All Change 

I’m picking up her last-day-of-the-summer-holiday clothes from the bathroom floor. Greyed with fun and carelessly crumpled. Today she is wearing her brand new crumple-free uniform for the start of a new term at a new school. From oldest in a primary school to youngest in a secondary school. The stress and expense of the new uniform has plagued our lives for weeks. 

The anxiety and excitement of so much change kept her awake most of the night. Fuelled by adrenalin, her eyes shone as she said goodbye to me, keen to leave, to see her friends and share this first day with those who would understand. We, after all are not going though this as she is…. Little does she know…  I am sad and nervous and proud. This morning she had to get up and be out of the house a good 3-4 hours earlier than she’s been stirring on holiday days. Throughout this coming week there will be belly ache and a sore throat and we, her parents, will suffer the brunt of her tiredness in her efforts to cope. 

I am grateful for mobile phones and social media and all the messages passed between jittery friends in the last couple of days: “Are you wearing short or long sleeves?” “Are you getting a locker?” “Do we need our PE kit?” “Are you wearing socks or tights?” And last night: “I can’t sleep either. I’m too nervous.” This morning a phone call from someone keen to have a companion to catch the bus with. A huge thing to have to travel to school by bus for the first time after years of a five-minute walk. 

There is no doubt secondary school will change her. In what ways I can only guess for now. There is no guarantee she will be happy or unscathed, there is no certainty of anything other than this knowledge that change starts in a big way today and she will have to change to cope, and I’m not sure I’m ready for it. 

Storm SATs and the fright in the night 

shutterstock_356510603Last night Storm Katie rattled the roof tiles of our house in the small hours, clattering them like plates in the kitchen of a busy restaurant. It was disturbing and troubling. But I was far, far, far more troubled and disturbed that the final 4 months of my youngest child’s experience at primary school will be overshadowed by the anxieties of testing, unrealistic expectations and hideously wonky ideas of what getting the most out of schooling are. Her curious mind, her clever word play, her creative soul, her amazing observations; her beautiful choice and use of words in writing to set scenes, evoke emotion, create dialogue, and take the reader to another world. Her thoughtfulness, her wonderful sense of right and wrong and of fairness. None of that will count. She will be judged on technicalities, on her memory of rules, on her speed of taking up these rules and applying them in stressful exam situations. She will feel less able and intelligent than she is, she will feel pressure to perform on behalf of people she has never met and she will feel her worth and ability diminish. She is already frightened and I am having to take measures to deal with her anxiety.

‘What if I fail?’

‘What will happen to me at secondary school?’

I do what I can to tell her her strengths, to praise her, to show her I do not believe in testing for primary age children, and I do not trust these tests – now more than ever. But I can’t give her back these last four months and I can not change the way it means she will be judged by strangers and future education systems because of this.

Childhood should be great. It should be fun. It should be as diversely approached as possible by all of us responsible for the care of children. It is not only wrong but cruel to see it as preparation for work and adulthood. But cruelest of all is this idea that you can set strict standards for developing minds when development in children is so spasmodic and varied from child to child. Squidging all kids through sets of judgements with the very narrowest and limited of definitions of success and therefore creating massive scope to feel failure is like trying to shove a huge great, tangled multicoloured ball of fishing ropes through the eye of a tiny sewing needle. So so much will not fit and has no hope of doing so. And why should it? Why should they?

Why the hell should they?

It’s time to take back childhood.

Bugger the tests. Yes. Bugger them.

 

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Light and Seeds

IMG_1451This afternoon we have to go and see our youngest daughter’s teacher for a parent-teacher mid-term meeting/review thing.

I’ve been a parent for nearly twenty years and had my children assessed and summed up, and I’ve listened to many different approaches and opinions about their educations and development, about their attitude and their effort over the years. It’s not been consistent and, like most parents, we’ve learnt from the experience and ended up making up our own minds about our children. We are grateful for any information, we appreciate any praise, we smile politely at any advice, and we take what we can from it and discard what we believe to be misplaced or misjudged. We can see how we are not all always seeing the same child when we talk about one of them. In the past I’ve heard a couple of adjectives applied to my children by teachers that have really surprised me and which I’ve known to be false.

 

But this is the first time I will go to a parent-teacher meeting knowing that I have Asperger’s and knowing that my child may well have inherited those particular genes. That knowledge throws a whole other very significant ingredient into the mix that is our child – and perhaps our other children.

 

My children will carry my autistic genes. Of that I am sure. Any or all of them or none of them may have their own version of autism. They may simply carry some genes. Without formal testing I may never be one hundred percent sure about any of them. For now, all I have is a big bag of new knowledge and my powers of observation, and one heck of a lot of information under my belt after an incredible amount of delving, reading and paying attention to the world of autism. So far our middle child (our son who is 17) doesn’t seem to have my anxiety or my fears, but both our daughters have shown signs of inheriting my anxiety and some of my sensory processing difficulties and they have all three thrown up some interesting questions about the ease with which they can be squeezed through the narrow tube that is conventional education. It’s too late for me to discuss our elder daughter’s education with anyone now that she is nearly 20 years old – all I can do there is let her know that she carries my genes and has a chance of possessing many of my traits (which are not all bad, I’d like to point out!) but it is not too late to consider what part (if any) autism might be playing in our nine-year-old’s education and childhood.

