Saturday 29 October 2016

Punks, old ladies and the British army

Plan for the worst. Hope for the best. What we didn’t reckon with, though, were 30 young 16-18 year old army recruits with a drunken army officer in charge.

We had just twelve students with us, all female, and none over 16. Most were under 16. On the five hour crossing from Zeebrugge to Dover, our girls were tormented in a quite threatening way by these virile young lads. We complained to the man in charge.

“They don’t mean any harm. It’s just a bit of fun. They’re adults anyway. It’s up to them.”

No, actually, those that were under 18, though over the age of consent, were not adults. And this “gentleman” in charge was definitely slurring his words.

The girls found it fun at first. My colleague and I did not.  After a while the novelty wore off for the girls as well.

“They’re really being crude, Miss.”

“One of them tried to snog me. He stank of beer and cigarettes.”

We huddled in one of the reclining seat lounges. The ship’s company warned them off but it didn’t stop them leering at the window from time to time, much to the amusement of their commanding officer.

The situation got more desperate when we arrived at Dover. For starters we went into the wrong part of the port so had to be bussed to the train station. We were already late because of fog in the channel.

“Perhaps if we don’t stop on the way back from London we can still make it back in time,” I suggested to my colleague. We’d intended to get a bite to eat at the Fleet services but we’d have to give up on that and go hungry.  

Then we noticed that the British army was also being bussed round to the train station.         

At least we were in a different carriage from them on the train but there was nothing to stop them making their way through to us.

The final blow was that we seemed to be sharing our carriage with three punks.

They looked to be in their early twenties. There were two young men and a young woman. Even our girls, who considered themselves quite trendy, raised their eyebrows.

However, we were pleasantly surprised.

The older and the taller of the young men understood quite quickly what was happening and made himself into a barrier between the British army and us. The young woman had a mountain of delicious vegetarian food with her and shared it with us. All three were really interesting to chat to and we soon forgot about the funny clothing.

We made it back to school exactly on time. Incidentally, this was the trip I mentioned last time when some parents turned up late to meet their child.

It reminded me of when my own children were very little and I’d make my way into town with one in the pram and the other on the pram seat. It was the old ladies who used to let the door swing shut in my face. The old men were almost as bad. It was the notorious Fareham punks who helpfully held the doors open.

There are no doubt many members of the British army who behave impeccably and there are probably some punks who cause havoc. I’m now the age of the ladies who let the door slam in my face but I wouldn’t dream of doing that to anyone.

It’s all just about people, really.

A bit like immigrants, Commonwealth, EU or otherwise, and natives. Some will be great. Some will be less so. But isn’t a mix healthier anyway?                   

Tuesday 25 October 2016

What made it all worthwhile

Arranging exchange visits for students was always a lot of work. Whilst you were there you were always slightly anxious. The only way to deal with this was to work out all of the things that could go wrong and work out how you would deal with them. Expect at least half of those things to happen, and you might be pleasantly surprised is some of them didn’t.  Also plan for the best and expect the best of your students.
Here are a few scenarios I was glad to leave when I left secondary education:
·         Debilitating homesickness (this was really pre email and mobile phone days – I wonder if those actually make them worse. We’d often find that it was a call from home that sparked the homesickness.)
·         Hospitalisation – in one case ending up with the boy concerned being flown home. It turned out it was an injury that had happened months ago that a fall made a lot worse.
·         Lost passport. (This was actually a member of staff!)
·         Parents not turning up at the agreed time to meet their children. “We thought you’d be delayed because of the fog.” Er. No. We allowed for that and got back on time. Come on. It was now 9.30 p.m. and we’d set off at 7.30 a.m. I had to teach the next day.

With all of this, though, if you know what to do it’s manageable. These days it’s called Risk Assessment.

Anyway, it’s more than made up for by:
·         The difference it makes to how the students learn when they get back home. It also influences the ones who didn’t go for the better.
·         Being greeted in German every day by my students when I meet them in front of the school.  
·         Walking along the street in Cologne and seeing a student who left my school three years go with the partner I’d matched them with five years before.
·         The friendships I made over the years with my colleagues in the exchange schools
·         What I continued to learn.
Come on guys, we are European whether we like it or not.

Friday 21 October 2016

An exchange visit with a difference

I’ve lost count of the number of exchange visits I organised in the twenty-six years I worked in secondary education in the UK as a teacher of French, German and Spanish. I was always the main teacher of German and was the one to arrange the German exchange.

Normally, we would go to the German school for one day and then the rest of the time, whilst our German hosts were at school we would go out on trips. They would do the same when we were in England.


A special exchange

One year I did something a little bit different. I took over a small group. We flew instead of going the whole way by coach or minibus. Once there, we didn’t go on excursions but the students had lessons with me all day. We were preparing for their forthcoming GCSE and concentrating on the oral exam. It’s amazing how much you can pack into six hours a day.

