Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Summer Tutoring

Radio 4 Woman's Hour was getting all steamed up this morning about the social rights and wrongs of tutoring children during the school holidays. "Socially divisive", "giving the posh kids an extra leg up they don't need", "impossible demands placed on young shoulders", etc etc.

According to some amongst us, children turn into vegetables during those precious few weeks of summer, and need to be kept nose to grindstone lest they forget how to spell, punctuate, do times tables and stand still in the lunch queue.

I've been tutoring children and young people from 11 to 18 years old for the past few years, and it's completely changed my views on what tutoring actually is.

In the summer holidays, most of my tutees stop, unless they are preparing for a selective entrance exam that's going to come up early in the next academic year. These poor souls have to keep going, yes.

I find it next to impossible to force my own poor children to do any official work in the summer. Quite rightly, they run a mile. They really are tired of school after a whole academic year of it, and need the down time.

However the local library is running its usual Reading Challenge, which has exposed the fact that my son actually likes reading (it can't last) and will sit and do it all by himself now. One element of the Challenge involved writing a 'spine-tingling poem'. So he did, and then added a picture of a bloody severed hand for good measure. I looked on, incredulous. He never did that during the school year.

Today the children demanded to go to Beanotown, because they'd spotted this event at the South Bank in some issue of the comic. It turned out to include a room full of comfy seats and beanbags, floor to ceiling rows of books, comics and annuals, and a huge table covered in more annuals, paper and pens for drawing. They had to be dragged away.

Both Reading Challenge and Beanotown were absolutely free. I struggle to think of better ways to get children reading, writing and drawing.

In the tutoring I do, I have come to realize that all kinds of families and children would like extra support. For some, the curriculum is dull, and they are able, but losing motivation. Others have started to struggle in secondary school, perhaps because of gaps from primary school learning, and are losing confidence. I've tutored some of the most able students I've ever encountered — and told them repeatedly that they do not need a tutor. These brilliant young people come from the state and the private sector. They want to be stretched further than A level demands.

Most of what I do in actually teaching involves building a strong relationship with the students, trying to understand what motivates them as individuals, what their academic strengths are, and then relating language-learning or English to those strengths. This involves more listening than talking, and we work pretty slowly. They say they like it. I like to think they make progress. Their families seem happy with my somewhat unorthodox approach, which I make no secret about.

One of the unexpected benefits and pleasures of tutoring is getting to know the students' families, and there is no predominant pattern in which socio-economic group is seeking tutoring. Some are well off, other families are making a considerable outlay.

As far as I'm concerned everyone would benefit from one to one tutoring — after all, isn't that why supervisions and tutorials are still held up as being the best teaching system in the world at Oxford and Cambridge?

As for tutoring through the summer? Put up a hammock or a tent, take a book outside, keep a scrapbook, take photos, find some free local events to go to. Make your kids do the cooking, and count the change from shopping. That should keep them ticking over.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Cover up

This morning on the BBC — modesty bags for lads' mags! Brilliant. The Co op is asking the people who publish Loaded, Nuts and the other boys' peep show titles to put bags over their product, to protect the innocence of children coming into the shops.

Feminista wants to go further, campaigning for an outright ban on these magazines. Their argument is that the Co op is still aiming to make money out of lads' mag culture — the fig leaf of a plastic bag is just a way to get around the profit hit it would otherwise take.

What's the real problem, of which lads' mags are the pathetic symptom? Girls are sent the message, "sex is dirty and you are dirty if you do it — aren't you?", while boys are sent the message, "sex is dirty and girls are dirty if they do it — here, have a little look". Queen Victoria would have been proud.

Seems to me that putting a doggy bag over a soft porn mag is a bit like men telling women they have to wear burkhas to protect their modesty, because men are just unable to control their own desires.

So what's the solution? To me, this is an area that needs action from two ends (as it were).

On the one hand, parents and teachers have a fantastic opportunity to help children cope with their own sexual development in a healthy way, avoiding shame, and showing children what love looks like. Sex is an extraordinary means of understanding how mysterious and delicate other people are. You don't want to get rid of sex.

On the other, the State (us) has a powerful role to play in gradually ousting porn from the public arena until, like smoking, it is something you don't want to do any more because you have to stand outside in the cold to do it. Seen in that light, no, the Co op doesn't go far enough, but it is a step in the right direction, because it might encourage other retailers to follow suit, which might lead the State to step up.

In the meantime we could focus on the other problem with newsagents: why do they display loads of sweets at children's eye level?

