Holocaust Memorial Day: Untold Stories

On this day in 1945 the hell that is Auschwitz- Birkenau camp was liberated by the Soviet Army and we remember all those who lost their lives during the Holocaust and other genocides and those who managed to survive.

 I visited the two camps that make up Auschwitz this summer. My mum and I make a trip together every year, our ‘adventures’ as she calls them. We’ve been to Egypt, Canada, Russia and most of Europe but she’s always wanted to visit Auschwitz. I wasn’t too sure but we booked a few days in Krakow and booked our day there.

 The visit was respectful. At the gates your guide reminds you that this is a memorial site and that we are to speak in quiet voices. There are no gift shops or restaurants and no one speaks loudly or laughs.

 The first part of the visit was to Auschwitz 1. We walked through the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work sets you free) gates and entered a corridor lined with photographs of women. The Nazis kept immaculate records and photos and these women stare into the camera lens, heads brutally shaved, eyes haunted with what has gone before and what is to come. The dates of their entry to the camp and their deaths are neatly typed below their faces. Some lasted for a year or two, some for a week or two but all died in this corner of rural Poland and who knows what they may have suffered. Every now and then a photo would be garlanded with flowers and you know that there are relatives and friends who remember.

 I thought I had a fair idea of the brutalities of the concentration camps but I struggled to take in the actual horrors of the huge gallows where prisoners were hanged in front of the whole camp, the tiny dark room where large groups were forced to stand all day and all night and the starvation cells where the door was locked for ever.

 A few kilometres away is Auschwitz 2, purpose built for large numbers who lived- if it can be called that- in prefabricated wooden stable blocks, compel with stalls and iron rings for tethering horses. You may have seen Auschwitz 2 in Schindler’s List. It’s the one where the train passes through the camp and their occupants are pulled blinking into the sun to be chosen for life or death.

Our guide showed us a photograph of a terrified old man stepping off the train. A Nazi doctor points to the right. ‘Imagine,’ said our guide, ‘that you are that old man.’ He then pointed to the ruins of the gas chambers which the Nazis blew up before fleeing at the end of the war. ‘Those four hundred metres is all that is left of your life.’ We walked down to the chambers trying but failing to imagine our last few moments.

 Touchingly, a large group of Israeli students were visiting the camps. Every now and then they’d sit on the grass and quietly pray. They then pulled out large Israeli flags and walked the length of the railway tracks, heads bowed.

 It was incredibly moving to see these teenagers respecting the dead of the camps, some of whom they were bound to be related to.

 I had nightmares for weeks after the visit but it’s a small price to pay. I’m glad I went and the images will stay with me always and will help me remember.

For more information visit the HMD website.



Spending cuts: how much do they know?

I’m running a series of briefings for teachers about the future of our services and what they need to be doing right now. We were about to launch a really exciting new phase of projects in school but of course, this has now been changed and we’re still waiting to see what the replacement will look like.

Sprinkle liberally

 I planned to talk about these changes and link them to the wider picture in education by talking about the white paper. I had an emergency PowerPoint on the white paper courtesy if the DfE but I thought the teachers would know what was in it and I’d only need to chat briefly about it.


 ‘So who’s read the white paper then,’ I asked cheerily.


 ‘Who knows the things in the white paper that will affect your day to day working life?’

 A tumbleweed rolled by.

 So I spent more time than I intended on informing the group about the white paper and how it will affect their schools: changes in behaviour management, a greater focus on bullying and synthetic phonics (luckily the two are not inter-related), exclusions, academies and free schools. Their head teachers are probably well-informed but sometimes the infromation doesn’t always filter down to the class teachers.

 The other aspect of the changes they weren’t entirely aware of were the cuts in local authority staff. My lot know that my post has been deleted but I don’t think they yet realise the implications of this. When they need me they pick up the phone and ask or drop me e-mail and I help to the best of my abilities. It’s my job.

 A head teacher phoned me this morning and explained that some of her parents were very anxious about a certain policy the school had just redeveloped and how she wasn’t sure what to do.

 ‘Would you like me to come and run a workshop for your parents?’ I said.

 ‘You’ve just sprinkled magic fairy dust over my day!’ she replied.

 I think this means she was pleased. And it solves everyone’s problems: the parents are reassured and informed, the staff can get back to teaching and I’ve got the knowledge at my fingertips to run sessions like these.

