Epilepsy and GCSEs: built-in injustice

So today we hear that Michael Gove would like to abolish the GCSE system and go back to old fashioned O-levels and GCEs?  Maybe. (Though the Lib Dems  think otherwise)

In the interim let us hope he looks at whether he can find a system that will be any more fit for purpose  than the existing (GCSE) system  in assessing young people with  consciousness-fluctuating conditions such as as epilepsy. That is,  the very small percentage of the youth population who toggle between being ‘perfectly well’ and briefly ‘incapable’ without warning and at a moment’s notice. That bunch of young people whose gifts and capacities have  been so ruthlessly ignored  by our current inflexible educational system with teaching shifting between  ‘special needs’ and ‘failing mainstream’ without any acknowledgement of their actual abilities. People who could be easily become a Julius Caesar, an Edward Lear, a  Dostoievsky, a Socrates..

Here is  the case of modern-day  Ms X.

Ms X has no mental impairment except for that caused by the effects of bad epilepsy and the heavy-duty medications she has to take to try and control it. Ms X is sitting GCSEs for the Nth time. This is rather a tragedy for Ms X who studies up to seven hours a day, and has done so for six years to little practical purpose.

This is because if you have a catastrophic tonic clonic seizure before or during  a GCSE  exam, you are not able to put it off till a better time. ‘Use it or lose it‘ as they say – and lose it is often the result. Ms X’s seizures are so frequent it  is pretty unlikely she will ever go through the period GCSE exams take without one or two fairly substantial tonic clonic seizures on exam-days.

Sure enough, last week her parents  were woken by a loud crash at 6am in the morning of the longest Maths GCSE exam. On rushing into her room, they found that – apart from the ongoing tonic clonic seizure itself- she’d managed to drop from a standing position, hitting her head extremely hard, and cutting both her mouth and tongue.

She was lucky. She had no more seizures that morning  and so didn’t have to take the heavy barbiturate required  to prevent her going into status epilepticus and the hospital (as had already happened for her English exam two weeks previously). In fact, she was lucky enough to  ‘come round’ – well, at least regain consciousness – two hours later. Sixty minutes before her 2 hour Maths GCSE paper. Which naturally  could not be put off or rearranged for such minor trivialities as an early morning seizure.

Yet Ms X had had the equivalent of a knock-out blow to the head. I suspect that once again, she will not fulfil her potential.

What a different outcome there might have been for Ms X and for this exam if she were sitting it in the state of health she was in the day before – or the day after.

Successive ministers and education departments have not chosen to recognise the full extent of the difficulties of a student with epilepsy. Ms X has sat the same exams under Michael Gove’s, under Alan Johnson’s, under Ed Ball’s watch. All have talked about a world-class exam system.  None has recognised the injustice of insisting on a fixed-date one-off exam for those students with a serious yet fluctuating health condition.

Ms X is either bright, alert and mentally competent, or she incapable of remembering a thing. Is a GCSE exam instituted to discover what she knows – or merely what she is capable of remembering on one specific date?

If only Mr Gove, Mr Johnson, Mr Balls – if only every education minister that has ignored the exam issue had some recognition of the condition… If one day they were woken by having live electrodes attached to their brain for 5 mins and then were punched hard in the face without means of defence or a gum-shield (causing considerable pain and disorientation, broken teeth, split lips, bitten  tongue) and then were asked to prove all their last two years of knowledge in an exam paper 2 hours afterwards, would they consider this to be a reasonable test of their own abilities?

I suspect not!

Happy Father’s Day

I’m sorry, but for once I’m going to indulge myself and get personal.  Today is Father’s Day, and my father, Raymond Page,  died in March. He was a unique, interesting and amusing personality and so I’m taking the opportunity to post the obituary I wrote for him (which is otherwise behind a paywall)

Professor Raymond Page

Raymond Page with his first grandchild, Nell. This kindly side of him would come as quite a surprise to those he skewered with his uncompromising intellect..

Raymond Ian Page, who died on 10 March 2012, aged 87, was Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Cambridge, and  Fellow and former Parker Librarian of Corpus Christi College.

