Saturday 31 August 2019

Bleak House

Reading the news headlines today makes it seem like we are living through very bleak times indeed. Of course reporters have to get a strap line and papers or online subscriptions have to sell and make money but let’s get some balance:

If it’s not Brexit it’s Johnson and the suspension of parliament. If it’s not the Amazon forest burning it’s Australia’s coral reef bleaching and dying. If it’s not delays or cancellations at airports it’s migrants taking dangerous journeys. If it’s not Trump it’s Tusk.
If it’s not clashes in Hong Kong it’s protests against Boris-Bojo-Johnson, our Prime Minister, in London. And women’s programmes, books and discussions have leapt on menopause as the latest ‘last taboo’ to investigate.

Too miserable.

On a more bizarre note I could mention recent newsworthy difficulties with the Royal Family, hurricanes in the USA, a story about a burning man or a girl stating her gangster father made her have a nose job. Or I could go to the other extreme and read about the equally disturbing fact that ‘The Great British Bake Off’ with its nauseating neon icing sugar and hullabaloo makes headline news. And if it’s not Bake Off it’s Strictly. Again, let’s get some balance.

What are the thought police doing to us? Trying to mould us into frightened kittens by creating an armageddon where our only option is to retreat into bake caking or over- sexed dance competitions?

On a positive note, or is it? the government is giving schools and FE a boost. BBC News reports:

‘Next year schools will receive a £2.6bn uplift, rising to £4.8bn the following year - with schools spending £7.1bn more than at present by 2022-23.’


‘The chancellor is to announce £400m of additional funding for further education in England, as part of his spending review next week.’

Despite Johnson’s premiership convulsing us with its brazen optimism and stubbornness - rather in the manner of a fellow American leader - yes Johnson was born in New York - Professor Curtice says the Tories have gained an extra few per cent in the share of the national vote since Johnson became PM. I can only think that we’re heading for an election and Johnson and the Tories want to remove their iron man exteriors and promote themselves as fluffy, caring ‘end of austerity’ governors of this country. And thereby get elected.

Since 2010 few teachers or teaching assistants have had a meaningful pay rise, the supertax threshold was lowered so deputy heads and other senior staff would see less money in their bank account than expected despite the huge extra responsibilities such roles demand of them. There has been less money for real items such as classroom maintenance, books and pens. And the most vulnerable children have had a squeezed social services trying to meet their needs with a skeleton staff. Meanwhile funds have supported the grades A-C GCSE classes (or grade 7 in this year’s edu-speak) causing special needs children to receive proportionately less.

So hip, hip, hooray for a Tory government who is kind enough to yield £2.6 bn to schools in the next year. 

But - and forgive me for having flights of fancy - what if the Tories aren’t re-elected? Schools would surely not be left with continuing financial problems under a Labour-LibDem alliance? Nothing like pushing a socialist manifesto to outwit Labour. Get in first. Very clever Mr Cummings.

Johnson pledged fantastic sums to the NHS if we left the EU. That was found to be another over-hyped strap line. As I type I don’t know who or what to believe. Certainly those in the headlines are good at courting publicity. But are they - and the reporters who write about them - the people we should be listening to? Since I don’t trust today’s headlines for their bleakness, life isn’t THAT black, I’ll ignore miserable, edgy breaking news and quote WB Yeats:

‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’
WB Yeats (The Second Coming, 1919)

Oh for a quiet discussion with informed, thinking men and women instead of listening to ranting and hectoring from power-hungry exhibitionists.

Wednesday 28 August 2019

Austerity - it always has been austere for some.

My father was a grammar school Head and my mother worked with children with severe special needs. Hence me. After well-paid holiday jobs ( with time-and-a-half, double-time and sleep-over allowances ) in a small children’s home, I became a special needs teacher then a manager - a SENCO - in a large comprehensive school. A true amalgam of the Head and the special needs assistant.

When I was studying ( ahem) for my first degree, on a full grant, enjoying three years of purpose-built student accommodation, all fees paid, I took to holiday work. So I could go on holiday, not to pay off a loan. Unlike mates of mine who worked in shops, diy stores, the first ‘Comet’ selling electrical goods or as postmen and women, I chose another route. I worked almost all of my summer holidays in a children’s home. For children in care. The ones not at home with their mums. Or dads. Or grans.

