Tuesday, 28 June 2011

What does Thursday 30th June *really* mean to some of my son's teachers?

It is unlikely to have escaped the notice of anyone reading this in the UK that this Thursday, 30th June, there is a mass-walk out over pensions by teaching unions, the national discussion of which smacks of the "old days" of left v right as words like "Armageddon" and "bringing the country to its knees" are bandied about. I have never supported striking action, but then I have never been in a position when I felt desperate enough. Neither would I criticise or condemn a profession I am so out of touch with as a member, although I hold views as a parent on the education system. Certainly in the current economic and educational climate I am surprised the Government is further challenging teachers, who have by and large coped amazingly with the legislation of the past two decades. Also concerning is the potential far-reaching implications for future recruitment into the profession when morale is already low.

It is a comment on the vocational nature of teaching that after over a decade out of the job I still feel very much one of the profession. For me, teaching was my dream, the only job for me despite my father's very best efforts to tempt me with something more financially appealing. Just as my daughter does now, I would line the teddies and dolls up and play "school" writing out endless tasks for them, drawing elaborate pictures and plans and creating pretend schemes of work. Even around the age of five I was aware that a certain amount of planning had to be involved and Sindy and Strawberry Shortcake needed different support and imput if they were to realise their potential and keep pace with the bears.... so you can imagine my shock to learn that the parallel classes at my son's school do almost no cross-year planning, there are no agreed schemes of work and one child's experience in a single class is not guaranteed - or even likely -to be similar to his or her peers in parallel classes. This was straight from the new head, sheepishly admitting this was a point she wished to tackle - almost apologetically claiming she needed to "convince" the teachers to work together. Similarly, her staff were "legally entitled" to an hour's lunch break and she could not force them to offer clubs. Whatever happened to contractual responsibilities? Lunch supervision is no longer the responsibility of teachers, who also get planning time within the usual timetable. one lunch break a week running a club? Hardly a sacrifice and something I know many friends, former colleagues and teachers elsewhere offer without a second thought.

H's school has a reputation for apathy - but I believed this to be parental apathy. The turnout to the Year 4 "Meet the new Headteacher" meeting was indicative of that - with approximately ninety families in Year four, our school managed a turnout of seven parents. Seven. And two of us are former teachers. Even if two thirds of parents work..... that's just pathetic. Other school events are similar, and there are outstanding parent-governor vacancies from a year ago. This apathy it seems is endemic throughout the school however, and is as much caused by as a product of the lack of professionalism from the school. I commented that it has taken nearly a year for us to START feeling part of the school, since there is no "New parent Handbook", no newsletter, no parent/class reps, nothing. No way to contact parents of new friends to facilitate your child's settling into a new school and no information on how the school runs. I have no knowledge of the topics he is learning (you can be sure he won't tell me) and no concern with getting anyone to achieve anything over the average. Small wonder Ofsted down-rated them. If it were not for the sterling special needs support it would have little to offer us and many other families.

It IS unprofessional. Teaching is not a turning up to class five minutes before school starts, delivering mediocre lessons, hiding out in the staff room at break times in case you might get asked to do something and scuttling home the minute the children have left the premises. That is NOT what teaching is about for the vast majority of dedicated professional teachers in this country.

Is it an illusion that the majority of teachers teach because they want to, because something inside of them yearns to share in the educational journey of children who hopefully want to learn? I actually think it is the case for the vast majority of dedicated teachers in our schools. The long holidays enjoyed by teachers are always the butt of jokes but there was a trade off. As with any vocation, during term time you gave your heart and soul to the job. No one relished the extra lunchtime break duty having just sat down with a still-warm cup of coffee, the loss of any planning time when covering for a sick colleague - but everyone wanted the best for the pupils. I have some experience in both state and private sectors and job satisfaction and commitment to the profession was evident in both. But this professional pride has gradually been eroded by government initiatives, targets and second-guessing. Too many teachers leave the profession disillusioned, despairing at pupil behaviour, lack of respect from above and below.

As far as I can see the only way of steering the ship through such choppy seas is with a strong, charismatic leader. A Captain who has vision, energy and commitment. Who KNOWS who is in charge and is willing to make unpopular decisions. Someone who has enough belief in themselves, their staff and the school to carve a way forward through uncertain times. I couldn't do it, and I'm not sure I would want to in a sea of apathy and low morale. But what concerns me as my son moves into Year five with a new Captain at the helm is that I'm not sure she can either. His is the largest primary school in Suffolk and only the most dynamic, committed and positive Headteacher is going to have a hope of making a big enough difference. That's probably not someone who quotes their employees legal rights over lunchtime to a parent enquiring after school clubs.

