Measuring what matters

One at a time, they came forward and stood on the big white X on the floor. The big white X which meant ‘THIS IS WHERE YOU STAND’. You could see the concentration on their little faces. They looked out to the audience of parents and carefully delivered the lines they had been practising over the last few weeks. They recited poems and held up their art work. They talked about their favourite moments from this year. They stood proudly and spoke clearly. And then…..well, then they got into position for their Africa-inspired dance. They leapt and twirled and weaved around each other whilst waving brightly coloured bits of fabric. They danced their little hearts out and made mums and dads cry.

At the back of the hall, with parents seated either side of her, their teacher danced with them – full of enthusiasm, she leapt, twirled and waved a ribbon; encouraging her little charges along.

This was Year 2’s Leavers’ Assembly, which marked the end of these children’s three years at infant school. And what a long way they have come.

After this wonderful display, parents went into the dining hall where tables were laid with tablecloths and little vases of flowers. Teas, coffees and biscuits were served. ‘Oooh, we didn’t expect this‘, muttered appreciative mums and dads. This all felt like……..well, like a proper occasion. So we drank tea and ate biscuits as our little ones chatted away excitedly; and there was a real feeling of warmth and loveliness in the air. Many of us parents didn’t know each other three years ago, but a solid community and support network has built up around this school and these children. And now this group of parents mingled happily as they drank their tea, delighting not just in the achievements of their own child, but in the achievements of all of these children who have come so far since their first days in Reception.

As I left the school that morning, I couldn’t help thinking that it’s a shame that the people who measure our schools and put together charts and graphs and league tables don’t see more things like this.

It’s a shame they can’t measure the pride these parents feel, the community that has been built, and the good feeling in the air over those teas and coffees.

It’s a shame they didn’t see that teacher, doing everything she could to encourage her class from the back of the hall. Joining in with their dance, leaping and twirling as she waved a ribbon around.

It’s a shame they don’t know about the child who was so shy during Reception that assemblies for parents used to make him freeze. He would never have looked up, looked out, delivered lines, or twirled around with a pink scarf the way he did in that leavers’ assembly.

It’s a shame they can’t see the confidence these children have developed – confidence when dealing with each other, with their teachers, and with other adults. Confidence to try new things, to step out of their comfort zones.

It’s a shame they can’t see how these youngsters have learnt to organise their play, resolve differences, take turns, and bounce back when things don’t go their way.

It’s a shame they don’t know about the little one who, a year ago, desperately wanted to join in with the football at lunchtime but didn’t think he was good enough. Look at him now as he runs off to join in, a huge grin on his face.

It’s a shame they can’t see how these children have gained in independence, maturity and resilience. How some of them used to struggle when they didn’t get the results they wanted, but have begun to learn how to deal with disappointment.

It’s a shame that, while we’re trying to decide how good schools are and whether we are ticking all the right boxes, so much about who our children actually are gets lost.

It’s a shame that so many of the important things don’t seem to get recognised these days. People, community, values. The determination, thoughtfulness, resilience and confidence that our children will take with them as they move onto the next stage.  Because ultimately, it is these things that will be the difference in the world. Not how quickly they can learn their times tables, or their understanding of a split diagraph.

That’s what I think, anyway.

Balancing boys

On being a bit of a teary, emotional mess at the end of a school year

We’re nearly there now, the home straight. One week to go.

You’d think I’d have got the hang of this by now…..this is my third year after all. But it’s still exactly the same, and with every end of term event it hits me just a little bit more.

It’s a slightly-teary-but-I-can’t-quite-express-why feeling.

It’s feeling the need to look through baby photos and toddler photos and….well, just all old photos; and tiny shoes and tiny clothes and then wondering how we got to this point. It’s knowing that I’m officially letting go of something that I’ll never get back.

It’s the end of a school year feeling.

