Monday, 29 June 2015

Let's Tell Folk Our Secrets

Not a still from a film: 
our back yard (Newburgh)

I've lived most of my life in Aberdeenshire with the exception of a few  years at university and gadding about teaching in Europe. Every time  I left, I came back. I grew up in Newburgh, went to school in Ellon, and now I'm bringing up my own family in Newmachar. This is not an accident, this is a choice. When I leave I think it's the landscape I miss the most, and it's not just a case of absence making the heart grow fonder. I really do appreciate it when I'm here too. This morning I headed to Newburgh Beach with the dogs, as I very often do. The coast is where I go when I need a think. If you added up the amount of time I spend on Balmedie beach, Newburgh beach, Collieston, Cruden Bay and Forvie Sands we'd be looking at weeks, possibly months of my life. Those places our best kept secret. There are other, really secret ones beyond Collieston heading up to Peterhead that  you can only reach if you have a 4x4 or a car you don't care about too much.  You look around and the views are the stuff of tourist adverts, yet they appear in none.

My husband's family and many of our friends live in the Central Belt. When we take them to these places they are open mouthed. They see them through the eyes of people who do not have access to coastal wilderness on their doorstep. They cannot believe, for example that on Forvie Sands they are standing ten feet from a massive colony of seals and their pups. They stand at the edge of the wee harbour in Collieston and it's the first time they've seen a dolphin outside of an aquarium or Florida theme park. I tell them there have been Orcas seen there too, in fact there was one just outside Peterhead Harbour the other week and they need Youtube proof before they believe me. (Go here if you still don't believe me! 1 minute in for the action

 Not a screenshot from an Attenborough documentary:
 a photo I took on Forvie Sands!

That ruin you can just see on the outskirts of Cruden Bay? Glows kind of red when the sun is going down? Bram Stoker who wrote Dracula used to hang out there. Yes, yer actual "Dracula". They say that the house was an inspiration for the castle in the book. Yet it's Whitby that makes a big deal of the Dracula connection.

                                                  Slains Castle, Cruden Bay:
                                           look closely you might see a bat!

Along the Ythan River as you go towards Fyvie from Ellon there's another ruin. This one belonged to an even bigger literary giant. It's the ancestral home of Lord Byron. Yes, THE Lord Byron. He was an Aiberdeenshire loon, don't you know, as well as being one of the greatest poets in the English language. He's an ancestor of the Gordons.

                                              Lord Byron: Titan of literature 
                                                   (and a loon fae Gight!)

And there's pracitcally nobody at these places, except a few dog walkers. These links to titans of literary history aren't tenous ones, yet we make no fuss about them. In the same way we make no fuss about the fact that our beaches are like being in an Springwatch episode on an hourly basis (but without the over enthusiastic BBC naturalists!). In March I was in the Basque Country and I was taken to a small village that was famous in the area for the fact that Victor Hugo, who wrote Les Miserables, stayed in a guest house FOR ONE NIGHT! There was a plaque and a wee museum and folk taking photos against the little narrow building that he spent less than 24 hours in! Dracula's author and one of the greatest poets of all time LIVED in our area. Something is wrong with this picture!

 Gight Castle
We live in a place that if we really shouted about what we've got  we could give the West Coast tourist industry a run for their money. We could encourage filmmakers to use our landscapes as locations. Could it be that we maybe have to stop hiding our lights under our understated North East bushels? Eco tourism is something we need to look into in a serious way. We need to start telling more people about the people who lived here, the things that happened here. We need to start giving our kids more of an idea of the local and natural history of this amazing place. Maybe it's time to do something that maybe doesn't come all that naturally to is North East folk, and boast a little....

As lovely as it was to walk along the North East coast this morning and only see a couple of dog walkers and a jogger, I feel slightly selfish. Folk need to know what we have here. It's nice to share. And sharing our secrets might just be the making of us, and our local economy.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Holyrood's Zero Hours Contract

Last night I switched over from watching all the (mostly SNP tabled) amendments on the Scotland Bill being voted on yer Parliament TV channel. The Game of Thrones season finale was starting and I figured that a shockingly violent dystopian gore-fest where heroes were routinely stabbed in the back was a less harrowing, vicious, and nerve jangling experience for me after a tiring day at work than spending any more time watching those green benches.

