Monday, 28 March 2016

Academisation of schools

Recent proposals to force all schools to become academies have caused BFTF to pay attention to this issue.

Whilst it does not affect BFTF directly (Little No3 Son is well on this way through secondary education at a school that is already an academy), BFTF cares about the quality of education in England, and that the structures delivering it are accountable, well run and effective. Lets look at each of these in turn.

BFTF was disturbed to read a report recently on what happened when a local journalist tried to find out about proposals for Halewood Academy to close its Sixth Form.

The school would not comment, and directed the reporter to their website (where the consultation letter and proposal could be found)

The council would not comment, saying that academies were the responsibility of central government.

With parent anger growing, the reporter tried to speak to someone at the school again - to no avail.

The council then directed the reporter to the "regional schools commissioner", who was responsible for overseeing academies on the governments behalf.

The commisioner told the reporter to talk to the Department of Education.

And the Department of Education had already told parents that "the government and Parliament aren't responsible!

Well Run - Assets
BFTF hears a lot of concerns about land and buildings that were previously publically owned being gifted to private companies on academisation. DoE advice sdescribes how schools becoming academies should " transfer your school’s land to the academy trust."

PFI continues to be a be a big issue. A CoE secondary school, built via PFI, and which wished to become part of a Multi-Academy-Trust is described in a public service article thus:

"The PFI agreement includes a series of facilities management contracts lasting up to 25 years and costing more than £1m a year. At a time of budget reductions, this commitment puts the long-term financial security of the school at risk. The school’s governors are fully aware of this and are deeply concerned about the future viability of the school. They hoped that academy ‘freedoms’ would give them the opportunity to renegotiate the PFI contract, but this appears to be legally impossible.

The diocese is reluctant to take on such an open-ended financial burden, which must be a disincentive to any potential sponsor. Its independent auditors concluded that the PFI contract did not meet the school’s needs, did not function effectively and did not provide value for money. For the diocese, voluntary aided status might offer the best of both worlds. It would increase its influence on the governing body and would give it more control over the land and assets of the school, without having to take on the same financial risks that it would if the school were an academy."

On the other hand, an article at the right-wing Policy Exchange site describes how government policy aims to separate the procurement and management of schools, so that there is no conflict of interest between the two roles.

Well Run - Management
Disturbing to read that the current oversight system did not spot the severe financial irregularities of the Perry Beeches Academy chain, and took six months (!) to respond to warnings raised by a whistleblower.

In 2015, the Chair of the Education Committee commented that :

"Current evidence does not prove that academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children. It is clear though that academisation has led to greater competition, challenging many maintained schools to improve and incentivising local authorities to develop speedier and more effective interventions in underperforming schools."

BFTF notes that academies do not have to follow the national curriculum or employ trained teachers. That does not sound like a recipe for success, but it does sound like a recipe for cost cutting. What is the point of a national curriculum if no school has to follow it? How can one compare schools (excpt via GCSE results) if there is no benchmark?

A number is not an "increase"


Just read a BBC report which said :

"Increasing numbers of pupils are coming to school hungry, anxious and unable to concentrate because of family financial pressures, a teachers' union has said. The NASUWT union said growing numbers of teachers and schools were providing food, equipment and clothes for pupils."

Link :

But I can see no actual data supporting the assertion that numbers are increasing.Is this data available and, if so, where can one find it?

[To pick two examples "Almost three-quarters of the teachers had seen pupils coming to school hungry" and "Over a quarter had given food to hungry pupils" were mentioned, but neither say whether these levels are higher, the same, or lower than previous years. Seen this kind of thing before on BBC reporting]

[Also complained similarly to the BBC]

Part of article

Update : 8th April 2016
Received a response from the BBC saying :

"The claim that increasing numbers of pupils are coming to school hungry and anxious because of family financial pressures was attributed to the teachers' union NASUWT. The article provided details of some of the findings of the NASUWT survey in relation to these claims.The view that such problems were increasing was then attributed to NASUWT and the teachers’ survey. But, of course, it’s for readers to form their own views on the validity of the survey and its findings."

Update : 7th July 2016
Received a link from the NASUWT to a report that paints a grim picture of the current situation but does not provide any data showing whether it is getting better or worse. Which is a shame because that data, had it been present, would have been useful in challenging the government on their policies.

A couple of snippets from the report:

"Over a quarter (27%) of teachers had given pupils food...Over one fifth (22%) of teachers surveyed had lent/given money to pupils...."

Simon Starling at Nottingham Contemporary

BFTF and No3 Son recently saw a fascinating exhibition of work by Simon Starling at Nottingham Contemporary (see also here). Simon is an alumni of Nottingham Trent University and has won many awards, including the Turner Prize in 1995, for his work.

Below are a few notes on some of the items that particularly caught the attention of BFTF, together with a bit of added bloggage...

