Friends, Festivals and FOMO

 

It is ten months since I wrote my son’s eighteenth birthday blog. In it I described, in quite a lot of detail, his journey from diagnosis as a very young child to being on the cusp of adulthood as a young man. It was as much about me as it was him and explained how it felt to bring up a boy with autism and watch him develop and grow as we bumped and dodged the hurdles and the barriers he faced together. I talked of my pride in his achievements and the pleasure we have shared in his progress, along with some of the many difficulties he has faced and how his challenges have challenged us.
I wrote too of my desire to see him with friends his own age and how in spite of the enormous progress he has made, he still appeared largely socially isolated. I was wrong.

Suddenly with the advent of his 18th, everything changed. A group of friends threw him a surprise party. He was invited to other youngsters’ celebrations. Most weekends there seemed to be a party. And then came the nightclubs. In all the imaginary futures I had conjured up for Joseph when he was little, dropping him & a group of mates off at the local Wetherspoons did not feature! Nor did sitting outside the nightclub at 3:00am to pick them up again. I know most parents allow their children to find their own way home in the early hours of the morning but ever sensible to Joseph’s vulnerabilities we have been anxious to ensure his safe return from his nights on the town. The first time Joseph went, we were both literally on the edge of the sofa all evening desperate for it to go well, for him not to be a liability to his friends and most importantly for him to be happy, have fun and want (and be invited) to repeat the experience.
Now these nights out are so commonplace that we are almost comfortable enough to let Joseph take a taxi home – although we are still wide awake until he comes in.

There have been incidents: his friends thought it was hilarious when he was thrown out of a local pub for being drunk when he was actually sober but the bouncer mistook his autism for intoxication. Their support of him when this happened and the way they helped him to see it as funny rather than offensive has been enormously helpful in his own gradual journey to acceptance of who he is. From the time he realised he was different, he hated it; refused to acknowledge it; and had really quite low self esteem. He tried very very hard to fit in by denying his diagnosis but his friends embrace and love Joseph for who he is and as a result, he is learning to do the same. Understanding and taking part in good natured banter has been hugely helpful to his development.
Then there was the time he did get drunk at a party. Very drunk. I had also never envisaged putting my son to bed in the recovery position with a sick bowl and checking he was still breathing half the night, but he survived and like so many others before him, he did his teenage binge drinking in the company of friends who looked after him – until I took over. In many ways it was the most normal thing in the world.

And so to festivals. They are all going to Reading in a couple of weeks. Joseph has his ticket and his tent. They are going together on the train and the boys have promised me faithfully that they will look after my son. They have also teased me about moving all their tents in the middle of the night as a joke (at least I think it’s a joke) but I think they know and are mindful that there are some parenting type responsibilities that come with the territory. And they don’t care. As always we will rehearse all the possible disaster scenarios with Joseph before he goes and just hope that none happen.

We of course are terrified. But being young and taking risks go hand in hand. He is so lucky to have a group of friends who include him, not because they are being worthy or patronising him but because they genuinely like him and enjoy his company. And how much better to be worrying about your child at a festival with his friends than desperately trying to find ways of occupying a socially isolated and unhappy young man.

So ten months on and, I think for the first time since Joseph was diagnosed, I can conjure up a future for him where we are in the background as parents, not front and centre as parent/carer/surrogate friend. Clearly in that birthday blog I was mistaken. There are friends, there is a festival, there is certainly much (completely normal) FOMO and there are some pretty wonderful young people out there.

Fingers crossed and good luck to all students waiting on A level results next week but particularly to my remarkable son and his fantastic friends.

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When fairer funding isnt

I have been a school leader for fifteen years and a head for nearly nine and whilst I can’t say I have enjoyed every minute, I have never once not wanted to get up, go to school, roll my sleeves up and get stuck in. I am lucky enough to be part of a community and culture that really works. We are extremely successful, oversubscribed, in a beautiful location with a talented and committed staff and delightful, hardworking students, supported by families who trust and back us. In many ways it is a dream job and after nearly thirty years in the profession it is wonderful to be in a comprehensive school that properly lives up to the values it espouses.

