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I’ve always been a voracious reader. Back when I first joined Facebook (I was relatively late to the party in 2009) I, along with a number of friends, completed several of those ‘how many of these top 100 books have you read’ quiz things, and I was always surprised to see how many of them I actually had. I put it partly down to the fact that for many years my family had no TV (we had one, and then it broke, and failed to be replaced for much of my teens) and partly that I have always liked the action of reading, in the arm chair (feet on radiator if cold) or, even better, in bed (my mum tells me she once asked the doctor what to do about my constant evening reading – I gather there was no useful answer).

Not that I am a great lover of the study of literature. I was convinced for a long time, because of the reading thing, that I would go on to study it, but no. My prime motivator as a reader, especially as a young adult and certainly during my twenties, was to escape. Escape from boredom, familial conflict and the mundanity of hard work into a fantasy-land of neatly tied endings (or at least, another novel), derring-do, high romance, mystery and adventure. The only time I didn’t read this way was during my degree, when I read all the time for study, and it was nice to have a break by doing something different (like hanging out with my friends, telling bad jokes or ranting about feminism and the middle ages).

Today, I find myself in a similar position. With so much to read for my professional life, I haven’t much time or energy for reading for pleasure; this year I have read, in total, three books. In the summer holiday The Last Tudor, another in Philippa Gregory’s series of novels about the aristocratic women of Early Modern Europe, and in this one, Mary Beard’s Women and Power and Grayson Perry’s Descent of Man. I’m fascinated by representations of gender, and how people negotiate their lives through the gendered lens, and, to sit curled into the corner of the sofa, a lamp propped up on a couple of boxes to guard against the failing light, has been a luxury, a pleasure.

Much of the two final books have resonated strongly (I can’t say that I have a great deal in common with the women of the Tudor age, truth be told); I fell asleep last night, mulling over what it means to be a woman or a man, today and in the past, and what the insights of Mary Beard and Grayson Perry might mean to me now as a woman and a mother of two boys (as I am no longer a class teacher, I can’t claim to have any influence there). I thought about how, somehow, I am an ‘other’, emotional, illogical and just plain weird (I’m not even a proper teacher any more) and men, in particular the men at the top of the patriarchal tree (that is, white, male and middle class), somehow, are not.

They are, as Grayson Perry puts it, the default position and the baseline, their power invisible unless you don’t happen to be what they are (white, middle class and male). It made me reflect, and I will probably continue to do so, on the debates in education that I read, especially around student behaviour. As he puts it, “When crimes are reported, the causes are invariably said to be the economy, imbalances in society, religious extremism perhaps. Rarely is the main reason talked about – it’s just too mundane. The perpetrator was male.” In an education setting, maybe, just maybe, we haven’t got so much a problem with behaviour as with masculinity and what young people think it means.

I have to say, I loved his book. I loved the emotional intensity of it, the reclamation of men as emotional beings, with their compulsive need to win, and to be right all the time, to be the best. In a satisfying reversal of subconscious expectation, Mary Beard makes a dispassionate, erudite and intellectual argument about the structures of power, and how we need to change them rather than the women who seek to take a share in it (boiled down to, in essence, ‘I want you to take me seriously’), and Grayson Perry ends with an appeal to tenderness, for me, the cherry on the cake in a book born of concern for men and expressions of manliness that no longer make sense in today’s more egalitarian world and which damage and make it more difficult for them to lead fulfilling and happy lives.

He, with his call for men to get off their high horses and get more in touch with their feelings, has acted as a reminder and an encouragement to me to continue to tell human stories, infected and infused with emotion, to act as a counterbalance to popular, unquestioned narratives, and play my (very small) part in resetting the default position.

An Attitude of Gratitude

When I was a young, wet behind the ears, first time mum, I dashed to the book shop, upon realising that my beloved first born was going to need a bit more sustenance than breast milk, and bought an infant-to-pre-school cook book. Filled with gorgeous photographs of little children happily tucking in to carrot sticks and hummus, wholemeal muffins and interesting looking purees, I there and then decided that my children would follow suit. Organic, wholemeal and home-made. Water, not juice. Sweeties? Never. I was determined.

I have a dear friend (who I haven’t seen for a while) with whom I used to cackle over these sort of decisions, years down the line, when we had realised that the best laid plans are great…until the children show you that they have developed a mind of their own and refuse to cooperate. These days, we are more knowledgeable in our food based decision making; it is fairly predictable, what they will or won’t eat (and it won’t be wholemeal and it won’t be hummus and it will have little to do with my will). Milk is preferred to water (and water only under extreme duress). One of us will not eat breakfast cereal. Another, nothing with visible onion or anything green. Yet another turns their nose up at pizza. Meal planning can be a complicated affair, if you don’t want to be cooking individual meals, that is.

