Two schools

Having gone to some efforts to homeschool the kids over the last few years, and especially, the last eighteen months, I was surprised when our youngest boy asked to go back to regular school. He has previously been enrolled at three different schools, and hated all of them. It was always such a struggle to get him to go.

Despite the fact that he gets a larger workload through homeschooling than regular school, there is also a lot more downtime.  I part it is because the boys education has to fit around the workloads of the adults in the house. He is often bored and lonely. This is a reasonably constant issue we have struggled with here. His best friend now goes to the local school, and this was the major driving factor behind his request.

It was a strange moment for me. On the one hand, I felt like I had let him down by not being able to provide a sustainable social group for him to fit into. There was also a sense of disappointment because it has been a major logistical exercise setting this up and we finally had it all working so well. It feels like a large scale version of spending all afternoon cooking a magnificent feast, only to be told that he ‘doesnt really like it.’

 At the same time, I had to admit that he kind of had a point. More than that, he was able to very articulately state his case. He had clear points to make, and also pre empted any potential counter arguments. He gave answers to them before they could even be raised. If nothing else, I was impressed with his ability to do this as well as he did. Despite not much liking what I was hearing, in the end, we had to take the fact that he was able to argue all this with such clarity as a sure sign of his capability.

So we re-enrolled him at the local school. In theory, he is supposed to be doing year 5, but he has already finished a year 5 curriculum so we pushed to have him skip a year. He did a series of tests, which he sailed comfortably through, and ended up in a composite year 5/6 class. I am not entirely clear if this was due to his assessment scores or just space availability. The classes are all crowded. Regardless, he takes some pains to ensure he is recognised as being in the year 6 section of that class.

The first time we withdrew him from that school, we were firmly warned not to try and educate him from home. It was curious to look back on those warnings as we discussed the idea that even if he learns nothing of value at school, we can always homeschool again next year and so catch him up.

The irony.

He will still get drawn into our weekend lessons, but for all practical purposes, the two boys are now on completely different pathways. Overall, I am a bit saddened by it, but honestly, I think they will enjoy having some space apart from each other.

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A quick summary of 2020

When I last wrote, I was firmly in the grip of existential dread and seething rage at watching everything burn to the ground around me. Although the fires came awful close, and caused untold damage, they missed our house, and were eventually put out by flood rains. This washed all the ash into the rivers, ensuring that whatever escaped the flames by virtue of being underwater died of anoxia. That was where we were at when covid arrived.

Despite all of this, from a homeschool perspective, 2020 developed into what was, in many ways, our best year yet. We managed to get a really good rhythm to the boys education and made some fairly incredible jumps in what they were able to do.

Coding makes up a big part of what the boys get up to.

There is still an immense amount of input from both the parents, but with both of us working, we cant run the whole show. What we learned to do well was outsource things, either online or in person. In part this is possible due to the boys age. At 10 and 12, they are getting a sense of independence and self direction.

Brownian motion

We found a science teacher for them. One of our neighbours comes over every week to run a structured science class. For a while, there were a few other kids turning up as well, but for various reasons, that didn’t last. These are great classes where the boys not only get someone else running the lesson, but they are structured to highlight a scientific methodology.

Between covid shutdowns, the boys spent quite a bit of time at Alithia, where they got all manner of group experience we otherwise couldn’t give them. We found another neighbor who teaches one of boys guitar. He played in a delightful concert at the end of last year. Our other boy goes to a local drama school, and the highlight of that was going to a play they put on over summer. They go to nippers regularly and learn things like surf awareness, board racing, swimming, and they run various races and drill on the beach. All their maths classes are run through MathsOnline, which I like a lot. The classes are very easily customised and the kids largely self manage these. One of the parents only drops in occasionally if there is a concept the kids just cannot understand.

Some things we run completely by ourselves. Although they both read well, my wife picked up that their spelling wasn’t that great. With the year almost over, she found a curriculum and boot camped them through year 6 spelling and grammar. They got through nearly a weeks worth of lessons every day while they were doing this. It was a big effort from everyone, and the boys really enjoyed the challenge of it.

