Friday, 23 November 2012

Oh, I am so unemployable.

I didn't want to have to work full-time, or even part-time until daughter and son were both safely past Year 1 and the phonics that lie therein. But the Cameron Led Armageddong that is the triple dip We Don't Care We're Alright has left me high and dry on the shores of the financially bleak. From being a comfortable family we have slumped to a not very comfy at all family. Husbands employers have cut his hours to 2 days a week. I need to work.

Now, let's see. Can I claim any benefits to help? Apparently not. Despite our annual income being 18K now, I am not entitled to contribution based Job Seekers Allowance because I haven't paid in to NI for the last two years. Apparently, my paying in aged 18 to 36 means nothing. I can't get a bean. No help with anything, in fact. We may, possibly get Tax credits, but probably not,as husband also has registered a self employed sole trader business that he was intending, over a period to build up. Well, he better chuffing do it, because being a sole trader for the Tax Credits demons sets their alarm bells ringing and we won't get a bean until they've investigated. Probably for years. Likewise, with no JSA or benefits, school meals and the like are unobtainable.

I am the squashed middle. Me.

I rang the employment agencies. I can do supply, I said. I was wrong. I can't do supply. Not only have I not taught for 6 years which makes me virtually sea slug on the intellect level, but I have no car, and neither does husband, as it was a company car, so I can't really do that "get called at 7am and be out of the house by 7.10 bunging the kids in handily prepared childcare and zipping off in my car to teach" thing. Neither can I do full-time. Partly this is a from a feeling that to do so would short change my kids, never have I seen such wind blown husks of children than at breakfast club and after-school club. But it's also monetary. If i'm working, and then paying for pre-and-after school care, i'm working for a pittance, and my children have less joy. If I can work part-time, my kids see me work, they do a bit of childcare, but they also get some genuine parent time. So I looked for part-time work that would fit round, maybe, me either doing school pick up OR drop off. I'd prefer pick up, as i know that the walk home is where it all comes out, who hit who, what they got the sticker for, what so-an-so did and why they love science, why pink should be called stink,  and so on. Plus I get to read with them, do two sets of spelling, two sets of homework, two teas. And two keeping on track. That time after school is vital: I can reach out to the teacher, they can grab me, we can connect, immediately, about any problem and nip it in the bud. I don't want to miss that. So I search. Nothing.

So I look for shift work. Maybe I can do that. There is some. I can work 6-12pm, or 12-6am. I could do that, if pushed, couldn't I? I could. Maybe cleaning work. Home care work.

Here I am. Overeducated and underemployed., and most definately underfinanced. I'm not precious. I'd gladly take grunt work in school hours and have time with my family over the long hours of teaching and missing my kids. I just need it to pay. I am now applying for home help work. If you know of an elderly lady or gent who might be in need of a good home help, and the odd bit of banter, point them my way.

Friday, 9 November 2012

All the naughty boys get stars, Mum.

Now I have two kids in school, it's been interesting for me to observe how differently their personalities have adapted to the factory like reward and progression of Reception and Year 1. Son is an open faced little chap, eager to please and do as he is told. He loves gettinga  house point, ignores the "naughty boys" and concentrates on getting thr work done so he can have his Lego "golden time" come Friday afternoon. Every parents evening is a joy: he tries hard, he does well, the teacher never has to tell him.

And this sets my alarm bells ringing.

Contrast to daughter. Daughter needs to be told EXACTLY what to do. Here is a command a teacher might issue to her, that she will ignore.
"Stella, can you put your things away and come to the mat?"
Stella hears: "Stella, can you pop over to the mat at some point, maybe, once you've put your stuff away?" and therefore does not put her stuff away, yet, nor traipse over to the mat. She does not like the mat, she sits next to a boy who shall be nameless, who has a constantly dribbling nose, which he licks. So she does not go to the mat. She has to be told again. And given the instruction she should have been given in the first place: "can you put your things away now and come to the mat instantly, with no dithering?" She then proceeds to pay no attention to phonics, because the songs are not the Jolly Phonics ones and she doesn't think they are very good, and instead concentrates on watching Nameless lick his snot, and pick at the baubles on her shoes. She knows all the phonemes anyway, but won't tell them to the teacher, because then she "would only get got more work", and actually reduced the poor teacher to spying on her to get enough info for parents evening. At which point Stella would move behind another child and sneak off.

And this sets my alarm bells ringing. Because who do you suppose has the heaviest, weightiest Housepoint card? Well behaved son, who has tried his guts out all term thus far? Or naughty Miss who couldn't give a toss about stickers and housepoints? Yes, you guessed it, Madam. Who had, by week 3 in Reception, informed me that all the naughty boys get stickers for just sitting down. This has not, needless to say, passed Miss Observant by. Poor son, who agreed with this, sits in the no-mans land of not being a genius but not being naughty. He gets the odd sticker when the teacher actually sees him and remembers who he is.

I know it's hard: i've been there as a teacher. But the reward system just doesn't work. I would inevitably be told by some hardlined little shit that "Miss so-and-so gives me stickers/housepoints" and  verily, their books would be aglow with shiny stickers. But no, I refised to give a bauble for doing WHAT THEY SHOULD HAVE BEEN DOING ANYWAY. I introduced s syatem whereby every forgotten pen/book/swearing episode resulted in a fine of 5p. I put all the money in a jar. I purchased a book of raffle tickets. Evey piece of good behaviour, or good work, got a ticket stuck into their book. At the end of the term, the child with the most tickets stood the best chancde of winning the fines jar. It worked like a dream: all kids, bad, middling, good, want hard cash. And all kids have  a sense of innate justice. It isn't fair if a naughty kids effectively gets rewarded for it. Kids demand punishment: if ever there were an age group behind capital punishment it would be the 4-11's. Make them miss playtimes. Make them stay in at lunch, and stand up to the parents who whine about it.

Of course, Reception might not respond to this (although Madam probably would, given how she scrabbles round pavements for dropped 2ps), but something needs to be done with the current rewards system in primary schools, because it plays into the hands of the devious, and the don't cares, and ignores the well behaved middlers. I have stopped asking son if he got a housepoint, and started looking at his work every day myself, and awarding my own. I did ask Madam if she would care to earn some stickers for her "at home" reward chart, but her reply was "I get enough at school, and anyway, i've got all of Hannah's housepoint stickers". I know I should have asked how, but I just didn't.

Friday, 26 October 2012

A month without facebook, and no kids either.

I haven't been blogging, because i've been filling the vacuum left by the schooling of the kids with cleaning, library visits, and volunteering. In fact, 6 hours vanishes pretty quickly, and I've found that the days are, if not exactly flying by, at least dawdling fairly quickly. 2 mornings reading with the kids classes, 2 afternoons reading with readers who need extra help, 1 day cleaning, 1 afternoon in the library. Plus, i've picked up a child to tutor ( for real cash!) on a weekend, so a couple of afternoons preparation for that. The odd cuppa with a friend. Leaves precious little fiddling around time, really. But what time there is does tend to stretch ahead of me. I've lost the baility to sit and do nothing, to sit and relax. Instead i'll bake cakes, clean the chicken coop, batch cook for the freezer, anything to avoid daytime TV. I get the jobs done, so that the time I actually have with the kids is time well spent, and not spent flinging fishfingers under the grill.

And they do need that time. Son has homework twice a week, and reading every night. Some of it quite time consuming, not least because I have to look up what a cuboid is. Daughter has pretend books. She, according to the teacher, cannot read, so she still has books with no words in. This is astoninshing to me, as at home she can pretty much read anything you put in front of her, without even sounding out. On approaching madam about this, she merely told me she didn't like reading to the teacher, so she wouldn't. the teacher said she couldn't move up a level till she DID read to her. Madam still won't read to the teacher and is happy that she isn't being given any taxing work, and said that the teacher could just spy on her to see if she understood, as that's what she did with maths. Which is actually true, the teacher DID have to spy on her to get anything to say at parents evening, as madam just blanked her everytime she saw her and stopped what she was doing. So I read with madam, every night instead, and am pondering how best to secretly video her reading the ruddy Biff and Kipper books fluently so I can prove the teacher wrong and stop being patronised. I also secretly admire her gall though: she's right, it is the teachers job to make her want to read. I strongly suspect the teacher hasn't come up against such a Machiavellian 4 year old before.If I had to lay bets on who would win, it wouldn't be her.

One thing I have cut out of "free" time is Facebook. I've cut contact, broken it off, spurned it. I found that I was becoming overwhlemed with drivel. I simply don't want to know who is breaking up with who, what peoples' overwheeningly dull opinions on X-Factor are, who has fallen in love, what they're having for lunch. Similarly, I do not care to spend time being bombarded with ads that appear to think me old, fat and unemployed. Neither do I enjoy being told happy news that is apparently important to me as a friend alongside 455 other "friends". I don't enjoy the way people facebook instead of call, and change arrangements on facebook instead of calling, as if everyone were connected to the damn thing by invitrous facebook chip. Just as I found that mobile phones made people ruder, facebook has taken that rudeness and made it normal. As a keen to get pissed up student, I was not only mobile phoneless ( I was not a millionaire, and probably couldn't have carried one then anyway, such were their great size), but house phoneless too. If I wanted to meet my mates at a certain York Brewhouse, i'd have to (gasp!) telephone them from a call box, or actually speak to them and arrange it. We'd say something like "I'll see you are the Brewhouse at 8pm". And (even bigger gasp), we HAD TO TURN UP. We couldn't text or facebook some pathetic excuse, safe in the knowledge that we wouldn't have to speak to the disappointed person face to face. Facebook has, I feel increased that rudeness to the point of normalcy. Now it's ok to not turn up and just facebook it, even if you're not sure the person is a 100% connected to the damn thing as you are.

