Grammar Schools: Life at the coal face

It’s a tense week in the pencil case this week, and turning on the radio has me breathing into a paper bag.  No, not The Archers trial, the leaked report that Theresa May is considering bringing back Grammar Schools – that darling education panacea of the right.

For some of us, they never went away, and this Saturday my precious first born sits his 11+. If you thought I was anxious about Son2’s Year 2 SATS, brace yourself.

We live in Warwickshire, which was so laid back it never quite got round to abolishing them in the 70s so we were allowed to keep them.

I passed my 12+ back in the 80s, I skipped into the Girls’ Grammar.  Jolly hockey sticks was never my bag but I did whip up a storm on the debating team.  I passed all of my exams with flying colours, went to a great university and walked into an exciting career.  I should be Grammar School’s greatest fan. And indeed, this path is very much what the politicians have in mind when they wave the Selective Flag.

And yet, 25 years and two children later I’m not sure they stack up.

The argument in their favour is one of social mobility. The glory days of the 50s and 60s are trotted out as clever working class kids made it into the grammar and got to press the up and out button. But that was never really true.  Arguably the massive growth in white collar management positions that needed to be filled had more to do with it.  The smart kids did well for themselves, but the rich kids did even better.

There was still a whiff of meritocracy in my youth.

But oh how far we have come.

The world looks a lot less like Matilda, hundreds of miles from Theresa May’s cabinet meetings, and about as far away from social mobility as you are likely to get.  Harry Potter is not huddling in the understairs cupboard just waiting to be rescued.

What seems to matter is the levels of commitment and anxiety of your parents.

For one, you now have to apply and children sit the exam on a Saturday morning.  I’m sure some children beg their parents to let them take it, but there are plenty more who decide it’s probably not for them.

Second, it’s this Saturday!  This Saturday! Some children have been diligently doing past papers all holiday whilst others (mine) have been playing Pokemon Go and watching Youtube videos of teenagers do basketball trick shots. Because they’re 10.

And then there’s the tutoring. I hold my hands up and say that my son has had a tutor. The test he has to take is supposed to be ‘tutor proof’ but you can’t help it. We momentarily thought about sticking to our principles but knuckled under.

There’s no avoiding that fact that the 11+ is a competitive exam. There aren’t enough school places in the borough, let alone a grammar place for every child who knows a bit of algebra.

An arms race ensues. No matter what anyone says, if you take two children of the same ability, and give one plenty of practice and send the other one in cold, the practiced child will do better. The biggest wallets and the sharpest elbows will win the day. I wouldn’t call it hot housing, but we found someone who was kind and encouraging, and who could persuade him to sit down and concentrate for 45 minutes at a time, be familiar what the questions might look like and make him believe it was something he was capable of. There is also now a tuition centre in our local Sainsburys, so your child can be tutored twice a week while you get the weekly shop done in peace.  Others have had tuition since year 3 and paid for mock exams and ordered past papers (even thought they’re not supposed to exist).

Obviously there are parents who prepare their own children at home – but this is largely dependent on the patience of the parent in question, and the access to gin and beta blockers.

Small children are horrible, really horrible. They all discuss who has tutors and who doesn’t. My son comes home and tells me of boys in his class who tell others that they are going to fail because they don’t have one, or just that they are not up to it.

And I would walk away from it all tomorrow, except for the overwhelming feeling that whatever I do, I’m failing him.

He’s an intelligent boy who, at 10, I would argue has yet to decide whether to use his powers for good or evil. He is my baby boy who I still sing to sleep, and read bedtime stories.  He can’t be persuaded to wash more than once a week, let alone think about his future career prospects.  He would like to be a stunt man or a rally driver. How on earth are we to decide now what levels of academia he will aspire to, or what kind of education he is worthy of.

The exam will test him on his vocabulary, his maths and his ability to pick out a pattern.  It will not test him on his passion or enthusiasm for learning. It will not test him on his leadership skills, or a knack for conflict resolution.  They will not test him on his Mr Ripley like ability to lie charmingly and convincingly to get himself out of trouble. It will examine if he can find a better way of doing things that nobody else has thought of (even if it does involve zip wires).

The adult world has changed. No longer do we children divided into manual labour and professional classes. What we need is for the next generation to be innovative, creative, push boundaries, lead people, motivate those around them, be resilient enough to get up again when things don’t go their way, to collaborate even when they don’t like the other person.

These are not necessarily going to be found in a school where everyone is of the same ability and the majority have the same background, work ethic and temperament, whatever the prospectus says.

So why are we bothering? Well the school he wants to go to is what is known in the trade as a Bilateral school.  It has a grammar intake and a non-selective intake.  They are streamed separately, but the movement is fluid so there is the chance to move up later in the school (or down).  It’s co-ed, so my son will leave school knowing how to work alongside members of the opposite sex without seeing them as a distraction to the serious business in hand.

Which, I hear you cry, sounds suspiciously like a Comprehensive.  Spooky. But, although it’s our catchment school, we live too far away to get into the non-selective stream so Grammar stream is the best option.

