Blog Archive — Page 4

This is part of my blog, which I have long since stopped maintaining. The page has been preserved in case its content is of any interest. Please go back to the homepage to see the current contents of this site.

  • Exploiting Conde Nast Magazine Subscriptions (for fun and profit)

    I have a pile of unopened subscription copies of Wired UK piling up in the hallway, so this evening I decided to try cancelling my subscription. It looks like you can only do that by email or over the phone, but for other subscription changes, such as change of address, the Condé Nast parent company offer a very helpful website. Rather too helpful.

    The login page usefully notes that “you can find your customer number on the wrapper your magazine comes in.” And indeed it does — strip the letters off the beginning of that long number (as it helpfully doesn’t tell you to) and that’s the customer number.

    The signup form asks for the customer number “(if known)”, leading me to suspect that even that may not be necessary, and all you actually need to know to manage someone’s magazine subscription is their name and address.

    I tested this with my own details. Signing up sent me an email in which high-quality HTML character code skills are demonstrated.

    After fixing the URL and pasting it into a browser, then logging in with my new details, I was given full control of my subscription account. This allows me to see my subscriptions, and to change the address to which they are sent.

    So there you have it — non-intrusively viewing the outside of any Condé Nast magazine subscription packet (possibly UK-only) gives you the ability to view all the recipient’s subscriptions, and redirect them to the address of your choice!

  • Optimising for Download Size

    If, by some vanishing small probability, you are a regular visitor to this website, you may have noticed a few subtle changes over the past few weeks. In part due to trying to access it from a slow mobile connection, and also in part due to a series of tweets courtesy of @baconmeteor which got me wondering how much data is required to load a simple page on my own website.

    The answer, apparently, is just over quarter of a megabyte.

    Not a tremendous amount in this world of 8MB rants about how web pages are too big nowadays, but still unnecessarily large given that it contains only about two kilobytes of useful text and hyperlinks. After 65ms (10% of total load time) and 1.59kB (0.5% of total data size), the content and structure of the page is done — the remaining 90% of time and 99.5% of data are largely useless.

    Over the past few days I have made a few changes to improve the performance of the site.

    Changes Made

    • Web fonts have been removed. I was using three: one for body text, one for italic body text, and one for the menu. Together they comprised over 50% of the data that browsers were expected to download, and although I do like those fonts, it’s dubious for me to impose my font choices on others, let alone make them download 100kB for the priviledge. If you happen to have Open Sans and ETBembo on your system they’ll be used, otherwise the website will appear in something reasonably close.
    • Font Awesome JavaScript is gone. I used the excellent Font Awesome to generate the menu icons on the site, but it pulls in 63kB of JavaScript to support 500+ icons, when all I use it for is static rendering of 12 of them. All major browsers now support inline SVG, so I took the relevant icons from the Font Awesome SVG set and used them instead. Aside from the Juvia commenting system and MathJax, there is no longer any JavaScript on the website.
    • Reduced image size. Although my inner egotist is quite fond of people being able to put a face to the name on all my stuff, the 28kB JPEG could be compressed to 6kB with no discernable loss of quality.

    The result has been a significant reduction in download size and load speed — the same page is now served in less than half the time and with less than 10% of the data usage.

    One extra addition was to explicitly set cache expiry times in the HTTP headers for the website and associated files. Since the CSS and image files are unlikely to change, and in any case it wouldn’t matter much if a user used old ones, setting the cache timeout to a week and a month for various file types has helped speed up loading of subsequent pages after the first. I use the Apache server’s mod_expires module, which has some example config here.

    Changes Not Made

    A couple of changes I considered, but eventually avoided making, were minifying the HTML and CSS of the site.

    The Octopress 3 minify-html gem does what it says, but unfortunately increased the build time of the website by 150% — from around two minutes to over five. I already find the build time annoyingly slow on my mid-range laptop, so have decided to skip this one.

    Another benefit would have resulted from minifying the CSS used for the site. This proved to be significantly more complex, involving configuration of the very capable jekyll-asset-pipeline module. However, the configuration seemed difficult for what would have been at most a 1kB saving, so I avoided this as well.

