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Archive for March, 2013

Last October I posted a blog about being 12 months on from redundancy. What I’ve started to realise over the past six months is how rewarding self-employment can be.

Last March was pivotal for me. I was interviewed by Mad Science and taken on as Volcanic Vic. It has been an incredible year with over 250 hours’ work for the organisation – everything from after-school clubs, end-of-term camps and parties to full science days and huge assemblies. Today I will be teaching sound, electricity and how to make slime to a primary school in Chiswick. In the course of that I’ll work with one of my electric guitars and effects pedalboards, swing sound tubes around my head, change kids into fairies and giants (vocally!), make their hair stand on end with a Van der Graaff generator, pass enough electricity through them to light a neon tube with a plasma ball, give them shocks with a Tesla coil, and introduce them to something akin to elephants’ bogeys!

As most schools have a Science Week around now, it’s a busy time for Mad Science. Last week I handled two assemblies with a total of over 600 kids. Assemblies are whizz-bang affairs with big experiments such as floating a beachball over their heads with a powerful leaf blower or demonstrating flash paper with their eyes closed. Yesterday’s assembly included firing the paper from a 130-metre toilet roll into 100 girls at a private school (including an Only Fools & Horses moment when the paper hit the chandelier) – does life get any better!

Last March was also when I was first interviewed by a tutoring agency. Since then I’ve logged almost 600 hours’ of maths tutoring. My first set of five 11+ students all passed their entrance exams and got in to the schools of their choice – and that includes two that I taught across the Atlantic via Skype and iPads. I’m now working hard with a number of Year 11 students towards their GCSE exams in a few months.

There was one casualty last year: music. This year I’m working on a couple of projects and playing occasionally with a soul/funk band called the AJs (http://www.ajsband.co.uk). This side of my life should develop as the year goes on.

I’m still writing for Macworld and now also for iPad & iPhone User along with some website copy, brochure design and print artworking. Old habits die hard! I’ve also had life-changing experiences with last year’s Olympics (which wouldn’t have been possible had I been employed full-time),

My wife also left Jewish Care last year and is now operations manager for a dance academy – and a much happier person.

My gains over the past 12 months have been huge – probably more than at any other time in my life. I’ve remembered who I am and what I’m capable of achieving. One of the reasons I joined Jewish Care in 2001 was to make a difference, something I certainly did at the beginning but less so by the end. Now I make a difference to people every day – and isn’t that what life’s all about?

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I’m a pretty typical driver. I drive above the speed limit where I believe it’s safe to do so – and I won’t get caught. That means absolute adherence to speed cameras – truvelo, gatso, fatso, whatever. It’s a method that’s worked fine until 6 February this year.

Apparently I was caught doing 37mph on a 30mph camera. As the ‘Intention to Prosecute ‘ letter was the first one I opened on coming home from holiday it kinda soured the homecoming somewhat.

I really couldn’t understand it. This was a route I drove every Wednesday from a student I tutor to a school where I run a Mad Science club. I know it like the back of my hand or so I thought.

So the next day I drove the route again. Down the A1, Falloden Way from the North Circ. Speed cameras on the left preceded by a warning sign with a 40mph symbol. The road continues to Lyttleton Road with another warning sign and symbol. Enter Harringey. Straight on to Aylmer Road and traffic lights – with obscured 30mph signs. Perhaps I missed these. Perhaps.

Picture 2

Traffic lights at the end of Aylmer Road just before Archway Road. While the speed limit sign on the left is clearly visible, the one on the right is obscured by the traffic lights. Would you spot this if you were turning right, especially with heavy traffic?

Turn right into Archway Road, keep left, past Baker’s Lane on the right. Speed camera sign on the left without a speed symbol and then the offending camera. Doesn’t make sense!

