Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Guest Blog

Gaynor has asked me to blog today, so I thought I would write about our week in the Black Country with my parents while Gaynor was on retreat. Where is the Black Country you may ask? It is a region in the West Midlands that comprises Walsall, Wolverhampton, Sandwell and Dudley. This area was the engine room of the industrial revolution and Walsall is where my family come from. Whenever we visit my parents we take a day trip to a wonderful place called the Black Country Living Museum. The children particularly enjoy the tour down the coal mine, the old fashioned school (where one of my school colleagues, Pat actually attended as a boy in Dudley) and the sweet shop where they buy old fashioned treats such as pear drops and fruit pips. This year we had a look at the 1920s cinema for the first time, and the children got their first taste of a Charlie Chaplin film called 'The Fireman'. We always end the visit with a canal boat trip under the tunnels of Dudley, one of the world's most important geological areas.
The children also enjoyed swimming at our local pool and a slide show from Grandpa Brian, always a highlight of our trip, where we look at a selection of pictures going back to the 1970s when my brother, Rob and I were growing up. It is always interesting to see their reaction when they see old pictures and try to recognise who is who! My parents are visiting us again tomorrow, but this time they will be looking after the children as we go off on a two day break to a Bed and Breakfast at Denbies Vineyard, near Dorking in Surrey. What a treat!

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Little Things

Making some time this morning to do some little things.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Hurly Burly

Life has been a whirlwind since leaving St Michael's Convent on Saturday morning. A pleasant whirlwind of catching up with the children, husband, friends and family (and X-Factor) but also a culture shock after six days of silence.
My poor garden has been sadly neglected while I was in Uganda, ill and then getting back on top of life, the day is set fair and I am hoping to re-plant a bed by dusk.
I spent last half-term re-acting to events and running to stay still after the shaky and swine flu infected beginning so I will also be putting some time aside this week to get an overview of what the coming seven weeks hold and making some space to prepare, practically, mentally and spiritually for Christmas. Julie's post on Finding a Rhythm has provided some inspiration.
My husband and I have booked two nights in a local Bed and Breakfast to enjoy some time alone in each other's company, something we have not made time for in the last couple of years.

Saturday, 17 October 2009


This afternoon I am retreating: quite literally going on retreat, to St Michael's Convent for six days of silence and peace. I have been eagerly looking forward to this for weeks, at times desperately hanging on for it. It has been a busy and stressful half-term in which I never quite felt on-top of things, starting as it did on the back-foot. Not that I am hours away, I am beginning to feel nervous: a week without family, friends, life's distractions and even conversation is daunting. However, in preparing this post, I re-read what I wrote at the end of last year's time away and I am encouraged and excited by all that is in store for me.
I will be back next Saturday and posting again later that week.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Start School at 6

A report by the Cambridge Primary Review, subject of an article in today's Times newspaper, recommends that children should not start formal schooling until they are 6. In fact, the report says, trying to teach literacy and numeracy at such an early age is "counterproductive." Ed Balls the Schools Secretary, however, believes that this would be a 'backward step' and that "it is vital to get children playing and learning from an early age." (What does he think they do when they are not at school? How does he explain the fact that children learn countless things before they ever attend school, like walking, talking, the names of farm animals and dinosaurs to mention just a few?) Despite starting school at least one year earlier, English school children aged 10 show no real advantage over their European counterparts and even score lower on their reading.
So, this suggestion has not been supported by the Government of the Opposition. Is there another agenda here? Perhaps an economic one: the earlier children are in school, the sooner their parents are back into full-time work or the cheaper the child-care for those who already are? While I am sure that these financial pressures are very real for many families, it does not seem a good argument for early full-time education. It would be good to look at our schooling paradigms with fresh eyes and to see the needs of the children, their social, emotional and educational needs, put first. The rest, surely, should be worked around that?

