So comrades come rally

Today millions of public sector workers are striking over pensions.

In the borough where I used to work every school bar one is closing completely or has part closures. These include faith school, academies and special schools. I know some of these head teachers would ensure their schools remained open through snow or illness and would rather snog Michael Gove than close their schools. Today however the schools are closed and the teachers striking over pension changes.

Today public sector workers are marching, rallying and picketing. Many of them will have never been on strike before but this time it feels necessary. Like those head teacher in my ex borough they want to demonstrate their anger and dissatisfaction at the pension changes. It’s indisputable that public sector pensions have to change but the changes are going too far too fast. We Love Local Government explains this far better than I.

Apart from changes to pensions I think the public sector also just wants to make its voice heard. Since the coalition government came into power they’ve constantly criticised the public sector and have branded them feckless and lazy;  greedy pension grabbers that shirk the real world of hard work for a cushy time being babysat by the state.

The government response to this day of action has been one of that teacher who says, ‘you’ve let yourself down, you’ve let the government down but most of all you’ve let the public down.’ If I were them I’d be a bit worried at the anger that has provoked such a massive walk out rather than threatening to withdraw their offer over reforms. But I guess that’s why I’m not in politics. My ego is sadly just not vast enough.

I’ve mentioned before that when I went into the public sector it wasn’t for the pensions or the perks or even the holidays. I wanted to be a teacher and make a difference in children’s lives. I felt I could best do this in the state sector.  As a new teacher of 22 I didn’t care about a pension because it felt like retirement was a million years away (it still is now that the age of retirement is getting higher and higher) and took a big chunk of my wage each month that might be better spent on having fun.

But now after a whole career spent in the public sector I’ve been left high and dry. I don’t pay into a government pension any more because that jo has gone and I have no job to strike from today. But the public sector is where my heart lies so I’m with everyone who strikes today. Good luck and maybe just maybe the government will listen for once.

‘Arise, ye workers from your slumber,
Arise, ye prisoners of want.
For reason in revolt now thunders,
and at last ends the age of cant!
Away with all your superstitions,
Servile masses, arise, arise!
We’ll change henceforth the old tradition,
And spurn the dust to win the prize!
So comrades, come rally,
And the last fight let us face.
The Internationale,
Unites the human race.’

The Internacionale

Academies on a (sausage) roll

It’s strange to think that only a few years ago most school meals were pitifully unbalanced, unhealthy and unappetising. As a new local authority Healthy Schools adviser I did my best to persuade the contract managers and the providers to up their game but to no avail. I was told constantly that schools were happy with meals. They weren’t.  They were very unhappy with meals but because there was no comprehensive complaint system their complaints went unaddressed and the meals remained poor. Parents and children voted with their taste buds and chose packed lunches. Children on free school meals weren’t so lucky. 

Then Jamie Oliver came along and added his voice to the debate. Because it was Jamie, people started listening and agreeing that the food in our schools was not good enough. In the borough where I worked this call was taken up by parents who demanded that the local authority ensure their children had better food. To cut a long story short, a huge battle ensued with demonstrations, confrontations and demands but the parents were right. Their children should have nutritional, tasty food in school that sets them up for learning. Standards in school food should apply for breakfast, lunch and snacks. Coupled with the then government’s commitment to extended services, children in wraparound care would be fed well and healthily. Because of parent power, we were one of the initial authorities to improve the menus and reinstate well-equipped school kitchens at huge cost. Unfortunately many schools don’t have adequate cooking kitchens because following the privatisation of school meals contracts in the 1980s they only needed warming cupboards or serving hatches.

The government eventually listened to Jamie and the parents. They set up the School Food Trust to regulate food and offer support and training to staff. I remember going to one of the huge dinner lady training sessions at Lord’s cricket ground. It was amazing seeing all those women committed to cooking better food all in one huge session watching celebrity chefs demonstrate cooking techniques and chattering excitedly about recipes on the tube home. These are the ladies that went from opening a pack of frozen fishy feet (yup, really) and bunging them in the oven to preparing freshly cooked meals brimming with fresh fruits and vegetables.

When the School Food Trust brought in nutrient standards, every recipe had to be nutritionally analysed to ensure the correct number of vitamins and mineral went into every balanced meal.

It’s not been an easy path to healthy eating in schools. Schools meal take up went down initially and schools have had to work really hard to persuade students to give the food a go. Schools put on taster sessions, healthy eating, workshops, award prizes and hold theme days. Unfortunately newspapers pounce gleefully onto the school meals aren’t working bandwagon and regular bring up the story of the Rotherham mums pushing burgers through the school fence. Shame they don’t ever mention the hundreds of parents who happily pay for good school meals that their children enjoy.

As part of my job I used to visit schools to see how well they were doing in terms of health and wellbeing. On these visits I observed mealtimes and checked menus. Luckily I had a nutritionist colleague who checked menus for compliance and supported school meal staff with their promotion of healthy food and understanding of cooking.  He was made redundant earlier this year at the same time as me.