Furthermore, facebook has denigrated actual contact with real people. I have friends who don't actually even talk to me. They walk past me at the school gate and even I say "Hi!", they don't. I have friend requests from people i've never even met. I have people knowing my business via facebook friends. I have people who will chat on facebook, but won't in real life. I have people who are happy to parade their racist/ misogynist crap around on a public forum and who get cross at the school gate when I defriend them. I have, in short, about 5 real friends who actually bother to phone and visit. And i'm just as guilty. Recently, i've found myself asking friends if they fancy a coffee on it, when I could have just rung them. Why? It's much nicer to have a chat. Why am I allowing myself to be sucked in?

(It should be said that I exclude my far flung real friends from this: there is a real joy in being able to contact my old friends who now live abroad, and too distantly for me to visit. It is not at them this rant is aimed, but the village of people who actually live with me but apparently don't live in the real world).

And, what is most annoying, is how much time it saps. Why not turn the damn thing off a for a bit and see what happens? I'm off grid on facebook till December, and I will be most interested to see which of my 4 gazillion friends bothers to chase me up for a chat.

So, expect the next post to be of a facebook withdrawl symptom mania, with a video of my daughter refusing to read.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Normal service will resume, only more so.

I've been quiet. Too quiet.

It's because I spent the Summer Holidays soaking up every minute of the kids, and now they've gone, both of them, to school. I shall write some posts about that, and what it's done to me, later, but for now, here's a photo of them on their first day and first day back. Note how joyfully he's poking his sister in the eye. I shall now have time enough to blog regularly, and lots of time to fill while I locate that elusive school hours job, and clean the toilet a lot, weeping at being made aparentally redundant by school. At least I got weeping from son, and was made to feel wanted. Daughter just said "See ya!" and buggered off. She has transferred alliegence to her new teacher, who has long hair and wears proper shoes.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Eggbox frenzy in the damp: treasure hunting for kids

I can't claim the idea was mine. Eggbox treasure hunts are a well used idea. But I can claim that, for an easy hour sipping tea while the kids rip flower heads off of your garden plants, this is it.

Take as many egg boxes as there are kids. Paint the egg holes different colours. Type a list of things to find. You can make out mine in a picture. Let them loose, with the instructions to avoid nettles, not rip the entire plant out, and, for the older ones, to get as close to the hue in the eggbox as possible. I left out a book with different types of wild flowers in it for the older ones, so they could label their finds afterwards. Kit yourself out with a jar for the snails, if you are crazy enough to put them on your list. For me this was a no brainer, as the sodding things are eating ALL my spinach, and I have the added bonus of introducing the concept of life (death) cycles to kids via getting them to fling the snack snails at the hens.  Do not put the jar in the kitchen, as I did, and forget about it for 24 hours, to wake in the morning to silvery trails. Get one magnifying glass.

Send them out into the wild. Let them get the stuff, run riot, argue over what is orange and what is yellow. Then, because I am mean, make them draw a picture of a close up, using the magnifying glass, of a snail, or whatever more sensible object you get them to put in the jar, and write a sentence about it. Education over. Feed them with sandwiches and the Haribo as prizes.

The real genius of this is that it kept 9 kids utterly occupied for nigh on 2 hours, and we mums could have a chat.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Things I made my kids do this week: 1 in a Summer series

I am a fully paid up member of the club that suggests that kids need to be bored once in a while to force their imaginations to work. I live in a DS, Nintendo, computer game free world at the mo, and the TV is strictly regulated. I fling them into the garden with buckets and waterproofs and leave them to it while I wash up. I deny them Pokemon on TV and hurl jigsaws at them. I refuse the advance of the DS and crack out the playdough. I open the doors to the kids on the street and let them all in, on the proviso they stay OUTSIDE and leave the chickens alone. But I can't leave them to fester in their own juices for the entire time, not least because as an ex-teacher I am entirely meddlesome and don't want them to forget the last years worth of learning. And so I am sly.

In the first week, we  nipped on the bus to the Ely Wilkinsons and stocked up on paint, glue and scrapbooks. I then force the kids to write a journal every other day about what their exploits, illustrate it, and stick in any treasures. This will be given to the teacher for a few weeks to see how their new pupil is rated on the levels, and then stored in my "Mum" box for me to weep over when they are 18. "I went to the beach and I sor some motorbikes. There was a Hyabusa". I love how he ignores the time spent in rockpools, the spelling of "saw", and his parents and sibling entirely, but details the best motorbike, and spells it correctly.

And then, I organise. I convened a meeting at the end of term of willing mums and invited kids to weekly activities. Yes, I know it's crazy to invite 12 kids into your house, but hey. This week was junk modelling. We spent an hour sticking and gluing in pairs, ate lunch, then an hour painting, then a few minutes describing our models on paper, to win sweets. And here they are. A Robot with 2 guns and big eyes, an alien dog, a fire engine, a car and a Hulk. They worked together, I bunged in some maths ( identifying shapes and comparing cylinders), they wrote about their creations, and ate a LOT. And then all the mums sneaked off and left me with the masterpices. No,wait, come back!

Next week is Treasure hunt week. Even if it rains.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Dealing with doctors and nurses and anger in a 5 year old.

Oh, it's like having a mini-teenager in the house. He's 5. Going on 15. I know he's tired from a long school term, and every morning we have the same conversation about how many more weeks before holiday. I know he's had enough of bloody Kipper and Biff (what sort of name is that for a girl anyway?), and would rather read his motorbike encyclopaedia, as would I, and I never thought i'd write THAT.  I know he's probably having a hormone surge and has come over all weird about some things. (I'm allowed to wipe his bum if it's a particular type of poo, but nobody must see him on the toilet, EVER). He's suddenly aware of being naked, he's suddenly cross about everything. He's had enough of of the little git that bullies him and wants to thump him. (I must concur with him here: a bloodied nose might stop him more effectively than a term being sat on the bench for five minutes at playtime does). He playfights and is a spy. He's not going to marry me anymore, it is going to be Harriet. Or Phoebe. His temper flares up erratically, he shouts, he stomps up each individual stair and yells downstairs that he doesn't CARE! He puts on CD's loudly and lies on his bed, muttering. He's 15. He's 5. He doesn't realise that it's highly amusing to me that he's put on Louis Armstrong, and is being cross to "Blueberry Hill". He hates me, he hates the tea, he wants a Nintendo DS like everyone else, he wants guns (he's 5!)

A lot of this is school. He's mixing with kids who have different boundaries, older siblings. He's mixing with little shits, some of the time. I can't control what he's seeing or hearing come playtime. Some of it is hormone surges, that commonly happen between ages 4-6 for periods lasting months at a time, leaving your previsouly placid boy a raging loony who wants to playfight all the time and look at things on YouTube he shouldn't. (In son's case, a rather alarming Lego re-enaction of "Saving Private Ryan". Er, no). Hence we have the situation where his sister dobbed him in for wanting to see a girls "minny". Much weeping, much wailing, after he finally admitted it, although the object of fascination herself had wandered off unharmed or un-looked at and was eating a packet of  haribo. Much low key discussion about privacy and right and wrong, and a quick description of a diagram I have a half remembered version of in my head, and me left wondering if I handled that properly or he'll be a serial killer blaming me in twenty years.Or if the girls mum now thinks i'm harbouring a pervert.

Worst of all though, after he's had a stomp off and is silent on his bed, he'll say he doesn't mean to be naughty, he just can't help it sometimes, it's his head getting bigger and wanting to know more stuff. And I flashforward to doing the same thing when he's 15. Only hopefully without a pregnant girlfriend.

Friday, 29 June 2012

AS/A2 history, an examiner writes......

It's round about this time of year that the press, government, anyone over 50, anyone who went to Grammar School, and anyone who votes Conservative, starts to harrumph and tut and mention how, when they were at school, doing the O Levels, exams were really MUCH harder, in fact, you had to be an astrophysicist just to write your name on the paper. Exams now are all easy, they can answer a big fat "yes" in green crayon and get an A*. We all know it's true. GCSE is worth nothing, it's just a big trick we play on kids. And AS/A2, well, just the same. Despite the last report from the universities themselves saying that A-Levels were "largely fit for purpose", the Gove has been frothing and mentioning how they'll be made harder, and, as a sub-text, how much easier it'll be to keep the oiks out of university as a result. If they aren't put off by having to sell their first born Rumpelstiltkin stylee to pay the fees, then the toughening of AS/A2 should do the job and see them all with grotty Fails anyway.

It makes me mad. Exams literally make me mad. As if teaching for them for years wasn't enough, recent penury and a desire to crank my historical brain up a notch has led me to be an examiner this year. I have just emerged from a  tunnel papered in 450 A Level exam scripts, and i'm not pretty. I have been eating exam papers, dreaming them. My nights have been peopled with Robespierres who did not read the Question, and a particularly nasty Garibaldi who compared the wrong two sources and proceeded to chase me down the road wielding a packet of Bourbons. I have those lumps on your fingers you get when you've done too much writing, pen pads of pain, and 10 empty red biros. I have approximately 10 brain cells left. All the others have gone, been squished out of my fingertips and merged with the red pen of death, that writes the levels that will determine the fate of the hapless candidates.

