what happened at ‘that’ school, part 1: how’s the boy doing?

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A year ago, I posted about why we’d chosen to send our son to the school over the road – despite Ofsted recently having put it in Special Measures*. One year on, here’s an update on how it’s gone. Forgive me if this ends up as a trilogy – there’s so much to say, so much I’ve learned, so many ways our family has been enriched over the last year. But I’ll start with the most important person in all of this: our son.

In many ways, it’s hard to know what to write because this school is the only school we’ve sent our son to, so we have nothing to compare it to. Is it normal for kids in Reception to go on four school trips during the year? To have specialist PE and Spanish teachers? To learn in such fun, active ways? For the teachers to be THIS enthusiastic, first thing in the morning, when confronted with 30 tiny and excitable children? I chat regularly with close friends whose children are at different schools, so I get a fair idea of how ours is doing in comparison with the others, but actually it’s not really a matter of comparison. Each child is unique, and so is each school. What’s right for one might not be right for another. So the question really is: how has this school been for my son this year?

Let’s start with the three Rs…not that academic skills are the only (or even the main) part of what school life is about, but this would be the standard concern of many parents when considering whether this particular school – this school which, up until a few years ago, was failing its children – is right for their child. Will my child learn to read, ‘rite and do ‘rithmetic? Will he/she be held back by the weaker members of the class? Will he/she be excited by learning, and driven to fulfil his/her potential?

By all accounts, Mister has had a brilliant year. All of his ‘academic’ skills are unrecognisable from a year ago. He’d reached the early learning goals by the time we had Parents’ Evening in March, and has ended the year exceeding in every area. This is not a boast, more of a puzzled shoulder shrug towards anyone who might have doubted this excellent school with their excellent staff, capable (as all teachers should be) of differentiating across a wide ability range. As a governor, I get to see statistics and data from all year groups, and I can confirm that this school is definitely performing as it should. The weaker students get an awful lot of extra help and support (surrogate parenting in some cases), and those who are flying get supported to do the absolute best that they can.

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Moving onto social and personal skills – has this school been good for Mister? Has it helped him to blossom, bringing out his unique skills and talents, whilst supporting the areas he finds harder? A year or two before he started school, we were concerned that he might be easily led, a follower rather than a leader, someone who might make wrong choices if prompted by others. Perhaps this was more because, by this stage, Mister’s younger sister was establishing herself as something of a feisty, no-nonsense kinda gal, so it was more by comparison that we wondered whether Mister would survive at school. You can understand, then, why I was in tears at Parents’ Evening when his teachers told us, unprompted, that he was a ‘leader’, ‘so confident’, and enjoyed initiating activities. Such an answer to prayer! He has settled brilliantly, with a good group of lovely friends, some of whom we’ve got to know really well through playdates and other activities. In short – Mister has thrived this year. We’ve seen his personality develop and strengthen, and discovered new interests of his, like searching for ‘minibeasts’, reading non-fiction books, and making ‘potions’!

Then there are all the ‘extras’. Mister has an energetic and creative Spanish teacher, who only visits their class every few weeks but makes a big impact. He can offer you a few Spanish words, and count to 10. He adores his PE lessons with the school’s sports coach and gets particularly competitive over football. Forest Schools, and the opportunity to spend unhurried time appreciating nature, taking risks, and enjoying fresh air, has been a highlight of Mister’s weeks. Then there are the weekly celebration assemblies, the fun one-offs like Science Week and Red Nose Day, the Chinese food sampled for Chinese New Year, the many school trips, the beautifully inspiring open-plan space used by Nursery and Reception children…I could go on, and you probably could wax lyrical about the school your child attends too!

The point is not that our school is better than any other – my friends’ children are fortunate to go to amazing schools too – but that it sits up there with the best. I refuse to become complacent about the excellence of the place, because all this fabulous educational provision was just not there a couple of years ago – and now it is. It’s brilliant for all the children in our community, including our son, and we’ve never regretted our decision.

*OK – so, technically, because the school has become an Academy since receiving this rating, it is not in Special Measures. However, it is still awaiting Ofsted, so doesn’t yet have a rating as an Academy. You will be the first to hear when the school gets the brilliant recognition it deserves!

13 today! happy birthday, breadmaker

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This is our breadmaker, and it is 13 years old today. Through four different homes, it has consistently produced beautiful, fresh loaves, as well as pizza dough, ciabatta, focaccia and numerous other variants. To me, it has always been a total miracle of a machine: the fact you can tip in seven simple ingredients one evening, whack on the timer, and wake up to the most heavenly bready smell the following morning never ceases to amaze me.