I feel sad when I hear stories of teachers leaving the profession in droves; of unreasonable demands or bullying leaders. I know that in some schools behaviour is a problem: that colleagues spend as much time fighting fire as teaching; lessons are disrupted and teachers disrespected. I know that this is exhausting and I know that not all leaders help as much as they could. I know that in some schools, books have to be marked after every six lessons, in different coloured pens; and that sometimes the written feedback is as much for the manager who is doing the book scrutiny as it is for the child to learn what they have done well and what they need to do next. Monitoring can be oppressive and the spectre of Ofsted is a very real fear. I know that we cram a full year’s worth of working into 39 weeks and that none of us are strangers to 50/60 hour working weeks. And I know that a Sunday in term time often has a certain leaden feel to it that may not seem quite so burdensome in other professions.

Teaching is not easy; it is not for everyone; and it is sometimes made harder by the people who are in charge.  I know all of this to be true, but it has not been my experience.

I started teaching in 1988, straight from University with little intention of making it my career. I trained as a primary teacher but knew that I really only wanted to teach English and that I preferred the older children. I was lucky enough to find a secondary head who was willing to take a chance on me. I only planned to do one or two years but from day one I was hooked. I have honestly never wanted to do anything else. It goes without saying that the last 29 years have seen massive changes in the profession. I started with no national curriculum, no formal assessment model, no schemes of work, no data, no technology, no Ofsted, no league tables and in all honesty not much of a clue. We kind of made it up as we went along. But I loved it. I still do.

The job has always been hard. I have never not taken work home. As an English teacher, marking has always been tyrannical. 100% coursework in the early days meant constant marking of drafts, redrafts and final pieces. Report writing (by hand) used to take weeks while a whole weekend and the living room floor was taken over by  sorting out those belonging to a tutor group. Free lessons were few and far between and we did loads of cover and exam invigilation.

So if there was ever a golden age when workload was manageable and evenings and weekends were your own, it was before my time. Having said that, we certainly weren’t monitored like teachers are now. Lessons were not routinely observed and nobody really even took much notice of the exam results. Kids got what they got and by and large it was accepted that that’s what they deserved. I think on reflection therefore that despite the fact that back then there really was no support if you were struggling; it was sink or swim, the job is probably harder now than when I started. There is instead much greater accountability and far higher expectations. I also think teachers – and schools – are better now than they were then. If you could control a class, that was generally enough. I look back with real embarrassment at some of the stuff I asked my students to do in the early days: posters, board games, the missing chapter, the stream of consciousness, letters to a problem page, cartoon strips, a new book jacket, videos. We had fun but I would be horrified if I saw my students engaged in so many unproductive activities now.

The one constant however over the last nearly 30 years is that whatever school I have worked in I have loved it. Some have been challenging; some less so. Some have been well led, others have had all or parts of leadership teams who varied  from ineffective to downright destructive. All have had students who have given me far more, than I have ever given them. Building relationships with young people, watching their confidence grow, helping them succeed academically and in other ways has been an absolute privilege.

What has changed with headship is that this is probably the first time as a teacher that I have cared as much about the staff as I do the students. As a head, I love that I get to work on the bigger picture, and that I get to set the direction with a team of likeminded people. I am so lucky that I work in a school where we really do trust each other to do the right thing. I cannot bear fruitless activity or meaningless admin. I am very bad at making sure the policies are up to date and all written in the same format. I despise paperwork and filing and I know that this is a bit of a weakness.

But I want our teachers to concentrate on what matters: teaching bloody good lessons and not collating folders of stuff which looks impressive but has minimal impact in the classroom. I want them to have excellent relationships with students and know that when they stand in front of a class they are not going to be ambushed by poor behaviour.  Marking is important because it helps students and teachers work out where to go next but I really don’t care what colour pen it’s in – or how frequent – as long as it’s reasonably regular and 100% meaningful. I hate homework for homework sake, and our homework policy, like the marking policy is flexible and allows for departments to use them to service their own needs. We have no collective orthodoxy about what a “good” lesson looks like, if it gets the job done, do it. If it fills the time without really moving learning on, don’t. Every minute of every lesson counts and we aim to remove everything that gets in the way of that.