And the alternatives are a church school, a free school which doesn’t yet have a building and one that has just gone into special measures. I’m sure all do a great job, with great teachers but they are constantly fighting against the reality that the brightest, wealthiest and most aspirational kids have been skimmed off the top. For all the grade progress a grammar school child gets, the opposite occurs to the other 80%.  Yes there are children who thrive and do well, but they are doing it despite the grammar system, not because of it.

It’s no secret that in all the media debates, the 80% alumni are rarely in favour.  The divisions and inequalities become cemented for their entire teenage years.

For the glorious 20% who pass, I’m not sure it raises the children that we want. For all the pride I have in my qualifications, I’m not overly proud of the sense of superiority we were given over the other schools. I remember how we spoke about them.  My apostrophe pedantry may come in handy but it has not always made me kind, and that is something that has taken my adult life to realise.

Because for all the wonders of my illustrious education I now, at 41, can see its flaws. I achieved academically but it was at the expense of other things.  A sense that failure, any failure was something to be feared, a sense that being one of the clever ones meant that I wasn’t meant to find things hard, and never to admit it. It did not prepare me for heartbreak, or grief. It did not prepare me for disappointment. Maybe I shouldn’t have expected it to but I did not expect it to make things worse.

So it would just be a refreshing change if the Government were honest.  They want a return to Grammar Schools because old people like them, and rich people who would like to avoid private school fees if they can – and these are the people who vote for them. Grammar Schools are great if they believe that every parent should be given the opportunity to catapult their child as far as they like, and never mind the rest.

If they were serious about social mobility, they wouldn’t give a stuff about the segregation of 10 year olds.  They would make sure that all schools were great, with valued and rewarded teachers.  They would let the bright children shine, fulfil their potential, and not slap them with a £40,000 debt for the privilege. They would make sure that there was a job for them to go to that had a future, or at least a proper contract and a decent wage.  And they would make a half arsed attempt to make children have the faintest hope that they would one day afford to buy their own home based on their own hard work, not the financial worth of their parents or grandparents.

And then they could shove their non-verbal reasoning.

I had a dream about the 11+this week.  I dreamt that after the first test all the children had a break and were then led back into the exam hall, which had been transformed into a Total Wipeout course; the first ones who made it to the end were in.  Fingers crossed.




The Archers: All rise

It’s been a long 5 months in Ambridge.  Custard sales have plummeted and there has been a trifling (sorry) referendum in the meantime.  But this Sunday, marks the beginning of the trial of the century.

*** If you don’t listen to The Archers, don’t feel obliged to read on.  I feel the need to let it out but my husband hasn’t paid attention since Caroline and Oliver took 9 months to buy Grey Gables. ***

It’s always been difficult to convert people to The Archers because, in reality, it’s not very good. Obviously I don’t believe that for a minute, but it’s always been so present and embedded. It’s like trying to persuade someone that your family and your friends are awesome – they’re not, but you’re really fond of them and enjoy muddling along together.  For years, it has been there in the background, when lying in bed on Sunday morning, driving home from work, bathing babies, feeding children, folding washing.  There’s the occasional excitement: affairs, deaths, illnesses and something about herbal lays, but that’s about it. Weeks can go by without hearing from them but you catch up.

The everyday story of country folk blends into your everyday so that you can no longer tell the difference.  (I used to get terribly confused when they went to the Royal Show).

I think that’s why the Helen and Rob story has been so powerful – it’s not a blockbuster, high octane drama, but it drips intimately into your life when you’re not looking.  I think of people in The Archers rather like some of the Mums on the playground – I see them for 10 minutes a day and get a tiny glimpse into their lives.

The story of Rob’s coercive control has been ramping up, slowly and unnoticed for years. Now I like to point out on a regular basis that I’ve never liked him (here’s me in 2014)

I clearly sensed he was a wrong-un from the start but what’s great about this storyline, is that actually no one, including me, really liked Helen either.  She was whiny, spoilt, highly strung and obsessed with cheese. However in real life,  bad things do happen to irritating people and it’s been horrific to hear an abusive relationship played out, inch by inch, with each jigsaw piece going unnoticed by everyone around.  From the comments about her hair, her clothes, stopping her driving, convincing her she was unstable to rape and violence.  For me, the night he threw the dinner she was preparing in the bin and went out to buy steak (far more appropriate) was the clincher. Each tiny act was insignificant in itself and easily brushed away.  And  it’s far more impactful than any Hollywood blockbuster (and I’VE seen Sleeping With The Enemy).

That’s why the Helen Titchener Escape Fund , for the charity Refuge, currently stands at £134,000. Because we all know a Helen, or suspect that we do.  There are lots of women who have had to stop listening, because it brings back too many bad memories and more who have slowly become aware that their relationship maybe isn’t all that normal after all, and maybe they do deserve better.

