Virus Isolation 5

The good news is that I am hardly coughing anymore, and even felt well enough to get on the turbo trainer for half an hour. Which just reminded me that:

  • Being at home constantly means you eat all the time
  • I haven’t exercised for a week
  • I hate the turbo trainer

So this means that on Tuesday I can go out into the big wide world and see what is left of it. Part of me expects a dystopian wasteland,

Although I suspect, based on the local Facebook group pages the problems will be nowhere near as bad.

Imagine – no branded groceries.

Today it was reported that the number of deaths exceeded 1000, which was readily [predicted by every exponential curve ever. However, this was a cue for a number of commentators to ask whether these are deaths of people from the virus, or did people die with the virus. We’re going to see a lot more of this – it’s a narrative that has appeared in the US and is now being seen here. It seems to feed in to yet another skirmish in the manufactured culture wars. The writers who are questioning this – and they are right to question, provided they have evidence to back up their claims – are the same ones who oppose the strategies that have been taken to minimise contact between people. The same writers are on the lookout for over-zealous police responses, just so that they can shout out that individual freedoms are being lost, and that this is becoming a police state (and look, the libs are quite happy with it this time!).

For example, look at Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet. He had previously tweeted that the virus may not be too much of a problem. Fast forward, and now that he has more facts at his disposal he changes his mind, and criticises the government’s response on Question Time. And right on cue, the accusations fly, saying he is an Extinction Rebellion leftie (I’m not sure how a view on climate change or party politics has anything to do with responses to a pandemic), and in choosing to identify him with ER and the left, the debate has been neatly shifted, from a point he was making about the current situation to a snap-portrait which is supposed to reveal everything that he thinks. This is the tactic – deflect and mislead. Just ask – why people want to stifle valid criticism?

It’s manufactured outrage, and it’s all for clicks and likes. I’m not going to give Brendan O’Neill and his crew a link, but they are loving the opportunity to write their usual contrarian views.

My view remains the same – as yet we still don’t know the mortality rate, and so caution seems like a good idea. Very strict lockdowns do seem to work, as we can see in China, although we may want to question the data they provide (again, I’m being even-handed, I’m not going to assume it’s automatically wrong).

Certainly looking at what is happening in the US, where the President wants business back to normal by 15th April, we can see that the lack of testing, the initial refusal to accept that the virus will affect them, and the lack of socialised medicine are going to hit hard.

Today’s Heroes and Zeroes


Lauren Laverne – her 6Music breakfast show is the antidote from rolling TV and radio news. Listen in, I guarantee it will make you feel better.

All the dogs of Twitter


Chartwells, who supply food to schools. This is what they provided for 5 days’ worth of lunches for those on free school meals. Let’s face it, if you’re rich or even just on an average income, and have a nice house, possibly with a garden, feel physically safe at home, you’re pretty much ok. But a lot of people won’t be.

A final thought.

Maybe this cartoon from today’s Observer is what we should start to think about – what happens when this is all over.

Uncertain future.

Virus Isolation Day 4

On Thursday night we saw people take to their doorsteps and windows to “Clap for our Carers”.

A fantastic sentiment, and I hope that those who over the last decade supported cutting the numbers of staff and keeping wages fixed had a massive shite into their hands before they started clapping.

I’m also not sure Clap for our Carers is the best slogan. I’m going to be promoting “Gonorrhoea for our Politicians”.

We look for light relief as we all sit at home, and for me this came from the inestimable Marty Beard in an interaction with the never over-estimated Douglas Carswell. I think this is called “have your arse handed to you on a plate”.

