The Steam Train

I consider it a strange kind of good fortune that I spent the morning out on a steam train expedition, with three teens and their gaming devices. Such is our level of privilege that I am able to indulge my son and his friends in two of his favourite pastimes (steam trains and computer games) AT THE SAME TIME for his birthday treat. Lucky, lucky me. (I don’t know how I managed to get the job of responsible adult on this particular outing, but there you go. Such is life, and parenting. (I did my best not to be Embarrassing Mother; something that seems mostly to require me not to say anything and pay for everything.)

I’ve had, it must be said, a very pleasant Easter break (despite the weather), during which I have visited far-flung family, caught up with friends I haven’t seen in far too long and met new ones for the first time. Set against that, and a couple of days sunshine in which we ACTUALLY GOT OUT OF THE HOUSE, a heritage steam train journey accompanied by Mariokart doesn’t seem so bad. And, sitting in silence, pretending to teens that I was not actually here, removed from the continuing responsibility of Sorting Out The House, I have had that thing which I have had so little of lately; time to think, to pull together and weave the threads of conversation, to make a beginning to making sense of It All. When you get to sharing the news of the last year, catching up properly and, if not setting the world to rights, mutually reassuring each other that we are not, in fact, mad, or in the wrong, but actually disappointed in, well, quite a lot of things it turns out, it takes a while for everything to come together. It’s as if our talk, in turns hilarious and tragic, is motes of dust, taking time to softly settle. 

The unanswered questions, thrown into the air like chaff, take time to separate into some sort of pattern, to take on some sort of unified meaning.

Why is asking for the help you/your children are entitled to so stigmatised?

Why does the help you are offered never quite match the help you actually need?  (And, did anyone actually ask, before presenting you with a range of charitable ‘services’?)

Why are the hoops you have to jump through, in order to secure what you ask for, so off-putting? (And why does nobody ever seem to tell you anything other than, ‘here’s another person/website/charity you can ask yourself’?)

What is it about some people that seems to make them easier to help – or make people want to help them (whether or not the help they get is actually effective is a moot point)? 

How is it that some people seem to know exactly which questions to ask? And why, somehow, is that person not us? 

What is it that they, the recipients of so much succour, know, or do, that we don’t?

You can read more of our topics for discussion here and here.

It was satisfying and reassuring to find that I am not alone in asking them, but at the time, there was no answer. It is only today, as I sat in a railway carriage straight out of my childhood, the fantasy of Days Gone By passing by the window, alone in my thoughts, occasionally smiling at the round eyed amazement of a first time traveller, that I think I have some sort of an answer.

The reason why we feel so judged, despite the way our families, the way we love each other and, despite our various challenges, are happy, is that, winding through the fabric of the society in which we live, like a seam of dirty coal, is a deeply held belief that poisons attitudes and stigmatises the sick, the disabled, the carer and the cared for:

bad things don’t happen to good people, and it’s sickly sibling, bad things therefore happen to bad people.

It’s an idea that burns, turning charity into cinders, community into judgement and the certainty that one day, no matter how strong, resilient, independent or resourceful, no matter how beyond our shared humanity we think we are, we too will one day need a helping hand to shame.

A steam train may look glorious, puffing its way through the slowly waking English countryside, but the gleaming heat of the engine and the scream of the whistle, the freshly painted station and the guard with his jaunty hat, the romance of it all, especially from a distance or from behind the camera lens, cannot hide, despite all the effort, the dilapidated state, the generation dust of the creaking ‘first class’ carriages.


How Helping Helps

It’s interesting, if you can detach yourself a little bit, to consider how the notion of having to be helped is somehow shaming. I have felt this myself (you can read a post about accepting help here and a post about what this means for concepts of manhood here), so I can relate to it; knowing with your head that there is nothing to be feared in having to be helped every so often is very different to the experience of it.

However, like anxiety, which is constantly painted in negative terms, there are reasons why being in need, being in need of help, which admittedly, in itself is not very nice, doesn’t have to be seen as an automatically Bad Thing or a Sign of Failure. There is more to ‘help’ than meets the eye.

  • To be a helper is empowering; for children, for example, to help the teacher makes someone important.
  • To be helped, or to ask for help, means that you have reached out, and made a connection with someone else.
  • To help means stepping into an adult role; one where you take on responsibility and decision making.
  • To be helped is to recognise that we aren’t perfect, we have an understanding of our limitations (this is good for not getting too puffed up with unrealistic pride or, even more bluntly, too up ourselves).
  • To help someone else – or a lot of someone elses – is to make a contribution.
  • To be helped means that you courageously give the gift of trust.
  • To help is to notice someone other than yourself.
  • To be helped is to need someone other than yourself.

