Tag Archives: politics

Voting With My Feet (An Open Letter to Nicky Morgan)

Dear Ms Morgan

I have three units (sorry, children) currently at primary school. Actually, they’re at a primary academy, since our Local Authority withdrew its education function five years ago and forced a wholesale conversion throughout the borough.

It’s a good one, I’ll give you that. We have a dedicated and visionary head, who’s doing Good Things from a business perspective while, crucially, remembering that her stock in trade is the lives and hopes of several hundred small people. Of course she’s bound by the double-entry book keeping of finance and performance figures, but she manages to give the impression that remembering the names of the children in her care and turning up to sing in Assembly matter just as much.

I was a parent governor for a while, approached in my triple capacity as church member, commercial lawyer and, most importantly, person in a cagoule at the coal-face of the playground and the classroom door. It was hard work: not just the meetings, but the rightly rigorous training too, but it was also an honour to do it and I was disappointed when a potential conflict of interest meant I had to step down.

It sounds like the chances of me doing it again are minimal, since you’ve announced that mandatory parent governors are to be scrapped in favour of skilled individuals (the two, apparently, being mutually exclusive). Thankfully, though, you’ve reassured us parents that we won’t be silenced: we will still be “consulted” when the school is making decisions, and, after all, we can still “vote with our feet” if we’re not happy.

I agree with you that the present system isn’t perfect. If the parent governors are voted for, they too often tend to be those who win a popularity contest. If they’re co-opted,  it’s usually because they’re the conspicuous, conscientious type who look like they might have a particular skill and the wherewithal to make meetings. Parent governors aren’t representative, but they are, crucially parents. They anchor the governing body to what should always be the primary consideration: the experiences of the children who attend the school, not the relative position on a performance table.

As for “consultation”, I will give you the benefit of the doubt and accept that you wholeheartedly believe this is a functional and democratic way of engaging the families of children at school. Sadly, experience shows that it is no such thing. On the one hand, most parents are either too busy or too apathetic to give a shit. When we converted to an academy, the consultation process involved a handful of responses. Perhaps it’s natural, since people see consultations elsewhere on matters that concern them – from planning applications to cuts to local services – providing little more than a fig leaf before the process continues in line with the decision makers’ wishes. Perhaps it’s just a sign of increasing individualism. Have you tried getting people involved in a local initiative recently, Ms Morgan?

The notion of voting with our feet as the ultimate veto is entirely of a piece with this notion of choice in education. The thing is, even as a sharp-elbowed, well-informed, middle-class mother with oodles of options, I don’t really want choice. Most of us don’t. We want our children to go to their local school, with the children who live around them, in the community to which they belong. We want our children to scramble into a little learning and a whole lot of socialisation; to acquire skills and knowledge and ambition that will steer them as they grow older, not forced tall and pale like so many little sticks of rhubarb ready to be judged at an allotment show.

We don’t want our children to go to the best school, we want them to do their best at their school. We don’t want to sit, each August, in front of a data dashboard of outputs of all the local educational establishments deciding where little Philomena will go in September. These are our children, not the supplier of our electricity or the insurance we buy for our car. We want to commit to schools and see our children grow and flourish where they are, not uproot them to pot them on in some whimsical pursuit of perfection.

And, of course, “voting with our feet” isn’t as easy as it sounds. Where I live, there is no secondary school within safe walking distance, which means free transport has to be provided. The council recently decided that this free transport would only be available to the school which is infinitesimally nearer than that to which 99% of children have gone and continue to go since…well, forever. That it’s woefully undersubscribed and serially failing is, I am sure, a coincidence, although it does mean that the council’s spend on secondary school transport is effectively minimal – demand for that school is met by a daily taxi, while parents spend £500/year to send their child off with their friends on the same fleet of buses that have always run. Precious little choice, however, if you can’t find the cash.

Please stop and think. Please listen. Not everyone who is complaining about the direction of education policy in this country is a refusenik who fails to see any benefits in your proposed changes. I think encouraging entrepreneurialism in schools is a good idea. Helping them capitalise on their assets in a sustainable manner makes sense. But education cannot and must never be turned into an entirely free market.This isn’t creating a level field. It’s allowing a lucky few to build a Noah’s Ark and leaving the rest to deal with the flood as best they can.

HeadInBook

Jigsaws

As Tolstoy never wrote, every working family works in its own way. I’m not sure he would have had cause to make the observation in nineteenth century Russia, but it strikes me that it’s one worth making, here in a 2015 Britain gripped by General Election…well, if not fever, then certainly a bit of a nasty bug. Parents’ perceived priorities are high on the agenda.

It’s just that creating policies for “(hard)-working families” makes about as much sense, really, as creating them for people called Tom.

