Archive for September, 2013

The Problem with Teaching Children about Africa

I want you to use your imagination and conjure up a picture in your mind for me.

By 2050 there may well be 9 billion people on the planet. The climate may well have warmed making crops harder to grow. And children will go hungry. Very hungry. The poorest of them first. I want you to imagine that poor, hungry child. But not because this is a rant about environmentalism or a counter rant denying global warming. I’m just interested in what you thought the child looked like. Where they were.

Was it “Africa”? Dark skinned, rural, tribal? A mud hut in the background?  It was for me the first time I read the nine billion people stat and yet nowhere did the article mention Africa. It was just the first thing I imagined.

Will global warming be kinder to poor children in India’s untouchable castes? The Phillipines typhoon belt? Central American former warzones? Rural Laos? I doubt it.

Yet the reason I even reconsidered the image in my head, thought about it more, made all twenty of you do a bit of imagining, was a question from the Boy.

“Why don’t they have any electricity in Africa?”

Luckily he asked my wife who started giving a simple answer in six year old terms about relative poverty and not having power stations. And probably some other stuff. By this point I’d tuned out and my brain was doing the sorts of somersaults that usually result in my having to leave somewhere hastily having completely insulted the wrong person. What I wanted to say was “of course they’ve got fucking electricity in Africa”. Only without the expletive.

I often think we identify with the victims of an atrocity if they are like us or close by geographically. That’s not to say we don’t empathise with other victims. Merely that if we can imagine what someone was doing at the time of a terrorist incident it becomes more real to us. The terrible events in Nairobi were shocking because people were randomly killed, men, women, children and foetuses. But as stories and pictures emerged they were not of a Nairobi many had considered. This was no crime and hunger ridden shanty town. Here were TV presenters and poets, people shopping for a special gift for a loved one. A children’s cooking event was going on. It seemed far closer to home as each report hit. The place must have had electricity.

The same goes for the hotel in Cape Town that Anni Dewani left on the fateful night of her death. Or the tourist information offices in Egypt that service the divers of Sharm-El-Sheikh and the pyramid junkies. Or the Souks in Morocco or the bank and IT offices in Namibia or my mum’s favourite restaurant in Senegal.

I’ve chosen these places because they are so different. Or at least I assume they are. I haven’t been. Friends and family have and I’ve read about them and seen documentaries and travel programmes but I’ve not been. Perhaps when it comes down to it they are all exactly the same but somehow I doubt it. Africa is a continent full of VERY DIFFERENT countries damn it. And yet, from the school room to the all night fundraiser we lump them all together as one entity. Poor Africa. No electricity you know.

Wikipedia says there are over 2100 languages in Africa or at least it does today. That’s the first result that comes back when you type in ‘how many languages are there’ in to Google. Google completes the search for you to ‘how many languages are there in Africa’? No one is that bothered about how many there are in Asia or Europe. Even in wanting to know about the diversity of a continent we are lumping it all together in one giant google.

Of course this is too complicated to explain to a six year old. But not even challenging the question? Isn’t that wrong? Where has he got this from? He didn’t ask IF they had electricity. He asked WHY the whole continent didn’t. He already “knows” they don’t. Who told him? One of his friends? The teacher? Is this why people home ed? Will my brain PLEASE stop doing somersaults?

In the end I managed to add to OHs explanations of relative poverty and power supplies by saying that not all Africans had no electricity and indeed that some Africans were actually quite well off while others lived in cities a bit like us and him. Yet there were certainly people there who were terribly poor. I’m not sure it helped.

On a macro level, surely understanding the world’s diversity and culture in full can only help prevent other atrocities and can only help deal with inevitable floods and famines in the best possible way for the specific people involved, rather than treating them as one giant, homogonous super country. On a micro level I have been wholly inadequate in explaining this to an impressionable six year old mind. Just admitting I tried seems arrogant.

