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Watch 2

As children, many of us were taught the old adage that “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” But while broken bones heal, the damage done by hastily spoken words rarely does and the pain can be multiplied manyfold when words are left unsaid.

Around 1970, I remember going to Valentines Park in Ilford and hiring a rowing boat with my father. When we finished, the boy in charge of the boats (who was probably my age, 14 or so) somehow insulted us – I don’t recall exactly what happened. A short argument ensued and when my dad threatened to turn it physical, the boy apologised. As an ex-commando, even at 50 he was still a force to be reckoned with. As we walked away, I remember dad saying to me: “I’d have let you sort him out if I’d have had any confidence in you.” Those words have stayed with me throughout my life and are as painful today as they were 45 years ago. Did he mean them to be so hurtful? Probably not but at the time he was not in the best of personal places.

Through circumstances beyond his control my father spent 15 years as a tailor’s presser for my grandfather, using a heavy iron day after day to press cloth. When by the early 1960s this had physically damaged him, he managed to get a job as an international telephone operator for the GPO, now BT. Still technically an ‘alien’, having retained his French nationality, he didn’t receive a pension and wasn’t allowed to be promoted to supervisor until after 1973 when the UK became part of the EU. He continued there until 1982 when a major heart attack curtailed his employment.

It is difficult to comprehend how frustrated my father must have been. Prior to the war he was a trainee accountant in Paris yet after the war he spent 35 years in London doing unskilled or, at best, semi-skilled work. It is difficult to share the reasons here but let’s just say this was a choice he made for the sake of his new bride. It didn’t take a lot for his frustrations to rise to the surface and to be translated into physical situations, something my brother and I knew only too well as children.

Some time back my relationship with my parents became difficult. I found it impossible to tell them I loved them. I tried once with my father but the words stuck in my throat. A few years ago dad said to me: “I never told my father I loved him until it was too late. Don’t make the same mistake I did,” but his comments fell on deaf ears.

On the death of my parents earlier this year, I started to clear their house. One of the items I found was my father’s chunky Omega Genève watch that mum had bought him in the 1970s. At the time she worked for Ernest Jones in Ilford and would have got a hefty discount – even so, it would still have been expensive. Perhaps it was a silver wedding anniversary present, I’m not really sure. Dad really loved this watch and wore it until about five years ago when it became too heavy for his weakened wrists.

The casing was worn and the gold-plated strap had been eaten away by sweat so I set about trying to get it repaired. My local jeweller informed me that straps could no longer be purchased for this model. I spent a couple of weeks searching online, missing out on a stainless steel replacement strap on ebay, and even registered for a dedicated watch auction at the end of July.

Last week I asked myself the question: why am I doing this? It’s a heavy watch that I would never wear. In fact I haven’t worn a watch for many years, relying on my phone for the time. Then came the stark realisation that repairing the watch was my way of trying to bring my father back and it wasn’t going to happen. I wouldn’t be able to ask him why he’d viewed me as such a disappointment as a child. I wouldn’t be able to reassure him that I’d look after mum after he died. And it wouldn’t give me the chance to tell him I loved him.

He knew the pain he’d gone through with his own father and wanted to save me the agonies of making the same mistake. To my cost I ignored him. His words may have hurt me as a child but my unsaid words have hurt me far more as an adult.

Originally published in The Huffington Post
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/../../vic-lennard/the-emotional-pain-of-words_b_7782938.html

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It’s healthy to move house every 10 years or so and being forced into making decisions on what to keep and what to chuck away. Once the kids have left home, downsizing to a smaller house or flat requires even more discipline on the clearance front. But what happens when a couple have lived in the same house for 67 years?

If you read my previous blog you’ll be aware that both my parents passed away in a 10-week period between early April and mid-June this year. Some five years before he died, my father had warned me that I would have to sort out all his paperwork after he had gone.

