Nationhood: Talking about Education

Taking 2050 as the snapshot in time, as we decided to do in this project, lets all of us take the long view forward to a period where, independent or in the UK, much of the strategic thinking and the hard decision taking has long been done and Scotland has got to a point where the successes are evident.

Education is the key to self discipline, developed capability, economic sustainability, fulfilled people, immigration, the culture of working, youth employment, development, positive change, respect, careers, social responsibility…

Our current education system is failing our children and is unhelpfully sheltered by the long gone reputation for superiority of Scottish education.

Youth unemployment is high. The culture of work is feeble. Our universities have to run remedial classes for first year students because their primary and secondary education has been inadequate.

The spirit of ambition and enterprise barely registers a pulse. There is a culture of entitlement not one of self-determination.

So what might things be like in 2050 if we developed certain strategies and took certain decisions soon? How could we focus our provision of education to support and develop our young people and the country’s economic sustainability much better than we do at present?

Below are starter propositions from each of the three of us. What would you like to see?


Charles Dixon-Spain on small is better

The movement to centralise education in huge education facilities faltered in the mid-twenties when it was realised that communities were being destroyed as they lost their schools.

While this was particularly evident early on in rural areas, urban centres began to experience critical levels of alienation and crime because children were being taken from their communities and anonymised in establishments with thousands of pupils.

The movement of education back into the heart of a community meant a reinvigoration of the small school and finally a society-wide recognition that small class sizes and highly motivated staff were two of the essentials in a successful nation.

Rural areas began to see an influx of families as the final barrier to a viable life in the country was lifted (we already had 1GB/s broadband and upgraded transport infrastructure).

The cumulative effect was that by 2050 rural populations had remained at the same level since 2020, but were now twice as economically active as they had been. This progress had been enabled somewhat by a movement away from second home ownership nationally and also, and consequently, a fall in folk retiring to the country.

The government set limits on class sizes (16) and on schools (300 for Primary and 600 for Secondary). They also raised the mandatory age to 7 and provided creche and active play facilities for children from the age of 1. Parents could then choose whether they wanted to remain economically active. The benefits to the economy outweighed the cost of the early years care, and children became more independent earlier and therefore happier as a result.

Technology has been critical in two spheres: first, in creating specialised learning programmes for each child throughout their scholastic career. These programmes ensure any weaknesses or absences are catered for, as well as ensuring talents and interests are fully developed.

Technology also ensures that every child in the nation is similarly and transparently assessed during their entire school career. Therefore the potential of individuals is not missed. Whereas before a child’s needs might be overlooked in big classes where a teacher doesn’t have the specialisms, now each child is proactively monitored in the course of their education.

This obviates the need for examinations, unless of course the child particularly thrives on time-limited assessments.

By the time learners reach tertiary education they are self-motivated, highly-capable and, above all else, focused on what they want to do for the rest of their lives. And while there are still all the attractions of student life, studying for a degree is seen as part of an ongoing, lifelong endeavour in learning.


John Patrick on connected classrooms and adaptive learning

Thirty years ago education lay at a peculiar crossroads in society.

On one hand it had the responsibility of anticipating real-life skills by preparing students for an increasingly complex world – but education methodologies could only be formalised after practices had been defined. 65% of primary school children ended up in jobs that hadn’t been invented.

This dichotomy took a decade to overcome thanks to serious investment by consecutive Scottish Governments, technology and focused socio-economic policies.

Thirty years ago school’s had adopted a factory system of education, which said pretty much one speed, one complexity. As a result, there was one person being taught at the right speed and the rest of the students were bored or lost.

The move to massive open online courses (MOOC) by Scotland’s educators allowed the eduction system to adapt to each student’s particular skills and speed. All of children ended up totally mastering the subject. It’s was the game changer of the day.

What it really did was level the understanding gap in the factory model with really impressive outcomes. It also put a halt overnight to crippling higher education fees and drop out rates with the advent of affordable accredited online degree programs becoming common place.

The classroom of today is a connected one, with the teacher able to zero in and command the flow of information and learning.

