Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Review of Dyad productions' 'Orlando' - in The Wee Review, 9th April 2019

Orlando In one era, and out the other

Dyad Productions

Based on the novel by Virginia Woolf

Eden Court One Touch Theatre, Inverness, Friday 5th April 2019

“I am all I need to be. I am Orlando,” ran the powerful concluding lines in this timely and enthralling adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel. The astonishing, virtuoso one-woman performance by Rebecca Vaughan, bringing her array of vocal and expressive talents to Elton Townend Jones’ script and direction, gripped the Inverness audience from start to finish. And the strong statement of identity, the assertion of a soul determined to be him/ herself, come what may, emerged as very much a 21st-century theme.

Orlando is a curiosity in Woolf’s work: s/he is an immortal poet of indeterminate gender and indeterminate epoch, the narrative stretching between the late 1500s and - in Dyad’s production - the present day. Orlando’s journeying from a privileged life in England’s rural midland counties, to Blackfriars in London, to Constantinople and back, takes in Queen Elizabeth’s court, life amongst gypsies, 18th-century coffee-house culture and its literary world, the 19th century below its “stifling sullen canopy”, and the tragic 20th century of global conflict. With a source more overtly satirical than Woolf’s other work, Orlando’s mockery roams easily across targets as diverse as the Victorians, critics, poets themselves, and the arrogance of celebrated men. The protagonist/ narrator’s boundless insights spring from the curious freedom of this imagined lifespan (s/he only ages 36 years across more than 3 centuries), the unifying elements Orlando him/ herself and the quest for Love, Truth, and “the Freedom to Be.”

Orlando does not seem the ideal text for dramatisation, Woolf’s subjective 3rd-person narrative allowing a fertile mind to play, bemoan, speculate at will. But Dyad’s production - their stock-in-trade - breathes life into a classic, teasing out every last syllable of contemporary relevance and the potential for humour in Orlando’s swingeing one-liners: “Fame is a charlatan,” “I am a most magnificent idiot,” “Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy,” and - referring to a perennial critic-antagonist - “he just loves fancy cuisine and bitching about duchesses.”

And the whole shebang - the musings and mockery, the poetry and prose of it all - flourishes vivaciously before us because of the indefatigable, wonderful Rebecca Vaughan, skipping across the spare set for 90 minutes, with just the briefest sound and musical cues. Whether she is describing urban delights, marvelling at incessant social change, or brilliantly adopting self-important misogynistic male voices, she grips and amuses, not missing a step. The fluency of the script and its stylish delivery are complemented by tonally-sensitive lighting, and a simplicity of staging which emphasises the thematic - that outer garments are dispensable, objects of “the world’s easy liking” and ultimately worth rather less than the quest for “the me at the heart of this,” as Orlando puts it. Dyad Productions deservedly won the Three Weeks Editors’ Award at the Edinburgh Festival in 2018 for Orlando, and audiences across its tour will surely enjoy this tour de force.

The bullies haven't gone away - Scottish Review, 23 January 2019


'Empowerment': the approved buzzword for the Scottish Government's current drive to give greater authority to school head teachers. Many are sceptical: widespread staffing and workload concerns mean additional responsibilities are unwelcome. But surely 'freedom to manage' must be good?

Well, maybe not. For many, the empowerment of senior managers means giving them a licence to bully. While most head teachers are humane, supportive; others lack emotional intelligence and are narcissistic in nature. Contrary to the 'collegiate' ethos of Curriculum for Excellence, such leaders are neither distributive nor empowering, seeing the school as a personal fiefdom, their senior position and salary evidence of their own capabilities, and their right to mould the institution in their 'heroic' management style.

This is where the brave new world of leadership programmes meets reality. And reality bites. Bullying by senior management didn't go away; it just got a new suit and deployed all that expensive training to wield power as they see fit. Compliant staff will be appointed, promoted; others targeted.
Especially those deemed 'not with the programme'. 

It's a world of moving goalposts: the plethora of initiatives, guidelines, frameworks, performance indicators, supplies ammunition. Educational documents: deliberately misinterpreted to justify critical intervention. Individual autonomy: questioned, then curtailed. Disagreement, non-compliance: evidence of psychological flaws, grounds for disciplinary action. Staff may well be referred to occupational health or sent on training courses for 're-education'. And every move by the senior manager is presented as 'support'.

The Education Support Partnership is working with staff across the UK on this problem, as described first-hand recently by a young teacher: 'It was horrendous, I hated every second of it. Endless put-downs and humiliations by the head; unannounced observations where she picked holes in everything I did, making me increasingly nervous, affecting my confidence. She said, repeatedly, that I was too expensive, not performing well. I tried to adjust to the fact that I was just not a good teacher any more.'