It's been ruddy hard work, in other words. I estimated that each paper took between 10-30 minutes to mark. Some are easier than others, obviously, but most require thought on the part of the examiner, because they show attributes of more than one level, and you must then determine whether they go up or down some points. It's more difficult than you imagine. You may have a run of fairly adequate but uninspired what you imagine to be solid Level 3, but then along comes something good, it's a Level 1. Is it? Then along come a better one, is that? How about that candidate? They did circles as dots on their "i" 's , but they wrote pretty well. And that one, that's utterly illegible. That took me an hour with a magnifying glass. This one answered the wrong question, that one compared the wrong sources. This one ran out of time and wrote "sorry" at the end. The majority of them tried hard ( you know who you are, candidate who basically retold me the film of Marie Antoinette), and nearly all of them are waiting on these results and panicking. I don't yet know what the A grade mark will be, but I know that some of my candidates desrved it. And boy, did they deserve it. To get a Level 1 mark in my particular paper, ( which is one of two they must take that year) a candidate must be exceptional. In short, they must answer 2 questions, one comparing two historical documents from a selection of 5, which can be plucked from any time period and on any topic within that, within the time frame they've studied, and the other asking them to write an essay, refuting or supporting a statement, using all five documents. So, to take an example, the French Revolution 1774- 1795. that's quite a lot to revise, a lot of topics and times that can come up. The actual question this year focused on the Assembly of Notables and the role of the Nobility in bringing about the revolution. The skills required in the essay question are thus:

Recall, select and deploy historical knowledge appropriately, communicating clearly. Demonstrate understanding of the past through explanation, analysis, and substantiated judgements, including but not limited to, causation, consequence, continuity, change, and significance within a historical context, the relationships between key features and characteristics of the period studied. A Level 1 student will give a convincing analysis and argument with developed explanation leading to careful supported and persuasive judgement arising from a consideration of content and provenance. There will be sharply focused use and control of a range of reliable evidence to confirm, qualify and extend the sources. There will be a coherant, organises tructure and accurate and effective communication. Strengths, limitations and utility of all the sources will be evaluated in relation to the interpretation. they will use and cross-refernce points to support or refute, and integrate sources with contextual knowledge that is convincing, with synthesis throughout the argument.

And they must do this, along with two or three other subjects. 

Easy. Honestly, these A levels, anyone can do them. No, really. In fact, i'd LOVE Mr Gove to do one. I'd mark it for him.

But while i'm waiting for Mr Goves' press office to get back to me with the news that he'll agree, here are some tips for the AS/A2 history candidate.

Read the paper and all the questions before you write ANYTHING. You would be surprised by the amount of candidates who fly off pen in hand writing like a  mad thing and comparing the wrong two sources, for which the ceiling mark is NOT GOOD.
Write clearly. I will decipher what you give me regardless, but there's no doubt it helps to be able to read the answer, if only for fluency and enjoyments sake.
Writing coherently and grammar/ spelling DOES matter. That A is out of reach if you write a great argument but can't write Hitler without writing Hilter. Throughout the whole answer. Or if your salient points are lost in half a page of waffle and spelling mistakes.
Writing frames: I know your teacher gave you one to follow, and yes, it does help if you are a candidate the wrong side of weak. But if you have flair, please do show it, and that you cannot do if you are parroting a frame.
Read a book or two beforehand.
Explain, or support, don't assert.
Use, don't describe or impart.

I shall attempt to drum up a decent guide for students and teachers once i've written my examiners report. But for now, I'm falling onto a bottle of wine. And drunk dialling Mr Gove.

If you'd like to see the sort of "easy" A Level Gove and I are talking about, you can see the papers and markschemes here.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Elderflower wine that doesn't smell of cat wee.

It's Elderflower time. And time for wine.

You know elderflowers: you can smell them a mile off. They're on every footpath, every housing estate, every street. Someone in your road will have one. I have two, pretty black elders with pink flowers, but they're mostly just a big green bush or tree, with creamy yellowy white flowers that oftentimes smell disarmingly like cat wee.

In the interests of science and the pressing need to brew my own alcohol that doesn't taste of cat wee, I enlisted the help of friends. Kate "The nose" Walker has a fine snozzle that detects the vaguest hint of cat wee about any elder blossom. Likewise, my friend Tanya "The Brewhouse" Southern is able to spot a likely Elder at 50 foot. But what it comes down to in the end, I think, is the smell that YOU like. After a scientific assessment which involved inviting everyone I know round for a party and getting them to drunkenly sniff bits of my trees, I conclude that no one person has the same sense about a blossom. It's probably a bit like asparagus wee: either you smell it or you don't. I suggest then, picking blossoms that you don't mind the smell of, no matter what your co-picker might say.

You will need to pick 3 pints of blossom per gallon of intended wine, on as sunny a morning as you can find before they start going over.  As I only have 2 demi-johns going free right now (damn you dandelion wine!), I picked 6 pints worth. You are aiming for blossoms that are open, fully flowering but not going over, and to your sense of smell, nice smelling. You need more blossom, less stalk. So snip at the main stalk (elder flowers are umbelliforous) and then snip again to release all the little umbrellas of flowers. You want a full pints worth, but not crushed down, lightly pressed is good. You'll need some scissors. Elder is very sappy, the stalks won't snap.The picture here shows my mix of pink and white elder.

Once you've got them, the process is very similar to dandelion wine. Boil water, rinse. Boil water, cover, leave for 48 hours. Then, add 2lb of sugar per final gallon, and a pint of white grape juice per final gallon. This adds sugar and body to the final wine. Heat the mixture and dissolve the sugar in as much water as is necessary, top up to your final gallon amount. Add your wine yeast and nutrient, according to instructions. Pour into your sterilised demijohns, and plug with your airlock. And Leave. Leave. Leave. No, really, leave. LEAVE IT.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

By your kids' lunchbox shall ye be known.

Last month a survey (by YouGov) revealed that 48% of teachers had seen children come into school hungry. Not just wanting a bag of crisps, hungry. (reported in the Independent, here)  Many parents reading this will be saying to themselves, "Nonsense! How can the teacher tell anyway?". Here is how. Teachers are very aware of how your child is fed. And how they eat. As parents, we all know how you can tell the blood sugar has dipped in your darling by these well trusted signs: lack of concentration, tantrums, sleepiness, whining. It's partly that.  Every teacher loves the mornings, in the main, as the kids (should) have had a breakfast, are awake, and ready to learn. But we can also sense when a child isn't fed enough breakfast by these all too frequent signs. These come from my own experience in both primary and secondary.

If a child is eating a bag of Quavers after being chucked out of the car, that's probably the breakfast.
If a child (we're talking primary here) eats not only their own fruit snack, but the leavings of others, they've not had breakfast. If they stare longingly at the snack bowl all morning until snack time, that's a clue.
If a child drinks their entire water bottle by 9am, and then again, that's either diabetes, or hunger.
If a child eats paper, that's either pica, or hunger.
If a child is given food by their mates, the mates know. 

Similarly, here are some sad lunchboxes i've seen.
One slice of bread. That's all.
A shrivelled satsuma.
A jar of gherkins and a slice of ham. 
Those biscuits you get given in hotels and cafes, wrapped.

Now, it's all too easy to think to yourself that these people are idiots. But often, they are not. They are working or non-working parents in debt, trouble, and poverty. Often, just getting the kids to school is a real effort, and it's one they make because at school, the child is warm ( then the radiators at home can be switched off) and fed. Of course, most of these families will be entitled to free school meals, and let me tell you, thank God for that. It's often the one meal a day they'll get that isn't nourishment poor. But many many children who need school meals don't get them, for a while initially, because of many reasons. The parents English may be poor, the paperwork and benefit entitlement isn't there yet, the wage is high enough to miss out on the meals, yet low enough to leave the family in poverty. That's why the continuation of free school meals for the needy is essential, the roll-out and publicising of them vital. The difference in a child who has eaten well, post lunch, is palpable. Similarly, the child who has eaten poorly at lunch, whether through lack of food or too plentiful a portion of hyping up sugary food, will be the teachers nightmare. So it's a simple case for affordable, available school dinners. By these means, kids get fed, kids get educated, and kids in need are flagged up. Because there is, as every teacher knows, a correlation between kids who eat poorly and kids who wear the same clothes all week, and have shoes with sellotape on. Getting the kids fed also gets them into the system whereby they get help.

And then there's the other end. The fat end. The kid is well dressed, in clothes a good 4 sizes bigger than everyone else. They're loved. Too loved. Here are some lunchboxes i've seen.

Chocolate spread sandwiches, chocolate biscuit, chocolate bar. Sweet drink.
4 rounds of white bread, stuffed with cheese and ham, 2 bags of crisps, chocolate biscuit, token satsuma.  For a 5 year old.
A cold kebab. Yes, really.

