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.

 

 

 

Do You Love Me? The 9 year old’s guide to teenage angst.

It's Not Your FaultLately I have been reliving my teenage years, in a way that only a woman turning 40 can. I’ve started drinking cider again for a start.

I feel the need to mention that I also went to see Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet. Not only was this a welcome return to my life before children, it is also the play I studied for A level English, so is guaranteed to transport me back to self-indulgent melancholy.

The opening scene (thank God they’d moved To Be Or Not To Be back to roughly where it’s meant to be) saw Hamlet, in full teenage angst, listening to records in his bedroom. Although it was Nat King Cole rather than Nick Cave, we all knew how he felt.

This regression had also been sparked by the startling new research that Goths are more likely to be depressed. This led to much mirth and mutterings that people get paid to do this sort of thing. Now whilst not a full blown goth, I did have one of those tassled skirts and had a fondness for wearing purple and amplifying my paleness. And I did love a bit of teenage angst. Nothing too dramatic you understand but a general “Noone understands me, you just don’t know what I’m going through” kind of thing; I wrote some truly terrible poems. Obviously on the surface I was relatively perky and functional but this was only a symptom of just how terribly complicated I really was and only added to my tragic isolation. Noone even noticed.

This all came hot on the heels of a difficult week. My 9 year old had been something of an uphill struggle. Tired from returning to school, frustrated that we wanted him to eat vegetables and have a shower, all of the wheels had fallen off and we were witness to some extraordinary displays of pre-teen emotion.

He was a temperamental horse refusing every fence. It’s difficult to know what to do with his melancholy when he’s refusing to eat or calmly rearranging furniture or throwing things down the stairs – more in defiance than temper.   So much so that I was slightly concerned that half way through the Act II I’d heckle Cumberbatch to get a bloody grip and be nicer to his mother.

I think back to myself at that age and how I would never have dared to behave in such a way to my parents. This was the 80s and such things were not done in my house. But then Dear God I wanted to, all of that frustration and outrage festering away with nowhere to go.

My son is amazing (obviously) in many ways. He can be effortlessly charming when he feels like it, persuading even the most reluctant souls that something is a great idea. He is kind and has a fierce sense of justice. He is fearless and thrill seeking and is able to judge things instinctively, often in mid-flight. He’s not a model student by any means, but he is sharp. He has a logic which causes him to pick holes in everything. He won’t accept things blindly but constantly needs to try it out for himself to see if there is a better way.

These are all the things that make him wonderful, but also make you, on occasion, want to get him in a headlock and scrub his head. He’s an awkward bugger and will argue black is white (I don’t know where he gets it from). He always thinks he knows better, often ignores what you tell him. He rarely seems to look for approval. I have often said my parenting manual will be called ‘Kids Who Don’t Give A Fuck About Stickers. He is hardly ever still or quiet and we are often exasperated.

What was difficult was that, with this ill-temper, came his constant insistence that we don’t love him, that we prefer his younger brother and that he has no place in the family. He packed a case and announced he was leaving!

As a parent this is hard to hear. I cannot imagine ever being able to love my children more fiercely than I do. There is no obvious reason for him thinking that we prefer the other one. Admittedly, he does suck up to us a bit more. He can turn on the soulful eyes when required and is a little more, shall we say, straightforward. He fills the niche left by his older brother and as a result is largely careful and diligent. He has his own brand of stubbornness but it tends to be a little less confrontational – you may read that as ‘doesn’t send me into quite such a rage’.

There is something which makes my first born feel that it is his very nature that we’re objecting to, rather than the leaping over furniture.  That the things we find frustrating are so wrapped up in who he is, that there is nothing to be done. Compare this to his brother who simply doesn’t like wearing trousers.

I had to explain that actually feeling like you don’t belong isn’t always a bad thing. Some of the greatest people felt a bit different to those around them – the key is to find other people who feel that way too and stick together.   There is nothing that he could do that would make us not love him. “Even if I murdered someone?” “Well, I admit we’d be disappointed but yes, even if you murdered someone”. He then decided that this was brilliant as this meant he could do what he liked. We pointed out that although we will always love him, the things he does can still make us angry, or sad, or proud, or excited – and he gets to choose which one, and so do we.

There have been consequences to it all, but on the understanding that it is because we love him, not because we don’t, that we have a responsibility to turn him into a civilized human being – one that washes and eats brocolli.

