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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

In Memory of Dad

My father suffered a 2nd heart attack on the 20th May and unfortunately, following a 3 week wait in Papworth for a 2nd heart bypass, he passed away 4 weeks after the operation whilst still in intensive care. There were a number of issues which meant a delay of a further 4 weeks before his funeral, but it was finally held yesterday. I gathered together a number of photos of Dad through his lifetime, and as a tribute to him presented them in a folder for family and friends to look through after the funeral. Later, I intend to make them into a photo book. This was my tribute I enclosed in the folder:

Dad will leave a huge hole in my life. I will miss his love, help, advice and most of all a hug as he said goodbye to return home. During his time in intensive care I had the chance to tell him how proud I was of him, and I know if I can be as good a Dad to my children as he’s been to me, then I will have succeeded. He always worried so much about us; even ringing in the early hours of the morning asking me to check the inside of the kitchen wall wasn’t alight, following some pipe repairs we had undertaken the night before.

Dad had a difficult life as a child, but from the tales he told me he also had many happy memories. He had incredible strength to get through the trials of life, surviving three major operations, a strength that would later see him give his all following his 2nd bypass. Despite this loss, I am so grateful of the extra years I had with him due to the success of his first bypass at Papworth. To me Dad has won the Olympic gold for life.

It’s now time for Dad to think of himself by returning to his mum’s arms to be with his family who has already passed on. One day I will see him again and look forward to those hugs, but until then I will carry him in my heart and feel him close by, watching over and guiding me as he has always done.

Take care Dad. You will never be forgotten and I will write down your stories to tell your grandchildren to be passed down for eternity.

 I will love you always,


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Do we have Educational Choice or Inequality?

Suffolk is going through huge changes to its education system. This is encompassing everything from the move to 2 tier, new academies and free schools, to changing catchment areas for free travel. It never ceases to amaze me, how as a culture, we seem to always find complicated solutions to what should be simple problems. We have endless bureaucratic meetings under the guise of a consultation for decisions already made, to complex and unfair travel catchment areas that could easily be determined by feeder school.

Out of all of this chaos the word that always seems to be prominent is “choice”. However, if you look at the reason for parents to want to choose one school over another, the majority of the time it’s down to the performance difference between them. Surely then, if all schools were equal, this “choice” would not be necessary except in a few minority cases. I think it is fair to say, that these differences are down to quality of infrastructure and teaching materials, quality of teachers and techniques, school leadership and the environment in which the school is located. Last summer I attended the open evenings for several upper schools to evaluate them as candidates to teach my child. What struck me most was the vast difference in quality of infrastructure, such as quality of buildings and facilities, and one does have to ask why some schools are able to achieve such a high standard compared to others.

In my opinion the time and money spent on trying to facilitate choice would be better spent on bringing all schools and teachers to the same standard. Yes, average results for a school will vary depending upon the social environment of its intake, but each school should provide an equal opportunity for a child to achieve the same level of education according to their ability, and not the capability of the school.

Taking a simplistic approach, I wonder if the best person to achieve this would be one of the current heads of those schools that are successful today, acting almost as a super head of one large virtual school. They would take best practice from successful schools and implement it across the county, allocating budget proportionally to bring all schools to the same level. Now I’m not part of the education system myself, apart from as a parent, so  I expect there’s a whole range of issues I’m not aware of, but does the education system really need to be so complex and unequal as it is today?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Custom Made Exhausts

Recently the mounting brackets started failing on my 9 year old exhaust. I'd previously had them welded, but they were now looking increasing likely to fail at the most inopportune moment. Unfortunately I could only source a replacement from the main dealer as there isn't a third party alternative to the manufacturer's exhaust. The cost seemed extortionate at £171 + VAT plus fitting.

