Ben Nevis – conquered

[Full set of images available on Flickr]

Well, that’s another one of those nice things ticked off a list. I’ve been to the northernmost point of mainland Britain, the eastern-most & southernmost parts of Australia, the southernmost part of continental Asia, the highest point in IndoChina (although I believe that claim’s disputed)… and now I’ve been to the highest point in Britain as well.

Thank you to all those who sponsored me and helped raise money for the St Andrew’s Hospice – a genuinely good cause, with lovely staff who did a great job in organising today’s fundraiser. With 200+ schoolchildren and staff scrambling up the mountain they made sure everyone was accounted for, shepherded and got home safe. Obviously, the Ben Nevis mountain staff also deserve thanks, as do the St John’s Ambulance staff and everyone at the Ben Nevis Hotel

Top of Ben nevis
Top of Ben nevis

who fed and accommodated us at the end of it all. And even let the staff have a free shower!

To paraphrase the great Douglas Adams – the first 1000 feet were the worst. And the second 1000 feet. They were the worst too. The next 1000 were no fun at all. After that I went into a bit of a decline.

Then it started to snow.

Only a slight dusting, but enough to make the stuff which had already been lying somewhat more slippery and the last couple of hundred feet more of a challenge. Up until then, I’d be taking a layer of clothing off every half hour. The sun was out, my balding pate was getting redder and sweat was running down my face.

That last little hike was probably the hardest purely as I had to spend as much time looking for footprints to stand in as I did making sure I didn’t slip backwards more than I walked forwards.

There isn’t a whole lot at the top other than a pair of stone… somethings and a tiny shack. And a great sense of achievement. Oh, and a corking view.

I made it up early enough that the clouds were only just coming in, so managed to see in all directions. The snaps (link at the top) should give you an idea of the incredible scenery on the way up and from the peak.

The journey down was no cakewalk either. As well as the skiddy snow, my legs were somewhat achey. The muscles I used on the way up were very different from the ones I needed on the way down! This was partly a good thing as I had developed a hell of a pain at the top of my left leg – something I’d not had for many years, but that’s because I don’t exercise enough. Going downhill stopped this particular pain, but allowed many others the chance to surface. Joy.

Still, I made it up and back again in a little under 5 1/2 hours, which I’m quite pleased with. The nice staff at the bottom gave me a little medal and – more importantly at that point in time – juice, energy bars and a banana.

A shuttle was taking people back to the hotel where we got to freshen up and fill up on “proper” food before the journey home.

A very hard slog, but all the best things are worth the effort.

If you feel the need to donate to the charity, by all means drop me a quick email or contact them directly via the web link above. I’m sure they’ll be happy to take your money!

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The Scottish Question

Welcome to Scotland
Soon to be accompanied by border guards and customs if Salmond has his way

I originally wrote the following as a comment on this BBC News article regarding the current tiff between Holyrood and Westminster over a referendum for Scottish Independence. Unfortunately, the BBC don’t make it clear there’s a (fairly short) limit on the number of words/characters in comments so I thought I’d shove it up here instead.

I’m English born of Scots and Welsh parents. I grew up predominantly in England (Newcastle and Bradford) with a short stint in Scotland and now live and work in Glasgow where I reckon I’ll be settling for the very long term.

I also dislike the Tories and the current UK government. However, I dislike Salmond and his hyperbolic rhetoric even more. I find myself amazed to say this but I fully support Westminster – and the Conservatives – on this matter.

While part of me does see a future for 16/17 year olds getting the vote in general elections they – as yet – cannot. As such they should not vote in any referendum. The simple reason for Salmond wanting them to do so is that they are, at that age, very reactionary and nationalistic. There is nothing wrong with being proud of your country but I can’t accept that this would allow them to help make an informed choice in such a vote. It would, however, help Salmond’s cause.

I also seriously doubt the maths which “prove” that Scotland could survive financial independence. I am prepared to be corrected, but have these figures been published and confirmed by an independent body?

