Amen:

“Children shouldn’t be subjected to Teams.”

@siracusa, ~53 mins into ATP, episode 428

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Our Professional Learning Community breakfast club continued today with a discussion abut metacognition:

All good teachers implicitly understand and support the metacognitive development of their students, but too rarely have/take the time to explicitly explore the topic.

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The first meeting of our virtual Professional Learning Community breakfast club is tomorrow morning. The topic? Retrieval Practice. Want a primer?

PDF: http://pdf.retrievalpractice.org/RetrievalPracticeGuide.pdf

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Current favourite tools for teaching Maths (synchronous, remote):

DrFrostMaths: https://www.drfrostmaths.com/

Whiteboard.fi: https://whiteboard.fi

And good old PDFs with an iPad and Apple Pencil.

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2004 - SQA launch SOLAR built on Adobe Flash

2017 - Flash deprecated

2020 - Flash ‘End of Life’d

2021 - SOLAR requires Flash-embedded viewer app

Scotland needs an open, national conversation about digital/remote assessment. And investment.

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There is too little talk of addressing poverty, and too much expectation on education to ‘fix’ it:

Closing the poverty related attainment gap remains a top priority for this Government […]

– p22, 2021 National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan

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Does any country have a COVID-19 education policy other than whether to open or close school buildings? Or have schools/teachers independently adapted?

“We have had an educator-led revolution in the last year.”

— John Hattie, Putting Learning First and Centre webinar

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Disappointing to see the @BBCNewsnight team so poorly present COVID-19 hospitalisation data from the four UK nations.

The numbers are depressing enough as it is, without giving misleading impressions by comparing four charts with varying scales.

Newsnight charts of COVID-19 hospitlisations in four UK nations

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First day back (so to speak) for 2021. Schools have been thrust into remote learning once more, and yet again teachers - doubtless mirrored nationally - are up to the challenge and entirely focused on supporting our pupils. A visceral reminder that teaching is a vocation.

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Scottish Exam Cancellation Doublespeak

The Scottish Qualification Authority, our nation’s government-sponsored examination and qualification body, run the vast majority of exams in almost all of Scotland’s schools. That significant governmental bond brings with it both the funding and accountability necessary for its operation, but also results in unwanted brushes with party politics. This makes it difficult for those of us outside the system to know what drives decisions and why.

And 2020 has been a year for decisions.

The SQA’s “gold standard”1 qualification, the Higher, is the unit of currency in university applications, with Advanced Higher being a level up broadly equivalent to A-Levels. But the National 5, our nation’s GCSE if you ike, remains a benchmark qualification for many school leavers.

A Brief History of the 2020 SQA Exams

Whatever your views on the springtime national lockdown in response to COVID-19 - whether measures went far enough and were implemented soon enough, or went too far or for too long - one of the casualties was the 2020 diet of exams delivered by the SQA.

Instead certification was to based on teacher estimates and statistically moderated by the SQA, but was ultimately rolled back to teacher estimates based on public and media outrage and significant political pressure.

2021 SQA National 5 Exams Cancelled

On the back of the 2020 results climb down Professor Mark Priestley, of Stirling University, was asked to carry out an independent review of the events and decisions which led us to that point, and make recommendations for the session ahead. The published report recommended the cancellation of National 5 exams in 2021 as well as the “development of a nationally recognised, fully transparent and proportionate system for moderation of centre-based assessment” - details of which are still to be published.

Our Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, went all in on these recommendations:

“Given the real risk of further disruption to education, it would not be sensible or fair to plan for a full exam diet in 2021. Coronavirus has not gone away. If anything, it is making a comeback.”

