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

You can go now, mummy

You can you go now mummy”, one of you said, engrossed in your Lego construction.

I thought I had mis-heard, or misunderstood…..I must have done. This wasn’t the way we did things. I am always there until the bell goes and the bell wasn’t going for at least another 5 minutes. At least. I didn’t need to go; you don’t usually want me to go. What about sitting you down on the carpet like I normally do? What about the kisses and cuddles and then waving at the window?

“What do you mean?” I asked.

You can go,” they said…..almost as if they’d agreed this between themselves beforehand. Apparently Boy A’s mummy leaves before the bell, and so does Boy B’s daddy, and….. well, that meant that I was supposed to go too.

For a moment I felt a bit lost…. I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I was convinced that you would soon change your minds, so I aimlessly wandered around the classroom before realising that I looked like a bit of a spare part.

You barely even registered my bizarre behaviour.

I left the classroom feeling like I had left something behind. I peeked through the window but everything was as it should be – you didn’t even look up from your Lego.

Where did this come from, boys? It had felt like a normal morning……Well, mainly normal, but maybe a little bit different too. As we walked the short walk to your school, you shouted across the road to greet your friends – hi to this one, hi to that one. It doesn’t sound like a big thing, but I had never seen you do that before. As I dropped big brother off at his classroom, you both ran after a friend into the playground. You didn’t stand at my side as you normally do, giving shy stares to the other parents around us.

Then you were off again with another friend, racing towards your classroom. You were in the classroom and taking your coats off before I even got there.

There is a special drop-off arrangement for Reception children at your school – us parents can, if we wish, be in the classroom for the first 10 minutes of the day to help you get settled and organised. And so this is what we always did…..up until today, that is.

I always stayed up until the bell rang. I was always there to see where you sit on the carpet and who you sit next to (even though you sit in the same place and next to the same children every day). At least one of you would usually be hanging off my arms or legs; and often there would be a squabble over who got to show me their carpet place first. Once we were ready to say goodbye, I was required to give you several cuddles, kisses, a high-5; and finally wave and blow you kisses through the window.

You were never upset at being left, but this was your routine…..this was what you were used to and what you were happy with. We had done it this way since September. There was no sign, even yesterday, of you being ready for this to change. There was no sign that I was about to hear “you can go now, mummy”.

Is this it now, boys; or was this morning a one-off? Is this the start of your independence? No more hanging off my legs or begging for another cuddle. Are these the words I will hear every school drop off from now on?

“You can go now, mummy.”

I know it is a good thing. I know it is what we all want for our children and what we all need to happen at some point. And I feel proud of this huge step you have taken. Proud of the smiles you both gave me as you reassured me this was what you wanted. Proud of the simple, uncomplicated way you had decided that you wanted to try a new, more grown-up way of doing things.

But at the same time I feel slightly deflated and like I just don’t know what to do with myself for those extra 5 minutes you have just granted me.

And really….. a little bit desperate to feel you both tugging on my limbs just once more.

Adjusting collars

 

On our obsession with putting children into boxes

When you become a parent, you soon realise that people are very keen to put your child into boxes. Or onto a chart. And if your child doesn’t tick the right box, or fit onto the chart exactly where s/he ‘should’, the implication is that you should be concerned.

It starts with the centile lines in the red book; and then it continues with the health visitor development checks. Can your child jump? If not, why not? How many words can s/he put together? How many things can we find to make you worried about? Yes it’s all very well that all your 2 year old son wants to do is line up cars into traffic jams, but why can’t he thread macaroni onto a piece of string? We’ll follow that up with you in a few weeks. Oh dear, your 7 week premature 12 month old twins are using a whole hand to shove raisins into their mouths and not using their pincer grip? That could be a concern.

Unfortunately, it seems that this is all preparation for when your child gets to school. There goes your precious little one, off to start a new chapter. The little one who makes your heart burst with pride and joy and love. The little one who is flying at some things, struggling with others; but doing everything at the pace that is right for him. You could not be prouder.

And then you get to parents’ evening, and you see those all-important boxes – is your little one ‘exceeding‘, ‘meeting‘, or ‘working towards‘ expectations?

This is what it comes down to – which box does your child fit into?

If you ask parents what they want from a school, I think the answers would be pretty straightforward. Parents want their children to be valued. They want them to reach their potential and for their talents not to go unnoticed. They want a broad and balanced curriculum which gives them opportunities to discover their strengths and talents. They want them to be supported, to have friends, to feel confident and happy. They want them to leave with the skills and confidence they need to be able to contribute to the wider world.