I have enjoyed being able to recruit excellent colleagues. It is an honour to watch someone develop through their career and help them to fulfil their own career aspirations. I work with a leadership team who are skilled and committed and passionate about doing the best by the children and the staff. I couldn’t ask for a better teaching or support team. We have worked extremely hard to achieve what we have done, but we have done it together and I am so proud of and humbled by the willingness of everyone to come with me.

There have, of course, been challenges, worries and sleepless nights but I can honestly say that the last nine years have been the most enjoyable and fulfilling of my career. Until now. Now I am faced with trying to make huge savings out of a budget that is already cut to the bone.  I have to think perhaps about reducing non-contact time, increasing class sizes, cutting the curriculum, reducing student support. I want my teachers to have more than four hours a week not less. In fact I really want them to have 10. I want to keep class sizes reasonable. I don’t want classes of more than 30 in any subject but would ideally like no more than 25. I want to keep my subject specialists and a broad and balanced curriculum offer. I want to have enough TAs to support the most vulnerable groups and not share them out or spread them so thinly they don’t have any real impact with students. I want to welcome SEN students with open arms, without worrying if we have the resources to support them. I want to keep what little student support I have – we realized we couldn’t afford a counsellor ages ago – but I have (only two) student support workers whose caring and skilful input makes a massive difference with some students who really need it. I want to keep a site team who take a pride in the school and its environment and maintain it so that the school always looks welcoming, inviting, clean and purposeful. I want to keep a balance between experienced and less experienced teachers and not be pleased if a UPS3 teacher leaves because I can save money with an NQT. I want to keep all of my fantastic leadership team who have worked so hard with me over the last nine years to take the school to levels we only really dreamed we can achieve – including having a P8 score that placed us 11th nationally last year. I want to keep supporting teachers with cover when they are ill, or have family commitments or celebrations or personal tragedies or when they want to do amazing, exciting things by taking students out of the classroom.

I want to do all of these things; but the new national funding formula on top of all of the other increased costs means I almost certainly cant. My budget will shrink by 2.8% under the new proposals and I have to make some really difficult decisions as a result. Increased employer costs, the loss of the ESG, the apprenticeship levy, inflation etc have already taken more than £300,000 out of my budget next year but we have been able to plan for some of this. The further loss of £140,000 under these new “fairer” arrangements is therefore nothing short of devastating. If we were already funded at or above the national average, I might be able to take it but we are already delivering excellence on a shoestring. There is nowhere else to cut. It will hurt; and it will fester; and it will infect and contaminate everything that we do. It’s easy to lead when things are going well and we have been very lucky. And I also know that it is in times of adversity when leaders really have to step up and show their worth. I’m just not sure that I want to. Our students and our teachers and our support staff and our families deserve better. It sounds petulant to complain “It’s not fair” but actually that is the reality: it’s simply not fair; it’s not even fairer.

Living without Limitations – an 18th Birthday Blog for my son

Well, it’s happened. The boy has finally grown up. In just a few days, he will have reached the age of 18 with only a few hospital trips, one exclusion, a fistful of GCSEs and a set of ambitions which include A levels, a gap year, university and driving. Maybe even a girlfriend.

I remember with a vividness that I wish I could shrug off, the day he was diagnosed. It came following an 18 month wait for an assessment at the hospital during which time, before I kicked off, I discovered we were actually on a waiting list to go on a waiting list. It was time I spent in a perpetual state of “autism watch”. Daily I would diagnose my small son as autistic; then not. He was affectionate and cuddly so he couldn’t be autistic; he licked shoes, flapped his hands and ran round the perimeter of the park so he must be. I was alert to echolalia, stimming and sensory issues. He would gag at clothes he didn’t like and could detect the smallest piece of broccoli blended into a sauce, but still I was in denial. My beautiful little boy was a bit strange, a bit self-contained, appeared often not to hear; but he also liked his people, communicated and (sometimes) joined in. There were some low moments: his third birthday at the soft play centre which he spent exclusively running into the toilet to turn the taps on before running out and laughing; hysterical tantrums if we didn’t drive his preferred route to familiar places and one dreadful night when we arrived at my sister’s and it took me two hours to get him out of the car as he screamed every time I undid the car seat. He would lie on his back for hours spinning the wheel of any toy that had one. Every toy in the playroom would be found turned upside down, wheels in the air. He lined things up, loved Thomas the Tank Engine and had a particular attachment to his helicopter, “that one Harold”.

