Turbulence Ahead

Shock news – both our school’s head and deputy head teachers are resigning. It’s doubtful whether suitable replacements can be found before the end of the school year. The deputy, who I’d assumed would replace the head, was my child’s brilliant reception class teacher and has only been at the school as long as we have. It’s baffling.

 

This time last year, the previous deputy left, hot on the tail of a whole group of other teachers with fairly long, apparently distinguished records at the school. Each time, regrets were expressed and excuses made; each time, poor parents’ hearts lurched with anxiety, then resettled, thinking, maybe there are good reasons. Maybe the replacements will be even better. Maybe it’ll pan out for my baby in the end.

 

School is where my child spends most of his days – yet I’m desperately out of control of what he experiences there. It seems everything I liked about our place is under question; its music, its “whole-child” ethos, its genuine diversity. What is actually going on? Those of us with most at stake seem to know least.

 

Is this why people home-school? (Is it why they private-school?) But even if I were intellectually and professionally equipped to teach my child the entire curriculum, what about socialisation? Learning to read, write and so on is a doddle for most kids compared to the intricate and complicated art of making and maintaining friendships, with a diverse bunch of other kids, all as unpredictable and self-centred as he is. It certainly was for me, growing up in an isolated and academic environment which seriously undervalued the unquantifiable social arts. I’m not making the same mistake. My child has to spend plenty of time working it out with other kids; school, with its ostensible focus elsewhere, is the best place for it.

 

Apart from which, I need a break – to write this blog among other things. I can’t be supervising my kid, hounding him from TV screen or ipad with one trick or another, 24/7. He has to go to school.

 

But how fragile a thing a genuinely exceptional state school seems to be nowadays. Perhaps ours, after subsiding into staff squabbles and mediocrity, will eventually be forced by Ofsted crusaders into the “rigorous”, results-impressive, disciplined-academy-type mould of other nearby “Ofsted-outstanding” primaries. Perhaps everything else it has done well will be down-graded or completely discarded. Our school has only ever been “Ofsted-good”. I always liked that about it. But perhaps these days “good” is just not good enough.

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When The Past Catches Up . . .

A few weeks ago, my brother, a single man in his early 50s, was contacted via email to another family member by a friend he hadn’t heard from in 35 years. He was stunned, and then excited: “This was my best friend ever!!” he declared. As the friend, too, had apparently been searching for my brother for a while with similarly sentimental nostalgia, the enthusiasm on the face of it seemed justified.

But I was anxious. My brother is mentally ill, a designated schizophrenic for the past 30 years, a fact of which this old best school friend will be unaware. He’s relatively well now, lives independently, copes without much support, and hasn’t seen the inside of a mental hospital for a while. But his life is not glamorous, by any stretch of the imagination.  He has never worked, is overweight, addicted to junk food, TV and cigarettes. He only recently got himself on-line.

The “friend” has since vanished into the uncharted depths of cyberspace whence he came, surprise surprise. My brother, meanwhile, sits around mournfully wondering if his new email account is working properly.

 

I have my own issues with family history, which resurface every time anyone from a certain distant period reappears. Once upon a time, apparently, my father presided over a kind of rural intellectual Camelot, barely an hour or two from London, much as Ralph Milliband and other prominent intellectuals may have done in north London. But with him long dead, my mother infirm and elderly, my brother, see above . . . the rest of us siblings scattered and modestly distinguished, at best . . . We’re not the glamorous people we apparently were any more. 

But every so often, up pops someone to reminisce about back in the day; when they were rising young postgrads and my mother a devoted young housewife and my charismatic father entertained colleagues and admirers from all over the world in our idyllic rustic estate.

It wasn’t ever glamorous to me, of course, commuting three hours daily to school and then technical college, the rest of the time up to my knees in muck out in the pony-shed, but clearly it was to our international visitors. They saw in my foreign-born father, ensconced (weekends only) in the depths of English Tory heartland someone inspirational, exotic, and brave – and key to their future careers. And when they come back to visit us now, for my mum’s sake, largely, they can still talk the talk.

As for me, I revert in their eyes and my own to that wayward, forever immature daughter, persisting in defying and disrespecting the great man, really, obviously, just for the titillating sake of it. Of course I just made the great man seem even greater; how fondly I was tolerated and indulged!

A role I inhabited with discomfort even at the time. In the absence of an audience of admirers, my father ignored his kids when he was home, except for his eldest, and except to bully me – his second – now and again into “manners”. Any indulgence took the form of Can’t Be Bothered To Stop You (eating junk food, masturbating, watching too much TV; not that the latter was much of an option in rural 1970s UK.) He neither knew nor cared what I did at school and lost his brief interest in my university career after I failed Oxbridge entrance first time around. What a loser I was; a cute rebel; feisty marriage material in due course, the best that could be said for me.

