Monday, 21 February 2011

Am I really dooming my children to failure by sending them to a (gasp) state school?

An admission:

I am expensively privately educated.  So is B.  In fact (possibly ironically) the only part of either of our education that our parents didn't pay for was the university bit.

Our children, on the other hand, are going to be educated at the taxpayer's (and yes, that does include us) expense.  State schools all the way.  Mostly because we can't afford otherwise, but also partially because we are woolly Guardian reading types who believe in state education.  I look at my friends from university, all highly (if not equally, most of them are much cleverer than me) intelligent, articulate, gifted people, and I see a mix of educational backgrounds.  Admittedly they aren't representative of the statistics: if 93% of the population goes to state school, surely 93% of my university friends should have done likewise.  No prizes for guessing that it's nothing like that much, but it's still a majority, as it should be, and it was a pretty good university too.

I am, admittedly, being a little disingenuous.  One of the reasons we moved out of London was because we didn't want to end up in the panic of being allocated a "bad" school, and we did (of course we did) check out the HMIE (Ofsted to anyone South of Coldstream) reports on the schools round here before we moved.  And, if I'm honest, if we'd been told all the schools were disastrous, we wouldn't have moved here but would have waited to find a house somewhere where we felt our children would get a better education.

But here we are. Our town has two primary schools and one high school, and we've already picked the primary school (it's the bigger one, so that we can separate A&S if we decide that's the right thing for them), and are looking at the high school pupils in disbelief that our children will ever be old enough to wear that uniform.

But, you know what? I remain, a little, frightened of this decision.  We went to look at the primary school a couple of months ago and I was terrified.  I think, somewhere in my privately-educated subconscious, I genuinely thought it was going to be a hideous, dirty, disorganised place, probably with metal detectors on the doors, and 8-year-olds shooting up in the playground.  And (funnily enough) it's not.  Admittedly the buildings aren't the most beautiful, but the staff were clearly committed, kind and interesting, and the work displayed was of excellent quality. Most importantly the children were pleasant and polite and clearly enjoyed their time there.

And I don't think that's unrepresentative.  I suspect that the vast majority of UK primary schools, particularly those outside the bigger cities, are like that.  I suspect that most children are getting a decent education and are making good friends, rather than taking weapons to school, or drinking in their lunchbreak, or swearing at the staff.

Yet that's not the image we get is it?  There was (and this is what has provoked this post) a long article (part of a series) in yesterday's Sunday Times (I can't link to it, because you'd have to pay), telling the fictionalised story of a school in which the teachers are terrified to use discipline, the children attack each other with iron bars, and the head tells his staff not to stand in front of the class and actually teach the pupils (sorry, "students").

Katharine Birbalsingh, the author, was formerly the deputy head of a South London comprehensive, so must have a wealth of experience, and I don't for a second suggest that she's made any of it up in her quest to ensure that no-one is identifiable.  I'm sure it is true, but it's true, or at least I hope against hope that's it's true, only in a tiny, tiny minority of cases.   And what gets me is that it perpetuates a myth.  The myth that your children will be doomed if you educate them in the state system. The myth that echoes unspoken round the privately-educated minority: that state school equals failure. Failure for the children, and failure by the parents who have not given their children, for whatever reason, the best start in life.

And I think that this has a knock on effect.  I'm sure that if everyone was state educated, and we didn't have a two-tier system, then the system would be better for everyone.  For a start, a significant minority of talented teachers wouldn't be being creamed out, and the parents, who must in the main care deeply about their children's education (else why fork out all that money?) would be putting their time and committment and interest into schools that benefit everyone, not just the children of other, similar, parents.

But that's not going to happen, is it? Or at least it's not going to happen while the myth prevails.  People who can afford to will opt out, because they'll remain (as a small part of me still is) scared not to. Now, I realise that I am, once again, talking about the media, and I realise that "I had a perfectly lovely time at my state school and came out with fine results and no drug habit and am now reading an interesting degree at a good university" is hardly going to sell newspapers, but wouldn't it be lovely to see it?  Just once?

Or am I wrong?  Are my children doomed?  And is the lottery my only hope?

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Gallery - One ordinary day of astonishing brilliance and banality

I've found this week's Gallery amazingly emotional. 

Tuesday 8th February 2011.  Scottish Borders.


I know, I know. I'm going.  Out of bed.  B was up and out over an hour ago.  But just ten more minutes, please....? Oh, alright then.

Oh sod it. I'm sure I look fine.

Sunrise over the bypass.   Going to be a lovely day.

First nappy of the day

Wake up L!  She's overslept. Actually, we've all overslept. Now I've got to get them all fed and out in just over half an hour. How bad a parent would I be if I sent them to nursery with no breakfast?

However bad it is, I'm not that bad.  No time for toast though

Everyone out! In the car! Quick, quick, quick!

