Category: Uncategorized

Assessment and Algorithms

The A-Level examination crisis has been a disaster for so many young people. This really is the first entry to many careers and I would not be surprised if there was real resentment and anger to what has happened. In the end, it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of your ability in March, it’s when you do those exams in June that you prove what you can do. For my Maths A-level many moons ago I got a D in my mock just before the Easter Holidays. It was fair and it was accurate and it was a good indicator of my ability. But then I worked incredibly hard, I did every single past paper for the past twelve years, I asked for help from friends and teachers, I did not go out in the Easter Holidays and I worked till midnight many nights. And I got an A. And that was fair and accurate and a good indicator of my ability. The difference was I worked crazy hard. These students have not had that opportunity and it is so unfair that their grade is based on an algorithm on how other people worked in the past at their school or college. And that is unfair, even if it is an accurate predictor. Algorithms should not determine your life.

Some people are commenting that if we went back to the old modular examinations then we wouldn’t have had this problem. But there were two main reasons that we moved on from modular assessment. Firstly, coursework was getting gamed especially from overseas and those unscrupulous students with big bank balances. A whole industry of people writing essays for you and tutors doing coursework were undermining the system. Secondly, a modular system doesn’t always lead to good learning – some people like myself take a bit longer to learn things but it all comes together at the end after a lot of work and practice.

Like in my previous post, the answer I believe was to postpone everything just like they did in China with the gaokao. Most of the A-Levels courses had already been completed by March. All we needed to do was give students a bit more time and then complete their examinations normally. If you can’t socially distance an examination there is no hope for us all. You would then instruct universities to start a month later and finish a month later. It was not a massive problem in China and I don’t think it would have been as hard as we think for the A-Levels.

What will probably happen is many students taking a year out so they can retake in October which is going to cause chaos for universities in the next few years with less people going now and then a massive spike in years to come. The government will be under huge pressure to reform the examination system so we will probably see more chaos for schools, as every time government reform the system it has created chaos. And the annoying thing is that all of this could have been avoided. I guess we didn’t know how long the pandemic would be so cancelling seemed more sensible to postponing. But I think it was the easy option and now we are suffering the consequences of students not being able to progress because they were not given the opportunity to prove what they really were capable of. There is no point of an examination system where students do not take an exam. Our students deserve better and no-one wants their mind to be replaced by an algorithm taking other people’s minds into consideration. It’s not human.

What a mess.

Exam Reform

The current disaster with A-Level results is creating chaos in the British education system. I find it interesting to compare the Chinese gaokao final examinations with the British A-Level system and how both have had to cope with Covid-19. Both systems are designed to be main entry point to the university system and both hold examinations at the beginning of summer.

The main difference has been that the United Kingdom have scrapped examinations for this year but China postponed them by a month. You can argue that the Chinese had more time to sort something out as their crisis was the first to start in the global pandemic. It is also easier for the Chinese to reschedule, as all their examinations happen on two days. Instead of completing them on 7th and 8th June, Chinese students completed them on 7th and 8th July. The British system can take over a month and has many scheduling complications.

I’m not going to argue about which system is academically better but which system is easier to administer. The main criticism of the Chinese system is that it puts massive pressure on students to be ready for a specific date. If you are unwell on one of those days then it can seriously affect your future life. Another argument is that it is easier for the Chinese system to administer examinations as there is only one examination board. This beggars the question why the UK have five, even though they have 1/10 of the amount of students annually taking the examinations compared to China. There are arguments for keeping the amount of examination boards but there is no real reason why we must have multiple exam board – this is a choice, we could just have one.

There will be calls for examination reform after this current fiasco. There may be no change as we can all blame Covid-19. But we could simplify the British system so that if things go wrong it won’t adversely affect hundreds of thousands of young people. I think any system should have examinations that do not last longer than a school week. There should only be one examination board. The system should be leaner, clearer and easier for parents to understand. If the Chinese can get 10 million children to do their exams over two days, I am sure we can get 800,000 children to do theirs in less than five.