I have discovered the ‘outside food’ factors that limit the menu. You can pretty well guarantee that they won’t eat whatever it is you have lovingly prepared for them if you’ve left it too long and they are too tired (this is especially pronounced in young children, I found). They go past the point of hunger and all they are capable of being is bad tempered and screechy, no matter how hungry they are, good for nothing except a bath and a bedtime story. Unexpected (and exciting) visitor turns up at tea time? Appetite gone. Birthday party? Same.

I have found that the amount that they will refuse to eat is directly inversely proportional to the amount of time and effort you have gone to in the cooking process too. I gave up cooking fish pie for them years ago. Curry, similar.

I also gave up feeling aggrieved at this ungrateful behaviour at around the same time I made this discovery. I want them to eat, after all, and they being young, had no idea how much effort I had gone to in putting their tea at the table. The hubs, however, not having gone through the fire of early motherhood, and escaping the vast majority of screaming tea-times through the virtue of being at work, feels differently. He feels that he should be thanked, not by a letter or a card, a round of applause (although he would probably like one, and one for doing the bins, too) and definitely not with a hug (especially if the end of the hugging arm is adorned with a fork), but by clean plates and a willing attitude towards the washing up. I remind him, when the heat of the moment has past that they are children, after all, they are still, despite their size, young, and they have no idea that the all-powerful adults might have had to make an effort rather than wave a magic wand (especially if they are not involved in the process). The provision of a meal at a regular time, for them, is something to be expected, their right, if you like.

Of course, I remind them, as we sit down at the table, that someone did work hard to put the food there, as I perform a kind of grace, involving thanks for the cook, which, as they grow, they join, with smiles and verbal good wishes (although not always with that thing that we really want – the eating with gusto and the smacking of lips, but, you know, it’s a journey). I take no offence at the lack because I know that they will pay it forward when their turn comes.

Christmas is coming and I, along with many (not all), parents will be ensuring that my children send a letter of thanks to relatives who live far away and who have gone to the trouble of sending them a gift, of thinking about it, buying it, wrapping it and standing in a post office queue to get it to us in time for the Big Day – none of which they were required or contractually obliged to do. But, when I think about it, it is not the letters that matter, although I know that recipients enjoy receiving them. An attitude of gratitude is about more than good manners because they, however nice on the surface, can hide an insincere heart. It is, instead, that understanding of something beyond the self, the growing realisation of someone else that I am looking for.

The giving of a gift and the sending and receiving of formal thanks at this time of year may seem a social obligation, but it’s not. With any luck both are freely given, no conditions attached.  They are acts, if you like, of love.

 

 

 

Someone to watch over me

For some reason, I know not why, there is always some aspect of Christmas that I decide to make more difficult for myself than it needs to be. For a couple of years it was making my own Christmas puddings (yummy, but needing a large number of hours steaming and then maturing under the bed in the spare room before steaming again, on The Day). Home made pastry for home made mince pies. Gingerbread houses. (Last year, for some equally bizarre reason, we decided – or rather they decided – to have a go with boiled sweetie stained glass. Mary Berry makes it look so easy, after all. No doubt she doesn’t have to trail around the shops fetching said boiled sweet on her lonesome, along with all the other shopping.) This year, after having a word with myself at the end of November about not making a song and dance about it, it was fill your own crackers.

Now, I am, I freely admit, totally in love with crackers. A festive meal isn’t a festive meal without them, I’m afraid. When I was a very little girl, my mum used to save bits off them and put them in the useful drawer and my sister and I would pore over them, delighted by the shiny foil and scraps of tinsel, using them to create our masterpieces throughout the year. When we were older, we were instructed, by our dad, as to how to pull the snap without damaging the body of the cracker, and later, when the jokes were told and the party hats discarded, he would reconstruct them carefully, and they would come out, every year, to decorate the beams, along with the holly my mum had liberated from the local hedgerows (there were never any berries, the birds were too hungry). In 1999, when I went with friends to see in the new year in in the far north of Scotland, the crackers were my job, and I bought enough to cover the table, twice.

The thing about crackers, though, is the gifts. We all enjoy the terrible jokes, and some of us wear the party hats for the rest of the day (and some of our children hide them away in their bedrooms for some unknown reason), pulling them is fun in itself and it makes us all laugh, but the gifts are always a bit of a disappointment. When I was a little girl (again) we had some crackers that contained china figures of animals. I don’t remember the crackers, but I do remember the animals; we played with them for years, and nothing has ever lived up to them. A plastic moustache and yet another pair of nail clippers that don’t really work cannot compete, not in any way, shape or form.

So this year, thinking I’d be organised and buy my crackers while there was still a choice, as I hemmed and hawed over the options, I discovered a small, flat packet of fill your owns. There’s nothing really whizzy about the design (I usually go for something the more bling the better, if you know what I mean) and these, in their holly-printed simplicity are nothing of the sort. The designers have gone for home-spun-wisdom-stylee, no doubt. I thought that the cracker itself would be enough (why waste the the money on a useless gift you will only chuck out in a couple of weeks?), until, that is, I showed them to my daughter.