And then it occurred to me that all of this is just practice. Just like rollercoasters practice danger, and ghost stories practice fear, all this drama is just practicing loneliness, practicing sadness, testing how far you can push people before they tell you to bugger off. All my teenage angst, far from making me depressed, gave me a jolly good rehearsal for the times when genuine sadness, grief and loneliness struck. Life might be rubbish but there is a comfort in melancholy because you know the drill. Tori Amos and that bit about the “too too sullied flesh” will make you at least feel like you’re in good company.

In the end, all you can do as a parent is keep telling them that you do love them. Over and over again. I was reminded of that bit in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams keeps telling Matt Damon that it’s not his fault until he eventually cracked.

It’s easy to take it for granted that our children know that we love them, but no harm can come for telling them as often as possible, even when we feel like it the least. And that we love them because of the annoying bits, not despite them. They need the chance to have a go at being angry and misunderstood in the comfort of their own home, before they try unleashing it onto the big wide world.

Sometimes, I think that might be asking a bit too much of everyone but we can only do our best.

Please can someone pass me the cider.

What I learnt at school.

Hurray!  It’s September and it’s new pencil cases for everyone.  I would love to say that I’ve spent the summer having epic adventures of enlightenment and discovery but in reality, I’ve sat in a variety of adventure playgrounds with a rum & raisin cornet.  A few castles, the odd zoo, but mainly picnic blanket.

The new term has been a momentous one.  Son 1 has made the small and yet giant leap from infants to juniors, and Son 2 has entered the world of Reception.

Image

As I stood in the other bit of the playground today I was taken by an overwhelming sense that I’ve done all this before.  I can’t quite believe that the revolving door is still spinning and I’m back in the foyer.

The journey through infant school was filled with joy, terror & uncertainty in equal measure (and that was just me).  Maybe this time will be different.

His clothes are a little bit too big, his shirts are ironed (it won’t last) and he is showing a disappointing lack of clinginess.

To quote Peter Cook , “I believe I’ve learned from my mistakes and I’m sure I can repeat them exactly”.  So for my benefit, as much as anyone else’s, here are my Notes To Self.

1.  It will be just like when you were at school

For you I mean, not your children.  The school playground essentially gives you the ideal ground to repeat your high school years, with all the neuroses and insecurities just that little bit more embedded.  Cast your eye around the concrete and it will all come flooding back.  There are the cool ones, the glamorous ones, the melodramatic ones, the shy ones, the bitchy ones and the downright odd.  It is more than likely you will belong to the exact same group you did before, so stop kidding yourself.  The best strategy however, is to smile benignly at everyone, because they might be very nice.   The nicest ones might not even make it to the playground very often – so keep your eyes peeled. Remember those first few weeks at University when everyone asked what A-levels you did?  Do that (although I would recommend ‘which one is yours’ as an opening gambit’).  There will be at least one occasion where you are convinced someone is giving you evil icy stares because they hate you, or your child, but actually they are probably just having a really rubbish day, or are hung over.

2.  Your children will probably be nothing like you when you were at school.

I was a swotty sort, always eager to please, first with my hand up, very much the model student.  Your 4 year old child might not be like this.  There is the slightest chance that they might not actually be arsed with school at all.  They might not be able to sit still, concentrate, behave, read, write or seem to be able to do very much that is expected of them.  This is fine.  They will not necessarily fail their exams in 12 years time.   Leave them be, read them a story and keep repeating to yourself  ‘children in Europe don’t start school until they are 7’

3.  You know nothing of what you were like at school

In an effort to inspire and energise my Year 2 child, who was not really applying himself, was easily distracted/distracting and struggling to finish his work, I decided to dig out my primary school reports to show him how wonderful I really was.  Having no parents around, there was no one to stop me.  And I quote (aged 8) …… ‘satisfactory but rather slow to complete’, ‘she can write well but doesn’t always push herself to do so’, ‘often talks too much’.  They went back in the cupboard.  That’ll learn me.

4.  Someone will steal your child

And replace them with another.  By the beginning of week 2, the gentle apple of your eye that you have nurtured and moulded will have morphed into a hideously stroppy, irrational monster.  This is also fine and you can rest easy that they will be nothing like this at school.  They have tried really hard to control themselves for 6 hours, listen, concentrate, be kind and play nicely and they just can’t manage it for a moment longer.  It seems unfair, especially as your time with them may now be much shorter, that you get the worst of them but there you have it.  It’s called parenthood – suck it up.  They will come back eventually.