They build this hydraulically articulated hand

I write history lessons for them. The topic structure is very loosely based on the Story of the World series, although we abandoned the content long ago. I found it too sanatised. What I like most about history, and the sense I try to convey in my lessons, is just what a messy subject it is. Details are often sketchy, the outcomes are perspective dependent, the characters morality is often murky, and always culturally specific. We tend to lean quite heavily on the excellent Crash Course series to dig a little deeper into areas.

Of course, a ton of other stuff happened as well, but that is the basic framework of it. We found that the boys do best with a clear sense of structure. This was discovered a bit by accident. With both parents working, things need to be tightly scheduled just to make it all fit. This is what prompted us to outsource so much of it to start with. A clear structure makes the lesson the focal point of the day with a set time and place, rather than something we get to when we get around to it.

Not every day was perfect, and there were a few tantrums from both children and adults, but on the whole, it was a raging success. The boys really took to their studies and learned a huge amount. I am very proud of what they have achieved.

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Fires near me

Apart from a brief amount of rain which cleared the air, we have been living in a smoke haze since the start of spring. It fluctuates as to how much smoke is around, but the last week has been particularly bad. Fires which have been burning for the last couple of months have spread out, joined up with each other, and are sweeping across the country.

The days feel dark and overcast, except it is smoke instead of cloud. At times it is so thick that the sun cannot be seen. The sky turns orange, and it rains ash like some kind of horrible apocalyptic snow. The smoke makes it unsafe to play or do anything energetic outside. Everyone has a constant headache, and there is a spike in hospital admissions with lung complaints.

It is difficult under such circumstances to focus much on schoolwork, or indeed, on anything. When there are fires so powerful that they create their own weather systems, and the smoke drifts across the ocean to New Zealand, things like the command structure of the Roman army, or the effective rounding of numbers just doesn’t have an impact. We are constantly checking the Fires Near Me app and reading weather reports.

People check up on each other a lot. On a night by herself with no sleep recently, a friend evacuated her neighbours, halted a major fire front in her paddock, and extinguished the house next door three times. There are a number of stories around like this. Footage of the fires defies belief.

We live in a country which has refused to discuss warnings from leaders from the fire departments, and has cut funding to bushfire brigades at a time of unprecedented fire danger. There are special laws being introduced to specifically target people who suggest climate change is a factor. Consequently, tens of thousands of square kilometres have been burned, over 150 homes have been lost and people are dead. As a crowning insult to such wilful incompetence, our Prime Minister sends thoughts and prayers.

At home we develop a fire plan. We do lots of cleaning up around the house. We mow the lawn short, trim trees, clean gutters and remove anything that might act as a fuel source. The kids have a bag of special clothes to put on if we have to evacuate. They are heavy and fire resistant. We have a bag each of things to take with us. We pack documents, photos and fresh water. Its like playing the worst possible version of that old game ‘you can take two things from the house.’

As much as it pains me to admit it, if a fire reaches the forest at our back door, all that loose dry bark and volatile oil filled leaves will just explode. The most we can do is prepare the house as best we can, and if the fire arrives then leave it to see what happens.

The kids don’t like fire planning. It makes them very nervous. They are not the only ones. Planning for a disaster is difficult, but it has to be done. Facing a disaster without a plan is infinitely worse.

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Note taking

My youngest boy in particular (currently aged 9) struggles no end to write things down. Its not that he has any real literacy problems, or struggles to understand, or can not pay attention. He just finds putting things down on paper a great challenge. While he does well with short answer style questions on a computer, and is able to absorb a lot of information during our more active lessons like bird watching or fire safety, our more formal sit down lessons have been tending to run to an uncomfortably familiar pattern.

His hands suddenly become really sore, or there is a cut on his finger which means he is unable to write, or his foot is so itchy he cant focus on anything else. Its tiresome, disruptive and completely transparent. If he escalates this enough, he sometimes manages to avoid the lesson altogether. Its not a pattern I like to encourage, but at the same time, I dont want to dedicate a bitterly argumentative day and build a hatred of education just to get through an hours work.

My wife was running a lesson with the boys the other day. Although the context was the periodic table, the lesson was really one on notetaking.

The boys took turns reading a page from the book, and everyone would take notes on what was being said. Then everyone compared notes to make sure they had all understood the same thing, and then wrote it out neatly in their book. The style of notetaking was entirely up to them. Whether they wrote full sentences, key words, or diagrams was of no real consequence. They just had to get a meaningful idea on paper.

