What's all this then?

I tweet too much. So I needed somewhere else to start storing all the words. This is it. Think of it as the external hard drive for my thoughts.

I don't have an obesssion, a dream, a fixation or a hook, so don't be expecting a focus here. It's like great big lumps of my twitterings. You may see teaching stuff, rants, maternal anxiety and occasional sojourns away from reality.

Anyway, I like a nice chat so we should talk. By we, I of course mean me...

Monday, 16 May 2011

Yes Sir, we have no bananas today.

Dear Reader,

I feel I have let you down. As a Sex Ed teacher I can only apologise for my inadequacies. It’s time to confess.

I am sorry to say that I have never put a condom on a banana.

Worse than that, I have never taught a primary aged child to put a condom on anything. Nor have I taught them about sexual positions, or taught a “gay agenda” or encouraged any of them to go on the pill.

To be honest, I’ve never taught Sex Ed in school.

What I’ve taught primary school children is Sex and Relationships Education (SRE), which is heavy on the relationships.  And I am thoroughly fed up of hysteria in the media about what children are taught in SRE, especially as Nadine Dorries seems to have taken on Peter Hitchens traditional role of blaming sex ed for everything from teenage pregnancies to child abuse.  Usually I ignore Dorries, because as far as I’m concerned she may as well be sitting under a bridge waiting for the Billy Goats Gruff to come along for all the use her opinions are.  She is either woefully or deliberately misinformed about SRE and seems to have no issues with misinforming everyone else via her inaccurately named Sex Ed Bill.

I don’t want to talk about her, I want to lay down a few facts about how SRE is taught in Primary Schools, just so they’re out there. This is how it really is.
  • SRE features in Science where children are taught that they grow and change from babies to adults. They learn that all living things reproduce. As they reach the end of Key Stage 2 they learn how their bodies will change in puberty, and how to take care of their bodies, with a heavy emphasis on the importance of deodorant. They will learn about external and internal sex organs. They may learn the physicality of sexual intercourse in Year 6. They may not if the co-hort doesn’t seem ready or it isn’t part of the school’s individual plan.

And that’s it for sex. Not exactly scandalous is it? No orgasm tips and no amusingly shaped vegetables.

The rest of SRE is pure R. It’s covered in Personal Social Health Education (PSHE) and it’s all about Relationships.  As children move through primary school they will learn about:
  • Their feelings and how others feel
  • How to make friends
  • How to solve friendship disputes and talk about worries
  • How to ask for help, find support and talk to adults and friends in a range of settings
  • Evaluating risks and make sensible decisions to manage risks in their lives
  • How to make choices based on their own preferences, and how to manage peer pressure
  • The difference between aggressive, passive and assertive behaviour and developing techniques to handle difficult social situations.
  • Some social skills work to prepare them for the reality of Secondary school.

None of this social teaching specifically addresses issues around sexual relationships, but it isn’t hard to see how it could all be applied to managing sexual relationships later on. Children are taught to value and look after their body and understand the importance of assertiveness in friendships. They are taught to look out for potential risks, and risks to others, and to develop skills of seeking help when they need it.

All of these skills not only help young people to develop healthy sexual relationships, but they might actually prove helpful to a child trying to cope with the horrendous reality of abuse, sexual or otherwise. They can’t prevent sexual abuse of children, because the responsibility for that never, ever lies with the child. Whether SRE can really help at all to support abused children is not something I feel confident enough to commit to. What I can say, with absolute confidence, is that “teaching girls to say no” and suggesting teenagers abstain from sex should not under any circumstances be promoted as a way to prevent adults abusing children. Which is a link Dorries made today. No-one who makes such an association should have any say in determining how children are educated about Sex and Relationships in school. Additionally, the worrying emphasis on girls taking responsibility for managing the sexual side of their partnerships should be so obviously dangerous and stupid that I'm not going into it here.

As a teacher, I sincerely hope that Dorries’ opinions do not mark the start in turning the clock back in another aspect of Education, there’s quite enough of that from Gove. This country is making good headway in reducing teenage pregnancies and we’re starting to tackle the more pervasive issue of STI increase. And while there are these needs and while there is still a significant proportion of girls who are left in the Victorian terror of not knowing what a period is when they start bleeding for the first time, we really can’t let SRE slip.

That’s why we can’t let media hysteria hold sway. That’s why I wrote down some facts. That’s why I’m glad you read them. I think they’re important. I’ll leave Dorries and her damaging ideas to others. Just as long as you know what is actually being taught and don’t believe the absurdities she’s spouting, I’m happy. And know this: the only reason I’ll be taking a banana to school is for my lunch.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Life in Harper Valley

If you read my twitterfeed you might have noticed some moaning about the PTA. If you pay too much attention, you will have noticed a lot of moaning about the PTA. 