By all means have the referendum, but Salmond must be prepared to do it within the existing rules. He can’t go making his own up until/unless they win – and even then, they have stated, it will only be taken as an advisory vote as to the opinion of the country. Not, as people seem to be thinking, the immediate departure of Scotland from the UK.

We are a United Kingdom. Our strength comes from that unity. Much as there is rivalry amongst the countries and separate national identities we’ve worked wonders as a nation combined. I also agree with other viewpoints that the departure of Scotland from the UK shouldn’t be a decision for Scotland alone. It would affect the other three nations every bit as much and they should have a say – based on the results of the referendum – as well.

It has the potential to be a hugely historic move. But would it be a good one? I wholeheartedly doubt it.

 

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How to Destroy an Education System (by The Scottish Parliament, aged 11¾)

For those who are unaware, I am an NQT – “Newly Qualified Teacher“. Courtesy of the excellent system in Scotland, this means I get a fast track to full certification by being placed on a full year teaching experience on a wage slightly below that of a more experienced member of staff. I don’t get 100% “contact time” (that is, time in class with pupils) as this gives me time to generate lesson plans, practice with resources and equipment available to me, and explore other areas of the profession to help me become as good a teacher as possible.

I work in a system whereby the head of the department I am in is a certified and experienced teacher in that subject. Although I am contracted to a 35-hour week, I work significantly more hours than that. This is normal.

Believe it or not, if teachers wish to work to those exact contracted hours it is classed as industrial action and a ballot must be taken by a union before it can be done. Yes, seriously. It is industrial action to work within the limits of our agreed contract of employment. I believe we are the only profession for whom this is the case – please correct me if I’m wrong.

A few years ago, teachers agreed to a pay freeze due to financial issues. Shortly after that, inflation spiralled so that teachers are effectively worse off than they were when they agreed the freeze. Such is life. This kind of thing happens to people who sign onto tracker mortgages and the like. It’s a gamble, to some extent.

Teachers must also, as part of their employment agreement as public servants, pay into the pension pot. This isn’t the goldmine many people think it is, especially if a teacher doesn’t rise above being a regular member of staff. Senior staff, head teachers and so on may well see a nice return at the end of their career (and in most cases have flipping well earned it), but the rest of us will be lucky to get something half-decent. Again, do note – we can’t opt out of this to the best of my knowledge.

There’s a great scheme currently running called the Chartered Teacher Scheme. This enables teachers who are particularly invested in their profession to focus on certain topics and develop them. Think of it as a PhD for teachers (not accurate, but you get the idea). It brings them to the peak of their profession and encourages them to help improve other teachers in the process.

You may not be aware, but teachers teach teachers. A lot of the time when your kids aren’t in school, we are. Brushing up on techniques, covering new material, adjusting to new legislation and being taught by people such as these Chartered Teachers.

In the meantime, we’re also undergoing the single largest curricular change in Scottish education for decades with the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) which you may have heard of. This is a massive change to the way children are both taught and assessed. We have to adjust our ways of teaching, change how we record and present their educational records, develop new resources (absolutely none are provided by the people who’ve created this curriculum) and so forth.

What the Scottish Parliament is planning to do

1) To address a one-year budgetary framework, teachers are being asked to accept a two year pay freeze. Also permanent changes to their conditions of service. One of these is an increase in their pension contributions to at least 3.2% of their income. Remember, this is not a pension that can be opted out of. In addition, the return on this investment is lower than was promised years ago. Yes, that’s right – we’re being forced to pay more to receive less.

2) Supply teachers are being smacked in the face with a maximum 27.5 hour week for the first 8 days of any engagement – at Scale Point 1 on the pay scale (the lowest). Therefore any supply teacher who can’t get a nice long- or medium-term placement will never be paid at their deserved rate, and will never work a 35-hour week. Well, they will – they just won’t be paid beyond 27.5. A supply teacher at the top of the scale will suffer a 35% loss in earnings. And this isn’t taking into account the additional pension contributions mentioned previously. Expect this to cause a lot of people to drop out of the profession, particularly in rural areas where supply work is sparse as it is.

