I’ve written a few new year blog posts over the years, in different styles.

As the year ticked over from 2014 to 2015 I remember thinking that my 2015 should be about authenticity. I should try to do things my way. I’ve come a long way as me so I must be doing something right. I didn’t blog much but I’ve tried to keep it in mind.

This post is different, I’ve written this over the last month, with my birthday in my sights. This year is the year I turn 40.

IMG_20160101_233953295

In just a few days I tip definitively into what I used to think of as “middle-aged”.

This post is both an indulgence and an invitation. I will share my conclusions so far, and perhaps you will tell me your most challenging lessons learnt. I’m writing this for people I know well and for people I’d like to know better. I’ve enjoyed reading other women’s confessional pieces and I hope you enjoy reading this. Comments are welcome, but don’t feel obligated.

There are some very personal confessions in here, so I don’t mind if, having read this far, you’d rather not read any further.

Expectations

By way of introduction I should tell you that I spent many years thinking that anything popular was beneath me. I revelled in liking obscure music and books. People with 2.4 children and a white picket fence were living inauthentic, lazy lives. I expected a lonely but unique lifepath.

This was my favourite poem:
“Moonsoaked, she emitted a cold radiance, which made all who loved her turn away. As well they might. For hers was the single silver track, upmountain to the moon”.
Poetic. Serious. Pretentious.

I was a pretty serious teenager. I was very into politics, and fundamentally I am still very political, with a small p and a big P. I was alert to false consciousness and mindless consumerism. I was suspicious of being pacified by the trappings of life, of being sedated into normality. I still did drinking and dancing and boys, and I did have fun, both cerebral and less so. I went off to university to do philosophy and literature, and life started to fill up with people and responsibilities, and I graduated from teenager to adult.

The Downs and Ups

I never expected marriage, kids, a detached house on a newish estate paid for by a fairly secure professional job. And yet here I am. And I like it. And believe me, I know how lucky I am, on every measure.

My rock is my husband Tim. An amazing man that I met through work when I was 25. He ticks all the boxes on my shopping list, and more. He does more than half the house chores, he’s good at DIY, cooking and enabling me to buy stuff. We talk about everything and anything. He makes me happy and supported and solid. I’m lucky, but also I take some credit, because I chose well.

The biggest surprise of my life has been motherhood. I am that lucky woman who has had two straightforward pregnancies, and I loved the feeling of that life growing inside me. The first labour was 3 hours 45 minutes, gas & air, pethidine, healthy mum and baby. The second was 2 hours, gas & air, again fine. I took to breastfeeding after the steep learning curve. I loved both my baby boys. My body surged with oxytocin. I was exhausted and had my share of days when I climbed into bed feeling incompetent. I hallucinated out of tiredness, I feared falling down stairs with babe in arms. But I had a feeling of contentment and purpose. My mum and sister commented they’d never seen me so chilled out.

Something you might not know about me is that from the age of 13 I have had several bouts of depression/anxiety. Everyone has reasons to feel bad, whether a legacy from childhood or cirumstance of adult life or the cocktail of chemicals and hormones that nature injects us with to keep life varied. I have, in many respects, a charmed life. So I can only explain my low episodes as a legacy of a slightly troubled childhood, perhaps compounded by a genetic predisposition towards depression inherited from my bipolar father, now estranged. At several points I have sought help through counselling, self-help and an anxiety support group.

In my mid thirties, I hit a low. This time, with a husband and two kids, the stakes were higher. Looking back, it was when the oxytocin dropped, a few months after finishing breastfeeding my 10 month old, that I hit a wall. I was back at work, teeming with anxiety and guilt, concentrating on trying to be competent at work and home, and frequently failing. Things were challenging at work and my identity felt vulnerable. I lashed out at family a few times. I was full of anger and difficult to live with.

In desperation to find some kind of stability I started taking citalopram and that helped a lot. I started a new job and after 8 months of the meds I stopped them. I honestly think that the trigger for my episode was the drop in oxytocin, but citalopram helped me past it. I wish I’d taken them months earlier.

Which is all an unnecessary overshare. I think I’m saying this to illustrate that I am not a shiny happy person, or a stepford wife, or a smug married yummy mummy. My flaws include: lazy, disorganised, forgetful, easily distracted, overcritical and judgemental. And against any rationality, I often read my horoscopes. I’m as flawed as the next person.

