Tag Archives: democracy

Learning democracy

The unschooling diaries: week twenty-three

Today I took Arthur to vote for the fourth time in his three and a half years. The most recent was only a few weeks ago – another referendum, then on the mayoral system in Torbay. It was clearly fresh in his mind as we walked down to the town hall today as when I told him we were going to vote he said “We’re going to vote? Again?”

He wanted to mark the cross on the ballot paper. I couldn’t quite bring myself to delegate that task to him – not yet – but it made me smile that he was so keen.

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He’s starting to learn what it’s all about. He has a head start, I guess, having a mum on the local council. Last Spring he spent hours with me delivering leaflets around the streets of our small town, and he has been to a fair few council meetings since, generally letting the talk wash over him but still with a creeping awareness that this is how decisions are made: that people get together, and they talk, and they work out the best way forward.

We’ve talked about the national picture too – he knows when conversation between me and Leigh is heating up politically, and he always asks shat it is we’re talking about. And we try to explain, as simply as we can, why we feel so strongly about the things going on in the world around us.

It is vital, I think, that our children are aware of – and engaged in – the democratic process. When I have wobbles about not sending Arthur off to preschool it’s one of the big selling points for the life we have chosen: he may not yet fully understand it all, but this immersion in the workings of our society is definitely seeping into his psyche.

After we voted today, we sat with our coffee and croissant in our favourite local cafe and the mood was reflective. I could swear there was a part of his mind that was pondering the impact that all of this would have on his future. Maybe not quite consciously, but still there was a sense of the importance of what we had done.

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I may be reading too much into it, but whether Arthur is starting to get the hang of this whole democracy business or not it is him – and all of our children – that this is all about. I felt this more keenly with the EU referendum than with any of the other votes he has cast with me.

If the people of the UK have chosen to Leave the EU (I am nervously watching the first results roll in as I write this and they are not looking good), then it is likely to have a dramatic impact on the life that my son will lead. We will have choices to make, as a family, about where we want to live: I am not convinced that a post-EU UK will be a good fit for any of us. Even if the vote leans towards Remain the months and years ahead are going to be difficult. So much fear and xenophobia has been stirred up by this divisive campaign that I worry about the tensions that will embed themselves if people feel that their voices have not been heard.

Whatever lies ahead, though, I want Arthur to be entering into it as informed as he possibly can be, and with a sense that he has an important part to play in deciding his future and the future of his country.

Amongst the many, many articles that I have read over the past week, there is one that stood out and made me fear for that future. It was the story of a woman whose son had come home from a school assembly about the referendum and told her that she should vote Remain. The details of what had led him to think that are open to debate and somewhat immaterial, but her reaction floored me. She was ‘disgusted’ that her eight year old child had been exposed to discussion about this political event, indeed about politics in general – in her own words she said:

I was so shocked because I have never voted in my life and I keep that stuff away from the kids.

I mean, what?

I’m not advocating schools (or anyone) politically brainwashing kids, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the issue here. What this woman seems to have taken umbrage with is the very notion that her son should be educated about the politics that underpins every single aspect of his life – and that is intrinsically linked with her own complete disengagement from the democratic process.

One of the most compelling arguments I have heard from Leave campaigners surrounds the undemocratic nature of the EU. That in itself is open for debate, but is surely a moot point if even within the UK people are opting out of democracy.

Our young people need to understand how the decisions made by different tiers of government impact on their lives – and in order to be able to do that they need to be invited to consider and discuss the choices and challenges we are facing.

I am looking forward to seeing how my continued discussion with Arthur unfolds. I do hope, though, that it’s against the backdrop of unity rather than division.

 

What I’ve learnt from standing for election

On a national level, this feels like the most important election we have participated in for a long time. Recent weeks have been filled with optimistic anticipation, a sense that things might really have been about to change for the better. I have been buoyed along by a surge in interest and engagement from people whose views sit firmly on the left. Now that the results of the parliamentary election are in, I have been brought sharply down to earth. But I still have the little corner of hope carved out by my last minute leap into local politics.