All the signs were there. Looking back I can’t believe that I didn’t know. But I truly didn’t. I was convinced that he wasn’t autistic. My husband knew, my family knew, the GP knew. I did not know. I had taken my daughter to the GP with a fever when Joseph was just two. At the end of the appointment he asked me if I had any concerns about Joseph. I said we had a few. He offered to refer him but said he was convinced he wasn’t autistic. I persuaded myself he was right. I later saw the referral letter he wrote, in which he said he believed that Joseph had autism. I felt betrayed.

The day of the diagnosis is up there with the worst days of my life – only really eclipsed by being told at the age of 13 that my father had been murdered in Russia where he was working at the time. There were about 7 other professionals in the room as well as the consultant, me and my boy. Ronnie, his dad, had torn his achilles tendon and couldn’t come. It did not cross my mind that I should not go on my own. I had no idea who would be there and what would happen. All I had was a letter with an appointment time and the name of the consultant; there was no explanation of the process at all. I don’t know what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t what took place. There were a lot of them and only one of me. I felt completely ganged up on. They each, in turn tried to engage Joseph, talked to him, observed him and played with him while the consultant asked me all the usual questions about pregnancy and birth (normal) and developmental milestones etc. I was mostly desperately watching him though. He did so well, interacting with the adults, commentating on his play, talking about the cars and the road, coming to life at the mention of helicopters. I was so proud of him, I was convinced he had passed the test.

He did not pass the test.

Whatever the test was, he failed it.

Half way through the appointment, they handed me back my child, the consultant wheeled himself on his chair over to the other side of the room and they all huddled there to discuss Joseph. I occupied him on my knee with a bubble blower, all the time trying to hear what was being said about my son at the far end of the room. Then the consultant turned round on his wheelie chair. “I’m sorry, I think your son has autism”, he said. I don’t remember anything else that was said to me after that. But I genuinely, and to my shame, felt my life was over. I was going to bring up Rainman. Immediately I wanted to know would he go to a mainstream school, would he read and write, would he have friends, would he take exams, get a job, get married? Everything I thought and expected my child would do had been wiped out by one sentence. And it felt like a life sentence.

What I did not understand then, was that I had to grieve for the child I thought I had before embracing the one that had just been given to me.

Later, when I reflected, I realised what an appalling and insensitive assessment process it had been. I subsequently wrote and explained how awful and distressing I had found the appointment; the least they could have done was told me what to expect. Their reply told me that they didn’t do it like that anymore.

It took a long time, probably a good two years at least, to properly come to terms with the diagnosis. Although Ronnie was there straight away, I struggled. I really, really did not want to be the mother of an autistic child. I wasted far too much time and emotional energy worrying about the future, projecting forward, to all the things I thought he would never achieve. I constantly wished that it were different, that he was not autistic, that he was “normal”. I should never have worried: he keeps surprising us so much that we have all learned to let go of expectations, to only look back at where we’ve come and not sweat over where we might end up. But in the early days, there just seemed to be so many obstacles and hurdles to worry about. I wish I’d known then that it would be ok, that we would just deal with each one as they came and that we would learn when to bump and when to dodge.

I used to say that the fact that Joseph was beautiful was what kept him alive. And he was: beautiful, very blonde, gorgeous smile, huge eyes – so handsome almost perfect. He was also very, very hard work. To be honest, when he was little, it is all a bit of a blur. Keeping him safe was a full time job. He was obsessed with turning on the lights and would climb on anything to reach a switch. We always knew where Joseph had been as every light was on. Once I found him clinging white-knuckled to the top bookshelf, hanging on for dear life. Another time he was on the conservatory roof. My neighbour spotted him from her garden. Many things got broken in his wake. Sometimes he would look up at me and say, “I’m sorry, I love you lovely mummy”. He was a clever boy!

