Category Archives: Teaching

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.

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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.

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Darling

The day I was 18 it was overcast. I’d like to say I remembered the day vividly, but I don’t. Snatches jump into my memory; cards and presents at the start of English, my tutor, Roger, smiling and rolling his eyes, a pizza lunch with my mum and my friend Liz. Alcohol was probably involved somewhere, but I really don’t recall. Right before my A levels, I was in a frenzy of excitement and anticipation. This week, my firstborn, my S, was 18 too. Equally frenzied, like me, he went out with friends, not interested in staying home.

I feel chuffed when I look at the young man he is become. When he was that tiny baby and we were so worried the fact that he would one day be 18 was inconceivable. Toddler, small boy, stroppy teen, stages he has passed through (OK, so he might still be in the stroppy teen phase), the inevitable passing of time, the fascinating transformation through the ages – none of them have prepared me for my amazement at this birthday. It feels strange to have an adult child.

It hasn’t been easy, getting him to this point, and neither do I think my job is over. (I am currently huffing and puffing at the idea that I will have to apply to the courts for permission to assist my own child, but that is a story for another day.) There is plenty to be getting on with, but in some ways I think I can cautiously congratulate myself on a job well done.

This is not to say that it has been easy. Much of parenting, and you can multiply this for any sort of disability parenting I reckon, is hard work, from the almost mindless drudgery of wiping noses and arses to the withstanding of tears at bedtime and the constant turning things off. The ‘no’ word can become the hardest word, and sometimes it feels as if you, the parent, the adult, must have nerves of steel and a heart of stone.

To be honest, the disability thing doesn’t help. As a little one, S was the supreme example of cuddliness. His low muscle tone and a winning personality made him irresistible to many. His eyelashes have never had a problem working, and neither has his smile. Small in stature, especially when he was young, it was easy to kid yourself that, somehow, he would defy time and stay a child forever.

Like motherhood, there is an aspect of disability that is played out in public and Other People, every one of them with a different understanding of your child and most of them with the best of intentions, get involved (lots of them professionally). If you’re not careful, before you know where you are, your hard work is undermined by an ugly combination of opinion and pity.

But here’s the thing. Heartstrings are all very well but in the end there is a job to be done. In the end there is a challenge to be laid down and lived up to. That tiny baby, that little boy, he didn’t stay that way. He grew and grew and I am grateful for all the adults who did not give in, for all the grown ups who gently but firmly said, ‘no’ and, ‘hands to yourself’ and, when he said, ‘I can’t’ replied, ‘you can.’

The Funnel

I was doing some sorting out the other day. We have been decorating the sitting room (NOT the lounge; lounges are for people who live in a constant state of 1970s and have things like dark green shag pile carpets and pine-orange furniture), and part of this process has been the temporary removal of the book case (Argos) to the garage and the serious reconsideration of every book that had been shoved onto it when we first moved in, over a year ago now, upon its return. Two sets appeared: those that made it back onto the shelf, and those that have been transported back into the garage, en route to the charity shop. It’s not been easy, I can tell you.

It’s not the books that you know you really didn’t like but are somehow worthy, or the ones you didn’t really like that are the problem, or the ones you know you will NEVER give away (dog-eared tomes, some without covers, testament to how much you have loved them) that cause the difficulty; it’s the ones I enjoyed, but that I know I will never read again. They are the ones I weigh in my hands, on the shelf and off, until I reluctantly make a decision.

Old work diaries fall into this category, bizarrely. I’m not sure why this is, they aren’t ever going to come in useful for something, after all. Not personal diaries, though. I have about four or five year’s worth of them, tucked away in the bottom drawer of my desk, religiously filled in until about the beginning of March, apart that is, from 1987. In 1986, I had discovered Yes Prime Minister, and that Christmas, along with a novelised volume of Sir Humphrey’s diaries, I got a Yes Prime Minister diary of my own. I enjoyed it hugely, and, true to form, attempted to keep it (up until March, and, when I was putting the books back on the shelf the other day, I found it and I read it.

I have to admit that up to the point of perusing my old diary, I had been indulging in a bit of parental guilt over the State of The Children and giving myself a good and proper hard time. In 1987, I was fifteen and in the Fifth Year, the same age, in fact, as A. The first year group to take the GCSE, I was supposed to be getting ready to take my exams. The record of my teenaged days (lie-ins, a lot of lie-ins, Eastenders and novels) was reassuring.  Like my children today, I hadn’t given The Future a second thought, and here I am, sitting on the sofa at the grand old age of forty-six and I seem to have turned out not so badly after all. It made me feel better.