 It will be interesting to see how schools react when they don’t have the support of staff  whose job it is to translate government policy, share their expertise with schools and be there for them. Sometimes just for a chat and a bit of support and maybe to sprinkle a little fairy dust on someone’s day.

Council efficiency programmes- the cult unleashed

Like many councils, the one I work for is using very expensive consultants to deliver an efficiency programme. Because I won’t be here when the programme really kicks in I’m able to observe it from afar and from what I see it’s a bit like joining a cult.

 I’d hate to diss the actual programme in question so I’ll make up my own and use that as a stand-in. I’ll call mine something like, ooh I don’t know, Council Reorganisation and Performance Programme. CRaPP for short.

 So the CRaPP consultants are brought in to deliver some CRaPP training. The programme started in industry so its links to local government are pretty tenuous but let’s not dwell on the negatives. I attended a CRaPP training session (three line whip) where we were taught how to become one with the CRaPP. Actually in the session I attended they forgot to explain one of the most important principles and referred to it in its acronym for about an hour so we didn’t have a clue what was going on. Apparently no one either cared enough or was brave enough to ask what the hell they were talking about.

 Anyway, CRaPP (I’m loving this) is an input/ output model and to demonstrate this we all had to make paper aeroplanes. I was in charge of folding a piece of paper in half and passing it to my neighbour who was in charge of folding the top corners in. Our paper aeroplanes failed to make the grade and were rejected. The lesson being that we neeed to… I can’t remember actually, I was trying to cut my wrists with my paper aeroplane while thinking that I could have been in a school doing some proper work.

 Anyway, the idea is that everyone has CRaPP notice boards and CRaPP work areas and that we chant to the CRaPP gods every Monday morning while sacrificing a small child on the bonfire of our dignity. I may have made the last bit up but you get the picture.

 Out of an office of ten, there will be only three left come the end of March but they are already being drawn deeper and deeper into the CRaPP. They have to attend meetings and training session with CRaPP Champions and they’re expected to apply CRaPP to every minute of every day. Their CRaPP work will be inspected. Senior members of staff walk round with a glazed look in their eye muttering, ‘my work is CRaPP, everything I do is CRaPP.’

 I’m glad I’m out of it to be perfectly honest.

It’s all me, me me

I’ve decided that 2011 will be the year of me.

 I was brought up to always put others first and I’ve dutifully followed this credo all my life. As a teacher you’re always at the beck and call of others- the students, the parents, the local authority, the head teacher- and I’ve managed to carry this attitude over into my consultancy work. Of course I can come to your school/ meeting at ridiculous o’clock! And of course I’ll cancel my social life to run a last minute training session for cabinet members who don’t bother turning up! I think this is a particular problem for us gals, we want to please people and make them happy.

 I was once on leave out shopping in the summer when a school phoned me in a panic. They were printing their stationery for the year ahead and needed me to send them a logo that was only at my work computer and could I do it before 3 o’clock please? Did I put back the things I was going to buy at the shop, drive all the way to the office (which was luckily open), fire up my computer, find the logo, send it to the school, shut down my computer and drive home again having ruined my shopping trip? Hell, yeah.

 But no more, I cry. I’m putting myself first and my friends and family are up there too. I started today by not volunteering to train governors tomorrow evening. I shall be slumped in front of the telly in my slanket catching up rubbish programmes from Sky+ instead.

 So here are my new goals.

1)     Network, network, network.

In the public sector we’re a bit lazy at this but I’m learning how to do it. I’m actually pretty shy so this is way out of my comfort zone but I’m doing well so far. I’m not afraid to ask for help or contacts and people so far have been delighted to help.

2)     Just say no, kids.

No to extra work, no to evening work, no to too many meetings, no, non, nein. Unless you’re a school. In which case it’s yes.

3)     Take time to learn new stuff.

The other day I found myself buying lots of helpful tomes on the interwebulator. Not self-help books you understand, just books that can help with my new portfolio career. They arrived yesterday and I’ve already found out lots of useful information.

4)     Make more effort to widen my friendship circle.

That stupid shyness really restricts me but I’m making more of an effort. I’ve already contacted some friends I haven’t seen for a while to make dates to meet. I’m not going to be too tired from work to go out and have fun. Or to network.

5)     Take time to plan.

I need to spend time planning my new career and planning properly. It won’t happen unless I do.

6)     Stop whingeing.

Whingeing has been my default setting since the redundancy notice. I will try hard not to whinge about things I can’t change. But I reserve the right to still whinge about the government.

 So wish me luck on my journey and thank you supporting me via this blog, it’s very much appreciated.

