The man actually said ‘yada-yada-yada’

When I hadn’t been blogging for too long, I wrote a paragraph about Michael Gove. In effect, I was saying that while I was fascinated by the proliferation of informed views one can be exposed to via social media, about policies, movements or influential individuals, I didn’t like it when it crossed a line into being personal. I was magnanimous enough to defend our Education Minister, as via twitter he gets a lot of very personal abuse. But is he earning my sympathy? I think not. It ran out last Thursday night.

Feeling all grown up, I got in with the folk who look forward to BBC Question Time last week, as soon as I picked up that Mr Gove was going to be on. All the serious journalists I admire like Zoe Williams of The Guardian, or Helen Lewis of the New Statesman, form a little cluster on Thursday evening and tweet eloquently for all they are worth. Full of anticipation, I tweeted Michael Rosen (literary god and vehement anti-Gove tweeter) to say I was looking forward to what he had to say during the programme – and he retweeted me! Ah the democracy of twitter gets me all excited again…. And I digress.

10.40pm came round, and we were off. Also on the panel were two other folk whose politics seemed ‘somewhat right of centre’, The leader of the Green Party (who uttered a lot of sense throughout the programme), and Emily Thornberry, Shadow Attorney General. A good way in to the programme, the inevitable question about the National Curriculum was posed, and off went Gove into his extended rhetoric about how kids need knowledge before they can get creative. When challenged by Mrs Thornberry about the basis of this claim he actually used the phrase ‘yada yada yada’ at her; she looked momentarily stunned, her mind trying to compute that a supposedly literate and professional politician with a senior place in the cabinet could have possibly been so bloody patronising. Despite the other three members of my household all being in bed by this point I did start shouting at the telly at his darn rudeness, and I didn’t hold back on the personal insults. My blog-promise to stay polite was broken – and I feel no regret.

You see, really, we should all be alarmed, should all be shouting at the telly. This man is in charge of the education system in this country for the foreseeable future. He has never worked in education. His view of how the history curriculum should be shaped, for example, has much more in common with a set of pub quiz questions (not my words) and does nothing to promote the critical thinking that actually defines the academic excellence so often achieved here in the UK. His attitude towards early years and primary education is, to me at least, utterly terrifying. He appears to dismiss the huge body of evidence articulately put together by the Cambridge Primary Review that makes it clear to anyone reading it that we aren’t getting this stuff right. We are failing to engage and inspire many of our very young children, and he does not appear to care. He seems preoccupied with a very narrow, cartoon-esque version of education, one that has kids learning their times tables by standing up in class to recite them. Sit in rows, keep silent, put your hand up, don’t think for yourself, be disaffected. A few of you will be OK but the rest will remember school through a negative, shadowy lens.

My bouncy, bright and busy 4-year-old will start school in September. I am very happy with our choice of school, and I have considered all the options possible, and am largely at peace with the notion of letting others shape her learning experiences alongside my hubby and me. But for the first time, I am really starting to feel alarmed that this man could wield so much power over my question-filled, curious girl. Her classroom teacher comes across as a woman of clear, independent thinking, but how much of the crap that falls from on high can she realistically keep out of her classroom?

And (again, for effect) he actually used the phrase ‘yada-yada-yada’ on prime time television, to a fellow professional public servant. Be afraid – very, very afraid.

A million women, many mothers and one shoddy dad

Three dates, in close succession; three emotional responses. Let me explain…

Sunday 10th March; Mother’s Day (here in the UK at least).

I am always wary about elevating the status of motherhood too much. Yes, it is a complex, challenging and important role. Yes, society is depending on us to do a good job. But, if we put mums on a pedestal, two things happen. One, the many women in our society who have chosen not to be mothers, or the many more who would have dearly liked to be, but can’t be, are left feeling seriously excluded. I know, I used to be one of them. And two, in a climate that is, frankly, tough enough to parent in, a day that further shines the spotlight on the role, serves only to impose impossible expectations on to each and every one of us.

Via the marvel that is my twitter feed I have today read some strikingly diverse responses to the dawning of Mothering Sunday. I sat in bed with my laptop awaiting my special-cup-of-tea-in-bed, and first read this piece by the marvellous glosswatch; in it, she laments the lack of radicalism attached to this annual ritual. Mother’s Day doesn’t bring about change or improvement in her view, and ultimately, it just lines the pockets of restaurant chains, florists and chocolate manufacturers.

I really liked her piece, and, as I do so often at the moment, I wondered at the level of my naivety that had led me to never really question the value of the occasion. I’m just so bloody grateful that I get to be a recipient of handmade cards and presents-that-daddy-helped-me-buy, that my thoughts don’t take on anything approaching a more sophisticated perspective. But that’s what I love about my exposure to the blogosphere; from now on, my view will be broader.

