Three ideas for encouraging lifelong learning

Following on from my recent post about the decline of lifelong learning in England over the last decade, I’d like to offer three broad suggestions that could help to reverse this depressing trend.

1. (Re)introduce greater flexibility in course choices

One impact of the changes made over the last decade has ensured that more funding goes to institutions whose students register for and complete pre-defined qualifications (for example, an undergraduate degree). While this makes some sense for students enrolled on full-time qualifications, as it’s a good idea to encourage universities to do all they can to try to ensure these students don’t want to give up, it makes little sense to insist on a rigid qualification framework for part-time, mature learners.

For example, prior to the 2012 funding changes, Open University degrees were almost a side-effect of taking a number of courses. There was no expectation that registering for a course would always eventually result in a degree. You could tackle their courses in (almost) any order you chose. If you were a confident learner you didn’t have to make up your 360 points for an honours degree from specified difficulty levels, provided that you had obtained enough points at the higher levels.

Current Open University procedures mandate a far less flexible approach. You have to register on a degree pathway when you first enrol. You must then obtain 120 points at level 1, before being allowed to study at level 2 and then at level 3. The expectation is that you will study for a degree, rather than taking a couple of courses that you might need to help your development. Had these rules been in force when I had been studying with the Open University, I would probably never have taken the management course I did in 1990, nor the course I took 15 years later (at level 2) which eventually led me to gain a psychology degree in 2011.

So the first change I’d make is to ensure that funding for part-time students with further and higher education providers isn’t contingent on a multi-course qualification being nominated or achieved. Successful completion of a single course would be sufficient to release the ever-decreasing proportion of direct funding from government.

2. The “Open” qualification

Since the Open University was founded, one of its more interesting innovations has been the Open degree. An Open degree allows a student to study any subject offered by the university, across faculties and disciplines. In the context of lifelong learning this is an excellent approach, as it is another way of rewarding continued study. I’d like to see more FE and HE institutions offer the equivalent of “Open” qualifications as an incentive to learners.

3. Paying for lifelong learning

The current student loan system is broken for part-time students in general, and even more broken (yes, that is possible!) when considering the needs of mature, part-time students. Mature students have voted with their feet over the last decade. A lifelong learning account might help to address this issue.

For example, an account that allowed contributions from individuals and employers, match-funded by government, but used as and when individuals saw fit would be a good starting point for discussion. It should be possible to use this account towards any recognised vocational, FE or HE course – including equivalent and lower qualifications – to support re-skilling.


The Ship Inn

The Ship Inn. A random image, found in amongst pictures of caravans and a family holiday at the seaside. The film it was on was developed in September 1968. Does anyone recognise this particular Ship Inn and could tell me where it is?

I’m also intrigued by the man and the cart. I wonder if the cart was his or if it belonged to the pub?

The Ship InnUpdate:

It’s The Ship Inn at Long Sutton. Many thanks to Mary Mayfield for suggesting Lincolnshire and for Jonathan Calder for suggesting the specific pub. Google Streetview confirms. The man with his cart seems to be long gone, however.

The Ship Inn, 2016

The consequences of kicking the can down the road

Kicking the can down the road is sometimes a useful tactic for avoiding short-term political pain, but often results in significant long-term damage. If a politician can kick a particular can far enough away, they may avoid personal damage for poor decisions, laziness and lies. Instead it’s the people in the can that’s being kicked who suffer. I’m fairly certain that’s the strategy of the current government when it comes to finalising the exit process from the European Union. When it proves to be the national disaster everyone with any foresight predicted that it would be, the culprits will be long gone from office. No doubt they’ll manage to scrape the odd book deal or two from the wreckage. As for the rest of us, we need to make whatever contingency plans we can.

The EU exit can appears to have been successfully kicked away for a few more months. However, one that’s been kicked down the road by politicians of all parties for the last decade or so and has largely been forgotten about has been found hiding in the long grass by the National Audit Office (NAO). Their report into the higher education market makes grim reading and not only because of the seemingly unstoppable trend towards the marketisation of HE. Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), remarked that “There is a world of difference between buying a tin of beans and making the right decision about higher education“. Quite.

Far and away the biggest losers from the last decade of funding changes in HE in England have been part-time, mature students. The charts in the NAO report show the scale of the disaster for this group of learners since 2011, but in truth, the damage to this group had already started under the previous Labour government with the withdrawal of funding for equivalent and lower qualifications.