How on earth is a “working family” to be defined? I’m not even going to address whether unpaid work in the home counts; this is specifically about paid employment of one kind or another. People – and for the purposes of this post, I’m really thinking about women – have educations, lives and jobs and then – oops! – they reproduce, as people (women) have been prone to do since long before Anna Karenina got herself in such a muddle.

And after reproducing, there they are, suddenly, with the pieces that made up their lives hitherto needing to be rearranged into a pattern which best suits them. And those patterns are infinite.

For every parent who works in order to pay the bills, there’s one whose job provides a welcome but not indispensable addition to the family budget.

For every two-income household, there’s someone on their own stretched to breaking between the demands of employer and home.

For every parent racked with guilt about leaving their child when they have no choice, there’s another who could never be the parent or the person they are without the chance to do the job they love.

For every one parent motivated by ambition and passion for their career, there’s one who simply likes the adult time.

For every parent who believes on principle that a child’s place is in the home, there’s one who knows that their child thrives in nursery, or with its grandparents, or in the care of a childminder.

Parents choose, or they compromise. We aren’t motivated by any single factor, and from my own experience, ideology very rarely seems to come into it. We make it up as we go along, and – do you know what? – I think that left to our own devices we get it right.

I’ve tried, for a long time, to steer clear of anything about the tired old Mummy Wars, that tainted, painful, unwinnable argument over Who Is Doing It Right with a side order of bludgeoning for the ones Who Are Doing It Wrong. It’s hard to avoid, though, because we are all so sensitised from media coverage which seems determined to polarise, and, increasingly, clumsy political rhetoric which  leaves those in one situation feeling victimised or unfairly judged.

It seems too much to ask that we move the discussion on from whether one type of behaviour should be selected as preferable and rewarded, and more to how we can recognise that parents’ circumstances are as unique and as shifting as sand on a beach. I don’t want to talk about whether free childcare penalises those who don’t or can’t work for whatever reason, I want to talk about how we ensure it doesn’t compel parents to work longer hours than they want to and rely on leaving their children in settings they wouldn’t choose. I don’t want to argue about who is more deserving of state support, I want to ask politicians to grant parents pragmatic and flexible ways to manage their own situations.

It’s probably too much to ask. In the meantime, I’ll be working on my own jigsaw and trying to resist the temptation to compare it with everyone else’s.

Making families work

We will help families by expanding free childcare from 15 to 25 hours per week for working parents of three and four-year-olds. We will also introduce a legal guarantee for parents of primary school children to access wraparound childcare from 8am to 6pm…underpinned by a new National Primary Childcare Service, a not for profit organisation to promote the voluntary and charitable delivery of quality extracurricular activities.

This is a slightly awkward post to write. It probably comes as little surprise that my political leanings are left-ish, and although I am not so blinkered as to think that a Labour victory in next month’s General Election would mean a bright new (red) dawn for us all, it would be, in my eyes, distinctly better than any other likely outcome. I welcome most of the contents of today’s Labour manifesto as moves in the right direction, and I hope they get the chance to implement them. But one small section, playing straight to the gallery and cutting right to my own, admittedly subjective, preoccupations, made my heart sink.

I have written several times about how the “hard-working family” rhetoric grates. I have worked since having children, but I currently don’t do any paid work, since returning to my profession would, in our family’s opinion,exact too high a price of our children, and doing other work (even if I could get it) simply would not pay financially. It works, for us, as a family, for one parent to plough his energies into a career, while the other facilitates that by means of being at home. It isn’t perfect. I miss work, more money would definitely help, my future – financial and otherwise – preoccupies me. Yet this is the best compromise for now.

So, at present, I don’t earn. Do I work? Beyond the obligations of children and home common to all parents, in employment or otherwise, I would argue (and often do, in my head) that yes, I work. I do several hours of voluntary work each week, in the mornings when my youngest is at preschool; in the evenings when they are all in bed. I do it to support causes which matter to me, to keep my skills current, to give – as Pollyanna-ish as it sounds –  something back in recognition of my own good fortune in life. For the purposes of identity, though; for deciding whether we qualify as a hard-working family in the particular sense it now  has, I know that I don’t.

It perplexes me, often, to wonder how we value work and contribution. Is it required of us to earn to our fullest capacity in order to pay maximum contributions through income tax and National Insurance? Surely not, or we would laud those with the highest numbers on their PAYE slips and denigrate down shifters, or those taking early retirement. Those struggling to survive on incomes stitched together from long and insecure days working jobs at minimum wage and on zero hours would be hailed as paragons of virtue compared to those shirkers who pick up a few grand for a day or two’s non-executive graft. And this is just “work” in its recognised sense of paid employment, leaving aside the immeasurable effort expended, for little public recognition or thanks, in terms of caring responsibilities for dependent relatives or friends.

