Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Down with league tables

When I was a new parent anxiously seeking a school for my precious firstborn there was nothing in my life that was more important than an Ofsted reports and league tables. I spent weeks poring over the reports for each potential school, instantly scorning any establishment that fell too far down the table or gained less than an Outstanding grade. Obviously nothing but the best would be good enough for my child genius in the making.

We drove all over the surrounding counties viewing houses situated in the elusive catchment areas for  these rarefied establishments. One parent I knew bought a house for over six figures just so she could be down the road from her local Outstanding state school. Even we, who were in a much less lofty financial position, eventually sold our house to secure a place at a top rated school. Other, much more sensible, parents let their own houses and decamped to rental properties to the same end.

Nothing was more important when it came to judging a school than what those all-knowing inspectors from Ofsted had to say about it. If these experts judged a school to be Outstanding then surely it must be?

Well you would like to think so, but bitter experience has taught me that perhaps such slavish following of Ofsted's advice puts parents in a rather less informed position than they might expect. You see, while Ofsted is very concerned about how many children turn up at school on time, about whether homework is marked promptly and whether the school communicates (i.e. sends home endless letters) well, there are certain areas where it appears to be blind.

This I learnt when my own sons' once Outstanding school was brutally downgraded to Needs Improvement last year. I suspect this was in part due to a general feeling from those in power that state schools needed a good slapping, after all those pesky teachers will keep striking, but it also seemed to be due to a distinct lack of interest by the inspectors in anything other than ticking boxes.

Was attendance high? Were targets clearly set and met? What were the standards reached in core subjects and what was the quality of teaching in an individual class? All important questions, but the answers only cover a fraction of what a school actually does every day. You see my sons' primary school didn't nosedive over night, it was still the same school we'd chosen all those years ago but Ofsted simply couldn't see any of it's qualities as it was too busy with its pen hovering to answer formulaic questions.

While no school is perfect, and ours certainly had plenty of flaws that might well mean it deserved to lose it's Outstanding crown, it wasn't and isn't a school limping along in desperate need of assistance. It struggles thanks to a demographic that increasingly has English as a second language, but it also succeeds in areas that were clearly of no interest to Ofsted, but might be crucial to a parent choosing the right school for their child.

This is why I greet the news today that secondary school headmasters are striking back with their own alternative league tables  that will allow parents an insight not only into what exam results a school achieves, but the culture of a school as expressed by the extras it offers. The rich extracurricular banquet from which league tables and Ofsted reports puritanically abstain.

For example at my boys' school there is a gold medal winning string orchestra, which plays like a choir of angels. This orchestra is made up of a rag tag of pupils, mostly playing rented instruments all of whom are coached for nothing by a dedicated and talented parent at 8am before school. Now that really is outstanding, but Ofsted doesn't even know it exists and it wins no points in a league table.

There's are also sports and art, chess and computing clubs, mostly provided for virtually nothing by selfless parents and teachers. There are trips to the theatre and visits from national theatre groups, there are plays and concerts, talent shows and baking competitions. There is a huge and rich culture to which a table of results pays no attention whatsoever.

These are the things that really make a school outstanding to attend. It is impossible to ride high in academic league tables when your pupils are pulled from immigrant communities who are more concerned with actually finding their feet in a new country, than with arriving at school on time. When the language spoken at school is rarely the Queen's English and when many parents don't understand the first thing about the British education system.

But while it might not be able to serve up the top grades parents think a school should be judged on, it is important not to dismiss a school out of hand. Just because only a minority achieve top marks, doesn't mean that it is impossible to do so, it might just mean that for a majority of the children simply understanding the lessons is a achievement alone as they only just learning to speak English.

Equally while education is about learning, it's also about enriching a child's life. That, I believe, is delivered by schools in a myriad of ways from drama to trips, music to sports, pastoral care to community events and even the chance to mix with those children from different cultures and backgrounds who are the very reason a school might not top the league tables. In my opinion these should be far more important when you choose as school than whether it has good attendance figures!

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Living out of boxes

The view through our roof
The shambolic FDMTG household decamped some four months ago from our perpetually shrinking North London semi in search of a home that was big enough for us to lose one another. We sold our home in less than 24 hours thanks to a completely crazy London property market, but that has been the only thing about this move that has been fast.

Goodbye swirly mustard carpet
Given said house buying madness in our fine capital, the only house we could find that ticked our boxes of big enough for four boys and affordable without selling both kidneys, was a wreck. It had not been touched since it's late owners had clearly gone to town doing it up in the late 60s. There were swirly carpets and avocado bathroom suite, thick, brown velvet curtains throughout and even a fully kitted out tiled bar with both optics and coloured spotlights.

While I had a soft spot for the bar, the rest was an eyesore itching to be ripped out. Which is exactly what has happened over the past four months. We bought a house with four solid walls and ended up with a shell full of rubble and builders. It was the most expensive three walls I had ever seen.
The bar
Gradually, over the months, our new home began to emerge, with many, many hiccups along the way. They say house renovation is akin to bereavement or divorce in terms of the stress levels involved, but let me tell you the split of my first marriage was like a week in Barbados compared to doing up our home.

