Clean Up Your Mess

At ResearchED Scotland 28/9/19

I was honoured to have been asked to give a presentation at ResearchEd Scotland at Dollar Academy.

The focus of my talk was a call to teachers to reduce the complexity and visual clutter in the materials that we use to teach/present to our pupils and peers.

This comes from a frustration at the seemingly endless dumping of text and random images on slides and pages to the detriment of effective communication. To me these things form a barrier to learning and are fundamentally a waste of the precious time needed for teaching and learning.

I wanted to point to the mistakes I have seen so many times and well as show why they matter. Most importantly I wanted to give people some ideas for how to do better.

For my talk I drew upon a wide variety of influences not least of which is Daniel Higginbotham’s excellent site

You can view my slides here:

A pdf copy that includes my presenter notes is linked below:

I intend to flesh out my notes to form a full blog post over the next few weeks.

The Picture of @robfmac

“I am tired of myself tonight. I should like to be somebody else.”

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray


“Are you gone and onto someone new?

I needed somewhere to hang my head

Without your noose

You gave me something that I didn’t have

But had no use…”

Foo Fighters – Best of You.


My reason for writing is to seek catharsis through doing so. My reason for publishing is that it’s possible that one person who reads this will go on to seek help and support.

If you are that person, please see a GP or confide in someone you trust. If you receive a message from someone seeking that help – just being there for them will do so much to help.

This is my truth but I can only tell it since I have sought and received help. Failing to do so for so long meant that I had an almost complete mental and physical collapse. I was the proverbial frog in boiling water – doing nothing as the temperature rose. Indeed, apathy was one of the defining characteristics that became part of my identity.

This blogpost is not and never will be the whole truth. I’m showing you the picture in the attic – not that of my soul. I reveal some of my symptoms but few of my stressors.

This is as it should be – because the factors that brought about my depression are unique to me and are more complex than would fit here. I will say this though – one thing I have been plagued by is a constant strive for perfection – and a constant feeling of failing to achieve it.

Please excuse the inconsistent timelines – they’ve been used to fit the Star Wars narrative.


Episode I – The Phantom Menace

As last year developed and continued, what seemed like a cloud descended around me. It had descended before towards the end of 2009. At that time I was in denial that it was depression. My sick-note simply said: “debility”.

I took a few weeks off after a colleague who had watched me decline, confronted me in the corridor outside my classroom and bluntly told me: “You’re not well, you need to go home.” I didn’t. Not long after though I reached the same conclusion as I switched off my alarm a morning or two later and said to myself: “I can’t do this anymore.”

Upon my return the only real thing that had changed was that I was now able to access some counselling via my GP. This was useful and for it I was extremely grateful as it played a part in helping me get ‘better’.

Following my return to work I found an outlet in a dramatic increase in my trade union involvement. This gave me fog lights and despite the cloud not being too far away, I was at that time comfortable in ignoring it.


Episode II – Attack of the Clones

And why wouldn’t I? I was always predisposed to being moody and relatively content at being alone even in a crowd. I was never really part of the ‘in-crowd’ anyway nor first on any team sheet.

This routine moodiness enabled me to hide my condition from myself. It was simply put down to my natural process of being up or down at any given time. I didn’t notice that the dips would get deeper and deeper; it was just another dip, a clone of the last one and of the next. In my denial they were isolated incidents unconnected to one other.


Episode III – Revenge of the Symptoms

Despite being busy and remaining mostly optimistic. I noticed after the event that I was more prone to making  decisions that were irrational. This might mean doing something that was in hindsight flippant, stupid or worse.

I was spending less time in school as my trade union duties increased. Or rather, I was spending more and more time focussing on big pictures and small policy details but at times failing to then follow this through into my practice in school.

I was more-frequently withdrawn and short-tempered, though conversely I could be more outwardly confident and cool. Things were looking up. I had a wonderful family and was elected as SSTA Vice-President and Fife District Secretary – Go me!


Episode IV – A New Hope

I have been blessed by the arrival in my life of two beautiful daughters. Although these small people meant more demands on time they brought many a burst of positivity.

Often in the past I have been at my most creative in the dead of night. Having a wee person or two to cuddle in or soothe, or simply to be awake whilst my wife did could mean that disparate ideas would gel or a corner could be turned. All too often again, these would be reserved for things outwith the day to day. Attending to the problems of others meant escaping from my own. Contribute to a group on the GTCS Standards? Sure thing! Aid the understanding of my colleagues of these standards? Let me get back to you.

I was living many lives depending on their function and with few instances of overlap. I was a jack of all trades and increasingly a master of none. All the while I was giving my attention to the things that interested me to the detriment of others. As a trade unionist my admin was flawless, as a teacher and person it was less so. The prism I was seeing things through now was the tasks associated with the children. These nappies are awful but the laughter and smiles are worth it. Little did I realise that the stench from my incomplete or ignored tasks was growing.


Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

I withdrew from real life into social media and the withdrew my attention into my own head. Far, far easier to tweet, post and like than engage in real life. I can switch off my notifications, dim my screen or close the MacBook lid. I cannot shut you up but I can avoid you by taking a different route or hiding away behind a closed door or on a wander through the corridors. Why deal with a boring admin task that is about accountability not education when you can be hands-on helping a colleague with an issue? Why off-load your own troubles when you spend time being the shoulder to cry on for others? Why deal with what’s in front of me when I have email to check?

What became easier over time was to cloak my hyper-criticism of myself by deflecting criticism onto others. How dare you criticise me for being the thing that you are to me! I have criticised others with sarcasm that would cut them into pieces – though not to their faces of course. Yet if you add up every snide thought, remark or gossip and multiply them – they would come nowhere near the self-criticism I gave myself. The grey fog on my horizon was in fact a black dog on my shoulder all along. Its bite made wounds that were far, far deeper and more harmful than my sarcasm could ever be.

A long-standing curse I have is being able to pigeon-hole emotions or simply fail to register an emotional response. Emotions would not float around my consciousness for long anyway. More often than I can remember on hearing news, or witnessing something my reaction was…nothing. Things that were once hilarious or alarming left me cold. This also had the effect on me of not being consciously ‘stressed’.

At times I had little consideration for my impact on others. Why would you even think about doing THAT? No idea.

To those people whom I hurt; to those that I criticised; to those at whom I radiated indifference or worse, I am genuinely and deeply sorry. Whilst off work I found a note made during my last absence. It described my then symptoms and stressors and fitted almost exactly what I would have written in 2016. If I had known or admitted in 2010 that it was depression and had I sought the help I now have, I may have been far, far less likely to abuse either your trust, respect, position or friendship.

As the autumn of last year wore on, things got worse. My most common state was apathy. I would consider all the things that I had to do, all the deadlines that I had to meet and would then, do nothing. I would think about the potential consequences of this – and still, do nothing. Deadlines came and went. Regrets came and stayed. I went from someone who under-promised and over-delivered to doing the exact opposite.

It got more and more difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Several alarms were set and one at a time were switched off. Delayed rising meant no breakfast. Panicked task completion at a break or a lunchtime meant little food during the day and the stress of this often meant little to eat at night  too. I made up for this with confectionary but my weight was falling as was my mood.

A now-flawed perfectionism enveloped me. Unless it was perfect it was not good enough to proceed. Many projects and ideas stayed on metaphorical shelves because to do X, required Y – but to do Y required Z and so on it would loop in my mind. Worse still, I could now see flaws in everything and anything. Each interaction, each comment, each task, each everything could (and should) have been done better. For this same reason I felt helpless to change. Such apathy would lead to powerful feelings of guilt but would only result in more inaction and so on…

More and more I escaped into social media and one tweet at a time managed on the whole to stay camouflaged as a normal person. It seemed to be a safe world for me.

