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Friday, 4 April 2014

Sadness and Loss

It's been a very sad week for anyone involved in education in Edinburgh, or anyone who has been aware of the news at all. On Tuesday, Keane Wallis-Bennett died when a wall collapsed at her school, Liberton High. I was shocked and appalled when I heard the news, a stark message from the BBC on my phone: child dies in Edinburgh school.

I'm sure many other parents reacted in the same way I did. My heart pounded, my palms immediately prickled with sweat; I leapt to my keyboard and went as quickly as I could to the BBC website. Panic rushed through me: was it one of my daughters? And of course, as soon as I found out it wasn't their school, I felt a rush of relief. Almost immediately followed by guilt. My daughters were fine, but one family would never feel the rush of relief that I did. For them, they are now in a waking nightmare, one which will not end.

I am not sure what to do in this situation. What can I do that would help them? As the parent representative on the Education Committee I have been called upon to comment on the tragedy in a number of newspapers and also television bulletins. I have repeated the same things, "we were aware of the condition surveys, and assured by the Council that the appropriate action was being taken", "parents have an expectation that their children will be safe at school and I would urge the Council to immediately review the condition surveys to check what else might have been missed."

It feels so little. It's addressing the future, what we do next, how do we ensure this never happens again. But it can't change what has happened to Keane, and what her family are going through. I want to be able to fix that. But I can't. It's heartbreaking.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013


Although Josie and Lori have moved school, I've been keeping in contact with the parents at their old school. That's partially because the girls have friends there, partially because I have friends there among the parents, but also because of an ongoing campaign that I feel very passionately about.

That campaign was to stop planning permission being granted to turn the building next door into flats. Well, I say next door, it actually shares the playground. What that would have meant was that single-aspect studio flats would have a clear view into the playground, at ground level, which was just unacceptable for the children's privacy. That wasn't the only issue with the development, but it was a very sizeable one.

I was involved at the start of the campaign, less so latterly, but the baton was taken up admirably by other parents, with the support of local councillors, especially Nick Gardner, and our local MSP, Malcolm Chisholm.

Today those mentioned above, among others, spoke at the development committee where planning matters are decided. The result, despite the recommendations of the planning department, was a vote against permission being granted. It was by the narrowest of margins, but it was still a victory, and I am so pleased for the parents at Broughton Primary who have worked so hard for this result.

You can read more about it here.

Well done to everyone involved!

Monday, 4 November 2013

A New Adventure in Coding

Learning New Things

Games Review , the site that I edit on is going quite well, and starting to build some momentum. I'm also building up a library of articles as a writer on Weekend Notes and MyKidCraft, However, I don't want to just edit and write for other peoples' sites.

So, I've decided that if I want to start my own website, then I need to learn how to code, if only to understand what the challenges will be and how little I actually know. It's a stroke of luck, then, that my blogger interface doesn't appear to work with this version of IE and so I have to use the HTML tab to write the thing. I'm going to continue to thinking of it as a stroke of luck, as that stops it from being so annoying that the admins won't let me have a decent browser.

That's really all my chat about that. Well, not quite. I suppose I'd better illustrate that I am actually learning something, and put all this Codeacademy stuff into practice. So far, I've learned about:

  • Titles, Headers, Paragraphs
  • Image links and URL links
  • Lists
    1. Ordered Lists
    2. Unordered Lists
So far, so surprisingly easy. It still all looks rubbish though, it took me 5 minutes to work out why I had a stray bullet point in my unordered list up there, and then get rid of it. So, how do I go from that, to making a site that looks more stylistically attractive? I'm not sure yet...but watch this space to find out when I do!

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Economic Barriers to Adopting Siblings

I was reading an article the other day about adoption and fostering, and I felt it missed a really important point about the economics of fostering and adopting.

The article talked about a set of three siblings. They had moved from foster carer to foster carer, and could only have got adopted if they had split up. The article talked about why it was difficult for three older children to be adopted together: emotionally hard for parents, would need extra bedrooms etc. It didn’t mention the financial issues of suddenly having three more children in the house. In fact, it didn’t mention the economic barriers to adoption at all. However, it made a pejorative statement when talking about the quality of foster parents: “some foster parents only do it for the money”.

Here’s the thing. If you foster, most local authorities will pay you around £130ish per week per child. That’s for two reasons: 1. To cover the additional costs of having another child 2. Because at least one foster parent is expected to treat the fostering as their full-time job.

It used to be the case that foster parents were simply willing volunteers, but that’s changed. Why do they need to treat it as a full-time job? Because the foster children often have complex support needs, some emotionally, some physically. You would not, for example, be expected to foster a child of under-5 and then be able send them to a day nursery and expect them to get on with it while you continue a full-time jobs.

