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school

What did you do when your friend died of breast cancer?

On February 13 this year my friend Ainslie died of breast cancer after fighting the dreaded disease for 12 years. I knew Ainslie was going to die, at the time of her death she had cancer in her brain, was wheelchair bound and her body was less and less able to function. Given that I knew she was going to leave, I was always so sure I’d know when the time came. However I did not.

It was a full 24 hours later – while away with my family on a weekend break  – when I got the text from her husband Phil to tell me she’d gone.  I went into the state of shock which comes when someone who is part of your life is taken, a parting even worse if that someone is young, in this case just 47. My son told me he’d never heard me cry like that. 

Ainslie Duffell

Ainslie, who fought breast cancer for 12 years

I asked him what he meant. After all, I’m so soft I’ll cry at a tv advertisement which pulls on the heart strings. He’s seen me cry regularly, hundreds of times. He just said ‘it wasn’t like that’. I think he meant I was howling – making that kind of sound you make when you are almost separate from yourself wondering why on earth you are emitting such a strange, animal noise. 

When home, i visited Phil and Alex to see them following Ainslie’s passing. It’s one of those moments you dread but know you have to face and I did it with one of my children who felt she wanted to be there. It was such a shock to walk into the house and see Ainslie looking at me from the sofa – my heart flipped. Perhaps there’d been a mistake – but how could there be? It was actually Ainslie’s sister, Lindsay, who looks like her, or who looks like her before cancer took over Ainslie’s body and tried – but did not succeed  – to rob her of her essential self. 

What do you do when your friend dies from cancer? When you could do absolutely nothing to help her when she was here apart from being there? You can – donate money to her funeral fund, you can support her family in the days following her death, offer to do some practical things like cook meals, do shopping, clean the house. However, having suffered loss myself before – that’s not where the best and most positive route lies. Do those things. Do them as a matter of course, but don’t let that be it. The best route for me lies in letting everyone know this person mattered  weeks, months or years down the line. For everyone achieving that may look different. 

I lost my dad when he was 58 and I remember him daily by talking about him and ensuring my children know what he looked like, the funny things he said and did. What he did or didn’t like. How he influenced me for good and ill. When I lost my brother in law at just 49, it was about honouring his children, seeing him in them, trying to support my sister through the worst times of her life – and trying to keep on doing it even when it’s hard to do so. That’s family. But what about a close friend?

When I went to Ainslie’s house to see Phil and their son Alex, following her death. Alex and Phil told me they had a plan. In her journal, Ainslie had said how sad she was that she was unable to see Alex achieve his first century at cricket. Alex is a rising young star on the Wiltshire cricket scene and the sport is his passion – as it is Phil’s who is a sports journalist and qualified cricket coach. Why was Ainslie unable to see her son play on that day? As a wheelchair user, the cricket club where Alex plays regularly has very poor wheelchair access and nowhere for a disabled or very ill person to view a match safely or in any degree of comfort. Although very proud of her son, Ainslie’s wish to see him play could not be fulfilled. Her journal revealed the true extent of her sadness.

Now I know nothing about cricket save it can involve teams dressed in white carrying bats, using very hard red balls and the word ‘runs’ comes into it. It’s not a sport I’ve ever been interested in and my only abiding memory of it is the novelist DH Lawrence refers to the ‘chocking’ of the cricket ball hitting the bat in one of his novels. I’ve always liked the word ‘chock’. When Phil & Alex asked if I would support them in a five year project to rebuild the cricket pavilion at the Purton Cricket Club in Wiltshire so that no other wheelchair user would be denied access – I said yes. 

As I said before, I could do nothing to help Ainslie while she was alive battling this horrible, disgusting disease – but this is something I can do. I can do my little bit to support Phil & Alex as they attempt to create a legacy in Ainslie’s name at a cricket club which will be 200 years old in 2020. I’m proud to have been asked and I’m proud to do my bit. 

Could you do your bit by sharing this blog post? It will be one of many charting this journey over the next few years and highlighting events to raise money. At this early stage, just over £5,000 has been raised to get the project off the ground. It will be a long journey ahead with obstacles, hurdles and great moments. But it will never be anything like the journey which went before….so this is what I’m doing for my friend Ainslie….