All UK teacher unions recognise it and are increasingly inundated by the syndrome: 'Excessive fear, loss of self-worth, a reluctance to go to school, physical ill health including weight loss, disrupted sleep, headaches, depression, panic attacks...'

What causes this? How do previously good colleagues prove so dreadful at managing people? In some cases, the bullying senior manager fits a mould, such as the 'Dunning-Kruger effect' – a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly over-rate their cognitive abilities. Others cite the 'Peter Principle', describing people rising to their 'level of incompetence'. Once there, they lack the insight to grasp that their own incompetence may be the cause of the organisation's problems. 

As management scientists Drew Dudley and Scott Berkun note, the skilled leader should be 'a catalyst in the expansion of capacity for others', an individual absolutely needing 'emotional intelligence, empathy, communication skills', and more. But some gain promotion because they 'talk a good game' or seem – or at least profess – to have such qualities. For others – and this is particularly true just now, low application numbers and their own willingness to move for promotion, accelerate their progress.

Is this bullying picked up? Probably not. Someone, somewhere, may notice higher levels of staff absence, regular job vacancies and premature retirements. But local authority staff are under siege themselves amidst financial constraints – £400m has been lost from local authority education budgets in the last decade – and endless restructuring. And so the bullying goes on.

COMMENTARYGerry HassanWe Scots have to start
listening to each other

Alan McIntyre
Happy Burns Night
Mr President!


Eileen Reid
A new approach to
supporting good causes

Eric Sinclair
We can do better than this

Michael Gregson
The bullies haven't gone away

Maggie Mellon
To get justice in Scotland,
you must be rich or popular

Andrew Hook
What will it take before
we act on climate change? 

Islay McLeod
How fast is your broadband?


Bob Smith
Burns Supper or a dog's dinner?

SOCIETYHelen Stewart
We should all take
an interest in farming

Barbara Millar
Save our Scottish dog breeds

Islay McLeod
Dundee's goodbye to
her soldiers
To access previous editions of SR, 
click on the links below

16 JANUARY 2019

8 JANUARY 2019

19 DECEMBER 2018

12 DECEMBER 2018


Monday, 15 October 2018

Scottish Education under reconstruction - Regional Improvement Collaboratives must hit the ground running

New System for Scottish education must show itself fit for purpose

The Scottish Government’s 6 new Regional Improvement Collaboratives for Education will be subject to some close attention in the coming months. They simply must deliver, if they are to achieve credibility as engines of excellence, rather than being a mere managerial miasma. As Archie MacPherson would put it, ‘They’ll have to set out their stall early doors.’

And these RICs are central to Scotland’s Education Governance arrangements. In delaying the Education Bill, Mr Swinney wishes for transformation through “collaborative and collegiate” action. My own authority, The Highland Council, is one of 8 within the dramatically titled ‘Northern Alliance’. Its Byzantine agenda has 4 Priority Areas, to be implemented through 16 Workstreams and 6 Drivers, and seeks connections, networks, synergy, the alignment of Progression Frameworks and evidence of positive impact.

These are the 4 Priorities:
Ø  Improvement in attainment, particularly literacy and numeracy
Ø  Closing the outcome gap between the most and least disadvantaged children
Ø  Improvement in children and young people’s health and wellbeing
Ø  Improvement in employability skills and sustained, positive school leaver destinations for all young people

A reasonable set of priorities, drawn from the National Improvement Framework. This document, originally published in January 2016, serves as a go-to for all Improvement Planning, including at school level. Which is where we might be fearful for the shiny new RICs: because these overarching national targets – which inform all curriculum design and planning – are already part of the furniture, as it were, in every locality and every Associated School Group. We in schools already plan, deliver, assess and evaluate in the shade of these targets. Nothing to see here.

So, early days maybe, but in a context where the School Improvement Plan has pride of place in every classroom, and Mr Swinney’s Empowerment agenda is likely to devolve further functions to school senior management, whither, and wherefore, the Regional Improvement Collaborative? Surely its raison d’être is against the grain of more localised impetus?

Well, unless the RICs act meaningfully on pedagogical matters, relevantly and supportively analysing and employing the (evolving) research evidence base, they may struggle to justify their existence. Revenant à nos moutons: the Northern Alliance has an impressive mission statement, promising “to develop and learn as programmes embed and develop…working in partnership nationally, regionally and locally…(to) develop impact and drive improvement across the country.” 

