My thoughts on Chilcot and Blair

Thirteen years ago I went on my first and my last protest march. Up until then I had been content to watch events unfold from the safety of my couch but this, this was different. My adopted country was going to wage a pre-emptive war on a fellow Arab nation. While I had no love for the tyrant Saddam Hussein, it was obvious to me that he posed no serious threat to the security of the British people. It was equally obvious that many innocent Iraqi civilians were going to be caught in the crossfire. Their lives were too precious to be sacrificed on the altar of some nebulous greater good.

My sister and I on the "Stop the War" march
My sister and I on the “Stop the War” march

And so I marched. Thousands of others joined me that day on the “Stop the War” march. Our numbers were so great that I hoped politicians in Westminster would sit up and take notice. They didn’t. The war went ahead and it was more destructive and more bloodthirsty than even I had feared. The infrastructure of an entire nation was torn apart. People who once lived secure lives under a cruel dictator now lived in fear of their lives thanks to their benevolent rescuers. This is something that people in the West have long misunderstood. Such were the tales they heard of Saddam Hussein’s viciousness that they imagined a people living downtrodden, miserable lives. Surely then it was right to free them from the evil dictator and bestow on them that wonderful elixir called democracy.

As the daughter of a marriage between a Syrian and a Saudi Arabian, I know what life under dictators looks like. There is no freedom to express political views or to vote to change the leadership of your country. Corruption is rife and people in the high echelons of power can get away with murder, literally. But if you keep your head down under the radar, you can live secure and prosperous lives. Go to school, to university, to work. Enjoy wedding celebrations or dine out at a restaurant of your choice. Invite family or friends to dinner or go shopping for the latest fashions in the local mall. Such were the lives led by many ordinary Iraqis before the war. No doubt it would have been preferable to live in a free and democratic society under the rule of law but was the situation bad enough to justify the destructiveness of war?

Of course, we were told it was not just about getting rid of a cruel dictator and bringing democracy to the people of Iraq. There were those weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that could be mobilised within 45 minutes. There was the increased threat to the West from terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks – although no evidence that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with AlQaeda.

We know now that there were no WMD. Iraq today is a fractured country riddled with sectarian violence. And after seven long years in the making, we now have the Chilcot report into this sad episode in our history. So what have we learned? Well among many other things, we now know that:

  • The UK chose to invade Iraq before peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted
  • The judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s WMDs were presented with a certainty that was not justified.
  • Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated and the planning for post-Saddam Iraq was inadequate.
  • The Americans were going to invade Iraq no matter what. The UK was powerless to stop them and had to decide whether to join them in this endeavour or to risk the special relationship by insisting on continuing with diplomacy and UN inspections.

I watched Tony Blair’s press conference today, in which he responded to the contents of the Chilcot report. It has been widely reported that he seemed a broken man as he apologised for mistakes made and took responsibility for them. What struck me, however, was his refusal to admit that the decision to go to war had been wrong in the first place. Indeed, he used the example of Syria to demonstrate the dangers of inaction. How much worse would the Arab spring have been with Saddam still in power? I found this unconvincing. One could equally argue that, had there been no Iraq invasion, there might have been more appetite for military action in Syria and that this might have taken the shape of a no-fly zone rather than all out regime change.

We’ll never know what the geopolitical situation in the Middle East would have been today had there been no invasion  of Iraq. What we do know is that thousands of people died in this conflict: civilians, British, American and Iraqi soldiers. Perhaps the most important lesson that needs to be learned by our politicians is this: human life is precious. Do not embark on war lightly, without thought for the consequences, and do not treat the lives of ordinary people as pawns in a game of politics.

School tests should be welcomed, not reviled

It’s May and school tests are in full swing all around me. I work as an assistant in a year 3 class at a London prep school and we are quite familiar with testing. Every week there are spelling, mental arithmetic and problem solving tests. This week is a little different however. In addition to the usual tests, the children have done assessment papers in maths and in creative writing. All these tests and assessments are used to check how well the children are learning and to spot any areas of weakness that can be improved. This is a great help to the teachers in writing their end of year reports for each child.

Although the class size is comparatively small and the teacher has gotten to know his pupils very well, tests are still necessary to get a more detailed picture of how much each child has learned. Despite knowing the children really well, the class teacher still gets a surprise or two when marking the tests. “Robert”, the boy who clowns around in class to hide his academic insecurities, has done surprisingly well in quite a difficult test. Confident and cocky “Percy” who usually sails through all his tests has found this particular one quite challenging.

Yesterday I was asked by the class teacher to pore through the test data for one particular pupil and to make a note of all the tests where that child scored below a certain mark, and then to list the topics of each of these tests in order to try to identify any pattern. With this information, the teacher hopes to get a better understanding of where the child is struggling and to be able to devise appropriate strategies for him.

Without all this test data the teacher would have to rely mainly on his own observation of the children in class, an imperfect way of assessing how much they are learning. Even with the best intentions in the world, teachers can fall into the trap of bias. It is human nature to make mental judgements about people and all subsequent assessment can easily fall prey to the influence of these initial judgements. This article by Daisy Christodolou explains teacher bias very well. Interestingly, it is children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are most likely to be affected negatively by it.

