Saturday, 9 July 2011

I skipped sports day, and i'm glad

Son is in the midst of preparing for Big School. This means that on his playgroup mornings, he gets taken over to roam the school library, and chat to his new teacher-to-be, to prove she is not a monster. He has been refreshingly blase about his, even to the point of grumbling that the library doesn't have a motorbike encyclopaedia, or even a Hayes manual of a Kawasaki Ninja *sigh*, but one thing he came home completely perplexed about was Sports Day. Well meaning playgroup ladies took the rising receptions over to watch the various children pelt about in the heat, drop eggs from a spoon and mostly, lose. After witnessing this Olympics of Fenland, his only response was that there were too many people running. To his mind, competition only really exists when it's against a sibling. Why run against others when there is no sibling to cry at losing? If you want to practise best, fast running, you can do that alone. You don't need to do it in a  field and maybe lose.
I was, needless to say, hopelessly crap at running. All kinds. Sprinting was out because my overdeveloped chest necessitated more sports bra than Marks and Spencers in the 80's had yet envisioned, plus I couldn't run. Cross Country would have been better if the aptly named "Miss Quick" had not sent us out in navy blue pants to run through snow laden fields, while she followed on the roads as best she could, clad in a puffa jacket, on a moped. Hockey was cold legs being beaten with a stick. Shot putt, I won the acclamation of everyone. Nobody had ever seen a girl throw the bloody thing upright, and then stand still as it descended, to fall on her head and concuss her. Still, I got to sit the rest of sports day out with the ambulance people. High jump is hilarious when you are 5 foot. Long jump is just a run into a cat litter tray. I could swim, for ages, but not properly (how can this be? Swimming teacher after swimming teacher would moan at me. I got my badge for swimming a mile, 2 miles. But apparently it was still wrong because I stuck my head up too much. It was the EIGHTIES. I had a FRINGE!) Tennis, Badminton, rubbish. Javelin, they didn't let me near. Rounders? Yes, please. I'll be fielder. I'll go and have a fag. Netball? Nah.  The apogee of my sporting prowess at school came aged 5, when, annoyed by Mrs Lines attempts to get me into my leotard, which was itchy and entirely flammable, I ran, nude, out of the changing room and ran my entire first sports day in the nude, leaving them with nowhere to pin the red ribbon for coming first in the roly-poly race. It is the only race I have ever won, and all it earnt me was a ribbon and a smacked arse from an angry mother. Sports at school was laothsome, dreadful, angst ridden crap more about the ones would could catch/throw/leap with their eyes shut lording it over the ones who couldn't, especially if they were pudgy academics (like me), than any sense of real sportsmanship.
Was I therefore an obese monster? No. I did sport, I just did the ones I liked. I biked 6 miles a day, 4 times a day, to muck out a horse and ride it, twice a day, before and after school. On my weekends, I 3 day evented. I did pretty well. I enjoyed it, I was actually pretty fit. What did I get for PE? E's, F's. PE at school is about as useful as a Tory Minister at a morality lecture. It sucks. It does nothing for teamwork, nothing for self esteem, and nothing for the kids who are not any good at it. Of course, there's the argument that everyone needs to learn how to lose, but really, did I need to learn to lose 4 periods a week, for all those years? In the end I bunked every lesson and sneaked into the library instead. Now, I am not saying that sport is not a great and wonderful thing , if you are good at it. I look on in awe at son as he catches balls and leaps from branch to branch with a sure limbed dexterity that I have never had. He is naturally quick, agile, and co-ordinated. Is he mine? He will have a ball, literally. He can already tackle me to the ground. This is the boy that I lectured for 35 minutes about how the first time he rode his bike without stabilisers, he might fall, but he must get back up and try again, only to see him cycle off and within 20 minutes start kicking wheelies. How is he of my loins? Daughter, on the other hand, is mine. She still sits down to come down stairs. She cannot catch, run straight, or jump properly, and neither does she care. Yet. Because by Year 7, she will. She will be (although I plead no, no) the last to be picked. The team captain will sigh as they begrudgingly say her name, the last option against the kid in callipers. That was me. It was beyond crappy.

