Era Uma Vez


Once upon a time there was a country called Portugal. The country was very special, for lots of reasons. It was very beautiful, with cork forests, and a wild coastline. In the North there were high mountains and wide rivers, the land was full of animals and birds. Portugal also had many wonderful people. The people were very relaxed, and they had a special trick: they had learned to combine tradition with innovation. They still had their old things – family lunches, festivals, food, God. Every year the people held festas, to celebrate old ideas: the ideas that the generations before had passed onto them through music, and religion, and family. But they kept adding to their traditions: innovating and experimenting, and looking to the future. Some traditions flourished, others quietly died out. The people put wind turbines on the mountains, they loved music and technology. They started new festivals, and built modernist homes. They didn’t want to stand still.

There once was a family who spent a lot of time in the country of Portugal. They often drove across the Ponte da Arrabida bridge in the city of Porto. When the children were tiny, the father once said, “We’re crossing the wobbly old bridge!” And then he wobbled the car, just a little bit. (Well, quite a lot, actually.) And now every time the family crosses the bridge, the dad wobbles the car. As they grow older the kids groan louder, but they wouldn’t let him get away without doing it. And one day they might do it with children of their own. In Portugal, generation whispers onto generation; innovation sits comfortably alongside tradition. Era uma vez we did that. Oh, and by the way, we still do.

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The Winner Takes It All

I’m not very good at being competitive, because if I get to win, then someone else has to lose, and I always feel bad for the losers. Plus I don’t see life as being about a race to the top. I find it much more interesting to meet people who are different, than to meet people who say they are the best. I’m not saying that other people shouldn’t be competitive, if that’s what floats their boats. But if anyone wants to turn anything into a competition, then please excuse me if I decline to join in. Education is going through a competitive time at the moment: there is huge pressure to do well in league tables – to win the ‘best school’ competition. There is an assumption that being competitive is automatically a good thing. But remember: if you want your school to be at the top of a table, you must accept that another school will be at the bottom. And the truth of the matter is, I’ve never ‘chosen’ a school based on a league table. I can’t. Because you know that notion of ‘parental choice’? Well, that is the biggest myth of all. Like most kids, mine go to their local school, which is exactly as it should be. Unlike in a city, there is no transport to take them elsewhere, even if I wanted to ‘choose’. Education is not a race, it is an entitlement and a public service. And I don’t want the winner to take it all, if that risks the losers standing small.

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We’re very lucky, because we have to travel a lot. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t see most of our family. Today the German cousins arrive to stay with us in the North of Portugal. We went to visit them in Germany last year, when we did our trip around Europe. Last week was spent in Portugal with the Welsh grandma, then with the English, Jersey and Portuguese cousins, and with grandparents who have Indian and Portuguese heritage. Just in case that isn’t enough of a mix, the kids also have cousins in France and Australia. The ones from France are currently in Wales and England. And one of the Australian ones will be in England in November. (How’s that for a Geography lesson in a paragraph?)

Time spent abroad seems to have many advantages for children. It’s hard to quantify it, but to me it’s about the ability to adapt to change, and to understand how different people do things differently. There is something amazing about the way that the world has opened up since I was a child. And about the opportunities this means for our children. These days it is basically nothing to hop on a plane, or a boat, or into a car, and head off into the distance. And, more and more often, to decide to stay there when you get there, because ‘hey, it’s a bit nicer’. My partner tells me stories of travelling to Portugal as a child, and having to queue for hours to pass the border. These days, it’s just a quick stop to pay the tolls. If you wanted to move to Europe tomorrow, and you had the family situation, and the funds or a job, there is basically nothing to stop you. (*Go on, leap!*)

In any case, wherever your family live, one of the best ways to have a happy holiday is to spend some quality time with them. (If your family is anything like ours, there will be plenty of drama too.) There are only so many days in a lifetime, and the best thing I can think of to do with them is to spend more time with my family. So even if you don’t have to get out your passport every time you want to visit them, I hope you get to spend some quality time with your family this summer. And on that note, I’m going to sign off from my online world for a week, to do just that. #happyholidays


The family who plays together, stays together. :)


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Writing for Pleasure

There is something intensely pleasurable to me about placing words on a page. I regularly thank my lucky stars that people actually pay me to do something I love to do anyway. I enjoy my little blog, because it is a place where I can scribble down stuff and not worry about who reads it. At the moment I’m on holiday, and while most normal people would put aside the day job, I just carry on splashing out words onto the page. To put it simply: I find it fun. One of things I especially love about writing a blog is how I can play around with the shape of the sentences on the page. Most normal people probably don’t worry about stuff like that, but to me a lone ‘I’ on the end of a line just looks wrong. (I put two in this paragraph, so you can see if it has that effect on you too.)

There is a strange tension in writing: you write for yourself, and for other people, at the same time. You must go inside yourself, and write what you want to say, but in a way that other people will want to hear. (I like to imagine it as whispering into my reader’s ear … ) It’s very hard to describe until you get the hang of it, but it’s a bit like simultaneously caring deeply what people think about your writing, but at the same time not caring at all. In other words: my ideas might or might not make sense to you, but I’m not writing this for persuasion, I’m writing it for pleasure. #happyholidays :)


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Many years ago, when I was studying ‘A’ Level Art, my teacher asked us to write an essay about a well known modern artist. I’m not entirely sure why, but I decided to play a trick on my teacher. I created some ‘modern art’ of my own, claimed that my images were by Kandinsky, and based my entire essay on my spoof works of art. I got away with my trick, my essay earned me a good mark, and I thought myself ever so clever. In my defence, I was an immature seventeen-year-old, and I had the air of arrogance that is so often a fault of the young. I was sure that I knew best about everything, and I felt that fooling my teacher would show how much cleverer I was than him. How foolish I was to take pleasure in tricking someone who I should have treated with respect. How glad I am that I have grown up and out of such unpleasant games.