Dad was a squirrel; he never discarded anything written on a piece of paper. While most of the documents were useful, did I really need to keep a 1996 electricity bill or the 1980s service report for a car sold 20 years ago? Even with a third of all items consigned to the shredder I was still left with enough to fill 20 box files. I had to work my way through ten bank and building society accounts, creating the relevant paper trails as I went. In the end, only one of them was still active. I found dozens of old photos including some of dad with his commando comrades-in-arms, postcards from my uncle Eli from when he was prisoner-of-war in a German stalag, and reports of the motorbike accident that shattered my father’s left knee in 1944. There were old passports, ID cards and expired copies of every document imaginable.

Once mum moved to a care home the decision was made to sell the house in order to fund the costs of £50,000 per year. Then, some five-and-a-half weeks later, she died. There seemed little point in leaving the house vacant so an estate agent was instructed and the task of clearing the house began in earnest.

Most of their clothes were nearly-new. Life seemed to stand still in 2006 when dad’s botched knee replacement operations curtailed their holidays and his ability to leave the house. We packed them into 15 bags and donated them to a local hospice and the care home mum stayed in.

Anyone who has ever had a similar clearance task will have discovered that just because something is old or was expensive in its day doesn’t make it valuable now. For example, dad bought mum a full-length Canadian squirrel fur coat in 1987 for their ruby wedding anniversary. The bill of sale from Philip Bendon Fur Boutique was for £1,100. Current value? Less than £40! Another item for the charity shop. Half a dozen lead crystal decanters, five bone china tea sets, over 60 cut crystal wine glasses, various pieces of 1930s dining room furniture, all virtually valueless.

Living in a two-storey house, a stairlift was essential from 2006 onwards. Cost: over £5,500. The company that installed it then wanted a further £425 to remove it. “Aren’t there any re-usable parts?” I asked. Nope. A bit of searching and I found a company that removed it at no cost. Clearly someone could re-use some of the parts.

The house was like a museum dedicated to the not-so-finer aspects of the twentieth century. A Belling bed warmer, Philips hood hair dryer and stand, Carmen heated hair rollers, Breville sandwich maker and a Zyliss Autochop, none of which had seen the light of day in decades. I even found the 1940s Underwood Champion manual typewriter I used to mess about with as a kid.

So many items really should have been discarded long ago such as the tin containing four Castella cigars. Nobody smoked in the house after my father’s heart attack in 1981; these cigars were so dried out that smoking one would have been like holding your head over a bonfire and taking a deep breath.

Mum was also a squirrel but in a different way. Drawers with over 20 pairs of old glasses including those that belonged to my grandparents. Every watch they had ever owned, including the broken ones, plastic bags full of old buttons, remnant strands of cotton, the sewing needle case I made in primary school: my mum couldn’t bring herself to throw away anything. Mantlepieces and radiator shelves full of tchotchkes, many of which I had bought: a pair of three-legged giraffes, the black cat that appeared in my barmitzvah photos, a number of Wade Whimsies, the fake Capodimonte from Brick Lane and a glass cherry tree were among over 70 such items.

I found a battered old 1950s cardboard box full of darning wool and needles. These were donated to Hettie, a fantastic 99-year-old resident at the care home who still knits and darns.

There were moments when I stopped dead in my tracks such as when I removed mum’s wedding photo from its frame and found a label on the back showing she had been entered for the 1947 Daily Mirror Bride of the Year award. And the 1997 letter from Buckingham Palace telling my parents that they had been too late in applying for an invite to the Queen’s golden anniversary garden party.

What really reduced me to tears though was opening a suitcase and finding every card they had ever sent to each other or received. Birthdays, anniversaries, mother’s days, father’s days – all the way back to my mum’s 21st birthday card from 1948. Over 1,000 cards in total including two from The Queen. There were cards sent from my brother and I that he had written because I was too young to be able to, and even cards from my grandparents to them. How can a collection like this ever be thrown away? At the moment it can’t. Perhaps there will come a day when I will be able to. Perhaps not.