I don’t know, though. I can’t help but worry. Part pf me guesses that this all-consuming, corrosive worry about your kids is part and parcel of parenting in England at the start of the 21stCentury. The sands, somehow, seem to have shifted. It’s no longer acceptable to go along to the odd coffee morning while the kids jump on all the beds upstairs (and pull all the bedclothes off while they are at it) or send them out to play in the morning and only see them at meal times; today we must cart them round to baby gym and toddler singing, rugby/football/ballet tots, swim club, martial arts; the list goes on, it is never ending and gets worse as the children get older. The number of distractions, of things we must say ‘no’ to is exponentially increased. It doesn’t seem acceptable to muddle along, to be good enough; somehow life seems to be painted in extremes of success or failure.

But when I look back to MY education and MY mid-teens(even if I do it with the subjective distortion of memory) the pathway before me seemed much more open. If I got a good grade, it was up to me. If didn’t, I would get another go. If I made a mistake, it wasn’t the end of the world. was the person those grades mattered to, the person who owned them. Not my parents, not my teachers; me. There were opportunities and choices for me, lots of them, or that’s what it felt like, anyway.

I guess that is my greatest fear. I look at my children, my learning disabled son and my typical younger ones, snapping at his heels and growing up fast. Their moment of opportunity and choice is fast approaching (before the straightjacket of adulting rears its ugly head). And yet. In an age of austerity, and what I seem to continually describe, to myself and others, as an ‘increasingly challenging policy backdrop’, what choice, if they don’t fit a certain kind of straight-line progress, standard-child mould, will they have?  Is the world really their oyster? Or have we, unwittingly, as a community of adults continually obsessed with our own performance, despite our constant prating on about social mobility and our love affair with the idea of meritocracy, created instead for them an educational funnel?

 

 

The One Way System

I’ve been reflecting recently on our decision to send S to a special school. At the time, it was a no brainer. The moment we walked in and the headteacher said to us, “of course, you do understand that he won’t have his own 1-1 TA,” we knew we had come to the right place. S, of course, preferred the mainstream school next door, where the room he had explored had computers that came up out of the desks. He was, I am sure, convinced that every day there would be a day of games and play, while everyone around him smiled and told him how cute he was (he was, still is, if I may say so myself).

We had been thinking about which school he should attend for some time; when I say ‘breaking my heart over it’ I don’t think it would be an exaggeration. In the world of Down’s syndrome parenting, whether or not your child goes to a specialist school or a mainstream one is a major point of debate. After a diagnosis experience still common to many, I believe, one of sad, solemn faces, apologies and the vague, unspoken inference that the baby you hold in your arms doesn’t measure up, is some sort of alternative, inferior creature, the inclusion of disabled children in mainstream institutions such as schools goes a long way to healing this wound. What would sending our son to a special school say about how we saw him? Would it mean that we were giving up? That he, and we, were failures?

And, like all parents, we worried about who his friends would be. In a mainstream setting, my experience as a teacher rang warning bells. Would he spend his school days swilling around in bottom sets, with all that that entails? Or out in the corridor, present but isolated? Would he be able to spend time with the children he would learn the best habits from – or would he be forever out of their way, removed from them by either the presence of a permanent TA or the effects of setting? If he went down the special school route, what would he be learning from the other children there? Shouldn’t he be with typical kids and learning typical things from them? It was a spiral of indecision and I’m glad that one visit settled the matter. We walked in, had a look around and all our doubts and worries fell away. He would be OK, and that school would do a good job.

I guess the thing that I am stumbling towards is the thing that I, as the mother of a disabled child, forgot, and the thing that people who do not have disabled children often mention (and which I, up until recently, have dismissed out of hand as patronising); that spending time with disabled people, or in this case, disabled children, is good for us, that we learn things, all sorts of things, by doing so.

I had always seen this in terms of the typical population, and underneath my skin-deep agreement there was always the resentment; that my son isn’t here as an object lesson in learning to be patient (or something) for other people. That he isn’t an inspiration lesson and that he exists, just as himself, and that is exactly how it should be.

But.

I forgot something, and I forgot something important.

I forgot that, as much as he could learn from typical people, he could learn from disabled people too. He could learn to accept his own difference, by accepting it in others; he could learn to transcend that strange kind of narcissism that assails a person who has a lot of attention, all fixed on them, you know, the appointments, the meetings, the endless, endless questions about what he wants and how he likes to be helped. He could learn to be the one who helps, and be empowered by doing so. I forgot that all the benefits of being educated with disabled young people were true for him too – a disabled young person. I forgot that it wasn’t one way.

It’s a good thing education’s a long game, or I’d be jiggered, frankly.