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.

Healthy Breakfast Smoothie

healthy_smoothie

I have been making this smoothie lately as part of my son’s breakfast. He loves it, drinks it up with a straw in a flash and then asks for more. The best thing is it’s loaded with nutrients to give him a healthy start to his day. I have found this smoothie works very well for me during Ramadan, giving me a quick boost of energy at iftar. Almond milk is easy to find these days in most good supermarkets, though make sure you buy the unsweetened kind. If you don’t have almond milk, ordinary milk mixed half and half with water should be ok too. This recipe makes enough for 3 glasses (as shown above).

Ingredients:

  • 250ml unsweetened almond milk
  • 1 ripe banana
  • 3 level tablespoons wholegrain rolled oats
  • 2 handfuls of young leaf spinach leaves
  • 3 heaped tablespoons of frozen (or fresh if you like) berries such as blueberries, strawberries and raspberries

Method:

Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend until you get a smooth mixture. Serve immediately.

Time for Reform of Muslim Orthodoxy to Liberate Women from the Headscarf

Yesterday was my son’s school sports day, held in the extensive grounds of Dulwich College. It was a warm, sunny day with temperatures forecast to rise up to 24C. Knowing I would be out all day in the heat, I dressed appropriately: knee length leggings with a light and baggy white coloured tunic, sandals and of course, a hat to protect my head from the sun.

Looking around at the other parents I saw fellow Muslim women wrapped up in thick cloaks from head to toe, many of them all in black. Most of these women would be fasting as it is the month of Ramadan – no food or drink of any kind from sunrise until sunset (though women are exempt from the fast if they are menstruating). The men in these families, those that were in attendance, were dressed far more comfortably in knee length shorts and T-shirts. Watching them I felt the familiar sadness, anger and frustration engulf me.

The stricture for women to wear clothes that cover their entire body and a headscarf or hijab is so embedded in current Muslim orthodoxy that to question this is to be a heretical rebel. I have held my tongue for a long time but today I am going to stick my neck out and say the unsayable. This dress code is wrong, has no real basis in the religion, and is a manifestation of the patriarchal nature of Muslim society today that empowers men and subjugates women. There, I’ve said it!

What irks me the most is the way women are singled out for this burdensome dress code and not men. I would like to see men out and about everyday covered from head to toe (and in black if you please) and see how long they would last under such strictures. If this kind of all encompassing modesty is to be enforced, then let it be enforced on everyone, not just women. I bet within a week or even a day of the universal enforcement of this dress code, men would be up in arms about it, complaining about how uncomfortable and impractical it is.

Men and women are equal in front of God. This much is clear to me. There are differences between us of course. No one can deny that men are in general physically stronger and that women are the ones who carry babies in their tummies, and go on to nurture their children. There are always going to be exceptions to these norms. Some women can be physically stronger than some men, and some women have no empathy with children while some men are caring and nurturing. We may choose to have different roles in our society but we are all equal before God.

In the matter of sexual attractiveness and sexual desire, men and women are equal. I don’t believe the lie that says men are more governed by sexual desire than women and that we consequently have a duty not to tempt them into sin. A muscled man in swimming shorts can turn women weak at the knees in much the same way that a woman in a bikini does so to men. Desires are equal on both sides so it does not make sense that one gender is singled out for modest attire and not the other. The logical conclusion is inescapable: women are told to cover up in order to allow men to have control over them.

Now I have many good female friends and family members who I love and respect and who adhere to the dogma of hijab. Many of them, I’m sure, would argue that they wear the hijab out of their own free will and that it empowers them. I respectfully disagree. The orthodoxy of hijab is so embedded into Muslim society that to go against it is to attract undue attention. For many women, to wear the hijab or not is no longer a choice. It is expected of them in the same way as we do not eat pork and fast during Ramadan. It is a non-negotiable pillar of the religion. There is no opt out, particularly if you come from a religiously conservative family. In these circumstances, women accept the status quo and convince themselves that they are truly doing God’s will.