Big data and analytics tools are utilized in our classrooms wherever they may be, with significant impact.

Data mining and adaptive learning platforms are common place with hard insights such as ‘you solve math problems better in the morning’ or ‘divide your studying into 30 minute intervals’ based on a student’s click (attention) rate.

Self monitoring tools keep the student apprised in real time of their academic progress and feeds back into the adaptive learning platform to keep them on course.

We did discover during the process that some problems didn’t disappear as easily as others. Some problems were not just about delivery systems, cognition or assimilation and they took a lot more than education policies to sort.

Inevitably, as we experimented with the power of personalisation, problem (challenge) based learning, and incredible connectedness, we were often confronted by socio-economic factors.

Students who weren’t connected or students who did not have a device or they didn’t have the speed to make the device work or students who couldn’t afford to eat breakfast in the morning.

There was a litany of issues. From poverty to mental issues and abuse,  our educators became counsellors and providers.

It was not just a case of stitching together technology, neuroscience, and learning design, but also in stitching together opportunity, safety, support, and care.

Thirty years on and Scotland is reaping the rewards of its investment. This is a good time to be living in Scotland.


Lynda Henderson on radical reshaping of education provision

About 30 years ago Scotland began to put into action a plan that had been discussed across the nation for over five years and planned for, so that the transition to a different strategy for education was agreed and society had begin to reposition itself accordingly.

We shrank our university sector back then. We made it specialist, elite and very high powered, resourced to be the best and to produce the best in subjects important to creating a body of significant national expertise to support our own economic sustainability and to grow our knowledge economy itself as a serious earner.

We identified at the outset the sciences, medicine, engineering, IT, energy, architecture and design, economics and financial management as the subjects for which the state would pay all fees and subsistence for the best Scottish students to study at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. [Universities can offer whatever other courses they like, unsubsidised, where they can find a market for them.]

Our national ability in foreign languages is significantly greater. We do not offer language courses at University level. We encourage students interested in specific languages to study – in any subject – in the countries whose languages they wish to embed.

We applied every penny of the cost saved in shrinking and specialising the university sector to primary and secondary education, with far greater numbers of teachers and far smaller group sizes.

We binned the content-free zones that our curricula had become and centred our primary and secondary education on knowledge and skills, practical and intellectual and including handling the various forms of evidence.

Our school day now matches the working day to facilitate working parents – but children go home free for the evening with all work done under supervision.

Our school and university years now match, with a three week summer holiday period, one week at Christmas and one week at Easter.

Teaching is now a high powered profession, with all teachers taking part in subject teams drawn from across Scotland’s schools and doing a career development term every four years, sent as a team to specific schools wishing to up their game in particular subjects.

Our children now leave secondary education ready and able to work, with focus, skills, ideas, confidence, capability and self discipline.

Our universities are now able to function at the highest level of performance without running the remedial classes for first year students that used to be necessary. The best of our students who win places at our universities in the subjects we support, now have much more to bring to those subjects from day one and are thriving in the competitive environment of aiming to be the best.

Our education at all levels is the envy of the world. We are admired for our strategic analysis and courage in rebalancing the system in this way. Our school leavers and our graduate and postgraduates are sought after by a wide spectrum of employers. Our universities are world leaders in key forward research.

We have developed strong expertise in pharmaceuticals, much from research in the marine sciences; and we have a powerful base in engineering, civil and electronic. The infrastructural development in our own country-which we prioritised as the key driver of economic growth, benefits from the expertise we can deliver and continues to challenge ti to greater achievements.

The encouragement we gave our children in our schools to take on challenge and to innovate have changed Scotland’s attitudes to creativity, ambition and entrepreneurship.

From having been intrinsically defeatist, passive, heavily dependent on the public sector and seeing a steady emigration of the young and most able, we now see our young folk confident to create opportunities as well as benefit from them – and to do so in what has become the liveliest possible environment for positive change and development, driven by the private sector.

This has been driven by the belated realisation that proven first class education is an inducement to high achievers and the ambitious to relocate to Scotland for the benefit of their children.

