She’s leaving home …

Saturday 26 September 2020

On a bright Autumnal Saturday morning, Windsor’s suspension creaking under the weight of suitcases, boxes, pots and pans; two teens sandwiched into the back seat with pillows and duvets; my Eldest on navigation and me at the wheel, we set off to Newcastle Uni. My first child is leaving home…

It’s a happy journey. The two backseaters plug themselves into their phones whilst my Eldest and I, chat and laugh and harmonise along to songs on the radio. We arrive in good time and park in the city centre for a spot of lunch.

As is now the case anywhere in the UK, there are quite a few changes to city life. I am initially stunned by the contrast to the bustling Newcastle we last saw on a January interview; now transformed into a silent shopping centre where face-masked locals obediently snake along in a one-way system, socially distance on escalators and wordlessly queue outside busier shops. It’s a relief to get back onto the open streets, where following some track-and-trace scanning and hand sanitising we find ourselves safely in a Yo! Sushi booth with dishes whirling round to our table.

All three teens are completely at home in the new world of phone menus and remote ordering. I hand over my credit card and let them take over! Sitting back, with a smile, watching the trio laughing and joking their way through the dishes, I realise that I could be dropping any one of them off for a new life today. They all look so capable, so self assured and so ready to take their place in the world. The panic I thought I’d feel; that these fun, family times are coming to an end dissolves into pride. I just feel proud of the three, incredible young people I have raised and proud of our strong bond as a family. Things will be different from now on, but in all the ways that matter, we will be as close as ever.

After lunch we find the student accommodation. My Eldest hops out to pick up her keys and we see her chatting to other new students … many times, as the rest of us complete circuit after circuit in a fruitless attempt to locate a parking spot. As the car park attendant waves us by onto lap 4, I decide enough is quite enough and manoevre Windsor into, what is clearly an illegal spot, right outside the entrance to my daughter’s block. After that, we unload, smile at flat-mates and their parents, drive off to do a bit of food shopping and giggle as we return to find cones now sternly blocking our drop-off spot. As the sun starts to fade from the day, Small Boy and I leave the girls together unpacking for a last bit of sister-time before it is time to go.

Yes, there are tears at this point. And as we hit the motorway south with only 3 of us in the car, my heart begins to ache. I have so much confidence in my Eldest child. She is brilliant, she is unstoppable, she will make a great contribution to the world. I know that Newcastle Uni are really lucky to have her. But she is also one of my best friends, she has brightened my day for the last 18 years, and I am just really going to miss her …

The rule of 6…

Sunday 13 September 2020

You must not meet socially in groups of more than six. “And, if you do, you will be breaking the law.”

Boris Johnson 9 Sep 2020

As Covid 19 cases in the UK start to rise steeply again, the Government responds with ‘The Rule of Six’. In my world however, the challenges of work and home suggest that rules are not really the way I navigate life …I’m much more a ‘guiding principles’ girl!

Being a mathematician,  you’d expect me to like rules. And I do. I like mathematical rules! And this is why. In my beautiful subject, unique in academic circles for its puritanical approach to ‘proof’, when we define rules we also state precisely the parameters in which they will work. Hence, everyone is clear where and when we apply a rule and where we do not. In other areas of life, alas, this is not the case.

Muddying rules, in many other, less rigorous domains, is the murky concept of  ‘the exception‘ And the problem with exceptions, in hastily conceived plans, is that they divert attention to loop holes, lead to rule bending, challenge concepts of fairness and create confusion. Thus, even before Boris ambles to the lectern to guide us through ‘The Rule of 6’, the radio phone-ins have already gone into overdrive discussing, ‘But what about …?’ , ‘Does this mean ….?’ ‘So can I …? queries. In all the uproar, the important rationale behind this latest dictate seems lost.

At work too, there is no escape from the impact of the virus. Whereas Week 1 was a celebration of being back, Week 2 brings into sharp focus the reality of learning in the time of Corona. Several local schools have already been told to close to classes or year group bubbles. Although we escape this for now, we have a growing number of pupils on the ‘Covid-concern‘ list. CPD sessions are hastily rearranged to bring training on: remote learning and blended learning forward, and as a collective we plan for quality educational provision against several different scenarios. Staff, refreshed by their August break, are up for the challenge and the team leading on teaching and learning are imaginative and inventive. Their plan looks terrific and it needs to; we are already in ‘Scenario 1’.

