Thursday, 28 April 2011

Ask your MP for a lift.

When you live rurally, it can feel as if you are forgotten by the London-ite government. So it's nice to see that our local Fenland MP, Steve Barclay, is here to fight our corner. As a (currently Stay-At-home-Mum: gotta have those capitals, it IS a job, you know) secondary teacher, I am extremely concerned that the students of Fenland have some of the lowest attainment, and aspirations in the UK. Few of them go to college or university. Many of them leave with few qualifications. The last review, in Dec 2010 concluded that things were still in vast need of improvement. Here's the Fenland Citizens take on it. So I was overjoyed to read on Mr Barclays' blog that, as a first in the family to university, and now a successful legal chap and Conservative MP, he is very keen to encourage more Fenland teens into tertiary education. Here is is on the subject, doesn't he sound real? And as if he cares, like, a lot? (click on campaigns)
It's interesting that he talks about apprenticeships as being the way forward. Interesting because this is the party line, and there are, of course, many more things that impact on students here much more keenly than the lack of apprenticeships, that he hasn't mentioned.

  • Like the increase in tuition fees, that will affect Fenland students (all students in fact), particularly harshly, Fenland being one of the areas in the UK with low income, and high unemployment. Families are highly unlikely to encourage students into tertiary education if the debt they will come out with amounts to three times as much as they earn in a year. But Mr Barclay, with his huge personal earnings and lack of comprehension about the local area has presumably missed this fact. Maybe he thinks the loans are a good idea. I would think so. The Conservative party stands to do rather well out of the changes in HE.

  • The reduction of the Building Schools for the Future fund from Cromwell school, Chatteris, leaving it overcrowded, oversubscribed, and with 1,500 students stuck in a building built in the 1920's. And of course, the complete removal of it from many other schools across the country.

  • The changing of the curriculum to enforce the 5 core subjects, something which is manifestly suited to the independent sector and selective schools. Hence,local schools will slide down the tables. Students here are suited best by a curriculum which offers GNVQ, NVQ, as well as GCSE and the usual AS/A2 routes. The schools here know it, yet they will soon be forced into the Bacc, against independents and selectives that have been priming for it for years. This would be ok, if there were sufficient college places, technical colleges and sixth forms in the area. But there are not. And places in those remaining, and funding for them, are being squeezed. Plans to extend the College of West Anglia further into Fenland, are, as ever, hot air. Currently students in my home town have to travel to Wisbech or Cambridge. Fine, if you have a car or kind parents. Bugger off if not, because, well, the buses. See after.

  • The establishment of Free schools, funded from the central education budget, thus taking away funds from comprehensives. Funding that was supposedly ringfenced, pre election. Free schools, under the banner of freedom, will essentially be selective, with personal guidelines on selection that are nothing like comprehensives. I think we all know what will happen here. Middle class parents, faced with the comps and Goves' little meany face squealing about them (just DON'T LOOK AT HIM! No, really, don't, it'll make you boak) and too knackered by the economy to pay private fees, will plump for Free schools for their Kates and Williams and thus create yet another tier in the education system. SEN students, students with projected lower attainment, and those from the wrong sort of background, won't get into them. This is already the case in many academies (wait for an explosion of them, too), and faith schools. I know whereof I speak: I have taught in both, in London, and lo! even though surrounding the schools there were estates (and not of the leafy kind) and deprivation, inside the faith schools there were no SEN, no poor, just a lot of kids of parents who had suddenly found God and faith at the last minute. And what happens to the local schools? The good kids with pushy parents leave, the SEN and leftovers get bunched together, funding dwindles along with numbers, and results, and there we have it. Why don't they just call us all Morlocks and be done with it.

