Sunday, December 31, 2006

MORE education? Just what we don't need!

The Labour Party chairperson, Hazel Blears, totally misses the point in this news item about alcohol drinking in the UK.

"The 24-hour drinking was supposed to be the end of life as we know it. That hasn't happened," she said.

"The health implications worry me. People are getting quite serious health conditions earlier, things like liver problems in their twenties and thirties that perhaps before only came out in their forties and fifties.

"I think we've got to do more education now - that has to be the absolute priority."

I think most people do understand, by now, that if you pour copious amounts of booze regularly down your throat, get drunk and fall over it's not all that good for your health. Seems obvious to me and, if she has a brain, it should also be obvious to Ms Blears, that the people who do it don't care about that!

It's not that they need MORE education, it's that they need less! Or, preferably, none! Patronisingly pointing out the health risks is not going to make people want to drink less, it's going to make them want to drink more! They get drunk because they're so stressed out, nagged, coerced, criticised, educated and generally manipulated every way they turn, that getting out of their head on whatever is the only respite.

The full-time compulsory schooling laws we have in this country are the major contributor to that - the main cause of all our social and health problems, including binge drinking.

MORE education is not the answer. Quite the opposite, please.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

*Pokes world*

Hey, where are you all?

Am I talking too much?

I mean, ok, it is 7am on Saturday morning in between Christmas and the New Year, but how is that different to any other time?

Don't tell me home educators only read blogs in school hours! :-O

Gah. *Gives up on world, shuts down PC, stomps off to plaster wall*

Church man speaks sense!

Pupil testing worries archbishop

Especially this bit: He said children needed "a sort of latency period" to grow and explore at their own rate.

- yes Dr Williams! Let's call that "sort of latency period".. childhood! Go on, think a bit further...

Someone send him a reading list ;-)

Friday, December 29, 2006

I do not think Saddam should be executed

... or anyone else, for that matter. The death penalty is actually something I feel really strongly about. I think it's supremely hypocritical to kill one person as 'punishment' for them killing other people.

Either we disagree with killing in principle and we don't sanction any killings at all, or we condone killing in principle in which case, let's just have a blood bath and have done with it. Except that's not going to do the population figures much good.

But we can't have it both ways.

It's a bad day when anyone gets killed for any reason at all, including Saddam - and all of his victims, of course.

I also think Tony Blair and George Bush are personally both treading on very unstable ground by not doing more to prevent this from happening.

*Saturday update*

But of course, they did it anyway. Does anyone engage their brains before making these decisions? Maybe I'm missing some really obvious bit of the logic process, I dunno.

Last night I listened to...

.. the penultimate episode of Michael Morpurgo's Invention of Childhood. It was the one I really wanted to listen to, and I fell asleep halfway through! I was especially interested in last night's because it covered the period of time when compulsory schooling and the NHS came into being and I wanted to hear how he rationalised it. So I'll be listening again sometime soon when I'm more awake.

When I did wake up The World Tonight was halfway through this debate: Is there too much prying into our private lives or is surveillance the right price to pay for public safety? Which sounded really interesting, but I fell asleep again after 10 minutes! So I might listen again to that too if I get chance today.

Next I will definitely be listening to the Clement Atlee papers, to which I can't find a link right now. But again, it covers the political discussions that were taking place after the WWII, regarding the setting up of the NHS, the Welfare State and the 1944 Education Act. I was interested to find out yesterday (Michael Morpurgo I think) that there was a major Education Act immediately after every major war of the 20th Century. I'm also still reading The Underground History of American Education which is just getting interesting about that very issue.


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

That bank balance I finally got to grips with..

... is excitingly, dramatically balanced at the moment!

We managed Christmas in its entirety without busting the budget (which is more, I think, than the Chancellor of the Exchequor managed) but things are scarily close to the wire now, in a not really scary at all sort of way.

Basically, if the mortgage goes out seasonally late and the DSS money comes in seasonally early (both on Friday), we'll be OK. If not, we'll get charged £25 per 'illegal' transaction, bless HSBC's Christmas cotton socks.

It's not *really* scary because Tom is rolling in both Christmas and earned cash, and is more than willing to sub the household accounts if needs be, but I just like living dangerously ;-)

So I'm phoning the bank twice a day to check the balance until the weekend.

Well, you have to get your kicks one way or another and I stopped watching Eastenders ages ago. (Someone killed Pauline...? So I gather.) Still listening to the Archers though - imagine David and Ruth's cow having triplets! On Christmas day! Humph, my bank balance drama beats that into a tin hat any day :-)

By the way, if anyone's starting to worry about us, don't! We have enough food in our kitchen to feed the 5,000 and BT owes me £80. What are the chances of me getting that back any time soon, then? ^^

*Thursday update*: The Child Benefit went in four days early! We are saved. I was *almost* disappointed when I phoned for the balance this morning, but not really ;-)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Eve snippets

From Lyddie:

"But what if the chimney's too small?"

"When will I be three again? Never?!! Oh.." *tears*

"Move the chestnuts or he might land on them."

"Did we get a present for him? Because I know he's bringing one for me so we should give him one back."

"Mum, it's dark now. We all have to go to bed!"

The other blog

I've set up another blog this morning for more personal stuff than I can publish here. I'll still keep the home ed and political posts here, but if you want to read about anything else that's happening you need the new blog address and a password.

To give you the password I'll have to know something about who you are, so that I can keep track of who is reading the private blog. I'm being quite cautious about who I'm sharing this info with, so that I can enjoy writing freely over there about personal stuff.

Email me at if you want the address etc., or just leave a comment with your email address on here. Please let me know your name, your blog address if you have one, and anything else you think I might need to know.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Children and adults: sworn enemies

Yesterday morning, a visiting teenager was with us, facing one of our esteemed elderly relatives. She's an adult: a kindly, friendly, but elderly adult, so he had nothing to say to her. This teenager has plenty to say to other teenagers and children, whether he knows them or not - I know because I've heard with my own ears - but sat and looked blankly at this adult, making no attempt to say anything at all. For over an hour. Our relative can't help being an adult; it comes to us all. But she was blanked and ignored on the grounds of her age only. If she had been 14 instead of 72 she would have been included in the conversation by him and entertained.

In the afternoon we went to the park. There was a crowd of older children, 10-11 year olds I think, who looked like they'd just finished school early for the Christmas holidays. They saw me - an adult - approaching and quickly and audibly arranged somewhere else to go instead. Within 10 seconds before they'd even looked at my face properly or heard my voice, they'd all gone. It was blatantly obvious that they'd only left the park because they couldn't relax and have fun in the company of an adult.

Early evening found us in a busy cafe, on a table surrounded by other tables with families and young children. We were happy with our drinks and snacks and a new Disney magazine to read but Lyddie struggled to hear me reading the stories to her. All we could hear from the other families was:

"Sit up straight."

"Don't slurp your drink."

"Behave yourself."

"Oh look, now you've spilt it. You're so stupid."

"No you can't have a toy. You're not having anything."

"Get your homework out and get it done."

"Stop running around."

"You're not having crisps, you've just had your tea."

"Stop kicking your legs."

And more and more and more, like a nightmare going on around us. Suddenly the earlier two incidents made perfect sense to me.

Today's adults here in the UK mostly see all children as being the Problem, to be manipulated and controlled, mistrusted and somehow made to behave itself. Today's children mostly see all adults as being the Enemy, to be ignored and avoided at all costs.

All the children involved in the above events (except Lyddie of course) go to school. I know this because, even if I didn't know them, they were wearing school uniforms.

What happens when they reach 18? This is what I fell to wondering last night. Do they go to bed on the eve of their 18th birthdays on one side of The Great Divide and wake up on the other?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

I've nearly finished being an elf

Helping Santa find, buy, wrap, label and hide many presents for all one's children all without one's 4-year old noticing anything is not easy! It's times like that when I'll admit HEing single parenthood to be a bit of a challenge. But with a bit of help from my friends and some Christmas magic, I've managed :-) We've just got some cleaning and socialising to do now.

We've heard from lots of people who haven't been in touch for months and years, including several old friends who obviously need bringing up-to-date about family news. Hmmm. I might get around to that sometime in January.

Also my ex-husband has been in touch, and some of the three teens (his children) are thinking about responding to his approaches now that he's separated from his latest wife, with whom they didn't get along. Well, for me that's not likely to mean anything but trouble, but if it's what they need to do then of course they must do it.

Many things have changed since we last saw him (in court) five years ago - the main thing being that Tom, Ali and Zara are old enough not to need me to be involved in any arrangements. He also can't do anything to try to force them back into school or into care now, we don't think, although he might well try to cause those kind of problems with their younger siblings.

I just can't help being cynical and thinking, yes, NOW he has no wife to share Christmas with, he suddenly remembers he has three children. But I'll have to be strict with myself and consider the whole thing to be none of my business now (huge relief that is), because I refuse to be upset by him again. I've done my very best with them all and I think they're sufficiently wise and resilient to not be damaged by him either.

