What is going on with our country?

In a recent OECD report, England came 22nd out of 24 western countries for literacy in 16-24 year olds (21st for numeracy).  In another OECD / EC report, we top the list of most obese nations in Europe.

What on earth is going on with our country that our basic education and self-care is failing so badly?  What sort of preparation are we giving our children to have active, healthy, productive adult lives?

I was particularly shocked by last weekend’s Sunday Times feature on literacy providing the above OECD report figures (NB link will only show the full article if you are a subscriber).  I am incredulous that some (native English-speaking) 16-24 year olds can’t answer three questions my seven year old or even four year old could (e.g. Match the image (of an ear) to one of four words: ear egg lip or jar).  How can young people be so failed by our education system, and, dare I say it, their parents?

The article talks about a new free school opening in east London, with families flocking to sign up their children.  Most were so-called immigrant families, very few were white working class.  The article comments that in the latter children are growing up contemptuous of education, an attitude instilled by their non-working parents living in areas lacking jobs.

When I read things like this in the media, I immediately caution myself to keep perspective and remember that newspapers want to sell copy, or take a politically nuanced stance that may emphasise certain facts while ignoring others.   Why are those parents not working and resenting the system so completely – did it fail them too?  How many people are we talking about here – aren’t the vast majority of families full of parents working hard to give their kids opportunities, often in very difficult economic and social environments?  Does the report factor in language fluency? Is the picture as bad as the stats paint it?

22nd out of 24 though.  Hard to explain that away.

I’m as shocked when I read that one in three of our children don’t own a single book, about 4 million of them (see thisarticle).  Given research shows a strong correlation between book ownership and literacy, this too is truly terrible for our society, now and in the future.  What chances do these illiterate young people have without basic life skills?  From society’s standpoint, what is the impact on economic growth, how much time, effort and money will need to be pumped into these individuals to try to redress this start in life or deal with its consequences?  What does it mean for the next generation?

As a person who believes passionately in education as a life-long means and end in itself for a fulfilling life, I don’t quite know what to do with this information.  I love this country and I want my children to love being British while they equally love experiencing and getting to know the wider world.  But these statistics, these quality of life indicators – is this really a healthy and positive society for them to live in?

Japan is top of the literacy table.  I don’t think our answer is tiger mothers, rote learning and cramming schools.  Finland is number two – I also can’t see the Scandinavian model of massive taxation and public services translating well here either.  I imagine it’s hard to cherry pick policies from a very different culture and expect them to work without a lot of investment and commitment.

Apparently, after a world tour of educational approaches and outcomes, top of the action list is that we need better teachers.  “Under-qualified, under-motivated teachers and sub-standard schools are at least partly to blame for England’s poor performance” said Richard Cairns, head of Brighton College and the man doing the world touring.  And yet today sees our junior school among many others across the UK closed due to the teacher’s strike against performance-related pay and other aspects of Michael Gove’s latest reforms.

Really?  I admire and respect all the teachers I know for the jobs they do: it’s a lot of work, full-on days, and often incredibly challenging. It doesn’t look to me like the pay or pay increase potential is particularly motivating and I know zero teachers who do it for the money.  But I don’t understand why performance related pay isn’t a given.  Why would we not incentivise our teachers to do their best to receive greater rewards? And make it less attractive to do a poor job of it?  Surely no teacher except a poor one wants a system that allows poor teachers to get the same rewards as teachers doing a brilliant, or even average, job.

Perhaps the gripe is about the way the performance aspect is implemented or the percentage value.  I’m sure there will always be things that could be done better and I don’t pretend to know the details. Irrespective, it seems to me that fundamental change is needed when the outcomes being delivered are so poor.

I see many examples in life of how small changes make big differences.  The big picture is important, but it’s nothing without the small steps that create it.  I feel hopeful that the changes discussed in this particular article might start to make a dent in this problem.  And I’m relieved that the UK scores better on other quality of life indices (see this helpful OECD site).