Loneliness

In our Covid-19 world you might not be surprised to learn that I am suffering from loneliness. My wife, three year old daughter and new born baby are thousands of miles away on another continent and we still don’t know when they can come back. Most my friends mean well but they are pretty clueless understanding what it means to be lonely. They think going for a walk on your own would be healthy and enjoyable. It might be healthy but you come back sadder than when you walked outside. Reading a book or playing a computer game does not help, it just wastes away some time of being alone. I find writing poems, or blogs helpful as you are communicating with something even if there is no immediate response back. Who knows if anyone will read this post or a stupid poem but you can pretend that someone may click on it and possibly understand what you might be going through – there is some connection. The best way to get through loneliness in my opinion is not to be lonely. This week I have jumped at the chance of cleaning someone else’s home together just because I would be able to get some interaction somewhere.

You end up doing things you might not normally do, or might even be socially harmful. It’s kind of attention seeking but if you are lonely and no-one is talking to you, spending time on the internet, asking questions, sending stupid messages, sharing Trump memes, making Twitter polls are all ways in which you actually get interaction with other people. It can be manipulative and annoying but you would think that there would be some understanding of what it means to be lonely in the wider population. The reason it can be socially harmful is you get exasperated by some people and end up doing something which is self-destructive. So, after a friend of mine made excuses for the hundredth time for going out for a cup of coffee I just blocked him on WeChat (Chinese Facebook for those who don’t know what it is but it is way, way better). The rejection is just too painful. I know he is busy and Chinese culture means people don’t pop round to people’s houses. I do get it but you think to yourself – come on man you are a pretty shit friend. You know I’m thousands of miles from my family, you’ve had yours there 24/7, you live two apartments down and don’t want to spend any time with me and this has been going on for five months.

However, in my experience and trying to be as charitable as I can, I do recognise that very few people I know have any idea what it means to be lonely and worse still have absolutely no idea how to deal with people that are lonely. If you are lonely some of the worst things you can suggest are activities that you would do alone. It seems pretty obvious, but if you know someone is lonely, it is pretty insensitive to say you should go out for a bike ride on your own. I guess people are trying to be helpful but it just feels as if you are being palmed off and pushed to one side to get things done yourself. If you know someone is lonely you don’t normally tell them to do some cooking at home alone. It’s one of the weirder attitudes that I have come across; there does seem to be this idea in society that lonely people need to become less lonely by doing stuff alone. Bonkers isn’t it!

It’s been over five months since I have seen my immediate family. Most of my other family members have died long ago and I am not particularly close to others. I have some cats to keep me company but they are not the greatest at having conversations. I tried talking to Rocky the Cat about existentialism but Rocky’s answer was to pee on the mattress and demand more food. Summer the Cat is currently gnawing my armpit. I know it is disgusting and this is not behaviour that I should be encouraging, but it’s about the only physical contact I’ve had for months. There is the internet and FaceTime but when your family is sixteen hours behind and your wife knackered from giving birth there isn’t always a good time to converse. I read stories to my daughter Miranda, it is one of the only things that keeps me going. I’m currently trying to play Civilisation on my Playstation but this does not cure loneliness, it just buys time to try to forget for a small amount of time that you really are alone.

The other thing people seem to not understand is that if you are lonely just go somewhere where there are people. Now, I am lucky in that where I live there are almost no restrictions and I can go to bars or coffee shops and I am rather good at starting conversations, although my Chinese is pretty poor. But this certainly does not cure loneliness – in fact it can make it worse because it just amplifies how alone you really are. If you are lonely, going to meet someone you don’t know does not always help.