We'll see.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Children in Chancery

I've spent most of the weekend reading Children in Chancery by Joy Baker, who was born in 1923 and educated at school for only 7 years, which she contended to have been 7 years too long. She received most of her education at home from her mother, as was normal in those days. By the time her first son David was born in 1945, Rab Butler's 1944 Education Act was in place and it was against this and the officials paid to impose it, that Joy spent most of her mothering years fighting.

Having tried school herself and found the experience to be damaging, she decided against sending her own children to school and was puzzled, in the first place, to find that carrying out her decision unimpeded by the authorities was no longer a straightforward thing to do.

It wasn't until she first encountered the LEA in 1952 when David was 7, that she even knew about or had cause to read the 1944 Act with which she must comply. She refused to accede to the authority's request for information on the grounds that they should take her word for it that her children were receiving an efficient education suitable to their age, aptitude and abilities, unless they had specific reason to think she might be lying. Having successfully dispatched a succession of cold-calling Truancy Officers, she received a letter, asking that "a copy of the timetable and scheme of work which your sons will follow, together with the qualifications of the tutor, be submitted for the approval of the Local Education Authority."

She refused to comply, received the first in a long series of School Attendance Orders and was in the ensuing years repeatedly summoned to justify herself to various courts, usually representing herself as she couldn't afford legal representation. Joy went on to have 7 children and was often pregnant or nursing a baby during her appearances in court. Her older children were frequently called to give evidence and were questioned and inspected by magistrates, judges and officials and it seems they invariably did her proud.

In court she was magnificent and expressed her views clearly, eloquently, and truthfully, as illustrated by this quote from the book, which is just a small part part of her representation to the bench at one of the hearings:

"I have been told that I have no qualifications for the educating of my children. But I have the one qualification—and the only one—that fits or entitles anyone to undertake the education of a child—love for the children. That love is the first essential in the upbringing of any child is now acknowledged by all authorities on child care; but the present Education Act now decrees that it is only necessary up to the age of five, when a child should be summarily removed from the love which has protected, encouraged, and educated it up to that age, and set in a classroom to be made to receive the most lasting impressions of its life from complete strangers. Only through the understanding interest in the child that arises from love of the child can true education be given. Lord Evershed said in dismissing my last appeal that he “had to consider” the children. I also have considered the children, not for an hour in a law court without seeing them, but unremittingly for thirteen years. I do not believe that Dr. Lincoln Ralphs ever lies awake at night considering whether the steps he is taking are in every way to the utmost benefit of the four individual children concerned; nor do I believe any school-teacher would do so. Nothing that I have done for my children has been done without the utmost searching of my mind, the most vigilant watching of the results, that they should not he mishandled in any way. It is this that gives me the ability and the right to educate my children—that I care for them— that I am in a position to judge the results of what I am doing daily, hourly—that I have no hidebound red-tape system that takes no regard for the effect on the individual—that I can and do devote to their education and to their welfare all the hours of my life."

Joy knew in her heart that schooling was wrong for her children and she decided, having gone so far along the path of home education, that she was committed to seeing it through even though she was sometimes tempted to submit to the authority's wishes, just because of the stress and strain of constantly resisting them. Part of the legal process she was put through involved her inspecting the schools in question and she presented her findings to the court about these schools in a way that made me laugh out loud.

The impressive thing about Joy is that she was so sure of the rightness of what she was doing and so determined, in the face of immense opposition from the whole establishment, to continue doing it.

Here's a typical exchange between herself and the LEA from one of the hearings:

I laid down my papers, and turned to face Mr. Brighton’s crossexamination.
Mr. Brighton was brief. In an exasperated voice he asked, ‘Mrs. Baker, have you any intention of complying with these School Attendance Orders?’
‘None whatsoever,’ I said firmly.
Mr. Brighton sighed. ‘Do you realize that there is a century of experience behind the Education Act?’
I replied, ‘The fundamental right of a parent to educate her own children is even older.’

Joy was constantly threatened with removal of her children - a very real threat since they actually were removed from her by force on at least one occasion.

Her views and principles about education were wholly autonomous and as such, very similar to my own and throughout the book - and indeed, throughout the court hearings - she transmitted and justified these in an amazingly powerful, coherent and comprehensive way. I found myself reading the exact same argument I've made myself about age, aptitude and ability: how can learning at the child's own pace and on the child's own terms be anything other than precisely tailored for that individual learner's unique age, aptitude and ability? And how can any off-the-peg curriculum, - or in fact any teacher-imposed lesson - ever possibly compare in terms of complying with those three criteria?

There are so many excerpts from the book that I'd like to quote here. I'd actually like to blog the whole book! because Joy explains herself so much better than I or anyone else ever could. Her amazing personality and the absolute depth of her principles comes through in every word. She was on her own and defenceless, fighting single-handedly for her own children and for all our children against the same forces that still threaten us now, in almost identical ways, in some cases word-for-word.

Here's how she concluded one of her court appearences:

‘I have not been trying to prove that these children are receiving the same kind of education as they would receive in school. The Education Act does not make any mention of that. I have been trying to prove that these children are receiving a better education — with regard to their ages, abilities, and aptitudes — than they could at school; that it is producing better results, in their individual cases, than education at school would.
‘You are not being asked to decide whether you think these children ought to be at school, or should receive any other method of education. You are being asked to decide whether they are receiving an efficient full-time education within the meaning of the Act.
‘I am asking you to say that these children are being properly educated within the meaning of the Act; to dismiss these summonses which threaten the children’s future, and leave me to educate my children in peace.'
I sat down; and Police Inspector Goldthorpe got up and gave details of my previous convictions under the Education Act in November 1957 and June 1953. Then I stood up as the magistrates left the court: and sat down again to wait.

Because of her educational stance, Joy was very famous at the time and as well as contending with the legal processes imposed by the LEA and the courts, and single-handedly rearing and educating 7 children, she also gracefully dealt with a constant stream of reporters and photographers in their house. She and the children because very used to being photographed and appearing in the national and international press, to the extent that it was almost part of normal family life for them all. I think I would find this very stressful, but Joy seemed to take it all in her stride - making good use of it, in fact, when offers of lifts home from court on wet, windy days were made by reporters!

The 1944 Act has been updated several times since its conception but we are still essentially dealing with the same situation and the same wording. We have several weapons in our armoury that weren't available to Joy though. The ones that spring immediately to mind being the Internet (enabling us to research and communicate better), the Children Act (which requires that children's views be taken into account in matters which affect them) and the European Human Rights legislation. If I was facing court again I would make the best possible use of all three. The Children Act was very useful to me the last time and I think it would be to anyone else in similar circumstances, but proceedings must be held off for as long as possible for this to be most effective, as the child's age is taken into account when the decision is made as to how much weight to attach to its opinions.

Now that I have almost finished reading Children in Chancery, I know that Joy Baker will be my inspiration too and I'm supremely grateful to Neil TM for his untiring efforts to make us aware of her and making her writing available to us to read.

The authorities gave her much to fear and many reasons to capitulate to their demands, but she stuck to the path that she knew to be the right, truthful one, regardless. From what I gather, she prevailed in the end, although exactly how she did this I won't know until I finish the book.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Terry Pratchett is a genius

An extract from his book: The Wee Free Men, which I'm currently reading:


The teachers were useful there. Bands of them wandered through the mountains, along with the tinkers, portable blacksmiths, miracle medicine men, cloth peddlars, fortune-tellers and all the other travellers who sold things people didn't need every day but occasionally found useful.

They went from village to village delivering short lessons on many subjects. They kept apart from the other travellers, and were quite mysterious in their ragged robes and strange square hats. They used long words, like 'corrugated iron'. They lived rough lives, surviving on what food they could earn from giving lessons to anyone who would listen. When no-one would listen, they lived on baked hedgehog. They went to sleep under the stars, which the maths teachers would count, the astronomy teachers would measure and the literature teachers would name. The geography teachers got lost in the woods and fell into bear traps.

People were usually quite pleased to see them. They taught children enough to shut them up, which was the main thing after all. But they always had to be driven out of the villages by nightfall in case they stole chickens.


"When no-one would listen, they lived on baked hedgehog." !!! Still laughing!

I WISH I wish I wish I wish he was Tony Blair's main adviser!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Marriage and cohabitation

I listened to Radio 4's Moral Maze last night, in which Melanie Phillips (Daily Mail columnist and unofficial adviser to Tony Blair), Claire Fox (director of the Institute of Ideas,) neurobiologist Steven Rose, and Ian Hargreaves (director of the Centre for Journalism Studies) met to discuss whether or not the core reason of family and social breakdown in our society is due to the decline of marriage and the rise of cohabitation.

I discussed the programme with Tom earlier and he dismissed it as "just more hot air" but I think these programmes, reports, articles and discussions are increasingly important and should not be dismissed because they do have an effect (often quite a deliberate one) on public opinion and they do change social policy, which then affects people's lives in real ways. The state could not have dreamed of getting away with the compulsory school system and many other whole life-changing institutions and enforced laws were it not for this constant seemingly subliminal shaping of the way people think. This is their ground work, it's a key element of policy change and I think those of us who care and who are affected by such things ignore it at our peril: hence this long blog post about it.

