Monday 30 May 2016

Dreaming of Ants (Grandma Moments)

Little G and I are sitting in the garden. It is Thursday, 'Grandma Day' under the new regime. The sun is pouring down, we have a plate of chocolate biscuits between us and Little G is doing maths. She is proving, via visual evidence, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

When I have wiped unbelievable amounts of chocolate from her face, hands and left ear, we progress to philosophy. 'I cried yesterday,' she tells me. I ask why. 'I was sad.'

Yesterday, Little G returned to nursery as SIL's two week paternity leave finished. But you like nursery, I remind her.  And you know you come home at the end of the day. You don't stay there. She considers this. I don't cry when you go home, I tell her, because I know I will see you again very soon. She agrees that this is probably true.

It strikes me that we never used to have this sort of conversations. Mainly because Little G didn't do 'yesterday'. Or 'sad'. It is another reminder that she is growing up. The cat now joins us, keeping her distance. Little G comes under 'Small Fur Puller' in her list of people to avoid.

How's your baby brother? I ask Little G, to lighten the mood. 'He cries,' she says. Oh well, can't win them all. The cat rolls over in the grass. What do cats dream about? I ask. She considers this for a while. 'Biscuits,' she suggests, eyeing the last one on the plate hopefully. I break it in two. Little G has a propensity to turn into Little Hyde if she ingests too much sugar.

I point out that cats don't speak, so how would they know that a biscuit was a biscuit? Little G finds this concept interesting so we bat it backwards and forwards for a while. It's like your baby brother, I say to reinforce my argument. He doesn't know any words, so what does he dream about? 'Ants,' she replies without hesitation.

I have no answer to this, so we finish our biscuit in companionable silence.

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, MP Nicky Morgan  and whoever is the Gauliter in charge currently 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.

Also anecdotally, primary school children are getting so stressed by the importance placed on these futile testing that they are bursting into tears, suffering anxiety attacks and their eyelashes are falling out. And before anybody starts on the 'kids today have no backbone', my A level girls are also suffering from stress, and at 17, it's no fun for them or me. Life should be about more than exams at any age!

Oh, and my personal journey of failure would goes on and 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 she 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.''

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!