    Useful Tools

    Two tools were particularly useful in optimising the site for download size:

    • Google PageSpeed Insights identifies speed issues, along with user experience issues and provides a simple display of how the site appears on mobile and desktop. In the case of the image & CSS optimisations it suggests, it automatically performs the optimisation and allows you to download the result.
    • The Pingdom Website Speed Test was also useful as it picks up some issues that the Google tool doesn’t, such as the lack of explicitly-set expiry times on certain files.

    I hope this post has offered some useful hints if you are seeking to “minify” your own website, and optimise it for the download size of each page.

  • Android Without Google

    For several years, I’ve been considering whether I could—and should—dispose of my Google account. Since I wrote the linked post back in 2011, my use of Google services has declined anyway, and I no longer use GMail, Google+ or Google Calendar. At the same time, it has become apparent that users are at the whim of Google’s decision to close unprofitable services (even beloved ones like Reader), and to force us into using others against our will. “Don’t Be Evil” is starting to look hilariously naïve.

    The last hold-out in my desire to dump Google is my Android phone. Without a Google account and the closed-source “Google Play Services” blob that sits at the core of an Android phone, the experience is diminished significantly. While I like my phone’s hardware, I am not fond of the Google integration that I no longer fully trust. So, for the last few months I have been experimenting with running Android without Google.

    Here’s what I’ve learned.

    I do Depend on Some Google Apps after all.

    Aside from what’s provided in my AOSP-based CyanogenMod base software (much of which was written by Google, but is at least open source), I have two Google apps left on my phone—Maps and YouTube.

    Google Maps

    Maps features live traffic updates, a key feature when driving long distances to see friends and family. Although other apps have voice guided navigation (I also have OsmAnd installed), I’ve been unable to find a free live traffic offering that matches Google’s.

    YouTube doesn't seem to have a decent open source client for Android, either due to legal problems or just that there's little desire for one. To cope with my son's regular desire to watch the music videos for obscure pop songs on my phone, I've had to keep this installed too.

    EDIT: Check out NewPipe for a YouTube replacement!

    That means Google Play Services stays.

    Neither Maps nor YouTube works without Google Play Services installed, and so far that’s meant I have had to keep it installed on my phone.

    However, my main trust issues with Google stem from their tracking and the amount of data they (want to) store about me. I can still prevent this another way—by removing the Google account from my phone. Play Services, Maps and YouTube continue working correctly, but my phone-based activities are no longer reported to Google in a way that connects them to me, and I can move one step closer to deleting my account.

    You can Just About Survive on Open Source Apps

    F-Droid

    My replacement for the Play Store is F-Droid, a repository for open source apps, and in the spirit of trying to copy my laptop’s (mostly) open source software, I have decided to use it almost exclusively.

    There are other app stores available, such as Amazon’s, but the “ditching Google” exercise is about trust, and I’m not sure I trust Amazon any more than Google when it comes to their ability to monitor my phone usage and try to sell me things. Aptoide is another possibility, but the user-hosted repositories are full of software the users don’t own, are pirated, or potentially full of malware; once again the trust is lacking.

    Productivity

    As far as standard productivity apps go, there has either been an open source equivalent that fulfilled all my needs, or I was already using an open source app anyway and could update it direct from F-Droid.

    • K9 Mail was my default mail client anyway. It has a few failings, but in my opinion is still the best mail client on Android.
    • Firefox was my default browser, and is open source as you would expect.
    • Silence replaced TextSecure. It’s a fork that is identical in every way bar the name.
    • WeeChat’s Android client is open source.
    • VX ConnectBot is open source.
    • DAVDroid replaced CalDAV-sync and CardDAV-sync. My self-signed SSL certificate had to be added to Android itself manually, but aside from that quirk this one app replaced two.
    • For security, Google Authenticator and OpenKeyChain are open source apps that I was already using, and KeePassDroid replaced Keepass2Android with only a few little irritations.
    • Ghost Commander replaced File Explorer and Turbo FTP Client together—I find its interface annoying to use, but it seems to be the only open source file manager with SFTP and certificate-based login support.

    Web Stuff

    Here again, I didn’t find much to change from my original apps, largely because I was using non-standard software anyway.