Originally published in The Huffington Post
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/vic-lennard/inheritance_b_7739298.html

M&D 01 lo

It’s been an interesting year so far.

I achieved one of my lifelong ambitions by entering, and completing, the London Marathon despite some serious knee issues. In doing this, I raised over £1,600 for BackCare charity. I’ve worked with more maths exam students on a one-to-one basis than ever before and played around 20 gigs as a guitarist.

I’ve also lost both of my parents in the past 10 weeks.

When my 95-year-old father died in hospital in early April, I had no time to mourn or to grieve his passing. My mother had also been admitted to the same ward a few days before and the staff had decided to put them in adjacent beds. A thoughtful idea but one that backfired when my father’s heart arrested late one night. I can only imagine the psychological effect this must have had on her.

In the Jewish religion, a body has to be buried as soon as possible after death. My time was taken up with handling the funeral arrangements and trying to work out the logistics of where mum would go after leaving hospital. She had spent the last nine years as my father’s carer, a man she had been with for 72 years.

Over the previous few years, my mother’s fiercely protective nature had driven a wedge between us. She always knew what was best for my father. I disagreed on a variety of issues and wanted to improve his life. Despite his dementia, he always sided with his wife. I became distant from them – it was my way of coping with a situation I really couldn’t handle.

After dad died, mum remained in hospital for a few weeks. One Monday evening I received a phone call to say she might not last the night. She was still at death’s door next day so I sat with her and, in a quiet voice, I told her that I forgive her for everything that had happened between us, that I’ll be fine and that if she wants to leave that’s ok. At that moment, all my anger subsided. I’m not sure whether my words helped to bring her back from the brink but by the next day she had made an amazing recovery. I promised my father before he died that I would look after mum and was now given an opportunity to be as good as my word.

We found a really good care home for her and within 10 days she had moved in. She lived there for five weeks though never really settled. Her room had family photos and some of her favourite knick-knacks but they meant little without her husband. On a number of occasions I sat with her and held her hand, talking about dad. She even facetimed my son in America. But the death of her lifelong partner had removed her reason to live. Towards the end she was almost unrecognisable and started seeing my father in visions. Last Sunday she passed away. Her body was still warm when I kissed her goodbye.

The eulogy I read at my father’s funeral was very factual; the one at my mum’s was far more emotive. I struggled to complete it.

Yesterday I went to their home, the house I grew up in. I walked through the front door and called out “hi” as I always used to. I sat in the lounge, closed my eyes and could see my dad sitting in his chair. I turned round and saw my mum, and as I looked on I could see them speaking. Mum would frequently check that dad was ok; even though partially deaf, he would always reply. They had nicknames for each other. In my mind’s eye, I could see and hear everything.

I have a number of arthritic conditions that cause me daily pain but this dulls into insignificance when compared to the physical pain and mental anguish I am going through now as I mourn both my parents. It is with a very heavy heart that I write this. I know that time will help but at this moment I can’t see that far ahead.

Originally published in The Huffington Post
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/vic-lennard/when-a-broken-heart-cant-be-mended_b_7609726.html

The recent furore with one of the maths GCSE papers raised some interesting points.

There were a number of difficult questions including the now infamous one referred to as the Hannah’s sweets question:

“There are n sweets in a bag. Six of the sweets are orange. The rest of the sweets are yellow. Hannah takes a random sweet from the bag. She eats the sweet. Hannah then takes at random another sweet from the bag. She eats the sweet. The probability that Hannah eats two orange sweets is 1/3. Show that n²-n-90=0.”

The solution is within the ability of an A* student but the topic, probability, should be one that even average students would attempt. By combining the creation of a quadratic equation with probability, only the very best students are likely to have obtained the correct answer.

To really understand why the level of anger directed at edexcel, the exam board, was so high, it is important to know the grade boundaries for this exam. In June 2014, a score of just 26% resulted in a passing C grade, with 44% being enough for a B grade and 62% for an A grade. Even an A* only required a mark of 80%. With an average student obtaining less than half marks, it is hardly surprising that this question went viral on twitter.

