Tuesday, 26 January 2016

There's no "I" in "Team"

Finally I have found a spare moment to jot down the endless sea of words in my head- it's been a busy few months and writing has had to take a back seat. However despite little slowing down of the rollercoaster of life, sanity preservation has now kicked in and claimed "shotgun" position, asserting itself to gain my attention as only a teenager on a mission to get "one up" over his older brother can do.

It will hardly have eluded any parent of a school age child today that group work has been elevated to an alarmingly superior place in the curriculum. Initially a buzzword(s) in the business world to encourage team work amongst disparate members focussed on a single goal,  "working together" has infiltrated education and our schools. The need to achieve a joint outcome, share experiences and "work together" may seem entirely admirable, but it is letting down large groups of individuals in the process. 

I believe the intentions of educators are good, the natural Darwinian tendency of young humans to self-focus does indeed need taming and children must learn to share, take turns and collaborate. But when "working together" means relying on the loudest/most confident/most able group member to complete the work then few are benefitting. I have lost count of the number of times my eldest has taken the lion's share of a "group project", whilst lazier individuals contribute little. Unwilling to forfeit the high mark he could obtain as an individual he shoulders the burden of the entire project. Similarly, my daughter often comes home to tell me she's not sure what the work they covered in Maths today was all about, "but it's all right as our group finished, I didn't have to do anything."

Then there are the other two boys, one possibly on the spectrum and one very definitely there. Both hugely able and utterly mystified why they cannot complete work alone- after all, they would make a significantly better job of it. A was distraught that in Art, a hugely individual subject he is passionate about he was forced to collaborate. In H's high school this is misinterpreted as arrogance, when in actual fact it's the truth. He could do a significantly better job on his own. Why on *earth* should he sit there bored rigid discussing maths three levels below his own? Unless it's so he can teach the others this is absurd and he gains nothing. Apart from the blindingly obvious point that those with Autism work better alone (since the diagnosis involves developmental delays in communication and social interaction) unless all members of a group stand to benefit from collaboration it is pointless exercise.

I never enjoyed group work, although I benefitted from limited collaborative efforts. Group work has its place, but currently it has been artificially elevated out of it. Working together can be derived from multiple sources, such as sports teams, drama or choir groups. Of course, its natural place on the sports field has been largely beaten out of existence with the artificial suppression of competition. (Perhaps that's the understated intention of heralding group interaction in the classroom as the ideal modus operandi?) But there is little need to ram group work into every subject on the curriculum.

There is indeed no "I" in team. Team work invariably stifles the individual and for many it is an exercise in descrimination- however well intentioned. It reduces linear progress and permits some to overly rely on others. The most able almost never stand to gain and it is yet another example of our education system focussing on the less able at the expense of others. It should never be used as a blunt instrument- a check box for every subject that needs ticking to gain OFSTED credit, and recognition should be given that it has limited use.

So to the (several) teachers who wrote on H's report that he finds group work challenging, can be obstructive and reluctant- I'm not surprised. Working together is of occasional benefit and should always take the individual needs of all members of the group into consideration. Judging a child with ASD by a "one size fits all" theory of collaboration is inappropriate and discriminatory. 

There is no "I" in any team, and there's no "you" either. But there are three in "Individual". And he's definitely that. Unique, entertaining, exhausting, inspiring, and a real individual... 

Monday, 16 November 2015

Facing Facts - Name your Nemesis

The events in Paris on Friday 13th have precipitated a great deal of thought, comment and consideration across the internet.

The excusers are out in force, confusing the obvious truth that no one wants war, or death or killing, with the need to excuse terrorists, blame ourselves or just quite simply rearrange the facts to suit an ostrich mentality which prefers to live in a happy bubble - or a self-deprecating one at least.

Image courtesy of Melbourne Streets Avant-garde via Flickr
Why do we DO that? Why are a subset of British people (in particular) some of the world's best at self-effacement? Why do we deny every ounce of national pride, and drown our self respect in shame? Shame for what? For a history that is not purely glorious? Can any nation boast such a past? Surely recognition of past wrongs, past less-than-ideal choices is precisely what can make a country great?

A country with a conscience has two choices. Sit and watch on the sidelines, opting out of the present, or capitalise on that conscience to improve the future for all.