None of this is Labour’s fault, of course, nor even that of any one particular political party. Our changing concept of “work” has been shaped by shifts in our economy and society which go beyond the reach of any government. It still begs the question, though, of what this means for the very specific needs of the “hard-working family” with whom current candidates for No10 are desperately trying to connect.

So what has this pontificating on the meaning of the word “work” to do with the quote above, taken from today’s manifesto? On its face, it sounds like an eminently sensible proposal, and one of sufficient clout to have seen itself included in summaries of Labour’s key promises. Going back to the above, though, I would ask two questions.

Firstly: how is a “working family” to be defined in order to access the enhanced provision? Will it be required to demonstrate parental employment for the full 25 hours of entitlement, or would a parent who worked fewer hours still be eligible? Will self-employment count? How will those with insecure or fluctuating work patterns fare? Will childcare settings have to juggle two intakes, one, due to family situations which could include disability, caring responsibilities or other issues, who don’t meet the necessary criteria, the other who does? Is this increase, in short, a reward for working or a purely practical way of facilitating it?

Secondly: (and leaving aside the question of qualifications, aptitude and ability) who, precisely, will deliver these “voluntary and charitable” extracurricular activities? Parents are expected to be working, after all, not least since we are talking week days here. Grandparents are increasingly tied up with providing childcare within their own families, or supporting their own parents, let alone continuing to work past the age when a pipe and the sofa would once have been the norm. Is it envisaged that locals will pop down to the school between 3.30 and 7 a few times a week to play Snap? Good luck with that. It’s hard enough to get people to come to a short meeting once a term since work – even if it doesn’t coincide with the meeting time – already trumps all. This proposal boils down to a systematic subsidy of paid work, universally accepted to be of value, by its unpaid counterpart, which we are generally told doesn’t count. Do voluntary workers become hard-working if their work allows other workers to work hard?

It’s an interesting and, I think, well-meaning proposal; one which recognises the challenges of combining a job with school-age children and aimed at helping families who are under enormous pressure, but some of the assumptions need examination. More, they need challenge. The irony is that although so many working parents cite childcare as a huge priority, what they often mean is that they wish they weren’t forced into a situation where it becomes so. Really addressing this will take more than finding a way to remove children from the equation. It requires a proper consideration of how and why families work – in all senses of the word.

A light touch

When I was ten, my dad bought me a typewriter. It was a heavy, black thing, keys stiff with use, that ate up the ribbons that almost nowhere sold any more. 

Originally made in the 1960s, it had served out its time in a school, helping girls (because it was, in those days, always girls) learn vocational skills that would get them a job in an office when their formal education was over. By the late 1980s, it no longer prepared them adequately; they needed to become familiar with the grainy beige electronic word processors that had their brief moment before computers took over and men learned they could type too. 

So it was that the old secondary modern, which took pupils from the special school where my dad was head, sold the old models off cheaply and I – who had been begging for a typewriter – became the proud, if slightly perplexed, owner of a little piece of history.

 Along with the machine came a handbook full of exercises. I sat for hours, bashing away at the keys, copying out strings of numbers and sentences about quick brown foxes until I had taught myself to touch type. Long before my first computer lessons at secondary school (which, hilariously, happened for the first year without there actually being any computers in the IT room at all) I was competent on a keyboard – although it wasn’t until university that I actually needed to produce work that wasn’t handwritten. Like riding a bike, though, the skill hadn’t left me: it carried me through dozens of winging-it essays and straight into postgraduate temp work, where I could hold my own in typing speed with trained secretaries. Later, when I had a secretary of my own, I was no longer allowed to use my secret weapon, being told that it was a waste of my employer’s time to do for myself what they were paying someone else to do for me. 

I still like typing; still enjoy the process of tapping words out onto a screen. The children think there is something of magic about it, being, as yet, more familiar with the idea of swiping a surface to make things happen. 

Last night, I found myself taking dictation from my nine year old, who, at the eleventh hour, has written an entry for the Radio 2 500 word story competition. There genuinely wasn’t time for him to do it himself, but as I typed his words, I found it almost impossible not to correct them; not to add punctuation, right a spelling, amend a 21st century colloquialism in what was, frankly, a spot-it-a-mile-away Tolkien rip-off. I don’t think his story stands any chance of winning, and not just because of the glaring mistakes. But the temptation to improve his odds just a little, the parental itch to nudge it every so slightly in the right direction; they were hard to defeat. 

It’s human nature, I think, to look at what we don’t have (or, as parents, what we can’t provide) rather than what we have (and what we can). I know, how could I not, that by being warm and fed and secure my children are immeasurably better off than far too many in this country, let alone around the world; yet I still fret about their education and worry if we’re doing our absolute best for them. I know that they are incredibly rich in love and stimulation, yet it rankles when I look up and see children with experiences we can’t afford to provide. 