5.  Choose your battles

There will be times when someone upsets your child.  They will be mean either physically or emotionally and you will want to rip their scrawny little arms from their sockets.  This is frowned up.  On the whole, they are just learning too and a gentle discussion about friendship strategies is always wise; a quiet word with the teacher if you are concerned.  Do not tell your child to hit them back or begin a monumental turf war with the other child’s parent in the playground, culminating in a rumble in front of the cake sale.

N.B.  There may also be a time when your child says that no one will play with them, which will make you want to cry.  However, it is more than likely that what your child means is that nobody wanted to play the very specific game he wanted to play as they were already playing something else, so he went off in a huff.

6.  Be prepared (and get yourself a craft box)

The words World Book Day might have passed by unnoticed in your life up until now but it will now take on a whole new sinister tone (as will Children in Need and Easter Parade).  All children will at some point be required to come to school dressed as their favourite character from a book.  A BOOK!  And just for the record, I am judging you.  Darth Vader is not acceptable (you know who you are).

And that’s it.  Before you know it you’ll be considering Biff, Chip and Kipper to be legitimate name choices and wondering muttering to yourself that ‘they didn’t have number bonds in my day’

Childcare again – because it still makes no sense

Today was another day for shouting at the radio, and then shouting on the radio.

At last the Government has unveiled its plans for financial help for working parents.  It has been months in the planning and the subject of bitter negotiation (apparently).  All are delighted an agreement has been reached.  I shall dig out the bunting.

Cheers Dave!
Cheers Dave!

It was heralded as a major boost to ‘hardworking families’.

However, on closer inspection, all is not what it seems.  It seems that this is yet another ill thought out policy which ticks a box on the To Do list without actually giving any thought to how it will work out there on the coal face (where all those hard working families live).

To look at the maths.  Working parents will, from 2015, be allowed to claim back 20% of childcare costs up to £6,000.  Under the current system, parents can receive employer vouchers which are exempt from tax.  This means, in reality, a 32% saving on the first £243 a month, or £486 if both parents work.  This is about £1,800 saving on a cost of £5,800.  Most parents’ costs are far greater than this, but there you have it.

The new system will give a £1,200 saving on £6,000.  It’s less, but it will be per child.  So a family with 2 children will save £2,400 etc.

However, there are flaws and anomalies which cause the policy to make no sense, or at least, penalise as many families as it helps.

It doesn’t come in until after the next election, which is quite frankly no good to anyone.

It is only payable if BOTH parents work.  “But why would you need childcare if one parent doesn’t work?”  I hear you cry.  Well, maybe one parent has lost their job and is looking for work, but doesn’t want to lose a childcare place.  Maybe, one parent has been at home looking after children for some time and now needs childcare to retrain, or gain some qualifications, or work experience.  Under current regulations, the working parent would be able to receive vouchers to cover childcare costs.  Under the new system, they will get nothing.

Never mind the fact that it is also yet another policy that completely undermines the concept of Independent taxation.

Secondly, it will begin by only being applicable to those children under 5.  At the moment, childcare vouchers are available up until the age of 15.  Therefore every parent who currently uses childcare vouchers to pay for before and afterschool care, holiday clubs etc. will now receive no help.  It has been said that it will ‘expand’ to cover children up to 12 but no timescale has been given.

Single parents will benefit, and that is a positive result (just don’t tell The Daily Mail).  The only other beneficiaries will be working couples with two or more children under 5.  Everyone else will be worse off.

I’m known for my cynicism but I can’t help feeling that the Government has another agenda here.  It does nothing to tackle the underlying problem of soaring childcare costs.  It gives another excuse to trot out the rhetoric of hard working families and rewarding strife, whilst taking money out of the back pocket while they’re talking, hoping that no-one will notice.

However, I’m someone who’s all about the solutions not the problems, so here is my own little mini budget-recommendations.

  1. Increase the threshold of current voucher scheme to a realistic level and incentivise employers to register for schemes, including help for small businesses.
  2. Don’t bother introducing vouchers for the self-employed.  Just allow them to write it on the their tax return.