Right now, too many people are choosing the former option. The group calling themselves Islamic State have claimed responsibility for the horrific attacks in Paris. These are religious extremists for whom dying for their cause is the ultimate goal. These are not moderate Muslims, whom are as disgusted, appalled and distanced from this extreme version of Islam as the rest of us. An excellent article in The Atlantic magazine today pointed out that this group is religious, extremely so, with a warped version of Islam that has no place in modern society. It is vital we recognise and address this, or we have no hope of ending the terror. With Armageddon as their end game, diplomatic talks are just not going to cut it...

Monday, 14 September 2015

Action not Sympathy

Syria has been in the news for so long that many people have stopped listening. The unfolding media story about the current refugee crisis has appeared almost as if by magic - the underlying causes distant and poorly understood because they don't make headlines. But understanding the causes is always important because that is the key to improving the future. Increased objectivity requires subjectivity - not snapshots of current events divorced from their past.

The civil war in Syrian appeared to many to be part of the so called "Arab Spring", a wave of cries for independence from those subject to authoritarian rule in the Middle East. However, as this cartoon succinctly explains, the biggest underlying cause of the Syrian War was in fact, Climate Change. The exodus from the rural areas of Syria when crops failed during the worst drought in the region on record destabilised urban areas - and what might have been a simmering dissatisfaction exploded.

Syria should be a lesson for us all.

The current, tragic refugee situation is also in no small part due to our intervention in Iraq under Labour which destabilised the Middle East and precipitated the "Arab Spring". The West then misguidedly, largely under public pressure, supported and funded the opposition to Assad in Syria. That initial opposition was in no small part what we today know as ISIS.

For all these reasons international responsibility should be accepted and consensus sought to respond to the situation. All agree crisis management is not enough, a coherent long-term policy is needed to deal with the problem at source. That would need renewed international efforts to sort out the civil war in Syria and destroy IS, yet neither is likely to happen any time soon. We can't even get past the initial emotional response, let alone begin to tease apart the facts. The public got it wrong before - and should bear a large chunk of responsibility for the current strength of ISIS and Russian support for Assad, people should think carefully about an over-reaction to a heart-wrenching situation. The power of social media and our thirst for a "quick fix" of news perpetuates knee-jerk responses to events. We must not lose sight of the bigger picture though and engage our brains as well as our hearts before responding. Even worse, viewing events elsewhere through the spectacles of our own lives distorts reality further.

"Most Syrians want to stay in their country or close by. Instead of the siren calls luring them across the sea to an uncertain fate, they need our practical help on the ground to give them food, shelter and the strength, one day, to take their homeland back." 

True. We should never forget the appalling reality that is life for many, in a war-torn country struggling to survive and leave fellow human beings to "get on with it". The video below has a powerful message. 

This isn't new, and I've seen it before, which is perhaps even sadder since the war in Syria is now so old. But the...

Images like this video and the photo below matter, because we live in a global environment, where ignoring events on the other side of the planet no longer buys you peaceful and ignorant isolationism. We can't pick and choose which parts of the world take our interest, we have a responsibility to consider the whole which in turn impacts on every one of us. But images that focus on individuals are only part of the story. No conflict is ever won by identifying with the individual  - and the same is true of international crises.

Courtesy of Bengin Ahmad

The media's current obsession with a "refugee crisis" - which is very real and affecting many people in different areas of the Middle East and Africa - neglects the migrant crisis and the longer term impact of the "Arab Spring". In fact most of those people you see on TV are not asylum seekers, but migrants who are opportunistically seeking to enter a more affluent country at a time when national borders are struggling to cope. Many have even held jobs for several years in countries they have already claimed asylum. Today the BBC began to acknowledge this. Confusing refugees with migrants has also precipitated an hysterical response from many including celebrities engaged in an unpleasant "caring one-upmanship" because a boy died tragically crossing from Turkey. But that's just a tiny part of the real situation.

The real people suffering are those in the refugee camps, who have yet to claim asylum, whom the World Food Programme and UNICEF are trying to support. Those people whose funding has been cut by all governments except the UK as they struggle to finance the mass migration of those who have already successfully claimed asylum, but who seek to move further to better themselves.