When I was a young teenager I noticed something strange happening around me. Women I had known all my life were all of a sudden putting on a headscarf in the presence of men. I have photos of many of these women coming to visit us in Geneva and London in the 1970s, all of them bare-headed, not a headscarf in sight. I look through photos of my parents’ wedding in Damascus circa 1966. The only woman in the whole series of photos wearing a headscarf is my old and infirm great grandmother. Everyone else is wearing typical knee-length dresses of the sixties, carefully curled hair, lots of eyeliner and mascara. Yet should we fast forward to a wedding being held today, you can be sure that at least three quarters of the women would be veiled.

mum_wedding
My parents on their wedding day in Damascus

What has changed since then? Have we all suddenly rediscovered our religion and become more pious? I would argue that no, we are not more pious than we were before. The growth of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism can be traced back to the political climate of the late 1970s. Middle Eastern countries, having discarded Turkish and British imperialist rule, were under autocratic and corrupt regimes often seen as beholden to the Western powers. The nationalist movements of the fifties had failed and political Islam appeared in their stead, whether in the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the overthrow of the Shah in Iran. The siege of Makkah in 1979 resulted in a much stricter enforcement of the Islamic code in Saudi Arabia. The 1980s saw the rise of stricter Islamic practices and the greater influence of Wahhabi theology across the Muslim world culminating in the likes of Isis and AlQaeda. These movements did not emerge out of the blue – they are the direct results of the political landscape of the 1970s.

So, there I was, a teenager in the early 1980s, unaware of the political dimension but suddenly noticing a change in the religious climate around me. Everything was strict, programmes on television (in Riyadh, my dad’s last posting in a long diplomatic career) were full of men with long beards telling us not to do this and that, life became all about dogma, the stricter the better. Three decades of this regimen has infected the discourse so much that few people remember what it was like before. Even level headed, sensible people, surrounded by this dogma in every aspect of their lives have been unable to resist its influence on their thinking. It’s like a virus has taken hold of the Muslim world. We must shake it off with a good dose of antibiotics.

The younger me, uneasy at these changes around me, asked my Arabic teacher to show me the Koranic phrases that tell women to wear a hijab. If God wanted me to make this sacrifice, then I would do it. First, I wanted to see the evidence. The relevant texts were given to me and my first reaction was puzzlement: was I to make such a fundamental sacrifice on this spurious evidence? As far as I could see, the text was telling women to cover up their cleavages and not to shake their ankle chains to attract men’s attention. Not a single mention of covering hair. I went home to my father and asked him for guidance. Brought up in Medina, the second most important city of Islam, my father’s knowledge of Islam was deep and extensive. “Do women need to wear a headscarf?”, I asked him. No, he said, this is just a cultural thing that has nothing to do with the religion. Thank you Dad, for showing me the way. I just wish more Muslim women had dads like mine.

No matter how long I live here, I will never feel truly British

I have lived in the UK for many years. Since I was seven years old to be precise. I did take two years off to try living in my native Saudi Arabia but that didn’t work out and I came straight back to London. This multicultural melting pot is my home. I know its streets, its underground stations, its parks, its theatres and museums. I feel comfortable here because I know this city and I feel like I belong. Just the other day, however, I was reminded that no matter how integrated I think I am, there are some parts of the English way of life that I still don’t get.

The A word

By which I mean alcohol. Having been raised in a Muslim household I never encountered alcohol until I was at university. At which point curiosity made me try it. I found it tasted rather vile and the effect it had on people around me was off putting. I remember going on a date and my chivalrous beau insisting on buying me a beer. We were at a university union gig and I gamely tried to sip the noxious drink. It was hard work. When an opportunity presented itself I disposed of the contents into a bin. In my efforts to blend in I tried switching to cider, which had less of a bitter taste, and managed for a while to sip slowly at half pints. But even that experiment went sour as I found my system could not tolerate the stuff. I have a memory of nauseously making my excuses and hailing a taxi, rushing up to my university flat and being horribly sick. It seemed alcohol and I would never be friends.

