Education

This tag is associated with 10 posts

Play Dough a Go Go!

Play dough is brilliant.  Practically free and endless possibilities.  Plus it lets kids do the whole messy play thing without actually making that much mess, which is always a good thing.Plus if you use the cheap home made version you don’t need to worry about mixing the colours.  I start off with a variety of basic colours (usually based on whatever colourings I have to hand) and then let the kids make further colours by mixing.


Child playing with multicoloured playdough made by an easy homemade recipe

There are a few recipes knocking about the internet, with various no cook options or ingredients, but this is the best one that I have used.  Where I say cup, use any cup, as long as you use the same one each time.  I use a little plastic beaker.Use your common sense and don’t play with playdough on your best tablecloth or tread it into your expensive persian rug, but then if you have that kind of thing in a house with small children then you are a braver (and possibly quite a bit richer) person than me…


Home Made Play Dough

  • 2 cups flour (any will do)
  • Half a cup of salt
  • 1 cup cold water
  • A big spoon (or small glug) of oil – any will do
  • Two big spoons of cream of tartar (you can leave this out if you like, but it makes the dough more springy and stretchy and only costs a few pence)
  • Food colouring, smelly oil (use food safe versions in case it gets nibbled…), glitter or whatever else you want to use to make it pretty and/or smelly

Chuck everything in a pan and put over a low heat.  Keep stirring until it looks like…dough.  Allow to cool before giving to children (obviously…)

You can also just add boiling water to the ingredients in a bowl and stir, to avoid having to put it on the hob.

I tend to leave out the colourings and flavourings, cook plain dough and then knead in the colours/flavours/glitter.  That way I only have to cook once but can make loads of colours.  Beware though that colourings can stain, and are much more likely to stain your worktop (and hands, and clothes, and children) before they are mixed in.

This recipe isn’t toxic, but isn’t exactly edible either, given that it will taste horrible and has loads of salt.  Hopefully inquisitive toddlers will just have one taste and then be put off.  Hopefully.

Keep your playdough in an air tight container and it should last at least six weeks.  Enjoy, and let me know if you come up with any cool ideas!

Educating Africa

My story begins with Sthoko, a young South African woman who gave my feet a wonderful pedicure after walking in the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa last week. Sthoko is one of the new generation South Africans, proud of her heritage and looking forward to a happy and successful economic future. Sthoko is educated and has a good job in a resort spa. She hopes to find a good and decent man to marry and start a family. But for now, she lives in a remote region of South Africa where three provinces meet at the escarpment. Mobile phones are plentiful in South Africa, but outside of the metropolitan areas, coverage is sparse and internet access is patchy to say the least. Satellite TV provides most of the news, but it’s expensive. Sthoko is lucky – she can read so will be able to find out about current affairs for herself. She wonders, for example, why the Zimbabwean people are not rising up en masse against Robert Mugabe. But there are many others who are not so fortunate, who are unable to read or write.

Which is why education is so important for South Africa’s next generation. In the eight years since we were last there, infrastructure has deteriorated. Roads in particular are most badly affected. If children are unable to get to school, or are unable to communicate with a teacher via the internet, using Skype for example, how on earth can they be educated? We spent some time with Megan Bedingham at The Cavern Resort. Megan and her family have set-up and built a school, The Royal Drakensberg Primary School, for local children. This local school means that the parents of little children no longer have to find the money to travel an hour by taxi to school. No money means no school for many children. The South African government provides no financial support for the school, so it must find funding for teachers and supplies from other sources. Parents are, however, expected to pay R400.00 (about £30.00) a month for each child at the school, and that is a huge sum of money for most of these parents whose main employment is at The Cavern Resort or the neighbouring hotels. The remainder of the school fee is generated by tireless fundraising.

The problem for the education of girls is even more desperate. In this area of South Africa, Zulu tribal traditions are very strong, which means that boys are born with more advantages than girls. Girls are still growing up and working in domestic service. Of course, this will always happen, but it is said that the education of children is only as good as that of their mother. So, unless we can educate the mothers of tomorrow, children in South Africa will never rise above the basic level. I believe very strongly that there needs to be more focus and commitment on educating girls, empowering them through education, to healthier, happier lives as confident women in South Africa’s future.

The newly appointed health minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi has declared his aim of an HIV-free generation. The recent public awareness ads are hard hitting and make it clear that responsible sexual practice will be a major contributor to halting the spread of the infection. South Africa cannot afford the widespread use of anti-retroviral drugs forever.

