I wasn’t able to post here for a couple of days but I must have a grump on a couple of themes, one from UK news on Friday, the other ‘news’ from the school in which Petronela is teaching. Those themes? The continuing treatment of women as second class citizens; the disgraceful state to which education in the UK has been ‘allowed’, or forced, to fall.

Women’s pay

The ‘news’ that, beginning this weekend, women are effectively working for free till the end of the year is a generalisation, a simplification, but it makes the point very well I think.

Women in the UK are, in general, paid so much less than men for doing the same job that half way through November men will have earned the amount that women will have to work till the end of December to achieve.

How on earth do we accept this over a century after Emily Davison was killed protesting at the Epson Derby?

Children in UK who cannot read or write at 11

On Friday Petronela began to teach a ‘low ability class’. Of course some children may be ‘brighter’ than others; whether they should be ‘streamed’ as such is an argument I will not get into, it’s basically the same argument as whether grammar schools should be reintroduced. I have mixed feelings about both. However, she was ‘warned’ there are children in this class 7 who cannot read or write. This after being at school, primary school, for six years.

I’m not suggesting that all parents should, or could, teach their offspring to read and write before they go to school – at five years old in the UK (as my mother did for me, for which I’m eternally grateful). What I am suggesting (not a strong enough word) is that children should not be moved from primary to secondary school without being able to read and write at some basic level at least.

That they are gives the high school teacher an impossible task and disrupts the learning of other students.

UK lowest literacy among developed countries

Way back in 2012 there was an article in ‘The Independent’ newspaper giving some reasons why the UK is lowest for literacy in developed countries (confirmed in recent OECD survey and report) which is still relevant.

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-obvious-reasons-why-uk-literacy-and-numeracy-skills-are-among-the-lowest-in-the-developed-world-8871402.html

It is almost the same with numeracy, but I will not get too much into that, except to say that I completed the first five questions in a recent GCSE maths exam paper in my head in a very short time. I could not have done that with a GCE ‘O’ level paper, despite all the assurances that standards have not dropped.

I remember well when Petronela was studying English for GCSE so she could teach in UK (at the time she was working as a teaching assistant) she came home with the question “How do you spell ‘read’?” I was surprised as I thought she knew very well. She told me that a teacher had written something on the board with the instruction to students to ‘Reed this’! Since then we have had letters from school, doctors, hospitals, the local council, etc, with basic spelling mistakes and appalling grammar.

C’ grade is not, in my opinion, a high enough grade in the GCSE English exam to teach any subject, as is the case now. Again, I do not believe all the assurances that this is the same level as was needed to get a pass at GCE ‘O’ level. I am sure that it is not.

I sometimes, as a writer/blogger, indulge in some passages which are not grammatically correct but I know I am doing it, for effect. I sometimes indulge in some ‘journalese’ for similar reasons. I may well have done it in this post. But I would not do it if I were teaching a lesson in school.

I used to tell my students in Romania that you cannot learn to use correct English fluently in the classroom, and vocabulary almost not at all. To succeed with these you have to read, read, and read. What chance do those who cannot have? Little.

To add fuel to the fire libraries are being closed, or threatened with closure, across the UK. Our local village library has been rescued by a team of volunteers.

As I said, reading from an early age is one of the many things for which I am grateful to my mother.

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I was so surprised to find myself sitting under a picture showing my high school and a brief history

With that title it may seem odd if I tell you I’m sitting in Wetherspoon, one of a large chain of pubs where they open early in the morning, have free WiFi and serve good (Lavazza) coffee which is cheap: £1.30 for a double espresso (which is what is in front of me as I write this). They also serve a ‘large’ English breakfast for £4.99 if you want it. I do not, I ate my usual raw oats with milk at home.

It is, in fact, the first day of school for Petronela after the summer break. She resigned from the school she had been at for 11 years before we went to Romania as, among other reasons, there seemed little opportunity to teach history, the subject she loves and her speciality,  though she taught Humanities, Religious Studies and Citizenship as well as beginners’ French, even a little Geography, there.