What is really concerning is that questions like this may well become the norm in two years’ time. The Department of Education’s “Mathematics: GCSE subject content and assessment objectives” document, released in 2013, outlined the changes that must be made to the GCSE maths syllabus for students being examined from June 2017 onwards. It is the sample exam papers created by three of the exam boards that have come under fire recently for being too difficult. The Office for Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) stated that while the higher papers would stretch the most able students, “OCR, Pearson and WJEC Eduqas need to refine their higher and foundation tier papers to sufficiently differentiate across student abilities.” In other words, the proposed exams are too difficult for the average student.

As part of its conclusion, Ofqual also stated that the boards’ higher papers “compare well with papers from a range of already high-performing countries.” Which countries is it referring to? Top of the list in the Programme for International Assessment (Pisa) results from 2012 were Shanghai-China, Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Taiwan, Korea, Macau-China and Japan. Where was the UK? Down in 26th for maths. Given this, it might be seen as being fair to aspire to the levels of some countries in the Far East. But is this reasonable? How do the educational cultures compare?

Take a look at education in Singapore. Figures published in 2005 showed that 63 per cent of those aged over 15 who were no longer students had achieved nothing better than a primary school education. What steps has Singapore taken to improve this situation? Around a quarter of all public spending goes on education, more than double that of the UK. Training drives for new staff have resulted in many classes having two teachers, and all new staff receive continuous personal training and development from senior teachers.

In English primary schools, teachers only need a C grade at GCSE to teach maths; in Japan, most teachers at the same level have a maths degree.

Making exams more difficult will not raise the quality of secondary education in the UK. Proper investment in specialist teachers in primary school and better qualified teachers in secondary schools would be a start. And when a quarter of all UK secondary school maths teachers do not have a maths degree, is it any wonder that our students are poorly taught and ill-prepared for their maths exams?

Originally published in The Huffington Post
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/vic-lennard/making-maths-count-in-the_b_7550528.html

Just read the grade boundaries for Edexcel maths, June 2014 exams:

Maths A Higher
Grade C: 28.5%
Grade B: 47.5%
Grade A: 66.5%
Grade A*: 82%

Maths B Higher
Grade C: 42.5%
Grade B: 60.5%
Grade A: 79%
Grade A*: 89%

Bearing in mind that 90% of schools ditched Maths B once the modular aspect was dropped by the government, the disparity in grade boundaries for Maths B Higher level are ludicrous. They are roughly a grade apart from Maths A.

Maths A Foundation
Grade C: 70.5%

Maths B Foundation
Grade C: 86%

Similar problem with Foundation level. While the grades tend to suggest that Maths B must be easier than Maths A hence the higher pass marks, this just isn’t true.

For the future, there is no justification for *any* school putting students through Maths B. Ditch it (which is what should have happened when the modular aspect was discontinued).

When I started teaching, classrooms still contained blackboards and chalk and the personal computer hadn’t been invented. When I stopped some 10 years later, technology had stretched to whiteboards, wipeable markers and the BBC B.

On returning to teaching as a private maths tutor I spent a day in a local secondary school to see how technology was being used. Interactive whiteboards and their linking with in-class computers makes the teaching environment a lot better than in the late 1970s. Lesson preparation is much easier – no more creating purple Banda masters and duplicating using a mixture of isopropanol and methanol, though the smell was quite enticing!

If there is one part of technology that has made a really big difference it has to be the internet and online teaching resources. Sites like BBC’s GCSE Bitesize are brilliant for students while tried-&-tested lessons from the likes of the TES (Times Educational Supplement) site can save hours in planning.

On the homework front, a number of websites offer comprehensive packages to which many schools subscribe. A good example is MyMaths (www.mymaths.co.uk). For less than £600 per year a secondary school gets a huge interactive resource covering National Curriculum level 2 through to A-level. Unlimited access for all students and teachers, online homework tasks, an assessment manager and booster packs are just some of the advantages.