 

What I’m wrangling with today is just how far that considering goes, and with whom to consider it. Do I wait until a problem becomes too great, until some sort of crisis occurs? Do I keep quiet and hope she “gets away with it”, “pretends to be normal” and hope she learns to shrug things off? Do I assume her father’s non-autistic genes have watered down mine sufficiently for her to be pretty “normally-wired”? Will she muddle through until fifteen until suddenly one day a teacher calls her “difficult” or “impertinent” or another child bullies her and by which time it may be too late to discuss Asperger’s and she may hate me for trying to? I remember how I felt about being told I needed glasses at fifteen. I really don’t think I would have coped with being told I had Asperger’s at that age. I’m sure I would have rejected it and hated anyone who tried to discuss it.

 

From my experience, nine is about the age difficulties begin to trickle in for a high-functioning autistic/ Asperger’s child, and it might be when differences start to be less forgiven by other children and even by teachers. I also know that outsiders can often be quicker than a family to spot differences – after all we are used to our own children. It’s also about the age we notice differences in ourselves, and that can cause us to crave to fit in and therefore become quite secretive about our worries. Fitting in and not being noticed are extremely stressful and hard work and I worry about the long-term effects not just of that fitting in but also of the repeatedly being misunderstood. My gut instinct is that my child has enough of my traits for her to find certain areas of life a bit more of a struggle than other children and that this might become distressing in her teens but that she hides them well now and will never have serious enough problems for teachers to think to consider autism without knowing it is a possibility. I also feel that if it is going to be discussed, sooner is better.

 

So today I am planning to plant a seed. I intend to merely mention to our youngest daughter’s teacher that I have Asperger’s. I’m actually quite scared because I hate talking about myself.

I want, while our daughter is at a school small enough and far enough away from the stresses of more serious formal learning in the future, for her school to know about the genes that she comes from and be ready for any challenges or fears she may face. I can’t guarantee their knowledge of autism will be vast enough to know what they are looking for. I can’t guarantee it will mean as much to them as it does to me. I can’t guarantee they will use Asperger’s as a potential lens to view any troubles or concerns (if indeed there are any). And I can’t guarantee that I will ever get her a diagnosis if one is needed in the future. But a huge wave of meaning came over my life with my own explanations of my difficulties and it would be unfair of me to deny my children that opportunity. And not only my own children but the people who are in a position to provide support. Maybe they’ve already struggled to fathom my child and this will throw new light on their understanding of her.

 

Learning is not a straight line

shutterstock_128134913This is a biggie. I don’t know where to start or stop with this. Where does a discussion around education begin or end? It doesn’t. It just goes around in loops and swirls, wrapping around and weaving through life. You can’t get away from it even if you’re not at school or employed in education.
It’s like all those big things people might be heard to say aren’t for them: politics, feminism, environmentalism. It’s funny because all of those things are for them, about them, to do with them and involve them, but people may be so alienated by language, systems and ideas that they don’t feel involved. And yet we talk about our lives, schools, hospitals, transport, children, energy bills, playing fields, planning permissions, personal struggles, parenting and uneven relationships all the time. We are completely involved in politics, women’s issues and the environment whether we think so or not.

It’s the same with education. We probably feel we are either in it or out of it. We get to a certain age at which we are legally allowed to reject education or draw a line underneath it for a while. If we think we’ve had enough formal institutionalised learning we can get on with earning or living or child-rearing or growing a business or growing prize-winning turnips or travelling the world. Education comes as a construct we are led into and we step out of and then we are not doing it anymore.

“I just don’t want to be in education anymore,” our eighteen year-old daughter said to us yesterday, a day after getting her 6th form college results. No university, no foundation course, no access course, no nothing. She’s had enough learning. Or has she? Has she just had enough of the particular way her education was going?

Learning is not the same as education though – as I am repeatedly reminded. Education is wrapped up in systems, languages and traditions; institutions, instructions and rules; masters and students, lessons and exams, while learning is just something we do all day every day. By stepping outside of the systems of education we don’t choose to stop learning. We choose a different life style.

Despite knowing all this, I’m struggling with our daughter’s decisions. I’m not caught up in any academic or intellectual snobbery, I’m not concerned for her to earn vast sums of money or even avoid being “lumbered” with kids at a young age. I have no problems with any of those things. But I am concerned for her decision not to walk the expected line of education and find she never has the guts to get on it again only to find her ambitions are scuppered through that missing qualification. What I have to separate out in my head here is how much of this is my problem, how much of this is society’s problem and how much of it is her problem? And what do I do or say? Silence can mean so much, sometimes too much. It can signal disinterest – disapproval even, so I can’t say nothing.

So why can’t I just say I love her and I’m proud of her and I’ll be happy whatever she decides?

Well, I have said that – or words to that effect. But I’ve also asked her to think, and to have dreams; to imagine where/how she’d like to be a few years from now and to try to make some choices and set some wheels in motion based on that.

Life choices are difficult at any age. They are difficult for parents too. I can’t tell our daughter she must stay in full-time formal education. Well I can but she’ll just say no. I think I’ve just got to the stage where I can never ever tell her what to do again and that’s scary. Bloody scary.

