Tuesday, 27 October 2009

I hope Maggie Atkinson has big ears

Why on earth would anyone want to be Children's Commissioner? Do they really want to listen to children? Have they thought that through?

I don't know about your kids, but mine disgorge an endless stream of incoherent rubbish concerning the intricate bowel movements of unicorns and fish and caravans and mudlarks wearing kitchenfoil body armour. Fifteen minutes of that and you'd be stabbing your own head with a knitting needle. I can tell you it's far less painful.

I chose to stay alongside my kids for this rambling muddling through journey, rather than packing them off to boarding school for some earhole respite. By the way, don't think I'm telling you this to show you how great and glorious a self sacrificing mother I am. Rather, it should tell you what a cruel streak I use to beat myself, thinking I want to experience the forbidding place that is daily living and education of your own children, and all the while listening to hours of endless babble.

The idea of journeying in home education alongside three mardy mucky kids - staying with it from the stumbling punch-drunk dwarf years towards the stroppy hair-flicking pre-teens - well, a long time ago it did seem like a good idea. That idea, as you can guess, was before these human types were made into microns of cells. And that one-sided decision to home educate was also possibly taken after a glass of red wine, facing a worried looking husband over a kitchen table some years ago. Perhaps the decision was affected by rising at 6am every morning to try and teach 7G about full stops while Kevin prowled the corridors with a baseball bat, and Jim routinely hid his bag of heroin wraps in my book cupboard. Maybe I thought any educational mayhem I could bring about wouldn't be quite as bad as that.

But now, sitting here, sunk under paint, paper, offcuts of fabric and unicorn fluff, rendered semi-unconscious from hours of stream-of-consciousness drivel about lampshades and trams and Barbi who wears matching shoes! You can bet some days I have my doubts.

So I wonder why Maggie Atkinson really wants that job of Children's Commissioner. Probably not to listen to children; certainly not to mine, Shark, Squirrel and Tiger. They would almost certainly speak the wrong answers, or witter on for five hours about giant cats fighting underwater battles with shape-shifting fish.

And wittering kids aside, she has all that work to do with bloodyminded parents. Would you like to do that job?

These home educating types for a start. They can be determined for battle, I can tell you. You're going to have a fight on your hands there, Maggie.

Let's face it, things have not started well with them, have they? First there's the link to the favourite bete noire, BullyBoyBalls. Then Maggie upset the parents of thousands of kids in England at a stroke. Take the information she gave to the Education select committee regarding her future appointment:
'I will take you back, if I may, to when I was an adviser in Birmingham city council, where there were quite large numbers of home-educated children - it is getting on for 20 years now since I worked in Birmingham. At that time, as an advisor I had a right and a duty not only to knock on the doors of people who were choosing electively to educate their children at home, but simply to go into their premises and, on the most headline of bases, to look at whether the environment was right, whether there were age-appropriate materials in use, and whether the children seemed okay.'
Let me hold up that rhetorical pointing finger, Maggie, and take you back to the law. Show me the law. Show me the law that gave a local authority advisor the right to enter someone's house and home. I don't think that law exists, Maggie. Ed Balls would like it to, which is why he's worked so well with Badman, who's recommended it.

In fact, Maggie probably knows that this is one of the sticking points for home educators.

The state seems itching to get inside family life, and many ordinary people are making a ripe rich noise about that right now. And it seems to many of us that local authority bodies are desperate to assume the power to enter any home in England where there can be a child defined as 'home educated'.

So be careful, you keepers of runny-nosed bawling mini-humans aged under 5. If you do not choose a state nursery for your delightful littlehairysnorting Moonbeam, then can it be said you are 'delivering the birth-five curriculum, that every child is entitled to' in your own home? Then welcome to the world of home education.

Of course we can fight back on the idea of Maggie's mates doorstepping us Monday morning. Perhaps if the local authority would like the right to enter my house, inspect my 'environment', look at my 'age-appropriate materials', and assess whether I have beaten my child recently, then that's a right we can potentially extend to everyone. Doesn't it follow that citizens should have the right to enter any 'premises' belonging to an employee of the local authority and check that their family household is running in accordance with state policy?

Somehow, I think if Maggie wants that job of listening to children and the families who love and protect them, then her work's cut out.

But I can't leave this post just yet. There's one thing that's bugging me more than fifty beetles stuffed down my bra.

Did you notice the word Maggie first used to describe where thousands of people live? Premises? Not someone's house or home, but their premises.

I don't know what children up and down England call it - maybe after listening to those children you could tell me Maggie - but Shark, Squirrel and Tiger call these premises their 'home'.

