Monthly Archives: January 2018

Demand, Support, Control

I have to admit that it was with a supressed sense of reluctance that I set off for the third Research SEND conference on Saturday morning. It was drizzling. It was cold. The hubs was stripping wallpaper and the kids were full of snot. It was one of those times when I had to force myself out of the house, mindful that I had said that I would contribute and safe in the knowledge that, joy of joys, it was only half an hour away.

Of course, I was late. Of course, when I got there the hillside upon which the campus was built was cold, windswept and deserted. I found the café (eventually), but of course, there was no one there to ask. When I finally found the lecture theatre, the keynote was just finishing. Everyone was very interested in what was said – but I have to admit that I was more relieved that I had made my way in without drawing too much attention to myself by falling over the chairs with a clatter and a stage whispered ‘sorry, sorry’.

I thought, after I’d managed to miss the keynotes so spectacularly, that I’d better get into the swing of things, so, with a focus on mental health as the theme of the day, I went to see what the boss had to say about staff wellbeing at work.

I don’t suppose that I am unusual in having had a difficult time at work, at one point or another, over the years. I’ve never endured a toxic workplace for very long, but they have certainly touched my life, and I was taken aback to find, instead of hints and tips on how to balance your work life with your home life and not lose yourself somewhere in the middle of it all, an almost perfect description of workplace bullying. (Demand, support, control model, Karasek, 1979.)

I read an article in TES the other week, and I had a similar reaction; I knew that I had been bullied at work before, but I could never quite put my finger on it. How were these people making me feel so bad? And why was I so powerless? It was strange to see it represented so well in diagrammatic form.

You see, place someone in a circumstance where they have high demands placed on them (particular groups to teach, perhaps), give them no support at all (they always behave for me OR ‘I’m going to come and give you some support) and take away any control that they thought they had (curriculum, timetabling, environment for teaching, scripts) and there you have it. It was almost enough to make me wonder whether it wasn’t the ‘how to get someone to leave’ part of the leadership course. It’s supposed to be about how to keep your staff, but as I started to get cross, I started to wonder whether or not we have the toxic version of the model at play across the entire education system.

You see, I spent part of this afternoon looking through the latest in the rash of consultations from the DfE and thinking about improving life for teachers, ensuring that members of the profession stay, thus keeping their expertise in the system and saving the nation shed loads of money in sick pay and training costs and I thought to myself, I wonder if they know? I wonder if they know what giving teachers some control would do towards solving the retention crisis? I wonder if they know how teachers would feel about being supported rather than constantly criticised? I wonder, if they reduced their demands, just a little bit, what the effect would be? Would we stay? Or would we go?

You can find the first post I wrote about the way that teachers are treated by the DfE here:

Because, mark my words, it is impossible to work your way out of a toxic workplace. If someone has you in their sights, there is nothing you can do, in terms of your own performance, to make the situation better. Nine times out of ten, the only solution, the only thing you can do, to give yourself back the control, support you need and reduce the demands you feel, is leave.

What difference will it make?

The first time I remember realising that I had some life or death decisions to make about health care was in the middle of antenatal class. It was a dark, November night and there was a sense of barely concealed panic in the room that came out in the form of inappropriate joke and gales of laughter about Dairylea cartons. I’m sure that there was some sort of acronym involved, but after all this time, I can’t for the life of me remember what it was. Something must have stuck though, or, maybe it was because I’d been in hospitals before and I was used to the drill, because when push came to shove, in the heat of the moment, I asked all sorts of questions, mostly:

What else could it be?

Will knowing for sure change your treatment?

Of course, the answer isn’t always ‘no’. When I nearly died from a post-partum haemorrhage (that’s when you bleed so much and so quickly that your heart goes all racy and you feel all breathless and you have this undeniable urge to lie down and you know you have to keep telling them, someone, anyone, that something isn’t right and you know what you are talking about), when Sam broke his leg. It was important to know exactly what was the matter. An investigation was a necessary, life-saving step.

But there have been times when an investigation, especially the sort that clauses pain and distress, has been…paused; when the answer to the question, ‘what difference will it make?’ has been entirely different, and, in the interests of the patient, the decision has been made to stop digging around in order to satisfy a curiosity and to wait and to observe.

When I think about it, we make these sorts of decisions, certainly medically speaking, all the time. Will the benefit of having that little piece of the jigsaw, of satisfying the urge to know what exactly is going on, outweigh the cost of the painful process of investigation? Will the process itself form a barrier in the future, as fear born of the experiences of the past stands in the way? Will that test, taken now, change anything, now? Will it help me with the problem I am experiencing, now?

