Saturday, 21 May 2016

Those Who Can't Teach, Criticize Teachers

I went into teaching late: I was 46 when I retrained as an English teacher and 47 when I landed my first job at a school. I was thrilled: my own classroom, the chance to convey my love of books and the written word, the opportunity to enthuse and inspire young people. I had imaginative schemes of work I'd made up, with differentiation worksheets, media, the lot.

Two years later, exhausted, disillusioned, and mentally shattered I left full time teaching. To go from a state of euphoria to utter despair in such a short space of time had nothing to do with the kids, my colleagues, classroom discipline, or the school.

What drove me out of the classroom was the constant pressure from assessments, target setting and paperwork. The thing I'd gone into teaching for became secondary. The pupils were backgrounded in favour of bureaucracy and league tables.

Two things finally ended it for me: I was told I could not use my own schemes of work any more - they had to be the ''approved ones'', forcing me to teach in a certain way. And one mega-stressed day I drove all the way to the school without remembering how I got there.

That was in Summer 1999. So have things got any better? Absolutely not. Anecdotally, I read:

1. Teachers are hemorrhaging out of the profession due to stress and overload.
2. Many Academy school are quietly removing SEN and MLD pupils from their rolls as they take up too much time/resources and lower the GCSE pass rates.
3. Teachers are being asked to take on subjects in which they have little or no expertise. (DFE figures show that in 2014, 18% of lessons were taught by teachers insufficiently qualified in that subject)
4. Some Academy schools are employing teachers with NO QUALIFICATIONS at all.
5. The importance of testing and inspection has grown out of all proportion.

And all the time the profession is being told it is truculent, lazy, oppositional, and uncooperative by a government that 'claims' it has the kids' best interests at heart. Parents are being frightened by reports of lower attainment, poor numeracy and literacy skills, global league tables in which the UK isn't in the top 10.


Schools are wonderful places. They look after YOUR kids from 8.30am to 4.00pm, often longer. In some schools they give them FREE breakfasts and lunches. They expose them to books, computers, the past, the present, the world of knowledge. They model the global community. They teach behaviour, tolerance and unity. They are staffed by human beings with feelings and families, just like you.

Next time you hear a government minister speak disparagingly, or read an article that slates the profession for some perceived fault, ask yourself: Would I do a job with so little thanks or appreciation? And if your answer is 'never in a million years', then be thankful you don't have to.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Down with Skool!

As most of you know, I was a teacher in my former life, and I now tutor GCSE and A level English, as well as invigilating public exams at a local secondary school. So I have an interest in what is currently happening in education, and some background expertise in commenting upon it.

Since MP Michael Gove and now MP Nicky Morgan took over the Department of Education, the downhill spiral of all aspects of the curriculum, and the morale of the teaching profession has been steep and marked. If you have children or grandchildren in school today, you should be alarmed. Very alarmed.

From pre-primary level, our children are being exposed to unrealistic targets - don't forget, we are not dealing with Lego figures here, but small human beings, each developing at a different rate and with their own personalities. And it starts from the moment they enter the system. I have blogged about Little G and the nursery targets HERE.

From what I gather, the SATS teaching at primary level imposes (a favourite Tory word) a set of grammatical and lexical rules upon children that they MUST learn and apply to everything they read. So no longer will any book be read for fun; now they must spot front-loading adverbs or other such crap.

Make no mistake, I believe basic grammar teaching, spelling practice and punctuation are vital - it empowers children to write and read creatively and helps them learn other languages. But box-ticking arbitrary constructs merely puts them off the written word for life. And I couldn't spot half of them when I checked out the new test (the leaked one).

Anecdotally, primary age children are no longer reading for enjoyment, but approaching books with caution ... can they find all the necessary things they need to pass some future exam? Given that I didn't read 'properly' until age 6, though I was unofficially reading from age 4, that'd be me failed.

Oh, and the failure would go on. I suffer from discalculia, so I failed O Level Maths. Twice. Similarly Science. In those unenlightened days, it didn't stop me accessing higher education. I entered 6th Form with 5 O levels, and then went to University. Fast forward to 2016 and the doors would be firmly closed to this stupid blogger. No Maths/Science = no sixth form. No sixth form = no university.