On a more serious note, some thoughts about data and interpretation of the differing theories provided. At the beginning the UK government promoted an idea of herd immunity, which led to everyone scurrying away and working out that if 60% of the population are allowed to contract the virus, and 1% die, then there would be 400,000 deaths. More detailed analysis by Imperial College put this at 250,000, which was a wakeup call to government who could see the need for reducing the death toll considerably by promoting policies such as the ones we have seen latterly regarding social distancing and curtailment of movement. A more recent paper from Oxford has again promoted the idea of herd immunity (which has not been peer reviewed and is being promoted by a PR company rather than the university press office). There’s a great write up of this in the FT ( where Tim Harford weights up the differing perspectives. As he points out, the data as yet isn’t very good, and so the best policy for now is stay indoors, expand health system capacity and test. He also suggests that some policymakers and individuals may come up with reckless responses based on this one report. For me, this is always going to be a danger. As we move through this crisis, there will be multiple papers assessing the current position and forecasting the future based on different strategies. My view would be that until data gets significantly better, we need to remain cautious. I’d also be questioning the motivation of the pundits who take papers such as the Oxford one and use this to suggest that the current measures aren’t worth continuing with. As with so many pieces of scientific work, it’s always good to get a wide range of analyses, but it’s better to follow the one where the majority agree. And when there is dispute, sometimes it’s worth asking who benefits. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that you could find plenty of evidence to say that smoking wasn’t harmful.

Tomorrow in this somewhat random blog, I’ll look at how some people are already using the coronavirus as the next battlefield in the culture wars as well as thinking about what the future might look like

Today’s Heroes and zeroes


Everyone who has starts drinking when the afternoon press conference starts

(by Modern Toss – always worth a read.)


Branson – asking staff to take 8 weeks without pay after previously suing the NHS and asking for a bailout for his airline

Mike Ashley having to apologise for wanting to keep sports equipment stores open and now trying to regain credibility by offering to lend trucks to the NHS

Tim Martin for his u-turn on paying workers but now not paying suppliers.

Who’d have thought these See-You-Next-Tuesdays didn’t have the best interest of their staff or the country uppermost in their minds? I, for one, am shocked. Shocked I tell you!


Virus Isolation Day 3


The disastrous news from this small North Shropshire town, is that Sainsburys have run out of wine, certainly the affordable gutrot (that is German for “good red” of course). When you’ve asked someone else to collect shopping for you, it is unreasonable to ask them to visit all the shops to make sure that you have this essential cooking ingredient. You’d just imagine they’d do it anyway, recognising the importance. Big shout out to my shopping helper! However, I now have all the other ingredients needed to produce haute cuisine (or hot food as we say in English)

Symptoms today: still coughing and not much more to report. Maybe I don’t even have this virus, and am over-reacting, but the whole point of social distancing and isolation is to remove this qualitative judgement. I was sad to hear that a former colleague is much worse than me – in hospital on oxygen and with no one allowed to visit him. This shit is real kids.

There are some fascinating articles being produced, many of which are strongly disagreeing with the Government’s current position of “lockdown”. There seems to be a 100% correlation between these and their organ’s views of Brexit, climate change and the role of the state. This is not to say that they are completely wrong, but I’d rather get facts from named scientists rather than pundits or journalists. Over the next weeks we are going to see more and more articles that argue with the data, the data models used, and the policies pursued by government. What is important to remember is that science provides us with the background information. As more becomes known about mortality, rates of infection, then the predictions that data scientists can make become better (better starting data = better forecasts). The danger is that pundits will look at early predictions, and dismiss all of science, whereas science is really about updating hypotheses based on best data and agreed ideas. Governments then set policies based on their interpretation of best available science.

Also from the sewers of Twitter– complaints that government is hiding or massaging the numbers who have died. All because Public Health England have changed the start and end point of the 24 hour period over which they count, and the time at which they report. Common sense will then explain why the data on Wednesday seemed low and that on Thursday seemed high. I expect this to settle down to its previous exponential curve. It’ll be interesting to see if the data today correlate with the predictions that I and others have modelled. Obviously I’m not sharing that model – I’m not an epidemiologist, I just do numbers for fun.

What will really be interesting, as more data becomes available, we get more experience, and we know more about immunity, is how governments decide what their exit strategy is going to be, as there is a balance between protecting citizens, maintaining civil society and having a functioning economy.