As so often when I read articles about issues that touch me, I also feel a little helpless and at sea with what to do with the strength of my feelings.  It feels wrong to read it, react to it, put it aside and go back to life as normal.  But what can I do about it?   The issues are complex, my time is limited, and the options to influence or get involved are so often not realistic, let alone choosing which of society’s issues I believe most passionately in helping address.

Spot the person well beyond the single-minded idealism of youth.

My awareness may be an important first step, choosing my politics and bringing up my own children according to my beliefs two others.  But none of those make a blind bit of different to the illiterate or obese young people in our country today.

I know this is not the England I want to live in.  The question is, what can I, will I do about it.


Girls will be girls…or will they?

I’m a rule follower.  I’ve often wanted not to be – it’s far more exciting and cool to be someone who naturally breaks or makes their own rules.  But I think I can accept I’m not one of them, not as my first instinctive reaction anyway.

But today, I heard something in a workshop that got me ready to snap a rule in half.   So much so, I instantly wrote, underlined, boxed and marked with a big A for Action my passionate desire to do so.

The workshop was about getting children’s books published, hosted by Kate Wilson, owner of Nosy Crow, a children’s book publisher.  Kate made the point that following accepted conventions will help get you published.  One aspect of publishing is the indisputable gender divide.  Books are quite clearly signposted in style and content to boys or girls.  The Grunts or Rescue Princesses.  Mr Gum or Rainbow Fairies.  Diggers or magic ponies.

I find this infuriating.  Are we so determined to stereotype our girls and boys so early in their lives?

As an avid early reader, my daughter has virtually no choice but to reach for the vapid and badly written Rainbow Fairies, or a.n.other book about ballet, fairies, jewels, princesses, magic animals, or possibly gymnastics.  Some of these do, to be fair, include adventure, but it’s so proscribed by these core ‘girl’ themes, it’s seriously depressing.

Don’t get me wrong, Little H enjoys many of these books, and at this tender age of first forays into independent reading, the most important thing is that kids find books they  want to read.  But the books that have got her totally immersed in story and suspense are ones like the Famous Five, Swallows and Amazons, The Faraway Tree series, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and other Roald Dahl classics, Mr Gum, Horrid Henry, Pippi Longstocking.

None of those books, old or new, fall into the ‘girl’ category, I don’t believe, and for that I’m eternally grateful.  I know I sound a bit militant – books about princesses, fairies and the like exist because girls like reading about those things.  But how much of that is conditioning?  If shops weren’t full of pink things for girls, blue for boys, would so many choose it that way?

Surely this is a time for rule-breaking.  There MUST be room for girls to enjoy adventure stories, where female characters aren’t princesses, home-makers like the Famous Five’s Anne  or pseudo-boys like George, nor indeed tomboys uncomfortable in dresses like the Amazons.  Can’t they like fairies AND making dens, dressing up AND muddy jeans, fairytales AND riding bikes?  Does it always have to be rescuing poorly animals or using jewels?

Where are these stories?  Please, tell me if you know some.   Kate Wilson also talked about trends.  Quirky is popular right now, space is on the up.  Disney have put out Brave, their first animated film featuring a female lead character.  Perhaps that is a sign of a trend towards strong, feminine female characters and adventure stories for young readers.  Perhaps publishers have a load of books on their lists that will hit that mark (I can only hope – The Rescue Princesses look like they go some of the way at least so I’ll give those a go).    Perhaps I’m in too much of a minority.  Perhaps I’m denying the reality of what girls want to read.  Perhaps I’d better stop writing this and get down to the library to do some proper research and then get my ideas hat on…

Geek breeding

A friend was telling me her husband is thinking of buying their six year old daughter a kids computer programming thingumijig for Christmas.

“What, you want to turn your daughter into a geek, do you?” I teased.

“Rather than wanting her to be pretty and popular, you mean?” she retorted.

Touche, Mrs L, touché!