There was the usual resistance, a number of distractions, and several tantrums, but with ruthless persistance, my wife pushed through all this with the consistent message that there are people here to help him. Far more than at school.

He finally took this message on board, and the results were fantastic. Both the boys were taking their notes, and they learned a heap of stuff. It was funny, but perhaps not entirely surprising, to see that my eldest boy writes his notes like he is coding.

My youngest boy ended up writing nearly a page of information in very neat handwriting. It looked completely different to his usual work. At first glance, I thought someone else had written it.

I was really impressed with the whole thing. It looks like it is going to mark a turning point in how these lessons progress.

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Bird count

Every October for the last five years, Birdlife Australia runs the Aussie Backyard Bird Count. This is a great piece of citizen science. Like the name says, people all over the country go birdwatching over the course of a week and submit their count to a central database.

Although there are a few skews in the data, such as urban populations being over represented, and shy or nocturnal birds being under represented, it still makes for an excellent resource. Shifting population ranges over the years become apparent, and so do changes in population size. Interestingly, the 2018 results show that the three most common birds in Tasmania are all introduced.

Last week we have been going out for twenty minutes at a time on a daily basis and seeing what is in our yard. Twenty minutes is the recommended amount, and it is a good block of time. You tend not to see much more by staying out longer. We use the Morcombe and Stewart Guide to Birds of Australia app. This is great as it is heaps faster than looking through a book, and you can listen to the calls.

We have done our birdwatching sessions in a few different places. It is interesting to notice just how much the species change in just a few hundred metres. We see quite a different group of birds by walking down to the dunes than we do standing in our back yard. Here is a nest of Blue Faced Honeyeaters we found.

These have been great opportunities to get outside and take a close look and listen at what is happening there. I have been teaching the boys to look up and keep their eyes open for movement, and then track the movement to a bird. We also listen a lot. Birds often tell you where they are by calling out. Sometimes when we cant quite make out a bird by sight, we can confirm it by its call. I am pleased that the boys (and myself) are geting better at call identification. It is not an easy thing to do, but you often hear birds without ever seeing them. They tell you what they are up to, whether it is feeding, chasing off a threat, claiming their space or just hanging out.

Many people go birdwatching with the intent of ticking the birds off a list. This aspect doesnt really interest me. I am much more interested in using the birds as an insight into the surrounding environment.

Since the weather has started to warm up, we have been getting a lot of migratory birds appearing here now. Dollarbirds appear, and the rainbow bee eaters have come from the tropics to dig nesting burrows in the sand dunes at the beach. This is what the burrow looks like.

We noticed that although the bee eaters travel a long way to get here, they then live on a tiny area once they arrive. The lewins honeyeater lives in our yard all year round, and never seems to travel more than a couple of hundred metres in any direction. Every morning, we hear a family of kookaburras who do a circuit, calling out their territory. The swallows have the same flight pattern as microbats because they both eat insects on the wing, and occupy the same ecological niche only separated by time – swallows in the day and bats at night.

Birds give a lot of context to a landscape. Urban areas built on drained wetlands still often retain a lot of wetland birds like ducks and herons. Suburbs are often well populated with honeyeaters due to the flowering bushes in peoples gardens.

It has been really nice to be a part of the national bird count. This year, they recorded over three and a half million birds across the country. A couple of hundred of them were from us. I have enjoyed showing the boys birdwatching as an inroad to exploring what is right in front of us. It is a great excuse to aimlessly wander with intent.

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The Alithian fields

One of our key components for homeschooling these days is the Alithia Learning Space. Due to our work commitments, it would be impossible for us to homeschool the kids without it.

For several days a week, the boys spend their time there. This is a great space for primary school aged kids. Although the number varies from day to day, it hovers around twenty kids on any given day.

Each day starts with a morning gathering, where all the kids and mentors connect for the day, and do stretches and warm up exercises. This is followed by a discussion about what the kids are interested in spending the day doing. Communication is something they do very well there.

Unless it is raining, everyone spends the morning outside. Like many aspects of homeschooling, it would look a lot like they are just playing games at a casual glance, despite there being a lot going on under the surface. There is lots of building things, group activities, climbing, nature walks, and artwork. After lunch, the group typically moves inside for reading, journalling, board games, and generally calmer activities along those lines.