On the plus side, it’s been a productive day, teaching circulation and heart dissection to one student, then helping another to prepare for a test on evidence of evolution. My dad was a vicar, and in sermons looking down form the pulpit he would say “From where I’m standing it seems clear we are descended from monkeys.”

Today’s heroes and zeroes:


Disney + 7 day free trial, meaning unlimited Marvel movies

Dr Who giving us advice in this video

National Theatre broadcasting shows on Thursday evenings, starting with One Man, Two Guvnors.


Pretty much any company not allowing staff to stay away – call centres I’m thinking of you!


Virus Isolation Day 2

Well this virus is a right bugger, as they don’t say down south.

Coughing still, bit of a temperature overnight, very tight chest, massive lethargy and general grotty feeling.

Wednesday meant I had to do a bit of work, delivering a 2-hour revision class to one of my tutees. Tricky when talking is what makes me cough more, but the joy (!) of the gig economy is that if I don’t do it, I don’t get paid. Luckily, I can do this without needing to leave the house.

Other than that, feeling pretty crap. The local Facebook group is full of people writing about people treating shopping trips as a social occasion, taking their entire families, stopping to have a chat. This is how you get sick, people. Being cynical, by the time I recover, lots more of them will be ill and so I will have the shop to myself.

The afternoon’s entertainment was brought via Disney+ (I’m getting maximum value from the 7 day free trial), followed by the signal for the country to start drinking, aka the daily press conference.

And because I like playing with data and numbers, I’ve been taking the cases and deaths data for the virus, looking to see what the exponential coefficient is, and predicting how many deaths we will see. I’m not sharing that – it’s fucking terrifying. – as my maths may be wrong, even though it is producing similar results to outcomes in other countries.

If you haven’t got the message yet – don’t go out!

On to today’s heroes and zeroes.

Kudos to James Timpson. I’ve always been a fan of this company once I’d read of their support for ex-offenders.

Onto the zeroes. Obviously, Tim Martin of Wetherspoons had this coming.

I see he has decided to pay his workers now, maybe he realised that a lot of people wouldn’t be going to ‘Spoons again after this is over.

And finally I give you my MP. I’ve never been a fan, he is just a shill for American business interests, and an utter (sorry, WordPress won’t let me write that word).


Virus – self isolation day 1

Om Monday evening I took a walk through the park then around the edge of town, keeping myself away from people as advised. Looking into supermarkets as I passed I decided there were already too many people inside and decided not to drop in and pick up a bottle of wine.

On getting home, I put supper in the oven, then did quick session on the bike on a  turbo trainer. By the end of exercising I was very aware of a tight chest. By the end of supper, I was coughing repeatedly and deciding that this was the time to decide I might have this virus.

Of course, there is no way of telling if I have – throughout Tuesday I continued to cough, but my temperature appeared normal much of the time. The only other symptom appears to be lethargy, but that could just be laziness.

Coughing got much worse if I tried to speak. This became an advantage when you have insurance scammers calling you – a quick bout of coughing and they get off the line really quickly.

I’m going to be at home for the next 7 days: an advantage of living alone is that this doesn’t mean anyone else will need to be isolated for 14 days.

At the end of Tuesday, here’s the summary:

  • Symptoms: Still coughing, tired
  • Provisions – Enough food for 7 days, but very low stocks of alcohol
  • Reading – the latest Rebus novel by Ian Rankin
  • Crossword – completed just over half of the cryptic puzzle in today’s Guardian so far
  • Work – minimal, just some email and a look to check students have submitted assignments
  • Annoyance with people who ignored the need to keep social distance – high!

Last week, before stricter lock down measures were announced, I couldn’t believe how close people wanted to get in lines in the supermarket, or how they crowded together in entrances of shops for a chat.

Even more shocking, photos on Facebook of a pub in my town, celebrating “Great people” going out for a drink:

Hardly surprising when this man wanted to keep his pubs open and suggested that there is nothing wrong with socialising in a bar

And even the vice chancellor of a (not to be named) university tweeting about going to the pub (Happy Friday!) only an hour after the government had announced that pubs and bars should close (This was later deleted, after some pretty inevitable criticism).