Shark, Squirrel and Tiger love their home. They love this house. They love the way the floorboards don't quite meet; they love the way the worn down Victorian brass doorhandles turn; they love how you can gaze at the wooden joists overhead in their workroom; they love the curved stone step down to the coldest bedroom.

I might beat myself about the head because I cannot see the floor from one November to the next, but I know my children love this space, their home. And I've chosen to live with the way they show their love. Call that way rolling around, screaming, laughing, throwing themselves about, slamming doors, pulling the front room curtains down, creeping down under the fluffy sofa throw to read, and yelling obscenities while perched on the toilet. It's chaos. But it's our chaos.

Maggie should know above all that this is our family home. It's the place where we love, laugh, eat, sleep, shout, cry, argue, make up.

But it doesn't stop there. These rooms are filled with the things we have made and built. That mess of blue pipe cleaners, sequins and folded paper? It's Shark's home-made ray, and she dreams of the time she stood in the warm pool to stroke their silvery backs and feed them treats from her hand, and my underwater dreamer longs for that again. We'll try and help make her dream come true.

But that tangle of twisted wire? That's the day Squirrel spent two hours painfully constructing a wire horse from a design she'd seen painted in a Celtic festival. Every tiny piece of wire she carefully twisted between her near-bleeding fingers. I coaxed her to use the pliers; she still needed to feel the tiny threads press into her skin. That's how she learned the strength and tension of that wire.

And Tiger's painting, hanging on the wall in our front room. The one she screamed over, wept over, declared rubbish, and returned to, time and time again, bringing all the determination she could wring from her body to put into that paint the feeling she had. Tiger, trasher of bathroom, destroyer of clothing, creator of beauty: my most sensitive, expressive artist.

I wouldn't want to be Children's Commissioner, having to listen to all this.

But I bet this is all the wrong answer, so Maggie probably won't want to hear.


Maire said...

Love this grit, no she won't want to listen to you or your kids, but she sure would like to enable some local authority numpty to poke about in your cupboards.

mamacrow said...


btw, i really do get what you mean by the babble.. however, I have found it preferable to the, um B******t I had to listen to in the years I worked for a NHS mental health trust.

In the end, I've discovered that I really would rather be driven mad by my children than by a bunch of doctors and the like.

Which is somewhat heartening - maybe I'm a better mother than I thought!

kellyi said...

It's the "whys" that kill me. I am barely awake when dd is bamboozling me with them

"Why do cats have two sets of eyelids?"

"Why do we need to close our eyes when we sleep?"

Seriously. Not even out of bed this morning and this is what I was greeted with.

sharon said...

You would be all wrong for the job anyway Grit because you would actually try the 'listening' part of the remit and possibly - shock, horror! - maybe even ACT on the words you hear. Unlike the political hacks who just toe the Party line and have absolutely no interest on what Joe/Josephine Public wants or needs!

mrsb said...

I have just discovered your blog via the Sunday Times Magazine. I always thought I might actually drive us all insane if I tried home schooling - you have made me think differently. My lovely, attention difficient 9 year old twins, might just benefit from not being surrounded by the distractions of school.

That stream of conciousness thing is truly non-stop with two kids the same age, I can only imagine (and feel slightly panicky about) a third voice.

Lisa G said...

Excellent as usual Grit, I wish she would read your blog, but lets face it she won't and it would probably be wasted on her anyway, pity!
Congrats on The Times article, very cool!

Grit said...

my cupboards?! say what maire, i might blog them now.

i agree, mamacrow! and those discussions about the unicorns and dollies ... some of them are quite critical. do you know, one of the dollies just found herself a BOY FRIEND! i think we need to have some serious talk round here now.

those are fantastic, kelly. i didn't know cats had two sets of eyelids. there you go. let's make a home ed book of the intelligent questions children ask.

sharon, you have put your finger on it; it's not just the listening, it's the acting through with what the kids say. actually, that's not just a solution; that's also my problem. because my kids never say 'take the week off', 'go to the gym' or 'buy new shoes'.

hi mrsb, and welcome! i can honestly say that i have found it a very fulfilling experience to be with my children instead of handing them over to someone else.

home ed is hard work, and sometimes i have thought it is beyond me and i have wanted to give it up. but then the children make such sudden gigantic leaps, follow exciting new interests, and become expert at doing something, and i hope home ed continues for years.

and i haven't got my tongue in my cheek or my fingers crossed or anything.

hi lisa g! maggie will be too busy, i'm sure, to listen to people like me. and thank you for kind words!