Archive for category Parenting

The Teacher’s Strike is not Black and White

Today Boy’s school is closed due to a strike. Having written about my concerns over his education (and my growing opinion that Michael Gove is an imperious cockwomble) you would perhaps expect me to be in full support of the walk out. But it’s not quite that simple.

Firstly his school seems to be ever more at odds between what they say to parents and what they do. A stream of letters arrived last school year urging parents to make every effort to get their child to school whenever they could. “Even missing one day can have an adverse effect on their education” we were told. The head teacher was even in the local paper saying that she would be requiring a letter from parents’ employers if they requested holiday time in term , to prove that was the only time off they could get.

This was rather unfortunate as the school’s reopening was delayed by over a week due to the building work needed to turn it from an Infants to an all-through Primary. A week of “inset days”. Now they are just beginning to settle in to the new routine and they suddenly have another extra day off. If you believed last year’s letters home this will be an absolute disaster for them. They’ll probably forget how to count or something. Or maybe parents are just expected to take education more seriously than, say, building contractors employed on school projects. Or teaching unions.

Obviously, education apart, the strike means parents (including us) suddenly have to change our plans to provide child care. As an employee on a regular salary at least I’m not losing any money myself but this won’t be the case for all the parents. The school is in what is euphemistically known as ‘an up and coming area’ and many parents will lose a day’s pay or have to spend today’s money on childminding. Some of these will be earning considerably less than a teacher. So is it fair to economically and educationally inconvenience parents in a deprived area to protect a middle class salary and final salary pension?

You may find this surprising given what I’ve written about Gove in the past but if the strike was just about pay and pensions then teachers would not have my support at all. Working, as I do, in the private sector then pay freezes (or even reductions) are common place. At the lower end of the sector zero hours contracts have become more and more enforced. At the upper end it is now impossible to get a final salary pension. The company ones based on fund value have been devastated both by Gordon Brown’s tax changes and a volatile equities market. While pound cost averaging  will help the long term prospects of pension funds there is no guarantee at all that a future government of any colour will not further raid the tax concessions offered by a proper pension. If they do we won’t be able to strike.

I know. I sound like a Tory. It’s actually quite liberating.

But here’s the flip side. Firstly there is another issue being raised by the strike, that of workload. I know several teachers and trust me, it is not the 8-4 job with enormous holidays that some people like to paint it. There are lesson plans, marking, inset days, parent’s evenings to be done. Again comparing my hours to a teachers there was actually very little difference. Since the pay issue being raised is that performance related pay will be introduced then it’s not hard to forsee a situation where teachers have to work even longer hours just to keep their salary the same in real terms.

Which begs the question is teaching a career or a vocation? Strike action, for me, should be a last resort. There is no doubt that the miners in the eighties, while led by the truly hideous Arthur Scargill, were facing not a pay cut but the devastation of the industry and their communities. I’m not suggesting that we will suddenly see mass school closures and long term graduate unemployment, but what if teaching becomes so unattractive that young people no longer want to become teachers? A shortage of newly qualified teachers, particularly in the many areas where there is already a shortage of school places would be disastrous.

Already the government have allowed Academies to employ unqualified teachers. My strong suspicion is that this is a way to save money and put bums on seats. If the teaching unions genuinely believe that the new conditions will stop teaching becoming a career choice then the strike becomes far more justified.

Is it a just strike? I can’t decide. But just in case, how about we just have a national “Michael Gove is an Imperious Cockwomble” day instead? That should be fairly memorable when it comes to the 2015 election.


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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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Some Totally Made Up People’s Attitudes to OFSTED Ratings

Lilliania-May Thompson is 36. She works in social care and reads The Guardian’s Education section. She has considered Steiner education but couldn’t afford it. Her daughter Alfafa Bean is in Year 2.

“Of course the whole thing is a scandal. I don’t even know what they’re rated for and they take no account of alternative means and methods of education. Who says playing all day isn’t conducive to developing four year olds? Or that vegetarian only school lunches don’t provide proper nutrition? These people would have them sat in rows of desks repeating their times tables by rote and getting slapped with a ruler if they dare speak out.”

Reporter: “And what is the rating of Alfafa Bean’s school?

“Well it’s outstanding. It has been since they started inspecting I believe.”

Reporter: “And how did you get her in?”

“Well I may have fiddled the council’s residency records a bit.”