So, the siblings are fostered, but the ideal for most children in long-term foster care is to be adopted permanently. But what happens if you’re fostering three children, with complex emotional and behavioural support needs, and you decide you’d like to adopt them?

Well, of course, you stop getting that money. The state doesn’t pay people to have children whether they’re your own, or adopted (with the exception of Child Benefit, but that’s not a huge amount). The addition of three extra people is going to be difficult to absorb into the household finances.

First – you need to give up your full-time job of fostering. Second – you can’t get another job because you’re now required to do your previously-paid full-time job for free.

It strikes me that the difficulty of placing siblings together is more of an economic issue than adoption organisations and councils have thus far admitted.

I know I couldn’t suddenly take on three more children without little financial support and at the same time need to give up a full-time job.

Despite what that article claimed, most people who foster do not do it “for the money”. I have known foster parents and they have done it for a variety of reasons. It’s not an easy job, and it’s not easy money. The foster parents I knew were not rich, but they did something they thought was right, often at great cost to their own families and even their own mental health. It is difficult to bring in a child, to form a bond, to do your very best for them and then later watch them be returned to the family that caused all the issues.

The article implied that more of these foster parents should be less money-grubbing, and simply adopt the children.

How? How would be that financially possible for the majority of people?

But what’s the alternative? Pay people to adopt children, and keep on paying them for years? I’m not sure that would solve the problem.

The problem with adoption is that the people who want to adopt siblings can’t afford it, and the people who could afford to adopt 2 or even 3 siblings don’t appear to want to adopt. Until either of those two things change, children like those three siblings will not get the permanent, loving home that they not only deserve, but that they have a right to expect.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Let Them Eat Cake

Yesterday, the Coalition government announced, with much triumph, that they would be offering free school meals for all P1-3 children in England. The Coalition are falling over each other to claim credit for this policy, with the Conservatives claiming it is all made possible by Michael Gove, and the Lib Dems claiming they got this policy through, "to ensure every child gets the chance in life they deserve" in the words of Nick Clegg.

 That's all very well, but who is really going to benefit, and why are the politicians all so impressed with themselves?

 The policy will cost £600m, and puts parents in the bizarre situation of being told they are too rich for Child Benefit, which many would have used for school dinners, but now are entitled to free school meals. It's a lot of money to spend on a theory, that school dinners are almost always more nutritious than packed lunches, which has been reported in an independent government review. Independent of the government, but of not of be food industry - two restaurant founders wrote it. It's not even as though this policy will be targeted at those with the greatest need - they already are entitled to free school meals.

 Wouldn't it be better if the government instead focused more on these children? They talk about narrowing the attainment gap between rich and poor, while at the same time making life easier for richer parents, and no less hard for poor parents. £600m could have funded a lot of other things.

It could have funded breakfast and homework clubs, where children from poorer backgrounds increase engagement with school and get a nutritious hot meal in the morning and the evening. Instead, it's going straight into the pockets of the food industry (because most local authorities contract out school dinner provision) and providing a state subsidy to more private business, who deliver sub-standard food to a captive audience. The lack of choice is appalling. In theory, the dinners might be more nutritious, but this depends on children picking the nutritious options and actually eating them. I've written about this before, and I'm not hopeful at all.

I don't underestimate how helpful this would be to an average family. It would have saved so much money if we had had free school meals in P1-3, or at least meant I could spend child benefit on something else. However, when housing benefit has been cut so children aren't even allowed their own room, I just don't see how they can justify introducing another universal benefit.

What do you think? Do you really need free school meals? Will you use them?

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Sister Points

A couple of days ago, I spontaneously awarded Josie 5 Big Sister Points.

At the time it was just an off-hand remark, in response to her considerate comforting of her sister when Lori had fallen off her scooter for the millionth time that day, and I was too occupied with getting us all along the road in time for holiday club and school to give Lori the sympathy she felt she deserved.

Josie did give her that sympathy, and it was helpful for me, and kind to her sister. So I awarded some points. I've never done this before, it's not like sister points are a thing in our house. But despite that unfamiliarity, Josie's affinity with them was immediate:

"Oooh. Sister points! And five of them."

Later on in the walk, Lori helped Josie in return. She got some too. They both jumped up and down, cheering:

"Hurray, we've both got five now!"

The concept of reward for helpfulness isn't foreign to them. We do have a pocket money system, which is based on the doing of household chores, helpful tasks, perfect play-throughs of piano tunes, and things like that. Pocket money can also be lost, through extreme naughtiness (not that much of a problem) or laziness (more of a problem, thay are little Laws after all).

