An Apology

Apologies for the silence. I’ve been a bit busy. I’ve been busy working, stretching myself thinly and growing fat on oven chips and posh pizza (we don’t like cheap pizza with its fake cheese topping and cardboard bottoms). It’s alright when it goes alright, a logistical Heath Robinson Affair, ready to topple as soon as someone runs out of leave. At least I haven’t got any marking to do, even if I have the report writing, the phone calls and the emails, so many emails on a continuous running stream throughout my working day.

And then there’s the appointments. Squeezed in between the school run and the supermarket delivery, I have to log in and use a password and it’s not even for me. I have to explain (again), cajole and question; is that blood test really necessary? Will it make any difference? Is there really no-one to coordinate it all? No paediatrician for a grown up boy? It’s me? Are you certain, are you sure?

And the meetings. The number of strangers touching our lives is growing daily and yet we can’t find anyone to spend the personal budget on. Economic migrants, we haven’t got a social network; we haven’t got time to form one. Even if we had, there’s no reason why anyone we knew would want the job. No-one wants an itty bitty job that pays peanuts, and I don’t know about you, but I can’t shift that sneaking feeling that there’s an element of motherblame that still hangs around us, whispering, poisoning.

Slowly, so slowly, ‘inclusive’, ‘inclusion’ has shifted its meaning. Slowly, so slowly, we depart, softly wrapped up and separated into a lonely little isolated world and I can’t help but wonder, as I sit in front of the fire in a haze of relief and slight bogglement that the weekend is finally here and tomorrow I can sleep beyond the alarm, who should be apologising to who.

Disabled Children are People

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, I’ve done it again. I’ve read something in the newspapers and it’s made me cross. No, it’s not the latest from the Brexit Express (although that is a close contender) and neither is it the latest skeleton to come tumbling out of Boris Johnson’s closet. Nope, you’ve guessed it. It’s the one thing that is pretty much guaranteed to have my fingers stomping all over the keyboard; the treatment of SEND in the press.

This time it’s the Times. Not a newspaper I frequent more than occasionally (my in-laws get it for the crossword – apparently – and I tend to give it a glance through when I’m there), today’s article is another good reason not to make a special effort to either get myself a subscription or go to the newsagent with my actual money.

Apparently, you see, pupils are losing out on £400 million of school funding because it’s being ‘diverted’, ‘siphoned off’, no less, to special needs. Parents are getting ‘golden tickets’ in the form of Education, Health and Care Pans and councils have had to ‘raid’ their mainstream schools budgets (to the tune of that £400 million) in order to pay for the ‘surge’ of pupils categorised as having special needs.

So let’s get a few things straight and see if we can’t redress the balance, just a little.

1. Disabled children are people.

Actually, I think that’s the only thing that needs to be said. I could go on at length about the contributions to school communities and society in general, of disabled young people or I could remind you of the world of statements that ended at 16 and how that was the time when many fell off a metaphorical cliff edge. 

I could rant about the rights of all children to an education and I could add several thousand words on the subject of segregation, hate crime and danger if that education doesn’t happen. I could take a trip down the school corridor and point out that the door mat isn’t a learning island for anyone and that disability can be seen on the outside or appear only on the inside. 

I could veer into policy and weigh up the pros and cons of ring fencing the SEND budget in the same way as the Pupil Premium (or whatever it is called now) and describe the damaging effects of the school accountability system, the inaccessible nature of exams and tests, the overblown curriculum, but I won’t.

I could point out the lower life expectancy of disabled people, and in particular learning disabled people, that has nothing to do with disability and everything to do with treating people as commodities, as if they are, somehow, a character in a book, less than human so I’ll say it again:

disabled children are people.

I expect I’ll have to keep on repeating that.

 

We need to talk about taxes

It is a source of some amusement to various friends and relatives of mine that my closest supermarket these days is a Waitrose. Not that there is anything wrong with Waitrose, you understand; it’s more expensive, granted, but for the odd pop (OK, a bit more than an odd pop, never let it be said that I am a paragon of domestic organisation) it’s not bad. The main trouble, for me anyway, is not so much that it is expensive, but that you always come out with more than you had intended, and a load of stuff you hadn’t realised you needed.

There are things about it that make me feel out of place though. If you happen to run out of essentials on a Saturday afternoon, the car park is enough to have you creeping through it as if you were seventeen again and you happened into an exclusive boutique when you were exploring the shops one day. My tatty little old banger doesn’t really match the long-nosed shininess that will be parked there. And, as well as feeling not unlike an Eliza Doolittle at the races, there are a number of things there (and in all supermarkets, to be fair) that irritate me.