Before my first day there I’d imagined a big family atmosphere with children being read to in a happy group. Cuddles. Treats. It was the great heat wave of 1976, during the long summer holidays when an exotic ‘bottle brush’ flowered in our garden for the first time. And tender conservatory plants thrived outside.

But for those in care: their lives were as parched as the yellow straw which ate up the lawn.

Individually the children, wiry, thin-legged specks, liked to talk to me and ask questions. ( An attempt at ‘What’s it like in the real world?’ perhaps.) On first acquaintance one girl was ever so slightly impertinent, pushing boundaries but, having sussed me out, the cheek was never repeated. The rest: a brother and sister, a slightly handicapped junior school-aged girl, Leroy, and Maura - who looked like Leroy - and another quieter lad, used to ask me, very politely, if they could have a biscuit or a piece of fruit. Or why was it so hot? Occasionally the group of seven children - it was a very small home for children in care - would go to the park. Once I went with them. They ran around, were well-behaved and were all ready by the big clock face as it struck 8pm. Back ‘home’ for a drink and bedtime.

Ready in pyjamas there was no sitting in a circle to be read to. There were rules. Time for brushing teeth and dirty clothes in baskets. Time for lights-out.

Time for ‘hands’ before meal-times. Time for grace and giving thanks. Time for breakfast. Time for clearing the table. Time for washing up. Time for making a bed or stripping a sheet. Time for watching TV or playing in the garden (with what?). But no time for being read to. For me that long, hot summer of ‘76 was spent watching dislocated, unstimulated children getting used to being bored.

Not many fights or arguments broke out. But there was nothing to do. Menus had to be recorded. Incidents had to be written up. A diary of sorts showed ‘not much happened’, really. Day after long, long day.

Leroy, boney and full of smiles, came and sat with me in the holy of holies - the office - and I began to teach him to read. His concentration was reasonable but short-lived. There was always a knock at the door. And whispering.

‘What’s Leroy doing in there with aunty Nina?’

The following summer, just before the end of their school term, I turned up again. I don’t remember a great embrace. No hostility either. Just dead eyes. I went to the children’s school sports day. My kids were not competing. Standing under a blazing afternoon sun I was asked by a Head of Year who I was. Her response was:

‘Well you’re dealing with the bottom of the barrel. The ones who’ll never amount to anything.’ 

‘ And how are you finding the work?’ 
‘They’ll be pleased you’ve come to see them at their sports day’. 

No. I was being told society had already labelled the children in care, in my care. They had been written off. I was dumbstruck. While the Head of Year spoke the sun wasn’t the only thing in my eyes.

Devastated and angry I decided to do something about it. Teach children in care. Teach special needs. Teach the ones who would amount to nothing. The unwanted. 

And my PGCE teaching course began. Just at the time of the Warnock Report.

The Warnock Report (1978)
Special Educational Needs
Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People.

The report referred to pupils in special schools who should be included in mainstream education. But their reality was they were only fit to be taught in bottom sets. Unless I did something about it. Hoorah. I did! I managed a very successful teaching and support team for twenty years; small group work, appropriate provision, specialist programs.

But, in my final year of teaching, when Osborne’s austerity budget took hold, the great unwashed were dumped on me by busier, more important teachers. Along with their ‘unteachables’ I was given an unsuitable curriculum and an insufficiency of desks and pens. While the unwanted and I rubbed along in my too-small classroom the Heads of English and Maths made no provision for them; it was I who was teaching them after all. And with ‘the rabble’ out of their hair they could concentrate on getting grades A-C for their much better sets. That was 2010.

What had changed since 1976? What was different from Warnock and her recommendations that 20% of school-aged pupils might, at some time, have special needs which required education that was ‘additional to or different from’ usual classroom arrangements?


In 2010 children who weren’t high flyers were pushed aside. And since Cameron and Osborne sat on the front benches in the House of Commons children in need have had fewer social workers, school budgets have been squeezed and the world has become an uncharitable place for those ‘who’ll never amount to anything.’

Money is far more important than ethos, education acts or provision, it seems. And last night it was announced that the current Tory government is going to do something about school behaviour. Ten years after the austerity budget took hold. Forty years since the integration of children with special needs into mainstream became law. Integrated into what? 