Computers and other programmed gadgets are increasingly fundamental to life as we know it.  For our children, they will have no other way of being, will never have known anything else.

So? So…understanding how technology works, being confident with it, and knowing how to manage it will open up a world of possibilities, being able to be a Really Useful Geek. It might even make you a fortune, just look at Mr Microsoft, Mr Apple, Mr IBM, Mr Google, Mr Name-any-other-massive-multi-billion-dollar-techie-enterprise-started-by-a-geek-or-two.

Hang on.  I didn’t see any Miss, Ms or Mrs in that list.  What’s going on?

Now, I’m sure there are some leading light lady geeks out there raking in the profits from their techy-ness, but isn’t it interesting that the ones that trip off my tongue are all of the swinging appendage variety (pendulous boobs excepted of course… then again…)?  Even a quick google search hasn’t given me any comparable world-beating female techie founding… umm… mothers.

In fact, digging into where we actually are in the UK on the first step on that road – girls studying maths and computers – I found a startling statistic in this great article.  Figures show that although in 2011 there was a 60-40 male-female split in those taking A-level maths, the rate was 92-8 in computer science.

Wow.  No wonder there aren’t so many Miss, Ms or Mrs tech geek success stories out there, at least, on this side of the pond.  Is being a geek the new feminist frontier, I wonder?  Women who aren’t frightened of technology and how it works, who make it work for them and do cool stuff with it.  Is that what we should want for our daughters?

I can’t think why not (yes, Mrs L, you are entitled to feel smug here). It doesn’t mean they can’t be good at other stuff, does it.  What it might do is  mean they get further along their educational journey believing they are as capable as their brothers or male peers at technology and, possibly more importantly, finding it fun, interesting and useful.   They can feel in control of it, not vice versa.

And despite my pretty strong maths / engineering education, I wonder if Little H sees enough tech-savvy-ness at home to help her down that road. Well, sees it from me, really, if I’m honest. Because even if you are a girl who got and enjoyed maths at school, even if you studied engineering, even if you went so far as to learn a little bit of C++, you can still be someone who shouts at your phone/ipad/pc/sky box/game console. You can still be helpless after you’ve tried turning said device off and on again.  You can still routinely wonder if throwing or hitting a device would help.  You can still defer demurely to male resilience and enthusiasm in the face of broken technology.  Geek chic might have a way to go, but I think it’s worth a shot.  How about you?

Watch out, pushy parent about

My mum and I bumped into my old boss in our local DIY store on Saturday, and we got to talking about schools, as you do.

“Is she a pushy parent?” he asked my mum. “Hmm, moderately,” she replied.

Ouch.  Thanks for that, Mum. Love you too.

Past my touchy harrumphing, the exchange got me thinking.  Was she right?

First question: what exactly is a pushy parent.  Holding off my reflexive reach for Google, I came up with my own definition:

A pushy parent is willing to go to any length to ensure their child is first or best at everything they (the parent) thinks matters.  A pushy parent is one whose own feelings of worth and validation are achieved through their child(ren), irrespective of the child’s own wishes, interests or happiness. 

So what does the lovely Google offer by way of alternative definitions and how do I fare against them, or indeed against my own.

From Mouths of Babes suggests five signs of potential pushy parenthood:

– If your child speaks more than three languages in pre-school

– If they’re reading chapter length books before they even start school

– If they’re learning more than one musical instrument or three kinds of dancing

– If you’ve entered them in a pageant of any kind before they’re five

– If you actually start expecting them to win stuff – whether it’s sports, academic prizes or beauty pageants

Phew, relief all round.  I’m okay on all five: no baby modelling auditions or child genius hothousing Chez H.  I would add to her point about winning that pushy parents probably express disappointment with their children if they don’t deliver a top performance every time.  I imagine taking part or doing your best doesn’t cut the pushy mustard.

