Wednesday, 30 November 2011


"I want to be Prime Minister!" announced one of my children over breakfast yesterday.
"Great idea!" I replied. "And what will you do?" There then followed a list of reforms that were planned, some more practical than others. Of course we both know that she is highly unlikely to take office any time soon and so the conversation was a kind of game.

But what happens when they really want to do something that's either highly unlikely or actually beyond them? Should I encourage them to follow their dreams or manage their expectations?

This is something that I think is becoming warped for all kinds of reasons. You only have to watch the X Factor auditions to know that something has gone wrong. I know it makes good telly to have the world's most tuneless singer caterwaul on national television only to be knocked back by the sniggering panel. Invariably the dumped performer makes a fuss, issuing threats to Simon Cowell and his ilk that they have missed the next big thing. What interests me is why did they think they had what it takes in the first place? Did no one take them on one side and point out the glaring truth about their lack of talent?

Historically, we British have always had a tendency to underplay ourselves. We didn't like to make a fuss, show off or get ideas above our station. Everyone knew their place and stayed there. By contrast, the first time I went to America I was immediately struck by how different the attitude was. If you wanted it and worked hard it could be yours. The only thing holding you back was you and all that. And lots of that attitude seems to be finding its way over here. Our previously inflexible class system is breaking down and there is far more social mobility than there used to be. Everyone is encouraged to do what they want and not be held back by old fashioned and preconceived ideas.

And all this is good. It's great in fact. Until you start telling everyone that they can achieve anything. Obviously there is our national obsession with celebrity but I don't just mean that. What if you have a child who loves animals? He is encouraged by his parents to believe that he can be a vet notwithstanding that his academic record will preclude him from achieving the necessary grades. Is being honest with him about what his future holds stifling his ambition or ensuring that his life is not blighted by disappointment?

The current system of grading students doesn't help. Previously, the grades would be distributed by percentage with the top 10% getting As. This meant that it was clear to all, not least the students themselves, where they might best pitch their ambitions. Is it any wonder that with so many students obtaining the top grades they all believe they can take on anything? But it's not true. We are selling them a lie. Of course there will be the odd one who under achieved and can outreach what seems to be their lot in life. But how many straight A students at GCSE have what it takes to study to be a doctor? And how would they know?

So what do I do? Do I let my child believe they will be a ballet dancer or a prime minister or a brain surgeon and hope that they are not too disappointed when they work out that it's not going to happen? Or should I manage their expectations towards something that is realistically within their grasp and have them wonder what if?

Tuesday, 22 November 2011


As you may know, I am studying for a degree in English Literature with the Open University and last night I had a tutorial. It's only the second one of this module and we are feeling our way somewhat as we try to work out what makes our fellow students tick without asking them any direct questions. Or maybe that's just me.

Anyway. last night's activity, as a precursor to the next assignment, was to compare and contrast two pieces of prose. This struck me as a tricky exercise. Apart from both being written in English, I was struggling to see anything that the two pieces might have in common.

My tutor suggested that we might like to use some kind of visual system to assist us in identifying the similarities. Colour coding perhaps? Or a mind map? At this point I nearly left. A mind map? On an English Literature course? What was the world coming to?

We broke into two groups, coincidentally split by gender and the girls set to on our out-sized piece of paper with our felt tips whilst the men shuffled awkwardly in their chairs and then scribbled some notes on the back of an envelope. Afterwards, my female tutor commented to my group that the results of the exercise were entirely predictable on gender grounds alone. Actually, I believe that the results had less to do with gender and more to do with age.

My group consisted of me and two much younger students whilst the men's group all had a good ten years on me and therein lies the root of their and my discomfort. What exactly is a mind map? What is its function and how can it possibly assist me in ordering my thoughts when it resembles something out of Star Trek and has no discernible order? I was brought up to write only in grammatically correct sentences. Numbered points were permissible at a push and possibly bullet points in an emergency. At no point in my education was it acceptable to allow my imagination to run amok all over the page. That was called a doodle and might result in a detention.

The colour coding I can just about get my head around. I am a girl after all and happy to play with coloured pens at a drop of a hat. Plus, I could see how that might work. Highlight all the narrative points in red, imagery in yellow, argument in green etc.. There is an ordered kind of logic to it. But the mind map concept seems a step too far for my stifled mind to deal with. I left the idea in a dark corner of the room where it could do no harm.

