Tuesday, 24 February 2015

That February Feeling

February can be a gloomy month. The delights of Christmas are long past and spring still seems that little bit out of reach. Personally I dislike February even more than January, despite the evenings being slightly lighter, it just seems a bit of a tedious month.

Looking back over my posts for February, I realise that they appeared to give off a few negative vibes, seeming a bit gloomy. It’s true that I debated a few serious issues, with none of the light-hearted banter that I sometimes include, but I stand by my comments aimed at making pertinent points.

The post that I’m most passionate about is Are Ofsted Off The Mark? detailing my reasons for pushing for a complete review of Ofsted. Reports don’t always seem to reflect how students, parents and teachers perceive their school and are too subjective depending on which inspectors actually visit. I’ve read an article where Ofsted actually admit that opinion can vary depending on which team actually go into a school. Ofsted reports shouldn’t be a game of chance, there has to be a way of making them more reliable – involving parents more and ensuring Ofsted teams have a wider mix of inspectors from different backgrounds, for example. I’ve contacted the PM and various MPs and hope at some point to get some responses to share with you.

In Merging Into One I discussed how large companies are swallowing up the competition, reducing consumer choice in the process. If we want companies to stay on their toes and endeavour to deliver the best service and value-for-money, then these takeovers must be restricted – otherwise where do we turn for better deals?

My Thoughts On Half Term post may have sounded like a bit of a rant – I suppose in effect it was, but whilst I don’t want to be a killjoy I do believe we should be instilling consideration for others in our children. I’m a mother of three (the youngest now a teenager) and have always taught respect and good manners, expecting others to do the same. We should all be having fun with our kids, but not in a way that spoils enjoyment of an experience for others. You can have fun and good manners too!

So in March I’ll try and include a bit more light-heartedness in my posts, whilst still addressing the odd serious issue should it arise.

In the meantime, what things have made me happy in February? My local craft shop selling tapestry kits normally priced at £30+ for just £7, enjoying a pub meal with my husband to celebrate our wedding anniversary (not an impersonal chain, but a local, independent pub), spending time with my teenage son and catching up with friends.

You can also read my tales of doing up an old workshop in a countryside setting at www.ruraljoy.blogspot.co.uk

Friday, 20 February 2015

Thoughts On Half Term

February Half Term holiday is always a bit of a funny one. The weather’s not always great, so outdoor activities may not be top of the agenda, but strangely many indoor attractions don’t open their doors until at least March, and in many cases April.

Searching for places to visit this week I was surprised to see so many museums were closed, stately homes too, although the latter I can understand a bit more, as muddy boots and plush carpets don’t mix very well. Although I have visited venues where disposable overshoes are provided to slip over your outdoor ones – a kind of compromise. But many museums keep their doors firmly shut at this time of year – a bad move as far as I’m concerned. Once the sun is shining I want to visit outdoor attractions, not closet myself indoors!

Fortunately, a couple of our local museums were open to the public this week so I popped in for a browse with my son. At the first we had a lovely, tranquil visit, but sadly our trip to the second was chaos!

I couldn’t believe the number of parents that were just letting their children run riot! Whilst some were engaging their children with interesting chats about what they were seeing or helping them to complete the quiz sheets provided, others were just standing by while their offspring rolled around on the floor (and I’m not talking toddlers), ran headlong into other visitors and whooped at full volume.

Now I don’t believe that children should be seen and not heard, or that they should tag along meekly without a bit of self-expression, but I do think that basic manners should be observed. A troop of youngsters, old enough to understand how to treat others, should not really be barging into other visitors without a polite, “excuse me” or “sorry”.

Sadly, it became apparent how some of their behaviour had been acquired. We were walking along a narrow aisle of the museum, when we found our way blocked by a group of mothers engaging in intense conversation. My first “excuse me please” was ignored, my second request yielded a tiny step to the side by one individual, which still did not allow me to pass due to her enormous umbrella sticking out at a dangerous angle. We eventually managed to pass amidst tuts and filthy looks, as if we were in the wrong!

I think it’s great that places such as museums often provide interesting workshops and activities for kids during the school holidays, but if you take your child along to such a place, I urge you to encourage consideration for others – and lead by example!

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Merging Into One

I’ve recently heard about a couple of companies that are about to be ‘swallowed up’ by larger ones, which is bound to have an effect on consumer choice.

The Competitions and Markets Authority (formerly the Competition Commission, in turn formerly The Monopolies and Mergers Commission) is supposedly meant to strengthen competition in the marketplace, thus protecting consumer choice. Why is it then that in some areas our choices are becoming increasingly more limited?

One of the big issues at the moment, I feel, is that of mobile phone providers. I used to be a customer of Orange, which merged with TMobile (referred to in our household as Torange), which then became part of EE. It has now been announced that EE are to be bought out by BT – just the company I do not want to provide my service!