I completed an online self-test in November for depression and obtained a score that suggested I go and see a GP. Of course, I did nothing other than capture a screenshot of the result.

Fast forward to February…More apathy but worse still, an increasing feeling that I was unable to trust anyone around me. This added to the challenge of not being able to offload meant more and more pressure. I lost 4 kg in 10 days. Another depression self-test and finally the penny dropped.

I went to see my GP, was medicated and signed off – but only after agonising for a weekend on wether or not I should. Once I had done so I was now determined that I would be frank and honest and admitted publicly and freely for the first time that I was suffering from depression.

One of the questions I have been asked concerns any potential for self-harm or suicide. My response was that my apathy and general state of ‘meh’ meant that if I was at risk, I was unlikely to do anything as I couldn’t be bothered.

In this I am fortunate. Many of the people whose story I am now familiar with have not been so lucky. The depth of their depression has either meant an addiction has blossomed or a harm has been induced.


Episode VI – Return of the Jedi 

“Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know.

Well, now they know.

Let it go.”

Queen Elsa, Frozen


Out in the open I have now accessed support. People have confided in me that they too suffered from depression or have done in the past. They gave advice and I was able to form a camaraderie of pain with them.

I opened up with ease to counsellors, friends and online connections. A bridge had been crossed into a different world in which I was able to be honest with myself.

For the first time in my life I am medicated.

Yet, there are still ups and downs. Progress is inconsistent. I have taken more time off of my work than I would have imagined would be the case. I am better and improving. I have specific goals to achieve and specific steps of support in taking them.

I have always been self-critical but am less inclined to punish myself for mistakes (having redrafted this blog to reflect it) and more inclined to credit myself for things that have gone well…maybe.

I can now acknowledge the roles that each of my stressors have played in my illness as well as the relative impact of them.

From my introspection, I sense that all I have achieved in the last decade and more I have done so without 100% attention or effort. I have lacked focus and commitment especially in looking after myself and those closest to me. I admit though that self-criticism can still stifle self-awareness.

Yet the support I have access to has been invaluable in making me whole again. This journey is still in its infancy and may never be finished yet I feel stronger.

It cannot be left unsaid that my greatest debt is owed to my wife and daughters. They have suffered from my depression as much as if not more than I have. But for them I would not be here to write these lines. Thanks to them, I am. However my greatest regret is that even when I have been with them, I may not have been really there.


Episode VII – The Force Awakens

“If you can remember why you started, then you will know why you must continue.”

Chris Burkmenn


Through my depression I even lost interest in the news – despite it being a huge part of me and a huge reason why I am a teacher.  Yet this has returned. I only wish it wasn’t prompted by the mess all around us.

The best of me is yet to come and what’s more, I get to make it. Quite how I will get there I don’t yet know but the tools are all in place. My need now is to see how they all fit together and then be in a position to achieve something approaching my potential.

Perhaps I can play a role in sorting out that mess, or rather in facilitating a new generation of young people to take the power that belongs to them to make their world a better place.

That’s why I tweet.

That’s why I blog.

That’s why I lead.

That’s why I manage.

That’s why I teach.



“I’ve got another confession my friend

I’m no fool

I’m getting tired of starting again

Somewhere new

Were you born to resist or be abused?

I swear I’ll never give in

I refuse

Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you?”

Foo Fighters – Best of You


If you need help, please seek it. Online information, support and advice can be found at:

If you are a young person and either you or a friend may be suffering from any mental health issue, go to:


I am no longer tired of myself tonight. I wouldn’t like to be anyone else. My desire for perfection will remain, my determination to achieve it will return. The innovation will be taking the steps to do so. What will guide me now is this:


“The only power worth snot is the power to get up after you fall down.”

Wolverine in Ms Marvel Vol 3 #7



Don’t Believe The Hype

This is the original copy I wrote for an article in Issue 11 of Liberation (ISSN 1353-372X) published in February 1996. The published version was cut for reasons of space rather than quality I’m told!

I have not changed anything, even any original typos. Nowadays, over 21 years later, I would obviously have changed some of the nomenclature but I still stand by the conclusions.

“Don’t Believe The Hype!”

At the turn of the year, and in a blaze of publicity, the Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth launched his ‘Scotland Against Drugs’ initiative words:

“The drugs epidemic is a scourge as terrible as any medieval plague. Let us, as a nation, make a New Year resolution that the year in which we will turn back the tide of drug abuse threatening our civilisation. Our aim is nothing less than to back Scotland from the drug culture and liberate a generation.” (Quoted in Scotland on Sunday: 07 January 1996)

This effort, which includes the leaders of all the main political parties, follows the recent publicity surrounding Operation Eagle in Strathclyde, and the massive publicity surrounding the death of Leah Betts. As lan Bell wrote in The Observer: “If publicity cured anything, there would be no drugs problem…” (04 June’ 1995).’The problem I see with such initiatives and publicity is that they show up what is wrong with the establishment view of drugs and drug problems – and will do nothing to ‘turn back the tide’.

The politicians, the police and the media are addicted, it seems, to a moral panic in relation to drugs, and it has been going on for a number of years. During this time the failure of establishment attempts at reducing  drug use has been clear enough for all to see, but yet, the flow of mis-conceived campaigns continues.

It is assumed that the problems with drug abuse begin with young people taking soft drugs such as cannabis, and leads to them becoming addicted to, and eventually being killed by harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Along the way these social misfits pay for their habits by resorting to criminal activity, and the only way to deal with the problem is custodial sentences and cold turkey treatment to get them over their problem. In this same vein comes the view of prevention: messages are to be stark and brutal – ‘take drugs and you will end up like this, or you will die, so Just Say No”.

The police have, it seems to be strict on all drug criminals because they are all the same, just at different stages on the slippery slope. It doesn’t matter if you get caught with an eighth of an ounce of hash or eighty kilos of heroin, it’s just one big drugs problem. The latest panic about ecstasy is to be handled in the same way.

Forsyth’s SAD campaign follows along these lines. A video has been produced entitled “Think Twice – Drugs Can KILL” and it features amongst others. Chart Bite’s Ewan Macleod who holds up a pill and says: “This is an ecstasy tablet, it’s hard to believe that something this small can actually kill you.” After this we see a flood of teeny pop idols explaining about being offered drugs and (funnily enough) just saying no.

This video and this campaign fail completely to address a wide number of issues in this area. I wish to bring some of these to your attention but space prevents great detail.


In terms of moral panic, ecstasy is the latest fix to be desired by the media, and anything bad that can be used for a headline will be quickly snapped-up.

Methyl-dioxy-methyl-amphetamine (or MDMA) the chemical name for ecstasy is a class A drug, it is illegal to posses, give away or sell, and is said to^ caused a number of deaths in recent years at raves and other events young people. The current scare is based upon the death at her 18th party “of Essex “school-girl, Leah Betts after she took an ecstasy tablet. Betts ended up in a coma and on the front pages before her death, her picture is now featured in billboard advertisements with the caption “Just one Ecstasy tablet took Leah Betts” part of an honest reaction from her parents to warn others of the possible dangers.

However, in actual fact, Leah Betts was killed, not by ecstasy, but by water intoxification. It seems as though she knew enough to know that if you take ecstasy you should take some water (about a pint an hour), but not enough to know that this advice is for those who take ecstasy at raves, when they lose lots of body water through sweating – as proved by the deaths at Hanger 13 in Ayr from dehydration, as the venue had 1300-1500 crammed into an area designed for 700, with no chill-out rooms, and the water cut-off.