And yet what have we got? A system which is so focused on attainment that it begins testing children at 5/6 – ages at which, in many other countries, children would only just be starting formal school. A system which believes 5 and 6 year old children are ready to move away from the age-appropriate, play-centred atmosphere of a Reception classroom and spend most of their day sitting at desks.  A system which keeps raising the bar, because apparently what children really need at 6 years old is a good, solid grasp of time-openers and subordinate clauses; and because if you just keep making things harder then the children will obviously follow ……won’t they?? A system which teaches children to pass tests rather than to love reading and writing and exploring and creating. A system which makes meeting age-related expectations so difficult that schools feel they simply can’t devote any proper time to subjects which don’t ‘count’ or they will be seen as failing their pupils in the key areas of Maths and Literacy. A system which so many teachers feel they are having to fight against, because it all just feels so wrong.

A system which makes a significant number of children feel like they’re failing.

I overheard a conversation the other day between a teacher and a non-teacher. The teacher had taught in at least three other countries, and said that teaching in this country was by far the most difficult. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could do it. None of what she said surprised me.

Teachers’ talents are in the classroom – they motivate, inspire and encourage. They also plan, mark and give feedback. We expect all of this from them – this is what teachers do. But now, we expect all of that and more. We expect them to set targets, track students, prepare for the next inspection, and explain why it is that Pupil A is still in this box instead of the higher up box. And the good teachers, the compassionate teachers, the ones with that passion and the ability to inspire; the ones who want to find out what makes their pupils tick ……..well, data isn’t really their thing. They didn’t go into this just to get children into the right box. They didn’t go into it just to teach children to pass tests. So those teachers, they’re leaving. They don’t want to leave, some of them are devastated. But they can’t do it any more. The raised bars, the expectations, the targets – they can’t do what they actually went into teaching to do. The government is doing its best to fudge over the issue by telling us that teaching remains an attractive career option and PGCE courses continue to recruit well. But it’s not easy to pretend when we all know that teaching is in the middle of a recruitment crisis. It’s all very well recruiting to PGCE courses, but that’s not good enough if teachers are realising soon after qualifying that teaching isn’t quite how it looks on the PGCE recruitment posters.

If you are interested in schools, you probably know that Finland is the shining light when it comes to education. Have a read of this if you’d like to be enlightened:

Why are Finland’s schools so successful?

The Finnish system feels like the polar opposite to ours: children start school later, play is valued; and teachers are highly trained and well respected. There are many interesting things in the article above – I particularly like the Helsinki principal who says “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.” In Finland there are no rankings and no comparisons between schools, students, or regions. Imagine – a world without school league tables.

I would put league tables up there as one of the worst things to have happened to schools in this country. ‘But parents use them’, you might argue. Yes they do, but I am convinced that we’d be better off without them. Because for many schools now, success depends on an ability to manipulate data. You hear about it all the time – students at some schools being asked to leave before exam season because they’re not being predicted high enough grades. School sixth forms turning away their own students in favour of high achieving students from other schools. Because doing well in league tables means getting more of the children that everyone wants to teach, and more of those children means you’ll continue to do well in the league tables. So the schools down at the bottom…..well they have no chance.

So yes, parents do use them – because they’re there. But our obsession with league tables has been at the expense of our children. We’re so obsessed with getting children into the boxes that we think they ‘should’ be in, that we seem to have completely forgotten that they progress and develop at completely different speeds. Or that children can have a bad few months, or a bad year. Perhaps this child had glandular fever and that child’s parents separated….. and that one over there, well her best friend went off to another school and she just isn’t feeling settled at the moment.

We lose the many young people whose skills and talents don’t fit into the box we are so desperate to get them into. Frequently, we hear very talented and often creative people say that they always hated school: their talents just weren’t noticed until they got to college. Think of all the future artists, designers, craftspeople, builders, and sportspeople in schools at the moment who are labelled as not meeting their age-related expectations because of their Year 2 SATs results. Think of all the young people who don’t fit neatly into boxes, because SO MANY PEOPLE JUST DON’T.

It seems we spend all our time telling our young people to ‘think outside the box’ when all we want them to do is fit into one.

I spend a lot of time on this blog rambling on about schools. I didn’t start my blog to write about education; but I have three small boys all at the start of their school lives and so right now, school is everything to us. My 4 year old twins currently love going to school because at the moment school is about role-play and building and discovering and creating; but I already feel concerned about how will they cope later this year when they discover that play is no longer seen as being valuable to their learning.

What is really unclear to me is what we’re actually hoping to achieve from all this – parents are anxious, children are struggling to keep up and teachers are leaving. And where is the evidence to show us that what we’re doing is of any benefit? Because it seems very clear to me that we are getting it ALL COMPLETELY WRONG. And really, Ms Greening, we need to do something about it now, before there are no teachers left to teach our children.

