Wednesday 22 March
I pay a visit to Newlands Junior College (NJC) in the south side of Glasgow. The college offers a specialist form of learning for a specific group of students aged 14-16. Its mission is 'to provide opportunities for young people who have potential but are at risk of disengaging from education and failing to find a fulfilling and rewarding role in later life'. Courses are vocationally focused, with strong links to local employers and City of Glasgow College.
NJC was the brainchild of Jim McColl, the Scottish businessman who now runs a global organisation comprising some 90 companies. His own experience of secondary school was disappointing and he wanted to provide an alternative to youngsters who might otherwise switch off from learning. He himself left school at 16 and started an apprenticeship at Weir Pumps. Later he went to university and acquired BSc and MBA degrees.
Funding for NJC has come from donors, businesses, the Scottish government and the local authorities that send students there. It is registered as an independent school, which means that it has freedom to decide on the form and content of the curriculum, and is not subject to many of the directives which councils and state schools are obliged to follow.
The principal at NJC, Iain White, had previously worked for 20 years as head teacher of Govan High School. He identifies positive relationships and individualised support as the key to the success of the programme. Staff set high expectations, encourage resilience in the face of difficulty and celebrate achievements. The college has an impressive track record in terms of qualifications and awards gained by the students, and their positive destinations after they leave (whether in employment or further education).
I had the chance to talk to some of the students. They were frank about their negative attitude to education while attending previous schools but spoke very positively about their experiences at NJC, particularly about the way they were treated by the staff. They all appreciated the opportunity they were being given and had clear ideas about the next stage of their lives.
NJC works with small numbers of students which raises questions about the viability and cost of extending its philosophy to the mainstream system. But the initial investment required for such a scheme needs to be weighed against the long-term costs of unemployment and life on benefits, which is the fate of a significant minority of those who disengage from school. Many politicians have visited NJC and spoken enthusiastically about its achievements. The real test will be whether they have the courage to extend the model elsewhere.
Thursday 23 March
Swimming is a great leveller. You can't really stand on your dignity when you're wearing nothing but a pair of trunks. I should have remembered this when I mentioned to one of the regulars at the pool – a man noted for his deflating banter – that I'm always up at the crack of dawn and often at my computer before most people have surfaced for the day. Instead of congratulating me on my work ethic, he came back with this comment: 'I'm surprised you can sleep at all at night, given some of the stuff you write.' Mind you, I know he always reads my column to see if he gets a mention. Well, Bill, you can add this item to your collection.
Friday 24 March
I was sorry to read of the death of Colin Dexter, the creator of the Morse series of detective novels set in Oxford. With John Thaw as the grumpy inspector Morse, and Kevin Whately as his amiable detective sergeant Lewis, the books were successfully dramatised for television. The appeal of the TV adaptations derived from several factors: the attractive setting; the ingenious plots; the pacing of the productions, which relied on slow build-up rather than frantic action; the use of subtle background music (composed by Barrington Pheloung) which did not drown out the dialogue. It is a testimony to the quality of the series that endless replays of episodes remain popular on freeview channels.
Universities make fine settings for crime. They are hotbeds of resentments and petty rivalries, which can easily turn into malice and a desire for revenge. The inmates are clever – and so capable of planning a murder – but usually not as clever as they think, as their judgement is distorted by monstrous egos. These ingredients provide a good starting point for a story. I once attempted the genre myself. My opening sentence was 'The death of professor X was not greeted with universal dismay.' I didn't get very far as I quickly concluded that my characters could easily be identified with real people and, as many of them were portrayed in unflattering terms, I might find myself subject to physical attack or litigation. If any of my former colleagues read this and wonder if they featured in the story, they should take some comfort in the thought that it is better to be remembered than forgotten.
Monday 27 March
A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) suggests that a third of British jobs could be lost over the next 15 years because of advances in robotics. As might be expected, manual and routine jobs are most at risk while those involving social skills are least susceptible to being taken over by robots. This means that people employed in manufacturing, transport and retail could find themselves under threat, while the future of health staff, social workers and teachers is more secure.
This is undoubtedly a serious issue but the distinction between 'routine' and 'social' occupations is perhaps not as clear-cut as it might at first appear. Many people currently working in social fields often feel that they are treated as robots by their employers – expected to carry out orders from above without question, discouraged from thinking for themselves. Local government employees tell me that if they show initiative, rather than simply apply the rules, they are liable to get into trouble. Even in universities, where critical thinking is part of the rationale for the institution, staff sometimes feel that management prefers a machine-like, rather than a human, response to the avalanche of policy documents which descend from above.
Some years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Victoria Quay in Leith, the headquarters of many government departments, on a number of occasions. In my defence, my job at the time sometimes required me to keep bad company. When it opened in 1996, the building was praised for its energy efficiency. Lights only came on in offices when there was some sign of life. It became a standing joke that often lights automatically switched off even when there were people in the room, suggesting that civil servants were more like robots than human beings. Bureaucratic culture tends to deprive people of their distinctive identity. As the central character in John Kennedy Toole's marvellous novel, 'A Confederacy of Dunces', remarks: 'You can always tell someone who works for the government by the total vacancy which occupies the space where most other people have faces.'