Perhaps I’m saying all this in a big double bluff of self-deprecation to make you like me. I hear that hitting 40 means that I will stop caring so much what you all think. I look forward to that.

Good Things (I Made A List)

Here comes a list of some things I love, dated New Year 2015/6. Some of these things I’ve discovered I like even though lots of other people like them too. I feel that embracing the common things in life feels positively correlated to being happier. The me of my late teens to early twenties was, to be frank, quite hard work to like. I like myself more now, and I think I’m easier to like. Though still not everyone’s cup of tea. And that’s fine.

Things I love, and how long I’ve enjoyed them:

Being a mum (8 years)
Playing the piano (30+ years)
Disco music (3 years)
Running (2 years)
Losing myself in a good book (30+ years)
Making lists (30+ years)
Good food (20 years)
Feeling like i’m making solid progress at work (15 years)
Being part of a network of professional peers (15 years)
Singing in a community choir (2 years)

There are many things I’d like to do more of: enjoying my kids as they discover what they love, being outdoors, being physically active, making things, seeing friends, laughing. I will try to find time for them too.

Lessons learnt?

I admit it, I have googled around for advice on turning 40. Some of it seems unobtainable, at least to me. I can’t imagine myself fasting or giving up caffeine. I don’t think anyone would thank me for it. Some of the advice seems obvious. Be kinder to yourself. Prioritise what matters. Don’t sweat the small stuff. But knowing something to be true and really living with that thing in mind are qualitatively different. The best advice I’ve read so far is “how to be a moderately successful person like me” which basically advises not pretending, and failing, to be a superhero.

With that “like, duh!” in mind, here are my lessons learnt so far.

1 ) Own your own thoughts. I know as much about life as I could know, for someone who’s had my life. I’m as entitled to my opinions as anyone else. I am as flawed and irrational as anyone else. Some things that I think are things that other people disagree with, especially about politics and religion. I have been pretty consistent in my worldview since I began having opinions. I have a lot of them. They are valid as opinions. I don’t claim them to be facts. No-one’s opinions are facts, and I will not be “mansplained” by people claiming greater authority. Nor am I a relativist, or a wishy washy liberal who thinks anything goes. I like to discuss things, because I think things matter and are worth discussing. In other words, I am as entitled to my worldview as any other adult. Sit at the table, “lean in”, and join the discussion.

2) Don’t worry about what people are thinking about you because they’re probably not thinking about you anyway. I know this is true but I suspect I could live this more deeply. Because I know that everyone is secretly thinking about my stubby thumbs. Admit it.

3) Be thankful for the moments of rootedness, to family, to nature. Feeling like you belong isn’t inevitable so cherish it when it happens. I’ve known that sort of loneliness where you’re hanging in space wondering if anyone other my mum would notice if I disappeared. And the loneliness of knowing that only I will ever look out of these eyes and see what I see. Becoming a mum myself gave me a grasp of what it is to be needed, and more than anything that gives me roots. I like to imagine I’d feel that sense of rootedness if I’d been me in some other era, some other country.

4) Contentment is the aim. Joy is a bonus. Happiness is more like a warm, soft comfortable thing than like a sharp bright thing. The swell in your chest is the reward for living with your eyes and ears open to the good stuff. Big highs tend to be followed by lows. Mild highs are more sustainable.

5) I don’t have much to say about how I look and that’s probably as it should be. I’ve always been short and round, blonde with big boobs and wide bum and round tummy. If I exercise, it’s to feel better. Weight loss is a bonus. I just want to be happy in my skin, to be grateful for my moving arms and legs, my functioning lungs and heart, my operational senses. I wish I didn’t fret about my hairy chin and wobbly bits. I want to adorn my imperfect body in shimmery gold dress as a thank you for carrying me through life and nurturing two babies, and I want to take my body dancing.

6 ) Make time for the things that you can lose yourself in. For me, that’s books, piano playing, running. Single-tasking. Absorption. Flow. There are some pieces I’ve played on the piano since my early teens, and each time I play them connects me to every other time. There is something in rhythm and repetition in running and piano playing. Novels are about becoming other people.