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Primary Proms 2009

We were delighted to receive tickets to the Primary Proms 2009, a free concert for London children held in the Albert Hall. Not only did we get seats, but we got a box (due to the fact that we are a high adult-to-child ratio group) so we enjoyed the concert in luxury!
There was a varied mix, with choral, orchestral, jazz, drumming and rock music. I always like some easy jazz and it was good to hear Holst's 'Mars', which the children are familiar with. They liked the choirs too, especially the song complaining about the hardships of school!There was to be an audience participation song, something my children frequently despise. However, I had downloaded the lyrics and we had listened to an MP3 recording of the song a few times, so we were at least prepared. What I was not prepared for was my son, wriggling and bored after an hour of music, greeting the suggestion that we could leave early if he liked by telling me that he did not want to leave before we had had the chance to sing. It was the highlight of the concert for them all and my daughter skipped along Exhibition Road singing at the top of her voice on our way home!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Purrfect Pal

My little girl has been saving up for a Nintendo DS for some time. The latest model, new, is £100 and, although she had saved a lot, she was still some considerable way short. I was telling this to a friend. 'Oh', she said, 'you should try Game, they sell them second-hand.' So, yesterday afternoon, I took myself off to our local town and located this shop and indeed they were selling the latest model, 'pre-owned' for only £70. Even better, the original model was only £40. Assured that it did exactly the same thing, (apparently the screen is not so bright,) I was able to buy her the console and a game and still bring her change home from her hard-saved money.
She was delighted with the aquisition and we immediately began to play with her "Purrfect Pal" kitten. It was hungry and meowed piteously (and, after a very short while, irritatingly.) Speed-reading the instructions I figured out how to feed it, but we had no food and no money to buy food. Nowhere in the instructions could I find any information on how to obtain cash. The cat continued to cry and occasionally lie down and I began to worry that it was collapsing with hunger and would, before too long, die of starvation.
Fortunately at this point the game switched off as it was out of power and we called a halt while we re-charged, not just the console but our own emotional tanks. Once energy was restored, my middle-son had a play and discovered the games. Having a quick try of one he was awarded $0.00 but realised immediately and triumphantly that, had he played better, he might have earned some hard cash. With adult help, enough money for the cat food was won and the cat was fed. Oh, the relief! By this stage he was pining for grooming, play and affection. We also discovered that his litter tray had 73 'kitten-clumps' in it, which took some time to clear up.
After the children were in bed I decided I would play a few games to stock up the cupboard with food and fill up the piggy bank. If she saves enough, she can choose a new kitten and I wanted her to be able to design her own pet when she gets up this morning. An hour later I was still sitting there, tapping out electronic tunes (do it correctly enough and the prize is a wopping $3:00, nearly a box of cat-food!), periodically pausing to groom, play with or pet the cat. It's a pretty demanding beast.
Each of its four basic needs are charted with 'thermometers' and I finally felt able to turn in when all of them were registering green and low. I had met the needs of my electronic cat and I could go to bed satisfied with a job well done. Although I know they will rise again, at least I can easily check on what is required and take appropriate action. If only my children were so easy!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Pencils and Pennies

The problem with high ideals is how you feel when you fail them. This time last week I was so proud of myself for backing off from my children's 'formal' learning and being happy with seven words. Then we tried some maths. The page in my little girl's book was covering how to add 9 the easy way: add 10 and take away 1. Then it went on to taking away 9, take away 10 and add 1. This seemed pretty straightforward to me. What I had failed to see was the number of steps involved in this process and, when adding 10 to a number feels pretty shaky, it was a step too far. All the demons were stirred: my child is behind, my child is lazy, my child isn't trying, I am failing. It wasn't pretty! We left it, tearfully, and tried again another day. It didn't work then either. So, picture the scene at tea-time on Friday. I am upset about my own stuff and panicky that she has not completed her set maths page for the week. She is tired and wanting to play. I am trying to cook a white sauce and explain, yet again, how the process works, while she sits at the kitchen table. It took less that five minutes for me to descend to yelling and her to be reduced to tears. Why do I do this?