As Sharkey has written, Betts’ parents have made a ‘World in Action’ programme in which they interview leading psychiatrist and neuro-pharmacologist, Dr Karl Jansen. He says that the apparent dangers of ecstasy have been exaggerated, and calculates that the risk of death from taking MDMA is one in 6.8 million. He draws attention to the death rate in the USA from taking asprin of 750 per year, and that ecstasy deaths are outnumbered greatly by deaths from speed or amphetamines taken in a similar rave context. Dr Jansen states that you are five times more likely to die on a skiing holiday in Switzerland than you are from taking ecstasy. He concludes that: “The scientific truth… is that the overwhelming majority of MDMA doses consumed is unlikely to have adverse, life-threatening effects”. (Guardian 26 January 1996)

In the same Guardian report, Sharkey points out another irony ecstasy tablets are consumed, they are containing less MIMA: that as more “When Ecstasy first started to be sold in raves, buyers were almost certain to get pure WMA…But…the chances of finding pure MDMA on sale in British clubs are now virtually nil” (ibid).

The survey which this story is based upon found that a number of tablets purchased at raves contained ketamine, -which is “a tranquilliser and anaesthetic which can produce horrific hallucinations, loss of” feeling and movement in the limbs, and even coma” (ibid). To me, this establishes a far greater concern than ecstasy per se, namely, that rather than buying MDMA, young people could be buying various tablets with different chemical compounds in them and their only common link being the price paid for them.

It was the concern of dangerous additives that prompted the Dutch authorities to set up special testing centres so that when you buy an ecstasy tablet you can have a detailed chemical analysis carried out on it to find out its ingredients. Alternatively, at raves, there are desks where a more simple check for MDMA can be made. The result has been a dramatic increase in the quality of ecstasy being bought. It is thus no wonder then that in the past eight years, the Netherlands has only seen three deaths from ecstasy related illness.

However, this causes a problem in this country as the source of most of the ecstasy here is the Netherlands, one has to ask, if the quality ecstasy is over there, what’s coming over here? If it is the cheaper chemical cousins that are being concocted, and it is non-MDMA substances that cause the damage, what will the future hold?

As the current attempts at reducing ecstasy use are failing, and the tabloid media continues to ignore the facts and tell their readers them, it is no wonder that some such as Sting, have called for ecstasy to be legalised, in order to control quality. Judging by the reaction to his call – this demand will fall on deaf ears.

Less radical solutions can be more effective, and more immediate – we only need to introduce the same testing techniques used by the Dutch – an imperative based upon the facts, but an impossibility based upon the attitudes of the establishment. The problem will likely only get worse.


Of all the recreational drugs, cannabis has been consistently the most widely used: “Cannabis, once the drug of the demi-monde, has penetrated every part of British life, reaching institutions as conservative as the Bar, the medical profession, the armed forces and the police. Cannabis use can now be depicted in popular culture almost without comment” (The Observer 30 April 1995).

As I’ve stated, the establishment views cannabis as the first step on the way towards hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin. As a result, it is justified for the police to pursue all drug criminals because if you can stop someone from smoking cannabis, then they won’t go onto harder drugs.

This view, however, is coming more and more into question, and many people wish to see changes in legislation, or at the very least, a sea-change in the attitudes of the establishment towards cannabis and its use.

In evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee investigation into drug abuse in Scotland, Professor Martin Plant argued against the slippery-slope notion, stating quite clearly that: “the overwhelming majority of people who use cannabis do not use other illicit drugs” (Minutes of Evidence p 138). He argued also that whilst “probably 99 per cent of [people with a heroin problem] at some earlier stage in their lives smoked cannabis [they also] used alcohol, used roast potatoes, used cornflakes, used gripe water, watched television and did a thousand other things” (ibid).

Labour MP Tony Banks has also ridiculed the idea of the slippery slope: “The argument that cannabis use automatically takes users on to harder drugs is as credible as the notion that a glass of sherry is an invitation to meths drinking” (paraphrased in The Herald: 17 January 1996).

Another line of argument concerns supply namely, if you want to get drugs, you have to step into the criminal world to get them. Ruthless dealers can then introduce naive youngsters to harder drugs and thus create a new generation of addicts. Some use this line of thought as an argument for legalising cannabis in order to break the soft/hard drug link, whilst others say that legalising will only lead to increased use of hard drugs.

One way of evaluating both claims is to look at the situation in the Netherlands where the authorities decided to tolerate the use of soft drugs in 1974. The police forces have found a benefit in the move of soft drug use from a criminal to a non-criminal environment, crucially: “during the past 15 years the number of people that occasionally use soft drugs has increased but, on the other hand, the number of hard-drug addicts has dropped. This is proof for me that the stepping-stone theory does not work in the Netherlands because we have tried to separate soft and hard drugs completely” (Inspector JJ Crynns who is responsible for policing Amsterdam’s red-light district, quoted in The Herald: 27 January 1994).

Academics in the Netherlands also follow this line: Maria Lap of the Dutch Institute on Alcohol and Drugs said in the same Herald article: “It’s nonsense to say that if you legalise drugs more people will use them. On the contrary you can limit things far better through regulation than you can through the ‘war on drugs’ which isn’t working.”

Similarly, in another part of his evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee, Professor Martin Plant said: “I think there is always a risk that a minority of people will get into drug problems. Even if cannabis vanished off the face of the planet today I think we would still get people getting into the same kind of problems with the other drugs. I think cannabis, to a large extent, is a red herring.” (op cit)

Some Hard-Drug Issues

Our tabloid media-shaped images of hard drugs usually involve addicts, beyond help, who fall victim to their habits and plunge into a downward spiral of crime, decay and death. Here again, our images clash with reality. A variety of international studies which includes research carried out in Scotland in to cocaine use, show that in actual fact: “A period of experimentation followed by reduced use, and in most cases cessation, is by far the most common pattern, followed closely by a ‘career’ of moderate but regular use with occasional binges. This pattern also tends towards reduced and abstinence while in an exceptional 2% of lifetime users the outcome is compulsive use with personal or social harm.” (Herald 13 October 1994).

This research, carried out in Scotland, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and the USA shows “unequivocally that controlled use of cocaine is the norm” was published in the journal ‘Addiction Research’ and it does much to portray virtually the opposite to average impressions of cocaine use, with its implications that: “Compulsive, destructive use is rare; Escalation is only one pattern and often the reverse occurs; Moderate use without harmful effects is possible; controlled use is the norm; Little or no ham results to most users; Most users are not different from non-users; Most users are law-abiding apart from their drug related behaviour; and. There are public-health based alternatives to abstinence and repression” (Herald 13 October 1994).

The surveys were carried out amongst real people in real communities as opposed to dealing merely with prisoners and addicts in treatment. The findings were so alien to conventional myth that attempts were made to suppress the findings – another part in the world-wide overreaction to cocaine.

In Scotland, the hard drug debate surrounds heroin and the treatment of former addicts as some favour the prescribing of methadone as an alternative to heroin and part of a harm-reducing programme, whilst others believe that the only way to beat drugs is to go for complete abstinence (the cold turkey treatment).

The critics include Maxie Richards from Glasgow who has taken addicts into her house to get them off drugs. She states that we need a completely drug-free society, as harm-reduction only leads to methadone escaping into the black market where it can be abused by other people. (It is reported that some methadone users consume their prescriptions at source before throwing-up and selling their vomit to other addicts, before getting another supply of heroin).

