As featured in Parentdish

Tuesday, 28 December 2010


Well that’s the nativity plays over for another year, and as always we were not allowed to video or take pictures of our children. Does this annoy you? If so check out this blog – It is run by Stuart Waiton, a lecturer at the University of Abertay, Dundee.

Waiton urges us to sign his petition which opposes the restrictions and regulations placed on parents taking photographs at nativity plays and school events. I have signed.

For anyone unsure, there is no law against taking photographs of children – your children or otherwise. More people need to know about this. I know several people who have been threatened by the police, or been under suspicion from the police for taking photographs with children present.

I want to keep paedophilia out of my family’s lives. I resent these people who are making it part of everyday life, telling us that we can’t take pictures for risk of a paedophile getting hold of them.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010


I read this week that schools in Finland have been so inundated with requests for visits from teachers from other countries to come and see why their education system is so good, that they are no longer participating.

Now it has long been established that Finland has one of the best education systems in the world, and has very low illiteracy rates. On top of this, international surveys put it pretty high up the top ten with regards maths and science.

Many of the reasons for Finland’s success are well established – graduate educated teachers; waiting until they are seven before the children are taught to read and write; no mandatory exams before he age of seventeen so that the emphasis is put on learning, rather than teaching to exam.

A visit to Finland may result in British teachers learning more, but sadly, I doubt it would result in many, or even any schools implementing any of these. The changes need to be made my national government, and it doesn’t matter who we have in power, the changes that would be needed would be far too great for any party to implement.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Thinking for ourselves

I recently read an article on Parentdish where Sally Whittle stated that she had already told her five year old daughter’s school that unless she was falling behind she would not be doing homework with here. Now parents appear to fall into two caps – those who run up to the school to complain if their child hasn’t had homework for the past two nights, and those who, having read the research, doubt the effectiveness of set homework.

But what I found interesting about this article, apart from the huge number of comments, was the anger from a commenter named John.

John criticised the writer for daring to have an opinion different from the teachers. He gets angry that someone may choose to do thing slightly different.

How sad that there are people who don’t question the ‘experts’ and who take what they say without questioning it. As a parent I would say that the best parenting decisions I have made have been because I ignored experts, whether that be teachers, midwives, health visitors, other parents.

Did John not think that perhaps the writer was making an informed decision? Certainly more informed than the parents who decide that their primary aged children must study until midnight each night.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Dumbing down teaching

Michael Gove it to take teacher training out of universities and into schools, the headlines tell us. This, we are led to believe will be a good thing, with trainee teachers gaining more on the job experience.

While I am all for on the job experience, I do worry that this will result in teachers have less knowledge of educational theory. More knowledge of educational theory is needed not less.

It is thought that an estimated ten percent of children are dyslexic. So in a class of thirty, three are likely to be dyslexic. Yes despite this the level of knowledge teachers have of this subject tends to be minimal.

Parents I know whose children have Asperger’s have told me horror stories of the ignorance of teachers on the subject.

Surely more educational theory is needed, not less.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Alcohol education

Last week I attended an alcohol and mental health conference in Glasgow. It was a
fascinating day and although I already knew the statistics for Scotland with regards alcohol, mental health and suicide, even I was shocked at the extent of the problem and the contrast to other European countries and even England.

But I would also say that this conference had a lasting effect on me and my opinions on alcohol education in schools. The speaker pointed out that for a small group of children, particularly when the education sessions are delivered in primary schools, these sessions are not educational, they are terrifying.

Think of the ten year old who, on hearing about the health risks of alcohol thinks “That’s my mum”. As one social worker said to me afterwards, “These children have to go through the rest of the school say, feeling sick and worried because it has just been pointed out to them that their parents who are heavy drinkers are likely to develop cirrhosis of the liver”.

These education sessions are well meaning, but perhaps we need to remember that in any one class there is likely going to be at least one child who is already living with the effects. Terrifying these children is not the answer.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Do you wish you lived in England?