And we have the huge natural resources of Scotland on our doorsteps to balance the concentration of our working lives. Our activity tourism has grown to service internal demands and has become a magnet for the successful strivers in the south east of England – who now find their corporate peers here to be a match for them.

We are fitter and faster.

You can warm your hands at the buzz and crackle of the positive energy we generate – but that is another topic for later.

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19 Responses to Nationhood: Talking about Education

  1. Lynda Henderson says, “Our current education system is failing our children and is unhelpfully sheltered by the long gone reputation for superiority of Scottish education.”

    Perhaps we should add some balance. Here’s what the New York Times thinks – yes the New York Times ran an article this summer praising Scotland’s education system.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 4

    • These things are just puffs arranged for PR.
      The hard reality is the remedial classes our own universities are compelled to supply to our own first year degree students; and the views of employers.
      We lame our own development by choosing to prefer puffs to evidence.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 8

      • It’s really hard to work out who has the best approach to journalism including research and impartiality based on this?

        New York Times or,

        For Argyll


        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 4

      • The “puff” is contained in the trite headline eye-catcher, the pejorative use of the word “remedial”.

        Whereas MSM journalists spin their mildly sensationalist stories, finish their shift and move on, FA has chosen to swallow someone else’s line and regurgitate it ad nauseam.

        Without wishing to claim that all is well in Scottish education, far less the universities, I’d sum up the truth in this particular story by quoting the closing comment in the Herald’s report of the “scandal”:

        “A spokesman for Glasgow University said the classes were designed to simply “enhance” existing skills.”

        (Note the split infinitive in the journalist’s copy. Nuff said.)

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  2. Scotland’s education system is in the process of destruction thanks to the SNP, and I specifically mean the SNP. ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ is the most nonsensical name for an curriculum i’ve come across. Let’s forget the complete shambles that is getting schools ready, but focus on one or two key points.

    Firstly, every school across the whole of this country will write their own exams. The teachers write the exams. The teachers mark the exams. Who on earth thinks this system will work is beyond me, but apparantly it’s good for education. I disagree. It means that there is an inherently unlevel playing field and far too much scope for schools to exploit the system. The SQA will never in a month of Sunday’s manage to monitor the situation.

    Secondly, as a not-so-long ago ex student, i cannot understand why children are now permitted to bring their textbooks into an examination. Why bother studying, why bother even going to class when you can waltz into an exam and more or less look up the answer?! This is the situation that we are in with CfE.

    It’s a sad day when our education system has been downgraded to the point that your certificate is not worth the paper it’s written on.

    What would I want in 2050? A complete overhaul of the educationsystem to develop one that was tough, effectively assessed students abilities and did not pander to the ‘everyone is a winner’ mentality that we have today courtesy of the SNP.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 9

    • We would agree wholeheartedly on the nonsense that is puffed as ‘Curriculum for Excellence’.
      It is not even a ‘curriculum’ at all, in the sense that the word is normally understood and which parents expect.
      It is not concerned with the content of the education of our children but with the methods of learning. That is helpful but is only a part of learning process. What our children learn and the accuracy and depth of that learning has been left as a derelict brown field site.
      Curricullum for Excellence was introduced without adequate time and support for preparation in the schools – and the most successful of our schools – as with examples in Inverclyde – do not want it.
      To calm the bravehearts, this is not a criticism of the SNP [Curriculum for Excellence grew out of a process of consultation begun in 2002.] – except that they did not understand enough to reverse the process they inherited – and simply went on to implement it.
      It is quite instructive to compare what the ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ says about itself – for those who find it intelligible – with what the plainer and focused The National Curriculum in England has to say.
      See for yourself – and you will find the justification for what we have called a ‘content free zone’.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 7

    • Guess you had a bad time at school Jamie; so your answer would be go back to Labour control of education ?

      It was a complete shambles under them.

      Maybe you should have just gone to Dunoon Grammar instead, you know what I mean. Labour educational Stronghold.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  3. You have hit the nail on the head newsroom. I spoke to a friend whose son is now in this ‘curriculum’.

