Friday, November 30, 2007


I meant to mention this in my post this morning, but I forgot. I wish I had before and after photos to illustrate this, but I didn't take any before we started as I wasn't at all sure it would work.

While the builders were here they managed to tear the vinyl flooring in the kitchen, which we weren't keen to replace as it is only about eighteen months old. I bought a kit online, of which I was highly suspicious. But it worked. We painted on the magic gunk (went with clear as we thought a rubbish colour match would be more noticeable than a tear) and then heated it. We abandoned the silly little 'heating tool' they provided, which was a little lump of metal on a stick that you were supposed to heat with an iron. We just used the iron itself, with a cloth underneath.

It worked very well indeed and I'm happy to live with the floor as it is now. It isn't exactly pristine anyway, owing to an unfortunate incident with a permanent pen and a child.

Here's the mended bits. There were two bigish tears - about five cm each.


We are very much in need of the Christmas break here. It seems to be a long while since everyone was 100% healthy and there’s a lot we must do...

There is a long list of decorating to be done.

Christmas shopping needs to be fitted in somewhere, along with all the birthday pressie buying. We have a nephew, Dani, and my mum, all in the next eight days.

The kids’ panto is coming up next week and Dani has completed a magnificent woolly tail and hat with pig ears, for Leo, but I’ve so far failed to engage him in snout making.

Pearlie is off to a Woodcraft youth hostel camp tonight.

Tickets for Squeezebox Rocks (the gig the kids are performing in) are on sale and we must pick them up for various family members. Kids have to remember to keep running through their songs!

All this is going on alongside our usual work pattern – plus some odd variations. I booked some leave, ages ago, right at the end of the uni term, to give me some time for decorating. As is typical, we have managed to fill most of that with other commitments. Dani has to go to London for a meeting and I have booked in a Christmas shopping day with my mum. I find that this always happens. One of us will take some leave, just to give us a bit of space, and then we seem to see it as our mission to fill it up again.

I can see this decorating getting done late in the night. I think the reason that I’m so keen to get on with it is the fact that I think we could easily just stop right here and live with lots of bare plaster and filled holes forever. We had various bits in my family home, when I was growing up, that were never quite finished. Looking back, it was rather lovely – and quite typical of the happy, relaxed place that was out home – but I can’t bear to have spent all this money and not see the job through.

So, we’re busy.

The kids are pottering along with their own stuff too, of course. Leo is rather in need of a break from all the groups, I think. Whenever we are at home he is totally absorbed in comic making. He produces several a day at the moment. I can hear him now, humming away faintly as he works at the kitchen table. When Leo hums he is very content. He often hums while eating an enjoyable meal! His current crop of comics are great. He is adding a bit more commentary to make them easier to follow. They are rather in the Captain Underpants tradition – evil toilets and so on – but also very much his own.

Pearlie has packed up all her stuff for camp. It seems like just the other day that she went to summer camp. The weather looks lousy for this weekend, so I imagine they’ll be doing a lot of games in the youth hostel. She’s also enjoying playing cards. In fact, I need to go as she’s asking for a game now.

Oh, and here’s a bit of Pearlie wisdom re. the fascists speaking at the Oxford Union. She was asking us who David Irving was and Dani told her he was a man who denies the holocaust happened. She just stopped dead and looked at us in total astonishment.

“But, how can you deny the holocaust?”

Well, exactly.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Lucky people

Just watching a programme about homeless families and feeling so very, very lucky to have our home - and enough money to get these lovely improvements. I am certainly aware of the nightmare of finding affordable housing and my thoughts go out to a friend who is facing eviction in the new year. You know who you are, and I so hope things work out ok. xx.

The builders finished today. We are looking forward to Christmas in our new arrangements - though the budget might be a bit tight this year.

This is the new cooker and hob - and a work surface big enough to work on. We really wanted those pan drawers, they're Tardis like in their capacity.

We used to have a really crappy little fridge that kept things at about 10 degrees. It was balanced on top of an old freezer. Now we have this big fridge freezer, in which we can fit a weekly shop.

The washing machine used to be squashed in the corner of our living room, but now its more appropriately located in the kitchen - under another surface!