The government , this one and the last, worries about childhood obesity, as well they might. It linkes to adult diabetes, early onset diseases of varying ilk, and much cost to the NHS. I live in an area of high childhood obesity, and it's not nice to see kids of 5 waddle as they are dropped off at the school gate by their parents, in cars, looking like human duvets with eyes, squashed into the seats. Yes, the school rules say no  nuts and no fizzy drinks, but it takes a superhuman dinnerlady to wrestle a coke bottle from a screaming Chardonnay-Leanne. And to a certain extent, if the kid eats policed salad all day and then gets driven to the chip shop on the way home what's the point? I've had that kid in my form group. I've seen that kid in my childrens class. I've seen the child who can't physically get on the chair. The solution is not more PE. Fat kids don't like it, and it doesn't work. All it does is destroy their confidence. To my mind, it takes a strong school to enforce a healthy regime, and unfortunately, under this government, it's unlikely that schools will get the back up to do this, Gove having recently released all Free Schools and Academies from the Healthy Eating requirements, ( see here) the free market and possibility to get Burger King into school canteens being more important to him than health. Parents should brace themselves for school dinners in these schools to get worse, and more expensive. Which is shocking. Along we go to the American Way, with Coke sponsoring canteens and McDonalds flogging burgers in schools. And it could be so much better. I can only tell you how much I loved the changes in my own students once the school I taught at banned outside takeaways, students going out for lunch, emptied the snack machines, and revamped the canteen. The students moaned, and one of us had to be on Burger King duty for a while ("No. No. NO. Go back to school"), but they accepted it.

And then, there's the problem end. Any secondary teacher will be able to come up with at least one example of the girl who you catch throwing away her sandwiches, her lunch. The dim one I caught putting them in my bin. Repeatedly. As she shrank. Reported, sorted. The girls flushing their lunches, chucking their lunches, giving away their lunches. Fainting. Yes, I know she's putting some carefully artistically nibbled crusts back into the lunchbox, but she's NOT EATING. At least one case every year for my teaching career.

So, the teacher sees. But what can the teacher do? I had a fruit bowl, i'd sneak the needy apples and so on. I had a cereal bar collection in my drawer, on top of the collection of school shirts from Primark. I donated. I provided a shoulder for the waddling one who feared PE and left carefully placed leaflets for her, word in the ear for the Food Tech teacher and a slow process with Mum. I cranked the wheels of care into motion with the self-starving ones. I fretted. And now as a mum I fret. I argue the toss with daughter and refuse the Rolos until the tangerine is gone. I stuff son's lunchbox with the tuna and rye bread he loves, and allow a sugary yoghurt if the fruit is eaten. I negotiate and hope I don't give them a complex. I cook breakfasts (in my experience, the ten minutes longer it takes to whip up scrambled eggs is well worth it in terms of longer term morning nutrition) and demand they eat them. I know the teachers and dinner lady see it. I'm glad they do.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Oh, friends, Ta muchley.

I have had a Month. One of those months where everything has been stressful, awkward and meanly aggravating. Financial necessity requires me to work, and pore endelessly over bank statements, denying them ice-creams and losing my temper about it. It also requires me to meal plan to a tomato skins breadth, and this results in shouting and fighting at the table ("I HATE this food! Can I have a yoghurt?" NO! they are for your LUNCHBOX and there are precisely 5 of them!) It also requires me to take on work, so I am exam marking ( hollow laugh from anyone who has ever done this). This also requires me to take out my textbooks and spend the evenings swotting up on Metternich and Pre-unification Italy, not to mention Revolutionary France and pre-unification Germany, Cold War Europe and Vietnam. This results in husband watching too much TV, us not talking, and me stressing about how much I need to know to know how much the students don't know.

So, marking an exam will result in me going crazy and the in-laws having the kids for days over half term, despite being deaf and not admitting it and too old to cope for more than a few hours at a time, and Me not drinking for a month, staying up late, marking, and Me fretting about everything else in the meantime. And Me still cooking, cleaning, school running, and doing everything else. And Me collapsing in heap.

I have not worked in so long i've forgoten how to be brainy. I know I know this. I know I am capable. But i've forgotten how to be confident that i'm capable. I know, perusing the mark scheme, and that feeling in my gut when I see a student completely pass by the fact it's METTERNICH writing the document, that screams "D" grade!" , that I can still do this. But still, my primary talent is wiping arses, and peeling the white bits off of tangerines so they are edible to Veruca Salt, aka My daughter. I used to be someone. I used to be able to juggle jobs and teach myriad classes of varying talents and now I am panicking about exam papers and incapable of wiping arses and dealing with the school run and marking at the same time. Of course, daughter has picked this time to have a "pushing boundaries" moment and reduce me to tears about food, and yes, doing a poo. At the same time as frantically reviewing post-Napoleonic Europe, i'm mainlining Sears and any info on toileting problems I can find, trying to book a hospital appointment for a poo problem. Son picks this time to get put on ther naughty cloud, for the first time ever,highlighting the "MY MUM DOESN'T GIVE ME ATTENTION" vibe in the house.

So, cheap sausage meat dishes, combined with child pressure, and self hate have combined to make me feel like the world's worst mother over the past few weeks. Not to mention the worlds worst partner ("Yes, i'll be up in a minute, i'm just channelling Robespierre"). So thank God for friends. Who plied me with wine and fed my kids and got me a bit tipsy too early on a Friday. And so have ended my day quietly and tipsily, with cider in the bank, and a bit of bucked uppedness. An unlikely bunch, one says "Luv", another is Northern, another from Surrey, all afloat in Fenland, and all prepared to ply me with wine and stroke my worrisome ego.

Now all I need is a job in school hours that pays properly, and a husband who will share the domestic chores equally, and kids who won't mind if I go out to work. And pink elephants on parade.

Friday, 11 May 2012

I just want to stay home and watch Bargain Hunt: what to do when your kids start school?

If anyone asks me "Well, what will you do, come September?" again, i'll brain them. Because daughter is due to start school, she's got her place. She's good to go, with bro. And i'll be, well, what? Naturally, everyone has an opinion.
It seems to be this:  I must get a job immediately. Or I am somehow, despite getting no benefits at all, a drain on the state, and my kids will grow up not having a work ethic, despite seeing their father work all week every week. And me do all the "non-work" at home. The public, and especially the government, seem to view the starting of school as the starting guns for mothers to rush back to full-time employment, and bugger the kids. They can be flung into breakfast clubs and after school clubs. It's GOOD for them, right? You don't need to be a mum when they start school! The school does it!

Wrong. Mum work does not end when the kids start school. Your reception aged child will not suddenly stop needing you. They won't pop off to after school club happily and wave you goodbye in the morning. They'll be knackered, grumpy, tearful, and yes, NEED YOU MORE THAN EVER. And even come years 1-13, there will still need to be a mum to chivvy along the homework, serve up the fishfingers. And more than that: empty the school bag,deal with the friendship crises, the teacher grabbing you after pick-up for  "a word", the after-school judo/swimming/beavers/rainbows, friends round for tea, after-school matches. And guess what,Shiny Dave and Government? Outside of Eton, all this happens between 3 and 6 pm, some of the hours i'm expected to be at work.Not to mention what happens when one of them is ill.

So, the solution is to find part-time work? Of course. I'd LOVE a job-share. I'd be fine with doing just one school-run and sorting out arrangements for the other. That's a good compromise. Can I be a part-time teacher, please? I'd be great, honest. I'd still do all the meetings and parents evenings. What's that you say? You can get an NQT for peanuts who'll work full-time? So sod me? Oh. Let me look in the TES. FT,FT,FT,FT. 20 miles away, 35 miles away. Oh. And if anyone says to me that teaching is a family friendly job, I might nut them. How about I use all my educaitional qualifications to work in the public sector? That's pretty Mum-Friendly, right? What's that you say? It's all been cut to ribbons? My library qualification is worth nowt without libraries. Factory work, then. I'm overqualified? How about I be a TA? A Teaching Assistant? What do you mean, no? I'm overqualified? I won't keep telling the teacher what to do, honest! Supply teaching? Oh, you have Cover Supervisors now. And TA's, who are not teachers, doing it. I see. Why can't I keep on doing it voluntarily? Do I really need to answer that?

So what, then? Watching Bargain Hunt after cleaning the loo it is.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Why girls hate PE

So, a new report tells mums what they already know. Girls hate PE. The media act as if this is a shock. The pundits come out and tell us that's why we're fat. The Government harumph and say "more exercise.....(wobble jowls, sell off school playing fields....)". I can tell them that no amount of wagging the finger and ticking off will EVER make girls like PE beyond a certain age. Here's why.

Periods. No-one ever feels like trotting round a field running the 800m when they are petrified that a bloody stain might start showing through their unflattering sports shorts. Or feels like tennis when they have cramps. Or feels like netball when their boobs hurt. But you have to do, oh yes. The PE teacher says so. She says "It's only a period, get on with it". But it isn't only a period. It's a horrible hormonal time fraught with sheer agony that your tampon will drop out if you run, or spill out of your bag, or, god forbid, you are wearing a TOWEL and that bitch in your class sees it and tells everyone you are on and really heavy when you get changed. And then there's the awful thing of having to tell the unsympathetic teacher that you are on so you can miss a shower. And she checks it on a chart and questions your regularity, because, you know, the PE teacher is bound to be right, and your hormonal teenager  body couldn't possibly just be all over the place. So you not only have a period, but you have to justify it. In front of everyone.