The families were brilliant. My sister read about the work of Paul Shattock at Sunderland University and we decided to try the gluten and dairy free diet. When we stopped milk, his behaviour changed almost over night. He calmed, became more verbal, he would ask loads of questions, constantly repeating himself – over and over till you answered him. And sometimes even then he would still repeat the same phrases. But he was with us, in our world, not locked in his. We persevered; he improved.

Little by little we saw real progress. He was sociable and loved being with his family and his cousins. He liked new experiences and enjoyed going to parks and theme parks. Wherever we went, he ran; and I ran after him. His older sister, a daydreamer ambled behind picking flowers. Sometimes we had done three laps of the field by the time she had done one. The dog loved it; I stayed thin.

Joseph did not seem to need a set routine which helped. He slept well and bedtimes were mostly not a problem. He learnt to read. He had always been good at maths but by the age of 8 was actually reading for pleasure – something I never thought he’d do. I was so thankful for books that came in long series. First Horrid Henry, then Beastquest and eventually Harry Potter all claimed his interest.

School was hard. He had an amazing TA at primary school, but a senco who only seemed interested in withdrawing rather than providing support. He used to get hurt in the playground. We were frequently told he brought it on himself. On more than one occasion I went in to fight the battles he could not fight for himself. I think (I hope) it has made me a better headteacher. I’m afraid I am probably a bit too guilty of over-empathising with parents of children with SEN; I’m pretty certain they don’t always want to hear about my child when they have come into talk about theirs, but I vowed never ever to blame the bullying of a vulnerable child on their vulnerability and I try not to mind if parents are angry and adversarial when we have got it wrong for their child.

The worst occasion at primary school was when a girl kicked him so hard, he was hospitalised. The school told me it was an accident. I let them. It was easier that way.

At secondary school he struggled to begin with. He had 11 different TAs at first until we complained. He was often taunted in the corridors because the other pupils liked to see him react to the name-calling. In his early years there he was socially isolated and sometimes victimised. Thankfully though the teasing stopped with the persistence, help and support of a very caring year head. He lost eight PE kits in the first two years and the bus was usually waiting for him rather than the other way round. Homework was a nightmare but we persevered and he developed an after school work habit.

It wasn’t easy, we often felt that we were continually educating the school but by and large the school was great and listened to us and acted on our concerns. We nearly fell out however, over an incident in year 10 which resulted in an exclusion. Joseph had pushed a girl in his Drama lesson (not hard but a push nonetheless) who was insisting he took a part he did not want. He was frustrated and reacted when he should not have done. He was not supported and felt backed into a corner by his peers. He was very upset and spent the day apologising to her. I eventually persuaded the school to commute a two day exclusion to one – although I still was not happy with the punishment. It didn’t help that the decision to exclude came a full day after the incident and he had been back in the lesson since it happened. He thought he had been forgiven and I had to communicate that he had not. He was devastated and spent most of the evening hitting himself in the head. He felt he had blown it.

However, fortunately this was not the case and the same school did also let him put himself forward for one of the (very few) senior student posts in year 11. He delivered his speeches to the whole school with passion and conviction and was voted in. He was so proud and delighted. One of my daughter’s friends asked her sister in his year if she had voted for Joseph. “Everyone voted for Joseph” was the response. He took the role very seriously and enjoyed working with the senior leadership on what could be improved at the school. He was very proud of his school and felt like a real ambassador. In return he had some excellent teaching from teachers who believed in him and liked him. He took their feedback seriously and always tried to learn from his mistakes. I remember asking him how he had managed to improve so much in his English Literature. He told me that he just listened to the teacher’s advice and tried to follow it next time.

If only all students did this, how easy our job would be!

He finished the school on a real high, as a valued member of their community and in the end we are very grateful to the school who worked with us to help our son learn and develop. He got amazing results and ultimately was very happy there.

Physically Joseph has also had difficulties. A combination of very flat feet and ones that point at ten to two has made his gait awkward – but has also turned him into an awesome breaststroker. He struggles with contra lateral movement: coordinating two sides of his body to do different things at once is tough. His father, having developed physical education programmes for primary schools, was characteristically brilliant and played daily physio games with him to get him thinking about and working on coordination. His shoulder stability was weak which made sitting on the carpet or at a desk to write very difficult. There were significant issues with proprioception. He once had a target in his IEP to stand still when talking to someone which was nearly as silly as the one about making eye contact. We rebelled. It was rewritten.