Over the last few weeks the letters have kept on coming – discos, end of term assemblies, transition day, class photos, end of year reports. 101 events to remind us that our children are moving on, moving up, leaving this stage behind them. And then there are lists and more lists of what we need for the next school year. Forms to complete and sign and return. Us parents are full of good intentions – we will be organised and get onto this immediately (of course we will…..). In my end of term daze, I am trying my best not to be a walking ball of tears as I come to terms with the thought of the end of a milestone school year for us. No more Reception (this alone is enough to make me weep – I LOVE Reception) and one boy moving onto Juniors (which means a TIE…..if I think about it for too long, this will also make me weep).

It is hard to sum up just how much one school year means in a small person’s life (and in mine too). How far we have come since last September. How many excited stories and over-tired tears. How many milestones, achievements and proud moments. For the little ones down in Reception, getting used to the school day – registers, bells, menu choices, lunches, assemblies. Grazed knees and accident forms (we get a lot of these). New friends and new routines.  Grappling with holding a pen properly. The painful process of learning to read. Biff, Chip and Kipper. Bob Bug. Sounding out C-A-T and putting this together to make ‘GOAT’. And then that magnificent moment when something clicks and suddenly words (or some words at least) become recognisable as actual words and not as impossible puzzles to be solved.

For the bigger ones, overcoming fears, developing new skills, trying things which are way out of their comfort zone. Growing in confidence and maturity. Ready to take on new challenges.

And our teachers and TAs have been there with us through it all. Through the worries, the fears, the tears, and the proudest of proud moments. And I look at the thank you cards sitting in front of me and wonder what words could possibly express our gratitude, or how much this year has meant to us.

I’m not sure that the emotion that comes with the end of a school year will ever go away. It will change, but I suspect it always be there. There are other huge milestones in our children’s lives; but unlike other milestones, this is one that everyone is going through at exactly the same time. Every child, every parent, every teacher – getting ready to say goodbye and then go through it all again in September.

So please ignore me over here in the corner. Blubbing away as I say my thank yous whilst small boys tug on my arm desperate for snacks and more than ready to start their summer holidays.

I’m pretty sure I will be exactly the same again next year.

boys looking out

 

On going properly OUT, when going out just isn’t really what you do anymore

You gain many things when you become a mum, but you lose some things too. For many of us, one of these things is confidence.

Confidence to do all sorts of things……like lunchtime networking at a work conference (AGGGGHHHHHH….. I hate it).

Like meeting new people, and trying to find an interesting version of yourself that has actual things to talk about. Things which aren’t related to children.

Like going out. I don’t mean going out to the pub or going out to eat….. I can do both of these things pretty well. But going out somewhere that is full of people and music and dancing. You know…..going OUT.

Out out.

Properly out.

I used to do it a lot, because that’s what you do in your teens and twenties; but these days…..well no, I don’t. Because I like sitting down, and wearing comfortable clothes, and being able to hear what people are saying to me. So until last Saturday night, I probably hadn’t been out out for about 5 years.

5 whole years.

But on Saturday I did it. With a group of lovely ladies….most of whom I had never met before. The thought of it made me oh-so-nervous, but I did it.

Should you find yourself in a similar situation, here are a few tips to help you along:

What to wear:

If, like me, your clothes fall broadly into the following categories: 1) mum clothes 2) work clothes 3) wedding outfits; then you might feel you need to buy something new to wear. You probably don’t have time to go to the actual shops, but don’t worry…..the supermarket is a perfectly acceptable place to locate your new outfit. It is altogether less daunting than Top Shop, and you can pick up some tinned tomatoes and a loaf of bread at the same time.

If you’re wondering about suitable footwear, let me recommend wedges. I love a heel, but these days the combination of wearing heels plus staying up way past my bedtime is not a good one. I found wedges to be an excellent compromise – more likely than heels to get you through a whole night without crippling your feet, but you feel less like you’re on the school run than you might do wearing flats.

Other people:

As you look around, you may feel surprised at the number of very young people that appear to be out very late at night. Seriously, they look like children. And then you remember that many of these youngsters could quite feasibly be 20 years younger than you. This is alarming……try not to show it.