So it’s difficult now, when one of those former and abiding admirers of my father comes to visit me and mum. I’m not particularly rebellious these days; though I can still discuss Nicaragua if required. I doubt things have improved there since the Revolution. But I’m mostly concerned with protecting my child from the fits of self-hating, self-laceration to which, no thanks to their hero, I succumbed in my tenderest years. And I’m definitely not cute. Luckily these meetings happen rarely; and I’m confident my rattled equilibrium will settle in a day or two. Let’s hope I can keep it that way.

 

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Everyday Sexism in the 1970s

I wish Laura Bates’ website had been around then. As a large-breasted, cripplingly self-conscious and generally friendless teenager, with an unaccompanied two-hour journey to college and back, I was subjected to this “niggling” kind of sexist treatment routinely, all the time.
I grew up in the depths of the countryside, so I was about 15 before the brutal shock started to sink in: urban public spaces, streets, parks, whatever, didn’t mean public to me. Hitherto, I’d understood that the public meant the grown-ups, but I’d maintained the happy delusion that one day I’d be a grown-up and a member too. I’d be free to come and go as I liked, when I liked, where I liked. It wouldn’t matter not having a grown-up to take me, or even friends to go with. I didn’t have to wait for a boy to ask me. I could go out anyway.
Wrong. Gradually it became clear; just because I was female, I was never going to be left in peace. I couldn’t walk alone, I couldn’t go to a café or a bar or a cinema alone, I couldn’t even sit in a sunny park and read. All these places really belonged to the boys, how stupid was I not to grasp this? Was I expecting an emblazoned Men-only sign or something? I could only stay on sufferance. I really needed an explicit invitation. If I went on my own, I was – surely I understood? – actually asking for one of them to join me. And of course, I liked it really. To be picked up was what I had come out for, right?
I’m not talking about strip-clubs, or even bars. I’m talking about public parks, cafes, libraries, cinemas, anywhere.
This was the kind of invisible purdah in which western young women lived, back in the late 1970s. On Laura Bates’ evidence, they still do. It affects everything about us; our interests, our self-confidence, our ambitions; everything.
Even as I write this I hear the old silencing voices in my mind: “Oh, she likes it really.” Like the stealth-boasting mum complaining about her too-precocious child, all women who complain about sexual harassment “like it really, all women do . .” “They’ll complain quickly enough when nobody notices them” and, the more intellectual, misquoting Oscar Wilde, “Well, lady – there’s only one thing worse than being whistled at in public – and that’s NOT being whistled at in public!” The same voices are chorusing now, “She’s only writing all this to remind herself of how good-looking she once was, now that’s she’s an ugly old crone.”
“That Laura Bates too – she should be so lucky! Look how good-looking she is in all the photos? Don’t pretend she doesn’t know it! Who wouldn’t wolf-whistle that?”
I wasn’t ever as good looking as Laura Bates, though it is possible that I had bigger breasts. But even so, I didn’t like it really. I always hated it. And I couldn’t really believe those who insisted I’d be sorry when the catcalls stopped, though my brilliant father’s absolute certainty on this point did make me wonder. But I was right and he was wrong. Oh, I was so right. One of the very best things about being 55 is how, for just about the first time in my life, the streets, the public spaces of my city are mine at last. At last, I can walk, eat, sit down and read or survey the view, and nobody bothers me at all. I only wish I had more time for it.
Nor is it lonely, because should I wish to approach a male, I can do so, generally, without gut-assumptions being made about what I’m after, or what chance they might have. I am free to have an unencumbered human interaction. This is the malign heart of the assumption we faced; that a woman had to choose between being constantly sexually harassed and consigned to neglect and loneliness. But actually, few things are lonelier than the basic-human-neglect of constant sexual harassment. Common or garden neglect is a cinch by comparison; or put another way, it’s freedom.

I loved living in Mexico City, mostly. I loved the freedom I had there, as an already-mature, developed-world woman (for want of better phrase) to travel the length and breadth of that stunning country on a shoestring. I loved the $100 a month flat I returned to, with its roof terrace and nearby tropical park. I was freed by my status, my relative wealth, and my relative age to do much as I pleased with this gorgeous, cut-price playground. But it was also the loneliest place I had ever lived. Nowhere was it clearer, the chasm between constant sexual harassment, attention or call it what you will, and companionship. And nowhere were its consequences more evident.
If popular culture is to be believed, Mexican women, unlike “unfeminine” northerners, genuinely enjoy street sexual harassment, so long as it’s only “little compliments”. They genuinely worry if they don’t get them, apparently, on every excursion. Look how they attend to their appearance, doing do all they can to maximise its incidence. But wait a minute; popular culture is in Mexico is what it is around the world: the popularist voice of the male, and there’s more than a hint of admonition in it: you ladies out there; don’t get any ideas above your station. Make sure you preserve that femininity.
For Mexican women were among the most timid I have come across in my entire life. The Mexico City metro, pickpocketing aside, is about the safest place in the whole city, yet the prospect of travelling a single stop unaccompanied filled the well-brought up native lady with horror. “It’s not safe!” they gasped, looking at me aghast, convinced that in my daily ignorance I was courting the most desperate attacks, clearly sexual in nature.
Well, I was once rubbed against in a packed carriage during rush hour. But that was it, in three years spent bumming about on my own on public transport on a daily basis. The only time I was afraid – briefly – was confronting a gang of boys on an isolated beach after dark, very far from the city. I kept my head, crossed my fingers and succeeded in shaking them off. The freedom I enjoyed in Mexico was not shared by local women of any social class. And that, yes, was very lonely for me.