7) If you’re feeling restless and fidgety, it might not be your mind that needs fixing. You might need to move your body. Believe me, this has been a revelation to me over the past five years or so. I always thought that restlessness required more thinking, analysis and planning. It never really occurred to me that thinking-it-through was the opposite of what I needed to do. Overthinking gives too much attention to thoughts and feelings that should be allowed to float past.

8) Finally, a lesson about who’s in charge. My life is better and bigger and happier than I’d dared to expect. My inner voice used to tell me that some things weren’t for people like me. It was sharp and bitter. “Contentment is the white picket fence that keeps you trapped in mediocrity”. “You’ll always be lonely: sociability is for people less intelligent than you”. “Your integrity will carve a difficult path for you”. Remember my favourite poem as a teenager? A lonely single silver track. I haven’t compromised anything, my integrity remains intact, I haven’t denied myself anything in the process of constructing my wonderful life. My inner voice was just wrong. I see it now as it is: a black-clothed teenager trying to define herself in opposition to the world. How easily I might have been in thrall to it and missed out on all of this. I apologise now to anyone that teenager sneered at or hit out at. I thank anyone who saw past her and decided to give me a chance anyway. You tolerated a lot of nonsense from her (me) in my teens and twenties. I think she was scared of you really. She’s still in here but she’s not in charge.

What’s next?

Perhaps my next lesson, waiting in the wings of my 40s, is how to appreciate my life, to be mindful and thankful, without denying the reality of so many others. So many others are in bad health, in poverty, in grief and loneliness. How to reconcile the inner and outer worlds mentally so that I can be thankful for everything good without ignoring the bad. To live well with my eyes open. I invite you, with your happiness, integrity and wisdom, to tell me how!

Happy New Year

This is my third post in a series of “TWEETS I Never Sent”: I did my first from Jersey, two years ago I did one from near Glasgow and this year we went near Edinburgh. To be honest it’s nothing to do with twitter any more, except that I stayed mostly offline. We had a hilariously bad camping trip last year but I feel guilty I never alerted environmental health to that site so I remained silent.

So, here’s what happened on our family holiday this week.

How to go from warwick to york to just-east-of-edinburgh with two young kids and still have fun (tweetsins #3)

Tried not to faff about what things I forgot to pack. Top tip: definitely don’t keep asking your husband if “we” remembered to pack the books/inhaler/gin. Either “we” did or we didn’t, and if we didn’t, apparently there are shops and even chemists up north. Next tip: keep checking the paper map and correlating with google maps on your mobile, unless you’re coming to an important junction in your journey, in which case ensure you are deep in thought about work stuff that you promised yourself you wouldn’t think about. Pretend you lost your signal at the crucial moment and make a mental note to zone into the holiday. This is quality time with your family.

Note to self: Two hours into your journey you will remember that quality time with your family entails listening to your sons arguing about the powers, parentage and real names of superheroes. It’s fine until they get really angry with each other and you make the mistake of suggesting that it’s not really that important whether antman’s dad was an archaeologist. At which point they turn their anger on you, and harmony is restored between them.

York was mainly hairdressers and tapas, which was nice. We didn’t go to the Jorvik Viking centre because the boys are currently scared of “models”, i.e lifesize people statues, and they’d have lasted 3 minutes.

The next day we went to Alnwick Castle. In the knights quest area, upon interrogation by the wandmaker on where they were from, elder son announced “We have come from Travelodge”. There was a hagrid and a harry potter talking. Youngest managed the requisite three minutes before screaming towards me and sobbing “I don’t like it, mum, its freaking me out”. Also at the castle were ridiculously ornate ceilings in the state rooms which put me and Tim into a mild mannered class war, but we sedated ourselves with icecream and the smugness of having chosen a good place to stop off on route to scotland.

During this journey we learnt that our youngest is quite an expert on vampires, ghosts and superheroes. He absorbs stories like a sponge. On mastermind his specialist subject would be “things that don’t actually exist”. We are very proud.