When I look at this list – and I have stopped here to avoid the danger of merely repeating myself – I can’t quite understand why it should be so shameful. Yes, there is a cost to giving help, to aid; for me, it is a price worth paying.

Otherwise, what else would we be but helpless? To be without help, would be a tragedy.

Who are Children in Need?

I have yet another criticism to add to my catalogue of bugbears when it comes to Children in Need, it seems. Because Children in Need are in the news, and, instead of the reality, which is:

Under Section 17 Children Act 1989, a child will be considered in need if:

10) For the purposes of this Part a child shall be taken to be in need if—

(a)he is unlikely to achieve or maintain, or to have the opportunity of achieving or maintaining, a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision for him of services by a local authority under this Part;

(b)his health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without the provision for him of such services; or

(c)he is disabled,

and “family”, in relation to such a child, includes any person who has parental responsibility for the child and any other person with whom he has been living.

(11) For the purposes of this Part, a child is disabled if he is blind, deaf or dumb or suffers from mental disorder of any kind or is substantially and permanently handicapped by illness, injury or congenital deformity or such other disability as may be prescribed; and in this Part—

Instead, we have visions of Pudsey and Blushes and telethons and auctions and cycling challenges for celebrities. It’s annoying. It muddies the water in the public mind which, as well as being annoying, is deeply unhelpful.

Mind you, that’s not the end of it. On Friday, I met with social workers in a personal capacity, to be informed that my son is now designated a Child in Need. This is true. He is disabled, and he has needs that mean the local authority must make (and indeed, have been making for some years) additional provision for him. For him, it is simple…but somehow it’s as if it is stigmatised; problematized.

Instead of being a statement of fact, it feels like a judgement. An administrative category has become a category.

So let me make something clear. Everyone needs a helping hand, once in a while. And that’s OK.

What happened to all the children?

One of the things that is nice – although nice is far too bland a word – about  teaching in a primary school is the sense of hope that infects the place. Nothing is fixed. The future is far, far away; a different land, universe, even. As an example, despite the fact that some of them have seen things that trouble them greatly (you know this, because they return to the same events again and again in conversation), despite the fact that they have so little and they play the sort of games that involve chopping up little bits of rubber with a ruler and folding them into little paper squares, (you know this, because they invite you to play) there is an innocence about them; they still believe in Father Christmas and are excited in an uncomplicated and present way about December. At this stage of their lives, there is tremendous hope, for you and for them. They are learning at such a rate and you, as their teacher, are a powerful influence in their lives. An influence for good, one hopes. Their dealings with social care, their entry on registers as a Child in Need are, by the nature of their being young, few.

But things change. I think it could be a valid criticism of primary schools and the teachers who work in them that not enough time is spent by us on thinking and planning for the adult lives of our charges. We get them to the end of Year 6 and through the SATs and then we send them off with a sigh of relief. We wipe our hands of them and get on with the next lot, giving those who have left us little thought and consideration. We, like them, are living in the eternal now. I know why this is, though. To think about them, as they are, as they must be now, rather than during that magical moment when they were ten years old, hurts; and after reading the statistics, it hurts even more.

Because if they didn’t have a special educational need in the area of mental health when they left us, they certainly do now. If they were male, working class, had anything like a traveller or Roma heritage…despite all that potential, despite the joy of Christmas and all that learning, to please their primary teachers, they aren’t making it to the end of their education. Something is going wrong for them and they are ending up on a scrapheap built from rage and violence, ready to visit it all over again on children of their own – and we seem powerless to do anything about it.

I remember the first time I wrote about exclusions. It was for TES, back in 2015. I had been chatting to my editor (the lovely Jon Severs), I remember the conversation vividly, sitting in the car on my drive, ranting on (and on) into the telephone about the state of it, about how my school, with its fluid population and league table position at the bottom of the bottom was one of the few schools in the area who would take anyone, regardless and I ended up with a commission for a feature. Mine was a school that was morally driven to serve the disadvantaged, and we were paying the price. I remember that feature well, too; all the best bits from the bit I wrote to get started got chopped, leaving me with one, lonely sentence: ‘Something strange is happening in education; children are disappearing.’ I’m glad I wrote it, even though since then, the landscape has changed, and the rates of exclusion are accelerating.