There have been tears, hysterics and much screaming and rowing between myself and Mr FDMTG. Most memorable is the humdinger caused by the use of white plastic plug sockets instead of stainless steel ones. That one almost broke us. It's amazing how worked up you can get about the minutia that you will never notice once you are moved in and living there.

Though there were plenty of proper stomach hitting the floor moments of panic. Having stretched ourselves to the limit to both buy and do up our house, imagine our horror when our builder revealed that the extension we had been assured was sound, actually had no foundations and had to be demolished and rebuilt? There were plenty of tense conversations about that as we juggled meagre funds try to meet that rather vast hidden cost.

The most expensive three walls
We worked our way through over 50 paint samples, most of which were tiny variations on the same shade of lilac. In the end our decorator suggested simply painting the whole house from our sample pots and we spent as much on them as you might expect to pay for slapping on a couple of coats of white paint.

I have lost days of my life poring over lighting websites, trying to find the perfect mix of cool, affordable and not-so-fashionable-that-they-will-instantly-date fittings. Only to have the electrician bugger off on holiday for four weeks leaving nothing but bare grey wires hanging from the ceiling.

We have dealt with kitchen fitters who dematerialised, leaving our budget bustingly expensive kitchen a half fitted mess. We have had stand up rows with window companies where they held the key to our bifold doors to ransom as we attempted to get them to finish fitting them properly. We have been presented for bills for tens of thousands of 'extras' by our builder who saved this treat for so near to the end of the job that all our contingency funds had well and truly run dry.

That's not to mention living for months with my four children in the spare rooms of my in-laws house. Admittedly we were incredibly lucky to be able to benefit from free accommodation during our build, or we simply wouldn't have been able to do it. But with the best will in the world a family of six invading my husband's childhood home has not been a barrel of laughs.

We have squished daily life into three rooms, a single fridge and a drawer in the freezer. We have coped, but living out of boxes has lost any appeal that it might once have had. And it's questionable that it ever did appeal.

Whenever the children ask where something is, the rest of the family choruses 'In a box' as that's where all our worldly possessions have languished for the past few months. We have had to buy new clothes, toys, swimming trunks, lunch boxes, uniform, drinking cups all of which we already own, but they are all beyond reach mysterious box whose location remains unknown.

However, the end looks as if it could be nigh. We have a tentative, I-will-believe-it-when-it-happens, moving in plan for this weekend. Of course everything is far from finished, but we have bathrooms, bedrooms and, fingers-crossed, a kitchen, and that is all you need to sustain life. I am just hoping that my dear friend over at From the Valley to the Palais is right and it really is more fun unpacking!

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Not a dinner thing

When I was growing up my parents were very open and vocal about most matters. No car journey was complete without a deep philosophical or political debate. As the wheels of their furniture van ate up the miles between deliveries of one shabby chest of drawers and the next ancient wardrobe (they were antique dealers if you were wondering), we would thrash out the Northern Ireland question, the benefits of unionisation and whether capitalism or communism was the better ideology.

Given my ornery nature I was almost guaranteed to take the opposing view, regardless of whether it actually reflected my true opinion. After all what sort of debate is it without any contention? I still recall the memorable Christmas when the Romanian revolution ended with the deposed leader Ceaușescu and his wife being executed by firing squad.

The festive season was peppered with heated rows about whether meting out the death sentence was fair punishment for his cruel regime, or an inhuman response from a people no more civilized than their leader. Now as an English 18-year-old with precious little experience of the world, what did I know about this complex question? But never let it be said that I didn’t keep up the argument at least until the New Year.

You see no global issue is safe from my half-baked views, which is perhaps why I should observe with more care the edict that such issues should not be raised in polite company. They are, as my mother would always warn: ‘Not a dinner thing’. As in they should not be discussed at the dinner table for fear that crockery might begin to fly.

To be fair the topics covered by this rule in our household covered a broad church from the mention of all bodily functions, to any criticism of the standard of cookery right up to geopolitics, but that doesn’t make it any less sound a commandment.

Perhaps in this modern age it should extend from the dinner table to Facebook. For while I readily admit to an addiction to this social networking site, I think it has a purpose to serve and I am not sure that is the dissemination of contentious political views.

I love to see pictures of friend’s holidays, kids and funny videos, but at the moment I feel that navigating my feed is a bit like tip toeing along the Gaza strip, without the bombs and rockets of course. I have friends who take violently opposing views and both pop up with regularity accompanied by supporting videos, news stories and eye-witness testimony, which they believe prove their point  beyond a shadow of doubt.

As with most of the world, I have my own opinions on this subject, but I have learned that it is probably safest in such an emotional conflict to keep them to myself.  Sadly no matter how strongly you hold a view in this case there is sure to be someone who holds the equal and opposite view just as vehemently. It is best left to those actually involved and fully informed to attempt to solve this intractable problem without the injection of cod philosophy from the Facebook community.

Therefore disobey the upgraded 2014 version of my mum’s rule at your peril as I want to reclaim my Facebook feed for funny videos of cats and pictures of ever more ingenious loom band designs.

That said if I have a long journey to fill, you’re all welcome to pile in and we’ll have the Middle East problem solved by Stockport!