There’s a hot tub in my garden…

Saturday 23 April 20222

Golly gosh; can my two girls shop!

As the Easter holidays draw to a close, I hardly recognise my own home! Cheered on, at times propelled on, by my daughterly duo of retail fanatics, not only does my conservatory proudly boast a new furniture but the weathered and worn plastic garden chairs have also been binned in favour of ‘zero-gravity‘ recliners. Have I taken leave of my senses? Well I just might have done exactly that, because the shopping frenzy all began….with a hot tub!!

Oh the hot tub! A fanciful notion floated several weeks ago, after some bargain deals bounced into the inbox. The only part the teens really play in this transaction, as my ‘older generation‘ head wavers and wobbles over such a luxurious item, is to confidently waive aside my worries and doubts and merrily shove me across the financial finishing line… and into the blissful outdoor spa!

However, scarcely has the froth subsided on our first dip in the bubbles, when purchase number 2 is in the boot of the car. I innocently agree to potter into town with my Eldest, to return a package to Next and pop into Boots for a new moisturiser when, lo and behold, my girl steers me into a store promising ‘unbeatable bargains‘ on garden furniture and I find myself trundling to the till with four new ‘zero-gravity‘ recliners with accompanying drinks table!

Mum, you have been looking for new outdoor furniture for years!”,

she smiles reassuringly, as I appear a little flustered. This is utterly true, but I had anticipated at least another half decade of looking and wondering and weighing-up before I actually made any daring dash to the cash-till. In addition, I am not at all sure what ‘zero’gravity‘ chairs even are! But, as we try them all out upon our return home, they are very comfortable. And, as my daughter points out, together with the hot tub really ‘freshen up the garden experience!

I know what you’re thinking, by now I had surely learned my lesson! But no, as Prom-dress daughter arrives home to swell the youthful and carefree ranks of the household, I am persuaded to head out to Ikea to replace a few broken glasses, replenish my dwindling supply of cereal bowls and try out the new plant balls’. Five minutes! We are there for only five minutes, before we are are snuggling on a new sofa and admiring the display of accompanying rug and table!

This is so comfy! Gorgeous!

You’ve been looking for ages, Mum”

“Don’t you just love it!”

“The poor conservatory has been completely bare for 18 months now!”

They do actually allow me to stop and consider this one, over (delicious) plant balls, mash and gravy. Possibly, I am distracted by the delights of my redcurrant jelly but equally the fact that they are correct and that my lovely, sunny, garden room has been an empty shell for a year and half does also register and I decide to go for it, rug, coffee table and all!

At the warehouse, things are slightly complicated as we discover that, despite endless permutations of collapsed seats and car-boot boxes and much hilarity as the three of us career around the carpark with the weighty beast, the sofa is never going to be squashed into my car. In now rueful resignation, I wave my credit card at the cashier and fork out for home delivery!

So here I am. But here’s the thing; the purchases have all be fantastic. We live in the conservatory now and wonder what we ever did before. The new garden equipment has been super-fun, long overdue and made the Easter holidays seem pretty idyllic. I’d go as far as to say that it has made me fall in love with my own home again.

Thus, as the clash of youthful exuberance and a dash of ‘carpe diem’ with my single-mum (crippling) caution has a clear victor on this occasion, I’ll admit that I am glad to have been defeated. Left to my own devices I would doubtless have a few more £100s in the bank, awaiting the proverbial ‘rainy day’, but the conservatory would still be an empty room and the tired old plastic chairs would have tempted no-one to sit in the garden this holiday. Why not ‘seize the day’ and enjoy a few sunny days right now. A trip to IKEA isn’t ever going to break the bank so when those rainy days do arrive, I’ll still be ready!

Nonetheless, the bank manager and I do heave a little sigh of relief as my two shopaholic students set off back to uni-land ….

Edinburgh…

Tuesday 12 April 2022

Whisky with your porridge Madam?

It may be 9am, but I am on holiday, so “Och aye the noo – don’t mind if I do!”

Could I be in Scotland? I certainly could and after a fantastic few days in the capital city I can only conclude that having offspring studying at far-distant corners of the UK certainly has its advantages when it comes to planning a weekend away …

Edinburgh; the perfect venue for a short city break. The 4 hour-drive on a chilly Saturday morning, is quiet and clear. Upon arrival, we find Prom-dress daughter and grab a quick lunch before .. and here is the genius move parents … we wave farewell to Small boy and his sister, who joyfully head off to explore student life without their mum in tow. Meanwhile, my friend and I check into a nearby B&B and from there step out to indulge in a couple of days of teen-free time and … it is glorious!

