Poor Children

I ticked an awful lot of boxes when I was a kid: I was from a single parent family, we didn’t have much money, I got free school meals, and I was clever. I also had some psychological issues as the result of a messy divorce. I can imagine my name on a modern day staffroom notice board – it would be covered with lots of different coloured stickers to identify all my different ‘needs’ and the fact that Ofsted would be looking closely at how you spent my Pupil Premium. But the thing is, even though we didn’t have much money, my mum still did a great job at shielding us from the problems that this caused. Yes, we were ‘latch key kids’ who had to wait on the doorstep until she got home from work. Yes, we had to wear second hand uniform. And yes, I can remember that we couldn’t buy biscuits that cost more than 20p, which ruled out all the chocolate ones. But apart from that, I don’t remember feeling all that much different to everyone else. I didn’t want your pity.

I have several problems with the phrase “poor children”, a phrase I see bandied about more and more these days. I saw the phrase again this morning, in a tweet from the Sutton Trust. If you take a look at the board of the Sutton Trust, you might notice a couple of strange things: notably, a stunning lack of diversity, but also the banker/private investor/CEO thing that is going on there. And therein lies my first issue with the phrase “poor children” – it smacks far too much of the days of Charles Dickens, when wealthy philanthropists ‘generously’ gave of their time and money to rescue us unworthy poor folk. I don’t want to hold out a begging bowl so that some wealthy white man can hand me his benefice – I’d much prefer a more equitable society, in which education is properly funded through general taxation. The phrase “poor children” also smacks of the assumption that lack of money is going to lead to bad parenting. My mum did a great job of raising us, thank you very much, even though we didn’t get any chocolate biscuits.

My final objection to the phrase lies in the phrasing itself. As soon as you start putting labels in front of the word children, you run the risk of seeing children through the labels they have attached to them. You begin to adapt and subconsciously alter your image of the child, your expectations of them, through the judgement you have laid down through your choice of words. You start to see yourself as someone who can ‘rescue’ them from their background, rather than seeing their situation as a fault of society itself. See, here’s the thing: I was not a “free school meals child”, or a “single parent child”, or a “gifted child” or an anything child. I was me. Just like you were. And I would have been horrified to think of my teachers metaphorically patting me on the head, saying: “Oh look, it’s a poor child.”

Posted in Children | 6 Comments

The Next Generation

“You’re simply the best; better than all the rest.”
Tina Turner

I’m completely hopeless at blowing my own trumpet. Not only do I find it embarrassing to say how great I am, but I also believe that my work should speak for itself. Positive word of mouth from your readers is the very best recommendation an author can have, bar none. Clearly it is not always possible to avoid talking about my books, because marketing is a key part of the modern writer’s job. I do, however, limit the amount of self publicity I do, and I do not market my training work at all. I suspect this aspect of having a career is something that a lot of women struggle with – the idea of saying how wonderful we are or asking for more money is at odds, perhaps, with the way that we were brought up.

Having said all the above, I am one of the best-selling education authors in the UK. In total, my books have sold over a million copies, with Getting the Buggers to Behave not far from reaching half a million sales. My books are on set text lists at universities, and have been translated into numerous languages. I am one of the very few education authors who makes a decent living out of writing. And yet … and yet …

I find myself frustrated at the number of ‘recommended education book’ lists I see that contain no women, or only one (Carol Dweck, clearly). This is not to say that I expect to see my own books on these lists, but I am not the only woman currently writing in this field. (For a list of 100+ others, go here.) What really grates, though, is that when I flag this up as an issue, I often get an exasperated response. The message? ‘Well, all we did was pick the best … and coincidentally they were all men’. I’ve had the same discussion over all-male or mostly-male speaker lists at conferences, and lists of ‘best blogs’ that wipe an entire gender out of the equation. People from black or ethnic minority backgrounds face the same problem of a lack of representation – if you went solely by these lists, you’d assume that the UK had no racial diversity at all.

I’m aware that this blog will have some people tutting loudly, calling me a spoilsport, or hitting the ‘unfollow’ button on Twitter. It’s a risk you take when you call something out. But the worst thing I could do is to stay silent. Not for my own sake. As an established author things are not hard for me. But as an educator, I have to ask why certain groups are so poorly represented. I have a duty to ask why, to challenge the status quo, and to try and effect change in the future. I have a duty to the next generation. And so, I believe, do we all.