John Swinney, parliamentary statement, 7 October 2020

So, to be absolutely clear, “it would not be sensible or fair to plan for a full exam diet”. The National 5 exams were cancelled and are be replaced by a moderated teacher-derived estimates similar to the 2020 exams, while Higher and Advanced Higher qualifications will continue with amendments made to content, question papers, and/or assignments in almost all subjects.2

Whether you agree with the approach or not, the logic is easily followed. Reduce the load on the SQA, schools (and other centres), and all of our students. It allows schools take stock of the difficulties of recent months and also cope with what what, at the very least, is an uncertain future regarding possible future lockdowns and absences - of both students and staff. It lowers the stress on students, who have a growing uncertainly about what qualifications they might eventually leave school with or how they might best prepare for future Highers. It supports teachers around the country who are having to adapt to significantly different work patterns and demands, come what may.

The lockdown experience of students varied widely around the country. Some schools were able to lean heavily on technology already deployed and developed, while others were scrambling to keep up. Many schools ran “live” lessons or provided vital pastoral support with suddenly essential tools of the pandemic: Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom. Some were fortunate enough to have a near-normal “attendance” rate.

But the anecdote is strong in this story. From hearing from friends who are also parents, many of their children got assigned as little as one hour of unsupervised work each week while school buildings were closed. And those that are teachers report as little as 10% of their classes engaged with any activity throughout lockdown.

Schools faced different challenges during lockdown, and no one solution will address all of the arising issues. Time to identify and react to their own local problems is arguably vital for each school’s community. And that is before we consider what the next six months will bring?

2021 SQA National 5 Exams - Cancelled?

However, when the SQA started publishing their guidance, the warning bells began ringing.

In the generic guidance for generating estimates republished for this session, the SQA have this to say about prelim exams:

Prelims or mock exams: These are likely to be the most reliable indicator of performance in a question paper, particularly if they are undertaken in the same conditions as the question paper. The most convincing examples of these will accurately predict attainment in the skills, knowledge, and understanding assessed by the question paper. They will be clearly aligned to the course specification, content, and level of demand as exemplified in the specimen question papers and past papers.

This is supported by clear statements in the subject-specific guidance which followed. In English:

You can generate the most valid evidence for question paper components using assessment instruments which replicate, as far as possible, the standard, duration, format and security of SQA question papers.

In Maths:

The closer the internal evidence is to the standard, format and duration of the course assessment, the more reliable it should be.

And in both:

Evidence should be gathered later in the course, as a realistic reflection of a candidate’s attainment.

So, are we to take from this guidance that to best provide the most reliable estimates for the cancelled exams that we would be best to provide an assessment as close to the end of the course as possible, which mimics the content and structure as closely as possible?

What makes this all the more frustrating is that the SQA’s National Qualifications 2021 Group published an update this week stating:

Given current public health advice and to maximise learning and teaching time, it is important to stress that there is no expectation that schools and colleges hold a formal diet of prelims for National 5. One of the key reasons for moving to an alternative model was to create additional teaching time through removing the need for prelims and replacing the final examination diet with more flexible classroom-based assessment.

The rhetoric tells us that schools have been freed from the constraints of a National 5 examination diet which will allow teachers and students to recover from significant disruption to schools, and to cope with the uncertainty of the coming months. The devil in the detail is that schools have been strongly encouraged to implement an internal National 5 examination diet to provide estimates for these very same qualifications.

The difficulty is that this is almost certainly going to be more work for teachers, and adds even greater uncertainty for all students currently enrolled in National 5 courses.


  1. I have heard it mentioned so many times, Highers being the “gold standard” qualification in Scotland, but right now I can’t find a source or significant reference. [return]
  2. Even Highers are not guaranteed to take place at this point in time. [return]

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Amazing collection of videos on learning to program with Swift Playgrounds - presented by Sahana, aged 7.

Swift with Sahana on YouTube.

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Black Lives Matter - An Educational Perspective

I thought long and hard before I become the umpteenth middle-aged, white man in a well-paid profession with a good life to pontificate about privilege and the events, both current and historical, that necessitate the Black Lives Matter movement.

But I keep coming back to the fact that it’s always worse to stay quiet. Collective silence didn’t create injustice and inequity, but it certainly ensured that it endured for hundreds of years.