    • OnoSendai is written by a friend of mine, and is my normal Twitter client. It has its own F-Droid repository.
    • FaceSlim is a simple wrapper around the Facebook mobile website. Again, I have used this in preference to the permission-hungry “real” Facebook app for a long time.
    • I was already using ownCloud and ownCloud News Reader for file sync and RSS reading; both are open source.
    • Slide replaced Reddit Sync as my go-to Reddit client. There’s another service I ought to ditch one of these days.

    Everything else, I already used my browser for on Android.

    Games

    Games have been the biggest difference between my phone before ditching the Play Store and my phone now. The number of games for Android—even closed source ones—outside of the Play Store is very limited. F-Droid has a variety of simple puzzle and arcade games, while past Android Humble Bundles have provided some high-quality indie titles as downloadable APKs, but on the whole the choice is bleak.

    On the plus side, the exercise has given me a great excuse to dump a number of potentially evil mobile games that I seem to have picked up since my last purge.

    Castle Clash

    How many hours have I wasted on improving pixel people and harvesting ephemeral bits?

    The Gaps

    There are a bunch of applications that I still use because there is no proper open source replacement. oandbackup is not yet a decent replacement for Titanium Backup, and try as I might, I cannot get my VPN server working in “OpenVPN for Android” while it works fine in the closed source “OpenVPN Connect”.

    And there are the proprietary services that will likely never have open source clients that offer the full functionality—Spotify, Netflix, the apps for my mobile ISP and my bank. This is where the main problem lies: these apps that I can continue using but are no longer receiving security updates via the Play store.

    Conclusion

    The vast majority of apps on my phone either come preinstalled in AOSP or Cyanogenmod, or can be found in the F-Droid repository and successfully kept up to date there. It’s workable as an entirely open source platform (bar the separate issue of device drivers).

    But dragging a few “essential” closed-source apps into the situation is a lot more difficult than on a desktop operating system. On my laptop I can install Spotify direct from the company’s website, and even add a repository to my package manager to get automated updates. But on Android, the Play Store dominates and the majority of app writers do not allow publishing anywhere else.

    This is an unintentional lock-in that prevents users from having a choice of software sources.

    It’s an almost useless fight, but I feel that we ought to continue fighting against the new operating systems’ desire to contain our purchasing and constrain what we can and cannot do with our devices.

    The future’s good for me—I’m getting by without Google’s tracking features on my phone, which puts me in a good position for a potential switch to Ubuntu Touch, Sailfish or another phone OS that respects its users’ privacy. But not everyone would find it so easy to do without the proprietary blob at the middle of Android, and that’s worrying for the future of the general purpose computers we all could have in our pockets.

  • Last Flight of the Vulcan

    The morning dawned slowly, dark and damp. The roaring of the coffee machine echoed the roaring of the rain driving at the windows outside, and we assumed that would be that for the air festival this year. Looking at the forecast, it seemed like summer itself was over too. The next week will be overcast and wet, and then it will be September, and the long autumn season will draw in.

    But by lunchtime the weather had brightened; one last gasp of summer sunshine, just long enough to let the Vulcan fly her last Bournemouth show.

    XH558 is the last flying Vulcan, only one other can even taxi under its own power. Her wings hit the end of their flying life two years ago, and only £200,000 of donations and reverse-engineered parts ensured she could fly another two years. But now the wings are beyond saving, and her engines too. At fifty-five years old, The Spirit of Great Britain is long due her retirement.

    It was quieter on the beach today; many of the tourists had left early with the rain. But there were enough to give the Vulcan a proper send-off nonetheless.

    The sun has set now, the last of the tourists gone. The rain and the autumn are setting in; we are back to work and soon back to school. But for one last summer weekend, we had our air show, and it was a good one.

  • Summer in the City

    My body tingles all over, droplets of water slowly shrinking and evaporating into the thick night air. I’ve repeated this process half a dozen times in the last hour, hoping and praying that one of the attempts will cool me down enough that the sweet embrace of sleep will take me. It’s summer in the city, and air conditioning is a luxury we have not been blessed with.