Oliver Bastard is a commodity trader for a firm of Swiss Nazi brokers in the city, specializing in jackboot futures. He likes rugby, champagne and following Jeremy Clarkson on twitter. His son Timothy is in Year Two at Station Primary.

“Bloody good idea I say! Makes sure they’re learning with the right kind of chap if you catch my drift. I didn’t gazump that Web Designer for the house right next to Timmy’s outstanding school for nothing you know. Now he’ll be able to read and write properly before we send him off to spend his teenage years in buggery and cold showers. An entire education spent without having to speak to a fucking chav. I just wish they did Latin.”

Reporter: Because it’ll be useful at private school?

“No you idiot, because it makes you fucking miserable and I had to go through it.”

Sara, 29, is a teacher at a satisfactory school. Her son Sam attends the nearest school to her house which has just been rated as “good”. He’s in reception.

“To be honest we’ve had so many inspections where I work and yet I’m sure we’re marked down simply for being in the catchment area of Bernie Grant House over there (here she points to a burned out shell of a block of flats with an Uzi poking out of a top floor window, clearly visible from the Head’s Office at her employer’s, Shameless Primary). We put Sammy in to the nearest school because we don’t think the OFSTED is as important as getting him and me to school on time and having some nice local friends to play with. In any case they always mark you on something different. I’ve literally no idea what we’ll be marked on next.”

Reporter: Here’s Michael Gove’s latest proposal.

“If you want me I’ll be in the toilet weeping.”

Wendy, 34, is a Stay At Home Mum who is also a qualified accountant. Husband Simon is in IT. Their son Toby is due to start school in September.

“Well we’re right on the border between two good schools but when we looked at last year’s admissions it was touch and go whether we’d get in  either. The nearest school to us is a church school and it’s outstanding but neither of us are religious and we just didn’t feel right sending him there. Unfortunately we didn’t quite get in either of the other two so now it looks like Toby will have to do a 3 mile return bus trip to Shameless Primary. It’s not ideal but at least they’ve cleared out the last of the crack dealers from Bernie Grant House.”

(noise of reporter choking)

Nigel, 37 lives next door to Wendy with his wife Mandy and their son Frank.

“Come in. Have a pew. And I do mean literally. They gave us that for the kitchen when we made up 60% of the collection for the new church roof. It’s amazing how connected I feel to the church despite only having gone for the last year. What’s that? No that isn’t a Richard Dawkins book on the shelf. Get out! OUT! I need to pray.”

Dave, 40, is “on benefits”. He likes Special Brew, Jeremy Kyle and farting. His son Tyrone is currently excluded.

“What’s an OFSTED? Whaaaaaarrrrrrp!”

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My Father’s Day Wishlist

So Father’s Day is approaching. Adverts for power tools seem to be on every thirty seconds and have found themselves a wonderful new male model so that, however good your parenting, you can still feel inadequate for a whole month leading up to your special day using the simple process of aging.

It’s a day that takes up the thoughts of fellow dad bloggers whether it’s Alex from Dadda Cool quite rightly bemoaning the commercialisation of it all or Hapless Dad’s less than serious present suggestions. As someone who has given up spirits (at least for now) and regards power tools with the same suspicion everyone else reserves for the wrong end of a Kalashnikov (I googled that to check the spelling and not to buy an AK47 by the way Mr Forensic Policeman) there is probably nothing typically blokey that you can buy me anyway. So my Father’s Day wish list is not so much a list of stuff I would like to add to the house that we will shortly be packing up anyway but more a list of stuff I’d like to happen…..