Our first scenario is that individual pupils are in isolation, whilst the rest of the school operates as usual, and these remote learners need a programme to follow from home. The work is organised. Challenge number 2 is that central government also advise on who should get it! Leafing frantically through the dense DfE guidance, someone suggests a flow chart of rules to follow. I look at the length of the pupil list, I imagine us tying ourselves in knots chasing and keeping track of: dates, times and validity conditions, I shudder at the prospect of communicating it all to parents … and I shake my head.

“Let’s not do that!”  I interject

Let’s do this. When the parent explains their reasons, or confirms the test status, or test wait time (because kind readers the reported 24 hour turn around is a myth), let’s just ask ourselves one ethical question, ‘In terms of their quality of education, is it in this child’s best interest to send work home or not?‘”

Why might you not want to send work home?’  I hear you cry.

Well there are very occasional reasons, but I shall spare you these for now. The point really is this. We frame our decision making around a principle, as opposed to a set of rules, and it seems just as powerful … but a whole lot easier.

At home, I stutter through a very tense week. School now stays open late and so my working day reverts to an 8-6. It is a shock to a household used to me being omni-present. The laundry baskets groan with washing, we rarely eat before 8, homework is hastily remembered at 10pm and … tempers fray. By Saturday, I reside in a dwelling where: one child is nursing a hangover, another has not spoken to any of us for days, a third claims daily to have Covid 19 and be unfit for school and their mother feels as if she has locked horns with all of them and is permanently on ‘ranting-nag mode’ . It is not very nice for anyone and I decide it is time to morally question myself.

In the interests of a happy homestead,’ I voice aloud, ‘what would now be the best course of action?

I take paracetemol and a strong coffee into one room, I take study-snack chocolate, a sympathetic ear and a good chunk of listening time into a second and a thermometer (plus knowing smile) into the third. It is by no means a instantly perfect solution, but the mood definitely lifts and the weekend looks … manageable at least!!

Maybe a guiding principle is not workable for a National Public Health message but I would really welcome a shared ethical understanding to encourage buy-in and co-operation, as opposed to a seeming quest to find a way ‘out of the rules’…

Schools are back!

After months of school closure, September 2020 sees millions of children in England make a welcome return to the classroom.

Henry Beaumont (The Guardian August 2020)

For me, it starts with a day of teacher training. In an inspiring opening session, we learn that, bucking the national trend, referrals to our local safeguarding team have rocketed during lockdown. A shocking statistic without doubt, but I find it incredibly motivating too. It demonstrates just how important it is for us to be taking our place back in the community we serve. In recent weeks, the media have made much of ‘lost learning’ and no-one can argue against this being a significant driver in the decision to see all pupils back in the classroom. But a school is even more than that to some of our young people. For many, our seat of education serves primarily as a place to mix with friends, soak up knowledge and prep for exams. For others, it is clearly also a haven of stability, routine and refuge.

When our pupils do return, it is in their hundreds. By Friday we have over 1200 young people in the building. Yes, we have 5 entrances. Yes we have 5 different breaks. Yes we cannot move for hand sanitisers, face masks and one-way systems. Yes the times of the day are bewildering – I actually pack one class up 10 minutes early for lunch sitting 3! But fundamentally, in all the ways that matter, it feels gloriously back to normal. We might all be wearing face coverings, but that doesn’t change the people underneath. The chatter, the laughter, the hustle and bustle all seem to breathe life back into the very fabric of the building. A school really is its people.

Running up and down 3 flights of stairs many time day does take it toll however, and I eventually abandon my stifling mask in favour of a visor, made by the DT department. In the canteen, one of my new pupils calls me over,

Miss, you look as if you’re ready for that game. Where you have a name stuck to your forehead and have to guess who it is. Do you know that game?”

“Know that game? I love that game. In fact we will be playing that game in our last lesson before Christmas. We can all be famous Mathematicians!”

“Ooh like Py…thagoras! That Greek guy you told us about. The one who doesn’t eat beans!”

Another pupil, joins in,

“Or hytop…hypon…hy …oh I can’t even say it!!”

Hypotenuse“, I finish with a proud smile. “You have all been listening. I’m impressed!

A third pupil leans over,

“Miss, can you get me one of those?”

A visor? Leave it with me!” I say with a grin, moving away

And in moments like these, more than the day the Premier League came back, more that my first visit to the pub, or first post-Lockdown haircut, I feel as if life has started up again.

Who knows how long it will last. Each day the number of new covid-19 cases creeps a little higher, although fatalities remain low. As teachers we train for remote learning, blended learning and catch-up learning. Risk assessments are reviewed weekly and only get longer. We remain in a precarious position. But with attendance topping 96% for us this week, and reported to be between 91% and 100% in a wider national survey of schools, there are clearly a lot of families hoping the school gates remain unlocked long into the future …