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Royal Baby

The other day, my daughter and I were standing in line at a supermarket, idly waiting for the man in front to get an assistant to check the price of his pâté, have an argument about it, and then decide not to buy it.

Our eyes, as we idled, fell upon the obligatory magazine stand. It was crammed with celebrity gossip mags screeching about the forthcoming Royal Birth. My daughter read out, "Kate: My Worries About Whether I'll Be a Perfect Mum! Royal Pair: Will and Kate Already Planning Number Two! Duchess: Too Posh to Push? Kate Says She's Worried About Losing Her Figure!"

Actually, I can't quite recall the wording, but you get the idea. Royal Babymania, to crown the summer of British Sporting success. Murray! Tour de France! Ashes! Rugby! Parturition!

My daughter, bless her, and no doubt because she is being brought up by the world's most argumentative mother, was horrified and incredulous. "She hasn't even had the baby yet!" she shrieked, looking around to see whether others shared her consternation. The sounds of the British public, gently chewing cud as they waited patiently in line (me included), were all that met her social critique. That's my girl.

I found myself wondering this morning exactly what the Duchess of Cambridge's birth story was like. How many people were present in the room? Did anyone check the warming pan to see if a changeling had been smuggled in? Was she allowed to give birth naturally? Was she allowed to ask for her gynaecologist of choice? Why did a man deliver the baby?

It was rather touching to know that the Duke and Duchess behaved "as any normal parents would do". They spent time with their newborn before issuing the press release, they phoned their folks first, they spent the night in hospital together (actually, that's not normal, on the NHS, partner has to go home for that first excruciating night…).

The baby boy, of course, will no more have a normal life than I am the Pope. However, it is interesting to see what the privileged do about pregnancy, maternity and parenting, because it allows us to think about the way in which all of us are exposed to public scrutiny when we have babies. Kate Middleton should be knighted simply because she has endured a pregnancy in the public eye and produced a lovely healthy baby despite it all. She's obviously superwoman.

I wonder how long it will be before the Royal breastfeeding debate kicks off? And how long will Kate take off before she goes back to work? How will she juggle childcare vouchers? Will she go nanny or nursery? Part time or full time? Will she manage to lose that baby weight quickly enough? Will she smack?

Will she be happy?

Wednesday, 10 July 2013


And now this.


This is a very clever title for a very upsetting debate.

The way it's framed is particularly saddening: if a woman doesn't have children, what value does she have, and indeed, does she have any?


Of COURSE a woman, like any other person, or animal, or flower, has value, simply by existing.

OK, evil people, flowers and animals have perhaps less value, and usually do more damage.

Value — now there's a word. What on earth does it mean to "have value"? In economic terms, it means "be tradeable". I'm not sure that that's what the Mumsnot debate means. After all, women have been traded for centuries, and it's usually the idea that they're not virginal that prompts the idea of their loss of value. When did tradability shift to the post-partum female?

And who is assigning that value? It used to be men, on the basis of dowry or chattels. What is it now? An index of male fertility, or capacity to entrap and keep a female? Or, horror, is it what women themselves are now using as a literal matrix of self-evaluation?

Matrix: from Latin, female animal used for breeding, parent plant, from matr-, mate

Here's the deal.

A woman, with or without children, has value.

Just has value.

It is self-evaluation that does so much harm.

Evaluation implies measurement against established norms. But there aren't any with motherhood. We aren't just defined by the groups we notionally fall into. We aren't defined at all except at the point of death, when it all comes to an end. Until then we are in permanent flux and emergence. The notion of 'value' that Mumsnot is talking about is purely comparative, purely social. It leaves out of account the richness of all life, reducing it to two categories: reproductive or not.

I aspire never to be defined by having had children. They passed through me, and I was a vessel, an agent. I was changed in bearing them, but the same problems I had had before having children still beset me afterwards. Mumsnot isn't the issue — it's like saying Dietnot, or Mortgagenot, or Faceliftnot. What's really under discussion is how extraordinarily difficult it is to be happy.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Home schooling, the finale

Well lookie here, this is turning into a sign from the universe. Apparently home schooling IS the way forward.

After our son's raucous 7th birthday party on Sunday (007 spy party, held on 07/07, d'you see?), at his school, we headed home, sweaty, laden with parcels almost certainly containing Lego, and thought no Moore of spy parties.

Come Monday morning, lo, a burst water main had closed the school! Out of the blue, on a glorious summer day, the children had NO SCHOOL.