    I think of our own little seaside town as having hot summers and cold winters, but that’s just what I’m acclimatised to—moderated by the sea and the long tendrils of the Gulf Stream, our home’s weather is in fact mild all year round. I never pictured Vienna, our home for the next week; snowy winter Vienna as a place that could easily hit 40°C in the summer. But here we are.

    I finish the night sleeping on the lacquered wooden floor in the hallway, where an open window keeps it a few degrees cooler than the oven of our bedroom. We may only have paid £50 a night for this place, but it seems a little unreasonable that I spend my night there instead of in a comfortable bed. But again, here we are, in this case with my back uncomfortably stuck to a lacquered floor at 2am.

    Tuesday

    The second day dawns, and my wake up call comes in through the open window by virtue of construction work. This is not even next door (as you may have seen on terrible daytime TV reality shows that you feel vaguely dirty after watching) but in fact in the hotel building itself, two stories below. The waking process is not pleasant. Breakfast is dubious, but contains caffeine.

    Our first full day in Vienna, we skip the hot-sounding zoo in favour of the likely air-conditioned aquarium (sadly not so), track down a highly-rated and air conditioned café for lunch (service levels lacking) and bake ourselves for three solid hours in order to take vaguely shameful selfies in front of the graves of Vienna’s greats. Boltzmann’s really does have S = k log w on it, as our A-level textbooks assured us.

    That evening we have the benefit of a second fan to push hot air about the room, bringing a few brief seconds of forced convection to our weary sleep-chasing bodies. After-sun is slowly abating our heat rashes, and we settle in for another night.

    Wednesday

    Our extra fan reduces our night’s sleep from “impossible” to merely “awful”. I must have woken up half a dozen times, but each time I managed to get back to sleep without trouble. A cold shower, a cup of coffee, and I feel human again.

    Despite the ever increasing heat, we attempt the zoo, including (presumably because we hate ourselves) the desert and rainforest exhibits. The rainforest is nice and cool compared to outside—for about two minutes, until the humidity hits and leaves you dripping with sweat.

    Lunch is the traditional zoo fare of fried junk and sugary drinks, served somewhere in the middle of a thick cloud of wasps. We emerge relatively unscathed, but shocked by the discovery that Austrians consider Bearnaise sauce to be a thing that you should put actually inside sausages.

    Having seen our first real-life pandas and polar bears, we escape with only one new cuddly toy and an expensive trip through the nearby air-conditioned Lindt store. It was worth the money just to stand in there for fifteen minutes.

    Having filled up on Schnitzel for previous dinners and found ourselves too full for pudding, we decide on a different plan for dinner tonight. Our main course is Sachertorte; our dessert is apple strudel. All goes well until Eric and Joseph decide they need savoury food instead, leaving me to mop up the rest of their uneaten puddings. Today has not been an exemplary “being an adult” day.

    Thursday

    Somehow I miss the six o’clock start of the masonry drilling, only to be thrust into consciousness at seven by a fire engine blaring its horn down the street outside. The night was better for the adults but worse for Joseph, and I can tell the short hot nights are starting to take their toll on him.

    We attempt to cool off with a day on the Danube, though without swimming costumes we’re restricted to paddling and boat hire. Two colossal nosebleeds from the small one send us scurrying for shade and calm, inevitably followed by beer and schnitzel. Has the concept of “vegetables” reached Austria yet? I’m not convinced, and I mentally note that my first meal back in Britain should be a giant salad with a chaser of vitamin pills.

    We round the evening off with an obscenely expensive carriage ride around Vienna. (It’s a carriage ride around Vienna, they can charge what they damn well like.) We get to see a few bits that we wouldn’t have found on foot, muse on whether we should have gotten married here, and depart for more fried junk and the darkest weißbier known to man.

    Friday

    Our final day is a day of calm; of lounging around the hotel room until checkout time; slowly winding our way towards the airport and the plane that would take us home. Joseph is exhausted, and any actual activities would be a write-off.

    Britain awaits, with its cold rain and slow traffic, our tiny and messy flat, and a pub dinner somewhere in between the steel-grey sky and the soaking earth.

    We are home, and comfortable, and back to our normal lives once more. Somehow, it feels like Vienna means nothing to me already.