People such as Richards see the way forward as being the channelling of resources a-way from harm-reduction into a drug-free approach. She wrote in Scotland on Sunday: “First, we need education centres all over Scotland to explain what drugs can do to your body. Then we need a network of detoxification and rehabilitation centres across the country…a good model is the privately-run Castle Craig…a therapeutic community, which helps people get off drugs for good. We need about 50 more like it.” (Scotland on Sunday: 07 January 1996)

In contrast to this. Professor John Davies (who co-edits Addiction Research) told the Scottish Affairs Committee: “We did a follow-up study on heroin users over the course of a year and we found that averaged over the year heavy chronic methadone users use on something like 230 days of the year, two out of three compared with your average smoker who smokes every day. To some extent the habit becomes self-limiting and every three months you reach a level of intake at which point you get very bad value for money and some users will voluntarily stop at that point…”  (Minutes of Evidence p l43, my emphasis)

In Glasgow, Dr Laurence Gruer, the Health Board’s HIV and Addictions co-ordinator favours the use of methadone and points to the reduction of injectors in Glasgow as a result of the city’s efforts. He also points to the fact that the actual numbers of regular hard-drug users is nowhere near as big as many think: “There aren’t that many people who are dependent on drugs” (SoS: op cit).

Gruer sees the way ahead as involving a radical rethink of how the law treats drug-users, favouring an approach within the present powers of the courts of treatment being a mandatory part of any custodial sentence, as well as having community service orders which require users to get treatment in order to stay out of jail.

Throughout this article the nature and role of drugs education and enforcement strategies has been implicit, below, I consider them more explicitly.

Education and Enforcement – Misinformation and Hypocrisy

In the middle of 1995, Strathclyde Police launched Operation Eagle, a two stage attack on drugs, which would see Chief Constable Leslie Sharp retire in a blaze of publicity and no doubt, media kudos upon its conclusion at the end of the year.

The first component involved ‘education’ and other initiatives aimed at getting young people on a different route and one which did not involve drugs. These initiatives saw the provision of drug awareness schemes and sports and leisure activities. During this time, information was gathered for the second stage of the operation, which saw a 90 day crackdown on anyone involved in or suspected of being involved in drug dealing.

At the time, Sharp was quoted as saying: “Somehow the young people’s casual attitude towards the use of a range of controlled drugs must be diverted and that will require a culture change for many of our young people…I believe we should stop dithering and agonising over the question of legalising, decriminalising or relaxing anti-drugs controls and get on with doing the job of doing something positive about the drugs’ problems.”

These were fighting words and it is perhaps still too early to make a definitive judgement on the effects on Operation Eagle, however, when the final report was made on the 8th of December last year, the clampdown had resulted in the arrest of 6,000 users and dealers, and the seizure of £6m worth of drugs. Despite this, the same month saw a record number of drugs deaths in Strathclyde – 102.

Many people doubt that Operation Eagle will lead to any great change. At the outset of the initiative, lan Bell wrote in The Observer that it demonstrated the possibility that the drugs problem had got out of control in some areas, and also that, with the deaths in mind: “The temptation to act, even if you have no answer, is irresistible when so many are dying.” (04 June 1995)

Bell was also not impressed at the sporting etc events staged as an alternative to smack. The whole targeting strategy of Operation Eagle is also questioned by him: “…this is a policeman determined to be seen as tough on drugs all drugs. Though his resources are limited, he proposes to ‘target’ even cannabis, partly because of the persistent police belief that hash leads to heroin…The reasoning here is far from clear. Cannabis dealers and heroin dealers are, in the main, distinct species. Waste time and resources in catching one and you risk the other’s escape.” (ibid)

Operation Eagle seems to be yet another moral panic-driven attempt at getting headlines, and is symptomatic of the establishment view on drugs. It is very difficult to disagree with Bell when he states: “…it is the nature of the existing legislation that makes Operation Eagle desperately mis-conceived. With drugs, it is the law that has created the crime wave. Desirable substances are rendered illegal, therefore scarce, therefore expensive. Yet lucrative illegality is just another way of describing organised crime.” (ibid)

Operation Eagle may indeed get a few of the minnows in the drugs game, but it will not get rid of the problem, the legal approach we have seen has failed to work, and never can work, especially when the drugs that are the biggest killers – alcohol and tobacco – are legal.

Last year in Strathclyde 102 people died from the misuse of illegal drugs, but the figure ignores the thousands who died as a result of consuming legal drugs. Why is the common term ‘drugs’ one which ignores tobacco and alcohol? An example came very recently during a special drugs feature on ‘Reporting Scotland’ shown on 06 February 1996. A former drug addict named George was described as being “drug-free” yet he was smoking a”cigarette! How can it be the case that alcohol and nicotine (pound for pound the most substance known to mankind) are legal when they kill thousands yearly, but yet soft drugs which kill no-one and even hard drugs which kill relatively few in comparison to the big two, are illegal? Is it “something to do with taxation?

The Scottish Affairs Committee found that around 85 per cent of police time involving drugs offences was taken up by cannabis offences and this is deemed necessary by some, yet we tolerate tobacco which kills more people than all other drugs put together and multiplied by ten! In giving evidence to the Committee, Professor Martin Plant explained this situation: “…if a space traveller was to arrive in our midst at the moment I think that person or being would probably be perplexed by the fact that alcohol and tobacco are legal and socially condoned and esteemed and on the other hand some illicit drugs are treated in quite a different way. I do not think any illicit drug could possibly be as dangerous, for example, as tobacco is…” (Minutes of Evidence p 131)

The view that society takes of alcohol and tobacco is precisely the view that many young people take about cannabis and ecstasy. The credibility of the criminal justice and educational messages about drugs is surely low for young people when they see alcohol and tobacco causing a great deal more harm than cannabis and ecstasy, with the former legal, and the latter illegal.

The educational message is blunted further by its distance from the experience of young people in their daily lives – an experience of safe and controlled drug use. The sad thing about SAD is that it is yet again, a bunch of grey suits and snappy soundbites saying, “Just Say No!” the problem is that many young people are saying yes!

The trend of experimentation of drugs amongst the young is that it is on the increase, as research into drug use amongst school pupils in north-west England has shown: “More than half (51 per cent) of more than 700 young people in north-west England, questioned over three years between the ages of 14 and 16 had tried drugs. Many more, 76 per cent, had been offered drugs…half of those, now aged 17, who had not tried drugs expected to do so within the next year.” (Guardian: 25 July 1995)

Professor Howard Parker of Manchester University, who headed the project which carried out the research for the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence said: “Over the next few years, and certainly in urban areas, non drug-trying adolescents will be a minority group. In one sense they will be the deviants.” (ibid)

The report of the findings compared young people’s experience of drugs as like a form of consumption, and called for a radical rethink of policing and educational attitudes; as the en masse criminalising of otherwise law abiding people would do little for a legal system already held in low regard by the young. It seems however, that with initiatives such as SAD, it will simply be a case of business as usual.

The tabloid media’s desire for a constant feeding of the drugs moral panic together with the government’s attitude will do nothing, especially as it is just a rehash of Just Say No, I repeat, young people are saying yes.

Nowadays, the exact words “Just Say No” do not see the billboards, but their spirit hangs around like a bad smell. I have a number of memories of the 80s campaigns of ‘Just Say No’, “Heroin Screws You Up’, along with ‘Drugs are for Mugs’ which was plastered all over a bus. Two characters stand out in all of this: Nancy Reagan and Zammo from Grange Hill.