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Free School Meals and Phonics

So every child in Reception, Year One and Year Two will get free school meals from next year. An announcement made by Nick Clegg to no doubt try and put a positive spin on a car crash of a Lib Dem conference where scenery has crashed on television and spin doctors accidentally emailed strategy directly to hostile journalists by mistake,

Still it’s been largely received in a positive manner with people such as CBeebies Dr Ranj tweeting support. But I have to say I’m far from convinced. Why?

Firstly the current system works fine. Children are not going hungry at lunchtime if they are disadvantaged because they already qualify for a free school meal. Those on the margins either side may have a problem in that some under may be too proud to claim and those just over may struggle to meet the cost. The thing is this will still be the case when they’re eight. A means test has been replaced with an age.

And people really shouldn’t be too proud to claim. In fact what they should do is register for the free meal even if they have no intention of using it. Why? Because this allows the school to claim extra funding (free meals being used as a measure of the poverty level of the school’s attendees) and boy is that funding needed. Especially when you consider the nonsense a lot of funding is going on of which more later.

So could the money be better spent? Undoubtedly yes. Firstly the principle is that a hot school lunch is more nutritious than a packed lunch. Well it only is if the school meal really is nutritious and the packed lunch junk. When I tweeted about this I got a reply with an example that someone had sent their child in with a kebab as a packed lunch. But this policy shift is only putting off the junk food lunch till they’re eight. Instead of educating parents on what makes a tasty AND nutritious packed lunch the responsibility is being passed from the parents to the schools. At the same time tax payers are now providing free food for little Tarquin and Matilda. Another £400 a year for mother to pour petrol in to the BMW X1 that she parks on the yellow zig zags when she drops them off.

The assumption that school meals are nutritious also only holds if they are tasty. Up to last year Boy’s school did not have it’s own kitchen. It was reheating meals (prepared on a very tight budget) from another school. This was not Jamie Oliver revolution. This was reheated food prepared on a shoe string budget. The result? Mostly he didn’t eat it and wanted a snack when he got in.

So if the middle classes don’t need free food (and they really don’t) how can we spend on children’s nutrition positively? By increasing breakfast clubs for the most at need. This excellent piece by Jay Rayner highlights why breakfast clubs are needed far better than I could and yet they are continuing to disappear due to funding cuts. So if my taxes have to go on schools taking responsibility instead of parents then how about we support organisations like Magic Breakfast instead of tut-tutting at the chocolate bars in the packed lunch boxes of kids who can afford to be fed by their parents?

In fact I think the idea is a load of vap. Who really puts snemp in their kid’s lunchbox these days?

No I haven’t gone mental. These are actual words used in phonics tests according to this government document. So they must be real words? Right? Wrong.

While Education policy is now proposing re-routing funds to feed kids from rich families it is also spending money on teaching your kids to read nonsense words.

At the end of last year the Boy had his phonics test. Boy reads very well. In fact he’s registered gifted and talented for it and ploughs through chapter books before using the words he’s picked up to create stories. Yet he did less well than many of his classmates in this test. Had the test been using mixed methods to read actual words I can’t help thinking he and many others would have done a lot better.

But why are we testing 6 year olds anyway. I say 6 year olds – I mean Year One so some could still be 5. And there’s another point. At this stage the development of a 6 year old may be very different to that of a 5 year old. Yet the school is marked solely on the ability for very different children to be prepared for a uniform test.

In other words your kids are being taught nonsense words so the school can be rated by OFSTED and a mini housing bubble can be created around the good ones. Which is even more good news for BMW X1 drivers. Frankly it takes the steck.

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Things I learned on my recent holiday

1 – Gatwick Airport is a terrible first / last impression of England….

I normally change trains at Gatwick in the morning rush hour to get to work. I have always been staggered that there were no luggage trolleys provided on the station platform. Of course if you got your bags on a train you should be able to get them to check in without a trolley but this frequently involves angry looking parents dragging an angry looking child or two and a  couple of wheely suitcases in to the ankles of anyone who passes within a 5 yard radius of them. Trolleys on the platform would be easier I have often thought. Mostly as I have iced my ankles having used at least three varieties of anti-wheely swear words on twitter.

