Monthly Archives: March 2014

Blustery Berry Head

The weather here on Saturday was decidedly Devonian: gorgeous clear blue skies one second, wind, rain and white horses the next. And repeat. I kept being about to take Arthur out for a walk when the clouds would roll in and it suddenly didn’t seem all that attractive. Come mid-afternoon I decided we should venture out anyway – if nothing else it was a great excuse to get Arthur kitted out in his very cute rain gear.

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The photo above was taken soon after I released Arthur from the sling (the first bit of the walk to Berry Head is a bit challenging for a newly toddling baby) and captures the moment when he met his very first puddle! I’d forgotten from my boring grown-up perspective that the rain brought with it these little marvels of splashes and reflection, but he was absolutely transfixed.

We decided it was time to move on when Arthur was about to get down on his hands and knees for a closer examination of this new phenomenon, and he was soon distracted by the abundance of dogs dragging their owners out for an afternoon stroll. He’s obsessed with dogs at the moment, and is going round woofing at everything. They were remarkably tolerant of it, considering.

After a few more puddles…

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…and a fair amount of toppling over as his enthusiasm got the better of his balance (note to self: wellies do not the most stable toddling footwear make), the wind and rain rolled in again and we made a break for home.

We hadn’t needed to be out long for Arthur to enjoy his adventure, and it had no doubt done us good too to get some fresh air and blow away the cobwebs.

It was brilliant to see him enjoying being outdoors so much, even if the weather wasn’t perfect. Now all I need is to get myself a matching rain suit and we’ll be sorted!

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Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

Comprehensive, creative and democratic: my three wishes for education

With another national teacher’s strike looming next week, I’ve been pondering a lot about just what is wrong with our education system at the moment. As a former teacher, a governor and a parent, I fully support the difficult decision NUT members have made to strike. Of course a strike will cause disruption, but with the rhetoric often levelled against teachers in the press it’s easy to forget that ultimately the people who will suffer in a dysfunctional system are our children. Teachers who are overworked, undervalued and disillusioned will not be able to provide the education our children need and deserve. As the professionals at the frontline of Gove’s misguided reforms, society needs to trust teachers when they say that things are not OK in our nation’s schools – and to support them in the face of the bullies who are powering on regardless.

However as well as thinking about everything that is going wrong with the education system under the Tories’ guard, we mustn’t forget to hold on to our core beliefs about how our education system should be. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the minutae, particularly when any time to think is being eroded at an ever-increasing rate. Every teacher I know entered the profession with a philosophy that guides the choices they make in and beyond the classroom and keeps them focused on what’s really important. It would be a sad day indeed if, when teachers finally feel able to raise their heads above the parapet, they realise that the barrage Gove has unleashed upon the profession has eroded those core beliefs that led them into the classroom in the first place.

With this in mind, I’ve revisited my own philosophy of teaching and condensed it into three wishes for education: three core things which I believe if we could find a way to encompass would create a system fit for our young people and the futures they will carve for themselves and for society.

I wish our education system could be:

1) Comprehensive

I am a staunch supporter of comprehensive education: a system which rises above the divisions and inequalities in our society. As a teacher (and now as a governor), I gravitated towards schools that were called comprehensive, but the problem with our current system is that no school can truly call itself that.

Whilst we have a system that includes private schools and grammar schools – and increasingly a confusing patchwork of options which chip away at the comprehensive ideal in different ways – then the schools that are left are missing vital sectors of society. In order to have a system that everyone – particularly the most powerful and influential – is invested in, we need everyone to be a part of it.

I have made no secret of the fact that I went to private school – and have written about why I wish I hadn’t. Many people I speak to dismiss the idea that we could get rid of private schools in this country as naive. Perhaps it is, but it isn’t without precedent. The much-revered education system in Finland has no private schools – they were abolished in the 1970s – and its achievements come from a focus on equity rather than excellence. Public figures from Warren Buffett to Alan Bennett have called for the abolition of private schools to promote social justice. If Gove was really serious about the gap between rich and poor in this country being “morally indefensible”, then I would have thought private schools should be the first thing to go.

Personally I wouldn’t stop there though – in order for our system to be truly comprehensive I’d get rid of grammar schools too. There are only 164 of them anyway, against over 3000 secondary schools in total, and they are concentrated in particular geographic areas where they undermine the comprehensive system: heaping pressure on parents to try to do the right thing by their children and skewing the intake and results of schools that do not select by ability.