Nancy I recall, addressing thousands of America’s youth with the “Just Say No” bandwagon in full swing. Just Say No was also the title of a song recorded by the cast of Grange Hill to coincide with a storyline which saw Zammo get in with the wrong” sort of boys who just happened to be working class, and soon enough he was a junkie, as demonstrated when the police come to get him. The hapless Zammo is reduced to lapping up some spilled white powder from the floor, like a dog grabbing at scraps on the floor. It was a time also of “Choose Life – Not Drugs” it was a time exactly like now, as young people are choosing life with drugs and saying no to the establishment campaigns.

Professor John Davies sums up the inadequacy of this whole approach from the authorities: “I do not think the drug problem is going to go away. I do not think the Esther Rantzen style thing ‘Just Say No to Drugs’ is going to work. I think that it is a funny message. One of the things I am crazy about is model aeroplanes. If somebody comes up to me and says, “Just Say No to model aeroplanes” I am going to say, “What on earth are you talking about?” If instead of that I am very keen on drugs and drugs are my hobby and somebody comes along and says, “Just Say No” it is like somebody saying, “Just Say No to holidays in Majorca.” It does not actually mean anything. I do not think a war on drugs is going to be won. I do not think you can win a war on drugs.” (Minutes of Evidence p 144)

A Real Tragedy

Much of what is wrong about the current approach can be seen in the case of Leah Betts. More and better education on drugs may have stopped her from gulping down gallons of water as an antidote to ecstasy. if the media had ran headlines with the real story about ecstasy in a youth/user friendly manner, then we would perhaps not have seen Helen Cousins falling into a coma having drunk seven litres of water after she took ecstasy two months following Betts’ death.

Natasha Walter points to the showing of pictures of Betts in a coma on the front pages and on billboards as yet another use of women to show vulnerability (usually of other women, but in this case, of the young). She asks if the same coverage would have been given to Leah Betts had she not died, but rather, wished to tell young people about drugs? Whilst Sharkey notes that: “Nobody asked whether the death [of Betts] would have received such widespread attention had it not involved a pretty, white teenage girl. By contrast, the death of 18-year-old Andreas Bouzis…at-a rave in south London went almost unnoticed.” (Guardian 26 January 1996)

The media seems only to be playing a game and is awaiting its next sacrificial lamb so that the bandwagon can go on. All the time more headlines reflect more drug use by more people. Greater numbers of younger people are controlled drug use as a norm, and certainly do not see themselves as addicts with any problem. It seems a bit strange calling it a war against when it seems like a poorly funded war against youth culture. Perhaps the government is not really too bothered about our already disenfranchised youth getting out of their faces. It simply means that those without a voice be too drugged up to notice the hell that late 20th century capitalism is, and as a result the revolution is put back another few years and the establishment is secure in their position for a while longer.

What We Really Need

Our intention and guiding principle must be one of youth empowerment, and to enable young people to make well informed choices about their lifestyle, and drug use is no exception. Instead of wasting time chasing the thousands with a wee deal of cannabis in their possession, the police should be out targeting the hard-drug pushers. We should not be putting lives at risk by failing to ensure adequate quality control in drugs such as ecstasy, at the very least we should see testing bays at raves, and rid ourselves of the low quality imports that threaten young lives.

Resources must be used, not in futile campaigns like ‘Just Say No’, instead they should go into projects like Edinburgh’s Crew 2000, designed specifically to ensure the city’s youth can make informed decisions about drugs. Education must be impartial and give information on both the highs and lows of drug taking, an activity carried out because it is enjoyed. The media has a crucial role in maturing the debate and taking it out of the gutter. The facts about drugs must be reported, rather than simplistic headlines.

Drug taking amongst young people is here and here to stay, we cannot simply •wish it away. We must ensure that if and when people decide to consume recreational drugs, they can do so safely. At the very least this means the decriminalising of cannabis, and a tolerance of ecstasy for personal consumption. As in the Netherlands we must make a distinction between hard and soft drugs, it is in my opinion a price worth paying of increasing soft drug use, in order to get hard-drug use down. The longer we wait to introduce such measures, the longer will resources be wasted and lives wrecked or lost. Resources must also be channelled into drug research, so that all who consume drugs can have information on what the consequences of drug taking really are, as well information on the best forms of treatment for addiction.

However, we must not blindly jump ahead with the legalisation of drugs at least in the short and medium tern, there is no framework in place to handle such a major change, we must take things a step at a time, ensuring that education and empowerment is underway before legalisation can be considered.

Let us show young people that society gives a damn for them, and that it can actually do’ something for them rather than alienating them and their culture. Let us make drug experimentation safe instead of criminal and dangerous. If drugs are only a form of escapism, them only radical social and economic and political change will be of any tangible benefit. In any case we must empower our youth, and trust them with their own lives.

The drugs moral panic is a scourge as terrible as any medieval plague.Let us, as a nation, make a New Year resolution that 1996 is the year in which TO will turn back the tide of stupidity and liberate our young people from the criminalising of their culture and future.


Robert Macmillan 11 February 1996

Friday Link Pack 3

The Scottish College for Educational Leadership have produced a framework that is

“…intended to support improvements in Scottish education by developing high performing leaders equipped to tackle the significant task of leading and managing in challenging and changing time”

Blog with ideas on improving the differentiation in your lessons and comment on related issues of pupil needs written by a teacher currently work as an ASD inclusion teacher in a mainstream secondary school.

‘What motivates learning?’ is a question that has as many answers as there are people and situations. The aim of this resource is to support such self reflection with a series of tools which you can access [on the site].

Run by @redgierob:

The Literacy Shed is home to a wealth of visual resources that we have collected over 10 years to provide high quality resources that can be used in stand alone literacy lessons, can form the basis for a whole Literacy unit or can support literacy units that you already have in place.

Improving Schools Through Design Thinking

Blog post introducing key ideas within design thinking. It is part of the mammoth edutopia site that itself has many resources for teachers

Gert Biesta: Good Education in an Age of Measurement. Video of a talk given in 2013.

The Learning Styles myth debunked on the back of an envelope

The Learning Spy puts Learning Styles to the sword.


The Science of Learning – Radio Interview

What does research say about how students learn best? Deans for Impact, a group of deans from schools of education around the country, has united to make sure future teachers are armed with information about what works in the classroom as they begin their careers. Last fall Deans for Impact released a document called The Science of Learning. It’s a guidebook for teachers, meant to provoke discussion of the following six questions:
* How do students understand new ideas?
* How do students learn and retain new information?
* How do students solve problems?
* How does learning transfer to new situations in or outside of the classroom?
* What motivates children to learn?
* What are common misconceptions about how students think and learn?

This week on the podcast, ARW senior correspondent Emily Hanford speaks with Benjamin Riley, founder and executive director of Deans for Impact.

The Deans for Impact report itself can be found here.

It is essential reading for teachers.

Visible Learning Resources

“Visible Learningplus is a professional development program for teachers that explores how evidence can be used to create innovation in the learning environment. Our work is focused on John Hattie’s research and the principles of Visible Learning and visible teaching.”


CPD and InSet Doesn’t Need to Be Boring

“The UK training industry is big business. The private market is worth around £3 billion and there’s 12,300 providers. But how much of it does any good?”

Work/Life Balance

Hints from a headteacher on how to ensure work doesn’t take over your life!


Class Teaching Blog

Some hints and tips on effective questioning.


“PT Social Studies in a High School in Fife. Tweets about Education, IT/Tech, Politics and Football. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

I’m not and never have been unidimensional.

Just like you I have a wide variety of interests, likes and dislikes and these are reflected in my tweets though not yet in my blog.

It seems strange that so many Twitter accounts are relatively restricted to one main topic of conversation. Stranger still that many assume that others too will be likewise.

