Category Archives: Education

The Hay Festival : a public service announcement

Hay-on-Wye is a beautiful market town nestled on the Wales : England border roughly a million miles* from everywhere. For fifty weeks of the year, Hay’s main claim to fame is the number of second hand bookshops that occupy buildings dotted all around the town. The only thing more eclectic than the appearance and architecture of the shops, is the breadth od subjects covered by the books for sale within them. I have loved Hay from the first time that I visited as a teenager, and it continues to hold a very special place in my heart.

For two weeks each year (around the late spring public holiday at the end of May), Hay plays host to a literary festival that pulls in visitors and speakers from all over the world. We try to get to at least one of the ‘big ticket’ events at the festival each year (even driving from Bristol to Hay and back on the same Thursday evening one year to see Dara O’Briain perform his stand-up show).

This year, the Festival has inevitably fallen foul of the restrictions that are in place to help us manage the coronavirus threat. It has therefore taken the decision to move completely on-line, and the full programme of events can be found here. As well as the main Festival, there is also a Programme for Schools that will involve free films targeted respectively at primary and secondary children, with associated activities as a contribution to home-schooling.

The main Festival programme contains the usual incredibly broad range of topics from current affairs (Welsh, British and beyond), through science (with a particular focus on issues arising from the covid-19 crisis), through literature (ancient and modern) to comedy and music. Those taking to the digital stage include Stephen Fry, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, Dame Sally Davies, Afua Hirsch, Tori Amos, and Hilary Mantel. Most of the sessions run for around forty-five minutes, and all of them will leave you much better informed afterwards than you were before.

If you’ve never heard of the Festival before, and fancy seeing what it’s all about; or if – like me – you have always wanted to attend more sessions but the challenges of geography and timing have made it difficult, the this year’s digital Hay Festival is a fantastic opportunity to give it a go. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed!

Learning from the past to understand the present

I was struck by a story from my neck of the woods on the BBC News website today.

The Welsh Assembly’s Culture Committee has released a report into its review of history teaching in Wales; and among the recommendations is some clearer direction and guidance on the key historical events and topics in Welsh history that must be covered as part of the national curriculum here.

It’s only been fairly late in life that my own lack of history education has become really clear to me. I only did one year of formal history after the age of 14, completing an accelerated ‘O’ level (yes – I’m THAT old) in the UK’s social and economic history (effectively the story of the Industrial Revolution). Prior to that, the only thing that I remember from secondary school history lessons is some stuff about the Tudors. This has meant that my understanding of why things are as they are in the UK, British Isles and European continent has been severely underdeveloped. I am grateful that two books that I’ve had the pleasure of reading in the last twelve months have started to fill in the gaps for me. I have previously reviewed Fergal Keane’s excellent memoir on the history of the island of Ireland on this blog. And I mentioned earlier this month that I was currently reading Simon Jenkins’ A Short History of Europe from Pericles to Putin. I will write a fuller review of this one later in the month.

What I wanted to reflect on today though was the fact that it is only through reading these histories that I have come to a fuller understanding of the challenges that the UK now faces as it wrestles with conversion of the Brexit referendum result into something that can work in practice. Only those with no appreciation of the history of the island of Ireland, the political compromises inherent in the creation of the Republic of Ireland; and the social, political and emotional knots that had to be untangled in creating the Good Friday Agreement, can believe that anything approaching a border between Ireland and Great Britain could ever be acceptable.

Similarly, understanding that the European Union’s roots are firmly embedded in the series of diplomatic and commercial partnerships that emerged after 1945, is critical to an appreciation of why so many French and German politicians in particular find it so hard to understand the UK’s position. The EU as we know it today has been a gradual journey from an initial steel and coal cartel in western Europe, to a wider Economic Community and then the European Union as we have it now. Its origins are very much in a desire to ensure that there could never be another major conflict in Europe; and to provide some social democratic barrier to the emergence of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc in the late 1940s and into the 1950s.