  • Migrating to Octopress 3

    Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen me dither about whether to re-style my website after the very appealing (to me) Tufte CSS. The sidenotes with their wide bar didn’t work particularly well with my blog format, but I’ve taken on some of the major style elements, and unless you’re reading this via RSS, you can see the results in front of you right now.

    In doing so, I decided to update the old Octopress code on which many of my websites are based. This is a long, complicated process of “merge hell” where I try to keep my own customisations to core files, theme mods, new themes, and odd plugins, while making sure nothing conflicts with the changes that have taken place within Octopress itself. With eight different Octopress sites, each with their own oddities, this was a daunting task.

    While looking for the latest minor version of Octopress 2, I discovered that Octopress 3 was released months ago… and it changes everything.

    All the problems I’ve had with Octopress over the years—updating and merging using git, managing multiple sites as branches, pulling in themes as submodules—I’d always put down to me just “not getting it”. Lots of people use this, so my problems are due to my inadequacies as a programmer, surely?

    But no, all along the developer has had the exact same problems with it. Octopress 3 reworks the whole thing, to do less rather than more, and it makes so much more sense. It’s now a gem that helps you set up a Jekyll site in a certain way, with some extra tools to help manage posts and deploy the site. Your source is no longer mashed together with Octopress’ source in the same repository, and it’s sufficiently out of the way that Jekyll’s “collections” now work properly.

    I’ve had to faff with a few links here and there to manage the eight different sites as collections under the same site (so apologies if you find any dead links), but the whole thing should be a lot more manageable!

  • Blackberries on Lammas

    Today is the first of August, the traditional date of the Gaelic festival of Lughnasadh, in honour of the god Lugh. Although worshipping gods isn’t something I particularly go in for, if a particularly threatening Theist were to hold a gun to my head and demand I pick one, I think it would be Lugh. There’s something about spear-wielding sun gods that, if you’ve known me for a while, you won’t be surprised to know appeals to me.

    It’s also the date of the frequently conflated Saxon and medieval British festival of Lammas, the beginning of the harvest season. And while I have no land of my own to harvest — not yet even a garden to pick from — there’s a patch of waste ground near our flat that provides a harvest of its own.

    Blackberries

    We live in a big town where people grow up believing that food comes from supermarkets, and although that’s a sad state of affairs, it does mean that the blackberries (and later the sloes) are ours for the taking.

    This year the ground is carpeted with oregano too, and crawling with butterflies and bees and Barnet’s moths at this time of year.

    Oregano plant

    It’s no secret that I’m bad at summer cooking. Although summer is my favourite season, it always seems to be autumn in my kitchen. Tonight’s dinner is slow-roasted brisket of beef, followed by apple and blackberry crumble. It’s a little out of place around a table in August, but none of our guests complained.

    Apple and Blackberry Crumble

    From now until Hallowe’en we will continue to harvest what we can from the hedges and the waste ground in our part of town. But for now, our first little harvest is in and eaten, and it’s time to enjoy the long high summer month ahead.

  • A Middle-Class Malaise

    It occurs to me, as I sit and mope about the fact that I still don’t own a little slate-roofed cottage by the sea, that I’m suffering from what must be the most terribly middle-class malaise.

    By some round-about route involving heavily rose-tinted spectacles, I’ve come of age with the idea that the baseline against which the quality of one’s childhood should be compared is, essentially, the adventures of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.

    My son’s childhood should be like theirs (of course!) otherwise I’m somehow lacking as a parent. The locations in the stories are based on real places that are just down the road, places we can really go and have adventures, and real cottages in the middle of the countryside that it must be possible to live in. So I quietly despair that we can only afford a town-centre flat, and that my son prefers playing Minecraft to going outside.

    What’s more, my poor brain is also convinced that my son’s childhood should be straight out of a Famous Five novel because mine was.

    Which would be fine, except for the fact that my childhood was almost nothing like a Famous Five novel — I grew up in the suburbs, had few adventures with my friends that went any further than the local park, and never once found buried treasure in it. What I did spend a lot of my childhood doing was reading books, and (then as now) being particularly bad at separating myself from the characters I wanted to be.