Black Lives Matter Plaza, Washington, DC - aerial photograph from Apple Maps

Black Lives Matter

If you are going to argue that “all lives matter”, or talk about the mistreatment of women, the inequity that transgender people constantly battle, or centuries of anti-Semitism then you have significantly missed the point.

By diminishing the Black Lives Matter movement with such criticism is just another way of marginalising the very people that are protesting the injustice.

This is not a zero-sum game, we do not have to choose. My life matters, your life matters. Of course all lives matter.

So, let’s just agree. Black. Lives. Matter.

History is Written by the Victors

I am neither qualified nor learned enough to talk about black history - which in itself speaks volumes of the bubble of privileged and ignorance I was brought up in - but the links between modern racism and European Imperialism are strong and their impact is oftentimes subtle but endures to this day.

Even when that history is retold today, no matter how well meaning and constructive the intent, it often has an uncomfortable perspective.

Historic England, a largely government-funded public body, rightly provide information about English involvement in slavery. However, without attribution, they have this to say about early slaver, John Hawkins (with my emphasis):

John Hawkins (from 1532 to 1595) of Plymouth is acknowledged as the pioneer of the English slave trade.

In the context of the British Empire, and that Imperialist “spirit”, I suppose it could be argued that Hawkins was indeed a pioneer - but that word has almost universally positive connotations. The language that we choose to use when describing the actions of the perpetrators of horrendous acts is key. I can only imagine that anyone descended from the victims of slavery would have a very different view of Hawkins and might therefore choose many different words to describe him.

University College London have a project that aims to “explore and document some of the ways in which colonial slavery shaped modern Britain”. No doubt a worthy attempt to put into perspective the scale of slavery perpetrated throughout the world by our ancestors, and I think this kind of project is crucial to understanding our history. I would suggest, however, that the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project abuses the privilege of language in its very title. The enslaved were not, in any meaningful modern way, owned. Despite the prevailing view at the time, we can choose how to frame our history.

It is sadly ironic that once Confederate Congressman George Graham Vest is often cited with originating the phrase:

… history is written by the victors and framed according to the prejudices and bias existing on either side.

Let us choose wisely how we choose to frame our history.

The Need for Leadership

The tragedy about systemic racism is that is entirely socio-political, and it therefore too often gets treated as a party political issue - one in which opposing views can be promoted as equally valid. There is no biological notion of race.

Race does not provide an accurate representation of human biological variation. It was never accurate in the past, and it remains inaccurate when referencing contemporary human populations. Humans are not divided biologically into distinct continental types or racial genetic clusters. Instead, the Western concept of race must be understood as a classification system that emerged from, and in support of, European colonialism, oppression, and discrimination.

– American Association of Physical Anthropologists, Statement on Race & Racism

School leaders have a vital role in the development of our children and the future of our society. They hold the key to unlocking an honest exploration of our collective history, as well as promoting tolerance and understanding, in order that we can collectively recognise and counter “colonialism, oppression, and discrimination.”

I understand that schools, and those that lead them, are typically nervous about getting involved in politics - but we need to wrestle this issue back from party politics, and demonstrate our intent publicly and clearly. Our children need strong role-models to serve as a baseline for their own individual world views.

The Need for Curricular Change

The curriculum must provide an honest account of history. It is, of course, critical that we look at the events of the past that created the cultures and societies that we live in, understanding the conditions and decisions that led to past events. But we need to do so with the values that we now hold and aspire to.

We also need to ensure that the voices that are heard by students of the curriculum represent a diversity of culture rather than the homogeny of European white men that have dominated the curriculum of modern schooling.

The campaign to decolonise the curriculum has being gaining momentum in recent years, and a number of universities, such as Bath, are now making moves to broaden the reading lists demanded of their courses to foster inclusivity.

So much more can be done, and it will take time. But it’s an investment in diversity and equality. It’s an investment worth making.

The Need for Teachers

I will be the first to admit that I am complicit in the lack of diversity in my classroom practice. In the Computing Science classroom, as well as more widely in the tech industry, I have long been aware of the issue, but when I have taken action it has focused on gender stereotypes and role-models.