Fracking – is it on your radar yet? Coming to the south west in 2014….

This is an article which appeared in the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald on January 2 2014 and includes an interview with mum Becky Martin, a scientist by profession.

As 2014 dawns, it could be a very important year for one campaigning mum from Wiltshire.

Becky Martin is the parent behind a new group Frack Free Families which campaigns against the removal of shale oil or gas from the ground – even if it’s for exploration purposes.

Already Becky can be seen handing out leaflets in town centres across Wiltshire, including Salisbury and Swindon, as well as joining forces with other concerned groups. She recently spent day at a protest at Barton Moss near Irlam, Manchester where drilling took place in November and December.

“I became interested in this subject some time ago as a scientist – I’m a biologist and had a career in cancer research before having my son.

“I looked into hydraulic fracturing and did what research I could and I was horrified. I just had to do something about it.

“This is entirely outside my comfort zone. I’ve never campaigned about anything before or taken such a strong stance on any issue. With this subject it was a case of ‘I have to do something about it’.”

Becky often takes her two-year-old son Aidan with her when she hands out leaflets to make the point that families will be affected by this search for a new energy source.

“Being a mother has been the driving factor behind this for me. What are we leaving behind for our children? We could be risking their health with this process and it’s insanity.

“Even taking that into account, it isn’t even going to deal with our long-term energy needs. Even if shale gas was magnificent, it isn’t going to solve our energy problems,” Becky said.

The extraction of shale gas and oil – and in some cases coal bed methane – is likely to become a familiar theme here during 2014. It’s a process which has been used in America for many years but is still in an exploratory phase in the UK. It is just one measure the government is looking at to ensure energy sustainability in the future. Renewables is another.

Becky said: “We have to look at, and invest more in, renewable energy such as solar, wind and tidal power. Shale gas is just too risky and we could be spending money on the burgeoning renewables sector. It’s crazy to me that we’re not looking more seriously at offshore wind farms or tidal power. We’re an island for goodness sake, and that could create a sustainable energy future. We must move away from fossil fuels.

“Apart from anything else, shale gas will not help us with our main addiction when it comes to energy use – our cars. It will not solve the problem of our addiction to petrol.”

A licensing round for exploratory work around is due to be held in the first six months of this year. These licences could allow boreholes to be drilled and/or well pads to be created in Wiltshire. This means companies involved in this exploratory work – such as IGas, Cuadrilla and Celtique – will be able to bid for the licenses.

For Becky this is must not happen. Like many anti-fracking campaigners, she is concerned about the potential for contamination of water sources caused by the process of drilling. She’s also concerned about the long term health effects for communities living around drilling sites.

“Fracking fluid for the process is an unpleasant mix of chemicals. I’ve been told it contains nothing more than that which is under my kitchen sink. However these cleaning fluids are incredibly toxic and we’ll be pumping that into the ground in large quantities. Some of the chemicals used are very, very dangerous such as oxirane.

“There are also risks around what could be released by the process itself. There are naturally occurring radioactive materials in the earth which we would not want to contaminate our water.”

She wrote to her own MP, John Glen, expressing her concerns. He replied in detail:

“It is worth mentioning that the deposits of shale gas identified by the British Geological Survey in Wiltshire are extremely minimal – and located in the north west tip of the county. The majority are in central and northern England.” 

 “I’m afraid that I’m strongly in favour of fracking. I welcome the potential it has to provide with a vitally needed new energy source, and to catalyse a new industry in the UK.” 

However, Becky disputes that there will be any significant creation of jobs for local communities. She claims that in the Fylde area near Blackpool, where the first UK explorations were carried out, only 11 per cent of the workforce was recruited locally.

John Glen also says there is little credible evidence to show that contamination of water sources could occur if proper regulation and procedures are in place.

“It’s important to note the differences between water systems here and in the USA. In the UK, most aquifers like within the first 300m below the surface. Fracking operations will taken place some 2km down – migration of methane or fracking fluids could therefore only occur through fractures in the rock which would allow the chemicals through.”