If you want to seek out people who are at a similar life-stage to you, look for the cross-body bag. Nothing says proper-grown-up-on-a-night-out like a cross-body bag.

Music:

You probably won’t recognise a large number of the songs, and you may feel mildly shocked at some of the language that is blasting out of the speakers. Do your best not to show your shock, and remember that your children aren’t present so you don’t need to cover anyone’s ears.

A wave of relief will sweep over you when you hear songs from 15 or 20 years ago. In your mind these songs are, and will always be, current.

Keeping going when it is VERY LATE:

Let’s face it, at the time you are venturing out (in our case, 11pm on Saturday night…..11PM!) you would probably usually be tucked up in bed. Keeping going when you have felt tired since the day you became a mum can be a challenge, and at regular intervals you will wonder whether you can keep your eyes open any longer…… 12.30am, 1am, 2am, and definitely by 3am.

When you are hit by the I’m-not-sure-I-can-stand-up-any-longer feeling, just think about all the things you have done and possibly still do that have been so much more challenging than this. Think of the night feeds and the nappy changes. Think of rocking a crying baby and wondering whether you’ll ever be able to sleep again. Think of changing wet sheets in the middle of the night; or of lying on the floor next to your baby hoping that you might, within the next hour, be able to creep back to your own bed again. Think about all the caring and cuddling and feeding and cleaning and changing that you have done at 12.30am, at 1am, at 2am and at 3am.

Think of all the 5am starts.

Think of all of that, and then you’ll realise that this – standing up in your wedges wearing your new Sainsbury’s dress – perhaps isn’t so difficult after all.

wedges

Thank you Tesco sensitive sole wedges.

 

 

Why are we teaching 6 year olds nonsense about exclamation marks?

How are you enjoying your topic at the moment, sweetheart?‘ I asked my increasingly reluctant-to-talk-about-school 6 year old a few weeks ago. Their current topic is Africa, and Africa is right up his street.

Hmmmm‘, he said. ‘I’m not sure we are actually doing Africa any more. We seem to be doing animals instead.

Even so‘, I replied; ‘whether it’s Africa or animals, it sounds like something you’d enjoy?

I think our topic is actually exclamation marks’, he said. ‘Exclamation marks, and a couple of things about animals…..But mainly exclamation marks.

Oh, what have you been learning about exclamation marks?‘ I asked.

I know that sentences with an exclamation mark must start with ‘how’ or ‘what’ and end with a verb. Like “What a cold day it is!” ‘

I felt confused – where had this come from? Is it really seen as a priority for 6 and 7 year olds? Why are these restrictive and probably very daunting rules being foisted upon young children? And what purpose can this one possibly serve?

I decided that my boy had probably exaggerated a bit – perhaps they had had a little focus on exclamation marks but to him it had felt like more than that. However, a chat with his teacher revealed that yes, they have indeed had a drive on exclamation marks recently…..or, as I now know from having done a bit of research, a drive on exclamation sentences. If you are wondering what the difference is between a simple exclamation mark and an exclamation sentence……. well, an exclamation mark can be still used as punctuation in a statement such as ‘How amazing!‘, or ‘Help!‘; whereas an exclamation sentence should adhere to the rules outlined above by my son.  ‘What a beautiful day!’ does not count as an exclamation sentence; whereas ‘What a beautiful day it is!’ does. And of course this is the sort of language we use with each other and our children all the time, isn’t it?! ‘How beautiful you look!‘ / ‘What a wonderful jacket you’re wearing!‘  – you know the sort of thing.

The Department for Education‘s guidelines on the matter tells us this:

The definition of an exclamation should not be confused with the uses of the exclamation mark for punctuation. The exclamation mark can be used in a variety of sentence forms and not just in exclamations.

And yes, if they are to be judged as writing at the ‘expected standard’ then our Year 2 pupils (who are aged 6 and 7) should be able to recognise and write examples of exclamation sentences.

Really?