However, I was talking to my father and he mentioned a company called Demand Engineering in Stonham Aspal, who construct custom stainless steel exhausts using LongLife components. Given the quality of the stainless steel materials and custom workmanship I thought the cost would be considerably more, but I was pleasantly surprised to see the quote at just over the cost of the main dealer exhaust prior to any VAT or labour. In fact I could get the exhaust replaced to the catalytic converter for the same cost as the main dealer box only.

It took David and Dan about 4 hours to manufacture and fit the exhaust, and it looks amazing.

I didn't want additional noise or any increase to my insurance premium, so I chose to go for a straight replacement, with no performance increase and the same noise levels. The exhaust delivers, quiet as before aside from a very slight throaty groan as you accelerate at higher speeds, which sounds good. My insurer also confirmed there is no increase in insurance premium as I've not modified the performance of the car.

When I use to have more time I'd undertake my own vehicle servicing and repairs, since it's important to me work is carried out correctly for the safety of my family. For that reason I'm often worried trusting others to work on the car. It was therefore good to chat to the guys actually doing the work rather than a front desk, and it was clear they knew their subject, after all they have both studied engineering at uni.

You can see from their Facebook timeline LongLife exhausts is a relatively new endeavor, for which I wish them the best. I will certainly be recommending them and will look that way when I change cars in the future.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Making the most of our Heritage

I’m currently planning next year’s holiday and I like to include something educational into our trips, often around history or geography. For history I’ve found membership of English Heritage and National Trust invaluable, often choosing the holiday location based around what these historical sites have to offer. For instance on our last family trip to Wales, of the sites we visited, these were either National Trust (NT) or CADW covered by English Heritage (EH) membership after first year:

  • Harlech Castle (CADW)
  • Conwy Castle (CADW)
  • Caernarfon Castle (CADW)
  • Beaumaris Castle (CADW)
  • Bodnant Garden (NT)
  • Penrhyn Castle (NT)
  • Plas Newydd Country House and Gardens (NT)

What I really like is the ability to spend as long as you wish at a site.  Sometimes we might stay a couple of hours, sometimes a day, or sometimes it fits better to spend two half days. A single entrance fee is generally expensive enough, but having to pay twice to visit on separate half days would be prohibitive. Membership allows you the freedom to come and go as you please.

Educationally the sites are excellent and fit well into the National Curriculum for History, as we often find our daughter has/is covering the topic at school. With EH my children have learnt about English and Welsh Castles through the ages. Dover and Pendennis castles are particularly good. Museums, showcases and re-enactments have meant my children have learnt about life during WWII, military espionage, medieval combat, and life in the era of Queen Victoria amongst many things.


In particular I would thoroughly recommend a visit to Audley End House, especially the service wing, which is a great place for photography too.

Audley End House Service Wing

Whilst membership does offer a great saving over the cost of paying admission for each site, it still doesn’t make the yearly cost of membership affordable. In fact if we had to pay the normal yearly membership cost then we probably wouldn’t be members, but there are ways to still benefit. For instance EH partner with Tesco points. For us that brings the cost of membership down from £80 to £30 a year. Whilst that might seem like a hit for EH, they recoup far more from what we spend in their restaurants.  If on holiday this might be our lunch out, or if taking picnic we will often treat ourselves to drink and cake in the afternoon. Typically this can add up to £20 - £30 a time, so allowing for costs after three visits EH have recouped their money and are then making additional profit.

003/365 Sheepscape
Ickworth House
Last January we decided to take out NT membership. They don’t have a partnership with Tesco points, but they were offering membership for £66 direct debit rather than the normal £88. Given we have many more NT properties than EH nearby, I felt happier to spend £66. Outside of this last year’s holiday, we have made a number of day trips to NT properties over the last year, Melford Hall, Ickworth House (several times), Anglesey Abbey, Oxburgh Hall, Sutton Hoo, and Hatfield Forest. Many of these now allow non-flash photography, and at Edith Pretty's House in Sutton Hoo nothing is roped off.