But drama it is, and all this isn’t getting the custard cleared up.  Justice must be done, for all our sakes. There has been much criticism of the EastEnders like storyline developments of late. The Archers has always prided itself on its accuracy (as the Agricultural story editor will testify) but some things have been played fast and loose for the sake of a good plot.

So as the trial looms – these are my observations and predictions. I would welcome any expert answers since I have absolutely no knowledge of family law, criminal law, social services or anything else for that matter.

Anna – surely she can’t be such a bad barrister.  For someone supposedly an expert in domestic violence, she has been fairly inept at handling Helen and has let some massive flashing lights pass her by.  I’m hoping this is just a scriptwriters’ ploy and actually she’s been beavering away in the background.  I’m not disappointed she’s gay, although the weeks of a pronounless Max was clumsy, but I’m disappointed she appears to be as mentally and spiritually weak as a kitten.  Where oh where is Maxine Peake when you need her.

Hogwarts – please tell me she has followed up the Boarding School thing.  I’m hoping it comes up in Henry’s interview that it was ‘Daddy’s school’ and she has checked with the Head.  Then Rob can declare on the stand that Helen was delusional and she can waive the admissions form in his horrid little face. Not sure this will get us off the stabbing but at least then Anna will be able to shout “Liar Liar pants on fire” and it will be some comfort for us.

Tom the Rabbit with rise – I’m also hoping Rob’s instructions to Henry that he should never tell lies will come and bite him on the arse, and unleash the full horror of Tom the Rabbit, the Easter Eggs, Granny only wanting to see him on Sundays and how all good children must be quiet. I’m assuming Cafcass must be alert to these things and, if not, I might have to write a stern letter.

Culvert Operations – why on earth have Jennifer and David said nothing about Stefan and the culvert.  You think it would have come up.  If Shula is racked with guilt over not speaking out before now you would have thought there would have been at least a passing comment that maybe they should mention it. Jennifer should at least mention it to Justin.  Will Stefan burst through the back of the courtroom at the 11th hour?

Witness for the Prosecution – Will Kirsty will have the opportunity to tell the whole story, or is she only permitted to speak about the night of the crime? I am not hanging any hope on Pat not to stuff things up.

Flesh wounds – why did Rob have so many wounds?  Did Helen do them all or did Rob inflict a few of them himself?

There are more, but I’ll keep them to myself otherwise I’ll look like I think about these things too much.

Final Statements

Based on about as much legal knowledge as the scriptwriters, here’s my predictions.

Helen will be found Not Guilty of Attempted Murder but possibly guilty of Wounding with Intent.

However, Rob will be exposed as an abusive bully and Henry and Jack will be returned to Pat and Tony.

Rob will be run out of town in a scene akin to Murder On The Orient Express, with everyone lining up to give him a sharp blow to the cricket box as he leaves.  This will not be before Harrison arrests him and informs him he is prosecuted under the new Coercive Control Act.

Helen will then get out on appeal and create a brand new line of Social Enterprise cheese and set up a new dairy next to the prison allotment.

We can all go back to worrying about whether it was really George that stole the curtain money.

Do join me and make mine a gin, darling.


Brexit: a game for a rich young boy to play

And there it is. Done.  I have already used up all of my words of disbelief, despair and outrage, but nothing is to be done.

This is very much Brexit part 2.  I ended my last blog  with a line from Les Miserables.  I didn’t realise how ironic it would become as, I now see my friends lying similarly bloodied around me.

I also now realise that I should have quoted the whole verse.

It is time for us all
To decide who we are
Do we fight for the right
To a night at the opera now?
Have you asked of yourselves
What’s the price you might pay?
Is this simply a game
For a rich young boy to play?
The colours of the world
Are changing day by day

For that is what happened.  Whatever your views, we are where we are because of a rich young boy.  And not just one, lots of them. All young boys with points to prove, not about the world, but about themselves.

I’m forever telling my children it’s not about blame, but I’m going indulge myself with an Arya Stark list of which particular little boys I’m lining up against the blackboard.

  1. Nick Clegg.

Yes you. I was a staunch and proud Liberal Democrat in 2010.  They stood for something, had a voice which resonated.  I agreed with Nick. You could argue that was because they didn’t have power but that’s not the point. However Nick sold those principles down the river in a pact for personal power that would see the annihilation of a party.  Yes you have Deputy Prime Minister on your CV but at what price? By 2015 everyone either hated you or realised they may as well vote Tory anyway. Had the Liberal Democrats remained a strong progressive voice, and the only party in England united with Europe at its heart, the Remain campaign would have stood a chance.  The passion and emotion that were missing might have been there. Or maybe not, we’ll never know.

  1. Ed Milliband

And you.  You’re not a patch on your brother.  We all knew this.  You knew this – be honest.  But rather than let him get on without you set out to prove something, not to the Labour Party but to yourself.  He would have given you a great job as you are clearly a clever clever man, but you were never lead singer material.