My year 3 class is not alone in getting tested this week. Throughout the country, year 2 and year 6 children are doing their SATs tests. There has been an outcry against these tests in certain quarters, with some parents going as far as stopping their children from going to school in a protest “strike”. My son is in year 2 and he too will be sitting SATs tests next week at his school. I initially had misgivings about the tests. Now I welcome them and here’s why.

My son is a bright boy and doing well at school. His teachers are satisfied that he is achieving what he needs to for his age and are not, in my observation, particularly motivated to stretch him any further. I suspect he could be doing a lot better. Out of curiosity, last week I downloaded sample SATs papers and sat him down at home to do them. He scored to level 2a (the top end of what is expected for his age) but struggled a bit in the level 3 paper. We went through this paper together and I made a note of the main areas of difficulty.

Every day for the past week, we have practised together for no more than 20 minutes some of the level 3 types of questions. Yesterday, my son made my day when he exclaimed: “I really enjoy these maths questions now!”. He has noticed that he finds maths a lot easier now and I no longer hear him say he is rubbish at it. In the space of one week, he has improved noticeably. I will give him another level 3 paper at the weekend and I suspect that this time, he will find himself much more capable of doing it. We have achieved all this progress in the space of one week because of a test. This supposedly stressful test has boosted my son’s confidence. It allowed us to identify his areas of difficulty and to target them successfully.

If this kind of improvement can be achieved with other pupils at the national level through testing, then we should be welcoming SATs tests, not reviling them. In fact, I would go further and say there should be more frequent testing in schools. It should become a normal, common thing to do. The more often children have tests, the more familiar they become with the process and the less likely they are to be stressed by them. A one-off big test can loom high in some sensitive children’s minds but a low threat, high challenge set of regular tests would be a less scary proposition. There is a further advantage to testing. Research has shown that tests are a better way of retaining knowledge than studying. By giving regular tests, we can help ensure that whatever the children learn gets remembered and not forgotten. Win win all round.

The dangers of signing things on your doorstep

Yesterday on a whim I decided to Google my name, Mayan Wakeford, to see what would show up in the results. Here’s what I found.

The top result was a link to the various videos I have uploaded on YouTube over the past few years. These are mainly videos of my son that I have wanted to share with family or videos of my son’s trains which he likes to film. There’s also a sweet little clip of him singing Boney M’s “Brown girl in the ring” which I had totally forgotten about.

Then there’s links to my Twitter page and my Linked in profile (which must be very out of date as I have not looked at it in years). The rest of the first page of results gives links to various sites that provide information on company directorships. I have been a director of two companies in the past and so it is not surprising that my name comes up in relation to these on a web search.

So far so good. I then clicked to see the second page of results. To my surprise, I saw my name on a PDF document on the Lambeth council website. What could this be? I clicked to open it and saw that it was a list of the candidates for the last local council elections, together with the names of “proposer, seconder and assenters”. To my shock, I found my name listed as the “assenter” of the Ukip candidate. Impossible! How could this be?

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I thought back and remembered answering the doorbell one day to an Afro-Caribbean man who said he wanted to put his name forward as a candidate for the local council elections and that he needed to get a certain number of signatures from local residents in order to get his name on the ballot paper. He sounded very humble and sincere. I remember asking him what kind of policies he would put forward as a candidate and what he stood for. I don’t recall exactly what he said in response but it all sounded very worthy and commendable. No mention of immigration, no mention of the EU, and certainly no mention of Ukip. It would have been churlish to have refused his request so I signed and wished him luck, then I promptly forgot about the matter until yesterday. One of my neighbours was similarly conned as I saw her name on the list of “assenters” too.

And so now I have my name officially on record as a Ukip supporter. Anyone who knows me knows just how far from Ukip my political views are. I am, after all, an immigrant to this country. My worry is that potential future employers might do a quick Google search on me and find this incriminating document. What to do?

Should I write to Lambeth council to complain about this and ask for my name to be removed? I doubt if it is possible to change public records after the fact. Someone suggested I should contact Google and ask them to remove the link. Again, I am not sure that Google would remove a link to a bona fide public record published by a government body.

My solution to the problem is to write this blog in the hope that it will show up first in any Google search of my name and act as a rebuttal. May this also act as a warning to all of you not to sign any documents from strangers on your doorstep!

 

It’s not so bad but there’s still lots to do

In January this year, I decided I wanted to get into teaching. The first step in becoming a teacher is gaining relevant experience in schools. With this in mind, I started volunteering in a secondary academy in London at the start of February. I also visited two other schools for a day of observation, as well as volunteered with the charity IntoUniversity, one evening a week, helping secondary school children with their homework.

It’s fair to say I have learned a lot in the last two months. What has struck me though is the utter disparity between what I have observed in the schools I have been to, and what I read in the newspapers (ok, in the Guardian) about the dire state of education in this country. First of all, a disclaimer. I know that having visited three secondary schools in London does not qualify me to make a judgement on the overall picture of education in the country. All I am doing is sharing my experience in schools so far and noting that it does not seem to bear any relation to what is described in some of the “our education system is in crisis” articles I read in the Guardian (particularly in the secret teacher column).

So what are my impressions so far?