So each and every classroom teacher can make a difference. You don’t need to wear a BLM hoodie, nor donate money to an anti-racism charity, although every little helps.

You do choose how you demonstrate the curriculum to your students. You do pick the viewpoints and protagonists from the history and development of your subject that you share. You do curate the knowledge and perspectives that surround your curriculum and package it for your students - so take the opportunity to do so in an inclusive way, demonstrating diversity, and encouraging open, tolerant discussion.

You have a voice, so stand up and be heard.

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ResearchEd has cancelled events due to lockdown, and have reacted with ResearchEdHome (@researchEdHome).

Live now: Helping Students Think Critically about Internet Sources with Daniel Willingham (@DTWillingham)

A whole month of daily webinars planned so far on Google Docs.

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Remote learning and teaching is a brave new world for many teachers and pupils (and their parents). That is especially true as classes move towards using live/synchronous lessons.

Take a breath. Subject knowledge and pedagogical expertise is still the backbone of a great lesson.

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As a new school term starts, we have rearranged our May In Service day to provide whole school training on virtual learning and teaching.

Over 100 teachers learning how to use Microsoft Teams using Microsoft Teams. It’s turtles all the way down. 🐢

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Very strange day.

Working from home, unwell and isolated, while waiting on some clarity from the SQA.

Missing an entirely unexpected last day at school for many amazing pupils, and many more also cheated from their chance at sitting their exams.

Very strange indeed.

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Great intro to P vs NP-Complete from Jade at Up and Atom:

Is this thing that doesn’t look like this other thing really that thing?

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One to One - Reflection

As a new term begins in a brand new decade, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on technology in our classrooms.

I have now worked in my current school for longer that I have been with any single employer; at the start of the 2010s I was Head of Computing. This gave me and pupils in our department privileged access to technology every day; access to tools which encouraged independent problem-solving, access to tools that supported richer content creation and consumption, and access to the ever broadening frontier of information that the Internet was providing. That access enhanced learning.

The rest of the school worked like most schools at the time; a few laptops which could be booked out but rarely were, and even more rarely to good effect, and three and half general purpose computer suites which could also be booked as required. For a school of around 1000 pupils, having about 80 pupil facing, general purpose computing devices was woefully inadequate. But normal in the sector.

There was money spent on tech in schools. Let us not forget the interactive whiteboard investment made in Scottish education over the last 20 years. How can we? No matter how hard we try. The money rarely resulted in tech being in the hands of the pupils.

The Problem

Despite my classroom being a hub of technological potential, the pupils then went home to a mixed selection of toys. There was undoubtedly the occasional home brew Linux proxy server in built in a bedroom to bypass the school filtering system, but that was not typical. The technology, for some classes, was available for as little as 40 minutes a week.

And I was so much better off than the Modern Studies teacher who wanted to carry out an impromptu online activity in the classroom, perhaps in response to breaking news of the day. Filling out a booking form, walking their class across the campus, and then discovering that a quarter of the machines in the computer suite would spend half of the lesson updating to the latest patch of Windows. Did I say “impromptu”?

If only pupils had their own device. In all classes, and at home.

This is old hat now - it’s widespread, although certainly not ubiquitous, for schools to either have or be investing in their own one-to-one deployments. It was a different world nine years ago. It’s also not enough just to throw devices, network connectivity, or money at the problem. There have been many one-to-one device deployments worldwide in the past decade, but what proportion of them have been successful, and by what criteria? The research is still limited in scale and scope.

Perhaps it’s not even the correct problem. But it’s the one I identified.

The Solution

Here’s the thing. The plan is that this is the first in a series of posts I write to capture my own journey through a one-to-one deployment. So the ‘solution’ will build up over time. It will include pitfalls and suggestions, and might then serve as a roadmap for others - or perhaps a series of warning signs.

There are a number of topics I have sketched out to cover, but I am open to questions and suggestions - so get in touch if you want me to cover anything in particular. Details to follow.