Coupled with the planned teacher training day the Friday before, this amounted to an unexpected long weekend, at least from the children's point of view. What luck!

Hmmm. What was Mother to do. Options options:

1. Complain to the Council. No point, it's Haringey.
2. Go home and complain to the husband. No point, he's trying to earn our mortgage.
3. Shout at the kids. Tempting, but not really fair.
4. Turn on the television. The weather's too nice.
6. Let the children do as they wish. Unthinkable.
7. I know, allow son to open all presents, construct all Lego (maths, physics). Crack out the thank you cards from the party (writing practice). Force daughter to make Greek Musical Instrument out of pasta, glue, cardboard, enamel paint and masking tape from painting the front door the other day (homework, DT). Then force daughter to do, not one, but two maths practice papers, and then force her to go over the corrections (HAH! Maths). Then let her go and do some reading and writing (she likes it). 

I think that's everything covered.

We even went to the library, although I had to leave minutes later, once I'd inhaled and thereby used up the last remnant of oxygen in the place (Haringey).

And do you know, I EVEN went to yoga, and taught two classes. THIS is what is meant by home working.

I'm looking for the problems in the above, but I can't actually find any. It was a blissful day. All of us were at home, we all worked symbiotically with each other, no one shouted. IT'S THE TRUTH AND THE WAY. The whole of Western civilization is predicated on a lie! We don't need schools! We just need both parents working from home, slightly unfulfilled, and a lot of Bond papers.

I'll let you know when I've worked out what the downsides are.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Two parenting metaphors

What am I learning about modern parenting?

Two things.

1. Legoland — a metaphor for alienation.

2. Race for Life — a metaphor for frustrated ambition.

Let me explain.

Marx (and I paraphrase) felt that people were being alienated from the means of production of things like food and clothing. Instead they went to work in mines, cities and factories, were paid money and then had to commute home to give this money to their families, to pay for things. They seemed to be gaining autonomy, but were actually losing control over their lives. This was in the sense of the overall arc of those lives, their destinies (getting work started to depend on your education rather than, say, farming your own bit of land). It was also at the level of day-to-day human pleasure (growing your own tomatoes; making your own shirts). He thought this as England's green and pleasant land was overrun by factories during the 19th century. The rest of us called it the Industrial Revolution.

You can understand much of Marx by reading Dr Seuss's The Lorax. Or perhaps this is why my paraphrase is so fantastically loose.

What does this have to do with modern parenting and Legoland, I hear you snore?

Well, under late capitalism, i.e. in a era in which we support the banking sector to prevent social disintegration, without regulating the banking sector to prevent social disintegration, we have handed over control over all kinds of other aspects of our lives.

For instance: how to entertain ourselves.

We used to have hoops and sticks. Now we have (to have) Legoland.

Legoland is a realization of what we might otherwise imagine. It is the incarnation of something that could have remained fantasy, or child's play, had it not been built quite so solidly. Legoland, in becoming real, ends itself. To be real, Legoland would have had to remain insubstantial. In becoming bricks and mortar, it has entered the circulation of goods, and is simply another element of exchange, like Primark, Marks and Spencers ready meals, or The X Factor. It doesn't create desire for pleasure or play, it creates desire for itself. People want to go to Legoland, because Legoland exists, not because it's great, or soul-enlarging.

To go there requires military planning, advance ticket purchase, finetuning of exactly what time to arrive to "beat the crowds" (of other people — apparently you, a 'person', are different from all these other mere 'people'). It requires picnic transportation (or the risk of being ripped off). It requires either racing round all the attractions at top speed, regardless of enjoyment, or queuing for an hour a ride, regardless of enjoyment. Spontaneity, at Legoland, takes the form of, "I'll meet you in Miniland in 20 minutes, I'll take Jimmy to the shop, and you go to the toilets with Janey."

Legoland is like going to a casino. You pays your money, you plays the game. You cannot win.

And what of Race for Life? Leaving aside whether calling fundraising a 'war' is itself a viable metaphor, I found myself running up a hill with my ten-year-old daughter today, raising some money for cancer research. Or rather practically dragging the poor child along as she complained about the heat and a stitch.

Here's the dialogue in my head:

- For goodness' sake, slow down, the child's tired.
- Gotta get in front of the pink bottoms.
- It's not a real race, will you calm down?
- Can't stand being behind.
- If you give her space, she'll have another go in a minute.
- Wanna win.
- Don't be daft, the winner crossed the line 20 minutes ago!
- Why can't I just run ahead?
- Because you're running with your daughter, it's a special moment, you harpy!
- Does my bum look big in this lycra?
- Yes it does. You're 45, for heaven's sake. Let it go! Just be happy!
- I hate you.
- Well I don't much like you either.