The PE teacher themselves. Now, I know some people have lovely PE teachers. But i've never had one. I did have a charming individual who dressed herself up in 4 layers of Puffa jacket and waterproofs before sending us off on a cross country run in the snow, in tiny skirts, though. While she followed us on the road, on a moped. And I hoped she would die. And then the other one who refused to believe that I had hay-fever induced asthma until I collapsed halfway round the running pitch. No, i'm sure there are some who instill confidence into ALL girls, not just the ones who are genetically favoured enough to be able to catch a ball and run.

The reliance on natural talent. Now, I know that some students are more academic than others. I taught them. I would always aim for the student to get the grade that was their highest. I'd help them. I'd chivvy them along and insist on revision sessions where appropriate. But I accepted that sometimes, a grade F candidate wasn't going to be all that good at writing a history essay. Now, in PE, some people are going to be good at running and catching and so on. But quite a lot are not. Why not just encourage them to do the best they can and try? Or, you could force them into a posistion where they will fail, be hit on the head with the netball they failed to catch, and them berate them loudly for it, and cause their classmates to hate them for making them lose the match. If I did that in my history class, i'd be going  "Oi! OI! You there! This proposistion that the Nazis came to power because of Germans is NOT GOOD ENOUGH! Where's your economic argument? Your social argument? You've let your side of the class down. Look at them! They wanted to WIN the argument and now they've LOST! Sit down. Why you just don't understand hyperinfaltion is beyond me. Let's pass the argument over to team B, who understand Weimar Germany".

The teenage body.
the last time your body felt like a teenagers, if you are a mum, was the week after you had your baby. When you looked at yourself in the mirror and went "OH MY GOD! I just hate myself. I'll never be normal again. What is that bit? that ....BIT. It's....flash! Fat! FATFATFAT! Jesusican'tgooutagainever" Or, if you are me, when you turn 40. Now imagine being forced to get changed in front of 60 other girls, some of whom are perfect. And then run around and get sweaty in front of them. When you're a bit fat. Even if you're not really, you just think you are. Imagine not having any boobs, then suddenly getting them, in about a fortnight, and being forced to play netball. And the boys passing by and one of them shouting "Fucking Hell Dunkley, where did they come from!" Yes, it was enough to put me off jumping ever again.

The lack of choice. Oh, I know that hockey, netball, tennis and flinging themselves round over a gym float boats for some. But not for me. I wasn't blessed with co-ordination or grace. I couldn't give a monkeys about balls, and used to run off to the farthest corner to "field" at rounders, where I would read instead. I was, apparently, "useless" at sport. Except, not. I was hugely good at riding, and did a lot of very successful three day eventing. And I was pretty good at cycling. I was a great endurance swimmer. But my PE teacher knew none of this. Similarly, loads od girls go to dance classes out of school, where they fling themselves about mightily, and sulk in PE lessons. Why not introduce dance, yoga, pilates, riding, cycling, skateboarding, scootering, BMX? Oh, you've only got one measly school pitch and no money. Hockey it is, then.

PE makes you work in a team. Not if you're crap at games, it doesn't. It made me universally reviled. However, I did take our debating team to National finals. And i did pretty well in geek / Dungeons and Dragons club too. And school plays and youth theatre. All of which  needed prettty good team work, only without the risk of physical damage and being in the cold.

It is beyond me why we cannot pass over the responsibility for fitness to the students. Teach health and biology. By all means have space in the timetable for games. But give students the option to go offsite and do something they're interested in. If games had been scheduled for the end of the day, and i'd had an "off-site" pass, i could have gone home 2 hours earlier and ridden a horse. Or gone cycling. Dance classes could be held earlier. Village halls could be utilised, variety introduced. Or, why not let students who don't like PE and would rather die than do it, do, as my sixth form did, social community work instead. I spent 2 years delivering meals on wheels instead of playing hockey, and I loved it. Digging over a community garden would be physical work and of benefit to all to boot. Our definition of what PE is in very narrow, and whilst I appreciate that those who are physically excellent should have the opportunity to excel, I really can't think that forcing as many un-physical kids to undergo torture in public as we do daily, is a good thing.

I do still exercise. I bike, I walk, I swim. But I will never, ever pick up a hockey stick.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Get the dandelions bubbling.

So, if you followed the last installment, you will now have in your posession a big soaking pile of dandelion petals, a bucket, some yeast, yeast nurient, and some oranges.

First, take an enormous pan, or fill several pans. Drain the soaked dandelion petals out, leaving you with yellow wee looking water that smells odd. If it smells dreadful, and makes you reel away, don't use it. It should smell of dandelions, that is, not especially beautiful, but not vomit inducing. Don't worry, it will smell nicer soon.  Peel the zest from your oranges. I use 5 per gallon. Add the zest to the water (technically, this is a "must" now). Boil the concoction for 10 minutes. It will start to smell orangey. Add the juice from the oranges. Stir. Strain the zest and any little remaining bits from the must into your final bucket, which you will have sterilised. The water will be hot, be careful!

Now add your sugar, 1 kilo per gallon of the final wine amount, (not the amount you have now). It's a lot, I know, but all the sugar turns to alcohol! Stir to dissolve. Now you will need to fill the bucket up with a mixture of water, hot and cold, to your final intended amount of gallons, aiming to get the temperature between 25-30 degrees ( a little warmer than blood heat). Add 1 heaped teaspoon of yeast per gallon, and 1 teaspoon of yeast nutrient. Stir well. Plop on your airlock, and wait. After 8 hours, mine was bubbling ( see picture). Now wait. Wait. Wait for months, listening to a blip of bubbly yeast air. It'll be ready for Xmas. Yes, I know. But it cost you a bag of sugar.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

And then the dandelions became wine......

Traditionally, the day for picking dandelions to tuen them into potent booze is meant to be 23rd April, St Georges' day. But, given the global warming effect and my desperate need for practically free booze, we started early. But you can do it next week. Here's how.

Pick a sunny forecast day. Dandelions need to be picked when they are fully open, and the sap has risen in a suitably Shakespearean and bawdy way, to make you feel all springy. So do it between 12 noon and 2pm, take a long walk with your kids, and the neighbours kids, and use them as slave labour, after carefully showing them the difference between an open, shut, and halfway dandelion head. You need to pick the heads, not more. And although you are going to pour boiling water on them to do away with any dog, or otherwise, wee, I personally felt better about avoiding the dog crap filled walkways of my home town to gather them. So I headed to dog free areas, and got them out of peoples gardens. A particularly rich picking was the old peoples home lawn, and they especially enjoyed me ordering the kids about. You will need FAR MORE than you thought to make a few gallons of wine. I am following the recipe from a friends dad to make 5 gallons, but you can scale down accordingly. To make 5 gallons, you need a gallon of dandelion heads. That is quite a lot.

Take them home. Praise the children, and get them to wash their hands. They will be sappy and sticky. Tell them, now, that dandelions are "pis-en-lit" in France, so that they worry all night.  Then, set to work pulling the petals off. You need the yellow, not the green, although a little bit of green won't kill you, or the wine. You will end up with just short of a gallon of petals. They look very pretty. Discover, too late, that you should have put rubber gloves on, and your hands are now bright yellow.

Sterilise a lidded bucket, or brewing bucket. Basically, you need a clean, lidded bucket to do this bit and if you don't have a brewing bucket, nip out in the next 5 days and get one, while your petals stew in any old (clean) bucket with a lid on. I sterilise with boiling water and a good scrub, but some people like to use Campden tablets. Then pour boiling water all over your petals, to fully cover, and leave it. Discover, too late, that you should not have used a white jug to put the petals in. It's now yellow.  For 2-5 days. That's it, stage one done.

For stage two, you will need 16 oranges, 5 kilos of sugar, yeast nutrient, and wine yeast. And that lidded, brewing bucket. Go get some!

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Brew your own and stick two fingers up at Osbourne.

Now, aside from looking like an amorphous mass of Piers Morgan and John Cusack that's popped out of a pod from "The Fly", Mr G.Osbourne is also a very mean man. Not content with giving money to the richest and taking it away from the plebs, he also has to ruin any fun we might behaving in the meantime by pricing a Greggs out of our league and making it nigh on impossible to get a decent bottle of wine for under a fiver. It's not enough to be poor, the poor must be sober, and try to get thinner, while they scrape their barrels and weep at the return of the 1980's.

I like a drink. I like a glass of wine in the garden, lounge or kitchen. I like rose, white and red. I don't believe that having a drink stops me being a parent. I don't overdo it and end up passed out on the floor for school pick up time. I don't have any other vices left, and I'm rather fond of this one. I am naturally weaning myself off the booze by dint of getting older anyway. I fully expect to be practically teetotal and only having an eggnog at Xmas by the time i'm 75. So I do rather resent being told, by a fat champagne sipping Tory that i'm to cough up more money per unit on account of the government telling us off for being drunks, and wanting more money in their greasy little fat paws.