Integrated into badly behaved bottom sets who will not ‘amount to anything’.

Is it any wonder children in care have the lowest academic achievements across England’s schools? With or without learning difficulties to be living in care surely counts as a special need? Don't they require more attention, not less? The need is there. But not the provision. But our new Tory government knows all about how to tackle behaviour. Finally there is money for school exclusions. Why not money to provide for children whose lives have been disrupted or who have other, additional needs? Why not more for provision at nursery age? Why not more for extra reading groups at junior school? Why do I get the feeling that certain groups of students are still being written off? 

What’s wrong with a group of children being read to? And proper provision? Help where it’s needed?...
That's what. For too long it's been an austere world for some. It's so much cheaper to label them and write them off.


Tuesday 13 August 2019

Bedsit or studio flat?

The writer Katharine Whitehorn, late of ‘The Observer’ inter alia, wrote a classic, ‘Cooking in a Bedsitter.’ It certainly doesn’t sound classic to modern ears, and now it might be entitled ‘Cooking in a Studio Flat’, but it saved the culinary lives of girls living away from home for the first time, for their first foray into the world of paid employment. The other difference today would likely be not having the impracticality of sharing a bathroom at the other end of a  badly lit landing. It’s very difficult to strain peas, cooked on a single gas ring in the hearth, when another tenant is having a bath or washing his socks in the communal washbasin.

In the 1960s, when I was a child and consequently exempt from the cares, and joys, of bedsit land, I would see images of women in magazines doing something with a single light bulb, reaching up to the ceiling on a rickety chair in order to ‘plug’ an iron into the light fitting. I never did understand the electrical connections required but the activity looked dangerous on many counts. Similarly a picture of a glass bottle of milk, paper stuffed in the neck to stop birds dipping their beaks in the ‘top of the milk’, showed it perched on a window ledge as there was no fridge in the room, nay in the building. Knickers would be hung on a piece of string over a communal bath and washing up would be in a bucket. 
This is the problem when water is not on tap in your own room and there is nowhere to dry your washing or do your own dishes.

But odder than all of these Heath Robinson approaches to living in shared accommodation was the gas ring attached to the gas fire. It sat in the grate. Okay if you wanted to simply boil a kettle, filled from the washbasin in the ever-busy shared bathroom, but hopeless for cooking anything more exciting or nutritious than baked beans. Hence the need for Katharine Whitehorn’s timely publication.

She describes the difficulties of keeping butter from turning rancid in the days before mini fridges were commonplace. Her fail-safe recipes for casserole cooking meant a proper meal could be created in a room with no work surface, no food cupboard and a gas ring over which one crouched as if camping in a one-man tent in a wet field with a small, portable single gas canister. Cooking at floor level.

Almost sixty years later studio flats do not present the same problems. A sink unit, work surface, kitchen cupboards and cooker are positioned on one wall of the hip shared living, eating, sleeping space. No-one has to grab a torch at 2 a.m. to find their way along a dark hallway to the only available, shared W.C. Nowadays an ensuite shower room provides the privacy and convenience today’s tenants require.( Do I sound like an estate agent?). And washer-driers remove the need to hang wet hand-washed bras and knickers over a communal bath. They probably took days to dry as oftentimes said bathrooms wouldn’t be centrally heated. Not only was it a cold experience taking a bath in such primitive conditions, wet washing, hand-rung at best, had very little chance of drying in a permanently unheated room. The smell of damp must have been all-pervading. 

Another method for drying washing was to hang clothes on a wooden airer in front of a single gas fire. The air would be full of steam. Living in a bedsit was, I guess, like living in a sauna.

We will be in Devon at the weekend for a big party in the country. Richard and I thought about booking an Airbnb room, with its own ensuite and attached mini kitchen. There on offer was a mini fridge, a microwave oven, toaster and plug-in induction hob, all resting on a practical wipe-down work surface. A fan operated in this Airbnb kitchen, presumably to ensure there would be no lingering cooking smells. There was a slimline dishwasher and a washer drier too. All squeezed into a small space with a range of cooking utensils, pots and pans in kitchen cupboards.

