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The Quiet GCSE Pandemonium

As students across the country commence their GCSE exams, there will be crossed fingers and chewed nails galore – and not just from the pupils. For it is the case that since the new specifications came in to being, following Michael Gove’s huge restructure of assessment methods, targets and curriculum in 2013, there has been much confusion, uncertainty and panic from those in charge of creating the new specifications and those left to teach it.

While in theory, it is useful to reassess what is taught and how it measures up internationally at regular intervals, this overhaul has been dramatic and in some cases, nonsensical. It seems in part to hark back to the teaching structure and examination methods of fifty years ago, which does not translate well to the internet-age of 2017. This year will be the first cohort to sit the new exams. They are in fact the guinea pigs, and I suspect that for many of them, the awareness of this has been troubling.

Take for example, English Literature. Gove’s insistence that all texts studied must be British has meant that time honoured literary classics such as Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck), The Crucible (Arthur Miller), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) are off the menu completely – they are all American writers. These texts were originally chosen for their usefulness in having a variety of themes to cover, interesting topics and relatively short length enabling 15/16 year olds to access them with ease. Teachers also knew them inside out, having taught them for years and knew how to best bring pupil’s abilities out through them.

I would argue that a good story that is well written is surely the aim of choosing an examination text, not the nationality of the author?

The specification has also moved from a part exam/part coursework structure to an all exam assessment. The coursework element had two uses, that I could see as a teacher. One – it taught pupils how to write essays while analysing texts, a skill they would then use again in the exam. Two – it gave pupils a chance to pick up marks from work they had done outside an exam hall, which is important for pupils who struggle with anxiety or retention skills.

Pupils are not going to be allowed to take texts in to the exam now either. This makes the exam a test of memory NOT a test of analysis which is what SHOULD be being assessed.

As someone who has been a teacher, and has also worked at a senior level for an examination board, I think it is fair to say that I have seen teachers floundering over the last two years trying to work out exactly what the mark bands equate to – since they have also changed from an alphabetical system (A, B, C…) to numerical (9, 8, 7…). They are not merely transferable either – for example, an A does not automatically equate an 8 for example. It did not help when an announcement was made changing what ¬†which level is now the same as an ‘old C’ – just a few months ago!

There is always ‘bedding in’ time needed for any new project. I just hope that the pupils who are sitting the new GCSE exams this year are not penalised for happening to be the first ones through the exam hall doors. In my view, pupils should be awarded justly for the work that they do – not judged and pushed beyond acceptable limits to satisfy some old-school urge to make exams harder and harder.

It is interesting to note that this year alone, mental health problems have risen massively amongst year eleven pupils. There is a sense of hopelessness, of pressure, of needing to meet targets they don’t understand – and some of this has led to tragic circumstances.

Let’s hope that this summer brings some reflection from those who make the decisions at the top, and a desire to increase understanding and confidence in the new system for teachers, examiners and pupils alike. Otherwise, our GCSE exam system will become a vehicle of the unattainable and the panic-driven, instead of the confidence building, success machine it should be.

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The Middleton Marriage Media Meltdown

And so… the Pippa Middleton Wedding Wagon rumbles on, with flags flying and whistles tooting. Every day, certain newspapers treat their readers to breathless updates and speculation about the day in question – from who is invited or not invited, who might wear the same colour and cause social pandemonium and which fence is being repainted to ensure Bucklebury is in gleaming form for the Very Important People who are attending.

With only a few days to go, this self publicised hype is only likely to reach fever pitch with no scaling down in sight. It seems to me that people all over the country who have read anything related to the forthcoming nuptials are simply desperate for it all to be over so that we don’t have to read any further gushing about the bride’s latest walk down the street or gym exit.

Originally, we were told that this marriage was a private event, taking place on a private estate and that therefore, public scrutiny was not welcome. Fair enough, I thought.

Until events took over my original thinking.

The very close up, clear series of photographs of Pippa Middleton and James Matthews apparently canoodling behind a bush in front of a Chelsea church seemed planned. The constant pictures of a smiling Pippa wandering about her neighbourhood in various poses might well underline that thinking. Then, we are told by the very knowledgeable Sebastian Shakespeare of the Daily Mail, that Pippa has hired none other than the PR guru who has worked successfully for the Beckhams in helping to create their brand. You might well ask why would a ‘private’ event require the hype that tends to be rustled up by hiring a very expensive PR guru?

I can only assume that the Middletons, who protest themselves to be quiet, private people who are simply hounded by media interest, are actually involved in creating the cloud of ‘public interest’ in themselves. Certain journalists have certainly confessed to having Middleton sources for stories in the past.