By Saturday evening we’re settled into our wooden lodge in a holiday park by the sea. We’re right next to a burn* and a little wooden footbridge. There is a resident duck. *Apparently “burn” is the correct scots word for a river/stream thing. Happy Days:-)

Despite having a lovely time, over a week I manage to indulge in my habitual addiction: fretting. So far the list includes:

  • work stuff I promised myself I wouldn’t think about
  • my hairy chin (this anxiety sometimes rises to the extent of ruining a happy half hour)
  • my black tooth
  • whether I had set up a direct debit payment to my credit card (it turns out “we” had)
  • my hairy knees that I should have shaved (this was at the forefront of my mind for an hour on the way to the zoo)
  • the possibility that my choir performance will clash with tim’s aikido meal. in december.
  • something terrible happening to the children (there are many versions of this anxiety, illness, accident and abduction have all featured this week)
  • a particular specialism this week:anxiety about people falling into water (please see below for details)

We stay local on sunday and do a lovely nature walk, without any nettle stings, falling into streams or getting attacked by wasps. We do a lot of imagining about the ferns and the dinosaurs, and a little reassurance is required that it was all very long ago.

Monday is a family park, and it’s actually fun. There are a wide variety of ways for a child to injure themselves. My children avoid all of them, others are not so lucky. One poor kid gets his face scraped by a hay bale but his mum doesn’t seem too bothered. So that’s alright then.

On Tuesday near a dangerously tall harbour wall in North Berwick we eat lobster, crab and fish and chips. And there is a very cool steampunk cafe where we sit on unusual furniture and have good coffee and unusual cake.

On Wednesday, Edinburgh is busy with festival season and full of people with too much confidence. Good for them. We ate fudge on the way home.

Edinburgh Zoo on Thursday is busy with irresponsible parents letting their children climb in dangerous places. Luckily there are some good animals to watch so I do my best to zone out of catastrophic thinking and watch penguins. Here’s a question: that anxious bladder-tensing feel that we get when we’re high up or watching someone high up: do other apes get that? Tim suggests they probably do have that in situations that are dangerous to them. Do they get that watching another ape in a dangerous situation?

Friday: Berwick upon Tweed which has a strange faded elegance to it: it felt like a place of ghosts, and then a brief stop in St Abbs which was full of divers and a gang of teenagers running too close to the harbours edge.

Spent today driving back down through the north east sampling the bland delights of multiple service stations along the way. And home. Indian takeaway. And press publish!

My son’s school was inspected in December. The report was released on 26th February. The reason for the delay was that Ofsted changed their approach to reports and all reports have been rewritten to the new framework.
My son’s school was judged inadequate, which doesn’t tally with my understanding of the school. What happens now is that as a result of being placed in special measures, the school automatically starts moving towards academy status. I don’t want that to happen. We have been told we have 10 working days to appeal, which by my calculation takes us to 12th March.

I am curious about this rewriting of Ofsted reports. Why? Could it be linked to the desire to push more schools towards academy status? As John Harris suggested in a Guardian article back in September 2013, “There may be reasons why primary schools are now finding themselves downgraded and pushed into the clutches of outside sponsors: 49% of secondary schools are academies, but only 7% of primaries are”.
I went to look at Ofsted’s data view site to see what the ratio of outcomes of Ofsted reports have been. How many primary shools are judged as “inadequate”?
This table is based on primary schools only, and the categories are (from left to right) outstanding, good, satisfactory and inadequate.
dataview
So, in the annual data up to august last year, the number of “inadequates” is very small, a steady 2%.
According to the schedule for releasing data, the data on these most recent reports will be released on 12th March. There is a change in categories now, to outstanding, good, requires improvement, inadequate. But they are pretty similar categories so perhaps the latest bunch of reports might show a change in the proportions of “inadequate” ratings.
I went to look at the most recent reports. I filtered for primary schools, and came up with 150 reports. I started the laborious process of logging the outcomes into a spreadsheet. Luckily, the wonderful Tony Hirst came to my rescue, when he realised I was attempting this “by hand”. He applied his data wrangling skills and built a process to scrape the data. He has documented his method. That man deserves a medal for usefulness.

So: 150 reports published in the last week that have been subject to the rewriting under the new regime.

outstanding good requires improvement inadequate total
13 55 59 23 150
9% 37% 39% 15% 100%

and when I formatted it for comparability, it looks like this:
dataviewchart

So in August 2013 the % of primary schools judged as “inadequate” was 2%. In the 150 reports released this week, that percentage is 15%.

That looks like a statistically significant change to me.

With thanks to Tony Hirst for data scraping help and Linda Scannell for the Guardian article link.

The oer-discuss list caught fire recently, on the history of reusable learning objects and open educational resources. If you’re not familiar with those concepts, look away now, this post isn’t for you!