Edinburgh is a city of two halves, the Old and New Towns. We dive into the Old Town and, in the short time we have, never really make it out again! (I suppose there is always ‘next time’ for the Georgian splendour of Princes Street and the Waverley Gardens). We wander the famous Royal Mile, with its cobbles, colour and many wonderfully named adjoining streets; Fleshmarket Close, Candlemaker’s Row, Cowgate, and Circus Lane. In St Giles’s Cathedral, we find the choir mid-rehearsal and pause to marvel as the beautiful voices and organ chords float through the gothic columns.

We join the Dark Side tour to walk the streets as night falls and learn more. The two hour experiences takes us as far as Arthur’s Seat and through several graveyards and dusky alleys as we are regaled with tales of poor Mary King, treacherous Burke and Hare and tales of witchcraft and fairie folklore.

It makes quite an impression and inspires us, the following day, to delve further into some of the objects and stories at the excellent Surgeon’s Hall Museum and the Edinburgh Museum. And all of this walking and sightseeing is mighty thirsty and tiring work, so we are also delighted to to find plentiful refreshment stops and use these to sample the local food and beer. My ‘vegan-haggis’ pannini is not an experience I’ll ever repeat but, as the wise sages say, ‘nothing ventured…’

On our final evening we do reunite with my two younger children at a trendy eatery is the Grassmarket area. They have also had a great time and as I still have … well half the city to explore … I raise my final whisky cocktail to , ‘the next time…’

Crowd surfing passengers to the loo…

Monday 14 February 2022

First TransPennine Express and the industry regulator The Office of Rail and Road… have jointly commissioned this research to find out how satisfied you were with the handling of a complaint you made to First TransPennine Express…”

The message lands in my email inbox, at the start of the month. Keen to have a say on this occasion, I fill out their suggested questionnaire promptly. When, 2 weeks later I’ve heard nothing, I decide instead to share the complaint-in-question in this week’s blog. Back to November we go …

The occasion was Prom-dress daughter’s weekend trip home from the Scottish capital which coincided with Storm Arwen hitting the British Isles. And Arwen caused travel carnage. The train schedule was a catalogue of disruption and delay, so we were surprised when my daughter’s return journey was not amongst them and found ourselves setting to Piccadilly as planned.

On platform 14, we descended together … into a scene of utter chaos. Because this was one operational service in a deluge of cancellations, everyone wanted to be on it! Crowds were seething in all directions in the sort of numbers you see when Old Trafford empties out. But unlike the end of a large sporting fixture, when experienced marshals and police manage the crowds with authority, there were no rail staff to be seen.

As the slightly delayed train pulled into the station, a lone windswept and harried guard scurried out with his flag and watched the assembled passengers surging forward to cram into the carriages. Prom-dress daughter was frozen to the spot for a moment but, colour drained from her face, also scrambled aboard and I saw her standing in a corridor near the doors.

No seat mum, but I do have a space to stand…it is completely packed!”

came the text.

My horrified eyes now scanned the rest of the train, as more and more people pushed themselves through the doors. I watched the train stutter out of the station, rammed to the rafters. Faces and bodies pressed against windows and doors. And I felt fear….

Who is in charge?” I asked the guard “It looks ridiculously crowded… is it safe?”

I was told that there were only 3 members of staff, one of whom was the driver, caring for what were clearly hundreds and hundreds of passengers.

Back into the main part of the station, I queued to report my concerns. A manager was tannoyed to come and speak to me but he swiftly waived my concerns aside and reassured me that safety was his ‘number one concern’ and that when the train was judged to be full, new passengers would be stopped from boarding.

This turned out not to be the case. At each of the 9 stops, more and more people were allowed to force their way into the carriages. My daughter sent only occasional texts, as she struggled to find the room to raise her phone to eye level. No-one could move a muscle. One of the most shocking reports was that passengers needing the toilet had to be ‘crowd surfed’ in by fellow travellers. Trainline recorded a staggering 87 crowd alerts.

And this continued for hours and hours. I contacted TransPennine. I contacted the transport police. I contacted Trainline. Everyone was concerned but no-one had a plan of action. One operator assured me that she would relay these concerns onto the train personnel and my daughter later told me that for the final 30 minutes of the journey, there were regular messages giving out an emergency number for any passengers in distress. Was that due to me… no idea!

