Thursday, 29 May 2014

On what is wrong with PFI: An anecdotal case study.

EDIT: Since scribbling this three further points have occurred to me:

1. The school is achieving. The kids seem happy and relaxed in a challenging catchment area. The staff are generally good at their job (only needing my excellent classroom behaviour management skills occasionally!) and appear to enjoy working there - there aren't many TES job papers in the staffroom - a key indicator in any establishment.

2. The relationships between the companies on site IS POOR. Everyone blames someone else.

3. The relationships between the companies on site and the staff IS POOR. The staff find the processes frustrating and complicated. Where is X project billed? Who can help with Y? It's a mess and often nobody has the answer and calls are made to MEGACORPHQ to work out exactly how much more money can be generated from whatever issue there is. That's wasteful and unfair. It creates friction because although the wage slips for a member of school staff and site or IT staff come from different places, their job should be a united front to offer the best environment, resources and teaching that they can. 

--- ---

I work in educational IT. A niche field of the sector that has been created to maintain the large, unique networks of computers, servers and software that exist in nearly all schools, colleges and universities in the UK in 2014. As a contractor I work wherever I am needed and have seen, first-hand, how broken the private finance initiative (PFI) model is.

When I moved from the world of technical support in a private company to a school in 2007 I found myself in a largely cooperative environment which I found very refreshing. In short, we helped each other out. The purpose of our being at work was to deliver a service, for me supporting a network of computers, servers and network infrastructure. From time to time my duties would be very different than that! We all helped out.

Need a hand setting up the stage? Audio equipment? Do you mind helping out with Sports Day? Of course! Part and parcel of the job was that we were all part of the life and community of the place we shared for eight (or more) hours a day... sometimes driven by pure passion, sometimes for the variety (who really wants to sit in a small office or freezing cold, air-conditioned server room all that time) and sometimes as a favour, the point is that almost everyone CARED.

Skip to 2014 and I am looking at a very different situation. I am a contractor to a sub contractor in a PFI school. A contractor to a contractor of a contractor. Yeah.

My employer has a contract to supply an IT service to another contractor at the school that manage 'the site'. That employer has over 400,000 employees. EVERYTHING is laid out bare in complicated contracts between all the service providers which state exactly what can be done and who can be involved and this leads to some very messy arrangements that act against the staff and students.

Case in point? The kitchen tills are computers that sit inside another contract. They're not different or difficult to work on and I have been expected to work on this model many times before. I am not allowed to fix them. I have had to explain this, several times, to confused kitchen staff that the company responsible is based 'in the North somewhere' (under yet another contract, as are the cleaning staff). I can't do anything. She can't do anything. Everything grinds to a halt until they send a local contractor to site for anything as simple as a loose cable :(

Her comment? 'This is madness!'. I concur.

If I don't make you want to gouge out your
 ears then I'm not doing my job properly.
When there is a fire alarm drill we are supposed to perform a twenty-five minute shutdown of the core network switches, then remote switches, then physical servers and then the virtual servers. A review of this last week highlighted the fact that it was a ridiculous thing to expect but the sticking point was not the safety of such a policy, but the fact that non-technical staff would require training in this because the contract doesn't fall to the subcontractor, it falls to the mega-contractor of 400,000 employees. I am, suffice to say, completely stunned.

The site closes at 6. Dead on. Everybody out. That's the contract.

I've never worked in a school like it. Teachers need some extra time to plan? Maintenance work is overrunning? After school clubs? It's going to cost. Everything is detailed and billed to the school and it costs them a lot of extra money because it's 'outside the terms of the contract'. This is money being paid, by the government, to a large multi-national corporation which made generates over €20,000,000,000 (seriously, that is the correct number of 0s, I looked it up!) a year. Any wonder. Beginning to get a picture of how this doesn't benefit anyone?

What else does IT normally manage in schools? The MIS, a large central database which deals with the mass of student and staff information in modern schools - registration and attendance, exam grades, behaviour, dietary requirements, health and medication - another contract...

Perhaps the safety of the equipment - the industry standard PA testing (another ATM machine, this one... it's known as a PAT test) - yet another contract!

Printers? Completely outside our management. An outside company has a virtual print server sitting inside the network which manages printing and bills the school for leasing the hardware and supplies the toner and paper. It's an incredibly expensive contract - schools no longer function without large multi-function photocopiers in each of the five IT suites, main office, reprographics room (has two - but these are under ANOTHER contract) and staff room and a high capacity laser printer in every classroom and staff office.

However, something incredibly strange happens when the toner runs out. Take this in and try not to explode with the way that our government is shovelling money into a Fortune Global 500 company. When a toner runs low the school is automatically billed for the cost of a replacement (at their contracted rate), it is shipped and placed into storage so that there is always a stock of toner in the school for every printer. This is in spite of the fact that there are only two models. Crazy? This is what then happens when it runs out. The member of staff alerts the central helpdesk (call centre) and they raise a job to the company I am contracting for who accept and then bill the company for picking the toner up off a shelf, walking the two or three minutes to the classroom or office, lifting the lid, removing the old and installing the new. The cost? £50.