Unfortunately, our NT membership ran out in December. It turned out the £66 was a special offer for the first year only and the cost was now to be £88. This lay very uncomfortably with me, as it is a hard sell tactic and not something I would expect from a charity. When NT refused to renew at £66 and were quite terse on the phone, I therefore cancelled our family membership. I feel this is very short sighted as they have not only lost the £66 membership fee, but the approximately £300 a year from the sale of food.

Update Feb 2012: I was able to renew our NT membership at £66 as we were essentially new members. It's just a shame I will need to do this each year, and existing members are less valued.

In summary I would thoroughly recommend EH if you have Tesco points. If you don’t then I still recommend EH and NT attractions, but you need to make your own decision as to whether you can afford the membership.

You can see more of my photos taken at stately homes, country houses and parks here.

Some of the useful EH and NT Twitter accounts I follow:

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Done Deal?

I’m now totally confused over whether the Thurston School Organisational Review (SOR) is a review, or just a pretence that the council is listening. Whilst many of us were of the opinion anything we said during the school consultations wouldn’t change the councils direction, and the move to two tier schools would go ahead anyway, I hadn’t expected this to be the council’s official position.

I’m referring to Councillor Newman’s interview on Radio Suffolk where he said "the decision is not about whether we do it or not", so essentially the decision had already been made to move to two tier schools. Yet when I fill in the online SOR questionnaire it asks “Would you like to see a two-tier pattern of schools in the Thurston Area?”

Why ask this question if the decision is made?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Two Tier School with Two Tier Transport

This autumn my daughter started at a new school that is actually closer to my home than the catchment school for our village. Since most of the children from her middle school were also to move to that school I decided to apply for a free bus pass.

On 05/08/11 I received a letter from Passenger Transport informing me I was not entitled to a free bus pass for my daughter’s journey to school.  Strangely, the reason given for this was that the route is registered as a local bus service. I was sure the school bus was only for school children, and that the public were not allowed on it. Indeed I confirmed with the operator that the bus is not available for public use, nor are there any public buses stopping at the school during the hours of 9am or 4pm. About this time I also discovered that people living in the village, just 500m from my house had actually received free bus passes for exactly the same journey that my daughter needed to make.

I therefore decided to contact the council for an explanation, and this is where my pain really started. I’ve listed the sequence of events at the end of this blog entry, but in summary for three months it was impossible to speak to anyone in the back office to either:

a)      Explain why I was denied free bus transport based on Route TN162 being registered as a local bus service.
b)      To confirm free bus transport would be provided to me as it has for others in the village.

The front call desk became a barrier and I was unable to speak directly with the person making the decision, so was unable to get an answer, a form of what is known as the “authority limits tactic”. No one in the back office rang me as the front desk told me they would. In fact I ended up having my entire week’s holiday wasted by waiting in for them to call after they said they would.

I firmly believe I would never have heard anything back had it not been for two tier schools review. At one of the school consultations I was able to speak to a senior member of the council, and what a difference that made, indeed the person in charge of school buses rang me on the day I was told they would.

Apparently the school bus does count as public transport as available spaces are sold to pupils who aren’t entitled to free transport, they deem this “discretionary transport”, for which they charge £180 a term, much more than the local bus service. Unfortunately you can’t use the cheaper local bus service, as whether purposely or not, it doesn’t run at the times of the school bus.

The council did apologise, both for the huge delay in responding, but also because they gave me the wrong reply. I should have been told I didn’t qualify for a free bus pass due to yet another upper school being closer than either the catchment or the actual school my daughter attends. Essentially I was playing the post code lottery and was just a few metres over the boundary. The majority of children from my village don’t move to the catchment upper school, but instead go to my daughter’s school, so in this instance the children that pay for transport clearly subsidise the cost of transport of the children that the council is bound to support.

