B******s Bob

Newport transporter bridge, Mr B. and Bollocks Bob….

Well, there we were, in summer 2013, having just travelled over the aforementioned Newport transporter bridge, after spending some of our holiday…… looking at transporter bridges. (Yes, really.) (Yes, we are dull.) I rarely get calls on my mobile, but at that moment it rang. That fine colleague of mine (now ex-colleague of course), Mr B. said: “Bollocks Bob has had a heart attack.”

Some background is needed here. Note the narrative device.

Our school had been, to be honest, in trouble. We had fallen from grace. Two strong heads had left their mark and left. We braced ourselves for the new head, who we thought would be a new broom, building on our success and bringing us up to date. We were disappointed. For reasons I will be tactful enough not to detail, it didn’t work. (I suppose I have to take some responsibility, as once upon a time the new head had been a probationer under my year leadership.)

We slid and fell. Inevitably, OFSTED arrived and found us wanting, despite the best efforts of the year leaders, led by Mr B, to convince them otherwise. Inevitably the head left, to be replaced by a new regime. I have summed it up briefly, but the process was prolonged and very unpleasant.

There was one light in the darkness. As the aforementioned new regime could not start for a term, an interim or caretaker head was appointed. Bollocks Bob.

He was a retired head, who had apparently been out on his bike when the call came. He came in tieless- at the time that seemed like a big deal- for the new intake (new parents) evening. I seem to remember that he was bearded, with that slight Father Christmas air some bearded men have. He said hello to everybody and took an interest in everybody, telling me it was important to make everybody feel better about themselves. He came in to our in-service planning day and acquired his nickname when he told us that, in his opinion, “OFSTED is bollocks”. Forever after he was Bollocks Bob. I can’t even remember his surname, even if I think it appropriate to give it.

We very much looked forward to working with him, even just for a term. We felt we would be well prepared for the inevitable changes.

Then came the fateful ‘phone call from Mr B. to say that Bollocks Bob had had a heart attack.

So he never arrived; we never got to work with him; we never got to feel better about ourselves. It was a very trepidacious crew that assembled for the new school year. The new regime arrived and did a very good job rescuing the school, although staff morale did not seem to be a high priority. To be told that “the school seems run more for the benefit of the staff than for the pupils” seemed neither fair or helpful. Nevertheless, OFSTED arrived again and went away as happy as OFSTED ever are. Bollocks Bob, you summed it up.

I am ashamed to say I never found out how Bob was. I don’t even know if he recovered. Perhaps he would have been rubbish, but I somehow think not. I like to imagine that we would have been more upbeat and less frightened with him in charge for a term. OK, I’m not necessarily speaking for anybody except myself. Feel free to substitute “I” for “we”. But for me, he’s the great lost leader.

Newport transporter bridge

(To be honest, Newport transporter bridge is quite fun. As the photo shows.)

P.S. After posting this, I looked up “trepidacious”. There is some debate as to whether it should be spelled “trepidatious”, or indeed whether or not it is a real word. It is real, because I just used it and you are so clever that you can understand all the rich nuances of my choice. Or something.


So, what would YOU do about education? Part 6 (the 6th and final part): who cares?

I have now been retired for more than two years. Suffice to say, I don’t miss work. I DO miss the people I used to work with, more than I can express. It’s very quiet here in Oblique Mansions at times, and I miss the camaraderie and fun. It’s lovely being with Mrs Oblique, but I miss having gossip and tales from the day to tell her.

Recently, Ms O. #1 suggested that I should utilise my services as a consultant. My one attempt at this previously was talking to a friend of hers who was having a bad time in her probationary year. With little or no thanks to me, she is at least still teaching, having moved schools. But hang on: probationary year? Do they still use that term? That’s why I don’t want to go back into education: it moves on so quickly that one very soon becomes out of date.

I don’t even want to do something in an advisory role, not that anybody would want me. Even when I was teaching, I always felt I was just blundering through. I felt very strongly about some ideas, but had no coherent view of what I wanted. I was never confident about what I was doing.

Actually, that’s not completely true. I had great lessons and great days, when I was ‘in the zone’ and everything went well. I even feel that I gave some good advice to colleagues, both younger and older. But the way that the system changed relentlessly, pressurised one into unproductive work unneccessarily and increasingly ignored people made me feel that I had nothing to offer apart from general observations on classroom practice; and that would now be meaningless, as I don’t know what the current orthodoxies are.