  1. David Cameron

Your third on the list but that means nothing.  A desperate bid for a majority, a few UKIP defectors and some trash talk from Nigel Farage and you promise a referendum that nobody asked for.  One that you smugly assumed you’d win.  The complex & fragile social, political & economic future of our country was staked on a pub bet.  And now you’ve thrown down your pint and gone home.

  1. Jeremy Clarkson

Don’t think I’m letting you off Scot free. You may have turned up late with a feeble remain but your years of xenophobic sneering and hectoring to a baying crowd has led to this.  You could have been the better man, you could have chosen something else and they still would have loved you.

  1. Boris Johnson

Ah Boris, poor Boris.  You have got what you deserved.  Gaby Hinsliff explains far better than I what your game plan was all along and it has massively backfired.  Everyone around you will hate you for it for evermore.  All those liberal elite parties and soirees you bumbled around will dry up and, like the Red Queen and her Knave of Hearts, you’ll be forever chained to Michael Gove.  Good luck with that.

  1. Jeremy Corbyn

I can’t think of a single thing to say, as he has been so absent from recent proceedings. However strong his principles are, it does seem increasingly that he took on a job he didn’t really want, just to be awkward.

7. Nigel Farage

Feel free to fill in your own expletives

Rich little boys playing little games with people’s lives and futures.

There are many things you can say about Thatcher, but this would not have happened under her.  In fact, that massive storm on Thursday was probably not unconnected.

Remain lost fair and square – democracy at work.  If the Leavers are all happy, and get everything they were dreamed of, then well done them.

However there was nothing fair or square about it.  The ballot boxes had barely closed before Farage was complaining the Government had allowed too many people to register.  People hadn’t finished breakfast before he admitted that the NHS was never going to get that money, immigration wasn’t going to go down and those ‘bumps in the road’ were turning in to the Grand Canyon. Cameron’s done a runner and Bojo, Gove and the other one look set to take the helm.  These anti-establishment heroes who promised so much.

That is what people are angry about.  Not the lost vote, but they managed to pray on the fears, insecurities and hopes of people they have never cared about before in a quest for power.

Now we have to pick up the pieces, somehow. Many people, friends included, have called for an end to the whinging on social media.  And, after 48 hours of wailing, I agree.  Somehow, we have to find a way out of this mess, with or without the EU.

37% of the electorate voted Brexit, 63% did not.  Of that 37% many now feel sold down the river, or at least will do when the Calais camps move to Dover, the NHS breaks due to lack of staff and we finally realise all of those jobs that the immigrants stole were the ones they didn’t want.  That fridge magnet about “be nice to your children as they choose your care home” is just about to get real as the younger generations feel ever more like they’ve been sold down the river.

On the upside, my list is coming along nicely.  Clegg, Milliband, Cameron – all gone. Clarkson’s flapping about somewhere and Corbyn is facing a potential vote of no confidence.

It is time for the little boys to take their balls home and let someone else take over.

It is time to draw a line under the depressing referendum campaigns, hideous on both sides, and decide that we want our country back from these people, that anger and hate are not going to win.

The current political system is broken, the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats are in tatters. The Scottish are demanding another referendum but we need them more than ever. Things are no longer divided against party lines but by geography, generation and downright niceness.

Enter stage left the women  from all sides who will make a better fist of things.  Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davison, Stella Creasy, Leanne Wood, Caroline Flint, Caroline Lucas, Lucy Powell. My friend Michelle Donelan, a Conservative MP who entered Parliament at the last election who, although I disagree with, respect as someone who works for her constituents and stands up for what she believes in.

The death of Jo Cox must remind us about the kind of politicians we want to represent us, and who we deserve.

And the men. There are also a lot of fine male politicians too, and some truly dreadful female ones so don’t think this is a gender thing, it’s about leadership and integrity.

So if you didn’t vote, or regret how you did vote, it’s too late now.  But can we just vow not to make that mistake again, and not make that mistake worse by rolling over and letting xenophobia and hatred take over because that’s what won it?

Join a political party and make a stand over who gets to represent you, as leader of that party as well as your MP.  In fact, join all of them, and have a say in the best person to oppose what you believe in.

You want £350million a week in the NHS, investment in the arts, education and social justice?  You want the rights and protections of the EU preserved?  You need to fight to make that happen.  Stop complaining and vow to do something about it, and recognise that apathy, disengagement and whining only let the nastier, shoutier whiners win.

Rock Bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

  • J.K. Rowling

As a nation, it feels like we have reached rock bottom.

It might be too late for another referendum and we, as it stands, are looking at a Britain out of the EU.  But it’s not too late to mount some barricades and make a stand for exactly the kind of country we want that to be.

And let’s not let silly little boys anywhere near it.

Dad, Brexit and an end to fear

I’ll be the first to admit that my blog posts are patchy. I often have several, half written, which never get finished. Today, however, gives me an excuse to merge 3 half written posts into one, and I like to see that sort of thing as a sign of something.