Supply teaching

Time to move on so she has gone ‘supply teaching’, in the UK that means filling in for teachers who are absent for some reason, and this week was the first time a requirement for a fully qualified history teacher had come up. At the moment it is just for this week. As the school is difficult to reach by public transport from our home, I’m the taxi driver.

Right opposite the pub in which I am sitting is recently grassed over space which until a few months ago was what was left of my high school

It is, people might think, a coincidence as Wetherspoon is just across the road from a green space which was, until recently the building in which I went to school – Keighley  Boys’ Grammar School. The school has not existed for many years but the building was demolished only in the past few months.

There are a few more ‘coincidences’. The grammar school was housed in what was the ‘Mechanics Institute’, a magnificent building with a Big Ben type clock tower, built in 1870. A large part of that was destroyed by fire and the wonderful clock tower fell down but, I assure you, I didn’t do that despite my notoriety for building a smoke ring generating machine to disrupt lessons. Anyway, the fire was long after I left.

The magnificent town library. You can just see a corner of what is now a Wetherspoon pub, on the far right

For this week I’ll probably not go home but stay in the town until Petronela finishes, either in Wetherspoon or the magnificent library next door, which also has WiFi. I used to escape to this library when I played truant from school –  a frequent occurence in later years when I disliked school intensely – particularly history (!) and French. I loved maths, physics, English (language, not literature, two separate subjects) and art so attended those lessons diligently and did extremely well in final exams in those subjects. French I had ‘dropped’ earlier when I refused to go to school unless I was allowed to do so.  But the history exam was my glory day. I wrote my name and details as required at the top of the paper, waited the regulation one hour without writing a single word then left.

Apoplectic headmaster

The headmaster was my history teacher; he went apoplectic, even berserk, and I had to go into school on a Saturday morning and sit the history paper; quite pointless of course. There must have been something wrong with the teaching as later in life I set up and ran a history society and, of course, married a history teacher.

Another ‘ coincidence’: my high school was created when a forerunner of the school where Petronela has just gone to teach, a little out of the town, was moved into the Mechanics Institute.

Finally, I sat down with my coffee not taking note of my surroundings, looking at the space which was my school through the large windows in front. Then I noticed the ‘picture’ on the wall to my right, featuring photos of the Mechanics Institute and forerunners with a little information about it and the ‘grammar school’.

As I’ve probably said before I do not believe in coincidence, so await what comes next.

Our real life Cruella de Vil

Returning to UK after the longest period away since I returned, in 2004, from living in Romania there’s so much to write about. Should I settle on a theme or just ramble away as is my wont? The latter is more my style so here goes.

Britain used to be the most liberal of countries and we thought of Germany as very strict and restrictive. Now it seems to have reversed. Stupid regulation after regulation governing everything here, so called ‘Health and Safety’ reaching ridiculous proportions, every child seems to have an allergy so cannot eat this or that (we’d have starved!), excellent recruits for the Nazi SS, unintelligent bullies, controlling train travel (at least on Northern Rail) and car parking, not all of course but a substantial proportion; teachers now expected not only to teach but to take over the role of parents in the most basic of  ‘education for life’; teachers and nurses bogged down with stupid form filling rather than getting on with the job for which they signed up, so leaving their professions in droves. Essential utilities companies, like British Gas (foreign owned of course), hiking their prices by stupendous amounts while rewarding their senior executives with massive pay rises.

We have a perfect Cruella de Vil leading the country using leaving the European Union (I refuse to use that dreadful ‘B…..’ word) as a perfect excuse to remove the power from Parliament and put it in the hands of a few of her lieutenants, so called ‘Ministers’.

Of course, everything is the fault of the immigrants, especially if they’re from eastern Europe or Muslim – I don’t think.

In fact, it’s the fat cats who are determined to get even fatter and roll in their slime.