So what could be wrong with the scenario of personalised homework for all students? From the teacher’s perspective, not much. Cuts down on setting homework, taking in exercise books and handling marking. But there is a huge downside.

Anyone who has marked GCSE papers or worked with the marking schemes that are made available will appreciate that most marks are given for showing the correct methods and working out. In fact it’s possible to get a grade A without having a single correct answer! How? If small mistakes are made, the answer would be wrong (which usually loses one mark) but all method and working out marks would be obtained – and that’s the lion’s share of the marks. How do you show method and working out with online resources such as MyMaths? You can’t. So how do students get used to showing methods and working out? They don’t.

Technology is a brilliant helper but the problems start once you become a slave to it. MyMaths has its place in maths teaching but from what I’ve seen, too many teachers are using it instead of setting proper homework. This might be expedient and provide a short-term answer but until GCSE exams are taken online too, such a lazy approach will adversely affect students’ grades – especially those on the margins of passing.

Today, the British government is announcing changes to GCSE exams. Note I say the government, in tandem with the exam regulator, Ofqual. From a maths point of view, the main change is to promote the idea of developing independent problem-solving skills, rather than setting types of questions that can be rehearsed.

There are a number of problems with this, not least of all in the teaching aspect. Do I hold secondary school maths teachers in high regard? Generally, no. The kind of salary on offer attracts people for whom maths teaching is not a passion – and to be a good teacher you must have this passion. I had it when I taught full-time back in the 1980s but too many of those I now come into contact with teach purely from a textbook and fail to enthuse their students in any way at all. Are such teachers going to be capable of helping students to develop independent problem-solving skills? Not a hope – especially those without a maths-based degree who never had the opportunity to develop such skills themselves.

The second problem lies with the never-ending change in syllabuses. Edexcel is a good example. Its linear GCSE (to be taken at a single sitting) has changed three times in the past six years. 2540 finished in November 2008, 1380 in November 2011, and the current syllabus, 1ma0 (a rather unfortunate set of letters and numbers!) was first examined in June 2012. Now that modular maths exams (taken at three sittings) have been outlawed, there has been the further introduction of 2MB01 (which, to add to the confusion, already existed), taking the modular course of the same code and changing it to three exams at a single sitting to be first examined in June 2014.

Confused? Hardly surprising – and it appears that all of these will be canned for the new course to be started in September 2015 for first examination in July 2017.

The former Schools Minister Nick Gibb said the changes were being made to “eliminate grade inflation. It has to happen. There’s been concern for many years about grade inflation in the GCSE exam and with the proliferation of resits and modular exams in GCSEs there’s been a real concern about standards.”

Really? Edexcel has been given a free hand to set grade boundaries for linear maths GCSE so low as to no longer be meaningful. Twenty-four per cent for a grade C? And the reason? To allow parity between modular and linear exam systems as the former is easier than the latter. It’s farcical – and of the examination boards’ creation. Yet Ofqual and successive governments have done nothing to control this unworkable system.

So where does this leave IGCSE? Interesting question. As it’s a worldwide qualification I don’t believe it will be subject to the same changes. If that is the case, and as only non-state school students can sit IGCSE exams, this is going to widen the gap between IGCSE and GCSE. IGCSE is already seen by many to be a symbol of status, almost a badge of honour, for non-state schools.

For this new examination system to be successful, three things need to happen:

1. Shut down IGCSE in the UK and make all schools subject to the same examination system.
2. Have a single examination board rather than the current competitive situation with Edexcel, AQA, OCR and various others
3. Allow OfQual to administer the examination system without being answerable to Parliament (which it clearly is).

As a professional maths tutor I should be happy with this confusion – far more parents will be looking to have their children tutored. But I’m not. I believe it’s change for the sake of change without adequate consultation with those of us in the teaching profession. I have little doubt that this will be barely workable but will it end up going the way of Michael Gove’s proposed scrapping of GCSEs last year? Probably not – and that’s the really worrying part.