There, done.

But more important than that, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the Government’s, and society’s attitudes towards parents, especially those who work.  Accept the reality that, as an economy, we need people to be in work and we need people to raise educated and capable children.  Current thinking in the press and politics at large, is that parents are a burden on employers and the state and should be begrudgingly endured.  I know I shouldn’t read the Mail Online comments but I tire of comments along the lines of ‘you had children, why should we help you pay for them’.  Well because basic economics will tell you that the economy needs people to spend money if it is ever going to recover, and there is no group in society more easily parted with ready cash than parents.  They just don’t have very much left these days.  And because working parents and their children will be paying for your pensions love, and your winter fuel allowance, and your NHS care when that hip finally gives up the ghost.

What would be revolutionary is a culture that reduced the need for paid for childcare, rather than pitting generations against each other.  An expansion of flexible working for men as well as women, including incentives for more school hours, term time only contracts; affordable housing and a decent transport system which cuts down on commuting time; an investment in technology that promotes the ability to work from home.

Now there’s an idea.

Now We Are Four – party like you mean it

My youngest son is now 4.

In the words of Vinnie Jones, ‘It’s been emotional’.

On reflection, this momentous occasion seemed to propel me into some sort of maniacal frenzy which almost led to my unravelling.  I have no idea why.  I would love to think it was born out of the overwhelming desire to make my child happy and give him the birthday of his dreams but the jury’s still out.

I decided that, being 4, he needed a party.  I conveniently forgot the fact that he doesn’t like parties; blocked out that I’ve had to unpeel his fingers from the car door and coax him from my knee at every birthday party he’s ever been to.

A party he shall have.

I considered a local soft play centre but then remembered that they are hell on earth.  As my nearly 7 year old headed off to Laser Quest, it occurred to me that the ‘Pass the Parcel era’ is all too fleeting.  One minute they’re crushing Organix crisps into the carpet and the next they’re demanding bowling and a sleepover.  No, keep the music playing as long as possible and go old school church hall.

15 children, a musical statue, a sandwich and a balloon.  What more could a child ask!

It was to be a Batman party.  He loves Batman, it would be great.  I began to see the cracks however when he began vetoing the invitation list on the grounds that they didn’t own a Batman costume.  Superman, Spiderman, Buzz Lightyear would not be tolerated.  Only Batman would be allowed.  This could spell trouble.  I had a vision of him standing at the door, like a tiny sullen bouncer sending pint sized superheroes on their way.

Never mind, the excitement of the day will overshadow his draconian dress code and all will be well.

To the cake.  I had decided to make a Gotham City cake and also some jaunty POW iced biscuits for the party bag.  I’d seen them on Pinterest – how hard could they be?  And so began the baking frenzy. There was something strangely satisfying about lovingly distributing blood red icing with a tooth pick whilst watching Silent Witness on iPlayer.  Emilia Fox may dissect a good body but she has nothing on me with a piping bag.

The following day I proudly showed my son my triumph; his eternal awe and gratitude would be mine.  ‘I hate it’ he said ‘I wanted a bat cave and I don’t like biscuits’.

Holy Sandwich Tins!
Holy Sandwich Tins!

This was not going well.

When party day arrived, things were not much better.  He didn’t want to go, declared he would prefer to stay at home, claimed to dislike all of his friends and still would like me to conjur up a bat cave cake.  I put my head down and ferociously cut Batman shaped sandwiches.

My husband grew ever more bewildered.  He followed instructions well enough but they were all met with a slight shaking of the head and a ‘why are you doing this again?’

The actual party was OK.  He refused to greet his guests or receive the presents but he warmed up soon enough.  Everyone else seemed to have a lovely time bashing each other over the head with balloons.  The only real protest was when he refused to play pass the parcel until the very last layer, at which point he joined in and objected loudly when he didn’t win.

But all in all, parcels were passed, candles were blown, party bags distributed and we all escaped unscathed, with only a few emotional bruises.

It’s only now that I realise that this is in fact the joy of being 4.  The ability to tell it exactly as it is.  Of course he didn’t want a party; of course he wanted a Bat Cave.  My motivation probably ranged from guilt, through peer pressure to a disturbing need to store up some emotional blackmail when he announces he’s not coming home for Christmas is 20 years time “I made you a Gotham City cake you ungrateful oik!”