Whilst that's highly understandable no one mentions that according to the Dublin Agreement refugees must claim asylum in the first country they reach and cannot make multiple claims. That some fellow muslim nations nearby are doing nothing and Saudi Arabia has tens of thousands of air conditioned tents on their border close to Syria. That many people on the boats are seizing the opportunity when they have been several years in Turkey, with jobs and homes there. That those taking vast sums to smuggle these migrants are bankrolling ISIS who are also using the current crisis to get fighters across into Europe. And that the boy who tragically died was not even a refugee. He had a home in Turkey for 3 years and his mother wanted to stay. His father wanted to join family in Canada but lacked legal means to do so.

Last week I said that Europe wouldn't maintain its open borders and already many countries are closing theirs. There is little support for free migration in any country in the world, and most leaders recognise that their first duty is to the people whom they represent. Increasing a population by even 1% overnight has an enormous long term impact on resources and prosperity, can threaten national security, national health and well being. We should be helping the refugees, those rendered stateless due to conflict in Syria, but evacuating vast numbers in an uncontrolled way is sure to precipitate dangerous tensions across Europe and leaves a vacuum in the Middle East which will destabilise the situation further.

Short-termism has become endemic in world (as well as domestic) politics, but we must take our heads out of the proverbial sand and look beyond the here and now or the future will take us by surprise once again.

Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Round we go again....

This is H, aged 5, at his sports day many years ago. He's looking confused, and not a little distressed. You see he'd just run the 50m running "race" and won by a mile. Fastest boy in his year group. The day is forever etched into my memory - but not because of this great achievement. Let's face it this was in Reception, when at least half the year can barely coordinate themselves sufficiently to hurtle down the track let alone understand the point of it all.  No, the reason I will never forget the day was because of the comment made by the teacher running the event.

"Round you go again!" she said.

You see, his school didn't believe in competitive sports. Ever. "Everyone's a Winner" was the school's motto, and very commendable it sounded - if a little overly politically correct. But to put this ethos into context you should know that this little boy had never, ever been a "winner" in his life.

Non verbal until well past the age of three, he found school impossible to comprehend. He spent most of Reception under the table, a convenient place from which to lob heavy books at any passing teacher! With 46 fixed term exclusions to his name by the age of six school was not somewhere he shone. Rather he endured, they crisis managed and I cried. A lot.

So when my little Cygnet (as his class was known) raced down that track, completely engaged and utterly focussed on that finish line, I could have cheerfully strangled the insensitive, dismissive voice that expected him to keep re-running the absurd "race" until it was time to move on to the next activity.


There is a reason children participate in a huge variety of activities in school, beyond the academic, and it isn't just to give the teachers a break. Children learn in a huge variety of ways, and learning is never solely about reading and writing. Emotional and social education is a fundamental part of any child's education, and many children - particularly younger ones, gain most social and emotional learning from activities outside the classroom, in addition to the holistic environment they are in. My child had, at that moment, made an enormous breakthrough. He had been engaged in a group activity, focussed on a delayed result which required immediate engagement and participation, and appreciated the potential reward of any effort he made.

Which was swiftly taken away from him with that single sentence.

Unsurprisingly, the children who excel in the classroom are rarely those who are equally talented at sport. Or music, or art. All children are individuals with gifts, talents, difficulties and challenges as diverse as their faces. So denying children the opportunity to redress any imbalance within the classroom by removing competition outside, is misguided and potentially damaging.

So why am I telling you this now?

You may well ask. Two reasons really. H is nearly 14 and we've seen a complete turnaround over the years. Still hugely challenging at times, he now excels in the classroom, whilst the athletics track brings more of a challenge. Due to poor management of joint hypermobility and a huge delay in obtaining appropriate support he not only has completely flat feet but also something known as external tibial torsion. Basically his legs curve outwards below the knee, offsetting his entire skeleton and he simply cannot run fast anymore. Indeed, before he started wearing day splints, night splints and summer in casts to stretch his calf muscles last year, he could barely run at all.

The second reason for remembering this event is that we do seem to be "going round again" with the twins. Unable to play much sport because of health issues my youngest son is a gifted chorister. But no amount of persuasion could prompt his school to permit him to shine. Their obsession with group work and "equal opportunity" blinded them to his lack of opportunity in other areas. His singing gives him confidence and since joining our local church choir he is a different child.

