Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Dear Mr Gove...

Dear Mr Gove,

We are moving house soon, and given our children are coming to an age where we shall shortly be applying for a school place for our eldest, we have been thinking rather a lot about schools. Unlike many of our peers, we're rather pleased that the nearest school to the house we are buying is considered to be terrible, and was given a 'Requires Improvement' in its last full inspection, as we suspect that is why despite there being many parents of small children looking round the house at the open day held for buyers, our bid was the top offer. Unfortunately it is just bad, and not really bad, so is not yet going to be forced to change such as one of the schools near our current house which made the national news with locals' campaign to stop it being a forced academy, but which is now much improved and spoken about highly by those same locals.

My husband and I have always taken the mickey out of people who move house for a school. In fact we still think that our children will benefit more from a bigger house with their own bedroom and a nice sized garden, than from an outstanding school, though we would like both of course. For a long time we have mocked people we know who say or we imagine say, things such as 'it's all very well for other children but I will not sacrifice my own child on the alter of leftie values' or 'of course State school is fine for most children but my child is musically gifted/dyslexic/extremely academic.' We have been known too to play the game at dinner parties of 'whose school was shittest?' in which we give examples of how poor our own school was before pulling out the trump card of our own A Level results or university place. And we have long practised the art of snobbery against those who try to take advantage of the grammar schools that do exist such as the friend who moved to an area of grammar schools because her own kid is bright, and who we secretly hope turns out to also have a less bright child because the flip side of grammar schools is that the rest of the schools in the area aren't.

Mr Gove, unlike the many people on my side of politics, I don't think you are a bad person. I actually think that you come across as one of the more normal people in your party. Descriptions of dinner parties at your house leave me rather wanting an invite myself. I suspect you'd be quite good at poking fun at yourself and a good partner to have at Trivial Pursuit. And I am thrilled you are sending your own children to State schools, the first Education Secretary from your party to do so. But most of all I think you do want better education for all children, regardless of their background, though you don't seem to have managed to get this message across so well, or to have taken parents, teachers or children along with you.

As we know, one of the key skills of teaching is to break complex issues down into simple, achievable steps. With this in mind, I've written you a very simple wish list of what I would like when it comes to schools for my own children.  

Less choice
I don't mean that I want to be told which of the schools in the current system we must go to - because they are clearly all so different both in outcomes and in management style. But I would like all schools to be broadly the same. I don't want to choose between an Academy or a Free School, a Specialist School or a Community School. I just want a school. A single clear system in which schools are run in the same way with a clear hierarchy of control and accountability.

Every school for everyone
Every time someone sends their child to a single sex school, or a faith school, they limit the pool of children going to the co-educational non faith schools we will be sending our own children to, ensuring our children's schools are not truly representative at all. The real world is mixed, and children need to know how to function in the real world. Like all parents, I think, I do not want my children to be the only children of their cultural background in their school. The best way to achieve this is to ensure all the other kids from their background are not hived off into a school for children like them.  

Less reliance on meaningless exams
Of course I want a way to ensure standards are as high as possible, and to identify schools, and pupils, not meeting these standards (though I would suggest there is no such thing as failing pupils, just failing schools), but I recently visited a primary school near the area where we will shortly be moving, and was told that pupils learn French in years 3, 4 and 5 but not in year 6 as there is no room in the timetable due to SATs. That means there is no consolidation of the previous three years of French lessons the children have had in their final year of Primary School before moving on to more formal language learning at Secondary School. Surely as priorities go this is skewed, or, to use the less polite French, baisées. (Blame Google Translate if that is wrong - my own London Borough had a crisis in the supply of language teachers in the 1990s, also, incidentally, under a Tory Government.)  

