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An unsure start

11 Feb

locked-doorEarlier this week I read George Monbiot’s encouraging piece about rebuilding society from the ground upwards. Crammed with examples of positive initiatives that local communities had devised and implemented themselves, the piece provided a glimmer of hope showing normal people taking control and making a difference, slowly healing fractured communities and as a result building tolerance, inclusivity and empathy in their local area. A powerful legacy: what that comes down to is making the everyday world a more palatable place. And doing this breeds enthusiasm to do it more. As Monbiot puts it, “a dense, participatory culture that becomes attractive and relevant to everyone rather than mostly to socially active people with time on their hands”.

And then, then, only hours later, it’s back to the usual frustration as I read a piece about the accelerating pace of Sure Start Centre closures. Now, these are not community initiatives, but they are initiatives designed to help the community, so their closure runs in direct contradiction to the hope-filled narrative that supporting people at grassroots level will generate greater returns and build a community that people living there can be proud of.

It’s not a direct correlation, Monbiot’s concept of rebuilding society and Sure Start, but it’s close enough to be a tangible example of the consistent lack of focus from the current government on supporting people to make change within the minutiae of their lives which will be magnified to much greater change as time passes. When I lived in Walthamstow through the dizzying disorientation of a first baby, social activities organised by Sure Start provided an excuse to leave the house that I didn’t have to find the wherewithal to arrange myself; and I know that for many the organisation performed way more crucial roles than that. For people who don’t have family support in the vinicity, or an urban family to fulfil the same safety network role; for people who are struggling with trying to do the right thing in any aspect of childrearing; for those whose questions need personal not generic answers; or even for those who need to sit and nurse somewhere accepting that isn’t their own home, Sure Start was invaluable.

And now, with 350 centres closed since 2010 and a mere eight new ones opening; well, it’s clear that the support for so many adults at the start of a brand new lifestage, and children at the start of a brand new life, simply is no longer there.

This again symbolises the lack of attention to the vulnerable which is becoming the hallmark, probably the most lasting legacy, of our current government. The DfE says they are ‘committed to giving children a good start’, and claim that they are ‘investing a record £6bn in childcare per year by 2020 [which] includes extra support for disadvantaged families’, but if Sure Start is scaled back, and there is no sign of anything specific being implemented to take its place, what does this look like? The evidence – or lack of any – points to yet more empty words, and another void in communities at crucial lifestages.



Horton Hears A Who-am-I-to-be-silent?

30 Jan


I’ve not written on this blog for ages and ages. 

I’ve not written because I have been angry for a really long time, and so the urge to write has left me. This is because writing about what has made me angry will make me more angry about it; or writing about other things that still exist that don’t make me angry feels like fiddling while Rome burns. 

I haven’t simply been angry. I’m sad too, very sad. We will be the next generation that has to apologise to its children for the catastrophic disastrous mess, the ongoing motorway pile up of decision making that’s leaving our country, the services we hold dear, the principles our country is supposed to uphold, unrecognisable, decimated. And the same thing is happening globally on a scale which looks set to wreak even greater, perhaps irreversible, havoc. I have been uncomfortable that I have been inarticulate, but I have had nothing to say that has felt like it could address the torrent of horror unfolding, flowing into the future.

And as I say, it’s not just anger. A lot of the time what the news tells me leads to a sadness that creeps underneath celebrations and erodes the ordinary joys of life. Even feeding the birds in the garden, watching them devour what I give them to stave off winter starvation, has made me despair. What’s the point of supporting nature, I have thought, if the leader of the (allegedly) free world is a climate change denier with our own unelected Prime Minister in his pocket? They’ll die out soon as the ice caps melt and the air quality plummets (did I mention I was mired in negativity?); am I simply prolonging the inevitable?

This weekend, though, was a watershed for me. I need to fight through the silence. A wise friend asked me why I was not writing; I explained; she pointed out that now more than ever all voices, however minor and inconsequential (like mine – I have no illusions!), should be raised. No voice should stay silent against the rising tide of all that’s wrong.

In the shower, I thought about this. And a little sentence from a little book came into my head. Dr Seuss’s ‘Horton Hears a Who‘ – which is of course the story of the oppression of a minority group – the Whos, dwelling in miniscule Whoville – by a more powerful group, the Wickersham Brothers (this tale is ringing curious bells), a virtually voiceless group only heeded by one individual (the elephant Horton) who is himself oppressed and tortured for his support of the Whos (allegory alert!!) – has this sentence towards the end, as the Mayor of Whoville exhorts his citizens to action:

“We’ve GOT to make noises in greater amounts!
So, open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts!” 

It’s the participation of the single previously silent Who that makes sure the Wickersham Brothers hear the cries of Whoville. The Wickersham Brothers change their tack; they view Whoville as a town of living things and vow to protect them, those who are more vulnerable than they are but who have the same unequivocable right to life.

Okay, so I’m not Horton. It’s difficult to stand up as one person with no involvement in the workings of the political classes, and even less influence. I’m not very brave at all.