A while back I wrote a paper with David Kernohan where we tried to give a narrative with a UK context: OER – a historical perspective . In fact I have been a bit obsessed with open content for many years but I have been silent for a while.  I’m going to jump right in here, a few themes I’ve been thinking about.

Use Value and Exchange Value

In the discussions about whether content has value, there is often a question about whether content can be bought and sold, whether it is “monetisable”. In marxist economics that is the type of value called exchange value: where a commodity can be exchanged for money. There is another type of value: use value.  That is the extent to which a commodity is useful. It is about its utility, not its cost or price (see below). I think most teaching resources can have a high use value both for primary use and secondary reuse, without that ever translating into an exchange value. They might be valuable but you can’t sell them.

Does that mean “content is free”?

I don’t think so. Teaching materials cost time and effort to produce. One of the arguments for sharing teaching materials is that of public service: we taxpayers/citizens pay the wages of teachers and academics and have some stake in their outputs being used as much as possible by others to benefit from the use value. Its the same line of argument as the “public paid, public should benefit” open access to research outputs. The cost model does not translate into a price model. The cost model is situated in a broader context of who paid for the labour of producing the content.

Enter open licensing as a different model of value

Instead of pricing teaching materials, open licensing focuses on getting a greater use out of the materials: a greater utility: a greater return on investment. Openly licensed digital content is also non-rivalrous (see pedagogy of abundance chapter by Weller ) so it doesn’t reduce its value when you copy it. Open licensing turns value on its head: the value is in use, not in exchange.

The learning object economy

This was the idea of a marketplace for reusable content. The last decade we have seen the maturing for apps markets and the ebay marketplace: enabled by micropayment models making small payments convenient for consumers and efficient for sellers. We have seen pyramid economics  meaning that enough micropayments can fund a product. The ebay for reusable learning materals never materialised, partly because this type of content doesn’t have exchange value.  In the meantime, the idea of an ebay marketplace gave birth to other models that connect consumers and sellers together. Perhaps there is a future for a freecycle for learning materials.

Collective commissioning

It is in seeing the education system as a system that we can really benefit from openly licensed teaching materials. Open textbook initiatives pay the content producers for their labour: they cover the costs of their production so that use can be free. Collectively commissioning textbooks is the purest illustration of this. Commissioning at scale. We need to look to kickstarter models of publishing, at “patron-driven acquisition” to scale up our collective commissioning. There are also models of funding the clearance of content of existing books: buying out the content in order to share it. It’s a bit like someone I know who buys a bottle of sambuca from the bar so that he can shower his pals with “free” shots😉

What next?

If I understand the correctly, tools like mozilla’s popcorn maker  and open tapestry  allow you to remix resources without copying them. Online curation tools could be a growth area. What will they mean for creative commons licenses? There’s something going on there that I don’t understand yet. But I like the idea of not having to orphan content from its context in order to use it. I am still not convinced that many people “repurpose” content, and I don’t mind that: managing teaching materials is good and reuse of any kind is great. I have no big conclusion to this post, but hopefully it will make sense!

My youngest son is due to start school this September so I recently submitted my application for him to follow his elder brother to one of our local schools.

When I applied for my eldest’s school place I remember ringing the local authority. I explained that on the estate where I live some children went to school A, some went to school B. About 50/50 as far as I could tell. School B was closer as the crow flies and therefore easier to walk to, but I wouldn’t be walking, I would be driving. School A was still close, was faster to drive to and was on our routes to work. Also my eldest was at nursery close to the school so it felt like the most local school.So I asked: which do you consider to be our catchment school? The lady I spoke to would not look me up on her database and repeated it would be the closest school. I therefore applied for School A as my first choice, school B as my second choice. We got allocated School A, my eldest started there surrounded by friends from nursery. It all worked out well.

There has been a shift in catchment areas since my eldest was allocated his place which makes it clear that School B is now our catchment school. The local authority does endeavor to place children at the same school as older siblings, so even though my youngest might be treated as out-of-catchment, there’s a good chance he will follow his brother to School A.

If he doesn’t?