From here on in, we teach our children to manage disappointment with politeness and grace, to be aware of other people’s feelings and expectations, to ‘be nice’.

But, at 4 years old, just for a brief and shining moment, it really should be all about them.  It’s their party and they really can cry if they want to.

*** I would like to add that I am writing this as a diversionary tactic in order to delay sorting out the thank you notes, which in due course will bring on more guilt and self-flagellation ***

Childcare: No parent is asking for less attention, however good at fractions.

***Update***  In the months since writing this post, following the announcement of the reforms to childcare ratios, there has been almost universal opposition to the proposals. It has even caused the online parenting sworn enemies Mumsnet and Netmums to join forces.   Mumsnet invited Childcare Minister Liz Truss to take part in a webchat.  Due to massive opposition across the Mumsnet boards – in multiple threads as well as on the webchat – they are now backing the “Rewind on Ratios” campaign led by the Pre-school Learning Alliance. If you’re against the changes, sign the petition and share the link. ***here endeth the update***

This was originally posted on January 29th 2013.

Shouting at the radio is part of my normal morning routine.  It waxes and wanes through outrage and indignation into resignation and despair.

The present Government provides ample ammunition.  Sometimes, I think they are doing it on purpose.   Whether they’re dismantling the NHS or trying to build a train line through my favourite pub garden.  This morning’s announcement on childcare reform was enough to snap me, whiplash like, from despair straight back to incredulity.

Apparently this Government understands the problems childcare can bring.  Apparently it understands the needs of modern families.  However, I strongly suspect that their experience of childcare headaches involves trying to find a nanny who’ll fly economy with the kids.  I am willing to put good money that none of them have ever attempted to take care of 6 two year olds.

It is a policy born out of think tanks and workshops.   You can picture the away day with them all wearing their party hats and coming up with the next radical solution.  Except that they forget that these are numbers, or budgets, or P&L lines, these are children whose parents, on the whole, actually quite like them and want the best for them.  It is the same process which revolutionised school dinners, making them suddenly cheaper and more efficient on paper, without anyone giving a thought to what was actually in them.

thick_of_it_4-3

I have used a variety of childcare over the years.  When I first returned to work, still living in London, my eldest son went to a fairly low cost (i.e. only slightly crippling), friendly kind of nursery in an old church hall with ridiculously cheap rent and kind, warmhearted staff.  Sadly, after a while the church decided that the rent was indeed ridiculously cheap, changed its mind and the nursery closed.  He then went to a far bigger and more expensive ‘chain’ nursery that cost more than half my salary, look very professional but had massively high staff turnover and an incompetent manager.  That was the only choice I had if I wanted to work.

When son number 2 came along, now out of London, we decided that he was a little more sensitive than his older brother and a nursery didn’t seem right for him.  We found a wonderful childminder nearby who he has now been with for over 3 years.

I had all of the angst, guilt and hand wringing about each and every choice.  Although cost was a consideration, it was never just a numbers game.  Never, at any point, when collecting the children or paying the bills did I think ‘if only there were more children here’.

However it would appear that this is the answer to the nation’s childcare woes.  Not cheaper rents, not Government subsidy, not investment in training, not more tax relief. No, let’s give childcare workers more children to look after.  It’ll be fine though, because they’ll have been on a course and have a maths GCSE.

My childminder is amazing in her ability to calm toddlers and get them all to move in the same direction (a skill that eludes me) but even she would struggle to ever leave the house with 6 of them.  I don’t actually think the Government understand childminding at all – why parents choose them or how they work. I genuinely think they are confused as to why people don’t just get a nanny.

So really, the new rules are only practical when applied to nurseries – but even then they make no sense.  The reforms aim to reduce costs and raise the quality and pay of staff.  It can’t easily do both.

I find it very difficult to believe that nursery fees will go down significantly.  Staff will command more pay for having more qualifications to look after more children but the costs will stay the same.  And even then, all the GCSE’s in the world are still going to leave you with one pair of eyes, arms and one lap to sit on.  Parents want to know that their child will be loved, and cared for, and attended to.  I can think of no parent who would believe this represented better care for their toddler.

What I suspect it will do is raise the profits of private nurseries, with little being passed on to parents.  I fully expect to see a rise in ‘gold star’ nurseries which proudly display their child ratios in their glossy prospectus, and have the fees to match.  Like the private school system which shout their small class sizes from the rooftops, the gap between what people can afford will grow ever wider.