    With the benefit of hindsight that comes from reading the books to my own son, a few things are also apparent:

    • Even I was born sixty years too late to have a childhood in a world like theirs;
    • Although when I read the books I give George and Aunt Fanny a local, “lower-class” accent (aka “Westcountry farmer” to the rest of the country), the family owns a goddamn island which the parents are holding in trust for George because they can’t be bothered to do anything with it;
    • They are also entirely fictional, and I should really know by now not to be jealous of fiction.

    Now if only I could convince my brain of that.

  • Vivarium Automation: Requirements and Component Spec

    It’s a little over a month until we are getting our first pet - a crested gecko. Joseph has decided that if it’s female it will be called “Scarlet”, and Eric has decided that if it’s male it will be called “Rimbaud” after the surrealist poet, partially because it is also a homonym of “Rambo”. I almost hope we get a female as it will be easier to explain.

    In the mean time, we are getting our vivarium set up ready for our pet. We have just about everything we need, but managing the environment is a manual process — turning the lights on in the morning and off in the evening; maintaining heat and humidity.

    Vivarium

    Vivarium shown here with simulated occupant.

    This is crying out to be an electronics project, so I’m going to make it one! In this post I’ve laid out my initial requirements and listed some suggested components. I’ll probably do one or two more covering the actual hardware build and software when the components arrive.

    Requirements

    My requirements for the automated vivarium system are that it must:

    1. Automatically turn the 12V DC LED light panel on and off at a defined schedule
    2. Monitor temperature and humidity inside the vivarium
    3. Automatically control the 240V AC 10W heat mat to keep the temperature within defined bounds
    4. Send email alerts if temperature and humidity exceed the defined bounds
    5. Take regular photos of the inside of the vivarium
    6. Regularly post photo, temperature, humidity and status information to another computer for display on a website
    7. Fit in a 450x80mm space next to the vivarium (except components that must go inside)
    8. Be powered from a household 240V AC supply
    9. Not expose 240V AC to the probing fingers of children.

    Initial Design

    The requirements to operate the lights at specific times of day (requiring a proper clock), to send emails, to use a camera and to send files to a computer all push the design towards one including a “proper” small form factor computer rather than a basic microcontroller. Due to my familiarity with the hardware I have chosen a Raspberry Pi for this system. The Model A should be sufficient for the system’s limited requirements.

    The Raspberry Pi’s official camera modules are easy to use and have good performance due to dedicated processing on the Pi’s GPU. I have chosen the “NoIR” camera, which lacks the IR filter of the standard camera, to improve visibility of the gecko at night. No IR illuminator is proposed as this may interfere with the lizard’s sense of time or temperature regulation.

    The proposed AM2315 thermometer and hygrometer module is comparatively expensive, but comes inside a tough enclosure with a wall mount and uses the standard I2C protocol, compared to the proprietary bit-banging protocols of the cheap sensors.

    Relays will be used to switch the lights and heat mat power on and off. A breadboard will be mounted to a Raspberry Pi case to keep the hardware neat while allowing for easy extension in future.

    Component List

    Here’s my list of the components, along with links to buy them. All but one are available on Amazon in the UK; the thermometer/hygrometer seems to be an Adafruit special and will have to be imported from the US.

    Component Choice Price / GBP    Link
    Computer Raspberry Pi Model A+ 18.00 Amazon UK
    Wifi Dongle Ralink RT5370 4.71 Amazon UK
    GPIO Breakout Pi Cobbler 10.00 Amazon UK
    SD Card Kingston 8GB 4.00 Amazon UK
    Breadboard BB400 1.15 Amazon UK
    Jumpers Generic 1.07 Amazon UK
    Power Supply Generic 6.00 Amazon UK
    Case Model A Case 4.49 Amazon UK
    Temp/Humid Sensorr AM2315 19.97 Adafruit
    Camera Raspberry Pi NoIR 19.13 Amazon UK
    Suction cups Generic 3.57 Amazon UK
    Relay Board Facilla 2-channel 1.13 Amazon UK
    Enclosure for mains relay    Generic black ABS 150x80x50    5.90 Amazon UK
    Enclosure glands Generic M12x1.5 1.59 Amazon UK
      Total: 100.71  

    Stay tuned for build photos, schematics and source code once all the components arrive!