Really??

And if the answer is yes, then my next question is, why?

Is this going to make them better writers? Better thinkers? Better people? Because I’m not sure that filling young children’s head with this prescriptive nonsense will do any such thing. And if you’re not going to achieve any of those things then why do it? Just so that we can say ‘yippee, look at our 6 and 7 year olds who are now able to pass tests that are much harder than they were before‘ – is that why? Just in the name of ‘raising standards’?

If we really want to encourage our little writers, surely one of the first steps is to get them reading. Get them to the library…..you know, those brilliant places full of books that have had to reduce their opening hours because they have no funding? Get them reading and get them telling stories. Get them creating, writing stories and acting out stories. Encourage them to write and to use language without being restricted by frightening rules which make no sense to them. Let them know that writing is about endless possibilities, not about rules and restrictions.

If anything could sum up the utter ridiculousness of what is happening in our schools in the name of ‘raising standards’, then surely it is this focus on exclamation marks.

What absolute complete and utter nonsense it is!

(and yes, this is an exclamation sentence)

boy-writing

N.B  I am not a teacher. This is how I have understood things from a) my son b) teachers and c) things I have read. If I have got anything wrong then please feel free to correct me 🙂

A Spoonful of Sugar

Are the Sherman Brothers real, mummy?’ / ‘Do they live on our planet, mummy?’ / ‘Do they live on our road?‘ (….because if they lived on our planet, why wouldn’t they live on our road, after all?)

I know quite a lot about the Sherman brothers these days. If you’re wondering who they are and why the obsession with them……well they wrote the soundtrack to Mary Poppins. Yes they did; along with countless other films. And we are very much in a Mary Poppins phase. If, like us, you are lucky enough to own the Mary Poppins soundtrack and if, like us, you listen to it on repeat in the car, then you will know that at the end of the CD there is an interview with the Sherman brothers – yes, we love listening to this too. If you want to know how the song A Spoonful of Sugar came about, just ask us.

Our Mary Poppins obsession has been going on since the beginning of this year and shows no sign of waning. You might think I’d be over it by now but the thing is, well I actually quite like it. It can continue for a while longer as far as I’m concerned. I mean firstly, the songs – they are just so good, aren’t they? Who wouldn’t want to hear a little boy singing Sister Suffragettes with gusto as he goes about his day? Equally joyous is seeing your children attempting to recreate the whole Step in Time dance routine. And I challenge you to try singing along to Let’s Go Fly a Kite without raising a smile….I’m not sure it is possible – it must be one of the most uplifting songs ever written.

It has never been particularly easy to get my three boys to sit down and watch a film together, but Mary Poppins is one of the few films that manages to keep them all gripped. It might be old, and it might not be as flashy as today’s children’s offerings; but I think this might actually be a big part of the reason why we like it so much. I know it makes me sound about 83 but…..well they just don’t make films like Mary Poppins anymore. So many children’s films now seem to be so complicated. I am the first to admit that following a complex plot is not one of my strengths, but if I can’t follow what’s happening in a film then what hope do my four year olds have? Often there are too many characters, everything is moving too fast, the whole thing is too loud, I struggle to understand what anyone is saying; and plots are long and convoluted.

Yes I know, I really do sound about 83. But there is something very comforting and reassuring about Mary Poppins. Yes, there are parts of the plot which might go over the heads of very small children – Mrs Banks the suffragette, for example. But the gist of what’s happening – a flying nanny with a bottomless bag who takes two children on magical adventures in London, and a father who, in the end, fixes a broken kite – well, we can all understand that.

Yes, I know it’s all very saccharine and Julie Andrews actually sings about spoonfuls of sugar, but isn’t the message of that song actually quite a good one for children? Not taken literally, obviously. But isn’t it saying that if we try to make everyday jobs fun then they will be easier to carry out? And isn’t that what we all try and encourage our children to do if we want to encourage them to get on with something? When their little legs get tired on a long walk, or when they don’t want to tidy their room, or when they’re bored sitting in a traffic jam? Try singing a song as you walk……Or making a race out of tidying up to see who can be quickest……Or playing I Spy to help pass the time.