This week has been one that I can only describe as bleak and I’ve found myself feeling ever more desolate.  From the scenes of English football fans throwing coins in mockery at refugee children, to Orlando, to the horrific murder of Jo Cox, the world has seemed a terrible place.

Not only is the world a terrible place, but the world is frightened.

I know a lot about fear.  In fact, I have spent most of my life being frightened. It’s not something that it easy to admit but anxiety is very much my resting face. It’s not immigrants or unelected bureaucracies that keep me awake at night; my particular brand of terror centres largely around various modes of transport and household appliances that I think are out to kill me. However I get it.  When critics say that people are merely acting out of fear, I know how powerful that fear can be.

I recently made a conscious decision that I didn’t want to be frightened any more; that I would choose something else.

These days it’s no wonder I’m fucking terrified.

The EU  debate, more than any in my lifetime, is one cloaked in anxiety, terror and fear from both sides – and I’m old enough to remember When The Wind Blows. No one is attempting to soothe anyone’s brow.  Each side has tried to beat people into submission (although it’s hard to decide whether something is scaremongering or genuinely terrifying).  People frightened of immigrants, people frightened of economic collapse, people frightened of a loss of sovereignty even when that sovereignty is wielded by people in diamond hats.

Father’s Day has very much brought these feelings to a head.  Ok I admit, not for everyone, but mainly just for me.

My father has been dead for practically all of my adult life.  He has missed all of the best bits; the wedding, the children, the dramas and the questionable decisions.  However, it seems odd to say that I don’t think I’ve ever missed him more than now – the EU referendum.

My Dad is the reason I am passionate about politics.  In most areas of my life, he was not to be questioned – house rules, dress codes, teenage tantrums – he was very much he who must be obeyed, and indeed I did. We never discussed personal issues, or emotions, or anything so liberal or namby pamby as that.  However, when it came to politics, I like to think the Marquis of Queensbury rules applied.

He was a staunch Thatcherite and ridiculously conservative for an Irish immigrant.  He was persuasive, convincing and resolutely passionate in his beliefs.

And how I raged against them – about the ozone layer, and the rainforests, and the third world and Nelson Mandela, and racism and all of those retro 80s/90s concerns.  I spent 14 years being a vegetarian (long after he’d died in fact) because he said it was a teenage phase that wouldn’t last the month – and dear God if you are party to the traumas I have with my children, feel free to laugh heartily.

We would argue over Sunday dinner which would extend late into the night.  My Mum would leave the room declaring she refused to listen for a moment longer.  I remember a particularly heated debate in an airport departure lounge, although I can’t remember the subject, where I stormed off and then remembered he had my passport. There were tears, always mine – earnest and heartfelt. But there was also an awful lot of love and respect from both of us. My Mum once took me to one side and told me that he didn’t really disagree with me at all, he just wanted me to be sure I’d thought things through.

I’ve thought of my Dad regularly over these past few weeks, and the arguments we are not having.  I reckon he would have been in the Brexit camp, and I’m pretty sure I would have stormed out of the house at least once. But at least we would have both thought things through and come out the other side secure in the knowledge that it would all be OK.

What makes me most sad, and most frightened, is that these are not the conversations we are having, anywhere, by anyone; particularly not those at the epicentre of the campaign.  There are very few people having conversations, where they are genuinely listening to anyone else’s point of view.  No one’s opinions or arguments are actually being challenged – it’s seems just one giant game of one potato two potato over who can make the other the most terrified.

No good can come of that.

The murder of Jo Cox struck me deeply.  She is exactly the person I wish I could be, if only I wasn’t so scared – compassionate, self-effacing, tenacious. If we’re talking about taking our country back – she is the embodiment of what I want our country to be.

Her death, to those who loved her, undoubtedly means pain, loss and unfathomable grief.  However, for those who admired her from afar, I hope it represents a line in the sand.

A line where we all stop being so frightened.  Whatever side people are one, I hope that our decisions are made according to our hopes and not our fears.  That for the next week we can stop talking about the worst case scenarios and start talking about the best, about the kind of people we want to be, the kind of country we want to become.

My Dad adored Les Miserables.  I’ve seen it countless times (although these days I pretend I only go to see Strindberg and things at the RSC, natch) and always revert to it in times of crisis. He liked the bad boy made good storyline but I was always all about the barricades.

This week I’ve found it comfortingly pro-remain and have hummed it a lot.

“It is time for us all to decide who we are”

And indeed it is.

Dear Nicky Morgan, about those listening ears …

Dear Nicky

I sent my children to school today, as did most parents.  Some did not.  Over 45,000 parents signed the petition supporting the Let Our Kids Be Kids strike and boycotting of this year’s SATs, parents who feel so strongly that the new curriculum is damaging their children that they felt they needed to make a stand.

The fact that many more thousands of parents sent their children to school today does not mean that they are on your side – for this feels like lines are being drawn.

I sent my children to school for several reasons (apart from the very practical reason of being at work).