My solution is to brew my own. I can brew 30 bottles for the princely sum of 16 quid. It's not scary, and the wine is quaffable, if not princely vintage. Here's what you need to start. The best way to start and gain confidence is by using a wine kit, which has all the little packets of yeast and finings in.
2 brewing buckets with, airlocks, taps and lids
2 wine kits
6 bags of sugar.
That's it. The buckets cost about a tenner, all in with taps and airlocks, and the wine kits start at about 15 quid, and range up to 30 quid for posh ones. So your first laying out of money might be a bit of an "ow", but once you've got the kit, you've got the makings of wine forever, cheaply. The kit often turns up at carboots, too.
In bucket one, mix up the wine kit, add sugar and yeast, wait 10 days. Rack it off into second bucket. Add finings (in a little packet included in wine kits. It's the stuff that clears the wine and makes it see through rather than cloudy). Mix up other wine kit in now empty bucket, start process again. Wait 5 days for wine kit 1. Drink. It's that easy. All you need is a big ladle to stir, some idea of cleanliness (boiling water sterilise everything before you start), and a small amount of patience. Oh, and place to put a bucket of booze. It works best indoors because it needs a fairly warm and fairly consistent temperature. But that said, both my buckets are in the kitchen, and that fluctuates pretty much, and all the wine has been fine.

The next step is to move onto Country Wines. That is, alcoholic stuff you make from stuff that is free. Like dandelions, blackberries, elderflowers. The season is upon us for dandelions, and so once there are enough upon us to gather sufficient petals, i'll be making it and blogging it. If you'd like to do it alongside, you'll need a demijohn, wine yeast and a bung/airlock. Go to a carboot and rummage for some now. You'll also need patience, since once made, this wine needs 12 -18 months to be clear and drinkable. Although, if memory serves me well, it's lethally intoxicating. My nan used to serve hers in tiny glasses and lay cushions down first. And then, once the dandelions are done, it's elderflower champagne.

I might be impoverished, but I can at least be pished. Seek out a bucket, for next week is dandelion week.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Iron Age settlements and playing pitches make me happy.

Some time ago, I blogged about the proposed development at the back of my house, on Tithe, in Chatteris. It is part of the wholesale plan to vastly increase the population of the Fens and build on the remaining "island" land in the Fen market towns. Where there is currently field, there will be 1,000 plus houses, probably all little horrible boxes labelled "executive". The huff and puff about Section 106 and how it will, of course vastly improve our town to have so many new houses plonked in it, at the same time as all our buses, police, and other services are disappearing, is huff and puff that doesn't impress me one tiny jot. I am a mother to a three and 5 year old, and I can tell when politicians are lying without even asking them to stick their tongues out (imagines Cameron sticking his tongue out, me going "Yes, Mr Cameron, you're lying!" to gasps from the cabinet and whispers of "how does she do that?!" Always impresses the kids, as do my bat ears). 

But the one silver lining about the development is that there has to be archaeological work beforehand. The investigative trenching on Tithe showed there were probable Bronze Age settlements that were possibly worthy of further investigation, and possible mitigation onec work started. However, the trenching and pre-build investigation was done for the corporation who want to build, and as such, the trenching done was the bare minimum, approx. 2% of the entire plot, and that it showed up anything, even using old finds as a guide, was a miracle. And this is why I am very pleased that the Secondary school are extending into the same plot. Their privately owned plot abuts Tithe, and is being made into an all weather pitch. Being school, and therefore Council owned, the pre-build investigation was not as commercially driven (although it IS being driven, very rapidly by bidding concerns: the project has to be completed within time frame for the school to get the money). Hence, many more trenches were dug, a vastly superior percentage to that on Tithe. And lo! They have hit what looks like an Iron Age settlement. 

Iron Age settlements in the Fens are a much rarer breed of post hole. Until 1978, and the Fenland Archaeological Survey, it was more or less believed that Iron Age settlers hadn't made it to the Fens. The water level in the Fens was at it's highest in the Iron age and hence the modern fen-edge essentially marks the lower limits of Iron Age settlement (c. 700BC-50AD).  Chatteris has already been noted as being fairly replete with pre-historic archaeology, having yielded some 13,000 Iron Age artefacts from a substantial prior digs at Langwood Fen and Stonea Camp, which also threw up Roman habitation finds, suggesting continuous habitation. ( a quick search of the Heritage Gateway will show you what they found). This latest find can only add to the information on the area. Iron Age peoples came AFTER the Bronze Age blokes mentioned a lot at the Must Farm site, and were in all likelihood different peoples from different areas. I'm not up on the latest methodology, but it used to be thought that the Iron Age people of Fenland were a "Third Wave" of immigrants of Celtic and Germanic stock, responding to overcrowding of their territories by expanding, upwards towards Peterborough, at around 50AD. A lot of the Iron Age finds in this part of Fenland are from that later period, merging with Early Roman.  But this site seems to be an Early Iron Age site, and so it's that bit rarer. Whether it marries up with the previous finds, I don't know. Either way, it's a joy for me to know that my back garden field now has a recognised Iron Age settlement on the edge of it, even though it will shortly be a playing pitch. 

So, to the find itself. the very excellent Stephen Macaulay showed me the site. He is there as part of the Oxford Archaeology East team, who are confusingly named, like much of the "sort-of" public sector now, in a fashion that makes it almost impossible to tell that they are in fact Cambridgeshire County Councils Archaeology Unit, and hence responsible for the archaeology remit prior to builds as part of the planning process. The mitigation given in this instance was, as i've mentioned, extremely limited due to tight time constraints on the build and bid money, so the team have had to excavate and work very quickly, a bit like the bods on Time Team, only without Tony Robinson being not funny and the shouting and fake relief after they find something. After the flash and unique pictures  from Must Farm last week, inevitably the Iron Age settlement found here is constrained to suffer by comparison, but it's no less beautiful. Much of archaeology is in fact scraping away at things that don't look much like anything in dire weather for shit pay, it's love they do it for. And what we have here is: 

Signs of settlement, postholes, and lots of little white notes marking where things have been found. 
 Iron Age pottery shards. Alright, they don't look much, but they're a little bit of pre-Roman in your hands.
 You can clearly see the dips and bowls left by the settlers here, along with postholes.
 More of the same, cleared areas, possibly used for storage.

A section of a ditch that runs in a line out past the site, towards Tithe. This could be Roman or Iron Age, if Iron Age, which hopefully before they have to fill the site, they'll pinpoint, it points to the settlement being quite large, with purpose built ditches.

For me, the sheer joy of having a bit of pre-history at the bottom of my garden is made all the more fantabulous by the fact that this clearly holds out hope for the archaeology at Tithe once the development begins in earnest being of some import. The fact that Iron Age finds have popped up here points towards this small section of Chatteris being constantly populated from Bronze Age to Roman times.The view I see from my window is less watery than the one they saw, but the skyline was no less long, and the outlook no hillier. Just knowing that Stephen has found this has started the ball rolling for me: now the trick will be to ensure that this site, and eventually, Tithe, get the publicity and support they deserve. Last week, it was almost galling for me to have to say that big business were supporting archaeology. At Must farm I was placed in the position of almost needing the expansion of building in the Fens to allow the dig at Must Farm to prosper. Here, I am again in the situation that the steamroller of Toytown houses must be driven across the fields by Melton, to allow us to access the wonder underneath the fields. I do find it difficult. I find it hard to accept that knowledge and learning about our pre-historical past has to be reliant on funding from business, and entrenched in planning and growth. But while it is, it's definately going to be my business to do my shouty best to keep the work of the archaeologists in peoples' minds, and to be an annoying person arguing, where there is evidence, for mitigation and community involvement. I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting both Stephen and Mark (from last week), and what shines forth from both of them is how utterly they love their jobs. How i'd love to be able to hand them both a big Lottery wad of cash and free them and their teams from their planning and business constraints. But in the meantime, all I can do is say watch this space, and watch the earth under you. Who lived there before you did?

Next blog (or the one after, hey, i'm disorganised) i'm hoping to write a little about the  Jigsaw programme of community archaeology. That's if son has got over the Pox.

Previous blogs on archaeology and Tithe:

Friday, 16 March 2012

Must Farm, Whittlesey. Archaeological heaven in Fenland.

When you teach history at school, it starts with the Normans, in the main. You might get a little tickle of Vikings and Saxons in primary school, but History Proper starts with William I, and he was French. There's a necessary nod to the Romans, but they're, well, the Romans. You can't ignore them. They built the roads. But the rest of British Pre-history is swept aside in a gallop that lasts three years from the Normans in Year 7 to defeating the Nazis and living a Cold War in Year 9.  Even Schama, who professes to tell "Our island story" and , along with Niall Ferguson, declaims a desire to re-introduce a love of History and narrative to history in schools, relegates pre-history society to one measly chapter in his 4 volume story that is 10% mesolithic-iron age and 90% Romans. Think about it. Neolithic-Bronze age equates to 8000-800BC. It's a LONG TIME to ignore. But it's just people in loinclothes eating mud, right? Till the Romans came along?

Er, no. But most assuredly, apart from that tranche of people who admire that long haired Scottish TV historian who pops up for pre-history on the odd occaision,  for varied reasons, this is what a large amount of people think. Civilization, farming, clothing, probably speech, started with the Romans. Except not. Complex communities, trading between countries, wars, farming, were undoubtedly happening before togas appeared. And Fenland is uniquely placed to show just how amazing these pre-history societies were.