Over the years, I have had a few more drinks here and there. A sip of champagne at a wedding or trying an expensive wine in a fancy restaurant. I can see that alcohol matters to a lot of people, a lot of nice sensible people, and that for many the taste of a fine wine is second to none. I get that, sort of. I can understand it on an intellectual level but at the gut level of experience I can’t. If I want to quench my thirst I crave water. If I want to refresh my palate, juice or a herbal tea will do very nicely. If I want to relax and feel happy, a slice of cake will ease my tension. A glass of cold milk after eating a bar of chocolate is magical. At no time, except perhaps in social gatherings where I want blend in, would I dream of drinking anything alcoholic. There’s just no pleasure in it for me.

Fine I hear you say. We live in a free society and if you don’t want to drink you don’t have to. That’s true and my bubble of domesticity means I rarely find myself in a pub or other situations where alcohol is to be found. And yet… Socialising as I do with neighbours and friends, I often find that the drinking way of life is interspersed into everyday jargon. Whether it’s some Facebook post saying “hurrah time for drinks” on a Friday afternoon or some frazzled mum saying “I could do with a glass of wine”, it all goes to highlight a culture that I am not part of.

Just the other day I finished reading a chick lit novel that I had picked up at a train station waiting room. It was the usual bog standard relationships yarn with a romantic story line. Reading it, I was struck by just how often the hero and heroine had alcoholic drinks. On their first “get together” they down a bottle of southern comfort while nattering away late into the night. The heroine has lunch with her agent and is so nervous that she gulps down one glass of wine after another and ends up making a fool of herself. Every other scene involves them drinking a beer, particularly at times of stress and tension where they seem to down pint after pint. Putting down the book I pondered this alcoholic culture in Britain. The recent death of Charles Kennedy, probably due to alcoholism, has also put this in mind. Hey Britain. Why do you love alcohol so much?

Those pesky animals

There is one other defining British characteristic which I find hard to relate to. I speak of their love of animals. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike animals. I can enjoy nature programmes and stroke a cat (though must wash hands straight after). I wouldn’t wish any harm on animals (except mosquitoes and slugs) but I don’t feel any need to have a pet in my house. Dodging the dog poo on our walk to school is a daily inconvenience. However, I don’t find it bizarre that other people do have pets. What I find strange and incomprehensible is the way animals are imbued with human characteristics and people seem to love them as well if not better than human beings. Somehow, animals are seen as more noble than us humans. The other day, our local Facebook blog had a post about foxes and I was surprised by how many people said they felt sorry for them and gave them food. No wonder we are overrun with them!

At the end of the day these are minor quibbles. I love this country and I don’t think I would ever live anywhere else. There is no doubt though that I still do feel an outsider at times. Perhaps that is a good thing. It allows me to be true to myself rather than be part of the crowd. It makes for a more interesting life.

A school trip to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra

Yesterday I accompanied my six year old son on a school trip to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. It was an experience. Let me share some of the highlights.

Five mums, including myself, had volunteered to join the class on this trip. Having gone on a school trip the previous year, I was not keen to volunteer again. My son, however, was rather persistent in his nagging. His burning wish to have his mum be one of the grown ups on the trip finally wore me down, together with a memory of something similar that happened to me when I was a child.

I remember that we were going on a school outing to Hyde Park and the teacher had asked for some parents to volunteer to come with us. Without my mother’s knowledge I put her name down as one of the volunteer parents. It had irked me for a long time that my parents did not conform to the norms of parenthood as exhibited by the others in my class. For starters, they never attended parents meetings. “Why should we?”, my dad would ask. “We know you are doing well”. It seemed to them that parents should only get involved if there were a problem and since end of term reports consistently showed me getting good grades and positive comments, they felt there was no need for them to traipse all the way over from Acton, where we lived, to South Kensington only be told what they already knew.