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For the first time, I will be able to say that I have not just talked the talk about the importance of engaging in politics. I may only be standing for our little town council, but suddenly, in the face of a national picture which is so far removed from my political values, that feels like the first step in a journey which may have considerably wider scope than I’d previously imagined.

I will not know until tomorrow whether I have been elected. But whatever the outcome there are some important things that I have learnt along the way.

1) There are a lot of people out there just waiting for a reason to get involved 

Politics, on every level, is pretty intimidating. I’ve toyed with the idea of being a councillor for years, but (aside from the difficulty of finding time for it alongside a teaching career) I never really knew how to take the first step – or even if I really wanted to.

For me, it took an encouraging nudge from a community figure I admire against the backdrop of a group wanting to abolish our town council to make me realise that I needed to stand up and be counted. A couple of my fellow candidates fall into this category too, and we have brought with us a swathe of people who, were it not for knowing people standing for election, might not have taken much interest in what was going on locally – or indeed nationally. And others who were always interested, but who (like me) had been seeking an outlet for that political drive.

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There’s definitely a need for more people to get their voices heard. It’s been a while since I did anything where I was categorised as young, but suddenly – despite the fact that I am closer to my fortieth birthday than any other milestone – I find myself representing the youth voice. There’s clearly some work to be done there. Not to mention the one third of people eligible to vote in the UK who once again failed, for whatever reason, to exercise their democratic right in this election.

But overall it’s actually been quite inspiring – the thought that, for all the uncertainty we’re now facing as a country, there might just be hope for the future in people who have previously felt disenfranchised and are ready now to stand up and make their mark.

2) Campaigning requires seriously comfy shoes (and a decent sling)

This may have been naive of me, but I honestly had no idea quite how much legwork was involved in an election campaign. Our town council elections are admittedly unusual this time round in that there has been some stiff competition for the available seats. And as a result, in the four weeks since I came on board as a council candidate, I have walked about 100km delivering leaflets.

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Up and down hills and endless flights of steps, dodging traffic and dogs, all whilst wearing my toddler. I didn’t have much time to think about the wisdom of it all this time round, but if I do this again I’m certainly going to look into how much influence this trekking actually has. I would like to think there is more scope in social media – I certainly had some great interactions on twitter and Facebook.

But there is, admittedly, nothing quite like actual face to face conversation – and with the turnout at local meetings being so low there is still much to be said for the power of turning up on people’s’ doorsteps.

3) Sticking your neck out really attracts the trolls

I don’t know if this is a general thing or whether we have an unusual number of resident trolls in Brixham, but I was bemused to see the onslaught of online abuse I received within days of standing for election. Both on twitter and in the comments section of our local paper I found myself targeted with some quite unpleasant – and borderline libellous – attacks.

I’m not one to bow to bullying, and fortunately once I’d lodged complaints with the police, with twitter and with the local newspaper editor the nastiness seemed to die down.

It did all make me wonder though why people would want to put themselves through it. I never even said anything controversial – just the mere act of standing for election was enough.

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I had an interesting chat with Sarah Wollaston, my (now re-elected) local MP. She is no stranger to online attacks herself, but said that from her experience it’s often a lot worse – and definitely a lot more personal – the lower down the political food chain you get. The problem with that is it could genuinely cut peoples’ political ambitions off at the knees before they even have time to get started – it’s one thing to say that people just need to develop thicker skins, but it’s clearly a massive block to engagement for anyone who would rather not be subject to abuse.

4) The system is not easy to navigate with kids in tow – but it’s not impossible either

My first meeting in the course of this campaign I attended with my two-year old. It was in the evening, and his dad was working late. With no-one else around to look after him it was a case of take him with me or not go at all. I’m really glad I took the decision to go – and that he slept in the sling for the majority of the meeting – but I definitely got some strange looks.

If I am elected, then I think I’m just going to have to get used to those. As someone who has chosen not to go back to work outside the home but rather combine full time motherhood with writing and other endeavours I don’t have easily accessible childcare. I can’t afford to be paying someone to look after my son so I can attend council meetings or voluntary engagements, so unless it would be noticeably disruptive for him to be there he will be coming along for the ride.