With all this on offer the bad old days of communal living are dead, it seems. We can cook, wash up, have our day wear and swimming gear washed and drying within minutes of being soiled. All done in the ensuite kitchen. A shower can be taken in perfect privacy in the ensuite wet room without our having to queue up or scurry in for a rapid bathe in the freezing cold, shared, temporarily vacant bathroom. All the time hoping there is still enough hot water to service the washing needs of all the residents.

Our long weekend in Devon will be bliss. Except we’ll be eating out and there will be no time for domestic chores such as washing out our socks. The standard ensuite shower room will be very welcome but I don’t think we’ll need the room for anything more than simply sleeping. We won’t need to cook or do our laundry. We could have booked a room with a shared bath and kitchen...

Which brings me back to Katharine Whitehorn. Her 1960s guide for the homesick has been re-scripted by Sue Teddern and her comic series was first aired on radio 4 in 2016. It’s a great little comedy. Funnier than living it back then, that’s for sure.

Aren’t we lucky?

Monday 5 August 2019

Go girl, go!

Another fantastic show from Angelique Kidjo at The Proms last night, August 4. High energy, bursting with life and power, Angelique, whom I saw in the nineties at the Festival Hall, must be well into her fifties now. A great tribute to womanhood and a ‘bon courage’, fingers up spectacle.

And so different from the plight of Morwenna (‘Poldark’, 4 August, BBC1) and June (‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, 28 July, channel 4). Separated by two centuries or more the cruelty that besets Morwenna and June is a far cry from Angelique’s triumphant female strength. 

Morwenna, having been successful as a tutor to one of the well-off families of the time, her cousins, is forced by them to marry against her will. It will bring prestige to them and fear and sexual servitude to her. Not only is she in love with a young man who is besotted with her the man with whom she has to share the marital bed is obnoxious. He violates her and traumatises her against the act of lovemaking for some considerable time, well after his death gives her a merciful release from an abusive marriage.

In dystopian Gilead June also has to endure rape, to order, to conceive a child for a wealthy, infertile commander and his childless wife, in a land where fertility rates have dramatically fallen. She is an unwilling vassal in a new, harsh, ‘big brother is watching you’ regime. To dissent means ‘the wall’ - a euphemism for summary execution by hanging.

Both Morwenna and June give birth but neither is allowed to see, touch, play with, nurse, feed or cuddle their baby. Morwenna’s boy is brought up by her evil mother-in-law, the child’s grandmother. June’s girl is taken from her and placed with an otherwise childless, more hierarchically important family.

In this week’s episode we see Morwenna secretly watching her son playing with a maid or governess in her cruel mother-in-law’s garden. The cruel woman decreed it would be better all round if neither mother nor child acknowledged each other’s existence. But Morwenna finds her son and, keeping out of sight of the eyes of his minders, manages to ask him if he remembers her. He doesn’t. 

In equally, but differently, cruel Gilead, June finds out from their cook, a ‘Martha’ in dystopian USA, that her daughter’s new parents allow the girl to go to nursery. June manages to reach the outside wall of the nursery and painfully hears her daughter playing on the other side of the impenetrable divide but she cannot see, touch or communicate with her. And the cook is put into mortal danger. By being seen talking to June she is deemed to have endangered the life of a precious child of Gilead and is sentenced to hang.

Three different women, Angelique, Morwenna and June, live in different centuries and all work hard to get ahead and be their own person, oftentimes against the odds.

Liberty, a choice of lover, freedom of thought and safety from abuse and cruelty are hard-won human rights. Angelique has made a name for herself by moving from Benin, a land of subsistence farming with some forced labour and very poor literacy rates, to Paris thence to New York. From a country where so few can read and write she has managed to become an internationally acclaimed star. To appear at The Royal Albert Hall is the epitome of success. 

The writings of Winston Graham, ‘Poldark’, and Margaret Attwood, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, have been adapted for TV from the original works. It will take me some weeks to find out the fates of Morwenna and June, both driven by the strongest bond known in the animal kingdom. That of mother and child. To break that bond is cruel indeed. 

Neither Morwenna nor June seek fame but the simple act of union between mother and child would be a triumph, equally as great as Angelique’s success, in worlds which have become harsh places of enforcement and oppression. 

Go Angelique, go girl, go! Go June! Go Morwenna! Go!