Thursday 30th June may well be a landmark strike, certainly it is huge headache for the coalition. But for many teachers at my son's school it is a good excuse for a day off and little more. Which is incredibly depressing.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011


Prejudice."An adverse judgment or opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts. A preconceived preference or idea."

Not something any of us would strive for, whether psychological, social, political or religious and yet we are all, every last one of us guilty of prejudice in many ways. OK, not extreme "racism", "sexism" etc that we all associate with the definition, but who doesn't make a premature judgement, hold a positive or negative attitude based on beliefs not facts at some point?

And where do you draw the line? Are you prejudiced for refusing to listen to a band's new album because you disliked the last an the lead singer has had recent bad press? Or swapping seats on the tube because the person next to you is drunk? We all make assumptions based on experience all the time. About pretty much everything.

"Prejudice is the glass through which most things are seen and judged."
Edward Counsel

Usually though, prejudice is harmless, expected and actually useful as we seek to make sense of our environment and protect ourselves from potentially unpleasant or even dangerous circumstances. What I am weary of is prejudice with a capital "P".

I have recently had a discussion online, once again, about medicating children with mental health issues - be it ADHD, anxiety etc. It is a challenging topic to discuss, not least because the vast majority choosing to discuss it are rarely well informed or experienced, and mostly because by supporting occasional, regulated medicating of under eighteens you are immediately seen as some pill pushing liberal who would try and medicate her kids for any little thing.

The Daily Mail has had a busy week already. I'll leave the discussion of Carly Cole and the "baby whisperer" in the Daily Mail to this excellent Blog reply although I could happily oblige. What really caught my eye, and not directly, was the tragic story someone linked to on an "Autism Support Forum" of a ten year old boy who killed himself. not a DM reader, such articles only come to my attention if they wind someone else up, usually via Facebook, but this time someone was actually citing the article for seemingly pointing out how wrong it is to medicate young children for disorders of the brain.

As I wrote at length here ADHD is not merely "boisterous behaviour" and medicating it is not merely sedation but Daily Mail readers do prefer simplified explanations. There ensued below the offending post a long discussion on parents "boasting" that they collected benefits for medicating their children, that there were "always alternatives" and poor parenting was to blame. The prejudice was almost palpable...

Oh the irony - and apparent hypocrisy - since only a couple of threads further down everyone had posted very supportive replies to the mother whose child had been prevented from playing with another because of prejudice. The child in question had Autism and their behaviour was seen as unpleasant. HOW can people not see the double standard? Any challenge from me was rebutted with "you obviously have a bee in your bonnet", to "not all parents are as comfortable about medicating their children". As those who have never had to go through what we and so many other parents have struggled with on a daily basis gave their opinions, I was reminded we were "all in this together" as if online togetherness legitimises Prejudice.

But it's not so much seeing "both sides", those who may "brag" about benefits etc are a tiny minority I would assume, but understanding the condition. If there were a pill to medicate for Autism, remove 90% of the behaviours who here wouldn't be tempted to try it? I would. When you have lived with severe ADHD on TOP of ASD and several other conditions AND have two others with complicated medical needs I think you do see the "bigger picture" - you live it every day. And how is medicating an issue with the brain using unlicensed medication any different from using medication licensed only for adults on children to treat asthma, or gastro conditions like our children? Can you really see much interest in an article based on those?

So next time you see a person with a child who appears fully mobile using a Blue Badge, the older child having a toddler tantrum in the supermarket, the child with a feeding tube who is eating enthusiastically... pause for thought before making assumptions. Likewise, as guilty as the next person of prejudice I am going to challenge myself before leaping to conclusions in areas in which I lack knowledge. My biggest problem as my friends will know is jumping in when in a hurry rather than taking the time (I don't have) to ponder!

We are all familiar with publicised and widely acknowledged prejudice but the popular, unchallenged assumptions we make all too frequently should always be challenged. The only way you can understand someone else's situation is to be them - without that inside knowledge we can only offer subjective opinion, which is still valid and useful, but should be acknowledged as such.

"It is natural to develop prejudices. It is noble to rise above them."
Or my favourite quote from a Winston advertisement:-

"You can judge me all you want, just keep your opinions to yourself" .
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