Saturday, 15 May 2010

To dream, perchance to sleep

Yes - I know that is not what the Great Dane said but it the sort of further complication that comes with increasing age.

I can now add insomnia. I've carried out all the suggested things they group as remedies but with no change. I've identified the cause and it is there that I find myself stymied.

I can sit about elsewhere in the house and drop off to sleep without too much bother. But as soon as I get into bed and put the lights and radio off, my brain goes into hyper-drive. It just races away; I will have four of five chains of thought going on at the same time. All lucid and clear and quite independent of each other. There will be a run through multiplication tables, bits of vocabulary in any one of three or four languages, planning for events some three or four months in the future or re-running actions taken years ago
Most annoying - especially when my brain seems to be degrading in many other aspects.

I have in the past gone to bed when the adrenaline was still high but back then I could somehow get the brain to switch off. Now, my addiction to adrenaline gets very little sustenance so it really should be a doddle to calm things down.

This may come across as a further instalment in my carping on about old age. Not my intention. There may be someone who can suggest what I can do to get back into the arms of Morpheus. Sleeping pills - both OTC and on prescription have not made any real difference and I have the same fears as did Hamlet as to where that sleep might lead.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Waiting for the off

'They think it is all over' is a phrase that has made its way from the football ground into common parlance. Just as well - I would have needed to find another phrase as a base for my blog.

The 100% LD vote for acceptance of the coalition terms was impressive. Either a fair number of them were able to swallow the firm policies and commitments of the hustings or have gone with the flow and work on the basis that a fish starts to rot at the head. It is, however, there and I am sure Dave remembers enough of Etonian prefectorial tactics to remind young Clegg that it did happen when the carping starts.

We might even think we are faced with another mini-election when the referendum into voting hits the streets. There will be the Pros and Cons of the newly established Government and the street-power brigades. Given the size of the Conservative vote in pure numerical terms rather than constituencies, the AV thing will not pass. Will the LD hard-core who only supported amalgamation in the hopes of change then accept the idea is a dead parrot? Will they then claim that AV was not PR and return to the fray? I heard a fine comment on the radio yesterday when someone commented that the whole AV/PR thing was as if Chelsea had been told that the next two teams in the Premiership had more points when added together than they did and therefore, those two were the winners.

Hague stepping out of his shadow and becoming de facto Foreign Secretary was something I had hoped for. Hard luck on the translators when he speaks in Europe! I would have wished to have seen him push for leader; he was too powerful in disposition to have remained as mere deputy. I have to admit that I do not favour deputy anythings - I gained many brownie points as a department head when I eliminated all of the deputy what-nots in a Budget review. They are merely stand-in for the Boss one upwards; if No. 1 is doing the job properly his people know what has to be done and do not need some surrogate leader.

Fox at Defence seems hopeful. His past seems to have been one of opposition to Brown's financial strangle-hold on expenditure even when it was quite clear that life and limb were being directly put at risk by this parsimony. He wrote a very good article in The Times regarding what he saw as a new form of terrorism - control of energy sources as a weapon. His contributions to the Tory centre-right blog show that he can listen as well as speak, Mind you, he has nothing to fear when it comes to contrasting his future performance with that of the total buffoon Aintworth. A dyslexic mute could do better than the cheap Prescott-copy appointed by Brown purely, I am convinced, because of his total inability to understand anything put to him by his staff and senior military figures.

Cable is a man who would have attracted my vote were I one of his constituents. He has depth and the ability to use humour to mask criticism. His comment on Brown transmuting from Stalin to Mr Bean was a classic.

I think my main concern right now is the gap between extreme LD members and the nutter-fringe of the Tory party. We have descended even further to yaa boo politics and there is too much to be done to spare time for sandal-jokes or lord of the manor jibes.

My other concern is for events here in Scotland. I sometimes surprise even myself at how much more I have become interested in this subject. Dan Alexander was Chief of Staff for Clegg and seems to have come out of his shell a bit as a member of the negotiating team. He clearly has a good brain. His Wiki entry reads well - I hope he can find acceptance with the moguls of Alba. I came here when the new governance was fairly young. I realised that they would have to learn to crawl before they could walk but I think it may be time to consult an expert on juvenile development?

My wishes and curses will have absolutely no impact - that is what politics is all about. Generating a false sense of involvement. But at least they have my best wishes and may even provide the occasional target for further such drivel from me.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

There are no seven ages

Back in 1998, after my official retirement, I was retained by my former employer as a consultant. Just three days a week. Quite a nice bit of extra pocket money really. However, after a couple of years I recognised that I valued my complete independence more. I wanted to do a final round up in America before I got too aged and less adventurous, I had got used to turning left on entering the aircraft door and it seemed reasonable to use a fair portion of the pocket money on one last no expense spared expedition ranging around my well loved Arizona.