Academies versus local authority run schools

Two of the schools I have volunteered at are academies and one of them is a comprehensive run by its local authority. The comprehensive school seems to me to have a more traditional ethos, a more established feel to it whereas both of the academies, different as they are, seem to be in the process of establishing their culture and defining who and what they are. That’s not to say though that one is any worse than the other. A common thread in all three schools is the dedicated teachers I saw working with the core purpose of improving the minds of their students. I have heard lots of claims in recent days about academies being cynical market driven institutions – the labour leader has gone as far as to claim that academisation is asset stripping the education system –  but what I have seen of academies bears no relation to that.

I’m not sure forcing well performing schools into becoming academies is a particularly good idea and the whole government policy smacks of dogmatic fervour. By the same token I don’t feel that converting schools to academies is going to cause as much doom as some people are claiming.

The teaching profession in crisis

The story goes like this. Teachers are overworked, underpaid and leaving the profession in droves. What I have observed goes like this. Teachers are very busy and work long hours. The more experienced teachers tend to be able to organise their time effectively so that they don’t have to take schoolwork home with them. It’s not an easy job and some people struggle with it while others seem to thrive. Yes there is a teacher shortage, particularly in stem subjects and languages, but this has just as much to do with population growth and the setting up of new schools which has meant there is a need for a lot more teachers than before and those needs have not adequately been matched up with the number of people being trained as teachers. This problem is being addressed – there are lots of incentives to encourage graduates into teaching – but it will take time to get the desired effect.

The other thing that often gets forgotten in this whole debate is this: teaching is a privilege. It may be hard work, challenging, stressful but it is a privilege. I have only spent two months in a school but already I have got to know the personalities of some of the children and begun to build a rapport with them. When I said goodbye to everyone on the last day of term, I felt a pang. I’m going to miss those kids. It has been a privilege to work with them.

Closing the attainment gap

One of the reasons I wanted to get into teaching was that I wanted to “do my bit” towards closing the attainment gap between poor children and their wealthier counterparts. This is the big challenge in education. How do you raise standards? How do you make sure that someone off an estate in Peckham has just as much chance of going to a good university as someone at a private school? These are the big questions which should be on our minds, not the merits or demerits of academies.

From what I have experienced in schools so far, there is still a long way to go before we are even near to closing that attainment gap. There is so much work to be done. I am not an expert educator yet but here are the three key areas that I would tackle.

  1. Discipline: little or no effective teaching can take place in a disruptive classroom. Behaviour management using consistent and clear rules and sanctions should be one of the pillars of an education system. This should not be up to individual teachers to enforce but something that is embraced at all levels of the school.
  2. High expectations: you cannot achieve great things without high expectations. Be ambitious about what you want your students to do. As Tom Sherrington describes brilliantly in this post, pitch it up, aim high, expect excellence.
  3. Expert teachers: this one is a little more difficult to do but is nevertheless critical to raising the standard of education. Teachers must be experts in their field, they must have great depth and breadth of knowledge. I have been struck by the lack of mastery of the English language displayed by my son’s primary teachers over the last few years (in an Outstanding school no less). Letters to parents are often littered with spelling or grammatical errors, apostrophes in the wrong place and poor punctuation. Even the executive head of the school shows poor use of language in his yearly letter to the students. In the secondary schools too, I have noticed some teachers use very simplistic language to explain things to their students. For example, in a recent history lesson I heard a teacher ask this question “Was King John a good or a bad king?” when there was an opportunity to use much more sophisticated language than that.

So these are my first impressions based on my experience so far. Next term I start working as a teaching assistant in a prep school. It will be interesting to see how things are done in the independent sector and to compare.

My first forays into education

As you may or may not know, I am planning to train as a teacher. The process of becoming a teacher starts with obtaining relevant school experience, usually on a voluntary basis. With this in mind I set to work contacting as many local secondary schools as I could to ask for a volunteering placement. These placements are particularly hard to obtain in secondary schools (primary schools tend to need more hands on help) and therefore it was not surprising that my initial efforts yielded little response. I persevered and by the time I had contacted about 20 schools I finally got a positive response from two of them.

Then came the potentially time consuming process of obtaining DBS clearance (to check if I have any criminal convictions) which, thankfully for me, took only a week. It took a bit longer for the teachers to decide on a timetable for me and then half-term came along and delayed things a bit more but I finally started two weeks ago at a school, working 3 days a week.

The school is a recently set up academy housed in modern facilities with a high intake of children on pupil premium and for whom English is a second language. This is a fabulous opportunity for me to see first hand how an inner London school takes on the challenge of educating children from more disadvantaged backgrounds. How would I, privileged and privately educated, fit into such an environment? In my first week I was asked by a student if I was American which rather surprised me until I realised that a posh English accent sounds about as foreign to some students as an American one. In the staff room, I was put at my ease by the other teachers who have all been friendly and inclusive. I had been mindful not to disturb anyone, having heard how busy and overworked teachers are, but they have made time to chat to me about the profession and share insights with me.

So… is teaching what I really want to do and would I be any good at it? Two weeks into this experience and the preliminary answer to these questions is yes, I think so. I am still figuring things out, standing at the back of the class and not always sure of what I should be doing. Some of the children are happy to get help while others show their displeasure at my approach and one particular student covers up his book to stop me seeing his work altogether. However, when I have managed to actually help (which I hope will happen more often with time), it has felt tremendously rewarding.