You do feel guilty for being lonely. There are so many things I need to do. I have a bass guitar that needs fixing, a curtain pole to put up, a driving test to apply for, learn Chinese, getting all my documents ready to go to Canada in a few year’s time. But when you are lonely, these things don’t really mean much. Human beings are not designed to be lonely but we seem to have an attraction to the Lone Ranger – it seems stronger, more attractive, more capable to do things alone. I see my new curtain pole and I know that I can probably put it up myself. But if I was to put it up with someone and talk to them at the same time I would actually enjoy putting the curtain pole up. It would make me happy. Putting the curtain pole up on my own will make me sad because it will amplify the feeling that I am alone. Do I feel guilty for not wanting to put up the curtain pole on my own? Yes, of course I do – it also looks pretty bad, people might think I’m incapable of putting it up on my own. And it is pretty pathetic to ask someone for help just because you want to have a conversation but not tell them the real reason why. But it’s even worse to tell people the real reason why, because it is not socially acceptable to be lonely – it’s considered weak.

Other people may have another idea which is understandable but not actually very helpful. They may be aware that someone is lonely and think the solution is to get loads of people together and do something en masse. Now, I can’t speak for other people but I don’t think I am talking rubbish by saying you can be lonely in a large group of people. The old adage, two is company, three is a crowd is pretty accurate, although I find three is OK but four is crap. Many lonely people will still jump at the chance of interacting with multiple people but in my experience it is the face to face contact and sharing between two people that is most valuable and takes away the feelings of loneliness. And the feelings do subside when you are spending time with someone, it is therapeutic and it is helpful. That’s not to say a night out isn’t something to look forward to, it is but probably won’t stop you feeling lonely.

When I lived in West Wales I spent quite a lot of time with an 80 year old lady called Wally who lived in a cottage near me. I was only about 13 at the time but I used to sell duck eggs to her. She probably didn’t even eat them, it was an excuse for me to talk to her. She told me all about going to the Savoy in London and seeing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with the D’Oyley Carte company. She introduced me to some great classical music that she had recorded off the radio – my first hearing of Khachaturian’s “Spartacus” and Bruch’s famous Violin Concerto came from Wally turning on her tape recorder. She was lonely but I really enjoyed spending time with her. Something I find hard to understand is that some people don’t want to spend time with people who are lonely. I guess there are lots of busy people out there but I really enjoyed spending time with lonely people. Having grown up with my grandparents and spent a lot of time with pensioners, I think I do understand what it means to try to be with people who are lonely. Trying to speak Welsh to my next door neighbour Doris (which I was terrible at) turned into listening about what the village used to be like fifty years ago and it was fascinating to talk to someone who genuinely had never travelled further than Swansea in her life and married someone from the neighbouring village. Talking to lonely people is reciprocal, it’s not one way therapy and does not need to be burdensome – it’s a relationship.

But we do get the idea that loneliness only applies to old people and this is a myth. When I was in West Wales there were no other kids my age around and I would spend many days on my own. Some people think it was idyllic – climbing trees, making dams in streams, making dens in the bracken – but when you are on your own these things aren’t always that great. I would have been much happier playing the Sega Megadrive or piano duets with a friend. It’s not the silence, it’s not the lack of things to do, it’s a feeling. It is difficult to describe this feeling – some people say it’s an empty feeling but it isn’t exactly like that for me. For me it is a sadness, an insignificance and a feeling of being a problem that needs to be solved rather than a human being. I would like to think that we all get this feeling from time to time but I am not so sure – one thing I can definitely say is that it affects some people deeply and some people barely seem to mind. I hate being alone, I have never wanted time to myself or “space” and I don’t want to feel guilty for feeling this way. It’s just the way I am and I am past lying about my feelings in an attempt to be socially acceptable. I don’t think there is a cure and I don’t think that learning to spend time alone is the answer. Quite simply I like spending time with people and I don’t like spending time on my own.

Anyway, this post has not been easy to write. I guess if it does any good, just have a think of who should be lonely under these crazy circumstances and who might be lonely. Just a message, an invite for coffee or even time weeding flowers together could help someone feeling sad.

My Musical Autobiography – Primary School (~1981-1987)

Plaistow

My first memory of music is from 1981.  It was my mother playing “Macavity” from the musical “Cats” by Andrew Lloyd Webber on a record player.  I remember it being the most awesome thing I had heard in the world and I can even remember where I was standing in the room.  Next to a stone statue of Gollum that held up the door with Faramir the Cat purring on the settee.  My next memory was children’s TV.  The music of the program “Rainbow”, and “Blue Peter”.  And the haunting music of “Tales of the Unexpected” which was scary with that silhouette of the lady dancing as my mum and auntie played cards. 