I hate the jibe of “sharp-elbowed” when applied to parents, and not just because I feel the sting personally. When we manoeuvre, consciously or otherwise,  to improve our children’s chances, we’re doing it less out of ambition than fear; fear that they will somehow lose out if we don’t try to throw the game a little in their favour. 

I only half-followed the wrangle last month between Chris Bryant and James Blunt over “privilege” in the arts world, and whether being from a particular background was a help or a hindrance in a career there. I probably ought to have read their actual letters, but having seen the fall-out on Twitter, with my timeline dividing into neat camps attacking and defending the principle of private education, I decided that I had enough low-level conflict between my children to keep me going that week and turned my attention elsewhere. 

I may, therefore, be utterly wrong in saying this, but it felt like a shame that the question of “privilege” in terms of a child’s chance of success boiled down simply to whether or not her parents paid for her schooling. We can’t talk enough about the ways in which one child accrues advantages, material or otherwise, which are unavailable to another. Of course you get a head start if you have private music lessons and specialist maths tutoring, but there’s also an immeasurable boost in knowing that you’ll have breakfast each morning, and knowing that if you get miserably soaked on the way home from school, there’s a warm house and dry clothes waiting for you when you get in. How to quantify the advantages of expensive enrichment classes, let alone having someone who talks and listens and encourages. If it’s ludicrous to suggest that talent doesn’t exist across at all levels of society, it’s just as much so to try to deny that certain settings allow it to flourish far more than others – or to fail to question what we do to help. I learned to type because my dad, through his job, had access to a typewriter. His dad, though; a miner turned steelworker? It’s hard to see what material advantages he was able to give his sons.

If my son were to win this cursed story competition, it wouldn’t entirely be unrelated to the fact that he found a copy of The Hobbit in his bookshelf when he was seven, or that he has a mum who, along with reading it to him, had the skills to type up his subsequent derivative attempt. She – I – gave him a huge head start – even if I didn’t correct his spellings.

The issue with women’s issues

Poor old Labour are getting a lot of stick today for the launch of their pink bus to tour marginal constituencies ahead of the General Election, targeting female voters with a focus on the five areas the party has determined as being key to women: childcare, social care, domestic violence, equal pay and political representation

Quite apart from the discussions of the damn thing’s colour (am I alone in imagining some poor intern, listening to the earnest discussions about the hidden messages in magenta, desperate to shout IT’s PINK, DON’T DO IT!), it is wearying to see childcare and social care among the items highlighted as being of most concern to women. Not because I think that they aren’t, but because I can’t help feel that identifying them as such is in danger of perpetuating a dangerous myth.

I’ve written before about why the assumption that childcare is relevant to all woman is lazy and potentially offensive. Beyond that, though, each time childcare is called a woman’s issue, surely an employer, or a father, or anyone else who has an effect on or power over a mother’s life is reinforced – consciously or otherwise – in the belief that it’s the mother’s problem alone. The more we reiterate that it’s women who care (for children, and for other family members), the more we are saying that fundamentally only women care about caring. The messy, complicated, wonderful business of dependents becomes a niche issue, one which women somehow choose to adopt and therefore have to be primarily responsible for sorting out. It remains an optional add-on, not something which is integral to the daily lives of so very many working age people.

This isn’t a go at Labour. All political parties fall into the same trap. But look at that list of issues again. These may be things which matter to women, sometimes to the extent of life or death, but they all have one thing in common. They are problems caused to women by the action, or deliberate inaction, of others. These are issues which affect and arise from employers, fathers, sons; perpetrators of domestic violence; employers (again) and the whole structure of the society in which we live. Talking to women about the effects on them seems a backwards way of addressing the problems. Those who are suffering the most are not those who have the power to change the situation. Talk about these things, by all means, but talk to those who make the decisions that cause them in the first place.

Labour should be applauded for raising these issues and recognising the pivotal role that they play in disempowering women on a daily basis from realising their full potential. It is because they are so vital that they deserve a better platform than a bus – pink or otherwise – on the fringes.

Childcare?

I am perfectly sober as I write this, but I have the feeling that it’s going to turn into the kind of “and another thing!” rant that I normally subside into at the end of an evening, elbows on table, chin slumped on the palm of one hand while the forefinger of the other wags wildly and with distinct lack of focus. Not unlike the rest of this blog, then.

It’s the season of party conferences, which means that we’ll be whittled down into our constituent groups and targeted furiously. One of those groups to which I belong (though strangely there doesn’t seem to be a counterpart for my husband) is “female voters”.

WomansHourThis isn’t an attack on Labour and certainly not one on Gloria De Piero. But my heart sank when I saw this tweet yesterday, and it fell to the floor when my fears were realised and the very first part of the interview this morning launched straight into “childcare”.

It’s becoming such a Pavlovian response that I made the association even without wanting to.  No wonder poor politicians, coached in appealing to their target demographic, have the same response when addressing women. On several different levels, though, it is exasperating.