Picture the scene yesterday. She is sitting on the table, giggling that this is easy. We have added ten to twenty, thirty, forty and so on. We have graduated to adding ten to twenty-one, thirty-two. Now we are making numbers with pencils for 'lots of ten' and pennies. I'm trying to give her nine, but I can't because I only have a pencil, worth ten, and I can't break it up, what can I do? She takes the pencil and hands me a penny. Then we figure out what she's got left, now she's added nine by adding ten and taking away one. It's such a fun game that she's asking for more and begging her brother to come and see. I am hamming it up, crying that I can't give her nine, only ten, and I don't want to give her ten, I only want to give her nine. 'Trust me,' she says, taking my pencil and handing me a penny. It's so good, we have to show daddy when he gets in from work.

It's amazing what backing off, unlocking horns and trying a new approach can do. It's amazing how good it is for the soul to giggle with your daughter. It's amazing there's always a second chance.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Box Hill

We took the children for walk on Box Hill yesterday, lots of beautiful views, healthy fresh air and October drizzle. Unattracted by the offer of a different walk, they opted to take the same way-marked trail which we took last time we were there. Reaching a corner by the main road, my middle son set off across the grass and took a very effective short-cut. My daughter was unconvinced and, anyway, she was able to see a post. So I accompanied her down the hill, to the post, turned right along the path to meet up with the men of our family who had all taken the short cut. I had tried to explain to her that we were going the long way but she strenuously denied it. Eventually, when the evidence was incontrovertible, she changed her argument:
"We're going the long-cut, because we are better!"
Now, that's my kind of reasoning!

Friday, 9 October 2009


In order to squeeze every possible educational moment out of our day, the children and I were listening to 'Great Inventors' in the car on our drive to choir. Yesterday it was the turn of Marconi, the inventor of radio.Marconi was home educated until he was twelve and allowed by his Irish mother to indulge his passion for all things electrical, including building a box on the roof which collected static in thunderstorms and rang a bell in the house. (I am not sure I would let my child play on the roof or with thunderstorms, no matter how autonomous I was trying to let them be!) Although he then went to technical college, he was so absorbed in his interest in electricity that he failed all his exams and was not admitted to university. (His furious and disappointed father would destroy any of his son's experiments he found about the house so his mother hid all his equipment in the attic.)

Of course his mother did not know that her son would turn out to invent the radio, to be prolifically decorated or ascribed by the British Postmaster General as being the saviour of the survivors of the Titanic; it must have been scary at times when her son did not follow any kind of conventional educational route, to the point of failing his exams. And of course, not all children will grow up to make world-changing inventions. But I was inspired by this story to wonder what would happen if more children were allowed to discover and then follow their passion, indulge themselves more in the things that fill them with joy and interest, were less constrained by a National Curriculum of a little of everything and less bound by a traditional school-exam-university path. How might our world be changed and who else might be saved?

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


Following on from yesterday's post, I have been thinking about one of those Home Education Frequently Asked Questions: what will you do when they don't want to learn? My answer, honed over a few years and much thought, is that I would rush them to a doctor immediately as I would be extrememely concerned for their health. My children (and I am sure they are not unique) are voracious learners and will study a subject that interests them with passion and commitment. My middle son pores over the Rules Book for 'The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Games' for hours, he knows his Lego in depth and can indentify which set any piece belongs to, he pushes himself hard to achieve a personal best most weeks in a 5k time trial or to reach the next level of a computer game.

I believe the questioner usually means, "What will you do when they don't want to learn what you want them to?" While I am uncomfortably aware that this flies in the face of conventional schooling, I increasingly feel that if they don't want to learn something then that is because it is the wrong thing or the wrong time. While I do my best to provide educational experiences which I think they will enjoy, benefit from and be developed by, I accept my limitations that I can never see into their minds to know what they are ripe to receive. If something is absorbing them they I assume that is the right thing for them at the right time. Anything thing else feels like seed on the rocky ground.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Seven Words

I started this term with the plan that, once a week, we would do one 'hit' of formal, sit-at-the-table, workbook learning. This would be a page of maths, some handwriting and grammar and, for the older two, work on their monthly book project. It has become apparent that this is too much in one go: concentration and patience have been over-stretched and tears and shouting have not been uncommon. I am reminded of a recent post of Julie's, entitled "Strong Willed Mommies" which included these words:

"If you’ve got tears, you’re done. There’s nothing more to discuss or do that day. It’s gone too far."