And whilst on the subject of ability, I’d actually go one step further in my quest for a truly comprehensive system and, as Finland has done, outlaw setting by ability even within schools. The damage it causes to the aspirations and self-esteem of children consigned to bottom sets is indefensible, and evidence collected over thirty years indicates that, counter to popular opinion, it actually damages pupils’ achievement.

Our schools should obviously be places of academic learning, but they are about so much more than that too: by making them truly comprehensive we could begin to build a better society from the outset.

2) Creative

The second foundation of my ideal education system would be creativity: not just in the curriculum, but underpinning the system as a whole.

Particularly at the moment, with the sidelining of arts subjects in the secondary curriculum as a result of the now-defunct EBacc, school seems to be a journey away from creativity for young people. As pre-school children their minds are open and alert to a multitude of ways of seeing and interacting with the world, but for many as they move through the exam factory their minds are narrowed. This is of concern not only for the creative industries: as the human race faces increasingly complex challenges, creative thinking is key to find solutions to the new problems we face.

So much of what Gove seems to want to do to the curriculum is backward looking: a return to a 1950s education stuffed with facts at the expense of learning. We need to encourage our young people to think, not just to regurgitate, if they are ever going to be well equipped for their futures: futures which in reality we know close to nothing about.

This space to think is a privilege that should be extended to our teachers and school leaders, too. No-one is saying that our schools were perfect before Gove came along, but education professionals need to be give the time and professional autonomy to creatively develop a system that really works. There is a wealth of research that can be drawn on to encourage this, and teachers should be encouraged to do their own research too to find out what helps their students in their classrooms. I was lucky enough to engage in such research whilst completing my Master of Teaching qualification, and it was incredibly powerful for my motivation and sense of pride in my work – something which all our teachers deserve.

Teachers don’t need to be told how to do their jobs by the government any more than young people need to be told what to think by their teachers. A system built on creativity would allow all stakeholders space to grow.

3) Democratic

The third thing that I believe should be at the heart of education is democracy – again both within and beyond the classroom, for pupils and teachers alike.

I believe in child-centred learning. Not in the unfocused, wishy washy way that has recently been denigrated in the media, but in a way that puts the child at the centre of their learning experience and structures an appropriate learning journey around them. There are a myriad of ways that this approach can manifest itself in schools: from getting students’ input into policies and procedures, from enlisting their help in planning schemes of learning, or simply by providing them with projects where the outcomes are not set in stone but can be crafted by their interests. Even better are approaches where young people’s learning can be rooted in projects whose impact is felt beyond the school gates, helping them see that their efforts really can bring about change in their communities.

For so many young people, there is so little about their lives they can control. In our schools we should teach them that what they do does matter, that they can have a positive impact on themselves and society by the choices they make.

Teachers and school leaders too need to feel that they are part of a democracy. There is not much worse for morale than feeling like your voice doesn’t count, and yet this is the reality for the majority of professionals in education under Gove’s regime.

Of course in all of this someone is going to have the final say: but everyone benefits from listening to the people who are really affected by what happens in our education system, and very few do if they are silenced.

So there you have it: I wish for an education system that is comprehensive, creative and democratic because I believe that is what is best for our young people and for our society. When you think about the teachers striking on Wednesday, remember that they too will have strongly held beliefs that are at the core of what they do, however much the government and the media may try to represent their actions as selfish and narrow minded. And if you are a teacher, or a parent, or in fact anyone with an interest in education, I’d love to hear your ideas too. What are your three wishes for education? How can we create a system that will work – now and for the future?

Thank you to Sara at ‘Mum turned Mom’ who inspired this post with her prompt: ‘If I had three wishes…”

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Word of the Week: Roots

Today the word that sums up the week that was is:

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As someone who moved around a fair amount when I was growing up, my roots have always been important to me. I was born in Wales, and for the first eight years of my life lived an idyllic existence of hanging upside down from trees and running through actual cornfields. Then we moved to Birmingham. I’ve nothing against Birmingham – in fact eight years later when we were relocating again, this time to London, I was on the verge of moving out of home so I could stay. But it’s never held quite such an important place in my heart.