Posted in Feminism, Writing | 2 Comments

There is *No Such Thing* as Free Childcare

In a neat irony, while news of the Tory Party’s “30 hours of free childcare” pledge was breaking on Twitter, I was at a preschool meeting begging for funds to keep our setting open. Our tiny local charity is so under funded that we have had to apply to another tiny local charity for a grant to cover the cost of statutory First Aid training. Politicians clearly believe that childcare is a vote winner, and so it has become the election equivalent of ‘tit for tat’. When Labour announced “25 hours of free childcare” it was only a matter of time before the Conservatives outbid their offer. But what neither party has bothered to do is to actually consult with the sector that is required to provide these so-called ‘free’ places.

At some point, someone somewhere must have sat down and figured out how much it costs to run an early years setting. I suspect their calculations were based on a mythical setting where local birth rates never vary, where all available places are always full, and where a ratio of one adult to thirteen 3 and 4 year olds is actually do-able. In other words, a setting that is nothing like our local village preschool, or like any other setting I know. Even though our setting is run for free, by volunteers, we are struggling desperately to make ends meet. In a good year, where local child numbers are high, we can just about get by. But the last few years have not been good years, government funding has not gone up from £3.50 an hour in living memory, and if things continue as they are we may have to close. Every funded hour we offer loses us money, and the more funded hours we are asked to offer, the more money we will lose. The only way I can see that we could provide 25 or 30 hours of funded places is to have a very high ratio of children to adults, and I’m just not willing to give up my free time to support that.

If settings close, because inadequate funding means they are no longer sustainable, then I’d like to know who exactly is going to provide these ‘free’ places. (Watch out if you work at a primary school – I have a feeling that this particular buck is going to stop with you.) So what’s the solution, apart from the obvious one of funding us for what it actually costs to provide a ‘free’ place, rather than expecting us to close the gap through low wages, endless fundraising, and volunteers? Well, I have a suggestion for the early years sector, because if you ask me, enough is enough. Instead of asking the politicians how much they are going to pay us to provide these ‘free’ places, how about we let them know how much we need to charge them*?

(*I reckon £5 an hour, since you ask, which seems perfectly reasonable to me.)

Posted in Early Years | 4 Comments

… And Do It Anyway

1. Don’t wait for creativity to come to you. It’s not out there somewhere; it’s somewhere inside you.

2. Don’t spend forever talking about it, debating it, discussing it, pondering it. If you want to be creative, just get on with it and do it, because it won’t do it by itself.

3. Don’t expect to be right. Don’t even try to be right. Aim to be as spectacularly wrong as anyone has ever been in the history of the universe.

4. Don’t worry if you’re scared when you’re being creative. This is pretty much the job description. If you’re not scared, you’re probably not doing it properly.

5. Don’t listen to your internal editor, and stop caring what other people think.

6. Procrastination can be useful, but it is not your creative friend. You can only edit, change, adapt something if it already exists.

7. Holidays are the perfect time for procrastination. :)


Posted in Creativity | 2 Comments

Feel the Fear

I’m told by some very intelligent people that creativity is about having lots of knowledge and plenty of technique. But every time I hear this, I shake my head in exasperation. Don’t get me wrong, knowledge is important in creativity, because it allows us to connect up old ideas in a new way, or to think up completely fresh ones. Technique is vital for expressing our ideas coherently, so that other people understand what we mean. If I didn’t know what I was talking about, if I couldn’t write properly, no one would read what I write. But while knowledge and technique are very important for self expression, they are not the essence of what goes on when we are creative.

People often tell me that they would love to write a book. The people who say this have the knowledge and the technique to do so. But there is something stopping them. What on earth could it be? Certainly, time is a factor – it takes a good long while to shape your thoughts and get them down on a page. But we tend to make time for what we really want to do (if we can only get past our tendency towards procrastination). So, if it’s not time, then what is it that stops us from tapping our creativity? Why aren’t all those skilful, knowledgeable people writing books or painting pictures or inventing something new?

