Category Archives: Rants

Afraid

I was chatting the other day,  with some mothers of children with Down’s syndrome; what was it about Down’s syndrome, we were asked, that everyone, the world and his wife, finds so scary?  It’s a question that knocked on the door of my consciousness long before it was posed.

You can find a post on the fear of disability, and Down’s syndrome here.

It doesn’t happen straight away, but once your child is no longer a baby, or a cute toddler, a little one in a too big school uniform, once your boy starts to turn into a man, people’s attitudes change.  The miasma of fear hangs around them.  A fear of male sexuality.  A discomfort with a feminised masculinity; a man who will always need to be helped.  A not-quite someone.

You can find a post about Down’s syndrome and manhood here.

And I have written about the judgement on women, on mothers who dare to have a disabled child. Framed as choice, the discourse has more than a whiff of judgement about it, there is a you made your bed now you lie in it stench.  I have read about, thought about and written about the blame that is hung around the neck of mothers of disabled children.  Too needy. Hysterical. In denial. Awkward. Liars, even.

You can read a post about the inherent sexism present in our schools here.

Mothers of disabled children are set about with rules. In a digital age, we are told we share too much. We place our children in danger; we share stories that are not ours to tell, as if the stories of women, of mothers, are somehow less important, less deserving of a hearing.  In an economic time of debt and austerity, we must both pay the bills and stay at home. We have no need of ambition; our fate is to lay ourselves down at the feet of our children, the price we must pay for bringing to birth a disabled baby.

Today, for work (although I’d have read it out of interest), I read a report into the mental health and wellbeing of children with SEND (that’s special educational needs and disabilities) in schools, and, to be honest, I wasn’t shocked.  Depressed and angered, yes. Shocked, no.  You can read it here.

You see, we know that SEND is intimately connected with poverty and economic and social disadvantage.

We know that having a disabled child puts a strain on adult relationships and many such children grow up with an absent father.

We know that teenage girls are deeply unhappy with the world around them and their place in it, and that this is especially pronounced in girls who don’t, or who feel they don’t fit in.

We know that disabled adults and children face greater levels of bullying than any other group – and disabled girls even more so.

The report paints a picture of a toxic cocktail of powerlessness centred on the experience of women and girls; of individuals caught in the feminised state of disability.  No doubt there will be calls for change, for interventions or plans, for government backed initiatives, citing the well known unhappiness of the UK’s children in justification.  We have a big problem, requiring a big solution.

Except we don’t, not really.  To be kind costs nothing.  To be alert to bullying and to help our children and put a stop to the behaviour that has blighted the lives of so many costs little; some thought, some understanding, maybe a bit of training and a heap of commitment.  Challenging workplaces and demanding societal support for families, so that caring is shared, not carried by one person, might take a bit more, but still.

Without that commitment to change, when you look at it, when you really look at it, who wouldn’t be afraid?

 

Selection and Choice

One of the things you get used to, when one of your children has Down’s syndrome, is being asked a lot of questions.  They can be anything from the sort that come from officials and questionnaires about his ‘needs’ (like, how am I supposed to know when it is a new situation and I’m not there?) to the most common of all, accompanied by the sympathetic head-tilt and sing-song intonation of, ‘did you know?’

The did you know question became so ubiquitous when Sam was younger, a soundbite comment on the public nature of motherhood, that I became sorely tempted, in the faintly hectic way of the sleep deprived, to answer through dramatically bared teeth, ‘No, I ordered him from the baby shop especially because I fancied a more complicated and difficult life, thanks for asking.’  I never did, but my friend Meg and I used to laugh about it.  We’d decided that laughing at the world and its judgements and opinions was a better option than the alternative, which was to drown in a sea of self-blame and fear for the future. So laugh we did, imagining all the shocked faces at our reply.

The thing that always gets to me though, the poisoned dart hidden deep within that question, is the underlying assumption of choice.  We like to think, in our 21st Century Western way, that we have a lot of choice, as if we could indeed go into a shop and point at the baby we wanted, the one that satisfied our list of demands, as easily as that.  But, of course, there is no such shop, and no such easy choice. The best we can do is offer some sort of selected screening.  We set the criteria, genetic trisomies, duplications, serious diseases and disablements, and we screen; a blood test, quick and easy, but hardly painless.

Again and again I find myself questioned, this time upon my position (because, it seems to question why a woman might choose to act as she does, to make a smothered request for the kind of surrounding circumstances that enable women to make an informed choice, is not the sort of question I should be asking) and I think it comes down to one idea, one fundamental notion; to serve.