The constant supply of strawberries and other out-of-season fruit and veg. That annoys me. (Food miles and the loss of seasonality). The sheer amount of food on display (I try not to think about the waste). The packaging (yes, I know that certain kinds of packaging prolongs food life). The ranks of tomatoes, carrots, bananas or apples, all perfect and not a blemish to be seen. The fake, pre-packaged, divorced from the real world, hygienic nature of it all. If I stop too long to actually think about what I am doing, I go from serene (well, sort of) to stampy in a flash.

The thing that really bugs me though, every single time is those charitable tokens. I can never work out what the rules are for a start. Do you get one for every so many pounds you spend? Does it depend on how many children you have with you and how likely a fight looks like it is about to ensue? Why don’t you get them if you use the self-service check out?  So many questions I don’t have time for.

And then, when you’ve got one in your sticky paw, you have to decide where to put it. I guess I could just take pot luck, but I can’t help myself. There’s a sign and I just have to read it. If one or other of my kids are with me, I have to encourage them to think about where they would like to put it. And then I find myself with all sorts of awkward questions. Such as, why are schools raising money to replace their kitchens? Why are all manner of things that surely ought to be publicly funded, vying for a fraction of a donation? When did charitable giving turned into some sort of popularity contest? Have we really gone so far down the road of individual responsibility that what should be paid for through taxation is instead provided through some sort of sense of guilt or judgement of worthiness, either us or them?

This can’t be right, can it?

A Fish Out of Water

I remember the day that I decided I was going to go to Oxford University. It had rained for what seemed like weeks, my friend Kay had come to play and, on the way to drop her home, my dad had taken us to see the river Teign, swollen and brown, swirling under the bridge at Ashton. I expect he told us about the forces acting on the granite arches (the river, usually the sort that babbled over Dartmoor rocks was impressively high) but that’s not what I recall. I know the windows of his kingfisher blue MG Midget were steamed up, so much so that we couldn’t really see the torrent, raging or otherwise, but the conversation I remember was his answer to our questions about university. Goodness only knows why we were talking about it, we must have been about twelve or thirteen years old at the time, but we were and, at that time, I was determined to study English, so I asked him where the best place could possibly be. My dad, love him, not really knowing anything about English, literature or otherwise, seeing as he was, and is, a civil engineer (hence the lesson on the forces of floodwater on the arches of bridges) supposed that since they published a dictionary it must therefore be Oxford.

Years later, I had come to the conclusion that a degree in English Literature was not for me. By the time I was seventeen I had shifted a bit and begun to understand a little bit more about myself and what I was good at. My teacher made the suggestion, and I, thinking to myself that a single exam followed by an unconditional offer was a very good deal indeed, decided to go for it. I went to the extra lessons, applied to the only college I had ever heard of, sat the exam and was invited to interview. My mum sorted out my train ticket (I must have changed at Reading), bought me a rucsac (I still have it) and off I went.

For a long time, when I was really littleI thought that I had invented the town ‘Oxford’. Later, after I’d grown up a bit, I realised that the name must have entered my consciousness subconsciously, because my parents had a sort of metal etching picture that hung beneath the dining room cupboard that depicted the dreaming spires. I knew nothing about it apart from it being a university of world renown (because of the dictionary). I guess what I’m trying to say is that despite my ‘research’ I didn’t know what to expect. There was no Harry Potter, and despite Narnia and Middle Earth, I made it up myself out of a friendly combination of What Katy Did Next and Anne of Green Gables. I was wrong.

I walked from the station to the college and that was wrong. I missed my interview time (why didn’t I get a taxi? I hadn’t thought to, walking was normal, so that’s what I did), and somehow, making a cup of tea from a strange little kettle thing that sat on an open fire  was a confusing part of the process (I still don’t drink tea and at seventeen I’d never made a cup, despite growing up in a house parented by tea drinkers and containing an open fire) and what making a cup of tea for a lecturer had to do with anything I couldn’t imagine. Why had I written what I’d written? (It seemed like a good idea at the time and I had enjoyed myself following a train of thought didn’t seem like a very good answer – admitting bullshit in an interview has never really stuck me as a terribly wise course of action.) Before I knew what had happened I was dismissed, and a bemusing, bewildering, belittling experience gave way to exploring, to meeting other hopefuls and attempting to make sense of it all.

