Saturday, 2 June 2007

The real Enigma

Mitch and I had a blissful lie in this morning as our wonderful cleaner, Sasha, was due to arrive later than usual. The girls were up at the crack of dawn, as normal, but are now well trained in the art of entertaining each other whilst pretending to be orphans. They can wash and more or less dress themselves in appropriate attire and even stave off hunger by helping themselves to those superb Innocent Smoothies for Kids - effortless nutrition!

Mitch popped down the road for The Telegraph which he insists on reading daily from cover to cover and out slid one of those obligatory 'FREE CDs' which accompanies practically every weekend newspaper (really annoying) that invariable end up as impromptu coasters or sun-catching mobiles (Wonderful for home science activities on light and refraction! How else do you get your children through end of Key Stage science?).

A few weeks ago the Telegraph came up trumps with Dr Seuss' 'The Cat in the Hat and other stories' read by Adrain Edmondson - joy of such joys.Yet more freebies enabling the children to sail through the SATs reading comprehension!
Anyway, this weekend's CD (with another tomorrow) is a masterpiece and I applaud the editor (or whoever was responsible) for his impeccable choice and apparent resolve to whack the PC brigade into touch.

Let's pop back a few days - Thursday in fact - when Mitch was forced to buy The Times (now, that's another story which I promise to tell another time). We were in the Midlands (yes, well, alright...Birmingham) at the time and the early evening news showed a delightful commemorative piece on the 150th anniversary of Sir Edward Elgar's birth. I was amazed to discover that he died without ever receiving full acknowledgement of his genius. A very sad fact.

An even sadder fact was the contents of Stephen Pollard's Notebook entitled, 'An enigmatic insult to Elgar'. He arguably highlights that Elgar was the greatest British composer of the past 250 years and tells the tale of The Elgar Society's insulting rebuff from the Arts Council...yes, THE ARTS COUNCIL OF GREAT BRITAIN!!!!!!!!, when they requested £174,000 to organise a series of concerts for young people around the anniversary of Elgar's birth. It appears that the Arts Council is controlled by numbskulls who are fully intent on satisfying the tastes of this sad celebrity driven and dumb downed society that we are forced to raise our children in.

Yes, Elgar was patriotic - bigoted even - but he was British and he was a great composer and deserves acknowledgement regardless of one's politics.

Pollard went on to say that, 'whilst £174,000 for Elgar is a no-no, commissioning 50 new, specially made ring tones, for all the telephones on the Arts Council system, [which] celebrates the relocation of the south west regional office to Southernhay in Exeter" is a yes-yes.'

The Arts Council say that the Elgar Society's bid failed to meet any of the criteria by which applications are judged but were more than pleased to give £12,000 to an 'artist' in the East Midlands to kick a curry box along a street because it meets its criteria.

In our house this morning, we had breakfast to the sublime tones of Elgar's Enigma Variations along with more fruit Smoothies, egg rolls, marmalade and toast. Happy Birthday Elgar!

Saturday, 26 May 2007

St Elsewhere

Having left work over 6 weeks ago (and spending as many weeks getting over my aborted foray back to work leaving no time to blog.....OK, I hold my hands up, let's just say that I sort of 'forgot' that I had started a blog), I've been handed the responsibility of finding a 'suitable' school for the children if we move.

Now, this may seen like a relatively easy task for one who knows schools inside out, back to front and upside down with a well thumbed, first edition copy of the lexicon of euphemisms cooed by Heads and senior staff as soon as they spy a prospective parent crossing the threshold.

Many of the state schools in Birmingham, particularly in the region we're considering, are excellent (at least, that is, on paper). However, we'd probably only stand a chance of gaining entry to any of them by placing our children in the hands of Social Services. I kid you not!

Mitch and I visited one such school. The reception area was warm, inviting and colourful with typical displays of children's writing, artwork and photographs designed to whet the visitor's appetite to the school's educational version of '5 a day'.
I scanned the work with my sharp OFSTED trained eyes and found that much of the work more or less matched the comments and judgements made by my inspector colleagues who had recently visited the school and departed declaring the establishment as 'Outstanding'.

We were thus shown into the Head's office who began her bid for one of the coveted BAFTAs.....'Best Superhead in Urban Harmony'. She knew nothing of my background and proceeded to tell us about all St Happiness and its ethos, telesales style.

