How Reliable is Your Ferrari?

I left university many years ago with two things to my name: an overdraft that I thought was eye-wateringly large (loose change by today’s standards) and an overinflated ego courtesy of the degree certificate I was flourishing. My inability to secure a graduate job (ah, those were the days) soon bought the ego a one-way ticket to Dignitas and off I trooped back to my holiday job with BMW in their warehouse. The slagging I got from the regulars for ending up back there taught me a lesson in humility I’ve never forgotten.

I loved working there. I started work at 2pm, so I could indulge my love of running in the mornings before work. BMW were also a really good employer. They treated their staff really well, but expected a lot in return. Their big focus was quality. In a warehouse full of the thousands of parts that make up the hundreds of models and variants of BMW cars and bikes that there have been over the years, the ability to get the right parts to the right dealers at the right time was critical. Sounds easy. It is when the parts are the size of a 7-Series bonnet, but when you have parts boxes with thousands of washers and shims, miscounting means omission of the smallest of parts halts a service or repair which means unhappy customers.

For a brand as prestigious as BMW I was surprised to learn that the only measure of quality the management were really interested in was reliability. Speed? Price? Sales? Volumes? Nah. High quality and reliable trumped all.

On our noticeboard was the league table of reliability. Who produced it and from what information I cannot now recall, but I still remember who occupied the important positions.

Bottom Three

3 Vauxhall

2 Ford

Dead last Ferrari

Top Three

1 Toyota

2 Honda

3 BMW

Fast forward sixteen years to last term. One of my students was telling me that his mum and dad were driving back from Maranello having collected their new Ferrari from the factory. Soon after I was talking to his mum and she recounted their journey through a torrential rainstorm in northern Italy without the use of the windscreen wipers as the electrical systems in their brand new car had malfunctioned.

When a promoted tweet popped up in my timeline today from Osiris Education advertising Primary Turnaround – A proven process to get to Outstanding in under 2 years. A step-by-step guide to move up an Ofsted grade I couldn’t shake a mental picture of that Ferrari – incredible to look at, great for the ego of the owner but in reality fragile, temperamental and prone to breaking down when the track is anything other than perfectly flat.

Minesweepers – with an apology to John Steinbeck

Day after day the minesweepers go out.

There’s is a low-profile, unglamorous job, but one that is crucial. The limelight, the plaudits, the medals go to the hawk-eyed Spitfire pilots, the square-jawed Commandos, the immaculate guardsmen.

The sailors and officers are all veterans of frigates and destroyers. Not content with traditional naval set-piece warfare, the role of hunter-killer, they have sought out a life of dedication to the vulnerable – troop ships, aircraft carriers, merchant vessels – all dangerously exposed to the unpredictability, power and energy of mines.

The ships work in teams; their job is impossible otherwise. Their roles are clearly defined, but are interchangeable in a heartbeat when things change which, at sea, is an hourly occurrence.

The crew surround themselves with highly technical equipment, measuring magnetic fields and communicating in a high-speed language of dots and dashes impenetrable to all but those in the know.

Despite the wealth of dials, meters and maps the sailors put their trust in the Mark One Eyeball, the feeling in the gut, the hair stood up on the back of the neck. They have learned to read the relief of the sea, the ever-changing undulation of the surface and can instantly tell the difference between an innocent piece of flotsam and a German Hertz horn. That works up to a point. It’s the subsurface mines that they spend most of their time thinking about. Hidden just feet below the surface, but invisible to that trusty Mark One Eyeball. The crew need to muster all of their collective expertise, intuition and courage to stay the plotted course, spot the tell-take blip on the magnetometer and let their lines neutralise the hidden threat. Get the spacing between ships wrong by a few feet and it’s not their lines that detonate the mine, it’s the ship.

Patience. Any sailor will tell you that’s the defining characteristic of a crewmate on a minesweeper. They are, of course, wrong. It’s courage. The submariners, the frigates, the corvettes all take the fight to the enemy. The minesweeper is the sacrificial lamb. A lamb who puts itself in harm’s way every day so that others remain safe. A job successfully done is not seen by the ships that sail through its cleared channels. A job half done has the Admirals moaning “We shouldn’t be expected to deal with this kind of thing.” There is the occasional appreciative Captain who knows that the absence of mines in his channel is a major boost to his chances of survival. Perhaps he’s appreciative because his brother commands a minesweeper or because he lost a cousin on a merchant vessel to a moored mine last year. Out of sight, but not out of mind for him.

Clear those channels they do, day after day. No matter how successful their mission, tomorrow will present fresh challenges. The Germans will drift back in the dead of night to resow their deadly seeds. At the end of each mission the crew allow themselves a moment’s collective satisfaction, but this almost immediately evaporates with the certain knowledge that tomorrow requires the same commitment, dedication and diligence. They take that oath once more to do the job that no-one else wants to do.

Walking With Intent

I’ve lived in Little Sandhurst for nine years. It’s a lovely, quiet little place nestled up against Wellington College, Broadmoor Hospital and the Royal Military Academy and surrounded by heathland and woodland that my children love. In that nine years I’ve crossed paths countless times with a young man who also lives in the village. He is very distinctive – ginger hair, glasses, iPod and earphones always in, jeans, hoody. He also has Down syndrome. I estimate that he’s about 25 years old.

Up until today every time I saw this young man, with one exception, he was doing the same thing – walking aimlessly, listening to his music, alone. The one exception was when he was walking with a young lady of a similar age. Every single time I’ve seen him I’ve wondered where he’s walking from, where he’s walking to and what he’s going to do when he gets there. I worry about him. I worry because he is the adult personification of the children at my school. I worry about him because I worry about them. A lot. I worry about what life holds for them once they leave my school and take on life as an adult.

I’ve never spoken to him, although I dearly want to to learn more about him if only his name. Two strangers passing in the street, both walking with intent doesn’t make for a relaxed conversation. I have, though, grabbed hold of him once. Walking home from Crowthorne one day we passed on the footpath on the main road. He politely stepped off the path to let me pass and stepped straight in to the oncoming traffic. I pulled him back on to the path and he proceeded to go about his business as if nothing had happened.

I worried about him that day.

But not today. Today I was jubilant.

I saw him as I was taking my son to his Saturday football match. Ginger hair – check. Glasses – check. iPod and earphones – check. Jeans and hoody – missing. In their place an unmistakable uniform. This young man was off to work. Smart shoes. Trousers. Shirt. Tie. His usual aimless cadence was replaced by a purposeful stride as he had a place to be by a certain time.

He gave me hope. Hope that the children in my school find employers that recognise their great strengths, that allow them to use the skills and knowledge that we spend years working on with them in lessons, in our college programme, in our vocational programme and in our work experience programme.

People with learning difficulties are far less likely to be working than the rest of us. Mencap says they are seven times less likely and if they do work it will most likely be part-time and poorly paid. All sorts of other social issues flow from this underemployment and unemployment.

These statistics give my exceptional colleagues a very sharp focus for their work. They do everything they can to give our students the best possible chance out there. That gradient didn’t get any shallower today, but my commitment to doing everything I can to improve the prospects for our children was given a boost.

He’s not walking aimlessly anymore. He’s walking with intent and I couldn’t be happier for him.