The Trouble With Homework

“More homework please!” “Homework is too easy – my children are at the top of the class and they do it in five minutes. .   They need homework every night not just a few minutes once a week!” “This school has been going downhill in terms of education ever since (former head) Mr …. left” (a good ten years ago).

Oh dear, it must our school’s termly Parent Forum. It was nice to have a good turnout of parents for once – not just the usual handful of suspects – but then this is what you have to expect. None of the of-course-we-all-agree assumptions of cosy pub PSA meetings.

For your information, as the presiding school governors were at pains to explain, our school has not been going downhill, on the contrary. After a bit of a dip when the former head left, results are definitely, quantifiably on the up. More children than ever are “exceeding national expectations” in reading writing and maths, and that without compromising the extra-curricular activities on offer.

Trouble is, all many parents see is the homework. So if there’s not much of it, or it’s “too easy”, they make similar assumptions about what goes on in class. Most parents at our school, heralding from every continent, are ambitious for their children, in rather conservative ways – after the government’s heart, you would imagine. In primary school they want their children to excel in the traditional subjects, in order to enter good colleges and become respected white-collar professionals later. Everything else, to them, is secondary.

Trouble also is . . .  Most are too stressed or busy to supervise each individual child’s activity between 3.30 and bedtime very closely. When they ask for more homework, my guess is, what they are actually asking for is more school help with this supervision. One way of keeping their offspring from the playstation or other activity they might consider frivolous (if not damaging) would be the threat of a school reprimand if they don’t just keep on studying. Aspiring tiger parents, they want a bit more school back-up on this.

Of course, extra homework doesn’t automatically equal extra brilliant child; I think this point has been made by a number of reliable studies. Children are best served out of state school hours by engaging in a range of, not necessarily organised, social, sporting and artistic activities that whether or not provide career inspiration will generally broaden their experience. They could also, usefully, just read a book.

Trouble is – never mind the formal extra-curricular stuff; I would have countered the above comments by pointing out that our class teachers constantly emphasise the need for daily reading, outside the set book, to the child, the child to you, in English and in the child’s first language, which is different for a majority of pupils at our school. They also recommend regular mental maths practice, and visiting the local library, and oh yes, virtually all children at school are learning a musical instrument, many of them two. These must be practised daily, half an hour each in KS2. Are you already doing all that with your kids? I would have asked. And you still want extra homework?

It’s the speech I wanted to make, but I didn’t, for fear of coming over too white-middle-class. And they’d have a point too. The truth is, even I, with only one child, no demanding husband and no proper job, don’t do all of that, every day, with my son. It takes, never mind money, more time, energy and mental resources than I usually have. If you’ve got dinner to cook for 5, 6 or more, the baby to take to the GP never mind playgroup, plus can’t read English yourself never mind the child’s sheet music, you’re not going to get round to chivvying your kids in years 2, 4 and 5 to do it all, one after the other – or altogether(?) – every single night.

Yeah, it would be great, just as good as doing homework. But failing that, as a respectable distraction, a fair whack of extra prep backed up by a teacher’s sanction if it’s not done probably looks like a pretty good alternative.

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A History of Backing Losers

I don’t talk politics to my seven year old, or to anyone much nowadays; mainly because I am afraid of the strength of my feelings. I’d hate to unnerve him, and I’d hate manifest differences of opinion to get in the way of tentative friendships, especially where his social life is concerned. But come election week, I was forced to. There was election-themed homework, and then his school, a polling station, was closed for the day. Some explanation was overdue.
That this was some kind of contest immediately sparked his interest; great, contests are fun, especially if you stand a good chance of winning. As boys this age go, he’s only moderately competitive, but he still likes to be on the winning side. When I said I’d be voting for the party that mainly champions the poor, that is, the one that always does best in areas populated by life’s losers, rather than life’s winners, I could see loyalty to me vying with his own natural instincts. Winners by definition are in the right, aren’t they?
This to me is the most convincing reason why voters, when undecided, opt under pressure for Tory rather than Labour. Even when they also suspect the Tories’ prime function is to protect those who already have most to lose, to ensure that their Establishment stays established, to which every other declared intention lies secondary; though not part of the Establishment by any stretch of the imagination they don’t see this as a reason for not voting Tory. The fact is, they are impressed by it; they work for it, they want to become, or their children to become, part of it. That’s the nature of “aspiration” after all; and they believe their best hope of achieving this is to share the winners’ approach to life in all things including in voting habits.
Wow, I could almost convince myself. But then I read something like this, a short story about West London’s live-in domestic service class, or see a play like this, about life on a minimum-wage zero-hours contract, I think, how can anyone vote for the state of affairs which positively encourages this real-existing dystopia?
But, my son and others of unsophisticated Tory instincts might counter; when we start to take on responsibility for the world’s unfortunates (compared to ourselves) when do we stop? After all, it’s not just here in London, is it? It is a global phenomenon – witness boatloads of desperate refugees in the Mediterranean; Nepal’s helplessness, the Syrian refugees . . . . FFS, the ones who make it to London and onto a zero-hours cleaning contract or illegal live-in service in a West London mansion are the lucky ones!
And that has a ring of truth too. In the global environment, we all of us here, the entire UK electorate, are the super-privileged ones. That’s largely why, I think, most of us end up voting to protect and defend what little we possess from the grasping and desperate hordes beyond.
As for my son, I’m happy to say, this time loyalty to me won out. He joined me in putting up the Labour poster in our window, reassured that at least around here “because there are loads of poor people,” there was little chance of our candidate losing her seat. “Fingers crossed,” he said.
And for his sake, I have braved the result with a levity I don’t feel. He shrugged it off; just one more sports day race, or summer fair raffle we didn’t win; maybe we’ll have better luck next time.