While in South Africa, I listened to a debate on broad-based black economic empowerment, which the local people refer to as BBEE. Eighteen years after Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress came to power, this is still the main concern amongst young black South Africans. MOprah Winfrey opening her leadership academy for girls in South Africaay is Africa month, a celebration of all things African. But everyone is wondering if this generation will enjoy true economic freedom and independence, that which previous generations have fought for.

Oprah Winfrey has started a girls’ school in Johannesburg to address just this issue. I have previously written about Thandulwazi, a maths and science academy in Johannesburg. And now, I’m asking you to consider the Northern Drakensberg Khanyisela project. Khanyisela means to enlighten. Thandulwazi is the love of knowledge. Two more projects inspiring brighter futures for South Africa and its children.

The University Without Walls

Open University students graduating from the MBA programmeIf I told you that there is a way to get a degree without A levels, would you believe me?  If I told you that the university accepts all students, and that you can study at home, in prison, on an oil rig or anywhere else that you might happen to be?  If you could study how and when you like, whether that be in bursts of activity with gaps inbetween, steadily in short bursts on the bus or when the kids are in bed, or full time?  That you would get support off a tutor, optional tutorials and online social support?

The Open University is a wonderful organisation.  Launched in 1969, it currently has more than 260,000 students, mostly in the UK.  A network of nearly 7000 tutors support these students, often alongside working in a traditional university, and 1.6 million people have studied with the university since it was founded.  The university has a stated aim of helping people acheive potential despite barriers that would prevent study at many universities – 12,000 disabled students a year study with the OU, and up to 44% of the student body started without the qualifications that would normally be needed for university study.  However, the degrees and other qualifications are well respected – studying with the OU shows a determination and level of self organisation that many employers find very attractive.

The university produces television documentaries and study resources for other universities and schools.  It also makes a huge range of learning resources freely available at OpenLearn, which is well worth a look for anybody interested in thinking and learning, as well as through iTunes and YouTube.

It is now at risk.

Due to changes in student finding arrangments, the university is having to stop providing the financial support system that it has been helping thousands of students with.  Fees are increasing for all students across the university – a student starting an honours degree in September 2012 will pay approx 15 thousand pounds for their degree in total, around three times the full fee the year before. Many students currently pay either a reduced fee or no fee at all, depending on income, and all students have access to a budgeting account to spread the cost.

What’s more, students will now have to apply for funding through the student loans system, meaning that students who already have a degree or who are otherwise barred from student loans will have to find the money themselves.

Studying with the OU is still much cheaper than study at many traditional universities, and the nature of the courses means that working full time alongside study is very possible.  Still, the university is suffering from the increase in fees, and many students that could have changed their lives and achieved their potential will be put off by the cost.Scene from educating Rita, a play and film about an OU student and tutor

I really hope that the university can continue to provide this wonderful service for all of us non traditional students.  If you feel the same, please sign this petition or, even better, why not register on a course?  It is still the cheapest and most flexible way to get your degree, and might just change your life.

Gross Anatomy

I went to Medical School in 1987. It was an incredible experience, crammed full of learning from inspirational Professors at the peak of their careers. My stand-out memory is the first day of Gross Anatomy. Faced with dozens of cadavers in shrouds, fresh-faced students in crisp, clean white coats, and that smell – I couldn’t wait to get started. Such a privilege.

Each precious body had been donated to medical research, to help train doctors, nurses and physiotherapists. We stood next to our allocated body, four students in a group, and recited a modified Hippocratic Oath. We were to dissect the body over the academic year, 565 hours of dissection, in detail, covering all organ systems, blood vessels, nerves and the brain. Our bible for the year was Man’s Anatomy by Tobias and Arnold, in three volumes. Professor Tobias and Professor Arnold were the big beasts of Anatomy. We were in awe of them. They were known affectionately as PVT and JCA (behind their backs of course)!Diagram showing a skin flap incision for anatomy students