  • The loss of the EMA for all but the poorest of the poor, and then with conditions. The EMA may not seem very vital to those who have not needed it, and indeed, some who have had it, but round here, with low earnings commonplace, the EMA was a real lifeline in allowing students to stay on. It provided money for buses to college, for equipment. For the Tories to say that it wasn't necessary is a lie: not just disingenous, a LIE. I have taught many many students for whom the EMA was vital, allowing them to stay on and study in the face of parents who were not supportive, allowing them to bus to college, allowing them to pay for project equipment. Paper, pens, books, all of these are very expensive when you are 17 and you can't nick them from Westminster.( And hey, books? It should be that the schools and towns and villages should have libraries, but guess what...... no stautory provision for school libraries (despite Clegg having it as an aim, prior to Camerons' back pasage becoming his home), less libraries all round, in fact. Please check yours is still there).It is very clear, that in taking the EMA away, they are shoring up the tiered education system they so, so want to return to. Brideshead, floaty boatered men only need apply. Aren't the rest of you down a pit or something? We what? Well, a factory then. In other words, oiks need not apply. If you haven't got the money to 4X4 it to college, naff off. (And you won't be able to get a bus there. There are none left: see my next blog)

  • A cut, in real terms to education funding. A cut that would be entirely unecessary if they were to, say, make Vodaphone pay some tax. Or even make Osbourne pay his moral fair share. But, no. So, teachers, tell you what, you work for longer, for less money, and less pension. And some of you, we'll lay off. Quite a few of you, actually. And don't even ask about Teaching Assistants. Even the Lollipop lady has had it.

  • Special schools? Really, we need them? You wouldn't know it from the rate they are vanishing. SEN statements? Hmm, be ready to see them go.Now it will be up to YOU, as a parent to sort it, provided of course, the council agrees, now it's all been handily devolved. And good luck to you in Fenland, where unless you are elderly and a farmer, they basically look blankly into the middle distance behind you and pretend they are deaf. Transport to Special school? Gone. Pupil Referral Units? *puff* vanished. Read here. Parent liason posts: whoosh. In short, if you have a "problem" child, don't live here.

  • Transport, in fact, to ANY school out of catchment, gone. This may seem reasonable until you live rurally, and catchments are nonsense. If you cannot get into your catchment school in my town (Chatteris), you must go to Ramsey, or Neale Wade. The school in Chatteris is small. It cannot take all the applicants from Chatteris. Some must therefore go to school outside of catchment. But now, the Council does not have to pay for it, under the brave new world of ConDem. Especially if you have a lovely, all tory Council like ours (who votes these people in? Seriously? I haven't met ANYONE who voted for them). So now we have a situation in town where all students at Ramsey school, have been denied transport to school. Notice given: 4 weeks. Parents? Angry, upset. Students? Angry, upset. Schools? Angry, upset. Council? Couldn't give one. A bunch of parents got together to lobby the Council and pointed out, quite reasonably, that 4 weeks notice of a change of this magnitude was NOT compatible with, say, REAL LIFE where parents need to work the hours of school pick up and drop off, or might not be able to find a job, buy a car and so on in 4 weeks. It says a great deal about the Council and this government that all it takes, to alter 10 years worth of school bus service is, well, 4 weeks notice and a government that won't tell them off. Will applaud them, in fact. As I write, the parents have lobbied and made a nuisance of themselves to such an extent (and good on them) that they have secured a temporary reprieve until the end of the academic year. After September, expect parents who dare to have children who couldn't fit into the local school to be up the creek without a paddle. Wait a minute....I know someone with a car.......

So, I am a little sceptical of Mr Barclay. But you may not think this all amounts to anything. I managed in my day, you might huff. I don't see why they shouldn't pay for the bus themselves. I didn't need paying to go to school. Huff puff. Course not. But think about it. I, Like Steve, was the first in my family to go to uni, even, in fact, to finish school. My parents had no cash. In fact, they were very badly off, under the last Tory government, inches away from repossession, my father having the misfortune to work in an industry that Thatcher decided she would like to smash into tiny bits. I went to uni because I got a grant. If i'd have had to pay anything like the amount students now will have to, I would not have gone. People who are well off to start off with do not grasp the fear that a debt that high can strike. If I had come from a nice family with decent amounts of money, I'd maybe think that much debt was ok. But if I came from a nice family where that proposed debt per year was the annual earning of my father, I might think twice. That's what it's like in Fenland. I don't think Mr Barclays' dad worked in an onion packing plant.