Yet despite the challenges, everything seemed to come together at around the same time. We bought a trampoline. He spent hours stimming on it, but at the same time he was building core strength and stability. He learned to swim with the help of a fantastic, patient and imaginative teacher who helped him to feel the movements through the water. He became brilliant at it. He stopped doing depths and started doing lengths. He swam in the school gala and won, his whole house cheering him on.

The real breakthrough came however when he learned to ride a bike. The first time we all went out to cycle round the local park, he shouted in glee that he felt like a real kid. It was wonderful and heartbreaking at the same time.

Then he learned to ski. Ronnie has always loved the mountains and wanted his family to ski with him so we all went to the local dry ski slope for lessons. After about the tenth lesson, the instructor told my husband that Joseph would never get down a mountain. This was said in front of Joseph. Joseph was so outraged at the insult he was determined to prove him wrong. There was nothing he wanted more than to ski down a mountain with his dad. And he did. The first time he had to stop twice to be sick but now he does the blacks and goes off piste and scares us all. I am so grateful to my amazing husband who stuck it out with him lesson after lesson, taking him away with him, just the two of them – or with friends, but always patiently and tenaciously sorting him out, doing up his ski boots, finding his gloves, replacing his goggles, picking him up and putting his skis back on, and doing it all again the next day because he loved him too much to let an ignorant ski instructor place a ceiling on his ambitions. As a result Joseph has learned that if he wants something and tries hard enough and keeps trying he can do it. He doesn’t cope well with failure, but after the storm has passed, he always has another go.

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And now Joseph is going to be 18. He is at college doing A levels and learning to drive. He still has meltdowns, and when they come, they can be spectacular, but are less frequent and shorter lived. He is obsessed with sport and particularly football, is an Arsenal supporter and enjoys student life. He is friendly and popular but doesn’t really go out much. His social life still revolves around doing stuff with his dad. I’m afraid to say I’m a bit of an embarrassment but he mostly puts up with me. I have learned that not being invited to stuff hurts me more than him, but I still can’t help wishing he had a group of mates who would call for him and take him out. He spends a lot of time on the Internet and still isn’t properly capable of looking after himself but is getting better. At least he doesn’t microwave tins anymore and usually remembers to switch the oven off. He no longer flaps his hands but will bounce a ball for a long time to deprocess if he needs to. He’s always been a bit of a chewer and still occasionally shreds his clothes. Plastic bottle tops have become a particular favourite – I find disintegrated and chewed up plastic all over the carpets. His bedroom is disgusting but then so was his sister’s. We worry about how he will cope with disappointment and manage tricky social situations but he has come so far. He looks up to and emulates his sister, now at university. He has seen her success and wants it for himself. She has been amazing for him talking with him, helping him study, explaining social situations and occasionally letting him sit with her and her friends.

He is interested in politics and current affairs. He loves laughing at politicians like Boris Johnson, Farage and Trump. He told his granny off for reading the Daily Mail. She is a devoted Federer fan and he delights in teasing her if Roger is beaten. Similarly he knows everyone’s football team, follows their progress avidly and is merciless when they lose. There is nothing he likes more than seeing someone in the public eye fail but he also has compassion for genuine hardship. He is funny, lazy, bright, ambitious, cheeky, messy and infuriating. He hates upsetting us and will apologise over and over until he feels forgiven. He competes ferociously with his younger brother and does not take losing to him well. I can’t say I blame him.

He has come so far from the boy who licked shoes and turned on all the lights and he still has so much to learn and overcome but he is a beautiful, incredible inspirational young man. He often says he is a lucky boy, but we are the really lucky ones to have him in our lives, enriching it and making us all better people.

Happy Birthday son. We are so proud of you.

