Saturday, 28 March 2015

March Musings

March is always such on optimistic month, heralding, as it does, the arrival of spring. As the nation heads less optimistically towards a general election, we brace ourselves for the onslaught of campaign speeches and backstabbing sessions. What did grab our attention this month, however, was the solar eclipse, sadly not visible to us all because of cloud cover just at the wrong moment! Still, on the whole, the month has seen the arrival of some brighter, warmer weather, which has proved welcome to us all.

Less of this ...
This improvement in the weather saw us going on our first proper outing of the year. Our destination – Quex Park Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent. The museum houses a series of natural history dioramas – stuffed animals ranging from mice to giraffes – disturbing and striking in equal measure. There is also a great hands-on room where visitors can play musical instruments, try on costumes and delve in drawers of secrets. The gardens make a lovely setting for a picnic and postprandial stroll and although not open until 31st March, there is an historic house to peruse. Admission for museum and gardens combined is £6 for adults, £4 for children (£8 and £6 respectively to include house) and ticket sales operatives do try and press you to agree to Gift Aid donations. We declined, to their horror, as we feel this should be reserved for more deserving charities – also theoretically, the charge should be different to include Gift Aid, as detailed in Gift Aid Explained so technically they’re breaking the rules!

... more of this!
The warmer weather (together with a glimpse of myself in a changing room mirror recently) has set me on a mission to dispense with a few of my ‘flabby bits’ in preparation for wearing all those lovely spring and summer clothes. This has involved cutting down on quite a number of foods, strangely mostly those beginning with the letter ‘C’ – crisps, chocolate, cheese, cake – and eating somewhat healthier substitutes. My current favourite lunch comprises sliced avocado and tomato, olives, cottage cheese and crispbread – it’s surprisingly satisfying and tasty!

March has seen me continue with the campaign that I started back in February, to push for an independent review of Ofsted in light of some very inconsistent and often unfair reports. Many schools commended and praised by parents and students have been deemed as ‘failing’, whilst those on the receiving end of parental complaints appear to have been judged as ‘good’. Just what agenda is Ofsted working from? To add your support to my campaign, please tweet using #OfstedNoConfidence and if you’ve not yet read my previous Ofsted posts do so here and here

Thank you for your continued support! 

Friday, 20 March 2015

Ofsted – The Response

Last month I wrote a post about my exasperation at the inconsistency and unfairness of Ofsted reports, which I backed up with communications to the PM and various government ministers. (Read Are Ofsted Off The Mark? for more).

Thank you for all of you who read this post (a record number) and those of you who commented via my Twitter account @blogsbyjoy If only politicians had been as forthcoming with their responses!

After much delay, I finally received a reply from the Department For Education, washing their hands of the whole affair. It seems they really don’t care how unfair some of the Ofsted reports that schools receive really are, their basic belief is, “It’s nothing to do with us!”

Here is an extract from their email to me:
I should explain that Ofsted is an independent, non-ministerial government department, and therefore I am unable to comment on their processes. If you have not already done so, you may wish to follow the Ofsted complaints procedure which you can find details of on the Ofsted website at:<”.

Now, I don’t care how ‘independent’ Ofsted are reported to be, someone has to be responsible for overseeing their conduct. It’s not acceptable for them to be self-regulating as they are so obviously flawed! Reports are inconsistent, they don’t respond well to parents’ views and concerns and many inspectors appear out of touch with what students, parents and teachers really want and need!

I would also like to point out, that in my original email (which had been addressed to the PM) I had explained that I’d already attempted to complain to Ofsted – on at least three occasions! I had been mostly ignored and on the final occasion purely received an empty promise that was never followed up. Is it any wonder that I’m so totally exasperated?

I’ve also been appalled to hear about a school that had been investigated and flagged as a problem by the local council, following parents’ complaints of harsh treatment of young pupils, recently being given a ‘good’ report by Ofsted. Work that one out! It appears that the school was made an academy during the initial investigations, meaning that the council report could then be disregarded, although gross misconduct of staff at the school had been declared! The police were also involved yet sadly could not gather enough evidence to press the case. But what the hell were Ofsted inspectors thinking to add insult to injury by issuing a good report?

And so the fight goes on. Ofsted is completely overdue an independent review. If the government doesn’t give a damn, then perhaps an investigative journalist or current affairs programme would like to step in and get to the bottom of the whole debacle.

