song Contest, even if this was at the expense of lively discussions with first a group of Liberal Democrats (personal adversaries over many years) and then a group of local Conservatives (including a ward councillor). I think that we all agreed that Council Tax should be lower (Kingston's is the highest in London) but we disagreed on how this could be achieved and on the Council's capacity to face up to the change required.

9 May 2007

You can't see my office from here ...

... but you could if not for the Euston Tower which is rather in the way!

A couple of years back I was at an IPPR workshop in the BT Telecom Tower and afterwards we were allowed to go up to the observation deck where I took a number of pictures, including this one. Today I was taking pictures of the tower while on my lunchtime walk and so was reminded of my visit there.

This photograph is looking almost due north over Camden with Regent's Park on the left. At the bottom of Euston Tower, but not very obvious in this photo is the branch of Pret a Manager that I go to most lunchtimes. Sad.

6 May 2007

Why and how should we fund schools?

One of my moments of political revelation came back to me this week, some 30 years later, as we discussed the funding of schools in Kingston upon Thames at a meeting of the Kingston Schools Forum Deprivation Funding Working Group.

It started back in 1976 at Southampton University when, during a debate at a Union Meeting, Sunshine (his nickname which he preferred to be known by), a member of the Anarchist Workers Association, commented that we spend a substantial fraction of our GDP each year on Education yet we never debate what we want to get from this spending.

This week we hit the same problem. Put simply, if you are trying to work out how much money to give each school then, by implication, you need to decide what it is that you are funding so that you can assess each school's need.

Currently, the funding of schools is not that complicated but is still not very well understood by the people who are asked to comment on it each year, i.e. Headteachers and governors. Basically we address some specific costs that vary between schools, e.g. rates and insurance, and then allocate almost all of the rest of the money on a per pupil basis with some allowance made for children who have additional educational needs.

The funding formula has developed over the years in response to both national and local initiatives and it is now rather complex with 15 or more sub-formulae each of which is calculated according to a number of different factors so there are now something like 100 data points that drive the funding calculation.

And, more worryingly, the formula does not seem to be working as there are marked differences in pupils' outcomes that correlate a lot more to their social standing than to the effectiveness of schools. Our mission is to try and close this performance gap.

The problem comes as soon as you try to define what this gap is. If we look simply at the exam results, as published in the infamous League Tables, then we get the triage familiar to A&E doctors; there are those pupils that will succeed whatever you do, those that will fail whatever you do and those where your intervention can make a difference. Similarly, when an intervention is possible we start to get debates about cost effectiveness which in health tends to occur around very expensive drugs and in education concerns children with extreme learning difficulties who need 1:1 support from specialists.

The political issues impact all three groups in the triage. Leaving people for dead, or uneducatable, may be logical but society generally does not like abandoning people. Where people will recover or learn without much assistance there is still pressure to be seen to provide a service, even if it is unnecessary. Wanting more policemen on the beat is a symptom of the same problem. In education we are pressured to meet the needs of gifted and talented children, even though this means taking resources away from other children. In the middle group, where intervention makes a real difference, there is the issue of how best to allocate finite resources across the various need groups (e.g. cancer v cataracts or autism v absenteeism).

Our next step is a workshop with Heads on 12 June when we will ask them what the objectives of the schools' funding formulae should be, how we should change the formula to deliver this and how we could measure the success of this. I don't anticipate that we will get many of the answers but at least asking the questions will be a step in the right direction.

2 May 2007

The Naked Ladies of Twickenham

Putting the words "Naked Ladies" in the title will probably up the hit rate but that's not my fault, it really is the name of the beer that I was drinking last night.

I was in the Canbury Arms for the Irish music (first Tuesday of the month) and, as usual, went for a beer that I had not had before. The aforementioned Naked Ladies comes from the local Twickenham Fine Ales, which was another reason for trying it.

The brewery says this of the beer, "Outstanding hoppy beer using First Gold and Styrian Goldings for full-flavoured satisfaction. Good body and luscious aroma. Inspired by the statues of water nymphs in York House gardens in Twickenham, known locally as the Naked Ladies."

Or you could just say that it's rather like Fuller's Discovery, which is no bad thing.