Or before everyone who cares moves to Finland.

boy-writing

Giving advice, taking advice

You develop many skills when you become a mum, and one of these is giving reassuring advice to mum friends who are having a bad day/week/month.

‘Don’t worry’, you say, ‘it’s completely normal.’

‘Don’t beat yourself up. It’s hard. We all have days like that.’

‘He’s tired, he knows how to push your buttons. You get the worst of it because you’re his mum. He’ll have forgotten all about it by now.’

‘Yes, there are days when I hate it too. It’s perfectly normal to want to hide away in a cupboard for a few hours where no-one can find you.’

It’s easy to have perspective when it applies to someone else. When it’s someone else’s child who just can’t hold it together after school. When it’s someone else’s child who refuses to co-operate in the mornings. When it’s someone else’s child who is a jolly, happy, functioning 4 year old until the second he sees his mummy, and then every last ounce of upset, frustration and exhaustion comes spilling out. When it’s someone else’s child who hurls his tea all over the floor in a fit of rage.

It’s easy to put all of that into perspective when it doesn’t apply to your child. It’s easy to nod and give advice and offer an arm and say, truthfully, that we’ve all been there; we all know what it’s like. That trying your very hardest to raise decent and kind human beings whilst also wanting their childhood to be full of warm and happy memories does sometimes take its toll.

The hardest thing? The very hardest thing of all is taking your own advice. Because when it applies to you, when it’s your child who can’t keep things together, when it’s you who feels like everything is spinning out of control; it is just so much easier to tell yourself that you are not doing a good enough job. That you should have done this and you shouldn’t have done that. To analyse and over-analyse and convince yourself that you could and you should have done things better. To tell yourself that you’re not up to it, that your children deserve better than you’re giving them. To think about how much better things might have turned out if only you’d made a different decision in that split second when all of your children were making competing demands of you.

It’s easy to say ‘don’t beat yourself up’ to someone else.

It’s also very easy to beat yourself up.

And so, as a mum, my resolution for 2017 has to be this: listen to your own advice. Sometimes children are horrible and cruel. Sometimes it is difficult to think straight when you feel like you always have a small person hanging off your cardi. Sometimes, you probably don’t do things in quite the way the parenting manuals suggest. That’s ok.

Make a cuppa, move on; and save your energy for the next challenge. Because you know that won’t be far away.

boys-at-bridge

Drowning in a sea of reply slips

A list, a simple list – that’s all it needs.  A simple list of what to do, of what not to forget. A don’t forget list. And then you’ll feel on top of it all, surely.

So don’t forget….. Don’t forget to return all those reply slips – slips for the pantomime, slips for the carol singing, slips for the Christmas show. And don’t forget to pay for the panto either. Don’t forget to organise the nativity costumes and to order school photos before the deadline and to write the Christmas cards.

Don’t forget to buy stamps, mum; and to check the last posting dates.

Don’t forget Christmas cards for the teachers, and don’t forget the teacher’s Christmas collection. Don’t forget Christmas jumper day; and don’t forget the £1.00 (that’s £1.00 for each of them – don’t forget that either). Don’t forget to make sure their Christmas jumpers are clean and ready.

Don’t forget to donate unwanted toys, books, chocolate and bottles for the Christmas fair. Don’t forget to offer to help if you can. Don’t forget to sell some raffle tickets, return the ticket stubs, hand in the money. Don’t forget to go to the Christmas fair. Definitely don’t forget that.

The nativity, carols in the church, carol singing on the green – don’t forget any of those, mum; and to organise those costumes for the Christmas show. Please don’t forget the costumes.

Don’t forget to pick the kids up from school mum, and don’t forget that this one needs his eyedrops and that one needs his Vaseline. He’s so sore, look, all round his mouth; so don’t forget that please mum. Don’t forget their gloves. Don’t forget that Thursday is later pick up for this one, Friday is earlier pick up for another one. Don’t forget you promised the children you could make those Christmas tree biscuits. Don’t forget to change their reading books, to return the library books, to check their book bags. Don’t forget to go to work, to scrape the ice off the car, to cook the tea, to put another wash on.  Don’t forget that the Tooth Fairy needs to visit.

Don’t forget your Christmas lunch deposit, your menu choice and to order the food shop. What’s that? The delivery slots have all gone. Well then don’t forget to do something about that too.

Don’t forget to make your list, and once you’ve made it don’t forget to check it.

I know there’s a lot on at the moment, mum; but you can do it. The main thing is to remember all the things you’re not to forget.

things-to-do-list

Your first teacher

It is Friday afternoon and I’m waiting for you on the playground, just as I always do. I can see you there at your classroom door, hat askew, coat half off. I watch as your lovely teacher, let’s call her Mrs X, straightens you up and helps you pop your violin on your back before she sends you out.