Improvements all round  

We put about half a term’s work into a week. We practised hundreds of role play situations. We went through each student’s personal conversation. We practised telling stories. We also did a little reading and writing. Because they were surrounded by German once they’d left my classroom the listening took care of itself.  Also, that continuous contact with the language really reinforced what we’d been doing in class. Some of them even carried on practising with their exchange partner in the afternoons and evenings.

Light relief?

Of course, it was quite tedious being with me in a classroom all day. So, once a day they would go and join a lesson in the German school. Sport, music, maths and English worked well. They were less reliant on a deep understanding of German.
We also had one social event in the evening. There was a weekend included in our visit so they went on excursions with their host families then.
It certainly wasn’t all hard work.

Not just about language

Naturally they noticed other things. Exchange really is a good name for this type of trip. The exchange of ideas is so important. They really loved the school day that ran form 7.45 a.m. unit 1.10 p.m. However I should add here that the research tells us that you should not expect young people aged roughly 14-23 to function very well before 10.00 a.m. or even 11.00 a.m.

They also liked the answer there to the British comprehensive system.  Three types of school were housed on one site: roughly equivalent to our old grammar schools, technical high schools and secondary moderns.  However, a much higher proportion of the population in Germany went to the grammar school and a much smaller to the secondary modern. As these schools shared accommodation they also shared some staff, some buildings, the school bus and such activities as the school fete or the Christmas concert. My students thought this was a good idea.

I was surprised, however, that they missed their school uniform.

“It’s difficulty deciding what to wear in the mornings,” said one.

“I really like going home and getting changed,” said another.

Well, well.

Win win

It’ always a little unfair that only those who can afford to go can go. Some of course choose not to go for other reasons. Yet the whole class benefitted. I had twelve out of twenty students with me. When we got back, the twelve who’d been with me were so improved that they raised expectations for the others. Their new skills and knowledge rubbed off when we did pair work.           

Sunday 16 October 2016

Four years as an Erasmus officer

I have just retired from the University of Salford where I worked as a senior lecturer in English and Creative Writing. For four of the years, 2008-2012, I was the Erasmus officer for English. This meant looking after the students who went on an exchange visits to other EU states and also looking after the students who came here from other states. 

I also had to make sure the terms and conditions were adhered to and that EU regulations were followed. This involved quite a bit of admin but it wasn’t particularly harduous. The EU regulations and Salford University’s own were useful and effective. Plus we had a very efficient administrative helping us. 

The main point was the interaction with the students and making sure that they got the most out of their visit.
On the whole they did. Almost always, students’ grades went up when they returned to the UK. They often gained higher marks whilst abroad. This wasn’t because studying abroad was a soft option. A very careful system monitors that standards are the same and each course offered has to have ECTS – in other words how many credits is each module worth? We worked out a rigorous plan for translating the marks in to “Salford” marks. They were till often higher than what the student had achieved in the first year and in their third year they were also higher. I’m sure it’s because they grow up in other areas and this transfers itself into the academic. Their eyes are opened and they are challenged – no longer are they just living away from home but within a familiar culture – they’re taking on something that is a little bit different. In the few cases where a module was failed and they had to do a resit or they actually came back with a lowered mark, students still found it a positive experience. 

Even after I stopped being the Erasmus officer to take on a programme leader role, I continued to encourage my students to take up the challenge.  “I’m trying to get rid of you as soon as you arrive,” I used to joke during induction week. “I want you to consider going abroad next year.” 

Always, as well, it was a delight to welcome Erasmus students into our classes. They were always enthusiastic and tended to get good marks. They particularly enjoyed Creative Writing classes as this subject was often not offered in their home institution. Just occasionally, they may not actually need the credits so didn’t take the exam or submit the assignment- then out statistics would get screwed. On the whole, though, they had a positive effect on our outcomes. 

I too got to travel. I went to Limerick and was impressed by the beauty of the campus there. I went to Cyprus on a teaching visit and offered some creative writing classes. I managed to get stuck there because of the volcano in Iceland. Not only did I find some useful fodder for my own writing but I learnt how to deliver a class remotely, something I developed on my return. Another teaching visit took me Groningen where I again delivered some creative writing classes and also contributed a class on a Masters course in journalism. On all of these visits I was also able to meet my students.  

Two came from Cyprus with awards from the dean. One came back from Groningen and set up her own performance centre.  Another worked on the student magazine in Groningen and actually got paid for it.
We have other exchanges with Budapest and Munich. 

We also have exchanges with non-EU partners but exchanges there are much more complex and much more costly for the students. 