3) The Chartered Teacher Scheme is either being frozen or withdrawn completely, removing the best avenue for creating absolutely top-end teachers.

4) NQTs will be expected to work nearer 100% contact time, resulting in far less time to learn about being a teacher and generate good lesson plans. Essentially, it’s a way of getting cheap labour. NQTs are paid less than fully fledged staff and part of justifying that is that they work fewer hours (usually around 70%) while still devoting all of their non-contact time to self-improvement. The new legislation will mean they have to work virtually full time while still trying to find time for Continued Professional Development. Alternatively, those CPD sessions currently provided may be removed thus meaning that NQTs will be less effective in the medium term.

5) Sick pay will be reduced by 10% for each and every day of absence. This affects supply teachers, probationers (NQTs), those on maternity leave… you name it.

6) £81 million will be cut from the Teachers Pay Bill – a cut of 3.4%. In comparison, local authority grant settlements are being cut by 2.6%.

7) Within my area at least, a decision has been made to change from the existing Principle Teacher / Head of Department scheme to a “Faculty” one. This, basically, removes a fair number of senior staff and thus lowers the overall pay packet for teachers. It also means that the head of a Faculty could have no experience whatsoever in teaching the subjects they are overseeing. Do you honestly think it would make sense to have a Home Economics teacher overseeing Computing, Geography or P.E.? Of course it doesn’t.

This last point is a real bone of contention. The council have stated that there is no evidence that the current model is better. Or at least no financial evidence. In other words, they’re only bothered about the money, not about the effect on education. To turn their statement on its head, however, is to say that there’s also no evidence that their new Faculty model is of any educational benefit.

For some wonderful quotes from the … I shall be polite and say “individual” heading this motion, please read this article courtesy of the Edinburgh Evening News.

At a time when we’re undergoing such massive curricular changes, we need experienced staff in charge of departments in which they have a background. It’s simply plain common sense. Something obviously lacking from the council members trying to save a few bucks so they can continue to claim underwear from Marks & Spencer and five star hotel rooms should they get snowed in next December.

To sum up

Absolutely every single decision being made at both council and government level is to the detriment of the Scottish education system. I agree we’re in a time of dire financial straits. However, the only way we’re going to get out of it is to produce good, hard workers. Skilled individuals who can grab our businesses and industries and pull them back up on their feet.

How the hell these idiot politicians expect us to do that with paltry resources, disillusioned staff, chaotic organisation and change seemingly for the sake of it is beyond me.

Parents – who would you trust most to tell you what is best for your children’s ongoing education? Politicians who think with only their egos and their bank balances, or teachers who decided to do this job despite knowing they would be working in one of the most stressful careers currently going? That they would be paid for a 35-hour week despite regularly working in excess of 50 (sometimes far, far more), in a career where the words of one spiteful child can have them flung from a job until a court battle gets them reinstated? That they are fully aware that discipline in schools is nigh-on impossible to maintain due to nanny state regulations?

Would you trust someone who is part of the system, who was trained in it, works in it and believe in it? Or would you believe someone who’s job revolves around appearing to do something so they don’t get voted out for appearing ineffective? Someone who has decided to tackle a working environment in which they themselves have absolutely no prior professional experience?

Frankly, expecting these councillors and MPs to make these decisions makes as much sense as asking a schoolteacher to perform an appendectomy on your youngest.

We’re good, but we’re not that good. We wouldn’t have a clue what we were doing. But at least we’d have the balls to admit it.

 

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British football – my opinion

A soccer ball that is "thermally bonded"
These things cause a lot of emotions to run high

I’m about as unbiased as it comes when talking about the home nations’ football teams. Being born in England of a Welsh dad and a Scots mother, I still have sympathy with the Northern Irish purely because I don’t want them to feel left out.

So what’s happened to the state of the nations? Why are England the only one qualifying (sorry, Ireland – but by your own admission you need a miracle now)?