Friday 8th March; International Women’s Day

Shining the best light we can on the UK, I’d say that we are now, and always have been, pioneers, founders, radicals, activists and trailblazers, in so many ways. At times this has got us into humanitarian hot water. Colonialism and the excesses of the slave trade weren’t highlights, let’s face it. But, I do feel the British have inspired moments of facilitating fundamental changes in the way that the world does what it does. Case in point? Emeline Pankhurst. By any telling of her story, including Disney’s sugary Mary Poppins re-telling, the suffragette movement had a profound impact on the view women have held of themselves ever since. Danny Boyle was right to make a place for her descendants in the opening ceremony, especially as last summer’s games were the first time women have represented every single national team attending. On our tiny island, feminism has been allowed to flourish via a democratic sensibility that, though imperfect, has moved over and made room for us.

So, what is it with International Women’s Day? Why is it such a non-event here? It seemed such a journalistic afterthought. Given the support for the Million Women Rise march in London on Saturday, or the mooted changes to the way sexual offences are investigated and managed by the judicial process, or even this report today that revisits Annie Oakley’s 1970s explorations of women’s lot at home and at work, all is not completely resolved economically, sexually, domestically or socially between women and men, clearly. And yet here is a global movement, a national public holiday in many countries, that drifts past with very little mention here in good old, supposedly feminist, blighty. Hmmm. I can at least report that the 65 or so women, myself included, who spent the day at Tots100’s Blog Summit had a collective sense of doing something appropriate to mark the occasion.

All this polemic and call to action is in sharp contrast to the feelings raised by another significant date in my own personal timeline this week….

Wednesday 6th March; my father’s birthday

I haven’t spoken to my father in over ten years. He is aware of the bare bones of my current life. He knows that I am a married mum with two children. He knows I live in Devon, just 90 minutes drive from him. But that is about it. He has no knowledge of the journey I have made from our last encounter, via divorce, career change, marriage, infertility, childlessness and surprise motherhood, to now. Last time we were in the same room, I was buying a flat for myself, having separated from my then husband, and dealing with redundancy. He came to help me do some carpentry in my new place, but found it difficult to concentrate for more than half an hour at a time without stopping for a spliff and some self-indulgent, woe-is-me, navel gazing. I asked if we could crack on for a bit longer. He chose to walk out.

After two decades of trying to persuade him of the value of being present in my life (we haven’t lived together since I was 18 months old), I reached this key moment, in my 31st year, and thought, ‘Bugger it, that is enough’. I can’t say that I miss him – how do I really know what there is of him to miss? – but his 65th birthday this week, just like those that have come before, undermines my equilibrium for a few days. Here am I, trying to teach my kids the value of family, of persistence, of tolerance, of forgiveness, and yet I choose not to bother with one of my parents. I’m uneasy about the message this will send to our kids, once they are old enough to grasp it. Am I contradicting my own otherwise carefully thought through parenting principles?

I never find an answer this question. I can still feel very angry with him, and yet most of the time he just really isn’t on my radar. In practice, if I need fatherly support or advice, I go to my father-in-law. But my dad’s birthday always has me wrestling internally… and probably always will.

Pre-school is for life, not just for Christmas

Chances are, if you reading this blog as a parent yourself, you have a photo like this one stored on your hard drive, (does any of us ever get round to printing them off anymore?). Nativity season is warming up nicely – our own, at my daughter’s pre-school, is on the 20th. Encouraging 18 or so three or four-year olds to follow instructions and remember a sequence of events is for most mortals a laughable notion, but for your average pre-school play leader? Piece of cake. Such individuals are made of tougher stuff than the rest of us, and we are grateful to them for their resilience, patience, knowledge, skill, and, ultimately, their utter devotion to the task. These are people of absolute vocation; it certainly can’t be the pay that inspires them to do as the do. On average, pre-school play leaders are earning somewhere between 12,000 and 18,000 a year. Less than, well, pretty much everybody, for doing a job that when measured on the importance-to-society scale, comes right at the top.

For the last decade my working life has taken me into at least one pre-school most weeks. With the odd exception, they are remarkable places. On shoestring budgets they give young children their first taste of group learning. They devise engaging and original ways to help their charges develop an understanding of the world around them. They gently steer those attending from egocentric toddlerhood to independent, curious-minded, socially-skilled individuals who understand sharing, turn-taking and so much more besides. They do what they do on the best of evidence-bases, keeping up with latest research, meeting demanding training requirements, and doing hours and hours of unpaid planning, observation write-ups, and many other tasks.