Sister points are not like pocket money, I've decided. They can't be pre-awarded for specific tasks ("Share that toy, and you'll get a sister point), they can't be docked ("You weren't nice to your sister, 5 points off"), they're just a spontaneous and fun way of saying, "Well done!", which my two have really taken to. The important thing is that they are unexpected and not-looked-for. I don't want two girls who are only kind to each other for a reward, and we certainly don't have that at the moment.

So, it begs the questions...should I allow conversion of sister points into something tangible? Should I keep a formal tally of sister points? If I did, it would be a shared pool. Sister points are not a competition.

Or does that miss the point of Sister Points? Should I keep them just as a fun, light-hearted, and a bit of a silly way to gameify life?

Friday, 12 July 2013

Don't Pack In Our Children's Packed Lunches

Today a report has been published which calls for the government to consider banning packed lunches.

Apparently, parents are providing sub-standard meals, which aren’t as nutritious as the school meals being offered at school. Media reports are claiming that the report (written by owners of a restaurant chain) calls for packed lunches to be banned, and for school meals to be compulsory, and free for everyone.

On the one hand I applaud them for trying to improve the nutritional intake of our children, and doing it while also trying to reduce the cost of raising them. It is sorely needed. When I was on a zoo trip with Lori’s class one child had Nutella on white bread for their sandwich, with crisps, followed by a chocolate bar for afters. I’m mortified if I send my two in with only fruit and no veg, let alone junk food that’s so inappropriate for a child’s packed lunch that it would be funny if it wasn't so sad. On the other hand, for the majority of parents.

I think that a simple comparison between a packed lunch and a school dinner is misleading, and the proposed solutions address the symptom of a disease (parents provide bad lunches) rather than a disease itself (parents don’t know/don’t care what should be in a healthy lunch).

 I’ll confess, I have an inherent bias TOWARDS to school dinners, while growing up, I always had them, and I sent my children to school assuming that I would always buy them school dinners too. It was convenient, relatively cheap (only £1.75 a day), and they’d be assured of a balanced meal.

I was wrong. It was convenient and cheap, but over time I began to suspect that they were not getting a healthy, nutritious, and filling meal made to the standards I would expect.

To illustrate, let’s compare a normal Lindsay-prepared lunchbox with the reports I would get from the children on what they would eat in their school dinners:

Lunchbox: 1 wholemeal sandwich or roll, with a reduced sugar jam, ham, or cheese. Usually eaten
Ham label checked to ensure welfare standards met for piggies. Usually eaten.
Batons of fresh cucumber. Usually eaten.
Red Pepper strips: Usually eaten.
Banana: Almost always eaten
Yoghurt tube/fruit winder/biscuitty bar: Always eaten
Babybel cheese: Always eaten
Orange or apple juice, squash, or water: Always drunk

Anything that isn’t eaten at lunchtime is consumed at after-school club or on the way home under Daddy orders. There’s normally no wastage, and we know exactly what they have or haven’t eaten. This has been absolutely critical with 2 children who tend towards anxiety over eating food in rushed scenarios (and the school lunch hall is loud, and rushed, and stressful), but who are not cunning or naughty enough to hide food and pretend they ate it.

And when they go to school lunches?

Well, the comments below are real ones that I have had back over the course of my lunch investigations:

Josie: I had a quorn burger.

Wow. Processed soya on a white bun. Great.

Josie: I had a baked potato with cheese, but the cheese tasted funny and so I didn’t eat it. Mr Devine [the head teacher] had it too and he agreed with me.

So, she ate the potato bit then had a sponge pudding with custard for after.

Lori: I had a baked potato with cheese, but I got up to go to the toilet and when I came back it had been cleared away and I didn’t know who to ask for more so I just went out to play.

She had no lunch.

Josie: I had strawberry milk to drink.

Filled with sugar. There’s a history of diabetes in the family. I try to minimise these types of hidden sugars in foods that people think are “healthy”.

Lori: Sausages! I didn’t eat my beans.

Oh great. More processed pork.

Josie: There was hardly anything left by the time I got down to eat, so I just had mashed potatoes and sausages.

See above.

There wasn’t a single day where one of them came home and described a meal that had more than a tiny portion of fresh fruit and vegetables in it, or meat that I could be assured was good quality.

My own golden rule when I maked the packed lunches, that I never break, is that I always must put at least three portions of fresh fruit and veg in the packed lunch (and it’s usually 4 or 5), and my bread product must always be wholemeal. The same can’t be said for the school dinner provision: - they might offer fruit and veg, but no one is making sure the children are either:

a) Selecting the healthy option
b) Actually eating the healthy option

And parents don’t know, because anything uneaten is just tipped into a bin. Furthermore, my house has more rules: all eggs free-range, all milk organic, meat from suppliers who are committed to animal welfare.

With school dinners, I have no control over those choices I can make at home. And at £1.75 per child, I highly doubt their using free-range eggs in their muffins.