Likewise, if I owned a socking great 4x4 and lved in a big pile outside of town, in a nice bit, I might not see that people do, actually, need buses. Contrary to Steves' belief, aired in the local rag, that buses here are empty, I have never been on one that is. Possibly he just doesn't notice people whose incomes are under 40K pa. Because I regularly see students, the elderly, and yes, workers, on the bus. The bus whose service has been halved. The buses that can take students from one town to the other now don't exist at all. This is fine, maybe. Maybe you have a car. But maybe you don't. Maybe your mum can give you a lift to college and back. Or maybe she is at work. So maybe, now, you are a bit stuffed, having to take 2 buses to college, and back, the whole journey taking over an hour each way and costing you a small fortune, which you now don't even have the EMA for. If you miss the bus, that's it for 3 hours. And,( here's the funny bit) if your last lecture is after 4, you can't get back home again! The bus has stopped running! Hilarious! So much fun in the Winter, walking over 30 miles. (The ghost of Tebbit wails weakly: on your bike! In Fenland winds? ) If you want an even bigger laugh, just take a look at the whole run of bus timetables for the area (read my next blog: as I take a bus to March and fail to get home again, ever). Maybe, here's an idea, you should email Steve and ask him for a lift. If you see him, stick your thumb out.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Knick Knack Paddywhack

Me: "What was all that paddying about then?"

Daughter:" It wasn't really about the biscuit, I just needed to say that" (for an hour, apparently, in increasingly higher pitches)

Me: "What was it really about, then?"

Daughter: "It could be anything, really".

I am envious of the sheer joy of the tantrum. How I long to do what she does: just pick a subject, any subject. The slightest slight, the merest askew look, and just roll, roll with it, until the yells and screams and whines have attained their own music and you've forgotten what it actually was all about. How much nicer you must feel when you've stopped. I can see her, enjoying the stopping of it. It is like she is trying on emotions, for size, for later, for adulthood. And of course, that is in a sense exactly what they are doing. How can a child who is happy and looked after truly know "sad"? My refusing to read the damn stupid Charlie and Lola book is not a reason to be sad. Losing a limb or having me burn the book, possibly. But there they are, trying on emotions, seeing how they fit. I once caught daughter in front of the mirror, doing a "sad face" and trying to cry, for no reason whatsoever. Then, suddenly, you're all meant to stop this nonsense, and stop being emotional and behave. This is school. Then you are a teenager, and for a brief flowering, it's suddenly allowed again, everyone expects you to be an emotional see-saw, so you are. Weeping because, in my case, that one out of the Psychadelic Furs was married, or because you were never ever going to get a Lippizaner stallion. Days spent, later, holed up in my room (which I was not allowed, NOT FAIR to paint black), wallowing in misery, listening to the Smiths and inflicting it on everyone else too. Losing my temper when my dad said I looked like Max Wall in my Goth get-up. Crying because some greasy fringed boy with the only motorbike (and thus, only way out) of the village didn't like me. But really, it could have been anything.

Same sort of time in your life, I suppose. Aged 2 to 4, you are trying out being without your mum, trying boundaries. Will she run after me if I sprint off? If she says "Right, that's it, i'm GOING?", how far will she really go? Round the corner? (If you are me, round the corner and then HIDE. Freaks 'em out. They certainly stop yelling). Screaming for attention. Now. And then, teens, not much different. Suddenly awkward again, only with the opposite sex also pointing out you're awkward, and preparing to leave your mum a bit more. You don't get to do it as an adult (with the notable exception of the year I was on a weird contraceptive pill that sent me into hormone overdrive, that was interesting. And the year my thyroid went hyperactive. That was tantrummy AND hallucinatory. People with back to front knees and faces. Which annoyed me.)Hopefully, by the time my two are teens my standard response of ignore, ignore, ignore, then say "What was that all about then?" whilst barely looking up from my sewing/paper/pint will work then, too. I will also know that the biscuit/boy/popstar/teacher isn't the real reason, either. Sometimes,we all just need to yell.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

He's been out from 7am till 6pm. How will he stay in a classroom?