My first experiences of music in school (that I can remember) were also from children’s TV programs.  I am sure my early teachers from Selwyn Infant School in Plaistow sang to and with me but my first memory of music in school was watching Playschool on the big TV that was wheeled in.  I also remember watching Sesame Street on the big television.  I think I must have been about five or six years old then.

We also sang.  I remember being at the back of the hall and being unable to read the words from “Water of Life” (from “Come and Praise” – still used in schools).  This was a big deal and a life changing moment as I was told I would need glasses.  A decade war with authorities was about to start because I absolutely hated glasses and refused to wear them.  We also learned “When a knight won his spurs” – my favourite song, it had such a beautiful melody and the words were all about giants and dragons. I had to learn it by repetition – we did have an OHP but I couldn’t read the words as I didn’t have any glasses.

The first musician I was introduced to was a man called Elvis Presley.  I don’t remember ever listening to any of his music but in the flat opposite mine there was a guy called Big Tim who had a kid called Little Tim.  I used to roller skate around the flat landing with Little Tim and sometimes go into their flat.  I remember loads and loads of picture frames with this Elvis guy holding a guitar.  He looked a bit weird.  No one dressed like that in Plaistow.  I remember being told that Elvis was very important.  He must have been – why else would you have twenty pictures of him up on the wall?

My next experience was the recorder.  I was given a free recorder (I was on free school meals) and inside was a piece of rolled up paper that had the notes written down.  I was good at reading so I taught myself to play B, A and G.  I remember thinking that G was incredibly hard and I knew I should play it with three fingers in my left hand but it was much easier to play it with two in my right and my pointy finger in my left.  I then remember getting told off for bad technique.  Recorder was fun, I really enjoyed playing this and making spells in the playground with my friends as I told everybody that I was a warlock.  All the boys played football, but that was pretty dangerous so I tried to hang around with the girls.  Only one liked me, a girl named Kelly Hume.  She had red hair and lots of freckles.  I am sure I was about seven because I remember being disappointed that ladybirds had six spots and I was seven so I no longer aligned with ladybirds. 

Next was the violin.  We were never allowed to use the bow but that didn’t bother me as I loved plucking the thing.  It’s probably why I really enjoy playing the bass guitar now.  I got to have group lessons on the violin because I was on free school meals. I do remember how cool it was to be allowed to leave lessons to go to this special group.  We were taught to play with fingers 1 and 2 and my violin had stickers on it so I knew where to put my fingers.  I never got to 3 because my world was turned upside down as my mother was ill and went to live in a hospital and I went to live with my grandparents in West Wales.  I remember leaving the flat on the 13th floor for the last time and waving goodbye to Big Tim and Little Tim.  I never saw them again and never went back to Plaistow until leaving university.

Cenarth 

The cockney kid born in the sound of Bow Bells had a difficult time transitioning to life in Wales and it wasn’t just my accent that was a bit out of place.  We had some lessons in Welsh, we had to learn our times tables in Welsh as well but we did have violin lessons like before and I was still on free school meals.  I even got to use the bow this time.  What was best about living in Wales was the space to run around, I spent many hours outside on my own making up stories about a land populated by ducks and teddy bears.  I made maps of my world and I can still write it down.  What annoyed me the most was this stupid birthday cake that the teachers brought in when it was someone’s birthday.  It was the same cake every time and you couldn’t eat it.  I think it was made of cardboard.  Why would you celebrate someone’s birthday with a fake cake?  And then we would sing “Penblwydd hapus i chi”.  Singing was good and it was kinda cool to sing in a different language but I was always baffled why everyone thought this language was incredibly important but no one spoke it to each other. 