And it has lasted 13 years – a pretty decent lifespan for any electronic item. The non-stick has gone, and loaves now require a plastic fish-slice to cajole them out of the tin – but the quality of bread has not suffered. If ever we become complacent about what this marvellous machine does for us, we need only listen to visiting family and friends who are often vocal about the quality of the bread.

Why do I mark the birthday of our breadmaker? Only because it was a wedding gift.  One-by-one, the beautiful array of presents received on 13 July 2002 have ended their life. Plates have smashed, bed linen has ripped, microwave has broken and been replaced (twice). This last year saw the final demise of our wedding saucepan set. The breadmaker, however, seems to be matching us year for year, in a silent but unswerving contest to see which one of us can survive the most usage.

Three years ago, I wrote that I felt like a fraud. Our marriage hadn’t had any serious knocks or tumbles – no challenges to make us or break us. Simply two individuals bumbling through life together while the years rack up.

The last three years, whilst they could never be described as ‘hard’ compared with what many families have to contend with, have brought their own set of challenges. But do you know what? The challenges haven’t felt challenging. They’ve brought us closer together, alligned our minds, strengthened our relationship, and enriched our family.

We’ve learned about guidance, and listening to God, and how He brings all things together so perfectly when we leave Him to it.

We’ve learned that human wisdom is fallible.

We’ve learned more about children at risk, fostering, adoption, and God’s heart for ‘orphans’.

We’re more compassionate than we were three years ago – not just with children, but with the vulnerable adults that we’re now meeting and befriending regularly.

We’re learning to entrust our children to God – and realising that, when we do, they get His best, which is far better than ours.

We’ve learned – I write hesitantly, still not quite sure I want to be here – that the safest place to be is a place of risk, a place where all you can do is throw yourself onto God and wait for His perfect will to be done in His perfect way.

Was it a challenge turning down a perfectly good job? Was it a challenge to send Mister to a school which was ‘failing’ by Ofsted standards? Is it a challenge to now be preparing for adoption? Well yes, I suppose so – but actually no. If God is the foundation of our marriage, then these things are the bricks and mortar. They strengthen us, draw us together, produce perseverance, and make us more aware of our Cornerstone, Jesus.

The breadmaker may be scratched and worn, splashed and burnt – and we, too, are a little more worn than we were 13 years ago, a little greyer, a little flabbier, with darker circles under our eyes and more questions in our hearts. But God has been faithful in putting those vital ingredients into our lives, and it’s to His glory, and by His grace, that we stand here today, still Mr&Mrs.

on being approved for adoption

So that’s it, we’ve done it. Apparently. We’ve crossed the most important hurdle in this very bizarre process. Our status has shifted from ‘prospective adopter’ to ‘approved adopter’.

“Does it feel like the burden’s been lifted?” asks one friend.

Hmmm. I know what she means. And yes, in one sense it does. We no longer have to use tentative ‘if’s in conversation. We don’t have to wonder what the adoption panel will ask or what they’ll make of our report. We can look forward to the future with the certainty that we will be growing our family through adoption.

On the other hand, though, there’s a new burden to take its place. The burden of OK we really do have to get out of the boat now. Speaking of adoption in the theoretical sense and speaking of it in the practical/expectant sense are two very different things. One is confident, assured, smiling – everyone else is on board and thinks you’re wonderful for doing it. The other is unsure, unsteady and just a little bit isolating – suddenly you’re in a place no one else can go, and it’s slightly frightening. How do we choose a child? Will we ‘just know’?

I can understand why people ask how long the process should take from now on, I really do. But I’m never going to be able to give a satisfactory answer to that one. Finding a family for a child who needs one – for life – is not something to rush. You can’t create a family by randomly assigning parents to children, or vice versa, and expect it to work. There is a thoroughness to the process, many different stages designed to ensure – as much as is humanly possible – that the parent-child match is a good fit. So, no – I don’t know how long it will take from this point, and nor would I want to assign a timeframe.

A better question is ‘What happens next?’, for which there is a clearer answer. Essentially, we are now looking for a child. This can happen in different ways. Our social worker receives details of children on the adoption register, which she can forward to us if they match our criteria. We can search for children on a secure web register. And we’re planning to go to an adoption exchange event, where lots of different local authorities will have details of children who need families. Only when there has been a ‘match’, approved by both social workers, will we have an idea of timing.