What are your work resolutions for 2011?

No sex please we’re British

Panorama last night focused on the premature sexualisation of children. Sophie Raworth, newsreader, journalist and mother of three young children looked at how high street fashion encourages girls to become sexual objects at a young age and how youngsters use social networking sites to post up pictures of themselves in provocative poses. Sensibly, Raworth didn’t go for the panic option but emphasised that, as parents and educators, we need to be more aware.

There’s a strange dichotomy in this country about sex and it’s peculiarly British. We do like a bit of oo-er matron and saucy seaside postcard humour but when it comes to teaching children and young people about safe and responsible sexual behaviour we get all squeamish about it.

The government has promised support responsible advertising to children but there’s a lot of advertising to adults that children are exposed to via television and billboards. A couple of years ago a product aimed at men was promoting a competition on their website. On the sides of buses they advertised their website using three sets of leopard skin bikini-clad breasts for the www. Hilarious and oh-so-cheeky for the young men it was aimed at but not so much for the youngsters taking that bus to school.

Now I’m not being prudish about bodies in advertising but I’d feel much more comfortable about this if I knew that really good Sex and Relationships Education (SRE)- note the relationships bit- was being taught at school and at home. Good SRE teaches knowledge, skills and attitudes equally and gives children and young people a really solid base of understanding. Parents often worry that knowledge alone (the facts in isolation) is being taught in the classroom and that lessons are value-free. Skills (how to say no, being able to be a good friend, how to ask for help etc) and attitudes (how I feel about relationships, what my cultural/ religious/ familial values are etc) are also crucial but are often missed through poor teaching or lack of training and embarrassment by teachers and parents alike. Schools have no obligation to teach any elements of SRE that don’t fall under the Science National Curriculum.

And inflammatory headlines like this, ‘Ministers force through compulsory sex education for five-year-olds without asking parents,’ (Daily Mail November 2008) tend to throw everyone into a blind panic and have us envisaging small children making inapproriate models in play dough.

This puts the SRE agenda back and ensures that children aren’t taught the skills the need for the modern world until it’s often too late. The previous government was all set to make SRE compulsory in schools but years of prevaricating meant that the bill didn’t make it past wash-up at the beginning of the year and the current government have no plans to put SRE on the curriculum.

The perception of women and girls also seems to a problem. While the women of past generations fiought for the right to vote, the right to be educated and the right to be respected, we seem to be giving this generation mixed messages.

In the Panorma programme Sophie Raworth looked at sexualised clothing and fioud a cute pink t-shirt with the words ‘future footballer’s wife’ on the front. Since when has footballer’s wife been an ambition for a girl? What happened to standing on your own two feet and having aspirations of your own?

A colleague and I ran an activity with teachers on a training day last year. We bought some tweenage magazines aimed at the nine to fourteen market and asked the teachers to imagine they were from another planet and had no understanding of human culture. We then asked them to note down what the magazines alone told them about humans. Most of the answers were to do with pink and shiny and how to attract boys. Next time you’re in a newsagent, take a peek at what’s out there for pre-teens and what messages they’re getting. Hide your copy of Sugar in a copy of The Times or something.

There’s a dark side to the sexualisation and objectification of girls. There’s a real rise in sexual bullying among young people. It’s a fairly new phenomenon so there isn’t a huge amount of research about it and schools are having to learn on the hoof. The local authority in which I work is worried about this rise and is working hard to address it. Sexual bullying can be linked to gang initiation but it can also be as simple as boys seeing girls as simply sexual objects rather than human beings with feelings and having no undertanding of approriate behaviour. And it’s not just girls and boys. Same sex bullying is also out there.

Womankind Worldwide, who campaign against violence against women define sexual bullying as:

‘Any bullying behaviour, whether physical or non-physical, that is based on a person’s sexuality or gender. It is when sexuality is used as a weapon by boys or by girls. It can be carried out to a person’s face, behind their back or by use of technology. For example:

  • Using words that refer to someone’s sexuality as a general put down (like calling something ‘gay’ to mean that it is not very good)
  • Using sexual words to put someone down (like calling someone a ‘slut’)
  • Making threats or jokes about serious and frightening subjects like rape
  • Gossiping about someone’s sex life – including the use of graffiti
  • Touching someone in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable
  • Touching parts of someone’s body that they don’t want to be touched
  • Forcing someone to act in a sexual way’

If we want to empower children and young people to make safe decisions and to have happy and fulfilling relationships, then as a society we need to work harder at teaching self respect and respect for others and it starts with every one of us.