It’s not a fact that a good education and a degree guarantee you a good job (discuss “good job”): certain educations give you a certain advantage in certain areas. Looking at the people with the most influence over the way our country is run in 2013, a good education is no guarantee of being a great person either. It’s not good having a degree if it didn’t teach you how to think. Many people do seem to use education in a straight, measured way, get what they want and step off. The rest of us want to relate it more to real life and find the conveyor belt system rather unrewarding. It seems in our daughter’s last interview for an art course she didn’t feel, as an artist, her particular taste style and needs would be accommodated for. Instead she would be made to fit.

So maybe, just maybe, learning for our daughter will continue without formal education. Maybe our proud moments will come without a badge, a certificate or a ceremony. Maybe her job interviews will be based on skills and experience or just being a nice, bright person. Maybe her artistic skills will land her a job without a degree, maybe she will go back to college one day and acquire a completely different set of skills. Who knows…? We still are, and will be, proud of her.

I’ve just taken a phone call for her as I was writing this. She applied for a few jobs yesterday and someone’s offered her an interview for a job as kitchen staff. If it’s what she wants right now I hope she gets it and it goes well. All I know is it’s not up to me anymore.

Whatever happens now, she’ll learn something from it – that’s for sure.

I’m still learning that learning is not a straight line for parents either!

Good luck to our first baby on her first year off the conveyor belt.

I might be crying a bit now…



One SPAG fits all

– Why I think even I know more than Michael Gove

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I believe I’m a good people-watcher: one of the best. I’m the first to admit my failings – of which there are many, and I rarely boast, because I really am pretty unfocussed and inconsistent when it comes to absolutely everything else in life, but I do have one thing that I think I’m good at and that is observing my fellow humans. In fact, I am so busy taking in people’s behaviours and mentally recording and reorganising them that I’m pretty socially inept. And I can’t even write or read in a public place because I’m “on the job” of people-watching. (Oh – if only that were a job!). I may not be talking to you regularly, but I promise I am thinking about you all the time!!

I believe our opinions are mainly the result of our experience. But, if our experience is limited only to ourselves and not to observing others then it is very limited indeed. Our experience of our own life, plus what we have witnessed is our own unrecorded (okay, so maybe you’ve recorded yours) scientific study. What we have seen and thought about matters a great deal. I often think it matters more than tables of statistics. But only if it attempts to reach widely.

Take for example my recent arguments with my mother about grammar schools. She was a very bright, capable student, whose future was saved (for want of a better word) by the presence of grammar schools. She passed the 11 Plus, she went onto grammar school; because of her academic abilities she avoided being taken out of school and put into domestic service and was therefore able to go to university, get a degree, do teacher training, meet my dad, and live in a far less impoverished background than she had been destined for had there not been the option of grammar schools. She sees how that system worked for her and could work for other poor, but bright, kids. She thinks the reintroduction of grammar schools would provide that academic option, if you like, for less-advantaged kids in today’s society.

Okay. Stop. But what about all the kids it didn’t and wouldn’t work for? I agree with my mother on most things these days but her argument for grammar schools is based purely on her own experience. That’s not enough. It ignores – even writes off perhaps – all those intelligent kids who are not good at sitting tests, who are not great spellers, even those who deliberately fail because they want to stay with their friends. And it suggests that there are two types of people, and the ones that don’t pass the test are somehow less worthy.

Michael Gove likes where he is today (please don’t think I am in any way comparing him with my wonderful mother though). He likes who he is. He likes his memories of his childhood education and what it gave to him. He thinks he is a success, his education was a success and therefore his experiences should be rolled out across the country.
He and others seem to see people in two camps: those who are academic and those who are not. So simple. Isn’t that just the best and simplest way of looking at things? Hoorah for simplistic thinking!
So. We put everyone through academic tests: If you do well in them, you are academic; if you don’t, you have the option to work harder and try to fit this made up definition of “academic”, or you can resign yourself to the fact that you are not academic and therefore you belong to the pile which, for the purposes of this blog post, I will label “manual worker”. You – the less-academic folk who couldn’t pass the specific tests will feel uncomfortable at school; you will wait impatiently for it all to be over so you can apply to be an apprentice with the hope of being a “manual worker”.
You – the more-academic, who, for the purposes of this blog post , I will call “high achievers” and who could fit the narrow definition of academic, will feel like a success throughout school. You will spend the next few years, studying, knowing you can avoid “manual work” and are perhaps destined for top, managerial, advisory jobs. You are more likely to be well-paid and well-respected. And if you’re not already in them, you can join the top social classes.

That’s everyone sorted. Good and tidy.
Well done Mr Gove.

Bring on the tests!

Schooling over the years has been subject – to a greater and lesser degree – to heavy streaming. Gather up the tests and pop each child into a group according to his or her results. Now I found school easy in the earlier years. This was mainly because it involved putting lots of words and numbers on pieces of paper. I was good at that. I loved writing. My brain was designed for that. I got streamed into top sets, and although I was never the very cleverest in school, I was always up there in the classes with the children perceived to be the cleverest. This made me assume that the “others” in lower groups were less clever than me. And not just less clever: some of them were downright thick. They had to be: they couldn’t write or spell well. “Manual workers”, right?
So I grew up, not only with a distorted opinion of what made people fit the clever and not so clever categories, I also grew up with an opinion that people who worked in ordinary or “manual” jobs were somehow mentally inept. I am very happy to tell you that I don’t think like that anymore.
The trouble is, many people still do.