Becky claims research from America suggests this method of obtaining energy is having adverse health effects on nearby communities – effects which emerge after a period of time. She believes this is not being taken seriously at home.

“There is evidence from Pennsylvania which suggests that children are having frequent nosebleeds, headaches and other problems when they live very close to the drill sites. I would also urge anyone to seek out the film Gasland which looks at the experiences of families living close to sites where shale gas and oil are extracted.”

Becky also claims there are a number of myths around fracking which are common among the wider population. The most common one, she claims, is that obtaining shale oil or gas will bring down the price of energy.

“Many politicians have now openly said that this will not happen including Ed Davey, David Kennedy and Lord Sterne. This will not make energy cheaper.”

Factoids: 

What is fracking? –  or hydraulic fracturing, is the process of extracting natural gas from shale rock layers deep within the earth. Fracking makes it possible to produce natural gas extraction in shale plays once unreachable with conventional technologies.

Germany has taken a different stance and has concluded, due to lack of data, the precautionary principle should be adhered to and a moratorium around fracking is in place.

For the American documentary about communities living near hydraulic fracturing sites – you can find Gasland the Movie on YouTube.

Frack free families can be contacted by joining the Frack Free Families group on Facebook.

 

The police, young people and mental health…in Wiltshire…

Today I’m reproducing an article I wrote for my family column in the weekly newspaper, The Gazette & Herald, which covers much of the county of Wiltshire. It was published on Thursday August 29 2013  and I’m reproducing it here at the request of one of my Twitter followers, an organisation which I much admire, Wiltshire Mind. To follow me on Twitter, you’d be most welcome at @mum3fi, and you can find the Gazette & Herald @wiltsgazette. 

 

Some time ago,  I wrote about an Ofsted report into the safeguarding of vulnerable children in Wiltshire and the fact that the county’s local authority had been found wanting.

I also reported on the fact that the 2012 report had prompted action to be taken and went through some of the measures to improve the situation for vulnerable and looked-after children in the county. I should point out that the report didn’t suggest any children had come to harm as a result of failings.

However, buried within that 2012 report was a comment which really stood out for me – and which I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of ever since.

It said ‘the established practice by police of using section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 to hold some children or young person in custody where they have committed an offence is inappropriate’.

It goes on to say ‘this practice is under review given that there is now a dedicated CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services) out-of-hours service that can provide more timely and potentially more appropriate assessments’.

This prompted me to find out about Section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983. It’s headed ‘mentally disordered persons found in public places’. It allows that a constable can remove and detain someone for up to 72 hours until he, or she, is examined by a registered practitioner or mental health professional.

What does this mean? Have the police in Wiltshire – or anywhere else for that matter – been holding young people and children, in custody for up to 72 hours when it’s suspected they might have mental health issues?

Since raising questions around two months ago, I’ve been on a journey of epic proportions around the ‘system’. But the answer to my key question is – yes.

A number of children each year have been arrested and held, usually when they’ve committed an offence, and the police believe mental health issues have contributed in some way.

Several times the term ‘Freedom of Information’ was used by various voices but last week I finally got some figures from Wiltshire Constabulary. They are:

2009 – four children (under-18s) were held under Section 136.

2010 – six.

2011 – four.

2012 – three.

But to confuse matters even further these are not the definitive figures. The police have recorded ‘pure’ cases – those where a child clearly has, at first point of contact, mental health issues. However, there have also been a number of cases where an arrest has been made and police officers have subsequently sought help as they’ve suspected mental health issues.

Taking these cases into account as well, the total number of children between the end of 2010 and the end of 2012 who were held under Section 136 was 23.

So what has been done about it? The Wiltshire Safeguarding Children Board (WSCB –  partnership between Wiltshire Council, Wiltshire Police and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust) insists much has been done.

In December 2012, mental health services for under-18s was taken over by Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, known as Oxford Health.  It immediately introduced the Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) Protocol.

To cut through the jargon this means when police officers respond to a young person in ‘significant mental health distress or crisis’, the officer contacts CAMHS from the scene by phone. They can do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Emergency mental health assessments can then be offered or an appointment within 24 hours.

The officer provides information including:

*         Presentation – how is the young person behaving?