I palled up with a girl called Monica (she and I swapped addresses and wrote to each other for a while – the late 20thcentury version of being Friends on Facebook, I guess). She was head girl or something, and was fresh out of house hockey matches; she wanted to study Spanish and, seeing that her mother came from Spain, the word amongst the rest of us was that she’d get a place, no problem. (She didn’t, she went to Bristol). We went to tea (or was it dinner?) together, we queued up along a dark corridor that stank of cabbage and reluctantly ate something tasteless I didn’t fancy followed by a pudding with custard, seated on a trestle bench. We looked around each others’ rooms; mine had a rope in the corner for a fire escape and a bar fire I was warned not to leave on all night, despite the cold, hers had a sitting room and a bedroom with an old, threadbare carpet. There was a boy I remember, but not his name, because he had driven to his interview in his dad’s red sports car. He was missing a party back at home and joined it via the car phone. I suppose we were supposed to be impressed.

We made our way through a number of junior common rooms, some of them incongruously Seventies in the middle of all that medieval splendour, and listened to the apocryphal tales that flourish there. So-and-so was escorted to his father’s old rooms by the Dean. One college only had girls in it for the entertainment of the boys. The proportion of public school kids compared to Public School kids was shockingly low. There were no showers. I wasn’t invited to another interview and so, satisfied with my experience, I went home.  When I didn’t get a place I wasn’t surprised, and I wasn’t, not really, disappointed.

And what do I tell my daughter as we walk through the back streets of Oxford, who, in her innocence, thinks that the university is most convenient and rather pretty looking and who asks me why I didn’t go to university there. Was it a lack of cultural capital? Maybe. But not the sort that you can find between the pages of learned books or at the theatre or concert halls or down the dusty corridors of the museum. Was it some sort of other personal deficiency?  Possibly. It wasn’t my world. I knew it and so did they. Years later I can see my face was not reflected there and I know that what needs to change was not me then and it isn’t her now, or all the other children from ordinary schools in ordinary places; it’s them.

The House of Cards

Everyone knows it, end of key stage tests, in particular those at the end of Key Stage 2, are stressful. They are stressful for teachers and head teachers, for parents, and last but most definitely not least, children. Collecting data is all very well, but none of us wants children crying into their pillows over it, losing their appetites or worse, especially when what is being measured isn’t the children, but the adults teaching them.

So, I have come up with some handy pointers to help get everything into perspective, adults and children.

  1. Stop publishing results in league tables.

This stresses the teacher-adults out no end and contributes to the idea that the school somehow matters more than the children it serves. It makes schools reluctant to have those children on their books who might damage their standing in the league table. And while we are at it, stop telling children, ‘it’s not about you, it’s about me.’ It makes children responsible for adults when it should be the other way round.

  1. Stop with the booster classes and the constant practice.

If we want to be real about what ten and eleven year old children can actually do after seven years of schooling, then we have to be honest about what they can actually do on their own. Going to holiday classes, after school classes, extra tutoring, interventions all day and every day and starting the practice in January skews the results and doesn’t give either a true picture of the quality of teaching (if such a thing could be said to exist) or the achievements of children. What it does is inflate the importance of the tests in the minds of the adults and the children which heightens everyone’s sense of anxiety in turn.

  1. Let all children have a broad and balanced curriculum.

This isn’t an entitlement for some children, it’s supposed to be for all of them. Yes, achieving a baseline standard of English and maths is important, but there are other things in life and education is a long game. If they haven’t got it by the time they are eleven then putting them off learning by giving them more of the same, while they know that their friends are getting to do art and music and run in races – all things they might actually be good at – when they aren’t isn’t going to help them feel positive towards their education as they grow up.

  1. Let children achieve what they will.

Now, I’m not a fan of children failing, but when our political masters say ‘jump’, we, as a profession, have a terrible tendency to smile and ask everso politiely, ‘how high’? Yes, you can get primary aged children to achieve quite significant heights in terms of their maths and English, but it comes at a price, and that price is paid by the rest of the curriculum. They’ll know all about how write instructions for keeping a unicorn but nothing about how to mix a colour brown, and more, policy makers will have an unrealistic idea of both what children and their teachers can realistically achieve.

Put tests for young children in their proper place or what we have is an educational house of cards and everyone knows it but no one wants to say.