If you really watch people and listen to them you can see how some amazingly bright people have overcome the stigma of the “squeeze yourself through a pinhole”-style academic testing and have proved their intelligence in other ways. Years later I came across people who I had been at school with – and had had nothing to do with at school – and found them to be incredibly intelligent and interesting despite being in the lower academic groups. I also noticed how some people who were very good at squeezing through the pinhole never quite got over their snobbery of thinking they were somehow superior. Now that’s not very clever, is it?

In my teens and early twenties, I became a “manual worker” for a few years. I didn’t continue or use my education in any way. I worked as a barmaid, as a waitress, as an unpaid housewife and mother (that unpaid stuff is the hardest). I finally started teaching piano for a while and began to observe the different ways children learn. Some of the brightest, most interesting kids, I noticed, simply cannot sit still and listen. And sometimes their handwriting and spelling is appalling. Interesting. Very interesting. I had to redesign my ideas about how you should teach music – and in particular music theory.

I hope he won’t mind me mentioning this, but my husband cannot spell well. He doesn’t remember grammar rules and he hates writing. He is also embarrassed by his own handwriting and he thought for years that he wasn’t very clever. He is actually very clever.
Our first child came along 18 years ago and since then I have been observing my own children not just other people’s. Child number one fitted the pinhole really well. She could have glided painlessly through the SPAG tests – and would even have enjoyed them. She reminds me of my father: an almost photographic memory, a fast reader, an accurate speller. A bit of a pedant, if I’m honest. She’s what you would call bright, academic, clever, intelligent, high-achiever, all of those things associated with getting through tests successfully. The way her brain is arranged just happens to suit the narrow definitions.
But when you sit and talk with any of my children there is nothing to say that she is more intelligent or insightful than the others.
Our second and third children are not pinhole-shaped. Their brains are arranged differently from their older sibling. They struggle a little with spelling and grammar, and writing neatly. They are drawn to different areas of education and, if it were available today, I’m not 100% sure they would pass the 11 plus. Maybe they would. I don’t know. I don’t see them as less intelligent than their sister. In fact, I know they are not less intelligent. But if they were repeatedly rated on their ability to write and spell well I feel sure they would begin to feel less intelligent.

Unless he is stopped, Michael Gove will be testing our 8-year-old on her spelling and grammar in 2 years’ time.

I don’t want him to.

She’s intelligent, inquisitive, interested and loves reading and writing stories. I don’t want anyone pointing out their made up faults and threatening her faith in herself. Through her reading and writing she is finding out why it’s important to make yourself understood and recently she has worked on her handwriting on her own in her room for her own reasons.

I tweeted about this on Twitter this morning. It’s difficult to make a point in tweets, so I’ll be careful what I say, but a couple of people joined in and one point made was that if spelling/grammar isn’t taught in schools then it makes life difficult at university. I agree that any university professor’s life must be made very difficult by under-prepared students, but teaching based on tests prepares none but a very few for anything -especially at a very young age. It’s not fun, it doesn’t provide a reason for learning according to a young person’s logic, it’s time-consuming, and it’s demeaning for those who don’t fit. For those who find spelling and grammar a slower process, the emphasis must be on content. It must be on content for all of us, surely? Spelling is a part of the education process, sure, but there must be a line drawn on how much it’s allowed to take over a child’s life.
Someone else pointed out that once children had “got over” the tests they could then reap the benefits of what they had taught them. My concern is that the very testing itself may not be a problem getting over. It may be the importance placed on them. It’s a little young to be dealing with issues of failure. Show them the words, show them how to use them, why make them sit tests? Make words fun instead. Make them mean something. We can’t have people growing up being afraid of the written word. It’s tragic.

One in Twelve: how we invent problems

The ugliness of uniformity and weeding things out.

Daffs

In a clump of about twelve daffodils under a tree in our front garden, there is one daffodil facing a different way from all the others. The rest of the group face in a general southerly direction, but this one daffodil faces north. It is as tall and strong and straight and healthy as all the other daffodils. It looks just like a normal, bright, yellow daffodil, but something has caused it to take a different direction in its growth, and therefore face a very different world from all the others. It seems to have a pretty good life though. To its right in the morning is the sunrise, to its left in the evening is the sunset. It faces the birds nesting in the hedge and the traffic going by. Daffodils have so much character in their appearance one can almost imagine it is looking out on the world (well, I can imagine it).

I relate to this daffodil. I feel as if things about my early growth caused me to take an individual view on the world. I crouched in the wet grass to photograph it being all different and taking an alternative view on life, and I sniggered “Ha. Good on you, pal.”

I guess in a perfect show garden, in a public garden, in a neat little controlled garden this one daffodil might have been sacrificed, plucked out, discarded for not fitting in. It might have been planted in an orderly formation in a perfectly boxed-in little patch of neatly-bordered ground, and when it didn’t quite line up it may have been removed or replaced. Some people can’t cope with visual difference or glitches to their own idea of order. “It’s just the same in almost every way,’’ perhaps an obsessive gardener might have observed, “but… well… there’s something about it that makes my ordered, daisy-free, straight-lawned world look messy.”