It was whilst this was in play that I decided I needed some focus. Something to do rather than just potter. I set about writing my recollections of a life I had enjoyed up to that time. To give this structure, I based it upon Shakespeare's idea of the seven ages of man. I researched local papers for events that I vaguely remembered and visited old locations from my junior infants school where I had been crowned King of Cleanliness right through UK venues of my military service and out to the just terminated consultancy.

I was satisfied with my efforts. However, I now recognise that the seven ages format was not the right one. Each decade of my life has had its sorrows and joys. Bewildered baby, struggling schoolboy, troubled teenager, student husband. Then the perils of parenthood, the doubts and miseries that went with middle age through to what I now describe as the sadness of senility.

When young, time was a commodity I had plenty of and it was spent without great thought - impulse reigned. Now I look back at those times and on what I got from those times and it seems I have little from what was a precious hoard. My appetite for life has waned just as my physical deterioration has advanced. My faithful old dog went up to Rainbow Valley some three years ago and there has been no incentive to stay mobile and able to wander about in the high and lonely places. She is irreplaceable and I am too frail and crotchety to start another puppy. I look forward to a rapidly shrinking future; look forward not in pleasant anticipation but as a reality I shall not evade. I seem to spend the majority of my time looking back at the comfort of reliving the past.

Now, even my memory is in a state of mutiny. Memory loss is inevitable and mine is diminishing. As I understand it, this happens to us all and even commences at the age of 40. This might sound quite harmless - even pleasant where there are sad or unpleasant memories and harmless in itself. I do not find it so, It is stressing, annoying and worrying. Whilst I can recall events from the distant past with quite good clarity and detail I find it hard to form new memories. It is as if I am trying to force new folders into an already full filing cabinet. I am told that when I delete a file on this computer, it does not go to document Valhalla and just the first few bits are overwritten and left blank to make way for new data. I can look past the blanks and get a ghost image of the old data; stuff I thought I had deleted years back as immaterial and inconsequential. The first time a girl opened her mouth to me as we kissed, the make of car I hired to visit the Palace for my investiture, the name of the barman in the Sergeants' Mess in Kuala Lumpur - it is all there in its uselessness. But when it comes to stuff I need to retain - bugger, it has gone walk-about. We live close to the town of Kelso. A few weeks back I wanted to suggest to my wife that we go there and have a change of shopping venue. I got to "Shall we go" and stuck firm. I knew I wanted the name of a place but it was totally missing. Some ten minutes later - seemingly with no conscious effort - the word Kelso popped into my brain.
It has happened the same way since - I now have to cross-reference Kelso with an auto-correct feature where I think of it as Kosovo. Would that I had some way to de-frag my memory core. I start a sentence with the words all queued up ready and then lose track halfway through my recitation. And I was a man who knew by heart every word of Eskimo Nell and most of Dangerous Dan McGrew.

I suppose I will just have to wait until someone designs an application for my trusty iPhone that will act as a stage prompt. Until then, I make use of the camera to back-up the faulty memory and the voice application to remind me just what I was going to do in the kitchen having walked the 50 or so yards from my study.

When I was a lad

Two of England's teaching unions are at odds over the future of national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) is continuing to threaten industrial action if the tests – known as SATS – are not scrapped but the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (NASWUT) issued findings from a poll warning that abolishing the papers would be "reckless".

The NASUWT poll questioned 2,000 teachers about the impact of ending SATS tests for 14-year-olds. Schools Secretary Ed Balls scrapped these in October 2008 saying they were not needed to hold secondary schools to account. The survey found that abolishing the tests had increased teacher workloads and distracted them from teaching and learning. In some cases, the move has led to teachers working at least ten extra hours per class, the NASUWT found. Many teachers are now having to administer internal tests and mark them themselves, as well as carry out their own teacher assessments of pupils.

There are calls for the union to continue its campaign, co-ordinate action with other unions and parents, and to give advice on alternative forms of assessment. It also contains a clause calling for industrial action, including strike action, to disrupt the administration of the tests.

The NUT, and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) want to see SATS replaced by teacher assessment and argues the tests are bad for children, teachers and education, and cause unnecessary stress. They claim that the tests create a “pressure cooker effect” in primary schools which places children under stress as well as a focus on performance targets. Teachers are allegedly leaving the profession “because they are becoming box tickers and exam crammers, not educators”. They also want to see school league tables abolished.