Childcare shouldn’t be a woman’s issue. Not all women have children, not all women ever will. To rank it as primary concern among female voters is lazy and offensive.

Childcare shouldn’t be a mother’s issue. It should be an issue for all parents, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, should be taken to apply equally to fathers as to mothers. Perhaps the reality is that dads don’t take as great an interest as their current or ex-partners, in which case perhaps not repeatedly telling them that it’s not their problem anyway might help with that.

Childcare shouldn’t be a parent’s issue. People who have children also have jobs, health conditions and other caring responsibilities. Wouldn’t it be nice if we, as a society, saw it as something integral to life as a whole, not some awkward inconvenience to be managed by those afflicted?

Childcare shouldn’t be a grandparent’s  issue. Many grandparents are able and willing and feel privileged to be in a position to support their own children by looking after their offspring when they come along. Many can’t. Many don’t want to, or do so at considerable cost to themselves, but feel that they have no choice. Those who do should be recognised,  and, where necessary, compensated, but their contribution should not be taken for granted.

Childcare shouldn’t be an employer’s issue. Or rather it should be, at  a macro level. We need to stop talking about solving the “problem” of working parents (mothers). Provision of childcare so that parents can work should be less about providing facilities open for long hours year-round so that workplaces aren’t disrupted by pick-ups and holidays, and more about listening to what is really needed. What message does it send when family-friendly legislation is introduced to support working parents, but recourse to employment tribunals in the event of non-compliance is made unaffordable for most?

Childcare shouldn’t be a school’s issue. Schools are there to educate children, not to stable them. By all means encourage and support schools to have breakfast and homework clubs and to offer their facilities to providers who can run affordable programmes through the holidays. Just don’t talk about extending the actual school day  “to help working parents” with a side order of raising standards without answering our concerns about what that might mean for our children.

Childcare shouldn’t be an early years’ issue. The 15 hours of entitlement offered for 3 year olds was an important step forward. My own children have thrived in the excellent preschool settings they’ve been lucky enough to attend. Those settings aren’t appropriate for ten-hour days, though, and neither the curriculum, the staff, nor – most importantly – the children would benefit from pretending that they were. Although I welcome the extension of the scheme to some two year olds, I wish that there could be more discretion as to the “need” of families who qualify, because disadvantage is not necessarily financial – and some reassurance that they are not to be added into existing settings aimed at older preschoolers without proper resources. When politicians talk of extending the early years’ entitlement and call it “childcare” I worry: will the offer come to depend on a parent’s employment or financial circumstances? If it is beneficial to a child to have this (and I’m persuaded that, generally, it is) it should only ever by the child’s needs which are considered.

Childcare should be a child’s issue. You don’t need to believe that the only place for children is at home with their parents (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t) to want a debate on children’s best interests and how they are served. Accepting that good childcare can be hugely beneficial, and accepting that it is vital for a majority of families, does not mean losing sight of what children need.

Politicians shoot for childcare because parents reply consistently that it is their priority. The cost of childcare in Britain is astronomically higher than elsewhere in Europe, and we simultaneously hear of women being excluded from employment because it is unaffordable and of women who have no financial option but to work. There is an obvious mismatch, though, between comparatively affluent policy makers who have both choice and access to a range of high quality childcare provision, and women at the bottom end of society coerced into long and/or antisocial hours and told that a place in some nursery or scheme is the answer to any possible problems that might pose.

Cost is hugely important, but so too are quality, flexibility and choice. If politicians want parents – go on then, mums – to take them seriously, they absolutely do need to commit to subsidising proper, age-appropriate, well-regulated childcare that allows us to work knowing that our children are safe and happy. But they also need to make us feel secure in our family lives, and in asking for our rights at work. All the nurseries and wraparound schemes in the world are of little use when a child is ill or in trouble or there’s no-one there at closing time because you got asked to stay on and felt you couldn’t refuse.

So, politicians, listen to what parents say they want, and why. We have to be creative. Can you?

 

Wooden Ears

It’s the morning after the night before. I hoped that Scotland would not opt for independence, for various reasons more or less irrelevant since I had no vote anyway. Now that it has, though, I feel no sense of victory, no gleeful gloating over those who campaigned so passionately and persuasively for the alternative. There is no pleasure in the hurt of decent people.

Yesterday’s referendum was about Scotland, and the message of the votes is from no-one else. As the political leaders settle, rather unedifyingly, to squabbling over the fall out, I still wish that the rest of us could have a chance to make our feelings similarly known.

I know that there was a certain degree of negativity on both sides. Primarily, though, I believe that whether choosing Yes or No people were voting FOR something. The huge turnout, the almost universal interest and the strength of feeling together show that people are not so much disengaged from politics, but feel under normal circumstances that their engagement is of no value. This time there was hope, alongside fear: hope of change, hope of better, hope of being heard. That hope deserves to be honoured, not used as a fig leaf for spinning and political machination.