Which brings me to my point about selection.  In edu-land this year there has been a lot of handwringing and wailing (these are technical terms, you know) about the possibility of a re-introduction of grammar schools.  ‘We are giving parents more choice!’ declared the politicians.  ‘You can’t choose a school that works on the basis of selection!’ replied the critics.  The argument went back and forth for the best part of the last year, and, when it turned out that after the General Election the government would not be able to carry out its plans, there was a collective sigh of relief.

However, and here is the thing, selection, whether we like it or not, is already present in our education system (and I’m not talking about those areas of the country where we have grammar schools surviving).  It’s not necessarily an explicit thing, not by any means, but it is there.  You only have to step through the school door with your disabled child and you run slap-bang into it. ‘You have to think about what They take away from the others’, ‘They do special needs much better than we do’, ‘We can’t meet his needs because of *insert safeguarding/stairs/toilets/staff/whatever reason here’; the comments fall on your ears and enter your heart thick and fast.  Putting it simply, when schools set conditions on the kind of children – or the kind of parents, even – they welcome, formally or informally, selection is in action, just as when you set criteria on what kind of baby is an acceptable one to join your family.

Some schools are better at hiding it than others.  Some schools are honest and up front.  Whatever it is, it means that while we might say that on the surface that we have an inclusive education system, in practice I am not so sure.To me, there is an aspect of taking life as it comes versus the desire to control.  Our humanity ensures that life is not some sort of perfect set of events; there are frailty, mistakes, unhappiness and joy along the way.

There are great schools around the country whose head teachers subscribe to the premise that the local school serves the local community, who take life as it comes (we sent our children to such a school), but I am tired of the pretense that this somehow means that everyone works to the same high standards.  I am tired of the educational rejection, formal or informal, through the setting of selection criteria dressed up in the language of choice, of disabled kids with imperfect parents and fallible families. I am tired of the way that great inclusive schools act as magnets in their area, because families know that at least there, they will be welcomed; of the way that it is not acceptable for bakers shops or hotels to choose their customers, but somehow OK  for schools.

It makes me wonder, when all is said and done, just who we are serving.

A Poisonous Atmosphere of Fear

One of the things I miss most about teaching children is the way they take you into their confidence.  I have lost count of the number of times I have been called ‘mummy’ (although never yet ‘grandma’, thank the Lord), I’ve been asked if I’d be allowed out to play, and I have had to fill in many, many, many child protection forms in my time.  This last is partly a consequence of working in small groups.  In the intimacy of small spaces and with smaller numbers of children, the barriers are reduced, and the tales come tumbling out.  Standing at the front, doing the teaching thing, isn’t exactly what you might call conducive to confidences.

Even as their mother, the stories come out in dribs and drabs, a little bit here, a little bit there; a slowly growing testimony to their ability to understand the world.  Sometimes it is relatively easy to make sense of it all, the day Sam was incensed that a game of ‘throw the shoes about at playtime’ ended up with a lost arch support (it was lying at the bottom of the shed and had to be retrieved by the caretaker) was a simple mystery to solve (although, in the heat of the moment, at school, he couldn’t make himself understood), making sense of the slippery world of social relationships is altogether another.

As a young person, I remember wondering why I was so unpopular.  I’d look in the mirror and think I was nice enough, not unkind, and wonder what it was I was doing wrong.  I couldn’t seem to figure it out at all, and I gloomily concluded, as I tried in vain to fit in, straighten my hair, mould my accent into something more acceptable and change my behaviour into something more traditional, that it must, somehow, be my fault.

I never told my parents.  It didn’t seem worth it.  Not that I wouldn’t be believed, but that it wasn’t important enough, somehow, to make a fuss over.  Something that happened to everyone, nothing special about me.  I did take it up with one of my teachers, though, I remember that.  I sat in his office, after a lesson gone wrong, one I refused to return to, explaining what had happened.  He told me that the other girl had a hard life, the implication being that her behaviour to me was somehow understandable, acceptable.  Inevitable.

But there is nothing inevitable about bullying.  It is only when we, as a community of adults stand aside, when we fail to call it out when we see it, or don’t bother to take the time to understand what is really going on, that we allow bullying and belittling to flourish.  A poisonous atmosphere of fear is entirely within our control.