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, other families who ‘married in’ to the royal family managed to remain pretty low key. I am verging on certain that none of them ever needed PR guidance to ramp up interest or indeed, wanted it.

The rather ironic thing about the self-publicism of the wedding and the run up to it, is that no matter how much fanfare the media gives or on whose orders, there isn’t the public interest to back it up. Pippa is not a much-loved character, the nation is not overly interested in what she does (or doesn’t) do, her attempts at writing in the past have been ridiculed and her lack of direction is baffling to most.

For me, the only interest I have in the wedding is that we may possibly see George and Charlotte, those secret royal children whom we know exist but hardly see; along with a chance to see Prince Harry with Meghan – incidentally, whose wedding WOULD bring similar hype but on much more solid, public-interest level, ground.

And so… get your hard hats ready. I think we are in for a bumpy few days. Roll on Sunday.

 

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Marina Litvinenko

Whilst watching the recent documentary about the murder of Russian defector and spy, Alexander ‘Sasha’ Litvinenko, I was struck not just by the inhuman tragedy of his death, but also by the magnificent stoicism of his widow, Marina.

With quiet strength and great eloquence, she told the story of her husband’s fight for freedom – and then his fight for life and justice against his killers. The Channel 4 documentary, Hunting the KGB Killers, told the haunting tale of the death of Litvinenko and the subsequent medical and criminal investigation in devastating detail, using the medical team and police investigators who were on the case.

But it was Marina, speaking with her gentle Russian accent, was the one who really drew me in.

Not only for her strength in standing by her husband throughout his career and his fight to tell the truth about his dealings with Russia, but also her determination to bring his killers to justice. To give them a name as criminals, even if they were never legally charged.

With no fanfare or self-publicity, this elegant woman’s only aim was to bring a rightful and just conclusion to the traumatic loss of her clearly much loved husband. In an age of media greed and celebrity, I found her not only charming but deeply impressive.

Never asking to be in the spotlight, it is the campaign which takes priority, not her own image. She acts in response to a conversation she had with her husband just before he died. He asked her to tell the truth, and that is her intention. She knows she is monitored, she is watched by those in Russian government – yet, her desire for justice and truth remains unchanged. In this, she is following her husband’s path. It is ironic and worrying that his determination to shed light on Russia’s underhand dealings led to his demise. Her bravery cannot be overstated.

Protecting their son, Anatoly, while continuing the fight for Alexander’s assassins to one day face justice for their actions, is Marina’s aim in life. She hopes they might one day be able to return to Russia, but so far this has been impossible for safety reasons.

As Marina said in the documentary, those responsible may never be physically punished for their crime – but at least they were named in the verdict at the Royal Courts of Justice:

“Even if you are not in prison, you are already punished. To wake up and go to sleep, to know people knew you are criminal, you are a murderer.”

And for Marina, some semblance of justice is better than none.

 

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Who Will Fill Phil’s Shoes?

Amongst great speculation and media frenzy, Buckingham Palace announced last week that HRH The Duke of Edinburgh is going to retire in August this year. At the age of ninety five, I think most people would agree that this is a reasonable decision for the royal consort to take, after many years of supporting HM The Queen with great diligence. The monarch and her husband are now of an age when most people would expect to be sitting back and enjoying life in the slow lane, but ruling is another game entirely. The Queen cannot step down, she will be Queen until the day she dies. That is what monarchy is and always has been in the United Kingdom. Abdication is not something likely to ever be considered, although a regency of sorts might be if the situation demanded it. For the consort, however, there are slightly different rules.

The question remains though – who will step in to this new vacancy? Prince Philip, along with starting the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, has hundreds of charitable patronages which will have to be covered by other members of the royal family. Prince Edward has volunteered that all the family will work as a team to ensure that the work goes on – but frankly, it seems that some of the family are more team players than others. It is well known that some of the family are genuine work horses, their numbers of engagements are always high in the court circular and their commitment and duty cannot be questioned. I fail to see how such people, like the Princess Royal, could possibly do more. There are, however, other members of the family who appear to be sadly lacking in this department.

I refuse to add Prince Harry to this list, because despite low(ish)numbers in the court circular, many of his charitable endeavours are apparently ‘not counted’ as royal work – the Invictus Games, for example. I think Harry will step up where needed anyway, it is his character to do so and I feel that he is accepting of his role within the family, within the nation and his duty to fulfil that as best as he can. I hope I am right.