It’s interesting to speculate whether part of the reason why a small majority of people voted in favour of Leave in 2016 is because most people’s knowledge of 20th Century UK history is focused on the World Wars and the causes of them, rather than on the 75 years since and the peace and prosperity that has been achieved through closer collaboration with our continental neighbours. Similarly, in a Welsh context, I am embarrassed to say that I had virtually know understanding of the resentment that was generated in mid and north Wales as a result of the flooding of Welsh communities to provide water to English Cities. Cofiwch Dryweryn as a movement and rallying point for Welsh independence was a wholly closed book to me as a child growing up in Cardiff.

So on balance, I find myself supportive of calls for a common core to history curriculums. A series of themes and topics that helps today’s children to better understand their local history, their place in the United Kingdom, and the reasons why the European Union emerged and is so fiercely defended on the continent, seems to me like a very good thing to be doing – irrespective of whether we end up Leaving or Staying.

One of my favourite days of the year

This is one of my favourite days of the year. I get to spend the morning welcoming applicants to study medicine at Bristol to their interviews. It’s a great reminder for me of why I love working in HE, and it’s a massive privilege to be able to meet so many incredible, (mostly) young, highly motivated individuals as they set out on a journey that will hopefully lead to them qualifying as doctors in 6 or 7 years’ time. Getting a place at medical school is an incredibly competitive process – we received 3,700 applications for our 251 places in this round, and we will interview about 900 of those applicants as we decide who to make offers to. And this remains the case in the face of what looks like a concerted campaign to undermine the UK higher education sector.

There has been a slow drip-feed of stories over recent months that has created something akin to a hostile environment for universities. Initially, the focus was on Vice-Chancellors’ pay, and one or two outlier salaries were held up as evidence of a rotten system as a whole. This was closely followed by a succession of almost wholly unsubstantiated claims of a crisis of free speech on our campuses; with rumour and anecdote taking the place of actual evidence, to create a narrative that ‘no-platforming’, safe spaces, and ‘snowflake students’, were preventing the robust discussion of contentious ideas. Next came the double-whammy of concerns about value-for-money and claims that white boys going to new universities would end up worse off than their peers who went straight into the world of work at 18. The Augur review of tuition fees is due to report later in December, and is widely trailed as recommending a reduction in fees for subjects like English, Drama, and History; with fee levels capped for medicine, engineering and sciences. This conflation of ‘value for money’ with graduate earnings is simplistic and unhelpful. The ‘worth’ of a degree is not something that can be calculated in purely financial terms. Most recently, unconditional offers (at entry to University) and so-called grade inflation (at graduation) have come into the sights of those seeking a stick to further beat the sector with. The headlines are again dominated by claims of universities lowering standards to allow students in in the first place, and then allowing those students to leave with an undeservedly high award at the end of the course.

What has been remarkable about all of these issues is the lack of detailed empirical evidence underpinning the challenges that have been made; and the uncritical reporting of them in the mainstream media. To be clear, I’m not saying that everything is perfect in the sector; but nor is it anywhere near as dysfunctional as the current narrative might suggest. UK HE is hugely beneficial to the country, and to those towns and cities which have thriving universities. As we teeter on the edge of a departure from the European Union, and in a world that seems to be becoming less certain and more fragmented, institutions that bring people together from across the Home Nations, and the international community, deserve to be supported and reinforced.

Truth stranger than fiction

I caught the end of a fascinating news report on BBC Breakfast this morning. Author Jeanette Winterson had visited a school in the Cotswolds to help the children there critically review the Cinderella fairy-tale, and then re-imagine it for the 21st Century. You can see the report and watch the video here. In part, the purpose of the visit was to explore the inherently sexist nature of the traditional narrative, and the version created by the children brilliantly re-writes the story’s ending to create a vision of an empowered and independent Cindy becoming co-founder of a successful business in partnership with the prince. The sassiness of shortening the name to Cindy, and the ambition shown for her by these primary school children is charming and inspiring in equal measure. The opprobrium of many of the viewers who contacted the BBC following the story, declaiming the ‘ruining’ of traditional stories, was as depressing as it was predictable.