Like many of you, up until that point I watched Alan Bissett's "The Future If Scotland Votes No" monologue come to life on my telly. Everything the SNP wanted amended was voted down, as expected. But what I missed as I immersed myself in my alternative fictional power struggles over in Westeros was one little amendment that everyone surely thought would go through. It was the first line of that there Vow last September and to renege on it would effectively prove to all the so called "soft nos" who took a chance, took a chance, took a ch-ch-ch-chance like Abba that the union cannot in fact be trusted. Just in case they hadn't figured that out by now.That amendment  was to secure the legal permanence of the Scottish Parliament. What? You thought it was already permanent? Here's some news- Westminster could shut us down at any time and sell the fine building off as Edinburgh's latest chichi executive apartment complex. And yesterday they voted to keep it that way. In effect they have just given Scotland a zero hours contract. Put me down for a top floor one with a view of Arthur's Seat.

Of course any government that actually did that would incur the wrath of most of the Scottish people, and possibly trigger a large surge in support for Scottish independence. To remove the Scottish Parliament without any kind of referendum (yes, they don't have to ask us either!) would be a suicidal move on the part of the UK government. So why not make it permanent? Why leave the sword of Damacles hanging from the ceiling if you are never gonnae be daft enough to let it drop?

The reason for this should make us all Scots residents as angry as we would be if they actually removed the Parliament for they have maintained the threat and the possibility of shutting us down, which to me is pretty much the same message. We own you, we control you, and don't you dare forget it.  That we exist on the grace and favour of a UK government is enough to surely question, once again, our dysfunctional relationship with the UK. Don't make me trot out the now cliched comparison to the abused partner in a marriage. Cliche it may be but cliches come from truth, just a truth that's so oft used, it gets boring cos yes, yes, everyone another record.

I'm not saying anything different from many others today. I'm not even putting forward anything approximating a different angle on this. There is no different angle to take.

I am angry. And I hope you all are too. Every one of you who lives here, across the Scottish party political divide, across the Yesses and the Nos and the Dinnae Kens you should all be righteously furious.

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Thursday, 14 May 2015

Living in the Past

                          In the words of Talking Heads, "Same as it ever was"

Society needs its upstarts. The kids who sit at the back and ask the awkward questions. The person who puts their hand up and says "Why?" and isn't satisfied with the answer, "Just because...".

Whilst out in my wee town campaigning for Team Alex the other week I went back to find Alex Salmond who had got chatting to a bloke on the door step. As often happened during our canvassing in Gordon (which he won by the way- don't know if you heard), us canvassers would be streets ahead of our candidate as he got into in-depth conversations with folk, or stopped by kids for a million selfies. Or you, know went for a wee jump on a make shift trampoline. As he does.  

I defy you to find a better campaign photo than this 

We lost our man, so I went back to find him and get him to catch us up. We were walking along with me on the outside of the pavement and he stopped me. 

"I can't do it. I have to be on the outside. It's a habit. My granda taught me that if I was walking with a woman, I had to walk between her and the road. I know it's old fashioned but he drummed it into me ...sorry!" 

We swapped over, presumably in case my wide hooped skirt got caught by a passing carriage or a highwayman scooped me up, held me hostage and threatened my honour.
We then got into a conversation about things that once had a reason to them that everyone had long forgotten but the tradition or habit remained. He told me about this military thing he was at as First Minister where they had to have a second person standing alongside someone loading some kind of a big gun. He asked what the second guy was for. It was because back the day the person loading a canon would have had a horse. The second guy had to hold the horse. The need for the horse and the canon was long gone, but the person remained. It was daft. But the tradition carried on. I, in turn, told a lame story about how my sister-in-law folded wet washing as it came out of the washing machine before she hung it out. When I asked her why she bothered with this extra, pointless step in what was already the most humdrum of all domestic tasks , she didn't know. Her mum had taught her to do it that way and she couldn't do it any other way now. 

"But there would have been a reason way back. Something to do with a mangle that her great granny used, or something!" Alex said.

Cut to this week and our new MPs headed to the House of Commons to check out their new workplace. Charmingly, many of them are tweeting and blogging about, well, how insane and anachronistic the place is. Full of traditions, rules and etiquette that really don't have any rhyme or reason to them but still exist. Apparently, you can't just sit anywhere in the members' tearoom, for example. Each group and party have their own space. This isn't official, or indeed evident by any signage; it's just known. Or not, as the case may be when it comes to our new guys and gals. Of course, anyone who's ever been a teacher will know that staff rooms throughout the world have this carry on. I still bear the mental scars from sitting on the handle bar moustachio-ed Head of English's chair in a Cologne high school when I was a new English teaching assistant. He barely spoke to me the whole year I was there as a result of my faux pas. These rules are designed to let people "know their place".