One challenge for me is to be able to gather enough about the subject of the lesson to be able to contribute positively. This is not so much an issue in French lessons but history is such a wide subject that unless I have prepared with some reading about the particular period being studied, I can be as blank as the students I am supposed to be helping. I am not always sure about the correct answers to a question or what exactly it is that the teacher is looking for. For example, yesterday I got confused by a question on the board which said “How did the Africans trade?” when what was meant by the question was “What did the Africans trade?”. I only worked it out when another perplexed student put their hand up and the teacher replied with “salt, spices and books”. I may sound a bit pedantic but it seems to me that accurate language is critical. How many times have students done poorly in an exam because they have failed to properly read the question? By the same token, questions need to be absolutely clear and unambiguous in their language. I still remember several instances where my son returned home with some homework which I read over and over again without understanding what was being asked. I had to guess the teacher’s meaning by asking my son about what he had done in school that week and working out the most likely option.

Disruptive behaviour is a big issue and I have witnessed how this can totally derail a lesson but interestingly I have seen the same students behave very well in other lessons. Children can smell weakness in adults like vampires can smell blood. They will push the boundaries whenever they can. I have been fortunate enough to be able to observe three history teachers with varying degrees of experience ranging from the head of the department to a newly qualified teacher. Unsurprisingly the NQT has had the most problems with behaviour management. What has been interesting for me is reflecting through my observation on where he might be going wrong (such as body language, use of his voice, pace of the lesson, not following through with sanctions). What’s more, it has been interesting to see how senior staff have been supporting him and the different strategies that have been tried out from one day to the next. I’m sure he’ll nail it fairly soon and it will have been hugely instructive for me to witness the process.

This week I was given the opportunity to visit another school in the more affluent outer suburbs of London as part of the government’s School Experience Programme. I spent a full day there observing a total of five history lessons ranging from year 7 to year 12 students. I was struck by the difference in culture from one school to another. I noticed that the students in this Ofsted Outstanding school had a higher level of literacy than the ones at the school where I am working. This enabled the teachers to pack a lot more into each lesson and the pace was noticeably faster.

I am told that by the time middle class children (for want of a better term) start school, they will have learned about 12,000 words whereas the more socially disadvantaged children will have only learned about 5,000. This word deficit has significant implications for learning. In Daniel Willingham’s book “Why children don’t like school” which I am currently reading, he explains how inefficient our working memory is for thinking and how dependent we are on being able to retrieve information from our long-term memory in order to work things out. In effect, the more knowledge you have stored in your long-term memory, the more you are able to learn new concepts. If you come to school with half as many words stored in your brain as others, chances are you will learn a lot more slowly. Before long, you will find the gap between you and the others has grown as they speed ahead of you in their learning. It’s terribly unfair! This is why there is such a big focus on improving literacy in schools. At my son’s primary school reading is the holy grail. And I have noticed too in the secondary academy where I volunteer how children are encouraged to read whenever possible, not just in English lessons.

Having been to a higher achieving school within a more affluent constituency, would that be a preferable environment for me to work in? Not one bit! I was glad to make my way back to the multi-cultural neighbourhood that is my home and the next day I looked forward to seeing the familiar faces of the students I had grown rather fond of.

My journey into education

Earlier this year I decided I wanted to get into teaching. This wasn’t a sudden decision but something I had been mulling over for some time. I was put on the path to teaching, I believe, through my experiences last year when I found out my son was placed in the middle ability stream at his primary school. This momentous event dominated my thoughts for months as I tried to understand how my bright and knowledge hungry child had been deemed “average” at his Ofsted Outstanding school and then as I battled to get him promoted to the higher ability work which I knew he was capable of doing.

I spent weeks railing at a system that was so obviously disadvantaging my child. Why had nobody told me that the children would be assessed in the first week of school and then placed into ability groups? I had attended all the parent briefings, been given handouts about what to expect during the next school year, but not a hint was given that something so important was going to happen. If my child was going to be assessed in that first week on how well he could read, write or count, I surely had the right to know about it so that I could help prepare him. We had spent our summer holiday in ignorant bliss, me reading Harry Potter to him every evening but not expecting him to read to me. I knew my boy was bright and I knew that once he was in school he would catch on to whatever was being taught so I had no real incentives to badger him into doing school work during the holiday.

The next shock was the reaction from his teacher when I let her know that my son was finding the work he was given too easy and that he thought he could tackle the more challenging work of the higher ability tables. “Really”, she said to my son sounding surprised, “well, if you want to have an extra challenge, just put your hand up and ask.” To say I went home that day feeling frustrated would be an understatement. We spent the next few weeks reading more intensively and practising writing at home. If my son had to prove he was worthy of “promotion” then that was what we were going to do. Within two weeks he started to read fluently and to write much more legibly. The improvement was so stark, the teacher could not fail to notice. But my son stayed stuck where he was.