  • We need wraparound care between 8 and 6 so that we can both work 9-5 jobs. Two schools would mean two wraparound clubs, a logistically impossible journey to both clubs, which open at 8, then onto work by 9. We struggle with time as it is, this could be impossible.
  • Two schools means two school offices, two school management teams, two PTAs, two summer fetes, two increasingly complex calendars of fundraisers and non uniform days and cake sales which I already fail to keep up with.
  • Obviously, when the eldest goes to secondary school it will be unavoidable to keep up with two schools, but he will be able to walk or cycle to school so the logistics will be less fraught, and we’ll just cross that bridge when we get to it.

Having my youngest at the same school as my eldest is really very important to me. This isn’t about me being a pushy parent asking for my son to be prioritised over local children, it’s about my sons going to the same good local school, giving us a chance to manage our busy family life.

I heard about the Siblings and the Same School group through facebook and learnt through them that the council was considering a super catchment model which gives them the planning tools to allocate children according to all the important criteria. I wrote to councillors and officers to support the idea, and I was recently interviewed by Central News to illustrate the issue. [Hopefully the interview will be broadcast on Monday 13th January on the 6pm Central News].  My story isn’t unusual, but I hope that telling it will help draw attention to the problem of primary school places.

For me, this is about ensuring that local authorities have the power and resources to plan. Primary school places are not a new issue, I’ve heard stories going back decades. We live on a relatively new housing estate that is still expanding, with two similar estates nearby. There have been little baby booms on each estate. No wonder it’s hard to allocate everyone their first choice. There’s no easy answer, which is precisely why schools need some central planning. And yet so much education policy is going in the opposite direction: free schools and academies reduce or remove local authority control.  The relentless focus on parental “choice” undermines investment in educational infrastructure.

For me, this is about centrally-coordinated good local schools. Fingers crossed my local council will pursue the supercatchment proposal so that they can continue to help families like mine in the years to come.

New year, new project. I decided to start a new blog where I can talk about playing the piano. Quite straightforward objective: somewhere to write about why I play, how I play, and hopefully to give me a focus for my playing. So here it is:

https://amberpiano.wordpress.com/

and we’ll see how it goes.

piano keyboad

Well hello there.

On my amberatwarwick blog I’ve just announced our team’s new website.

I am itching to get blogging again, but struggling to find time. Lots of worky things on my mind: lecture capture is turning out to be very interesting, I’d love to learn how to work with linked data but I probably don’t have the foundations, I’ve been pondering the nature of learning technologists, prompted by Sheila McNeill’s post, and thinking about what it means to manage a team of learning technologists. Also I need to start christmas shopping. And do some ironing. So I don’t think I’ll be blogging again quite yet or it will all come out in a big unstructured thoughtvomit.

In the meantime, I’ll share some of my favourite online things in case you might like them too:

I notice that google+ circles seems to be picking up again, in my networks at least. I’m tweeting less than I used to, but still love twitter. I’d like to get into reddit but I suspect I would become obsessive about it. I’ve been experimenting with a pinterest board while I daydream about redecorating the lounge.

If only decorating was as easy as in the Sims. Should I tell you my husband made a copy of our house in the sims? Oh yes he did.

20131013_224246

How terrifying is that!?

 

The Lib Dems have announced a new pledge from government to make school meals free for 4-7 year olds.

School meals

I am a fan of school dinners. We pay £10 a week for my 6 year old to have school dinners, and my younger child would benefit from such a policy. I do think a well fed child is better able to learn.

Indeed the evidence has been there for a long time. A search on the academic database worldcat on “school meals educational outcomes” returns 544 results. There is a strong body of evidence that there is a link between diet and performance. But from the news reporting it sounds like it was two entreprenurial restaurateurs (we checked and there’s no ‘n’ in that word!) who were commissioned to create a report that finally got listened to. Ok, so maybe that makes the report more media friendly. The soundbite I heard was one of them saying that a pilot school they had visited was “transformed”. I have worked in education research and policy long enough to know that the first trial of any big change can create a big response: just being in the spotlight and having researchers take an interest can change the tone of the school. For a while. That first phase is not an indication of a lasting change of the same magnitude. (See “hawthorne effect“). That is why research methodologies need to be rigorous to truly assess the overall impact of proposed polices. I suspect that the literature agrees with the soundbite conclusions, but surely too much weight has been given to anecdote?

