Wednesday, 25 November 2009


There is a school in Bournemouth which was, until a few years ago, a “Boys’ School”. It didn’t have a very good reputation – and deservedly so.

Then it changed its name. It became an Arts and Media College – and some of us “fell for it”. I am the proud mother of a hugely artistic son. I’m not proud for pride’s sake. My boy is very talented and has been published. He lives, eats, drinks and breathes art – it is quite simply “who he is”.

When the time came, a couple of years ago, for us to choose his secondary school, his father and I scratched our heads and worried a great deal. Bournemouth is rather better known for catering to an aged population than it is for its merits in either primary or secondary education. It would have been a “nice thought” to have my son crammed for the Grammar School entrance examination. He isn’t very good at Maths. The thought crossed our minds but I worried about what would happen when the “cramming” ended – and, to be honest, the Grammar School isn’t “grounded” in the Arts and our son needed a place that would help him to channel his talents.

I “did” the Open Day circuit and ultimately decided that the school that had the best facilities for an artistic kid was the one called an “Arts and Media College”. Everything that a child with a leaning towards the arts would need was PHYSICALLY there. I couldn’t fault the Arts studios, the state of the art drama and stage equipment nor, indeed, did the Radio studio seem to be too out of date.

My son started at the Arts and Media College at the beginning of Year 7 in September 2008. And the dream ended.

He was SO excited on the morning of his first day. The occasion was special enough for both his father and I to take him there – he was just a bit nervous ... but so was I on my first day at “big school” and who wouldn’t be? It wouldn’t seem to be quite right walking into a new environment cocksure and brimming with abundant confidence, would it? But some kids did. His father and I sat in our car watching what seemed to be a very vulnerable little boy walk in – thankfully – with a friend from primary school who’d arrived at the same time – but other boys hurtled in, charged in, blustered in and barged in – were they older children? No – the first day of each school year is for Year 7 children alone.

When I collected him in the afternoon, my son was quiet. I asked how the day had gone and he told me that he was in a class with only one other boy he’d known from primary school and most of the other boys in the class seemed rough, unfriendly and “bullish”. Some of them had older brothers at the school – they, apparently, were the ones who were the roughest.

Day 2 was less “special” than day 1 and on collecting him when school finished, I have to say that I actually felt quite intimidated by the raw, pubescent aggression that tumbled out of the building at 3 o’clock. My son, when he got into the car, was even quieter than he had been the day before.

Fast forward 18 months.

Every school day for the past academic year and a half my son has PLEADED with me to be allowed to stay at home. And every morning, I felt as if I was being the worst mother on earth by insisting that he WAS, indeed, going to school. If only I could have been just slightly reassured on collecting him each afternoon – but I wasn’t. Each day, it seemed that worse things were happening to him. He is a child who likes to learn. He is eager for knowledge. Each day, his “legal right” to a decent education seemed to be a completely alien concept for the members of staff at the Arts & Media College to get to grips with.

I am not, by nature, a molly-coddler. I know EXACTLY who my son is. He’s an artistic kid but no angel – quite capable of naughtiness and there are bits of me that punch the air in glee about that. I was no “angel” at school, myself ... fortunately I had an “air of innocence” that got me out of many a scrape.

He is an artistic child – not a wimpish one. He has a tendency to be a “thinker” and one who tries to rationalise the actions of those around him. I can’t blame him for doing that ... I don’t know whether it’s right or wrong, but I do it myself.

He has spent the last 18 months trying to rationalise the actions of lunatics – and for his efforts in so doing, he – as one of the more studious children at his school, was shouted at by his teachers when he required explanation about a lesson because his “teachers” – who often weren’t teachers at all, but teaching assistants, were so busy trying to keep the levels of aggression down in their classes and the “easiest” kids to shout at were the ones who wouldn’t shout back.