Remember the average child
There's so much emphasis on clever kids, and so much emphasis on children without basic skills, but, by definition, most children are average. Of course I think my children are bright - what middle class parent doesn't - but if they turn out not to be academically able I would still like them to have the best education money can't buy. I want them to have teachers who encourage them to achieve their best, qualifications that demonstrate what it is they can do, and a love of learning and knowledge for its own sake, to whatever level they are able.  

Respect teachers
I think one of the major achievements of the last Labour Government is to have raised the professional status of teachers, and their salaries. I am now in my mid thirties and when I hear of friends retraining and starting a second career in teaching I don't just think how brave, or how noble, but also how sensible, a career with prospects. I want children, and parents, and other members of society, to see teaching as an honorable profession to be respected. And as such I want teachers to take an individual interest in every child, able to tune into and nurture their individual enthusiasms. Many people I know, myself included, remember individual teachers particularly fondly and the reason nearly always is because that teacher lent them books from their own personal collection, or wrote them a personalised reading list when they showed an interest in a specific area. (Mine was Donald Woods' Cry Freedom - still remembered and appreciated, thanks Miss). But as in any workplace, respect needs to be mutual, and teachers need to listen to and take with them the rest of the school community when making decisions. And to stop bloody moaning all the time.  

Work better with parents who work
Government policy in recent years, certainly under the last Government, was all about parents who work. So why are schools so badly set up for it? I don't mean the breakfast clubs and after school clubs, though of course they are vital for many families, but the way meetings for school governors or the PTA are held during the working day, making getting involved difficult for parents with conventional jobs, and the way key dates such as assemblies and school trips and events to which parents are invited are announced with such short notice it is not always possible to schedule in to the working diary, often balanced on a knife edge as it is.

I hope this helps. With a bit more applied effort, perhaps a smidgen of team work and certainly some clear leadership, I think we can get there.

Yours sincerely,

Ellie Levenson

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

My name is Fish

I have written a book. It's called What I Think About When I Think About... Swimming and is illustrated by Katie O'Hagan and published by Troika Books. It's not my first book. I wrote this. And this. And co-edited and contributed to this, if you judge a book by the existence of an ISBN.

But as we know, when it comes to kids, nothing you do before they exist counts. As such, this is my first book.

It is certainly my first book for children. Though I hope adults will read it and enjoy it as well. And my first book under my given name of Eleanor, rather than the name I generally use, Ellie.

It felt important to me to reclaim Eleanor. I was known throughout childhood as Eleanor, except to family members. I remember starting university and introducing myself as "Ellie, Eleanor, whatever" and so it came to pass that somewhere around the aged 20 mark, Eleanor went and Ellie stayed.

At university I stood for election to a sabbatical NUS post (editing the student newspaper). I used the name Eleanor. Whilst I don't blame the name. I lost. I didn't take that chance again, switching to Ellie for my next election, when the winner of a round the world travel writing competition was put to a reader vote in The Guardian. I was Ellie. And I won.

The job I had been in prior to that, as a business journalist, in which I lasted four months, published me as Eleanor. And the job I got after that published me as Ellie. And Ellie, once again, stayed.

But it feels right to reclaim Eleanor for my children's book. The name your parents give you is a gift. I remember telling each of my children, alone with them on their first night, your name is X, and explaining why we made the choice we had, what cultural and emotional baggage it would give them. what compromises were made, and how I hoped they would grow to love their names. And always at the back of my mind I have felt a little ungrateful not to use the name I was given.

Fish, of course, rarely have individual names. The fish in my book thinks about many things. His (it is never directly referred to, but Katie O'Hagan's wonderful illustrations most definitely look male) ponderings cover nostalgia, fears, metaphysical concepts and the meaning of life, as well as wordly pleasures. But I think in his musings, were he to have a name, he would come to the same conclusion about his own book that he dreams of writing, and use his full one. If none of that makes sense, you'll have to buy the book. You can do so here.