*         Need for medical attention – is the young person hurt?

*         Circumstances of the incident

*         Concerns regarding safeguarding or welfare

The CAMHS worker checks the electronic health record system to see if that young person is known. If so, the worker may speak directly with the young person and propose a safety plan or speak to parents or carers.

If distress can be reduced through a phone conversation, the young person is normally offered an urgent assessment on the morning of the next working day.  If concerns remain, an emergency assessment can be offered in a safe location such as a CAMHS clinic or police station within two hours.

If the young person is not known, there may be unknown risks and an urgent mental health assessment can be offered.

The options are discussed with the officer at the scene who always reserves the right to use a 136 detention or other police powers.

In a statement WSCB said:

“It’s a system which enables officers to gain a mental health perspective to inform their decision-making and consider alternative options.  It also ensures CAMHS are alerted to mental health concerns at an early stage stage and can offer an urgent assessment whether the young person is detained or not.

“The benefits of this collaboration between mental health services and the police, is that distressed young people who require urgent mental health support can receive this quickly, in the least restrictive manner which ensures their immediate needs and risks are reduced.”

The Board says that so far, the new system is working.

“We are pleased to report as result of this protocol there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of 136 detentions under the Mental Health Act of young people under 18 years.

“In the last two years, prior to the introduction of the protocol, there were 23 ‘136’ detentions – this has reduced to three since December 2012.”

Mental health issues in the under-18s - how do the police deal with this?

Mental health issues in the under-18s – how do the police deal with this?

 

We’re not talking about many children, of course, but we are talking about children. Children suspected of having some kind of mental health issue. Children who could, quite legally, be  held for up to three days. Let’s hope this new support system keeps on working.

 

 

 

Happy New Year – my top ten festive moans…..

It’s 2013 and welcome to my Christmas and New Year top ten pet hates about the festive and holiday season.

Everyone has to have a rant now and then –  me more than most. So this week it’s the things which irritate me about Christmas and the New Year. Do let me know if you agree or, even better, what your additional gripes might be….

1. Reduced rubbish collection – the one time of the year when you are bound to collect more rubbish is Christmas, especially when you have children. So why are collections reduced or erratic at this time? I don’t buy the argument that people have time off – I’ve often worked over Christmas and New Year, and the only time I ever got paid extra money was for Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day – and I wouldn’t expect a collection on any of those days. Recycling in Swindon is great – but not great when the bins aren’t collected. So I predict that for the next few weeks, the local authority will see an increase in its general waste and landfill costs because of the distruption over this period.

The tree must come down, along with all of the decorations….

2. Too many repeats on television – I love television, I work on television programmes and I know when goes into making programming. But is it just me or was the majority of programming over the Christmas period repeats? While some are accepted eg. The Christmas Carol, Mary Poppins – I felt there was little to look forward to in terms of new material. Also programmes were repeated loads of times. It’s the one time to draw people in but there were few highlights. Maybe, Miranda,  Downton Abbey special (which was horribly predictable) and the soaps (none of which I watch). Africa was one highlight too. The rest was pretty dull.

3. Turkey – I don’t mind a small turkey on Christmas Day but however hard I try I always end up with far more than needed. It’s the one time of the year when I try to buy an organic bird. I ordered one (I won’t say from where as that wouldn’t be fair) and asked for the smallest. I saw the tick on the list for a 4kg turkey – or around that weight. When it came it was more than 5.5kg – when I queried it I was told that they didn’t have many smaller ones so were having to move them around – without actually informing the customer. I was given no warning and it cost me almost £20 more than I was expecting to pay.  I did comment that if I’d budgeted for the amount originally quoted and hadn’t been able to pay that extra money – what would they have done then? Next year, if we go for turkey again, I’ll buy frozen.

4. Crackers – why are crackers so c**p these days? One of the joys of crackers is the bang when they go off, so many now don’t bang at all – and their contents are awful. And there’s not much choice around. It’s either totally rubbish or slightly better contents for twice the price. Why bother?