And this is why I applaud the school in somewhere or other that made the Daily Mail on Thursday for telling it's kids that sports day was optional. Of course, the Daily Mail are spitting bits of Empire about it, but hey, it's a damn good idea, as far as i'm concerned. Why not let the kids who couldn't give a stuff about running do something else? Running isn't a vital life skill, like reading, or adding. Bullying people into it doesn't make it fun. Lord alone knows I had to do enough bullying into it myself, as form tutor. In year 7, it went like this:
me: "Who wants to run the 100/200/400/800/ etc etc?"
Kids: "Me! Me! Me! Miss, me!"
By year 9, it was like this.
Me: "Who wants to run the 100 metres? Anyone? Come on?"
Kids: "      "
And how I laughed as I tried to get them to run the 800m. In the end I had to bribe them and threaten them. How did this happen? Through a mixture of PE and hormones.The ones that were good at PE enjoyed it. The ones that were not, didn't. Plus, they had to contend with bits bulging, skin erupting, classmates taunting and, for girls, the hideous clipboard with monthly information recorded. What actually was there to like about PE if you didn't excel at it? And yet, the girls in my form who hated PE were almsot universally members of the street dance club, which met to thunder it's way round my classroom and never put the desks back properly every lunchtime. I had one form tutee who was a whiz at golf, another who was excellent at bowling. None of these are offered at school.  PE doesn't have to be about winning and losing and humiliation. It can and should be about doing something you enjoy, in small groups, or large. It doesn't have to be competative to be useful in building team skills. It's only the winners who insist that competition is best.

So, if your kid is wetting the bed pre-sports day, and throwing a tin of Scotch Broth down the loo pretending they've been sick (yes, that was me: the giveaway was the Scotch Broth smelt far worse than actual sick), then let 'em off. Write them a sick note. Do some sport they like instead, with them.

*Alert* Lady from Wimblington: I lost your mail and now cannot find your blog. Please send it to me again!

Saturday, 2 July 2011

A risky kid is a happy kid.

I cannot watch Michael Gove on television because a) he has a mouth like a cat's bum and b) everything that comes out of it is unmitigated shit that makes me want to destroy my television. Neither can I listen to him on the radio, as even though I can't actually see him, I can still hear him doing his posh spitty boy talking and spouting errant nonsense that he dresses up as policy. The newspapers are usually safe, although they do enjoy printing huge headshots of the man that make him look like Matt Smiths' newest nemesis. So it was, that perusing the Guardians Education section this morning, I came across this article about Health and Safety in schools. And this, on the BBC. And now I find myself in a quandry. Because despite, with every fibre of my being detesting the odious little man, I am in agreement with him here. Oh god, I had to hairball that sentence out.

It is very true that the Health and Safety requirements for basic school trips are disproportionate. On taking 10 students from the History club to an underground nuclear bunker (helpfully signposted "secret nuclear bunker" to help us find it), I well remember the sheaves of paperwork and tedious write ups that allowed us to take them on a mini-bus and explore a site that was preparing for the end of the human world. The hideous room that showed them the exactly how the government was calculating deaths from nuclear war, suicide tablets, and the entrance corridor that turned a corner so as to enable the hoardes of ordinary folk who didn't want to die and were invading, to be mown down by government forces, may have given them nightmares, and in fact made one of them quite panicky. But really, walking round a museum (albeit an underground one) is not a high risk activity. Children who go to History club (aka "geek club") are pretty much risk averse and more into re-enacting the telemark skiers with little play men and dice than taking risks. It really would have made life easier if I could just have written their names down on an excursion list and driven off. 

On the other hand, one field trip that found me standing neck high in flowing, freezing water trying to measure how quickly the floating orange came past me was certainly less fun, and more risky. In the first instance, taking a bus load of year 11's to the Norfolk coast in February is going to be problematic. Not only had manay of them never seen a beach and hence, went crazy ("No! Come back! The water is cold! And the locals have never seen a bunch of youths of many hues running amok!"), but much of it was genuinely risky. Wading rivers, climbing, and measuring wave force in freezing water was pretty horrible, and did need those forms. A useful form would also have been one that covered the teacher for lapse in duty due to lack of sleep, as the whole 4 days saw about 2 hours of rest for me, and much standing sentry between dorms, shouting and being stern. So yes, in some instances, the fuss is necessary, and it would be a good thing to allow common sense to triumph. Provided that the schools are not then going to be sued to buggery by angry parents if anything does go wrong. I notice that Gove has made no comments to this effect.

I also think it's part of a wider issue. We do cocoon our children. And whilst it's perfectly easy for me to go all nostalgia: Spangles, out till tea, no mobiles, etc etc, it's also true to say that the world is different now. I was allowed out all day alone from an early age, with the company of the dog and some sandwiches, but this was less to do with the world being safer, and more to do with the attitude of my parents and the media. There is no more child centered crime than there has ever been, but there is more reporting. I dare say that there are fewer accidents now. No longer do we have those eerie ads telling us not to swim in quarries, or climb up electricity pylons to get a frisbee, because far fewer kids are roaming around free with a couple of soggy sarnies in a bag, a frisbee, and a dog, like I was. Out of my window at the moment, I can see some 11 plus kids on bikes on the grass, and their parents in the front gardens. I can't see any kids wandering through the corn fields at the back of the gardens, which I certainly would have been at their age. I see few children under 11 out front. I see fewer kids at the park, and more walking around plugged into those annoying beepy nintendos. At 4. I see a lot of parents with medicated hand gels, a lot who drive rather than walk, a lot who panic. And this is why a little risk is necessary.