What I Think About When I Think About... Swimming by Eleanor Levenson and Katie O'Hagan (Troika Books, 2014)

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Kirstie and me

I've always had a bit of a crush on Kirstie Allsopp. She's pretty and wears great dresses. I like the mix of successful career woman with crafty earth mother crossed with a dose of poshness and plenty of gob.

It manifests itself by occasional tweets in which I attempt, in vain, to get her attention. This never works  - even the one I send quite often asking where she got her fab black furry hat that occasionally appears on Location, Location, Location never gets a reply.

Now my crushes don't have to agree with me, sometimes the very fact they don't just serves to strengthen my crush, but sometimes there's that pivotal moment when alarm bells ring and, you know, you still fancy them but you just don't respect them any more. It happened with a man I dallied with some years ago, a fully paid up member of the Tory Party. I found the clash of opinions rather alluring, truth be told, and convinced myself that some Tories even want the same thing as normal people (to make lives better, all lives, starting with the shittest, in case you didn't know) and just have a different approach. And then one day, sitting on a hill with a view of the city, admiring each other and London, he said 'what's the problem with inequality anyway?' He dumped me in the end ("They only think of themselves, Tories, what did you expect?" said my Labour supporting friends ie nearly all of them) but when he said that, my ardour definitely died a bit.

So it is with Kirstie, suggesting women shouldn't go to university but should instead have babies in their twenties in this interview.

The thing is, I'm not beyond offering similar advice myself. A postgraduate student once asked me in a lecture on freelancing, how to ensure she isn't so busy trying to be a successful journalist that she doesn't find time to have a family. I don't know, I had to reply, it's why I lecture part time and freelance the rest of it. Do it now, I told her, have your babies first.

But I didn't really mean it. By the time I was in my thirties, even before the children came, I was tired of networking and drinking all evening with people looking over my shoulder for someone more important. I did it for ten years and I was bloody good at it, always the one at a reception or networking event flitting between people, gathering business cards, flattering and quipping and remembering key details to bring up in the next day's pitches. But that kind of thing has a limited shelf life, as it should. Otherwise you end up the old soak at the bar trying to wow interns with stories about how great you are whilst pretending you're not hanging out for one more glass of cheap white wine. Luckily, I did it for long enough and was good enough at it that I am still living off the contacts I made then. Start the ten year process post children, when you need to get home for the babysitter or get up at 6am to watch Tikka-fucking-billa on CBeebies? Not likely.

Then of course there are the added extras that are really what make your career. I've written about them before. Basically you might do your job really well, you might make money or have genius ideas or change the world, but what makes you appear to be doing all of these things are the extras, often last minute, like attending a breakfast briefing at short notice or working all night to finish someone else's project because they are sick or speaking at a conference. In my career it's punditry that makes you most visible. Kirstie's article is exactly the kind of thing that in the past would have led to me being asked for a response - for tv, radio and other print journalists. But that would have relied on me being able to read the article as soon as it was published, work out my response, answer the phone and get to a studio. I can't do that on days when I am looking after my children. And those women Kirstie talks about, who at my age would have kids just about to start secondary school, they wouldn't be able to either.

I love Anne McElvoy's response to Kirstie's interview in the Evening Standard.  Don't listen to Kirstie, she says, but get your education as soon as you can:

"...I would refer you to the inspirational Geoffrey Canada, who transformed the education opportunities of some of the poorest American children. He has one key piece of advice about why learning is useful. “When in doubt, do as the rich folks do.” And the rich folks, the world over, by hook, crook and private tutor, send their children to university."

That's it isn't it? Kirstie approaches this from the position of someone who didn't need to do that to have a nice life. The same goes for me of course - I fully acknowledge that while not plummy like Kirstie, life would have probably worked out okay whatever path I took, because I've had loads of opportunities from the very beginning. Like Kirstie, I was born lucky. I suspect that the difference between me and Kirstie is the same as the difference between me and the Tory boyfriend that wasn't - which is that I acknowledge this luck, and the part it has played. Oh Kirstie, we could have been so good together...