But the big deal now was this strange new word I’d never heard before – practice.  Practice was when you had to play violin EVERY SINGLE DAY for half an hour.  And if I didn’t play I got no food.  The fights we had always ended up with me losing because I liked food and I worked out that although I blooming hated getting the violin out, tightening the bow and resin-ing it and having to cope with playing the thing even though it was out of tune, once I had it out it was OK and bearable.  My grandmother never watched me play but guarded the door so I was on the room on my own for half an hour every day.  I had to rely on working things out for myself because I was given relatively no guidance.  It was a good thing I was a good reader and it was good that I had a violin book to take home.

Although I was not happy with the violin, there was something new to me in the house – a piano.  My grandmother had a honkytonk old ship’s antique piano in the house and had the John Thompson books, a book called “The Jolly Herring” full of folk tunes and some funny songs and a Christmas Carol book called “The Easiest Christmas Carol Book”.  The first piece I learned was “What shall we do with the drunken sailor”, which my grandmother taught me by rote.  That was the first and last time she taught me anything.  The next thing I learned was “March of the Gnomes” from John Thompson 1.  I was pretty good at playing C but it was a bit strange why the book kept on telling you to play with both of your thumbs.  Why not just use your right hand?  So I always ignored the fingering, right from the beginning.  This is why my technique is very bad. 

I was pretty motivated so I got through the whole of John Thompson 1 pretty quickly and I took the book with me to visit my mother in the Royal Marsden Hospital in London.  I even played some piano duets with a nurse while my mum watched,  she wrote me a letter saying how proud she was of hearing me play. 

I then got onto John Thompson 2 and remember getting half way through and realizing I could go no further.  Because my technique was bad I just couldn’t play the pieces and I was getting bogged down with key signatures.  The next thing I did I think was incredibly mature of myself as I was only about 8. I decided I had to go back to John Thompson 1 and play it properly and read the instructions carefully.  This meant playing “The Sea Bees’ with the left hand and not just using one finger. I’ve always prided myself on my ability to never give up.  I think it comes back to this moment in my life. I have taught piano for over twenty years and I have used many different books and made my own ones up as well.  For really bright kids, Michael Aaron is really good but I’ve found that everyone seems to go back to John Thompson.  It’s old but it really does work.  For primary kids I normally do John Thompson 1 & 2 and half way through 3 then go straight onto Grade 1.  For secondary kids I normally do Michael Aaron 1, half way through 2 and then on to Grade 1. John Thompson does have an emotional hold on me, one of my Year 4’s was playing a piece for an audition this year and I immediately remembered it as “The Giant Steps” and smiled.  I remember what I thought was astounding creativity because you could actually put your left hand over your right one to play.  It’s only broken chord arpeggios but it had quite an effect on me.

The reason I think didn’t find it too hard to learn piano on my own was because of the violin lessons I was having at school.  I cannot remember learning how to read music but I do remember learning “Every Good Boy Deserves Football”.  The most important thing was having the time to think and when you were on your own for half an hour with your instrument, there was plenty of time to think.  I was getting pretty good and I was playing some pieces from the “Jolly Herring”.

On the 30th November 1986 I was told by my grandmother that we were going to London.  We nearly missed the train from Swansea; it was moving as we jumped on. I saw my mother in hospital.  She was on a ventilator.  I gave her a lamp that I had weaved from weaving class.  My granny gave her a white winter’s rose.  We left the hospital, I saw my auntie Carol but my gran said we had to go.  I remember walking down the street from the hospital wondering if I said goodbye to my mum.  I am sure I did but I can’t remember doing it.  We got back to West Wales.  I went to bed.

The next day I went down to play the piano.  My gran came down and said she had some bad news.  I said that I knew what it was and that my mum had died.  She nodded.  I turned the page in the book and played “In the Field of the Willows” on the piano.  I think I played this every day for the next ten years that I lived in the house.  I still cry every time I play it now.  No one gets over losing their mum.  I was only eight years old.  A few weeks later it was Christmas.  I got three presents from my mum, a tape recorder for my ZX Spectrum, a beautiful rainbow colored teddy bear and a violin.  The violin was more important to me then.