The Verdict

So, you might be the kind of person that likes to read the last few pages of a book first. You are keen to know whether the deployment worked? Minimising the number of spoilers…

My school still has three and a half computer suites, but they are almost never used. One-to-one devices are used in eight year groups of the school, from Primary 6 through to the end of secondary, and there is a class sets of devices for use by younger years as well as devices in the nursery. We have repeatedly invested in our infrastructure and software systems as device and network usage has grown.

Personally, I am trusted with a class far less often these days, but I can now more confidently rely on the learning experience being as rich and topical as the combined creativity of myself and my class allows, and I know the potential is more or less uniform for the pupils once the bell rings.

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I wonder how few schools even knew of the existence of SQA Performance Reports?

Perhaps they should be wrapped into a national QA framework for all schools? Rather than being sold as a service.

Exam body service ‘benefits private schools’ - Tes

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Having used simulations at uni, when I first worked with a specialised hardware neural net in ‘94 it felt like unleashing a superpower - and yet now our phones have capabilities almost unimaginable to 25 years ago me.

The Beauty of Deep Neural Networks - Art of the Problem

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TL;DR - key to positive wellbeing is getting good sleep and having good relationships.

UK Department of Education publish a report on Children and Young People’s Wellbeing

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TES pick one part of a DoE report and run with a clickbait headline:

TES: Mental health: homework ‘linked to unhappiness’

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WalesOnline: School completely bans mobile phones and teachers say kids’ behaviour changes

Or perhaps a highly visible and empowered staff are making a positive impact on improving relationships?

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Equality and Privilege

A little while back I read an article in the Guardian on gender imbalance in the most prominent roles within the biggest UK companies. A little further reading confirmed that this was not limited to the UK - not that I was surprised.

It’s a topic I wanted to explore further for our school assemblies.

Running our Businesses

The FTSE 100 is a list of companies that are traded on the London Stock Exchange - specifically the 100 most valuable companies based on their market capitalisation. Each of these companies is run by a board and an executive team.1

The board determines the long-term strategic direction of the organisation and is headed by a Chairperson - actually typically referred to as the Chairman. I guess that could be considered a hint of what is coming next.

The executive team handles the day to day operations of a company. This team is led by a CEO.

Within an educational context, schools also typically have a Board of Directors (or governors) headed by a chairperson, and their head teacher is the operational equivalent of a CEO.

Counting Davids and Johns

When you are faced with a room of 200+ pupils and staff at each assembly and you ask everyone called “David” to stand up, it is interesting to note just how relatively uncommon the name has become. Three Davids out of 650 pupils. Compare that to how many of our business leaders are called David.

14 Chairs/CEOs of FTSE 100 companies are called David

Repeating the exercise with “John” gets the same result. Three Johns out of 650 pupils.

17 Chairs/CEOs of FTSE 100 companies are called John

So then all females are asked to stand up. And suddenly the Davids and Johns are significantly outnumbered. So the open question is ‘How many women are in these positions of power, running the largest companies in the UK?’

The answer is stark.

7 Chairs/CEOs of FTSE 100 companies are female

For every one of the UK’s most influential business leaders that are female, there are two called David.

It all Comes Down to Money

It’s not just at the top of the corporate ladder that inequality thrives. According to data gathered by the Office for National Statistics, when comparing those in full-time employment, men earn 10% more per hour than women. And that pay gap rises in managerial, professional, and skilled jobs.

In fact, when looked at annually and combining all factors, on average the difference is even more significant.

Average salary for men in full-time employment: ~£30,000 per annum

Average salary for women in full-time employment: ~£25,000 per annum

I am sure it could be argued that some of that comes from long-standing cultural factors that mean that women are more likely to take time out of careers to raise children - and new rules on Shared Parental Leave may well have an impact on that in time - but the fact remains that this pay gap exists across all levels and employment sectors.