I often look at the ideas of an ordered world that our systems and societies try to create. In institutions such as schools with their rules and their uniforms, for instance, there’s an obsession with making everyone look the same, making them fit. This insistence on order says, “Don’t embrace difference, don’t accept wonky, individual, new or surprising, and for heaven’s sake don’t challenge our idea of the norm.” Uniforms are getting smarter and smarter and more and more samey. The idea of smart samey children troubles me enormously.

I wonder how life would be for all the thousands and thousands of children who grew up being the one in twelve – who wanted to face a different way from all the others – if teachers, parents and society had said “Good on you, pal.” I wonder what life would be like for the other 11 in every twelve who did find it easy to do what they were supposed to do, to have been allowed to witness that it’s okay to have something about your classmates that makes them seem a bit unusual. Maybe some of them could have been more brave about their own differences, and would have learnt to accept that just because someone has something about them that causes them to look at things differently from you doesn’t make them all that weird. Maybe we would all be better at just allowing, just accepting, just letting be if we weren’t so focussed on sameness being a positive thing.

My intense dislike of uniforms probably amuses others. Especially those who see them as benign, harmless or even good for everyone. I see them as the quite the opposite. I see uniforms not only a symptom of a society gone wrong but also a cause. They are anything but benign. Uniforms are for grouping together and for separating out. They are for armies to show whose side we are on and to identify the enemy; they are for workplaces to show who is serving and who is the paying customer. They divide people and they create subservience. Uniform says you need to look like everyone else or you are not with us. It says defining us by looks is important. It encourages us to weed out anything that doesn’t fit: to fight an enemy, or to send home a child who doesn’t look like all the others at school. It teaches children that fitting in and looking the same helps you get on in life.


Looking different may not even allow you in.

The message this gives is “If you want to be with us sort out the way you look first. If you can’t, you’re out.”

Nuts.

My suspicion is that there are probably at least 2 children in every class with a strong need to express their difference and many others who would like to be quietly non-conformist without the attention. But they are all squeezed in or kicked out. Sometimes discarded like a weed or planted elsewhere.

Now I’m older I don’t think of myself as the only one who felt a bit weird or a bit as if I was looking at things differently from everyone else. I feel like I’m one of the one in twelve, who probably exists in almost every situation, and who feels this way. There are loads and loads and LOADS of us! And I often wonder how many of the other eleven secretly sympathised with us and would love to have joined us if they hadn’t been forced to fit in. Maybe they would like to turn around to see the birds in the hedge too.
But maybe it’s too late for some of those who were forced to fit so much that they can’t ever look at things differently; their brains have be trained to admire 12 straight daffodils and no weeds without questioning why that might be a bit bonkers.

Yesterday, I was fairly pleased, after fifteen years of the damn things, to finally read a school report that didn’t suggest one of my children needed to change in any great way. Ever since our eldest child’s first report at age three, we have been told our children are too something-or-other, not enough this, perhaps a bit that. There has often been some unnecessary character assassination. In this latest report for our youngest, there was reference to her messy handwriting as a concern but no mention that she needed to change who she was. I felt it was okay for her to be her and that there was perhaps a certain amusement and fondness even for her character. I’m not going to let her get uptight about her writing though. From my previous experiences, a child who is concerned about his or her handwriting – especially because of what adults want from them – tends to tense up and write in an inhibited way and it can make things worse. She loves making up stories and has a marvellous imagination but already refuses to sit at the table and write at home because she says she does enough of that at school and she doesn’t enjoy the actual physical process of writing (<- my choice of words!). Her father struggled with his handwriting and too much was made of it and he never recovered; her brother struggled with his handwriting and I tried to not let too much be made of it, and these days he writes just fine; now here’s our youngest “struggling” with her handwriting too and I don’t want her worried or discouraged by expected standards. When I say “struggling”, I actually mean “isn’t writing as neatly as is expected for their age group” and “isn’t reaching the required standard”

But if it wasn’t for these required standards there wouldn’t be a problem. It seems to me we invent problems -which is a bit silly because there are enough real problems already.


I’m keeping a close eye on the next clump of daffodils about to flower. I hope there’s one facing it’s own way again and that there’ll be others just generally looking relaxed about their free-thinking neighbour.


And do I pull out weeds? Do I remove things that don’t fit in my own garden? Yes I do – I don’t want unwelcome plants crowding out my vegetable patch.

But weeds are not people.

People are not weeds.

Who packed your head?

When I finished my degree with the Open University in May, I decided that as soon as I got my final result – and if I passed – I would write about studying with the OU.

My result arrived at the end of July but I realised I didn’t know what to write, or – more to the point – what not to write. It’s been an on and off experience that started twelve years ago with the last three years being the most intense so there’s a danger of a lot of back story. I sat down and started to write something two weeks ago, but it became a rather dull account of the courses I’d taken, and as I was writing it I was saying to myself, ‘No, this isn’t it. This is crap.’

I don’t want to jump up and down yelling, ‘I’ve got an honours degree!’ I never began adult learning to get a degree and I’m glad I didn’t take that approach. I took courses because I wanted to know stuff and I wanted to use my brain. I became addicted to opening my head and tweaking with the wiring. The degree has been a bonus – which has arrived just at a time when I can’t afford to take any more courses (now called modules).