Luckily the Daily Mash was on hand to provide a suitable commentary on people who don’t get social distancing.

Let’s see what tomorrow brings.

Oh, and stay away from people!

My People of the year – 2019

It may not quite be the end of the year, or indeed the decade, but writing a list of people who I’ve found inspiring is cathartic, doing this before we know the results of this week’s election, one which has been characterised by lying and the worst of people.


In at number one and representing the world of sport. In a year where as always we could be spoilt for choice, I picked Dina Asher Smith. Academically brilliant – 10 A* at GCSE, 3 As at A level and a first from King’s London, this year she was winner of the 200m title in the World Athletics Championships 2019 and she is the fastest British woman runner in history.


From the world of music, my album of the year is Kiwanuke, the third album from Michael Kiwanuke. Soulful, and written to be listed to as an album, which suits us older folk!

Public Life

For standing up for what is right, despite all the smears, and being prepared to use the British judicial system to hold parliament to account, despite all the obstacles place in her way, Gina Miller. It’s worth reading the linked article for an understanding of what she believes in.


In literature, the inestimable Margaret Atwood. Continuing the story of the dystopian Gilead is a parable for our times.


One of the most powerful films this year was “Sorry, We Missed You”. Ken Loach at the age of 83 still produces work with a sublime combination of empathy and shock. His portrayal of the gig economy and its effect on individual and families should be watched by anyone, in fact everyone, who relies on their purchases from Amazon or elsewhere being delivered by courier. You won’t complain about a late or mishandled delivery again.

On the subject of film, mention has to go to Debbie Honeywood, an unknown actor who played Abby in “Sorry We Missed You”. Two of her scenes, both where we see and hear just her side of a phone call, are some of the most moving in the film.


From the world of politics, it sometimes seems hard to find someone you might respect, but look beyond this small island and its ongoing psychodrama and we have Jacinda Ardern. Her response to the massacre in Christchurch was a lesson in humility, dignity and leadership to all others.


As a scientist, I have to pick someone from the world of science, and who better than Katie Bouman. Her excitement was infectious when the first ever photograph of a black hole was revealed, where she had led the development of the imaging algorithm.


And finally – a remarkable person who holds us all to account, who repeatedly reminds us of what science says. You know she’s right when a bunch of angry white men have to take to their keyboards to discredit her – Greta Thunberg

Comfortably Numb

On this day, 40 years ago, Pink Floyd released “The Wall”.

At that time, I was in the first year of 6th form, at that age where you are still trying to find and define your musical identity, which for soem reason mattered more in those days. As someone who’d bene brought up with classical and church music, and who played in orchestras, prog inevitably drew me in.

And then Pink Floyd released this. The ever so worldly upper sixth formers I knew (in what I would now know to call a vertical tutor group), were astonished that the album appeared to be so commercial, and were even more shocked that they managed to get a number one single from it, “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”. Possibly my least favourite song on the entire album, with its “We don’t need no education” refrain.

But the album had absolute gems, and even at first it didn’t seem to compare to Dark Side, or Wish You Were Here, some lyrics just stood out, and stand the test of time.

“Hey You”, with its spiky acoustic guitar, and the sound of fingers sliding across the frets:

Hey you, out there in the cold
Getting lonely, getting old
Can you feel me?
Hey you, standing in the aisles
With itchy feet and fading smiles
Can you feel me?
Hey you, don’t help them to bury the light
Don’t give in without a fight

The despair of “Nobody Home”:

I’ve got a little black book with my poems in.
Got a bag with a toothbrush and a comb in.
When I’m a good dog, they sometimes throw me a bone in

Side 4 was never a comfortable listen (yes kids, albums had sides in those days). You had to remind yourself the fascist Pink was part of  a dream sequence, but you know there’s plenty of people around today who would happily say

“There’s one in the spotlight, he don’t look right to me”

Finally, redemption in “Outside the Wall”.

Some hand in hand
And some gathered together in bands.
The bleeding hearts and artists
Make their stand.