The division is perhaps between those who separate their ‘personal’ from their ‘work’ accounts and those of us who have only one account. I have seen advice to teachers relating to Twitter use that suggests to do the former. I disagree.

An account for an institution will necessarily have a stricter focus, but do others have to be similarly bound?

To me it adds colour and personality to an account I follow when a tweet is posted that relates to art or football or something else. In this way we see another side to those we follow and they too become multidimensional.

The continuing #teacher5aday tweets are showing many educators in a new light. They are sharing the ways in which they are gaining a work-life balance, to encourage others to do so.

Far from being in an echo chamber I’ve broadened my outlook on so many things because I follow folks from well-outside my direct interests.

I’ve now been on Twitter for 7 years and I’ve changed in that time. I’m more tolerant though still at times impatient. I see a bigger picture but often view it through a small screen.

Whilst originally I’d be quite happy to toast a Barça victory by insulting Madridistas, I am now quite likely to retweet attempts by Madridistas to set up a supporters’ club.

Happy as I am as the Klopp era continues, this is probably the best goal scored in Merseyside in some time.

Same goes with political connections. I follow leaders as well as ‘ordinary’ members of a variety of parties and groups. Regardless of my own affiliation I recognise that our politics would be better and our society stronger if our parliament featured a more diverse membership.

So, providing it’s not something that could see you in hot water at work or with a regulatory body, isn’t it time to gain another dimension?

Maybe time to amend that bio or, just use one of the following:

“Tweets in a personal capacity.”
“Tweets are my own views and not of my employers.”

Friday Link Pack

(Based upon the link packs posted by Swiss Miss)

This is the first in what I hope is a series of informative and helpful sets of links relating to education, learning and teaching. Some are links to sets of further resources or information, whilst others are links to blogposts/articles that may be of interest.

MyGTCS – Research

By simply logging into your MyGTCS account you have access to hundreds of education books, research and journals on a wide variety of topics including assessment, leadership, and Learning, Teaching and Pedagogy for free.

Huntington School Learning Hub

“The following resources are a collection of both original teaching and learning resources, made by the brilliant teaching staff from Huntington School, alongside some interesting and useful articles and resources for teachers, written by well respected educationalists.”

Incidentally, Huntington’s headteacher John Tomsett has an excellent blog at:


How Measurement Fails Doctors and Teachers:

Robert M. Wachter is a professor and the interim chairman of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and the author of “The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age.” 

“TWO of our most vital industries, health care and education, have become increasingly subjected to metrics and measurements. Of course, we need to hold professionals accountable. But the focus on numbers has gone too far. We’re hitting the targets, but missing the point.”


Dylan Wiliam on assessment (from @vanweringh)

Notes and comments from a talk given last year by Dylan Wiliam. Contains pictures of slides.

Dylan’s own website has all of his talks/presentations too.

John Hattie and the magical power of prediction

The ‘Learning Spy’ takes aim at John Hattie’s ‘effect size’ for pupils’ self-reporting grades. Also links to a deeper dig at Hattie’s use of ‘effect size’ more generally.


Leadership development resources for headteachers, senior and middle leaders (National College of Teaching and Leadership)

On this page you will find a variety of collections and resources to help headteachers, senior leaders and middle leaders develop their leadership skills further. These resources have been collected from the National College of Teaching and Leadership’s archive.

These learning materials were designed for use in schools and early years settings. They have been gathered into topic based collections for easy use and contain enough content to make them very useful for in-school CPD or self –directed learning.


No more highlighting – Improving learning with effective techniques.

Jamie Davies reflects on research from Dunlovsky et al, on what actually constitutes effective learning/revision by pupils. Exemplifies the concept of ‘Spaced Learning’.

Teacher Wellbeing

I must say at the outset that the #teacher5adaySlowChat idea is a great one. I am honoured to have been asked to chip in with some thoughts on teacher wellbeing.

In this post I hope to spell out concerns I have before suggesting some things that we can do about them, and the challenges that we face in doing so. In this I hope I will find and indeed build common cause with teachers everywhere.

I write this and, no doubt you read this:

not as a journalist nor as a politician

not as a councillor nor as a governor

not as a pundit nor as a consultant

not as an economist nor as a government minister

I speak in the role that we do have – the role that matters most in education and in society…a teacher.

Before there was any such thing as a journalist or a politician…there were teachers.

Before there was any such thing as a councillor or a governor…there were teachers.

Before there was any such thing as a pundit or a consultant…there were teachers.

Before there was any such thing as an economist or a government minister…there were teachers.

And after all those who pontificate have passed from the education scene…there will still be teachers.

“There is no higher calling. Without teachers society would slide back into primitive squalor.” So said the late Ted Wragg.

But how are we teachers, so central to society’s success regarded? How are we treated? How are we supported?

If you are naive enough to believe the pundits and the politicians, then we’re treated quite well. Indeed, the ‘Get Into Teaching’ website preaches that as a “valued professional” you can look forward to:

Job satisfaction, “competitive salary, generous pension”.

It goes on to tell about long holidays in which you can: “pursue your interests, travel and spend time with family and friends.”

Not for them the lower life expectancy that has seen several of my former colleagues die just after retirement.

Not for them the tension and stress brought on by the challenge of behaviour management, increasing workload and poor relationships.

Not for them the conclusion of Mike Finlayson the then Head of Teacher Support Scotland nearly a decade ago that: “The [teaching] profession is approaching a collective nervous breakdown.”

A collective nervous breakdown.

Is that the reward?

The recognition?

For us valued professionals?

Research into teachers’ health and well being shows that the problems of stress-related illness are not recognised, far less looked for and even less still, adequately dealt with.

The now defunct Teacher Support Scotland reported half of teachers finding their jobs very or extremely stressful; nine out of ten believing that the situation had got worse.

More than three quarters of teachers believed that the psychological stress at work had had a knock on effect on their physical well-being. With cases of mental health problems and depression especially bad in male teachers – and higher than amongst health workers.

They also pointed to the link between teacher length of service and burn out, and that with an ageing profession it could only get worse.

In short, we are not just a caring profession. We are a profession in need of care.

But what of the support for teachers given by those who have a duty of care? Employers think that levels of support are adequate yet in reality they are not. Few teachers are aware of employer support mechanisms, indeed they are only used by less than two percent.

Teachers are more likely to suffer from occupational health problems than health workers yet have less occupational health support.

There is a gap between the rhetoric of the pundits and reality of the professionals. It is a gap that leaves teachers stressed not supported with employers who have a duty of care taking a license to ignore. We run the danger of seeing not a profession at ease with itself but a profession on its knees.

My starting point is: ‘teacher working conditions are pupil learning conditions’. How staff in schools are treated impacts upon the pupils in their care. This is not as simple as paying teachers more to ensure improved attainment or achievement. It is about the specific cultures that exist within a school and the prevailing culture within society as to how the teaching profession is valued.

It is my contention that schools as institutions are simply rubbish at looking after the wellbeing of staff. In fact, if we failed our pupils in the same way in which we so badly fail those who work on their behalf, there would be a national scandal.

It is my further contention that schools rely on the fact that they are so bad at staff wellbeing and that consequently, any real attempt to solve the problem may be doomed to fail.

In Radio Scotland’s 1980s ‘Only An Excuse’ mockumentary, they parodied the late James Sanderson. (He was a Saturday night radio phone-in pundit who would ask callers: ‘were you at the game?). They had him criticise a fan who couldn’t get to the game (because it was his wife’s funeral) by asking ‘how long can that take, surely you could have made it along for the second half?’