Juxtaposing this story with the “you couldn’t make it up”, real-life story of Donald Trump promoting his public-school educated, merchant banker buddy Nigel Farage, as a potential UK Ambassador to the US,simply proves the old adage that truth is often so much stranger than fiction. But the sexist, racist, elitist messages that both Trump and Farage openly endorse, make the work of Winterson and a whole host of other, less prominent, people who are continuing to promote ideals of equality, fairness and justice, even more vitally important.

It is Edmund Burke, 18th Century parliamentarian and philosopher, to whom is attributed the saying that “for evil to triumph it is only necessary that good men do nothing”. Of course, taking our lead from Winterson, we need to change the “men” in the quote to “people”; but now more than ever, Burke’s sentiment must be a clarion call to everybody who opposes the narrow-minded, myopic, xenophobic, homophobic, mysogynist narrative of Trump, Farage and the motley crew of ultra-right wing ideologues that cling on to their coat-tails.

Fairy tales are quaint and can be indulged more liberally when the prevailing wisdom in society sees them as artefacts of a by-gone era when we were less enlightened. When the core messages of a ‘woman’s place in the home’, economic dependence on men, and a good marriage as the principal means of future security, are now part of mainstream political discourse, then its time for all of us to re-write the fairy tales.

Best job in the world just got better!

Regular readers will know that I feel really lucky to do the job that I do. I have the privilege of working with fantastic colleagues, world-leading clinicians and scientists, and I get to support some of the brightest and most enthusiastic students around. This term, I’ve taken on an additional role leading a team providing pastoral care to 500 first year students in halls of residence in Clifton and the city centre. It’s a whole new challenge and (in all probability) an absurd psychological over-reaction to the empty nest syndrome that Charlotte and I were facing up to. It’s also great fun.

Working with students, many of whom are experiencing life away from home for the first time, is hugely rewarding. And it’s humbling to see their care and concern for one another, and to feed off their enthusiasm for making their formative community as inclusive and supportive as possible.

It’s also fascinating to see the very different cultures that exist in the two halls that I have responsibility for. The city centre property is literally right in the heart of the city, and the overwhelming majority of residents there have chosen it precisely because of its proximity to the bars, clubs, theatres, and other venues that make Bristol a great place to be a student. Trying to generate enthusiasm for organised events here is difficult. There is little that we can offer at the hall level that competes with the bright lights and razzmatazz of the competing commercial offerings. But we have been able to gain some traction with relatively simple and straightforward events like a group booking for the newly opened ice rink.

At the Clifton residence, on the other hand, the students tend to be more community-oriented, planning events such as Bake-Off challenges between kitchens, film nights, and tenpin bowling. Ironically, the Clifton hall has far less ‘communal’ space than is available in the city centre residence, but this has almost spurred the students on to build the sense of community in spite of the shortage of facilities.

I was convinced that I had the best job in the world already, but the added satisfaction that comes from playing a very small role in helping our students make a successful transition into university life means that the best job has got even better!

Reflections on titles and taglines

This is the second post in my blogging101 challenge. Today’s prompt invites the blogger to reflect on their blog name and tag-line.

My blog title came to me relatively easily and works on a number of levels. I explained the inspiration for it in my very first post in August 2013 : “My grandad (a very wise man) always used to say “Better out than in” – usually immediately after noisily clearing his throat and depositing the product in a weed patch on his allotment. This probably makes this blog my weed patch; and my posts to it, the phlegm that otherwise threatens to clog up my thought processes.” Apologies if you’re reading this over the dinner table! The title is therefore a nod to my grandad, a description of the somewhat random nature of the posts that appear here, and an acknowledgement that what I write is in many respects a kind of mental de-cluttering.