You know, when I was younger I used to read a lot of women’s magazines. I started out with old copies of Jackie, moved on to Miz and 19, fetching up with the ubiquitous Cosmopolitan; it was the company I kept on long train journeys, regularly swapped with my male travelling companions (I wasn’t so keen on their copies of Loaded as they were on my copies of Cosmo, it has to be said). For a while, during my early twenties, I was interested in female body image, and the connection to eating disorders. At the time, no doubt the same as today, there was a lot of discussion in said magazines of the state of super-thin models and whether they were good role models for young women. I even had a book about it: ‘Woman Size’. It still sits on my shelf, dated and dog eared; I can’t quite bring myself to throw it away. I’ve not read it for years, but, even after the passing of years, certain passages have stuck in my mind.

There is the description of the shared space of the changing rooms in a fashion store (do they still have those?) where women, young and old, check each other out in underneath glances. Am I as fat as her? Am I as thin as her? The way that women seem to hate their bodies, they grab the bits they don’t like, the wobbly middle sections, the rounded thighs, and shake and push them away, as if they are somehow separate from themselves (after having three children, I know the feeling). And, bits and pieces about anorexia. About the desire to bring about control, the fear of female adulthood and bodily change, and how, for some women, young ones especially, food becomes the focus, the arena for the fight against it.

And that snippet, when discussing treatment. Maybe I saw it on the telly, you know how things get wound up together, connected in your mind, of how, when you might think that finding out what was at the root of it all might help, what actually makes the difference, what actually saves lives, is learning not so much how it all started (although that is always interesting, as various TV shows today testify) but how to cope today, now, and plan to live tomorrow.

So, to the question of genetics, and more specifically IQ in education. Now, I’m not saying that doctors should not seek a definitive answer, that would be a misinterpretation of the point of this post, but I do think that there is a question or two that those who seek to apply that growing body of knowledge about the fundamental make-up of the human species need to ask, and take a leaf out of the book of doctors who deal with the messy reality of making a diagnosis (you can read a post about that here ).

What else could it be that is causing this effect?

What difference will it make?

An Unreasonable Lack of Unbelief

I don’t know if you are familiar with the unwritten rule that there is Always One. There is always one child who is looking out of the window when they should be paying attention. There is always someone talking when there should be quiet. And there is always, always a vest, and you can guarantee that it will be a new one, left over from the first PE lesson of the year, and it will stay, in lonely state, unclaimed at the front of the class, even after parents’ evening has come and gone, until July when you finally consign it to Lost Property.

I have noticed that this rule operates amongst the adult population too. For instance, there is always one midwife who tells you, right at the wrong moment, to Buck Up (or words to that effect). And, and I don’t know if this is a Down’s syndrome thing or not, but there is always someone, in the early days it seemed to constantly be a speech therapist, now, it seems more likely to be someone on the internet, who seems to feel the need to disabuse you of your self-deception. Things are nowhere near as rosy as you keep on insisting on painting it, Nancy.

I do wonder if it has something to do with the ‘not getting your hopes up’ mentality. You know the one I mean; that if you don’t expect too much you won’t ever be disappointed. I get it, I really do. Most people mean to be kind, and they don’t want to see you struggling with the aftermath of a proper crushing in the hopes and dreams department (why they think it’s better for them to do the crushing, I have no idea, now I come to think about it). You can see it, every time someone justifies the termination of a pregnancy discovered to be carrying a little extra in the chromosome department. Cruel to be kind. Yeah, right.

You see, what these people, these prickers of the parental bubble, don’t understand is the very fine balancing act that happens, when you have a child like mine. What they don’t understand is that the grief you feel is not so much for the mythical child you didn’t have, but for the future expectations you thought you had.

Suddenly, instead of being on a journey of discovery, you are presented with a fait accompli, and more, one described in medical terms of risk and disaster. Terrifying, rather than exciting. A journey of fear and loss, not one of joy and discovery. It’s one of the things I resented most; the idea that my child’s future was written in stone, that because of his genetics, I was somehow not allowed to dream of his future. My child’s book was closed, not open.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not very good at paying attention to such people. Tell me I can’t? I instantly want to prove you wrong. So, the odds may be stacked against an offer for an undergraduate place at Oxford? I don’t care. He may never speak? We’ll see about that.

That’s what it is, you know, to be a mother like me. It’s a wilful act of ignoring the things that don’t help, but instead trap, shut down and dispel hope. Like I used to say when debating nature or nurture and boys and girls, the truth of the matter doesn’t matter in the end, because the most important thing you need to hold on to is the faith, not in what is but what might be, if only we can catch, and hold, that unreasonable lack of unbelief.



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.