Sockets aplenty and a hanging rail. We need a few more hooks!

Meanwhile, where the old kitchen used to be is Pearlie's new en suite shower room.

We're looking forward to not getting up at the crack of dawn tomorrow! Now all there that remains is all the painting...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Silly consequences

The kids and I had a few hours at home this morning while the builders fiddled about with the washing machine – again. (Don’t ask, but they seem better than the plumber with this!) We played cards for a bit – cheat – and then I remembered how much we all enjoy story consequences. There have been some short tempers round here recently, which is mainly due to illness, lack of sleep (up late for various reasons, some better than others) and a steady stream of men called Paul who need to turn off the water, or get that floor up, or something. Story consequences is a great collaborative activity and no-one got cross with anyone else – until I had to go and talk to a builder for a minute, but that didn’t last long.

Here’s one of the best. If you don’t find it screamingly funny then there’s something wrong with you, evidently, as my children declare these stories to be hysterical. Don’t argue with me, BTW, lack of sleep does bad things to my patience levels.

Here is a story by Allie, Leo and Pearl. Each person writes two and half lines and then folds over the completed lines, passes the paper to the next person, who carries on. Leo, who writes in small capitals, seemed able to fit in more than me and P, who use a joined script. So, guess where we passed the story on? Some of us try to write a continuous story, others tend to get a bit carried away…

“Once upon a time there was a king and a queen. They lived in a castle. Knights with pet rooks guarded by a dying dog. It had two heads, everyone from far off lands came to see it. Other dogs would bow down to it. Until one day. That day two mice came to the kitchen and stole the king’s cutlery. The kind died later. “Oh, I don’t eat sweets!” snorted the boar. He went on chewing the rusty bench, with a grim, purposeful air. “If you happened to have a painkiller I’d be grateful as I have an upset pet lion. He came home today without having any time to play,” said the bishop, once they had got to his house. It was not far away. He said that some children had scared a note pad and loved the telly. They also ate cannon bear cheese with a ball of fluff. But that was a bit strange. The next week they bought back the farmer’s dog. Two fish also liked to stay down their shirts. The end.”

I have another eight stories like that and if you’re not careful I might just blog each one. BTW, cannon bear is one of my favourite cheeses – just in case anyone here is in need of Chrissie present idea for me.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The joy of picture books

Now the kids are older, one of the things I miss most keenly from their early years is the sharing of picture books. We still read to both the children most days – sharing a bedtime book together. We swap over mums, every now and then, which means that Dani and I get to enjoy the children’s different tastes in fiction. Much as I enjoy the sharing of a chapter book, it is quite different to the moments we spent with picture books in years gone by.

One of the first books that Pearl loved was a board book version of a Dr Seuss book, “Mr Brown can Moo!” This was great fun, with lots of opportunity for making funny noises. We probably got this book when Pearl was four or five months old. I can remember reading it to her when she was crawling, and it has slightly chewed edges that indicate a baby mouth at work some time. Pearl was a very active baby, but I can remember her sitting still, looking into my face as I buzzed and mooed away.

Sharing books with babies is a good exercise in humility. If the baby likes the book, you can read it through two or three times. They flap, wave and bounce their appreciation. If they aren’t interested then they just crawl, or walk, away. Sometimes I’d carry on reading and the child would come back for their favourite words or pictures. Leo liked books of rhymes, especially ones with pictures of babies in – babies faces interested him. Pictures, in general, were very important. He loved the Pienkowsky pictures in Meg and Mog books. He was also quick to spot jokes or incongruity in the pictures – noticing little details. Pearl liked that too, giggling away at all the jokes in "Hilda Hen's Happy Birthday". I guess that was when she was three.

Pearl’s first clear word was “Go!” A lot of her early words were commands rather than the usual list of nouns that many babies have. “Up dere!” (there) was an instruction to be lifted to see or reach something. One of her favourite books about this time (maybe eighteen months) was a Shirley Hughes book of opposites called “Bathwater’s Hot”. This was a book of beautiful rhyme and warm illustration. Pearl loved it when we read the following text:
“The red lights says stop and the Green light says….”
“GO!” (Supplied with gusto by our purposeful little Pearl.)