So I’ll be trying very hard from now on to shut up and not fall into the trap of being an old fart pontificating about education or criticising. What I would do about education becomes less and less relevant. However, I reserve the right to lecture my audience about special needs education, as I still have a daughter in the system; and I may well try to dredge up some memories and anecdotes. You have been warned.

Education 6

Sorry, this was a bit more personal than I intended it to be!

(One day, I’ll tell you the story about the Newport transporter bridge, Mr B. and Bollocks Bob…..)

So, what would YOU do about education? Part 5

There was some grumbling in the café of the (apparently) posh supermarket today about school in-service days. In England, these are taken at the discretion of individual schools, for the in-service education or professional development of teachers. Basically the staff are working while the children have a holiday; it can admittedly be very difficult for parents when children are at different schools. This got Mrs Oblique and I thinking about some radical changes which are long overdue in education.

  1. Why not allow parents to send their children in for INSET days? They could play while the teachers are doing whatever teachers do.
  2. School staff ought to be grateful to have these short breaks; they should feel privileged to have electricity, water, gas, etc. provided for them. In fact, they should pay the school for all these facilities.
  3. On second thoughts, this ridiculous professional development idea ought to stop. If teachers aren’t good enough, they should either get out or learn how to do it properly in their own time.
  4. School holidays are clearly too long. Much, much too long. This is the grumble of all parents. Parents actually have to acquaint themselves with their children, which is clearly not a good idea. Instead, we propose that staff should run free holiday clubs on all holiday days. These could start nice and early in the mornings- say 6 a.m.- and end at around 9 p.m. Regardless of ability, these could make sure that all children achieve good progress. It would enable staff to keep themselves active. They must get bored during the holidays. They could also do the cleaning, which would widen their experience.
  5. In fact, let’s extend this idea to weekends.
  6. In fact, school should run 365 days a year from 6 in the morning to 9 in the evening. Whatever do teachers do all the time?
  7. We get the impression that some parents feel that teachers are being inconsiderate in having any time off at all; and some teachers will argue that they won’t have any time to get home. To allay their fears, we are prepared to allow teachers to camp on the school field overnight. We might even provide tents. In return, they can cut the grass every morning. With school scissors.
  8. We have heard ridiculous tales of parents buying £40 and £50 gift tokens for teachers. Ridiculous.  (Do we repeat ourselves? Tough.) We feel that teachers ought to buy presents for teachers instead. £100 tokens for each child in the class should do it.
  9. While we’re about it, the standards in education are apalling. Penalty clauses for underperformance will fix this. Let’s say… £250 for every child who doesn’t hit their targets.

It sounded much funnier when we were coming up with the ideas. I wonder how many people would agree with at least 50% of it. Happy holidays, staff and students.


A Teaching Moment: The New £1 Coin

I’ve just had a teaching moment. I don’t know if other retired teachers get these, or if they just wake up sweating in the night, convinced they haven’t done the planning, or the marking, or that their students haven’t reached the required level, or that they haven’t prepared for the lesson observation tomorrow, or that OFSTED are coming…… No, it wasn’t one of those. It was a positive moment.

£1 coinI’ve just seen a new £1 coin for the first time. For those of you not in the UK (I am delighted to say that quite a few occasionally read this blog) the coin is 12- sided, slightly larger than the old coin and designed to foil forgers.

All of a sudden, my mind switched into teacher mode. Wouldn’t this be a great maths lesson theme? Imagine the fun able (and not so able) primary children could have with it.

Think of the questions that could be asked. What shape is the outline? (A dodecagon. Roughly, it’s slightly curved.) What 3D shape is it? (A dodecagonal prism. Again, roughly.) What are its width and thickness? How heavy is it? (Dunno….. How could you work it out? It’s too small for conventional scales.) How many of the new ones weigh how many of the old ones? What numbers does it have on it? How many make a kilogram… or how much would a kilogram of £1 coins be worth? How high would £100 in £1 coins be? And on, and on….. Draw it…. without drawing round it. Then there’s research work: how many will be in circulation? When will the old one be withdrawn?

Actually, this would be a great homework. You could pose a few questions and then ask the students to ask more. However, as usual, some parents would prepare a huge dossier without any child input.

Sadly, I got very excited about this, then just a little sad that I couldn’t do it. Only a little sad, mind you. By the way, my teaching nightmares usually involve me not being able to find a coffee mug at breaktime and getting back to the class late. That’s sad.

I’d be delighted to find that somebody has already thought of this, but even more delighted to find that somebody else has used it. Or perhaps it doesn’t fit whatever the latest curriculum might be.