In the words of Prof Rene Derolez: “Where would runic studies in the British Isles stand now if it had not been for Ray Page?”  A  rigorous scholar, a fierce critic of  ‘sloppy thinking’  and a prolific writer, the quantity and quality of Professor Page’s scholarship in Anglo-Saxon and Norse studies is matched  by equally significant work on glosses, on manuscripts and on manuscript conservation. Justifying his more critical pronouncements with trenchant quotations from St Paul, Page made it a personal crusade to resist the “insidious” way in which runes are “...touched by the flight from reason so characteristic of our pragmatic, scientific and down-to-earth times.”

Born in Sheffield in 1924, and educated at King Edward VII School,  Page’s  family circumstances meant he left school prematurely. It was fortunate for him – and for twentieth century runic studies – that on discharge from the Navy after the war his ex-serviceman status entitled him to a university education.  After graduating in English from Sheffield, he spent a year working on an MA  in Denmark, and then moved to the University of Nottingham where he gained his doctorate in 1959 whilst working as an assistant lecturer in the Department of English Studies (where in later years he became Special Professor).

In 1962, Page left Nottingham for the University of Cambridge, where he was appointed  lecturer, and later, reader, in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, before becoming  Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon in 1984.  From 1965 he was also Fellow Librarian of Corpus Christi College’s  Parker Library,  the magnificent collection of manuscripts and early printed books  acquired by that snapper-up of unconsidered texts (and former Corpus Master) Archbishop Matthew Parker.

It was said of Ray Page that it was hard to know whether his fame as Parker Librarian eclipsed his status as Elrington and Bosworth Professor, or vice versa. It is certainly true that as Librarian, Page focused his characteristic dislike for woolly thought and actions onto the practicalities of conserving the manuscripts in his care. You could say that he took it personally.  Anxiety to preserve the old materials that framed irreplaceable contents caused him to introduce an entire new ethos of conservation to the college library world. Under his stern eye, the Parker Library became flagship for new manuscript conservation techniques, which ultimately led to the setting up of the Cambridge Colleges Conservation Consortium.

Yet Page’s monograph ‘Matthew Parker and his Books’ (1993) reflected another side to his role as Librarian. Arising from a series of lectures he gave as Sandars Reader in Bibliography,  it brought together Page’s many years of research into Parker’s relationship with his own collection.

Page enjoyed the his work in the Parker Library immensely, and often referred to himself tongue-in-cheek as the “kindly silver haired librarian”. It is only fair to mention  that others referred to him as “that silver-haired master of silver-tongued vituperation.” He rejoiced equally in both titles.

In addition to his university appointments, Page held honorary doctorates at the Universities of Sheffield and Trondheim, and the Dag Strömbäck prize at the Royal Gustav Adolf’s Academy in Uppsala.

After his retirement  in 1991 he continued working on his first love – runes – and was often chauffeured around the British Isles by his devoted wife Elin in search of new inscriptions. On one such trip the pair were stranded overnight on a storm tossed Scottish islet – only avoiding death by exposure through the help of a group of Buddhist monks.  He continued to publish, and brought out  the second edition of his seminal ‘Introduction to English Runes’ to which Page referred with characteristic lack of gravitas as ‘the little red rune book.’

Blessed with a quick tongue, a panoramic frame of reference and a witty and fertile mind (when first shown a digital camera, he responded “C’est magnifique, mais c’est ne pas Daguerre”), Page often used humour to hold the world at arm’s length, saying with Sydney Smith “While others rise by their gravity, I sink by my levity.” His conversation could be exhausting to keep up with, a polyglot patchwork of allusion, quotation and terrible puns, delivered deadpan, but with a sneaky twinkle from bright blue eyes.

And while unwilling to meet pretension with unmerited praise, or accept assertions unchallenged, Page was intrigued by genuine expertise, whatever the field, and had a huge respect for other people’s interests and views, whatever their age or background. Never one to take himself unduly seriously, his private letters tended to have a ‘Hagar the Horrible’ cartoon attached to them.