So in these uncertain times when the country frequently feels like it’s falling apart, I’ll happily take a spoonful of sugar. In these days of special effects and flashy superheroes, I’ll take dozens of chimney sweeps stepping in time. I’ll even take Bert’s ridiculous accent. Films these days may be ritzier and louder and flashier. They might have more impressive special effects. But when you’re 4 and 6, nothing can beat those magical opening and closing drawers in Mary Poppins.

Sometimes, less is more. There’s a lot to be said for a plot you can understand. For catchy songs. For dancing on roof-tops. And for Mary Poppins soaring over London with her magical umbrella.

We love you, Mary. You can stay a while longer.

Mary Poppins

Happiness on a background of sad

It’s the end of half term. And it’s another day of awful news.

I have loved this half term; but the backdrop has been heartbreaking.

We’ve played under (mainly) blue skies and eaten too many ice-creams. We’ve walked miles, had running races, and scrambled up trees. We’ve ridden on trains and buses, and almost reached the riding-bikes-without-stabilisers milestone (or two out of three have, at any rate). We’ve had mini-adventures and some big adventures too. Of course there have been all the usual challenges, and plenty of them…… getting out of the house is still probably up there as the biggest challenge of them all. But overall, I have loved this half term.

It’s a strange feeling, though, creating happy memories against a backdrop of tragic news. It’s a strange thing watching your children joyfully race each other down a hill when your mind can’t stop going over recent events……. Manchester. Kabul. London. Sharing laughs and giving cuddles when you are struggling to comprehend what and why and how. When hearing that a van has driven into pedestrians triggers ‘attack‘ rather than ‘accident‘ in your mind – these are the times we are living in. And yet you, my beautifully innocent little boys, you know nothing about these troubled times. You have no idea what could make anyone angry enough to hurt so many other people. And so we carry on as normal – singing songs, laughing at jokes, eating Cheerios, watching Paw Patrol, squabbling over toy trains.

And yes, I know that for some people, for some families, this is their everyday. Trying to maintain normal for their children against a backdrop of horror…..often outside their own front door. Trying to explain to tiny children that the time has come for them to leave their home and all their belongings behind because it just isn’t safe to stay where they are any longer. Trying to keep some sort of routine, some semblance of normality for the sake of little people who have already seen and heard too much. I don’t know how they do it, these people.

In between all the bad news stories, political parties are canvassing for our votes. Telling us they’ll bring us together again, make sense of it all; put money here and save money there. They’ll make us safer. And as they canvas for votes, we wonder what sort of world you little ones are going to inherit. We read stories about underfunded schools and underpaid nurses. We wonder why the very things we value, the things which hold our society together, don’t appear to be worth investing in.  We want the world to be safe for you, and we are desperately sorry that right now, it doesn’t feel like it is.

And yet still, we laugh as you race down hills and whizz down slides – because that is all we can do. We can’t control everything that is happening out there; but, in these uncertain times, we can do our best to give you a haven, and to give you happy half term memories to hold on to. I hope that’s what we’ve done this week….I’m just so sorry it’s been against a backdrop of sad.

boys on bikes

Mrs May, can we talk about school lunches?

My eldest boy started school in September 2014 – just when the free school lunches for infants started.

He will end his time at infant school this summer, just as the free lunches look set to end. He is the free-school-lunches boy.

You should come and meet my biggest boy sometime, Mrs May. Come and see him as he pores over the menu for the term, committing each option carefully to memory. Come round on a Monday as he gleefully exclaims ‘mmmmm, traditional chicken pie with mixed vegetables today – yum’. Come over one weekend and listen as he begs me to make ‘Scotty meatloaf’, just like the one they have at school. Hear him talk about the superiority of school’s cabbage over mine. Come over at 3pm one day, Mrs May, and watch my three little boys running out of school desperate to be the first one to tell me what they had for their lunch – ‘sticky chicken with rice AND pasta AND carrots AND cucumber AND sweetcorn and BANANA MOUSSE for pudding! WITH SPRINKLES!’ Come over at breakfast time and listen to the 6 year old advising his brothers on the best lunch choice of the day – ‘don’t go for the jacket potato today, ok…..not when you can have roast beef!’