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Growing Pains; how a brilliant primary school programme becomes a victim of success

So Michael Gove is sending his daughter to a Westminster comprehensive. As a measure of how small inner London is, in distances if not population, it’s the school attended by the older sister of a child in my son’s class. I assumed some other girls from our class would eventually go there (the school is girls-only). But since last Friday I’ve been thinking, good as that school is, it may not be considered good enough for most of them.

Our school is a bog-standard inner-city community primary, in terms of intake (30% free-school-meals, 50% English-as-second-language, 80% non-white-British), and curriculum (largely imposed) and resources (stretched). All of which is enough to make it exceptional historically, and, like a beloved child, irreplaceable those of us committed to it. But there is one way in which it is exceptional by any standards: its intensive music programme. Every single child takes violin class for half an hour, three times a week, every week, from age five. One of those lessons falls out of school time, another is taken with just one other child. Violins, music, everything is provided free of charge, and, oh yes, for three years, it’s as compulsory as learning to read and write. After that the same programme becomes optional and costs something like £3 a week.

It’s only been running for six years, so the first year to benefit has now reached year 6. Like all year 6 children, they’ve just received their secondary school offers. And guess what – no less than four (out of 30) have full music scholarships to well-known private schools. A fifth child has an arts scholarship.

“How fantastic!” exclaimed the mother of the child in Michael Gove’s chosen school when I told her this stunning news.

Fantastic or not, a parent governor told me that at last week’s governor’s meeting she’d had to defend the music programme for all she was worth.

“But I thought everyone loved it!” I said. “I had no idea it was controversial.” But then I put two and two together. “Of course, it doesn’t benefit everyone.”

“Some of the other governors,” the parent governor said, “think it diverts too many resources.  And (our head teacher) agrees.”

“But I thought she was really keen!”

“Yes, but she’s listening to them. She is concerned about equality. The violin drop-out rate is too high.”

My child’s year, now 2, is, it’s been suggested, an especially musical one. Even so, I can’t see any child from the lowest of the three music streams, and even some in the middle stream, carrying on with the violin for a week longer than they have to. And guess what, the top stream is increasingly made up of children doing well in every area, while those in the bottom stream are almost exactly the same children in the bottom reading and maths sets. This isn’t completely uniform, and several of the brightest kids are just middling violinists (as yet) while some middling-academic children are up with the best musicians . . . but there are absolutely no completely non-academic kids in our year’s top violin set.

Not that any of them are exceptional, at this stage. It’s just that some come from homes where practice is taken seriously and some do not. Some come from homes with at least moderately musical parents; my own child is one of two with a piano in the living room; one of three, I believe, whose parents can sort-of read music. No prizes for guessing where our children end up. And which children, in four years’ time, will have the best chance of those scholarships.

So it’s not so odd, after all, that the Head has mixed feelings; in fact I share them. Not about the outstanding music programme, about which I among many parents can hardly believe my luck; but about how it’s slowly, inevitably, going to affect our unassuming little school. It’s just another one of those examples; wherever you go, whatever you do to help the most deprived, it ends up benefitting the already-relatively privileged most, rubbing our hands together as we do at our own good fortune. And all that does is exacerbate inequality, especially when financially- exclusive private schools are involved. I’m fairly sure the wonderful music charity which initiated this scheme, choosing our school for its non-denominational, mixed ethnic, high-deprivation-area intake, didn’t foresee it as a means of distributing private-school tickets. I’m sure they didn’t sell it that way to our head.

And now year 5 private tutoring has started in earnest, I hear, in some families’ hope of their child being one of the chosen ones next year, although until recently most were probably perfectly content with the prospect of the local comprehensives (pretty good, according to OFSTED).

Soon, the many local parents who would normally take prep-school for granted, will be sharp-elbowing their kids in, looking to save themselves a few thousand on both prep-school fees and music lessons, and a fair chance of a cheap ticket to Eton later on.