But I cannot be the single silent participant, however quiet my voice alone may be. I have to be an honorary Who. I have to raise my voice along with the other voices trying to be heard protesting against the horrors unfolding around us daily, until, like the Whos, there is a loud enough chorus to be heard. Time to be silent no longer.


3 Sep

Until about ten days ago I didn’t think much about a thirty minute bus journey and a ten minute walk to get to a destination. ‘Much’, on reflection, is an exaggeration. I don’t believe I considered it at all.

However over the last ten days I have considered little else, and it isn’t even my journey. It is of course the upcoming commute of L1, who starts ‘bigger school’ tomorrow. 

Rationally, I get it, the journey is nothing. A trip on a school bus with many people she knows, then a stroll through residential streets into the school gates. She is sanguine about it, just as she has been sanguine about this whole process to date. I have poured all my longing for everything to be ok, no, to be more than ok, to be great for her, at secondary school, and the worries this inevitably provokes, onto this 40-minute time period as by concentrating it so directly I don’t have space to consider all the manifold other aspects of secondary education that I should doubtless be more concerned about.

Never has a bus trip and a stroll felt more filled with peril.

Now, today, like everyone else who has cast even half an eye over the news, I have been confronted by someone else’s journey, and its terrible consequences, that have put all my small worries into perspective.

The knowledge of how blessed I am that I have my daughter to worry over has rarely felt more present. The fear I feel about the journey she is about to take – I imagine it – in fact, I cannot imagine it – magnified and expanded as these desperate families, thousands of them, contemplate their potentially fatal travel to what they perceive and pray to be a better life for their beloved children, the centre of their worlds. How dark and untenable must the lives they are leading be, if their only viable alternative is to flee in boats piloted by profiteers with less than zero regard for preserving human life, when the strong and distinct possibility of death is a consequence of that journey as likely as the possibility of a safe passage. 

What a thing to contemplate, as awful as Sophie’s Choice – a mother deciding which child to save – where the equally unbearable choice is ‘stay and suffer or leave and possibly die’. 

As my children get older, I understand increasingly that quite a lot of parenting is quelling your own fear of something horrible happening in order to do what you believe and know to be right, to be the best option for your children. When I think of the desperate refugees in these terms, it brings their plight sharply into focus. How could I bear making that choice? Yet daily these poor people do that and risk losing the centre of their worlds.

Safe in my world where right now my biggest concern is successful completion of an adventure by public transport, I feel too small and helpless to affect the cause of the scenes on all front pages today. Yet I am compelled nonetheless to add my voice to the chorus now driving for decisive action and concrete decisions. I hope our Government listens and finds the wisdom for discernible action not just excuses and deflecting responsibility.


Things I have learnt from my daughter

19 Jul

This week coming is L1’s final week at primary school. I know, she only started a week last Wednesday so I don’t quite know how we have come to this, but there we go.

In the last week she has embraced two nights of her Year 6 production, given it large at her leaver’s party and received her SATS results. This week of heightened and contradictory emotions comes on top of a year where she has had to process and recover from her first ‘proper’ disappointments. And she has approached each of these events with calm equanimity, unlike me, looming on the sidelines ready to pick up after a crisis that so far has not yet come, as she takes these milestone events in her stride.

She is able to process and explain her emotions, and she does cry and get angry, but she explains why. She is not afraid to say she doesn’t want to leave, and that she will miss her wonderful classmates terribly. But she is also able to accept that sitting alongside that is anticipation for the next step of her education and her life; she has no hang ups about the passing of time. She really does embrace the way things are, even if they are not as she expected, and as a result, she enjoys it. 

Life is positive for her despite it holding trepidation, uncertainty and a bed of roses where she has occasionally discovered thorns. 
Whatever Kool Aid she is drinking, I think I would like some of it please. Lots that I can learn from here.

No choice but long hours of childcare

16 Apr

Sun up to sun downAnother day, another study designed, it seems, to pile more guilt and ‘grass is greener’ urges onto working parents.

This Australian study says that children in pre-school daycare for long periods of time may fall behind educationally. The definition of ‘long periods of time’ is 21 hours a week, or more.

Like many working parents, M and I had absolutely no choice. On average, L1 was in pre-school nursery from 7.20am to 6.50pm four days a week, and sometimes five. I know how long that is in total because when we were planning what to do when I went back to work after mat leave I worked it out and sat down and cried.

Easy, perhaps, to blame this time in nursery on our decision to move just outside London zone 6 while working in Central London. This difficult call was made so we could be closer to my family, because we were lucky enough that our unavoidable absence during the working week could be mitigated to an extent by their proximity; and so we could live in a small community and hopefully make close connections which enabled our children – or child, since at the time it was only L1 – to have an extended network within that community to feel part of even though we weren’t around as much as we would have liked. But no, this distance is not to blame: when we lived in Zone 3, on the efficient and frequent (not being ironic here) Victoria line, we only ‘gained’ 45 minutes a day additional time with L1, most of which was eaten up by the drive between nursery and home, which was significantly longer than the one we had when we moved to Kent.