My eldest child is in Year 5.  The boy more or less invented Civil Disobedience.  At the moment this is reserved for broccoli, washing and his brother choosing what’s on the TV.  I am not about to give him the idea that boycotting school is an option if he can come up with a good enough argument.  This is because I care about him, about his education, and about moulding him into a responsible, intelligent citizen,.  At the moment, he couldn’t care less about much – telling him that school is anything other than non-negotiable is insane.

My youngest child is in Year 2.  He cares deeply about everything.  He’s a bright boy, conscientious and hates to be in trouble.  Keeping him off school today would have make him incredibly anxious that his headmaster or teacher would be cross or disappointed in him. I don’t think, at 7, he can understand the nuance of disagreeing with Government policy rather than the teachers.

So off to school they went.

In one corner, Government supporters will say that standards must be improved and our children deserve better.  Parents, teachers and mental health experts will point to increases in anxiety and the damaging effects this is having on our children.

I don’t think you understand anxiety (it’s a noun although I’m not sure what sort); I don’t think politicians, by their very nature, can. Politicians, must develop a thick skin, be decisive, be unswayed by opposition. These are not the traits of an anxious person. I don’t think you understand what it does to people, and children in particular. It is not fussy about intelligence or ability, it is not about strength or weakness. It’s about fear and with that fear comes a reluctance to try. Doing nothing is better than doing the wrong thing.

Increasingly I see joy being replaced by worry.  A recent piece of homework asked him to memorise a poem to recite in class.  We eventually chose one, after rejecting some of the more unsuitable junior school ditties his brother had taught him. Although he has the memory of a supercomputer and had given a nativity performance to rival Mark Rylance, there were tears of genuine fear that he would make a mistake, or forget a line.  We had to very gently explain that the point of it was to encourage a love of poetry, to discover new things, not a memory test.

I see him reluctant to write stories like he once did.  I see him hesitate before using a difficult word in case he has spelt it incorrectly. I see the look of crumpled dejection when, although he’s on the top table, he’s still hasn’t got a tick in the top box.

He makes up the most amazing pun laden jokes, he has arbitrarily taken it upon himself to memorise capital cities at bedtime, he has mastered the armpit fart.

I spent a long time drilling my 10 year old that having messy handwriting did not mean that he couldn’t be great at writing (Goddammit).  Spotting the modal verbs in Jane Eyre (no, me neither) doesn’t mean you are any more capable of understanding what those words mean.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m something of a grammar pedant.  Whilst I’ll accept (and even commit) the odd slip, on the whole apostrophes are non negotiable and I know what to do with a semi-colon.  We have an amazing language which deserves to be treated with respect and its rules adhered to.  I also accept that a sound knowledge of grammar might make us a little better at languages.  In which case, ditch the SPAG and make French compulsory.

The Government spokespeople (whose own grammar isn’t that hot), obviously haven’t faired too badly.  Julia Hartley-Brewer defended them on PM today saying she had been ‘failed by the comprehensive system as she was never taught this stuff’  So much so that she is now a successful columnist, commentator, and regular on Radio4 and Question Time – the utter drop out.  She talked of woolly liberals who never want their children to fail, or get less than an A, and never want them to challenged.

It’s actually the complete opposite.

I want my children to be armed and dangerous with all of the myriad of skills they will need in adult life – skills that will make them successful and happy.  These are not fronted adverbials or subordinate clauses.

The Government doesn’t have a monopoly on wanting to make Britain great.  The skills that will make it great are not scoring 100% in spelling tests, the world has changed.  They are inventiveness, innovation, analytical skills, looking for answers, creativity, leadership, resilience and confidence in their own abilities and talents.

I and my children’s teachers seem to spend our lives trying to instil feelings of enthusiasm, joy and self-esteem only to have it knocked out of them when we’re not looking.

What we seem to be teaching children is that they are wrong.  The seed is planted that the ideas in their head aren’t nearly as important as getting the answer right.  That memorising facts and definitions is more important than understanding them.

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

Worse than that, it’s teaching them not to make mistakes.

In the adult world, great leaders and managers don’t constantly criticise the people they lead (OK, some do, but they’re rubbish).  They look for strengths to develop, they encourage, they instil a vision that will inspire and motivate.

I can’t tell you how much I want my children to fail; to fail over and over and then have another go, to try things that they’ve never done before, to try things that they know won’t work but do it anyway. To get things wrong or to get things right but in an unexpected way.

To do something great, or remarkable, or just different … or not.

Instead we are in danger of raising a whole generation of very small animals entirely surrounded by water.  Children who know exactly what is expected of them and by what percentage they are lacking.  Children who always seem to get everything wrong, even when they are mostly right.

Now I know you and your colleagues are working towards expected levels on your listening skills.  Junior Doctors and patients don’t seem to be getting very far and now teachers, parents and experts are telling you about their actual experience of real life children, but you’re still not that bothered.  Apparently you do trust us to make decisions complex economic, agricultural and legal arguments on EU membership which I’m pretty guaranteed I, along with 90% of the rest of population, am not qualified to make.