£50 to install a toner.

As my colleague so rightly pointed out upon learning this, 'Someone is definitely raking it in'. 

The coffee and water machines? They're a subcontractor.

The grass, trees and shrubs? Another.

So, I do my best. I work as hard as I can on what I'm allowed to but constantly find that I walk a fine line of not stepping over the parameters of the strict contracts in place. Gone is the flexibility. Gone are the interesting projects and collaborations with other departments. The staff in each area of support are there to perform a set of basic functions.

I used to run the Breakfast Club in the mornings. I used to help out with Science Club after school. Interested and interesting teachers (you know who you are, Jim, Graham...) would come to me with ideas and projects and we'd use the resources available to make things happen. I wouldn't look at them like a shifty builder or mechanic, shoot a glance and declare, 'Oooh. That's gonna cost ya!'. This is what I'm observing and it sucks.

I'm not the only one in this position and that's simply not good for the school.

Too many cooks...

Too many fingers in pies...

I've seen how broken it all is, from the inside, and I want to cry.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

On cycling in London.

Decided to film my commute for the first time yesterday.

The result was mostly footage of the floor in Tube trains but the morning rush was moderately livened up by me forgetting to turn off my heating and cycling home again (after getting on the first Tube) and by seeing how fast I can make my way through Bank station - it genuinely looks like the film is playing at double speed - and personally I find this amusing. I am a real Londoner :)

On the way home however, this happened:

In under one minute I capture a car jumping a red light, an indecisive Honda almost taking me out and then a Ford deciding to drive straight across my path. She wound down the window and said the word 'INDICATING' as if this somehow gives anyone with a flashing orange light on their vehicle a free pass to use the roads dangerously.

Perhaps the Highway Code will eventually be rewritten to include this because, as of today, it doesn't actually feature as an exemption. I am shocked to discover.

I will now be recording whenever I can and submitting footage to the Metropolitan Police Service via their RoadSafe Form. I recommend that other road users do the same - Big Brother may be watching but a saturation of civilian drivers with helmet/dash cams can only make the roads safer for everyone.

I hope.

MET Police RoadSafe

On Old Harry's Game - BBC Radio Four comedy series

Old Harry's Game is a UK radio comedy written and directed by Andy Hamilton, who also plays the cynical, world-weary (or rather, underworld-weary) Satan. "Old Harry" is one of many names for the devil.

(that's the Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V from Wikipedia done!)

I discovered at #QEDCon that a lot of people hadn't even heard of this mid 90s work of comedy genius so I've taken the time to upload a total of 36 episodes which are now available as a YouTube playlist :)


Old Harry's Game by Andy Hamilton. BBC Radio Four comedy playlist.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

On missing out a part of a video you're recording...

So, I took too many photos during the day at #QEDCon and filled up my SD card on the camera! Luckily for you kids, I had an audio recorder running at the same time so here's a transcript of the missing section of video:

So I want to shift gears here for just a minute because I think it’s important to make this point. The vast majority of people who have heard my family’s message of condemnation and divine hatred respond with some form of, well, that’s not my God. It’s seen as a lot more personal in the United States. They say something like, my God is a loving God and a caring God who’s not capable of hate. 

And, well, of course each of us is entitled to believe what we want there are often times facts that conflict with those beliefs and one of the facts that cannot be disputed is that the theology that my father has fashioned is well grounded in the words of the Bible. This book that’s generally interpreted today as the words of a benevolent God, contain all of the passages necessary to come to the conclusions they had come to. In fact this version, their version of Christianity was the mainstream version only two hundred years ago. 

Proof of that can be found in the sermon that was referenced often by preachers of that day, the sermon by American theologian Jonathan Edwards entitled ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’. The essence of that sermon can be summed up in this sentence from it ‘There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.’
So this isn’t some kooky idea that they’d conjured up, they basically got stuck in the past. So when I hear people say that their God is nothing like the God of the Westboro Baptist Church is simply disagree.

Now, back to the video (in the right place)

Nate Phelps - Leaving Hate Behind (@ 29m32s)

On Nate Phelps - "Leaving Hate Behind"

At this year's #QEDCon Nate Phelps (@n8phelps) gave an inspirational talk about growing up in the Westboro Baptist Church, his father, Fred Phelps, leaving the church, battling with his faith and journey towards atheism.

I've subtitled (Closed Captions) the talk to make it more accessible to the deaf and hearing-impaired, non-English speakers, people without speakers or in a noisy environment (and those that just can't make out some of the words!)


Special thanks to Nate who gave his blessing (sorry) to this video/transcript.

edit: Here's Dr Maz's (@noodlemaz) Storify of the talk Nate Phelps at QEDCon 2014

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

On #QEDCon, Manchester April 2014

Year four certainly didn't disappoint!