In 18 months, my son had 5 pieces of homework. Not 5 pieces of homework per night or per week. No; just 5 pieces of homework during his ENTIRE time at the school. There were some subjects in which he never had the same teacher for two consecutive lessons. The school appeared to be staffed by supply teachers and under-qualified teaching assistants. How wrong of me, I am leaving out members of staff who seem to have strange titles such as “Achievement Coordinators”. Their role, it would seem, is to smooth things over when the crowd control of the supply teachers and the teaching assistants fails to work properly. They don’t actually seem to do much about “achievement” at all. And I mustn’t forget the congenial Acting Headmaster whom, if a parent writes to him, fails to respond unless nagged ... rather a lot. On the last occasion when I wrote to him, I did – after many enquiries about whether I was going to get a reply – actually receive a ‘phone call from him.

He told me that the two days I’d requested for my son to be absent from school were authorised and that he’d had a very amiable chat with him about the various and very real grievances that I had written about. He also told me that he intended “consulting” my son on a frequent and regular basis because it was very useful for him to know what was happening in Year 8. I pinched myself quite hard and, with as much dignity as I could muster, asked him if it was not HIS job to know what was going on in his school with the help of the teaching staff rather than relying on a pupil to tell him of such. The fact that the pupil was my son is neither here nor there but the “legal right of a child to a good education” should not, in my opinion, include being a “lookout” for the Acting Headmaster.

Well, at least I was safe in the knowledge that the two days that my son would be absent from school had been authorised by the “man (not very) in charge”. I was stunned to receive a letter from one of the “Achievement Coordinators” a few weeks later asking me to justify why my son had been absent as his absence had NOT been authorised. I responded in writing, citing my conversation with the Acting Headmaster and expressing disbelief at the communication between the various staffing departments within the school. I delivered the letter by hand to the school one morning after dropping my son off. I saw (with my own eyes as opposed to borrowed ones) the School Receptionist open my letter. I heard no more until 10 days ago when I received a curtly worded text from the school DEMANDING that I give them an explanation for my son’s UNAUTHORISED absences. I blew.

During his 18 months at the Arts & Media College with really very excellent facilities for an artistic child, my son has been subjected to physical bullying and appalling mental intimidation. I do not believe he has learnt anything at all. I drove – with my husband – to the school and exercised my right as a parent to take him out of there. I asked to see the Acting Headmaster but he was apparently in a Disciplinary Meeting. Why wasn’t I, in the least, surprised? Instead, I was apologised to by two “Achievement Coordinators” who sent a timid looking boy (whose education appeared to comprise being at the beck and call of the School Receptionist) to get my son. My son arrived in Reception and I asked him to go and collect his PE kit. He did – and WE TOOK HIM HOME.

I am home educating him until the end of this term and next term he starts at a new school in London. It doesn’t have “Arts” or “Media” in its name – it doesn’t have to ... it has a reputation for absolutely no bullying at all, an ethos of celebration of children’s achievements and very close ties to Chelsea Art School. Well done, LEA – we are selling up and taking a severe downgrading in housing and monetary well-being because you are unable to provide our child with his legal right to a decent education.

A few weeks ago, I read in the Bournemouth Echo that a great deal of money had been allocated to refurbish schools in the Dorset area. Hello! LEA – are you listening? Get a load of this:

You do not need to refurbish school buildings. You need to spend every available penny that you have on employing some decent teachers who aren’t afraid to take charge of the children in your care, provide those who need discipline with it and impart your knowledge to those children who want to learn rather than shout at them, because they’re the kids who you know very well “won’t answer back”. You need to be in charge of the asylum – because currently, the lunatics are running the show and you are NOT – repeat NOT – providing the children in your care with their legal right to a decent education. You do, dear LEA need to get your act together.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Fish and Visitors

This article was first published by The Bournemouth Echo on 26th October 2009 and also by The Blog Paper on the same date.

Benjamin Franklin once said “Fish and visitors stink after three days”. I would agree with that.