Interestingly, when I pushed them for the map of the route they were using to determine the distance to school, they said it was a significant amount of effort to pull that together as it exists on very old maps rather than on a computer. This seems bizarre in this day and age with mapping software, and makes you wonder how accurate the boundary is. Still, given what they have put me through I’m certainly going to request this.

Most worryingly is that my above first-hand experience of the contempt that Suffolk County Council hold for their constituents by not bothering to reply as they said they would, now makes me deeply concerned about their ability to successful deliver the change to two tier schools as part of the Thurston Partnership.

Ironically, unless the council change the catchment area for the new two tier Thurston school, I would end up paying for my daughter to attend the Thurston campus, but get free transport to the Beyton campus. I would therefore urge anyone eligible to attend Thurston Community College, but out of its catchment area, to write to the council and ask them to change the catchment area to include their village. The council have confirmed to me they will consider this, otherwise we will have a two tier school with two tier transport.

Here is the sequence of events:

16/08/11: I telephoned the free home to school transport department who informed me we would be contacted back within 2 working days.

19/08/11 (3 days): I was not contacted; so I phoned back and was then told it could be up to a week before I got a reply.

30/08/11 (11 days): I was yet again not contacted; I was told the turnaround time for a call back was now 10 working days, which had passed. The person I spoke to tried to put me through to the back office, but they did not answer. I called again later that day, but a different person refused to try and put me through. They did however make my case an ‘urgent’.

31/08/11 (12 days): Since the case was now classified as urgent I telephoned the following day, but yet again no progress had been made with my case.

02/09/11 (14 days): A producer from BBC Radio Suffolk contacted me after reading on Twitter about my frustration at not getting a reply of any sort. I was interviewed about the situation on the radio, just 5 days before my daughter was due to start her new school. Nobody from the Council was prepared to appear on the show, and a statement was given which just a repeat of what is on the council website, rather than providing an answer to my appeal.

12/09/11 (24 days): After the Council had still failed to contact me, I had to pay £180 for one term’s bus travel whilst others nearby were receiving it free. My wife telephoned on 12/09/11 to check on progress. This time the person she spoke to changed the reason for refusal. It was now due to Stowmarket High being my daughter’s closest school rather than Thurston Community College, and therefore free transport would not be provided. Clearly my appeal against the original denial for free transport was still not answered. My wife therefore insisted I get to speak with someone in the department so that I can understand these points.

20/09/11 (32 days):  Yet again nobody had contacted us. My wife therefore emailed customer services at Suffolk County Council to complain about the complete lack of response we have had from this department and to request a name of someone in charge to write to.

22/09/11 (34 days): An email was received back saying this information had been added to my file, but no contact name was provided. Rather pointless.

03/10/2011 (46 days): After further contact by email my wife was finally provided with a name and told someone would contact her.

14/11/2011 (88 days): It had now been 12 weeks since my first contact with Suffolk CC, and still no one had contacted me. I wrote a letter to the person whose name my wife was provided with and sent it via registered post.

15/11/2011 (89 days): My wife and I spoke to Linda Howe at the Thurston school consultation and told her of our experience. She said she would make sure we were contacted on 17/11. We were contacted and I’m very grateful to Linda for doing this as we finally got to speak to someone, even if we didn't get the outcome we wanted.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

School Organisation Review

Earlier this week I went to the School Organisation Review at my local primary school. For those unaware, this is a move to change from a three tier school hierarchy (primary, middle, upper) to a two tier system (primary, secondary) that currently exists across the majority of the country. The first part of the evening was a presentation by the Local Education Authority followed by a timed Q&A session where any person allowed to speak was restricted to only one question.

After the consultations in previous years on the same subject (which never went ahead as the money ran out), I was really pleased to see the session wasn’t fronted by politics. There was no sign of the Suffolk CC chairman, and teachers from the proposed two tier schools were present.