There are points I want to make about learning and thinking; about the connections between learning and society, and about how less statistical, less mechanical-based learning and a bigger focus on discussions, ideas and theories might not only make us more curious and open-minded but might also make us better and more useful members of society ready to consider new ideas and with the skills to challenge things.

Of course there are facts, of course there are statistics, of course there are rules in any field, but I think they should all come with a zipper like a luggage bag that we can open up in order to challenge the contents and ask who put them there. And, I think most importantly, that this “Did you pack your bag yourself?” type question should apply to our own brains too. We need to examine what’s in our own heads: Did you pack your own brain? Did you look at what went into it and why? Do you know what’s in there and who put it in there? Is it all stuff that you need and is useful to you? I see you have the times tables and periodic tables in there – is that really going to be useful to you where you’re going? And your holiday reading: ‘Exact and Accurate Facts About the Romans: you’d better believe it.’ by Professor Pompous N. Narrow-minded – Hmmm… are you sure you wouldn’t prefer ‘How to Make an Interesting Picture of Roman Life Through Archaeological Finds’ by Many and Various?

School seems to have tried (pretty unsuccessfully) to teach me who did what and when, what happens when you mix this with that, how to sit quietly, how to obey rules. How not to think for myself… I didn’t see the point of carrying on with this kind of education and I still don’t find it very useful.
I remember sitting in a physics lesson and the teacher telling the class “this does that” and “that does this” and me thinking, ‘Why…? Why though?!?’
In history lessons, we were told, “So and so did this”, “another person said that”, “the people thought something else.” ‘But, how do you know?’ I thought. ‘You’ve only given me one person’s word for this.’ And as for telling me we know that God and Jesus said and did things based on some books that a bunch of blokes wrote down years later…! Well…

Other people seemed to accept the “facts”, the rules, the processes as sets of information to be memorised and regurgitated. They repeated them in tests, they scored the points. I didn’t learn like that. I don’t learn like that. I needed a point, a reason; proof of how we know something and how it might be useful. I want to see things working, being applied to life, otherwise what’s the point?

I don’t mind uncertainty, experts having different opinions, and having to weigh up a rough probability based on different evidences. I wish I could go back in time and try this approach on the young Rachel. Would she have responded differently? I know that when our youngest comes home from her Church of England primary school telling me that God did this and Jesus did that I want to shake her and say, ‘Question your sources! Don’t accept things just because that’s what the person telling you believes! Your beliefs should be a result of looking at all sides of things.’

Some people’s studying always has an end goal by choice or by financial/career necessity. But having an end goal, studying for that one purpose, concentrating on what it takes to pass, managing to stick with that, achieving that and getting the desired job that requires that set of knowledge doesn’t fit with the way my mind works. It doesn’t fit with my idea of educating people for life.

What I’ve found through studying many and varied courses with the OU is how to take a good look inside my own brain. It’s taught me to think about what I think and why, what I want to know and why, and how new knowledge from many different academics in many different fields has helped me not only to see that learning is not the same as facts, but that being anxious about memorising stuff was seriously hindering my learning process.

I don’t think I would have come to the place I am today if it wasn’t for the Open University. Where else can you chop and change course like that, have many many interests like that, obtain a degree that’s in not one, not two, not three but several different areas like that? How else can you improve yourself like that without even leaving your house, fit everything around family and work, and send assignments sitting up in bed at midnight? I’ve realised that I don’t come easily packaged, I don’t want to shine in one area, I am happy to be a jack of all trades – easily distracted by something I haven’t tried before. I am a human being first and foremost. An imperfect, curious, questioning, open-eyed, open-minded person. I’ve learnt to question myself, and challenge my intolerances (most of which I had no right to have) and preconceptions. I’ve learnt that poetry is not actually scary or that difficult! I’ve learnt that statistics are a feeble way of trying to prove an argument, and I’ve learnt that people can’t be trusted and yet people can be trusted. I’ve learnt that having a degree is not necessarily the same as knowing loads of things or the same as being a good learner.

I think it’s really important not to plonk ourselves in one field in life: to only look at things from one perspective. I think it’s important to see thinking and information as unfixed, as fluid, as never-ending.
I studied technology, social sciences, the arts, psychology, health and social care, literature, creative writing, and in my daily life I am interested in music, in writing, in taking photographs, how the news is reported, how we are affected by TV and media. I’ve seen how philosophy runs through all of these things: how we think the way we do, why we live the way we do, and most importantly how we must observe ourselves and all of humankind and discuss these things.

Many times over the last 2 weeks whilst thinking about writing this piece, I’ve thought how things I’ve heard or seen apply to what I want to say here. That just goes to show really how important learning and keeping learning, how thinking and discussing and challenging must be available to all and must be encouraged.

We can’t just rely on packing our brains with preconceptions, or unchallenged information delivered mechanically.

We need to know ourselves to improve ourselves.

I’m proud of myself. Very proud that I’ve looked inside my head and allowed it to be challenged, tweaked, added to and, for the purposes of being a life-long learner, I’ve had a zipper fitted.

I’m glad I’ve got a degree but above all I’m glad I improved my way of looking at things. I KNOW it has made me older, fatter, messier, untidier, frustrated, cynical… a much better person.