So … make free school meals universal. If they are so good for learning and wellbeing then all children should benefit. I find myself wondering which schools will get subsidised? all schools? state schools and private schools and everything in between? The boundaries are so blurred now that I fear that private schools are subsidised by my tax. I would not be happy with that.

But leaving that aside, a purported benefit of universal free school meals is to remove the stigma. Now, I remember at secondary school, there was a discrete system. I queued up with my cash-carrying friends and there was a dinner lady with a tupperware box full of plastic coin-shaped tokens and a clipboard. She handed me my token, and I paid at the till along with everyone else. I remember being curious about who else had tokens, but never felt stigmatised because it was handled sensitively. I can’t remember how it worked at primary school. And I definitely can’t remember how it worked at infant school. So, wait … is there evidence that 4,5,6 and 7 year olds suffer any stigma? And … wait … my 6 year olds meals are paid for in advance via an online system. So there is no distinguishing between subsidised and non-subsidised children in that school. There is already a way to remove the stigma: using a system like that not even the teachers or lunchtime staff need to know.

And now we get on to what I think might be the key issue here.

If you read about schools, Ofsted reports, league tables etc you will find mention of “proportion of children in receipt of free school meals”. There’s a reason for that: free school meals does act as a proxy marker for low income households. As I understand it schools don’t know the economics of a pupil’s home, the only signifier they get of a low income home is if that child is on free school meals. This allows them to direct funds for things like subsidising school trips, and rightly so.

It also means that when comparing an inner city school in an area of low income with a school from a wealthy suburb, the “proportion of children is receipt of free school meals” percentage signifies the additional challenges the former school faces. The “free school meals” marker is the main indicator of the uneven playing field between schools. It is part of how schools signal to the regulators that SAT results are not their only priority, that they are doing their best in areas where parents are out of work.

If 4-7 year olds all get free school meals what does that marker get replaced with?  I would like to think that it would just be a simple marker of “children from low income households”. There should be no shame in being on a low income. It’s not a moral issue as far as I’m concerned, it’s just an economic fact. There shouldn’t be a stigma attached to being from a low income household. (I’m less sure that the current government agrees with that, but for what its worth let’s continue to remember that being poor is not a moral failure).

My suspicion, however, is that the marker won’t be replaced by anything. Schools in challenging circumstances will not be able to point to evidence of their challenge. After all, that inconvenient fact that this is not a level playing field has made the present government a little uncomfortable. Gove would like to present schools as “businesses” that “with the right leadership and values can all compete and collectively raise their standards”. That is not an actual quote but I can imagine him saying it.

I don’t think the removal of the marker is the purpose of the policy: I think the Lib Dems probably want it for all the right reasons. But the side effect described above might be partly why the Conservatives are not challenging it. This is the government that is trying to reduce the number of unemployment claimants (which forms a major indicator of economic health) not by creating jobs, but by tightening the criteria for unemployment benefit. The government seems to treat economic statistics as key performance indicators (KPIs) to be met at any cost. I can well imagine that it would be a rather “beneficial” side effect of universal free school meals to make that marker disappear.  First for infant schools, then perhaps further. And then finally the government will be able to paint their picture of a meritocratic UK, where any school can become top of the league tables, and any child can rise to their chosen profession, if only they eat their greens and work hard. I hope I’m wrong

Free School Meals? Yes. But.

I wasn’t watching Jamie Oliver talking about poor people’s food habits last night, but I spotted some annoyance so I went to find out, and am 100% with Alex Andreou’s piece in the Guardian. I can testify that “poor people’s bread does not go stale, it goes mouldy”. In pursuit of the perfect bread-and-gruyere-topped onion soup, I made several attempts to catch my sliced wrapped loaf at the optimum staleness. I  eventually once bought a bread stick specifically to slice, leave out for the day. This for an allegedly peasant dish.

The point Andreou raises, though, is a serious one. It is all too easy to judge people and find them wanting.

Since becoming a mum I have felt pressure more than ever before to conform to other people’s views of how I should run my life. It adds up to a pretty lengthy list of things about which I feel guilty, inadequate and even neglectful.