What was to blame was the absolute requirement, no, necessity, for us both to work full-time, and to work full-time in Central London because of the industries and career paths in which we had become entrenched. Retrain? Without a cushion of savings (and where, really, would they come from?) and without either education or personal skills for other career paths, this was neither straightforward nor practical. I know this since I investigated retraining as virtually anything that I thought I might have a chance at which could provide an improved amount of time with my girl, but found that no way would I be capable, would I be happy, or would anyone have me doing it – any combination of the list. And at the end of the day, since I had to earn, I needed to work in a field where I was most likely to be employed. So standard working hours it was.

I return, therefore, to one of my favoured themes. If this study is right – and I wouldn’t know, the Ls are who they are having had the amount of (excellent, high quality) childcare they’ve had, I can’t tell from my own statistically insignificant sample if they’re more or less able and achieving at school than they would have been had they been at home more – because they weren’t – then the only way to deal with it is going to be a sea change in attitudes towards and the feasibility of flexible working. And support will be needed for employers as well as employees in order for this to become a reality. Having sat in duality as an employer and an employee I know full well that businesses will need help to thrive in a new way of working just as much as employees will.

And the question, will it ever happen? I don’t think I want to tackle that, as I’m deeply cynical about whether those ‘in charge’ care enough about this issue to ensure it does. But my final thought is this. At the same time that this news was released I saw a Tweet saying that Finland tops global education tables and children start school way later than ours and go for shorter days. Having just returned from Helsinki I would argue that this isn’t just because of the education itself but is due to a variety of ‘quality of life’ factors. It isn’t education, daycare, or any of that which we need to address in a vacuum, its surely the importance those in charge of our country place on how we nurture the next generation that has to change.

Childhood should be free from test stress

13 Dec

I read earlier this week that the chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, and his sidekick (or is it the other way round – who is whose puppet?) Michael Gove (my views on him are well-recorded within this blog already, so here suffice to say that it’s good his name virtually rhymes with ‘loathe’) believe we as a country are lagging behind in education because we are not testing our children regularly enough to benchmark their progress appropriately.

I can’t see how more testing is going to enhance our children’s education – and I’m not just saying that as the mother of a child who ‘failed’ (give me a break) last year’s insane phonics assessment cos he kept trying to turn the fake words into real ones.

What will enhance our children’s education is replacing the funds deviated from state schools to set up ‘other’ establishments, giving our fundamentally superb state education system a chance to thrive again. What will also enhance our children’s education is the removal of the rigid, unimaginative and punative curriculum which means teachers struggle to inject variety into required set pieces and narrows down the chance for children to try new things and expand their educational and practical horizons.

But most of all, surely what will enhance our children’s education is not forcing tiny people to sit down and take tests. However well disguised they are, children know a test. Tests, marks, and ‘pass or fail’, they all mean something, even to a four year old, and many of the implications come with negative connotations. No child should be told they’ve ‘failed’. And don’t come at me with that alternative wording, ‘not met the required standard’, the ‘it’s not you it’s me’ of educational assessment. Children are under no illusions about what that means.

Some children aren’t good in tests. Some children are. All children have talents which they deserve to foster and grow without being dismissed as non-achieving before they’ve had chance to develop into themselves, to decide what that should be. To do that, they need to experience variety – stifled by our curriculum – and they need to believe in the unlimited potential of their future.

Generating an environment where this can happen is what will bump us back up the world education league table, not the requirement for children to be trained in taking yet more meaningless and tests.

The return to school: how was it for you?

7 Sep
Beautiful Lullingstone taken from the Kent County Council website

Beautiful Lullingstone taken from the Kent County Council website

Two days since the start of term, and the chance to draw breath and review what it was actually like to go from a summer full of fun and frolics to the simultaneous return of school and proper working hours, on the same day. The summer came skidding to a halt without grace or apparently warning, colliding straight into the return to normality as if it were a reinforced glass screen. The unavoidable divide, the unmissable change of pace and activity,

You’d think going through my sixth pre-school summer end, and my third with two heading off into full-time education, I would be used to it, I would have planned for it.

Well, no. I was in denial. The day before school went back I was at work, so the last holiday day for me and the Ls was the day prior to that one, where we spent hours with friends frolicking in a stream at Lullingstone Country Park, foraging through the woods for blackberries and ending up on the zip wire where even I had a go (it was excellent fun). The day was hot, relaxed and in keeping with the rest of the summer bulged out beyond the span of its natural hours. When the elastic band snapped back I realised with shock that we only had half an hour to get L1’s reading challenge completion certificate from the library; and buy lunchboxes, a new school bag and a new school jumper. Which required a return to Swanley and a diversion to a neighbouring village, a drive of in total twenty minutes’ duration. A feat of time-stretching once more, perhaps; miraculously we managed it, but that manic half hour epitomised my approach to return to school planning.

Actually, it’s all been okay. It really has. I’m sad to wave goodbye to the chill-out days and by the looks of things the actual summer as well: the weather’s turned simultaneous to term commencing. But as my father always philosophically, perhaps slightly depressingly, says, all good things must come to an end; and school term time and yes, work, bring plenty of good, challenging and exciting things with them, as well.