Cardigan

There was never any music in the house in Wales apart from me playing the piano, the violin and the recorder.  My grandparents didn’t listen to music, and the only sounds I heard most the day were the “pips” before the news on Radio 4 and the theme music from “The Archers”.  There were still TV programs and the theme music from Ski Sunday, Match of the Day and Test Match Sunday were great before Grandad would watch the sports on the BBC.  My favorite theme tunes from when I lived in Wales were “Lovejoy”, because of the sound of the harpsichord, “Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds” and I remember being quite taken aback with the music from the BBC series “The Tripods”.  This had really weird synthesized sounds, and sounded like it had come from out of space.  

We had a record player at home but I was never allowed to use it.  The record box had some classical music, some musicals and some really weird people who were white but were in blackface.  My grandmother had about six albums by the “Black and White minstrel band”.  I never got to hear any of these records until I was about sixteen when my grandparents were out for the day and I was home alone.  I never heard any pop music at home or at school.  I was not allowed to watch “Top of the Pops”.

I then found an instrument somewhere in the house.  I can’t remember exactly where I found it but it was a mixture between a piano and a recorder.  It was called a melodica.  I played it in my bunk bed and experimented with strange chords.  We had very thick walls so it didn’t matter how loud I would play as I wouldn’t disturb anyone.  I remember playing it one day and telling myself I needed to remember this moment really carefully for the future.  Basically I forced myself to remember a moment in time when I was just staring at a bookcase holding my melodica.  I had the melodica until my second wedding day where I played with a sea-shanty band at my own pirate wedding. The melodica is lost somewhere in Bermuda where I was living but it had thirty years of being played.  Hopefully one of the children in the pirate choir that sang for us might have picked it up and is playing it now.

Well things got a little bit more exciting musically because I made a new friend called Matthew who lived in a farm about a mile away.  He went to church so I got to sing in church for the first time.  And this was mega cool because the songs were groovy and there was a lady called Geraldine who played the guitar.  The best song was this new one by a guy called Graham Kendrick called “Shine Jesus Shine”.  We sang this on repeat every Sunday and people would clap their hands and then there would be dancing and then this huge lady would fall over and then loads of people would start praying over her.  Then this weird angelic singing would start called “Singing in Tongues”.  It sounded a bit like a mixture of something from a monastery, and saying the word “banana” backwards.  It got louder and louder and then would calm down.  Everyone held their hands in the air.  I sometime joined in the handjive but I never succeeded in the tongue-singing thing.  I’ve found out it’s called glossolalia.  These strange happenings occurred close to every week.  But then we got to play on the swings outside Abercych community hall and go back and play on the Commodore 64. Church was something I looked forward to every Sunday.  My grandparents sneered at me for going as they were staunch atheists but I loved singing and Graham Kendrick and Ishmael were writing some mega anthems. And after church we would have shared lunch and farmers cooked really good food.  Especially pies.  They also had an old honkytonk and a typewriter.  I spent hours of time playing church worship songs on the piano, and typing inane rubbish on a typewriter that didn’t actually have any ink in it.

Computers was the next musical thing for me because I was programming my ZX Spectrum to make music, using the command “beep”. I composed my own pieces and got it to play “Ode to Joy” through painstaking trial and error.  I learned a lot about pitch and duration from the Specky and how it all worked mathematically.  It also improved your aural skills because you had to really check if the sound you programmed was the right one.

Recorders were still a big thing and I remember getting annoyed that I had to play second recorder in our recorder group because I didn’t know how to play B flat.  I quickly learned B flat so I could play “Patapan” in Cardigan Primary’s Christmas Concert.  I think I also played the violin in an ensemble because I remember going to a room where one of the kids could play “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin.  He was amazing.  I remember thinking how incredible it would be to play like that. I also heard Cardigan Secondary School’s Orchestra and this had a major effect on me.  I was absolutely stunned by the sound.  Ever since then, the sound of an orchestra is one of the only things that makes me cry. 