One of the best things about our neighbourhood is a strong community culture of passing things on. Our next door neighbour gave us lots of great picture books from the late 1980s. So, as well as keeping up with new picture books, like Charlie and Lola, or the Julia Donaldson books, we could enjoy some classics of the late 1980s that came our way. We inherited a whole collection of the ‘powerful princess’ genre that was fashionable in 1980s picture books – “Princess Smartypants”, “The Paperbag Princess” and “The princess and the dragon.” We also had a wonderful, and quite dated, picture book called “I’ll take you to Mrs Cole”. This felt quite transgressive in lots of ways – a boy is left alone by his mum when she works, he ventures into the house of a neighbour, he finds a messy, chaotic household of warmth and care. The pictures were beautiful. Leo, in particular, loved the contrast between the dark forbidding outside of the house and the red glow of Mrs Cole’s face. I liked it that the boy solved his own problem and that the book showed that appearances can be deceptive.

The fact that the children developed favourite books was something that I loved. They needed the comfort of the familiar text and pictures. They could relax in knowing that the story would be the same as yesterday – that the drama would be resolved. Alfie would get up on that chair and open the door, triumphant, every time. Even if the real world was unpredictable, in their favourite books there was safety.

Leo was a toddler with strong interests. He used books as a way of pursuing those interests, from a very young age. He loved frogs when he was two and it was truly amazing how many pictures of frogs he found in the pages of books. One of the frogs we loved best was Frog from the series by Max Velthuijs. These books had a very ‘un-English’ feel – and sometimes read a little strangely, perhaps because they were translated. “Frog is Frog” had a very overt message of self-acceptance.
“That’s me, thought Frog, a green frog with a stripy swimming costume.”

When I read requests by people with children of three, four or five who are looking for reading scheme recommendations, my heart sinks a little. I suppose some people do find reading schemes useful, somewhere along the way, but I think they are, by and large, a rip-off. We did have a few of the Alan Ahlberg “Red Nose Readers” knocking around. But I reckon that if you want to spend money on books for young children you should spend it on a selection of picture books. They will have been written as books, not as a selection of words of a certain level of difficulty. They will have real content and will have been written to attract a reader – not to be doled out to a child as ‘the next level’. And they will often have pictures that stay with children in a way that words may not.

I cannot, of course, really understand how my children learned to read- though there were interesting differences to observe between the two of them. That said, I credit picture books as the start of their love of reading. But, that is not the reason I’m glad that we shared those books. It wasn’t a master plan to turn them into early readers. It was an expression of love and a means of communication, even before they could talk. It was a comfort. It was a joy. If I had one moment of my life to live again before I died I think it would be reading a picture book to my two children when they were tiny.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Getting there

Can’t catch up properly as so much has happened. Here’s some highlights and lowlights, or something.

I’m a bit speedy as I’ve taken Sudafed for the last two days. I find that pseudoephedrine hydrochloride is great for keeping going when you feel rough, but it suppresses my appetite, makes me feel like I never need to sleep, and garbles my brain a bit!

Dani has had a horrible illness for the last week, and I just started to feel bad on Friday night. It is a throaty, feverish head cold.

The building work is not quite finished, but is nearly done. It is fantastic and I’m glad we’ve done it. We now have the house organised as follows:

Basement – kitchen/living room. This is the largest single space in the house and is now a cosy shared living space.
Ground floor – bathroom and Pearl’s bedroom with en suite shower room. The shower room is where our old kitchen was. The shower room is not quite finished but I think it will be very useful.
Top floor – Leo’s bedroom and the mums’bedroom. We have a top floor room with a door and everything!

Other news includes:

We spent from 11am Saturday to 2.30am Sunday moving furniture and organising rooms. Dani and I dismantled two beds and re-assembled them on different floors of the house. We have so many books! We weed regularly but they seem to breed.

We have a bed again after three weeks of camping on the kids’ floors – yeah!

I took the kids’ swimming to the local evening Family Swim and we had the pool to ourselves most of the time.