There is, however, a growing issue within the family which must be dealt with – and that is both the media interpretation of the Duke of Cambridge as unwilling – and the actuality of his limited amount of work for ‘The Firm’. There is a sense that William is not a safe pair of hands, and that is a worrying factor for those within the Palace who do succession planning. The Cambridges have marketed themselves as a happy, nuclear family. A couple who met at university, married and had two children – one of each. The problem is that this little family is not like the little family who live next door. When Kate Middleton married William Wales, she was also marrying a role and a job. The recent Heads Together Campaign and accompanying media showed just what can be done with the sort of influence and inspiration the royal title bestows. It is a shame to waste that sort of platform, when so much good can be done.

Recent newspaper articles have suggested that Kate intends to be the new Prince Philip, and that she models herself on him. While hoping that this might be true (minus the grumpiness/swearing/unfortunate remarks, one hopes), it seems a little far fetched at present.

Another idea was that the Duke of York might step in to the breach. While he might have the unfortunate remarks element covered, he is not a popular royal, with a difficult reputation, and I can see no benefit to him stepping up in a more public manner.

And so, as they line up in this brave new world, with some edging more to the back of the line than others, it remains to be seen who will really fill Phil’s shoes – and who will say they fit while refusing to try them on.

Ready?

 

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The Meaningful Marketing of Meghan

With a confident, easy smile on her face and some very well placed confidantes at her side, Meghan Markle looked every inch the official royal girlfriend last weekend, as she watched Prince Harry play polo at Coworth Park in Ascot.

The Audi Polo Challenge was attended by both Prince William and Prince Harry, so it was hardly a low key event. The very presence of Meghan Markle might be seen as a typically tactical royal nudge to observers and media alike that:

A. She and Prince Harry are definitely a ‘thing’.

B. They don’t really care who knows it.

And

C. Their partnership might well be heading for a more official status.

Despite Prince Harry releasing a statement last autumn describing Ms. Markle as his ‘girlfriend’, some royal watchers have taken it upon themselves to believe that the relationship was already over/never really began. If you don’t believe me, check Twitter! Personally, this seems an odd presumption, since the couple have been seen on various occasions since – a date in London, Meghan wandering around near Kensington Palace, the pair attending a wedding together etc. It seems pretty clear to me that there is something going on, and actually something pretty serious. Sorry, Harry fans – but there it is.

Having been a royal watcher since the heady days of Lady Diana Spencer in her pie crust collars, I think it is fair to say that this semi-official polo appearance has quite big implications. Not only was Harry’s brother, William, also in attendance, but Meghan was standing alongside Mark Dyer, the Prince’s trusted friend and mentor for many years.

Quite an endorsement.

And let’s face it, would Prince Harry – a man who grew up with frequent pictures of his mother in the media while sunbathing, sitting on car bonnets, playing with her sons at polo matches – not know that those moments when he decided to cuddle and kiss his girlfriend next to his car would be captured and shared by any photographer present?

The royal family like to send messages without saying a word. They like to micromanage our beliefs about them without actually saying anything. Who remembers a certain Sarah Ferguson being asked to accompany The Princess of Wales on a visit to HMS Brazen to see Prince Andrew in 1986 before any engagement had been announced? That was a big indication that Miss Ferguson was being accepted in to the family as an ‘official girlfriend’.

I see this polo match attendance as a similar move. The reports that Meghan will also attend the wedding of Pippa Middleton and James Matthews as Prince Harry’s partner is also a significant step.

Perhaps we are being prepared for a move from ‘official girlfriend’ to something more?

I, for one, very much hope so.

 

 

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The Agony of Britain’s Missing People

Their faces gaze out at us from newspapers, documentaries, the internet. Some of their names are well known to us – Claudia Lawrence, Corrie McKeague, Madeleine McCann. Many we have never heard of. They are the missing people, the ones who vanished one ordinary day and were never seen again.

The families of the missing continue to wait for news of their loved ones. Some run campaigns to keep awareness alive, some have put their energies in to helping other families going through the same thing. The wait must feel interminable, and sometimes there is no end.

So what happens to these missing people? How can someone just disappear without trace, without anyone knowing where they are? Some may have chosen to leave their old lives behind. Some may have been involved in a tragic accident but never found. I remember a boy I had grown up with suddenly disappearing just before Christmas, not long after his eighteenth birthday. He had been on a night out, had been seen saying he planned to walk home although he was very drunk. His mother was distraught, searching, asking for information , to no avail. Eventually, one of his trainers was found stuck in the mud at the side of the canal. And soon after, his body was dredged up. He had lost his balance while walking down the narrow towpath. It was a terrible, spur of the moment end to what had been a drawn out mystery.