I looked jealously at the other “favoured” children and my eagle eye could not detect any special gift in them that stood them apart from my son. The unfairness of it had me tossing and turning at night. I could not accept this status quo. I would not. Another meeting with the class teacher did not yield any result so I resolved to see the deputy head about it. I am half ashamed to say that I was by this stage so emotional about this matter that, try as I might, I could not help shedding tears during that meeting. How could an outstanding school, a school that prided itself on its platinum standard of education, impose a ceiling on my son’s achievements in this way? And her response had me confounded. We can’t teach all the children at the same level, she said, there are some in that class that can still barely even write their own names.

Well, I did not succeed in getting my son moved up to the top ability stream but my accusations that a ceiling was being placed on his attainment had hit a nerve. The upshot of the meeting was that my son was given the higher ability work even though he stayed on the same middle table as before. It was not what I wanted but I had to accept this compromise. And then, at the start of the summer term, two children who had sat in the higher stream tables left the school and the sudden vacancy meant that my son could finally be moved up. The happiness on his face when he came home and told me the news shows just how much he cared about being put in a lower ability table than all his friends. It mattered. Those proponents of streaming do not know just how crushing to a child’s self worth it can be to feel they are not as clever as others in the class. It is an incredibly stigmatising thing to do to a child. Something else happened too. Soon after he was moved up to a higher stream table, the standard of his work improved significantly. This may have been pure coincidence but it could also be that, once he was surrounded by children doing more challenging work, he was motivated and inspired to match what they were doing. Success breeds success, isn’t that how the saying goes?

So, job done, at this point I should have just heaved a sigh of relief and moved on. Not so. I kept asking myself, what about the other children, the ones whose mothers didn’t have the chutzpah to make a fuss like I did? How many other children out there were underachieving because of low expectations? I needed to read up about this. I googled “ability streaming” and found several interesting articles that led me to purchase some books on the subject. I started reading book after book and blog after blog on education. There are a multitude of them. This led me further than just the subject of grouping by ability. I read about mindset in Carol Dweck’s seminal book. I delved into the current debate between proponents of a progressive versus a traditional education. I found out about cognitive science and the latest research on how the mind retains information. I wanted to read about the latest efforts to raise the standard of those who are failing in education. What are the successful schools doing that others are not doing? There is, I found out, a vibrant community of deeply committed teachers grappling with these issues. I felt invigorated.

After 7 years of being a stay-at-home mum, it was time for me to get back to work. But what to do? I could resurrect my career as a reflexologist and aromatherapist. I was good at it and it was satisfying to be able to help alleviate my clients’ aches and pains. Something held me back though. I wanted more intellectual challenge. The news talked about a chronic teacher shortage and the adverts on TV invited people to get into teaching. Intrigued, I registered online and got the pack. It said bursaries were available for people like me with good degrees. I could train directly in a school and be working as a qualified teacher within a year, which is appealing as I am already 45 years old. I talked to family and friends. Everyone without exception was encouraging. The decision was made. I’m going to be a teacher!

Healthy Eating this New Year (courtesy of Jamie Oliver)

It sounds like a cliché, starting a new healthy eating regimen in the new year. My only defence is that in my case, the start happened in December after I got Jamie Oliver’s “Everyday Super Food” as a birthday present. I can’t pretend that I’ve tried all the recipes yet and as with most cookbooks, I usually end up narrowing it down to a core handful of good recipes while discarding the rest. Two particular dishes stand out for me because they are so, well, tasty! I have tweaked them a bit and one of them, the “Vegeree” is used as a lunch dish rather than for breakfast as stated in the book. Here’s my take on them.

Poached Egg, Smashed Avo & Seeded Toast

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This one does require a bit of effort to bring all the different elements together in good time, but I have got better at it with practice and can whip it up fairly quickly in the mornings now. I have altered the measurements so that it serves 1 person only. I haven’t managed yet to convert the rest of the family to having this kind of meal for breakfast!

Ingredients:

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 of a fresh red chilli
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 ripe tomato
  • 1 spring onion
  • 1/2 a lime or lemon
  • 1/4 of a ripe avocado
  • 1 thick slice of seeded wholemeal bread
  • a small handful of coriander

Method:

I find it best to start by finely slicing the spring onion, red chilli and coriander (leaving a few sprigs aside for garnish at the end). Mash up the avocado and mix in a few squeezes of lime or lemon. Set aside.

Place a medium saucepan two thirds filled with water on the hob and bring to a simmer. Using a sharp knife, remove the core from the tomato then drop it into the boiling water for about a minute. Remove it with a spoon, place on a chopping board, peel and slice into eights, discarding the seedy centre. Place the tomato segments in a bowl with 1 teaspoon of olive oil and the remainder of the lime juice. Mix in the sliced spring onion and coriander and season with salt and pepper.

Now for the egg. If you have a silicone egg poacher, use this rather than the cling film method. Grease the egg poacher with a little olive oil and scatter the red chilli inside before breaking the egg on top of it. Season with salt and then place in the saucepan, cover with a lid and leave for 4 minutes to get a soft poached egg. The alternative method if you don’t have an egg poacher is to lay a 30cm sheet of good-quality cling film flat on the work surface and brush it with a little olive oil. Scatter the chilli over it, then break the egg on top and season. Carefully pull in the sides of the cling film, squeezing out any air around the egg, then tie a knot in the clingfilm to secure the egg snugly inside. Poach the egg in the saucepan as described above.