Not competing is healthy too

As a writer, as a mother, as a member of society, as a musician, as an ex-school girl, as a small business person (I’m not particularly small though!) and as an observer of the media I’ve seen the effects of and discussions around competitiveness throughout my life and something is bugging me. It’s this statement:

“Competing is healthy.”

Well I’m here to say, just a cotton-picking minute! That statement is incomplete!
There are all sorts of words and opinions excluded from that.

This is more like it:

“It is believed by many that competing is healthy but it is by no means necessary have competition in order to be happy, fit, or successful in what one does. Although many enjoy competition, many others do not and, unhappily, find it is forced upon them. Competition is about winners and losers. There are many areas of life and many situations where winners and losers are not appropriate and competition can actually be damaging or destroy one’s enjoyment of an activity. Whilst some people may feel they need to compete, their views should not be imposed upon those who don’t and can cope perfectly well – if not better – without competing at anything.”
(Those are the words I’ve come up with just now. I will probably think of one hundred more throughout the day)

Competing is not for me. It doesn’t make me feel healthy at all. I don’t want to stop other people competing but I wish I could stop it being enforced on those who don’t enjoy it and don’t benefit from it. I also wish I could dispel the myths about competition because I think many of them ARE myths – especially when people say that competition is THE way to create team spirit and communal sense of achievement. It is not THE way, it is A way. There are many things that can be created, built, achieved and enjoyed (including physical activity) together that create community and bonding without winners and losers. In fact I’ve been more physically active whilst deliberately avoiding the Olympics and it has involved absolutely no competition whatsoever.

I don’t enter writing competitions, for instance. I am aware of writing competitions and had a period of about 2 months of my life where I attempted to enter about 3 but I found that I wrote badly and lost my natural flow when thinking about being judged. I write for the sheer love of it, for the almost physical need to just do it, to create, to share, to make something. I don’t want or need to win anything. I have also been involved in reading writing that is being judged and can see how damaging it can be, how subjective it is and how not only does good writing not always win but the winners are not always my favourite. I worry that people think they need to win things in order to feel a sense of fulfilment in what they do. It’s not for everybody but I think people are swept up into tides of common thinking and don’t always stop to think what suits them.

As a mother I see how awards and grades and comparing oneself with others all the time creates neediness. Children find they feel a need to always be better than others and when they can’t be they can be unhealthily disappointed, or even quite unpleasant. These outcomes could be avoided if children were just encouraged to enjoy what they do. I’m not saying, ‘No competitive sport.’ Those that want it can go get it rather than everyone being forced into it and feeling they have to opt out like loser. When I was a school pupil I felt the constant comparing almost unbearable and not a true measure of ability. Top grades does not mean most intelligent yet those who don’t find themselves at the top of the class feel less worthy. I think we are teaching the wrong sets of values.

It upsets me incredibly that we have an almost pack-like mentality in that we have to arrange ourselves into some sort of order like dogs. The angriest, the fastest, the greediest, the bossiest – the most competitive of us all is considered the best. But it’s simply not true that he is. The cave man who runs the fastest, pushes other cavemen out of the way, grabs the meat and gets to eat it all himself is the pushiest but he’s not the best and he has deprived others. It’s an attitude I see in business and instead of being applauded it should be frowned upon as Neanderthal.

Recently the obsession with winning has exploded because of the Olympics. Games with winners and losers as entertainment seems to work. It’s fun (as I have observed! I don’t enjoy it at all though). But whole lives centered around winning and losing?

I don’t think so.

Please stop thinking competition is good for everyone or a necessary part of civilised society. Because it simply is not true.

It isn’t.

No it just isn’t.

No. Shut up.

Safety in numbers

The person with the new and different idea is wrong!
The person with the new and different idea is wrong!

We are unfamiliar with this way of thinking. It is too new!

We must keep repeating old mantras
We must keep repeating old mantras

The person with the new and different idea must be made to fit!
And if they don’t fit they shall be outcast, dismissed, looked at curiously and slightly sideways.

The person with the new and different idea is questioning our ways!
The person with the new and different idea is questioning our convictions!

This person dares to ask us for evidence that our ways are best and the different idea might be wrong!
But we don’t need evidence for common knowledge.
What a fool…

There are more of us.
We all agree
The person with the new and different idea can not be right.

But the person with the new and different idea is putting that idea into practice!
The person with the new and different idea is not failing!

We will ignore the not failing part and concentrate on old mantras.

That way will not work
That way will not work

The old ways are the best

Alternative ways of thinking are too scary

We must keep repeating old mantras
We must keep repeating old mantras

I heard someone actually tried that in another country and it might have been okay, quite good even… Old mantras? Right… No it doesn’t fit those…
We’ll shout them loudly so the person with the new and different idea can’t be heard.

On The Button

I’m celebrating 2 years since my first attempt at flash fiction by sharing that first story from July 2010 (which is in fact more like a short story than a flash)
(Isn’t it funny – and rather worrying – how only 2 years ago I thought of sponsored academies as fictitious)

‘Zophar, listen.’ Luna crouched before him on the pavement. ‘You can get out whenever you want, okay?’
Zophar nodded, looking past his mother to the others. His body was poised in politeness towards his mother but in anticipation of other children, his eyes looked ahead to his new schoolmates and he willed her to say goodbye.
‘Did you Anti-Germ your hands?’
Another nod.
‘Where are your disposable toilet seat covers?’
Zophar patted his backpack.
‘And mask? Remember which pocket?’
More nodding.

