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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The anorexic telephone directory, communication style and the Big Society.

I hear a thump on the floor - some post through the box. It is the new edition of the BT directory.

Nothing of note, until I pick it up and notice just how thin it is. Business, classifieds and residential – all for less than a centimetre. There was a time when the tome gave me several inches of extra height when a ladder was not around.

So what’s going on? Well, the aneroxic listing shows we are now celebrity ex-directory or we just want to avoid being contacted by someone who might give us grief. Perhaps the geographical boundaries have changed. Comparison with last year’s offering suggests not. Other currents are at work.

The mobile phone in its numerous manifestations is taking its toll of its terrestrial cousin. Apparently, 25% of US households already get by with no landline. If one does have both facilities, it can be a shock when the traditional variant actually rings. It is probably an aged relative. If the answering service is activated, we probably ignore it when we get back, knowing that if someone really wants us they will use the mobile.

Most people under twenty have probably not experienced answering a phone connected by an umbilical cord to the wall. They would have no idea of what to do in a public callbox. Communication is now, anywhere, anytime and literally on the move.

This has crept on us and the implications for society and our communication styles not yet crystallised. The traditional phone was an in-house shared facility and switchboard. Families were aware of who was talking to whom even if the content was hushed. This was a strand of family connectivity which has been knocked away and our communication now becomes more individualistic than ever. Phone conversations are now individual events, a bit like our grazing habits on the food front.

The phonebook was an opportunity to scan who constitutes the local community. We may not have read it for fun, but at least it gave you an idea of who was around and what they did. Electronic on-screen versions do not provide the same sentient experience.

So next year the paper version will be wafer thin. In the meanwhile, our own personalised directory on the mobile lengthens. We have censored and chosen who we talk to. Not having a public listing, the opportunities for others to talk to us have been reduced. Is this the Big Society?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Black Country Enterprise Zone: a stimulus for business or a bullet to kill off enterprise?

Sometimes it is the juxtapositioning of events which adds to the poignancy of a situation. Such was the case today, with George Osborne’s budget announcement of 10 Enterprise Zones to stimulate business growth. This coincided with a letter in the local Express and Star, inviting ex-employees of a closed iron and steel plant, to meet up for a reunion.

What are you talking about you ask? Well this famous plant in the Black Country, and known as Round Oak, closed in the 1980’s. The derelict site was designated by the government of the time as an EZ at Brierley Hill, to stimulate new manufacturing and jobs. Planning controls were to be freed up and favourable tax and rate incentives posted.

Sorted then! Well not quite. A loop hole in the regulations encouraged rapid retail development, often using semi-skilled labour and consumer imports to the detriment of skilled artisans, manufacturing and exports. Nothing for the apprentice to go into then.

Local shopping centres could not compete with this regional shopping giant at Merry Hill. Firms which hitherto were located outside the EZ jumped across the boundary to access the financial goodies. Not much of a net increase in regional jobs to talk about.

The lamentable economic performance of places such as Walsall, Wolverhampton, Dudley and Sandwell today, may in part and ironically, owe their current status to the decision to create the initial EZ in the first place. See how many empty shops there are today with artistic posters outside to encourage you to think otherwise. What is being done to rectify the situation? Another EZ of course and thirty years on.

There is nothing wrong with these zones, as long as we ensure that they act as a stimulus to local enterprise and the benefits are spread. The reverse may be the case as their performance sucks the energy from the surrounds – a bit of a backwash or tsunami. Vicious rather than virtuous circles.

The newly created Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) will have enough challenges ahead of it as it removes the barriers to business. George Osborne has now added another ingredient into the mix. The boundaries will have to be drawn very carefully. We are still living with the impacts of the first EZs. The task ahead is to ensure that we have not just been given extra toppings.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Jamie Oliver’s Dream School – a Channel 4 media fest or relevant lessons in communication and motivation?

This week sees the start of Channel 4's Dream School, Jamie Oliver’s new television project. Celebrities with a particular subject expertise chance their arm in the classroom. For a while, it will put education on the front burner to compete against the Arab revolt and Coalition politics.

The assumption is that the hitherto poorly-motivated students, will experience a Damascene conversion as well-known experts from a wide spectrum of achievement, parade their wares and instructional skills.

Of course, the project is an artificial one, as the presence of cameras, celebrity teachers and being made a fuss of all kick in.

Nevertheless, the enterprise is worth a second take. It enables us to reflect on what actually constitutes good teaching in the first place. Commentators and reviewers usually deliver their critiques after the programmes have been shown, but bucking the trend here is an unscientific checklist, that we might have to hand as we view from the couch.

Communication is at the heart of good teaching, so how will our celebs perform? Do they have an interesting voice and presence? Do they use the space around them? Can we visualise them delivering 30 sessions a week?

Teaching some Economics ages ago, and not being particularly on top of the subject - even though I had been in The City - I had to go the extra mile in grasping the topics myself. I am sure this enabled a more sympathetic view of what the learners were experiencing and a more thoughtful insight in my preparation. The question before our celeb list of Dr Starkey, Alastair Campbell, Ellen MacArthur and others is quite simply “ What's in it for the students and what are they doing?” It is no good having expertise - the key skill is empathy for the perspective of the learner.

Many students don’t ask questions because they don’t know what they don’t know, and our celebs will have to cover this shortfall. Visual aids,relevant language as well as an understanding that we learn in different ways complete the picture.

Michael Gove is in uncertain waters creating a coherent policy out of academies, free schools, the use of ex-military staff on the payroll and the revelations of Ms Birbalsingh.

The punchline is that memorable teachers were ones with personality and charisma. They were ones who bucked the system and took risks. They have been squeezed out by the treadmill of assessment, clonal lesson structures and the devaluation of grades. It explains why we have such sterile teaching and alienated learners. If Oliver’s series exposes this, then it is to be applauded.