As no-one else seemed willing or able to take control, I eventually texted

“Just get off at the next station”

My child replied,

I cant…I cant even see where the exit is anymore…”

and I no longer knew what to do to help, other than pray!

Thankfully they made it to Edinburgh but my relief has now given way to real anger and I repeat the question I asked of the guard back in Manchester

Who is in charge?”

I do not for one moment want to suggest that our trains are consistently unsafe, but they were on this occasion and it cannot have been unexpected. Storm Arwen had caused over 24 hours of train cancellations prior to this service being allowed to run. Any Tom Dick or Harry could have predicted high demand for limited seats so,

Where were the extra staff to manage this and keep people safe?”

Secondly, I was told that if the train was deemed too crowded that new passengers would not be permitted to board. Well, if 87 crowd alerts, passengers being crowd-surfed to the loo and bodies and faces pressed against windows and doors are not indicators for this… what exactly are? What further metrics are we looking for? How much more shocking do the standards have to be before anyone takes action?

Thirdly I was told that safety was a ‘number one priority’. Well, on this service no-one could budge an inch and this included the 2 train staff who were unable to move through the carriages and corridors to check on passenger well-being. So how on earth would they even have known if anyone was in distress? In my daughters cramped corridor there was an elderly lady, medically advised not to stand for long periods of time. She had to abandon her fold down seat and stand as the seating simply took up too much space.

It is unacceptable and down to a clear lack of leadership. There appeared to be no-one able to make a decision. No-one with the courage, clarity and care to stand up and say

“Enough is enough! No more people on this train. It is not safe”

Why did this not happen? Was is money; fear of compensation and refunds? I have certainly been pointed towards refunds and financial claims but I haven’t made them because I don’t want a refund. I just was assurance that this will not happen again.

I await a response from First TransPennine Express and the industry regulator The Office of Rail and Road

Reading week…

Sunday 14 November 2021

The university term reaches a ‘reading week’ for my Eldest and she finds time to pop home for a few days. What an unexpected treat …

Reading week, whose purpose universities inform us is “time to catch up on reading, do more in-depth reading, or prepare for coursework ” but often, according to, Eleanor Doughty writing in The Independent is “nothing but a poorly disguised trip home for a visit to Mum’s tumble drier…” was off the agenda in Autumn 2020. Fears over the rapid spread covid-19 cases a year ago lead to higher education institutions urging students to stay on campus throughout the term. Whereupon, as all ‘teaching and learning’ was online and ‘in your student room’ anyway, there was little to distinguish it from the normal working week.

Whatever its purpose, I am delighted to see the brief pause in lectures and seminars return and to have a couple of days with my lovely girl. We launch the weekend with the return of ‘Friday takeaway’, movie and wine. The following morning, after prepping her brother for his Chemistry mock exam next week, lunching with a friend and going shopping with her nana, my daughter announces that:

“We should do something on Saturday night!”

And so that is exactly what we do. My son already has plans with ‘the boys’ and so ‘we girls’ do cocktails, do food and do lots of chat. I drink far too much and find myself, I think for the first time I can recall, very publicly, ever-so slightly squiffy … on a night out with one of my children!!

I may have a banging headache on Sunday morning and I may resolve that I am never ordering a Negroni again…but it was very much worth it. As I wave my Eldest off on the train back to University land, I hope that she has had a bit if a break from the stresses and strains of term time because a weekend not spent cleaning, ironing, shopping and worrying about work has without doubt been a fantastic break for her mum! Do you know what… I might even forget the lesson plans this afternoon, open up my kindle and treat myself to a bit of reading too!

Autumn Half Term 2021

It may be work on Monday, but that is still two days away which make it the perfect time to look back on a great half term, visiting ‘the students’ ….

Monday sees us powering up the A1 to return my Eldest to Uni, after she descended upon Manchester for a gig at the weekend. Small boy and I stay over, tucked into a B &B in the heart of student land and allow my daughter to ‘show us the sites’. We stroll around the Dene, with its waterfall and mill, we wander the University campus, seeking out the ‘Old Library’ where, nearly 2 years ago we came for ‘the interview’ and … over curry and wine, we meet the boyfriend (which, I think goes very well!)