There are three factors that I can spot a mile off. I’ll deal with the first as it’s not purely an England thing:

1) Foreign manager

Yes, I know the Scots had Bertie Volks who’s German hence why I said this isn’t a purely English situation. We just happened to get someone who’s turned out to be really good. Eriksson wasn’t bad, either. However, should we be allowed to have a foreign coach? After all, we’re not allowed foreign players in the national squad.

If we can’t find a decent enough English coach, then surely that should be our problem and we should have to settle for the best we can find. The same as if we struggle for strikers, or goalkeepers, or left-footed wingers.

My opinion on this is that if you appear above a certain level in the FIFA rankings as a national team (or by some other dividing line) your coach must satisfy the same nationality requirements as any other member of the squad. This would allow for fledgling nations to have someone with experience elsewhere brought in (like the mackem bastard Reid in Thailand) to give the team structure and knowledge. With luck, the team progresses at which point when that manager leaves he must be replaced with a national of that country.

Obviously, this means England should have an English manager. I don’t care what some of the die-hard bunch say – if we won a world cup under an Italian manager it would take some of the gloss off it for me.

2) Population size

There are more people in London alone than in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. England simply has a bigger pot to pick players from than any other home nation.

Look at the teams way down the rankings. Compare them to the population of their country. There’s a ridiculously obvious link between placement and population. It’s not hard and fast, I’m sure, but the pattern is there.

Think about it. If a person has a 0.05% chance of developing into a football player of any calibre at all, then the larger the pool of potentials you have to pick from, the larger the number of finished articles you’ll have.

Short of a rule change – such as going as far back as grandparents’ countries of birth to decide nationality – there’s nothing Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Faroe Islands, Andorra or anywhere else can do about this.

3) Foreign players in the game

This seems to be being addressed by FIFA although the European Court of Interfering Bastards seem to be doing their utmost to stop it. The upcoming regulations will, over seasons, force teams to field (or at least have on their books – I need to check) gradually more and more home-grown players up to a certain ratio.

Right now, you name me an English Premier League club that regularly fields more than three English players. By that I mean, they start and play pretty much ninety minutes of each game on the trot.

Now, do the same with Scotland. Rangers and Celtic are (and no offence to whoever finishes third each season) the only teams to play at any reasonable level. And they’re both chock full of foreigners. The other teams in the SPL and lower leagues all have far more Scots players than the equivalent EPL teams have English ones. But they’re not up to the standards of the Big Two due, in part, to point 2 above.

Wales don’t have a hope in hell as the only teams in the country that are remotely good are playing in the English leagues. Cardiff is probably the largest “force” in Welsh football and they’re currently in the English second tier. I know – we play them on Sunday afternoon.

Without looking things up, I can’t comment on the Irish league. However, I would suspect that – as with any decent Scot or Taff – they get drawn to the English (or other overseas) leagues for the cash.

Why nurture your own talent when you can buy it from a small village in Argentina? Why take a risk that the 8 year-old from Kilmarnock with excellent ball skills won’t peak when he’s 11? Just buy a pre-developed striker from AC Milan instead.

Remember the last time England were any good? I’ve made this point on other blog posts, but at one time the core of the England squad all played for Newcastle. Four years later, they were all Manchester United players. They played as a squad week in, week out. Now we’re picking two from one team, one from elsewhere, another from another and so on. We have a collection of talented players, but a weak team. Of course, on recent outings this has finally come together. It’s taken a lot of years and several managers, though.

These are the problems that I think face British football. England have been lucky in recent years that we have had some decent talent come through. But we don’t have that much depth as regards a good squad. It’s purely our (England’s) population that’s keeping us top of the British “League”.

So please don’t blame Craig Burley. On the strength of their performance last night I think Scotland achieved all they could with the resources they have. Just unlucky finishing – and the lack of a top-class striker who can compete with the Rooneys, Henrys and so forth of this world – stopped them hammering the Dutch.

The worst thing Scotland could do is to sack Burley. The best thing they could do would be to embrace the FIFA regulations and force Rangers and Celtic to field a minimum three Scots-bred players.

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