I chose to remain incognito (well, I was having far too much fun) and questioned Miss Guardthetruth about her philosphy on teaching and learning, what made her 'tick' professionally, how was the straitjacketed curriculum enriched, whether accelerated learning techniques are utilised, ways of identifying gifted and talented pupils, learning style profiles (honest, I really tried hard to tone it down but you see, art, music [we were entertained with a rap by a Year 3 class preparing for their assembly], school visits, teacher autonomy and individualised learning were worringly omitted from her oratory about St Happiness).
She was obviously taken aback at my line of questioning - unheard of and totally unexpected. I sensed her engaging in cerebral multi-tasking and thinking, 'You're not our typical clientele. Certainly can't blind this one with educational science. Hmm'. She couldn't really answer my questions and more or less admitted that she didn't have time to think about her real views - far too busy running the school.
I believe she spoke on behalf of most school leaders across the nation.

When asked, she also admitted that school meals at St Happiness had a very long way to go before Jamie Oliver would sit happily at the school dining table. I began to shift uncomfortably in my seat and spiralled into a haze of depression.

Our host began to shift uncomfortably too, 'So, Mrs McEvoy...are you in education? 'Miss Guardthetruth enquired with a knowing glint in her eye.
'Well, I was a teacher actually...several years ago...but I'm a full time mother now!' I replied with a huge smile hoping to divert her suspicions. Quick... think McEvoy...what would normal parents ask???

'How many rules do you have at St Happiness? Great I thought, we're back on track, as she gave a pristine response on discipline and behaviour management that would have the Chief Inspector declaring her 'Superhead UK'. Her response to my questions on bullying and ICT merited several gold stars too!

Most things about the school were pretty well polished particularly the pupil mantras when questioned by Miss Guardthetruth on our staged but impressive showround, 'We are a school community and respect everyone', 'We are all learners including the staff' they bleated.

They did, however, seem to be learning and enjoying the process too. But there was a forced, mechanical and teacher led programmed approach to their work which seemed to stifle the children's natural curiosity making the 'learning journey' encountered arrive at carbon copied outcomes. The children are force fed and regurgitate knowledge and facts with surprising similarity - barren and sterile.

They were such impressive formula led learners and my heart bled for them.

As Mitch and I gave our thanks and departed, we both knew that St Happiness would not be the place for our girls. Next stop.....

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Old before time

Amazingly, I managed to have lunch today in the staff dining room. Sounds normal enough but I generally don't have a proper sit down lunch and tend to spend the hour catching up with duties. So, today was different.

I have to say that there's something special about traditional school cooks and Mrs Briggs is no exception. Her team of kitchen die hards always come up trumps and all staff are fed and watered with a variety of tasty dishes to maintain our stamina for the rest of the day's triumphs and challenges. As I sat down to enjoy my home cooked shepherd's pie and salad, I began to hear about the day's events from the perspective of staff gathered around the dining table.

Much of the news centred around the triumphant results of many of our Year 6 pupils gaining offers, including scholarships, to the local Dulwich foundation schools and other highly regarded independent seats of learning. Hurrah, such successful team work. I'm so proud and delighted with everyone especially the children.

But I also heard about about poor Bradley. During his Drama lesson today, he was an absolute pain. Uncooperative, sullen and displaying behaviour of considerable challenge to his extremely competent teacher. I agreed to have a word with him. This child is in deep pain and exists in a world full of sorrow and deep angst. Sadly, his mother died when he was very young (pre-school) and he's seemingly, never really had the opportunity to talk about his feelings. Indeed, he doesn't really know how or why his mother died and that pain has been with him ever since she passed away. Bradley and I talked about his drama lesson but we gradually turned the conversation towards 'his pain' and the real root of the issues he hides but, in truth, reveals each and every day.

Within moments, I was faced with this poor crumpled soul spilling his grief with wails, sobs and floods of uncontrollable tears. His distress was painfully raw and tangible. We talked and I think it helped but my one regret is that I didn't hold him, like a babe in arms. He needed the warmth and security of a mother's embrace right at that moment but I'm ashamed to say that I allowed modern protocol to prevail.

It's a moment that I'll never forget and I hope that Bradley feels that in some small way, his years of pain, grief and confusion has turned to follow a different, more positive path.