And when they’ve given you their all
Some stagger and fall, after all it’s not easy
Banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall

But let’s face it, the top track is the last one in side 3, with two fabulous Dave Gilmour guitar solos. This is from the band’s “reunion” in 2005. Enjoy

“This tweet is unavailable”

The phrase we see on Twitter, when a user has chosen to make their account private, and I confess that these days, this does include me.

For over 10 years I’ve used Twitter – I was a fairly early adopter, and to start with struggled to see what was the point, but very quickly, Twitter became a virtual home, place where I could share ideas about my work, make connections and develop a “personal learning network”. It became the place I plugged my blog articles, where I found some key thinkers on higher education policy and allowed me to identify possible speakers for conferences.

More recently I’ve become less enamoured, let me explain why.

Twitter and HE

There are still plenty of users who provide great insight into HE, and organisations like HEPI and Wonkhe are a reliable guide to the challenges and thinking in the sector. On the downside though, too many individual accounts are now just retweets of that user’s institutional marketing, or a tweet to announce “I’m at this meeting today”, while making sure that the head of department, VC and institutional account are copied in. Even worse is the individual academic account tweeting about a course being, for example, 2nd in England for an aspect of student experience as measured in a league table (not of course, the original NSS data form 2 years previously…). It all gets rather tedious


As a qualified teacher, I’m also interested in thoughts of other teachers, and Twitter has been a great sources of support and links to resources as well as current thinking about education. It does get pretty vicious though, especially the ongoing fight between trads and progressives.


Oh yes, the accusation thrown out to anyone who disagrees with you. Organisations can seem to be pretty snowflakey too – they have a reputation to protect after all, and will make sure that the digital chip-paper that is Twitter never appears to challenge that. I’m sure there was a good reason why there were 5 accounts belonging to employment lawyers (individual and corporate accounts) who were following me. I don’t know the reason, but, reader, I blocked them.


And now the sewer really deepens. Politics in the UK has become so polarised, and I am sickened just reading the comments. Most worrying is that an increasing number of people cite social media as their source of news. Really? This is scary, but it’s easier to have all your biases confirmed and polarised further than it is to read a decent newspaper.

Ten arguments for deleting your social media accounts right now

This is a great book by Jaron Lanier. He presents 10 reasons for leaving, or at least stepping back from, social media.

Read it, just read it and re-evaluate why you think the way you do.


Am I likely to quit Twitter – nah, not completely, but I’ve been badly burned in the last year by the way some people have chosen to interpret my tweets.

Hence, I might retweet a newspaper article, but I won’t comment much. I rarely make an individual comment on education anymore. I do comment on cycling – that’s uncontentious, although despite being delighted that Bernal won the Tour, I’d have loved to see another team win for once. (Sorry to all the Team Ineos fanboys)

Oh, and I’ll be keeping my account locked as well as maintaining a long list of accounts I’ve blocked, so that I get to decide who can read what I write.


This is a slightly off-topic blog post, the only real link to education, and in particular higher education, is the origin of the parlour game, Humiliation.

This makes its appearance in David Lodge’s campus novel “Changing Places”. Lodge’s character Philip Swallow introduces this to american colleagues at Euphoric State University. The idea is to name a book that you’ve not (but might be expected to have) read. Points are scored for everyone else who has read the book. The humiliation comes from admitting you haven’t read canonical works of literature. In the book, an admission of not having read the text of Hamlet leads to an English academic not getting tenure.

Anyway, as a scientist, I’m expected to be a philistine, and have certainly not read much of what might constitute an undergraduate literature reading list. Last week however, I was settling into that most British of activities, namely reading the Radio Times, the Christmas issue being  the only issue bought in middle class households across the country. Going through the film listings, I realised that I could play Humiliation, using classic movies I’ve not seen, so here’s a list of what I’ve managed to miss or avoid.

  • The Sound of Music
  • Mary Poppins
  • It’s a Wonderful Life
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Citizen Kane
  • ET
  • Jaws
  • Pretty much all horror films, apart from Psycho, and The Omen

I didn’t see the original Star wars until probably 10 years after it was released. I must have spent too much time reading books.