Getting started was a hand-trembling affair, guided by this illustration. Skin preserved in embalming fluid is very tough. But once you’re in, you’re in – and the delights of the human body were ours to explore. Over the weeks and months, we committed to memory all the arteries, veins, nerves and bones (oh, my poor parents had that box of bones in their living room); using mnemonics to remember the long lists. For example, Peter And Paul Masturbated So Much Their Balls Shrank refers to the branches of one of the thoracic arteries (I wish I could remember which one)! I can remember, though, that this one refers to the twelve cranial nerves: Oh Oh Oh To Touch And Feel A Girl’s Vagina Very Happily (or something very like it). The point is, we were drunk on anatomy for that year. We were walking encyclopaedia of lists of body parts, our text books were marked in wax pencil (I still have one I used in 1987), and nobody would share the lift with us because the smell permeated our clothes and hair. We knew it and we didn’t care. We were doing something that not many people ever get to do. It would shape our lives in the future. Some would go on to be world class surgeons, some physicians, sports scientists, pharmacists. I decided on a career in research.

Who knows how a career will turn out. I didn’t even do Science at school. I was expected to study Languages at University. I’m grateful to a Biology teacher for showing me something different, and changing my life. She asked me to help her clear out the cupboard in the lab. What we didn’t find in there. And lurking at the back, in a dark jar, was the most gorgeous pig foetus. We changed the preserving fluid, to reveal the tiny, perfect animal; when was he put in there, kept for me to find? I was hooked.

Page from an anatomy textbook, featuring student anotationsAnd so, standing in the dissection hall, several years later, in the basement at Medical School, I knew I was in the right place. I grasped the scalpel with both hands and made the first cut. Nine months later, the Technician was standing over the cadaver we had been working on. It approaching the final Lesson – the brain. He used a tiny, whirring saw to remove the cranium. He revealed a clean, shiny brain in situ. In order to complete the study, we had to remove the brain, with all the cranial nerves in tact. I had the smallest hands and I put them on either side of the brain, inside the skull. I tugged gently and felt around the base of the brain, to free the nerves from their restraints. A little more tugging, and I had the brain in my hands. We prepared the dissection and made 1cm slices through the brain, sectioning it in cross-section. I have never forgotten that moment. And neither will countless other medical students. That brain, sectioned, preserved and displayed can still be seen in the Anatomy Museum at Wits Medical School.

Gross anatomy? I don’t think so. Stunning, wondrous anatomy, is more like it.

A Broadly Christian Debate

My daughter attends an excellent school.  It was the only one in the area with a place, but after a few nail biting weeks on the waiting lists, we were over the moon when it was the school offered.  It is also Catholic.  We are not.

I have had a few people ask me how I reconcile my belief in separation of church and state with sending my daughter to a school where prayers and church services are part of the school day.  I have no problem at all with there being Catholic schools, and with them including aspects of their religion in the school day (as long as the children are not restricted from finding out fair information about other belief systems and are not encouraged to make harmful choices).  We could have home educated her, or held out for a school that is less overtly religious.  What I have a problem with is the lack of choice for parents who wish to avoid religious instruction altogether.Nun with 1960's Catholic Schoolchildren.  Photo: Vin Crosbie

I start from the general principle that everyone should be free to practice their own religion or none at all.  As long as you are not harming anyone, you are respectful of others and you allow members of your religion access to other beliefs, then I don’t see why anyone could object.  I also feel that, if you use the facilities provided by a group, you should abide by the rules of that group, and as such you should also be able to get basic services with no special conditions.  This is why I do not think that the “collective worship of a broadly Christian nature” in mainstream schools is at all fair.

If we had not been ok with our child going to a school that does not fit with our beliefs as an atheist/agnostic family, we would have had to home educate.  There is no option in the state system for a school where no religion or religious practices are imposed on the children.  To me, the default should be no religion, as that leaves it to the parents and child to add on whatever they believe at home, or to find a school that does provide religious instruction.  As it is, in a country where an active belief in Christianity is very much in the minority, nearly every child is expected to take part in worship at school.

My primary school was a mainstream community state school, yet we had ministers from the local evangelical church in assemblies, holiday clubs and classrooms telling us that evolution was impossible and that non-Christians would burn in hell, which leaves a strong impression on an eight year-old.  We also had the standard vicar-with-guitar-and-beard singing hymns at us, and a teacher who told us that global warming is just a test from God.  I left primary school in 1996, but websites like Mumsnet are full of the same kinds of stories.  Of course, these people are more than welcome to hold whatever beliefs they like and to worship how they feel, but they shouldn’t be able to essentially force children to join in.