Right now I have two students in exactly this position. The first, age 18 and a hugely talented artist, is still trying to get a C grade in English, even though he is only ever 1/2 marks short. The second, a future writer, & like me suffering from discalculia, is re-taking GCSE Maths in Year 12. If she fails to get a C grade by the time she reaches 18 (you have to keep on taking these exams in Govegrind's New Kingdom of Education) she is unlikely to go to university.

Please note: both these students have already PASSED, they just haven't passed high enough. And the re-sitting Maths student is contemplating dropping out of Sixth Form as she is struggling so hard and against such odds to master a subject that is completely alien to her.

Something has gone badly wrong with education. Instead of recognising the individuality of children, and celebrating it, a pattern had been imposed by people who do not work with students and only desire to leave a 'legacy' behind them. Woe betide any child who does not 'fit'. This educational eugenics will destroy or crush any latent talent they have, and then spit them out to languish in some unemployable social hinterland. And we as a society will be the poorer.

''Where have all the playwrights, artists, musicians and novelists gone? Gone to the scrap heap every one.''

Next week, I intend to look at the effects all this has upon the teaching profession itself, and the rise of the ubiquitous ''Academy''.

If you are on Twitter, please object strongly to:




Monday, 9 May 2016

Hello and Goodbye (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

Big changes are happening in Little G's world. She has now gone from being only child to big sister as You must be mad gave birth to Little GS last week, and we are all watching carefully to see if our extensive baby pre-prep has paid off.

While You must be mad was recuperating from her labour in hospital, L-Plate Gradad and I spent the time teaching Little G the new baby's name, on the basis that it looks bad if she doesn't know who he is when asked by some well-meaning relative or person in the street, who might therefore think it was any old baby, rather than an 'owned and known baby'.

From her point of view, the baby's arrival has been a bit like Christmas, minus the tree and decorations. Little G has been showered with presents 'from the baby', including a baby doll she can feed, dress, nappy change and throw around the room. We just hope she will not conflate the two.

Personally, I was thrilled to see my pet training bearing immediate fruition: Little G stroked the baby's head from front to back, as I taught her to do with the long-suffering cat. So far she has not tried to feed him cat biscuits. It will happen at some point. And in time he may well try to hide from her under the bed.

You must be mad will now be on maternity leave for the next twelve months, so my two eleven-hour days minding Little G will be reduced to an occasional single day. It is therefore time for you and I to say goodbye to L-Plate Gran as she hangs up her L-plates, albeit temporarily. But my, we have come a very long way together - should you need any reminding, HERE is the very first blog I wrote.

If you have stuck with me for the past year and a bit, many thanks. We may meet again some time in the future.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Twitter Rage!

It is a sad fact of life that there are people who like nothing better than to stir up trouble as in: ''have stick, so will poke it into this hornets' nest'' and Twitter seems to be the perfect forum for such people to indulge their activities. I have witnessed some right car crashes unfolding in the four years since I joined Twitter as a fledgling.

It seems to me that there is something about an impersonal forum, where one can hide behind a screen and a manufactured identity that suits the mentality of certain people, as it permits them to throw out what in the real world might be seen as sheer and unmitigating unpleasantness.

So how do we respond to the snarky comments, the tantrum-throwing and the frankly agenda-laced aggressive nutters that patrol Twitter and other forums? Are there unwritten rules of behaviour? Because if we are writers with books to sell, we have to put ourselves out there and then we are going to meet individuals whose opinions and stances and behavioural 'norms' differ radically from ours.

I firmly believe there is a difference between disagreeing over a particular issue, and launching a personal attack on another Twitter member and their tweets. I am visited by the odd troll every now and then, so I can completely understand why, in such a circumstance, one would want to create digital distance by Unfollowing or Blocking the attacker. After all, if it was real life, you'd certainly cross the road to avoid their company in future.