Learning Lessons from School

Often at this time of year, I write a “review of the year” blog piece, summarising my writing over the year, and what HE and my own university in particular have gone through. That all changes this year – my university and I parted company in March (I think I’m allowed to say that) – so there is little to review from that perspective.

However, it was still a big year in HE – a new Higher Education and Research Act, the first gold silver and bronze TEF awards, and now a consultation on the role of the new OfS.

In all of these, the importance of student experience, and particularly use of metrics to demonstrate how well a university performs is paramount, ostensibly to allow prospective students to make choices, but most likely to allow league table compilers, journalists and others to make (specious?) comparisons.

So, if I can’t write much about my experiences of HE this year, what can I share? Since September I’ve spent most of my time both as a postgraduate student, and learning to teach in secondary school classrooms, and there are three lessons I can take from there that, if I were a subject lead in HE, I’d be considering.

I fully accept that university lecturers and school teachers do different jobs. But if you’re in a teaching intensive post-92 university, chances are that some of what you need to do is not that different from a teacher in a local academy or school.

Lesson One – Assessment and Feedback

Pretty much every university and course gains poor scores in the National Student Survey for this. Learning and Teaching committees agonise over it, develop complicated feedback procedures and guidelines, set minimum times to return marks (15 to 20 days), but wonder why students are still unhappy about feedback.

Maybe it’s because they compare with their school experience. Assessment happens constantly. Formative assessment (peer or self assessed maybe) in nearly every lesson. Personalised verbal and written feedback every couple of weeks. If students take a test, marks and feedback are returned within the week. This is the expectation of students – universities could think about how to develop a transition to enable them to adjust to university approaches, but equally support them in those early, vulnerable weeks.

Lesson two – Learning from Teaching Observation

Peer (or heaven forfend, management) observation of teaching in universities is, at its best, a collaborative experience, sharing good practices and relying on professional approaches to self development. However for many this is based on being observed for possibly one hour a year and maybe observing others for maybe two or three hours.

New lecturers may be observed a little more in their first year as part of any post graduate certificate they are taking.

Contrast this with the school experience. As a trainee teacher I am currently observed teaching for 10 hours a week. Every session that I deliver. And at the end of each session, there is a four page feedback form where I scored against 8 standards, with 3 levels of competence. Advice is provided on what worked well, and what I can do to improve. Targets are set for the next week’s season, and I have to provide my own reflection. Guess what – my teaching improves each week, and I develop new techniques and new ideas from the advice I get. I also go and observe a range of other people whenever I want to.

If we want to make big changes in teaching practice, and expose people to a greater number of great teachers and different ideas, then the annual observation round leaves much to be desired, as does the way in which new lecturers are suppported.

Lesson 3 – Know your Students

It’s well now that a sense of belonging aids student retention and attainment, as evidenced in projects such as the Paul Hamlyn/HEA What Works project, as well as universities’ focus on developing course identity.

I talked to a university undergraduate course leader the other week, with maybe 30-40 students in each year. They said that they did not know the names of all their final year students, let alone the others. In school, I’m expected to know the names – and use them – of all my pupils. So in a class of over 30 11 year olds, I can talk to each of them individually, and know a little about them and their abilities. And importantly, I should be able to do this within a couple of weeks of meeting them.

If this is what pupils are used to in school, it’s maybe not surprising that they don’t feel a sense of belonging when they first come to university.


So what’s to be done?

Firstly, I don’t think universities need to replicate schools: the two sectors have different functions, cultures and behaviours. However, a really hard look at transition to university, again particularly in teaching focussed universities whose students may lack some of the cultural capital to thrive instantly, could provide a way of maximising student engagement and attainment.

Seriously, why not send your teaching staff to spend two weeks in a secondary school, shadowing a teacher, and seeing what the school experience is these days – and then reflect on this to see if you could develop your first semester, in terms of formative assessment, teaching practice and sense of belonging to really help your students.