Here are links to my public photos:

Mixer Evening / Day OneDay Two

- please feel free to share/use or even play around with in PhotoShop :)

Firstly I want to again thank all the organisers, volunteers and hotel staff for facilitating a fabulous celebration of critical thinking, skeptical activism and rationality. You are incredible.

Unfortunately a few weeks before the event I sustained a shoulder injury and the painkillers I was prescribed meant I will have seemed a little slower than normal to anyone who spoke to me. Luckily, this didn't distract from how wonderful it was to see all the friends I've met over the last few years, share a few drinks and catch up.

After checking in and working out how to navigate the new venue, getting our bearings and then had a couple of drinks in the room and third floor terrace. After that we headed downstairs to the main bar and the official social/mixer event on the Friday night. The usual huge variety of conversation subjects between people of all ages and from all over the world. It's such a beautiful thing to see and be part of and reminds me very much of a music festival - most skeptics are visibly comfortable and the groups are fluid and welcoming. Here's a short video of the evening:

The first day! Here's how the event started, QEDCon opening video featuring the ace skeptic magician Paul Zenon (@PaulZenon) and a few others - see who you can spot!

I'm not going to go into depth analysing the talks - that will be done in many other blogs by much better writers than myself and I'll update this with those posts. Personally I moved between a few and saw the following on the first day:

SHAM-poo and CON-ditioner - Beauty by the Geeks

BbtG (@BeautyByGeeks) I thought that the majority of the talk would be already well understood by most of the audience and the delivery could have been more confident. I felt it was pitched to a younger audience and can see it working very well to school or college students and the methods they use would be very effective. I would have liked to see a practical element.

Assault with Batteries - Robert Llewellyn

Utterly brilliant. Robert (@bobbyllew) is an incredibly confident speaker and I was completely captivated by a very interesting talk about battery technologies, electricity production and electric cars. Never before have I wished (sorry) that I lived in the future as my laptop battery gave up the ghost (sorry, again) before the end of the talk!

This was a live podcast recording presented by Andy Wilson (@saxman1000). Loved the panel, Andy was on top form and I'll post the full show when it's available. Funny, entertaining and enjoyable. I have to admit to resorting to Google to be sure that I was getting the questions posed to the audience correct!

Supplements, Complementary and Alternative Medicine (SCAM) Myths - Mark Crislip

Mark (@MarkCrislip) gave a talk about a subject very close to the hearts of many in the skeptical community. Unfortunately it is very true that “We have evolved to survive reality, not understand it”. A strong talk that rounded off the formal talks for the day very nicely.

In between talks we had more opportunities to socialise and even meet our regular Young Earth Creationist protesters :) After the talks we headed out to a the rebel-rebel-rebel dinner for a tasty burrito while the gala dinner folks suited up.

After the Skeptic Magazine (@TheSkepticMag) Ockham Awards, the evening entertainment kicked off and it was great fun. Gemma Arrowsmith (@mmaarrow) has been a personal favourite of mine for some time now and the packed Grand Room clearly agreed. Andy Zaltzman (@ZaltzCricket) was equally hilarious. Here's what the room looked like:

We were also treated to Richard Wiseman's much celebrated teatowel>chicken 'trick' which has already attracted a 'thumbs down' on YouTube. I find this hilarious.

Day Two.

Psychic Blues: Using Guerilla Skepticism to Fight Psychic Fraud - Mark Edward

From my perspective, Mark's talk was one of the most discussed in the bar. Basically given a choice between fighting 'fire with fire' and a much more *British* appeal to believers in various woo I found myself in many debates afterwards. His attitude was very much one of diving in with all guns blazing and I think that can be fun but variety and moderation is equally important. Very interesting nonetheless and a great talk to inspire conversation. I was disappointed that he failed to answer the question posed by Tom Bruce (@semilogical) who asked if (as they had displayed on a banner in protest) "Was the fact that Sylvia Browne was a convicted felon was the best argument they could have used?" - Mark immediately dismissed the question (and questioner) and clearly didn't share the opinion of anyone I met over the weekend. Felon or not, evidence is the key to good critical thinking.

Camp Quest UK: Growing a Community of Young Freethinkers - Samantha Stein

Sam (@Samantha_Stein) discussed the movement of youth freethinking communities and Camp Quest. Love the fact that these exist and are so successful and wish they had been around when I was younger, much younger!

Nathan Phelps (Nate) - Leaving Hate Behind.

Nate @n8phelps Wow. I can't express how huge the amount of respect I have is for this chap. A deeply moving personal account of his experiences growing up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Awe inspiring talk and I feel genuinely honoured to have heard this talk. Presented as fully as I could, below:

Thank you again everyone. It was emotional. See you in 2015!

Links to other write-ups from this year's QED:

For anyone feeling nostalgic, here's my review of QED 2012 - "On #QEDCon 2012 :D"

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

On 'An 8-bit History Of The World'

This is my favourite music video and song at the moment. An inspired creation brought to you from the mind of Will Varley

Weddings & Wars (An 8-Bit History Of The World)

Check it out!