There’s undoubtedly a regional – if not national – element of FOMO in all this. I’d argue that it’s now been seized on by those who will choose to use this as another distraction from the real direction of government policy. Why blame benefit claimants for your own hardship when you’re being officially encouraged to envy those lucky sods north of the border, or within the M25, or anywhere else just far enough out of reach to easily verify how much of that alleged good fortune actually exists?

Whatever the outcome, there were always going to be bitter times ahead, and my heart grieves at what I can already see coming. So here, for the record; for any politician or would-be politician reading, is the message I, in Northern England, want you to take from this. I don’t want to be coerced into feeling resentful about others. I don’t want an expensive debate about regional assemblies or elected mayors or any other window dressing. I want a substantive change of the way that our elected representatives govern in our name, a much shorter route of communication between them and me, and at least the prospect ever of being able to influence things.

Stop tinkering around with our money under the cutesy guise of balancing the nation’s books. We know, whether we’ve forgotten it or not, that the financial crisis wasn’t caused by some self-indulgent splurging on nurses and typists at the council, but by bankers playing silly buggers with confections of debt which are to money as spun sugar is to a loaf of bread. We didn’t max out the credit card on some national retail therapy; we turned a blind eye to an entire fashion parade of the Emperor’s New Clothes – and we’re doing it again.

Stop lining up the poorest and most vulnerable in our society like some grim audition for a national 10 Minute Hate. We’re becoming so obsessed with the fear that we’re being fiddled out of a few measly quid, that we’ve taken our eye off the fact that need and sickness can come to us all and that the real drain on our resources is happening elsewhere.

Stop saying that you’re listening, and then continue doing the opposite. Get out of Westminster and talk to people other than focus groups and special advisers. Employ people who’ve never worked in London or engaged in politics.

Much of the content of the independence debate is, of course, specific to Scotland. But many of the concerns of those people engaged in it, expressed in the context of a non-partisan vote, aren’t.

Think big. Health, welfare, education, jobs: security and confidence matter to us all. Give us a vision of something to believe in, don’t fight over the ever decreasing number of votes from people who think they have the most to lose from the menaces you’ve encouraged them to believe in. Create a future I want to be a part of and contribute to, rather than one I fear. Give us the headroom to grow into what we want to be, not dwindle into a shadowy, paranoid sideshow, living in the past.

Will anyone be big enough to stand up and take on this challenge, rather than falling into the trap of petty finger-pointing self interest?

I doubt it.

But I hope so.

Us v Them

I don’t follow Jason Manford on Facebook. I should say at this point that I have nothing against Jason Manford. In fact, some of my best friends follow him.

So it was that earlier today I saw the following status update, snorted and clicked “Like”.

IMG_1129

It’s not a new sentiment, of course. It’s one I’ve shared many, many times myself – and meant it. But within moments of scrolling on through my timeline, I started to feel uneasy about what it actually meant.

I find it almost impossible to express my thoughts about the referendum on independence coming up next week. Not because I’m not Scottish: after all, that’s no prerequisite to voting. Not because I don’t live in Scotland at the moment, though I have in the past (and have always kind of hoped to again in the future). But because of those two factors, I have no vote. I don’t need to choose between the variously conflicting versions of truths and statistics, am not called on to painstakingly separate hope from fantasy, caution from fear. In short, it’s not my decision – and it’s not my place to opine, though I (along with the rest of us) will be affected by the fallout, whatever happens.

There have been endless metaphors about the potential separation of the United Kingdom. It struck me yesterday, though, that it feels to me, living in the North of England, rather like a beloved sibling leaving home. You squabble, of course. You fight over bathroom rights, who gets to watch the TV, who’s the favourite. Then suddenly, they have the prospect of taking off for a glamorous new job, though the details are vague and you’re afraid it might not all be it’s cut out to be. You’re jealous, of course, and you know that you’re likely to be grounded forever with your pocket money cut, but you’re worried too, even though you know it’s not really any of your business.

Leaving aside the arguments for and against independence, though, the tone of some of the debate is starting to bother me. I resent Westminster-centric policy and bias as much as anyone else who grew up outside of the rarified atmosphere of privilege which still seems a prerequisite for power in this country. I hate that my own region has so many obstacles to overcome to compete with the South East, I chafe, like the rest of my neighbours, at measures introduced to ease problems in London and its surrounds which cause or exacerbate the ills of where we live. There is a glaring inequality and imbalance in the UK, and the failure of any mainstream party to acknowledge and address this frustrates me intensely.

What I don’t believe, however, is that people are intrinsically better or worse – or, actually, that different depending on where they live or where they’re from.  It’s seductive to think that our personalities are shaped by our origins, that we “belong”, in some mystical, indistinct way to one particular area or group. But it’s dangerous too, especially when we fall into the easy trap of choosing the good bits for ourselves or those we identify with, while pinning the less desirable character traits onto a different, distinct, bunch.