Thinking about girls

Thinking about our girls
I’ve been thinking a lot about girls recently. Thinking about how they think about themselves, how they care too much what other people think about them and about how we can help them to take their place in the world free from the weight of other people’s expectations. I don’t know if it’s the same for boys. They probably have it hard too. In a world which seems largely designed by men and for men, it is easy to believe that it’s so much more straightforward to be a boy. I’m sure that it probably isn’t but I’ve been thinking about our girls.
I have an identical twin sister, a daughter and four nieces. Every one of them (of us) is or wants to be a high achiever. In my school of 450 girls, I would estimate that at least 449 (and actually probably 450) of them want to be high achievers too. Most of them/us also want to be popular, well liked, attractive, respected, listened to and noticed. But how do we get girls to ditch the tyranny of perfection? How do we get them to like themselves irrespective of whether other people do? We’ve moved a long way from a time when girls were not expected to achieve much or aspire to anything beyond domesticity; now we tell them they can be anything they want. When my daughter was little she wanted to be Cinderella, Dorothy and to save the colony (following a trip to see A Bug’s Life). My son wanted to be the Tesco delivery man! Can you be Cinderella and save the colony at the same time?
Do we weigh our girls down with our expectations of success? Instead of telling them they can’t, we tell them they can. The can be scientists, medics, lawyers, headteachers, politicians, entrepreneurs, footballers or anything else. I know it’s a generalisation but I see time and time again in school how much girls want to please; how they hate criticism, how they need to be liked and how they read their worth in the opinions of others. They drive themselves on in pursuit of both their own ambition and the approval of other people.
I never encountered so much misogyny as I did in my first year of headship. Nobody wanted a female head. Letters were written to the chair of governors; people resigned. I knew that if I failed then the school would probably never appoint a female head again, judging an entire gender on my success or not. I knew that if I were a man and did a bad job, the community would, no doubt, just think they had got unlucky and happily appoint another man. The same latitude would not be given to me. Luckily I think I’m doing alright. I’ve held things up ok for the rest of my sex but it could have been very different.
Look at the way Nicola Sturgeon was treated in the run up to the election. It’s still ok it seems to comment on a woman’s clothes and appearance or deride her in a way that would never happen to a man (well a man who wasn’t Ed Milliband). Every time a crowd chants “Get your tits out” to a female referee or line judge, thousands of women thank heaven they have not put their heads over the parapet and gone against the grain. Why on earth would a woman aspire to power or to blaze a trail and subject herself to the kind of abuse and ridicule that seems to be reserved largely for women?
Recently a female student complained that a member of staff had told her off for carrying her blazer rather than wearing it: “It’s not a handbag”, he said. “Would he have said that to a boy?” she asked me. Probably not I concurred and had a word. I’m sure there are numerous other examples of casual sexism that take place on a daily basis. We want our girls to believe that they can do or be anything yet our behaviours all too often reinforce the opposite.
I want our girls to be brave, vocal and challenge discrimination in all its forms. I want them to eat well, be fit and healthy and stop punishing or hurting themselves if they don’t feel that they are good enough or pretty enough or clever enough. I want our girls to tell us when we’ve got it wrong and slipped into lazy, casual misogyny. I want them to know its ok to fail because making mistakes is how we learn. I want them to know its ok to say no and to stick to their guns if they believe in something. I want them to love their friends and know that girls don’t always have to fall out and that unkindness to others is not just “girls being girls”. I want to ban the word “bitchy” which as a specifically female insult manages to condemn nasty comments  whilst assigning them to girls.
Most of all I want girls to believe that whoever they want to be, that’s ok. It has to be possible for Cinderella to save the colony.

Project 50

I’m not sure of the wisdom of blogging about fitness goals. First of all it’s a bit self indulgent and secondly it’s a pretty public declaration (which might leave me with some very real egg on my face). But on the grounds that as soon as you publish a goal you become accountable for achieving it and with a Big Birthday looming I have decided to try and articulate some of my aims for Project 50.

To say I am not looking forward to my birthday is an understatement. The thought fills me with horror. I’ve always been paradoxically both fairly vain and dissatisfied with my body so the ageing process is not one I feel able to embrace. But having lost my beautiful mother in law to ovarian cancer at the age of 57 a few years ago, I am increasingly aware that growing old is as much a privilege as an inevitability. I’m not sure I’m capable of growing old gracefully but should like to hang on to what I’ve got for as long as possible.

