Category Archives: Uncategorized

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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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.

Part Timer

Oh dear. I’ve done it again. I’ve read something in the newspaper and it has made me cross. It seems that Our Great Educational Leaders have come up with the solution to the teacher retention crisis. Go part time! This is it, experienced ladies, this is the solution to our employment woes! Use a sort of part time teacher dating site to find your perfect partner and wit woo! Retention crisis solved!

Because working part time is the solution, isn’t it? It’s got nothing to do with class sizes at all, has it? Nothing to do with marking 30-odd sets of books for each subject every day, just to keep on top of it all and do the right thing by your class, has it? Nothing to do with full timetables and learning all those names or working full tilt all day every day and not enough time to drink any water or go to the loo or lunchtime meetings or running clubs or anything else that must be squeezed, somehow, into the working day.

And it’s got nothing to do with the increasing complexity of the children who are served in mainstream schools at all, no no no. Nothing to do with the filling up of special schools and the spill-over to mainstream that nobody trained you for or told you what your legal responsibilities were. Nothing to do with increasing demands on schools and teachers to fill in the gaps where social care should be and a lack of time to support them when they do. Let’s not talk about the impact of incidents, whatever they might be, on teaching staff held accountable for the outcome of lessons, not rescue. Nooooo. Going part time’ll sort it out.

And while we are at it, working part time, that’s the solution to planning good lessons, isn’t it? Especially if we provide some model lessons (what, QCA? Oh, nobody looks at THAT any more, after a while everyone got bored and it was dry as the dust on the shelf where it was stored in its fancy set of coloured folders). Oh, no one looks at planning any more (do they? Do they?), but, you know, with the new focus on curriculum, we could all do with a bit more thinking space, couldn’t we?

Of course, for those with young families, working part time will make those child care problems easier to sort out, won’t it? It’ll only be two or three days that a person has to find care from 6am to 6pm, and, instead of planning and marking til late at night and allowing it to gobble up Saturday or Sunday, part timers can take a bit of pressure off and catch up on their days off! Hurrah! More time for everyone!

Don’t tell anyone about the impact working part time has on pensions though. We’d rather not that everyone thought about that. 67 is yeeeeeears away (and with any luck they’ll die before they can collect much of it). It’s not worth them thinking about at this stage, not experienced teachers, no no. They should be concentrating on their young families. Then we can concentrate on all the pension savings we are going to make while they are off at toddler group or coffee mornings or something. No one looks that far into the future anyway. And definitely look the other way when part timers question whether or not they will get that pay rise, that movement up the scale, especially with performance related pay on the bargaining table. Definitely don’t talk about that, especially if they work in SEN.

And let’s not look at house prices, or working miles away from where you live or the lack of affordable decent childcare or any of the pressures of modern life where you have to be all things to everybody and do it all with a smile on your lipsticked face. (I believe these might be called structural issues.) There’s nothing we can do about those, especially when we have Brexit to sort out.

Let’s not do any of those things. After we figured out that we can’t afford all those teaching assistants any more, let’s relieve the pressure by going part time. Yay.

EDIT

And let’s not look at the impact of Ofsted on everyone’s lives. Let’s DEFINITELY not do that.