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One Desolate Housewife, Desperate to Belong

Another parent blogger recently wrote about how local parents have ostracised her child from the neighbourhood peer group. He’s a victim, she thinks, of “the parenting wars”; these parents blame his any tiny incidents of less than perfect behaviour on the fact that she’s too “permissive.” Actually, she’s an “attachment” parent, and while it is true there are few things more irritating to other parents than one parent’s parenting evangelism, I’ve no reason to assume she’s a pain about it in person. Above all I doubt her child is especially badly-behaved because of it. Unless he has special needs of some kind, I doubt he’s especially badly behaved at all.

And I know how much exclusion hurts. It hurts us as parents, especially if we feel indirectly responsible. It hurts the kids so much that they’ll pretend as quickly as they can it never happened. Until now, any neighbourhood exclusion experienced by my son has been more about social snobbery with an undercurrent of racism rather than my parenting style, though that may partly be a reflection of my own sensitivities. In practice, he gets along fine, in every environment, so far as I’m aware. No one at school or elsewhere has voiced any complaints, on the contrary.

At least I don’t think so, but now I’m starting to get worried.

On Saturday, I was upset all day, downcast, introverted; short-tempered and critical with him. “Why are you in such a bad mood?” he asked around lunchtime, and so I told him. I’m heartbroken, because other parents from his class have taken their children out of our afterschool violin practice group. There were only the four of them in it, including him, so it’s now effectively defunct. And it was my pride and joy, the best thing I’d done with my life, just about, since giving birth.

It ran weekly for half a term, following a circular email I’d composed and sent to every member of my son’s music class – about 12 – in February, after the teacher suggested we practice at home together. This was quite a brave shot in the dark, given our school’s very mixed intake, and I kept my expectations low. But three parents responded with enthusiasm and to my absolute delight, our little group was born.

I don’t know why I care so much. My son doesn’t need the extra practice, I get on his case enough anyway, though he loved doing it this way, which was always reason enough to continue. He’s the sociable only child of socially isolated parents, so any excuse for a bunch of classmates round for tea is a good one. There’s the clue, perhaps, to my grief. A socially isolated parent, I was doing this quite labour-intensive thing for me. I loved feeling useful, feeling engaged, playing, if you like, at being a teacher and giving other people’s kids, as much as my own, a fruitful, enjoyable time. It didn’t always run smoothly, not every time, not last time; but it ran, mostly, pretty well. The kids seemed to love it.

But after this term’s first and only session, the parents have decided their kids don’t want it anymore, at least not with us. There may be school-gate politics at work here, it may be that one alpha-mum is leading the flock away from this definitively non-alpha who presumed on her lowly status by initiating an ambitious sub-group. I don’t know exactly what, either nominally or essentially, I or my kid have done wrong, I can only speculate blindly, flailing uselessly and terminally around the truth. But I do hurt; much more than my son, who does not doubt his popularity. He also practices well anyway, so I really shouldn’t care. But I do. I do; I’m desolate!

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Feminism: Sex positive or sex negative?

There’s an awful lot to like about Zoe Williams. She became a parent a few weeks after I did, for one, and I absolutely relished her column Anti-natal, which rubbished the non-evidence base of so many holier-than-thou pre-natal recommendations in fashion at the time. I also totally agreed with her oblique take on that other supposedly non-controversial good, social mobility. But this piece – it’s not that I disagree, exactly. It’s just that, like virtually all mums of kids the same age as mine, it’s clear she’s from a different generation; of feminist, socialist, journalist and everything else.