Yes, there is the option to withdraw your child from assemblies and religious practises, but why isn’t the default position that of the beliefs of the vast majority of the population?  A child is not given the option to refuse to participate, and so is dependant on their parents being aware of the school’s level of religious instruction.

I have no problem with teaching about religion.  In fact, call me Gove, but I do think that children should be familiar with the Bible, and the King James version is particularly useful.  I also feel that children should be familiar with classical mythology and the stories of other religions too – without religion, much of history and the arts would make very little sense.  I would encourage children to respectfully visit churches and other religious monuments, and to meet believers and leaders of all different faiths.  I just think that the beliefs of one particular religion should not be taught as fact in the vast majority of schools, unless the parents have specifically opted in by sending their child to a school affiliated to (and partially funded by) that religion.

Anecdotally, it would seem that most schools have very little religious instruction in the curriculum.  However, it is something that schools are assessed on by Ofsted, and a parent has no way of knowing if a school will suddenly start singing hymns or having religious talks. If a school is about to start sex and relationships education – in which a child will be told facts about their own body and how to keep themselves healthy – the parents are called in to discuss it and are given the chance to ask questions and raise objections.  Why can’t parents be given the same option when it comes to matters of a far less scientific nature?

Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves…

Life goes on. The world turns – civilisation evolves and adapts. For the travelling community, nomadism – that intrinsic need to roam – is as much a choice as it is a survival technique.

From traditional Yurt communities, to Bedouin tribes and the Eastern European Roma, the gadjo (non traveller) represent a confusing mix of authority and conflict.

Settlement acts passed from the early 1960’s in former Communist states which intended for travelling families to establish themselves and work in the oppressive Land regimes forbade the use of identification as a Roma or Gypsy and forced integration into a society which, for many at that point in time, they neither had a natural affiliation to or comprehension of. Even British legislation prevented ‘vagabondism’ in most forms – causing the outlawing of occluding public by-ways and roads. Yet none of these techniques worked to incorporate a transient and Travellers on the Glen Road, Belfast, 1980. Photo: Bobbie Hanveymobile nationhood of people into host populations. Constantly persecuted, frequently misunderstood and a mystery to both the non traveller and themselves, the history of these people is a fluid and inflammatory story of optimistic struggle and straggling survival. One to which no one is immune, nor alien to.

Current popular interest in the lifestyle of traveller families has highlighted the differences between the old notion of extended support networks – which many Roma enjoy – and the insular autonomy of host nations which prevent, to an extent, the ability to disengage and re-engage at will into everyday life. The majority of Roma have settled due to financial stability which a permanent residence encourages; those that choose to continue a mobile livelihood face prosecution and persecution. This is undeniable. Media fear mongering – the idea of the gypsy as sly, dishonest, dirty – still permeates in news reports which ostensibly serve to both integrate and isolate the traveller community.

No solutions are advanced, the traveller community ‘travels’ and therefore it is perfectly reasonable to expect them to move on when the local community feels that this time has come. No other migrant community has such an uncertain future. Two days, three weeks, four months in one place at the most. When land is acquired, not only do they have to navigate a planning process which is confusing even to gadjo but they face the added suspicion as to how this would impact on local population. But does it really matter, in the long term? Surely a settled community – even one which flouts planning laws, is better than one who is hounded and hindered.

And this can be violent in its extremes. France and Italy have progressively legislated against traveller input into their respective societies. In Romania and Balkans areas violent attacks on settled traveller camps have increased according to the ERRC. Very few of these attacks are prosecuted, out of court settlements are meagre and do not reflect the severity of these. For instance, retributive justice, whether real or imagined, often take the form of burnings. Whole communities set alight. Maimed and broken. Women, children and men – those who have been neighbours – are targeted as embodiments of criminality and treated as such.

Trawling the archives of the ERRC and social sciences departments throw up truly sickening accounts, each followed by interviews by both victims and offenders. Offenders here is loosely used, frequently they miss the justice system. And similar justifications occur throughout these: we don’t want them here. They bring nothing to society. They dress provocatively. They don’t want to work. They have no respect. They deserve everything they get – taking our jobs, our benefits. It is a tale as old as time. One to which no minority community has been exempt. A basic lack of understanding of culture clashing, simplistic, indeed, but sometimes a simple statement starts a debate rolling.