I remember panicking when, at nearly term with daughter, I coudln't move quickly enough to get to the big slide, as son, then 14 months, was teetering at the edge. He was fine. It was a turning point. As soon as daughter arrived, the sterilising that sons' implements had undergone was abandoned. Daughter scavenged for his scraps, stuffing whole carrot sticks that had been on the floor into her gummy mouth. I called it baby-led weaning. I let him climb as high as he dared. One mother remonstrated with me for allowing him a knife, a real one, at 18 months. He was fine. How sharp is a cutlery knife anyway? Take a breath. Yes, I covered the plug sockets, but I didn't clamp down the cupboards. I encouraged him to use the stairs. He ate bugs, worms, caterpillars, and once, something unidentifiable from behind the radiator. Sometimes both of them go to bed dirty. They kiss the chickens and cart them about. They play out front and on the paths. They made a den in the ditch at the end of the garden. At the park, they plunge off of the top of climbing frames, and use slides and swings in ways they were not intended to be used.  And all this is good. Risk assessment is a valuable life skill in a child. So is determination and bloodymindedness. I have casually shouted "Just get up" across a park, to horrified stares, and seen daughter just climb up again. I've turned round to see son balancing, one footed, on his bike saddle. I've not stopped him. A bump is sometimes worth it. (And, i've noticed, a  bump is always worse with an audience..... alone, daughter can plummet from the slide and get up and climb again. If she sees you watching her plummet, it's a Bette Davis death scene.)

So yes, introduce a bit more risk. Let students set potassium going. Let kids go kayaking without the teacher having to fill in 50 pages of pointless crap. But also, make risk play more available. Don't close footpaths in favour of farmers (endemic in Fenland). Make more footpaths. Build more parks (and no, a "park" is not a small, fenced in area with two baby swings and a slide I could step over). Build parks with wild spaces, with trees, with dens, and ropes. Build climbing frames, balance games. Make some places wild. Give kids places to go where they can be risky. Skate parks, ramps, bike tracks. When you build housing estates, build in green space. When you have empty town centre buildings, make a youth club. Give organisations that allow youth to explore, the space, time and money, to do it. Make roads safer. Introduce better local speed limits, so kids can bike. Make bike lanes, run road safety courses. Ah, I see. All these things, the parks, the adventure playgrounds, the clubs, these are the things that are gone, or going. These are the things the Councils have been given carte blanche to cut. The playing fields are sold. The youth clubs all gone. Parks? In some areas now you have to pay, others, they are gone, too much maintenence. Or the land is worth more.  I have been bamboozled. Briefly, I thought I may agree with Gove. But now I see that it's a sop. Bigging up risk at school, because all the facilities for risk out of school, have gone, or are going. He almost had me there.

For locals: If you have noticed any loss of upkeep in your park, please contact me.

Friday, 1 July 2011

A rabbit stew, archaeology and Melton

Disclaimer: I am not, and have never been an archaeologist, although I did have a boyfriend as one once and spent a weekend at Sutton Hoo with him in the rain, as the archaeologist fiercely guarded their marmite rations, being glad I wasn't an archaeologist,before trashing my car on the way home. What follows is a personal, not professional, opinion about what a total dickwad the leader of Fenland Council is. Also, after typing "archaeology" a lot of times, my fingers hurt and I forget how to spell it. This is why I studied History instead.

You may not have come across Alan Melton. You may have missed out on the furore of last week, as Alan Melton, he of the portly jowls and job of top dog Councillor of Fenland, described archaeologist as "bunny huggers", and declaimed that he would rip up the planning regulations of Fenland, making the legal requirement to allow archaeologist access a thing of the past. He gave this speech (full text here) to a bunch of developers and builders at an awards ceremony. The whole thing is worth a read, if you enjoy pompous self congratulatory paragraphs that read like a bad AS level essay, but the salient points that were picked up by the press, and lots of other very angry people were (excerpt)

"Unemployment and state dependency could be greatly reduced if the construction industry is allowed to grow. GDP would start to improve significantly, and tax revenues would increase.
This is the message we in local government will be taking to the Local Government Conference later this month and to the Conservative Party Conference in October.
Of course, there are some local changes that we can make to make development easier. We are constantly reviewing our procedures.
I can announce tonight, that from the 1st July. A requirement for an archaeological dig/survey will not be required. The requirement will no longer feature at pre-app. Or form part of the committee agenda.
With one exception, in local known historical areas, such as next to a 1000 year old church.
The bunny huggers won’t like this, but if they wish to inspect a site, they can do it when the footings are being dug out"

So, let's see. He says, quite clearly, in a statement of intent, to a bunch of developers and builders, that they won't need to bother about pesky old bunny hugging bearded archaeologists trying to dig trenches where they want to throw up paper thin walled houses with a garden that a umbrella won't open up in. From July 1st. It's quite clear, isn't it?  He then goes onto say that......