 

Powerless

I remember once trying to explain to my dad what it was like to be a teacher.  It was around the time of the introduction of the Literacy and Numeracy Hours, they had maybe been in full swing for a year or two, and I was young and tired. “It’s like being a hamster on a wheel,” I said, “only it goes faster and faster and faster; it never stops and I can’t get off.”  It wasn’t long before I had thrown in the towel, sinking into years of motherhood and domesticity with the determination (much to R’s despair) never to wear a watch again.  I suppose what I was trying to say, with my clumsy description of a job I enjoyed, but which was wearing me out at the same time, was the strange sense of powerless you experience when you are a classroom teacher.

I’ve found myself caught in the teaching trap many times, before and since that moment.  For all the appearance of consultation, I have been subject to new curricula, testing regimes, changes to school structure, pay and conditions, all of them without my consent.  And, then there are the school-, rather than nation-wide policies. The marking, the planning, the behaviour, the way we do things here, all policed by observations, pop-ins, book and planning scrutinies, the subtle and not so subtle undermining of professional autonomy.  Unless you are higher up the management (sorry Leadership) rungs you have very little chance of influence.

And, of course, the power that the Management holds over you extends even when you leave.  Find yourself on the receiving end of a boss who doesn’t like you, for whatever reason, and, given that they have to write you a reference before you’re even asked to interview, the chances of you walking into a new job if you found yourself in the wrong job are depressing.  You can find yourself in the position of starting from scratch, working your way through the supply list (if it still exists) to give yourself a new start, or calculating just how long it will be before you can hand in your notice, for fear of being trapped til Christmas.  You could, when you think about it, quite easily persuade yourself that you were a victim, as powerless as a fly caught in a spider’s web.

But. And here’s the thing.  I think about the children I have taught over the years. Children who sat, spellbound, as they listened to a story.  Children who gave me leaving cards and cuddles, little notes and gifts, a bookmark, a pen I still have tucked away in a drawer somewhere (the countless mugs with ‘World’s Best Teacher’ and adorned with kittens are presumably in a number of staffrooms I have frequented over the years). Notes from parents, the reply slip for the school report, filled in and resting in the far reaches of my memory. Those moments when I realised that I was the one who stood between joy and tears.

I look on my years of motherhood, the ups and downs the road to school, in and out of favour with the teachers who hold that same old power over my own children.  I think about the power we hold even though we no longer serve our time at the front of class, flowing from our fingertips into the digital world.  I remember the echoes of the power teachers held over me, over my child, their disbelief or belief in him – or me –  making the year – or not.

And I think about how lucky I am that I have friends and colleagues who will tell me the truth.  That when I said what I said, or did what I did, or the way I acted or wrote and indulged myself in my weakness for hyperbole and long, fine sounding words, that I forgot my power. That as well as having the power to help, to heal, to teach, I also have the power to hurt and harm.  That despite my self-perceived helplessness I have a voice – and my voice is heard.

Recipe for Success

There’s nothing quite like the successful student in the successful school to give all the adults associated with them the satisfied glow of a job well done.  Follow these simple steps, and you, too, could be bathing in the reflected glory of your progeny.

Ingredients

One ten-to-eleven year old child
One teacher
One set of end of key stage tests
One set of standards (variable)
Advice/guidance (to taste)
One league table
One performance management tool, named, ‘performance related’

 

Method

  1. First you must persuade the ten-to-eleven year old child that the end of key stage tests are important, the culmination of everything they have worked towards for the last seven years, and will have long-reaching ramifications on their lives. You can do this by mentioning it at every given opportunity, together with reminders about behaviour and admonitions to work harder*.
  2. Next, you must impress upon the teacher the importance of the end of key stage tests by engaging them through the skillful mixing of league tables and performance management.
  3. Finally, season with standards (variable) and advice/guidance (to taste) until you have your preferred mixture.
  4. Set the temperature to early summer, place all ten-to-eleven year olds in the same room at different tables and make them work in silence all morning and all afternoon.
  5. You will know when you have achieved success when the ten-to-eleven year old child has a dead-eyed expression, a sulky mouth, displays no enthusiasm for reading or writing at all, and cries at the mention of fractions. If you are particularly successful, they may even have the slow, tired demeanour of one who is not sleeping due to worry.
  6. If your ten-to-eleven year old child is not quite ready for success by the second week in May, you can try holiday and/or Saturday school/catch up sessions. Make sure you do these in advance of Easter for best results.

 

Remember, we all want the best for our children, and nothing quite beats the experience of success.

 

*see compliance recipe