I think you get the drift. EVEN AS we were 'in the moment', savouring quality mother-daughter time, what was I doing? Feeling frustrated that I couldn't run faster. That I wasn't 21. That I wasn't thinner, more gorgeous, more successful. WHAT ON EARTH IS WRONG WITH ME? We had a view over all London, the most beautiful day this summer, funky music, Hampstead Heath in all its shimmering glory, supporters, and lunch waiting for us.

Luckily I have a fantastic daughter who has long since worked out that her Generation X mother is to be pitied, not emulated.

May all her metaphors be better for it.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Home Schooling: the sequal

Well, your wish is my command. Do you remember my little daydream about teaching my children at home, with my phd, and my years of teaching experience, and my love of literature, culture and the young?

Yesterday, as if by magic, the teachers had a TADS. This is a new educational acronym on me. Apparently it means something like Teacher Absence Day, S'there. Or possibly Training and Detention Summit. Something along those lines.

Anyway, what it means is that several times a year, (a) working women have to scrabble about for yet more expensive childcare on a random day; (b) "stay-at-home mums" (those with phds who don't fit into mainstream society) have to Find Something To Do with Their Loved Ones, Instead of Their Writing.

Because apparently teachers need to have training days, IN THE MIDDLE OF TERM. EVEN THOUGH THEY HAVE TEN WEEKS' HOLIDAY A YEAR.

Having mentioned to my daughter the notion of home education, she decided to run with it, reminding me that on a previous occasion I'd been so annoyed by them missing a perfectly good day of school, that I'd made them do extra work.

She decided to step this up a gear and actually run a Dame School for a day. She — I kid you not, and I don't think I'm even boasting, I was so shocked —

  • Designed a full day's timetable on the computer (challenge, assembly, maths, literacy, break, forest school, design and technology, quiet reading…) and then finished it by hand, illustrations and all; 
  • Developed a maths lesson with extension questions, at Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 levels; 
  • Designed a story board with planning grid on the computer (the Whatever You Like Storyboard); 
  • Put together maths and literacy workbooks for four children; 
  • Set up a school room complete with jar of pens, work files, chalks, glass of water for me, a (completed) planning notebook, also for me, table and 4 seats.

All before about 10am.

All right, maybe I'm boasting just a bit. Frankly if she can do all that by herself, my work here is done.

Then her friends arrived and we settled down for some serious school. First up was, apparently, the Morning Challenge, what the children do when they first come into the classroom.

I, clueless, drew a picture of a hole in the ground, and then a lemming next to it. Desperate to make some coffee, I left them with the conundrum, 'How many lemmings could you fit in that hole? Without squashing them'.

Here is what my daughter's friend wrote:

I think you could put one Leming on the bottom side ways, three on top and then another three on top like this: You can fit 7".

She drew a cross section of a hole, with a lemming lying provocatively on its side like Manet's Olympia at the bottom, enigmatic smile and all, with six more happily grinning lemmings, standing on each other's shoulders and their friend. I'm afraid I laughed til I cried.

All this sounds wonderful, am I right?

Sadly, all too soon, my son decided he was bored with Key Stage One Stewie's Times Tables Challenge, and embarked on a dangerous climbing mission in his room, ending with him momentarily stumbling, and a vision imprinted on my retina of his silhouette about to crash through an upstairs window.

School was suspended for major telling off, comforting and subsidence time.

You can see the picture. After hours of school assembly (on lemmings, with a lemming song), story writing, half-eaten snacks, half-eaten lunch, clearing up the kitchen at least five times, more shouting at son (at one point he nicked an egg, tried to whisk it, knocked it over, and covered half the lunch things in it), hiding the iPad at least six times, friends leaving and ensuing despair, having to take children swimming (persuasion, enforcement, cajoling, Jurassic swamp temperature changing room, upset child at pool) 'popping' into supermarket on way home, some entirely unnecessary gardening which doubled as meditation, I was ON MY KNEES.

By 6pm, when I was scrabbling about for something to cook, and hazing in and out of consciousness from exhaustion, it was all over.

The kids pooh-poohed dinner, and I lost it. They were sent upstairs, without dessert, with fleas in their ears, to get ready for bed, howling.

I lay, catatonic, on the bed, struggling to make sense of it all. Had we not had a wonderful day (from the children's point of view)? Had we not done some amazing things? Had I not been proud of my daughter for her ingenuity and care? Had I not bought a new plant?