Sitting on Avril’s bed last night she asked me “Do you ever wish you lived in England?” A bit taken aback I asked why. “Because the queen lives there” she replied.

Well, okay, for an eight year old I suppose that is a good enough reason.

Neither a republican, nor a royalist, I have no strong opinions on the Queen either way. But I do think it is nice to enter a little girl’s world where kings, queens, princes and princess represent a fairytale world. While the papers may be full of reports on Kate and William’s forthcoming marriage and there are many people voicing their opinion on the cost, whether it will last, and whether the extra bank holiday is a good thing or not, to Avril this is simply a case of pretty girl meets her prince.

Anyway back to the Queen. Avril jumped for joy (literally) when  I told her that the Queen speaks on television on Christmas Day. So this year for the first time in a number of years we will be sitting down to listen to the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day, with at least one child listening quietly.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Poor punctuation

I’m writing a book on grammar and punctuation at the moment. It will be a homework guide for parents which parents will be able to use to help their primary aged children with their homework. It will be published in the spring by The Schoolrun website and will be available as an ebook.

As a writer, poor punctuation in particular really annoys me. The rules are pretty simple and it’s not hard to remember what an apostrophe is for and when to capitalise a word.

Spelling in English is different. The English language is a complicated one to learn as there are so many spellings which break the rules. There are countries in Europe which have virtually no recorded incidents of dyslexia. Granted this could be due to lack of diagnosis but it is also likely to be due to a simpler spelling system. Think of the words fought and got. Both rhyme but the spellings are totally different.

But while the vast majority of the general public are not bothered by the grocer’s apostrophe, I am sure there would be an outcry if local councils put up signs which were full of spelling errors.

We do appear to have become somewhat lackadaisical about grammar and punctuation in this country and it is getting to the point that some people now question whether it actually matters.

People will often say that grammar and punctuation are getting worse and that young people nowadays barely know what a noun is. As a writing tutor I can honestly say I haven’t found this. I have had some older students whose punctuation was awful.

In the book I will also be looking at how knowledge of the subject has changed, particularly since the introduction of the National Curriculum and the equivalent in Scotland. That will be interesting to say the least.

Monday, 15 November 2010

The junkies we won't have in this house

For various reasons Alan and I have been really proud of the four children this week. In different ways they have really excelled at school and nursery. We of course praised them, told them we were proud of them and basically left it at that. We did not buy them new bikes/hand them twenty pounds/run out to buy them each an Ipad. The reason is my dislike of star chart junkies.

Now I don’t know if many teachers call this syndrome by this name, but I do know many dislike it, whatever they want to call it.

A while back I read an article written by a secondary teacher. He despaired of parents who give their children so many rewards that the rewards soon become meaningless. He wrote of one parent who couldn’t understand why her little darling wasn’t doing well at school. “But I just bought him a new DS six months ago” she complained.

The DS had been bought as a reward for doing well in school, obviously the latest in a long line of expensive rewards given which were no longer having the desired effect.

Like star charts they have their place, but they do appear to be overused nowadays. We are always careful not to barter with the children. They may try their luck. “If I do my homework will I get a biscuit?” “No, you’ll do your homework because you have to do it”.

One of the loveliest comments I received about my daughter was when a teacher said that Avril wasn’t competitive like many of the children; she loved learning for the sake of it. That is what I want my children to do – to love learning.

For those of you who think I am talking rubbish, read this study which confirms what that secondary teacher had found, and which I totally agree with -

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Playing the game

Avril and I have decided to start a new sport together. Or rather I decided, put the idea to her, and Avril being her adorable self thought it was a great idea. Let’s hope she still thinks it is a good idea a few weeks down the line.

We’ve opted for badminton, partly because it is an easy sport to get into, but also because I would like a sport we can do together, and which she can pick up at any time of her life. I am more than happy for her to do other sports, but like the idea of us leaning something new together.

