The Roman Bath

The first time we visited the Roman Bath, it was snowing. Newly married, we had booked a City Break; it snowed, R had the flu and I…well, I convinced him (through some sort of Early Marriage Force) to ignore both the weather and his internal temperature. It was not the most successful weekend away there has ever been. We squashed ourselves against an 18th Century window, I failed to convince him of the exciting ness of Jane Austen and it was some years before we attempted to take the waters again.

The next time we visited, taking a young S and an even younger A, it wasn’t so much an Austen influence as Arthurian. As we explored the complex, instead of ladies in their dampened muslin gowns, I imagined the soaring roof and the steady decline and fading out of a Roman era, the smoke of tallow torches drifting upwards into the gloom, mingling with the faintly sulphurous steam rising from the green water. I’m not sure it was the start of my mission to take my children to sites of historical and cultural significance (I’ve always been a bit of a visitor to such places), but, wherever it sits in the chronology, it was certainly one of the earliest.

Over the years, I have taken them (not dragged, I hasten to point out, despite L’s latest protestation – half term is coming up and she is fighting a rear guard against being forced away from the computer game) to castle, cathedral, ruin; anywhere, in fact, that looks like it has an interesting story to tell (or features in one or other of the novels which form a part of my internal world). Our local church, an abbey saved by the townsfolk from the dissolution of Henry VIII, was always good for a wander about should we feel the need to get out of the house. I enjoyed the appearance of historical characters, firmly lodged in my imagination, they the quirks of architecture: angels playing harps and drums and weird pipes with, no doubt, even stranger names, chests with unimaginable locks, or the size of grand pianos. Or even grand pianos. The odd rehearsal of a visiting orchestra or choral society.

Museums are always tempting, but I don’t know…apart from the entrance fee, there is something ‘managed’ about them that I just don’t like. Someone else’s interpretation. Someone else’s idea of what we should know. So little left to the imagination. Millions may have been spent on a visitor’s centre, but give me real over plastic reconstruction any day. And definitely don’t give me one of those hand held, silence inducing guides either, you know, the ones that force you to stop and crowd around the same points as everyone else, while you listen to the prescribed story and haven’t got any time to look around you and ask, I wonder?

I did it once. I hired the handsets at the Roman Bath, convinced, for once, to give the conventional a try. They didn’t last. It wasn’t long before I was carrying them all, chatting our way round, seemingly inconsequential, quirky questions flowing from my knowledge of my children and the place we were exploring. They couldn’t access someone else’s explanation, someone else’s idea of what a child should know. They were too young; they didn’t know enough about yesterday – they didn’t have enough yesterdays – let alone two thousand years worth of them to make sense of it all. They needed to experience the place, to follow their interest (channels and watercourses and throwing coins into water, bubbles and steam and funny smells, lions in the rock and golden treasure), to be given the opportunity to return, again and again if need be, at their own level, at their own pace, until they were ready to meet me at mine.

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Inclusion is dead. Long live education.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this here consultation on how the SEND reforms, in the form of the Children and Families Act, have been going (in a nutshell, not well), and I’ve been having what I like to call ‘teacher moments’. These moments are not the sort where my family entreat me to stop behaving as if I am in front of a class and they are the children; instead, they are those times when I think to myself, ‘if this was my class, this is what I would do’.

It happened to me a lot when I was in my last teaching job. Without a class of my own, I was in and out of other people’s classrooms, and I was always pinching their best ideas, always thinking how I might do things differently. It hasn’t been such a regular occurrence recently, but, possibly due to my imminent return to class, it has been something that has been happening more and more.

One of the hallmarks of a good teacher is, I think, the ability to recognise when the lesson has gone pear shaped and to stop and either abandon it or go back to the beginning and start again. Obviously, as I think this is the sign of a good teacher, I am happy to admit that I have done this more than once in my time. I’ve merrily made plans in the quietness of my own home and found, when I’ve been in class with 30 odd small people who either haven’t got the resources I had considered necessary for the completion of the exercise (usually because I hadn’t given myself the time to get them) or the prior knowledge (possibly because I had made an assumption), that I’ve needed to come up with an alternative – and fast.

And this is what I have been thinking about when I think of the state of the SEND reforms. It started off so well-intentioned. Putting children and families at the centre, getting the various agencies involved and talking to each other, rebranding BESD to better reflect the mental health needs of young people who find it difficult to conform to school behaviour expectations; all these things sounded so good, so plausible. And yet, now, three years later, EHCPs remain unwritten, LAs are struggling to keep up, SENCOs are drowning in work, and children and families…well, I don’t know about you, but being at the centre sounds great, but what it has actually meant for me is more meetings, more people to tell the same thing, more answering the same questions and more chasing up and checking. And that’s before we get to parents and families having to be the ones to personally hold LAs to account, to turn themselves into lawyers in order to get people to do what they are supposed to be doing, all set against a backdrop of austerity and cuts that puts everyone under pressure.