What I didn’t realise was that to get one anywhere – including arrivals – you have to deposit a pound coin in to a key release device. This you will get back only when you connect your trolley to another having taken your luggage off again. I have never seen this in any other airport in the world. Not Chennai where there are an army of free unofficial porters. Or in otherwise rapacious Hong Kong. Certainly not in Alicante where we landed. There we were waved through by passport control in a flash and there were an absolute stack of free to use trolleys.

So when you get your currency changed to go away(and do you these days or do you just use your cards) do you ask for 151 Euros for example? “We only do notes” the bank official will tell you. “That’s a shame” you reply. “I might need an odd Euro coin to operate some of the basic things one should expect in an arrivals hall”. Yet that is the reality in Gatwick. No correct UK coinage? No trolley for you Johnny Foreigner.

Add this to the train guards who feed upon any foreigner who can’t work the rail barriers and treat the airport as a sort of penalty fare open goal and the better but still, frankly, unacceptable security queues and Gatwick gives the first impression of the English as miserable, penny pinching rule enforcers.

2- A little language goes a long way………..

So we went to Spain. I speak O Level French, taxi / kitchen Mandarin Chinese and a few words of Italian and Japanese. The first due to school and the others to various work placements. I do not speak a single word of Spanish bar “Ola” and “Gracias”. I can’t even remember the basic stuff from Dora the Explorer because whenever Dora the Explorer comes on I am too busy pointing my fingers at the screen like a gun and screaming in my head “die horribly you whiny annoying uber positive arsehole”. It’s a good job my kids can’t hear my head. They love Dora.

So we go for tapas one day and I start ordering in English that has become pigeon from the English section of the menu. The waitress is perfectly nice but I’m sure in her head she’s thinking “here we go, another one straight off the plane that can’t speak a word. Whatever he orders I’m going to give him a well done burger and a fried egg.”

And then an old lady sits down on her own at the one table that was reserved. The owner comes out and makes a fuss of her and they start a conversation about what’s good today in French. My ears prick up. Owner disappears and she starts winking at Whirlwind who is in a cute – or at least less destructive – phase. “Etes vous Francais?” I enquire. She’s from Luxembourg but has an apartment in the town where we are staying. She is also a special customer of the restaurant. We have a conversation in basic French, quite possibly grammatically incorrect on my part. The owner and waitress have been watching and their demeanour changes. The food is delivered with a flourish and a ‘merci”. And then……………….

3 – The Boy can count to 8 in perfect Spanish…..

….Boy starts counting the dishes in Spanish. With an accent and everything. He can get to 8. I had no idea he could do this. Bloody Dora. By now we are a step away from special customers ourselves.

4 – Rich Eastern European Dads are a bit different………..

One afternoon I am playing a game with the kids in the pool. We have a li-lo. I am lifting them on to it and then tipping them off again. Each time this nearly gives me a hernia but I do it because they love it. It was Boy’s favourite thing about the holiday. Being tipped in to a cold pool from a pink li-lo. Nutter.

Suddenly a family arrive and start talking in Russian. The man is mid thirties and muscular in a Putin-ish kind of way. His wife is stick thin and bottle-blonde and his two daughters, who I would estimate at about 7 and 10 are stick thin and sun-blonde. They are watching us with suspicion. The older daughter goes and gets a rubber ring. Then she ties some string to it, long enough to pull it. By now my kids are tired and we get out and nod at the other family. When I dry them off I hear a shriek of excitement from one of the girls. Her father is in the pool lying in the rubber ring. She is pulling him round by walking round the outside of the pool and using the string. He must weigh at least 14 stone and it is 32 degrees in the shade.

5- The real colour of Spain is Orange

Eventually you will find that everything in Spain that isn’t an English caff or a pub called the Red Lion is coated in paprika or filled with paprika. Our meat is marinated in it. Our roast vegetables taste better with it. Our washing up water bubbles slowly turn orange in each wash. We have brought back several different types of paprika including ‘bitter sweet’ which I am going to have to guess will go in some sort of pasta and chicken dish. By the time we have got through the paprika I will be the colour of Katie Price and I might be able to get a job on TOWIE.

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