And that was the end of Primary School for me because my grandmother announced that I was to go to Llandovery College at the age of 10.  I never completed Year 6.  The summer holiday I picked up stones in a wheelbarrow, picked raspberries in the garden and picked out tunes from”The Jolly Herring”.  I was pretty confident musically.  I was nowhere near the best at music in my class but it was something that I knew I was pretty good at. 

CV

I will be applying for jobs soon. Anyone who is interested can have a look at my current CV. I will be looking for a Music Teacher or Head of Music post anywhere in the world, but particularly looking at China, Korea or Canada.

Summer

I’ve orchestrated “Summer” by Joe Hisaishi for school orchestra.

Aerith’s Theme

I’ve orchestrated “Aerith’s Theme” from Final Fantasy VII for school orchestra. Feel free to print, download and use.

Driving

It took me five attempts to pass my driving test in an automatic car. Not as bad as Michael Gove’s seven but he can drive a geared car and currently I can’t. I just found it incredibly hard to drive and I thought it would be interesting to explain why because it might have something to say about teaching.

Firstly, I had absolutely no experience with driving until I was seven years old. My mum didn’t drive and we took the bus to Stratford or the tube to South Kensington to visit my mum’s friend Carol. I have no recollection of anyone driving before the age of seven when I got in a friend’s car and I remember vividly being scared because the conversation was about car accidents and my mum saying she wasn’t surprised because she had seen it in the Tarot cards. Then my mum went into hospital and the next experience of driving was one when my grandfather came to take me away from London to West Wales. He had a cool sports car and it had electric windows. My family called it his mid-life crisis car because he bought it one day on a whim and he almost never drove it. So my first memorable experience of driving was a very emotional one as I had almost never left East London and we were travelling faster than I had been before on the M4 with windows open! It was all very exciting and of course I had no idea that my mum was in hospital – it was just an adventure. I had only met Grandad once before – he was my dad’s father and I had never met my dad. My mum didn’t have any family as she was adopted by elderly foster-parents who had died so this was the first family member I had met apart from my mum.

Anyway, every junction we would put the windows down “a blast of air for Reading” and “a blast of air for Bristol” and then the most exciting thing – going over the Seven Bridge. Grandad explained that you had to pay a toll to get into Wales but not to get out of it. Or was it the other way round? I could never remember. I don’t think you have to pay at all now. Anyway we went down a leafy lane to this big house and it was very different to our 13th floor red-ant and damp infested flat in Plaistow. There was even a garage!

We went for lots of drives to Cenarth to see my Auntie Bryony and it is still one of the most beautiful journeys I have taken. I took it every week day to drive the seven miles to school in Cenarth – it had a Red Dragon on the signposts that was later changed to a daffodil because it was a scenic route. Driving was wonderful but I never concentrated on what Granny was doing when she drove the car. Why would you when there were so many things to see outside? And I’ve always been able to sleep in cars so never paid attention. I knew Granny had an automatic car and Bryony had a geared car. I wasn’t quite sure what the gears did but there was this handle in the middle and it looked very complicated. Much simpler to look out the window.

I went to boarding school in Mid-Wales on a government assisted place and never saw any driving there. I cannot remember any times we were in a car. Sometimes a mini-bus or a coach for trips but I don’t remember anyone driving a car. That was past my A-Levels. And then I took a year out and it all went terribly wrong so I ended up in Burger King doing the night cleaning. I was only getting 3 quid an hour and my rent in the basement in Canterbury was 45 quid a week so there was no chance of driving lessons.

After my year out I went to Keele University and almost everyone I knew did not drive. All apart from two friends called Chris and Chris and both of them drove minis. I thought they were so grown-up because they could drive. But we almost never drove anywhere at Keele. Sometimes we wouldn’t leave campus for months. It was then I got into hitch-hiking. That was amazing and I absolutely loved it. I even hitch-hiked round all the cathedrals in England (45 of them) in a month. I experienced many different types of driving then. I got lifts in a police car going from Wakefield to Bradford, a limousine going from Birmingham to Litchfield, an old banger with a 14 year old joy-rider from Peterborough to Ely and a series of cars with three drug-dealers from Grantham. They gave me no choice to get out the car once I was in and “on a mission” but to their credit they drove me to my destination. I remember my legs were like jelly getting out at Nottingham!