This discussion was provoked by the Conservatives' new report: Breakdown Britain which, presenter Michael Buerk started by telling us, says that "Many, if not most of our social problems are caused by family breakdown and family breakdown is caused by the erosion of marriage. One in two cohabiting unmarried couples split up before their child's 5th birthday. For married couples, it's one in twelve. 70% of young offenders come from single parent families. They are much more likely to be delinquent, undereducated and addicted to drink or drugs. Looked at this way, the decline of marriage is costing us £20 billion a year. QED." He went on to frame three questions for the panel:

1. Is the actual ceremony of marriage the key difference or is it just that more commited couples, themselves from stable backgrounds, choose to marry: self-selecting for good outcomes?

2. Where does money come in? Is poverty a major cause of family breakdown or is the opposite true? Are more women opting to leave relationships that they regard as unsatisfactory because jobs or benefits mean they can and live independantly?

3. And if you accept the premise, what do you do? Differential tax incentives would be risky politics, but not half as risky as the moral arguments that would follow an attempt to reassert the supremacy of the conventional norm - to go back to the idea that all lifestyles are not equal. Are broken families the problem and is marriage the answer?

Melanie Phillips kicked off by saying, unsurprisingly, that all relationships are certainly not equal in the value that they have to individuals and to the state. "Marriage is unique in the benefits it provides for both individuals and for society. That's why it was until recently the one sexual relationship that was subsidised by the state because of the damage that would happen if it broke down and that's where we've got to now. We now have a 'me society' in which moral discussion has become taboo and in which we've simply abandoned both compassion and the most vulnerable among us."

Clare Fox said that she certainly didn't "fetishise[sic] or idealise marriage as a morally ideal estate and it's certainly not the solution for poverty, which I would suggest would be to give people more money." But she did think that the flight from marriage was problematic, "And culturally represents and ambiguity we have socially about long term commitment." She said that she felt more concerned about 'singleton society': too many of us going solo because we don't believe we can live with each other collectively.

Steven Rose at last pointed out that the relationship of a woman living on the poverty line with a brutal husband whilst doing a rough job and trying to rear a child is different from the sort of relationships that are possible for those people with relatively comfortable lifestyles of those people taking part in the discussion. He stressed the importance firstly of a woman being able to escape from an unsatisfactory and brutalising relationship and secondly that any children of the relationship should not be penalised "but should be given the best that society can provide."

Ian Hargreaves commented that if people don't want the 'singleton society' as described by Clare Fox, "it will self-correct." He spoke in favour of marriage and said that "stability is good for most children, most people, most of the time but I really don't think it's any business of the state to attempt to bribe or browbeat people into that particular view. That's the state invading personal relationships and I always thought Conservatives were opposed to that."

Mary McLeod, chief executive of the Family and Parenting Institute was introduced as the panel's first witness. She was asked how meaningful the statistics in the report were. I liked her: she spoke very carefully throughout in a constant attempt to be thoughtful and clear about what she meant, first answering that trying to compare marriage with cohabitation wasn't easy because all cohabiting relationships are not the same. She spoke of the need to 'segment' cohabitation, to find out more about the different kinds of relationships that are part of that category. Some cohabiting couples are as commited as married ones, she said.

Melanie Phillips interjected to say that this was precisely the problem. By people like Mary McLeod 'talking up' cohabitation as being as good as marriage, this drives the move towards fatherlessness 'which is caused by the breakdown of relationships, which is caused by cohabitation.' But Mary McLeod said that people should no longer be forced to stay together just because they had no choice if a relationship wasn't working. "Marriage itself is not the kind of magic bullet that keeps people together, though the evidence suggests that it does have a bit of an impact."

Melanie Phillips said again that 'talking up' cohabitation actually 'incentivises' it and the welfare system benefits people who live apart and who then cohabit on the side and asked whether a hammer had been taken to the institution of marriage.

Mary McLeod said the important thing is children and the important role the state should play in making sure that "children, as far as possible, do well." Ms Phillips interrupted again, saying "Surely children's best interests are served by their parents looking after them while they're growing up. They suffer from every disadvantage known if their parents break up and their parents are much more likely to break up if they are not married?"

Mary McCleod listed "poverty and deprivation, poor education, drug and alcohol misuse and mental health problems" as all having a great bearing on outcomes for children. She said it was difficult to plot the 'directional effects' of the link between poverty and unstable relationships.

Ms Phillips said this isn't true. "The research disaggregates poverty," (by which I assume she means it separates the reasons for it though I wasn't quite sure). "The vast majority of people in the lowest decile of income are couples and their children do not suffer this terrible catalogue of ill effects. It's not just children, it's also women. Women are much more likely to be abused by boyfriends. Children are much more likely to be abused by stepfathers.. of course we must say that there are many shattered and broken families where this doesn't happen, but social policy has to be made on the basis of what is generally the case and generally it is the case that women and children are very badly served by the breakdown of marriage."

Mrs McLeod cited the Millennium Cohort Study and said that if you 'bleed out' the poverty effects there is still a difference between marriage and cohabitation, although not a very great one. She also mentioned the recent ONS study on mental health problems and again if you 'bleed out' mental health problems and poverty then the difference is very small. "So as a state you have to try to think, which levers are you going to use to try to improve stable relationships and perhaps incentivising marriage might not be the only way or even the best way."

She admitted to being unclear as to whether the correct 'financial modelling' had been done to ensure that financial incentives would make more people marry, but said that she felt you can't impose that kind of choice and that one of the interesting things that came out of the Conservative Party report is the suggestion that women make a commitment when they get into a cohabitation and men only make a commitment really around marriage. "And so you get into this terrible question of, I mean, what do we do about men? Is the problem masculinity?

Mr Hargreaves then asked Mrs McCleod whether she thought that self-fulfillment (the "me society") was problematic to good relationship-building, which she answered by saying that when people have expectations of relationships that relationships can't possibly fulfill and when they imagine they're going to get the perfect life from a relationship and therefore feel less tolerant of some of the difficulties that happen in relationships, this can cause problems. He replied by asking whether self-fulfillment wasn't, however, a natural consequence of an affluent society? And she talked about a good relationship being an odd balance between having personal aspirations and being able to also tolerate having some constraints made on these. She said this is the key to good relationships, especially obvious between parents and children. That you have to change your aspirations when you become a parent, "or it doesn't kind of work."

Michael Buerk then brought in the issue of moralising, asking Mary McCleod whether her organisation sought to avoid it. She agreed that they did seek to avoid it because people on the whole resent being nagged and therefore it doesn't help. Melanie Phillips jumped in to say that this is the problem: people won't moralise. "The essence of social justice is to be moral, to make distinctions between behaviour that is beneficial to individuals and behaviour that does harm to individuals. How can you possibly uphold a doctrine which says that you won't make a judgement between behaviour that does harm and behaviour that does good?"

"What we say is that we'll try as far as we can to show the evidence to people to enable people to make choices for themselves about how they behave, though actually I suppose that many of what appear to be choices are often contingiencies: they just happen because life happens. So I think there is a difference between making judgements about what's right and what's wrong in terms of child poverty or child abuse and.." Mary McCleod started to say carefully.

"But aren't you muddying the evidence?" interjected Melanie Phillips in her school ma'am voice. "Because the evidence, as I said before, is very clear that it's not poverty that causes these problems for children and adults. It is marriage breakdown."

"I don't agree," said Mary McCleod firmly, "That it's marriage breakdown only. I think it's much more complicated and that we're talking about relationships within a culture, within a community, within a culture that commercialises relationships and commercialises childhood and so I suppose I'm saying that it's more complicated than simply marriage."

The next witness was then introduced: Theodore Dalrymple, retired prison doctor, author of Life at the Bottom: the Worldview that Makes the Underclass. Michael Buerk asked him first whether he thought poverty was the cause of marital breakdown and thus of so many of society's ills.

Mr Dalrymple answered no, if there was any causative relationship it's the other way around, that family breakdown causes poverty and in particular, squalor.

[squalor n. the state of being filthy or squalid. squalid adj. 1.filthy, repulsively dirty. 2. mean or poor in appearance. 3. wretched, sordid.]

"What we're talking about is moral, intellectual, educational, emotional squalor, which I've seen on a huge scale in this country."

Steven Rose enquired whether Mr Dalrymple had ever tried or could imagine what it would be like to bring up a child in this country on minimum wage which amounted to £160 - £200 per week. A short discussion ensued between the two men about the history of poverty and what such an amount of money actually means in today's terms. This led Mr Dalrymple onto stating his belief that there is no real poverty in Britain today, only squalor, which he defined as "a wilful decision to live amongst disorder, to make decisions which are obviously and knowingly leading to personal and social disaster."