This all started in January when I put myself forward, or at least failed to step backwards, as Chair of the PTA. Since then, planning has lurched into events which have lurched into clearing up and then the whole cycle starts again. This however is not the blog where I want to talk about how the PTA works.

PTAs have a bad rep. PTAs are a pain. Yesterday a friend asked me “Why did you do this to yourself?” This is the blog where I want to answer that question.  

Why am I Chair of the PTA? Putting aside the obvious answers around the theme of being the kind of fool who can’t say “No”, there are genuine reasons why I think it’s important to have a PTA and why, when faced with the option of having no PTA at school, I agreed to be Chair.

1. What are your best memories of school?
Mine are of school trips, the school discos where we all did the “Superman” dance (it was the 80s) and stayed up past midnight, the Fete where me and my best friend would spend hours on the swing boats and the Pantomime where the Deputy would always play the role of the Dame. And all of these events and many more were made possible by the PTA. I wouldn’t want a generation of kids to go without the experience of making themselves sick on Dandelion and Burdock at the School Disco, or not have a gift from school to mark their leaving. The PTA provides the fun stuff. That’s worth doing.

2. There are holes in the ring fence.
Here comes the political bit. Education funding is not good at the moment. The government’s promise to maintain the Education budget is not, strictly speaking, being kept. Increasing numbers of schools are having to make redundancies and, at a County level, Support Staff are having their salary cut.  Schools no longer receive their budget annually, but are allocated money on a monthly basis. Like  pocket money. Altogether, this leaves many Headteachers, including ours, in an unenviable position. Something’s got to give. So far ours has done a great job of keeping all the Staff and resourcing the learning, but there is no room for extras. Things like playtime games, a new stage, and trips to the panto at Christmas can’t come out of the school budget. This lack of funding, especially when coupled with the funding going to Free Schools, enrages me. It made me angry enough to join the PTA, and also have a right go about Free Schools (here).

The PTA can, and must, fund these things. Experiences like being in a play on a real stage are key parts of school life. We all remember from age 5 who got to be Mary (for the second year running just cos she had long hair and it wasn’t FAIR) and performing is good for kids, it’s good for the school community. So are playground games. Busy kids are well behaved kids. Bored kids will invent all manner of destructive games, so it’s nice to be able to afford to buy tubs of skipping ropes, balls, stilts and hoops. Thank you PTA for calmer, happier playtimes. And the opportunity to see CJ off of Eggheads in Panto. 

3. Community.
Schools are not just buildings full of kids (actually they’re lovely when they’re not full of kids, but that’s another story), they’re communities in the best sense of the word. And communities need to get together and blow off some steam. Or they’re simply a load of people trapped in the same space, building up their hatred of each other by the day.  Our PTA manifesto (manifestos are more fun than Mission Statements) isn’t just about fundraising, it’s about improving the life experiences of the children. It’s about pulling everyone along in the same direction. It’s about Events. It’s good for kids to see adults all working together to create something that’s fun. In teaching circles we call that modelling and it helps children learn how to get along together. The PTA also gives the children the chance to fundraise, to help their school and other charities and to learn the importance of giving back. And if that’s not Citizenship in action, I don’t know what is.

4. Broadening Horizons
In an effort to find novel ways to part you from your cash, PTA’s offer some great activities for kids: ice skating in school, Chess clubs, being published in a book, modelling in a fashion show, making a scarecrow, fancy dress competitions, talent shows, fireworks displays. These events take children out of their everyday routine and give them a chance to discover new loves and skills. For some kids, school is their only chance to get this stuff. 

So, however much I gripe about the PTA and my place in it, I come back to this. The PTA does an important job. We do it for our children, and to support our teachers. Sometimes we’re a damn nuisance, sometimes we’re bossy, sometimes you wish we’d all go away: I feel like that most days. You’d really rather not send in donations to the tombola or pay £1 for non-uniform day or buy another raffle ticket or hang around on a Friday night waiting to collect sticky discoers. 

But schools need us, now more than ever. So, if it helps,  think of us as a Fairy Godmother saying to the kids “You SHALL go to the Panto!” and think of how much the kids love all this stuff even if we don’t. Then just take a deep breath, smile, and open up your wallet. There now, that didn’t hurt a bit, did it?

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

A Spotter's Guide to: Nuns.

Watching the Royal Wedding on telly, I was completely distracted by the two nuns sitting next to Wills. Random unexpected Nuns are guaranteed to make me giggle, especially when they are walking down Westminster Abbey together and one is tall and the other short - surely they could have found matching Nuns for the Royal Wedding?

I like spotting Nuns, Nunspotting  is a good game. Rome was an excellent place for that, and I beat Mrbird hands down, although he claims I cheated. Which I obviously wouldn’t because cheating at Nunspotting gets you an automatic penalty, and 6 months in purgatory. At other times though, spotting a Nun feels like a glimpse into the past, as if a Celtic warrior just strolled out of the shop. Or like a glimpse into another world; aliens that walk amongst us, usually in pairs.