I’m very proud of my Welshness. Technically I’m half English – but having been born in Abergavenny the Welshness always wins. I’ve always felt a bit bad about not speaking any Welsh – I can just about manage the national anthem, but I definitely deserved the incredulity levelled at me by a group of Bangladeshi boys I once worked with as a teaching assistant when I had to admit that I didn’t speak the ‘language of my country’ as they put it.

Anyway. I digress. The real reason I’ve been thinking about my roots this week is because last weekend we went to Wales: to Cardiff – to catch up with family, and of course for that great bastion of Welshness, the rugby.

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It was Arthur’s second rugby International at the Millennium Stadium, and his first Six Nations. I wasn’t sure at first about taking a baby to such a big and busy stadium, but with the trusty Connecta it was remarkably easy – and he loved it.

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There were at least two other babywearing mums there this time too: one who even made it on to the big screen, and another who I chatted to as we walked down the stairs after what was a undoubtedly successful game for Wales. It always impresses me how civilised the city is on match days. The whole place closes down to traffic, and I’ve never seen any trouble amongst the swarms of pedestrians who take over.

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Despite this we didn’t stay out on the town for long – I think that would have been pushing it with Arthur. We had a lovely evening with my Dad catching up with my Aunt and Uncle. I love that Arthur’s getting to spend time with his extended family – though to be honest he was most interested in the dog.

The next day we managed to catch up with my Great Aunt and my Grampa. I think it was the first time Arthur’s met his Great Great Aunty, but his Great Grampa has been there since day one: he was in the pub with the rest of my family when Arthur was born at home, and climbed the two flights of stairs to meet him when he was only three hours old.

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It was pretty special taking Arthur to Grampa’s house. I have been going to that house since I was a baby, and it’s remained a reassuring constant with all the different family homes we’ve had over the years. Whilst he wasn’t too impressed with our conversation, Arthur was very taken by the drum that has stood on Grampa’s stairs for as long as I can remember. He and Granny brought it back from Africa having lived there for over twenty years, and I have fond memories of playing it with similar enthusiasm with my brothers and cousins.

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I know that Wales will never hold the same significance for Arthur as it does for me: he is setting down his own roots in Brixham, and I’m happy that this will be his home town. But I’m glad I’m getting the opportunity to add a touch of Welshness to his early memories – between the rugby and his extended family he’ll never be able to escape it altogether.

The Reading Residence

Becoming a mum: babywearing

Alongside breastfeeding, I think the most significant choice I’ve made as a mother is to wear my baby. A lot. Getting to grips with babywearing transformed my experience of motherhood, and it continues to give us a special combination of closeness and freedom that I’m not sure how I would have otherwise achieved.

One of the first books I read as a new mother, once I’d decided that actually some informed advice would be useful before I scared myself silly on internet forums, was ‘The Baby Book’ by William and Martha Sears. I had a hunch that I might be leaning towards an attachment parenting approach – not something I’d really considered before Arthur was born – and reading this book seemed to help everything fall into place.

Of course in the early days I didn’t have much choice but to be attached to my baby. Our struggles to get breastfeeding established meant spending an awful lot of time snuggled up in bed, and even when Arthur wasn’t feeding I found I rarely wanted to put him down. We’d bought a Babasling before he was born having been recommended one by some friends, but though I used it for our first family stroll when Arthur was only a few days old neither of us really got comfortable with it.

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I figured I’d maybe try again when he was a bit bigger, and consigned myself to spending my days stuck on the sofa. The turning point came when I had a visit from a neighbour. She’d just come across to check up on me really – make sure I wasn’t struggling on my own. I remember saying that I was fine, that I was loving being a mum, but just couldn’t imagine how I’d ever get anything done when I was permanently attached to Arthur on the sofa. And she asked whether I’d tried wearing him.

I felt a bit silly when she’d gone – of course that was the solution, everything I’d read about attachment parenting indicated that babywearing was the answer. But after those tricky first experiences I’d just put the whole thing out of my mind. I certainly wasn’t ready to give the Babasling another go, but then I remembered the Moby Wrap. I’d ordered it, taken one look at the intimidating length of material, and put it back in its bag. Maybe now was the time to put my nerves to one side, read the instructions, and see what all the fuss was about.

By the time Leigh got home that evening I’d already been wearing Arthur for a few hours and was loving my new found freedom! It’s safe to say we never looked back.