While the egg is cooking, toast the bread then spread the avocado mixture on it like butter. Spoon over the dressed tomato then unwrap your poached egg and place it proudly on top. Finish off with a scattering of torn coriander leaves.

Nutritional info: 258 Kcal, 3.2g sat fat, 12.6g protein, 23g carbs, 5.1g sugar, 5g fibre.

Vegeree not Kedgeree

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This is a standby for lunch these days, easy and quick to make and delicious. Again I have tweaked the recipe. What’s the point of spending half an hour cooking brown rice when you can buy it pre-cooked in pouches that microwave in two minutes? This serves 2 but you can halve the amounts easily to make it a lunch for one.

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Use something like this, much more convenient.

 

Ingredients:

  • 250g pouch of microwable brown rice
  • 2 large eggs
  • 4 chestnut mushrooms
  • 3cm piece of ginger
  • 1/2 or 1 whole fresh red chilli (depending on how spicy you like it)
  • small bunch of fresh coriander
  • 2 spring onions
  • olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons medium curry powder
  • 100g cherry tomatoes
  • 100g frozen peas
  • 100g baby spinach
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 heaped tablespoons fat-free or low fat yoghurt

Method:

On a chopping board, quarter the mushrooms, finely slice the spring onions, chilli and the coriander. Peel the piece of ginger and finely grate onto the chopping board.

Poach or soft boil your eggs in a medium saucepan of simmering water. Meanwhile, place a large non-stick frying pan on medium-high heat and add the mushrooms, searing them for a minute or two. Move the mushrooms to the side of the pan, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and the spring onions, chilli and ginger with 2 teaspoons of curry powder. Fry gently for 2 minutes while you halve the tomatoes. Now add the spinach, coriander, tomatoes and peas followed by the rice from the pouch. Stir fry for 4 minutes then squeeze the lemon juice over it and serve. Place the poached/boiled eggs sliced in half on top with dollops of yoghurt and a scattering of torn coriander leaves.

I didn't have any cherry tomatoes the day I took the pictures but whole tomato worked just as well.
I didn’t have any cherry tomatoes the day I took the pictures but whole tomato worked just as well.

Nutritional info: 400 Kcal, 2.2g sat fat, 16.3g protein, 67.2g carbs, 6.8g sugar, 5.5g fibre.

Please note the nutritional info is approximate as the recipes have been slightly changed from the book.

I’m embracing the Golden Arches

If like me you have a young son full of energy and his school’s PE lessons are nowhere near enough to use it up, then you’ll know what a challenge it is to provide him with physical activity. In spring and summer, we usually go straight to the park after school where he can scooter about and play until he is nicely tired out. However, as the weather cools the park is no longer really an option (especially for the poor mum who has to sit freezing on a bench). Then begins the search for suitable after school clubs such as swimming or football but even then, unless you go full out and sign him up for something every day of the week you will still have days with a restless child driving you crazy.

Yesterday, my son had a play date after school with one of his friends. As this friend was a girl, I was not sure she would find his collection of toy buses and trains entertaining (now before I get accused of sexism, I know some girls like to play with trains but not this one, trust me) and I thought about taking them somewhere with soft play. I checked the opening times of the soft play zone at the local leisure centre and was shocked to find that it would cost me £6.40 for each child to get in, and that’s before we factor in the cost of ordering some food and drinks for them. Then I had a brainwave and remembered there was a McDonalds which I passed whenever I drove to Ikea that had a soft play area. So I thought we would give it a try.

It took a bit of time to get there with the after school traffic but that was a minor inconvenience. We parked and went in. The restaurant looked spanking new after having undergone a recent refurbishment. The children immediately kicked off their shoes and went to play. Ordering the food was easy this time, no waiting in a disorderly long line for your turn. They had several flat screens all over the place, large ones for ordering food and smaller ones on tables with games for the children. I went over to a large one and quickly placed the order, paid with my contactless card and collected my receipt. In the two minutes it took for me to secure a table and collect some napkins, the food was ready to collect. Super easy!

The two Happy Meals cost me around £5 and came each with a Roald Dahl book that delighted the children. McDonalds has listened to criticism about lack of healthy food options and the meals can now be customised with carrot sticks or fruit instead of French fries and organic milk or water if you don’t want any sugary or artificially sweetened drink (not that we went for those healthy options I must confess). The children ate their food quickly and then ran back to play. Every so often, they came back red faced for a drink. When we returned home later that day, I had two very happy, very suitably tired out children in the back of the car. Job done!

My neck of the woods is gentrifying at a terrific pace with new coffee shops sprouting nearly every month and trendy eateries such as the sourdough pizza place. All well and good but what we could really do with, and I mean that truly, is a nice McDonalds with a play area nearby. If ever, by some miraculous chance, this does happen, don’t listen to the Nimbys protesting about yet another chain opening on their beloved high street. Embrace the Golden Arches I say.

A square peg now and always

The other day I was chatting with my six year old son about school and he talked about how hard it was for him to find someone to play with. His friends from previous years were no longer interested in playing with him because their interests had diverged and he said he often found himself walking alone during playtime, hands in pockets, looking down at the ground. This knowledge tugged painfully at my heartstrings, all the more so because it brought back memories of my own difficult school years.