I’m really disappointed to hear today that some academies are asking the government if they can reintroduce junk food items.  The government are keen for many more schools to become academies and it would be a massive step backwards to admit that healthy food isn’t really necessary for students at these academies.

The School Food Trust has released a statement urging anyone to tell them if they know of any academies returning to crisps and fizzy drinks.

You may think that we tree-hugging do-gooders need to step back and let the academies get on with it. After all, a can of Red Bull and a bag of Monster Munch are hardly going to harm a kid’s education are they? It’s a discussion I’ve had with countless teachers, head teachers and other professionals. We don’t know what the kids are eating- or not eating- at home. When a child is in school we are in loco parentis and it’s is our duty to ensure that they are safe, protected and supported in their learning. If we allow them to be stuffed full of e numbers, sugar and salt then we are failing in that duty, just as much as if we allow poor teaching to go on in schools.

It’s been a long hard slog to get to where we are in term soft school health. The government have withdrawn funding for Healthy Schools, school sports and extended services. I’m not prepared to let Gove, Cameron et al erode children’s health even further.

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for further reading about the road to better school food, have a look at the Merton Parents for better Food in Schools website.  

That’s Life! The government appoints charity to sexual health advisory group

The trouble with health education and dealing with issues like sex, drugs and alcohol is that many people have very fixed ideas about what children and young people should learn. Add to this the fact that teachers are often anxious and unsure of how and what to teach and parents are anxious about their children are learning and we have a very shaky situation. When the phone rings and someone offers to come and teach about sex or drugs to students, many head teachers and teachers breathe a sigh of relief and quickly book them in.

But how many schools take the time (or indeed have the time) to do a little research on these groups? A quick google is usually all it takes to find out what you need to know. There are some excellent groups out there teaching SRE and drug and alcohol education but there are an awful lot of charlatans too and my worry is that more and more of these charlatans will find their way into schools because local authority staff are not there to advise them.

I used to get regular phonecalls from schools asking me about groups that had contacted them. Part of my job was the check these people out. I’d observe lessons, check lesson plans and watch theatre groups in action to see if what they were offering was in line with good practice. I’d tell schools to ask for detailed lesson plans and references before booking. Anyone with good track record will be happy to offer these.

A good example of this is Narcanon. A quick search on the internet will tell you that they’re Scientologists and offer lessons based on L Ron Hubbard’s teachings. Now they don’t call up and say, ‘Hi! We’re the Scientologists and we’d like to give your students some spurious Science about drugs.’ If you’ve done your research and believe that they are a group who should be speaking to your pupils then, fine, invite them in. but make sure the parents know what their children are learning and from whom.

Another group who offer talks to schools are Life. This pro-life charity will come and talk to your children about how a baby grows (primary) and about abortion and assisted reproduction (secondary)and to be fair to Life, they offer clear, detailed lesson plans and are a hit with many schools, including faith schools. I advise schools again to do their research carefully and make an informed decision while informing parents of exactly who is talking to their children as part of a well-planned programme of SRE that addresses the needs of all children. The fact remains, however, that Life is a group with an agenda and a point to get across. 

It was interesting to see then that Life has been given membership of the government’s sexual health forum while the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has been given its marching orders.

Abortion issues have always been a hot political potato in the US but in the UK we’ve usually taken the pro-choice stance. It seems now that the coalition government is looking west for all things sexual health. If I was an MP I’d be looking towards countries where teenage pregnancy, STIs and were lower than ours and find out what they were doing right. Our American cousins do many things well but sexual health? Not so much. What next? Looking to see how the US addresses childhood obesity and demanding that chips and turkey twizzlers are brought back into schools?

BD (before Dorries) I’d have been horrified by this latest move but now? I’m feeling jaded, fed up and more than a little depressed. Those of us who are passionate about children’s health are not all leftie lunatics; we do what we do because we believe that we can make things better.

Next time, Mr Cameron et al, just give us a call and we’ll be there to help. Agenda-free.

For more information on pro-choice check out Education for Choice.

Ghost Town

This town is coming like a ghost town.
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf.

This place is coming like a ghost town.
No job to be found in this country.
Can’t go on no more.
People getting angry.

‘Ghost Town’, The Specials

These lyrics might have been written in the bleak 1970s but I think they rather fit today in 2011 just as well. The offices where I work are becoming like a ghost town. It’s a bit like moving house: you think you don’t have that much stuff but once you start packing, it keeps on coming.

I need to get rid of all my stuff by R-day at the end of March so I’ve been tackling it bit by bit. Today I tidied one shelf (recycling/ bin/ take home) and one large folder on my computer. I’ve arranged to donate resources to schools but the rest of my things will be thrown away. All that work! I’ll take home a few bits. Out of an office of nine, three are surviving and they will have to move to the Civic Centre (eek!) after April so it really is all change.