I daresay there are people in London, who in all but speech and cultural reference are much more akin to those round here, or even further north, than to those who live scant miles away and make the decisions which govern us all. That a farmer in Cornwall has more in common with a shepherd in Cumbria than the townies who summer down the road or moved there permanently for a new life in the country. Increasingly, surely, we’re not where we’re from: we’re what we have, what we do, what we aspire to. That’s not something which can be defined or contained by borders, national or otherwise.

I don’t know what will happen next week. I don’t even know what I want to. I do hope that, whatever the outcome, more power is devolved to local regions around the UK so that decisions can be made much closer to those they affect. Even more than that, though, I hope (knowing that it is largely in vain) that we don’t start a march towards tribalisation in the guise of local pride. We’re better off recognising that almost all of us are “that lot” – and talking seriously about how to hold those who aren’t to account.

On lazy soup and not-so-lazy parents

Earlier tonight I had the urge to break with my self-imposed tradition of posts on here and write a recipe instead. I was thrilling with smuggery at my favourite Lazy Soup, and wanted to share what I think is a thoroughly sensible way of making something out of not very much.

Because that’s what we parents do, isn’t it? We find ways to do three things in the time it should really take to do two, or even just one. If we’re mothers, we’re told that we should be proud of our ability to “multitask”, even that it is rooted in our ancestral habits of keeping cave babies alive in a hostile environment. I think the truth is probably more prosaic: when you have to get on with something, you generally do, especially when you know that there isn’t likely to be an indulgent smile and pair of hands to pick up if you fall.

So, Lazy Soup. I do this when the oven is on anyway, preferably to roast a chicken. If I have time, I’ll even make some buns too, though whether that earns me points for fuel efficiency or loses me them for feeding my children cake, I’m not sure. I’ll put whatever veg I have to hand, peeled, but whole (unless it’s butternut squash, in which case it’s unpeeled, but halved) in to a tray, cover with oil, and let it roast for as long as it can.

It’s the perfect example of multitasking (or an effective use of time, whichever expression you prefer). The energy’s being spent anyway; the chicken and the veg (and the buns, if I’ve made them) don’t interfere with each other at all. They can co-exist quite happily. Of course, if I’m making Yorkshires, then the oven is overfull and the Lazy Soup doesn’t happen. Even the very best efficiency can only get carry you to the bounds of the possible.

When I’m indulging in a little mama-drama, I like to say that I sometimes have to be in three places at once, but of course I never am – though, on occasion,  it feels like it. Today, though, I learn that even there I might just not be trying hard enough. Michael Gove and Sir Michael Wilshaw have both, separately, indicated a strong desire to see financial penalties imposed on “bad” parents: “bad”, in this context, meaning those who don’t ensure that their children do their homework, fail to read with their children or miss parents’ evenings. Liz Truss, meanwhile, in her tireless support for the working parent, exhorts them to demand of their children’s schools that they “work better with modern life”: by which she apparently means providing ten hours of childcare daily and accepting two year olds.

Giving all three the credit of having children’s best interests at heart, I still have qualms about the practicality of their proposals. How does one unpick the delicate knot of determining shan’t from can’t, don’t from won’t? How ensure that the lazy parent of a diligent, compliant or, frankly, unfairly bright child doesn’t receive plaudits while the exhausted mother or father battling in vain against a myriad of difficult circumstances to engage their offspring is penalised? The sheer mechanics of fining are, surely, unworkable – unless you assume, as plenty of other people have done, that this is an income-based problem (how else to make sense of the suggestion that the fine be deducted at source from the now means-tested Child Benefit?) What, really, would be the ultimate advantage to a child of depriving the household of a part of its budget which, no matter how much you claim to believe the contrary, is unlikely to have been sufficient in the first place?

Worst of all, though, is the assumption that there is an enormous group of unmotivated feckless parents, prioritising Foxy Bingo and a can of Strongbow (because, again, I can’t help assume that those of us glued to Twitter and with a penchant for cold white wine aren’t seen as being a policy-worthy problem) over spending  quality time with their children. The blanket report of “lazy”, rather than an acknowledgement of the tremendous, and often unbearable, problems which many parents are expected to absorb as if they don’t have an impact on every bit of daily life. Lazy? Or just trodden down with worry, financial pressure and a punitive employment market?

As for the school-as-childcare proposal: it would undoubtedly help working parents if proper wraparound provision was available on school sites. But this should not be in the form of an extended school day. It should not be made up exclusively of added-value activities, although the prospect of the new two and three year old pupils enthusiastically joining in the suggested debating clubs or orchestras is appealing. Of course these have a place (minus the toddlers), but so too does the chance to do homework and – especially for younger children – to be quiet, to relax, to have time with an adult. How refreshing, how radical, how truly family-friendly it would have been if Liz Truss had encouraged parents instead to feel confident in demanding more understanding and flexibility from their employers, rather than  confirming that the demands of the workplace should prevail.