A further discussion ensued between the two men about the extent to which income constrains such choices. Mr Dalrymple mentioned the 34% of children who do not eat around a table, who never eat with another person, which has nothing to do with the size of family income.

Mr Rose asked why rates of poverty and child abuse were 'so much worse' in Britain than elsewhere. Mr Dalrymple denied this was the case and they discussed for some minutes the global situation regarding these issues, as it compares to the UK position in which Mr Dalrymple uttered the following: "What we see in this country is an appalling education system in comparison with most other countries."

Clare Fox asked Mr Dalrymple how we could make people choose marriage and how we could make it more attractive. Mr Dalrymple questioned the ethics and practicalities of making people do anything but he conceded that marriage could be made more attractive by incentives, but also by 'a lot of intellectual activity' and that it was important to try to get away from the idea that one form of human relationship was as good as another "and if that is what the intellectual class is telling people at the bottom of the social scale and that's what we've been hearing for a long time, it's not surprising.."

Ms Fox interrupted to ask Mr Dalrymple whether he thought the tax breaks being discussed were a good thing. "The state cannot be neutral in this matter," he answered. "It supports one thing or the other. There is no neutral policy." When pushed to answer the question about tax breaks he said, "Well I think I'm in favour of it but it's not a panacea. Nothing is a panacea. But we also have to get away from the idea that lots of people have, that one form of association is as good as another and it doesn't really matter for the children. It doesn't matter for society."

Clare Fox then expressed her opinion that "The tax break thing seems to me to be the most morally vacuous suggestion going because it reduces marriage to a contract. It assumes the only way you can inspire people to get married is to offer them a bit more money."

Theodore Dalrymple countered this by telling her, "You've got the romantic idea that the only basis for association is the sexual attraction of the moment and that once that goes then people should just separate," but Ms Fox denied that this was what she had meant. "I was suggesting that marriage might be more than a contract motivated by tax and if all your intellectual morally inspiring way forward is that, then I'm suggesting it's not very exciting." Mr Dalrymple denied that he had said any such thing, and it transpired her comment had been a tit-for-tat one, as she muttered "Well I wasn't suggesting what you said I was, but if we're going to cariacature.." which puzzled me.

She then went on to ask him whether the state should stay out of sacred, private issues like marriage and relationships. "The point about the break up of marriage is that it actually allows the state into the intestaces of private life in a way that never existed before, because when we don't have marriage what we have is the state as the paternal parent. Now, anyone who's had any dealings with the state (and I've spent my entire life dealing with the organisations of so-called welfare) I can tell you, it's a most miserable and terrible existence."

Michael Buerk asked Mr Dalrymple whether he believed in the Victorian distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Mr Dalrymple said that he did, "Because if you don't have any idea of desert, if you just have need, then you lack all compassion. And you can only have compassion of some people deserve more than others. For example, in my work if I would want to call up a social worker, I could not say 'This is a particularly deserving case,' because if I did that would imply there were cases that were less deserving which, on the theory of dealing with need, cannot exist. Now I can make myself needful by squandering all my money. Does that make me deserving of assistance?"

Ian Hargreaves asked Mr Dalrymple whether he thought the problems in family breakdown were different for better off than for poorer people. Mr Dalrymple replied that there were fewer instances of family breakdown in more affluent environments but that the problems faced by them both were very similar. "For example 94% of New Zealand fathers who go to Australia to work will not pay court ordered child maintenance, so we've obviously got some kind of moral crisis where fathers don't believe that they have any moral responsibility, which they cannot escape, for their children."

"You obviously have an idealised view of what good parenting, a good family, looks like. You want them sitting around the table eating together, not watching too much television, parents spending a lot of time with their children on a sustained basis and parents who don't do that, that's bad parenting, you would agree?" asked Mr Hargreaves.

"Yes," answered Mr Dalrymple.

"So what do you think about parents who send their children to boarding school at the age of 7?"

"Err well, I think seven is a little early.. " [General laughter.]

"So should the state be expressing its concern about this form of dereliction of parenting duty?"

"No, absolutely not, because.."

"Why does it not count as squalor?"

"It doesn't count as squalor because they're not, one hopes, sending their children to squalid schools. If they do, if they make no effort to find out what those schools are actually like, that is a gross dereliction of parenting duty. And furthermore, of course, the children are only in the school half the year or.. or.. 30 weeks.."

"What this reveals is that your definition of squalor is physical and not moral. You're defining squalor by something that you look at and it looks smelly and repulsive and you don't like that, but that is actually poverty."

"No it isn't. That is a disgusting thing to say. What you're saying is that poor people can't be clean. That's nonsense. You're saying they're dirty."

"No, what I'm saying is that you are making a moral distinction about neglect or a particular form of parenting which you don't find culpable when it's attended by that which you can afford when you've got plenty of money, but when you see the same kind of neglect happening around satellite television you find it repulsive and you use a word like squalid."

"It's ridiculous to compare a school with a television and watching television. That's ludicrous."

Steven Rose: "No-one around this table ever said that all relationships were equal, but I'm very concerned about your distinction between deserving and undeserving in this sense. Let's take need as an issue. What about the need of the children of your definition of undeserving poor? Do they deserve no compassion? Do they deserve no treatment at all? When you yourself know very well that to bring children up in, to use your word, squalor, is likely to repeat the event in the next generation?"

Theodore Dalrymple: "Now what I'm not saying is that you make any kind of retrospective change. What I'm saying is we need prospective change. And of course there will always be hard cases but I think if you change the atmosphere, if you change the kind of policies you have there will be fewer cases of children living in this kind of squalor. That is the aim."

Steve Chalk, founder of the Oasis Trust (an evangelical Christian charity working in 'underprivileged communities') was the programme's last witness. He got a cheer from me with his first sentence:

"At the beginning of the programme, Michael, you said that family breakdown is caused by the erosion of marriage. But I think that marriage breakdown is caused by the erosion of the family and by community. I'd like to ask you what do you all mean by family? We have a very shrunken view of family in the West. I agree that we live in a 'me me me me' society and what that results in is community structures, family structures that are unable to sustain marriages."

At the end of the debate, the panel agreed with him but said that we can't go back to extended families and we have to find ways of working with the situation as it is now. Melanie Phillips said the essence of social policy should incentivise good behaviour and minimise harm, whereas the present welfare state, her her opinion, does the opposite. One of the men (Ian Hargreaves I think) was heard to mutter: "Rubbish," to this statement, and that was the end of both the programme and the series this year.

For me, the discussion didn't solve anything but it did serve to highlight some salient points and opinions which will, one way or another, take form in new laws and affect our lives in future years.

But nobody in the programme identified what I think is the most important factor: the sacred relationship between mothers and babies. The most optimum start in life for any child of any status is 100% devoted, 24/7 mothering. Co-sleeping, breastfeeding on demand, baby-wearing: constant nourishment, security and support. It doesn't really matter who or what provides for this circumstance to be possible, whether it's an extended family structure, a husband, a father or the state. If it's allowed to happen then the child will grow up feeling OK. This first most important bond lays the foundation for all the child's other interactions, with the rest of its family and with the rest of the world, for the rest of its life.

While ever we have systems like SureStart, compulsory state intervention in early parenthood, state compulsory schooling from an ever younger age and even some of our modern maternity systems that detract from this and act to separate mothers from their babies and young children even for relatively short periods of time, we're hindering the process of the development of secure, mentally healthy members of society. The first, most important lesson for a new person to learn is that the world (its mother) will always be there, on its side, providing for its needs. For a mother to do this she needs to be well-supported financially, practically and emotionally and she needs to feel good about herself and what she's doing.

Use of emotive terms like 'shattered families' is also counter productive. The end of its parents' marriage can bring about a vast improvement in a child's life. It certainly did for my children. During marriage my time was split, unreasonable demands were made of me and I was far too isolated and pressured to be the best mother I could be for them. The breakdown of the marriage solved all of those problems in a stroke.

This panel of influential social policy-makers was primarily concerned about children 'doing well', by which I take to mean: become academically and therefore economically 'successful' - a useful aim maybe, but not by any means the solution to society's major problems. Most of the panel placed undue importance on marriage and affluence as being 'The Solution' when they quite plainly are not. The witnesses Mary McCleod and Steve Chalk had the most useful things to say when they talked about the commercialising of children and family relationships, and the context of marriage and parenthood in the wider family and community background. But these excellent and crucial points were summarily ignored by the panel.

Melanie Phillips' attitude of "Single parent: bad, married parent: good," is neither true nor helpful in this respect, in fact it's extremely damaging for both mother, baby and, by extension, society. In fact Melanie Phillips and the fact that she evidently has so much of the Prime Minister's ear worries me generally. She persists in seeing issues in black and white terms, despite having spent at least the 45 minutes' duration of the programme listening to and questioning people who were older and more experienced than herself and appeared to end the programme with her views being exactly the same as she started it with - despite being told quite categorically by Mary McCleod that the issues were far more complicated than she was allowing for.