5. Round-robin letters in Christmas cards – I didn’t have any of these this year but I usually get a couple each year. It’s like a newsletter to a friend about your family’s achievements. I can’t put my finger on why this irritates me, it may not be logical, because I get them all the time in my business life and I don’t mind. Maybe it’s because it takes the personality out of a Christmas card. If you want to tell me something, just write a couple of lines. It makes all the difference.

6. The length of school holidays – as a working parent, this is something which bugs me often. Many people went back to work on Jan 2 including me  – but children don’t go back to school until Jan 7 or 8. Why? Believe me, most children want to go back to school earlier, they get bored at home, no matter what they’ve got to entertain them and they miss their friends. When you are self-employed, or in certain professions, it’s difficult to take yet more days off so inevitably child care is needed. Which means an expensive time of year becomes even more expensive.

7. Awful present dilemma – what to do with those presents you dislike but, as they’ve come from someone reasonably close, you have to keep at least for a while. We have had several of these within our household this year – can’t give too much detail. Some we’ve changed for other things, some we’ve put up with, some have gone immediately to charity and some we’ve put into the ‘spare present drawer’ for those times when you’ve forgotten someone’s birthday. But for the latter just be careful you don’t give them back to the same person. I’ve burned my fingers with this more than once.

8. What to do with Christmas cards? – we’ve got loads of this year, it comes with having three children at home. I usually recycle but as our bins are overflowing through non-collection and we don’t have cardboard recycling nearby – I guess they’ll live with us longer than usual. And for those of you who want to suggest that I make my own cards next year – it’ s not my thing but you can have then if you want them.

9. The way prices rise the minute the new year comes in – it’s “Happy New Year and here’s what it will cost you” . On New Year’s Day it’s rail fares, the Second Severn Crossing toll – it’s as if certain companies can’t wait to announce that you will be paying more money. This is on top of the fact that many families will face the inevitable credit card bill, rising energy prices as announced by my provider (I’ve now switched) and some of us are losing our child benefit this month. So in January 2013, I am considerably less well off than January 2012. Thanks a lot.

10. Taking down the decorations and the tree – has to be done of course and it’s not really a rant, just an observation. It’s a joy to put them up and a chore to take them down. And where to put all of those new baubles that you sneakily popped on the overloaded tree and that you are now going to have to own up to….and for me this year, an extra sadness. When we put up our tree in early December we took loads of photographs of our lovely cat Chloe covered in tinsel. Sadly a week later, she died following a seizure. And now I have to take them down and look at that tinsel and….well, you get the picture….

Our family cat Chloe who was part of my life for 16 years….

Racism in schools today – does it happen? What do you think?

Racism has been on my mind this week for three reasons.

One I’m making a film for broadcast which, by its nature, brings up issues of racism. The film is not about racism but the subject matter means that it’s inevitable that it’s discussed during filmed interviews.

There was also the case of footballer John Terry where he was found not guilty by a magistrate. That too made me think. And we’ll hear more on that one as he’s also subject to a further investigation which doesn’t require the overwhelming burden of proof that the criminal court demands.

So imagine these things are spinning around in my space.

Then the third thing happened – racism walked through my door.

One of my children was talking with a friend, who doesn’t go to the same school. Indeed, this child’s parents were so anxious to give their child the best possible education they sent her to school miles and miles away. This child doesn’t have white skin, though I’ve never even considered that to be relevant to anything.

This child is beautiful, intelligent, a positive influence who has brought my family into contact with a new culture, new beliefs and has generally enriched our lives.

But she is suffering racism at school – it’s bullying with a ‘black’ tag and it’s something she’s never experienced before. It appears she got into spat with a child who had been a friend and it’s escalated, involving other voices and messages on Facebook and texts which involve racist comments.

This child appears at a loss to know what to do, we’re not even sure she’s told her parents. We feel that this is because the family have sacrificed much to send her to this school and she doesn’t want to let them down. In her primary school life this child didn’t have any moments like this so it’s come as a real shock.

And it came as a shock to me. I’m amazed by how terribly angry I feel and how impotent. What can I do? I don’t know her parents well enough to go around and tell them what’s going on – my child will feel like I’m betraying a trust.  Something that needed to be discussed with me in confidence. I don’t know the name of the school.