Things I won’t miss

In order to cheer myself up and get myself thinking about the future I thought I’d make a list if the things I won’t miss about work. Strangely, they’re all to do with the office environment. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: I love my job so I don’t have much to moan about on that front but bring on working at home!

 Things I won’t miss about working here:

  • Being freezing cold all winter and trying to work out the daily ‘smart but warm’ conundrum of what to wear to the office.
  • Sellotaping up with window frames every winter so they don’t rattle menacingly and let in gales of frigid air. For those who don’t believe me, here’s the photographic evidence.
  • Trying to do a professional job from a computer that only runs Windows 2000 which means that most documents sent to me are incompatible and vice versa. And broadband that’s so slow it should be in a museum.
  • The hole in the ceiling that lets in water every time it rains.
  • The ladies loo. Cold, cold, cold and hideous. Unless you are a woman who works in this office you will not recognise this photo but I’d like the blogosphere to know it’s not all soft furnishings and pot plants in the public sector.
  • The canteen. Responsible for: heavy handed garlic powdering of every hot dish they make; inability to make a cheese ‘n’ pickle toastie without a) burning it or b) forgetting to switch on the toasting machine and not noticing for twenty minutes; not knowing the price of any of their products ever and having to dash around for ten minutes and find someone who does by which time your food is cold; charging ridiculous prices for a piece of spot-addled fruit; making sandwiches with month-old bread and being all surprised when you point out that the bread is so hard it could be used by the Olympic curling team for not only kettles and brushes but for the ice-rink itself . And that mould is not a tasty additional filling. Under any circumstances.
  • The mess. I’m a bit of a neat freak so every time my neighbour’s Mount Crapius starts leaning dangerously over my desk I get palpitations. Luckily my computer monitor is so huge (see point one) it blocks most of the view. And indeed most of the desk surface.
  • The person in the office across the hallway whose shrieking laugh makes me jump off my chair several times a day. She sounds like the mad woman in the attic. Perhaps she is.

 What I will miss though is the companionship of my colleagues. They’re always really supportive when you need them and we work hard but have fun too. There are four of us in the room today and we’ve just held a game of guess the intro to naff eighties songs. I’m afraid I guessed almost all of them. I’ll miss this once it’s gone.

We got you a new sign but oops! we forgot to paint the door first.

The tyranny of positivity

Our last team meeting of the year is usually a positive affair. It’s the time when the entire team comes together and shares their successes and plans for the future. We talk about how we can support each other’s work and discuss any problems.

 But the entire team is being made redundant in March and so there are no future plans to discuss and no one really felt like celebrating our 2010 achievements. It felt like our successes and hard work didn’t count any more. So instead we invited a colleague to talk about change management. It was a really helpful session and she talked about the tyranny of positive thinking that permeates when bad things happen. Think of the cancer sufferers who declare that they are going to beat the disease through positive thinking alone. Brilliant, if this helps you through a really difficult time but what about if you want to crawl into bed and scream at the world?

 We’re also given corny platitudes when people die. I can’t count the number of ‘he had a good innings’ and ‘he wouldn’t want you to be sad’ advice I was given when my father died. And I smiled back and nodded while wanting to smack these people in their smug, cheery faces.

 It’s uncomfortable for us to deal with the messy, ugly facts of life so we prefer to create our own happy realities where people fight their diseases, battle through their grievances with a grin and cheerily keep calm and carry on when their lives change.

 It’s the same with the huge cuts we’re facing at the moment. Surely we knew that all the borrowing and lending would end in tears and surely we knew we were spending ourselves into a frenzy of debt? We skipped around in our happy world of credit cards and good employment, cartoon birds tweeting at our shoulders and bunny rabbits signing off our mortgage payments.

 Now I’m losing the job that I love and I’m expected to be positive and cheerful all the time. People say things like, ‘what an amazing opportunity!’ and, ‘something will turn up!’ They may be right and this may be the best thing that ever happened to me but I reserve the right to be fed up and angry sometimes.

 The same colleague who led the change management session has an interesting way of dealing with difficult conversations: she listens carefully without interrupting, tilts her head to one side and says, ‘poor you.’ It shows you’ve listened and empathised without interrupting or offering cheesy platitudes.

 So if you bump into me in a corridor or sit next to me in a meeting, you know what to do.

PS still looking for ideas for that perfect post-redundancy holiday. Join the debate!

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