Pearl and Leo are starring in a pantomime with their Kids’ Club mates. Leo is going to be a pig and Dani has knitted him a curly tail. Pearlie has a cool part but I’m not sure if I can tell you more. We’ll blog the performance.

Pearlie has had letters from both her pen friends, which made her happy. She has had a cold too, which makes her cross!

Leo has renewed his passion for Captain Underpants. He is making comics every day and photocopying them.

Pearlie has been playing cards a lot – and is knitting something. She’s loving reading her way through the Sally Lockhart books.

Leo and I have decided to leave our weekly home ed group after Christmas. We’ve been going to that one for more than three years but its time to move on. Leo is going to add an extra session at Kids’ Club on a Wednesday. This means that I’ll get some one to one time with Leo on a Monday morning and with Pearl on a Wednesday morning.

Lots of talk and lots of bickering between the kids. It will be a relief when all the work is finished and we can get properly settled again.

Anyway, Annie Lennox is distracting me, so I’ll have to go. She’s on the TV, you understand. If she was really here I wouldn’t be blogging…

Here's some pictures of room transformations

Our back basement before the kitchen

Now it is a kitchen, with lots of surfaces.

The old kitchen. It was lovely but not big enough for a family of four.

Now it is this shiny shower room - not quite finished.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A queer notion

Being a home educator is a lot like being a lesbian.

I don’t want to offend anyone by saying this, but I have noticed several similarities over the years.

For example:
  • It's not normal.
  • Because it’s not normal, people who don’t know you think they can judge and condemn you for it
  • People who haven’t thought about it much find it impossible to imagine what you actually *do*
  • Some people’s parents and extended family find it hard to understand or accept
  • Because it’s not normal, it gives you an outsider’s perspective on the way things are usually done.
  • It shapes your life in a holistic way that is difficult to describe to people outside the relevant community

Another similarity is that there are often violent disagreements within the community about both politics and terminology. One such recent discussion on the UKHE email list is what prompted me to start thinking about this again.

Some people believe that our status as outsiders logically and inevitably puts us in a position of opposition to the existing institutions (eg marriage, school, capitalism), and that we should therefore all fight for their downfall.

Others think we should be aiming for acceptance and inclusion, and work in more respectable ways for law reform and equal rights.

Many of us are struggling along on the rocky path between these two peaks, engaging with society enough to represent our particular interests and defend the legal freedoms we have, while trying not to become corrupted and co-opted in the process.

And of course, there are many, in both communities, who do their best not to think about such things, and just get on with their lives.

For myself, I’m on the rocky path, but emotionally drawn towards the downfall-of-society side. For example, despite the conventional form of our family set-up, I’ve never supported the campaign for gay marriage, for the reasons given here. In fact, I think the example of marriage may also be instructive for home educators.

While LGBT activists have been lobbying for equal access to the institution of marriage, the rest of society has been slowly but surely abandoning and dismantling it. I think that’s good. I’m for diversity in household forms and respect for personal choices about relationships, not a single state-sanctioned family type, with everything else treated as a failure of some kind.

What puzzles me is, when is that going to happen to the institution of schooling? It’s clearly outmoded, oppressive and unfit for the purpose of enabling children to gain an education that fits them for the world we now live in. It seems to me that saying things like that in home education circles is commonplace and unremarkable, but saying it elsewhere is a bit taboo.

Do we have a particular insight because of our outsider status? Do we therefore have an obligation to share that with everyone else? How could we do that in a way that is not smug or aggressive, or that would actually have any effect?

I think it is undeniable that the world has changed for LGBT people in the last 20 years. Almost beyond recognition. Some things are as they ever were, and I wouldn’t want to pretend for a minute that there is no homophobic bullying in schools or workplaces, or that coming out is not still a hard process for many people. But there is definitely a different atmosphere in the air now. You just have to watch an episode of Doctor Who to see it!

I don’t really know how this has happened. I like to think the robust response of our community to the vile Section 28 had a part to play, but I also think that big social change is always partly a subterranean thing. It just seems to happen when we’re all looking in the other direction, and afterwards the new way of things seems as natural and solid as the old one did.