Like Zoe, I had occasion to leaf through some early editions of Spare Rib in the British Library some months back. Unlike her, I can actually remember the appearance of the 1980s ones; I even wrote for some of them. And I totally know what she means when she contrasts that early, no-holds-barred, every lugubrious- detail-please approach to sexual and female-biological matters with the later feminists’ defensive, do-not-encroach-upon-my-temple fastidiousness. What’s more, I think I can pinpoint that moment she’s after; when, if you like, sex-positive feminism became sex-negative; when feminists switched, to use the stereotypes, from being Germaine Greer’s sexually “liberated” gorgeous girls about town, to dour, dungareed, humourless lesbian man-haters.

“When Promiscuity Became a Duty”, the title of an early-1980s article in The Leveller magazine by a feminist a decade or so older than me has stuck in my mind down the decades. I believe I read it and thought, ugh, I know what she means; that dreadful period when you had to “Do It” on demand to prove that you were hip and with it and not an old-fashioned square. Being still quite young, and a shy late starter, I had pretty much missed the promiscuity-as-duty phase, though I spent a few years attempting a modest sort of catch-up. In the interests of research, naturally, by an over-sheltered country girl of the opinion that her extreme sexual ignorance was putting her at an extreme disadvantage. And no, not a lot of it was tremendous fun, actually; much of it was embarrassing, uncomfortable and a bit boring. Frankly, a laugh down the pub usually made for a better night out.

But maybe that was just me; “liberated” on the outside, but inside still cramped and inhibited; quite possibly. It was still worth trying, I maintain; I had every right to experiment, and on balance got a lot out of it, including some very good friends. Round about then, too, one started to hear the argument even in radical circles that those benefitting most from the advent of the Pill and the whole gamut of sexual-revolution legislation were not in fact us women but our randy, feckless, commitment-phobe multiple male partners. Which dovetailed neatly with Irish Catholic and other conservative arguments against legalisation of divorce, abortion and other modern horrors. Which in turn, to do us justice, felt extremely uncomfortable to feminists; we didn’t and don’t like the sense that we had common ground with Mary Whitehouse conservatives. But we were insufficiently able to grandstand the distinctions, and became vulnerable to the anti-sex caricature. Which must have put off a lot of younger experimenters, exactly the type of girl I had been.

So, in the end, who’s right? Obviously, once “liberated” by law and free access to contraception, women and men had and still have a load of work to do to work out the best way to use it. I remember a conversation with a woman, again, a few years older than me, at Greenham Common; a mother of two who had just walked out of her marriage. We were talking about rape in marriage, which was still perfectly legal in those days. “I was raped twice a night for six years,” she commented. I wouldn’t want to pass judgement on that, even with the benefit of decades of hindsight. She had two small children, a factor I would have insufficiently registered at the time, but even to me it was clear she was referring, not to violence, but to the routine marital sex she put up with just for the sake of a peaceful night. It’s always easier to succumb than to risk a bad-tempered partner on whom you depend, even if he’s not a brute.

Which is just some context. Clearly this argument – is, in general terms, Lots of Sex with Multiple Partners a Good or Bad Thing for Women? – is no more simply concluded than any other political football. The fact that a woman’s sexuality is still primarily defined as her attractiveness to men is as much a product of barely-ruffled patriarchy as the fact that, once “liberated” from family and religious tradition, women and girls all over the world are still exposed to the most brutal kinds of sexual abuse. But they are, let’s not forget, exposed just as much when left “unliberated” within them, only we hear less about it, just as we once heard less about child abuse. And who does that end up protecting?

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Too Much Taking Control; an outsider’s view

What is it about this column, about a divorced woman in her 50s exploring online dating, that I find so addictive? There but for the grace of God . . ? Actually, I do know someone in exactly this position; 50 +, separated, single, female; bright, very fit, a well-off, professional, working mother; now online dating with diminishing hope and enthusiasm.

The blatant misogyny, the old-fashioned double-standard of it all is fascinatingly awful; that women this age will struggle to raise the interest of a man under 80, while a man of similar age, similarly professional and solvent, will have, or imagine he has, the pick of the nubile under 30s at his disposal. Plus, it’s so strange and new to my generation, this manner of finding a mate, which the young apparently take for granted. She’s trying hard, this Stella Grey (not her real name) and clinging doggedly to her sense of humour all the way. But I can’t help feeling she’s missing some essential point.

Online dating, by its very nature, will exacerbate the first-impressions impact, which is brutal enough at the best of times. When your face, if it ever was, is absolutely no longer your fortune, this can only count massively against you. However hard we try, the profiles of ladies of 50+ are unlikely to seem a good prospect to a halfway desirable man under 80, unless the age is doctored. Online daters go online shopping, obviously, for someone already half-formed in their imagination, and sift all comers ruthlessly.