One of my concerns is that my current, excellently priced SIM deal will change. Originally taken out with Orange, but honoured by EE (although that stopped providing it to new customers) my immediate concern is that this will be scrapped. But from a wider point of view, I realise that if I’m not happy with the new service, there will be very little choice of other providers available. With it appearing that O2 is about to be taken over by the owner of the ‘3’ network, that leaves only Vodafone as a mobile provider on its own.

With our choices of mobile provider basically down to three, where is the incentive for the remaining companies to offer the best deals? With competition rapidly dwindling it certainly makes their life easier, but not ours!

Also in the news is the plan for Poundland to buy out 99p Stores – another bad move I believe. Certainly in my area, the 99p Stores are much better than the Poundland equivalents, stocking better products in a more welcoming environment. Of course, that may not be the case nationwide, but it’s still nice to be given the choice of where to shop.

Time and again shops and companies are being taken over by larger concerns, reducing competition and limiting our choices. Competition is healthy for businesses. It encourages them to deliver the best possible customer service, product ranges and consumer care. Insufficient competition can create complacency, resulting in poorer deals for customers and severe lack of service and care.

I’ve always believed that if I don’t get good service from a company, I should take my custom elsewhere. But if my choices are limited, where do I turn?

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Are Ofsted Off The Mark?

It seems that Ofsted is mentioned in the news on a fairly regular basis, often with regard to schools that they have deemed to be ‘failing’, when judged by their existing criteria. But is the current inspection system itself in need of a major review?

There was a time when I may have taken an Ofsted report at face value. If a school was put in special measures, I may well have believed it was well deserved. Similarly, I would have lapped up every word of a glowing report, believing that it was the type of place that my children should attend. But not any more.

Following a few personal experiences, I would like to raise the question, what is Ofsted’s real agenda? Let me explain the basis for this reaction.

Several years ago, I worked for a school that had only just received a ‘good’ Ofsted report. On the basis of this I had no qualms at joining the support staff at said school. But within days of starting work, I was flabbergasted as to how the establishment had managed to be rated so highly. Behaviour was appalling, staff members were apathetic and results only vaguely reasonable. Perhaps the lad who turned to me one lesson and said, “They sent all the naughty ones out the day Ofsted came”, was not merely speaking in jest.

Following a particularly bad behavioural incident, I felt the need to speak to a member of the management team, who basically couldn’t give two hoots! Things got worse and I decided to leave, but not without communicating to Ofsted my concerns about the school – only to be ignored.

Fast forward to more recent times. I was pleased to get my son into a great grammar school, where the staff members were helpful, results good and the atmosphere friendly. The year after my son started at the school, it topped the results table for the county and I was really pleased with his individual progress.

Then Ofsted came along.

Overnight, the school was put into special measures, the lovely head disappeared without a ‘goodbye’ and new one blustered in like a bull in a china shop. The schools individuality was stripped, as the school became part of a trust that just seems to want to ‘clone’ the school. When it comes to education, one size does not fit all!

As a parent I protested, taking the time to express my concerns to Ofsted. Their first reaction was that I’d had my chance for my say by filling in their questionnaire. Have you ever seen the Ofsted questionnaire? It’s just a series of tick boxes, with no room to expand on or explain any of the issues that you really want to address.

I persisted with communications to Ofsted, including sending a letter to Sir Michael Wilshaw. Eventually I wore them down enough to get a slightly longer reply, including a promise to meet with me on their next visit to the school. Like that happened!

I’ve never agreed with the decision to put my son’s school into special measures, or had the opportunity to discuss it properly. The ‘good’ news is it is now deemed by Ofsted to be a good school, which is somewhat surprising as to my mind it’s not a patch on what it was. Communications and admin are far worse than they ever were, but fortunately teaching is good – just as I’d always thought!

Time and again I hear of more schools receiving poor reports and being put into special measures. Most recently, Durham Free School have hit the news, threatened with closure despite a recent Department of Education report, declaring it to be “A successful free school securing good teaching.”

It’s true some schools may be struggling, but others I feel are being judged too harshly. It seems that Ofsted wants all schools to fit a mould – any deviation from their tick box system, however good results and student’s and parent’s views of the school, and Ofsted storm in.

As a result of this our choices of school for our children will become more limited, as each one becomes slowly cloned, lead by a series of Ofsted’s ‘yes men’ (and women, of course).

None of us want our children to suffer through poor educational standards – we’d like them to achieve their best – but we also want them to feel happy and safe, and experience a sense of belonging in the process.

Come on everyone! Let’s press for a total review of Ofsted, and stop good schools from receiving damning reports that actually can mean a change for the worse!

Please feel free to leave comments on this post – I will be lobbying MPs and other appropriate bodies – and your support is appreciated.