Since 2010/11, the number of part-time students has fallen dramatically, both in real terms and as a proportion of learners:

Figure 4

Part-time enrolments for undergraduate study in England have declined markedly since 2010/11.

… with mature, part-time undergraduates feeling the brunt of these changes, through policies that have created an especially hostile environment for this group.

Figure 14 - Mature students

Mature and part-time undergraduate student entrants in England 2011-2016.

Peter Horrocks, the Open University vice-chancellor tweeted this morning that the fall in part-time mature learners had mostly hit “… the career learners who need new skills”, adding “This is an own goal for government’s aims on productivity and social mobility.”

He’s right, of course. This is a can that the government needs to stop kicking. Proper policy and investment in lifelong learning will be essential if the UK – inside or outside of the EU – is to thrive in future.

The spirit of London 2012 lives on

As a visitor to the London Paralympics in 2012 one of the things I appreciated most were the temporary bright pink signs to the events seen around the capital. Even though I’m a relatively frequent visitor to London, they reassured me that I really was heading in the right direction. So today it was nice to see that a couple still remain. I saw this one at Canning Town. Not quite a ghost sign, but not far off I suppose.

Buses for ExCeL ghost sign


Stapleford Miniature Railway Open Weekend – August 2017

I’ve been meaning to post a few photographs from this event for some time as a follow-up to the 1974 cine film I wrote about earlier this year. The railway is currently open to the public on a couple of occasions each year in June and August, with profits going to the Leicestershire and Rutland Hospice (LOROS). It’s maintained in fantastic condition by a dedicated army of volunteers known as the Friends of Stapleford Miniature Railway. For once, the August Bank Holiday weather was beautiful.

Stapleford Hall

Stapleford Hall – Car parking for the open weekend was in a field in front of the hotel – which was somewhat challenging terrain for my Caterham!

Queue for the trains

The queue after I’d been on the train – it paid to get there early.

Sir Nigel Gresley

A4 Pacific Sir Nigel Gresley and Southern Railway 4-6-0 Lord Nelson, both visiting from the Eastleigh Lakeside Railway.

White Heron

Diesel Locomotive White Heron. This can also be seen in action on my 1974 cine film of the railway.

As well as the miniature railway there were exhibits of classic cars, stationary engines, fairground organs and miniature steam engines. All told it was an enjoyable morning spent re-living a part of my childhood.

Stapleford Miniature Railway in August 2017 from Tim Holyoake on Vimeo.

Shoestring reloaded

Watching television programmes remembered from my childhood can sometimes be a dispiriting experience. ITV3’s endless repeats of On the Buses is a reminder that terrible sitcoms were made long before Mrs Brown’s Boys. Many 1970s drama serials really haven’t stood the test of time either. The Persuaders is cringe-making, sexist tosh. The Professionals seems rather more amateurish than professional. Even Blake’s 7, which I watched religiously through the static on an expiring black and white television, is mostly unwatchable.

However, some real gems were made. Which brings me to Shoestring. I suspect that this series was largely responsible for my later desire to become a radio presenter, a fantasy that I was able to inflict on my university friends courtesy of W963. I recently bought the newly-released 21 episode DVD and book. I’m pleased to report that it’s been an entirely positive experience rediscovering the series. Even though I’d bought the first 11 episodes some years ago on an earlier DVD release, Andrew Pixley’s book alone is almost worth the £40 outlay.

170 pages long, it consists of an in-depth history of the series, plus an episode by episode guide to the cast, music, script quirks, shooting locations … everything you could possibly want to know. The front cover (pictured) is a pastiche of an actual Radio Times cover from October 1980.

Shoestring cover

As I’ve watched the DVD, I’ve inevitably found myself gasping at how much the world has changed since 1979/80 when the programmes were made. For example, all cars seemed to be incredibly badly made. I wince every time someone closes a door as it seems certain that such a rash act will bend the chassis. Computers (such as the CEGB‘s filmed for the Utmost Good Faith episode) had punched cards for input, filled whole air-conditioned rooms, but had less computing power than the Raspberry Pi I’m writing this blog post on.

However, it’s the final episode – The Dangerous Game – which confirms to me that Shoestring really was from an era that is long gone. In it we see:

  • Eddie having a conversation outside a Berni Inn.
  • Re-usable paper Christmas decorations and fake spray-on snow in shop windows.
  • A cafe with a green “We Accept Luncheon Vouchers” sticker in the window.
  • A local radio station that was genuinely local, with a substantial staff of telephonists, DJs and its own newsroom.
  • A dangerous electrical toy race track, shown (in three separate scenes) as requiring a three-pin plug to be wired up before it could be used.
  • A holiday cottage that needed ten pence coins to feed the electricity meter.