Traveller children are instilled in respect of older generations, often they live in close knit groups and they have a very real feeling of family. In many areas there is a complete innocence toward everyday living. Education is secondary – and this is understandable to an extent. If no one is willing to see the person, the potential to excel, why invest in a system which is geared toward ideals they do not hold. Education is a key to future, a key to employabTraditional Gypsy Caravanility, but if no one will employ a traveller above a menial position, why bother? Why bother sending a child to school to be ridiculed, put in special institutes (a common practice) because they do not conform to a pattern of life which is so skewed against them? Isn’t it better to have the children close, to teach them what has been tried and tested as useful?

Gender is also an issue in traveller communities. Women are often not valued as autonomous people, but as glue to the community. They are an amalgam of mother and nurturer – an old fashioned premise but one which is diffused between all the group. Traveller women are usually proud of this role – and if lack of ambition is to be reviled then they truly lack a feminist impulse. But this is a contentious statement. Feminists everywhere will argue for and against, and here is not the place to pull this apart.

In times of recession scapegoats are easily found. Be they Jewish, Islamic, poor or rich…Aushwitz was home to over half a million Traveller families; marked by a ‘Z’ on entry. Hardly any were liberated. Mengeles systematically medically tested traveller people seeing them as subhuman, denying them an identity and a history. Denying them culture, as the Nazi regime sought to do with most disenfranchised groups, minority ethnicities.

Yet it is only within the last 30 years that the loss of life has been acknowledged by governments. They are a sideline in history, and for most travellers’ this collective amnesia has worked to preserve them. A people with no past or future can glide through life, but they cannot enjoy it fully. They cannot step proudly and say who they are. The controversy that has surrounded recent documentaries, the sensationalistic reporting denotes a change, a change in perspective in the gadjo community – could this be a recognition of the freedom that Roma enjoy – but with an ignorance towards the cost that this represents? Now is the time to see the bigger picture.

Holidays or Truancy?

A leak from Department for Education has suggested that Michael Gove, Education Secretary, will ban the discretionary up to 2 weeks leave of absence that Head Teachers are permitted to grant during term time, according to the Telegraph. Apparently, this will help cut down on truancy.Rows of empty desks in a classroom.  Photo: evemaiden

Ostensibly this leave of absence is supposed to be for cases of illness, bereavement and bad weather, but is regularly used by parents to take holidays during term time, when it is cheaper. According to a survey by the Travelsupermarket.com website,

Prices increase by up to 42 per cent for a family of four taking a two-week trip to the Algarve during the school holidays.’ 

The justification in this draconian measure is that it will stop parents putting pressure on Head Teachers to authorised holiday absences. As a parent myself, with a child about to start School in September, this is something of great interest to me.

So what are the arguments for and against this move?

Arguments for :

There are holiday periods built in to the school calendar so you should take your holidays then.

If you can’t afford a holiday abroad during the holidays you should set your sights lower and go camping in the lakes instead.

Nobody NEEDS a holiday. It is not a human right to have one.

It disrupts the education process.

Arguments against:

It will have no affect on persistent truants. They are the ones who bump up the figures, whose parents never even ask permission anyway.

The biggest cause absence was due to illness, not holidays! Perhaps we should be banning sick days instead as that will have a bigger effect on attendance?

Again it is an attack on impoverished families. I think it sends a very clear message that poor people shouldn’t have holidays. I would argue they need it more, just a week where a family who is struggling day to day can have some quality time together just having fun.

It will affect people who have family abroad. Families generally don’t schedule weddings, birthdays, bereavements and other family events around the school holidays. It may be only time parents can afford to take their children to see overseas families is during term time. Certainly, this is something that I have experience of, seeing that I am half Spanish and my Dad lives in Spain.

Some parents may struggle to get time off work during the holidays, especially if others in their workplace are all wanting time off then – this is something my husband struggles with.

The holiday companies share some of the blame with the ridiculous hikes they put on holidays during the school holidays. Even campsites charge premium rates for pitches during the holidays. The argument is that they are there to make money and it is all about supply and demand. Surely though, if they offered cheaper holidays then more people would go?

To illustrate a typical price rise, I picked a popular UK holiday company, it has caravan parks all over the county. I priced up a 4 night stay for 2 adults and 2 children, in a one up from basic caravan, in a park on the Yorkshire coast.

For week commencing Monday 27th August, the cost was £325.50. Go the following week, and it would cost you £197.50 – a saving of £128! For a family only able to save a couple of quid a week for the family holiday, this is a big difference.