The List of Things I am Supposed to Feel Guilty About

 

The Baby Years

  • I didn’t stick to a feeding/sleeping routine. Sorry, Gina Ford.
  • I dared to look my babies in the eye when I fed them at night. Sorry again, Gina.
  • I used disposable nappies. Because my house at the time didn’t have much radiator/airing space for cloth nappies, and because I worried about keeping up with the washing. And because £80 for a starter kit felt a lot more that the hundreds I eventually drip fed the supermarkets.
  • I didn’t make all my own baby foods. Sorry, Annabel Karmel.
  • I didn’t carry around a tupperware box full of blueberries. Or quartered grapes. Or mango slices. If they were hungry I bought them something. From a shop. A banana if the shop had one.
  • I bought rich tea biscuits instead of the cutesy packaged baby biscuits. Because they were cheaper. And actually healthier, since you raised your eyebrows.
  • I didn’t take them to tumbletots.
  • I didn’t do babysigning.
  • Some days the telly was on for hours. Some days we watched the same episode of Mr Maker twice.
  • I went out with sick on my jumper. Knowingly.
  • I parked in a layby while they slept in the back, and I slept too.
  • I drank coffee and tea during the phase I was breastfeeding.
  • I drank wine.
  • I drank guinness.
  • I breastfed with a glass of wine in my hand.
  • I went back to work at 10 months, for my sanity and my bank balance. Sure, I had choices, but they tipped heavily towards working, particularly because I’m fairly well paid.

Despite all the bad, bad, terrible things listed above, there are things I am proud of. I did breastfeed them both until they were 10 months, I weaned them to be adventurous eaters. I kept them safe, I got complimented on both of my happy, well behaved little boys. Apart from apparently poisoning them with toxins and neglecting their psychological development, I’ve done ok.

 

Chapter Two: The School Years

I had thought the worst was over, but I see now that it is just beginning. My eldest is 6 and my list is already growing fast.

  • Not dropping him off at school door, because he goes to before-and-after school club and does a 8:30-5:30 day
  • Not having insightful comments to write on his school report.
  • Not baking for the PTA cake sales. I did a tiffin once but suspect the cost:profit ratio only benefited tescos.
  • Not managing to go to the cake sales. I love cake. But I love using my annual leave up for quality time too.
  • Not going to PTA meetings because they clash with other commitments that my husband and I don’t want to sacrifice.
  • Not being able to have my son’s friends back for tea.
  • Not teaching him mindful meditation.
  • Not doing kumon maths.
  • Letting both my boys eat happy meals sometimes.
  • Letting my eldest drink cola sometimes.
  • Letting my eldest play computer games.

You see, not having delicious wholesome family meals around the dining table is the least of my problems. I feel guilty about everything. Everything.
Right now I’m writing this at the boys bedtime and should be doing that. Instead I can hear star wars on the PS2 in the kitchen and my youngest is jumping around, naked apart from socks. It is 7:40pm.

There’s always something I should be doing instead of what I want to do. If I did everything on my to do list, I would not sleep. I could not physically combine full time work and perfect parenting. By that I mean it’s against the laws of space and time.

All the time I am making these day to day terrible decisions, there is a whole barrage of lifestyle experts looking down their noses at me. And I’m middle class: I work, I pay taxes, I’m married, I have two children, two rabbits and two cars. (I’m not sure where the rabbits fit in that description, apart from a 2.4ishness). I live in a nice house on a nice estate, with nice neighbours. My life is good. And yet I am riddled with anxiety that my life is not good enough. Not healthy enough, not cultural enough, not social enough. To top it all, I am overweight. Health, food, size and guilt: don’t get me started. That’s a whole other yet-to-be-written-blogpost about the “how to be a woman” section of the List of Guilt.

And so we are back to the sins of eating chips in front of the tv. How dare they. Whats wrong with carrots and hummus sticks? And why aren’t they watching Film4?

There are too many ways to be judged and found wanting. What’s wrong with just good enough?

My son wrote a message for me this morning. Genuinely, this is not staged.

I heart mum

I heart mum

“I heart mum”. Written in dust. He obviously thinks I’m doing ok.

I had a little spurt of blogging on sunday night,  followed by what I can only describe as a migraine on Monday. Rather odd. I suspect they are linked.

Anyhow, here’s what I wrote in case you subscribe to me here and missed it there:

MOOLDs: MOOCs and Learning Designs

The Academic Politics of Data Visualisation

Academics: bring your own identity

Hopefully I’ll be blogging a bit more again now, minus migraines.

 

 

 

 

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