I wish Tony Blair was listening to Mary McCleod instead, but I suspect her quieter, more considered and worldly-wise opinions would not excite him as much as Ms Phillips' bossy, direct, 'no nonsense' style. There is definitely something of the supernanny about that woman, although her "Surely children's best interests are served by their parents looking after them while they're growing up," statement did give me some hope. I wonder how literal she means to be about this. 24/7 parents looking after them, or just the rushed half-hour of commuter-land breakfast and the staged 'family around the dinner table now let's do your homework before brownies and piano practice' which can't possibly be of more actual benefit to a child's wellbeing than a relaxed TV-dinner for one on the sofa.

The panel kept asking how to make marriage more attractive, but why should marriage be made more attractive? Why should two people make a promise to stay together forever, come what may, to a god they don't necessarily believe in? Why should they even promise this to the state or to each other, when nobody can possibly know whether the keeping of it could be possible, or what factors might be involved in the future? I can't for the life of me see why so much fuss is made of this ceremony and associated piece of paper. The act of sex is surely much more important, because this is when new people are made.

My own personal experiences of marriage, cohabitation and family 'breakdown' is as follows:

  • The nuclear family structure of two natural parents, children and no extended family involvement did not work for me, because the men I've known in those situations were not natural childcarers and the women were not sufficiently helped or supported.

  • Marriage might make for a wealthier environment in terms of income, but this definitely does not equate to more secure, stable relationships. My mother and stepfather were affluent when I was a child and there were times in our marriage when myself and my husband were too, but these were some of the loneliest most desperate times of my life. Conversely some of the happier times for both me and my children have been times of financial hardship.

  • Similarly, some of the wealthiest people I have known have also been some of the most unstable people. Money does not provide emotional stability. Poverty is NOT a factor in this issue. Good management of finances might be though, but a single parent on a very low income has as much, if not more chance of achieving this than a married couple. It's actually easier for a single person to keep track of spending.

  • Step-parent involvement wasn't the most effective solution either, because this gives rise to conflict between natural parents and children and step-parents and children.

  • The extended family structure was no longer an option for me because the bond with my mother had never been developed to sufficient strength and depth to sustain a good relationship into adulthood.

  • Of all options, single parenthood supported by the state works the best for me because it's the one that allows me to devote the required amount of time and energy to my children to ensure they grow up healthily.

  • Any kind of daily routine that necessitates controlled, enforced separation of children and parents prevents proper family structures from forming. The ideal situation is for children to have constant access to their parent(s) and other family members, which is a long, long way from being the norm in our society.

  • Trying to force absent fathers to fund their biological offspring causes more problems than it cures, because most men seem to want to get something for their money (female slave, regular sex, access to children on demand..) and not to pay unless they do. Some men want to fund their offspring without ties and those men will do so anyway, more so if it's optional.

  • This last point is especially pertinent as I've just found out that leaving the father's name off a birth certificate is to become illegal. This is apparently one of the regulations due to come in as part of the CSA restructuring, although how they've managed to sneak a whole new law past us escapes me. What if the mother doesn't know the identity of the father of her child (as many will be forced to claim they don't)? Will sex without prior proof of identity and keeping records of such become illegal also? Zara laughed at this and said, "Of course not! How can they possibly enforce that?" But to me it's no laughing matter. In this mad world of state power and citizen weakness anything is possible, even the most ludicrous, seemingly impossible scenario. Nothing would surprise me any more.

    I gave the CSA all my ex-husband's details on their request, his employers' details, the size of his income and his spending habits and they didn't even try to extract any cash from him. Every time they asked him for further, supporting information he retaliated by bringing a court case against me. Nothing in the world would compel me to trust the state with this kind of information again. It did my children more damage than anything else they experienced - certainly more damage than the marriage break-up itself.

    It all makes me think of the murder victims in Ipswich also. How could Gemma Adams possibly end up as a prostitute on heroin when she'd had a childhood including brownies, ponyclub, piano lessons and two doting, affluent parents who remain together to this day? 'Society' should not rest until it has worked out the answer to this question, because therein lies our salvation, not in the stigmatisation of single parenthood, absent fathers and 'poverty'.

    Heroin, so I'm told, makes the user feel warm and cosseted. The feeling of a heroin hit has been likened to the unconditional love and warmth a young child feels (or should feel) from its mother. Heroin is a chemical substitute for mother love. There, but for the grace of my children - because being on the other end of that kind of love is just as beneficial - go I.

    Cocaine is the drug of choice for people lacking in confidence and self-esteem. Taking cocaine, so I gather, makes you feel eloquent, communicative and brave. We should be looking at the lives of our nation's young people to work out what's going wrong that they need a chemical replacement for confidence.

    Alcohol provides oblivion. To an alcoholic, sobriety is difficult, painful and often unbearable. Thinking sober thoughts is to be avoided at all costs. Why? What's happening to people in our 'civilised', 'affluent' world to cause this?

    Cigarettes are a psychological crutch. It's easier to have one's ups and downs controlled by nicotine than by the events of life itself. I think tobacco smokers tend to be people who haven't been allowed enough control in their lives and so feel the need to regulate themselves with nicotine hits.

    Most of us have some form of escapism and/or distraction because modern life, from cradle to grave, somehow doesn't provide us with all the emotional security and stability we need. The answer, I think, lies in those first few years and the relationship between a child and its mother. The Catholic Church with its worship of the Madonna has it right on this issue, in my opinion. Not that women or mothers should be held to be especially more sacred than other people but that the bond between mother and baby/young child should be.

    And I read a statistic this week which said that 10% of UK men are now apparently paying for sex. I don't know whether I think that's a good thing or a bad thing. I've known quite a few men who view marriage as being some kind of live-in prostitution arrangement (with payments stopping when the sex does) so in that respect perhaps many more than 10% can be included in this group. Our feelings about sex, possession and money go far deeper than pieces of paper and I suspect the connections between them all run equally deep. In Babylon the prostitutes lived in the temples and were worshipped as goddesses. In modern Britain they are associated with poverty and deprivation, the objects of our sympathy at best and our disgust at worst.

    Some of the most vehement critics of prostitution I've known have been women who openly admit that they got married, and stay married, for money.

    Wednesday, December 13, 2006

    The real free (healthy) health service

    Today's blog post was going to be another negative rant about the NHS, specifically the new Spine database, along the lines of 'NHS Consumes Itself', because there was a piece in the newspaper this weekend about Helen Wilkinson, the NHS practice manager who was falsely labelled as an alcoholic in her medical notes, went to the House of Lords to have her files erased from the system and is now barred from using the service for which she works. The Daily Mail version of the story, an online copy of which bizarrely does not exist, concludes as follows:

    "What of the trusting relationship between doctor and patient? Will that disappear when Tony Blair's Brave New World with its giant health computer is up and running? Helen, who has worked for the health service for 20 years, thinks so. 'Patients will begin to lie. They won't tell the truth if they have been sexually promiscuous, or overdosed on drugs or even smoked a few cigarettes. They won't want it on their records if they know those records will not be kept secret. I can see patients turning their back on the health service completely,' she explains. It is a chilling prediction, but one that Helen Wilkinson believes with all her heart."

    Well it's only a chilling prediction, in my opinion, because we have all been taught to believe that the only alternatives to the NHS are either expensive private healthcare or no healthcare at all. None of us can remember a time when we managed without a hierarchically structured, official healthcare system because we weren't alive then. Abdicating responsibility for our healthcare to the professionals is now so much the norm that many people simply would not accept there is any other way of living.

    So I think we need to start talking about the real free health service. The one in which you only have to invest a small amount of time and thought: no cash outlay, not even National Insurance payments. The one laid on gratis by our planet upon which, last time I checked, we really do still live although it's sometimes easy to forget this in our concrete and tarmac enclaves.

    But we are still part of the planet's natural systems, however much we try to divorce ourselves from them. We breathe locally produced air and most of us still drink locally produced water even if we don't eat locally produced food any more. The substrata of geological substances beneath our feet, unique to every locality, tries its best to create soil and plants in synergy with its animal (including human) inhabitants, who are (albeit unconsciously) constantly synchronising their own biological structures and functions in synergy with their home environments.

    What all that means is that nature provides the perfect medicine for all our ailments in the neighbouring vicinity. Free of charge. The irony is that instead of learning about and making use of this free medicine, we view it all as weeds and we pay council workers to kill it with toxic sprays.

    Glossing over this collective insanity, I'll move swiftly onto practicalities. To work with this system, you have to know and understand your local habitat.

    The land around here, for example, on a bed of hard stone and clay subsoil, makes for quite an acidic growing substance. The area is hilly, so we're subject to quite a lot of rain and chilly dampness in winter, so chest complaints are common. That the perfect medicine for our local typical ailments grows in abundance around here is evidenced by the old names of some of our towns and villages. The name Hebden comes from 'hip dean': the valley of the rose hips. Heptonstall was 'hip town stall': the dairy farming village where the rose hips grow. The places themselves became known for the lifesaving medicines that grew there.