Due to different people turning up and the morning circle giving the theme for the day, no two days are the same, although they all follow the same basic rhythm. Despite, in many ways, being very relaxed and easy going, at the same time, these days are very focussed and lived with great intent.The boys always come back happy, but very tired.

As part of writing a letter of support, we asked the boys what they had to say about Alithia. This is what they had to say.

  • Being encouraged to climb trees, work out risks, and see how strong I am and how brave I can be as a person
  • I really like being able to decide things for myself – not being told what to do all the time
  • The enormously friendly environment that has helped me make a few more friends
  • The time we spend outside for playing and learning together and the amount of space we are able to explore and use each day
  • The support we are given to do activities that we choose for ourselves – the process we use to include everyone
  • The freedom to eat and drink when we need, to go barefoot and have fun!
  • Learning to grow plants for food
  • The time we have with the mentors to talk about things we need to, and to talk about interesting topics that help me think and learn
  • The music lessons – ukulele!
  • Bringing animals into our activities, so we learn to care for different species and respect their needs and to play with them!
  • Learning how to help each other to bring ideas to life and learning how to adapt ideas when we find an obstacle
  • The work we did together to design, resource and build an obstacle course and to challenge ourselves to complete the course in an encouraging game
  • Learning how to negotiate with each other and to deal with conflicts has been so important and will help us be better at this through our lifetime
  • We are always learning how to develop complex project ideas and to solve some difficult problems
  • The mentors are way more interesting and fun than teachers we have had when we went to school (except for Linda, who was the most brilliant teacher!!)
  • The freedom to do my own thing if I don’t feel like being part of the group activities
  • I love to spend time imagining what I’m going to do later, daydreaming up ideas for creations
  • I like that people help me figure out answers to questions, like how can I attach metal pieces together – we learnt soldering techniques.
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We go on strike

The smoke haze which had lain over the coast for the last few weeks finally ended in a night of crazy lightning, damaging winds, and hail that smelled of ash. With these events firmly in our minds, it was an interesting moment for the global climate strikes to happen.

The effects of climate change are often dismissed, as if it hasnt happened until we are all living like characters from some dystopian novel like The Dog Stars or The Road. Despite this, a quick glance around NSW alone will show the nations biggest river system on the verge of collapse, prolonged drought, burning rainforests, catastrophic decline of Bogong moths which are a major food source for many animals, increasingly hot summers, towns running out of water, uncontrolled land clearing, nearly 1000 species at risk of extinction, and plenty more for anyone with the emotional fortitude to go looking for it. Whoever believes this to be normal has gone to a great deal of effort to remain wilfully ignorant.

I took the day off work, and we dedicated the day to joining millions of people in all parts of the world marching for genuine action against climate change. In truth, I have no genuine belief that society will be able to adapt itself quickly enough to survive in any recognisable form. Still, the effort needs to be made.

We briefly studied the ideas behind the strike and how it came about. In Australia at least, it has some interesting support, not only from the schools themselves, but also unions, churches and private business. We talked about key messages of the strike, made up our signs and headed off to Bellingen.

Bellingen is a small town of less than 5000 people. As a community, they had really taken to this day. The fact that recent fires were right on their doorstep had added a sense of real life consequences for what is often seen as a fairly abstract subject. Some shops had shut for the day. Others were leaving out baskets of snacks for kids as they marched past. A large group of kids all came from the school. Altogether, around 700 people turned up which, given the size of the town, was proportionately huge. There were little kids, old people on walking frames and all ages in between. We listened to a range of speeches, and then did the march itself which completely overran the town. There was no response from any government representative.

Gradually, everyone went their own separate ways. We played in the river for a little while to enjoy the afternoon, and then went home.

Once we got home, we cut up fruit and hung it in our mulberry tree for the flying foxes. A major forest pollinator, recent events have made things particularly hard for them. Large numbers of flying foxes are dying of starvation all along the coast.

Marching around Bellingen for the day is no more likely to save the planet than feeding a bat for the night will save a crashing population. But to think like that is to miss the point. It is important for the kids as individuals to realise that even in a disturbingly ruthless world, there are people everywhere who care what happens to them. It is important to the individual bat that it lives to another day. They all deserve a future.