Despite his fearsome reputation,  Page is remembered as both kindly and generous-spirited  by generations of younger scholars. This intrinsic kindness and consideration became defining characteristics when the last few years of debilitating disease took so many of his other qualities and interests away from him.

Ray Page is survived by his wife, Elin, and two daughters. His only son died young.

Professor Raymond Page, Anglo-Saxonist, runic scholar, and Parker Librarian, was born on 25th September 1924. He died on March 11 2012, aged 87.


Fair rail fares – have your say!

There is two more weeks to reply to the DfT’s consultation on Rail Fares. Please do so, via this link so that there is a chance (however faint) that rail fares could start going down rather than rocketing. As they have done for twenty years and more.

Dear Department for Transport,

My name is Caroline Page, and I am the County Councillor for Woodbridge in Suffolk – which is in  a beautiful rural location. We are lucky in Woodbridge to have one of the few rural stations left in Suffolk after Beeching’s cuts.

Rural public transport is very important for those people who can’t, can’t afford to, or are prevented from driving by age, ill health or ethical considerations.  Like many others in rural Suffolk,  I use the train a lot: I regularly  visit elderly parents in Cambridge, a student daughter in Sheffield, and go to London for specialist appointments and so on. I also use the train for work, and social activities.

If you don’t have a car, rail fares are very important – as is the need to travel on a train at a moment’s notice. We are lucky that we have ‘walk-on’ discounted fares within our  portion of East Anglia, but the moment that we step outside, ticket pricing becomes unaffordable. In the past I have needed to get to places such as Liverpool, Sheffield, Portsmouth and Coventry for crises and bereavements at  a moment’s notice  and the cost of such rail travel has been outrageous and (frankly) extortionate and added greatly to the stress of the situation.  I once had to make a trip to Liverpool because of a bereavement, and same day rail travel actually cost practically the same amount as asking a taxi to drive me there. Can this be reasonable??

I am asking you to remember, and consider that  people who need to make immediate, on-the-day, rail trips are often  poorer or less able than others – who have the option of driving. What can be the rationale for discouraging off-peak travel by charging such appallingly greedy and inappropriate ‘walk-on’ fares when trains are so empty for so much of the day ?

Additionally many people would like to travel at weekends,  and on bank holidays to visit family or tourist destinations. The train would seem ideal. Oddly enough however, customer demand is not seen as a reason for the train companies to encourage us onto trains by good service and special fares. Instead it is seen as an excuse to charge us a high price for the shoddiest service I have ever experienced in a life of train-travel. I was talking to some railworkers, as we stood nose-to-nose on a late, diverted train to Cambridge over a recent bank-holiday, and they said they found it a very hard and unsatisfying  element in their job to be working to the demands of share-holders rather than travellers (or customers as we are so uncharmingly called) and providing such a service at such a steep price.

The rail fares review could be the biggest shake-up of our fares system for decades. At a time of belt-tightening, and peak oil, the country needs to have a reliable affordable rail service to encourage and support non-driving.

We  therefore  need to make sure that this review – an opportunity for cheaper, simpler, fairer fares –  is not wasted. UK rail fares must start going down not up. The cost of train tickets in the UK is already eye watering – far higher  than in other parts of Europe. Last summer I travelled in very pricy Norway, and was astonished to find that while a pint of beer was several times more expensive than in the UK, train travel was much cheaper (as well as better integrated and more frequent). Yet Norway is even more rural than the UK.

Government fare hikes mean prices for most tickets in 2015 will be 24% more expensive than they were in 2011. This is unreasonable and inappropriate : rail should be a public service not a ‘rich man’s toy’. Most particularly it should not pander to the requirements of people travelling ‘on expenses’ at the expense of those needing transport for the most basic reasons.  Trains are a vital link between people and the places they go to work, study, relax and spend their money. Both people who already use the train and people who are occasional users should have a stake in having a fit-for-purpose, affordable railway. If we actually ensured it was, we would have much better usage in ‘non-peak’ situations and help support the largely overlooked rural travellers (such as my constituents), as well as those in city termini.