Monday, 28 February 2011

Did I make Birmingham win the FA Cup? (And could I profit from doing so?)

Birmingham FC won the FA Cup this week, so as a Birmingham resident I should be pleased. However, while I wish Birmingham all the best, I am underwhelmed by this event for a couple of reasons. Firstly because I am not a genuine Brummie, I’m an outsider and don’t support the team. The second reason is because I have used to Football success happening around me.

This takes a little explaining. Birmingham are on the up at the moment. They were promoted to the Premiership in 2009, and have been performing reasonably well there. This in itself is not big news, there are quite a few teams in the Premiership, and at any given time about half of them can be judged to be doing well.

However prior to living in Birmingham I lived in Portsmouth, who also did well during my residency there. I moved to Portsmouth in 2001. Portsmouth were promoted to the Premiership in 2003, and won the FA cup in 2008. Unfortunately Portsmouth were relegated in 2010 and are suffering acute financial problems – much as they were prior to my moving to Portsmouth.

Prior to this I have not lived in the catchment area of any major football club, other than a couple of years in Norwich in the early 70s. Norwich were promoted to the First Division (then the top league) in 1972, and relegated in 1974. I lived there from 1971-1973.

This would seem to suggest, based upon analysis of the statistics alone, that my residence in a city has a beneficial effect on the local football team.

Now as a rationalist and a man of science I am forced to conclude that this is mere coincidence, and that there is no possible way in which my place of residence could influence the outcome of football matches.

However as a student of human behaviour I am also forced to admit that other people might look at the same statistics and come to a different conclusion. It is possible to conclude from the statistics that my presence does in fact have an effect on the local football team, and not seek an explanation as to why this is the case.

This of course leads me to a dilemma. Football is a big business, and one about which passions run deep. People have been known to spend a lot of money on more far-fetched ideas than my residence in the hope of bringing some good luck to their favoured side.

Which leads me to wonder, were I to broadcast my apparent abilities to the world, would anybody buy me a house near their favourite football team? And if so would it be ethical for me to take it?

I could certainly use being bought a house. Times are hard, and house prices have rocketed way beyond the means of normal mortals such as myself. But, as I noted before, I do not believe in my own ability to influence football scores. This might not be a problem. In theory one can treat ones mystical abilities as being a bit of a laugh, something that does not need to be taken seriously, but yet which you are happy to be paid for. Astrologers have been taking this line for years, though I did notice that earlier this year they did start threatening the BBC over a comment on an astronomy program that did not take them entirely seriously.

And if I were to exploit my ‘ability’ to get a house, how would I deal with the fact that not all football teams are exactly equal in this regard? I mean, a house in Chelsea will set someone back a couple of million, minimum, but Chelsea are doing pretty well on their own, so they probably don’t need my help. You can get a three bedroom house in Walsall for under £80 000, and they could probably do with my help. Doncaster could definitely use a boost & houses can be got there for under £40 000. But do I want to live in Walsall or Doncaster?

The truth is I’d need a pretty good job offer and a guaranteed place at a decent school for my son in addition to the house. Which, I suspect, might be asking a bit too much.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

CLEAPSS & Market Forces – Gambling with Health and Safety in School Science Lessons.

CLEAPSS is a government body that provides health and safety advice for science lessons in schools and colleges in the UK. It also provides support for art and design/technology lessons.

Although CLEAPSS is a taxpayer funded body service users have to pay for the service provided. This is in keeping with current political thought, which says services should be subjected market forces. In theory this means that a private sector company could set up a rival service. However this does not appear to be an attractive proposition, as any company attempting to do this would have to provide the service cheaper than CLEAPSS, and would run the risk of legal action in the event of a child being injured.

Where local authorities run schools it is the responsibility of the Local Education Authority to take out a subscription with CLEAPSS (some local authorities have tried running their own health and safety advisory service for schools in house, but this has generally proved more expensive than subscribing to CLEAPSS). However where schools become academies independent of LEA control (as is promoted by the current government) then the responsibility falls to the individual school to maintain its own subscription.

This is where things start to go wrong. Science teachers tend to be underrepresented at management level in schools, and teachers from other backgrounds do not always realise the importance of CLEAPSS as a service. This has meant that not all schools have taken up subscriptions. The matter has either been forgotten about, or staff have been advised to take out there own subscriptions.

Ultimate responsibility for health and safety within a school lies with the head, and within the science department, the head of science. Teachers are responsible within individual classes. In practice teachers often rely on the advice of science technicians when running practical science classes. This is not entirely unwise. A science teacher will only run an individual lesson once or twice a year, whereas a science technician will set up the experiment five to ten times, and will have time to keep abreast of any changes in procedure whereas teachers have more issues competing for their time.

For example schools have been phasing out mercury thermometers over the last few years, replacing them with spirit thermometers. These are safer in that they do not contain (highly toxic) mercury, but do not behave in quite the same way as the mercury ones, in particular they can explode when heated rapidly. CLEAPPS picked up on this quite quickly and circulated the information. In schools this was generally received by science technicians, who were able to plan to avoid this happening.

In recent years there as been a tendency to downplay the importance of support staff in schools, while management level staff have grown in numbers and remuneration. This has lead to a sharp fall in pay for science technicians, either as older technicians are replaced, or more directly by cutting pay under the guise of Single Status (probably illegal, but widespread). At the same time expectations have fallen, so newly recruited technicians tend to have a far lower level of qualification.

This is worse in single faith schools, where staff are often expected to belong to the ‘correct’ religion. Richard Dawkins has collected a number of stories of teaching and support staff that hold beliefs contrary to scientific understanding, but far more worrying and widespread are tales of science technicians who have good intentions but lack the skills for the job. This has lead to a rising number of classroom incidents, particularly involving the mislabelling of chemicals.

Since faith schools are more likely to become independent academies, these staff are the ones most likely to suffer the loss of support from CLEAPSS, as well as often being the least well qualified, and the least likely to be sent on specialist training courses.