Saturday, 15 August 2020

The exam results fiasco

in another place is likely to be repeated here. 

I was given this dire news by a senior teacher at MsW's school yesterday. She is concerned about just how the work of her students will be judged in relation to other students.

"We tell them that exam results are not the most important things in life but in reality they do matter," she told me with a sigh.

I thought about this as I pedalled home. I never liked exams, not even the "tests" in primary school. We had weekly "Friday tests" then. You would be tested on what you had managed to learn in the previous four days. There would be "mental", "arithmetic", "spelling", "reading comprehension" and "composition" every week. Sometimes there would be "social studies" or "nature studies". With every one of those things came "writing" and "neatness".  I consistently failed "writing" and "neatness". I would get full marks for everything else - and then the teacher would take off marks. It never seemed fair to me. I am never sure why I went on trying to do my best. Why didn't I just give up?

Then, in high school, we had "proper" exams. These happened at the end of every term. They were school baseduntil we reached the "Intermediate certificate". At the end of that year, the equivalent of the year before the old "O" level examinations in Upover, we sat the PEB exams (Public Examination Board). Naturally I did not do well because I was expected to handwrite them.

I don't know what I expected or why I hoped it would be any different but it was devastating to have worked hard and almost fail. It is this that makes me concerned for the students who have been so drastically downgraded. If they are capable and able students and they have worked hard then downgrading them for reasons unrelated to their ability is wrong. 

I am aware of the arguments that there is a need for a greater diversity of students in universities. That's fine - as long as those students are actually capable of doing the work and meeting the required standards. It is not good if students are being accepted simply because they come from a particular grouping and then need to be nurtured and "passed" throughout their course. 

Is it really right to allow a student to spend twelve years obtaining a degree? This is perhaps the worst example I know but I know others who have spent six, seven and eight years being "full time" students while doing a degree that should have taken no more than four years. Their academic records show multiple "fails" and no more than "passes". Even at the end of their courses they needed to be coached through writing an essay or doing another assignment. All of them come "diverse" backgrounds. Nobody has dared to tell them, "Perhaps university is not for you." At least one of them knew that and wept in front of me more than once while we were trying to sort out the muddled writing in an essay. 

It is not kind to these students. One of them finally gained a degree but couldn't get a job. He went off to do an apprenticeship in a practical trade. He has been employed throughout the pandemic and, when I saw him recently, he told me, "I wasted six years of my life at university. I should have gone to do this from the start."

I know not everyone would agree. There are people who would say that his university experience was not "wasted" but he would not agree. 

We need to think about why people are going to university. What is the purpose of a university degree? There are strong suggestions here that university is supposed to train people to be "job ready in areas society needs". I disagree. It should be a place of exploration - for the most able.


Friday, 14 August 2020

I was reminded of Rosemary Sutcliff

yesterday - in a comment on this blog. The comment brought back a powerful reminder of reading "The Shield Ring". It was a book included in a parcel from the Children's Country Lending Service.  I remember reading it sitting on the branch in the big gum tree which was near what was grandly called the "lunch shed" in the school yard. The branch was only a few feet from the ground and there was room for me and my brother. When everyone else was gone it was our safe place for reading. The school lunch shed was not safe. We found a deadly snake in there one day. The Senior Cat had to kill it.

But Rosemary Sutcliff's books were another world entirely. I was suddenly caught up in Roman Britain. It was a revelation. My carefully written note to the librarians in the city asked if there were any more like that - and there were. They also sent some of Geoffrey Trease's novels and then Cynthia Harnett's "The Woolpack". Oh! 

I fell in love with historical novels. They seemed a safe place to me. Those things couldn't possibly happen now. They seemed so exotic and so uncomfortable at times. I remember the frustration of not being able to discuss them with anyone. My brother, two years younger, was reading his way through Biggles and Ivan Southall's "Simon Black" books. I swapped them with the son of the local manager of the small bank branch but, while he read and enjoyed them, he wasn't interested in talking about them. 