No one told us that looking at children’s profiles, knowing that we are now in a position to make enquiries, would be this hard. We were prepared, of course, for the tough life stories – but we didn’t realise how clueless we would feel about how to proceed. Do we ask for details of any child who matches our criteria? Or just pick one or two? What if other adopters have got there first? Should we subscribe to the online adoption registers? And if so, for how long? They offer subscriptions for 1 month, 3 months, 6 months and a year – how are we supposed to know what to choose?

So – life post-adoption panel is exhilarating, exciting and filled with hope. It is also confusing, nerve-wracking and emotional. Out with the theoretical case studies – and in with the actual children, the ones with actual lives who actually need a family. They are why we’re in this process. I’m holding on to a thread of faith which believes that God will lead us to the right child – whilst also having no clue how He will do that.

So just like normal faith then :)

free clothes, being on telly and school discos – all what i’ve been up to recently

OK, this blog doesn’t tend to feature ‘newsy’ posts. I prefer to write about issues, thoughts and ideas I’ve been having, rather than over-personalise it, or turn it into some boring online diary. But I’m aware that posts have been a little irregular of late, and the fact is that some quite unusual and exciting things have been happening in Real Life, so here’s a little summary for you if you fancy. If you don’t fancy, feel free to close the window right now (and thanks for the extra blog stats).

Free clothes!

I won a prize draw after submitting my review of Skipton’s retiresavvy web portal! The lovely Mumsnet and Skipton Financial Services picked my name out of a hat to win a £250 shopping voucher which, after much deliberating, I chose to spend at a clothes shop which shall remain nameless and which, in all honesty, was probably the wrong choice but, hey, for the next couple of months I will look extremely fashionable.

TV appearance!

There was a thing on Twitter about chocolate addicts being needed for some BBC documentary and – well, you would, wouldn’t you? Turns out my chocolate addiction is pretty epic, and I’m now going to feature fairly heavily in the programme. Look out for Trust me, I’m a doctor, BBC2, late July, if you want to pre-empt the next day’s tabloid headlines: “BENEFITS MUM USES YOUR TAXES TO FUND OBSESSIVE CHOCOLATE ADDICTION”. They paid me in chocolate, though, so all good.

School disco!

Not only Mister’s first ever school disco, but my first ever organising of one. Seemed to go OK. Most of the essential ingredients were there (sugar-heavy tuck shop, enthusiastic DJ, dance competitions) but it turns out that Time Warp is no longer welcome at your average school disco.

And it seems that today’s kids don’t go anywhere without getting their nails done, so we set up a nail bar and tattoo parlour. (Temporary tattoos of course – what do you take me for?) Actually ‘bar’ and ‘parlour’ are stretching it a bit. A few teachers and parents sitting behind a school desk trying to make chit-chat with the kids probably sums it up more accurately.

Blogs!

Two friends of mine independently started writing blogs within 24 hours of each other. And they are both bloody amazing, if you don’t mind me saying. If it was a blog-eat-blog kinda world, I’d be out of business straightaway but, as it happens, they’re very happy to share cyberspace with me. Please go and read them, I promise you won’t regret it. Kate has an incredible family of 7, through birth and adoption, and shares her adoption story with humour and honesty. Jo is an amazing single mum, widowed, sufferer of MS – and has a lot to teach me about strength, resilience, perseverance, and trusting God through the difficult times. Go say hello on their blogs!

Adoption!

Oh yeah – and we went into a room filled with a whole load of scary grown-ups who weren’t actually that scary and they asked us questions and we talked and talked and then they went and said we could adopt a child. :)

may-mie oliver

Straight off, I’d like to apologise for the bad pun (which only really works if you read it aloud). It’s Month 5, and inspiration is running thin.

And then the next thing is this: friends, I’m afraid to admit that this is the month where I came unstuck. This is the month where my previously iron-hard resolve to cook from a different cook book each month crumbled and softened to the point where all I could do was gaze wistfully at said book every couple of days, in the hope that this would count for something.

Let me rewind a little. A couple of months ago, invigorated by how well this whole cookbook-a-month plan was working out, I found myself looking for cookbooks in the closing-down sale of a local charity shop. To my utter amazement, I found a hardback copy of ‘Jamie At Home‘ staring me in the face. I took it to the counter where the conversation flowed thus:

Shop assistant (older, male – if that should make any difference): “Who’s this then?” (looking at the book)

Me: “Uh…it’s Jamie Oliver. He’s like a really famous chef.”

Shop assistant: “Oh.” (Pause.) 

Me: “You know – he’s on the telly and stuff?”

Shop assistant: “25p.”

I could hardly believe my luck – the book which would usually cost the same as a meal out, was costing me less than a tin of tomatoes. Fast-forward to May, and the time came for me to use this book as my main source of recipes for the month. I couldn’t wait.