Maybe we’re on the verge of an earthquake in educational thinking, and we just can’t see it yet. Ah, well… we can but dream!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A curriculum or a dance?

The other day I had one of those, slightly awkward, conversations that most home educators will recognise. I bumped into someone I used to see quite a lot when the kids were younger – but haven’t seen for a couple of years. She asked me if we were still ‘home schooling’ and told me that she was studying for a PGCE. I told her that we were, and that we were very happy with it. When I mentioned that P had decided not to apply to any senior schools she said,
“Won’t it all get rather advanced now?”

That’s the point where the conversation got tricky. The problem, of course, is that we seem to be on a different educational planet these days. We do know, more or less, what the kids in school are doing, but it just isn’t relevant to us. Our children’s education is not a linear progression from ‘easy’ to ‘difficult’. I am frequently amazed at how it swings about – how their interests are fluid. Their ability to grasp things is also not predictable. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that if the children show stress and confusion then that is not the moment to be learning that thing. Their learning has its own timetable. When the moment is right they grasp things extremely fast.

When I wrote that we were “beachcombing for an education” – three years ago – I had no idea how true that was, and would continue to be. Both the children pick up snippets all the time. Here are three questions P asked yesterday:
“What is a heart transplant?”
“What are lorgnettes?”
“What is a dominatrix?” (!)
I think that these are the older child equivalent of “What DAT?” from a toddler. The mission is the same – the acquisition of knowledge. Every question asked, book read, web site visited, place travelled to, is part of their education. It is as ‘advanced’ as they feel like making it that day.

Pearlie might join in with a discussion on the morality of charity or the different ice creams available at the cafe. She might spend an hour or two reading all about Sally Lockhart’s Victorian adventures or Lady Grace’s sleuthing around the Tudor court – or pick up an old Mr Majeika she read when she was six. When she watches TV it might be Basil Brush but she’s also keen on Have I Got News for You. That’s what I do too – sometimes I challenge myself and sometimes I enjoy the comfort of something familiar. She’s also out a lot – working on collaborative things with friends, or playing and chatting. She’s much too busy to be ploughing through someone else’s curriculum. And that is why I don’t worry that she is getting older and we won’t ‘manage’. If P wants to know about something then she’ll find out – that’s what she does. That’s what we all do.

I suspect that the person I was speaking to the other day was anxious that there would be gaps if we allowed the children to define their own education. Other people have said this to me. What if we “leave something out”, something “vital” or “important”?

So, I was pondering all this as I walked around a single floor of the library where I work. I was thinking about curricula. And the library laughed at me. Every aisle just seemed to let out a guffaw. The internet is vast, as we all know, but on your screen at any time is just a screen’s worth of information. We tend to keep to our own, well trodden, paths in cyberspace. We forget the vastness of human knowledge. But on just those shelves of a small university library was more information than you could assimilate in years of reading. It was a great warm hug of mirth. How can anyone worry that there are gaps in an education? Of course there are gaps. Any education is simply a path, or perhaps a dance, through all there is to know.

A library holds out its hand and says,
“Come and have a dance with me.”

That’s what we do each day. The dance evolves as the children grow up. There are new steps. There is a moment of being swept into the arms of an author, spinning in their reality. There is an intricate slow foxtrot with a complex idea. There is a raucous family barn dance of argument. There is a slow rumba, held close to something familiar. There is just rocking, drifting in thoughts to the music inside. That’s what our learning consists of. All of us. There is no way I can, or want to, remove the children and present them with a sheet – every footfall marked out for them. There is no need.

That is what I will try to remember when I find myself burbling into the blank face of someone who asks about the ‘home schooling’. When they ask about education, curriculum, goals, targets, essential knowledge, keeping up, and all the rest. I think what I might say next time is,
“Oh, we just dance.”

They’ll think I’m mad – but they probably think I am anyway.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Back online for a sec

I needed to check the opening hours of the library, so that I could print out the credit card statement that hasn’t come yet, so we can take P’s new boots back to the shop because they have both developed holes in the soles, after less than 3 weeks!

Anyway, the house work is going splendidly. Our new kitchen is lovely – before, after and during pics to follow.