Tuesday, after a post-lecture lunch with our lovely girl, we hit the road once more; destination Edinburgh and Prom-dress Daughter…

Gosh it is wet and wild in the Scottish capital and parking… just a night mare! I have a £60 PCN on my windscreen within 15 minutes of arrival. But all of that just evaporates away as a familiar smiling face bounces into our city centre hotel room and whisks us out for food … and cocktails. The next day, my two younger teens spend happy hours together perusing local bookshops. All three of us ‘nearly’ see the Art Gallery… come to think of it, I ‘nearly saw’ it about 15 years ago too, on an Edinburgh weekend with a best friend. On that occasion we got side tracked by the bar; this time it is the more wholesome excuse of covid- secure tickets selling out!

Never mind,…’ I cry recalling my previous visit, ‘…even if we can’t do the Gallery itself, the gift shop is great!’

And, to offspring who love to hear those retail tills ringing, the gift shop does indeed prove a hit; and maybe it is this very moment that catalyses a spell of clothes shopping too! Small boy perfects his ‘oversized clothes’ look with a pair of very (very) large jeans and Prom-dress Daughter, who has managed to shrink most of her clothes in the student launderette, gratefully seizes an opportunity to boost her wardrobe.

All too soon it is Thursday and Small boy and I must bid farewell to yet another family member and turn the car towards England once more. I detour via the Lake District, where my son is meeting up with his Dad for a few days, and by now, as heavy rain, foretold in ‘amber warning’ forecasts, viciously sweep across the North of the UK it proves quite a trip for us all. My Ex -hub is delayed by vehicle fires in one direction and we have to navigate several road floods in the other. Eventually, several hours behind schedule, Small boy is handed over … at a truck stop and I head home!

And the fun is not over for me either, for I am not the only parent with offspring in Higher Education. One of my very best friends now has a child at a Northern University, which gives us the perfect opportunity to meet up too – hooray! She comes to stay with me for a couple of days.We drink plenty of wine, she catches -up with her lovely family and as the younger generation leave for their own parties and social events, we head into Media City for a bit of culture at the Van Gogh alive exhibition and… wow!! I can, and will, post pictures but to appreciate this incredible show, you need to go in person. I can best describe it as a ‘concert of art‘; as we are enveloped in a vibrant,visual exploration of Van Gogh’s art and life with a gorgeous, rich musical soundtrack to stir the emotions and give the experience a magical and immersive quality. We watch wide eyed and open mouthed and just love it!

But as Saturday dawns, my friend too must drive homeward. Small boy returns and we collect Boris the Gecko from his boarding quarters at the local pet shop. I decide that I like half terms … a lot! Work will start again on Monday but for now.. I am already dreaming of my next school holiday …

We holiday not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.”

Sometimes you deserve a treat …

Saturday 25 September 2021

I did set out to have a dry month but, as I finish another demanding week of September 2021, I am dreaming of a G &T, a Sicilian lemon flavoured shot of deliciousness … and I decided to indulge and feel not a second or remorse. No, I think I deserve it! And here is why:

1) I survive teaching GCSE Spanish (in addition to my usual mathematics)

A deluge of PCR test appointments causes the teacher absence rate to rises rapidly and the dreaded “rarely cover” re-appears on timetables. And so it is that I find myself directed, for a double lesson of Year 10 Spanish last thing on a Friday afternoon.

I have never learned Spanish, however, back in 2018 when I helped my Eldest revise for her GCSE Spanish speaking test, she put me through such a relentless schedule of practice that by the end, not only was she ready to shine but I reckon that I could also have scraped a respectable grade 3! So, I get off to a confident start in the classroom,

Wow miss, you actually sound as if you are Spanish!”

one pupils observes, as a I navigate the opening activity. Alas, as we get deeper into our translation activity, my limitations become only too apparent. When I try to help one puzzled pupil by suggesting that “Enrique’s favourite activity is taking photos of a sacred family?” a very lovely, and linguistically able girl, calls me over and whispers “Miss, it’s The Sagrada Familia, a very famous church in Barcelona.” She then gives me a little shrug, as if to say, ‘Should we tell the rest of the class?’

Of course we should! I call the group together. We view pictures of Gaudi’s basilica on the white board. I throw in the tale of my friend and I being mugged in Las Ramblas, on a trip to Barcelona in the late 80s and, as several hands shoot up, the classroom is a buzz of other holiday and passport disasters.