But I also want her to have the right attitude to sports and to exercise – that it’s fun. Last year I went to a CPD session run by Positive Coaching Scotland. I was reporting on it as part of my job. They gave some interesting statistics. By the age of 13, between 70 and 80 per cent of children in Scotland drop out of sports. Of all these kids that are winning medals, many will give up sport all together.

The idea of the session was to educate teachers on Positive Coaching Scotland’s campaign to make sports more about enjoyment and less about winning. It’s not that winning shouldn’t be on the agenda, it’s that it shouldn’t be the only thing on the agenda.

A lot of what they said made sense, particularly when I think of people I know who were very in to sports when they were young, but who as adults do absolutely no exercise whatsoever. The desire to win can take over so much that people don’t see the point of playing for the fun of it.

I was pleased to see teachers being educated on this. A variant of this theory has been around for a long time, but appears to have been misunderstood in press reports are to be believed. There really isn’t anything wrong with a child being congratulated for winning the egg and spoon race. That is not what this is all about. What Positive Scotland Coaching are saying is – play football because you like playing the game, not because it is something to win at; take up a sport for the enjoyment it brings.

We may enjoy badminton. We may not and I may be posting about another sport in a few weeks time. But we will enjoy giving it a go.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

A Grand Day Out

On Saturday I had a day on my own with the children. Alan hadn’t been out with the camera for a bit so I said to him to head off and that we would amuse ourselves. Getting around on public transport with four children is getting easier, probably because the older two are now in school and old enough to help a bit. But I still won’t venture on the tube with them all. I made the mistake of taking the buggie on the tube once before. I won’t repeat that experience.

We even went out for lunch, and amazingly it all went like a dream. Usually Alan and I spend a few minutes retrieving food from underneath the high chair, but we left the café as clean as it was when we entered.

Our destination for the day was Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. My children love art galleries, museums and castles. Take them to any place like that and they’re delighted.

With Alan and I both loving history it is probably no surprise. And I do love that my six year old gets his King James’ mixed up – “Was that James I or James IV Mummy?”

But yesterday was as much about science as it was about history. On our way out, a girl stopped us to tell us about the children’s events downstairs for National Pathology Week.

Hayden donned a lab coat, and did some stuff with a test tube; Avril looked through a microscope and learnt about DNA; and Darrell impressed me with his knowledge of chess, and built a lego castle.

History I love, science I don’t, although even I learnt something new on Saturday – we have 46 chromosomes in our body. But even though I don’t have any interest in science, I encourage my children to have an interest in it. I want their education to be wide and for them to find their own niche in life.

For some, our day at the museum would have been a no-go area. A few weeks ago we bumped into a lady we knew, when we were heading for the train through to the Impressionists Exhibition at the National Gallery in Edinburgh. “Oh my children would have hated that” she said to me.

Mine loved it, and we ended up going into the main exhibition.

By the time my children reach adulthood they will be able to read and write well, whether they can respond to a times table question within five seconds will not matter. But they will have something more important – a love of learning, and a well rounded education which is the parents’ responsibility to give, not the school’s.

Monday, 1 November 2010

My children aren't clever

From what I have seen, the thing to do these days is to tell your kids they are clever. More than clever, they are brilliant, and can do anything they want and become anything they want. Secondary teachers tell stories of parents, who, on hearing that their little darling hasn’t passed the exam they sat, blame the teacher. At no point does it enter their heads that it could be said darling’s fault.

Every so often the newspapers will publish details on some latest piece of research that has found that this is having a detrimental effect. Children are growing up expecting the world to fall at their feet and that everything is within their grasp. When they grow up, reality hits them. Hard.

While I am all for positive reinforcement, I am more a follower of Professor Carol Dweck’s philosophy. While Dweck, like several other social psychologists believes that IQ is not fixed, what makes her different is the focus on fixed and growth mindsets. People with a fixed mindset believe success comes from talent alone, so someone who does well in a maths exam, does so because they are good at maths, With a growth mindset, someone does well because they studied hard.