The Cambridge Primary Review, published in October 2009, praised the play-based, child-led focus of the better pre-schools, and argued hard for the extension of such environments for all children until they are six. The biggest meta-study ever carried out, it surveyed 4000 other studies of how young children learn, and concluded that the British pre-occupation with bunging kids behind desks needs to be seriously questioned, if not abandoned altogether, at least for four and five-year olds. After all, our German, Scandinavian, Italian, French and American neighbours don’t put their children in classrooms until much later, and we don’t see these nations suffering intellectually, or socio-economically as a result. Quite the reverse. Sadly, our current government rejected the entire content of the study. A previous study did, however, influence policy. The EPPE study in 1994 concluded that most British children would be better off for spending some of their time in a good quality pre-school prior to school attendance than none at all; it was this study (alongside a few other pieces of key research) that prompted the 1997 government to introduce the idea of funded hours for all three and four years olds, the thinking being, if we invest in our children when they are young, they’ll ‘cost us less’ when they’re older. But it is beyond politics, and really unfathomable lunacy, that our current Education Minister would dismiss so easily the clear thinking of the Cambridge Primary Review. I find myself concluding, as someone wise said to me recently, that every generation is the collective ‘guinea pig’ of the current Education Minister, sometimes with disastrous results.

And here’s the crux of it all, the why-it-matters-so-much of this blog post. Who we are when we are three and four is who we are, period. If you get a three-year old engaged, excited even, about participating in play that has them learning without realising it, you have shaped that child’s future for the better in a sustained and enduring way. Such a child will not get disillusioned at 15 and start annoying taxpayers with his or her destructive behaviour. That’s not my political opinion; that’s a research-based fact. Pre-schools carry tremendous power for the good; they can do so much for your child. And they do all of it without the financial certainty of the school next door. Their staff do the same job as the teacher in her warm classroom, but for a half, no probably, a third of the pay and nothing like the security of tenure. And because of this, they need parents to stump up, and to get stuff done. Fundraising, building maintenance, committee membership, and so on, and so on.

So here’s my true agenda. You’re child’s pre-school does so much for you: What are you doing for it? They’re working their socks off to give you those most cherished moments to remember in years to come, and to show your child the path to an enlightened childhood. In the current climate they are being squeezed harder than I have ever known. So, when you pop along to watch your child at their nativity, and feel your sentimentality and appreciation bursting through, show a little gratitude, and pay something back in to the hard-working people who made that happen. Volunteer, donate, get involved!

Soshul Meedja: get it?

On Friday I watched a fascinating campaign unravel on Twitter, and finally the power of social media (or ‘soshul meedja’, as Steve Wright calls it) became clear to me. Our most-followed tweeter, Stephen Fry and many, many others, passed the baton of asking us all to sign the petition for widening the consultation on the English baccalaureate, which is set to replace most GCSEs in 2015. Quite a few tweets had a distinct anti-Gove air. (For my international readers – I have a few it seems! – Michael Gove is our controversial Education Minister). I’m not a fan of the man’s policies myself, precisely because, to return to the paragraphs above, they demonstrate an absence of respect for the unique requirements of early years education.

But the day’s campaign had me realising two things. One, the democratic directness of Twitter, that has me ‘listening’ to people I respect and taking action as a result, is a seriously powerful tool. And two, and on a slightly different note, there is a fine line between giving someone who has put themselves in the public eye, (making decisions that affects people’s lives) a hard time for the way they carry out their role, and giving them a hard time for who they are. Critics of Gove struggle to stay on the right side of this line; it all gets a bit personal rather too often. And all this got me thinking that an important principle of the relationship between blogger and blog reader has to be that we respect each other’s right to express a view, without being personally offensive. I always want NDBI to give you cause for thought, but I hope it never offends. You might conclude you don’t agree with me, but may you always respect my right to say what there is to be said. For my part, I will always welcome your comments, even if you do just want to tell me that you simply don’t agree.

Blog traffic

Inbetween writing an inspection report, and an article on Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Conception, I have today, done a bit of research about improving traffic to blog sites. And I’ve learnt some interesting facts as a result. Did you know that 65% of all daily internet users read one blog a day? That 46% of those same people will read more than one in any given 24 hour slot? And that bloggers who use facebook and twitter to promote their writing enjoy 149% more ‘inbound’ traffic than those who don’t? Fascinating. ‘Does my blog need its own facebok page?’ I’ve been asking myself; I’m thinking after today’s research, ‘yes’ is the answer. ‘Do I need to make better use of twitter?’ Undoubtedly, comes the reply. And to think, I’ve only made sense of the whole hashtag thing in the last few weeks, and that was because I finally admitted to someone at a dinner party that I didn’t get it, and she was kind enough to explain…

I’ve got a lot of work to do. And I am @Leoarnawrites, if you were wondering.