As we eventually return to work, it is agreed that, if self-help strategies fail, (familiar vocab; cognates, dictionary, working partner) and we need to ‘ask an expert’ that the expert is clearly not me, but rather several nominated pupils dotted about the room.

2) I converse civilly with the local anti-vaxers

As covid vaccination is now rolled out nationally to the under 16’s, this protest group, with noise, banners and pamphlets, migrate to the locality of English high schools. Our Head handles it really well.

After conferring with local school leaders and hearing the cautionary tale of Headteacher who sent the Senior Leadership Team out en masse, whereupon they became embroiled in the confusion and, in the local media coverage, were presented as being part of the protest, we are far more low key. We are dispatched individually to politely greet any anti-vaxers we encounter, recognising their right to opinion and protest but gently reminding them not to put leaflets into pupils’ bags without their consent, nor to attempt to stop pupils who just want to get into the school building without talking to them. So far, so good… but I think this addition to our work duties may well last beyond the end of this calendar month!

3) I complete my ’60 running miles in September’

Gosh; so much harder than my January, ‘run at least a mile a day‘ quest. To keep up to date, I aim for 2 miles per day but, I discover that this means finding close to 20 minutes of daily ‘me-time’ and in September 2021, this has been a tough ask. So I push myself to finish early, with some longer weekend jogs, and feel overjoyed as the Strava clock tells me I’ve made it. I am full of relief to be free of the relentless demands of finding the time and route for a suitable 2 miler … as is my very sore right ankle. On the upside; I do feel good and pretty proud, plus all my pre-covid work clothes now fit me again. Who knows; by next week, where a staff social has made its way onto the calendar, I think there may be a fighting a chance that I’ll be able to fasten up my little black party dress too!

4) We make 4 journeys to the vets

Poor Boris has really struggled in September 2021 and is still not cured. We have now: clocked up over 80 miles of driving to and from the exotic pet specialists; spent over 10 hours, stuck in rush hour traffic, waiting in car parks or consulting with vets; administered many eye drops and other medicine and endured many many days feeling anxious and worried as he continues to look troubled and out of sorts.

5) I have missed first 1 and now 2 uni-girls for 23 days and only told them so once … or maybe twice

Yes, probably the biggest challenge of the whole month has been adjusting to life with two of the squad living in other cities….and that is a mission I’m definitely a long way from fully accomplishing but at least I’ve mostly managed to sound bright and breezy on our calls.

So all in all…I think I deserve a little tipple and in fact it is amazing that I made it this far without a small reward. But let’s not stop with me. Look back at your September, I’ll bet you’ll find plenty of reasons to treat yourself too!!

And then there were two…

Sunday 19 September 2021

There is another empty room now at our house, as Prom Dress Daughter heads to University in Edinburgh.

We actually drove her there a week ago and it was quite a drive. My Eldest hopped in at Newcastle to lend sisterly support. We all stayed over at a hotel in the Scottish capital. And, after helping to unpack, do a food shop, try to fathom the wifi, and hug out an emotional goodbye, we delivered my first born back to the North East, navigated around the Great North Run and my son and I finally pulled back onto the drive at 7pm; a full 34 hours after leaving.

So, I hear you wonder,

How does it feel?’ 

How does it feel to be just two… or three if you count our gecko? How does it feel to look at half emptied wardrobes and shelves with missing ornaments? How does it feel to wonder how our girl is coping: in a new flat, in a new city, in a whole new learning environment? Well I have to confess that for the first few days we are too exhausted and drained to feel anything. The new week cruelly dawns, after very little sleep or rest, and is a punishing game of catch-up: supermarket sweeps, frantic washing and ironing, and late night work prep. Then comes fraught back-to-back vets trips, as poor Boris continues to struggle and my days last from 6am to 8pm, before we can even think about food or … sitting down.