A few months ago, I came across what I reckoned was a spoof blog. I left a comment on the blog asking why the names quoted in the blog were not genuine, and shortly afterwards whoever wrote the blog set it to ‘private’. There are other blogs that I stumble across, which I sense are written with the intent to ‘spoof’. But I have no desire to call them out, because although they make me feel a little bit annoyed, mainly they just make me feel sad. As educators, one of our key roles is to model the behaviour we want to see from our children. That is why I feel we should use respectful and supportive language, and a polite and sensitive tone, when we communicate (even if anonymously) online. Not because I can’t handle it if someone is rude to me (truly, I don’t care) but because we are giving a public impression of what teachers are like. And the idea that teachers would spend their time writing pieces designed to upset, annoy or ridicule their fellow teachers? Well, if you ask me, that kind of behaviour is best left to seventeen-year-old kids.

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Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time there were two children: a brother and a sister. The children’s parents were professors, very eccentric professors, and so they had given their children unusual names. The little boy was called Yasse and the little girl was called Yrots. Yasse was their golden boy.

“You’re very clever, Yasse,” his mother said.

“I love the way that you have so much knowledge,” his father said.

“Don’t you just adore the way he makes references to what clever people said in the past?” Yasse’s mother smiled at her son and stroked his golden hair. “How can he know so much at such a young age?”

“I like to find facts and be rational,” Yasse said with a grin. “I am in pursuit of the truth.”

“That is a just and noble cause,” his father said.

Yrots brushed away a tear that had escaped from her eye and was trickling down her face. “I’m going for a walk in the woods,” she said, as she slipped away. Her parents barely noticed that she had gone.

After walking for about twenty minutes, Yrots came to her favourite glen in the woods. It was an open space set within a circle of trees. The sunlight slanted down through the branches; shadows played on the ground as the gentle breeze ruffled the leaves. Yrots sat down on the ground, closed her eyes and waited. When Yrots opened her eyes again a few minutes later she found herself surrounded by woodland creatures. There were squirrels and birds and beavers. There were foxes and rabbits and voles. Although some of these creatures might normally hurt each other, when Yrots came to visit them, they would gather together in peace. Because whatever worries or fears or troubles each creature brought to the clearing, their time spent with Yrots was sacred to them.

“Tell us a story, Yrots,” the creatures cried. “Tell us a story!”

And so Yrots did. For although her brother Yasse was very clever and knowledgeable, it was Yrots who had magic powers. Although her brother was in noble pursuit of the truth, it was Yrots who the others really wanted to hear. It was Yrots who could spin a yarn, tell a tale and weave a web with her words. And in so doing, transport her woodland friends to another place and time, where all their troubles fell away and everything finally seemed to make sense.

“Once upon a time …” she began.

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A Question of Culture

We have always travelled a lot with our children. They both had passports from 3 months old, and since then they have spent lots of time every year visiting their family in Portugal. We also lived overseas with them for several years, and in 2014 we spent five months on a ‘Road School’ tour around Europe and across China. The benefits of travel are many – not only do they get used to coping with change, but they also get exposed to different cultures, landscapes, historical contexts, architectures, and so on and on. Over the years they have started to understand how people, places and social mores in different countries differ, but also how we are basically the same beneath the skin. When you first visit a new country, the cultural habits can seem odd, strange, incomprehensible. But after a while, they become the new ‘norm’ and you adapt your behaviour to suit that of the country where you are travelling or staying. (Or, if you don’t, you are likely to become frustrated or get yourself into trouble.)

One great example of cultural differences is in the way our children go onto ‘Portuguese time’ when we are staying here (as we are at the moment). We all wake late, eat a long lunch together, then head off to the pool or beach far later than we would do if we were in England. If the children are asleep before midnight when we’re in Portugal it is a surprise; in the UK this would be deemed ‘bad parenting’ by many. One of the children’s cousins told me that she gets her toddler to have a nap at 8 o’clock in the evening, so that she can wake her up for the family meal at 10pm. To the English, the idea of doing such a thing would be incomprehensible. No one works between midday and 2pm, because lunch is basically sacred. And if you try to go out for an evening meal before about 8pm, you will find that most restaurants are not even open yet.

Notions of what is socially acceptable vary from culture to culture as well. When we first arrived in China, we were surprised at how the people would approach us, asking to take photographs of our children. At first we thought (in our reticent, suspicious English way) that this was some kind of scam. But after a while we realised that they were literally just fascinated by them: both by how they looked, and also by the fact that we had two children when in China most families are limited to one. There were lots of other fascinating differences between the cultural and social mores in China, and in England, which I plan to explore in my upcoming Road School book. However, I’m definitely not going to watch “Are Our Kids Tough Enough?” on BBC2 tonight. Partly because I suspect it will annoy me – the idea that you can separate an approach to education from its cultural, social and political context is plainly daft. But mainly because we will have only just got back from the outdoor swimming pool and we will be busy having a BBQ in the warm evening sun. (And that is definitely not something I would be saying if we were currently in the UK.)

Hang on a sec … why does this building look so different?
Oh, that’ll be because it’s from an entirely different culture.

Posted in Children, Culture, Road School | 1 Comment