    Without prompting, she started to tell me how bizarre the new setup is. That there is no set curriculum that can be traced and her sons progress through it monitored. She is amazed that there seems to be no set standard by which her child is measured against academically. The school have said as much, but there is nothing they can do. This lady incidentally is not interested in politics, and her comments were not aimed at the SNP, only the education system in Scotland in general.

    Whereas the traditional system you knew what a child had to be able to achieve and there were various clear measures of performance, this no longer exists.the ‘curriculum’ in every school is different. You do not have a national standard that is the same across the board. Every school is measuring performance against a different criteria.

    Funny you should mention it, but England seems to be going in a much more desirable direction in terms of educational rigour.

    Scotland is heading quickly downhill educationally, and the people at the helm must, should and do know better, but are hellbent on pursuing their own personal dreams, at the cost of what was a once great educational system.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 4 Thumb down 12

  4. Jamie, “I cannot understand why children are now permitted to bring their textbooks into an examination”.

    Certainly in my day you weren’t permitted to bring textbooks into exams. What you had to do was cram as much information into your head as possible and be prepared to regurgitate it all during an exam. This required memory but sadly not did not require much understanding. Indeed more emphasis was placed on mnemonic devices as an aid information retention rather than an understanding of the subject.

    The world has moved on and primarily because of developments in IT nowadays we really don’t require to remember everything parrot fashion, but we really do need to know where to find the information, how to interpret and how to utilise that information.

    Those skills, it seems to me, require more of an understanding of the subject matter rather than the mere repetition of facts.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 3

    • Holy moley what is happening on FA. First I get a green thumbs up from Malcolm then I agree with Simon on an issue relating to education.

      Next Simon will admit A&B made a total dogs dinner of their school closure proposals…. OK maybe not.

      I do agree that there was never great merit in exams where students ability to simply regurgitate temporarily was held in excessively high esteem. Equally I am not in favour of an excessive move toward modular marking whereby the overall mark for a year (or course) is based on an average of a series of ‘mini scores’ attained throughout the year.

      A balance between practical ‘case study’ scores, the ‘old school’ exam approach and an approach more like Simon is referring to (i.e. understanding and application) better fits the society that these exams are supposed to be preparing children for.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

    • Simon, the whole point about and exam is to test knowledge and understanding.

      Why even bother if they can just take a book in and barely have to learn anything?

      It more or less proves my point. Education is being degraded to the point that children no longer need to learn anything because they can look up the answer. That’s not an education. That’s teaching chilcren to pass exams – totally different concepts.

      If you think that is the way forward, fair enough. I don’t. The whole problem i have with this CfE is that it takes away responsibility for learning. Allowing textbooks in exams will absolutely boost results, but will not help educate and inform the children of the future.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 6

      • “they can just take in a book and barely have to learn anything.”

        I suspect you’ve never put this to the test yourself, JB.

        So-called open book examinations have been part of the university exam scene for decades. The approach you describe sums up perfectly the trap many students fall into.

        Open book exams tend to be HARD because in a properly designed exam: a) simply memorising or regurgitating facts gets you no marks at all – ZERO; b) the exam questions are designed to test specifically understanding of the subject (impossible to pick up by hurriedly flicking through a book against the clock); and c) in order for a textbook to be any use to you under exam conditions, you need to know your way around it, in detail, efficiently, and this in itself demands understanding and insight which can only be gained by prior in-depth study.

        I’m against a lot of the faddish molliecoddling of the little treasures that goes on but open book exams don’t come under that heading.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

        • You’re right pm – the exams I took at school and Uni were closed book.

          I would probably agree with your theory, however there is a fatal and fundamental flaw here.

          The exams the children will be sitting are not designed by experts with any specific specialised training, and with access any psychometric analysis or leveling material. Exam setting is a complex and specialised activity and to simply give the green light to all teachers to start writing exams show little understanding of this.

          There is no benchmark. There is no real and effective central control possible. Sure, the SQA have quality checkers but there key difference here is that rather than doing one in depth QA of each single exam, hundreds of the same exam are being written virtually in isolation. Only a fool would think that it is possible to ensure a level playing field and that exams are of the highest possible standard using this method. The fact that it’s not really exams either compounds the issue.