I remember the Senior Cat trying to read a chapter of the Woolpack to everyone in school one Friday afternoon. The others were restive. They might come from farms with sheep but they could not relate to Nicholas. History, however hard the Senior Cat tried, did not appeal to those down to earth but rather slow children who mostly came from intermarried families.

We went to visit "our librarians" at the Country Lending Service when we next went back to the city. I enthused again about the books they had sent. Yes, there were more. Yes, they would let me read them. They would find me others too. While our parents were dealing with whatever adults needed to deal with in the city my brother and I spent all the time we could in the children's area. 

Looking back I realise my parents used it as a child minding service. I don't remember other children being there as long as we were. Some children came and went. We stayed all morning or all afternoon. We read. We never thought of putting a foot out of line. It was probably no hardship to the librarians. We didn't want to leave!

Years later I wrote to Rosemary Sutcliff. I am hoping that, in the big clean out, I might find the letter she sent me in return. My letter to her was one of many I sent asking people to contact their UN representatives in support of the idea of what became International Literacy Year. I didn't expect answers. I said that in my letters. Some people did respond. Rosemary Sutcliff did respond. What is more the letter was handwritten by her and it must have taken a great effort because she had such severe arthritis she could barely hold a pen. That letter confirmed what I think I had always known. The librarian who chose that book for me to read gave me something very special indeed.

Thursday, 13 August 2020

Apparently it was Enid Blyton's birthday

yesterday...or it would have been if she was still alive.

It was quite by chance I also took some time out to finish something I could do while watching a screen. I borrowed the Senior Cat's DVD player and watched the film "Enid" with Helena Bonham-Carter in the title role. 

I had not seen it before and a friend gave it to me saying, "You should catch up on it because you are interested in children's books".  Yes, I suppose it is something I might have looked at before now. 

I had actually read Barbara Stoney's biography of Enid Blyton. I had also read "A childhood at Green Hedges" by Blyton's daughter, Imogen Smallwood.  

Somehow it was Smallwood's book that came as no surprise. I read Blyton as a child. I had a Noddy book. It was given to me  by my maternal grandparents one birthday. I did not rate it along with books like Marjorie Flack's "The story about Ping" but I do remember it. I still have Ping  but the Noddy book has long gone in one of the many moves we made. I suspect it was simply given to someone else - long before the accusations of homosexuality and political correctness caused it to be banned.

I went on to read the Adventure series,  the Famous Five series, the Secret Seven series and more. I borrowed these books from various sources. My parents never actually told me that Enid Blyton was "bad" but, looking back, I realise they simply didn't encourage me or my siblings to read her books. 

I had so much other reading matter available to me that I wasn't actually too concerned about whether I read the Blyton books or not. My brother was much the same. By the time Middle Cat came along there were plenty of other books available as well. She read some Blyton but probably not as much as my brother and I did. The Black Cat read more of them because she had a friend who owned what seemed like  hundreds of them. (It was probably no more than fifty or sixty but it seemed like many more.)

Several years ago I was child minding one night for neighbours and one of the things I needed to do was "read the next chapter" of "The Magic Faraway Tree". After the light was out and young M.... had settled down to sleep I looked at the book again. I would almost certainly have devoured it as a child. As an adult I found it lacking. The language was simplistic. The characters and the plot lacked depth. It was like cheap ice-cream. 

Somehow I was not really surprised by that. At the same time I could see why it would appeal to a child of M....'s age - six. 

As a school librarian I was questioned about Enid Blyton. It was around the time there was an attempt to ban Enid Blyton from all libraries here. I told parents that there was nothing wrong with Enid Blyton's books in themselves but to read only those would be rather like a constant diet of nothing but ice-cream. I offered alternatives.

I would do the same again. There are now Blyton books in the library. They are still popular but there are many other alternatives now. Some of them are similar to Blyton's books but there are many others which are more satisfying. 

I have tried  not to be influenced by what I know about Enid Blyton. She was not a nice person. I don't think she actually liked children. She liked their adulation and reacted positively to it but that is something different. What was, perhaps still is, a positive about her is that many children who read her have gone on to read many other things. That can only be good.