Then why was I feeling like a complete failure, depressed, upset, deflated?

Perhaps because I'd overdone it a TADS.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

School of thought

Yesterday I was preparing a class for a tutee, and came across a Home Education website.

I found myself conducting a thought experiment. Why not educate my children at home? I have a doctorate, speak several languages, have years of teaching experience at university level, tutor others already in my own home, could find ways to develop curricula for all the subjects I'd love my children to learn, like Mandarin.

I could join a network of home schoolers, all equally enlightened, and focused on the fascinating multiplicity of subjects children might like to study.

We could take GCSEs early, and perhaps go for iGCSEs, and then the International Baccalaureat.

My children would not need to spend hours of each day locked in a classroom, we would go to museums and art galleries, circus skills and dance classes.

They would become independent learners, and follow their dreams into adulthood, instead of being constantly deflected from their goals by pointless tasks, testing and discouragement.

My kids would not face years of bullying, and peer group anxiety, as their sexuality kicks in and they have to compete with their own hormones to try to take in any learning at all.

They would be well adjusted, join clubs and meet others that way, retain their curiosity and dedication through play, experiment and gentle (rather than humiliating) mistakes.

This morning, I asked my daughter whether she'd like to be educated at home.

She said no.

It's true. We'd probably kill each other. As we went through the school gate, another mum overheard us, and pricked up her ears. I listened to myself starting to rant at her about compromise, inequality, highly-educated mothers being patronized etc etc etc, and, as she backed away from me, remembered all over again that home schooling isn't the solution.

It's keeping alive all the wonderful things we imagine for our children — in ourselves.

Not writing but painting

I have been doing a mindfulness course in the last few weeks.

It has changed my life.

I no longer do any writing at all (agonized or otherwise). Instead I have painted our front door.

Life has become extraordinarily easy.

I float through each day, doing only the task that is right in front of me, planning only the amount I need to get the next thing done. I am kind, open and generous, even to my husband. I am able to control my temper, impatience and feelings of inadequacy. I walk the children to school and back at their pace rather than my own. I smile and ask questions. I ensure the house is harmonious. I no longer listen to the news — Egypt may or may not be on the brink of a military dictatorship, or a civil war, and that is terrifying, fascinating, worrying, but ultimately there is so little I can do except be nice to people here (since no one has invited me to become a diplomat), that I might as well try to grow peas, bake chocolate cake and sit doing maths problems with my child.

Life is, in short, perfect. In the slightly less than best of all possible worlds we have colonized.


This week, the theme of the mindfulness session was about befriending. I expected this to be about befriending my problems, and was quite looking forward to it. However, it turned out to be about befriending myself (and a few others). That was quite another matter. I ended up impatient, cross, critical, analytical, sceptical and suspicious.

In every other respect, mindfulness is quite an extraordinary discipline.

You practice your capacity to occupy your conscious mind, noting its teeming preoccupations and unpredictable, relentless activities so that you no longer get caught up in them.

You learn to apprehend your intuitions, arising from the body, paying careful attention to its flux and flow.

You learn to move from hearing sound to 'hearing' thought, and see how thoughts behave like rumours — made of nothing, but building into apparently ungainsayable truths.

You learn to pay attention to your other senses — tasting your food, rather than fuelling yourself, noticing exactly how you walk, just washing up, rather than multi-tasking with your mind elsewhere on the next problem to solve.

You learn to entertain more difficult thoughts, things you habitually shy away from, and start to see where those thoughts imprint themselves in very strange places in your body.

By paying attention to what your body, rather than your mind, is doing, you learn simply to be with your tensions and aversions, dancing with them rather than fighting or trying to change them.

You learn that you have it in you, quite literally, to calm yourself in any situation, simply by focusing on your breathing.

Who knew?

All of this is ABSOLUTELY SENSATIONAL and every person alive ought to be given a free mindfulness course. It would reduce hospital bills and road rage, improve productivity, ensure more food and clothes were bought, mean that children are happy, and parents kind. It would allow Conservatives to understand that it is their repressed infantile rage and neediness which drives their politics of avarice, thrift and exclusion. It would enable Nick Clegg to disband his party, instead of wasting his valuable active years propping up a socially divisive and uncharitable government. It would allow theocrats to understand that monotheistic religions and religious organizations rest on rigid and fearful thought patterns, which, in and of themselves, crush the object of their devotion.

But I draw the line at liking myself.