Sunday, 11 September 2016

Back to school

For the first time in some years, I find myself on a Sunday evening anticipating school again on Monday morning. Yes, I'm back - for a bit. But not for long. Just a couple of days a week until May, but it's enough to bring that slight sense of foreboding as the sun sets on the weekend, as the Countryfile theme begins and as the kids get ready for bed.

Sunday nights in September always bring that strange sense of melancholy, too - summer gone, things - so many things - not done and other things no more than distant memories. No-one captured the mood better, in my view, than Edward Thomas.

Thomas was killed in action in April 1917 during the Battle of Arras. His poetry - which he had only begun to write five years earlier - was for many years regarded as typical of the English pastoral style. There's no doubt Thomas held a deep affection for the English landscape. When asked why he'd volunteered (he was almost forty when killed) and why he was fighting, he picked up a handful of soil and said 'for this'.

Gone, gone again,
May, June, July,
And August gone,
Again gone by,
Not memorable
Save that I saw them go,
As past the empty quays
The rivers flow.
And now again,
In the harvest rain,
The Blenheim oranges
Fall grubby from the trees,
As when I was young—
And when the lost one was here—
And when the war began
To turn young men to dung.
Look at the old house,
Outmoded, dignified,
Dark and untenanted,
With grass growing instead
Of the footsteps of life,
The friendliness, the strife;
In its beds have lain
Youth, love, age, and pain:
I am something like that;
Only I am not dead,
Still breathing and interested
In the house that is not dark:—
I am something like that:
Not one pane to reflect the sun,
For the schoolboys to throw at—
They have broken every one.


Friday, 9 September 2016

Grammar schools... love them or loathe them, they're not the answer

Back to school brings with it some familiar, depressing news...


Yes, that. And in the first week back.

But there's worse. Because you can get rid of the little critters that populate primary school heads (that's the heads of primary-age children, not the Headteachers of such establishments, although for all I know...)

If only you could rid the world of politicians with such ease. Because education is once again a political battleground. The proposal to allow new grammar schools predictably divides opinion on ideological lines. In the blue corner, those who favour even more tests (the deeply flawed 11+) and a restructuring of secondary education while in the red corner, a depressing allegiance to the failed one-size-fits all philosophy of the last fifty years.

In the row over the proposal to permit more grammar schools something rather important seems to have been overlooked. Neither side in the for- and anti- debate seems to acknowledge that all children are different, learn differently, excel in different ways and make progress in often widely different rates. Or that what we know about how children - and the rest of us - learn has changed beyond all recognition in the last fifty years.

Unfortunately, the current factory model makes no allowances for the quantum leaps made in our understanding of learning. Schools, as presently structured, with teachers before (often unreasonably large) classes just don't cut the mustard with our brains, and what we know of how they work.

Now for a a bit of controversy. Selection - academic, skills-based, aptitude-determined - is a good thing. Yes. I'm a product of comprehensive education, and - as a teacher - have taught in both the selective and non-selective sectors. Tailoring what we, the schools, do to meet the needs of the individual is most definitely the way forward. Teaching them in traditional classes in the traditional way is not.

No school, as we know them, anywhere in the world is able adequately to adapt to this fundamental and urgent challenge. Technology has given us a fabulous opportunity to do something really radical with the education system. The research already exists and the methods have been tried and tested.

If only someone had the guts the put that on the political agenda.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Parental Anxiety: is it possible to get it right?

It's the start of a new school year and with it, a reminder to parents everywhere that we can't always be there for our children. And that the worry, for a parent, never stops.

Parental anxiety is one of the themes in Dr Carol Cooper's latest novel, Hampstead Fever (available in bookshops, and online from Amazon and other retailers) and I'm delighted to say that Carol has written a blog post on the subject, specially for us. She writes...

When expecting your first child, there’s a golden moment during which you’re thrilled with the prospect of having a baby, but haven’t yet realised that you’re on course for a lifetime of worry. 

Not all parents are anxious about their offspring. Some are so laid back they’re in danger of falling over, but those, in my experience as a doctor and a mother, are few and far between. 

There’s plenty to agonise over. My own three kids kicked off with asthma, allergies, and accidents before working their way through the rest of the medical dictionary. 

While on the Bs (bronchiolitis and broken bones), one of my twins was suspected of having a brain tumour. His CT scan was under anaesthetic, and he took a scary length of time to come round afterwards. Naturally, I imagined all kinds of permanent damage. All was well, as it turned out, while I got a few more grey hairs.

Being a family doctor has been of limited use. I know from my own practice how quickly things can change with children. Usually it’s for the better, but sometimes it’s the other way. 

I’m only too aware of conditions like sepsis where symptoms may be minimal in the early stages, yet can lead to death within little more than an hour. Surely it’s easier all round to remain vigilant 24/7? That way, when a new threat comes along, you’re already on high alert. 

Worry becomes hard to turn off. There’s the nagging feeling that the moment you relax is when things will go wrong. So you spend the best years of your life (and theirs) fretting. You know, just in case.

I sometimes stopped worrying for a moment or two. Then I’d find one of my sons fiddling with matches. Or having duels with his best friend, armed with metal curtain poles sharpened to a terrifying point. 

The bad news? There isn’t a moment at which anxieties melt away. Growing up brings new risks, like drugs, sex, and drink. 

Parental worry is one of the themes in my latest novel Hampstead Fever. None of the characters gets it right, but there is an answer, of sorts. 

Being anxious won’t stop bad things from happening. It’s not a talisman like a four-leaf clover or a lucky rabbit’s foot. It’s more like being the rabbit, without its paw. 

The best any parent can do is to get up to speed with the facts. Share the information with your children, in an age-appropriate way, and take common sense precautions. Then enjoy the magical experience of raising a child, and worry only when you have to. 

***

There are many places to find reliable health info, including NHS Choices and Patient UK.


Carol Cooper is a GP, journalist, and author. After a string of parenting books and an award-winning textbook of general practice, she turned her hand to contemporary fiction with a medical hint. She teaches medical students at Imperial College, London, and is president of the Guild of Health Writers. Best of all, she has three amazing sons.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Happy Left-Handed Day!

Yes, in a world whew there's a day for everything, today really is World Left-Handed Day.

As a life-long south paw, along with Barack Obama (and a host of other US Presidents) I'm more than happy to post something positive about our much maligned preference. 

Even the word 'left' in some languages leaves a lot to be desired - 'gauche' (French) and 'sinestra' (Latin) imply a lack of skill and worse, while 'links' (left) in Dutch and German also means 'clumsy'.

And why do we wear our wedding rings on our left hand? Why, to ward off the evil that might otherwise blight our nuptial bliss! 

Being left-handed isn't easy, but at least as we smudge the ink on life's page we can count ourselves in good company. So, raise a glass (in your left-hand) to the one in ten of us who do it - write, pitch, bat, bowl, serve, return, tee off and think - differently. Lefties, you're in good company...

Aristotle 
Leonardo da Vinci
Marie Curie
Neil Armstrong
Pele...

And many more.


And now, a quick commercial...

Friday, 5 August 2016

Banks of Green Willow

Today marks the centenary of the death on the Somme of one of this country's most promising composers. I've written about George Butterworth before, most recently when we went on our own pilgrimage to Thiepval, where his is one of the 'intolerably nameless names' of those with no known grave commemorated on that huge memorial.

I'd always planned to post something today, to mark another of the many sad anniversaries. But then I came across this, a short film by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I can do no better...


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