Bronze age scythe. I love the screw hole.
A fantastic combination of geology and business has combined to preserve, and then explore, one of the biggest Bronze age and earlier archaeological sites in the UK, if not Europe. Must Farm, in Whittlesey, is owned by Hansons, the brick makers, who use it as a quarry for the Fenland Blue Clay. Hansons are able to dig deep, way down below the usual scoping trenches offered in a planning application, and way, way back, the first inklings that Must Farm held something special were proven correct when the Bronze age platform, a bridge between islands, was revealed in 2006. Since then, the dig has thrown so much pre-history wide open that academia will have to seriously reconsider some of the perceptions of Bronze Age life. The site  is a gigantic 3D experience, with a Bronze Age River channel, and digs revealing land back to a Mesolithic base, sloping seawards.  The dig aims to push further back. What becomes apparent is that Fenland was not ever thus: it was once dry and forested, then wet, then dry, then wet.(I think i've got that right....) In the Bronze age, the (vast) time period that the majority of the dig currently focuses on, the population existed on islands, with bridges between them.

Riverbed, showing fishing traps.
It is at once clear, as soon as you walk into the dig area, that these people were canny workers, exploiting the landscape. The river channel, although dry, is nonetheless clearly indicative of a working community, and you can see instantly how the river was utilised. The boats lie there, the channel is regularly dotted with fish traps and weirs. These could be contemporary, a mediveal, early modern and aquatically inclined fenlander of today could recognise, and use the fish traps, and probably make them. Effective then, effective now. It feels, in fact, as if the river has simply drained away, and if you whipped round the bend quick enough you might catch the last Bronze Age fisherman paddling away in his longboat. Of which there are many.

Longboats had been found, in Bradly Fen, and Peterborough, but not in this joyous amount. 8 so far and counting, this is clearly a race of water babies, and possibly seafaring ones (much of the Bronze age finds here relate to those found in Norway, there may well have been a link betwen the cultures, they may well have been, in fact, one culture). The boats are dug out, not fired out, mostly oak (with 2 ash) and carved. The flotilla contains probably one of the earliest examples of a log boat made from a single trunk, with a separate panel for the rear. Even to a complete novice like me, they can't fail to impress.

A great deal of domestic pottery, textile and implements have been found, including farming tools and cookware, all beautifully preserved, due to the clay and, a ruddy great fire. (The pot to the right shows food still carbonised in the pot). The platform bridge and the surrounds were quite clearly burnt in a huge fire at some point, and what we can't know, of course is why.Cooking gone wrong, or attack? When you look at the huge array of weaponry found, you can't help but think that the times were perhaps less calm than "Time Team" might have you believe. Less building bridges to meet and trade, than to attack and defend. There are hundreds of finds lining the dig,  some swords nicked and clashed with signs of battle,and this, combined with the amount of bone found in  the river channel, may lead you to conclude that it wasn't always farming and fishing the community concentrated on. No burial chambers or sites have been found, but plenty of bone and ceremonially broken swords in the river,  leading you to ponder whether the river was also a cemetary as well as dinner source.

Rapier. Not for playing with.
After a stomp around, and an enthusiastic commentary from Mark, the CAU chap, it was impossible to feel anything other than awe at the site, which is surely unique in Europe. Nowhere but Fenland has such a geological past, and nowhere else can you go back this far and cleanly to the past. The mussell shells I picked up from the river bed were from 800BC, but fresh. The gravel we trod on at one point was mesolithic. The clay pits have preserved it all. And industry has made this dig possible. Without our modern expansion and pressing need for brick and new housing, the quarry would not be here. The history would remain buried. And we need the development to go on for the dig to go on, which is funded purely by Hansons, as part of the dvelopment procedure. And they more they find, the more it costs. The more they find, the more important it becomes to continue. There is an almost impossible balancing act between the needs of business and the needs of the dig, but thus far it's holding. Mark was openly grateful to Hansons for the efforts they had made to accomodate the archaeology, and when you are onsite it's not hard to see why; it's a massive undertaking and the costs of keeping a Bronze Age boat preserved are not small.  But Hansons need people to keep buying bricks (and have recently laid people off) and need development to continue, for the quarry, and the dig, to continue. There is much much more to find, so I found myself in the unlikely position of wishing for some more toytown housing pods to pop up merely so I can see what else they dig up.

Oak longboat
What they dig and have dug up will be, eventually, housed in a variety of homes, most likely Cambridge archaeology and anthropology musuem, Whittlesey museum, and Flag Fen musuem and centre, so you will be able to see a lot of it. What I would like to see is a co-ordinated effort to ensure that the finds are part of an overview of Fenland aracheology, properly promoted and funded, so that tourists visit and locals are proud of what they walk on. I'd like to see the research published, and academia interested. Academic and business money is needed here. Fenland, lord knows, whilst a beautiful place when  you've got a ken for it, is not a universally acknowledge visitor attraction, it's no Norfolk Broads, but in Must Farm we see a frankly amazing heritage that is little understood and unexploited. I'd like to see schools on board, the local history section of GCSE focusing on the Bronze Age. I'd basically, just like to see it again. And catch a Bronze Age fisherman out of the corner of my eye.

 Map showing the platform (bridges) between islands, and the river channel in blue. Sword deposisitions are marked in yellow. Quite a bit of defending and fighting round bridges going on, I surmise !

You can see my flickr set of the visit here:

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The pox, it cometh.

All that glib talk of chicken pox parties, wanting your kid to get the pox, starts to look really stupid when your kid actually HAS the pox, because Chicken Pox, despite the fluffy name, is NO FUN AT ALL. A few posts ago, I wrote that daughter was feeling ill, feverish. Many days after, lo! The pox, it cometh. And here we are , 5 days in, still popping out new spots and feeling dreadful. Her, because she's itchy, some spots hurt, she's up all night, itching, and she's coughing, and me, because i'm up all night pasting on various ungents and comforting, inadequately.

Pox is hideous. Deprived of the ability to mix with other humans, a chess game of getting the other kid to school has taken up many hours, not least because he doesn't WANT to go now he knows his sister is sitting on the sofa watching Disney. She cannot mix with other kids or pregnant ladies and this means no mixing at the school gate while I drop son off, or evil looks result. So friends have to step in and relay between me and her at the outside entrance. General advice at the outside entrance to school has ranged from the unhelpful to the wise. The general belief is, I find, that Chicken Pox is a relatively harmless, almost fun week or so off of school, with a bit of a snivelly nose. This is far from the truth. Whilst some children may be rendered only slightly annoyed by it, others may be completely floored. In my case, 30 years ago, I managed to make my mother awestruck in silence (no mean feat) with my huge array of spots, which even, I recall, patterned the inside of my nose, mouth and eyelids. I was in bed for days.  My sister on the other hand, had about 20 spots and persisted in riding her trike up and down outside the bedroom door.

Fact is, that chicken pox is vaccinated against in many countries (but not this) for very good reasons. Firstly, for the harm it can do to pregnant women and their unborn children. Like German measles, the chicken pox sufferer may be relatively unbothered, but the recipient of the pox may not be, and it can result in babies being born with the pox, and various problems. So, it follows , that you should avoid pregnant women and newborns when you have it, or may be carrying it. But herein lies the problem. The incubation period of this very effective virus is such that it initially manifests as a cold, or flu like symptoms. Nobody keeps off of work or school for a snotty nose.Very unpopular you would be if you did. And yet this is exactly when the virus is at it's most contagious, BEFORE the spots appear. Hence, this week, son has been miserably attending school, resenting his sisters' placement in front of a Disney DVD while he learns more phonics, probably spreading far and wide the virus. But school policy doesn't say that he shouldn't attend. And he may not be carrying the virus. No point in him missing learning time and knackering the classes attendence figures for no reason. So you can see why vaccination is an attractive prospect to head this dilemma off.

The pox can also lead to complications in the case of children and adults with immune deficiencies, and, those with asthma who are regularly treated with streoids. As this includes most of  the children with asthma, this is quite a serious thought. Although having chicken pox in childhood has been linked to reducing your chances of the onset of asthma and related skin conditions, it's also been linked to worsening of asthma and severe complications if you catch it after a course of steroid tablets, or after an asthma attack or period of intense steroid use. Which means it's a risk to a lot of kids. And it's very nasty to get it as an adult, too.

After trawling around looking at various bits of research, I've found that the pox isn't as straightforward as you might think. For every kid who is biking about with it, there's one who ends up very poorly. There is conflicting advice about medication (ibuprofen, for example, has been shown to lead to complication with chicken pox,  leading to worsening asthma and possibly a link with necrotising skin disorders, and the advice as to whether to continue with steroid asthma medication is confused). Everybody has an idea about the best way to sort it out. Everyone has an idea about when it's contagious, before, after, during the spots. Everyone believes one or more myths about it. I was surprised to find out, for example, that yes, you can get it again. More than twice, even. No limit in fact. And no, the second time you get it, it isn't always shingles.  A good friend has racked up 4 counts of chicken pox. 13% of people have been reported to get it more than once. It seems that some people don't make those antibodies against it. And the incubation period is MASSIVE, 10-21 days from that snivelly cold. Daughter took 12 days to pop her first spot, and during that time, she was merrily away at playgroup, breathing it at people.  After being exposed to someone with the virus for 15 minutes, you are at risk. Playgroup can look forward to being quieter for a bit. It is not possible to catch shingles from chicken pox, and vice versa. Shingles is basically the remains of the childhood chicken pox virus re-activated at some point in your lilfe, possbly because your immune defences are low.You should never give your child aspirin when they have chicken pox as this has been linked to them getting Reyes Syndrome.And so on. For an everyday childhood disease, which is common, there's a lot of humming, hawing, and misinformation out there.