I thought the council presentation started off very professionally and was much better than the historic events. My initial elation was dampened however, when they went into figures showing two tier vs. three tier performance. For me it’s a red flag as any figures can be so easily manipulated one way or another. Sure enough the graph didn’t include all the counties in the UK using the two tier school system, but just included selected counties. Plus the three tier schools were taken as a whole rather than looking at the specific middle school that they said wasn’t performing well enough. Now, I’m not saying metrics wise one system is better than the other, but either way they didn’t do themselves justice by making the figures appear biased.

The head and deputy teachers from the primary and upper schools presented next. You could instantly see their desire, commitment and passion to push this through, and with the same enthusiasm applied to teaching it can only be a good thing. If I had to criticise the overall presentation (council plus schools), it was too positive. In my experience nothing is perfect, particularly when you have to shoehorn in a solution rather than building purpose built schools. Not one presenter talked of anything detrimental. To me any change should be a balance of positives vs. negatives and that’s what you base your decision upon. There weren’t any negative points presented, again they were not doing themselves any favours as the audience then feels they are not being given the whole picture, or feel it’s just being railroaded through and the consultation is meaningless. Presenting some of the benefits of the three tier system over two tier system would have provided a more balanced view.

Question time followed the presentation. If I got chosen to ask a question, I would only get the chance to ask one, so I decided to hold off until near the end. I was hoping that someone else might answer some of my questions, and I could then focus on one of mine that was unanswered. For me these were the areas that still remain an issue:
  •  The LEA’s opinion is that changing schools causes a drop in performance. I’ve seen exactly the opposite in my oldest child, renewed vigour, excitement and commitment to work each time she changes school. She even said this to me, I don't need statistics to tell me this. I’m deeply concerned that children who thrive on change will be left by the wayside to accommodate those better suited to two tier schooling and to hit government targets.
  • The size of the primary school hall to accommodate up to another 90 pupils. The proposed phased lunchtime would resolve accommodating lunch, but assemblies would be cramped. I was lucky enough to attend an assembly this week and saw children were spreading their legs out to reserve a little room prior to sitting down, so even with current numbers it must be an issue.
  • Traffic and parking is beyond dangerous at our local primary. It’s not an accident "waiting" to happen, as I’ve already seen a parent crossing the road with their child hit by a car reversing out of the way of another car. Luckily it hit the parent and they were able to get up off the road, but I hate to think about how bad it could have been. My question for the evening was to ask "what budget had been made available for road and car park improvements along with green alternatives". Whilst the LEA recognised a major issue, the answer was none, as the planners hadn’t even looked at it yet. I was somewhat stunned that the lives of children and parents were such an afterthought.
  • One person in the audience read out a whole host of shocking issues and complications that had occurred in other schools during the building transition to two tier. Another former two tier teacher said the current hall couldn’t support the activities normally provided at the two tier primaries that she had taught at. I therefore have great apprehension we will end up with a long term building site or a building unfit for purpose.

OK so I’ve highlighted my worries and I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if I left it there and didn’t highlight some positives. For me they were:
  • The two tier system would allow 7 terms for pupils to decide on their GCSEs, rather than the one term in the three tier system. I’m finding it somewhat rushed with my daughter only having one term. If the change to two tier didn’t take place, I’d be keen for the middle school to start this process off prior to the move to upper.
  • The location for the extra primary school class rooms seemed suitable and adequate, if separated from the main school.
  • The LEA were willing to consider changing the catchment area for the secondary school. This is long issue to discuss in itself so I won’t go into it on this post.

So apart from the above, what else would help? Firstly an open day at a nearby two tier primary and secondary school so that parents can look at each and see what they are like for themselves. Currently we only have other people’s words and views. I’d also like the consultation to include a vote. Parents should decide what happens to the schools that educate their children. There’s no denying that the overall majority of people present at the meeting had deep concerns over moving to two tier, but we can’t take that as the broad opinion of parents in general. I’d like to see a vote and the decision adhered to, rather than a few people before or against dictating to the rest what should happen. After all we are a democracy!

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