Back.  Builders have been here since eight.  Pop round to see how they're doing with our new kitchen.

Back inside. Dishwasher loaded. Breakfast table cleared.  What next?  Laundry.

Five minutes for me. Tunnock's teacake and a cup of tea. Who says Scotland doesn't have haute cuisine?  Very proud of my mug too. Lidl's finest.  £2.99 each. Or £5 for two. We decided two was extravagant. Regretting it now though.

Tuesdays are a working day (hence the nursery).  This is my orderly desk.  Aka kitchen table. And yes, I did raid the children's chocolate ten minutes after eating that teacake.  Apparently it's very good for the baby. Or something.

Work half done.  As usual.  Leave it til later.  Meeting with builder and architect about pipes and ducts (eh?  Did they really think I'd have anything to contribute?) fully done. Girls collected, five minutes late as usual.  Right you lot, out. Go and play quietly while Mummy has some lunch. And if I hear any whinging or arguing it's straight to bed. Go!

Lunchtime. I know it looks disgusting but it was left over and in the fridge and not cheese on toast for a change (Nigel Slater Chicken and Bean Casserole if you're interested).  Actually it was delicious. 

Sneak in ten more minutes work before the fighting starts.  Little ones off to bed. Protesting.

Remember the laundry.  And the dishwasher.
Convince L, briefly, that she wants to play a "game".  Finish playing the "game" by myself.

Play L's game.  She is a bird.  I am, apparently, a caterpillar.  I am required to wear the green spiral thing. Not a good look with a bump.

Accede to a request for "big painting".  Wonder where "big painting" is going to be possible when we have floors we actually like.

Big painting lasts about ten minutes.  Clearing up takes rather longer.  "Ticking" now the activity of choice.

Universal whinging indicates imminent starvation.  I attempt to resist the lure of CBeebies and cook with girls hanging off three of my limbs.  Fail. Give in.  This is happening more and more often.  Feel guilty.

Builders gone. Sneak out to inspect their handiwork leaving children eating, unsupervised. Bad parent. Builders still have a way to go but am unfeasibly excited by a big hole.

Three empty plates equals one happy mummy.

Tidy up time. Allegedly.

B home.  Bathtime.  So much easier with two.

Dry, dressed, into bed

B is reading L's story.  I have A&S.  L chooses The House at Pooh Corner.  I have definitely drawn the short straw.

All quiet from upstairs. Supper cooked and eaten. B out rehearsing.  Time to do that work I didn't get done earlier.

Decide I am feeling post-modern instead.

B off to Rome at 3 am tomorrow morning (via Amsterdam as apparently you can't fly direct to Rome from either Newcastle or Edinburgh.  Oddly).  Packing time.  This is everything he needs (minus the sponge bage of course) for three days.

All quiet.  So far.

Dull, wasn't it? Very like the day before, in fact. And, if my sister weren't coming to stay, very like today would be.  Very like most of my days, and, I suspect most of the days of many other women (and a good few men) nation-, if not world-, wide.

So why did I find it emotional?  The problem is, taking the pictures made me think about what I was doing, rather than simply getting through, getting by, getting on.  And I realised how mundane my life is. How full of little, unimportant, repetitive tasks.  How full of "must do this" and "no, not now" and "in a minute". And how, when I do have half an hour to spare, how little time I actually spend interracting with my children, sitting down and playing with them, doing what they want to do when they want to do it.  They asked to do painting, but I can't honestly say I'd have agreed if I hadn't known it would be a good photo.

It makes me want to weep.  I'm not sure how I got here.   I'm not sure I'm being the mother I want to be. I'm not sure, sometimes, that I'm living the life I want to live, even if I'm also not sure that being in London, being a lawyer, being stuck on the tube, or in a meeting, would feel any less dull, less mundane, less banal.

But when I stopped feeling self-pitying, I also realised how happy some of this quotidian life makes me. How amazing my children are.  How lucky I am to live in this beautiful place, in this beautiful house (or it will be).  How incredible it is that I have the choice to work when I want to, and am not tied to the nine to five, Monday to Friday.

So although it was dull, and it was pedestrian, it was, and is, also my 24 hours. My day. My life.

*Actually, that's artistic licence.  It was actually about half past ten, but midnight (or indeed one minute to midnight) isn't a time of day I voluntarily see very often anymore. I can't imagine it looked much different to this though.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Where's Sheila Parry?

I watched, last night, with fascination, the last episode of Bruce Parry's brilliant series Arctic.

If you're not familiar with the fabulous Bruce, he's an ex-Marine who now presents tv programmes in which he lives, for a week, a month or longer, with another culture, putting himself as closely as he can into their shoes, living in their houses (or huts, or tents), working with them, sleeping with them, eating their food, wearing, in some cases, their clothes.   He's also absolute nails.