She is a good’un, I think to myself. And suddenly there you are next to me. “Mrs X is leaving at the end of term”, you say; and your eyes fill with tears. All around us your friends are sharing the same news. And I don’t know what to say because I understand every little bit of your sadness, how could I not? Mrs X has been a fixture from the very start of our time at your school, right from your first settling in day over 2 years ago now.

I remember so clearly taking you into that Reception classroom for the first time. I just couldn’t believe it was happening. You. Starting school. You were such a little one. But there was Mrs X and I had a good feeling immediately. Anyone could see she was vibrant, competent and charismatic. I knew straight away you would be fine. She clapped her hands and you all gathered around her – like magic really. And that was it, the start of your school career.

From that day on, I watched with amazement as you got to grips with holding a pen properly, with phonics, with maths, and generally with the new routine of school. You hung onto every word Mrs X said. You even went through a phase of adopting her accent at home. You learnt to read, to write; and shy little you gained the confidence to stand up in front of the class with a copy of your treasured WhatCar magazine for Show & Tell. Amazingly, you grew to love doing Show & Tell. From your car magazines you moved on to telling jokes and even performing a magic trick…..I’m not sure how that one went actually, but still. Mrs X made you believe you could do it; and you did.

So when, at the end of Year 1, we learnt you would be in Mrs X’s class again for Year 2 there were happy children and happy parents all round. I hope she knows, I thought, how much she is appreciated.

And now here we are, part way through Year 2. Mrs X has pushed you, encouraged you; and crucially, understands what makes you tick. She has helped you grow in confidence whilst respecting the essence of your personality. She also knows that you would rather jiggle around in your chair than put your hand up to go to the toilet, so she looks out for that too. And tells you to straighten up your trousers afterwards.

No wonder, then, that you had tears in your eyes when you told me that you will be finishing this school year without her. No wonder I did too.

And now a new chapter begins, but you will never forget the last one. So three cheers for Mrs X, and all the other amazing teachers just like her. She will always hold a very special place in your heart, and so she should.

 

Trafalgar Square

After school is…….

I keep seeing smiley, happy photos of children doing things after school. You know…..making things or learning things or even going out to places. Sometimes just having fun. And it  bothers me, seeing these photos; because after school in my house does not even vaguely resemble these beautiful scenes. Nope, not one tiny bit.

There is very little constructive activity going on in my house after school.

After school is “Please take your shoes off…….No, I said shoes off, didn’t I? What are you doing with your shoes still on?? Just take them off please. Before you go upstairs. I said before you go upstairs. Yes now please. We don’t need to lie on the floor and complain about it do we? We just need to TAKE OUR SHOES OFF like we do every single day.”

After school is no we’re not having more snacks now. Why??? Because you’ve had apple wedges, three crackers, half a banana and a cup of milk and we’re about to have tea. What do you mean you don’t want tea……You just told me you’re hungry.”

After school is wondering how anyone has the time for spellings and sounds and everything else that gets sent home in the book bag. Because all you do for four hours from the moment you get home until they go to bed is troubleshoot.

After school is hating yourself for just wanting to get them into bed. But you can’t help it. You just want to get them into bed. 

After school is “it’s not nice to keep poking him with that pen, is it?” and “please stop fighting over a pair of scissors” and “you really mustn’t hit him with that spoon” and “No no no! Get that fork away from your eyes please.”

After school is battling to get children upstairs to get ready for bed because honestly they are NOT TIRED. They’re really not. Just look at them, flopped on the sofa rubbing their little eyes. Not tired at all.

After school is when there is always at least one child crying. And whoever is not crying, well they just need to get on with amusing themselves because your hands are very full.

After school is feeling like you can’t do anything right for anyone.

After school is being cried on, being screamed at; or having a snotty nose wiped across your shoulder.

After school is sitting having a cuddle in a dark quiet room because you know that this little one is all done in for the day.

After school is knowing that you’re needed, but at the same time knowing that most of the things you do or say are wrong. Very wrong indeed. Look, there you are making the wrong thing for tea. And now you’re trying to help a little person brush his teeth when he’s made is so clear that HE DOESN’T NEED HELP. And what are you doing now, daring to suggest that your children might like to wear pyjamas!

After school is wondering why the hours between 3 and 7pm in your house never look like they do in other people’s photos.

After school is mainly ugly, sometimes just about do-able but very rarely fun. After school is not “It’s so lovely to see you mummy, let’s sit down and do some crafts”.

After school in my house is very much a work in progress. And it doesn’t make pretty photos.

One day, hopefully, we will get there. But we’re definitely not there yet.

sofa-boys