For the rest, they will have the existing safeguards removed and be forced to choose the only childcare they can afford, which is now worse than it once was.  It is a difficult decision at the best of times to decide to leave your children with someone else.  For many, with crippling house prices and rising bills, they don’t even have a choice.

There are countless other ways to reduce the cost of childcare without compromising safety or quality.  It doesn’t feel like these have ever really been on the agenda.

For a government that claims to know the dilemmas that families face, it is seems an odd move.

I’ll admit, it’s not their oddest, but that’s no excuse.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions.  I make the usual stab at the traditional stocking fillers of losing weight, saving money and drinking more water and with them come their inevitable companions of failure, disappointment and resentment.

This year, following on from my fallow 2012 (see previous post), I’ve decided to bother.  It’s inspiration comes from my eldest son, with a helping hand from the films of Kevin Spacey.  Not Se7en obviously, that would be weird.

My first born is 6 and several weeks ago I took him to the local pool to do his swimming badge. He’d concocted with a friend that they would go together and swim their 200 metres.  He was confident that he could do it, despite only having his 5m.   His friend, to be fair, had already swum his 100m and therefore had maybe more realistic expectations.

He swam 50m.  His friend swam 400.

He got out of the pool and his face crumpled into sobs.  They were sobs that didn’t stop all the while he was getting dry, dressed and into the car.  I was at a loss.  I tried telling him that he had swum 10 times further than he had ever done before.  I tried telling him that he should be incredibly proud and to not compare himself with others.  He spluttered that he hated swimming and was never going again.  Here was my child, feeling terrible and I couldn’t help him.  I went through my own feelings of pity, pain, and helplessness.

By the time the seatbelts were on, these feelings were replaced by a growing anger and frustration.  I turned round and unleashed what, even if I do say so myself, was a kick up the arse lecture rivaling Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, possibly with a touch of the bald chap from Top Gun.

Image

I told him that if he couldn’t be proud of his own achievements then no-one could make him.  I told him that if he wanted better he needed to pick himself up and have another go.  I was in full flow, and then I stopped.  I realised that I wasn’t really talking to him and I saw the look on his face that I recognised as mine.  Just like the denouement of The Usual Suspects, after Spacey has left the station, I saw a fast cut edit of all the decisions I’d made; all the things I’d wanted to do but hadn’t, because I worried I’d never be brilliant; all of the things I’d ditched  because I was only ‘alright’ or even ‘a bit rubbish’.

My Dad had always drilled into me that ‘If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well’.

Well that’s not true and it’s used time and again as an excuse to not bother, or beat yourself up that it’s not good enough.  I don’t want that for my children.  I want them to fail spectacularly and do it anyway.

So I’ve decided that if a job’s worth doing it’s worth making a half-arsed attempt at rather than not bothering.

That’s not a resolution I hear you cry! You need SMART objectives, what’s the goal.

So I have signed up for this.  http://www.thewolfrun.com 

Image

I have three months.  It’s 10k, with some assault courses and a touch of open water swimming.

Now I admit, I did take up running last year, which has been something of a revelation.  However, I am not an outdoorsy type.  I’m very much the indoor girl.  I don’t really do mud, or rain, or any real physical effort let alone pain.  It is so far out of my comfort zone it makes me a little hysterical.  What’s worse (and secretly, even more alien to me) is that I’m in a pack!  We start together and end together.  I’m not a team player.  I know it’s probably on my CV somewhere but I can’t cross my heart and tell you otherwise.  The thought of group exercise frightens me considerably more than the seven foot wall.

However, signed up I am.  Not only does it tick the ‘more exercise’ box, I will be proving to my children that it’s OK to do things that aren’t ‘your thing’ and it’s OK to be proud of yourself for doing things others would find easier, or do better.

Mainly though, a secret dream may finally be realised.  Although never an athletic person, I always had my sneaky role model for physical fitness.  For me, you can keep your Jessica Ennis and your Victoria Pendletons.  Mine has always been Jodie Foster in the opening scenes of Silence of the Lambs, sweating her socks off through the woods in an FBI T shirt.

Admittedly, it might be all a bit ‘desperately random’, but a girl’s got to have a goal.

Image