At home, I wore Arthur to settle him and to reduce the wind he suffered after feeds. It soon became apparent that it was the best place for him to nap, too, leaving me free to get on with things round the house. It was soon after my babywearing revelation that I got started on my first novel. With Arthur safely strapped to me I didn’t need to worry about him – we were physically attached, so for a little while at least I could allow my mind to wander elsewhere. Leigh got in on the game too: it was a lovely way for them to develop their bond, even when he had work to do.

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It also gave us the freedom to get out and about. Our local terrain is not best suited to prams, but wearing Arthur meant we could go for walks on the beaches and up to Berry Head – even just going into town was easier without needing to negotiate a pram up steps and round cafes.

The first big test though came when we took a trip to see my brother in Paris when Arthur was three months old. We were travelling by Eurostar, and as well as the usual sightseeing we would be taking Arthur to his first gig. We decided that babywearing was the way to go, and it made everything so easy.

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As summer approached we were looking forward to lots more adventures, but it became clear that the Moby might no longer be up to the job. Arthur was growing fast, and I found his weight made the stretchy wrap sag after I’d been wearing him for a while. It was time to find a new solution, and the best solution we could find was the ERGObaby. Leigh tried it out first, and both him and Arthur loved it.

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I was a little bit disappointed with how utilitarian it looked, but I couldn’t deny it worked well. Easy to slip on and off, and its handy pocket particularly useful for when we were on the go. We used it to take Arthur to festivals, and even on an epic journey from New York to Toronto and Halifax by train. It made his first plane trips a breeze too.

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But despite the convenience of the Ergo, I was longing for something a bit – well, prettier. Arthur and his carrier had become my most commonly worn accessory, and I was getting a bit bored of sensible khaki. I thought about dabbling with woven wraps, lusted after some online in beautiful fabrics, but after the ease of the buckles it seemed like such a hassle. And then I came across the Connecta.

We were actually asked to do some modelling shots for them through a friend and were given a couple of carriers in return. I was sceptical at first, not having heard of Connecta before, but they soon won me over.

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The Connecta shared the ease of the Ergo with its simple straps and buckles, and was just as comfy if not more so despite using much less padding. I find now that Arthur’s getting heavier by the day that the way the Connecta holds him high and close really helps protect my back – I can wear him for hours at a time without so much as a twinge. The Connecta is really easy to breastfeed in too, which is definitely a bonus. And, even better, the Connecta is available in a huge array of fabrics! From funky prints to wrap conversions, from gorgeous silks to warm tweed: my yearning for something stylish and practical as a new mum was more than satisfied.

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What my adventures in babywearing have taught me so far is that the key thing is finding a way to do it that suits you. I never would have imagined that I would still be wearing Arthur so regularly at fifteen months, but now I’m on the verge of upgrading to a toddler Connecta so I can continue for, hopefully, a good while longer yet. Arthur is of course walking now, but he’s not confident or strong enough to walk for any length of time. Even when he is I imagine I’ll have my carrier in my bag ready for when he’s tired or needs a cuddle.

I honestly believe that babywearing has been key to the relationship I’ve developed with Arthur. Studies have shown that it has a whole raft of benefits for both mother and child – and in fact for developing closeness with other carers, as Arthur has done with his dad and my mum. For me, though, it’s really just helped me maintain my independence and sense of self whilst navigating this new territory of becoming a mum. It might seem like a contradiction in terms as that independence has been won whilst having a little person strapped to me, but if he wasn’t I doubt I would have managed to write or travel or just hang out quite as freely as I have.

I’d love to hear your babywearing experiences so please feel free to add them in the comments. I’m also happy to answer any questions you might have about babywearing – and if I can’t answer them myself I’m sure I can point you in the direction of someone who can!

 

Seeds of Creativity

Ever since I can remember I have loved the coming of spring. I don’t suit winter. I quite enjoy  snow, in moderation, and find the rare cold, crisp, sunny days as exhilarating as the next person, but it’s the interminable darkness that really gets to me. The darkness that sets in before you get a chance to get outside at the end of a hard day’s work and hangs around for way longer than it’s welcome after you’ve dragged yourself out of bed in the morning, fighting your body’s desire to hibernate.

For years I thought I suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder – I didn’t just dislike those months of darkness, they consumed me like the fog that rolls in over the sea. Even the anticipation of the shorter days that set in as early as the summer solstice was enough to instil that sense of dread that would just get worse and worse as the seasons closed in.