There is research to back this theory up. I won’t go into detail here but basically it involved one group being told they were clever when they did well, another group being told they worked really hard. The ones who were told they worked really hard consistently performed better.

We shouldn’t put our children down. And I do think children need confidence. But I think I agree with Dweck. My children aren’t clever, they work hard.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Active learning

Recently a client sent me a link to a newspaper article about a school which was taking the children to a local castle regularly, getting them involved in the local history of the area and using the castle as a basis for learning. She pointed out one of the comments which an online reader had made. The school was in a not so good area, and while the other commenters wrote that it was great these kids were getting involved in some local culture, one reader took the view that these kids were going to come to nothing anyway, and that they would be much better off in the classroom learning the three Rs.

Well firstly how sad that these children are being written off before they have even left primary school and by people who have never met them. I could go on and on about this but I won’t. I don’t believe in any child being written off.

But also I thought we had left those antiquated views behind in the nineteen seventies. Most of the country has moved on from the days when learning through topics was frowned upon. The relevance and benefits of topic work is now well established due to common sense getting a say. We all learn more and remember things better if what we learn is interesting and taught to us in an interesting and lively matter.

Active Learning may be one of the buzz words of the noughties but it really does work. I love history and studied it in school but the majority of history which I know about was not taught to me. I learnt it myself.

Those children will go back and read up more about the castle they visited, they will use their visit to learn about the history of their area and use it as a basis for writing projects.

I have visited enough schools and seen how they work to know that my children are lucky that they are learning in this way. I don’t consider it a waste of time.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Career choices

Darrell wants to be a jedi when he’s older. Hayden, now older and wiser, has decided against being an astronaut, and is now in favour of being a footballer. Avril, taking a break from her art ambitions, is going to be a scientist.

I vote for Darrell’s choice. I think being a jedi sounds like a great idea and shows he has some of his mum’s philosophy on life. Why go for sensible?

On a recent trip to the hairdresser’s Avril got asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Artist or hairdresser was her reply. “Oh, encourage her in to hairdressing, there’s always jobs in hairdressing” she told me.

At the ages of 8, 6, 4, and sixteen months I think there is plenty time for sensible options. If they ever come. When I was little I wanted to be either an author or a pianist. Well no matter how many times I play “Three blind mice” or “Frère Jacque” I’m kidding nobody.
I believe you should follow your passions in life. I have, and I am happy with that choice. Others I know who went for the sensible option, are miserable in their jobs, or counting down the years to retirement. The day will come when my children sit down and weigh up their career options. That is when the sensible option will be pondered on. But for now, I’m going to speak to Hayden again about becoming an astronaut.

Friday, 15 October 2010

And the competition winner is.....

Hazel Hiram wins a copy of Penny the Postie. Send me your address Hazel and I will get your book sent  out to you.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Penny the Postie book review

Book review of Penny the Postie

We have a house full of books, and shelves full of books for all ages. But we are always happy to add to them, which is why when Guernsey Post asked me to review Penny the Postie by Keith Robinson I was more than happy.

I was sent this book to read with Hayden who will shortly be six. Hayden is now at the age where he is looking for a bit more from a book – more excitement and more emphasis on a storyline.

So, this is a book about Penny (a postie obviously) who one day notices a strange looking postbox. Checking it out, she falls inside where she lands on a desert island and has all sorts of adventures (think Mr Ben). Pirates, crocodiles, haunted caves, and a treasure map all feature.

Hayden loved this book. It has all the ingredients to capture the imagination of a child his age, the illustrations kept him amused, and he quickly became engrossed in the story.

Educationally, there were several things I liked about it. Ages ago I read about the importance of having pictures in books written for children who were old enough to read. Too often once the children can read, the pictures go, and his can be offputting for children. Why not have both?

The level of language was appropriate for Hayden’s age. He knew some of the words, but not all of them – not a bad thing for a five year old. 

I liked the fact Penny was a girl. The adventures she has challenge stereotypes in a very non-confrontational way.