Even (now this is going to upset 10% of the population) my previously favourite radio station, Classic FM, has sunk further into the money-making mire with repeated self-congratulation from the majority of the presenters, advertisers who seem to think the audience is made up of cretins. Their much (self) lauded 25th birthday concert, with a superb orchestra and chorus (the Liverpool ‘Royals’), was largely rubbish with no obvious reason for the bits and bats played. There was a super rendition of Bartok’s violin concerto by a young man, only 21 I think, and a premiere of a very interesting, exciting, piece composed by a young woman, only 23 years old, whose name I cannot remember but I’ll be seeking her out. With that fabulous orchestra and chorus why the devil didn’t we get, eg, Beethoven’s 9th instead of that mishmash of bits of this and that?

What prevents me jumping in the car and going back across the water? An elderly lady’s smile, sitting on a wall in my village main street and discussing the weather with me yesterday morning while waiting patiently for her bus.

 


A beautiful day at ‘Camping Warnsborn’ near Arnhem close to the German/Dutch border. This is an excellent site and perfect for a first stop after taking the morning ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland and for the afternoon ferry back, being only 1.1/2-2hrs drive from the port. The owners, Felix and Margo, are very pleasant. Beautifully maintained grass for pitching a tent and surrounded by woods; we didn’t have time to explore them 5/6 weeks ago but will do so on this lovely ‘English’ summer day – 24-25degC. It’s easy to find from the E35 motorway as it’s close to Burger’s Zoo, which has clear signs on the motorway after which there are excellent camping signs to the site.


Surprising a good run this morning from the Rhine valley to here, arriving at 1pm after a leisurely drive with no holdups. I’ve mentioned before the inability of Germans to maintain free-flowing traffic around road reconstructions and although we had a clear run some indication of what motorists were in for was given by a kms long queue in the opposite direction to enter Germany. I guess Germans can organise a piss up in a brewery but that’s about it; I don’t want to hear any more about German efficiency, though those in the north seem generally a lot friendlier than those in the south despite the oompah oompah and lederhausen down there.


I probably mentioned the birdsong last time we stayed here at Warnsborn, lovely to wake to, but this time we are visited by many dragonflies; they seem to find Dusty’s open door the ideal place to sun themselves. I got a oic, sort of, but the iPad isn’t ideal and I can’t be bothered with a camera.

In fact the last three days, two in the Rhine valley and one restful now not far from the ferry are an ideal finale to our trip. We just downed a bottle of some fizzy rosé P found in Aldi, about acceptable for the occasion resembling a mildly alcoholic lemonade. Far better was some ‘alt Gouda’ cheese, bought in Germany though we’ll be passing close to Gouda tomorrow morning.

It’s good P is not going back to stress of ‘that school’ and it’s allowed us to miss the rush back for the beginning of school this week. She has meeting with two agencies next week for some ‘supply teaching’; anything is better that the nonsense she had to endure where she been for so many years, much appreciated by the students but not by the so-called ‘senior management’. Better for my sanity too.

It’s good to have such a fine end to the trip (not counting what we might find when we arrive in UK, though we know the campsite is good) after the ‘disasters’ of Hungary and Munich. Thankfully we had the pleasant Austrian site between.

Former headmaster Dumitru Bunea with a portrait of founder of the school, M Kogălneceanu

Former headmaster Dumitru Bunea with a portrait of M Kogălneceanu, who founded the school in  1831 in a former ‘palace’

Two important things to do today, in the morning resolution of some medical problems, in the afternoon visiting the museum at the high school where Petronela (my wife – P from now) and I met, Liceul Agricol M Kogălniceanu, Miroslava. Succeeded with both.

A high school in a heavenly setting

How did I become a teacher at Miroslava? Living and teaching at the time in the city of Suceava, I was invited on a British Council course for Romanian teachers of English and there met a teacher of English from the Informatics high school in Iași (about 100km away). She persuaded me to come to Iași once a week and teach there. Someone else mentioned to me the beautiful setting of the Miroslava school so one day I climbed the hill, 7km from the city centre, to have a look. The high school is an agricultural high school, so apart from general education students can be educated to be vets, food technicians and other profiles, caring for animals in the school farm, raising crops on the school’s 100 hectares of agricultural land, caring for the orchard and vineyard, even keeping bees. That was so when I and P taught there; it may have changed somewhat now.