Now that I’m not operating on someone else’s timetable I’m not so sure. There’s no doubt that living by the sea helps too, and spending most of my time with a little person who sees the world without a trace of my weariness. Despite not having slept for more than two hours at a stretch for the past fifteen months, despite the challenge of juggling nearly-new motherhood with writing a second novel and trying to find a publisher for the first, despite the fact that this winter it has rained for days and days on end, I don’t need spring anywhere near as badly as I have before.

That’s not to say it’s not exciting. The snowdrops pushing through the sodden ground, the bare branches beginning to burst with buds, the daffodils that have suddenly taken over our neglected garden in an explosion of yellow. And alongside all these things the seeds of new ideas that are taking root inside my writer’s brain.

I seem to be settling into a pattern with my writing, one which I hope is sustainable and suits my rhythms. In the autumn, as the days begin to close in, I lose myself in researching and planning a new novel. By January, typically my lowest point, I’m ready to bring the plan to life, spending long chunks of time writing, letting my characters take the story where it needs to go. This year, as with last, I’ve set myself the deadline of Easter to complete the first draft. I’m on track to achieve that: I’m about two thirds of the way through with another month to go, and as the story gathers pace and urgency it’s all I can do to pull myself away from the keyboard when motherhood calls. Once that first draft’s done I’ll let it sit for a while before going back to it with fresh eyes, handing it over at the same time to a trusted few initial readers. With their ideas and mine I’ll then attempt the redraft in the height of summery optimism, hopefully having something I’m happy with as summer draws to a close.

Alongside all that redrafting, though, the seeds of the next project need to be germinating, shooting up into the light so that I can work out how to help them grow in the next phase of their development. And with that in mind I had begun to panic a couple of weeks ago: the end of the current novel was in sight, but I had no idea what I was going to work on next. I have several ideas for new novels in the Lili Badger series, a couple of distinct directions in which things could go. But I don’t want to start working on those until I know whether the original has legs. I love it, and would enjoy nothing more than to lose myself in Lili’s world again, but however much I try I can’t justify it to myself. I need something new.

In the midst of my panic, I went for a walk. Just the usual walk into town, taking the long way round by the pool, allowing myself to tread more slowly than I normally would so Arthur could soak up his surroundings. I began to notice the dedications on the benches, stopped to read them. And without me even noticing the seeds began to embed themselves.

By the time I got home I had two reasonably formed ideas for new novels. Both with their heart in Brixham, and both with stories which spread out across place and time in their mapping of life and love and death. Both have strong female characters at their core – something which I am beginning to realise is emerging as a pattern in my work. I haven’t decided which one I’ll run with yet. I hope I’ll write them both, in time. But now the seeds have been sown I’ll leave them for a while, trusting that they will germinate in my mind as I bring my current project to its conclusion, ready for me to nurture when I can shift my attention to them more closely as spring turns into summer.

Thank you to Sara at ‘Mum Turned Mom’ for inspiring this post with her prompt: “Spring is the time of plans and projects” (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina).

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Happy to be home

We’ve had a busy couple of weeks here – last week saw us heading up to London for my first author reading event, and then this weekend we were in Cardiff for the rugby. Both were brilliant trips: travelling with Arthur is a bit more of a mission than it used to be, but it’s always worth making the effort to catch up with family and friends. However as I sit here now, tapping at the keyboard with a sleeping baby strapped to my chest and looking out over Torbay, there is no doubt that I’m very happy to be home.

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This photo was actually taken last Thursday on our first day back in the bay after the London trip. We were on our way to Arthur’s fab baby music class up at Lupton House and as we were making uncharacteristically good time were able to stop for a stroll on Breakwater beach. The tide was low, revealing a huge expanse of pebbles and sand, and the calm sea lapped gently at the shore before disappearing into the mist. There was a man walking up and down with a metal detector – an image I’ve loved since my childhood, so full of promise and anticipation. There were a couple of other people with children and dogs, and Arthur loved watching them all running around.

We didn’t have time to stop for long, but it was so lovely to take a few minutes to breathe in the sea air. I think Arthur presumes that everyone gets to live in such a beautiful place, but after many years living in cities since my childhood in the Welsh countryside I’m not sure I’ll ever take it for granted. 

 

Linking up with Charly Dove at PODcast for What’s the Story?