His father opened the driver door of the car and the airlock was released with a Clop. Shhhhhhhh. He stepped out carefully, holding a green canister, spraying into the air as he approached.
‘Another squirt of Pollute Repel for luck.’ He misted the air around Zophar’s head and tiptoed back to the car, as if trying to avoid making contact with the ground. ‘One last button test, perhaps Luna?’ he called, slipping back into the car and sealing himself in.
‘Yes. Quick button run-though,’ said Luna. Tell me again.’
‘Emergency Back-Off spray, emergency water purifying tablet.’ Zophar’s fingers ran downwards over the buttons on his blazer at speed as he rushed through the list. ‘Emergency anti-viral pill, emergency contact button, emergency detox spray button.’ He touched his cuffs next. ‘Panic buttons. Now can I go?’ The five-year-old jiggled impatiently.
‘Anytime at all, if you are worried,’ continued Luna, ‘if someone touches you, if someone coughs near you, if the toilets are dirty. Any reason. You hear me? We’ll get you out straight away. Just press those cuff buttons. And when the car brings you back remember: shoes in the porch, through the first entrance door, blazer off, then through the airlock and straight to the arrivals shower. Don’t come in with your shoes and blazer and don’t touch the cruise control in the car on the way home. You hear me?’
‘I know, I know, you said. Now can I go?’
‘Okay.’ Luna kissed the air, not touching Zophar. ‘Go baby. Take care. Remember: buttons!’ She mimed pushing buttons as he ran off. ‘And don’t run or you’ll fall and touch the ground and I’ll have to take you home!’

Luna clasped her hands in front of her chin. ‘Good luck. Come home safely,’ she whispered.

Zophar scampered up the steps as fast as he thought he would get away with. He was more happy and excited than he could ever remember being.

This was better than birthdays. There were other children here.

The entrance was massive. It took up one whole side of the building.
‘Prevention Pharmaceutical’s Academy of Learning and Science welcomes you all and asks that when you enter the building, you do not share a door pod with anyone else,’ came a voice from within the walls.
Robotic eyes shifted around and each pod spoke instructions through hidden speakers as one hundred children at a time were allowed to enter the first segment where they were instantly separated by screens that held the children in stalls as they were scanned for identification and viruses.
Immediately three boys were locked in and a voice told them to wait until cars arrived to remove them.
Some newcomers were familiar with screening and airlocks. They stood patiently while the eyes and scanners moved around them. But the others, from older housing out of the city had not experienced Entrance Pollution Prevention.
Zophar could hear cries of ‘I want to go home,’ ‘I don’t like this,’ while others sobbed and tried to back out.
Luna had told him about the entrance and how other boys weren’t used to it. ‘They’ll soon get domesticated,’ she had said. ‘Everyone learns eventually.’

Next they were filtered into a huge glass cube. It was one of six on three levels. A voice told them to wait for the professors to collect them.
In this mix of trained and untrained five-year-olds, the difference was obvious to Zophar: the untrained boys had less shiny clothes and they didn’t have emergency blazer buttons. Zophar worried for them. But they didn’t look bothered. A few of them started talking to each other and they even tried to talk to the trained boys. Luna had said to keep away from untrained boys because they weren’t treated. He wondered if it would be safer to hold his nose then he wouldn’t be sharing their air. He held his breath for twenty seconds and gave up.
An untrained boy had been watching him. ‘I can hold my breath loads longer than that.’
‘Ludo’s the best at holding his breath. He swims underwater,’ said another boy.
‘He goes swimming?! Wow…’ Zophar stared.
‘Ye-ah, loads of us go. It’s really good for you.’ The boy threw off his blazer and mimicked breaststroke. ‘Gives you strong muscles. My dad said so.’
Zophar, Ludo and some others took off their blazers too, giggling as they ran in circles pretending to swim.

‘Why are your buttons so big?’
Zophar turned to see Ludo wearing his blazer and fiddling with the cuff buttons.
‘No! Don’t!’
The airlock opened and a robotic sensor promptly identified Zophar’s blazer. Ludo was shunted gently towards the door pods.
‘Please wait until your car arrives,’ said a voice.

From the door pods Ludo was directed into Zophar’s family car and within minutes he was lowered out at Zophar’s house.
A woman’s voice from a wall speaker said he could try school again tomorrow and she was glad he was home. ‘And remember:’ she said, ‘shoes in the porch, through the first entrance door, blazer off then through the airlock and straight to the arrivals shower. Don’t come in with your shoes and blazer on.’

Luna waited outside the bathroom with clean towels. She stared; horrified at the sight of the strange, untreated boy and then she hyperventilated.

Zophar’s father left Ludo in the entrance while he arranged his collection. Then the house and car were treated before the car was sent to collect the right boy this time. It had all been too risky and too stressful – Luna would home-school Zophar from now on.


This story is now published as an e-story from Ether Books:

(N.B. Thanks to Norman Geras – @normblog , who very kindly supplied me with the inspired prompt word: “prompt” when I asked on Twitter!)