I have just had my aged, spinster cousin to stay for two weeks. I usually have her to stay two or three times a year “for a week” which invariably organically grows into a fortnight or three weeks. A fortnight, on this occasion, was at least (if I’d have actually taken note of the Franklin quote) eleven days too many. I returned her to her own home on Saturday and believe that if she’d have stayed just one day more, I would have had to have been sectioned.

The people who follow me on Twitter were becoming used to my references to “Fanny in the corner”. My cousin’s name is not Fanny but it would have seemed rude to have used her real name – and, anyway, Fanny suits her. The line “Fanny in the corner” was, of course, on Twitter open to many interpretations – NONE of which did I understand!

My cousin is a frighteningly skinny Fanny. I’m fairly convinced that the only time she eats a square meal is when she visits us although she insists that she is very independent, goes out shopping every day and “takes care of herself”. How, then, does she always manage to look healthier and heavier after her visits to us than she does when she arrives?

She is very, very deaf and barely understands a word that anyone says to her – unless the word “food” is mentioned. Her ears suddenly clear at breakfast, lunchtime and at dinner. And although she doesn’t speak very clearly either these days, she speaks clearly enough to say “Oh, okay then” when I ask her if she’d like extra toast at breakfast time, two rounds of sandwiches rather than one at lunchtime and double portions of everything at dinner time.

She doesn’t “do” much when she’s with us. She’s an early riser, enjoys a leisurely breakfast which “has to be digested” properly by sitting in her dressing gown in one corner of the sofa until at least 11.00am, after which she goes back upstairs to perform her ablutions. She manages to get back downstairs just in time for her two rounds of sandwiches at lunchtime.

Several attempts at conversation are started but not finished. I am hoarse from responding to her fangled speech and however loudly I speak, it is never quite loudly enough. Fanny’s afternoons are spent “reading” which involves opening a book and then falling asleep and dribbling on the unturned page.

When I start to prepare dinner, Fanny follows me into the kitchen and manages to stand exactly where I need to be at any one given point in time. I am not a patient person. After about ten minutes, I gently say to her ... “You’re on holiday – why don’t you go and sit down” which she does & falls asleep again until dinner is ready.

After dinner, I think she enquires whether I’d like any help in clearing up in the kitchen. Last time I said “Yes”, she not only attempted to empty the scraps from the plates into the waste disposal but also the cutlery. These days, I say, “No, you’re on holiday – why don’t you just relax” – which she does, once again installing herself in the corner of the sofa.

She is of the belief that as my son and I spend a fair deal of time on our own because my husband works away from home quite a lot, I am in need of adult company which means that she will stay up until I suggest that it’s “probably” her bedtime. She’s probably right ... I probably would appreciate a little adult company but she isn’t able to provide this as mainly, once the TV is switched on she, I think, tells me that she’s finding whatever happens to be on, very interesting and promptly falls asleep and dribbles on the open TV guide.

Occasionally I ask her if she’s still interested in what we’re watching which causes her to sit bolt upright and tell me that she IS watching the television and that she’s NOT asleep, the exertions of which cause her to fall asleep again almost immediately. She does, however, wake up when I mention that I’m going to make a cup of tea and she also manages to speak clearly enough to respond to my enquiries regarding biscuits. The answer never varies – “Oh a few of the ones I had last night, would be nice”. Once refreshments have been consumed the sleeping and dribbling resume quite quickly again.

At about midnight, I say to her that I’m thinking of going to bed. I am lying. I turn the television off & Fanny prepares to go upstairs. I am to be kissed goodnight. This isn’t a pleasant experience but a small price to pay to have my sofa to myself for an hour or two before I actually DO go to bed and, I can wash the dribbly kiss off in the downstairs loo once I can hear that she’s at the top of the stairs.

I’m about the only member of my family who bothers with her and she does seem to enjoy her stays with us. But three days WOULD be enough and, at the risk of appearing on some Age Concern hit list, I’m prepared to admit that I am truly not a very nice person!