How useful it would be, for instance, if the excellent Education Endowment Foundation report, Improving Secondary Science, which has just been published, could inform not just the NIF toolkit, but school-based research and piloting? How promulgating the substantial insights this report gives us, into the efficacy of different in-class pupil groupings, and specific forms of meta-cognition and feedback, could add a cross-curricular lustre to the RIC and its work, otherwise unavailable through its data-collation, conferences for those who won’t be missed at school, and generalised exhortations to improve? 

In short, how about a Regional Improvement Collaborative as a beacon of ideas and inspiration at a time when actual classrooms in actual schools may be short of resources or even staff? When those in schools and local authorities may be working their butts off trying to meet the needs of the 26% of children with additional support needs, as well as the other 74%? Schools need support, not more Sisyphean boulders.

'Islander' Review (Mull Theatre on Tour), September 2018

Close Encounters of the Cetaceous kind – ‘Islander’ –

A Powerful Drama which more people should see

Islander, Jim Love Studio, Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, Sunday 23rd September

Mull Theatre, with Helen Milne Productions, are just ending a whistle-stop tour of mostly small venues across Scotland with the two-hander ‘Islander,’ a truly magical evocation of storm-tossed, passionate lives intertwined with the sea, but under threat, as emigration to the ‘Bigland’ over the sea, and indifferent landlords, bring the community to the brink of extinction. The familiar Highland/ Island depopulation theme – here in a remote mythical land beyond Viking and North Utsire - plays out in an ensuing maelstrom of emotions: young islander Eilidh and mysterious visitor Arran find common cause in fighting parallel threats to land and sea, in entirely recognisable scenarios.

The startling musical boasts the lyrical, atmospheric and dramatic talents of Writer Stewart Melton, Director Amy Draper and Composer Finn Anderson, and is enacted magnificently by two superlative, recently-graduated young performers Bethany Tennick and Kirsty Findlay. This note-perfect team flits easily between a multitude of characters, a cappella singing and balletically-fluent choreography, as they conjure a fabulous – fable-like – narrative driven by the young protagonists’ hope and energy.

Surely, even as this month-long tour comes to an end, and the 2011 piece resumes a position of unjust neglect, further audiences can be found? The piece – particularly in such talented hands as gained rapturous applause in Inverness yesterday - deserves so much more.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Mixed Prospects for the Scottish Attainment Challenge?

Mixed Prospects for the Scottish Attainment Challenge?

By Michael Gregson

We should congratulate John Swinney’s commitment to the Scottish Attainment Challenge. £750 million over 5 years, £120 million through the ‘Pupil Equity Fund’. Targeted resources “to improve the life chances of all children and young people in Scotland.”

Following research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Scottish Government’s goal is to raise educational attainment amongst disadvantaged young people, ameliorating prospects despite inequalities in housing, employment, health, life expectancy, income, community safety, environment, and more.
What’s not to like? Funding is already supporting Family Link Workers, Literacy and Numeracy work, Digital Technology, Mental health support and other measures across the country. Schools in Glasgow are receiving £21 million.

Isn’t this unequivocally a good thing? Well, I hate to be a party pooper, but I think caution is needed, given the laudable boldness of Government intentions. Before the education stat-nerds create histograms, cross-referencing SCQF levels and SIMD quintiles to assess schools’ progress on their ‘journey to excellence’, we need to moderate our expectations.

If only the transformation of socioeconomic disparities were that simple! If getting the children into school, and then supporting them through Literacy or Numeracy assessments - of the right tariff - were the magic bullet to banish deprivation, poor health, inadequate housing, poverty, unemployment! With the best will in the world, tackling these issues goes beyond schools.

Indeed, even the goals of the Scottish Attainment Challenge may be unachievable, because of the very interconnectedness of deprivations, of endemic cultural realities. Newcastle University’s Gillian Pepper & Daniel Nettle have done important work. Their 2017 The Behavioural Constellation of Deprivation tells us that embedded disadvantage results in complex clusters of habitual behaviour. These are transmitted across generations, and by peer and cultural influences; and there are developmental mechanisms. In this context, while understandable, behaviour can appear irrational, self-destructive - especially from a different socioeconomic perspective.

The most disadvantaged perceive themselves having less control over their lives, and have a tendency to discount future rewards. This may lead to less healthy lifestyles, or a failure to strive in education; neither engaging with the present, or aiming for potential future opportunities.

If the Scottish Attainment Challenge is to achieve its educational goals, it has to complement other measures across society. According to Pepper & Nettle, even embedded behaviour can change, if perceptions of life opportunities, and of self-efficacy, can be shifted. External interventions, which reduce risks and improve prospects beyond the control of the disadvantaged person can, over time, encourage them to reduce risks and improve prospects within their control. So lessening harm by encouraging a reduction in smoking; increasing community safety, by means of lower speed limits; or improving nutrition by offering a breakfast club at school: these and other actions may increase the success of targeted educational interventions. Being patient, holistic, impacting on the whole environment, may just work.

