Archive for the month “November, 2017”

What every teacher should know.

Up our street, you’re nobody if you haven’t got scaffolding up in front of your house.  Everyone seems to be having work done.  It’s the latest status symbol.


So I wasn’t surprised last week when I looked out of our front window to see that our car was almost entirely blocked in by a big scaffolding truck with the words ‘ROBINSON SCAFFOLDING SERVICES’ emblazoned along the side in two-foot high letters.

I wasn’t worried because there was still space for me to drive out if I needed to.  Then a second truck arrived and parked, nose-to-nose, with the first one.  My car was now completely captive.

We needed to go shopping so I went out, with some trepidation, to get one of the four burly, scaffolders to move one of the trucks.

“No problem,” said one of them, a big fellow with tattoos all up his arms and around his neck. “I’ll get the keys.”  “Phew! that was easy”, I thought.

Then he said “Did you used to teach at Portslade Community College?  You’re Mr Nicholls, aren’t you?  You tried to teach me German!  I’m Alan Trussler.”

Now, in every secondary school, there are some names that every teacher knows, whether they taught that child or not.  Trussler was one such name.  A nightmare kid who caused staff so much grief and just sucked energy out of even the best teachers.  He was expelled from the school in Year 9.  He would have been 14 years old.

Now,  almost 20 years later, I was having a perfectly pleasant conversation with this man about his school experience  and how inappropriate most of the curriculum had been for a kid like him. He told me that he was one of six kids in his family and that only one of them, his elder sister, had been to university.  He was quick to add, with some glee, that the other five were all out-earning the university graduate by quite a large margin.

“By the way,” he said, pointing to one of his work-mates higher up on the scaffolding, “that’s Joe Robinson.”

Joe Robinson was another name that could turn a competent Languages teacher to a gibbering wreck within the space of ten minutes.. I didn’t teach him, but as Head of Department, I often had to deal with the fall-out of his behaviour in lessons.  Joe eventually left the school, much to everyone’s relief, with one GCSE to his name. I think it was in Sports Studies.

At this point I decided that it was time I made some tea for my new friends and so we stood, leaning against the truck, chatting about old times.

“Whatever happened to Leeroy?”  “Oh, he went to prison, for fraud, I think,” says Joe.  “He now raced dogs at the local greyhound stadium.”

“And Tom, ” I pressed.  “He’s been in and out of prison a few times, not sure what for.  He’s training to be an electrician now.”

“And that lad who was a handy footballer and was talent-scouted for Crystal Palace.”  “Oh, yes.  He’s not playing any more.  He’s a painter and decorator in Brighton.”

And so we went on, checking the progress of a succession of former miscreants, hoodlums  and scalleywags, who all seemed to have finally sorted themselves out, even if they have left behind them a trail of broken teachers, white-haired and raving..

“And what’s all this “ROBINSONS SCAFFLODING SERVICES?” I asked, pointing at the trucks.

At this point, Trussler intervenes and says, “Oh, it’s Joe’s firm.  He’s built it from nothing!”

I stood there amazed and, I must confess, full of admiration.

They ought to use this story in textbooks on how to teach in secondary schools under the chapter head ‘Never under-estimate.  Never assume.’

Eventually I got the truck moved.



“Mine damer og herrer…”

“Meine Damen und Herren…”

“Ladies and gentlemen…”

Finally the announcement came through on the ship’s loudspeakers.  We were invited to go up to Deck 7, where the Northern Lights were, apparently, visible.  We rushed up on deck.


Was this some sort of Norwegian tease?  All we could see was a very dark sky with what looked like streaks of cloud arching across it.

To the naked eye, there were no ‘Lights’ to be seen.  Just grey cloud.

Then someone said that we should point our camera skywards and take a picture.











The grey clouds turned green.

Tick.  √√√   Time to go home.

Where’s these Northern Lights, then?


Is it a bird?  Is it a plane?


No. It’s a trick of the light.

As we got closer it was clear that we were just looking at a hill in the distance.

Many more interesting light effects followed, but none of them ‘Northern Lights’.P1090297




I think they were just playing with us.


We wondered whether we were going to be able to claim our “We-didn’t-see-the-lights- you-promised-us” discount.






Plain clothes nun.

To give my faithful reader a break from admiring Norwegian scenery, I thought I interrupt the Northern Lights narrative to share some breaking news.

Last week an Irish nun received an International Humanitarian award in Killarney, Ireland.

Nothing earth-shattering about that. Hardly worth commenting on, you might think.

Except that this nun is no ordinary nun. Her name is Sr. Orla Treacy and when we were in South Sudan, some four years ago, she ran a small school just outside the town of Rumbek, where we were based. Nothing remarkable there either. Nuns run schools all over Africa, but not all nuns are Sr Orla.