There are times when parents are taking the piss and absolutely this should be clamped down on. No-one needs to take their child on an uber expensive holiday to Disney Land, and Disney is horribly overpriced anyway. I would argue that some holidays can have value to a child’s education, teaching them about geography, allowing them to experience new people and places.

Perhaps an overhaul of terms and holidays is needed, to spread them out, with different schools having their holidays at different times?

All I know is this; once again the government are attacking families. Nice one Tories!

Beyond Books: The Future of Libraries

Libraries are facing cuts, and are closing at an alarming rate all over the country – CILIP (Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals) estimates that 600 libraries, mobile libraries and services could be destroyed in the next few years.  As a former Library Assistant (totally different to a Librarian, but more of that later) I have seen first hand how people rely on these hubs of community and their books.

But the world is moving fast.  Books are cheap.  Do libraries still have a place in the society of the future?

Books on library shelves

Most people see a library as like some kind of book shop – like Blockbuster, but with novels instead of DVDs. They might have popped in to use a computer if theirs was broken or they needed to study in peace, and they might even have borrowed a CD or taken their children to story time. I think they are missing the point, but I don’t think libraries are helping their own image.

What is the actual essence of a library? It’s not necessarily the books, or the building.  It’s a more abstract concept – that of a community of learning. There are moves now to introduce more events and variety into the day to day lives of libraries – Newcastle Central Library is a good example of this; There are story times, book groups, study space and exhibitions, but I still don’t think they are going far enough.

Libraries should be alive with learning.  They should be a destination, a democratic meeting place.  Lectures open to the public with teachers and librarians on hand to help with research.

There was a time when every public library had to have at least one qualified librarian – a graduate who has studied for a highly specialised qualification.  A librarian can not only answer any question, but they can show you the reputable sources and guide you to further reading. They can navigate the world of information and pick out the important bitNewcastle Central Librarys, and they can keep that information safe for when it’s needed.  In this age of information, Librarians should be our guides, instead they are losing their jobs.

I propose that we bring back this emphasis on the skills of the librarian, and allow them to work with teachers, lecturers, artists and other specialists to create an environment that will remain a vital part of our educational armoury.

Home Education is becoming more and more widespread, with current conservative estimates at 40,000 school age children, and rising.  More people are choosing to study university and college courses on a part time or distance learning basis, with most universities offering part time and distance options, as well as dedicated institutions like the Open University and ICS.  Many people now can’t afford the qualifications that they need or want, and there is a  growing group of adults with poor literacy and numeracy.  The world is getting more and more complex, yet mass entertainment is becoming simpler.  If we do learn informally, it is often through Wikipedia, or reading biased newspapers.  People are getting lonely and more and more segregated by age, class and social group, which is leading to tensions, blame and prejudice.

We need to bring our libraries back to the centre of our communities.  Let’s see informal and formal discussions, activities and resources, all together with books, computers andtwo children reading books in a library even things as simple as paper, pens and quiet tables.  Small libraries could be quieter, with only a few events, and larger ones should be full of opportunity and excitement.  I want to be able to bring a toddler to story time, an older child to a science lesson and a teenager to a philosophy group.  I want political meetings, inclusive discussions and exciting lectures.  I want to be able to buy stationary and a coffee and read the papers.  I want poetry readings, comedy nights and art exhibitions.  I want books, lots of them, but also guidance on the internet, more information on television shows, discussions after plays, talks about local history.

I want us to hold on for dear life to the principle that there should be a library, free and open to all, in every community, for everyone.  It might have to adapt, but it needs to exist.

For the Love of Knowledge

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. -Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela - Photo credit : Yousuf Karsh http://www.karsh.org/

Nelson Mandela by Yousuf Karsh

I am often asked why I left South Africa, and 16 years on and I honestly don’t remember the exact reason. I know my husband and I were fortunate to receive an excellent education in South Africa and attended University there too. We wanted to be citizens of the world, to use our education where it was needed. I’m pleased to say that for the most part, we have been successful in this. No matter what happens in life, nobody can take away your education.

Thandulwazi* means for the love of knowledge in Zulu. Wouldn’t it be great if all pupils could go to school with those words in their hearts? Instead, as the post-grad assigned to supervise them, I see students in the final year of  their science degree, who are working so hard to complete coursework, study for exams and write a dissertation, that they seem to have forgotten that they chose science for the love of knowledge. They started university full of excitement and promise and over the three years have been worn down to just wanting to get a 2:1. Some, of course, will always be enthusiastic and will want to know more than the syllabus dictates. They are challenging and fascinating people.