(The image attached is labelled for non-commercial re-use; I know this can be a tricky area where currency is concerned. However, I don’t think this one will help forgers very much. It’s probably courtesy the Royal Mint.)

So, what would YOU do about education? Part 4

Just a few questions for discussion…..

If you have been following this thread (and, just for once, boys and girls, you are completely forgiven if you have not been following it,) you will know that I am drawn towards giving children more choice in their education (see So, what would YOU do about education? Part 2 .)

I acknowledge that there are huge issues about motivation and commitment. Do children, given total freedom to learn, really want to learn?  (To quote the eldest Miss Oblique, she who at one point claimed to be on ‘Planet Anti-Maths’: “You learn your maths… and the reaction from kids is, ‘Why are we learning this? We’re never going to use it.'”


However, when we are short of mathematicians, physicists and engineers, should we not encourage mathematics and physics? Should we go further and push every child to higher standards, even if they are not ultimately using these skills, to ensure that the overall level of achievement is even higher?

But then….. What is education for anyway? To ensure economic growth? Economic growth must eventually end, unless we colonise other planets, and I can’t see us getting our act together to do that.

As I said: just a few questions.

So, what would YOU do about education? Part 3: The Shanghai Method

Ooh! OOOHH!! The Shanghai Method. Sounds exciting. Sounds…. Like an 80s electropop band. Like a sexual perversion. Like…. a mathematics teaching method? Surely not. (Surely some mistake? Ed.)


Well, it’s inevitable that I should at first be cautious about this, given my despair at the stupidly rapid rate of change in education. (See The only constant in education is change.) The Shanghai method looks to my increasingly out of touch and uninformed eye like yet another new initiative, which will transform mathematics education, raise standards, make the tea, solve global warming…. and so on.

Apparently everybody succeeds; the class does not move on until all have grasped the skill/ concept/ whatever. For my youngest daughter, who at the age of 13 still cannot add two single digit numbers, I am sure this will work wonders, as it will for the 9 year olds I taught last year who could use index notation confidently.

This is probably all curmudgeonish grumbling, but I also wonder what standards we are talking about raising here. Clearly I don’t know the full picture.

I have taken my first tentative stabs at setting out discussion points for the future of education. (See  So, what would YOU do about education? Part 2.) In it I mentioned the late Terry Pratchett’s view that children should be taught enough maths to “know when a pocket calculator is lying”.)

Allow me a digression here. At one point, I intended to write a post on mathematical illiteracy. No, I don’t mean innumeracy. To me that implies a lack of understanding of numbers and their basic manipulation. I mean a lack of understanding of the use of mathematics- the application of mathematics.

I think that this is incredibly important. Indeed, I increasingly feel that, for most students, functional mathematics should be taught far more.

DSCF0655You only have to look around to see examples of mathematical illiteracy. This picture is of a price tag. Mathematically, it’s wrong. Is it 4.5 of a pound or 4.5 of a penny? (Substitute euros and cents if you like.) Obviously the first (£4.50) is intended.You may very well argue that this is mathematical pedantry, but it does obstruct children forming clear concepts. This to me is akin to the ‘bigger half’ error. Halves are equal; one cannot be bigger than the other. We all know what is meant, but it’s not correct and again muddles children (and adults).

We could go on to the opinion poll fallacy. “33% of the population prefer dark chocolate.” No they don’t. A third of the (three) people I surveyed prefer dark chocolate. It’s even worse if the proportions are scaled up: “2o million British people prefer dark chocolate.” There are examples daily.

There, that digression has spared you a separate mathematical illiteracy blogpost.To return to Mr Pratchett (well done if you’re still with me), I increasingly feel that much mathematical education is wasted on most children. When did you ever use the mathematics you were taught at school? Alright, teachers, be quiet at the back there. Engineers…. Physicists…. Any others? Yes, me…. but usually only for fun, or when I need to get to sleep. Really.

There are  no doubt arguments against restricting mathematics teaching to functional mathematics, or to what the child chooses to learn. How do you know what mathematics a child will need in later life, or what aptitudes they will show later? When we are short of mathematicians and physicists, should we not encourage mathematics and physics? Should we in fact push every child to higher standards, to ensure that the ‘base’ level of achievement rises and thus the best get better.

So, as usual, I come up with no firm conclusions. After pondering over this I am still drawn towards functional mathematics for all and further adventures for the able and willing. I am aware this is a feeling, not a closely argued case. And hey, I’m not secretary of state for education. And at the back of my mind is the cry: “Stop messing teachers about and let them get on with it.”