I think he's amazing. I am in awe of how he manages, despite the barriers of language and culture, to become close to these people, whether they are Ethiopian cow-jumpers, dressed only in ropes across their chests, or Norwegian reindeer herders, equipped with helicopters, skidoos and fluent English. I suspect it's very well edited, but I don't think you could fake the fact that these people really like him, and you certainly couldn't fake the enthusiasm with which he eats freshly-killed seal eyeball, or attempts to lassoo a reindeer, or turns his youknowwhat inside out (no, really).

But what does bother me about Bruce Parry, and I realise that this is almost certainly not his fault, is the fact that he doesn't, and perhaps can't, ask the questions that I want to ask.  The questions I'd ask the women:

What is is like raising children in this environment? 
Do you have any autonomy?
Will you be educated?
Can you choose who you marry?
Can you work independently of your husband and family?
What do you do without nappies? Or, for that matter, tampons?
How is/was childbirth?
How do you feed your family?
Is it really true that you can manage not to bond with your newborn in the knowledge that he or she is unlikely to survive until he is five?
What do you really think about genital mutilation?
What do you hope for your children?

Do you have a voice?

Because Bruce doesn't give them one, and, as I say, I suspect that that is because he himself is a man, and that in many of these cultures he simply can't have those conversations.  I also realise that, in Arctic at least, he was concentrating on the, perhaps "bigger" issue of climate change and how this is already affecting the communities in which he stayed, so the "smaller", more immediately personal questions I wanted to ask perhaps were asked, but ended up on the cutting room floor.  Or perhaps just weren't so relevant in communities which are already much more industrial and like our own.

So I find myself watching, fascinated by the glimpse of another culture afforded to me, but also frustrated. Frustrated that I can't find out what it would be like to be the Darkhad, or Kombai, or Daasanach equivalent of myself or my daughters, born female, but into another culture so vastly different from our own.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Gallery - Shapes of Tunisia

It's been a while since I took part in the Gallery, what with one thing and another, and I've come back on a particularly tricky week.

Not only does Tara want  the wonderfully vague and innocent-sounding Shapes, but she also wants us to go out and actually take pictures of them rather than scrolling through our archives of pictures.

Well, sorry Tara, I'll give you shapes, but I didn't take the pictures this week. The most exotic place I've been this week is the bathroom showroom and I forgot my camera anyway, so these are a few months old, but the thoughts are recent, so I hope that counts.


Because we had a holiday in Tunisia last October, and one of the things I loved most about it (because I wasn't that enthusiastic about the resort) was Tunisia itself: how friendly the people were, how happy they all seemed, and how safe a country it felt.   One day B and I put the children into childcare for the morning and went off to Carthage with a guide. Just us and her.  We talked a lot about modern Tunisia, and why it works and what the political system is, and why hasn't Islamic radicalism taken over, and what is the position of women, and how does the electoral system operate and what's the major source of income and and and, and I came away thinking "Tunisia works"....

Only, apparently it doesn't. Or didn't.  And apparently everyone knew that actually former President Ben Ali was horrid, that opposition was suppressed, that elections were rigged.

Well, I didn't.  And I didn't until two weeks ago.  And I didn't know that the same was true about Egypt either, where we'd also considered going on holiday.

And I consider myself, if not as well informed as I was when I had time to read a newspaper every day, and could actually listen to what John Humphries was saying rather than interrupting him with, "Will you just eat your rice krispies and no, you can't have any more apple juice", at least relatively politically aware, and, perhaps more importantly, politically responsible. 

So why didn't I know? Why weren't we, as a nation, being encouraged to boycott a country that imprisoned journalists and other dissidents and falsified purportededly democratic polls?  Why are we being told not to visit, say, Burma, because in so doing we are supporting the junta there, but not given the same advice for Tunisia, or Egypt, or probably, presumably, others?

I get it, of course I do.  It's not in our interests to interfere in a country which, however unattractive the government, is stable and which, perhaps more importantly in Egypt's case, has influence in areas in which we want to have a say.  The British (and US) governments needed Tunisia and Egypt, and so they turned a blind eye, and that meant that the media also turned a blind eye, and people like me, who perhaps didn't do the full research they should have, didn't know.

But nonetheless I feel really stupid.  I feel like I should have known. I feel as though I've been misled, and I feel cross that I allowed myself to be.  That I took what I was told at face value.

Now, I accept that had we gone to Portugal (not a dictatorship, as far as I know) instead, it wouldn't have made the blindest bit of difference either to the ruling groups in Tunisia, or to the (I now discover) oppressed majority, but I wish I had known. I wish I had been able to make my own choices and decisions in full possession of the facts.

None of this really matters now, Tunisia and Egypt will change, for better or worse, and what I did or didn't do is hardly going to influence that, but for myself it has made me suspicious, and much more sceptical about what I am told.  Where Wikileaks failed, Tunisia has succeeded.  And that may not necessarily be a bad thing.