Last week I reviewed what I was doing and split up the 'table-work' so that yesterday morning all we attempted was handwriting. My middle son wrote three sentences. My little girl, seven words. Having written their very best, they were tired, the pencil-work was getting sloppy and and I was beginning to find fault. I told them to stop. They looked at me with uncertain faces: was I about to shout? No, I simply said that that was enough for today (as I slipped away the lines from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' that I had optimistically printed off for them to copy-write!) We retired to the sofa and began "One Hundred and One Dalmatians" and the epic "The Lord of the Rings". I felt close to the children, relaxed, and read for far longer than I normally do.
In the back of my mind I could imagine a school-teacher or an inspector criticising how much, or rather, how little we had done. I could hear the voice saying "They've got to learn to push through," or "How will they ever learn anything if that's all they do?" It was scary. I knew I could have made them write more and probably done some maths too, but I know that it would have been poor-quality, miserable work. I also know that my relationship with them would have been frayed a little. And, while we would have had more to show the fictitious inspector, I do not believe that they would have learned any more, except, perhaps, that appearances count for more that reality. So, while there were few words on the page, I believe that their handwriting improved a little from careful practice and they learned that quality matters, their feelings are heard and that we don't always have to fight!

Monday, 5 October 2009


Twenty years ago my husband and I went up to University. We both joined the Christian Union in our college and, in meeting the C.U. rep, met someone who was to become a life-long friend and god-father to our eldest son. He married his wife a year before we were married and, six children later, we are still spending time together.
They all came to stay for the weekend and we spent a happy few hours in the woods on Saturday, sitting on a log and catching up while the children building dens.

On Sunday we drove to Ightam Mote and picnicked and played in the unforecast and summery-warm sunshine.It is good to spend time with people who really, truly know us as we are, and still love us. It is good to see our children forming the same kind of friendships.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Chocolate Chips

Last week I made the commitment to start using Fair Trade chocolate chips in my cooking. I found a company that produce them and a local health food shop that supplies their goods. I asked my son to ring them and find out if they sold the chips, but unfortunately they didn't. Since then I have been meaning to go in and ask in person. I was somewhat surprised when the phone rang and the lady from the shop told me that my chocolate chips were in. Apparently my son had left our name and number and the shop owner had ordered them in specially. My husband is going to pick them up for me later this morning. They are extremely expensive, almost twice the price of the ones we can buy in our local supermarket. Some of this price, I am sure, is because they are from quite an up-market manufacturer and are also organic, but these were the only ones I could see on a quick Google for Fair Trade chocolate chips. Some of this price, perhaps, is because this is what they ought to cost, a fair reflection of the price of chocolate. I am used to being able to have what I want, when I want, and, in terms of food, there is little that I cannot afford. In the days of slaves on sugar plantations, sugar would have been much more expensive if those who worked the land had been paid and had sick-leave and holidays. Free Range eggs are more expensive than battery-farmed. Off-setting the carbon emissions of flights makes cheap flights less affordable. I think of Charlie, he of the Chocolate Factory, and his anticipation and delight at his annual birthday gift of a bar of chocolate. At this price I will certainly not be taking my chocolate chips for granted and in more ways than one they will be more valuable.

Friday, 2 October 2009


Yesterday we went to our first rehersal of the newly re-instated Otherwise Choir. Over twenty Home Educating mums and their children met together to sing and to make friends. I love singing. I am not particularly good and I'm never going to win X-factor but I can hold a tune provided it is not too high and too quiet. My eldest threw himself into it with obvious enthusiasm, my middle son is a little more of the 'boys don't sing' school of thought but gave it a go and my little girl enjoyed herself immensely until her concentration span expired. After the singing, the children tore around and the mums had a cup of tea and some conversation. It was great. It was one of those examples of so many needs being met: something 'educational', something for us all to do as a family together, an opportunity for the children to mix and play with friends and time for me to have that most precious of things: a cup of tea and a chat with other mums.