So fingers on lips, hands on knees, and pay attention.

All too often we skip spellings but rarely story time, so I shall leave you with some hints and tips from Antoine de Saint Exupéry.  It’s a metaphor but I’m sure that will be OK. He’s French and everything.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Yours sincerely



Victoria Wood: I’m looking for my friend …

2016 has not been kind.  Maybe it’s just my age but the last few months have seen a steady stream of familiar faces shuffling off; a roll call of my childhood and teenage years.  Bowie, Rickman, Wogan, Corbett.  However the death of Victoria Wood today seems particularly cruel and unnecessary.

Her death has saddened me for all sorts of reasons. I must admit Bowie’s death was a blow but he was Bowie for goodness sake; extraordinary and other worldly, completely unique. Victoria Wood the opposite; gloriously ordinary, and very definitely one of us. A celebrity that felt like a mate even though I’ve never met her.

The BBC news bulletin flashed on my phone as I left a meeting.  I immediately texted my friend Jo.  Over the 30 years that Jo and I have been friends, Victoria Wood has been a constant.  As teenagers, in our heads, we were Wood and Walters; not as funny obviously but pretty damn close.

Victoria Wood crafted a language of her own, beautifully and exquisitely, and we have used it as a short hand between us ever since. Months might pass when we don’t see each other but the Facebook comment “did someone poke an eclair through the curtain?” is enough, or maybe the offer of a Meltis Newberry Fruit..

Not to mention my other friends, who went through the same rite of passage – the parallel Victorias and Julies.  Or my friend Simon – we’re not close friends, we used to work together many years ago but I believe he once used ‘totally fonybodo’ in a meeting and no more needed to be said.

The press have been littered with her ‘best lines’ but I’m not sure it really worked like that. These weren’t gags, this was an entire universe that you either inhabited or you didn’t – or you didn’t know you did. I have plagiarised and worked her lines into daily conversation for decades.

Last week, I may have used the phrase “I’m borderline hypo-glycemic, diagnosed pastry dependent”

Yesterday, I described a conversation with my son about his sex education class, as very like the tale of the chocolate raisins machine in the toilet.

So here are the things Victoria Wood has taught me.

It’s OK to be kind

I’m a cynical soul most of the time.  If you asked who my favourite comedians were, I’d most likely say Stewart Lee, or Bill Hicks, or some other edgy, bitter sort setting the world to rights. Victoria Wood’s comedy is different.  It is kind, and generous.  It’s a cliche which is closely followed by ‘national treasure’ but true nonetheless.  All of her characters, however flawed, are treated with fondness and warmth but resonate all the more because of it.

It’s always the quiet ones

People refer to Victoria Wood as shy, introverted, struggling with self-esteem.  That is where her strength lay.  She claimed she didn’t really enjoy acting as she “didn’t like wigs and costumes”, so she didn’t do it that often.  She didn’t want to be famous for the sake of being famous.  She had a talent, and she had something to say, and fame was merely a bi-product of that.  Of all the work she did, it is the series of 6 half hours she made in 1989 that are my favourite.  In every episode, there is a quiet rage simmering beneath the surface which is dealt with subtle and surgical honesty. Even all these years later, 28 minutes set in a health farm says everything about what is wrong with our self-obsessed, body image paranoia.

Look at Dana, I don’t know what she’s doing in that car but she’s certainly not working out the calories in a chocolate raisin.  She is, however, knackering the suspension.

Your friends will serve you well

Tonight Julie Walters said her “heart was too sore to comment,” and you felt her pain.  They were not a double act in the Morecambe and Wise, Two Ronnies kind of way.  Without resorting to stereotypes it was a far more female version of friendship.  They came in and out of each others lives and careers with ease and comfort.  Victoria may have been the real writing talent but she gave Julie all the best lines.

In fact, she gave all her friends the best lines.  The same cast of characters appeared time and time again, turning up like a family Christmas.

“It was made by disadvantaged oriental widows, you can see here where they were too depressed to stick down the edges”

And she gave Maxine Peake her big break.  Enough said.

There is comfort in the ordinary

Victoria Wood was 62 when she died, which is no age at all.  It is a year older than my mother when she died, which reminds me that she was no age at all either.  My husband used to roll his eyes and leave the room when Dinnerladies came on but it reminded me of my mother like some massive blanket.  Not just because the canteen she worked in was remarkably similar to the one she and I worked in.  Actually it’s not Victoria Wood that reminds me of my my Mum, but Anne Reid speaking her lines, if my Mum had been funnier.

“Ravel’s Bolero, what a pulsing rhythm, superb for tackling the ironing”

I remember when I moved to London in 1996, Victoria Wood was playing the Albert Hall.  I went by myself.  I was living by myself, didn’t have many friends on my side of town and was lonely. I can’t think of many comics I would go to alone but this felt like the right thing to do.  And indeed it was.

Sadness is funny

All the best writers know that comedy comes hand in hand with sadness.  Victoria Wood managed pathos with a delicate touch that I’m not sure has been rivalled. I’ve wept my way through enough episodes to know.