Yesterday we had builders, a plumber, an electrician, two plasterers and a tiler all working in the house at the same time. We went out.

Off the top of my head, some of the things we’ve been doing lately are:

  • Going to work
  • Extra sessions at Kids Club, because there’s an end of term panto being rehearsed
  • A workshop at Kids Club with the brilliant Richard Robinson of Brighton Science Festival – they made propellers out of straws and towers of spaghetti and marshmallows
  • A visit to Allie’s dad and his wife – lovely as always
  • Shopping for house things
  • Putting things in boxes and taking things out of boxes
  • Giving away stuff on Freecycle, and by putting it outside the door – very satisfying, but we still seem to have an enormous amount of stuff

Normal service will be resumed in about a week.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Learning all the time

A lovely little film made by some home educators in South Wales. Enjoy

They would welcome feedback, over at

Friday, November 09, 2007

Quick update from the makeover house

All still mad here! Things are going ok. Trouble with old houses is that once you start looking at things you tend to find more things that need doing. So far these have been:

The discovery of a wormy old floorboard that has led to us deciding on a plywood floor in the small shower room we're putting in. Joists were all sound - thank god!

The need for various improvements to the electrics in the house. We nned a proper earth bond (congratulations if you know what that is!) and is about time we got a proper fuse board with trip switches too.

We asked the builder to have a look at what could be causing damp upstairs. (We have damp in the basement that is just caused by solid walls and condensation and so on and is requiring some creative wiring to avoid the damp back wall. The boxes behind the plugs embedded in that back wall were completely corroded by damp - erk!) Anyway, the upstairs damp was being caused by cracked rendering on the front of the house. Builder has filled a crack but told us that most of the rendering on the front of the house has blown and we'll need to start saving to get it re-rendered next year!

Apart from all this, the new kitchen is looking good. For the last couple of days we've had our cooker on one floorand the rest of the kitchen on another - which makes for interesting cooking experiences. I've been too chicken but Dani managed to cook pasta and home made sauce.

Got to go, as P has asked me to find her a list of hard spellings. Both kids were able to do nearly all of a list in a KS3 book we were just looking in.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Builders are here

All is a bit mad here. Any moment spent doing anything other than sorting/boxing/clearing is pretty much impossible. The builders have blocked off a door and built a very fine set of doors for our understairs cupboard. I bought a fridge freezer and arranged for it to be delivered when the new kitchen units etc. should be built. I hope that works.

I realised, with some horror, that we couldn't freecycle the cooker when it was so much in need of a clean. So, this evening, I spent an hour or two attacking it with the steam cleaner. So, we had takeaway pizza. The takeaway have started putting cheese on the garlic bread so Pearlie didn't really like it - and that is the only bit of a takeaway pizza meal that she really eats. So, she's gone swimming without a proper meal and I'm feeling like a rather rubbish mum.

On the plus side, Pearlie wrote some more of a long story she's working on and Leo made some pretend newspapers. Oh, and Pearlie had a large slab of choc cake at the park cafe today, so that's some sustenance. Leo had egg mayonnaise sandwiches. Thank goodness for our saviour at the park cafe. I can remember feeding Pearlie from there often when Leo was a baby and things were demanding.

We're all tired from getting up and dressed by 8pm, ready for the arrival of the builders. Tomorrow involves the ripping up of floors to lay gas piping, and the delivery of the kitchen units. I'm planning to take the kids to buy more boxes (plastic crates with lids) as we don't seem able to get enough...

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Whizz bang!

We’ve just got back from a firework party round at the grandmothers’ place. It was great. The kids and their cousins all played ‘welding’, like last year. This involves holding sparklers against a manhole cover!

Dani and I have been working hard to clear the important bits of our house for the builders to start on Monday. I have to get back to that in a minute.

Just wanted to mention a fab book that P and I have just finished as our bedtime book. It was A Free Man on Sunday, and was a fictionalised account of the mass trespass on Kinder Scout. P was particularly pleased to find that this admirable event occurred on April 24th – her birthday – albeit sixty five years before she was born!