What other definitions did I find… well, Joanna Moorhead writing for The Guardian online offers “fighting to give our children opportunities”.   She goes so far as to suggest good parenting requires pushiness, and if more parents fought for their kids the overall result would be good for everyone.  Hmm.  I guess it depends where people draw the line of good for their own child versus recognising the spectrum of needs overall, but I see sense in her sentiment.

I also agree with her that being an ‘actively involved’ parent is part of the job description.  School can’t do it alone, and personally I don’t want them to.  I find the whole education process fascinating.  I want to understand what the goals are, how they are taught and how I can best support that from home.  Perhaps that makes me pushy, but, to be frank, I don’t care, as long as my interest doesn’t tip into interfering or obstructing or anything else that is about me rather than the children.

Similarly I agree with Ms Moorhead that engaged parents can help schools attain or maintain high standards by not accepting anything less and being willing to be part of the solution.  But is that pushy parenting?  Only if it’s to extreme or to the detriment of others.

Great, so far, so good.  I think I’m still doing okay.

Now, how about someone working with families in a professional capacity.  The Kids Coach defines the pushy parent as “…a parent who wants their child to excel in one or more areas of their life and therefore encourages and motivates them in a forceful way to get to the place that the parent wants them to be.”

Bit harder that one.

I would love my children to excel in something they enjoy and are good at.  Who wouldn’t? Feeling you are achieving and seeing others respond to that can be very motivational and satisfying.  So much the better if it’s something society values and, if they choose it for work, pays good money so they don’t have to struggle to make ends meet.  Of course it’s also easier to talk proudly of your progeny if their chosen passion is socially acceptable, but that’s a pretty broad spectrum these days, whichever socio-economic bracket you fit in.  Our family friends had a bit of a sticky wicket when their  lovely middle-class son chose to exploit a legal loophole on importing magic mushrooms (since closed), but I suspect his line of interest is in the minority.



Would I ‘forcefully’ encourage and motivate them?  It depends.  I do believe a good work ethic is a useful life skill, as is learning the lesson that things worth doing take effort and that effort won’t always feel like fun.  So I’m not going to let them give up on things when they start getting a little bit hard. But there’s a limit when you’re only 6 years old.  Pity the kids with no time to play.  How else do they develop their imagination, their social skills?

When they’re older I can see it getting harder.  Study/practise or go out on the town with your mates.  Commit to a more solitary, focused path or be in the in-gang.  Whichever their path, I hope we succeed in balancing when to push them on versus back off and support them in their own choices.

Finally, I found this blog, with a wonderfully balanced, thoughtful viewpoint I thoroughly agree with.  Key pushy signs to look out for: excessive bragging, forgetting it’s not about you, making your kids the source of your own self-worth and esteem.

Is that me?  I bloomin’ well hope not.  I love my kids dearly but I am a person in my own right.  I don’t think I brag or engage in one-upmanship.  Yes, I ferry my kids round gymnastics, ballet, swimming, football, and will add Brownies, Scouts and no doubt tennis, music lessons in the future.  Would I do this if they didn’t want to?  No, I don’t think so, except swimming which I think everyone needs to learn so they’re safe around water.

So in essence, I agree with bits of each of the articles I’ve found. It’s about where you draw the line.  Drugging a child’s tennis opponents is on the extreme end (seriously, check this Independent article out), but fighting for our child’s opportunities, within reason, is a good thing, as long as we’re also realistic about and stay tuned to our child’s character, limits and needs.

That said, not being pushy is easy when your child’s needs are being met and pushier parents aren’t affecting their opportunities or wellbeing.  Perhaps if we go the private route I need to invest in some metal elbow spikes and skin thickeners, given, so hearsay goes, pushy parents are the norm when thousands of pounds are invested in every term of your darling’s education.

So where am I.  Well, totting myself up on the pushy parent scale, I think I’m right to harrumph at my mother’s character assassination.  As usual, no-one presses my buttons as swiftly or deeply as she does.  Take heed, Mrs H, take heed.

Now where did I leave those sleeping tablets.  I’m sure some of Little H’s gym class could do with a bit of slowing down.