In which case – saddest of all – the programme won’t last long. It or our head teacher and the whole quality of our school will have to go. As it is, it’s a constant financial struggle to maintain, but without idealism behind it, the effort won’t be considered worthwhile. If its principle goes, then so will everything else, and then our bog-standard inner-city primary really will be back to where it started.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Is it me or the system?

If, in public discourse, state benefit claimants are all free-loading scroungers, how long before the same applies to those who “claim” free, state education for our kids? This is topical this week, following a £33,000 a year public school head’s suggestion that the wealthier state school parents start contributing similar amounts to their schools, if they must use state education at all. Actually, shouldn’t they vacate those free school places in favour of those who really need them? Anyone who could remotely afford it should apply directly to Anthony Seldon’s school instead; like all the most socially-conscious private schools, he has some top-up bursaries to distribute where absolutely necessary.

This has been called impractical at best, evil at worst. What depresses me is the total abandonment of principle of comprehensive education; where all segments of society, the talented and the challenged, the privileged and the deprived, all hang out in the same general location, sharing the same facilities, for at least a small fraction of their lives, and thereby do have a chance, at least, to recognise that we are all the same species, and might do best to take account of each other for the rest of our lives. The alternative is more segregation, along class, ability, and ethnic lines, putting in place the cast-iron fault-lines for life. Isn’t all that already bad enough?

Why, as John Harris asks, do £33,000-a-year private schools take an interest in state education at all? Why these unprovoked impulses to engage and liaise with state secondary schools (which often end badly) especially now that their charitable status is no longer threatened? How can institutions whose raison d’etre is privilege, segregation, elitism suddenly turn around and decide, actually, we care about the unwashed masses after all? We want to help them, um, wash. Help them, you know, to lead better lives and be more like us. Anthony Seldon professes pure altruism. Am I the only cynic who thinks, hm? wondering, what’s in it for you?

It could be anything, from desperate PR from a sector that, less and less able to defend itself on moral grounds, sees itself under pressure, to a calculating desire to broaden their pupils “experience” and make them better equipped to manipulate the underclasses in future careers as media moguls, corporate utility bosses or Tory politicians. Perhaps it’s both those things, and other things besides. But whatever it is, I’m sure it’s about them, not about us. Their parents surely wouldn’t have it any other way.

Which brings me to the parents. I have more experience of these than a state-educated lady should have, for two reasons, really: the rural place I grew up in, and the urban place I live now. Back in the 1970s all my own parents’ friends, pretty much without exception, used private schools. My parents did not associate with the parents of the children I shared classrooms with; instead, I was expected to get along, outside of school, with the pupils of what was and is one of the most expensive private schools in the country. It got harder the older I got, and snobby responses from parents and offspring alike to my lack of private school panache, fashion sense and occasional plebby turns of phrase got worse. That was one of several reasons, I think, I was an exceptionally miserable adolescent who for years virtually gave up talking altogether. But never mind, I survived it and here I am, aged almost 55, as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as I have ever been.

And now in danger of inflicting the exact-same issues on my own child. On the face of it my current home could hardly be more different; it’s inner-city, ethnically diverse, I can take tubes and buses everywhere I want to go. My son gets to primary school from our front door in 20 seconds flat; ten if we run. There’s a good chance he’ll get into the decent state secondary all of two minutes away; whereas I spent three hours daily from aged 11 commuting to the only county grammar school to admit girls. Not a girls’ grammar school, note; just the only one to admit girls. My brothers didn’t need to; there was a boys’ only grammar ten minutes away. I travelled on paid-for public transport, virtually alone.

Now, just about all my immediate neighbours pay that £33,000 – or maybe it’s only half that at primary level – for the privilege of driving their kids across south London to one of the numerous snobby prep-schools in Battersea, Clapham and Chelsea. It must take them 45 minutes on a good morning; I see them from our front window starting their smart cars when my son and I have barely begun breakfast. “Ooh, I so envy you, having such an easy school run!” cooed one parent who happened to catch me outside. I won’t repeat what I said back – actually, it’s obvious – but I don’t think she’ll try that kind of condescension again.

I can’t resist it, I’m sorry – but it’s my child I’m sorry for. I’m afraid I’m alienating his non-school friends, the children from our conservation area terraces, with whom he’s played effortlessly enough outside weekends and summer evenings all his short life up until now. But wait – who is really doing the alienating? Is it really me, with my silly, catty remarks? Or is it the families who put so much effort and expense into avoiding us at the great state primary on their doorstep?

To be honest, I don’t know. Like any parent, I’m just concerned to protect my child. I’ve always loved living here, who wouldn’t? It’s a great location, a pocket of nice houses, in a world-class city; super-convenient for anywhere – and best of all there’s a rare patch of green outside for children to play on. But at the first sign my son is being made to feel inferior by his posher (whiter) neighbours, however slightly – we’ll move, I promise, somewhere where all the people who count are not too posh for the local community school.

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