Blocking/unfollowing/muting someone with whom you happen to have started a lively dialogue over an issue, however strongly you or they feel about it, is in my opinion the equivalent of stamping your foot, storming out and slamming the door. I did it at 13. Maybe you did it too. I don't do it now because I hope I'm more grown up. Thus I am happy to say: 'OK, let's agree to differ on this one. Thanks for the chat,' and drop out of the discussion, which is what I chose to do in the case of the ''Everything's a Blairite Conspiracy'' discussion I got involved in recently.
Whenever I am sorely tempted to let rip angrily, I remind myself of what happened when I was at the Edinburgh Festival some time ago. There I witnessed a very nasty row take place in public
between two well-known writers (both household names). I remember thinking at the time: if that's the way you behave, then I don't think I want to read your books. And I never have.

Twitter can seem like one's front room. It isn't, and it's important to realise that anybody can and will read what we tweet, and see how we react to 'trolls'. So what do you think? Do you speak your mind - whatever the outcome? How do you deal with Twitter rage? Pile in ... not too heatedly!

Saturday, 30 April 2016

The PINK SOFA meets writer Amanda Saint

The PINK SOFA loves to celebrate a debut novel, so when Amanda Saint suggested paying the Writing Garret a visit, it was delighted. Even though her new book As If I Were A River does not feature upholstery, it is overjoyed to host her and to introduce her to you. (Hint: more sofas in the next one please Amanda)

''For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer. One of my earliest memories of writing creatively outside of school work is when I was still in primary school and one summer I took over the garden shed and turned it into my ‘study’. Once I had it all set up how I wanted it I wrote a play for my friends to perform. But I was too scared to let anyone see it so it never made it out of the shed.

But for a long time, from secondary school onwards, I didn’t write much at all. When I left school I worked in a used car dealer office, on call centres, in a pie shop, for British Rail, as a data entry clerk, and did a long stint as a temp office bod flitting about to various businesses all over Berkshire and answering phones and doing a lot of filing, while I spent my out of work hours partying.

I started writing again in my late 20s after I got married in December 2000 - initially this was for my day job working on magazines writing features and news. Then I spent many years moving about often for my husband’s work. Three years were spent in three different cities in New Zealand where I did a range of temping jobs again that were completely unrelated to writing, from working as a logistics clerk in a wheelchair factory to being a PA, albeit not a very good one!

When we moved back to England I started working with words again as a communications manager – first for Microsoft UK then for a high-profile Labour government quango in Westminster. But the desire to tell my own fiction stories never went away and in the end I had a virtually constant stream of characters writing themselves in my head, so I finally started putting them to paper again.

Amanda's debut novel
The first short stories I wrote really weren’t very good and they always felt like the start of a novel rather than a standalone piece. I realised I needed to do some writing classes and luckily I was living in London at the time so there were plenty to choose from. After trying out a few, I found the Complete Creative Writing Course and that’s where my dabbling with fiction turned into me taking it seriously.

In the first class I went to in 2010, I write the first scene of what turned out to be my first published novel. I’d gone there with an idea of a woman whose husband went missing and it just started from there.  I had no idea of where it was going or what I was doing, but I learned along the way. Since then my short stories and flash fictions have been longlisted, shortlisted and won literary competitions and widely published in magazines and anthologies.

I became self-employed and started working as a freelance features journalist, mainly writing about green issues and sustainability as these are subjects I am passionate about. Then a few years later I started my own creative writing business, Retreat West, running retreats, courses and competitions. I also became homeless in 2014 and have been moving around house sitting for people ever since. My husband’s work again enables us to do this and he manages the land and animals we look after while I write.

All of these experiences, and more, appear in all of the stories I write. Including my debut novel, As If I Were A River, which was launched on 11th April 2016. It starts in England and ends in New Zealand; my main characters live in London and Lancaster – both places I have spent a few years living in. It does tell the story of a woman whose husband goes missing but in the writing it turned into much more than that and it’s about choices, and whether we live the lives we want to or the ones that just happen to us.''