Other Europeans are our nearest neighbours and / but are more like us probably than people on other continents with the one proviso, that I’ve discussed in other posts that they have this peculiar difference of language. Even that, though, can be useful. Awareness of other languages in an individual can help to enrich their understating of their own language or of a type of universal language. 

Erasmus further helps in providing bursaries that often cover the cost in travel and extra insurance. Students pay their fees as normal and we then pay the partner university. It was the case for a long time that if a student went for two semesters, fees were waived altogether.  Thus students had slightly less debt
Up to four students can come to us from partner institutions and up to four of our students can go to each of our partner institutions. It can become quite competitive. 

Not fair, though, perhaps you’re thinking, because not everyone can go?  We’ve only ever had to turn away our own students because there was a problem with their first year results. Many of our students have commitments at home so can’t easily go for a year abroad. 

On the other hand, student coming to us have been “nominated” – i.e.  more applied than we had space for and some sort of decision was made based on the merit of the student. 

So yes, it can be competitive. Isn’t that good though, and doesn’t it make the students value it even more? In another post shortly, I’ll be going into more detail about how all benefit from a few going on exchange.
After Brexit, hard or soft, it will be harder to organise this sort of exchange.                         

Thursday 13 October 2016

One valid argument for Brexit

No, you’re not imagining things. I am saying there is one argument that works for me. I’ll get to this shortly. First of all, though, there are many that don’t. 

I’ve constantly asked Brexit supporters to give me an argument that stands up to scrutiny and so far have not heard one.  The arguments fall into a few broad categories.  Here goes:


Empty rhetoric

Along the lines of “We want a better future for our children and grandchildren.” How does that one work? We are set to lose some laws that have kept us safe. The pound continues to suffer and we are about to face price rise of 10% - the same 10% we’re losing in our overseas assets.  (Marmite up 10% today!)
What about the extra taxes we’re going to have to pay? They said yesterday that they would amount to 2/3 of the running costs of the NHS. 

And by the way, most of our children and grandchildren wanted to stay.


Really? You want that? 

Well, we’ve had Eton-mess followed by May-hem.  Ms May thought it a grand idea not to share her plans with other MPs. In which universe is that democracy? 

Oh, and she is happy to be unconstitutional.   

The Labour party remains in disarray so there is still no viable opposition. 

Tony Blair might be on his way back. 

Frankly, we’re better off with Brussels.

Curb on immigration

If we take fewer EU immigrants, we’ll have more room for Commonwealth. If you’re xenophobic, I have some bad news: other EU citizens look more like us than most Commonwealth ones. And if you want to take this one further, there may well be a skills gap. The brain drain has already started in higher education. The NHS will have a serious shortage of staff if this is taken to its conclusion.

Money for the NHS

We all know now that that was not just lying with statistics or clever political rhetoric, but a damned lie. Seriously, if you thought the NHS would be better off to the tune of £350,000,000 a week and that was your reason for voting Leave, contact your MP as a matter of urgency.    

Free to trade with the world

No. They’re not actually all that interested in this little off-shore island. Yes, if we can influence a deal with Europe – or if they think they can take us over. The latter is extremely frightening. Do we really want our utilities controlled by Russia or China?

Strategic voters?

If you wanted to scare our mates Dave and Boris and you didn’t really mean it, for goodness sake contact your MP.  

The valid reason for Brexit

In my books, the EU doesn’t actually go far enough. This was brought home to me as my husband and I contemplated changing nationality so that we could remain citizens of the EU. The rules are different as one goes from state to state. Ironically my husband has quite a claim on Germany.  His mother was thrown out for being racially Jewish.  If it had been his father it would have been easy. Only Greeks can be Greeks. In other states, there are tests and numbers of years you have to have been living there. Some allow dual nationality. Others do not.  And have you seen the amount of paperwork you have to do in order to become British? The Netherlands looks like a good bet. We might investigate that further. 

How does the EU compare to the United States of America? There, different states have different laws as well- for example about the age one is allowed to drive. Yet there is a more united feel with the president being a prominent figure.  (Though heaven help them at the moment.)  Within Europe, we hold on to our nationality. 

Interestingly, on 26 June 2916, days after the referendum, the Sunday Times produced some result of polls that showed that France and Germany, but not Spain and Italy would also vote to leave the EU.
The EU probably needs a good overhaul. Might Brexit also trigger Frexit, Gerexit, Netherexit and then eventually Italexit and Spexit? And the rest.

Better than Brexit, nevertheless

This hope for a massive exit is based on the same arrogance that makes us think the rest of  the world is just waiting for us, and that we will have that much say in whether we have a “hard” or a “soft”  Brexit. So to trust that others will follow us is risky.  

I would prefer to stay and negotiate a more efficient and effective EU, so that it can take its rightful place in the world, balancing out the other super powers.     
I remain Remain.