          The proof however is in the pudding. I wonder pm what you would think were you to sit a Standard grade exam, older equivalent and whatever the new one will be. I have a very sneaky feeling you would be rather horrified at how easy it is to pass an exam today.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

          • My point hinges on the exam being designed properly to be open book so, although I see your point, I hope you’re wrong.

            There has been a huge sea-change in both ease and methods of access to the knowledge part of learning in the past twenty years such that testing memory serves much less purpose than it used to. Not only school pupils, all of us are far better off spending time and energy training ourselves in the new ways of accessing and using knowledge than in learning facts by rote.

            If, however, the exams are not to be designed appropriately as you claim, then the system is seriously flawed.

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

    • I have a little experience of this; Glasgow Uni’s mechanical engineering dept was experimenting with this and when I sat the ‘elements of machines and fluid power’(I may have the title wrong, it was nearly 20 years ago) exam I had Shigley’s Mechanical Engineering Design with me. I was sceptical when I learned of it, but in practice it meant your performance better reflected ability to solve engineering problems rather than the ability to memorise a dozen or more standard equations for calculating force, power, viscosity etc(all of which I promptly forgot once I graduated). In the event I need to do some machine design I’d be reaching for the textbook anyway(or more likely these days some software).

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  5. John touches on issues that are vitally important in his piece, he sadly being the only one to do so.

    “Students who weren’t connected or students who did not have a device or they didn’t have the speed to make the device work or students who couldn’t afford to eat breakfast in the morning.

    There was a litany of issues. From poverty to mental issues and abuse, our educators became counsellors and providers”

    It’s all too often our education system diabolically fails to engage those who’s lives before and after entering their educational environment each day is not conducive to attainment.

    I remember not that long ago in secondary education asking myself at the time why so many were tucked away in classrooms with similar types, stagnating in what can only be described as holding classrooms from 3rd of 4th year awaiting the age of 16 for that very day arriving to walk. Teachers reading newspapers, babysitting loads of disengaged scrap heap individuals more or less, individuals society must eventually encounter and hope to engage.
    In many of these individuals cases, more often than not learning and gaining educational qualifications were both not beyond them nor their particular obstacle, instead it was life outside education that made what was being asked of them almost unachievable. Lack of parental support, encouragement, a stable harmonious family life creating environments where alcoholism poverty and chaos at home were the most influential times, not being taught at school.

    Amazing the amount of folks I speak to who whilst their school, myself too admittedly, maybe even parents had written off as “not the brightest” “a bit of a clown” only to learn they, when in a more settled environment at the age of mid 20′s and 30′s have gone on to achieve degrees and diplomas.
    One such person now a vet with own practice in London had during secondary such turmoil at home to contend with, leaving school as early as she could to get the opportunity to escape from home life. Her story and others similar teaching me later never to judge, to write anyone off whether they are socially or inherently genetically disadvantaged. The disadvantages still an impairment all the same and for many too little done to help, too late.

    Every child has the potential to succeed given the correct environment to nourish potential, unfortunately way too many homes are dysfunctional environments that hardly harbour learning aspirations.

    There are reasons other than ability why some students are engaging and others are not, this cannot continue to be left unaddressed even though it is the easy option to write some off choosing only to concentrate on those who apply themselves.

    So by 2050 a proper joined up integrated approach designed to involve dedicated teams employed through our education system to work closely with parents and education authorities, teachers, principles etc. ensuring matters at home do not impair student’s progress, not one child slips through the net and is given at the very least a fair chance to blossom.
    Industry representatives from many fields working closely with secondary schools too.

    It’s extremely difficult to project as far ahead as 2050, Charles suggesting by 2025ish 1Gig internet connection in Scotland’s rural areas in place. Twelve or so years away, but disheartening when our broadband accessibility and performance is put into context. Many families in Hong Kong are switching from 100megabit internet to gigabit internet while other countries are still talking about how to improve broadband accessibility in some parts.