What a great idea, she declared. We can put gifts in that people would like!

So, there you are. This week, instead of sitting at home, doing something useful like wrapping all the presents while the kids are out of the way, I found myself trailing around the shops looking for gifts of no more than 5cm in diameter, and something that family members would like and appreciate, to boot. Making Christmas life more difficult than it needs to be. Again.

I kind of enjoyed it, once I got into the swing of it.  Once I came up with some ideas about what to put in them, it wasn’t too much of a chore. I enjoy gift giving, and I love thinking of things that those I love will love. It gives me pleasure to bless them in a small way. But then, as I exited the last shop, no-more-than-5cm-in-diameter sized gifts in hand, I realised something that made me feel…sad.

I had spent so long, running after everyone else that I had neglected to think of myself. Who would buy a surprise gift for me? Self pity washed over me as I considered the state of Christmas, for me, and for countless other mothers. The shopping, the wrapping, the cooking, the cleaning. The making sure that everyone else has a good time. The mental load I carry for my family is great, and Christmas adds to it, whether I embrace it willingly or not. It’s so easy, when you serve, both professionally and personally, to lose yourself, to ignore your needs and put yourself at the bottom of the list.

 

But then, you know, I gave myself another talking to. If I want something in my cracker – and if I want to like it – there is nothing to stop me getting it myself. My daughter and I will have just as much fun making them, no matter who buys the gift. It’s OK.

Christmas is a time for giving, but the price doesn’t have to be your mental health and wellbeing. We all need someone to watch over us, but sometimes, it can be us who does the watching. And that’s OK.

 

Mind you, if nobody notices that I have tatty holes-in-the-soles slippers, a wonkily fixed handbag and a broken iron I’m not entirely sure what I will do with the (frozen) roast potatoes. Nobody will get any, that’s for sure. They will have to make do with broccolli.

Having your cake and eating it

One of the things I was very interested to read yesterday was Ofsted’s annual report. Reading Ofsted reports is not something I would ordinarily do with much gusto (unless, of course, it was a school I worked in and I knew that someone was going to say something nice about me), but yesterday, given that I have become more and more interested in strategic pronouncements from our inspectorate, I read it with interest.

And what should I find there? Lo, and behold, much to my astonishment, a whole section about SEND. After the last few years, since I have been able to be outward looking enough to notice, the silence on matters SEND, from all sorts of educational establishments and offices has been, frankly, deafening. I, for one, am heartened that the spotlight has shifted its focus and started to shine our way.

Some of the report was good to see. The unacceptably high number of school exclusions that concern SEND of some kind. This is unacceptable. I agree. The continuing rise in home education for many of these young people and the concern raised about LA’s ability to keep an eye on them and make sure everyone is OK speaks to me of how many people’s right to an education is being ignored.

It was alright for us. Along with so many since 2010, we had the option to send our child to a special school. With an EHCP, he was able to get into one, and an excellent job it did too. I recognise that we were part of the rise in numbers of families choosing the specialist sector for their children. I’m very grateful that so many have read our story, and that it has played its part in heightening awareness of the difficulties many of us face, every day, in dealing with the education system. Without that special school, our son may well have found himself in some sort of time-warp, when children with his kind of disability were deemed ineducable, and I would definitely have been mentally crushed.

But many, the majority, of children with some sort of special educational need or disability do not find themselves in so fortunate a position. The majority of young people with a SEND of some sort do not have an EHCP, and neither are they educated in the specialist sector. As such, and I quote, these children:

…often have a much poorer experience in the education system than their peers…parents reported that they had been asked to keep their children at home because leaders said that they could not meet their children’s needs.

 Many children who have SEND present very challenging behaviour…The number of pupils who have SEND and were excluded [from school] was typically high.

This is, indeed, unacceptable.

And yet.

We are told that:

Higher than average rates of exclusion were also common [in failing schools]. However, this was sometimes seen as a positive step and linked to leaders taking a robust stance on behaviour.…

I don’t know, but it seems to me that we have got a bit of having your cake and eating it going on with Her Majesty’s Inspectorate. Which is it? In, or out?  Exactly which children are we talking about here?

Why is this is so difficult? And so difficult to emphasise?

The underlying causes of poor behaviour in children are not always evident, and therefore there is always a risk of misidentification.

I’ll finish with this quote, which was written in the context of shared British values and jumped out at me when I read it, and remembered with sadness all the little souls I have taught and I thought about my own children and their lived experience through this inspection period and wondered exactly which shared values we were thinking of.

…there are…those who seek to isolate young people from the mainstream, do not prepare them for life in Britain, or worse, actively undermine British values.

 

For more comment, please read:

https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/accountability-growth-mindset-and-women-who-are-going-hell-8-things

https://schoolsweek.co.uk/9-interesting-things-you-might-have-missed-in-ofsteds-annual-report/

Maybe one day I’ll come up with a few solutions, and we can start building that better system for us all.