But my anger is this – why would any child think it’s okay to do that? If my child did anything like that there would be such serious consequences at home – no phone, no tv, all rewards removed until earned through respect. And what about that school? What action would be taking if it was drawn to their attention?

Would they call in parents and then the police? Or will they gently talk through it, chat to the children concerned and hope it all goes away. What’s the betting it’s the latter.

There are no easy answers to this but we must make it clear that it’s utterly intolerable. A teenager today should not have to spend even one second of their life worrying about a racist slur.

What would you do?

Life isn't black or white....

 

Welcome to the school which has no bullies! (Really?)

Today I felt a flash of anger – as the issue of bullying came up in the news yet again. For us in the west, there’s a very sad news story about a young girl who died from hanging in Somerset.

Her parents have spoken at the inquest of bullying at school, being teased because of her weight, an eating disorder….the poor girl’s experiences now held up for public scrutiny. A terrible, terrible time for her parents. There’s that sense of needing, wanting to blame…but a verdict has yet to be reached, the inquest is still going on.

However, inquests are so important as they can throw up issues which enter the public domain for discussion and debate even if we should bear in mind the human costs involved. Bullying and its effect will surely be a theme with this story.

Today the head teacher of the school where this girl was a pupil gave evidence. I was not there at the inquest, so I’m taking information from the item I saw and heard on the local news bulletin. This head teacher apparently said that there was no bullying at school, the girls who were identified as teasing their fellow pupil about her weight, had denied it. The bulletin said it was simply a ‘clash of personalities’.

Is your child being bullied?

It’s this kind of tepid, ridiculous response which makes me seethe. It’s the kind of line I’ve heard more than once. It’s an adult casting his judgement on what a so-called ‘clash of personalities’ can do to a child. An adult has to understand that what he/she might see as ‘banter’ or ‘childish pranks’ or  ‘pettiness’ , may be having a more profound effect on the victim of it. It’s no different than the dynamics of a workplace. Sometimes friendly banter from one person may be extremely offensive to someone else. How that person feels about that ‘friendly banter’ really matters.

While I don’t wish for one moment to suggest that my experiences are on a par with this terrible tragedy – it serves to highlight a point. Over the years, I’ve been the subject of ‘friendly banter’ and it’s been fine, I give as I much as I get. But on the odd occasion that friendly banter has crossed the line of what I think is acceptable. And that’s the key  – WHAT I THINK IS ACCEPTABLE. So I have had to ensure that the person knows that a line has been crossed.

Transfer this experience to a child. To me, if a child feels bullied and gives off all the signs that they are feeling victimised – surely a head teacher cannot dismiss this as a ‘clash of personalities’ or ‘pettiness’. And claiming that there’s no bullying worries me – where’s the school which truly has no bullying? and which way does a child turn if he/she feels no one is listening and nothing is going to change. At best it’s something they’ll never forget, at worst – well…..

Another thing which bothers me is that if parents are continually fed lines like this, they interpret it as it’s their child which is the problem and will often move schools. Therefore it can be the case that it’s the victim who pays – and not the bully. I often wonder when this happens, if the bullies who got away with it have gone on in later life to display similar behaviour.

Let’s be frank about this. Schools need to get to grips with bullying and deal with it more intelligently. Don’t pretend it’s not a problem, or it’s two people clashing where one is as responsible as another. Look at each case critically and apportion blame where it lies. Children need justice too.

When you left school, how did you feel? Share your experience.

My stepdaughter is a few days away from finishing school, A levels completed. It’s a time that she, and many like her, have been waiting for – that moment when you are free and able to take charge of your own destiny.

Or is it? Looking back, I wonder just how much it’s ‘the world’s your oyster’ or is it really ‘I’m all at sea”? It’s easy to think what a wonderful time this is – but for those young people who don’t have a clear plan of where they are going, it’s a scary time.

Before you know it - she's 18.....