What was the stuff of 80s satire is now the reality of 21st century attendance management policies. These target maximum staff attendance at work through little other than bullying them into turning up to work regardless of the state of their health.

In schools there is much more we are doing but still need to do to support those pupils who have carer responsibilities at home. We massage deadlines for them, provide additional help or resources to prevent gaps in their learning from developing into chasms.

Yet, when was the last time in your school, a teacher was permitted to complete a bureaucratic task after the imposed deadline due to family commitments or a sick child say? Does our desire to help carers in school stop when they are the teachers? All-too-often it seems to.

Even the normal running of a school is based upon a whole series of lies.

In Scotland, a full-time teacher has a contract that states that they are employed for 35 hours per week. For this work they are paid the appropriate salary for their post. Strangely, the only part of the bargain that is kept is the salary paid. Indeed from both parties, employee and employer there seems little expectation that the other part will be kept.

Each local authority-run Scottish school annually creates a ‘Working Time Agreement’ that pools together all of the available time for all of the work to be done. All of it. Every. Single. Second. Yet, again, nobody sticks to it.

In both the basic contractual relationship and the WTA people are often heard to say things like: ‘Oh, I could never do all of my work in a 35 hours week.”

Worse still, there are some who expect that people will simply ignore any working time commitments. These folk are the workaholic types who can be found bragging about how late they were up working or how many hours they spent doing something.

To them I say this: Good for you! If you choose to give free overtime to your employer, I am sure they are happy. However, don’t expect this of anyone else. Further do not even dare try to brow beat others into giving similar donations.

Such folks are the ones who label others as clock watchers, yet without a trace of irony also talk about having to balance budgets? Labour is a factor of production. A price is paid for it on the basis of an exchange. Both the time given and the price paid for it are fixed. Which part of this needs to be explained further?

Oh, I forgot: the morality of the work of teachers as providers of a service. This makes acquiescence all the easier.

It is all of these pressures that serve too often as barriers to teachers taking ownership over their own well-being.

Yet there is hope. Some local authorities are paying attention to the problems of teacher stress. They see that teacher well-being is fundamental to excellence in education.

There are numerous examples of work based schemes that have the support of teachers because they give support to teachers. More work is being done to speak to teachers about stressors and in making commitments to tackling them.

But more has to change than simply rediscovering the problem or providing a helpline. And it must be done by all who have a duty of care for teachers – working together with teachers.

The culture in our schools must change. Support must be available, reliable and confidential. School managers must be equipped with the skills to create that culture and respond to individual need.

Stress affects us all in our job at different times and in different ways. More must be done to create and then individualise appropriate mechanisms that offer teachers support and coping strategies.

Best practice must be identified and shared.

Fundamentally, the main causes of stress: behaviour management, too much admin and poor relationships must be minimised if not eradicated.

We cannot solve the problem of teacher stress by giving teachers coping strategies and doing nothing about its causes.

Teachers are already doing an excellent job – but even more could be achieved if teachers were given the support to do so.

If we wish to have the best possible learning experience for pupils then we must have the best working conditions for teachers. Central to that is the well-being of teachers.

However, at a time of cuts and with more cuts to come, how much hope is there that things will get better?

The communities which we serve are seeing the closure of the very facilities that help them to be sustainable.

All-too-often it is teachers who step in to fill the void when other services cannot.

But, who will step in to help us?

We may have to count on each other even more than before.

Ted Wragg was right, there is no higher calling than teaching.

We achieve so much and can achieve so much more.

The challenge to our employers, to our colleagues and to ourselves is to work to create the conditions to do so.

This challenge is growing but it is one that we have to meet.

For the sake of our pupils – and ourselves.

A Tale of Two Weeks

Part 1: An Inspector Calls – or rather just texts.

Our school was inspected in the week beginning 28 September. We expected it and it had been preceded by a whole range of activities designed to tighten up our processes and practices, as well as the decor.

It struck me though; just how much of what we do is re-engineered to fit in with the apparent desires of the Inspectors? What happened to making things fit local needs and resources?

I wonder about the improvements that we made in the lead up to the inspection. Did they not serve to say to the pupils that they mattered less than our visitors?

I accept that the prospect of an inspection gets those things done that you had been planning but had not quite gotten around to doing. I wonder if it highlights that there are too many demands upon teachers and schools to get things done that are not directly beneficial to what we do?

My own experience of the inspection was minimal. I enjoyed only a brief conversation in the corridor with the team leader.  I had an observation of an S1 class and was in a focus group on our school’s excellent work on Employability and, that was it.

This was a huge contrast with the last inspection. Indeed, maybe it was my experience of the previous inspection that protected me from excessive advanced fear of this one…

It felt less an inspection and more a fleeting visit. The previous inspection seemed like an operation without anaesthetic and this was a visit to the GP. I respect fully of course that the exercise was significantly different for those in our senior management team!

I was due to take part in a further focus group of Principal Teachers but I had to pull out as we had gotten word that my wife’s maternal grandfather was gravely ill.

Part 2: Death and Life, Failure and Hope

The final week of term was a mix of great highs and great lows.

On the Thursday there was the Dearest Scotland book launch. I had submitted my letter and backed the Kickstarter and this was when all the efforts put in by so many people came to fruition. It also meant that like a TeachMeet I got to meet some folks from my Twitter feed!

Despite being on or in a variety of media, there seems something very special about having your words appear in a book.

I wrote my letter on a Mac. I then emailed it before it was placed on the website  and on my blog. At no point was it anything other than a set of 1s and 0s. But to hold a book and be able to point to a couple of pages that were written by me seemed to have a huge resonance.

Maybe this is why for years countless folks rushed out to get a copy of the local paper when their wee niece or grandson appeared in it. Is it better to have a clipping than to point at a webpage?

Who knows, maybe it is down to the possibility, decades from now of undertaking a re-run of the JR Hartley Yellow Pages ad?

The bounce I gained from that evening was huge but my fun was cut short just before 11 o’clock by a tweet from Frances Coppola:

“So sad. Greek mother and son find dead baby washed up on beach, say they will bury him as if he was a member of their own family.”

My Dearest Scotland letter focussed on meeting the needs of children today and future generations.

Yet, as I write the children of others are being washed up on shores within my continent.  Their parents are demonised for wanting to escape from war or poverty.

What is it that allows us to put up with this continuing tragedy, or permits our leaders to pander to headlines rather than humanity?

It’s us. We allow it. It’s our failure.

It’s the same failure that meant that not long after that tweet and the sadness it brought I was back up to normal.

Or, maybe it’s just me.

I suffer from moodiness that can mean moving all-too-quickly from peaks to troughs and back again.

Indeed the regained positivity itself was cut short on the last morning of term by the sound of the phone ringing.

The news was that after being at death’s door the week before, and despite a recovery, a great man was now gone. This gave rise to many emotions: sadness that a life was at an end but gladness that his suffering and pain were now over.

The self-centred part of me also wondered just how to explain death to a 3-year-old. How to explain no more Great Granda cuddles and laughs. Maybe in this regard those that have faith have it a bit easier; death is not death, it’s not an end, it is simply a step to another and eternal life.

Even that pondering was forgotten with the ‘distraction’ of the working day. It was also helped by a man from Germany turning up to work at Anfield.

Like most Liverpool fans I have been swept up by the positivity, the hope generated by the appointment of Jürgen Klopp as manager. Time will tell if this turns out to be what is hoped – the start of something big, or if it is just a false dawn after so many others.

In this regard, football is like life. We celebrate the wins, despair at the losses and somehow manage to move on to the next game. Every season we start with renewed hope.