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Mental Health? There is something

 very,  very wrong with our health system.

One of my nephews is a doctor. Like a lot of young doctors these days he is on contract and most of his work is in the area of public mental health. It is always  very hard work, but it has been especially hard of late.  He has been putting in extra hours. He comes home physically as well as mentally exhausted. It is the same for all the people with whom he works. 

This week he arrived at work, actually started work - and then he was called into his supervisor's office and told there was no available shift for him. Apparently there is "no money for mental health".

This is in the middle of one of the biggest mental health crises we have had. More people than ever are out of work. They have been isolated. They cannot pay bills. They are more than a little anxious about their families and their friends and the world in general. People who have never felt more than occasional mild anxiety are now so anxious they are finding it hard to make decisions. They need help.

And now they are telling the doctors and other staff who handle these very, very serious situations that there is no work for them? They are saying that mental health is of so little importance that it is not being funded?

Employing one person to help more than one in the mental health area is far cheaper than the fall out from one suicide, even one attempted suicide. It is cheaper than dealing with one dysfunctional family where there are issues with domestic violence and sexual abuse. It is cheaper than dealing with all the social dislocation that can result from mental ill health.

There has been plenty of talk about the importance of mental health recently. The Covid19 virus has seen an apparent rise in the awareness of the need for good mental health. It is as important as good hygiene if we are to get through this pandemic. The various state governments claim to be aware of all this. The federal government has acknowledged it too. But, there is "no money"?

Just what is going on here?

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Replying to emails

 is part of my work. I wish it was part of other people's work as well. I spent part of yesterday trying to get responses from people who should have answered me before now.

One of the problems with people "working from home" is that other people are not around to nudge them and ask, "Have you replied to that email yet?" or "What are you doing about the email we both got from...?" and more.

I sent reminder notices to a number of people. All these things were work related. I reminded them that I was not getting paid to do this and that those going into the danger zones were not getting paid either. They are there as volunteers. The reminder notices went to people who are being paid and who are expected to do certain things as part of their work.

I also have better things to do with my time than chase up people who have undertaken to do something and then do not - simply because they think "it really isn't that important".  I told them all I was going to see the Senior Cat and that I would be back in two hours. I told them I expected answers.

I went to see the Senior Cat. We looked at his mail. I undertook to do certain things. They were the first things I did on returning home. Then I investigated the incoming email. Three apologetic notes with the necessary information, another with no apology and silence from yet another. 

There was still silence from a personal email as well. I had sent a reminder about that one four days previously. Best to ignore that? I left it but sent the same person some information that needs to be shared to a group. Perhaps that would jolt them into replying?

It is when this sort of thing happens that I can understand the Senior Cat's preference for simply phoning someone. I would do this more often if I could. It is rather difficult however when people need to see things rather than simply listen. It is difficult when there is more than one person involved and they are in more than one country. When not everyone speaks English as a first language there are other problems too.

There was still no answer from the last person this morning. I know he is around and available. His partner sent me a message about something else. She is very annoyed with him right now,

"And I know he has not got back to you either Cat. He's working as usual so there is no excuse."

Half an hour later there was the information I needed. It had taken him less than five minutes to find and send it to me.

"Sorry Cat."

A little later there was a message from his partner, "I hid ALL the coffee. :)"

Perhaps that is what it takes - at least for a coffee addict.

Monday, 10 August 2020

Merging universities

is under discussion again. I will need to explain.

There are three universities in this state. One is the third oldest in the country.  Another was founded in 1966 and the third is an amalgamation of various institutions such as my old teacher training college.  

The first has always been highly regarded. It was where the Senior Cat did his degree - part time and after WWII. I have done some teaching there. My nephews studied there. The older of the two nephews here went on to do Medicine at the one founded in 1966. Middle Cat studied there too - as a mature age student.

The third university however is not what I would consider to be a university at all. It is scattered across the city - part of it here, part of it there and more parts in more places than I care to think about. It must be difficult. My teacher training college was in three places and that was bad enough. This must be even more difficult.