‘Amanda Saint’s debut novel is a juicy Pandora’s Box of mysteries and revelations.’
                Alison Moore, Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author of The Lighthouse

You can get a copy of As If I Were a River on the Urbane Publications website and on Amazon.
You can find out more about Amanda on her website and follow her on Twitter @saintlywriter and Facebook: …

Friday, 29 April 2016

'Bookshops are not the only fruit'

I was reading this excellent blog post the other day (sorry can't re-find it, have looked) in which the writer said that eventually there would only be a couple of publishers left, as writers were fed up of the measly 10% or less royalty rates being offered, when they could get 70% by self publishing.

I've heard this being said for years, with publishers complacently affirming that they will always take first place in book production. Not any more. There are now so many easily downloadable publishing programmes, and people on Twitter offering to help the self-published that it is VERY EASY to get a good product out there. (Anyone reading this, contact @GeorgiaRoseBook one of the many who can guide you through the process).

The other decline, which is becoming very evident, is that of bookshops. Once the go-to literary purchasing spot on every high street, they are now becoming a rare species. Most people attribute this to the rise of Amazon, and the scrapping of the net book agreement, which allowed shops to undercut each other on prices. I blogged about the subject HERE

The lack of support bookshops give to most Indie writers and the inconsistency of their policies means that writers who want to sell paper books as opposed to ebooks urgently need to seek other retail outlets, just as they sought other publishing outlets originally.

I can't get any of my books into my local Waterstones -  even though Honour & Obey actually features St Albans as a location, because I am published by Createspace, the publishing arm of Amazon. Even though the quality of the books is superb and they have proper ISBNs .

But a lovely up-market gift shop, Serena Hart @SerenaHartGifts stocks signed copies and sells them consistently. I also sell lots of books via library talks, local Literary Festivals, book groups, the WI, and am currently exploring other gift shop venues around my area. Libraries may be prepared to stock your books too, especially if they have a local ambience.

If you are happy to be your own rep, arrange your own discount (and remember, Amazon Createspace gives you a members' discount if you order in bulk; I imagine it's the same for other publishing companies) and offer extras like signing the books, it is possible to supplement your ebook income. I love seeing my books in 'non-bookshops' as they are far more visible than when they were just one volume on a shelf. And I get books in the window too (see pic). Never ever happens with Waterstones.
What's not to like?

Monday, 25 April 2016

A Letter to My Grandson, About to be Born

Mum and big sister

Dear Little Boy

I am writing to you a couple of days before you are due to be born. You are going to enter the world and our lives and it is as if everything is 'on hold' awaiting your birth. All we know of you right now is a blurry picture from an ultrasound and the odd ripple as you move around inside your mum. You clearly like a good kickabout, and you seem to enjoy it when your sister pours water on you in the bath. This bodes well, we hope, for your future relationship with her.

Your cot is upstairs all ready for you. There are tiny clothes in a drawer, and we have a special toy here to give you when we meet you for the first time. As you prepare to meet us, I look ahead to the life stretching in front of you, and I wish you wisdom to choose the right path, and courage to keep on it when the world will try to stop you or distract you.

Always be a leader, little boy, not a follower. Strike out for yourself and make your own decisions. Have the grace to forgive and the humility to admit when you are wrong. Cherish your family and friends and be loyal to those who love you. When you encounter them, look out for and protect those who are weaker, less able or do not have your strength of purpose.

Your big sister will be there for you, as in time you will be for her. Your family is your rock and your shelter, a strong tower of protection surrounding you. But for now, take your time. Choose your own moment to be born. We will wait for you with our arms open wide, ready to welcome you into our lives.

With my love,


Saturday, 23 April 2016

On Your Bike, Mate!

Much rejoicing at Hedges Towers this week: BH has finally been offered a job. As some of you know, his contract was terminated at his previous place of employment at the end of November as he was ''too expensive''. Subtext: too old and too expensive.

Even though he has turned his hand to a variety of jobs since graduating from the Royal College of Music with a degree that fitted him for nothing other than singing for his supper, Bh has never been out of work. Various incarnations have involved a barman, a tax collector (mentioned before the sinners in the Bible - just saying) and driving for Smiths crisps, where he was offered refreshment at every pub on the route and caused some damage in carparks as a result.

And now, suddenly, age 63, he couldn't find work.