So what works?
  • Well, people told me calamine cream, which was as much use as, well, co-co-pops would have been. Aside from smearing itself over the bedsheets, it seems to have done little. Likewise calamine lotion. Piriton worked, but the dosage instructions ban you from using it as frequently as I found she has needed it. So I had recourse to other action. 
  • Baking powder is your friend. Tepid baths with 3-4 tablespoons of bicarb in, as often as you can. 
  • Make up a paste of bicarb and water, keep it in the fridge, paste it on particularly nasty spots.
  • Keep cool. Radiators, clothes, off. No waistbands, no pants. Spots appear where it is warm, in the nether regions and hairline, for example, so strip your child. Keep them out of the sun.
  • Witchazel for spots on the face. I found calamine too greasy, and annoying for the face. Witchazel works nicely and can be kept cool in the fridge. 
  • Peppermint tea in the bath, or as a cool solution to dab on spots. It also gives your child the satisfactory experience of bathing in what looks like wee. If, as below, they are having trouble weeing, this may be the best place to get them to do it.
  • Sudocrem. You know that big pot you got when your kid was a baby that you still have half of? It's that big for a reason. Add some tea-tree oil or lavender oil (only a few drops) to some, and dab on.
  • Keep cool inside. Ice pops, ice tea, cold drinks. Cotton sheets.
  • All natural fibres when you do get dressed. 
  • It's worse at night. Keep the room as cool as you can.
  • Cut your nails (they will be filled with sudocrem) and cut theirs. Right down.
  • The piriton makes them sleep. This is good.
  • Their appetite will vanish, particularly if they have spots in the mouth (yes, you can get them).

And here I am, 4 days into the spot appearing section (they can continue from between 5-10 days), and they show no signs of stopping. I found it enormously hard to find decent pictures of spots online, that were not too small or textbook. Here's my guide to the spot spotting.
  • The first spots will look like heat bumps. Daughter started with 5 or 6, round the neck. I thought it was heat rash.
  • After a time (10 hours in my case) the first signs will have developed into water carrying blisters. There will be more of them. 
  • They can vary in size. Enormously. One on daughter is the size of a 5p. Most are the size of a matchead. 
  • After the first few days, you will notice that the older spots are crusting over, but new spots will still be popping up. So you'll have some pink blistery ones alongside crustier, darker ones.
  • I'm on day 4. I have a wide range of heat rash-to-be spots, blistery spots, and crusty spots. The crusty ones itch. They also bleed REALLY easily. If you pick the kid up without due care, easily.  Be on guard to slap cream on, and hadle with sensitivity.
  • And a note. These spots go EVERYWHERE. Daughter has them on the scalp (washing hair with bicarb water helps, leave it to dry naturally), eyelids, inner ears, and down there. Going to the toilet is painful, so be sure to keep the child well watered, as dehydrated pee is painful. If you see a spot appearing on the actual eyeball, or if any get infected, go to the GP, as it's dangerous. But however nasty the spots "down there" may be to consider, they are normal.

So, I no longer, after a long three nights of hourly wakings plastering on cream and bicarb paste, and listening to daughter wee crying, think of chicken pox as a painless childhood illness. Be prepared.  As one child crawls out of the poxy tunnel, the other one wanders in. He has a runny nose. See you after Easter.And if anyone can tell me why kids fall like flies from chicken pox round Easter, you win a half used tub of calamine cream.
Picture shows daughter unimpressed by Princess Jasmine, sleeping, IN THE DAY, which she hasn't done since she was 12 months. AND she went to sleep tonight. She's ill. Note the spots round the ears, hairline, sweat lines.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

I can't add. I could, I can't, I can. My Maths skills story.

Well, it seems we are a nation of mathematical idiots. Articles in all the press this week emphasise the fact that people in the UK can't tell what change to expect, are unemployable, and basically idiotic, although we can read (just). It's my belief though, that this is simply a faliure to take a maths GCSE, NOT a faliure in general. Here is my maths story.

A child genius (according to me and my mum), I was put into my English and Maths O Levels early at 12/13. It was assumed, I think, that as I was really very bright at English, I was faking my complete idiocy at maths. I wasn't. I got the English, failed the maths. Onto the very first, ever, year of GCSE (1988). Passed 10 GCSE's at A and B. Failed maths. Onto A levels. Took 4, passed 4, failed maths GCSE again. And again. Onto university, as thankfully, this was before a maths GCSE was compulsory to go, as they (sensibly) reasoned that to take a History degree, 4 A levels and 2 S levels were perfectly adequate. Here, I retook, and re-failed the maths as a favour to the education department and their investigation into inumeracy. After completeing a postgradute degree, I gave up. I then worked in a large university library, where I had budgetry responsibility for an entire subject department, and regularly used complex formula to determine, amongst other things, wastage, withdrawal of material and reprographic usage. I completed yearly investigations into use of books, worked out percentages, wrote financial end of year reports,  statistical analysis reports, library OPAC computer statistical reports, and generally used maths every single day despite not having a GCSE, without any major disaster.

But then I decided i'd retrain as a teacher. And a maths GCSE was compulsory. So I betook myself off to an evening course and related my sorry history to the teacher. Who promptly undertook to pass me. And lo! at the ripe old age of 28, I finally found a teacher who managed to explain to a very left brained person the right brained side of maths. He got me drawing fractions, imagining equations, and suddenly, for a brief period running up to the exam, I was maths wonderwoman. I dreamt maths. I drew maths. I bored people witless in the pub with maths. We had a debate about the paper to put me in for. Intermediate, I said ( you can get a C, but no more). Higher, he said. He took me out for many beers, and won. I sat the higher. I got an A. My mother still doesn't believe me.

Almost immediately after leaving the exam hall, all knowledge about quadratic equations left me. I found myself, in maths terms, almost exactly the same as I was prior to my mathematical genius being born. Except now, I could teach. So I did. I used my maths to demonstrate hyperinflation in Weimar Germany, to explain communism, the Tithe, the Weregild and taxation. And to write statistical reports. Every, sodding, job. In effect, the GCSE did nothing for me.

No, no. It's not that the GCSE did nothing. It's that the difference between a D grade (fail) and a C grade (pass) is nothing. As a teacher, I know that the crunch point comes when you decide what paper you are going to put the student in for. Lower means you don't expect anything much. Intermediate means they might scrape a C. Higher means that the school is happy for them to risk that League Table status. In any other subject the teacher makes the decision in YEAR 9, sometimes 10. Yes, you read that right. Your kid is already pigeonholed as they start taking the GCSE year(s). In History, one paper fits all, so I was often in the unique situation to see a student who was taking "lower" in all other subjects suddenly come into their own in Year 11, and acheive a B or C in history, which is not, believe me, an easy option. It's simply that, particularly for boys, the "on" switch happens later, and more slowly, for some. It became apparent to me that many, many students were in effect written off and denied the chance to attain a good grade simply because they might be late developers, or not have attained in earlier years. And for the sake of the league tables, schools do not want to risk a "fail". I suffered from blind optimism and bad teaching, other kids suffer from underestimation. So, the first thing to go is the assumption that all kids can be pigeonholed for GCSe paper selection.

Next up is the assumption that to get a "D" grade in maths is to fail. I got a D 5 times. I was a successful, financially responsible person in charge of budgets. Many, many people who bemoan the lack of mathematical intelligence in kids now would benefit from taking a look at what you need to do to get a"C". Frankly, everything you need to know to function as an adult is there at "D". Fractions, percentages, cash knowledge, statistics, measurements, all at "D". "C" is quadratics, trigonometry. Cleverer, yes. Utterly necessary, no.

And then, there's the teaching of maths. It's HARD if you are not a maths person, and it is very hard to make the subject thrilling. Furthermore, it's not the sort of thing that you can  catch up on if you miss a lot. I had months at a time off of school as a child, due to hospitalisation, and whilst I could catch up on reading, and even, indeed, get ahead (on on notable occaision I returned to school having read the entire reading scheme, and was afterwards allowed to bring my own books into school), it is very difficult to keep up with maths. Miss the first few lessons on percentages, and you stand a real chance of never "getting" it.

Add to that the fact that it's teacher relevant. Get a good one, you "get" it. Get a bad one, you don't. I am a perfect example of that. If, at 13, my teacher had shown me the simple tactic of drawing fractions and percentages, I might have had my on-swicth moment a good 15 years earlier.

Of course more people need to get maths. It's shopping, it's special offers, it's averages and pay slips, it's budgets and weekly shops and mortgages. But that is the true measure of worth. Teach money management, teach credit and percentage increase on cards. Your life is better if you can manage money. The ability to solve a quadratic equation, whilst fun, is not vital. Let's make it clear what makes an employable, numerate person. It isn't, always a "C" grade. It isn't, always, an "A" grade. Maths needs a revamp. If i were in charge (oh, please.....), i'd take the route of AS/A2. I'd hive off "real" math from the harder stuff. I'd get together a pass mark that was certified to say "this person can handle a budget". "This person can buy/shop/sell sensibly". Make a new maths pass mark.

That's not to say, mind you, that I don't utterly love my daughters invention of the number "eleventeen".