The tag-line reflects the inevitable self-absorption that is probably present to a greater or lesser degree in all bloggers. Blogging (for me at least) is a form of psychological self-help. There is something cathartic about sitting in front of the computer and downloading thoughts, ideas and observations onto the blank page. There’s also something narcissistic about publishing those thoughts into the public domain rather than – for example – keeping a personal diary. I kid myself that I publish for my own benefit and that it doesn’t matter to me whether anybody reads this stuff or not. In reality, of course, I’m as thrilled as the next blogger if my views hit a new record, or if I receive an unusually large number of ‘likes’ or comments.

Having said that, some of the posts that have been most ‘popular’ in terms of views aren’t necessarily the ones that have given me the most pleasure in writing. Nor are they the ones that I have spent the most time in crafting or researching. There’s a salutary lesson there around my inability to predict what might hit a nerve with the reader.

I work in the Health Sciences Faculty of a regional University in the south west of England. I’m neither an academic nor an educationalist, but having spent the past 9 years working closely at various times with doctors, dentists and veterinary surgeons, I have picked up quite a lot of ‘advanced lay’ knowledge. One of the key professional development skills for healthcare professionals is the ability to engage in reflective practice. You can find an interesting overview of some of the models of reflective practice here : http://www.brightknowledge.org/knowledge-bank/medicine-and-healthcare/spotlight-on-medicine/what-is-reflective-practice and a Google search will bring up many more references. In some ways, this blog is a reflective practice exercise for my life – covering not just professional development but a lot of more personal stuff too.

So – better out than in? For me certainly, and hopefully for you too. And blogging cheaper than therapy? Well it’s free, so I guess that’s a no-brainer!

A little reminder of why I love my job

In many ways, this has been a pretty tough week, work-wise. There’s a lot of change going on at our University, and far too much of it seems to be focused on my Faculty. Of course, change can be exciting – creating new opportunities and allowing the opportunity to challenge accepted wisdom and find better ways of working. Sometimes, though, when you’re right in the midst of it, it can seem like a lot of hard work, and the medium term benefits can appear to be a long way over the horizon.

That’s why I try to build in diary commitments that remind me why I love my job. This afternoon, I had the privilege of visiting a large comprehensive school on the outskirts of Cardiff to do a mock interview for a seventeen year old A level student who is the only pupil in the school to have applied to study medicine this year. She was a delight, and has already received invitations to attend for interview at two medical schools in the UK. From what I’ve seen today, they would be incredibly lucky to have her, and I am sure that she will do well.

I am always humbled and amazed at the dedication, maturity, and commitment that sixth form pupils now need to display to secure a place at university. Good GCSE and A level results on their own are rarely enough. Extra-curricular activities (sport, music, drama, volunteering etc..) and ideally some form of paid or voluntary work experience are almost essential to secure an interview (let alone an offer) for a place on a popular course at a top institution.

It’s really good to be reminded occasionally that students are the reason for the job that I do, and it’s even better to get the chance to work with them directly from time to time.

There’s no “I” in team…

It’s been an inspiring day. I’ve had the privilege of listening to medical educators from Leeds, Sheffield, Keele and Cardiff sharing the exciting and innovative ways that they are helping medical students to develop the skills, knowledge, and attributes that will make them safe, effective and fit-for-purpose doctors, ready to serve their patients and help push back the boundaries of medical science and practice.

One of the key themes that’s been repeated throughout the day is the importance of team work and multi-disciplinary co-operation and respect in the modern healthcare environment. There is an enduring belief that health care is delivered by a hierarchy of practitioners, with the doctor sitting at the top. In practice, the lead person in the team will tend to change as the patient proceeds along a care pathway, with nurses, doctors, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, pharmacists and a range of other professionals all coming to the fore at different points in the total treatment package.