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How to read a fire

In the opening weeks of spring, there have been over fifty different bushfires burning across NSW at any given time. As a kid, I remember fire season starting sometimes as late as November. In parts of the state this year, it was declared in August. Each summer, fire season gets a little longer, and a little worse.

To the north of us, world heritage Gondwana rainforests were burning. To the east, a number of fires were burning tens of thousands of hectares of land within a fifty kilometre radius. Although many people like to normalise these events by claiming Australia is a land of extremes, these conditions are much more driven by political inactivity than anything else.

A thick blanket of smoke covered the coast for hundreds of kilometres. The smell permeated everything. The fire alarms in the house went off. Strange birds appeared in the forest at our house, looking nervous and lost. Hungry nocturnal fruit bats would appear in the daytime to eat unripe fruit off our trees. The smoke would only get thicker, and the sun was red in the sky.

The boys had to go to Yamba with their Mum for a day trip. Before setting out, they checked the Fires Near Me app to keep track of the local fires. The heath just south of Yamba was burning. This was going to be a day of applied practical knowledge.

They spent quite a lot of time reading maps and learning about situation reports. These are concise little reports that manage to fit a lot of information inside them. The first and most obvious thing about them is the colour coding, which marks how much or little control there is over the fire. Other things to note on the cover page are the type of fire, the size of the fire, and when the information was last updated. On a second page is a few sentances on what is happening, what is expected to happen next, and recommended action to take. Over the course of the day, the boys were able to watch not only the moving fire lines on the map, but also the number of hectares burned increasing.

Satellite photo of smoke across northern NSW 12 Sept 19

Having determined that the only road in and out of town was not going to be cut, they went in. Most places were closed for the day, as so many people were preparing their homes for the rapidly approaching fire. Still, with not much to do outside of their appointments, there was room to go play at the park.

This is an opportunity the boys rarely let pass. Although it was filled with the usual climbing and jumping on everything, it was preceded by and interspersed with a lot of situational awareness. Where was the fire front on the map in relation to them? What was the wind direction? How strong was the wind? Was the smoke getting thicker? Were there any spot fires jumping ahead of the front? What were people around them doing? Where were the firefighting crews and aircraft? Did they still have a clear way out? Did they have a plan if everything suddenly changed?

Having determined that it was all safe, they were then free to play hard until it was time for the next quick pause and reevaluation of the situation. The fire was moving up the coast between the ocean and a lagoon. A couple of km south of Yamba itself are two small villages where the land is pinched down to a narrow point. Here, fire crews had burned a containment line, and also the boys were able to watch a waterbomber plane prepare to drop a load of fire retardant across the strip.

Satellite image showing the advancing fire front. The containment line is clearly seen at the top of the picture. Yamba is just off screen to the north

That was the situation when they had finished their jobs in town and it was time to leave. To finish the picture, though, the fire briefly jumped the containment line before the ground crews were finally able to bring it under control.

So now the boys have a solid introduction in fire safety. While most of our lessons are fairly fun and colourful, some are very firmly grounded in real life applications with genuine consequences. Like it or not, learning to read a fire is a critical skill these boys will have to develop.

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Liver and unicorn poo

As the basis for a lot of our science work at the moment, we are using the Lift-the-Flap Periodic Table book. This is a great book to use. It is written in a cartoon like style, so is really engaging for the boys. At the same time, the information that is in there is a lot more complex than the pictures suggest, so they learn a lot by focussing on the details.

We have a bundle of lesson plans that go with the book. Several of them revolve around making different variations of slime. We watched the video on how to make the first of these last week, but didnt have all the stuff to do it. The boys spent a week prompting me to go shopping.

Finally, the day arrived when we had all the ingredients. Although it was the end of the day, the boys insisted that the time had come for slime making. This lesson was lots of fun, and as silly as it sounds.

Exact measures are not really needed, but the qualities of the slime will change depending on how much of the various parts you add. We did it like this.

  • A couple of cm of PVA craft glue.
  • Three or four squirts of foaming hand soap.
  • Half a can of shaving cream.
  • A teaspoon of borax dissolved in a cup of water.
  • Food dye

Put the first three ingredients in a bowl, and mix it thoroughly with your hands. Although it is all water soluble, its probably worth adding that at no stage do you want any of this inside the house. Slowly add the occassional dash of dissolved borax as you are mixing.