The Nanjing Particles (2008)
A big hit with BFTF and No3 Son, this was originally displayed at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (whose history is fascinating in its own right btw), the sculptures are million-fold magnifications of silver particles extracted from an image of Chinese strikebreaking workers at the Sampson Shoe Factory in Massachusetts. Ironically, it was too expensive to make the sculptures in the US, so the job went to the Shanghai State Art Foundry in Nanjing (more info here).

The strikebreakers at the Sampson Shoe Factory, 1870 (via Wikipedia)

1,000,000 x magnified Silver particles

So many questions.... How did the silver particles get extracted? What did the electron microscope image look like? How was it converted to a 3D form? I guess to find the answers to these questions, one will have to buy the book (don't like to link to tax-avoiding Amazon, but that's the only place BFTF can find it).

The Alchemist and Recursive Plates
An unusual take on the "science meets art" genre, this part of the exhibition showed Joseph Wrights original "The Alchemist" together with a recent Daguerreotype of the same painting.

The Alchemist (1771) is a famous painting (definition of "famous" : "one BFTF has seen before") but BFTF was surprised to find that it is normally found in Derby Museum and that Joseph Wright was a son of that nearby city. Alchemists were the predecessors of modern chemists and the painting shows an alchemist producing phosphorous from boiled down urine. This was actually done by German Alchemist Hennig Brand around 1669. The glow is caused by phosphorous vapour reacting with oxygen in the air. Indeed, the word "phosphorous" means "light bearer". Alchemists, however, were unaware of the actual chemistry that was happening.

The Alchemist (via Wikipedia)

In contrast, the Daguerreotype, one of the first photographic technologies was developed when chemistry was better understood (although discoveries of the electron and atomic nucleus were still to come). Daguerrotypes are produced on a silver plated metal sheet and are very fragile. In the image below, one can see reflections of the room (in colour) and also a faint, reversed, image of The Alchemist painting.

Modern Daguerreotype of "The Alchemist" 

"Project for a Rift Valley Crossing" (2015-16)
This remarkable project, specially produced for Nottingham Contemporary, is still in progress. It involves taking some 1900 litres of water from the Dead Sea (which contains ~0.05% Magnesium), extracting the ~90kg Magnesium from it to make a canoe, and then rowing across the Dead Sea in that canoe.

The inspiration for the project came from the story of magnesium bicycle maker Frank Kirk, who extracted ~2.5kg of Magnesium from ~1.5m3 of seawater and made Magnesium bike frames.

The Industrial Bulk Containers (IBC's) that had contained the water were on show (each holding about a tonne of water) as was the resulting canoe - but the trip across the Dead Sea is scheduled for some point in the future.

Two IBC's, each capable of holding ~ 1 tonne of water

Canoe made from Magnesium extracted from Dead Sea water

Close up of Magnesium welds

La Source (demi teinte) (2009)
Another hit with No3 Son, this display took a section from a half-tone image and converted the dots into glass balls. Nottingham Contemporary even provided a raised viewing platform to get a good view from!

La Source from viewing platform

La Source, close up

All technically very clever, from the manufacture of the glass balls to the laying out of the balls to form the image.

D1-Z1 (2009)
No3 son thought that the 35mm projector running a film loop was "pretty cool", but for BFTF it was seeing what was projected - footage of one of the earliest programmable computers, the Z1, which was designed by Konrad Zuse in Germany in 1936. Remarkably, it was of a mechanical design, which leaves BFTF wondering whether this is the direction things could have taken in a SteamPunk world.

35mm projector showing footage of the Z1

Close up of the 35mm projector

Z1 mechanical computer (via Wikipedia)

Final note...
Perhaps worth repeating that there was a lot of other stuff on display that is not covered here and also that the plum cake in the cafe is very nice.

Related Content
Surface Gallery - Michael Powell Exhibition
Report on Street Art Exhibition at the Surface Gallery
Pictures of the Sky
Nottingham - Tiltshifted
Shonaleigh at Nottingham Storytellers
Great programme describing how some of Turners paintings covered key changes in the Industrial Revolution.
Piero Gilardi and John Newling at Nottingham Contemporary
Light Night 2013
The Chair
>Jean Genet at Nottingham Contemporary

Image Sources
All BFTF's own except:
North Adams Strikebreakers
The Alchemist

Sunday, 27 March 2016


The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum reports on how US Air Force food aid drops in Syria are missing their targets because the $60,000 cost of the system used to ensure accuracy is felt to be such that "You wouldn’t use it for a purely humanitarian drop.”

For context, imagine how much the cost of the mission (planes, 21 pallets of food aid, air crew, air base costs etc) would be. And all that largely wasted because the pallets drifted off course because the were not dropped accurately.

This story raises other issues - why is the USAF doing these drops? Why not the air forces of the surrounding countries? Maybe they are and it is not being reported?

Sent an email to local MP and Conservative Party asking what the UK was doing to put this right.

Update Sep 2016
Received a message from local MP in April saying that they had written to the Minister of State (Rt Hon Desmond Swayne) to ask for a response to this question. But not received anything further.

Received a message from local Conservative Party saying that they had forwarded the question internally, but not received anything further.