So I knew what good and bad driving was but it wasn’t until I started a job working for the county peripatetic Music service that I decided to learn to drive myself. And I knew next to nothing. In my first lesson the driving instructor told me to use the clutch. I hadn’t got a clue what he was talking about. What was a clutch? He talked about squeezing clutches. My first lesson went really badly and he clearly thought I was an idiot. My next few lessons were even worse because I realised I had no idea about anything whatsoever to do with driving because I hadn’t paid any attention to the driver. I was always looking out the window, chatting to mates or asleep. So I didn’t know which control did the wipers and I hadn’t the foggiest what the fog light even was. I knew you had to put on the flashing hazard lights if you stopped but did I know where they were? Nope.

Even worse, I hadn’t paid any attention to roundabouts. I knew you turn left onto the roundabout but I didn’t get if you were taking the second or third exit you should move into the right. That scared the life out of me. Where I lived in West Wales there were roundabouts but there wasn’t much traffic so it didn’t really matter what lane you were in – most people just hogged the middle bit.

After six weeks of lessons I realised I was failing very badly. I just did not get the gears whatsoever, so I decided to learn in an automatic. At the time, I was riding a scooter over the Peak District for my job so I was getting more experience with roads and I had a 125cc Yamaha Majesty which meant I could drive up to 70 miles an hour over the moors. I loved my scooter but had many accidents – I am absolutely amazed I am still alive. Anyway, after five test attempts I finally learned to drive and three weeks later crashed my wonderful Vauxhall Corsa in a pretty horrific accident on a skid dirt road. I still kept on driving as it was the only way of doing the job but the new car I got had loads and loads of scratches and dents because I wasn’t very good at driving. I drove for seven years and I haven’t driven for the last ten. My wife is a professional truck driver from Canada and we had a deal when we first met that she would do the driving and I would give her babies. I haven’t broken the deal yet – we have one and a half babies but we do have a car in the basement. As Covid-19 has meant we are 10,000 miles apart (she is in Canada and I am in China) I have just got my automatic driving license translated into Chinese and am thinking of doing a bit of driving. It is probably a very bad idea but I feel that I need to have another go at driving and get better at this pretty useful skill.

What could have helped me to be a better driver?

1) Paying attention to what other drivers was doing.

2) Paying attention to the road rather than everything else that was going on around me.

3) Understanding the importance of driving for the future.

4) Understanding the importance of signs and directions.

5) Understanding that there would be a test and it wouldn’t necessarily be easy. Failure would mean I’d have to pay for a retest.

6) There are consequences for failure – some stark.

7) Some direction on theory so I understood the rules of the road.

8) Some direction on practical so I could fill the car up with petrol and change a tyre.

9) Breaking driving into small chunks so I was not overwhelmed by the amount of information I was trying to comprehend.

10) Watching the driving instructor carefully and copy what he did.

11) Practicing certain things over and over until I had mastered them.

12) Revisiting things that I thought I knew but had forgotten from time to time until they clicked in my brain.

13) Some positive reinforcement so I didn’t feel like a failure after every driving lesson.

14) Reading the Highway Code carefully rather than skimming over it.

14) An insistence to listen to the driving instructor carefully.

And if we transfer many of these things to teaching, you can see why quite a few students fail. Learning to drive was the hardest thing I have every done. It was even harder than Physics GCSE which was rock hard and definitely harder than my Master’s Degree, which I found quite easy. But when I passed driving I cried and embarrassed the examiner. As teachers we need to understand that our subjects may not come easy to some students and for them to succeed it may need teaching things that you might think are bleeding obvious. But not everyone has paid attention and some people learn a lot slower or later than others. It isn’t necessarily about intelligence but more likely to be about the ability to focus and pay attention.

And I did pass. I can drive. But only in an automatic.