In school, it’s no different. Regardless of the exam results we start off with classes with hope. We hope we’ll do better, that pupils will learn more and enjoy greater success. Yet, there are set backs on the way. The class or student that doesn’t quite gel with you, the deadlines you can’t meet through workload and *horror* family ‘getting in the way’ or the myriad incidents, lessons or whatever that make up life as a teacher. We try to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and try again the next lesson.

We face the challenges of our own personal and our working lives. In doing so, we experience and are part of the lives of so many others: the pupil who has suffered bereavement in the same class as the pupil who has a new baby sister; the colleague under pressure and the one who has at long last got that promotion.

What is it that allows us to work through these things? One thing for sure is that it is getting harder for many teachers to do so.

I wonder, are we serious about teacher agency and autonomy? Will it be the reflection that teachers themselves undertake as well as those with colleagues and pupils that determine next steps?  Or will we be continuing to wait for an external agency to come and visit? Worse still, will the government press ahead with the utter stupidity of a new form of standardised testing?

What is it that allows us to put up with these things, or permits our leaders to pander to headlines rather than pedagogy?

Will it be us? Will we allow it? If so, will it will be our failure, when we face so many challenges just to get by?

Maybe if the work of inspectors was re-engineered to fit the desires of schools and teachers and the pupils they served.

Maybe if workload and our contr(actual) obligations matched what we were paid to do.

Maybe if the focus was on meeting the needs of pupils rather than them or us jumping through hoops or ticking boxes our schools would be places where hope blossomed.

Ending at the Beginning.

In what will probably be the final [directly] SSTA-related speech/blog post, I’m ending with the first speech I made at an SSTA Congress. It was the last motion discussed in 2002 and I had the graveyard slot at the end of the day when everyone was wanting away and home.

My motion called for the ending of PFI, and here is as close to the text of my remarks as I can provide. As the Conservative government sells off more of the state’s assets and continues with austerity, it seems timely to recall it.

Congress, the case against PFI rests upon three simple grounds:

First, it was corrupt in its inception, second, it is uneconomic in its operation, and third it is damaging in its effects on our public services.

Put simply, It means jobs for the boys, profits for the city and privatisation for our schools – and all at the expense of our pupils.

The Private Finance Initiative is one of a whole host of schemes which under the guise of benefiting the public sector plunder it.

As reported by Paul Foot on channel 4:

PFI in the UK was the brainchild of a committee set up under the Tories in the early 1990s. A key member of which was the deputy managing director of General Electric – a man called Malcolm Bates.

Despite being vehemently against PFI before the 1997 election, after it Labour brought in a top businessman to advise them on PFI and came ‘round to his views, he was …Malcolm Bates.

A whole series of further PFI schemes were launched one of the largest of which was the Edinburgh Royal infirmary. It was built by a consortium including BICC, who’s Board was joined by… Malcolm Bates. Indeed, so happy with him were the government, that Malcolm soon became Sir Malcolm.

It’s just one example amongst many of people advising or promoting PFI to the government who after the deal’s been done, end up working for the beneficiaries.

PFI allows the few to get their snouts in the trough – it’s only the start of the scandalous waste of public money that is the Private Finance Initiative.

Even though the projects involving schools are relatively new on the scene, the lessons from these and from other parts of the public sector are clear for all to see.

The first waste of money is the fact that for a private consortium to borrow money it costs more than it would for the government to do so. Then come the set-up costs for the private sector including millions being spent on financial and legal advisors; prominent amongst which are our job-sizing friends at PriceWaterhouse Coopers.

PFI supporters insist that it presents a cheaper alternative to the public sector due to the risks involved in building and running facilities being transferred to the private sector.

However, the reality is of the manipulation of comparisons between public and private in order to create a false impression of value for money. In the case of the Glasgow schools contract, Unison has pointed out that the risk factor of building by the public sector was calculated at £70 million to cover up the fact that the council would be paying nearly £35 million more by going down the PFI route.

In the case of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary – the full business case presented by the NHS trust did not even bother to compare project costs on a like for like basis. The effect of this according to independent analysts will see the project costing an extra £6 million per year over the next 15 years.

The recent controversy involving the PPP scheme to privately build and operate 3 prisons in Scotland show clearly the attempts of the Executive to pretend that there are substantial savings to be made in pressing ahead with PPP.

The clams of a £700m gap between public and private provision were rubished by independent analysts who cut through the biased assumptions of the PPP scheme.

In any case, the estimated private costs soon change after the deals have been done. In the Glasgow schools project the year one accommodation costs grew from an initial estimate of £24 million to over £36 million.

Fundamentally, risk is not transferred to the private sector as if a project fails the public sector will have to bail it out. Witness the additional funds needed to complete the new air traffic control system. Witness as well the additional funds needed to properly install computer systems for the immigration service, the passport agency and now, the Child Support Agency. Witness PFI and witness a total waste of money.

Incredibly though, when a council believes that a contract should be terminated due to the private sector  not keeping to its side of the bargain – it has to compensate the PFI contractors for contract termination – even if the PFI consortium are to blame!

When you add in the fact that private companies are out to maximise profit – the costs of PPP rise even further above public sector provision – and all for the sake of transferring public assets to the private sector.

PFI is backdoor privatisation which puts profits before prisoners, profits before patients and profits before pupils.

PFI supporters insist that PFI is the only deal in town  but Congress, under PFI rules if a council goes to the Executive saying that it wants PFI because it doesn’t have any alternative – they would be barred from obtaining PFI in the first place!

PFI supporters also say that its the only option, as the money would not otherwise be there to pay for these projects. But Congress, the current account surpluses of recent years are much greater than the value of the PFI deals which have been struck. The money is already there its just not getting used to provide better public services.

There simply is no economic case for PFI – but it’s the damage to public services that is the final part of the overwhelming case against PFI.

In order to make their costs less than the public sector, corners are cut.

Any cost savings can only be made from reducing the quality of the resource, the service provided or the conditions for the workers,

In our prisons it will mean less rehabilitation schemes – and an increase in crime. In our hospitals it means less beds and higher waiting lists. In our schools it means less facilities and more stress for teachers.

In hospital PFI projects an average cut of 33% in bed numbers has been made, in school projects facilities are cut back. In the Fife PFI scheme already, the consortium are putting old equipment in the new schools.

PFI brings the promise of the new but delivers the reality of the old.

The increase in the accommodation costs in Glasgow alone has resulted in the loss of seven swimming pools, many classrooms and many staff common rooms.

We are seeing more buildings with less facilities – and are paying for the privilege. Indeed this is further compounded by stories coming from those working in the new facilities that the basic fabric of the new buildings is not up to much in the first place.

The contracts last anything up to 30 years but the needs of communities in relation to school buildings has changed greatly over the last 30 years, who can say with confidence that they wont change radically over the next 30? But PFI forces us into inflexible deals over the long term.

Rather than investing in public services, PFI seeks to privatise them. Rather than investing in the future, PFI mortgages it. Rather than investing in value for money, PFI wastes money.

PFI puts public money which should be spent providing better education into the hands of profiteers. But it doesn’t have to be a choice between PFI and leaky windows between PFI and crumbling buildings, between PFI and poor resources.

There are alternatives to privatisation which are economic, viable and indeed desirable – they simply involve the government moving away from its dogmatic desire to line the pockets of the private sector at the expense of the public.

Putting money into the troughs for the snouts of the private profiteers cannot be, never has been and never will be in the interests of public services.

Congress, the pupils in our schools must come before the profits of big business.

The executive must put education before profit.

The chancellor must think again and get rid of these PFI schemes before they do any more damage that they’ve already done.

I move.