    When you look around here in autumn and early winter there are indeed rosehips all over the place. The plants grow easily and healthily of their own accord wherever they're allowed to, each one producing thousands of natural (not plastic!) capsules of the perfect medicine to help people survive a Yorkshire winter. Full of vitamin C, the seeds of the Dog Rose are astringent, strengthening to the stomach, useful in diarrhoea and dysentery, allaying thirst, 'good for coughs and the spitting of blood'. Culpepper described them as being 'grateful to the taste and a considerable restorative, fitly given to consumptive persons, the conserve being proper in all distempers of the breast [lung disorders] and in coughs and tickling rheums.' The seeds were gathered and used as both food and medicine throughout the winter and the leaves were dried and infused in boiling water to make tea.

    Nettles grow in abundance here as in so many places, much to my neighbour's annoyance. To him they're a scourge on the planet: to me they're an incredibly useful medicine and food. Gathered in the spring, they can be dried and taken as tea which is the perfect remedy for anaemia. Nettles contain a lot of vitamin C as well as iron, and our bodies need vitamin C to enable us to absorb the iron. This is why iron tablets alone (as commonly prescribed by the NHS) often don't cure anaemia and only cause constipation. Nature's truly free medicine does the job properly. Nettles are also helpful in gout and arthritis, again often ailments related to cold, damp climates - which is where the nettles grow!

    The chemical constituents of nettles include histamine, formic acid, acetylchlorine, serotonin, glucoquinones, many minerals including iron and silica, vitamins A, B and C and tannins. Its actions are astringent, diuretic, tonic, nutritive, stops bleeding, circulatory stimulant, promotes milk flow, lowers blood sugar levels, prevents scurvy. So this plant is the perfect natural cure for many of our local, common, niggly and more serious ailments and yet we call it a weed and choke it to death.

    Dandelions, commonly growing here and throughout the UK, are nature's solution to the common problems of fluid retention and other urinary disorders. They promote bile flow and are mildly laxative and antirheumatic. They can also be used to treat boils and abscesses.

    The Elder tree, which chooses to grace our hilltop field in great numbers, produces berries rich in vitamins A and C, which were made into wines and syrups and taken to prevent winter colds. Elder flowers are anticatarrhal and encourage sweating, so are an ideal treatment for feverish colds and flu. They are also helpful for hay fever, taken as a prophylactic early in the year to strengthen the upper respiratory tract before the pollen count rises. Topically anti-inflammatory, they are also used in skin creams and for chilblains.

    The Rosebay Willow Herb, which springs up in great healthy clumps here wherever land is cleared or changed, is very useful as a intestinal astringent. It has been recommended for its antispasmodic properties in the treatment of whooping cough and asthma.

    Plantain, which the Anglo-Saxons knew as Waybread, was used in first aid to treat bee stings. This poor plant, much maligned by lawnsmen, tries valiantly to grow wherever there is grass and if you look closely, it's very common. The leaves soothe urinary tract infections and irritations and ease dry coughs. They can be applied externally for healing sores and wounds. They are anti-catarrhal, useful in allergic rhinitis and gastric inflammations. The seeds ease and can cure the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

    Within the square mile in which we live, there are also wild bilberries (natural antibiotics and a cure for dysentery,) red clover (a bronchitis and cancer remedy,) chickweed (helpful for eczema and skin irritations, the root useful for preventing heaving menstrual bleeding,) comfrey (traditionally called knitbone - containing allantoin, which encourages bone, cartilage and muscle cells to grow - both my mother and I have used this for broken bones and astounded medical staff by our rate of recovery) and hawthorn, which was traditionally used for diarrhoea, heavy menstrual bleeding and in first aid to draw splinters. In the last century hawthorn flowers were found to improve coronary circulation, reducing the risk of angina attacks and helping to normalise blood pressure.

    All this used to be common knowledge at one time, passed down from parent to child to help ensure the survival of our species. Food was used as medicine and medicine as food, both taken liberally from the local environment where nature was largely allowed to flourish as she saw fit. People saw themselves as products of their natural environment, dependant on and interactive with it in a way that we seem to have lost now.

    This is the real, effective, truly free health service in which, if our interest is rekindled by the NHS losing our trust we may look forward to a much healthier and happier future. A cheerful, altogether unchilling prediction in my opinion.

    Tuesday, December 12, 2006

    Expressions of love

    Lyddie: "Aww look, the dog is lying down next to my room, that's so sweet."

    Me: "Aww yes."

    Lyddie: "She has such a little head."

    Me: "Um, yes, I suppose she has."

    Lyddie: "I wish she was a princess."

    Me: "Indeed."

    Lyddie "Then we could see her dance."

    Me: ???? *Looks nonplussed*

    Monday, December 11, 2006


    The kitchen sink was full of dirty crockery and cutlery last night so I set to with the washing-up before I cooked the meal. I like to do this in an methodical way: empty the sink, use really hot bubbly water, stack and wash things in categories. In this way it's quite a nice job if I concentrate on doing it properly.

    Last night the fire was lit and the children were all in the kitchen chatting as I worked. Lyddie announced that she was going to dry things as I washed them. She got a little chair to stand on and a tea towel for drying and started with the cutlery.

    Last time she offered to 'help', a few weeks ago, it all needed doing again and took twice as long as it would have done otherwise. But she must have matured quite a lot since because she could do it properly this time.

    I just asked her to dry both sides of everything (we were on cutlery) and I explained that we'd have wet things on this side and dry things on that side. She did a perfect job! So carefully and properly, but quite slowly so when I ran out of space to put the wet things I grabbed a towel to dry some too.

    But she said, "Mum, if you don't mind I want to do the drying by my self," with which I was bound to sympathise because I like to 'own' my own tasks too.

    So - progress again - I asked Tom to put away the ones she'd dried. I usually have problems asking people to do things and he never normally goes near the washing-up (he'll do any other job in the world but that one) but apparently putting dry cutlery away is OK for him - it's wetness and gunk he objects to.

    Lyddie tolerated his assistance for a while then decided putting away looked like more fun than drying and asked me to do drying while she put the cutlery away, having relieved Tom of the job. She loved putting it away, grabbing handfuls and posting everything into the right section in the drawer.

    Left to my own devices I'd have chosen to do the whole lot on my own as usual, but somehow when she's in charge everyone co-operates and it feels OK to me. And to a 4-year old washing-up is a treat, not a chore - even the ubiquitous task of drying cutlery and putting it away.

    I've always thought playing with toys looked like a poor substitute for actually doing things that need doing around the house: 'cooking' with plastic toy food being the ultimate nonsense (although someone once gave Zara one of those toy ovens and some plastic food and it was her favourite thing for ages.)

    I do have a problem with asking for help with things that need doing, on the basis that:

    - I don't want to interfere with the other person's autonomy;
    - I like to do things MY way and accepting help means yielding some control of how the thing is done;
    - I figure that the person who thinks a job needs doing should be the person who sets to and does it, because this saves a lot of unnecessary manipulation and arguments and allows people to more easily achieve their best environment in which they can live comfortably and contentedly; and
    - Being constantly reminded of what 'needs' doing, besides being a matter of subjective opinion, strips the person of the motivation and eventually the ability to think for themselves in this respect. So they'll just sit and wait to be told what to do instead of working it out for themselves.

    This is all fine but it does mean I'm quite often left with the daily chores. But that's usually OK because I choose to live that way with other people. Sometimes Ali takes on the washing up - it's how he spent last Saturday night! And he seems to enjoy it when he does it.

    Autonomous learning can't be separated from autonomous living, in my opinion. Everyone should establish their own level of comfort and work to achieve it themselves.

    It's also important to me to try to remove the delineation between 'work' and 'play'. I don't see why some tasks are sometimes 'fun' and sometimes 'work', depending on the context. If the person is free to choose their activity then it can't be classed as 'work' - in fact, as society has become more hierarchically structured I think our definition of the word 'work' has changed, from being something pleasant but industrious that you choose to do to being something odious that's forced on you. This is the result of the stick-and-carrot mentality our government cheerfully admits to having.

    I've also learned through parenting in such a full-time way that children NEED to be needed. It's necessary for their healthy mental development to be allowed to contribute towards the running of the house in their own way - even financially, as they get older. The plans to raise compulsory school leaving age to 18 are especially damaging for this reason.

    There's no magical transformation that takes place in a person on the night before their 18th birthday. Everyone grows, learns and develops their skills and abilities constantly from birth until death. Children are young people, not some kind of inferior beings like dogs or pet rabbits. They need to be allowed to make decisions about what they do and how they live in the same way as adults do: this is the best method of parenting and education.

    Tragically, all the guidance and new 'parenting strategies' being put forward at the moment by the powers that be are moves in the opposite direction towards increasing dependance and imposing authority.

    Friday, December 08, 2006

    Just testing

    Lyddie: "Santa is bringing me some black boots for Christmas, like Zara's. With high heels."