Mr. Swinney is right to seek to improve the ‘life chances’ of disadvantaged children. This is worthwhile. The Education Endowment Foundation’s Report shows that even small rises in attainment can lead to significant increases in lifetime productivity and outcomes, benefitting both the individuals concerned and the nation as a whole. Educating means guiding, nurturing and supporting; it means learning from good practice; it means examining data strategically; it means using the human and practical resources available.

There is no magic bullet. The Scottish Attainment Challenge, complemented by other measures, could achieve much. But – and this is what politicians don’t want to hear - don’t expect quick results.

This article first appeared in The Herald, Saturday February 3rd 2018.
Dr Michael Gregson teaches English and Gaelic at Inverness Royal Academy

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Tournament Report - Highland Senior Badminton Championships, April 2016


As the cool April evening kissed the shores of the Moray Firth close to the Black Isle Leisure Centre in gentle Fortrose, Caithness raiders once again escaped with trophies and medals from the North’s Senior Badminton Championship. A competitive but friendly atmosphere suffused the Ross-shire village, while shuttlecocks whizzed and curled about throughout a busy weekend for this prestigious end-of-season tournament.

 With national ranking points at stake, entrants came from far and wide; and once again it was Caithness players who showed a clean pair of trainers to the rest. The powerful play of Glasgow’s Sid Singh complemented the superb accuracy and fitness of Edinburgh University’s Wilgene Tan to wrest the Men’s Doubles crown, but otherwise it was Caithness all the way, with Mark MacKay, Shona MacKay, Martyn Cook, John Durrand, Iain Nicolson, Carole Begg and Ashley MacBeath who prevailed with top honours when the last shuttles were collected and the sweaty tops put in the wash.

 “The consistency and athleticism of Mark and Shona MacKay in particular was an awesome exhibition of controlled power, and for all that we witnessed a very high standard across all the events, it was unquestionably the collective quality of the Caithness group which shone through,” said Organiser Michael Gregson. “We in the Highland Badminton Group have been simply delighted to have such an intense and high-grade competition. Even the Consolation events were tightly-fought – even qualification from Pools was just a matter of a few points in several instances.

 “Although Inverness and Ross-shire - were less well represented, these things do tend to go in cycles, and I’m sure we will be seeing quality from these parts before long. Certainly there were good showings from Highland ‘expats’ like Joanna Shepherd and Megan Munro, and younger locals, like Nairn’s Jack Rawlinson and Inverness’ Alexander Gregson-MacLeod, showed plenty of promise this weekend alongside skilled veterans like John MacCulloch and Sam Campbell. It’s been great watching the skill and finesse on display. Well done to all competitors, and thanks for playing in such a good, sporting spirit.”

Highland Badminton Group Convenor Andrew Chatterton
Media Michael Gregson

Pos. Name Club
Mens Singles
1 Mark Mackay Caithness Badminton
2 Siddhartha Singh Western Badminton Club
3 John Qua Springfield, Cambridge
3 Wilgene Tan Individual Affiliation
Consolation Winner: Ramsay Hogg (Shetland)
Ladies Singles
1 Shona Mackay Caithness Badminton
2 Megan Munro Edinburgh University
3 Laura Muir Westside
3 Molly Mackay Inverness
Consolation Winner: Nikki Gracie (Dalzeil)
Mens Doubles
1 Siddhartha Singh+Wilgene Tan Western Badminton Club/Individual Affiliation
2 Martyn Cook+Mark Mackay Caithness Badminton
3 John Durrand+Iain Nicolson Caithness Badminton
3 Colin Grant+Ramsay Hogg Shetland Badminton
Consolation Winner: Matthew Jeorett / Charles Cuthbertson
Ladies Doubles
1 Carole Begg+Shona Mackay Caithness Badminton
2 Megan Munro+Joanna Shepherd Edinburgh University
3 Ruth Flett+Jane Hill Orkney Badminton Association
3 Suzanne Henderson+Claire Johnston Inverness/Individual Affiliation
Consolation Winner: Laura Muir / Debbie Craig
Mixed Doubles
1 Mark Mackay+Shona Mackay Caithness Badminton
2 John Durrand+Carole Begg Caithness Badminton
3 Iain Nicolson+Ashley Mcbeath Caithness Badminton
3 Wilgene Tan+Joanna Shepherd Individual Affiliation/Edinburgh University

Minority Languages in a digital context - Slideshare presentation on current research (in Gàidhlig)