I have a fear of heights. I don’t like that feeling of being out of control; that sense of being about to topple over. There is a jetty in Ponte de Lima, the town very close to where we are staying. In the summer, people line up to jump off the jetty into the deep river pool below. There is no way on this earth that I could jump off the end of that jetty: my fear stops me from taking the leap. But I know someone who can. I know someone who will jump again and again and again, who loves that feeling of flying through the air. The loss of control, the sense that, no matter what anyone else thinks, you are just going to do it. The reason he can make that jump is because he knows how to feel the fear and do it anyway. And that, my intelligent, knowledgeable friends, is what creativity is all about.


Posted in Creativity, Writing | 8 Comments

The View from Here

484 Portugal: a mountain, somewhere in the Alto Minho … Sometimes I have to stop looking inwards, and remember to look outwards for a while. Forget all that living my life in my head, and get back down into my body for a change. Take a great big gulp of real life, so that I remember what it is to be alive. The sun on my skin, the sea on the horizon, tinkling goat bells from somewhere close by. Lunch as a thing of beauty and importance, not as a passing thought between this work and that work. Beaches, bikes, rivers, kayaks, barbeques. Our family, all in one place at one time.

487 482 Cork Oak (Quercus suber) … I’m in love with cork oak trees. Each one has a unique shape; their bark is wizened and thick, the texture soft and yielding to the touch. They take forever to grow, but remember: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

504 Gorse: the bees love it, but OMG those spikes … Many plants in Portugal are spiky and flammable. Dry gorse gives a wall of fire, ripping across the land. Broom and Eucalyptus add to the incendiary mix. The fires here are dangerous, and epic, but they give you a powerful sense of the land being in charge of you, rather than you being in charge of the land. And on that note, I’ll get back to staring at the view. After all, the sun is setting and the stars will be out soon. Wishing you a very Happy Easter. :)


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Sowing my Seeds with Love

Some plants will grow, whatever you do to them. They have long tap roots, or winding ones, that reach long or wide under the ground. Even when you try to dig them up, they have a tendency to come back. Gardeners refer to most of these plants as ‘weeds’. They are the bane of my allotment life, because if I don’t deal with them they will take over from the flowers, vegetables and fruit that I want to grow. They will eat up all the nutrients from the soil, and shade out my plants.

Dock and couch grass: quelle horreur!

Other plants are tough, but you have to treat them a bit more sensitively to get the best out of them. Potatoes are a case in point. You could just stick your seed potatoes in the ground and they would probably grow. But you’re better to chit them first, add plenty of compost or manure to the soil, and then earth them up as they grow to stop the potatoes going green. If they go green, they are poisonous and inedible. Did you know that potato is a member of the Solanaceae family, which also includes tomatoes and deadly nightshade? (If you look at the flowers of a tomato or a potato plant, this gives you a great clue.)

Yet other plants are much more sensitive. They have tiny weeny seeds, or they get attacked by pests very easily. You have to take an awful lot of care if you want them to grow well, or even at all. I have found this to be the case with carrots. They’re not exactly hard to grow, but they sure do benefit from lots of extra attention. The seeds are tiny, so it’s difficult to sow them thinly. If you thin them out, the carrot fly smells what you are doing, and comes to lay its eggs on the soil. When the larvae hatch, they burrow down into your carrots and ‘hey presto!’ your entire crop is ruined. So, I know from experience that I will need to cover my carrots with fleece once they germinate, to keep the carrot flies off. And even before that, I have had to surround them with netting, to stop the chickens from scratching the soil and spreading them around.

Netting for now, to keep the chickens off;
fleece for later, to keep away the carrot flies.

Now, I could look at my carrots and shout there are no excuses for failure! I could insist that they attain a growth mindset or develop grit and resilience. But hey, that’s pretty pointless with a seed as sensitive as this one. Just like children, seeds come in all shapes and sizes. Yes, I have a fixed end result in mind – I want great vegetables to eat. But I must be flexible in the way that I get my different seeds to grow. This is categorically not about me being inconsistent. It is about me reacting to different needs with different approaches. And it is me as a gardener (just as I do when I’m a teacher) sowing my seeds with love.

Posted in Consistency, Gardening, Learning | Leave a comment