The first week went OK – homemade calzone (yum!), some nice pasta dishes, strange-sounding-but-good butternut squash muffins. And then I struggled. The book is structured around seasonal ingredients – fruit, veg and meat – which is not a problem in itself, but does mean that lots of the recipes are pretty simple things that you would usually throw together without written instructions. And, of course, the recipes are simple to allow the beauty of in-season tomatoes or bright-pink rhubarb to shine through – great if you own an allotment, not so great if you’re buying in all your veg (albeit from a local supplier). Also, because the recipes go through all four seasons – a calendar year – 3/4 of the book is out-of-season anyway.

So, I diversified. I decided to throw in my other Jamie Oliver cookbook to May’s cooking (Happy Days with the Naked Chef). From here, we tried Toad-in-the-Hole, Vegetable curry, Beef stew with Newcastle Brown Ale and Dumplings, and Chicken Breast baked in a bag with mushrooms, butter, white wine and thyme.

They were all lovely – but by then it was only half-way through the month and there really was not much else to try for a normal family meal.

I feel awful. I really do. It’s like breaking up with a boyfriend who has been nothing but sweet and kind – and yet the chemistry just doesn’t work. A classic case of “It’s not you, it’s me”. I know Jamie Oliver is not everyone’s cup of tea, but to me he’s someone I admire and respect and love to watch on TV. He has a great charisma, a real strength of drawing people in, and makes you feel like you can do it. I love what he’s doing for food culture in this country, I appreciate the diversity of his interest in food – and, amazingly, he even seems to have an incredibly grounded family life.

But, for me, his cookbooks don’t work. Fun to read, not so practical to cook from. Time-consuming and wordy (not ideal when dinner has to be on the table NOW NOW NOW). Either impossible ingredients (Essex Fried Rabbit, anyone?) or things I could do with my eyes shut (Roast new potatoes with sea salt and rosemary, for example).

This doesn’t mean that his recipes don’t work for anyone. I would imagine that if you’re just starting out in cooking and need to gain a little confidence, Jamie would be great. Also, if you’re an experienced cook who has great swathes of time to try out new and exciting restaurant-style dishes, Jamie has a lot to offer. But, for me and my little life at the moment, the chemistry’s just not working.

Jamie, I’m so sorry – honestly. I will continue to watch you on telly, grab helpful foodie tips from you about how to season things, how to throw flavours together, perhaps pick up some snazzy new ways to cook chicken – but, with regret, your cookbooks are going to the charity shop. Where, hopefully, they’ll pick up more than 25p.

expelling two myths of the stay-at-home parent

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The pros and cons of stay-at-home parenting are something that’s never left my mind since I quit work to have kids six years ago, but recently – perhaps prompted by Shared Parental Leave and associated press articles – I’ve been working through two particular lines of thought often expressed by those who would want to see me back in my teaching profession and paying for external childcare.

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Please understand that this is not an argument against those who work/use childcare! We’re all raising kids in different situations, and what’s best for one family won’t be best for the next family. Personally, I don’t think whether parents work outside the home or not makes much difference to the kids – it’s what you do in the time you have together that counts.

No, this definitely isn’t an ‘anti-working-parents’ article – instead, consider it a bit of comeback for those times when the media makes us stay-at-home parents feel just a little less worthy for making this decision. I’d love to hear your comments. :)

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1. It’s much healthier for your kids to see you working then staying at home.

The other day someone I don’t know very well said to me “Well, you see, our mum worked so it’s just natural for us to want to work”. Yeah, right. Whilst my slouch of a mum just bummed around feeding me, playing with me, taking me to groups, keeping the house reasonable and running a number of community initiatives – and I’m just following her lazy layabout example.

My kids see me running toddler groups, serving drinks to others, stacking chairs, setting out toys and other activities, washing up, leading songs and stories, scrubbing play dough off the floor, leading discussions and forums. They come with me when I go to the school office for governor business. They’ve shared their home with others as I’ve led Bible studies in our house. Whilst I do try and keep my commitments to evenings and when the youngest is at preschool, they do occasionally see me writing emails and making phone calls. And this is aside from the ‘obvious’ work of making their meals, clearing the kitchen, tidying their rooms and washing their clothes – which they observe on an hourly basis.