I wonder how many other missing people have met a similar, non suspicious end but were never discovered?

Currently, a landfill is being searched in the hunt for Corrie McKeague. How many other missing people ended up in such a place but were never discovered?

It is a terrible thing to consider – that those families will never have an answer to the whereabouts of their loved one.

Then there are those who clearly did not leave by choice, did not come to an unfortunate but non-violent death -, those who were taken. People like Claudia Lawrence, who seems to have been taken – possibly by someone already known to her. The police believe that there are those in the York area who know exactly what happened to the young chef, but won’t divulge what they know.

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There is Damien Nettles, a teenager out on the town with a camera, drunkenly taking odd snaps of those around him. Last seen on a chip shop CCTV, waving goodbye to the owner before disappearing in to the night. Again, there are those on the Isle of Wight who know what happened to Damien that night. They know where he lies, but will not tell his desperate family.

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What about Andrew Gosden, a fourteen year old who inexplicably decided to travel to London alone instead of going to school in September 2007? Did he go to meet someone? Where is he now?

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Sometimes the missing become the found – in devastating circumstances. Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were once two missing girls. They are now known as the tragic murder victims of Ian Huntley.

It is every mother’s worst nightmare – to lose a child, even when they are considered adults. The police say that if a missing person has not been found within 72hrs, the chances are that they are dead or have come to harm. It is a frightening prospect.

It is beyond belief that individuals may know information relating to missing people and their whereabouts, but do not come forward. How these people can face their guilt every day while families suffer the tremendous grief of not knowing, not being able to say goodbye, is a mystery to anyone with a heart.

There are anonymous ways you can give information to the police – through Crimestoppers for example, which you can do online with an anonymous form.

https://crimestoppers-uk.org/give-information/give-information-online/

If you have information about anyone you know has been reported missing, please do the right thing. Do it for their families, who are still waiting to find their loved ones.

 

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Remembering Diana

The mass of white flowers interspersed with cheery colourful tulips casts a wonderful fragrance in to the air around those waiting to view Kensington Palace’s new exhibition, ‘Diana: Her Fashion Story’. The garden, usually called The Sunken Garden, has been transformed in to a gloriously beautiful space entitled The White Garden, in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales twenty years after her death. People mill about, quietly taking in the scent of the flowers and the splendour of the planting. It seems a fitting tribute to a lady who loved flowers, was herself beautiful, fragrant and a one off. The garden will be re-planted through the season to maintain it’s beauty, the tulips and tiny white forget-me-nots replaced with roses, lilies and jasmine.

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The exhibition inside the palace is equally stunning. Although the queues are lengthy, even with a pre-booked ticket, (and one of the assistants informed me it has been like this every day since opening) – it is worth the wait. The exhibition consists of several adjoining rooms, each featuring several iconic outfits worn by the princess. Early items included are a pretty blue ballgown worn by the teenage Diana, the delicate pale pink blouse she wore for her Vogue portrait pre-engagement and the earthy tweed suit worn at Balmoral on honeymoon. Later dresses include the dramatic red and black flamenco-esque she wore with contrasting red and black long gloves, the magnificent beaded ‘Elvis’ dress and the dramatic midnight blue velvet of the ‘Travolta’ dress she famously wore to a ball at the White House.

For me, I loved the Catherine Walker designs best. Superbly tailored, with an eye for detail and perfectly fitted, they became Diana’s ‘uniform’ – whether a smart red business two piece or an intricately embroidered evening gown, each one is a work of art.

There are several designer sketches of outfits hanging on one wall, while other walls are covered in quotes about the princess and the impact she had both in fashion and in humanitarian terms. One room has beautifully carved, white wooden panels which seem to luminously echo the embroidery in some of the dresses themselves.

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Towards the end of the exhibition, a short video runs with iconic shots of Diana – the charity worker, the mother, the fashion icon. People watch in silence. There is a heavy emotion in the air – this is a woman who is missed. I could hear people as they walked around the glass display cases – “This one was when she was still happy,” I heard one say while gazing at the tweed suit. We, as a nation, embraced Diana and her story. We supported her and wanted her to succeed. Her presence in the royal family is sorely missed, and the massive queues and quiet comments serve to underline the great esteem in which Diana is still held.

I highly recommend a visit to both the garden and the exhibition. Uplifting, memorable and yes, just a little bit emotional too.

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