It reminded me of a great poem attributed to Saxon White Kessinger called The Indispensible Man, that I hadn’t read for a long time, but which in some respects could serve as an anthem for team and interdisciplinary working in healthcare and many other settings.

Sometime when you’re feeling important;
Sometime when your ego’s in bloom;
Sometime when you take it for granted,
You’re the best qualified man* in the room:
Sometime when you feel that your going,
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions,
And see how they humble your soul.

Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining,
Is a measure of how much you’ll be missed.
You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop, and you’ll find that in no time,
It looks quite the same as before.

The moral of this quaint example,
Is to do just the best that you can,
Be proud of yourself but remember,
There’s no indispensable man*.

* or woman!

An old one admittedly, but still makes me smile

I work in a fairly large University in the south west of England. In common with many institutions in the higher education sector in the UK, we are currently going through a pretty radical change process. This morning, the management team for my Faculty met together to discuss some of the ways that we could engage with our staff, students and other partners to ensure that they are aware of why the changes that we are making are necessary; and (in some ways more importantly) how they can help us to design and implement the changes that we need to make.

The discussions about engagement reminded me of the story of the change management consultant who was asked to explain the difference between involvement and commitment. “Well”, he said, after a moment’s pause for thought, “it’s like cooking bacon and eggs for breakfast”. Looking around at the puzzled faces of the management team he was supporting, he went on : “The chicken is involved, but the pig – well, he’s committed!”

Education for education’s sake – why the pursuit of knowledge must not be restricted to things that can be costed, measured or counted

I’m going to start with another declaration of interest today. I work in the UK Higher Education (University) sector and I have done for the past seven and a half years. I have also benefited from studying at undergraduate and postgraduate level in UK universities at various stages in my career to date (and who knows, I may yet enrol on and finally finish a Masters course at some point in the future when time permits)

I’m inevitably biased therefore, when it comes to discussions around the purpose of higher education, and in particular, research undertaken by HE institutions. At a time when the economy is still struggling to emerge from the damage inflicted through the world financial collapse, and when public expenditure is subject to closer scrutiny than at any point in the last thirty years, it is perhaps inevitable that questions are asked about Government support for research into apparently niche or minority areas. Even those communication channels that tend to be seen as more moderate and enlightened can fall into the trap of pandering to an agenda that seeks to differentiate between research that is worthy of support and that which is (implicitly at least) classed as being frivolous or an unnecessary luxury

An example is the coverage of “more unusual research” on the BBC website today (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-24363025). The article appears at first sight to be neutral and value-free, but on closer inspection, there is a sneering undertone that suggests that the reporter is unconvinced by the value of the work that forms the basis of the story. This is reinforced by references in the introductory paragraph to work on the human genome project or the discovery of antibiotics as transformational, while other “research passes into the annals of human knowledge largely unnoticed.”

The problem with this binary approach to the classification of research as valuable or not is that it is only possible to make this judgement AFTER the fact. Some of the greatest breakthroughs in research occurred quite by accident (see examples here : http://www.xperimania.net/ww/en/pub/xperimania/news/world_of_materials/accidental_discoveries.htm and here : http://www.geniusstuff.com//blog/list/10-accidental-inventions/). However, in each case, whilst the discovery may have been accidental, it was recognised, developed and exploited because the researcher was in the right frame of mind to seize the opportunity

“Ah!” I hear you say, “but these are medical and engineering breakthroughs; things that we can see or touch or use with measurable, visible effects. How do these compare to studies into lap dancing, shoes or tattoos?” It’s a good question, but it’s not a new one. There is a wealth of research to support the suggestion that research in the arts and social sciences also produces direct economic, knowledge and societal benefits (see for example, the report here : http://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/TR816.html)

So let’s take care not to risk ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ when it comes to public funding for research in all academic disciplines. Investment in research is never certain, and even the most well put together research proposals will occasionally fail – but even in failure, what is learned can prove to be hugely valuable!