I’m not a person who is overly given to reading government statistical releases, I have to admit, but they tell a tale, and one that depresses me deeply. Because although exclusion rates are rising and the numbers of children and young people being educated in alternative provisions (that’s places of education that aren’t schools, like virtual schools, home education with tutors visiting once a week – a friend of mine does this – Pupil Referral Units and hospital schools) are increasing, this isn’t the end of the story. Oh, it’s easy to get all hot under the collar and rant and rail because it looks so bad on the surface (the large numbers of children and young people in that population who turn out to have a special educational need or a disability for starters: what kind of people throw disabled children out of school I hear you cry?), but there is complexity in them there statistics and it makes me pause and ask what I believe is a serious question: what happens to all the children?

In one sense I am glad that alternative provision is getting the attention it deserves, that the teachers who work there are getting the recognition they deserve. This is good. But it seems to me that what we are looking at is the symptom of the problem, not the cause. We are fiddling round the edges with our talk of finding ‘what works’ (with the explicit undertone that if one – exceptional – child can lift themselves out of poverty and distress by the Power of Education then so can everyone and thus save the state a fortune) and failing to address what is really the matter.

What happens to all the children? What happens to them?

You can read the statistics here.

You can read the plan for Alternative Provision here.

Cookery Club

My bookshelves are having a bit of an identity crisis. In the usual way of things (as in, when I have had the time to play Librarians), they are orderly places. Books are grouped, according to size, theme and author, and they happily sit together, enabling me to find the one I am looking for by pointing, in a funny kind of way, to their neighbours. This week though, as last week, they are not happy. Poetry is muddled up with DIY. Sailing with science fiction. And the cookery books; they are scattered.

I have what one might call a weakness for cookery books. I used to stand looking through them for ages in my local supermarket, embarrassing myself into purchases. I the photographs, the explanations, the suggestions of a life you might grasp for yourself, be that low fat, high fibre, fully organic, home-made and home-grown, if only you weren’t more busy gazing at the pages; occasionally, I even love eating the results of my reading. Mind you, you can tell the ones I use regularly. They are spattered tomes, pages stuck together and falling open at favourite recipes – or the ones that everyone is prepared to eat, anyway.

Despite my attraction to the new and the shiny though, there are a couple of old favourites. Books I regularly return to, again and again, either for ideas for meals I have forgotten or for fail-safe recipes I know will work. I don’t know though. My two favourites are so different that I sometimes wonder if I have a split personality. As a cook, that is..

In one corner, we have Delia (commonly known as Saint Delia in my house). A gift from my friend A when I was in my early twenties and had never baked a thing, it took me a while to learn that if you want a Delia recipe to work you have to follow it to the letter, even down to measuring the tins. In the other we have Naked Jamie (remember that, when he was all young and thin and slid down banisters?) ‘taking cooking to first principles’; a bit of this, a bit of that, a glug of olive oil and tadah!

The thing is you see, that while I quite like the results of a Delia recipe, and it’s good to have her there, just in case I’ve forgotten how to make a sponge or pancakes, or something else equally basic, I must admit that I’m much more of a mix it up from first principles kind of girl. I wouldn’t say that I was all into choices, but I do like to make decisions, and cooking is no exception. If (as is usual) I haven’t got the exact ingredients or utensil in my cupboard, I like to feel that I have learned enough to make a meal work nevertheless. If I know the general principles of what goes with what, I can conjure something out of whatever I’ve got in the cupboards. Pretty much.

And then, of course, there is the thing about following a recipe. The number of times I have inadvertently missed a step, in between trips between the book and the hob. Or the times I have witnessed a recipe misinterpreted (jelly in the kettle, anyone?). Or a misprint. Curries taste very odd with a tablespoon rather than a teaspoon of lemon juice. Without the knowledge that underpins the theory, the recipe is just a rule book, and one I am unable to step away from, should the need arise.

In life as in cooking, I suppose. After all, if I never understood how it was supposed to work, if I was only ever instructed to follow the rule, no matter how well-intentioned that rule was, how kind or how much everyone I liked seemed to like it, how would I ever know, when I was baking a cake, or even if I was teaching a class or leading a school, how to deal with an excessively large egg (or, you know, a child who broke the mould)?