But eventually the weekend arrives. Saturday is a back breaking assault upon a house that looks as if a bomb has hit it. And Sunday … well Sunday is the day when I briefly allow everything to hit me. I am shuffling despondently around the supermarket with only half my trolley full, thinking ‘What on earth do I even buy?‘ and ‘How do you shop for only two?’ when a wave of sadness hits me and the tears begin to fall. I am tired, I am stressed and…I miss my girls, I miss the old certainties of family life

What a forlorn site I must look. Other shoppers avoid eye contact and push their trolleys past, with grim tunnel vision and all the speed those wobbly wheels will muster. Do I feel isolated? Unimportant? Uncared for? Possibly; it is certainly a moment when I wish I had a partner to turn to; someone to understand, to hear me, to pour a glass of wine. But I don’t. I am a single parent and I need to get it together. I have the magnificent Small Boy in the house, who doesn’t need a miserable mum moping about the place, rather deserves me to listen and prioritise his worries, concerns and plans for the weeks ahead. I take a deep breath, wipe my face on my sleeve, pull my mask a little higher and head to the checkout

Back home, however,it is that same Small Boy who comes bundling out of the front door, brushing aside my request for ‘help with the shopping‘ and instead waving a phone under my nose. I quickly see why… it’s a WhatApp group call with two very familiar faces beaming from the screen.

“Hi Mum – how are you?

Isolated? Unimportant? Uncared for…. maybe not after all; maybe just needing time to adapt to change? I just think it will take me quite a while to get used to my new normal ….

The IKEA uni shop…

Friday 13 August 2021

As I went into labour with my second child, 18 years ago, I do recall thinking.

Arghhh …. now I remember how much this hurts! Where’s my epidural?

And this week, as Prom-dress daughter gleefully drags me off to the aisles of IKEA for her ‘Uni shop’, I get a similar flashback to … can I say the pain… of my visit here last year, when my Eldest child also stocked up on her accommodation essentials.

Well, if not pain, it’s certainly a financial shock to the system! If we rewind the clocks back to 1980s, when I headed off to Higher Education, I pretty much took a few spare mugs and pans from my mum’s kitchen and the quilt from my bed. Not the case anymore … at least not in our house! It’s colour co-ordinated crockery, plastic plants, gin glasses, storage boxes and … and on and on it goes. One hour in and our trolley is stacked high, dangerously swaying and cheekily chinking and tinkling as we totter through the delights of the IKEA ‘Market Place’. None of it is particularly expensive but, as my mental calculator goes into over drive, it all adds up, and I find myself fighting the urge to grab one of the giant gin globes and pour myself a stiff drink!

I also have an emotional jolt, exactly as I did one year ago. As we are rummaging through the racks of bath mats and towels, my daughter’s face animated and happy, it suddenly hits me. Her excitement and haul of goods are not about her bedroom at my house. No, these are the trappings for a new room and a new life far, far away. Momentarily, my heart drops into my shoes and I have to fix a grin determinedly on my face and use every ounce of effort to stop myself shouting out,

I don’t want you to go…”

Because in that second I really don’t. What I want is for time just to pause for a while. I want a few more weeks of my trusty trio all back home, watching trash TV, laughing at in-jokes, sharing nonsense into the WhatsApp group. But, I am proud to report that, in trusty mum style, I pull myself together, for of course, it is not what any of us reallydesire. It is simply that change is difficult and sometimes painful.

Maybe too, I am also over exhausted with all this shopping! Yes, there are further things that are aching … my head, which is completely zonked and my feet which are screaming “Heels, today! Really?” To revive our tired legs and frazzled brains, we stop for coffee and review our progress. Prom-dress daughter works briskly through her pre-prepared list and cheerfully informs me that,

It will probably take another shop to tick off all the ‘essentials’

Well one the bright side, that is not for today. We hit the motorway and collapse at home with a chippy tea and some very large gins in the new glasses. Alcohol… possibly the epidural to get me through the next few weeks …

Exam Results 2021 …let’s make it about the pupils

Monday 9 August 2021

It’s the eve of A level Results day in England, with GCSEs following, hot on their heels. Always a tense time for so many pupils and parents but: throw in 18 months of  covid-chaos in our educational establishments; toss in the word ‘ teacher assessed grades’ and stir it all up with accusations of ‘grade inflation’ and speculation of a landslide of appeals and our scandal-seeking national media look set for a bumper week of headlines.

Is it unfair to suggest that the press and politicians and ‘joe-public know-alls’ sometimes forget that pupils lie at the heart of this…

Our house is on edge, anxiously awaiting A level results for Prom-dress daughter. Like many pupils in her position, this set of grades represent hard work and talent but even more importantly a whole ton of resilience and grit. Yes, it is remarkable that so many of these pupils kept going. Kept going through: home-learning, blended learning, lockdown, unlocking, mass testing, endless isolation orders  and … to cap it all an anxious assessment marathon, hastily cobbled together at the eleventh hour by an incompetent Department of Education. Let’s spare them headlines that make ill-informed shots at the validity of their grades; they deserve every success and every bit of praise their schools and families can lavish upon them. For those who don’t receive exactly the scores they hoped for … I think we know that they have learned how to pick themselves up, learned how to adapt…. I think they need to be reassured that they  will be okay.