Representation of Women

The leaders of corporations undoubtedly have a significant influence on our lives. They determine hiring policies and pay scales, oversee product and advertising strategies, and these leaders act as role models for those that try to follow in their footsteps.

However, there is a more insidious gender imbalance that we are all faced with each and every day. It starts in government. Our elected (I will leave the unelected for another day) officials make decisions which affect our daily lives, our prospects, and our descendants.

At the time of writing, 29% of the Members of the UK Parliament, and 36% of the Members of Scottish Parliament, are female. On the surface this is great news. From the position that faced the suffragettes I guess you could call that progress. But the fact remains…

There are twice as many men running our country as there are women

The imbalance is greater in senior ministerial positions. And in the top jobs, in most countries around the world, women are few and far between.

Masculine Voices in our Heads

The situation gets worse when you look just below the surface. The media representation of women has often been in the spotlight, from gender stereotypes in advertising to gender inequality in the film industry.

But that is only half of the story. The news that is reported is typically researched, written, and presented by men.

On sampling all of the attributed content in a selection of UK daily, national newspapers for a month in 2011, the Guardian discovered that less than 23% of named journalists were women.

Masculine Expertise in our News

More concerning, I would argue, is the role of “experts” in the media. City University London, under the direction of Professor Lis Howell, has been studying the number of female experts who are brought in to provide evidence or information to support a reported story in mainstream broadcast news. The most recent round of research reports an increase in the proportion of women experts, however male experts still outnumber their female equivalents by more than three to one.

Our lawmakers, the journalists that hold our lawmakers to account, as well as the experts these journalists wheel in to provide authority to their reports, they are predominantly male. Even if we assume the best intentions are being pursued by all involved, this is not a good message for our children to see day in day out when they access the most respected and trusted news sources.

Is it any wonder that equality is slow to arrive?

Recognising Privilege

The postscript to this discussion is that gender inequality is just one of the areas in which we, as members of the human race, could improve our record on. Arguably things are getting better, but it’s easy for a professional, degree-educated, heterosexual, middle class, middle-aged, white male to talk about how important equality is when he has never had to face the challenges faced at the sharp end of inequality.

Getting back to those assemblies… I tried to highlight this privilege by playing a quick game I had set up in advance. It requires a sheet of A4 paper per class (or per pupil if you do this in a single class, or want to make a big mess) and a bin or large box.

The setup is crucial. It helps that our group classes are arranged in a predictable manner for each assembly, so I was able to arrange for each Group Tutors to give a sheet of paper to one member of their class - for those classes sitting close to the front of the assembly hall the sheet had to be given to a boy, for those at the back it went to a girl.

During the assembly the nominated members are asked to stand up, and were told their goal:

  1. get your A4 sheet of paper into the bin at the front of the assembly hall

They were also given the following rules, in the interest of fairness:

  1. participants must not move from their seat, nor move their seat
  2. the sheet of paper can be shaped in any way so long as nothing is added or removed
  3. no other person may help to move the sheet towards the goal

The pupils are then invited to send their sheet of paper, now inevitably scrunched up into a ball or fashioned into some hopefully aerodynamic craft, hurtling towards the bin.

This is an exercise in realising that privilege helps you to achieve your goals. It’s not that someone at the back of the hall is not able to reach the goal, but it requires an extra bit of skill, ingenuity, or perhaps luck. Those nearer the bin can more easily achieve the goal with perhaps a suboptimal projectile or a carefree throw.

All the pupils had a level playing field. Equal opportunities. The same rules. The same rewards. Oddly the boys were more successful.

My challenge to female pupils was to not sit back and allow inequality as they journey through life. My challenge to male pupils, and indeed myself, was to recognise their own privilege and to work towards countering it.


  1. Apologies to Business Management teachers, or anyone else for that matter, who may find holes in any of my explanations of how companies operate. I have been intentionally simplistic in my approach but hopefully not actually inaccurate. Happy to be corrected. [return]

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Edinburgh schools already have 5700 iPads deployed to staff and pupils, and expanding? It seems 1:1 is officially a thing.

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