I too had days when I would walk around in the playground alone and friendless. I remember I would try to pass the time until the end of the break by going to the toilets, combing my hair until it was neat and perfect and generally making myself as invisible as possible. I did end up making friends although the relationships were generally ones of convenience rather than true camaraderie. Looking back now I can see that it was not easy being an Arab in London in the late seventies. We are so used to London being a cultural melting pot that it is easy to forget that it was not always so. During those years I yearned to fit in, to be more like the others at school. All the other children seemed to do exciting things during their holidays such as going camping or fishing or skiing, whereas my family’s idea of leisure time was staying home and cooking a big meal.

And yet these cultural differences do not explain entirely why making friends was so difficult for me. One of the advantages of getting older is that you get a better understanding and acceptance of who you are. I was never going to be conventional. I am and have always been a square peg in a round hole. It’s not that I look or act in any particularly unusual way. I am not a bohemian or a “free spirit”. Neither am I some socially inept introverted person. I have enough social skills now to converse with people in a confident manner. Yet it is clear to me that I see and experience the world differently to most other people. That’s not to say that I am any better than others or particularly special. Just that I tend to have opinions that are not held by many. Some might call me quirky.

This disposition runs in the family. It should come as no surprise therefore that my son is quirky too. Both my parents were unusual people. They were not geniuses or great savants but they had an independent streak in their thinking which I must have inherited. My mother was considered the plain one in a family of beauties. She did not have the height, plump lips and hourglass figure of her sisters. She was very bookish, the only girl in her family to get a university degree. Growing up in Damascus during the sixties, a time of political uncertainty where several governments came and went before the military coup that brought in the Ba’athist regime of Hafez al Assad, she took a keen interest in the politics of the day, going on marches and talking back at teachers she disagreed with. From an early age she found herself running against the flow of majority opinion, being forthright in her views even when the general consensus was against what she said. When people applauded Assad for bringing stability and security to Syria she was vehement in her denunciation of his regime. Fortunately by that time she had married and left the country.

My father was more judicious in his speech but his life too was distinguished by an individual rather than a conventional way of doing things. He was a senior Saudi diplomat whose career success was all the more remarkable given his lack of family connections (in a country where tribal loyalties matter) and his refusal to play politics in order to get ahead. Here is one anecdote that throws light on his character. It was customary for government officials to greet the king at the airport every year when he returned from his Summer holidays. There would be long lines of people waiting to pay their respect to their monarch and the monarch in turn made note of who was there, showing loyalty to him. Favours were dispensed accordingly. My father never took part in this. His friends would urge him to go, maybe then he would get the long awaited promotion. But he obstinately refused to do so. In his mind, he was quite clear that he was serving the Saudi people, not the Saudi royal family. The promotions did come in due course, his royal bosses being too aware of his usefulness and talent for diplomatic negotiations to overlook him for too long. In the decade before his death at the young age of 55, he was at the heart of Saudi foreign policy from trying to broker a peace deal in Oslo between the Palestinians and Israel to negotiating to join the GATT trade treaty (later WTO).

Growing up with such parents was a privilege but it created misfits out of us. When I was 13 and my elder sister 16, my father was recalled back to Riyadh and he took the difficult decision to leave us in London (with an au pair, joined by my cousin who was in her first year at university) so that we could continue our schooling here. The family back home was scandalised. How could he leave his young daughters without a male protector in London? Surely, free of restrictions, they would get up to no good or mix with the wrong crowd. To this my father replied that he trusted his daughters and that their education was too important to compromise. His trust was not misplaced. Nothing could have been worse than to disappoint him. So we stayed on in London to complete our education through to university. While other diplomatic children returned home and were re-integrated into society, we always stood out as the foreigners whenever we visited Riyadh in the holidays. We didn’t fit into the norms of society in our homeland and we didn’t really fit in with what other young teenage girls were doing in London either. There were no boyfriends or alcohol or youthful experimenting with drugs.

So here I am, married to an Englishman, living in a quiet suburb of London. It took me a long time to meet my prince charming. Somehow everyone I met before then made me feel like a freak. Then came along Andrew, with his nerdy habits of collecting model trains and observing street lights, here was someone every bit as unusual as me. We connected! And we procreated. I had hoped that my son, with his English surname and good looks, would find school a less daunting place than I did at his age. But true to his parentage, he has Andrew’s interest in trains, buses and planes and he has my shyness and awkwardness. While the boys in his class want to play fight or do sports, my boy is more interested in observing the different models of buses he sees on the road or watching documentaries about concorde aeroplanes. But what can I do? I shall just have to watch and support him as he grows up, knowing that he might find it challenging to fit in with his peers but hoping he will eventually find his niche.

It’s time for schools to embrace “learning without limits”

This morning I greeted fellow mums in the playground after an absence of 6 weeks and when asked about how our summer holidays went gave the obligatory “great thanks” when really the truth is slightly more nuanced than that. Yes we did have some fun days out (the most bizarre yet successful was going plane spotting at Heathrow – how much more small budget can you get?) and yes we did have an exciting trip abroad. Spending so much time with my son was overwhelmingly a joy although this was tempered by having to accept the loss of my freedom for six weeks, something that got harder to bear towards the latter parts of the holiday. However, there was also another aspect to the holiday which was not quite so pleasant.