You should come and visit our little school sometime too, Mrs May – come and meet our lovely school cook. Come and watch her at the beginning of the day, setting up in the kitchen and waving to the children as they arrive. Come and ask her how she feels about serving the children a good lunch every day. Let her tell you about the children – she knows them all by name. She’ll tell you about this little one who loves Wednesday roast, and that little one who polishes off every last bite and then asks for seconds. Come along to school and ask her about the recent jacket potato competition, which asked the children to come up with ideas for their perfect jacket potato filling – the winning entries were served for lunch later that week. Speak to the teachers……ask them how excited the children were as they brought their entry forms into school on the Monday. Ask the cook what ideas the children came up with and which entries were the winners. Such a good idea, don’t you think Mrs May? An idea that got the children to be creative and to think about food. An idea which included every child, without anyone having to remember to bring in their lunch money, or worrying that their parents wouldn’t want to pay for a school lunch that day.  It was so successful that they’d like to involve the children more regularly in menu planning. I know, isn’t that great?

Come and meet my boys, Mrs May…..meet my boys, their friends, their teachers and the school cook. Come and meet them, and then tell me you’re taking away free infant school lunches.

I’m not pretending that my boys wouldn’t have school lunches now if they weren’t free – they would. Paying for them would make a big dent in my salary, but I would still do it. I would pay because I like the variety that is served at school. Because I think a hot lunch is better for them than the uninspiring sandwiches I would probably make. And because I like that they sit down as a school community and eat a proper meal. So you might be wondering what my problem is, Mrs May, when I would be willing to pay and when I know that those below a certain income threshold would still be entitled to a free hot lunch. My problem is this – that we have the chance to do this one small thing which can help give children, all children, regardless of income or whether or not their parents want to pay for school lunches, a positive start to their school lives. It is not dependent on whether they fall into the right income bracket, or whether their parents want to pay for it, there is no ‘free school meals’ stigma; it is just what they are all entitled to. A proper lunch in the middle of the day.  All of them, at this crucial age, can get excited about roast dinner Wednesday, or pizza on Friday, or banana mousse or biscuits with sprinkles or sticky chicken or Scotty meatloaf….whatever that may be. (I must admit, I’m not too sure.)

And you’re talking about taking that away.

Please, Mrs May, please don’t tell me that providing breakfast will have the same positive results as the free lunches. Because the good thing about lunch, Mrs May, is that the children are already in school; and so are the staff. And don’t tell me that this is the only way that money can be put back into dwindling school budgets either. Because if your only way of funding schools properly is by taking school lunches away from 4-7 year olds then there is something seriously wrong.

One country I always enjoy reading about, Mrs May, is Finland – you know, that country with the really successful education system. In fact, as well as making some time to meet my boys and the school cook, I wondered whether you might find the time to pay a little visit to Finland? Because they just seem to have schooling and education and yes, even the lunches right. You see, Mrs May, in Finland every child of compulsory school age is entitled to a free school lunch. Every child. The Finnish National Board of Education says:

Finnish school legislation guarantees a well-balanced meal for each pupil every school day. The objective is to maintain and improve pupils’ health and well-being and to give them energy for their school work. (http://www.oph.fi/download/47657_school_meals_in_finland.pdf)

The rationale behind this is probably very simple – children learn better when they’ve had a proper lunch. And ultimately, surely it pays off to invest in education and in our young people? Doesn’t it?

So come and see us sometime, Mrs May. And then perhaps go and have a look at how they do things in Finland. And maybe after that, we can talk again about school lunches.

Primary school kids at a table in school cafeteria, close up