    Me: "Does he do boots? I thought they just made toys at the North Pole."

    Lyddie: "Oh no, big girls don't play with toys."

    Me: "Don't they? What are all your boxes in the other room full of then?"

    Lyddie: "Toys, but they're not for me. I was just testing them for the new baby, to make sure they'll be OK."

    "It would make a big difference"

    From yesterday's Daily Mail:

    £200 boost as women get child benefit before birth
    Women in the later stages of pregnancy will be able to claim child benefit for the first time. The Chancellor said the benefit, worth £17.45 a week for the first child and £11.70 for subsequent children, was traditionally paid following a birth. But yesterday, he extended it to all women from the 29th week of pregnancy. The changes mean a mother-to-be going to full term will get an extra £200 in a first pregnancy and £130 in subsequent pregnancies, all free of tax.

    That's ok, £11.70 a week would keep me in Floradix and organic vegetables so that I could produce the healthiest baby possible. I'm managing at the moment, but Christmas is going to be sparser than it would otherwise have been due to me needing £12 worth of Floradix every 2 weeks and slightly better food than I'd normally manage on, so the extra child benefit would be great. I won't get it this time though, because the change won't take place until April 2009. But in theory it's a good idea.

    What made me laugh and gasp though in equal measure was the case study highlighted by the Daily Mail to illustrate the difference they think this change will make to 'real people'. The fact that it's about a fellow Yorkshire lass made it even more difficult for me to stomach!:

    It would make a big difference
    Donna Stacey is looking forward to the birth of her first baby in three months' time. But she said that the escalating costs of preparing for a newborn can detract from the excitement of giving birth. At 25 weeks pregnant she would get an extra £200 in child benefit if legislation had already been in place. Instead she will have to wait until the birth before she gets her first payment.

    She has had to budget £2,000 for essentials such as a cot and a pram. Mrs Stacey, 35, a PE executive who lives in Leeds, said 'That extra £200 would have made a big difference, especially with a first child. Worrying about how you are going to pay for everything can sometimes dampen some of the excitement around having a baby.'


    "She has had to budget £2,000 for essentials such as a cot and a pram." ??? Donna might be a 35 year old PR executive down the road from me in Leeds, but along the way, what happened to her brain?

    I can't believe someone's spending their pregnancy worrying about how to find £2,000 for a cot and a pram. If this is the pinnacle of modern civilisation, you can keep it. The world has truly gone mad.

    Essentials? A baby doesn't even need a cot and a pram! My baby won't have them and still wouldn't if I had £2,000 to spend on them! And what's with the £2,000? Since when did cots and prams cost so much money? A pram is a box on wheels (without an engine) and a cot is a wooden cage. £2,000? Why?

    The only essential a baby needs is its healthy mother being prepared to naturally supply its demands 24/7. These mostly consist of feeding and cuddling. Both of which were free of charge, the last time I checked.

    My baby will travel in a home-made sling, made from an old sheet or other suitable fabric and it will sleep in my bed, of course. This is basic logic, the most fundamental common sense.

    And just one more thing: If Donna is worrying about finding £2,000 to fund such 'essentials' for her baby, how is an extra £200 in child benefit going to make that much difference to her? It's a drop in the ocean.

    Thursday, December 07, 2006

    Local authority spending - how does this add up?

    There's a massive and very strange anomaly in public spending around here about which I'd like to blog, because I'd be very interested to read other people's opinions and comments about it.

    Our home ed meetings take place in an old gymnasium attached to the LEA administration centre. The building was previously a Victorian grammar school (my stepdad's old school actually) - a beautiful building and part of our local heritage which I'm glad to see maintained. Oh I just googled it and it was actually founded in 1585, so it's even older than my stepdad ;-) I'll try to find a pic for you..

    Here's a lovely old photo of the building:

    Although even there you don't see the best of it. It has 1st floor enclosed bridges attaching the different wings, with ornate arches underneath and little minarets with bells here and there on the roof.

    Anyway, I digress. I love the building but that's not the point of the blog post.

    About 20 years ago it stopped being used as a school and was taken over as the LEA's main administration centre, although this presented the LEA with two problems: at the time the building was far too big to house the admin staff and there was a clause in the trust which stipulated that the building should be accessable for the free (unpaid for) use of children. But the LEA circumvented these by deciding to update the building and use a large proportion of the rooms for private letting (for meetings and conferences etc) and to preserve the old gym (without updating it) for the unpaid use of children's groups.

    Four years ago I approached the LEA and asked for a free meeting room and was shown the old gymnasium which, although shabby, was and is ideal for our purposes. The LEA was happy because at that time, I gather, they were technically in breach of the trust's clause - there were no other children's groups using the centre, because of the gym's shabbiness I think. It's a huge, airy, cold hall. But the amount of space is fantastic for us. Currently the heaters barely work and the toilet is broken, but we keep our coats on and plug our own kettle in to huddle around cups of coffee while the children do their own thing and don't seem to mind the cold. The plaster is falling off the walls but we don't mind about that. We just love the free space.

    The only problems we've ever had are complaints about noise from the LEA staff members who work at the centre. These people are paid VERY well (judging by the estimated cost of executive vehicles crammed into the car park) to spend their working life considering, discussing and planning for local children's education - and yet they don't want to hear or see any actual, real children. We've had to change our meeting times twice to accommodate this, but I draw the line at asking the children to be quiet.

    But apart from the huge amounts they must be being paid, there are a few other things about the centre that don't quite add up. Local schools could still, I know, use more funding and yet the LEA centre is fitted out like a 5-star hotel. When we first visited I was slightly astounded by the thick, expensive wall-to-wall carpeting everywhere and the plush standard to which the building had been done out. There are pot plants in the reception area which probably cost more money to buy than my car did.

    The whole place is fitted with oak panelling - most of which was there before, but some of which wasn't. The windows all replaced with luxury oak frames, double-glazed of course (except for the old gym, which still has the same cracked, draughty safety glass it's had for 50 years).

    I raised my eyebrows at all this but didn't really think much about it until a few weeks ago, when the chesterfield sofas appeared. These are brand new, plush leather, are accompanied by thick oak coffee tables and they're everywhere. I don't even know how much such a sofa costs nowadays (£1000?) but I have to negotiate my way past three of them just to get to the reception desk.

    Apparently all this spending on the centre was originally justified "because it has to be kept to a competitive standard to attract the private sector for the letting rooms" - but there now appears to be only one letting room available in the whole place for private hire and that's the "ICT suite":

    - which, as far as I can make out, isn't exactly fully booked for much of the time. The admin section of the LEA has of course mushroomed in size since the centre was first converted and the centre now houses LEA executives by the hundred, strolling around in very expensive clothes, joking and laughing with each other and casually attending leisurely meetings in plush surroundings to discuss the fate of the region's children whom they never seem to actually meet in great numbers. We certainly never see other chldren at the centre. I think there are no rooms spare to accommodate the private sector which still serves to justify the massive costs of the building as far as I'm aware, unless the need for that justification has now passed.

    It's worth mentioning that the centre also has a fabulous and well-staffed catering service for its staff. White-uniformed tea ladies scurry around constantly attending the executives' every whim, for all the world like the waiting staff in a top-class hotel. The old stables are the full-time haunt of the building's three caretakers who are permenantly on call to lift, fetch and carry any heavy files or furniture (which seems to be replaced annually for the lastest, plushest items - indeed the last lot of perfectly adequate tables and chairs went into a skip) and the huge, real Christmas tree which adorns the reception area annually and beats the one in the Town Hall on both size and quality.

    Compare this with the office of the council's Chief Education Welfare Officer. An Old Labour man, I know from the tone of his voice when we chatted about it that he's as disgusted and bewildered as me about the plush admin centre. He certainly doesn't work there, choosing to keep his offices in the town centre less trendy, more basic building. He catches a cranky old lift up eight floors to get to his office - (often using the stairs when its broken or just for speed or exercise), which is certainly not plush by any standards. Much of his work involves meeting and working with real people: children, parents, teachers. He hand-picks his EWOs and closely monitors their activities. I don't see eye-to-eye with him on quite a few issues but he has my deep respect because I know that in his heart he really cares about the children in our area. An amazing, unusual man. I certainly don't want to tar our whole LEA with the same brush while there are people like him around.

    And on Tuesday I was walking through town and happened to look with interest into the windows of another local government office: the Housing Benefits Department. It's difficult not to look into their window as they are housed in an old shop. Their office is actually slightly submerged, so from the pavement as you walk past you're looking down on their desks. It's blatantly obvious to anyone that there's no surplus funding for these people. Their working conditions are cramped, chaotic, uncomfortable and humiliatingly public.

    I can't even find an online photo of the plush interior of our LEA centre (hmmmm... wonder why?) but the obviously under-funded Housing Benefits Dept is in a town centre shop window for the world to see.

    So what's going on here? Aren't the departments all funded from the same pot of money? Why are some council employees kept like royalty in the lap of luxury and others subjected to some of the poorest standards an office-worker could face?