  1. I would like the toilet flushed by my son. People have commented on my twitter avi but it hasn’t been working recently. The last thing I want on my special day is to sneak upstairs for a half hour read of The Observer behind a locked door only to be greeted by a bowl of bangers and mash.
  2. I would like to wake up naturally after 7am. Whirlwind, please note that naturally does not include screaming at your brother, doing the Gangnam Style on your bed, yelling “I’VE DONE A POO”, bouncing on my head, bouncing on Mummy’s head, actually doing a poo or attempting to come downstairs and turn on CBeebies by yourself at the age of two, all at the sort of hour that would make your average postman wince.
  3. I would like not to see the father’s day advert. Or that tit that advertises Cillit Bang from the tiny aeroplane.
  4. I would like to be confident enough in my spelling that I don’t have to google things like Kalashnikov (potentially putting me on an international terrorist watch list) or Cillit Bang (the first word of which is one typo away from getting my blog a whole different adult orientated audience).
  5. I would like something positive to happen at my football club and for England to win the cricket (yes I know we are in to the realms of fantasy now)
  6. I would like a never ending supply of pork belly that didn’t actually make me fat. Just for the day.
  7. I would like to be able to send the kids to ACAS when they fight.
  8. I would like not to be old enough to remember ACAS and to be clever enough to remember if they still exist by myself. Is there actually any call for them post Thatcher? Come to think of it the last newsreader I can remember mentioning them was Kenneth Kendall.
  9. I would like not to be old enough to remember Kenneth Kendall.
  10. I would like someone to make it possible for Alex and Sid from CBeebies to have an actual fight while introducing Cloud Babies.
  11. I would like to go a whole day without stepping on some Lego. If I could also go to bed that night without finding Pom Bears in the sheets that would be a bonus.
  12. Self ironing work clothes. Actually this should be number 1.

Surely this isn’t too much to ask? Happy Father’s Day!

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My Parenting Prejudices 2. Food Spitting…..

Perhaps the weirdest weaning method I have ever come across is that used by American actor, vegan and (IMO) nut-job Alicia Silverstone. Admittedly being a nut-job seems to be a prerequisite for Hollywood actors who, if they’re not members of cults seem instead to be intent on frying their brains on alcohol and drugs or joining food groups like the raw food movement (no Woody Harrelson, just because you were in a couple of movies does not give you the right to instruct us all to forage for nuts and berries for the rest of our life).

In March 2012 Silverstone was reported to have posted a You Tube video and blog in which she is seen chewing her food and then spitting it in to the waiting mouth of her baby Bear Blu, a la mama bird. This I’m against, mainly because it sounds disgusting. Food spitting is a parenting prejudice I am happy to admit to.

But how did it come about? In fact she got the idea from her lesser known but just as rich and mad sister Mavis and her son Rodney Bear Blu though their video was never posted. Luckily I had an exclusive peek and have transcribed it for you below………..

Mavis Silverstone: Ok then Bear, er I mean Rodney, Mommy’s going to make you a yummy feast!

Rodney Bear Blu: (sotto voce) You sure? That looks like you’re making more of that collards drizzled with flax oil.

Mavis Silverstone: YEAH BABY!! Here we are. Miso soup, collards and radish with flax oil and grated daikon

Rodney Bear Blu: (sotto voce) Oh for fucks sake. No cheeseburger then.

Mavis Silverstone: Open wiiiide! *chews furiously* Here we go! *spits in to baby’s mouth*

Rodney Bear Blu: *gags* *pukes*

Mavis Silverstone: Oh my poor wickle baby!! Are you sick honey? You want me to chew you up more daikon? It’s very healing.

Rodney Bear Blu: No it isn’t! It’s fucking minging! You know the only thing worse than pre-chewed grated daikon? Fucking pre-sucked miso soup! You know that by the time it gets to me it just tastes of saliva right? YOUR saliva? You want that I should just cut out the middle man next time and just suck your tongue?

Mavis Silverstone: Oh…baby you can talk….and you sound a bit like a British football hooligan. How did that happen?

Rodney Bear Blu: Never mind that you sappy hippy bitch. Listen up. Stop with the pre-chewed food nonsense. I’m a baby human not a baby bird. Just get me some regular food, cut it up and give it to me on a plate so that I can tip it all over the floor like any normal baby. And also some meat would be nice. In fact anything that wasn’t drizzled in flax oil would be nice. But meat please, once a week. And since I know how much that daikon costs you, you can make it wagyu beef – cooked sous vide.

Mavis Silverstone: But honey, just like my better known sister I’m a vegan!

Rodney Bear Blu: Oh yeah! Of course you are. So you definitely wouldn’t want anyone going to the newspapers about your secret sausage collection would you.

Mavis Silverstone: Actually they’d probably be more interested in how you can talk like that at 10 months old but I take your point. Wagyu beef it is. Unchewed.

*stalks off to make herself some dandelion tea*

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My Parenting Prejudices. Number 1 – Gender Neutral Parenting

So some time last year I posted my second most popular post ever. The gist was that the style of parenting you use was less important that the fact that you believed in it and chose it with love for the child in mind. Also that people should become more accepting of these choices and, y’know, mind their own business a bit more. It was called The Only Right Parenting Style Is Yours

But, just so you know, I’m far from perfect. Each of us as human beings have limits as to how judgmental we can be (or how forgiving). There are certain parental extremes that, while they may have been chosen purely on the basis of love for the child, I’m just not having. In a new Category I am going to list my prejudices. Here is the first.