If it were me in charge I would be wanting to say, ‘OK, everyone, let’s stop, take a breath, and start again.’

Because I think the problems we are seeing are the tip of the iceberg. I think they are the products of changes to our education system that happened years ago (for a fascinating insight into educational change see here– you’ll notice that there’s nothing new to the arguments), and set into motion the perfect storm of competition (rather than collaboration) we are witnessing today. The mechanisms of assessment, funding and accountability have broken inclusion of children with SEND in our schools and it is time to draw a line in the sand.

It’s time we started speaking differently and stopped treating children with SEND as different; problems to be solved; negative additions to the every day. They aren’t. Students with SEND are just as special as anyone, just as commonplace and to be expected as everyone; just as entitled to an education, to be able to access that education.

It’s time to put to death the idea of difference and of competition in education, because after all, we all have the same rights to it. Making provision for disabled children – no matter what that disability may look like – isn’t an added extra. It is, or it should be, what we do every day. Let’s call what we do what it is: teaching. Every time we name it ‘inclusion’ (or integration or special or whatever) we make out that what we are doing for disabled students is different to what we are doing for everyone else. It’s time to go back to the drawing board, not just with the CFA reforms, but the whole damn lot. It’s time for change, and this time, for the better. This time, instead of blaming individuals, let’s look at, and I mean honestly look at, the constraints pushed on them by the mixed up, confused system within which they (we) work. There’s a reason why I failed to define inclusion when I wrote a book about it. Inclusion is dead. Long live education.

Yes, Prime Minister

I don’t know about you, but I am constantly distracted. Not, I hasten to point out, in the sense of Mrs Bennett, making declarations of distraction and waving my arms about to attract the attention of anyone who might be in the vicinity, not that sort of distraction, no. No, I mean the sort of distraction where I set out to do one thing, and end up getting sucked into doing another. It’s why tidying the house is such a trial – and also why I seem to be on a constant journey of surprise.

The other day it was diaries. I can’t remember why it was that I was digging through the drawers in my desk (it belonged to my grandma who got it from my great-uncle and has excellently capacious drawers in which to keep all manner of randomly stuffed in stuff) (I think it had something to do with maps) and I came across a small stack of my teenaged diaries.

Unlike me, my mum is a committed diarist. She has years worth of them, and I, as a young teen, was impressed by this fact and decided that I would do the same. I have several years of them (well, three) and they all end in about March – the time when I got bored and gave up writing them (I know, I know, it can’t possibly be because I had little to say, I hear you cry). What remains are fragments, glimpses of my former self, snatches of my inner world, preserved and forgotten until that moment when I stumble upon them and find myself remembering that book (but definitely not that test or that argument that I didn’t want to write about, the pages crossed out and blank) or that item of clothing I seemed so obsessed by (but not the blue gloves; what the blue gloves were I have no idea).

Despite my inability to keep a written record of my life, I find it hard to chuck them out. I’ve always loved at least the idea of diaries; during my teenage years my parents bought me several, one of which I loved so much it never made its way into the capacious drawer. Even today, it sits proudly on the bookshelf, partnering my other Books from That Era (or, in other words, Books I Can’t Quite Bear to Throw Away). It is a diary from the TV series ‘Yes, Prime Minister’, and I keep it on the shelf (having given up writing in it in about March) because there is so much in it to read, and, if you like that sort of thing (which I did, aged 14), to amuse.

I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan, but I loved ‘Yes, Prime Minster’, back in the day. I enjoyed the verbal repartee, the long, convoluted speeches from Sir Humphrey and above all, the polite warfare between the Civil Service and their political masters. Margaret Thatcher, if legend be true, was known for loving it too (I hasten to point out that I share Very Little with the late ex-Prime Minister), for its realism, despite its comedy. A politer, less frenetic Thick of It for a different age.

It’s this little story, though, the tale of Thatcher and her love for the series and its forerunner, Yes Minister, that makes me pause. Could this comedy, with its depiction of the battle between an older, post-war consensual age and a newer, brasher, why-not, infant neo-liberalism, be more influential, more on the money than we might like to think?

Now, again, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been doing some edu-reading lately, in preparation for writing my submission to the latest in educational enquiries, and I had a bit of a moment. I’ve been going on about it for a while, this business of Accountability As We Know it being damaging to education in this country, damaging to teachers and certainly damaging to the principles of inclusion and children in general, and in my mind I made a connection.

I remember the Education Reform Act. Not the Act itself, I was only 16 and way more interested in INXS at the time, but I was in the first cohort of children to sit the GCSE. I carried the first National Curriculum home to my student room when I started my PGCE. I sat with my new boss, when I started to teach properly, and chatted about Local Management of Schools, and what this might mean. I saw what happened to my old village school when the fashion changed, and everyone decided to send their kids to the other side of the valley because reasons.

It all sounded terribly familiar. When you watch it, it sounds so funny, so light, so fresh, so reasonable. The tragedy would be that it was a joke made flesh.