The real problem with today’s proposals, though, is that they are mutually exclusive. Parents can’t, or rather, shouldn’t be expected to, work the hours which a ten-hour school day requires, and travel to and from their work, and take and collect their children and then still be able to sit down and supervise homework or read a half-dozen pages of Biff and Chip. Let alone  be able to do the really important bit of parenting: the talking; the listening; the playing; the inconsequential, vital nonsense. Helping working parents shouldn’t be seen exclusively as a matter of removing their children from the equation. Families deserve better than that.

The beauty of Lazy Soup is that you can adapt it to your own timescale. Once the vegetables have cooled down, I leave them in the fridge till we’ve finished the chicken and I’ve boiled the bones for stock. Then, feeling like a small town domestic goddess, I pile the lot into the slow cooker and leave it turn into something delicious for dinner. My favourite bit is that the butternut squash, so fiddly and time-consuming to prepare when raw, falls obediently and effortlessly out of its skin in seconds.

Some things don’t need a huge amount of input or expensive ingredients. They just need time and space.

“Ghost Kids”

We tend to eat our evening meal on the sofa, more often than not in front of the news on C4+1. Tonight, it was quarter to nine before we sat down, after a late night at work and a volunteers’ meeting.

I caught a feature on a survey of staff in the education sector by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers which, the intro suggested, had found a generation of “ghost kids”: exhausted and damaged by their parents’ long working hours and their own resultant long days.

I went off afterwards and looked up the actual report. In fact, the impact of longer working hours is just one of the many factors which staff identify as having a potentially detrimental effect on the quality of time children spend out of school hours. Increased use of technology is right up there with time away from the family home, as is the change in family dynamics over the past two decades.  There were also very positive opinions on the beneficial effects of wraparound childcare, especially for children with a background of deprivation: providing meals, warmth and safety where they might be in short supply at home.

That wasn’t the tone of the Ch4 piece, though. There was a discussion between Mary Bousted, Chair of the ATL, and Laurie Penny, and although both were clear that the survey should not be another stick with which to beat parents, the editorial steer of the entire piece was essentially to say that it was accusing parents of harming their children.  Mary Bousted stated categorically that many parents have little choice about whether to work full-time and use wrap-around childcare, and yet the presenter repeatedly suggested that the report was “unhelpful”, sending a hurtful message to working parents.

It is just so depressing that what is actually quite a thought-provoking study, looking at the opinions of professionals who work with children and young people, on how a wide range of changes in our society affect them, was used in this way; piling on the guilt, pressure and resentment.

Nothing in the report said  that childcare is intrinsically detrimental. Nothing said that parents, simply by working, were in any way harming their children. Surely we’re past those arguments now anyway, aren’t we? The report and the discussion explicitly pointed, instead, to the financial and other pressures which effectively make many families’ choices for them and which shape the environment in which children are growing up.

It goes without saying that parents – by which, really, I mean mothers – are used to our lives, choices and circumstances being judged and that we are defensive when we perceive criticism. But there is more at stake here than our feelings. It should be possible to acknowledge that we are doing the best we can; more, it should be possible to be genuinely happy with our personal decisions and choices, while still being able to look at the wider picture.

There is an increasing political consensus that schools should extend their opening times: longer days, shorter holidays. The rationale seems to be that  this will raise standards at the same time as helping working parents. Perhaps it will.  I suspect that we’ll all find out soon enough anyway.  What it will achieve is to formally shift the presumption of where a child spends the majority of its time. If schools are set up to accommodate attendance 10 hours a day for 45 weeks of the year, then parents will be freed from the burden (in terms of both logistics and guilt) of fitting children around their job; the friction of being the rope in a tug of war between two competing needs. It’s undeniably tough to reconcile work and childcare, but I would argue that most parents don’t want the problem solved by having the majority of their children’s waking hours effectively outsourced.

I think that schools undoubtedly should offer high quality, highly subsidised wraparound provision for children whose parents can’t be at the school gates at either end of the learning day. But I also think that parents who want to reduce or compress their working patterns to allow them to spend time with their children and to allow their children to spend time away from school should be supported in doing so, and those aims acknowledged as worthwhile. What price flexible working requests when childcare is, nominally at least, no longer an issue? How will children’s needs be best met?

We should be able to have this debate without it being framed as an attack on parents who work or turned into an ideological argument about whether childcare is intrinsically A Bad Thing. We should be able to step back from the personal, and instead look at where “helping” working parents could logically end up – and whether it’s something many of us would really consider to be an improvement.