All posts by nancy

About nancy

mother, teacher, writer, ranter Writes for TES, Teach Primary, Bloomsbury.

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?

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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.

 

 

 

The Sea, The Sea

Last summer I made a promise to myself: I, after many years of paddling at the edges, would swim in the sea. Growing up in South Devon, swimming in the sea (apart from at Teignmouth – my dad worked for the water board and knew all about the sewage outflow up and down the coast – nothing like the way it is today) was something I did a lot when I was younger. The beach was only ever half an hour away and my mum often used to decide, during that 3 o’clock lull when everyone had run out of ideas and were knocking around the house bored and starting to bicker, to take us there for an hour or so to play.

When we got older, we ventured further afield. Dawlish Warren, with its unchanged straggle of tatty booths and arcades and floor-level rusty trampolines was cast aside in favour of Exmouth – a bit more of a trek but apparently more desirable in terms of the posing possibilities presented by a long, beach-side road along which the town’s youth would drive, windows down and new-romantics blaring, despite the tide, which would drag you half way along the coast before you knew what was happening.

Before last year, I can’t quite remember the last time I swam in the sea or why I got out of the habit. It could be because all the times I have been to the beach in the last eighteen years I have been accompanied by my children, and the paraphernalia (and need to sit guarding said paraphernalia) that taking the kids to the seaside entails. Instead of frolicking in the ocean blue, I have been the one to hold hands, hold towels, pour children in and out of wetsuits and brush sandy toes, in between judging sandcastle competitions and attempting to calm an increasingly paranoid husband that he is not burning and neither is he about to pass out with the heat.

Then of course, there is the logistical challenge of getting changed in order to take the plunge when one is a fully-fledged adult. No longer do bath towels cover a person up in the way that they did during childhood. Running around in towelling underpants and a pair of flip flops is…well, let’s just say that the advent of child-bearing has brought upon me untold swathes of body consciousness that bear no relation to those flashes of awareness from my teenage years. I’ve got at least three swimming costumes and a sarong sitting upstairs in my chest of drawers, but most of the time all that preparation, all that decision making (get changed before and go in the cozzie, or after and struggle to get non-sandy pants on) all that breathing in seems like too much effort.

For years I have dabbled at the edges and, once I’ve got my toes in the water, chickened out. I don’t know about you, but the sea, the sea that laps the coast of South Devon anyway, is an awful lot colder in reality than it looks. Maybe it’s the contrast to the sweat-sticky beach, maybe it’s the fact that it is, actually, really, really cold, maybe I’ve gone soft in my old age; whatever is, for years I have been content to stay in the shallows, nothing higher than my shin getting wet (unlike my parents, both of whom separately accompanied my children to the waters’ edge and came back soaked from head to toe), the challenge simply being to be there and get back in one piece. But last year, tired of being the bystander, the carrier of bags and general dogsbody and enabler of other people’s fun, I decided, come what may, to take a swim in the sea.

So I did. Despite the jellyfish (you wouldn’t think it once you were in it, but the water temperatures were higher last year and with them came more jellyfish than a girl could shake a stick at) and the boats coming in and out, depositing children and cricket sets onto the sand, despite the wind and the crowds, to the encouragement of the wet-suited lady who warned me not to get stung and the squealing excitement not only of my own children but their friends who came and joined me, I did it; I swam in the sea. It was freezing and funny, joyous and shocking, scary and empowering: it was good.

And, having achieved the thing that I set out to do, I felt good.

 

 

A Tale of Gloucester

For seventeen years, I lived not far from Gloucester. Like many English cities, it has a river and a cathedral; like all English cities, it is a city of contrasts. If you went there sightseeing you could come away with an impression of a majestic and historic settlement. You’d start at the cathedral (taking in a bit of the Harry Potter gloss and marvelling at the fact that a couple of mediaeval kings and their close relatives are buried there), travel along the Via Sacra, admiring the mosaic tiles installed by early 21stCentury City Bigwigs, passing through the newly developed docks (very posh) and fetch up at the museum. There, you’d learn about the Emperor Constantine (very big statue) and have the opportunity, should you arrive at the correct hour, to go back in time to visit the underground foundations from the Roman era. There’s even gold coins in thin pull out drawers to examine, treasure found in Gloucestershire fields.

If you went shopping, you’d have a very different experience. You’d have to make your way past the empty shops, the e-cigarette place, the tatty looking party shop and the smokers outside MacDonald’s on your way to H&M. It can feel as if all the money has been sucked away, diverted to Gloucester’s wealthier neighbour, Cheltenham. The mechanical clock and beautiful mediaeval architecture don’t quite make up for the litter and the hanging around, down at heel air of the centre of town on a week day. When you drive behind County Hall on your way to the car park, you can see the peeling paint and shabby interior of the office block behind the grand steps and columns of the imposing façade on Northgate. It’s a bit of a metaphor for the place.

I worked there for four years, more or less. Like the city of the past, Roman at its founding, the Gloucester of today is full of people who have travelled there to settle and seek a better life. I enjoyed working in such an interesting multi-cultural setting, one with well over a hundred languages spoken, teaching children whose families had, not so long ago, come from all over the world. They often brought home to me that so much of what I took for granted was particular to my own experience, growing up in a different time and place.

I remember one lunchtime, standing at the window with a group of Year 4 children, goggling at the rain and the enormous puddle that was rapidly forming in the playground as the drains were overwhelmed. Never one to ignore a teaching moment, I commented in my best teacher-of-young-children voice, ‘goodness me, it’s a good thing Dr Foster isn’t visiting today’…only to be met with a sea of blank faces. While Dr Foster and his visit, during the rain, was a part of my cultural upbringing, it wasn’t a part of theirs, even though they lived in Gloucester itself. I’m not sure they really enjoyed me teaching them the nursery rhyme, but I gave it a go anyway. It was a privilege to play my part in helping these young children to make sense of the world they now found themselves in.

If you were to visit Gloucester for a day out today, you’re most likely to find a cultural monument to a fictional mouse (a Tailor of Gloucester gift shop I believe – or there was, anyway – in the overhung lane that leads from Northgate to the Cathedral Close), rather than the good doctor. While you will find a rather grand bronze of the Emperor Constantine on his horse, you won’t find a Dick Whittington, with or without his cat or all his worldly goods, tied up in a red spotted handkerchief and hanging off the end of a stick, off to make his fortune in the city where even the streets are paved with gold; London.

So what is the point of all this tale telling of a place I no longer work, no longer visit for a quick dash to Clarks or Marks and Spencer because the parking is easier and I only want to pop? Well, you see, there are those who would like to claim that mobility, socially and economically, is a new thing. It’s a product of the EU or education or a post-war government policy or neoliberalism or globalism or something and it is contributing to a breakdown of the family and we should all get back to the old ways.

But it’s not a purely modern phenomenon. We might have travelled up and down the east coast of England, following the fishing fleet in the 19th Century. We might have gone to hiring fairs, to indenture ourselves for a set period in the 14th, or signed up as an apprentice, or gone to someone else’s castle to learn how to be a knight. In the Olden Days, we might even gone to London a poor boy and ended up as mayor and spawned a legend.

People have always travelled in search of a better life; they have always taken a chance and left their family and friends behind, taken the sadness of missing loved ones today in the hopes of a better tomorrow. It’s not easy, and I guess whether it is good or bad depends on what you are leaving.  But let’s not pretend that we have, like teenagers discovering sex, invented something new, or worse, that you can only live close to care.