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.

BME Attainment 2015-16

I’ve written on this blog many times before on the challenge of differential attainment in universities. Full disclosure – I no longer work in the sector, I’m white, middle class and educated at what is now a Russell Group university. This could be relevant,  it may contextualise my  opinions.

According to the recent report from Universities UK “Patterns and trends in UK higher education 2017“, then once again we can see data on degree attainment split into a crude ethnicity breakdown of “white”, and “BME”. the supplementary data provided add “other and don’t know”.

Plotting the data shows:

while the figures provided are:

showing that the attainment gap between white and BME students stubbornly remains at about 15% when we consider “good degrees” to be a 1st or 2(i).

Equally telling however, is the wide differential in numbers of first awarded to different groups, and the fact that BME students are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be awarded a third.

Clearly, a lower degree classification affects life chances in terms of potential graduate employment.

UUK highlight that

“Although part of this gap will be due to differences in entry qualifications, prior attainment and subjects taken across the two groups, HEFCE has noted that for UK-domiciled, first degree graduates at English higher education institutions, even when these factors are considered, there is still a significant gap between the proportions of white and BME students obtaining a first or upper second class degree. Further HEFCE research has also identified potential explanatory factors for this difference, which include curricula and learning (including teaching and assessment practices), relationships between staff and students, social, cultural and economic capital, and psychosocial and identity factors.”

Data and evidence have long been available to show that for given entry characteristics, BME students are less likely to obtain a good degree classification than their counterparts, so we should be asking where we have to look to understand why our universities do not appear to be operating as the progressive liberal meritocracies they claim to be.

Kalwant Bhopal in “Addressing racial inequalities in higher education:
equity, inclusion and social justice” explores how  inequalities in access to elite universities continue to exist for those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and suggests that gaining a place at an elite university is related to access to social and cultural capital. Referencing  “The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions and Meritocracy at Elite Universities” ,by Natasha K. Warikoo, Professor Bhopal identifies themes that, for me, have resonance with Reni Eddo Lodge’s recent book “Why I am no longer talking to white people about race“.

Immediately striking from a reading of these two works is the critique of meritocracy that we have clung to. Once we recognise the impact of power, then as Bhopal writes “It can be argued that the concept of meritocracy as one that is used to reproduce and legitimise class privilege or indeed a system that enables those already in positions of power to maintain their elite position and ensure that it is passed down from one generation to the next.”

Reni Eddo Lodge defines what she calls structural racism: “This is what structural racism looks like. It is not about personal prejudice, but the collective effect of bias. it is the kind of racism that has the power to drastically impact people’s life chances. Highly educated, high earning white men are very likely to be landlords, bosses, CEOs, head teachers or university vice chancellors”. She places this definition firmly in a reading of British history, and again shows that belief in the meritocracy satisfies those who currently benefit from it.

Bhopal states:

“Universities must listen to and address the challenges that black and minority ethnic students face in higher education. There is ample evidence to suggest that black and minority ethnic students’ experience disadvantages at different stages; from admissions, their experience, whilst at university and in the class of degree they are awarded. However, few universities have policies and strategies in place to address these disadvantages. Universities must address the racism that takes place in their institutions which exists as part of the social structure of their organizations, and move away from a deficit focus which blames individuals rather than examining the institutional racism that forms part of the structures of higher education.”

Bhopal proposes mandatory unconscious bias training for staff in universities as well as identifying the need to develop social and cultural capital in good schools prior to university.

I think there are other questions to be asked, and suggest the following

Unconscious bias training is a good start, but I have heard it described by Gurnam Singh of Coventry University that a limitation is that “it shows you’re a little bit racist, but that’s ok because it’s unconscious”. Unconscious bias assessment and training is just one step on a journey – it’s what you do next with that knowledge so how is this followed up?.

Also (and from a data nerd you know this is coming) the HESA datasets can be mined to provide much more information. Institutions can identify how they perform individually against this national average – by definition, some will perform better and some worse) and combine with their own internal data. Does this tell you anything about differential outcomes by discipline, by department? In fact, are you even aware of how students of different ethnicity are distributed across your university, as they are almost certainly not evenly distributed?

A further issue is the feeling of belonging, and the right to belong. If as Bhopal states universities “maintain their status by representing themselves as white and middle class, spaces reserved for those who are just like them”, then it would be useful to explore the extent to which staffing (particularly academic, professional and management) reflects the make up of the student body. If all your lecturers are white and middle class, then this might be sending a strong signal about who university is for. Once again, the HESA data can be used to look at staff profiles, and it would be an interesting exercise to look for any correlation between staffing profile, student profile and degree outcomes.

Finally, what happens on graduation day? Let’s say you have a department where 50% or more of your students are from a BME background. What did the academic procession look like, especially the senior staff? Similarly, of the recipients of honorary degrees, how many of them are from the same background and are representative and aspirational role models for your students?

I know I don’t have the answers, I’m just hoping to add some more questions to help understand, and to shine a light on areas where changes could be made.


Only moments after publishing this, my attention was drawn to a new publication on the Wonkhe website, which provides the HESA data on degree attainment, and the gaps, by institution. You might want to wander over there and read Nona Buckley-Irvine’s piece “Universities’ shame – unpicking the black attainment gap“.


Latest Employment Performance Indicators

This week HESA released their latest data on performance indicators for UK institutions in terns of employment, essentially the outcome of the DLHE survey for those students who graduated in 2016.

Many will look at these with increasing interest – after all this is one of the indicators used in TEF, and so anyone who might be thinking or re-applying will look closely to see if changes here put them in a potentially better place.

Equally, this data will feed through onto next year’s league tables, so again university management teams will be calculating to see if this helps them climb the greasy pole of rankings.

From HESA’s page

The proportion of full-time first degree graduates in employment and/or further study continues to show a steady rise….This year has seen a slight fall in the proportion moving into employment only, with there being a rise in the percentage going into further study.

What is interesting is to see how institutions performed against their benchmark, and also to see who has changed significantly over the last year.

Looking at the tables, most institutions are close to their benchmark, and few are flagged as having a significant difference. However, there are those who are significantly below (indicated as -) and those significantly above (+) benchmark. Looking at the gap between indicator and benchmark, and also looking at performance in the previous year, we can try to see if these are institutions where employment is either always, good, always poor, or has changed significantly in the two survey years.

Playing with the data from HESA then for employment of full time students, we can see that some unis or colleges repeatedly miss their benchmark, for instance, UCB, Bolton.

Equally, Coventry, University of Arts Bournemouth, DMU, UWL and Wolverhampton repeatedly exceed their benchmark for employment, while Staffordshire shows a big jump, from being under benchmark last year, to being significantly above this year.

With the change to Graduate Outcomes instead of institutionally managed DLHE in future, one of the key variables – the localised interpretation of the survey methodology – will be removed, and we may see some realignment of data.

The continued rise of numbers going into employment and further study, overall is to be welcomed, but maybe with two caveats. This data does not show the numbers going into graduate roles. Secondly, we have to remember that employment is only one outcome of studying for a degree.