    I don't want to 'bite the hand that feeds us' and am still very grateful and glad about the free room we're given.. BUT - the obvious imbalance in local authority spending smells very fishy to me. It reminds me of Soviet Russia, where party members got the best of everything and non-party members were kept in poverty.

    Wednesday, December 06, 2006

    Public life consumes itself

    The onslaught on our civil liberties pushes relentlessly on. I'm especially interested in the ban on smoking in enclosed public places which is due to be implemented, at an estimated cost of £50m, on 1st July next year.

    "The ban covers virtually all enclosed public places including offices, factories, pubs and bars, but not outdoors or in private homes." It also apparently covers doorways, bus shelters and any publicly used area with at least a partial roof on it. So shop and officer workers who smoke, as well as pub and club goers, will be congregating outside in the street indulging their habit. How long before that too is banned?

    How long before someone sues local councils under human rights legislation and they're all obliged to provide brollies, benches and braziers for the smoking population? Does an umbrella count as a partial roof?

    I'm being silly now, but that's because this whole thing IS silly. OK, non-smokers (and I am one) have rights too. But nobody ever inflicted passive smoking on me against my will. If I choose, for whatever reason, to enter a smokey environment, that's my choice! I can quite easily stay away. There is absolutely no reason why I would ever HAVE to endure passive smoking unless, perhaps, I was obliged to share a prison cell with a smoker.

    I was a heavy smoker in my late teens though so I can see the other side of the argument. Unless they quit (which is extremely difficult and can only be successful when the smoker is psychologically very strong) a regular smoker has to have their fix in order to feel comfortable. Withdrawal symptoms include rising irritation, irrationality, panic, hallucinations and increasing paranoia. A few hours without a fix and you literally feel like you are going mad: it affects the brain in that way. Your desperation and obsession to secure your next fix takes over everything and you are increasingly unable to think about anything else at all.

    These symptoms can take anything between 3 days and a week to subside, which is why stopping smoking is so very difficult. It's do-able (as evidenced by the many of us who have done it) but you can see that a ban on smoking in all enclosed public spaces is not going to do anything to help smokers achieve the high level of determination and psychological reserves of strength required to undergo days of cold turkey and kick the habit. You have to want to stop for yourself, not because someone made it inconvenient for you to continue.

    Of course, there's a financial element to all this. Rebel smokers will be fined on the spot, £50 a time. There have been times when I'd have paid £50 to have a smoke and no doubt several £50s will change hands on this basis. I think they should have pitched it slightly cheaper though. £25 per illegal smoke would have had many more takers. Smokers who drop a tab end on our pavements here in Calderdale (or anyone who drops an apple core, or indeed any particle of anything, accidentally or on purpose) are subject to a £50 fixed penalty fine also.

    In our local town centre the number of parking spaces have been reduced and the parking fee has doubled. There is a traffic warden and a street warden on every street corner coiled and ready to pounce on offenders. Yesterday I had to spend 10 minutes (and a significant contribution towards highway pollution and fuel tax) getting my car fully into the slightly-too-small marked space, because to err by an inch would have rendered me liable to a fine. One then runs to the parking meter (cunningly sited around the corner) and back to one's car in a race with the traffic warden, with both of you trying to get your ticket there first. If you can't run: tough. £50 please.

    Oh and the fines are going up next year to fund the glossy brochure we're sending you all to remind you of your responsibilities as citizens, our new hand-held computers, centrally heated flourescent jackets and our Christmas knees-up. Not to mention the recruitment drive for new traffic wardens and the billboard posters we're taking out telling you all how much you need us "so that the ambulance can get through". (Model: female, asian, attractive and SLIM, big friendly smile.)

    So town is an increasingly risky place to visit for smokers, drivers and anyone who consumes anything and might accidentally drop anything on the floor. Getting to town is also subject to rising costs. Bus and train fares are now largely unaffordable by my teens, who walk everywhere they can to save cash. Road tax is going up for many vehicles, petrol costs are rising and congestion fees are being implemented. The approach into town is indeed congested, but mainly by traffic wardens and traffic calming measures.

    Have you noticed how much more slowly our town centre traffic lights are changing now? There's one in Huddersfield that goes green for about 5 seconds every 3 minutes. It's on a major route into town. You have to queue there even at 2am in the morning when the streets are deserted. Three years ago the junction didn't even need a traffic light: it worked perfectly well without one. Indeed, nowadays every town centre junction has traffic lights and the associated 'safety camera', which term makes me chuckle every time I see it. Bill for stopping one inch the wrong side of the line, whether you could help it or not? £50 please. Kerching!

    So what with needing to have large amounts of disposable income to venture into town, and spare time and patience to negotiate the obstacles (including exiled smokers and increasing numbers of drunks and drug addicts who have given up trying to cope with all this and hordes of annoyed, grumpy, miserable people who are still trying to cope with all this but doing so with understandable bad grace) and run the gauntlet of officers in bright yellow coats ready to pounce.. it all begs the question: why would you bother?

    Is it not all likely to be counter-productive? I thought politicians and businessmen liked town centres! But at this rate people will just stay at home or have illegal smoking, parking and litter raves in abandoned warehouses. Soon our town centres will be like ghost towns where the only occasional movement is the flicking to green and back to red of the millions of traffic lights, the eerie whirring of the CCTV and the 'safety' cameras (chortle) and the nervous twitching of tightly-coiled wardens-for-everything gathered on the street corners. The occasional shopper or office-worker will be stalked like prey in the kind of shoot-out environment they had in the old Westerns my grandad used to watch.

    I'm starting to wonder whether the intention is for us all to stay at home and do all our work, learning and shopping online. Maybe we're easier to monitor that way, and taxing computer usage would be dead easy.

    At least people would get more value for money out of their increasingly expensive homes and council taxes. We wouldn't need cars. We could use all that saved traveling and warden-dodging time growing our own organic vegetables and medicines in the garden. It might be very good for us: very safe, healthy, peaceful and calming. The ideal environment in which to stop smoking.

    Sunday, December 03, 2006

    Modern Myths: No.5: Santa Claus

    This concludes my Modern Myths series for now, although I will probably add to it more in the future. I've left the most important one this week until last, of course :-)

    Myth 5: Santa Claus does not really exist and anyway, he's nothing but trouble. He makes us spend vast amounts of cash we don't have, fills our shops with garish, useless, child-tempting clutter and our children's eyes full of greedy promise. He's an invention of the modern church, at best a bloated, drunken old man who sits children on his knee and interrogates them and at worst he deliberately, maliciously causes nervous breakdowns in their parents. Without Santa Claus, the world would be a much better place. Santa should be banished to the North Pole, where he belongs. Bah, humbug.

    The Truth: Haven't you seen the film? Santa is on our side! He works tirelessly all year round to make healthy wooden toys for our children, just one each, specially chosen, to brighten their long, dark, snowy winters.

    Patch the elf is the bad guy! He leaves the North Pole and goes to work for the evil business mogul and nasty plastic/electronic-toy empire owner, B.Z. But BZ's toys don't work and are dangerous, which luckily Patch and therefore the rest of the world realises in the end.

    The real Santa Claus actually wants to remind us of a world gone by, when we had proper fires and chimneys, when winter was hard because it's COLD! And there's not much food, except what people have carefully saved up for the one, big, midwinter blow-out when we banish the darkness with candles, the cold with fires, the misery with friendliness, the grey chill with an amazingly green tree and the deprivation with gifts.

    We absolutely needed that feast to see us through the dark months until Spring when the first green shoots surfaced and we could go out and plant seeds again so that we'd have food for the following year.

    But the world has gone mad now. Our winters are full of lights, central heating, money and freezer food. Our children have bright shiny toys all year round. What we're short of now is TIME, because sustaining all this artificiality is very time consuming and the continuing, seemingly unnecessary existence of Christmas only exacerbates this fact.

    This is not Santa's fault and it isn't his preference.

    The real Santa Claus wants to cherish each child and give just one or two small, unextravagant gifts, carefully crafted or chosen with love. The real Santa wants to ask us: "Where are your chimneys? How am I supposed to climb inside this central heating flue? You call that a fireplace?? What do you mean, your child doesn't know what a carrot is?" He intends for us to pull up a chair by the fireside at bedtime, at least one night a year, with our child on our knee and tell the magical story about flying reindeer and a night that lasts forever, until all the toys are delivered.

    He exists to remind us that anything is possible. Time can be elastic, if you have something vitally important and right to do in an impossibly small section of it. You can fly around the world on a sleigh pulled by magical reindeer if you have to. Why not? Who says you can't?

    If our houses are full of unwanted, unplayed with toys and our towns are filled with expensive garish merchandise and our real lives are empty - even childless, in many cases and we have nobody with whom we really want to feast, that's not Santa's fault. He only keeps doggedly trying to remind us of the alternative. Perhaps that's why we resent him so much and try to pretend that he doesn't exist ;-)