Not all things are taught at all universities of course. Some of the degree courses available at the newest university are things which are probably more suited to what is known as TAFE here -  "technical and further education".  

I was discussing this with one of the staff yesterday. She told me,

"It was all cobbled together in haste. I still have far too many students who cannot reach the standard I and many of my colleagues think should be reached for a degree but they still get them anyway."

Even the first university has this problem. There are too many students there who are struggling. Once they would  have  been happy with a diploma or a certificate from somewhere. Those things would have helped them get a good job somewhere. Most of the students I went to college with went out teaching after just two years of training. I was one of the very few who stayed a third year and obtained what was then a well regarded "Diploma of Teaching". Even those who left after two years were getting good jobs - jobs for life. Now almost all new teachers are on "contract" work with no chance of a permanent position.

I would like to see that third university split between the other two universities and the TAFE colleges. I don't want to see it simply amalgamate with one of them or even just split between the two. It would be really good if people regarded those courses which have very large practical components as TAFE material  - and for TAFE to be regarded not as "lesser" but as a real "alternative" to university. We need people with those practical skills. The rest of us won't survive without plumbers, electricians, builders and more.   

Sunday, 9 August 2020

A real second chance in life

is something that is rarely granted to "young criminals". Even  if they get such a chance it doesn't always work. 

Sometimes it does work...and the results can be extraordinary. 

    "You won't remember me," I was told  yesterday, "But you were the person who gave me those laminated pages before M.... and I went to Africa."

Actually I did remember - although I am sure I would not recognise this man if I saw him in the street. I only saw him once. On that occasion he was a very scruffy, frightened and angry young man. His friend M... was no better. They were on the verge of being career criminals. They had juvenile convictions for shoplifting and breaking and entering. Their families were "problem" families - well known to the social welfare services. 

They were the sort of boys I wanted nothing to do with but a magistrate thought otherwise. They were appearing in the magistrate's court on what would be their first adult charge. If convicted they were likely to end up in and out of prison for the rest of their lives. 

The magistrate knew that. He had asked me to come in earlier and said, "There is something about these me a fool if you will but I think there really is something about them. I would like to try and do something for them - get them right away from here."

I quietly thought he was a fool but, if he wanted to try, I would help. He outlined what he wanted. The two young men would need communication boards in Amharic and English. Amharic? He wanted them to help some Ethiopians? He wanted them to go to Ethiopia? I thought it was an insane idea.

"Trust me," he said, "I think we can do it." He named a judge who was also interested in the idea.

I didn't know a word of Amharic. About the only thing I knew was that the alphabet was not the same. I had no idea where to find help. In pre-internet days this was much less easy than it would be now. I said I would do my best and went off to send urgent faxes to people who might know. Could it be done? The fax traffic increased over the next few weeks. I kept wondering if it was all a waste of time and effort but, at the request of the magistrate, I went into the court building almost a month later and met the two "boys".

And they were "boys" in a way. They were not quite the street-wise criminals I had expected. There was "something" about them. We talked. Yes, they had been offered an opportunity to go to Ethiopia - although they didn't even know where it was or anything about it "except that it's in Africa and anywhere has to be f..... better than here". We pointed out that it might be very dangerous and that they were going to have to work very, very hard for the next year. They shrugged and muttered and shifted in their seats and said they would try.

I heard nothing more for about eighteen months. Then I got a grimy postcard from them, "Staying bit longer." I queried the magistrate's office. They were fine. They had built what they were supposed to build and had started something else. Language was still "a bit of an issue". I made some inquiries and sent them some more complex communication boards. I didn't hear a word.

They stayed there. The one who contacted me yesterday wanted some help for someone at the hospital they first built. We emailed backwards and forwards and sorted it out. I asked if they were in touch with the magistrate. I was told he was no longer alive. They had not been in touch for some years.

"Sorry he doesn't know how well you have done," I wrote.

"The grand old bugger knows. He's still watching us up there somewhere," was the response.

Perhaps he is.