To me, to ban packed lunches is completely missing the point about what the issue is: teaching parents on budgets how to feed their children healthily, and cheaply.

If some parents aren’t providing their children with healthy and nutritional packed lunches, then educate the parents and treat the underlying issue in the family!

 Don’t penalise the parents like us, who are trying our best to give our children fresh fruit and vegetables, and a healthy attitude to food. We aren’t being helped at all by a privatised school meal system which is failing to provide a decent standard of food, and our children would get much worse food if you forced us to take school dinners.

Further, if you don’t fix the underlying problem, what happens when the children go home? Sure, they might get one vaguely nutritious meal a day at school (and I am not convinced they would anyway), but if the family keeps on eating nuggets and chips for dinner every single day then it’s not really helping much.

Ultimately, plans to ban packed lunches smacks of big business dressing up their interests as a welfare concern. I’m sure all those school meal providers would be rubbing their hands with glee at the idea of millions more captive consumers, paid for by the state, all of whom have no opportunity to opt out or object if the standards are poor.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Taste of Victory

When you’re trying hard to balance a proper, grown-up career with the challenge of being a good Mum to two children, sometimes things become a bit overwhelming. It’s easy to feel a bit down-hearted when something goes wrong, and even though I know there are things I could do to make it easier, I just really don’t like making packed lunches before I go to bed.

Which is silly, because every parent knows that time passes much more quickly in the morning that it does at night. 07:25 becomes 08:25 in far less than an hour, I’m sure of it. My children don’t exactly help. As my own mother would have put it when I was growing up:

 “These children have two speeds. Dead slow and stop.”

Andrew will attest that this is absolutely true. While other children might actively source their own clothes, my two just seem to sit there, and wait. And wait. And wait. I’d do an experiment to see how long I could leave it before they actually got their own clothes and got ready, but I know it would be futile. We’d be late. Every day.

I’ve tried lots of things: no TV until breakfast is finished and clothes are on, no reading until the same, but they don’t really work. The only thing that does is constant chivvying, and that’s quite wearing on me and them:

“Eat up. Drink up. Get your clothes. Where’s your school bag? Have you remembered your homework folder?”

It just goes on and on and on.

So, this morning, because it was holiday club, not school, we adopted a slightly more leisurely approach to getting ready. Didn’t work. Lori ended up in floods of tears because I wouldn’t let her wear her ripped, dirty cat outfit to Carnival Day, and Josie selected a pair of trousers that, at my primary school, would have led to taunts of “Half-masts!”.

Undaunted, I cheered Lori up with proper half-masts, and a bandana that makes her look like a pirate, and then we tumbled on to a very rare thing for us in the morning: a bus.

I felt quite smug. 6 different fruits and veg in the packed lunch (count ‘em: cucumber, tomato, red pepper, raspberries, banana, and a plum), and as a treat, a reduced-sugar jam roll. A bus that meant I wouldn’t be late for work. And two adorable children pretending (Lori) and actually (Josie) reading about Andy Murray’s victory in the tennis and then telling a lovely old pensioner how Mummy had paid for Andy Murray to win Wimbledon (not true, but my employer has been one of his sponsors right from the start of his career, and they had noticed the RBS badge on his shirt and this was Lori’s interpretation of that fact).

Bus over, and smugness lasted for about 5 seconds. Which is how long it took me to realise that something was a bit different about Lori.

“Where’s your rucksack?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Aaaaaaaah!” she replied, “It’s on the bus!”

I delivered her to after-school club, and they said they would source a lunch from the shop down the road. But I wasn’t satisfied. I had made that packed lunch, and it had 6 different kinds of fruit and veg in it!

I couldn’t wait for it to be picked up from the depot. So, I set about finding the bag bus with the aid of the Lothian bus timetable, and the Bustracker app. The 09:23 36 at Broughton Primary School gets to Holyrood at 09:52. The next 36 after that to leave Holyrood is 10:02. The bus driver would be the same, because I know they change outside the Primary School on the way back, and they aren’t on a route that goes passed the depot. On its way back, the 36 goes right past my work. All I needed to do was work out which bus it would be, and wait for it out there. I figured it would be the 10:29, just off Dundas Street, so I ducked out of my 10 o’ clock meeting a little early and went over to wait.

And what do you know? There it was. A black Hello Kitty bag with white stars, and a very surprised bus driver.

No-one had ever tracked down their own lost property on his bus before. But 6 fruit and veg!

I called After-School Club, in some jubilance, to arrange a drop-off, but they hadn’t believed that I would get it back. They’d already bought her a ham roll and some more fruit. No need for me to drop it off.

Never mind. I know what I’m having for lunch today, and the taste of victory is sweet (well, reduced-sugar jam sweet).