The Loreto School was unusual in as much as it was a Secondary school – for girls!
To understand just how remarkable that was, it might be worth sketching in a bit of background about South Sudan and, in particular, about the position of women in South Sudanese society.

South Sudan, as an independent country, has only existed since 2011. Before that it was a neglected and ignored province of the Sudan and for most of the past 50 years had been in a state of civil war against the central authorities in Khartoum. After many years of inconclusive bush warfare and the expenditure of much blood and treasure, the Khartoum government realised that it didn’t have the might or the will to defeat the South Sudanese rebels and agreed to the formation of a new state. It was not a happy divorce and the first five years of South Sudan’s independence has not been a positive experience for anyone.

South Sudan is a deeply tribal society and long-standing tribal rivalries were only suppressed as long as there was the external threat from the Arab rulers in Khartoum. As soon as peace came, the old enmities were revived – with renewed vigour.

South Sudan is a cattle-based society and wealth is still measured in terms of the ownership of cows. Marriage is a contract between families that involves the payment of cows. As a result of this, a woman’s value is measured in terms of the number of cows that her family could expect to receive on her marriage. Two things have to be borne in mind here.

Firstly, South Sudan is a desperately poor country and most families live well below any recognised poverty level. Secondly, a cow can be worth anything from $300 to $1000.

As a result of this, most girls are married by the time they are 16 years old and many of them considerably younger. Often they are married off to much older men, who are the ones more likely to own large numbers of cows. Decisions about when a girl should marry, and at what price, are made not by the girl’s parents, who might be considered too close to the girl to make a dispassionate decision, but by the girl’s uncle, who is more likely to operate in the interests of the tribe as a whole. A visit from the uncle is something most teenage girls dread.

When we were posted to Rumbek with VSO, my immediate boss was the local director of education. He had a problem. His herd of cows was growing too big, which was giving him some management and veterinary headaches. (After all, if you have ten cows this year and you look after them properly, you’ll have twenty next year and so on. If you have 100 this year…. No bank can match an interest rate like that, so who wants money in a bank?)

My boss’s solution to his herd management conundrum was to get himself another wife, his third.

His first wife was a teacher in one of the schools in his area. His second wife was a pupil in one of the schools in his area. His intended third wife was a university student, the daughter of a former Government minister. Her bride price was 300 cows!

Now it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that if a woman’s value is measured by the number of cows that her husband has paid for her, the question of women’s rights and women’s role in society is not exactly a hot topic. Indeed, why would a father agree to educate a girl if he knows that she will, sooner or later, go off to another family in exchange for cows? Consequently if money is short, sons get educated.

And yet, many development experts say that if you really want to have a positive impact on eliminating poverty in a developing country, the best thing you can do is to educate girls. There is an old African proverb that says that if you educate a girl, you educate an entire village. And clearly, if girls are educated they are likely to delay childbirth and can start to make a contribution to the development of their communities above and beyond the bearing of children.

Which brings us back to Sr Orla.

When we were in Rumbek we attended the graduation of one year group of girls from Sr Orla’s school. They were impressive young women but they were only about twelve in number. Nevertheless, that was twelve young women whose families had been convinced that it was worthwhile educating their daughters beyond primary level, rather than passing them off to unsuitable husbands in exchange for cows. It is difficult to over-estimate the enormity of this change of thinking on the part of those parents.

A few of Sr Orla’s alumni have even now completed university.

We were evacuated from South Sudan in December 2013 with a day’s notice. Civil war was breaking out in the capital and VSO could no longer guarantee our safety. Ironically, we were running a seminar for teachers about gender issues in education when the phone call came through that VSO was pulling us out.

A small plane was sent to pick us up and, along with the other remotely-based volunteers dotted around the country, we were flown out to Uganda. We were told that we could bring one small bag with us to the airstrip. Everything else had to be abandoned. We phoned Sr Orla and got her to agree to distribute the majority of our belongings as she saw fit.

The civil war has raged ever since. Of a population of about 12 million, two million are living as refugees over the border in Uganda and a further 2 million are internally displaced within South Sudan. That’s one third of the population.  Uncounted thousands have died. And yet, somehow, amid all of this chaos, Sr Orla has kept the Loreto School open and functioning.

The Sisters of Loreto are a teaching order dedicated to working directly with poor communities and helping them to develop through education. They do not wear any form of religious habit, which is what led me to describe Sr Orla as a ‘plain clothes nun.’