For whilst my daughter and others collecting results are typical of most examination age pupils, there is another group whose story is even less likely to be told.  As we dispatched out Teacher Assessed Grades in June there were a small number of young people receiving no grades at all. And we are not alone. In July 2021, the TES in their article ‘Most teachers had GCSE evidence gaps‘ found that over 70% of teachers had pupils for whom they could not evidence a grade.

The article explores many reasons for this saddest of situations; mental health, bereavement, school refusal, the causes are numerous. There is an even more serious issue too, some of our pupils are actually lost. Lost to education and … missing. Quoted in a Times article, Anne Longfield, former children’s commissioner reported that,

” …the state had lost track of tens of thousands of pupils who had gone “off grid” during the pandemic…” 

Her fears for these vulnerable young people centre upon the threats from criminal gangs and the dark cloud of county lines that casts an ever present shadow over our school communities.

Is there a place for this cohort of pupils on results day? I’d like to think that there was … because I really believe in educational care. I’d like to say ‘come back to us‘ even if you haven’t gained a single grade. We have time for you too today. We’ll find you a path. We’ll help you take that first step. We are … still here. Because 18 months of a global pandemic has re-emphasised one thing so clearly to those of us privileged to work in our high schools and colleges, pupils are not just a set of exam statistics, and a list of grades, they are complete and unique young people. And they flourish with our amazing knowledge but also our care and encouragement that helps each one to see how much they matter and what the best version of themselves might be.

So please…  let’s make this week’s results days about the pupils… about all the pupils….

Turning 18…

Sunday 8 August 2021

This week Prom-dress daughter turns 18 … and, for the first time in quite a while, I wobble …

I don’t actually think it’s the birthday weekend itself. Celebrations, that start with a lovely family meal in a city restaurant and quickly become more raucous and merry as relatives give way to friends, fizzy wine and a hot tub in the garden, seem fun. Seem joyful. Seem happy.

I don’t actually think it’s the milestone either. Yes my middle child is now officially an ‘adult’ and, after 18 month of lockdown restrictions in this North West town, is more than ready to head out into town, brandishing her ID to make the most of newly re-opened bars and venues. But, let’s face, that’s just the fun part of being a grown-up. I am sure that I shall be parenting, financing, providing support and guidance … and being taken for granted for a few more years yet.

I start to feel emotional when I turn the clock back 18 years, to the traumatic days of her birth and think about that first week of life on NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). Although the experience, so far removed from the joyous picture you have of giving birth and bringing your new child home, adopts a surreal dream-like quality, certain moments and phrases still dance around my head, with chilling clarity, to this day,

come through to the family room, the consultant will be free to discuss this with you shortly”

” a number of seizures…. loss of oxygen to the brain”

“the next 48 hours will be critical…”

But, you meet some truly inspiring people in the NICU community. Heroic parents who have battled for weeks by the sides of those incubators … and never complain. Instead they wrap you, the dazed newcomer, in their love, support and camaraderie. The doctors and nurses, who so quickly learn your name, as well as your child’s, and take time to care and communicate, so that you feel like a person who matters and not just another patient on a lengthy list. And Prom-dress daughter herself, such an incredible little bundle of fight and fury that we only stayed for a week before being discharged, albeit with a few more tubes, dressings and needle marks than the typical newborn, into outpatient care.

It is in this context that look at her now. She did make it through the next 48 hours; she made it through the 2 years of neurological check-ups and testing, … she made it to 18 and a brilliant 18. If I stop to think… it feels a little overwhelming. But, she is an August birthday and with examination results out next week, I also know that I may not have too much time to dwell.

If she gets the grades she needs, in less than a month Prom-dress daughter will be off to Uni. As my middle child, she is naturally the buddy of choice to each of the other two and they both adore her. She is a unique mix: super high maintenance but warm, accepting, funny and incredibly smart. We sometimes call her the ‘heart beat of our household’ and suddenly I know why I’m wobbling. The 18th birthday has started the clock ticking down to the time when she sets out to make her own way in the world. She is definitely ready; I am just not sure that I am prepared to let my little ‘incu-baby’ go …