The plot turns on the last two points. Because of this, it’s a story that couldn’t be told the same way in 2017. So I’m stopping now to set myself up a Shoestring playlist on my cloud-based, wireless music centre that came with a moulded three-pin plug. Sadly, I won’t be needing any punched cards.


Inspired by the Post40Bloggers writing prompt #38 – The Good Old Days.

Why I love being in the bottom 10 percent

I went for a PET/CT scan a few days ago to see how my lymphoma was progressing. I’m used to the process now, as it’s the fourth time I’ve had one since my diagnosis in 2014.

After I’d checked in and the formalities were over, I was given an injection of a radiotracer. This contains glucose, and as cancerous cells use sugar more quickly than normal cells the radiotracer concentrates in them, enabling the scanner to detect abnormalities. The scan takes place an hour after the injection and I enjoy saying that being scanned is like being on a slowly moving photocopier.

PET/CT scanners work by detecting the radiotracer at multiple levels (slices) through the body, which are then combined into a false colour 3D image. Affected lymph nodes show up in a lurid green colour. It looks a little bit like the colour of Spiderman’s blood.

Afterwards, you remain slightly radioactive for a few hours. I was glad that I didn’t turn into Spiderman (I hate heights), but I was disappointed that the process didn’t confer me with crime-fighting superpowers.

Embed from Getty Images

Today was results day. The scan showed that while the disease has progressed over the last year – more lymph nodes in my neck are abnormal and the ones that were already affected have become larger – everything else is remaining stable enough for me to stay on watch and wait until the New Year at the very least. Which is excellent news.

My consultant tells me that I’m in the bottom 10 percent when it comes to progression speed for MCL.

I’ve spent my whole life trying to be in the top 10 percent of things – and preferably, as Brian Clough once put it, being in the top 1.

But for MCL I’ll happily make an exception. I’ve never been so pleased to be told that I’m in the bottom 10 percent for anything.

Gnu gets a rear light upgrade

With the light getting gloomier as winter draws in, my decision to fit a pair of LED rear light clusters to the Seven looks like it was an excellent idea. The ones I’ve bought are from Just Add Lightness. I pre-ordered them in mid-September and they arrived, very well packaged in reams of bubble wrap, earlier on this week.

LED lights

The lights with all of the bubble wrap removed. The standard factory supplied flasher relay on a 2016 270 doesn’t work with these lights.

Even with my (very limited) mechanical skills, removing the existing light clusters and fitting the new ones took me just over an hour. Most of that time was spent fiddling with the plug and grommet (removing the old one and then fitting the new) in the narrow gap between the side of the car and the fuel tank. The rest of the procedure was simple, as even I can manage to use a screwdriver.

Half fitted

Half fitted

Left vs Right

Left side with the original incandescent bulbs; right hand side with LEDs. The tail light and brake light (not lit in this picture) are noticeably brighter


The finished job

While I was doing the work, I also figured out how the wiring works for a high level brake light. I’ve decided that will be my next upgrade.

Update 11/11/2017 – egg on face time.

I am (or rather, was) a software engineer. I know that you should always test for every possible combination you can think of before you say that something definitely works. I found out today that I hadn’t done my testing very well! Sadly, the standard flasher unit fitted to the 270 doesn’t work well with these indicators – unless you happen to have the hazards on – which is how I’d done my testing yesterday. I realised this as soon as I first indicated to turn right this afternoon.

Quickly heading back to my garage, the WIPAC flasher unit that I’d ordered as a precaution at the same time as the lights didn’t fix the problem. In fact it was worse, as the indicators didn’t work at all rather than simply flashing at a comically high-speed. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the current Caterham owners’ manual doesn’t tell you where this relay is located on the 270 (although I did eventually manage to find it in the fuse box – it’s the bottom of four relays in there).

I’ve now ordered the RDX relay instead (after a trip to the local motor spares emporium failed to turn up anything that might work) and so have my fingers crossed that it will sort the issue.

Update 14/11/2017 – sorted!

The RDX relay did the trick. Thank you to Just Add Lightness for the very prompt processing of this order. It means Gnu and I will be back on the road again this weekend, weather permitting.

RDX relay

The RDX relay in situ – fourth and last relay down from the top in the 270’s fuse box

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