Suddenly you are an adult, almost overnight. You are expected to take a certain path – is it university? is it college? is it a job?  Which way do you go? And how much time do you have to get there? Some young people are expected to immediately start earning in order to pay their way. But right now, it’s not that easy. Our young people communicate in a totally different way to us – so picking up the phone to push yourself, or going in to personally hand in a CV is something which scares them. E-mail is great, but it keeps those experiences, those rejections at arms’ length.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing – but today, it’s a hard, hard thing. This is especially true if you are not driven in any particular direction. Passion for a certain profession comes through so strongly and can be infectious but if you don’t know what you want to do – how can you be passionate?

For me, there was never any question of not going into higher education – even though no one else in my family had ever done it. Indeed my Gran thought I was mad to continue ‘studying at school’. For her it was all about getting a job, getting married and having children. That was a woman’s path and any woman who didn’t follow that path was slightly odd.

When I was 16, my father made me go out and get a Saturday job. He said I needed to earn my own money. I remember him putting pressure on me, I have no memory of finding said job or how that came about. But I worked in the Littlewoods store in Southgate, Bath in the small food hall. My monthly earnings came to about £23 – and I felt so rich.

When I finished school, I floundered horribly – I had a steady boyfriend who worked and didn’t get the whole education thing – students were a drain on taxpayers. No surprise we didn’t last the distance.

In fact I didn’t do well enough to get to university to study my beloved English literature, but I did get on to a course in a college of higher education. It was a wonderful period of my life and I’ve never regretted it. I worked every summer holiday so that I could pay off debts and save some cash. Somehow my life bounced along. I wanted to train to be a teacher. Little did I know that would not be the case.

As I look at my beautiful step-daughter and see her juggling her options, I understand how she feels and I haven’t got the heart to tell her that grand plans at her age generally go completely to pieces.

I haven’t got the heart to tell her that life is like that, you make a plan and something comes along to mix things up unexpectedly.

I suppose the lesson is that, the crossroads before her is the start of a scary  adventure – one of many – and that’s okay.

School SATS results – are you pleased?

It’s the last day of term today and a day of analysis. The Key Stage 2 test results for Primary Schools are printed and I’ve found myself pouring anxiously over the fine details regarding my children’s school in a way that’s horribly competitive.

It’s daft really because I know that they are at a good school and one that’s well regarded locally.

All three are doing well in their years and are likely to get above average results when they take the tests themselves. But it’s the psyche that’s been set up. The schools are ranked and ours isn’t in the top ten when it has been in previous years.

Now, I know in my sensible head, that that this doesn’t reflect on the children or the school particularly. Most pupils passed level 4, the required standard at this age group, and quite a lot, passed level 5. If I analyse the special needs figures then our school has more children that fit this category than others. Although such a mix hasn’t affected how well my children learn in the classroom when it comes to SATS results, it makes a difference to the figures.

The school with the best academic results in the country had just 6 pupils in its Year 6 group and they all achieved level 5, the above average rating. City schools in Bristol range from 60 – 120 pupils per year. It is quite a different proposition to get them all achieving at level 5.

When SATS were first proposed I thought it a good idea as I assumed that it would enable parents, as well as teachers, to have a clear indication of the standard of their school. To a certain extent it does, and reveals schools that give parents cause for concern where pupils aren’t reaching the required standard for their age. But surely there is more to education that this.

I know I shouldn’t be feeling disappointed that our school is lower down the list than last year. However, if they’d been in the top five I doubt I’d be writing this.

A portfolio career – is it for you?

Every so often, Fiona and I like to branch out and do something a little different. While Fiona never stops, whether she’s making a documentary, writing a column or advising on PR work, I find my other interests are in a very different direction. So here I am, fresh from having delivered my first gardening blog this weekend.

I think the days of a regular 9-5 job are long gone and the way forward for many people is a portfolio career. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking like this and would be curious to know what unusual combinations of jobs people put together in their working week. I’ve always been interested in lots of things and so to diversify my career makes sense. It also opens up your life to new people who have shared interests.

My family were supportive last year when I signed up for a one year course with the Garden Design School at the Botanic Gardens in Bristol, but I knew that secretly they were wondering, why? I’ve been an obsessive gardener for years, but became really hooked after helping out on a show garden at the Hampton Court Flower Show. It was so much fun that I came back and immediately investigated how I could develop this side of my life.