Son is due to start school in September (this is provided we get the school we need, but that's another blog). He's a bright boy. He's sharp, funny, and keen to read, pretty much can already. But, but but.
But: he spends all day, every day, outside. He needs 2 walks a day like a dog. He needs outside air and exercise, like, constantly. If he doesn't get it, he's like a sad gorilla I saw in London Zoo, pawing at the patio door and pacing. He needs outside. I need him to be outside. He runs, he jumps, he climbs, he's happy. He spent all day today in the garden, or out in the park. Even ate his lunch and tea outside. Inside is for bed. The bedtime story is a motorbike manual (Honda Fireblade, since you ask. It's quite a dull read for me).
But: he learns through doing. He's a boy. He wants to know how something works, he takes it apart, puts it together. Takes it apart, puts it together. Learns that insects don't take apart. Learns to observe. He learns, in short, by trying something himself, NOT by listening. If he learnt by listening, I wouldn't have to say everything 4 times.
But:he frets about noise and space. He, like many, many boys, like quiet, space, and time. He will take himself off to his room, for peace. He will avoid noisy, crowded environments. He likes familiarity. On returning from holiday, or even playgroup, he checks everything is as he left it. All rooms. His dad does it too. I don't know how he will get up the nerve to push himself forward at school when he can't even go on the trampoline if someone else is on it.
But: he tires. He is ready for bed at 7. So ready. Sometimes earlier.
But: he likes girls, and girls things, and dancing, and drawing, and imaginative games.
So? But school doesn't cater for boys like this. School, is all day, more or less INDOORS. Sitting, stuck. School is the death of playing with girls for boys. School is small voices lost in too big a class size. (I taught 35 per class, 40 one year. This primary is 25.) Son doesn't like playgroup when it's full (20 kids) because of the noise and sheer kidfullness. School is peer pressure. School is a long, long day for a 4.5 year old, and homework besides. School is learning by listening. School is not designed for active boys.
How do I know? I saw hoardes of boys at age 11 who were already faliures, already bored, already not engaged. Already examined and written off. As a secondary teacher it was obvious to me that boys learn differently. Most do not excel in the usual classroom setting of sitting, listening. As a result, I would pitch my lessons every two or three weeks to include oral and physical learners. Hard, with history, you might think. No, not really. Want to get how Norman England was controlled over to boys? Make the class desks into Britain, add towns and props. Now variously sack and burn some of them (I really did do this: we burnt little models of the principal towns William sacked. And little model sheep, too). Re-enact Hastings in the playground (again, I would advise ensuring that you hand control of the English army to a boy who will actually DO AS HE IS TOLD, rather than try to win). Build a mott and bailey. Get out and look for medieval ditches. Get them to present a show on UK vs Germany in THE AIR WAR. Cook some ration recipes. It's not hard, but it does take effort. We do not school young children well in the UK. Exams? That young? Why, they must be useful, right? Wrong. Useful for league tables, not for schools. I would automatically disregard SATS results at age 11. Within a year of secondary they were null and void, of no earthly use. So why do it? OFSTED. Stick 'em in a classroom all day, why not. Why not? Why not do as Finland and Sweden do, make the school day shorter, more intense, and outside a lot more. Their results don't suffer, in fact they are better than ours, and don't show the boy/girl discrepancy ours do. Why not, in fact, follow a whole lot of Europe and put them into school later? Why not? Ah, work. Mums must work. They must work, now, or lose their benefits. Funny how the Conservatives would seem to promise most for mums but deliver least. Now mums must practically deliver the baby and hand it over, chuck it over the childcare fence, wave it goodbye. No, school for them, soon as, and work for mums.

But how silly it is. Boys do not even physically develop the ability to fine hold a pencil until 6. Yet they are expected to learn to use it. Son can identify all letters, small words, all phonics. Yet, he can't hold a pencil and control it. They lack fine agility, they develop slowly with regard to fine concentration skills. But, they must be benchmarked, and labelled and boxed. My good friend got told at her last parents evening that her son had settled well, he was now like "all the others". Well, what a great aim. Assimilation. Submission. Loss of boyness. No. She's my friend, so she nearly punched the teacher. And yet, it's not their fault. It's the system. The system which is now worse: more guidelines, more strictures. Less ability to teach interestingly. Longer school days, longer hours. Thanks, tories, you are totally ensuring I never go back to teaching.
I will give it a year. Maybe i'll teach my own.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Princesses: what do they actually do, actually?