In terms of classification, I think there are three main categories of Nun. Sometimes they overlap, but I think they boil down to:

A - Evil Nuns. (See Frost in May, The Magdelene Sisters and the Nuns at my Mum’s school who served up rotten lamb for school dinner)
B- Comedy Nuns (See Father Ted, A Very Peculiar Practice and any Nun seen doing un-Nunlike things)
C- Utterly Bonkers Nuns (See Sister Wendy and most Incidental Nuns in telly dramas, unless covered by A)

My own experience of Nuns is cheerful and benign and comes from my Primary School, which was run by them. Not a Convent School, there were boys for starters, but there were lots of Nuns on staff and us kids loved them. They managed to maintain order whilst giving us all the impression we could do no wrong.

Sister K, the Head, would wander round the school doing her little old lady act to visitors, especially those after money, and you could no more better her than you could Miss Marple.  Her arrival in the classroom at the end of the school day was always met with gasps of wonder and excitement. She would be holding a large jar, and it could only mean one thing - SWEETS! If your class had been especially Good, Sister K brought round sweeties for all. We lived for those days, and all the other classes would be suitably jealous.

The school kitchen was ruled by the immense presence of Sister M who, despite an inexplicable obsession with adding a portion of grated carrot to every meal, was a fabulous cook. Which means, to a 10 yr old, that she made great puddings. Of popcorn cake in gloopy pink custard and Apple Sponge and Custard, are happy childhood memories made. In Year 6 we were expected to do Duties, and by far the most popular was Dining Hall Duty. You would cheerfully scrape plates clean, and carry Infants’ trays knowing that yours was the ultimate reward: DOUBLE PUDDING. An overflowing bowl of rhubarb crumble and the obligatory custard was worth a lunch hour of anyone’s time.

Then there was tiny wren-like Sister C, who did playground duty and often carried a packet of polos. Many years later, I Spotted her in London. She was wandering round Harrods Foodhall looking bewildered, and then guilty. She was “on retreat down the road” and “couldn’t resist popping in for a look round”. Ok, Sister.

When I was six a Head Nun of some sort came to visit the school. She sat and chatted to us, and then asked how many of us girls would like to be Nuns - lots of hands shot up. Why wouldn’t they? We were six and the thought of getting to wear dressing up clothes every day and living in a place where no smelly boys were allowed seemed like a pretty good option.

As you grow up of course, you are harder to impress. And it became easy to laugh at the Nuns’ little foibles and naivities. Except with Sister M. She was a Nun Apart, due to her possession of a driving licence. We used to mockingly call her the Getaway Nun, imagining a load of her Sisters in the back yelling “Just drive, you slaag!”. Her job was to look after lary teenage girls on Youth Activity Weeks. But she spoke to us so honestly about her life, and laughed so genuinely when we wanted to know how she could keep her hair hidden under a headdress the whole time, that we couldn’t help warming to her. She told us looks weren’t important and, as we fogged up the room with cheap hairspray and Impulse, we were all envious of her hair, which was frankly magnificent and hung in glossy healthiness to her waist, and a little envious of her calm confidence and indifference to the things which kept us awake at night. We may even have gone as far as saying that Sister M was… cool.

The Nuns of my childhood were great women, full of dignity and humour and humanity. At 26 I returned to my childhood parish to get married. As the Wedding approached, I went to the  Convent to invite any Nuns at a loose end to come along to the service. The Convent was a modern building, with a welcoming foyer and a sense of serenity that posh Spa proprietors would kill for. I’d been allowed in before, but only when I was very small. My Dad used to mow the lawns for the Nuns and I’d go with him, because sometimes he’d let me drive the ride-on mower. I was once brought inside the Convent to be given orange juice, miraculously without custard. I remember a feeling of awe, but also of warmth. And I was amazed to find that feeling surfacing in the adult me a week before my Wedding. Just a tiny part of me envied the Sisters their life of peace and gentle productivity, a life that they’d chosen willingly and I would never know or understand.

I suppose in a week filled with worries about napkins and manicures and shoes and hair, the simplicity of their lives was covetably alien! The spell of the serene atmosphere didn’t last, of course. I wonder for whom it stays. Real Nuns are complex to categorise, but they do like a nice Wedding and as I walked towards Mrbird on my Wedding Day, I got to award myself several Nunspotting points.

There are Nuns who are despicable, there are Nuns who are laughable, and those who are safest kept in a Convent. But there are also those who make a mean Damson Tart (and custard), who can stop a gaggle of revolting 15 yr olds in their tracks, and those who, deep down, I respect. Even though the word “wimple” will always make me giggle.