Sunday, 16 June 2019

School Choices

We chose our house, 7 years ago, partly on the areas potential for class struggle. Because we are that 
ridiculous and left wing.
Part of what informed that decision was my husbands involvement in a campaign to save a number of 
primary schools across the city, in which residents of the scheme had been particularly militant. 
The school was lost but, almost as a consolation prize, the building was repurposed as a 
community centre which now hosts a youth club, gym, free computers, welfare rights advice and a 
food bank. It has become central to the life and survival of the community.

We moved in and we were not wrong to do so. We're all very happy here. Plus the residents 
association has recently affiliated to Living Rent.

Five years later, of course, I had to register the eldest child at school and noticed, as if for the first time,
that there wasn't one to send him to.
I had become the only middle class mother in the world to deliberately move to an area because of
its lack of schools. Go me!

After closing our school, the council tacked our scheme onto the catchment area of the nearest other 
scheme-school. This is not the nearest school. Getting there involves a long walk along a dangerous 
road (they do provide a bus but I don't trust them not to cut it). 
Plus the teachers seemed a bit fatalistic about the kids life chances and local mum-chat suggested 
they weren't so hot on bullying. By this point my son was a head smaller than kids his age and, in the 
nicest possible way, already a bit odd.
Also there's a difference between a scheme-school on your own scheme and a scheme-school 
somewhere else. I don't know what that difference is- but it seems important.

I did some brief lefty hand wringing about my reluctance to send him there (catchment schools are, of 
course, sacrosanct objects of lefty affection). Then I spoke to the other nursery Mums. Every single one 
of them were putting in a placing request to somewhere else. It was a catchment school in name only.
I felt like this gave me a green light to just go ahead and pick wherever the hell I liked. 
We put him down for the Gaelic School.

Four kinds of parents pick the Gaelic school. Nationalist Head Bangers, Actual Gaels, West End 
Trendies and Ambitious Parents in Working Class Areas. 
It's one of the best performing schools  in the city and its the only top performing school that you can 
get into without living somewhere extremely expensive. It therefore attracts a surprising number of 
pupil premium kids. All of them with fiercely aspirational parents.

Of the four categories, my husband fits firmly in number one. He'd have sent a kid there if all they ever 
learnt was an appreciation for William Wallace and the ability to play that giant harp thing. I'm more 
number four. I weighed up the options and decided that this was the least worst.

Two years on, it's not been easy. Here's something people don't tell you about high performing schools.
They whittle. If your kid is not doing so well, you will get called in and hints will begin to be dropped about 
how, perhaps, this isn't the best setting for them. This has happened to most of Gaelic School kids in 
our area, including us.

It's shitty. It makes you wish you chose the scheme school where, you imagine, the teachers are more
used to kids being a bit slow to read and don't make you feel like crap about it. Maybe they are a bit 
more proactive. I bet they don't just tell the parents to get their kids up to standard or fuck off; you find 
yourself thinking.

I spent a Christmas holiday bashing the Fuamin (Gaelic for phonyms) with my son and sent him back 
more or less reading. The teachers attitude softened towards us. Life went on.

Then we got called in again. Something was seriously off with my sons concentration and focus. Could
we start the process to get him assessed for Autism? 
I thought of his complete lack of engagement at school and his suspiciously fast progress at home; a
fact I had prevously viewed with bemused relief. Suddenly it made a little more sense. I made an 
appointment with the GP.

This is where I started viewing the school a little differently. For background, middle class parents do 
not typically view this school as especially good for special needs. My sons teacher, in particular, 
doesn't have the best reputation.

And yet…. She noticed a problem I hadn't. She sat with me for well over an hour talking me through the 
processes the school must go through and the different ways to help him in the classroom and at 
home. She printed out useful information from the internet and sent it home in his school bag. She did
say that funds probably won't be available for a TA (which I suspect he needs) but that seems 
to be a problem across the city, not with his school in particular.

By contrast, I recently learned of a kid at the catchment school. This kid sounds similar to mine in his 
concentration and learning troubles. None of this has been done for him. He's just been left to do 
colouring in. By himself. For 3 years. 

I don't know what kind of thing the middle class parents were expecting (I know I described myself as 
middle class earlier- I feel like I am until I mix with these guys!) if the Gaelic school's efforts 
seem inadequate to them. Its more than I could expect in any other school open to us.
Actually, they must mean the whittling. The constant threat of being whittled.