I popped next door to look for something a few minutes ago and it really struck me how much the room had changed. Several desks were removed at the beginning of the year as one team moved premises. There were a few boxed stacked up ready to be filled and the shelves showed dusty marks where folders and files had once stood.

At times it really strikes me how different the public sector is going to be. Buildings will lie empty or be rented out as office space (although I can’t see anyone in their right mind wanting to pay good money for the room where I’m based); staff numbers will be decimated in the original sense of the word and services to children, schools and families will be gone or changed forever.

Can’t go on no more

People getting angry.

update…hmm, someone been reading my blog or did we just have the same ideas? Auschwitz and The Specials.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/19/youth-unemployment-lost-generation-work?INTCMP=SRCH

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.

Playing for Success…but not for long.

 

Yesterday evening I was the guest of honour at a Playing for Success (PfS) award ceremony. I expect you’ve heard of Playing for Success. No? It’s another superb programme that supports children’s learning and development and has got the thumbs down from the government. Funding ends in March.

 PfS uses top flight sports venues such as premier league football stadiums as after school study centres. PfS is not about sport but uses the discipline that sportspeople have as inspiration to support children in their basic literacy and numeracy skills. Pupils also brush up their ICT and develop their team work, personal and study skills. Pupils from a local secondary school give up their own precious free time to mentor the younger pupils.

 At the event I attended, I handed out certificates and prizes to children from four local primary schools. The kids who attended the study centre after school were supported by their very proud parents. The venue is a world famous centre for sporting excellence and is more than generous with their time and support too. They provide food and drink for the event, a representative speaker and free use of their amazing facilities. They organise for famous players to speak to pupils and provide prizes and support to the programme.

 It’s the second time I’ve presented prizes at this event and I always feel so impressed by what the pupils and their leaders have achieved.  In my speech I acknowledged their hard work and gently reminded the families in attendance that with government cuts biting deeply, we should take advantage of the excellent services we currently enjoy.

 While we hear about the major cuts in the national media, it’s the smaller cuts to children’s services that I think will really harm the chances of state school educated children. And when people describe public sector workers as feckless, lazy and parasitic, perhaps they’d like to see the committed, passionate and energetic staff members that I work with.  Not all of us push papers around.

 So this is where we are:

 Playing for Success: funding ended.

 School Sports Partnership: funded ended.

 National Healthy Schools Programme: funding ended.

 Extended services: funding ended.

 Primary and secondary strategies: funding ended

Happy Christmas and a prosperous new year?

Name, rank and serial number

The business plan for the Department for Education  (DfE) has been published and it makes for interesting reading.

 The overall aims are well meaning but alarm bells started ringing for me at various points. The DfE will, ‘reform the school curriculum and qualifications.’

The curriculum needs regular tweaks and occasional overhauling to ensure that it meets the needs of pupils but I’m anxious about this one. Any major change to curriculum means schools will have to rewrite policies and plans, be trained in delivering the new curriculum and buy the required resources. A new exciting curriculum was set and ready to go under the previous administration but the baby and the bath water have gone out of the window and it looks like this government will be looking to the US for inspiration. Because we don’t have any inspirational educators here, right?

 There’s also a section on reviewing and reforming provision for children with special educational needs and if they don’t rope in Guerilla Mum to help with this, then they’re missing a trick.

 The rest of the document looks interesting and I’m looking forward to seeing how things progress.

 There is a section on transparency, however that makes for interesting reading. As several newspapers have picked up, schools will be expected to publish teachers’ pay, qualifications and absences.

 Will parents withdraw their children from a school because Mr. X has a few days off with a cold every January or Mrs. Y was off having a hysterectomy last year?

 Will little Johnny learn better from a teacher with a teaching degree or a subject-specific degree plus a PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education)?

 Who’s the best Maths teacher? Her with the degree from Oxbridge and two years’ experience or him who went to the Poly and has twenty years’ experience?

 Perhaps there will have be a point system and if the teacher falls below a certain level they get shipped off to Shankem Comprehensive, the sink school for rubbish teacher and kids whose parents have too much going on in their lives to care much about parental choice.

 As for teachers’ pay, I’m not sure what this achieves but if teachers have to show their pay packets perhaps all public sector workers will have to. GPs waving their bank statements around? The military offering up name, rank, serial number, gross pay, tax and national insurance?

The prime minister has already humbly offered to accept a reduced pay packet in the name of public service. Which is very considerate. But I expect that most teachers don’t have a personal fortune worth squillions backing them up.

 So in the interest of transparency and to stand shoulder to shoulder with my fellow educators, here are my qualifications:

MA (school and college leadership and management)

B.Ed (hons 2:1) English and Drama

Grade seven clarinet (pass)

Sixth form French prize (no sniggering at the back.)

Cycling proficiency

Badges from brownies and guides: various including hostess, boatswain and jester.

 Who could possibly pass up a set of qualifications like that?

 Anyone?

 Hello?

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