And the lack of employment went on. And on. Every day, the inbox filled up with shedloads of prospective jobs. Every day he put in for shedloads of jobs. And nobody responded. It appears that courtesy lies bleeding in some dark corner. I was reminded of the number of blogs written by despairing writers who couldn't get an agent/publisher to reply to them.

And the pain went on. And on. Other career paths were briefly considered: bus driving, working at B&Q - though as BH's DIY skills run to 'avoid at all costs', I'm not sure how much of an asset he'd be. And then five months later, a breakthrough and a job offer. He starts after the May Bank Holiday.

The inbox is now empty. Jobsearch Alert and its various incarnations have been kicked into the long grass. But the time has not been wasted. BH has been able to help me look after Little G, and they have built a lovely relationship on the back of it. He has re-edited all my Victorian books, and formatted and uploaded the YA one. He has now copy-edited the new book Murder & Mayhem. He has proofread a book for a friend. Skills he can use in the coming years when he leaves this job.

Most of all we have had a short pre-retirement run and discovered that on the whole, we can live reasonably amicably with each other. Free bus passes helped. So, ex malo bonum, as St Augustine wrote. Not sure what his employment record was ...

Monday, 18 April 2016

The Phonic Pharce (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Grandma in possession of a small child must be in want of practically nothing. Except advice. Lots and lots of advice. Currently on how I am blighting Little G's academic chances by the stuff I let her do.

Now, anecdotally I didn't 'learn' to read until I was 7 - my parents sent me to one of those knit-your-own-yoghurt schools that were trendy in the 1950s. But I was definitely reading by the time I was 4. I taught myself from library books, because I wanted to know what was happening in the pictures.

Little G has been 'reading' for ages in that she knows the stories in several books, turning the pages at the appropriate time. She can recite most of Slinky Malinki ... saying words like 'rapscallion cat' with evident glee. She can pick out and say letters on shop signs and associate them with words.

But according to the phonics police on Twitter, I should not be letting her. She MUST NOT say 'Dee for Daddy ... Gee for Grandma' etc. because in Year 1 (that's around FOUR YEARS OLD) she may have to take a phonics test. Yep, a test!

I remember phonics stuff from the early 1970s when I was branch librarian at Harlesden Library. It was the only way to teach kids reading (sic). We had picture books and simple stories in phonic-type words. Nobody (including the kids) could read them. It was dropped a short time later as it was considered that it hindered rather than helped children to access literacy.

But that was then, friends. Today, trendy educators who never knew any better have re-introduced it. Over my dead body. So, fellow Grandparents, please join me in a corporate act of musical defiance. Altogether now - after three:

W,X,Y and Z
Now I know my ABC, next time won't you sing with me?''

To be continued ... ....

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Top Tips on Terrific Talks

We have now looked at the things you need to do before giving your talk, and some of the ways you can structure and deliver your talk. Let's wrap it up with a few basic tips to make sure everything runs smoothly on the day.

1. Make sure you have liaised with the event organiser. I usually email a week before to check they have got the stuff I need sorted. I then email/call 2 days before to say how much I am looking forward to meeting them and doing the event. I tell them when I will be arriving, and check parking arrangements.

2. On the day, arrive in plenty of time. Do not assume the organisers will have people to unload/help you set up. Be as independent as you can. Smile and thank a lot.

3. A few essentials: Wet wipes/hand sanitizer (stuff gets dusty; you will be signing books later). Water. Float for books. Notebook for sales/useful contacts. Two signing pens that work. Business cards.

4. Make sure you thank the organiser, his/her helpers, and the audience for turning up. I usually do this straight after I've been introduced, in case I forget.

5. When giving your talk, SIGNPOST clearly. 'Now let's move on to the second part: how I write.' 'Finally, let's look at some of my research tools.'

6. NEVER go over time. It's discourteous.

7. Send the organisers a little handwritten note a couple of days after the event thanking them for hosting you and saying how much you are looking forward to doing another event in the future.

I hope these blogs have helped. I gather from the comments that many people have found the tips useful. I have sat through some pretty dreadful talks, given by top authors, and have learned shedloads. The main thing is: enjoy yourself! Your audience are there for you. They want to find out about you and your books. And on your success, other writers may be invited!