The Steam Train

I consider it a strange kind of good fortune that I spent the morning out on a steam train expedition, with three teens and their gaming devices. Such is our level of privilege that I am able to indulge my son and his friends in two of his favourite pastimes (steam trains and computer games) AT THE SAME TIME for his birthday treat. Lucky, lucky me. (I don’t know how I managed to get the job of responsible adult on this particular outing, but there you go. Such is life, and parenting. (I did my best not to be Embarrassing Mother; something that seems mostly to require me not to say anything and pay for everything.)

I’ve had, it must be said, a very pleasant Easter break (despite the weather), during which I have visited far-flung family, caught up with friends I haven’t seen in far too long and met new ones for the first time. Set against that, and a couple of days sunshine in which we ACTUALLY GOT OUT OF THE HOUSE, a heritage steam train journey accompanied by Mariokart doesn’t seem so bad. And, sitting in silence, pretending to teens that I was not actually here, removed from the continuing responsibility of Sorting Out The House, I have had that thing which I have had so little of lately; time to think, to pull together and weave the threads of conversation, to make a beginning to making sense of It All. When you get to sharing the news of the last year, catching up properly and, if not setting the world to rights, mutually reassuring each other that we are not, in fact, mad, or in the wrong, but actually disappointed in, well, quite a lot of things it turns out, it takes a while for everything to come together. It’s as if our talk, in turns hilarious and tragic, is motes of dust, taking time to softly settle. 

The unanswered questions, thrown into the air like chaff, take time to separate into some sort of pattern, to take on some sort of unified meaning.

Why is asking for the help you/your children are entitled to so stigmatised?

Why does the help you are offered never quite match the help you actually need?  (And, did anyone actually ask, before presenting you with a range of charitable ‘services’?)

Why are the hoops you have to jump through, in order to secure what you ask for, so off-putting? (And why does nobody ever seem to tell you anything other than, ‘here’s another person/website/charity you can ask yourself’?)

What is it about some people that seems to make them easier to help – or make people want to help them (whether or not the help they get is actually effective is a moot point)? 

How is it that some people seem to know exactly which questions to ask? And why, somehow, is that person not us? 

What is it that they, the recipients of so much succour, know, or do, that we don’t?

You can read more of our topics for discussion here and here.

It was satisfying and reassuring to find that I am not alone in asking them, but at the time, there was no answer. It is only today, as I sat in a railway carriage straight out of my childhood, the fantasy of Days Gone By passing by the window, alone in my thoughts, occasionally smiling at the round eyed amazement of a first time traveller, that I think I have some sort of an answer.

The reason why we feel so judged, despite the way our families, the way we love each other and, despite our various challenges, are happy, is that, winding through the fabric of the society in which we live, like a seam of dirty coal, is a deeply held belief that poisons attitudes and stigmatises the sick, the disabled, the carer and the cared for:

bad things don’t happen to good people, and it’s sickly sibling, bad things therefore happen to bad people.

It’s an idea that burns, turning charity into cinders, community into judgement and the certainty that one day, no matter how strong, resilient, independent or resourceful, no matter how beyond our shared humanity we think we are, we too will one day need a helping hand to shame.

A steam train may look glorious, puffing its way through the slowly waking English countryside, but the gleaming heat of the engine and the scream of the whistle, the freshly painted station and the guard with his jaunty hat, the romance of it all, especially from a distance or from behind the camera lens, cannot hide, despite all the effort, the dilapidated state, the generation dust of the creaking ‘first class’ carriages.

How Helping Helps

It’s interesting, if you can detach yourself a little bit, to consider how the notion of having to be helped is somehow shaming. I have felt this myself (you can read a post about accepting help here and a post about what this means for concepts of manhood here), so I can relate to it; knowing with your head that there is nothing to be feared in having to be helped every so often is very different to the experience of it.

However, like anxiety, which is constantly painted in negative terms, there are reasons why being in need, being in need of help, which admittedly, in itself is not very nice, doesn’t have to be seen as an automatically Bad Thing or a Sign of Failure. There is more to ‘help’ than meets the eye.

  • To be a helper is empowering; for children, for example, to help the teacher makes someone important.
  • To be helped, or to ask for help, means that you have reached out, and made a connection with someone else.
  • To help means stepping into an adult role; one where you take on responsibility and decision making.
  • To be helped is to recognise that we aren’t perfect, we have an understanding of our limitations (this is good for not getting too puffed up with unrealistic pride or, even more bluntly, too up ourselves).
  • To help someone else – or a lot of someone elses – is to make a contribution.
  • To be helped means that you courageously give the gift of trust.
  • To help is to notice someone other than yourself.
  • To be helped is to need someone other than yourself.

When I look at this list – and I have stopped here to avoid the danger of merely repeating myself – I can’t quite understand why it should be so shameful. Yes, there is a cost to giving help, to aid; for me, it is a price worth paying.

Otherwise, what else would we be but helpless? To be without help, would be a tragedy.