Having learnt to my cost that children get assessed during the first week of school and then sorted into three ability bands, I knew how vital it was that my son start school well prepared for this assessment. Our previous summer holiday had been spent carefree and academia free but it meant that my son started school with very poor reading and writing skills. I knew what a quick and able learner he is, so I assumed that once he started school he would quickly get back into his groove. Unfortunately, that is not how schools operate nowadays. He was judged on the level he presented rather than on his potential for learning and consequently sorted into the “middle” ability stream. This meant he was given work which he often found too easy while he watched his friends being given more challenging tasks than him. I cannot begin to explain how crushing and stigmatising it is for a child to feel less worthy than others in his class, especially when both he and I knew he was capable of a lot more than the teacher gave him credit for.

There ensued for us a stressful year in which we struggled to get the school and his teacher to move him up to the higher level stream, which eventually happened in the summer term and then only because vacancies had been created by two children in the class leaving the school. Earlier in the year we had put in some effort at home to improve my son’s reading and writing, which it did very quickly giving truth to my own assessment of his ability to learn. If the class was based on meritocracy, then surely this would have been the point at which the teacher took note of this significant improvement and rewarded it. Nothing of the sort happened. While in theory there ought to be fluidity between each ability band, with children moving up or down easily from week to week or month to month, in practice the children mostly remain in the same ability group they start with.

This is not just my own observation of the workings of my son’s classroom. The lack of movement between ability streams has been documented in various studies, notably one by Brian Jackson (“Streaming: An Education System in Miniature”, 1964). Examining patterns of achievement in reading as they evolved up to age 11, Jackson found that the Bs never caught up with the As, or the Cs with the Bs and that indeed, the gaps between them widened over time. Although transfer between streams remained a theoretical possibility, it rarely occurred in practice. For most, the original placement (usually around the age of 7) was final.

You can understand then why I felt galvanised into making sure my son, who will soon turn 7, does well in the first week’s assessment. At the start of the holiday, I purchased various literacy and maths exercise books and promised myself that we would devote 10 minutes each day to maintaining and improving his levels of learning. This was easier said than done. My son naturally rebelled against this regimen. He would much rather play Minecraft or build intricate railways or go outside to play than to sit and do “boring” work. There were days when I literally pulled my hair out trying to get him to sit and concentrate for a few minutes. I often had to bribe him with money or treats in order to get him to co-operate. The holidays ended with a mixed bag of results. His reading is very fluent now, his vocabulary is excellent and his writing is hit and miss depending on his mood. With maths I hit a brick wall of resistance from him. I hope and pray that I have done enough to save him from “relegation”.

Walking home from the school run, I got chatting to another mum. I confessed to her that I had tried to get my son to work in the holidays to improve his chances at school and she replied that she too had tried to get her older son in particular to do some work in the holidays. She told me how last year, he had caught chicken pox in the first week of school and had missed the “assessment”. As a result he was placed in the same ability group as he had been in the previous year. Her protests to the school about this were to no avail. He was not even given the chance to “prove himself”. Consequently, she had spent precious money on Kumon lessons to help him with his maths. She told me her son, who is summer born and thus around 10 months younger than the older children in the class, has always had a struggle to catch up because of the streaming system. She too hoped that the confidence he had gained from the Kumon classes would help him start year 5 on a better footing.

By now you will have guessed that our experience during the last school year has prompted me to read up a lot on the subject of streaming in education. You would be right. On a gut level I knew the system was wrong but I did not have viable alternatives to present. I remember distinctly a conversation I had with the deputy headmistress of the school in which she said to me that they had to group by ability because there were children in that class who could still barely write their own names. I had no answer for that. Now I do. It’s called “learning without limits” and it is a simple yet powerful concept. Let me hasten to add that this is not a pie in the sky theory but a method of teaching that is being used in certain schools around the country to great success. These schools do not stream by ability and yet many are judged by Ofsted to be “outstanding” and do well in the academic league tables. This gives lie to the charge often made that mixed ability teaching results in a dumbing down of standards. Not so. Instead, the approach is characterised by a recognition that our children’s ability to learn is limitless and that no ceiling should be put on a child’s attainments through the arbitrariness of ability banding.

So how does it work? It is not within my scope here to give the details but I will give a flavour of what this kind of teaching is about. For more depth on the subject, please do read Dame Alison Peocock’s book “Creating Learning without Limits”. I heartily recommend it. Here’s a fabulous quote from it:

By offering a choice of work at different levels, it became possible to challenge and extend the learning of all children, without predetermining what any individual in the class might be capable of achieving and without communicating messages of differential worth or undermining children’s belief in their own capabilities.”

The teachers at Alison’s school routinely presented the children with a range of tasks at different levels of difficulty. The children were trusted to choose their own level of work and to change their minds if they discovered that their original choice of work was either too easy or too difficult. To my mind, this is what I would call equal opportunity teaching. Each child has the same opportunity as the next to learn at the level they feel is right for them in contrast to a system where the teacher is all powerful and her judgement, often fallible, can make or break the child’s opportunities for learning.

I know there are others, like me, who believe that streaming in schools, particularly primary schools, is wrong. I hope enough of us can get together to effect change in our schools so that children are not unfairly stigmatised from an early age.