Bradley left the room on a much happier note and I wept like a child. After composing myself (and then breaking down again whilst relaying the tale to the Head), I rang Bradley's father and left a message asking him to call to make an appointment. Within the hour, he was in school and spoke to our ever sympathetic and supportive Headteacher. As a result, I'm delighted to say that counselling is being arranged and maybe, in time, there'll be a happier soul (and departed spirit) able to deal more readily with life's, often cruel, challenges.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Sweating the small stuff

With African blood coursing through my veins, I'm afraid I feel the cold. Even though the sun often peeks through the clouds at this time of year and global warming is doing its best to convince us that it's summer, heating in our house will remain on full blast until we have another hosepipe ban in the South-East.

My dear husband, who spent much of his formative years in the wild, open countryside and picturesque village dwellings without central heating (NO CENTRAL HEATING, CAN YOU IMAGINE?!!) he has learnt to accept my idiosyncracies with commendable sang-froid. Sweet angel.

However, to my horror and confusion, I have a child who simply doesn't feel the cold - she is truly her father's daughter. Although she's prone to coughs, fevers and has the most congested respiratory tract in the northern hemisphere, she is hugely averse to winter wear and all things warm and cosy.
Alex decided to express this preference at 8am this morning, refusing to wear tights 'because they itch and I want to wear socks!'. Sounds reasonable enough if you don't suffer from frost fear, as I do.
'But your legs will freeze darling, especially when you're out at play at lunchtime.' I protested. She gazed at me incredulously with an impatient, wry expression that almost screamed, 'Have you ever been in a playground? Do you think we just stand around?'

Now, this could have developed into an almighty battle but being severely time poor and sleep deprived, I gave in and Alex promptly produced regulation grey school socks, beaming with delight as she triumphantly pulled them over her little legs, and all became soothingly quiet. As for the cold legs and frost bite...well, it'll take more than half bare pins and an irrational mother to bring on these fearful states by a child like Alex. Unlike me, she doesn't sweat the small stuff she simply likes to work one up.

Monday, 19 February 2007

Full marks?

I learnt today that the interviews for my replacement begins tomorrow and I'm to play an integral part in the process. I'll be spending the entire day observing the candidates teach a classes of 9 year olds. Quite honestly, it is an honour and a privelege to be asked. My imminent departure was accepted with such support and understanding by the Head but I wouldn't have been surprised to have been entirely sidelined on this one.

I can tell you that being observed whilst teaching is akin to retaking your driving test after motoring for 20 years. Well, can you recite the Highway Code inside out and back to front wearing a blindfold whilst standing on your head? Neither can I. But, teachers are expected to be perfect...every time. In these situations, there's an unwritten expectation that you are to perform thus:

  • Stride into the classroom with authority and confidence. You lose marks if you give the slightest indication that you may be nervous.
  • Ignore the fact that the pupils before you are complete strangers but NEVER forget their names.
  • Provide paper evidence (lesson plans) to your observer showing how you will ensure that every single child has progressed, despite the fact that they may well not accessed the previous stages of learning required for true understanding to have taken place.
  • Identify those who could recite Tolstoy and those that can't quite spell it. Provide for their needs accordingly.
  • Throw most of your knowledge about child development and how learning works out of the window.
  • Speed through your lesson and prove that, after 40 minutes, they'll all have grasped the concept...ready to move on to the next stage of learning.
  • Replicate outstanding practice as indicated in the professional textbooks and manuals as long as you ignore those that wish to go to the toilet, have an instrumental lesson to attend, hardly slept the night before, didn't eat breakfast, have worries or arrive late.
  • Smile, praise, smile and praise some more.

Actually, not much different to classroom reality in most schools ..... this guy or gal better be good. Non-negotiable!

Sunday, 18 February 2007

Brum, Brum here we come

Back to school tomorrow and I've spent the whole half term considering my backlog of things to do...marking, letter writing, rota updates, planning Red Nose Day, staff meeting agendas, policy updates, lesson planning, scheduling, cover arrangements, classroom reorganisation, staff training, resource allocation etc. etc. And ended up mellowing in the West Midlands (yes, I do mean urban Birmingham) sight seeing and house hunting! We had an absolute ball. Admittedly, we were based at the Hilton (Bromsgrove!...our usual base at the Hilton Warwick was bursting with Valentine and castle lovers) with a free evening meal on our 1st night, baby listening facility and 18m swimming pool with jacuzzi, steam room and sauna. Tacky I know, but heaven nonetheless!!