Similarly, his twin is incredibly good at art. Whilst that might seem rather boastful, I can honestly tell you that she's really not much good at team games, struggles with Maths and finds friendships quite a challenge at times. Art is her "thing". But try convincing anyone that's it's ok to excel publicly and gain opportunities to work outside of a group and it's as if you've suddenly grown a second head.

H himself summed it up best after his enthusiastic and commendable participation in his High School Sports Day in July this year. He tried so hard and wasn't last but was quite thoughtful after. He hadn't forgotten that day eight years ago either.

"I was fast once, wasn't I Mummy? When it didn't count."

Except it did. It counted HUGELY for me. I observed and recognised every little achievement in those 50m and will never, ever forget that day. It's made me want to celebrate all goals reached, to recognise all my children's talents and appreciate where they are NOW, and let them feel good about themselves.  Because none of us are equal - and difference isn't a bad thing. That child winning the race may well be fighting battles you have no comprehension of - and deserves to be a winner, to come first. It might be the only time they do.

  Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com

Thursday, 30 July 2015

A Lion Named Cecil

The internet is buzzing to the hashtag #CeciltheLion, so the topic barely needs an introduction. Butchered by American dentist Walter Palmer, a father of two from Minnesota. the story is abhorrent and distressing, but also profoundly informative on our views on humanity and man's place within the animal kingdom.

The world wide web has galvanised itself as judge and jury and I suspect despite his apology Walter Palmer's days as a dentist are over. According to The Mail he has lied about the location of a bear he hunted and killed in the past, and further allegations continue to surface. He has apologised - but his apology further highlights the bizarre way we categorise animals in our attempt to understand our place in the world. Palmer said he didn't realise that the lion had a name or that he was breaking the law by killing an animal that had been coaxed away from the game reserve it lived on.

It's this response that has had such a profound impact on me.

What is it about a wild animal with a name?

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Survival - top tips for getting through to September!

The summer holidays. Those nine weeks that loom large after the Christmas frenzy dies down. And yes, I did say nine, although I guess if you want to be pedantic it's a couple of days under nine .... but seriously, who is splitting hairs here? It's week four and they have all gone to bed early after yet another fight and it could just as well be week one given the scary amount of time yet to go!

Don't get me wrong, I love my kids. And I would love to spend quality time with them over the summer. And we do achieve it at times. I just wish they liked each other - at least a little bit!

I did have a plan. Sort of. It's not as if you bury your head in the sand and pretend two months a year don't happen, they loom large once Easter is over and necessitate a Category 5 level of planning. But the Great British Weather hasn't helped and I'm stuck!

I remember my first summer holiday as a mum. Thrilled to have a full two months to spend with my (then eight month old) little boy every single day was savoured. Having returned to work when he was a mere twelve weeks old (the archaic maternity law then stated that 14 weeks was my maximum time off - although my employer would have gladly let me go indefinitely for daring to fall pregnant in my first year of work!) any time off was incredibly valuable. The easiest of my four children by several miles (and some) we had a truly epic summer. Travelling to stay with friends, days out, quiet days at home, trips together - it was a really special two months and perhaps set the bar a little too high. Because let's face it, the reality for most of us is that the key word for the school summer holidays isn't so much excitement as SURVIVAL.

So for those equally trapped, struggling to create some precious memories out of a quagmire of frustration, here are some top tips!

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Why the best is no longer good enough

There have been a few interesting articles on education in social media of late. Four year olds saddled with striving for targets at school which nearly half of them fail to meet, the depressing news that we have permitted primary education to get into a "terrible mess", that homework damages our kids and that our teenagers are more stressed than ever before, many suffering mental health problems as a direct result of being put under far too much pressure.

Superficially they might seem to carry the same message - and they do, but it's not the one you might think.

Sadly the underlying problem here, that virtually all parents are complicit in, is the nurturing of excessively high expectations. The modern trend to quantify, assess, regulate and scrutinise is highly commendable in many respects, but we have lost our privacy, spontaneity, professionalism, confidence and resilience in the process. It goes without saying that there is no privacy in today's world. But the insidious consequence of looking too hard and knowing too much is a vortex of expectation escalation. "Can do better" is expected, because surely everyone can always improve? But if improvement is always possible, what is preventing the best being achieved? Thus the tinkering of the system persists, because there must be a way to do better, something much surely be "wrong"? But this perfection aspiration is killing our schools and stifling our children. Sometimes, the best is just not enough. 

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