    Update: It turns out the heat mat was bought with its own dedicated thermostat. With this in mind I’ve decided to ditch the timed control of the lights and use a standard mains plug timer instead. This will be easier for people to override if necessary, rather than depending on whatever software interface I provide.

    Since the system is therefore not controlling anything I can ditch the relay board and the requirement to use a proper glanded enclosure to protect the 240V AC switching relay. It will still take photos, monitor temperature and humidity, display them on the web, and email on important events.

  • The Case Against Academies

    Our son’s school is consulting parents on its proposed transformation into an “Academy”. Since ranting about online this earlier today, I’ve been asked what my reasons are for opposing the change from a Local Authority funded school to an Academy.

    Here are my reasons, which I am also using as part of my response to the consultation. I have removed some of the hyperlinks in this version as they would identify my son’s school.

    1. I am worried in general about the extent to which public services have been sold off over the past few decades, and have no desire to accelerate the problem further by condoning the selling off of education services as well. I believe it is the national and local government’s duty to provide high-quality education for all and to ensure every child has an equal opportunity to learn and develop. Whilst complete equality is still a way off, privatising education is a step away from it, not towards it.
    2. The move is transparently motivated by money. The FAQ provided by the school says plainly that the academy plan came about because the council can no longer afford to pay for schools in this area. This is a terrible state of affairs, but one that I believe should be solved by taxation and efficiency savings at the local authority rather than selling off vital services.
    3. I am alarmed at the rate at which the conversion to an Academy appears to be proceeding. Under the question of “When will the school become an academy” (emphasis mine), the FAQ states “We would expect that the process will take 4-6 months, work is underway and the planned conversion date is 1 November 2015.” This implies that work on converting the school to an Academy may have been underway for over a month before parents were consulted. I do appreciate that it is up to the school board and not the parents to decide. However, the Academy plan has been presented very suddenly in a way that makes the change appear almost inevitable. There is no guarantee that even 100% of teachers and parents voting against the plan would be enough to stop it.
    4. Becoming an Academy involves staff taking on greater responsibility for the school’s management and financial matters. This may involve existing staff, who would then have other agendas than the education of the children in their care, or it may involve hiring consultants / extra staff to manage these issues, which removes money that would be better spent employing teachers and improving facilities.
    5. Academies have some freedom from Local Education Authority guidelines when it comes to hiring teachers, leading to the possibility that Academies could hire less qualified teachers in order to save money. Another possibility is that Academies in higher-income areas could “poach” teachers from schools in lower-income areas by offering higher salaries, and in doing so decrease the level of equality in the education system. The NASUWT and NUT oppose the national Academies scheme, saying that it will “segregate and fragment communities”. [NASUWT Statement]
    6. Academies also have freedom to set their own “broad and balanced” curriculum that may diverge from the National Curriculum. As an atheist whose son attends a Church of England school, I worry that this may include a greater focus on religious studies at the expense of other subjects. Although the former Secretary of State for Education dismissed the idea that schools would be able to teach Creationism in science classes, less extreme changes in this direction could still be possible. [Politics.co.uk]
    7. Schools controlled by the Local Authority are democratically accountable to the local community. The Academy plan would see the school accountable to the board of a charitable trust, which while it is highly likely to operate in the school’s best interests, is not accountable to the community in which the school resides.
    8. Academies receive 4-10% extra funding over schools under local authority control, as they are funded direct from central government. However, this extra money would otherwise have been spent by the local authority to provide services for all local schools, such as help for children with special needs. An increasing number of local Academies means decreasing local funding for special needs children, which is extremely important. [BBC]
    9. No financial information has been provided alongside the proposed plans. It is therefore not clear if this extra 4-10% funding is sufficient to turn what the council say is an unaffordable school into an affordable one, particularly with the addition of an “umbrella” trust which must also be paid for. It is therefore unclear whether our son’s school would see an increase or a decrease in its net funding, and if this is a decrease, where costs would be saved.
    10. Academies have a poor reputation in the local area, as many local Academies were failing Comprehensive schools that were taken over (not always successfully) in order to improve their standards of education. I am concerned that the Academy “branding” will damage the reputation of our son’s school, which previously has been regarded as one of the best schools in the area.