Mitch and I spent our evenings alone together in the brightly lit 'designer' lounge/bar planning our next move. Quite literally. We had arranged to view various properties in the 'less urban' sectors of the city (with outstandingly decent state schools) within an arm's reach of affordable properties. Our business rendezvous with the vendors of the company that we are planning to buy was scuppered by the latest flu bug, so we planned to spend our time whizzing 'round local properties in Harborne and Moseley alongside entertaining the girls with the multitude of activities that are available for children to do locally. Property No. 1 was a typical Edwardian house - pleasant enough - but it had the misfortune of being neatly settled opposite the most monstrous 60s houses you ever did see. Not that I'm strictly opposed to modern houses (as I do have the misfortune of living in one) but the scorching tones of the garage door across the road would test the tolerance of the most enthusiatic of colourists. Also, at £50 short of £400,000 (i.e £100,000 a bedroom) with no scope for improvement or development, we were promptly out the door with the agent still munching the remains of his egg sandwich (breakfast we were 10am?!). Now, Property No. 2 (same road, £50,000 less with an abundance of bedrooms, a patch of a garden and severely suffering from a crazed builder's pickaxe) made us swoon with nervous excitement. We were intoxicated within seconds of stepping across the threshold and the children skipped delightedly through the maze of reception rooms, bounded the numerous flights of stairs and confirmed that this house (with bright pink walls in one of the rooms) was an absolute must have. Even the pigeon poo littering the top floor (courtesy of an open skylight) and the fact that the house is allegedly built the wrong way round (I'm serious!) didn't put us off.

We were so taken with the house that we returned after dark and began introducing ourselves to the neighbours. I stepped out of the car with the girls in tow to find out who our neighbours might be. We were welcomed with opened arms - one dear soul practically invited us in for dinner - with sorrowful tales of the neglected nightmare that we are convinced will be our next home. We exchanged contact details so that one of the other neighbours (away for the night) could contact us about the local schools. As we raced back to London the following morning, my mobile rang. I assumed that it was one of the agents needing feedback for their client. But no, amazingly, it was the absent neighbour with a full history of 'the house' and great news about two of the excellent schools within walking distance of the house.

Now, about that second mortgage....

Monday, 12 February 2007

Heads you win

That was some week. But, it's my birthday today and I can breathe a laden sigh of relief as half term is upon us and I've time. I had the pleasure of a lie in..well, almost (the workmen are arriving at 9am instead of 8!) and awoke with the children's shouts of excitement at my 44th birthday and the 'surprise' (hidden gifts, cards and chocolate treat) that had been orchestrated by my beloved. Aaah! To be honest, I'd rather forget the fact that I'm the wrong side of 40 and concentrate on my rare lie in but I played the game and the girls were as happy as if it were their celebratory day!

My body simply aches with fatigue and stress such is the load I carry during the week as a senior member of staff at a large London prep school.

My dream job ...truly. A hop, skip and jump from the front door which enables me to push past the heavy Victorian doors (with even heavier bags) minutes away from being reprimanded for being late (and I usually drive!!).

You see having two daughters with beautiful, soft woolly hair means that it takes more than a couple of quick brushes to make my beauties escape potential playground ridicule each day. The girls sense the build up to the torturous daily routine and fight to be the last to endure the physical pain and wretched head twisting and tugs at the strands that have been miraculously woven and knotted during the night's slumber. "No not me, Alex first!" shrieks Erin as she dashes across the breakfast room with terror and wilful determination etched in her eyes. Meanwhile, Alex has suddenly remembered that she has some homework to complete and simply cannot be disturbed or Mrs Lowe will be most displeased with her efforts. Meanwhile the clock's ticking, I'm sweating and my mobile trills with another message from a sick member of staff who's unable to work today. So, it's 8.00am and I have to comb my daughters' hair (no, sorry, I mean gently caress their African heritage tresses), encourage attention to detail with last minute homework, book a supply teacher to arrive in school in 30 minutes from goodness knows where, get dressed, apply make up that I can't find (bathroom is being refurbed) and eat breakfast. Then sprint to school to arrive looking like the calm professional that I'm employed to be. Is it any wonder that I've resigned?