    As much as we want a state of the art fully operational, highly effective productive and accountable Educational set-up here in Scotland by the mid 21stC, achievement of this where we get focused maximum effort and a willingness to apply themselves from every pupil will only ever stand a chance when the impacts events outside education, the distractions have on their chances for attainment of educational qualifications are fully realised.

    Assessors trouble shooters involvement, talking to teachers, sitting in on classes, interviewing pupils, basically immersing themselves in daily goings on directly at the coalface would go some way to gaining an understanding of the problems faced.
    Distanced requests for targets and statistics don’t always give provide the findings required to highlight deficiencies.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

    • I’d have thought bringing back an augmented form of the assisted place scheme could be a pretty straightforward solution to the first problem; kids with a dysfunctional home life are sent to boarding schools(not necessarily just private schools; there’s an argument to be made that all children should spend a period at a boarding school, to foster independence and break the apron strings, which would require a lot more boarding places than are available).

      As for broadband coverage; this is a national imperative. All the political hot air about HS2, yet no-one bats an eyelid about not tapping the the potential earning power of rural Britain by connecting it to the 21st century? If there’s mobile phone coverage, mobile broadband can be installed quickly and relatively cheaply; where there isn’t coverage sums need to be done to decide if running fibre optic or installing mobile BB coverage is cheaper, but I’d be surprised if the mobile option wasn’t 1st choice. THAT is a bigger priority and will affect more people than HS2, yet it’s barely on the agenda.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  6. For the chain under Comment 4:
    Open book exams are an option focused on the importance of accuracy in citation – and on removing the reliance on memory that can cause panic in nervous students and cause them to underperform.
    Open book exams can cause their own problems, though – with over anxious students searching for ever-better evidence to use – and wasting valuable time.
    To make the best use of an open book in an exam, you have to know that book very well indeed.
    If you try to use an open book as a substitute for missing knowledge and understanding, you will not be able to find – or identify – suitable information in the time available.
    There are two major skill-sets for life and work that students should acquire and on which they should be tested for the possession and quality of these skills.
    No single form of test addresses both of these skill-sets.
    One is the ability to research a topic; to identify the key evidences you find; to follow these evidences to the conclusions they indicate; to frame these conclusions – attributing the sources that have taken you there.
    This skill-set is best tested in assignments where students are given serious time to do the research work and to follow the evidence to conclusions.
    The second major necessary skill-set is to be able to think on your feet, under the pressure of the moment, forming and presenting an argument almost simultaneously and pressing into service the most relevant and appropriate evidence that comes to mind.
    Examinations are a blunt instrument and they test the ability to be an effective blunt instrument. They supremely test the ability to think on one’s feet and to present the best possible case – on the spot and under pressure.
    For this reason I have myself always found open book examinations to be a contradiction in terms and have never used them.
    Life and work give each of us time to do some things – and no time at all to respond to others.
    Some individuals are naturally more comfortable with one or other of these skill-sets. Testing both gives them an understanding of their personal strengths and can be helpful in directing them towards specific types of work or roles in life.
    Some students perform equally well on both types of skill-set. They will not necessarily be the brightest – although they may be. They may not be the most likely to choose to become specialists, but they will be the most omnicompetent, the most capable of adapting to the demands of different kinds of work in different kinds of circumstances.
    All students need to be competent in both skills sets to the best of their abilities – because these are the basic tools of responding to challenge that support us in life and in work.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  7. External exams continue at National 5 (i.e. Int 2), Higher and Advanced Higher – the same exam will still be sat by all students. The means of assessment at National 4 is more varied but the verification of it is strict and many teachers have already had instruments of assessment rejected because they are too easy or too difficult. For some subjects that assessments must be drawn from a bank provided by the SQA. There are problems with the CfE qualifications, but I don’t think the consistency of the standard is likely to be one of them. It’s worth pointing out the Access 3 has long been assessed in this way without a major problem.

    The long and the short of it is that those students who are likely to require the academic skills assessed in exams are those doing National 5 and above… which are the qualifications assessed by exams.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

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