The offending speed camera warning sign without a speed limit symbol

The offending speed camera warning sign without a speed limit symbol

At home I started investigating this camera. Various complaints online about the obscured signs – looks like Harringey has a money spinner here. I even considered taking my chances and going to court but there was one key problem: the street lights. They’re the standard distance apart for a built-up area which usually implies a 30mph speed limit. Given this and the existence of the speed limit signs, partially obscured or otherwise, would have resulted in a fine of a half-week’s wages plus court fees and three points on my licence.

I decided to accept the charge. Fortunately, I was offered a speed awareness course (at a cost of £97) which means no points and no requirement to declare the incident.

The whole incident still bugged me so I drove down the roads again, this time with my satnav turned on. It logged each of the 40mph cameras, showing the correct speeds. Then I approached the one on Archway Road that had caught me. My satnav pinged and showed the speed limit: 40mph. It should be 30mph. Now I understood. The speed camera info in my satnav is wrong!

Since then I have spotted a number of incorrect speed limits on my TomTom. One in particular, on Hanger Lane just past the gyratory system, has the same scenario: a 30mph speed limit that my satnav shows as being 40mph.

I’ve also noticed that while the London Borough of Barnet seems to have speed symbols on almost every speed camera warning sign that precedes the camera, Haringey has almost none. A review of the Effectiveness of Speed Cameras by the Alliance of British Drivers (http://www.abd.org.uk) states: Some [camera] locations seem to have been deliberately chosen to catch drivers unawares with the suspicion of the objective of raising revenue. Seems to me that this is such a camera and is possibly true of Haringey in general. If it isn’t, then why not have speed limit symbols on the warning signs?

The moral of this story? Sometimes technology sucks… in this case to the tune of £97!

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As someone who taught maths for 10 years in the 1980s and has recently come back to maths tutoring, a look at the syllabus from Edexcel, the main examining board, shows that little has changed.

Most of my years 10 and 11 students are studying for Edexcel GCSE with a few sitting for the IGCSE version. IGCSE? That’s International GCSE. Available in more than 100 countries, it doesn’t have to adhere to the national curriculum. For example, there is no compulsory study of Shakespeare in English. Perhaps this is part of the reason why in 2006 the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which assesses the strength of various qualifications, deemed that IGCSE was “not suitable for assessing what pupils in England learn.” State school pupils do not sit IGCSE exams because the government has not approved them for state school funding.

The real value for IGCSE in maths is that it prepares brighter students for their AS-level studies by including extra topics such as calculus, set theory and functions.

Sounds reasonable – until you realise that a local non-state school will only allow students to take the higher level of IGCSE maths with grades from A* down to E. The easier foundation level, with grades from C to G, is not offered.

One of my students at this school mentioned the higher level pass mark for a grade C. I thought they had made a mistake. When a second pupil made a similar comment and that their teacher had quoted this figure, I decided to investigate.

So, what do you need for a grade C?

Twenty-four per cent. Yes, you read correctly – 24%. In any other walk of life such a figure would be viewed as an abject failure but not, it appears, for Edexcel’s maths IGCSE. It’s easy to confirm this as all subject boundary marks are freely available on Edexcel’s website. Just 42% obtains a grade B, 61% a grade A and 80% a grade A*. More scary, a grade D, viewed as barely a fail, can be obtained with just 12%!

Thinking that this might be an IGCSE issue, I also checked the standard GCSE maths grade boundaries. Over the past five years, the highest mark required for a grade C at higher level was 28%; last November a student would only have needed 23%. The anomaly appears to be confined almost solely to maths GCSE.

On checking with Edexcel I was informed that the low mark was due to the discontinuation of the modular exam. As this had been taken at three sittings and the current exam is at one sitting, the lower mark boundaries reflected this and is unlikely to change in the near future.

The real question is: why are schools forcing weak pupils to sit higher level not foundation level? There’s only one answer: to maintain academic results. It’s easier to get 24% at higher level than the 67-70% required for a grade C at foundation level. Does it benefit the students? Certainly not. It’s questionable whether 24% shows even a basic level of numeracy.

The end result will be that in the future, all employers will need to give prospective employees a comprehensive numeracy test…

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