I could go on, but I won’t.

So I shall leave you with this…  If I ever get round to standing for Parliament, I’m nicking all of this

Tragic Events: Advice for Parents & Carers

We discuss the news a lot in our house, the radio is always on and there is little our children don’t hear.  I can explain about the budget, or strikes, but terrorism is much harder to explain without causing further fear and anxiety.

Sarah Clarke, Child Psychotherapist and a good friend of mine wrote this guest post, offering advice on how to talk to your children.  You can follow her on Twitter at @hide_seek_play.  

Sarah writes ….

The recent refugee crisis and terrorist attacks have prompted many parents to seek advice on how to talk to their children about such tragic and frightening news. Should we mention it at all? If so what should we say and how should we say it?

It’s easy to assume that children, especially young children won’t know or understand what is going on. Whilst this may be true, we know that children are very sensitive to how the adults around them are feeling. Before learning to speak, children learn to read facial expressions, tone of voice and body language to gain information about the world around them. It doesn’t matter if children don’t understand the complexities of the political situation, they do, undoubtedly understand that the grown-ups around them or on television are scared or nervous and this can make them anxious.

The following advice may help:

  • How do you know if your child is worried?

When children are scared or anxious they might become more dependent on familiar adults, they may seem more clingy; cry when being dropped off at school or not want to go to bed. Excessive whining, aggressive behaviour, toilet ‘accidents’ or bedwetting may be signs of attention and reassurance seeking. The best thing to do is to keep checking in with your child:

“You seem worried, is there anything you want to talk about?”

“There are some scary things on the news at the moment, do you want to ask me about anything?”

  • Reassurance

A child’s first instinct is to look for safety and security in adults they know and trust. They need very clear messages that we are doing everything we can to protect them:

“When you feel frightened, Mummy will always be here to look after you / Daddy’s job is to keep you safe / your teachers will take care of you.”

Older children can also be reminded that people they don’t even know are also doing this:

“It’s the job of the police and the government to keep everybody safe and a lot of people are working really hard on this when they go to work every day.”

  • Monitor scary and confusing images

The way the news is presented on television can be quite confusing for a young child as they process information in different ways to adults. They may also not have a good grasp of world geography so in their eyes the frightening events are taking place on televisions within their own homes:

“That news is frightening but it’s happening a long way away from us and where we live is safe”

Graphic and disturbing footage will be frightening to most people, again, if children don’t fully understand the factual information being presented they will resort to focussing on faces and voices. The words may not make sense but the child will sense that bad things are happening, sometimes when we are not even aware they are watching or listening. It is parents and carers responsibility to monitor what and how much of the news is on and when to turn it off:

“This news is really for grown-ups. I don’t want you to be worried or scared so I’m going to turn the television/ radio off / over onto something for children.”

  • Talking and Listening

We often struggle to find sense for ourselves as tragic events happen and it can be really hard to explain to children why things like terrorist attacks, wars, murders and natural disasters happen. If children ask questions it is a good idea to find out where they are coming from and what they know already:

“What do you think happened?”

“What do you know about that?”

Children’s understanding can often be wildly different from the truth as they are still learning the difference between fantasy and reality. We can then help set them straight, at a level appropriate to their understanding and let them know that it is normal and natural to feel sad or frightened:

“People believe in different things and sometimes when they don’t agree they fight – just like you and your brother/sister but some grown-ups end up killing each other when they fight which is really horrible. It makes me feel angry / sad / scared when I hear about it. How does it make you feel?”

It’s really important that children don’t think there is anything wrong with them for the way they are feeling. Anger and sadness are part of being human, especially when we feel powerless. One of the most important messages we can give our children is “It’s ok to be angry but it’s not ok to hurt other people.”

Offer children alternative ways of getting angry and sad feelings out:

“If you feel really angry you can punch the cushions on the sofa, you can’t hurt that!”

“Sometimes taking some really deep breaths and imagining you are blowing all the crossness out can help.”

“If you feel sad would a cuddle help?” (The answer is nearly always yes, even if they don’t say so!)

“When you feel angry or sad, talking about it will help to make you feel better. I am always here to listen.”

As adults it can help us to process by talking about things with friends but this is often another way children can over-hear things which may not make sense to them so we need to have these conversations when we can be sure they are not listening. Remember, children are like bats, their hearing is often far better than ours or than we realise. They may be upstairs or in another room but still able to hear what we are saying (hard to believe when they do such a good job of ignoring us when they are right next to us, but true!)

  • Taking care of ourselves

Children are like little satellite dishes – very sensitive to the way those around them are feeling and they will absorb our feelings until they become their own. As the adults around them become more confident, secure and hopeful, our children will follow.

If you need any further advice about your child’s behaviour, please do not hesitate to contact either myself or your child’s class teacher.

Sarah Clarke, Child Psychotherapist

(Adapted from information by The Fred Rogers Company)