So when the teacher asked for parents to join us on the trip, something in me could not resist volunteering my own mother. But how to convince her to actually do it? I decided I would tell her that the teacher urgently needed to meet with her to discuss a problem I was having at school. “Problem? What kind of problem?” asked my mum. I would not say but kept insisting it was very important and urgent. My mum dutifully turned up at the appointed day for this urgent meeting. Being of diminutive stature, she was wearing high heels and looking smart, as she would for a meeting. Imagine her surprise when she realised she had been roped in to a school trip in wet and muddy weather! She gamely trooped along with her high heels in the mud, trying to ignore the bemused looks from others at her lack of sensible footwear. Poor mum!

Fast forward to this week and of course I gave in to my son and said I would go. Yesterday morning, we all trooped into the classroom and each parent was given a sheet with the names of the children assigned to their group. I was considered a novice (not having volunteered for previous expeditions this year) and was thus given an easy group of children including my son. That was a relief! There was a slight hiccup when the teacher realised that one extra parent had turned up and she had to diplomatically tell him that he couldn’t accompany us as there were not enough tickets. She escorted him out of the classroom and shortly after that, the school secretary came in and called the name of the boy whose father had just been ejected. It seemed the child would not be allowed to go on the trip if the father could not go too. What a shame, I thought, poor boy to be taken out of the class like that. Fortunately, someone must have spoken to the parents and convinced them to change their minds as the boy was returned to the classroom at the very last minute.

We had a quick briefing from the teacher. We would be going shortly, she explained, taking the train to Clapham Junction and then Waterloo. We would be having lunch as soon as we arrived at the Festival Hall, which seemed a bit early in my view. But I had underestimated how challenging it is to shepherd thirty children all the way to Waterloo.

We had barely got round the corner from the school before we stopped. A young girl at the front of our convoy was crying and saying she had hurt herself on her face though I could not see a single scratch on her. It took five minutes to get the Teaching Assistant (who was also the designated first aider) to come to the front and check her out. As I suspected, there was nothing wrong with her and, once she had calmed down a bit, we got going again. Stopping and starting, stopping and starting, we eventually made it to the Royal Festival Hall, by which time it was nearly midday. It really does take all morning to herd a classroom of children from West Norwood to Waterloo!

We sat down on the floor in a corner of the Royal Festival Hall and had our lunch. Having learned from previous experience, I had packed our own lunch rather than eat the school one. Who in their right minds thinks that six year old children, with their wobbly teeth, would enjoy eating baguette sandwiches? Crusty bread is quite a challenge for children of that age. One of my son’s friends lost a tooth biting into the baguette and then dropped the tooth over the banister down to the lower level. There followed a fruitless search for the missing tooth. Then of course, we had to do the various toilet expeditions in a theatre teeming with hundreds of other small children. Finally, after what seemed an age, we went into the auditorium and took our seats.

The performance, specially designed for Key Stage 1 children, was the story of Stan and Mabel, with a lovely score composed for it and easy songs for the children to participate in. I thought it was great. Well done to all who produced this show. Things have changed a lot since I was a child. Nothing like this was ever on offer in my day. All I remember is being trouped along to the French Institute to watch “Le Ballon Rouge” every year. But do these lucky children know how lucky they are? In the midst of the performance, I looked around to see how everyone else was enjoying it. Some children seemed to be happily singing along but quite a few looked distinctively bored and sleepy. The child in the row in front had fallen fast asleep and the mum whose group he was in was wondering whether or not to nudge him awake. I looked behind me to check on my friend’s daughter and found that she too was looking rather fatigued. On my right the TA was struggling to keep awake too. Perhaps the first day after half term was not the best day for a theatre trip. As for my son, he alternated between singing along and snuggling up to me, telling me I was the best mummy in the world and generally basking in my presence. What more could I ask for?

Not even the arduous journey back to school could dim my glow at having made my child happy. And then home, to put my feet up and have nice cup of tea.