Wandering around, admiring the park, the orchard, the vineyard and what seemed to be an old, rather run down ‘palace’, all of which seemed to make up the school, I met someone who turned out to be the the deputy headmaster, explained I was a native speaking English teacher. He took me to the headmaster, Dumitru Bunea, who quickly persuaded me to teach there too (they had no English teacher, in fact no member of staff, including the head, spoke English). The ‘bait’ was that I could have a room in the ‘camin’ (the student hostel) and eat in the school canteen in return for teaching. As I was at the time a volunteer, so no income, I ‘bit’!

As usual on this blog, click any picture in the gallery below to see the pictures larger as a slide show

A unique museum

The headmaster, not only a history teacher like P but a dedicated historian, had some time before began to collect agricultural implements, many brought by students from the surrounding villages, with the idea of making a museum in the school. This expanded into collecting traditional items of clothing, pottery, etc. As the collection grew, including pre-neolithic artifacts to relatively recent things (eg from WW2), some of the best were donated to the city’s museum of culture (Palatul Culturii) and many duplicates donated to surrounding schools to make their own museums.

There is now an extensive collection at the school though it does not have the money to house and display it as it would wish. The village mayor had acquired European funds to do this but the city reappropriated these funds so the project is now in limbo. As Mr Bunea is now retired, getting this project off the ground again is even less likely. This is really sad; if I won a big, big prize on the lottery I would certainly finance it.

Although I visited the museum, of course, during my time teaching at Miroslava, I never had a a really good look, particularly to discuss it with the man who created it – Mr Bunea. It was an enormous pleasure, and honour, to do that today over more than four hours.

A further honour was to be invited to sign the ‘Carte de onoare’, alongside personalities from all over the world and in many languages.

Busy day and temperature is climbing again (29-30degC). Escaping to the cooler climes of the Bucovina tomorrow for a few days, looking for a possible place to move and visiting friends.

I consider myself very lucky as through things I do, day to day including my work, I learn of some of the amazing things our oft derided youngsters do. 

The latest is about 14 lower sixth formers from the excellent high school within our village boundary – St Mary’s Menston.

St Mary's Menston pupil Hannah Smith reads abut football to South African children

Hannah Smith, pupil at St Mary’s Menston, reads Frank Lampard to Zulu children

St Mary's pupil Kavindu Appuhamy gives an African child a lesson about rhinos, or is it the other way round?

St Mary’s pupil Kavindu Appuhamy gives an African child a lesson about rhinos, or is it the other way round?

I mentioned in an earlier post that I recently created a blog/website for the Wharfedale, Yorkshire, village in which I live – Menston. Looking around for news as the schools started up again after the summer break I found out about the latest phase in a project in which St Mary’s is involved, now in its seventh year.

Bambisanani (more…)

Sunday 3 Feb 2013. Another multi-tasking day, I’m starting to write this while I cook the obligatory Sunday ‘traditional full English’ breakfast and scanning a film to put some pictures here; I felt I must do this post after reading a recent ‘News’ item from WordPress about using internet in teaching:

http://en.blog.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/educators-on-wordpress/

The special 'Allstars' project room from we did internet teaching projects using first one, later (here) two, 'obsolete' laptops. This is 'Allstar' Daniela with me, 1994

The special ‘Allstars’ project room at industrial High School No.1, Burdujeni, Suceava, Romania, from which we did internet teaching projects using first one, later (here) two, ‘obsolete’ laptops. This is ‘Allstar’ Daniela with me, 1994

I think I might have been a bit of a pioneer in this field; the teachers in UK, Canada and USA with whom I did the projects in 1993/94 certainly were. Oddly enough, I had referred briefly to my email projects for teaching English only a few days ago when I did a post about how I became an English teacher in Romania. (more…)