So this is it: project 50. I intend to enter my 51st year on this planet fitter, healthier and more confident than I ever have been.

I have spent most of my life wanting to be half a stone lighter – even when I was. For me fitness has always been more about weight than health. An active though not sporty child, a victim of school PE which was predicated on talent spotting for the school teams where I was always last or nearly last to be picked, I entered adulthood with little or no interest in sport; even after I married a PE teacher! Since then I have had a love hate relationship with the gym (and my body). At uni I flirted with eating disorders and have always been an obsessive five times a day weigher. I think it’s time to stop.

So here it is. 1: No more daily weigh ins – hard, as I have had thirty years to create this habit. 2: Strength training in the gym for my health and not to lose weight. With a family history of osteoporosis this is a necessity. I intend to go at least four times a week. 3: 10,000 steps a day – not so hard as I absolutely love walking round my school or down to the primary school and there is nothing better than getting out of the office. 4: I am going to do my stretches three times a day as recommended by the physio as apparently my sore knee and hip are a direct result of a tight gluteus media – who knew? 5: No wine on a school night – or at least three of them- apart from the weigh ins this is going to be the hardest. Like many of my generation that glass of wine which signals work is over and which rewards me for a day of total commitment to other people’s children has become an integral part of my daily routine. But I know though that it is not good for me, disturbs my sleep, plays havoc with my skin and leads me to make poor decisions. So I am off to buy elderflower presse by the gallon instead.

I am doing this for a number of reasons inspired and supported by my husband @creatorronnie who has, since Christmas been applying the principles of adopting small lifestyle changes to manage a chronic back condition and high blood pressure. And it’s working. No more grand gestures or crash diets just a few key actions that I am committing to. The reality is I don’t want to get old at all but if I’ve got to – and I suppose I do – I’m going to do it on my terms. It’s time to stop feeling dissatisfied with myself and actually take the advice I try very hard to give my daughter and all the girls I have worked with over 28 years of teaching in not judging myself by stupid unattainable beauty standards. What a hypocrite I’ve been all these years.

Pathetic Fallacies

As the rain continues to pour down outside, it is hard to imagine that the sun is ever going to shine again. So I spare a thought whilst writing this for my friends and colleagues teaching on the Somerset levels and the pupils in some of their villages who have not been able to go to school since Christmas and know at least that miserable as the weather is, it could be a lot worse.Somerset Levels

The sun has however been shining metaphorically on Uffculme School and once again when the league tables were published in January, we stood out as the top performing comprehensive school in Devon. Much is being made at the moment of the state vs private school debate and it seems so fashionable at the moment to knock state schools, to denigrate their achievements and to blame teachers for not being tough enough, working hard enough, building character enough or solving all of society’s problems. We are told that our very good results aren’t actually good results borne of hard work and dedicated teaching but are the consequences of gaming and “playing the system”. We are told that our pupils are unemployable and that we don’t build independence, resilience or a work ethic unlike our colleagues in the private sector. Apparently we need to be more like private schools – except of course without the £30,000 a year per pupil.

However all of us here at Uffculme know that this is utter rubbish. I would like to say to Mr Gove, “Come to Uffculme”. Come and see our polite, hardworking and ambitious young people. Stay beyond 3.30 and watch how the car park fills from 5.00pm onwards with parents picking children up from revision classes, sporting fixtures, after school clubs and music and drama rehearsals.  Come along on results day in August and tell our students that their hard work and excellent achievements don’t really count.

We know that a comprehensive school can be everything a private school is and more. We too can deliver excellent teaching, high expectations and quality personal development but we can also do it in a strong, cohesive and diverse community where young people from all kinds of backgrounds can mix and make friends. I don’t wish to run my colleagues in private schools down but just because you pay for something, it doesn’t necessarily make it better. The private sector does not have a monopoly on sport, culture, the arts and strong values and we don’t need the league tables to tell us this.

So while it rains outside, we try to ignore the educational storms brewing at Whitehall and get on with the job of doing the absolute best we can for the young people of Uffculme School and continue to hope and expect that it is good enough.