I found, at times, the course was very inconvenient as the workload meant that family life went out the window for days at a time. There I was, middle-aged with three young kids, working through the night to complete, of all things, a gardening course! Ask anyone, and they would expect such a course to be fun and relaxing, as you learn about a subject you are really interested in. I signed up in haste, but it was the right thing to do. I’ve learnt so much about design in the last year as it was a really well-taught course, even if I emerged rather pale and bedraggled from behind my drawing board on many days.

Having taken more than a few months to recover, I now find myself keen to use my new skills and to this end will be writing a weekly blog. At the moment it can be found at Birdsontheblog/food/strawberries in October, and I think the ‘Birds’ plan to set up a dedicated gardening section in time. Every two weeks I plan to write about jobs to do in the garden now, and every other week write a regular ‘Ask Sue’ section where I answer reader’s gardening queries. So if you have a question about plants, growing vegetables or best place to site a pergola, contact me.

First day back at school – what’s it like for you? From one Swindon mum.

Today many children went back to school – as a mum of three, I have three of these days to deal with this year as all three children are at different stages.

Today will possibly be the most long-winded and it reminded me of the trauma that many working parents feel when they are trying to do the right things for their children at school – and get to work on time. It’s a daily battle.

Being self-employed I’ve deliberately kept all three days as free as possible and I’ve not regretted it. After years of children at school, I finally found that it’s best to be as free as possible on days like today. It’s brought the stress down to a bearable level.
Last Friday it was first child to secondary school – getting up far too early, stressing about uniform, putting a tie on for the first time and the horror of my daughter in realising that she has to master this every day for the next few years! What a trauma. Then it’s the ‘what if’ period – what if I can’t find my friends? what if I get lost? what if I can’t find the toilets? what if I’ve forgotten my PE kit?

Notice that these ‘what ifs’ are not the same as us parents? Like, ‘what if the work is too hard? or what if my child gets bullied? or what if my child is naughty?’

What I did not have to do was take my child to school – no it’s now an early bus there and back, but that brings it’s own trauma about safety, on the road and on the bus.

Still we got over that day and today it was child number 2.

 

This trip is a move from Yr 4 to Yr 5 of a very laid-back child who is having a new teacher and some new cardigans but everything else is familiar.

 

However, what a parent so easily forgets over the summer is the hurdles one has to deal with in simply getting your child to school.

The traffic is worse and finding a parking space that a) isn’t a daft and unsafe place to park b) isn’t inconsiderate to residents. And then there’s always the risk that residents will simply object to you parking outside their house, even if it’s not unsafe or illegal to do so. I had this the other day (not on a school day) but on a new estate where there were no road markings at all. I was a visitor to the area, there were no yellow lines, no parking signs at all but a resident wrote me a snotty note and put it on my windscreen informing me that I should ‘park round the back or else’. Clearly he or she thought I was psychic and would know by osmosis that there were parking spaces elsewhere.

 

Back to today, my child gave me a quick kiss and disappeared, eager to see her friends and to find her way around a new classroom.

 

I then had to have at least five conversations with other parents about their particular experiences. Some clearly were parents who were short of adult company over the previous six weeks. I had the time, so it was no problem. But when you are working it’s so rude to say ‘that’s great, bye!’. Then I remembered her new cardigans and also the medical form for her asthma medication.

 

On entering the school office, there was a queue of mums waiting to do similar things.

I could see those eager to be away, hopping from one foot to another – knowing how they felt, I was relaxed about letting them jump the queue.

But then the form-filling – is it really necessary to fill out at least two forms saying the same thing? My child has asthma, she can self-administer her medication when she needs it – which is about once a week. She’s proficient at it, she’s learning to carry her inhalers herself at all times – but she’s not allowed to at school. This I know and accept. But there must be a more efficient way of dealing with this. There was one form and then another, both asking the same thing. This exercise took about 20 minutes and then I had to wait for her new cardigans – luckily that took about a minute.

So my youngest child was pretty bored by the time we left school at about 9.30am – goodness knows what it will be like on Friday when he starts for the first time. I’ll be lucky to get a coffee in before I’ve got to pick him up at lunchtime. Oh joy!

First day at school can seem like a long, uphill slog

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