Comparing the two points of view, there seems to be no common ground. I lack the necessary qualification to decide which opinion is correct - but I know someone who does:

"PRESIDENT ATKINSONS' OPPOSITION TO THE USE OF SAT I John Furedy, Department of Psychology, University of Toronto
Like Richard Atkinson, I am an experimental psychologist (though a far less distinguished one) rather than a differential psychologist who has specialized in psychological test theory. However, I recall enough from my undergraduate courses to recognize that the validity of a test is assessed not by speculating that it "can have a devastating impact on self-esteem and aspirations of young students" ("Use of SAT I 'Compromises Education System' Says UC President", Observer, April 2001), but by determining to what extent performance on the test is correlated with some defined criterion performance (here, academic success in a prestigeous university).
Nor is this correlation with criterion performance expected to be perfect, so that there may well be factors other than sheer cognitive ability in analogical reasoning (factors such as socio-economic class, home environment, and, of course, motivation - recall that living organisms and not computers are being tested) that contribute to test performance. In terms of this normal, scientific criterion of validity, the SAT I, to my knowledge, is a useful instrument, and specialists in psychological test construction have, over the years, improved its validity, though not to any level of perfect prediction. So from the perspective of psychological test theory, I see no rational grounds for Atkinson's recommendation to abandon the SAT I.

Atkinson also advances a more general, educational argument for dropping the SAT I. He avers that it "compromises the education system", and, besides the SAT II (which, he feels, is a better measure than the SAT I - to my knowledge he advances no systematic evidence for this comparative empirical claim about two psychological tests), he suggests that selectors should rely on "grade point average, activity records, and other more 'holistic' measures of students' achievement".

I cannot help noting that the latter two aspects appear to be more related to how well a student can get along with others, rather than to what extent s/he has been able to master various academic disciplines.

Moreover, the North American high school system lacks state-wide standard examinations as exist, for example, in Australia. Grade points, then, are at least partly determined by how much individual teachers like individual students, and hence, in more crude terms, may simply indicate sucking-up, rather than academic, ability. In my view, it is the use of these more subjective and "holistic" measures of student achievement (together with race- and sex-based quotas intended to produce 'diversity') that really "compromise the education system"."

That seems clear enough. It also fits my own experience of examinations. In 1944, I sat what was then known as the 11+ examination. In advance of the examination, parents had the opportunity to nominate the school to which their child should go. The chance of these choices being recognised were determined by the exam. results that were achieved. I may need to remind some that the years immediately prior to 1944 had been ones where the country was subjected to warfare with bombs, doodle-bugs and rockets all adding to the tensions of education. Homework was disrupted. School friends were killed or would appear wounded and shocked. My father ran his own company and employed about 15 workmen so I suppose we might have been regarded as middle class. Even now I can recall the pressure upon me to do well at the 11+ which was described as being the foundation of my continuing education and, thus, my whole future. Our teachers were strict; frequent physical punishment was the norm and it was clear that poor achievement in the exam would be regarded as failure - personally for us, them and the school. So, some 'stress' and 'pressure cooking' there then.

In the event, I did well. I never had any problems with examinations and was to face many until I ceased full time education at 17. Not that I was clever - it was just that I could remember things. (a+b)² was never a problem; the answer sprang into my mind with no real effort at calculation. I went to my parent's grammar school choice but had no personal wish to be there. I rebelled and was withdrawn to spend 18 months amongst the 11+ failures at a Secondary Modern until sitting a 13+ exam which was intended for late developers. This got me to the Technical College I had always wanted to attend from about the age of 9. In all honesty, I cannot see that any teacher assessment would have dealt with that situation. Goody Two Shoes would still have been recommended for the 'posh' school. It was not that my parents did not know what I wanted; every weekend we passed the desired school en-route to my grandmother's house and I always aid "That is where I will go one day"

So, on the basis of personal experience, I have to doubt the NUT version as to the evils of SAT. The way that education seems to be structured in recent years suggests a far easier approach. Children ending up 'on the scrap-heap' is almost routine. After all, doesn't the Government have grandiose schemes to cater for those with low achievement? But I also note that the education system is releasing students who have low reading and mathematical skills and who have been protected from opposition or competition to the extent that team games were frowned upon.

So, whence cometh this Union opposition? I can only deduce that the measure of a teacher's skill, dedication and ability remains their finished product - the rounded student. The head of the school will be looked at in the light of the overall results from his staff. All damned good reasons to avoid the black and white - pass or fail - of any written testing which external agencies may use to evaluate the value of school staff. No questioning why Jack got 6% final mark when Jill at the adjacent school on the same curriculum got 45%. It is open to me in an assessment to say that Jack is a fine lad but needs time to mature or was impaired by frequent absence for undiagnosed illnesses. In other words, get him shipped off my responsibility. T'was not my fault he got such dire results when tested. We would not accept a situation where it was open to a car owner to personally certify that his vehicle was fit to pass a MOT and needed no other testing.

The Conservatives have announced a "hit list" of 75 primary and secondary schools and promised that those running those schools would be removed within the first 100 days of a Conservative government. Such schools are to be reopened the following year as academies. Ah, now there is a word that Unions know about - 'removed'. Off to Do The Boys Hall for them.

Which Union attitude will prevail remains to be seen. I cannot imagine any real Government input. They are undergoing their own SAT test and all parties look to fail in public estimation when they manage to stop dancing around like a load of coochie dancers.