And there is of course the precedent set by Licia Ronzulli, the Italian MEP who has challenged people’s perceptions of the place of children in the world of politics.

5) Finding the right words counts for an awful lot

Having come into the campaign to stand up for Brixham council so late on I have repeatedly felt a long way out of my depth. My teaching experience, and prior to that many years of drama and debating, has left me with the skills to stand up and say my piece in front of a crowd, but that did not stop my palms from sweating and my voice shaking when I actually did it.

I certainly don’t think I’ve said anything particularly extraordinary – talk of working together, of giving people a voice, of looking to the future rather than being stuck in the past – but when I have spoken it has seemed to strike a chord. From the vitriol of the online haters to the people stopping me in the street to say how glad they are that I am speaking out it is strange to realise that my words have had an impact.

I suppose it’s like the blog too really – whether spoken or written it is always satisfying to hit on just the right way of putting something to draw people in. I just need to make sure now that I have the knowledge, understanding and integrity underneath it all to deserve people’s trust.

 

Suffice to say I have been surprised by how tough but also how exciting the last few weeks have been. I shall find out tomorrow whether it has all been enough to save the town council – and indeed to get me a seat on it – but whether it has or not a political spark has definitely been ignited within me. And I am intrigued to see where that may lead.

 

My word of the week this week is democracy.

The Reading Residence
You Baby Me Mummy

Standing up for my community

With the London Book Fair this week the latest draft of my novel is, I imagine, languishing somewhere near the bottom of my agent’s to do list. Which is fine by me – having been so deeply embroiled in the edit since the beginning of this year I’m happy to allow my brain to wander elsewhere.

It has been dancing around the edges of my next project, one which I’m really excited about but can’t quite face throwing myself into when I don’t know where I’m at with the current one. It has also enjoyed a bit of a break, getting lost in other peoples’ novels with the gentle sound of waves lapping against a Cretan beach. But it is now time for some action – and what better than the adventure of standing as a candidate in my local town council elections?

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Regular readers of this blog will know that I love my town. Brixham has been my home for the past four years, the culmination of a lifelong dream to live by the sea. It is a vibrant, creative, complex and inspiring place to live, and the more people I get to know here the more happy I am that this is where we ended up.

There is a huge swathe of positivity at the moment, lots of people keen to make the most of the town with independent shops and new restaurants opening up and a real buzz from locals and tourists alike. But beneath this there is something more sinister simmering – a spat between longstanding members of the town council that threatens to undermine the sense of community and the growth that Brixham has enjoyed in the past few years.

A group has been set up with the sole purpose of abolishing Brixham Council. They claim it is a waste of money, that it doesn’t get anything done. But my experience of living in this town says different. I don’t believe that we can rely on Torbay Council to stand up for Brixham. We are smaller than Paignton and Torquay, and very different in character. Historically there have been issues with withheld funding and a lack of understanding of the needs of our town. I believe we need our own voice.

It is against this background that I have decided to stand with a group of independents as a candidate in the upcoming council elections. And with that decision has come a new type of writing for me – my election campaign leaflet.

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It is hard to convey on a single side of A5 everything that I would like to achieve for Brixham, let alone knowing how to present myself in a way that will persuade people I have never met that I am worth voting for. I am not an expert in local politics. I have had a keen interest for years in what it is that makes a community great, but I do not pretend to know the ins and outs of exactly what has gone on in the Brixham Council chambers that has led to such disgruntlement.

What I do know is that people find it tough to engage with democracy, and with every layer of that democracy that is stripped away they will find it even tougher. I would love the opportunity to speak up for the people of Brixham, to give them a voice within the town council and further afield, and to work to grow and celebrate everything that is great about our town.

So I may be a little preoccupied between now and May 7th. No doubt there will be updates here, and if you’re interested you can follow the Stand Up For Brixham election campaign on Twitter too. Wish me luck!

 

Writing Bubble

 

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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