But if truth be told, I would love to have the kind of mind that can map itself with complicated twists and turns and connections marked in ever narrowing veins across the page. I like the idea of shaking my mind and watching what comes out in random order rather than the neat, down the page control that it usually displays. So I'm going to have a go - not with a compare and contrast task: I know my limitations- but maybe I could mind map Christmas or the plot for a story? After all, I like to think that I'm still capable of a new trick or two.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011


The school attended by my older two children is bringing in Business Wear for the sixth form. A list has been drawn up of what constitutes 'business wear' which is useful because no two businesses seem to define that the same way these days.  And our school is not alone. Certainly around here most of the sixth forms seem to have gone down the same path.

I have been trying to work out what I think of the idea.  As ever in these matters, I begin with what happened when I was at school, which coincidentally was the same institution. We wore uniform, after a fashion. Blue skirt, blue jumper, white shirt. How this was interpreted was pretty much left up to us and in my case was a combination of what I could afford from my meagre allowance and what I could get past my Mum. We were a scruffy bunch - no two ways about it - but at least when I got up every day I knew exactly what to wear.

Things have changed since then. To distinguish between the children who are at school by law and those there by choice, uniform was scrapped for the sixth form. Perhaps the powers that be anticipated that the newly found freedom would be exercised stylishly like the French or prepily like the Americans. But we are English so what they got was a mixture of quirky, sexy and downright scruffy. Something needed to be done.

The something is the Business Wear. In theory, the sixth form will look well turned out with a pride in their appearance and an attitude that is ready for learning. In practice, they will all spend a lot of money on their own interpretation of the rules which may or may not match the school's and in time, I suspect, many of them will end up looking almost as scruffy as they currently do.

There seems to me to be an obvious solution. Why not just wear school uniform whilst you are at school? All the reasons that make a uniform a good idea are just as valid no matter what age you are. A sense of identity, a great leveller, a remover of distractions, putting on a uniform reminds you of what it is that you are meant to be doing, in this case learning.

It appears that I am old fashioned in this view. Apparently, the sixth formers want to feel superior to the rest of the school, to distinguish themselves from it. But, and here I seem to be terribly controversial, they are still school children. It seems to me that in this, as in so many other things, they are being allowed to grow up before their time.

Of course they are on the cusp of adulthood and about to step either into the working world or leave home for university but they haven't quite done it yet. Whilst I felt invincible at 17 and 18, I now know that my life had barely begun. Why thrust upon them the realities of the adult world before they need to face it? Should we not encourage them to be children for as long as we can? Address them as pupils, give them a uniform, make sure that they respect those around them. And then, when their wings are fully formed, nudge them slowly out of the nest and into the real world to discover it for themselves.

Sunday, 6 November 2011


My washer broke down this week - words to send a chill down the spine of any woman. Of all my time saving devices, my washing machine is the one closest attached to my sanity. When it breaks, it as if someone has lopped off my right arm at the shoulder and then wiped the soggy end on my whites. It is a domestic catastrophe of biblical proportions.

My machine stopped mid-cycle and refused to play any more. It was one week out of its manufacturer's guarantee. We had had lots of letters through offering us appliance insurance and I had dutifully looked at them, researched their services on the internet and decided that it would be better to save the cash and then use a local man if we ever had a breakdown. Happy with my plan, I recycled the letters in the sure knowledge that as the machine was so new it was a wise decision.

So when the machine died so shortly thereafter, I cursed and stamped loudly and then rang my Guardian Angel, my brother, who took away and washed load upon load to get me through the weekend. Day one survived.

On day two, I dived into action with my emergency plan and rang the local man. He doesn't have a mobile so he doesn't ring you back until the end of the working day. I described the machine and the fault. He sucked his teeth and said that the machine was too new and complicated for him to fix but that I would have a five year parts guarantee. A day lost.

It's funny how when you have no washing machine you suddenly have the desire to wash everything that you possess. Cushion covers, coats and curtains all caught my disapproving eye and suddenly became high priority matters as my mind began to panic. On day three I rang the manufacturer who promised to have a man with me by day 6. That would be quite a backlog. After four days there were 24 shirts alone. I went out for coffee and took loads with me to spin whilst we chatted.

Day 6 arrived. The call was from 8am until 6pm. I arranged for someone to cover my school run and began to wait nervously, desperately hoping that whatever the fault was, the man  would have the part with him and could fix it on the spot. He did. He replaced the brushes, worn out in just a year and soon my house was again filled with the reassuring whir of the machine.

The seriousness of a broken washing machine is something that all woman understand. When you mention it, they adopt a look of horror, tinged with an flicker of relief that their machine is in full working order and either offer heartfelt sympathy or the use of their machine depending on how well they know you. It's a kind of domestic solidarity that I have come to rely on and which reminds me that we are all in this together. On the darker days, that knowledge is worth a lot.