Until such a time, I believe that more good schools will be ‘written off’ for all the wrong reasons, whilst some of those that treat students and parents appallingly, will get glowing reports because they’ve managed to tick the right boxes on forms!

Please join the fight to review Ofsted by approaching your local MP or the culprits themselves, or tweeting me using the hashtag #OfstedNoConfidence If enough of us make a noise, hopefully something will change!

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Free Gifts

I love a free gift – who doesn’t? But in these times of austerity genuine freebies are not as forthcoming as they used to be.

There are still some nice little gift packages available with make-up purchases in shops such as Boots and Debenhams and of course the proverbial ‘Bogofs’ in supermarkets, but some of the little freebies that I used to love have all but disappeared.

Years ago, it was possible to accumulate a wealth of free items purely by purchasing modestly priced magazines. I’m not just talking glossies and dearer monthly publications (some of which do still sometimes appear with the odd gift), which often came with cosmetics, bags, paperback books, etc, but even weekly mags sometimes came up with interesting offerings.

Favourite publications such as ‘Woman’ and ‘Woman’s Weekly’ (of Victoria Wood bottom beating fame) on occasions came with spatulas or stitch holders – not glamorous gifts I admit, but freebies just the same!

And I seemed to acquire a huge selection of holdalls of varying sizes, assorted clocks and the odd radio just by placing a small order with a mail order catalogue from time to time. Remember those days?

Today prices of much of what we buy continue to rise (except for food items in the current supermarket wars) but gifts are less forthcoming. It’s true that we can get reward points, which are much appreciated, at certain supermarkets and enter various prize draws, but there’s something magical about an instant free gift in your hand. Not something that you may or may not get by entering a draw, but a guaranteed, on-the-spot, thank-you-here-and-now gift.

Are there certain free gifts that you miss?

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Remembering Mum – Mum Remembering

As we approach Mother’s Day here in the UK, we’re busily selecting appropriate cards and bouquets and possibly planning little treats for our mothers, perhaps pausing to recall a few treasured childhood memories along the way.

We always invite my mother and mother-in-law for a meal on Mothering Sunday as well as presenting them with small gifts, this year being no exception.

However, when I asked my mum a couple of weeks ago whether she would like to come for Sunday Lunch on the allotted day, we had rather a different kind of conversation. We covered all the usual ground about when the date was, what time she would come, that yes we would be picking her up and so on, but her burning question was, “Do I need to buy something for my mum?” Followed some moments later by, “Do I have a mum?”

You see my mum is in her eighties and has dementia. Some days our conversations run smoothly, other times they’re fraught with heartrending questions and difficult explanations, but we get through.

Diagnosed a couple of years ago after rather a battle for a referral to a memory clinic, mum’s decline has been thankfully slowed down by medication and some input from the clinic. Although there are obviously still some tough times that can be distressing for us all.

But what has been a big help is the opening of a day centre for dementia sufferers just around the corner from where my mother lives, which is run by Age UK. After initial reluctance, counteracted by constant encouragement, my mum started to attend the centre last summer. In no time at all she began to really enjoy her weekly visit and it has improved her mental state somewhat too. On her most recent dementia check, her score had actually improved – the additional stimulation has certainly proved good for her.

Each week, mum looks forward to a chat with others who in her own words, “Are just like me so I don’t feel silly”, the opportunity to take part in activities and a freshly cooked lunch. It’s been really good for her.

To others with relatives suffering from dementia I would say do encourage them to attend a similar centre if there is one nearby. The effects can be very beneficial.

To read more about Age UK or offer your support, visit

Friday, 6 March 2015

Politeness Costs Nothing

Time and again I blog about customer service issues, with my biggest gripe being rudeness and complete lack of manners.

Long waiting times in queues, lack of stock, poorly informed assistants and staff shortages can all be very annoying, but the situation can be lightened a little by apologies, explanations and generally polite service. Why is it then, that time and again, some assistants forget this basic rule?

Several days ago, my husband called in at a branch of Boots (Strood in Kent to be precise) to pick up some pain relief tablets for me, as I was suffering a flare up of my joints. He arrived just in time for opening, which was unfortunately delayed due to the pharmacist being held up.