Users of Twitter would have also delighted in hearing that during an induction of the SNP group to the green benches a Tory MP told them that clapping was frowned upon in the House, and that the SNP group immediately gave him a round of applause by way of thanks for the advice. Just 20 minutes ago Angus MacNeil admitted he'd been the bad boy at the back of the class who lead the wry smiled offensive by starting the clapping. Oh, everyone loves a cheeky monkey!

The right wing gutter press, ignoring the obvious charm of our 56 have decided that the SNP are making a mockery of the traditions. However, they clutch at straws finding actual examples of this making do with the fact that Mhairi Black had chips and white bread which she possibly ate with her fingers instead of a three course lunch during which she used all the right cutlery, knew what a finger bowl was for and ordered the right kind of wine to go with the cheeseboard. And all without using one glottal stop. They wait with baited breath for the sight of Stuart Hosie doing an olly on his skateboard along the red benches of the  House of Lords whilst in session, or Pete Wishart being caught putting a traffic cone atop of Winston Churchill's bronze head.

As trivial as these wee things are, there is a point being made that leads us to ask more serious questions. And the point is "Why?" 

Why do we have anachronisms that are out of date? Why...the House of Lords? Why protect certain people from the law because of privilege? Why start parliament sessions at 2pm into the night when those rules were designed to allow wealthy 19th century MPs conduct their other businesses throughout the day? Why no creche? Why traipse physically through a wee wooden paneled space to vote when you could do it remotely from your constituency where you are supposed to be working with your constituents? Why is everything in London? Why keep letters from a prince to try and exert unconstitutional influence secret? Why have we got a Scottish Office run by the only Tory MP in Scotland when we have a Scottish Parliament? Why are we renewing expensive nuclear weapons we'll never use when we've got kids going hungry? Why have a seat of government which is designed to make people feel small, intimated and know their place when we have a (fairly) modern democracy where all men and women are (supposed to be) equal?

Why fold wet washing?

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Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Behind the Soundbite: College Places

Another day and another Lib Dem leaflet plops through my door. I live in the Gordon constituency, so we're getting rather a lot of them. It's well known in this election for two reasons. First off, it's one of the formerly safe seats for the Liberal Democrats that a loss would be a major existential blow to. The other is that former First Minister Alex Salmond is poised to win it off them. For those who don't know me, let me declare, I am campaigning heavily for a Alex Salmond win. I make no bones abut my support for the SNP.

The Lib Dem leaflets like to use library stock photos of models looking worried at pieces of paper signifying terrible things that the SNP have done juxtaposed with other library stock photos of wholesome and ridiculously attractive families on a plush sofa presumably bought with the savings they've made as a result of some Lib Dem fantasy tax cut. I think I'm on my 5th leaflet in less than two weeks and there's one particular screaming headline that really stamps on my petunias and that's this one:

You see I have worked in a further education college since 2001. Over this time I've seen good things happen and bad things happen, but this "cutting" of college places goes firmly into the GOOD column in my opinion. Confused? Of course you are, that's where the Lib Dems want you. Cuts are bad, right?  Let me unconfuse you, with ACTUAL facts and ACTUAL first hand knowledge.

I took a full time staff post in college in 2001. At that time colleges were funded based on accumulation of SUMS. A SUM is a unit of funding per student. As I understood it there were two types of SUMS; weighted and unweighted. Weighted were worth more in actual cash that got given to the college. I've handily linked to a document from the Scottish Funding Council from 2003 that explains further education funding policy for the particularly keen amongst you. Weighted SUMS were allocated in the bizarrest of circumstances. To the humble lecturer concerned only with teaching I gave up trying to understand why one day courses where 24 pensioners would arrive to do an afternoon on "The Media" was as, or even more important than the classes I taught to students on full time vocational HNC or HND courses that would get them into the workforce.   

On a couple of occasions I was told to put my HND class on self study to cover one-off part time classes because no one else was available to teach them. There might have been legions of little courses but there were not extra legions of lecturers to teach them.  And when I say teach, I may give the impression that there was set material available to teach, but there wasn't. Colleges just had to get bums on seats. In many cases it didn't matter who those bums belonged to, where the seats were or what the owners of the bums went away with in terms of learning. I lost count of the times I was simply told, "Just do something on the media". We used to joke that we had to watch out what we talked about in the canteen to our department manager over tea break as she'd have you teaching a short course on it by the next day.