Still, I imagine myself trying to fight against the kind of complacency other Mums are facing at the 
catchment school and I feel like I've made the right choice.
I was wrong to imagine that teachers in scheme schools are working hard to find imaginative and 
engaging ways to get slow kids to read. Sometimes they are (the kids nursery was like this). 
Sometimes they're just shrugging their shoulders and saying "Well, what can else can we expect from 
kids like these?"

I've placed such a serious academic barrier in front of a kid who already has trouble learning. I've made
him do all his learning in a different language. And yet, I've removed a larger barrier: the total lack of 
expectations he would have met with, elsewhere. 

And yes, we are going to spend the summer holiday's working on his writing. 10 minutes per day. 
No excuses.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Watching Mumsnet, Watching Britains Largest Family

I have a love hate relationship with Mumsnet. It’s always fascinating to me as the epicentre of a particular kind of engaged, intensive form of mothering with a particular focus on education.
On Mumsnet I have seen posters ask “Doesn’t everyone teach their kids to read before they start school? Surely that just part of good parenting.”  I’ve seen long threads on the subject of what exactly constitutes “social capital” and how they can be sure to impart it. (Trips to the opera were mentioned.). I’ve seen debates on various types of secondary schools conducted from the starting point that everyone’s child would easily get into grammar school. No doubt because of the work already invested in “talking and reading to them when they were little”
It’s a part of a particular kind of parenting which originates in the middle class. The basic strategy being to have fewer children and to invest more heavily in them in the hopes that they can become high earners and replicate the privilege that allowed you to parent in that way in the first place.

What’s interesting about this kind of parenting is not so much its merits.  It’s a fairly reasonable adaptation to the circumstances of middle class life. What’s more interesting is the extent to which its followers believe it to be a moral and social good in and of itself, rather than a method of replicating and hording privilege to the benefit of their own offspring.
It’s one of the many ways in which middle class people tend to confuse their own interests with the general good. And since middle class people are in positions of power and influence that gets translated into social policy so that working class women have to be harassed to parent more like middle class mothers.

Zoe Williams book The Madness of Modern Parenting is very good on this point.
I’m reminded of all this on this current Mumsnet thread discussing the Radfords, “Britains Largest Family.”

The Radfords are essentially doing an extreme version of the opposite strategy. Instead of having small number of children and invesiting in them heavily they have a very large number of children and utilise their labour power for good of the family as a whole.

Traditionally, this might be on a farm. In the Radfords case, its the family bakery, looking after younger siblings and in the very modern profession of celebrity itself.

It’s worth having a look at the thread to see people who do intensive parenting in a small family, completely failing to understand collective parenting in a larger family.

“How do the kids do afterschool activities?” They ask. “When does anyone listen to them read?” "What about parents evening?"

The implied answers being, of course “they don’t”, "never" and "I bet they don't bother to turn up." Cue much frothing from a section of society that view these things as sacrosanct.

The theme finally reaches its peak when a poster suggests that all 21 Radford kids will be a “burden to society” because without intensive parental involvement in their education “they are unlikely to become high earners.”

I love this particular comment because it makes so much of the usually unspoken Mumsnet assumptions explicit. Human value is measured in wealth. Poor people are a burden. People who fail to meet middle class standards for educational involvement are a problem, not just for their own children, but for society as a whole.
All this is far more interesting, to my mind, than the lives of the Radfords themselves.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Manipulative Clients

In the early 200’s I was living on a traveller site and making my living from the Big Issue. I learnt a lot about evasiveness and manipulation there.  I leant why it was necessary and I learnt how to do it. 

There was a grave yard a few miles away where a water tap was provided for relatives to tend the flowers on the graves. Of course, we collected our drinking water there.
There must have been a few complaints because, by my time, there was a notice was pinned up saying “This water is provided for the users of graveyard- NOT for tramps!” 

Because of this, we used the after tap less frequently and more circumspectly. We could probably have stopped using it altogether and driven a little further for water but people would have complained at that place too. 

The logic of the situation encouraged us to tan the fuck out of any goodwill and then keep pushing the envelope long after the goodwill had dried up. Far, far beyond the point that a townie would have shrugged and moved on.  

The majority of times, I would pull up in the lane, hop out with the water butt, fill it and be in my van before anyone could notice.
But when someone did show up, I would fix them with a cheery smile and say “Sorry! I know it’s a bit cheeky, but my radiators busted. I need to keep putting water in till I can get it fixed.”
I would watch people’s faces relax from suspicion to relief because I had given him something they could relate to. 