Speaking at her award ceremony last week, Sr Orla sketched out the history of the Loreto School. “We began with a girls’ secondary boarding school but over the years we realised the needs of the local community were greater than just a secondary school. We have since added a primary school for boys and girls – this operates 2 shifts – morning and afternoon and more recently we added a clinic to serve the needs of our 1,200 students and the workers – in particular malnourished babies in the community.”

Struggling to educate over 1000 children in a country where inflation is rampant, poverty is rife and teachers’ salaries often remain unpaid by a government that has bankrupted itself in pursuit of an unwinnable civil war, St Orla has to face the reality that the demand for places far outstrips the number of places available.

So if anyone is looking for a different kind of Christmas present this year and if you fancy making a direct contribution to someone’s life, you could do a lot worse than get behind Sr Orla and her colleagues and sponsor the education of a girl in Rumbek. The full cost of educating a secondary girl for a year is €1600, costs for a primary-aged child amount to about €400. However, any donation would be welcome, and if you would like details of the Loreto School’s bank account, just post a comment to this blog entry and I’ll get back to you.

Hey, it’s got to be better than a pair of Marks and Spencer’s slippers.

Not exactly the Northern Lights…

… but pretty impressive, nonetheless.


One afternoon, at about 2.00pm, the sky started to burn.


and it just kept on getting redder and redder.


And then, almost as suddenly, it started to recede.



Until it was almost gone.


And then, by 3.00pm, it was night.

Polar chic.


Northern Lights or your money back.

Hurtigruten is the company that has been looking after us for the past week.  Tomorrow we will come full circle and reach Bergen again from where we fly home.

Hurtigruten has been sailing up and down the coast of Norway for the past 120 years.  For most of its first 100 years, it was the main way for vehicles, foot passengers, mail and freight to get around this long,  thin, fjord-criss-crossed, mountainous country. (Norway is some 2500 kilometres long.  We were told that if you were to pivot it around on its southernmost tip and then rotate it 180°, its northernmost town of Kirkenes would be a suburb of Rome – and everyone would be very surprised!)

Then, as road infrastructure improved, Hurtigruten faced a less certain future until it hit on the idea of exploiting Norway’s stunning and varied natural beauty to tap into the tourist market.


Today, the company has a dozen ships like the one pictured above and is a major part of the Norwegian economy, alongside oil, gas and fish.  It still carries freight and foot passengers, as well as sacks of mail, but its main business is in people wanting to see the Northern Lights.

Whether or not you get to see the Lights is in the hands of whichever Norse gods control the weather.  There are no guarantees, although Hurtigruten do say that, if you don’t see the Lights during your voyage they will offer you another cruise in compensation.

All over the ship there are screens which tell you what the likelihood is of seeing the Lights on any particular night, but obviously, cloud cover and unruly weather gods can always conspire to thwart the visitor’s ambitions.


But, hey, who cares?  Even if the weather gods are against you, Norway is just so beautiful that it would be ungracious to complain about not seeing the Lights.

The days are short at this time of year – and getting shorter the further north you travel, so you have to make the most of the daylight and the occasional breaks in the weather.  I hope that what follows, will give you a flavour.










If you have a camera and a bit of daylight, there’s no reason to be bored. You could just take pictures all day. The scenery keeps changing ‘before your very eyes’!


The only problem with digital photography is that if one picture out of every 100 works, that’s great, except that you’ve then got to sit down and delete the other 99, which is agonising! Oh, well.  No pain, no gain.


This is no time to play Snow Angels!

Vertical one moment.


Horizontal the next.

No bones broken.

Dignity slightly bruised.


We have an app for that!

They say you should never lose your sense of humour.  But sometimes……..

Having more or less settled into our retirement in Brighton, we have started to occupy ourselves in numerous ways that ensure that time does not drag.  It doesn’t.  Not in the least.

Retirement, however, is also an opportunity to check the bucket list and make sure that most of the items on the list have been attended to.  Which is why, this week, we find ourselves sailing up the coast of Norway hunting for the famous Northern Lights.

This has been No 1 on Linda’s bucket list for many years, so last week we met the Good Ship Polarys in Bergen for our journey North.


It was raining.  We were told that Bergen is the wettest city in the world  –  on average 200 days of rain a year  –  so we were not sorry to cast off and leave.

We sailed north.  It continued to rain. On Day 3, guess what?  It rained. No chance of the Northern Lights.

Day 4 the skies cleared a little but the moon was so bright that there was still no chance to see the lights.  All of my photos are subtitled “Study in Grey.”



For half a day the sun appeared…


…. just before it started to rain!

But then… all of a sudden….





The Northern Lights appeared in all their splendour …

in Scotland.

Linda found them on the BBC News app!

Even if we lose our sense of humour, we should never lose our sense of irony!

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