Friday, November 02, 2007

Reading and control freakery

I watched this tv thing last week all about a primary school that was implementing a mixed-age synthetic phonics programme. It got me thinking again about the learning to read question. (Have a look at Deb’s interesting post on this.)

I know quite a few kids of seven, eight, nine and older who don’t read yet – or who don’t read much. These are home ed kids. I also know several home ed kids who have learned to read, quickly and efficiently, with no tears, at around these ages – or older. Yet, in the school system it is clearly a problem if you’re not reading by seven or so. This is mainly because of the high pupil/teacher ratio in school – which means that a lot of the teaching is delivered in the form of writing. But, I also think that it is because the system has a plan that the children will all read, more or less, by the end of KS1 – at seven. As we all know, in a big structure you generally have to ignore things that haven’t gone according to plan and carry on as if everything is fine! This means that the kids who can’t read just have to manage somehow. I had always known that this was so, but it was still a shock to see these poor kids of Pearlie and Leo’s ages, who spent a large chunk of their week being frustrated and bored. There was all this information presented to them, that they just couldn’t access. What on earth is the point of putting kids in that position?

Though the synthetic phonics system set my teeth on edge a bit (so BORING!) I could see that it was the best option for kids who must learn to read, right now, or be bored in every lesson. It seemed that all it took was for the school to decide that it would stop ignoring the kids who couldn’t read – and carry on teaching them until they could. The sheer relief on the faces of kids who had been ‘failing’ to read for several years, was clear. But, what a shame that they had to be put through that ordeal, of feeling like a failure for several years of their young lives.

It seems to me that the best way to manage a mixed group of readers and non-readers, is to have many more adults around who can make sure that the non-readers can join in – and culture of co-operation. This is what happens at Pearlie and Leo’s kids’ club group. People who can’t read just get read to by someone who can. It isn’t really rocket science, is it?

If everyone could access the experiences on offer, then maybe the system could relax a bit more about exactly when people learned to read. Like walking, talking or being reliable with toilet use – children vary massively in the ages at which they will be able to read. And some people will never learn – and that shouldn’t be the end of the world either, should it? We are amazingly inventive creatures – we can get round most things if we are given the freedom to do so.

In the end, I came away from the programme thinking (again!) how controlling the whole system is. The government wants to be God, I reckon. They set up all these plans and schemes with no humility. They perceive the people involved as pawns, or little machines maybe – put X in and get Y out. And, in the education system, they ruin so much that way – take the fun and joy out – and kill it.

A while ago, I was talking to a lovely little boy of my acquaintance. He was five at the time – and had just finished a day school in a reception class.
“Hey, P, what’d you do at school today?”
“Cemetery!” Glum face, pouty lips.
“Cemetery? Didn’t you like it?” (Allie tries to imagine what they could have been doing about cemeteries…)
“No, it was borin’ – cemetery.”
“Oh, symmetry? Was it symmetry, P?”
“Yeah, cemetery – yuk!”

What on earth could they have been doing at school, with a five year old, to make symmetry so unappealing? My experiences helping out in P’s reception classroom led me to suspect that the problem was just pressure to understand symmetry as a concept. Even very little children learn to cover their confusion with bluster (such is the shame in our culture when we don’t understand) and declare that they “don’t like” things and they are “boring”. I think that most of that is about pressure to ‘get’ things when we’re just not ready. Back off - make butterfly paintings, put up some posters of symmetry in nature, let the children draw, let adults talk around them. One day they’ll just declare something to be symmetrical. Maybe then they’ll want to learn more about the whole business.

I suspect that we make all the same mistakes with teaching reading. We are so stressed about it. Instead of making sure that all the children have had hours and hours of stories, exposing them to adults who use the written word, letting them see that this reading business is a part of life, we dive in with the structure first. Many of them are boggled, exhausted by the effort to understand, and lacking any real motivation to try.

When I saw those kids who didn’t like reading, who slumped and shifted their eyes and hung their heads, I felt angry that we do that to children. I reckon its robbery – we (adults) steal something from them. Yes, we can ‘fix’ it with a structured programme – but I wonder if that’s not just a solution we have to come up with, to a problem we’ve made in the first place?