The thing is though, as those who put themselves out there every day in front of learners know only too well, you can't just go in to a classroom or lecture theatre and busk it. Yes, not only would these weighted SUMs short courses take me away from my full time students, who were there to be trained to get employment, they would eat significantly into my extremely limited class preparation time as I scrabbled stressfully about to find something worthwhile for a group of people I would never see again to do over four hours so they wouldn't think I was a complete numpty.

At that point Labour was in power in Holyrood and soon to be Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray was Minister for Transport, Enterprise and Lifelong Learning. This is what he had to say about Further Education Colleges:

“Colleges have a key role to play in promoting our agenda on skills and inclusion by opening up learning to everyone. The Executive’s objectives of a smart, successful Scotland and an inclusive and just society go hand in hand. Scotland may be a small player on the world stage but, with quality, skills and learning right at the heart of our policies, we can continue to make a global impact” 

This is a lovely statement. It makes me feel warm inside to hear phrases to "opening up learning to everyone". But in reality it meant that colleges were spending a lot of their time and energy trying to coax folk into their classrooms that really didn't need to be there. Colleges were taking on the roles that community centres had. Short courses on just about a'thing for a'b'dy sprang up. And in my experience the full time lecturers had to busk teaching them with often very little notice, no extra prep time and to be blunt, with a hell of a lot of stress. And I'm am genuinely not convinced that those who attended these little courses really got a hell of a lot out of them either. A crash course afternoon on how to be a radio journalist is of little value to a group of senior citizens, and to be honest if folk that age wanted to be a radio journalist they would have:

A: already done it by this point, 
B: enrolled on the HNC Radio Journalism Course or 
C:contacted their local community radio station who would be glad of the volunteers and were probably running courses of their own with the funding they got.

What these short courses also did was take resources away from the full time vocational students. They would eat into our teaching timetable and take up precious classroom space and teaching equipment. Crucially they did not really lead to employment or recognised qualifications. My department might print off a wee mocked up certificate at the end and give it to students we had only known for an afternoon.  I am extremely sceptical that anyone ever presented it to an employer, but of course, I have no proof of that. It makes me cringe to think someone might have.

What we as colleges ended up doing was pinching the clientele away from other community organisations who would run adult education, like libraries, community centres and the like. We ended up being in competition with these places!

Now that kind of course, THAT'S the college places that the Scottish government, run by the SNP got rid of. And Amen to that. Now I can spend my time teaching students of ALL ages, circumstances and backgrounds in full time courses that will actually give them the training to get a job and for which I have teaching materials already written and verified by the SQA, and for which they will get a nationally recognised qualification.College today provides a better educational and teaching experience than it did in 2001. OK they are not perfect and don't get me started on what I would like to see change but in this respect things have improved.

Now I've just heard Ruth Davidson on Call Kaye on BBC Radio Scotland complain that the lack of part time courses means that folk wanting to work as well as study are disadvantaged. So I need to tackle this too.  Full time courses in further educational establishments do not necessarily mean that a student is in a classroom from 9am to 5pm. Typically a full time HNC will be timetabled with one or two days free. A full time course is not the same as a full time job. Most of my full time students also work when they are not at college. Over my fourteen years teaching I've had countless students who are mums and dads who are the sole breadwinner in a family working for a wage and also taking a full time course. In fact my own husband did a full time teacher training course (which incidentally was 9am-5pm) and held down a job as a carer when we had just had our first child. It can be and often is done.

Now let's add in a final few numbers for you to chew over.  In 2013 61,304 people aged between 16 and 24 were in a full time funded college course. This was an increase on the 59,605 in such courses in 2012. When in power in the Scottish government Labour’s highest yearly spend on colleges was £510m in 2006/07. In 2014/15 the funding for colleges from an SNP government is £522m.

Full time college places have increased. That is a fact. And in a time of austerity and educational budgets being stretched ever tighter we need to be providing qualifications that will get people into work, not something for folk to do of an afternoon that they could do in numerous places elsewhere in their communities. Yes, in an ideal world a college would fling its doors open and provide a huge range of full and part time courses on every subject under the sun, but we don't have the budget for that and we must make choices that prioritise qualifications and training for those who will use them to gain employment. As someone working in that environment I am keenly aware of what kind of teaching and courses are the best use of my time as a precious and expensive college resource.

Oh, and one final thing; further and higher education is STILL FREE in Scotland thanks to the SNP Scottish government. How's that manifesto pledge of bringing that back to England and Wales going for you, Nick Clegg?  Hello...hello, Nick...?

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