After a while, it becomes kind of tacky. This is great because the main blob can be used to pick up all the bits that stick to the sides of the bowl, across the table and down your arms. One boy wanted red and the other wanted lilac, so once they ended up with fairly cohesive blobs, we started adding small amounts of food dye.

My youngest boy was telling me at one stage that he had made a liver. We tend not to come across too many livers at our house, so this took me a bit by surprise. He might have been reminded of a liver cake that we saw online recently, or he could have been thinking of the liver donor card from the Meaning of Life. I didnt get to ask.

It did look like a liver though.

Meanwhile, my eldest boy was enjoying how the colours swirled into each other. He was able to assure me that this is what unicorn poo looks like.


They kept this up for a good hour, and only stopped because we were running out of light. By that stage, each slime blob had become a little denser and firmer in texture. They were great to stretch, but were no longer so uncontrollable that they would drip very much. Not surprisingly, by then they were both just coloured purple. Any loose bits were easily picked up and stuck to the main blob. They had both been careful not to drop it on any dirty or fuzzy surfaces, and I was surprised at how cleanly it all packed away.

Apparently, if you coat your foot in slime it feels really good.

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Gaining approval

Different parts of the world have different regulations around homeschooling. In some parts of the world, you seem to have a complete free reign to do whatever you choose, while others are more tightly regulated.

I get the impression that where I live is more regulated than most. In principle, I dont really mind this. It provides a framework to build a curriculum inside, and it also provides expectations so that everyone is thinking more or less along the same lines.

The regulating body for school kids, either government, non government or home schooled is NESA – the New South Wales Education Standards Authority. Despite their best efforts, there is not nearly as much standardisation as they like to suggest. Still, anywhere you go in the state, there is a fair expectation that education will progress in a broadly similar pattern.

NESA provide guidelines for homeschoolers that everyone is, in theory, objectively assessed against. At the end of the day though, it all comes down to the fairly subjective opinion of the local assessor.

We have dealt with them before, both for an initial assessment, and a follow up a year later. Since we have had a four year break in homeschooling, we had to start the application process from the beginning again. This typically takes around six or seven weeks, although ours took twelve. Our previous dealings have always been pretty straight forward and largely helpful. This time was quite different.

The process starts with a very generic form which is little more than contact details. From there, they organise an appointment to go over your plan with an assessor, and then based on that, you are either approved or not to go ahead for a certain period of time.

Some weeks after the forms went in, I started getting these weird phone calls from someone at NESA. I was never entirely certain what their role was. Over a period of several weeks, they were very concerned that since my wife and I both work, we wouldnt be able to provide a proper education as we would be far too busy doing our own thing. Another time they were very concerned that since our formal lessons tend to be stacked on the weekend, we would probably be too busy socialising to get any work done. Later, they were very concerned that as our kids would be going to a homeschool group, that part of their education would not be happening ‘at home’ so by definition, we couldnt claim to be homeschooling. All of these conversations would wind around to the point where our application would probably be refused if it went to a formal assessment, and it would be better if we just withdrew it.

Eventually, we got in touch with Home Education Association (HEA) who are an excellent support group here in Australia. Although we came up with a number of interesting theories as to why NESA were unable to follow their own guidelines, it was all speculation. What we needed was a plan. Between us, we decided to withdraw the application and then immediately resubmit it. Stupid circumstances sometimes demand ridiculous actions.

A week later, my wife started getting the same weird phone calls. This time, they were very concerned about the welfare of our children, and felt that if our application was not withdrawn, it might have to be escalated to the state director. My wife deals with this kind of situation a good deal better than I do. After a polite, yet rage inducing, half hour conversation, our application had been progressed to the next level.

Three weeks later, the local assessor was in our house, looking at our plans, and checking out the details of what we intended to do. We also had a representative from HEA there to act as an independant observer for us. Its what you do when there is no sense of trust.

In fairness to her, the assessor was very human and easy going. The whole visit would have been quite unremarkable were it not for the absolute circus which had preceded it. We were given a years approval, which is the maximum you can get for the initial application.

It is a win, but it doesnt feel like one. Its disappointing that the organisation who exists to provide direction and advice is obstructive, inconsistent and a major barrier to our educational decisions.

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