Bad service makes me mad!
That in itself is fair enough. We all get caught in traffic at times or suffer some other setback and, by law, shops offering pharmacy services aren’t allowed to open without a pharmacist on site. What was unforgivable, however, is the way the situation was handled by the person who was seemingly in charge – an unhelpful individual named Richard.

A line of customers patiently formed outside the store, but at no time did Richard, or anyone else for that matter, pop their head out to offer an explanation or even post a notice on the door.

When Richard did open up shop following the arrival of the tardy pharmacist, instead of issuing a polite “excuse me” to customers so that he could push back the doors, he ‘shooed’ them away with an irritated gesture.

Things didn’t get any better. When he served my husband with the requested medication, he grudgingly muttered ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ through gritted teeth, exuding an air of “I don’t really want to serve you and I don’t like you”!

Needless to say my husband was seething when he returned home, having received such appalling treatment. We immediately looked up the contact details for Boots head office and emailed a complaint.

This is where I can report some happier news. The area manager of Boots stores phoned my husband with an apology and assured him that she would be visiting the branch to address the situation. And let’s face it, when we make this kind of complaint, that’s exactly what we want – an apology, an explanation and reassurance that our bad experience will not be repeated. A positive response to our complaint can make the difference between us returning to a store or shopping elsewhere.

It’s true that we don’t know whether Richard was having a bad day. There may be horrors in his life, problems galore – but these should never be taken out on unsuspecting customers, who just want to be served politely and go on their way.

As customers I believe that we always have the duty to report bad service, so that it can be improved for ourselves and others in the future. In turn shops have a duty to respond appropriately.

Monday, 2 March 2015

A Chilly Reception

Last week we had to say goodbye to our old Samsung Fridge/Freezer, which should have come as no great surprise as for some time its so-called ‘frost-free’ status had become more than questionable and it would often refuse to come back on for ages after a power cut.

In recent times the appliance had started making odd noises, although the instruction manual had informed us that it “may bicker, but this is not a trouble”. Finally though the end came, literally with a puff of smoke!

Obviously we wanted a replacement without too long a wait and headed off to Currys where we’d bought many appliances in the past. After some deliberation we selected a model that was reasonably sized and reasonably priced, bearing in mind this is not the time to be buying expensive items, living as we are in an old workshop that we’re renovating (read for more on that) where conditions are a bit dusty and things have to be frequently moved around.

Anyway, having chosen our desired model we then endeavoured to find an assistant. This was not an easy task, although one was finally located via a request at a neighbouring department. When the availability of the freezer was checked, we were told that delivery would be in three weeks. Three weeks? Were they kidding? When we’d landed back down from the ceiling, we explained that our need was somewhat more urgent and we needed to investigate alternatives, to which the assistant just looked at us, shrugged and walked away.
It's the Co-op I'll consider for future electrical appliances

For one moment we started to turn round to go back and view more by ourselves, until it dawned on us that the unspoken sentiment actually amounted to, “We don’t want you custom.” So we initiated plan B.

Reluctant as I am to buy things online without viewing them, I went home and Googled electrical retailers, as I'd already had the opportunity to browse a range of models in Currys. Let’s face it though, electrical shops aren’t that plentiful these days, with the likes of Comet and electricity board stores long gone, many retailers are online.

I had a quick look at but then caught my eye as it is a ‘Which? Recommended Provider’. I quickly found a fridge/freezer of the same make, but a slightly better model for the same price as Currys, with the silver option only being 1p (yes, 1p) more than the white, as opposed to £20-£30 more for this colour difference in Currys. What’s more it was available for delivery within just three days as opposed to weeks, and delivery was free!

The afternoon before delivery day, I received a text informing me that my delivery slot would be between 15.01 and 16.01. All I had to do was to wait and see how it all worked out.

I’m pleased to say that delivery actually occurred halfway through the allotted time slot. The driver and his assistant were friendly and helpful, promptly removing all packaging from the appliance (and taking it away) and ensuring that the fridge/freezer was installed where requested.

So would I recommend Co-operative Electrical to others? Too right I would, it was a completely painless experience.

A final mention to Currys (or Currys PC World as they are known these days) as their ‘Know-How’ team picked up on a tweet I posted about my experience in the store, offering to help me select an alternative. Sadly this was too little, too late and I’m much more likely to repeat my Co-op experience than my Currys one!