I inherited a house that was gender specific. When I say I inherited it, I mean that I paid a ridiculously inflated price for a 3 bedroomed semi-detached that we'll be paying off for 25 years after the Fens have vanished beneath the Wash. But I did inherit the paint jobs that were within it, and have sensibly decided to put off painting anything until the kids are past the smearing bodily fluids and else on the walls stage. The paint I inherited was, in my bedroom, dull white. Liveable. For years, probably. In the same way that you don't notice the pile of crap at the bottom of the stairs if you leave it there long enough and start automatically stepping over it like it's another actual step, after a while you don't notice the dirty dull walls and the requisite squashed mosquitos (Believe me, you live in the Fens, there will always be squashed mosquitos). The paint in the second biggest bedroom was Boys blue. The paint in the tiny bedroom was one shade off of neon pink. I could have put son into the tiny pink room, but as older sibling, and at that time, the one who could walk, he got first dibs. Daughter ended up pink. Pink walls, Pink, pink carpet, and white fitted cupboards with pink fittings.

At first, I tried to downsize the pink. I got a red and orange duvet for the cot-bed. Green shelves. It just looked like Tinkerbell had taken acid and invited that boss eyed Linda woman from those changing rooms programmes in, when she was drunk. There is no getting away from this much pink. I ignored it, even though when the sun hit the room of a morning it burnt your retinas. But then, daughter hit the pink stage. Now everything must be pink. Make me pink bunting mummy, make me pink curtains. I must wear my pink pajamas. I must have my pink Sleeping Beauty on the bed. Say WHAT? Go back a bit there. Sleeping Beauty? We have never seen the film. We have never seen ANY Disney Princess film. How can you know which one is which? Are they beaming Disney direct into your brain? Is there a chip in there? Why have they all got such lobotomised expressions? And what happened to Cinderella? She used to be strawberry, red really, and now she's peroxide? ( See pictures: one from the 1950's film, where she is officially "Titian" and one from now, where she looks like, well, any blonde idiot) And HOW DO YOU KNOW WHICH ONE SHE IS?

Sobbing, I admit defeat. Yes, have a Princess lunchbox, then, damn you. My defiance of the stupid Disney Princess, in fact any Princess nonsense has failed. Those books I read you, daughter, that featured feisty girls, and nary a pink idiot in sight, did they mean nothing? For Gods' sake, Mog the cat is a better role model than Cinderella! Mog has some oompf about her! Mog refuses to eat the fish and holds out for eggs. Mog doesn't fret about a dress. And Sophie, well, she has dinner with a tiger and goes out for tea in her nightie (possibly because the Tiger is in fact a figment of her mothers imagination, the excuse she gives Daddy about tea not being ready because she has been at the gin and left Sophie in front of Waybaloo, or is that just me?) So we go through a turgid week of reading Cinderella, Disney style as a bedtime story. We purchase a Princess doll with pocket money. I dress daughter in flouncy dresses. I wait.

And then. We are playing "Princesses" with the frankly simple looking Rapunzel doll and the dollshouse crew, who are wooden, have their faces scratched off and hair cut, and look like weird Bagpuss crossed with "Saw" bit part actors. When she suddenly says "What do Princesses do?"

"What do you mean? All the time?"

"No, after they do the marrying, what do they do?"

"Well, the stories stop then"

"What do real Princesses do?"

(Do not mention reality, which is basically : They get super thin despite being surrounded by Fortnums food, pop several out and be miserable, apart from when they smile opening things.And then they die.)

"Well, Princesses don't really do a lot, apart from meet people who like Princesses and wear dresses. What do you think they should do?"

"Fight dragons and be doctors to people and then have tea and do sliding on the slide, and then be friends with the dragon and have a ride".

"Well, that seems very sensible to me, and I bet real princesses would like to do that. Shall we just play something else?"

"Yes. (chucks Rapunzel, picks up manky Baby Anabel). Let's feed her to a dragon".

We go onto re-enact Andromeda and so forth. No more Princess. Rapunzel is still where she was thrown. And that, I hope, is that. Just to be safe, as a reality check, I have a tea towel from the local pound shop which shows the two badly fabric printed beaming faces of Kate and William, in all their glory, only, on a tea towel, and looking a bit weird. Although even the best photos can't disguise the fact that he's going on top, looking more like his dad every day and that she knows it. I heave a sigh of relief. For now.