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In short – my children are under no impression that I am free from work. In fact, as part of a Facebook meme which did the rounds recently, I asked my son ‘What is Mummy’s work?’ and he said ‘Being a governor’. This is only a small part of my week, but interesting that he recognises this as work. Perhaps kids of stay-at-home parents simply grow up with a broader definition of ‘work’ – that it doesn’t have to be paid, or full-time, or purely devoted to one area. It can be voluntary, fitted around children, in and out of the home. This is healthy, right?

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2. You’ll lose confidence if you take time out of your career to raise your kids.

If you leave paid work to spend all your time with your children within the confines of your own four walls, then yes, I can see how your confidence will drop. But if you instead use the time to make new friends, explore your community, see how you can contribute your skills in new ways, and discover new gifts as well, I think it’s highly unlikely that you’ll experience a confidence drop.

My stay-at-home parent friends run groups for other parents and kids, they fundraise for the NCT, they write blogs and books, they visit prisoners, they connect with local charities to support vulnerable people, they volunteer at their children’s schools, they campaign for things they feel passionately about, they start toy libraries. All these things – and there’ll be plenty more examples in the lives of those you know – increase confidence through building upon existing skills and liaising with a more diverse population than might have been possible in the workplace.

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Make no mistake: as a result of pausing my career I have lost my salary, recent training, the opportunity to acquire new skills and a fair chunk of my pension. It’s fair to say that this former teacher now largely gets her education news through Twitter. But let’s be clear: for all I’ve lost, I haven’t lost my confidence. If I were to go back into the classroom tomorrow, to teach a lesson as opposed to dropping my son off, I think I would be more confident than when I left, six years ago. OK my skill-set would be a little rusty, and the GCSE syllabus would have changed beyond recognition (six years, three governments), but, essentially, my professional toolkit is just brimming with new skills and ideas that the experience of the last six years has developed in me.

What other stay-at-home ‘myths’ do you encounter? Go on, give me some fodder for a future blog post…!

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adoption: is faith a disadvantage?

It’s something several people have asked as we’ve headed down the adoption path recently. (For more on our adoption journey so far, you could read this and this.) “What do they think about your faith?” “Do they mind that you’re Christians?”

I guess they have in mind horror stories like this one, where a Christian couple were not approved as prospective adopters, essentially because of their beliefs. But, like most ‘real-life’ stories in the media, this is just one isolated example and, terribly sad though it is, I’m (optimistically?) guessing it’s not indicative of how most people-of-faith are treated up and down the country.

Certainly it hasn’t been our experience thus far. So much about our faith has given us positive answers to the many questions asked by our social worker. For one, it is vital that prospective adopters have a strong support network, to help them weather the challenges that adopting a child will no doubt bring. Being part of a church gives you this support automatically – we know so many people who would bring round a meal, look after our birth kids, or come and clean our house at the drop of a hat – not because they know us that well, but because this is simply what a functioning church family does for each other. Add this support network to our other friends and family, and it starts to look pretty attractive to any assessing social worker.

In addition to friends asking us whether the adoption agency ‘minds’ that we’re Christians, some follow the question with a statement such as “…because it must come up, surely?”, as if we could go weeks and weeks in the process before the issue of our faith was raised. Not so. Our faith underpins everything we do, every decision we make and every relationship we have. We don’t always do the right thing – far from it – but everything in our lives comes from the starting point that we trust in Jesus as our Saviour and friend.

So, to give you a few examples, we get grilled on our relationship with each other (as in, four hours of grilling!). How did we meet? Christian Union… How did we know it was right to get married? Prayer… How do we make decisions? We pray…  I’m giving you the abbreviated, simplistic response just to make a point – clearly there’s slightly more to it than that – but you get the idea.

Then we talk about finances, and the social worker sees that our approach to money is quite different. “So, you decide how much you need to live on, and then give the rest away?” asks one, cocking her head to one side as she tries to get into our clearly-extremely-warped minds. “Er…no…it’s kind of like the opposite…” we reply – clearly not a very satisfying answer.

We discuss identity, and have the privilege of chatting about Christ’s love for all, regardless of ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation – and, hence, the welcome and acceptance that is found in our church family for everyone.

We talk about values and morals and how we nurture and educate our birth children. We’re asked about our early experiences, through childhood and adolescence, what kind of educational experiences we’ve had, and our employment history. We discuss how we spend our time, how we use our home, how we celebrate occasions. Through all of these questions our faith has ‘come up’, so it’s no surprise to find that it’s a big part of the final report which has now been written on us. Whether it hijacks our chances of success at the adoption panel remains to be seen – but, for now, the most important thing is that we’ve been able to be genuine and honest, and our social worker has responded positively to the fact that we’re Christians. What happens from now on is in God’s hands, and we have total peace about that.