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Summer delight

A double helping of Expresso flavoured ice cream from the Portsoy ice cream shop. When that was brought to me, it represented a small, but very welcome, few centimetres of a move towards a post-pandemic world.

Apparently, the shop had quite a queue, with proper 2-metre distancing maintained, waiting outside. One customer, or family group, was allowed inside at a time. So altogether sounds like a safe way to operate the business.

There is an ice cream trail along the Moray coast which, in previous times, was an important part of the local tourism infrastructure. The availability of locally made ice cream was the key to its success. With each shop having its own individual approach to flavours, colours and presentation.

The Portsoy Ice Cream shop also had strawberries from Barra Berries at Old Meldrum. I am enthusiastically munching my way through a punnet.

All that is the essence of a local shop.

Today's ice cream feeds into my mild optimism about the future of locally-based retail trade. Too many of the long-established chains have passed into ownership exercised through shell-companies resident in tax havens. Or, at best, the properties they trade from have.

The local businesses employ local staff and pay their taxes here. Their value to our economy is much more substantial.

Signs are that the individualism which comes these businesses' offerings is chiming with people in towns and villages. True in the North-East at least. Why not elsewhere too?

Media reports suggest that owners of retail space, shopping malls or big stores, expect no more than 10% of the usual rental payments to be made at the end of the current quarter.

Elsewhere in my life, things progress as before but with incremental change.

My shoes having covered over 400 miles on my local walking, and a good many more before that, are reaching the end of their useful life. New ones arrived within 48 hours of my ordering replacements. I am breaking them in, they don't need much, and they will help me to the next 400.

In reality, my drift towards the rowing machine continues. It takes less time out of my increasingly busy days. And it exercises the upper body to a greater extent.

This coming week, the last before recess, has my attending two Parliamentary Committee meetings but with the added delight of an ad hoc meeting with our Presiding Officer. That will be looking at our, now much changed, procedures and processes from the point of view of some of the "old lags". My being in my twentieth year of service and my eighth decade of life seems to qualify me for the description.

Thinking back to my presence in Parliament this week, it's clear that virtual attendance cannot wholly supplant actually being there.

I have written previously about virtual attendees being unable to vote in Chamber. I look forward to some progress on that one. More significant is simply how debate works.

In Committee we are sitting at home with our laptop, desktop or tablet providing the camera and microphone which transmits our electronic form to Holyrood. Also on the screen is a "chatbox". That enables us to communicate, via messages seen by all participants but not by viewers, with each other.

In particular, if we wish to come in and respond to something said by a Committee colleague, we type "R" into the box for the Convenor's attention. If time permits, they will allow us to speak.

In the physical Debating Chamber, we would normally rise to our feet, speak loudly as our microphone is off, and say "Will the member take an intervention?". The Member speaking would then either ignore the attempted intervention or indicate to the Presiding Officer that they would give way to allow the other MSP to speak briefly.

There is not yet a way of working that in the electronic world. And we need a way to if we are to adequately mirror the quality of debate we have previously experienced. I guess that may be part of our discussions with the PO this week.

Friday saw Aberdeenshire Council hosting one of their periodic meetings with Parliamentarians. Since our previous one, there has been signalled a change in the leadership of the Council with Conservative Councillor Jim Gifford demitting office in the near future.

During all my interactions with Jim, I have experienced nothing but courtesy and fairness in the discharge of his role. So I took the opportunity to put that on the record. I acknowledged that Jim and I would be likely to continue to have some pretty fundamental differences of view on some big political issues. But that we had a proper relationship within which to test each other's opinions from time to time.

A big topic was the briefing on how the Council will handle the return to school for our pupils. As the mainland council area with the highest proportion of its population living in a rural area, Highland is more remote but a wee bit less rural, there are both challenges and opportunities.

We heard that are some rural primary schools have enough space to accommodate most of their pupils at one time while maintaining two-metre social distancing. Each school is different with some operating, even before the pandemic, with little or no spare space.

The seventeen secondary schools present a more substantial challenge as some are overcrowded, and few are much short of full.

But the Director of Education and all the staff in the department seem well prepared for everyone going back to their school desks in the second full week in August. Even if, of necessity, it won't be five days a week there for most - yet.

For University students, much more of their studying will be online. That works better with maturity. Most seven-year-old's attention span will not survive long being left to learn unsupervised at a computer. A nineteen-year-old should be, but not all will be, much more self-directed and focussed. I suspect my learning history from fifty-five years ago puts me firmly in the "not all will be" category.

So one thing we need is a method of not simply measuring the outputs from, submission of course-work and so on, but also of seeing that their meaningful engagement with the learning process that precedes that. Teachers and tutors need to be able to spot that, now at a distance, and intervene before too much time is lost.

I haven't seen much discussion of this aspect of online learning.

Four years ago, I completed a Postgraduate Certificate for which I studied entirely online, about eighteen to twenty hours a week (late nights and early mornings!), with Strathclyde University. That worked well for me in my late 60s. Based on that, I am reasonably optimistic that higher education students will learn well even when studying away from the institution in which they are enrolled.

I shall watch with interest how it works out with younger students.

For now, it's back to my own learning where I look to add to my knowledge in advance of this week's meetings.

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