Free with the book is a set of stamps worth £2.95 set out to look like a treasure map. I can confirm that this had the desired effect. Before sitting down to write this review I discovered that they were missing. So with Hayden I had to search the house for the treasure map as he tried to remember where he had put it.

If you would like to win a copy of Penny the Postie leave a comment below. All names will be put into a hat and Hayden will personally pick the winner out on Sunday 10th October.
Penny the Postie

Monday, 27 September 2010


My daughter was initially not so keen on her new teacher. “She shouts a lot” she would tell me. “We could hear her shouting last year from our classroom” I was told. Now Avril is not a child teachers tend to shout at much. She tends to be well behaved, but not as much as her brother who has come home with so many behaviour awards lately that as well as asking him for his lunchbox when he comes in, we ask him where today’s awards are. But like me she daydreams a lot and I imagine the odd shout to bring her back is required.

When we first got word of this new teacher I would tell people (jokingly) that it is because we never shout at our four. Whether they think it’s because they are so well behaved, or because we are bad parents so laid back, I don’t know. But it set me thinking on how much we shout at our children.

I often make a concerted effort not to shout. I walk to the bottom of the stairs and call up instead of shouting from the living room. I speak to them calmly instead of shouting at them to do something.

From my own childhood experiences I believe shouting should be used sparingly. If you always shout, it no longer becomes shouting, it simply becomes your normal tone.

But then there are times when I have seen parents act calm when I want to shout at their children. If little Tommy is still kicking the waitress after being asked not to, then will somebody PLEASE take the child and shout at him to stop. PLEASE!! Asking nicely sure isn’t working.

Do you shout more than you would like to? Or do you successfully parent without shouting?

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Educate the Parents: Different strokes

Educate the Parents: Different strokes: "

Different strokes

Recently I visited a primary school in what some would classify as a bad area. The headteacher spoke of a boy he once had, who he thought was clever. Giving him that year’s Standard Grade paper to sit in primary seven (unofficially) he was not too surprised that he passed.

So far, so good. Role on a few years and here’s the sad part. The boy left school with no qualifications. Not one Standard Grade. We discussed this and voiced the same opinions – disappointing – yes, surprising – no.

I have many other stories of the same ilk which I could recount. Many of the bright sparks from my primary days quickly burnt out. Many of the slow burners are now shining brightly.

With the introduction of the new Curriculum for Excellence many teachers think that the increase in cross-curricular work in secondary schools will help them retain the pupils they ‘lose’. They hope these kids will continue to do well. But I think this ignores the fact that learning is not linear and some kids will simply do well at different stages of their education. It also overlooks the fact that some children do well early on because they are being pushed by their parents. At some point these children will get fed up of being pushed. And often the parents also get fed up of the pushing. In countries where they don’t start learning to read or write until seven, the children simply take less time learning to read, and they very quickly outperform countries were they send them to school early.

Will making secondary teaching more like primary teaching, with less rigid subject, be the answer? I just don’t think so.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Bedtime Stories

Bedtime stories in our house take a while. I have four children, three of whom are old enough to voice a request for their own story. Having read research some time ago that you should read to children even after they can read, the fact that my eight year old is a competent reader does not get me off the hook there.

But one thing I have never done is replace this with a taped story. It has always struck me as a bit of a cop out – the microwave meal version of bedtime stories. I like to sit down and look at the pictures and read together with said child. Isn’t that what bedtime stories are all about?

Recently my job as a journalist took me to a primary school which has had great success with Storyphones, a digital audio system which allows children to walk around listening to recorded stories. What I found interesting was the impact it has on children’s literacy, helping them with structure, characters, and the retelling of stories, generally improving their reading. It changed my thinking a bit and I was impressed by the benefits it had.

So will I now be going down the express route with regards bedtime stories? Certainly not. I don’t think my children would allow it. But I am now checking out CD players for number one son’s birthday in October. I don’t think taped stories should replace adults reading to children, but I do think it is a good additional extra.