1. Gender Neutral Parenting

Sasha Laxton was brought up “gender neutral”. His parents knew he was a boy but they didn’t tell anyone else. His room was yellow. He was dressed in ‘neutral’ colours and, at times, in fairy wings and dresses and others in trousers. One of the reasons was, his mother said, because

“Stereotypes seem fundamentally stupid. Why would you want to slot people into boxes? Gender affects what children wear and what they can play with and that shapes the kind of person they become.” (1)

Am I the only one who reads that as ‘gender is a sterotype’? That simply by being aware of a child’s gender you are somehow ‘slotting them in to a box’. Gender is a fact of life, a biological fact that, for one, helps us reproduce as a species. I almost hate to point this out in a modern, politically correct, world but there ARE some things that girls and boys do differently (or one can do and the other cannot). Here’s a short list:

  • Pee standing up – males can, females can’t
  • Give birth to children – females can, males can’t
  • Run the 100 meters in under 10 seconds – males can, females can’t
  • Breast feed a baby – females can, males can’t
  • Lose hair through pattern baldness – men do, females don’t (and I do mean hereditary pattern baldness and not alopecia)
  • Have a natural cycle that regulates when conception can take place – females do, males don’t.

Note I haven’t resorted to actual stereotyping and mentioned ‘doing three things at once’ or ‘spending less than £100 in a shoe sale’ or ‘crying at soap operas’. The above simply indicates that nature has designed women more to be child rearers (and here I mean give birth to and breastfeed – there is no reason at all why the woman cannot go back to work asap if she wants nor any reason why a Dad can’t be a Stay At Home) and men more to do dumb things like run fast and wee up a wall after a night out. There is a natural biological difference between the genders and that is not a stereotype, it is a fact of life.

So here’s the next bit. “Gender affects what children wear”. I’m not one for decking Whirlwind out in pink and purple and having her ride round in a pink buggy with a princess sticker on the back of it. Her clothes are in all sorts of colours including blue (let’s not forget the blue snowsuit she was in on the bus when the mad woman mistook her for a boy) but she has a few that are pink and she has a few that are dresses. Not only does this announce to the world that, yes, she’s a girl but here’s the thing. She looks good in them. Contrast that with the photo of Sasha in his fairy wings who looks not unlike a prop forward squeezed in to a dress for a bet. Boy meanwhile, has been dressed as a boy by us but, again, not purely in blue. He had a beautiful burned orange hoodie that Whirlwind has now inherited. One of his favourite t-shirts when he was 3 was pink (I knew I’d done well because it incensed a conservative Afrikaaans friend of ours from cricket). Whirlwind wears his old blue pyjamas because they are nice and warm and we were buggered if we were going to throw them away. Gender may constrain in a big picture kind of way (no dresses for boys) but within that fairly normal constraint then what your kid can wear is limited only by the parent’s imagination.

And as for ‘gender affects what they can play with’ my answer would by why? We have a large number of toys that Boy had when he was small that Whirlwind is now growing in to. These include Duplo, cars, a toy farm and a pretend screwdriver and, at times, she is just as happy playing with those as she is her dolls or her mouse-in-a-matchbox. When Boy was growing up he went on a lot of play dates with my wife’s friends from the NCT branch and two of her best friends had two girls. He would be quite happy playing with their toy kitchens and they didn’t mind too much when, after a while, he got bored and found a ball instead. At three we got him a tea set that included pink tea cups and he happily made tea parties for his soft toys. Again it is NOT gender that is defining what children can and can’t play with but rather the imagination and prejudices of their parents.

My main problem with Sasha Laxton’s parents though is that I do not believe they did it for him. Their decision was, at least partly, and I suspect mostly, based upon a desire to shock, to push society’s boundaries and to become (in)famous. Time will only tell the actual affect it has on Sasha but if that were me in that fairy wing picture I’d be saving up for therapy right now.

There is no need to bring your child up gender neutral. What would be good is if parents could show a little more imagination and flexibility when purchasing clothes and toys and not run off in horror if their boy grabs a Barbie or their girl a rugby ball.

(1) Quoted in The Observer 22 Jan 2012

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