I had a brief exchange with Erika-Check Haydn, from Nature News, about the challenges UK universities are facing as they attempt to produce biomedical scientists equipped to face the changing environment of research. They are only just up to speed with basic molecular biology techniques. Now, the technology companies are saying we need to train bioinformaticians. These are scientists who will spend their post doc jobs sitting at a computer, nowhere near a lab, analysing millions of digital data points. Where’s the thandulwazi in that?

bioinformatics - Photo credit : http://www.bioinformaticonline.com/So much of the data produced in experiments today is digital i.e. there is no physical picture of the result for us to examine.The peer-review process of publication in reputable journals should be able to put the data through the ringer, but sometimes the work is so specialist it can be difficult for outsiders to follow. The very nature of digital data is that it can be amended. The pressure to publish is a constant threat to researchers, and it can mean that research questions may not be stringently tested. I’m not saying that is what happened in the following examples but, questions will be raised if the data cannot be reproduced independently. While 2011 saw some incredible scientific breakthroughs, from the colour of meteorites to the secrets of aging (in mice, at least), it also saw two low points in science reporting.

Two research papers are in question at this time. The first is the finding that a murine leukaemia or related virus (MLV) was detected in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. However, as the number of samples was limited and the data not reproducible, the authors had no choice but to retract their publication. That’s not to say they aren’t right. They simply need to find another way to prove it to their peers.

The second paper is more topical. Its focus is stem cell lineage and it was published in the journal Blood. The researchers acknowledge that some of the data may not reflect the published data analysis. This paper, was published in 2008 and cited 13 times in other papers. It could be argued that although there were errors in assembling the manuscript for publication, the authors stand by their findings and the interpretation thereof.

So, where does that leave the rest of us, struggling through to try and publish our blood, sweat and tears? I think it leaves us a little tainted in the public eye, and we must work harder to make sure our science stands up to rigorous scrutiny by our peers. As research funding decreases, the strongest research questions and protocols will rise to the top. Let’s hope that exciting research, and the love of science, does not drop away altogether.

*The St Stithian Foundation was set up to provide support for a Saturday school called Thandulwazi for pupils struggling to find a way complete their school education. It also supports teacher training. The Thandulwazi Trust is a Maths and Science Academy based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Philosophy for the Masses

Today is World Philosophy Day, yet most people in the UK have never studied the subject in any way. A movement to change this is gathering speed, with top philosophers and educators campaigning for philosophy and wider reasoning skills to become a central part of the curriculum.

Philosophy is a respected subject in many European schools, with all children in France, Portugal, Spain and Italy studying the subject for at least one year.  Philosophy is also popular in private schools and with home educators in the UK, with many independent schools offering afterschool clubs based on the subject for children as young as seven.   So why is it so absent from most of our education system?

The Philosophy Foundation, an organisation created to promote the teaching and study of philosophy in the UK, has released a set of resources aimed at schools, to help them to introduce the subject into lessons.  Peter Worley, co-founder of the foundation,set out his beliefs in a statement earlier today;

“We need to make Philosophy a regular feature of school life. It’s a shame that young people don’t get the opportunity to engage with some of the great ideas of the past. They still have relevance today and children have their minds stretched by exposure to big ideas, and pick up invaluable thinking skills that can be used in any context.

“The stimulation and intellectual excitement schoolchildren get from Philosophy only underlines the critical gap in our education system we continue to suffer from.”

The joy and satisfaction of considering the “big questions” is something that is being lost, which schools focusing too hard on subjects that can produce measurable results, yet it is notable that you have much better chances of seeing philosophy being taught at a private school, where statistically, the pupils are much more likely to end up in positions of power.  Should it not be a priority for those of us committed to increasing working class representation and social mobility to make sure that our children are given the tools of reasoning and debate that the rich kids get?

I am not advocating an abandonment of the creative and effective parts of the current curriculum – I’m no Gove.  I am however adding my voice to the many that are asking for our children to be given the chance to access the world of skills and knowledge that is currently being kept only for the elite.

We need to teach our children to question and to think about the way our society is structured, and what better way than through philosophy?

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