As far as I was concerned, drinking water was a more immediate and legitimate need than water for a vehicle. But I learnt that objective need doesn’t necessarily bring sympathy. And from then on, if I needed to ask permission or forgiveness (the latter is easier by the way) I was sure to translate it into terms that might be easily understood. I didn’t think it was lying exactly. 

Another time, I was selling the Big Issue. I’d taken a break from selling to get a bit of shopping in and had returned to the pitch with the bags. A friend came by and warned me against doing the same thing again. If people can see you’ve been shopping and are still trying to sell Big Issues they will think you’re taking the piss, he explained.  He was right of course, and from this, I learned to be relatable not only to what people know but also to what they think they do.

They don’t want to buy a magazine from someone who is a little bit skint but able to get by with help of an outside organisation. Someone, like myself, who might be in work fairly often but still need a little stand by. They want to feel like they’ve rescued you. They want you to be absolutely on your knees but they also want their causal £1.50 gesture to be the decisive turning point in your life. And they want to feel this way even when they’re 5p short of the cover price. 

What they want is an impossible fantasy. I learned to play up to it. 

Later on, I was living in a really large squat in London. 20 of us the one time I counted and more when I had given up trying to count. One or two of us had medical problems. One very young girl with quite severe mental health problems and a woman with a chronic stomach problem. There was only one doctor who would see us, this homeless doctor in Kings Cross

I went there quite often with the mentally unwell girl, to act as moral support. It was an extremely grim place. I was in there once and a guy started having alcohol withdrawal seizures right there in the waiting room. While the staff were rushing to ring an ambulance, someone from the Kings Cross Regeneration Agency came in and tried to get them to fill out a survey.  At a glance, you could see that she had reached the point in her own downward spiral where she had almost, but not yet, lost her job. She was wearing business clothes, but a little grubby and not ironed. She seemed strung out. She asked to use the toilet and returned a few minutes later looking happier and more energetic. I thought “My God, if the regeneration people are crack heads…this area really is fucked” 

It’s unrecognisable now of course. They regenerated it, crack head employees notwithstanding. 

The staff there would occasionally ask if I wanted to register and I would always refuse. I was volunteering with the CAB at that point and I knew a little about how public sector funding worked. I knew that no one had sat down in Kings Cross, thought about the desperate junkies and homeless prostitutes and written a funding application that said “We want to provide a primary care service for crusty- squatters in Hoxton” 

Like the graveyard water butt- we were taking something that wasn’t designed for us. There was going to be limited good will and, as a collective, we might have to lean on it more than was reasonable. I wasn’t going to wear it out sooner than necessary on the off chance I might get an ear infection. 

It was at the CAB that I first sat on the other side of the desk and learned to see myself as a professional and not a service user. It was first place I heard a service user described as “manipulative”. I recognised this immediately as a word to describe how I had learned to get by. 
 Translating your needs into something understandable, playing up to expectations, taking from services meant for somebody else. 

I didn’t have a problem with “manipulative” clients. I understood what they were trying to do and why it was necessary. 

In fact, my secret agenda there was to learn more and better manipulation. I thought the CAB could teach me some trick to get a council flat and stop the jobcentre from hassling me. Disappointingly, no such trick exists. Eventually I squatted their office long enough that they put me on the payroll and all those problems sort of melted away. That had been the trick all along. 

I’m very privileged these days, not to need evasiveness and manipulation. Not because I'm self sufficent and never need help, thats not true of anyone. I'm privileged that pretty much all of my wants and needs are readily understood by mainstream society. And often sympathised with. 
 No-one will think I’m taking the piss if I go to the doctors. They won’t cock their head and say “She’s just trying to get painkillers and a sick note.” If I need to, I can walk in and explicitly ask for painkillers and a sick note.

Even so, I employed quite elaborate manipulation, in the most respectable period of my life, to make a social services investigation go away. You can read about it here. The social worker won’t have thought of me as one of her “manipulative clients”. I can confidently tell her, all her clients are manipulative. Some more obviously than others. Manipulation is what everyone does when faced with someone more powerful that they need something from. 

Every so often, I get the opportunity to pay it forward. Someone will come and try to beg money from me, visibly distressed and with a story that doesn’t quite add up. And I’ll pay. I know it isn’t what they just said. But it will be something. A real need, translated into something else. And it isn’t my place to know.