Yet how many great romances you’ve heard of were originally sparked by mutual dislike? As an online dater, Lizzie Bennett would have written off Mr Darcy, Jane Eyre swiped Mr Rochester, even Romeo (“Good-looking young Montague seeks similar, Capulets need not apply . . .”) rejected Juliet before the story even got started! None of these iconic passions would have flared if the lovers had had to rely on online profiles to get them going. OK, so they’re old-fashioned fictions, and may be inadequate contemporary models. But love at first impression is not the most auspicious prognosis. Coming to love someone, even falling in love, especially with someone not “your type” at the outset, generally takes a while.

And then the attraction is all the stronger for the journey. For that journey to stand a chance, people must come together for reasons other than the upfront (we older people might have said desperate) search for a mate. A mutual interest (in sex a la Fifty Shades for all I know), or shared work experience; or a social circle in common; somewhere where ongoing meetings will happen as a matter of course, not linked to success or failure, to the passing or failing some brutal audition . . . I don’t know, call me old-fashioned, but particularly for mature, clearly very personable ladies like Stella Grey, taking a few steps back seems to me to be the only realistic way forward. An attractive man her own age, who fantasising, as they all do, apparently, about a younger, prettier girl, would have “swiped” her instantly online, may, over time, realise what a treasure, and indeed, how sexy she is, after working or playing alongside her for months or maybe years. It happens. And for some of us, the less obviously nubile ones, it may be the only way it happens any more.

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The decline of inner London

I’ve lived here, in this exclusive little inner-London conservation area, for about 15 years. My family has been here for 35 years, not long by local standards. For the past ten, I’ve been sharing the house with a black man, for the past seven, with our kid.

Since then, there have been one or two distressing incidents involving stupid local police officers. There’s a simmering tension between the majority private-school and local-state-school mums, as regular readers may know. But on the whole, the kids and everyone gets along. My partner’s and kid’s may be the only non-white faces at the summer party, or at annual carol singing, but the mainly young professionals who move in, as older, less-moneyed people sell at huge profit and move away, are generally open, tolerant people, and we do not feel unwelcome.

But the exceptions are brutal, and not actually about race, although that comes into play if deemed convenient. It’s about being the Right Sort. You see, he’s not only black, my partner, but he works with his hands. He has a white van, which is colourfully painted with his company logo. He parks it, naturally, when not at the workshop, in our lovely conservation area, which, as a resident, he has every right to do.

A Tory grandee type in his 60s with a well-groomed, 40-ish wife, relatively new residents I believe, just told me in the most unpleasant terms that the van, “blatant advertising” has “no right to be parked where it is. It’s always here, have you noticed? And what’s more, have you seen how scruffy it is? I’m quite sure he has never got a single job out of it.”

“That’s not why it’s parked there,” I said. “It’s parked there because the owner lives here.”

This failed to penetrate. “I’m taking it up with the council!” he declared. He stormed off, I hope to do just that, but more likely heading for the House of Lords bar.

I don’t think he has a leg to stand on, but it’s worrying nonetheless. He and my family are supposed to be neighbours, though that’s precisely the fact this snob couldn’t countenance. If he’s mainly bothered about his blocked basement window, which I really don’t believe, he could have tried asking us nicely.

When you live your life cushioned by liberal assumptions, whereby you assume everybody basically assumes all people equal, tradespeople and professionals doing equally valid work, and equally deserving of respect, irrespective of income (though it would be nice if that were more equal too), it’s a shock to run up against a manifest conviction to the contrary, even though you know in theory there’s a lot of it out there. I confess I’m spoilt by my lifestyle. At home and with my kid, the only real-live people I encounter on a regular basis are my extended family, my one or two friends, and my kid’s lovely teachers. Beyond that I choose my influences, which books to read, which emails and blogs to write and receive, who and what to listen to; and I choose, obviously, according to my preconceptions.

So when I’m confronted suddenly with someone who might have been Rupert Murdoch (though it wasn’t), accompanied by someone else who might have been his ex-wife Wendy Deng (though she wasn’t), but anyway, both obviously much wealthier than I am, I am astounded to find that their manners are a hundred times worse. Surely, some old-fashioned corner of me thinks, this cannot be, my evident superiors, if not elders, behaving so obviously badly? What happened to the gentlemanly-liberal assumptions of my parents?

It’s distressing. I’m still distressed. I hate this city as much as I love it, and here’s one more reason to start thinking about moving away.

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