"Of course we shall seek to be sustainable and practical, but we won’t dwell too much on the scriptures of the new religion.
I don’t believe that polar bears will be floating down the Nene in my life time or indeed my children’s.
I think we all need more convincing about some of the conflicting stories that are constantly peddled.
And as a bricklayer by trade, I regret the constant use of timber on our public buildings, and although it looks good when initially fitted, (and ticks a box),
Within 12 months looks as if it needs a coat of creosote.
DAB’s as we know them will be a thing of the past; we will be flexible, particularly around our smaller settlements, where we shall encourage organic growth."

So, on top of not bothering about any old Iron Age roundhouses that have the temerity to be lying underneath the newly planned Melton Close, global warming is all so much codswallop (Er, Alan? We live in the FENS. Like, below sea level? Do you want to rethink that statement? Hands up we're all stood behind Alan when the sea level rises! We can use him as a raft! He's quite big enough), and the DAB's (development area boundaries: they stop people from building wherever they like and are particularly important in smaller areas such as villages) are to be swept away on a tide of organic growth, presuming the river Nene doesn't rise first, as Alan says it won't anyway. "Organic". Wonder what that means. Maybe, willy nilly? Whoever wants to shuck up a big house? Wherever? Details, Alan, details.

And did you notice the clue there? Yes, Alan is a bricklayer! Although he's being disingenous here. He's a big schnozzle in the building trade. He has his own building company. He has interests in development and aggregates. How strange then, that he should want to sweep away any contraints on planning. Oh, no. Wait a goddarned minute........I've been had! Is it the tiniest bit possible that Alan isn't that arsed about my interests, or those of Fenland? Hmmm, let me think.

So, cue a flurry of angry archaeologists, a mention in the broadsheets, and a radio interview, a facebook page, me on the local Shape your Place, 32 leading archaeologists all pointing out that Alan would be breaking the law, Alan countering that it's only European law anyway, and blathering on about Eric Pickles, before someone, and Eric Pickles, quite clearly told him to shut up, before writing this speech for him. It's been written by someone who can put together a decent sentence, and is a sort of "sorry", if you call raising your hands up and saying "Well, I only meant to cause a debate, and anyway, those archaeologists said I was fat" an apology.It's the sort of apology I get from my 4 year old, before he is sent to his room again. Why Sir, you must think me an idiot, because your first speech showed clear intent and did not mention the word "debate" at all! Maybe where you said there would be no need to have any archaeologists after July 1st, a little demon was in your mouth and garbled up all your words, because you were REALLY saying, "gosh, those archaeologists chaps, I could really sit down and have a discussion with them."

It would have been better if he had. Because, as any fule kno, digging on a site does not "hold up" development any more than the person drawing the plans for the houses "holds up" development. It is part of the process, simple as that and is taken into account when developing. It's simply that some people would rather not do it. They'd rather whack up houses quick march and don't want the risk of finding a site underneath them. And, fair play, it might well be a risk. Why? Because the Fens are unique, chock full of pre-history sites that are nowhere else in the UK. The water preserves with remarkable clarity the earliest of sites. Take here, Must Farm at Whittlesey. Described as a "Pompeii" of the Bronze age, a routine dig before the area was quarried revealed finds that make up one of the biggest Bronze Age hoardes ever found. But hey, it held up the quarry! Damn those Bronze agers! It's even more important that digs take place in Fenland than ever, as since the last archaeological survey was completed in the late 80's, a huge number of sites have vanished, been ploughed and harried away. The nature of the black peat and the fertile soil of the fens means they are intensively farmed, and precedence is given to farmers, not sites. Hence, the sites on farmland are vanishing. The sites in developed areas are perhaps the only ones that we can get a good look at.

I don't know of anyone who would begrudge a dig that could enrich our knowledge of the area. No-one apart from Alan. And the rest of Fenland Council, who must have given the nod to the original speech and then had the sheer stupidity not to realise that information is viral now. Alan, even in the Fens people can use that nettyinter, and root out what their councillors are actually saying. The Council are evidently standing by him and hoping it will all blow over. It has before. Alan's a bit of a lad, thrown out once before for accepting gifts and then blurting info that was meant to be private out to the papers. And they let him back. So to my mind, both Alan and the Council are equally culpable. Oh, and the idiots that voted him in again. Possibly they are the voters with big plots waiting to be developed. Well, there's a weather eye on you now.