Posted in book review, family, food, me, recipes, school

what i’m into – january 2017

This is a first for me.

At first, I thought this sort of post was incredibly self-centred – why would anyone be interested what I’ve been into each month? But having spent a couple of years reading other bloggers’ “What I’m into” posts, linking up with Leigh Kramer’s blog (give it a read here), I’ve realised that I’m just a little bit nosey. I love seeing what others are reading, watching, listening to. It gives me ideas for the future, things to look into or try out. So, here’s my offering, for any similarly-nosey Desertmum readers. Who knows? You may go away with a killer book recommendation or at least a laugh at how ridiculously geeky I am. And you get to check out other bloggers’ “What I’m into” posts, all linked at the bottom of Leigh’s, if you so wish.

Books

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I am hopeless at reading. There is precious little time to read, and when it does turn up, I read very slowly. Remember when I did that book-a-month thing, two years ago? It lasted till about April, when my friend Kirsty lent me a wonderful but long non-fiction book in tiny font. Guess she didn’t get the memo. I finally completed it around Christmas 2016, a mere 20 months after starting it. This momentous occasion opened up all sorts of delights in my ever-growing reading pile. I settled on Sarah Bessey’s Jesus Feminist which I’ve been enjoying more and more with each chapter. I love her gracious storyteller style, her acknowledgement of the full scope of feminism (rather than simply up-front leading), her love of Jesus, and her adherence to Scripture. I suspect her book is not meant for people like me, who have never questioned the role of women in Scripture or in modern day church life – but it’s tying various strands of theology together for me in a very helpful way.

Another thing I’m hopeless at is any sort of regular devotional time. Timothy Keller is kindly sorting me out on that one, with his excellent My Rock, My Refuge, which takes the reader through the Psalms in one year. My prayer/accountability triplet are going through this during 2017 and it’s been a blessing to all three of us. Short, encouraging, thought-provoking, and the Bible passage is written out on the page, so it couldn’t be easier. I’ll say that again: the Bible passage is written out on the page. It literally takes NO EFFORT to read this devotional guide, but the outcome makes me think, leads me to Jesus and propels me into prayer.

I’ve been getting more and more excited about the Suzuki method of learning music, and the twins’ Suzuki teacher kindly lent me Everything depends on how we raise them (by Shigeki Tanaka, trans. Kyoko Selden). I’m not too far into it just yet, but it’s proving an interesting foil to my years of secondary music education experience. I’m planning a blog post on Suzuki and adoption very soon – watch out, this is the year I’m being super-motivated on the blog (remember??) so it may actually happen.

Food

In 2016 I challenged myself to cook without recipes for an entire year. I managed it more-or-less, and taught myself how to bake cakes and brownies from scratch. (Sadly, I never mastered cookies. Sob.) This year, I’m much enjoying the stimulation of new ideas from recipe books (and although I haven’t yet baked any cookies, I’m looking forward to reconnecting with them anytime soon). So what have I been cooking?

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Simply Nigella was found in a charity shop just before Christmas, when I should have been shopping for others, but who can resist a one-year-old hardback recipe book for £3, eh? During my year of recipe books, I discovered that Nigella’s recipes just really work for us. They’re tasty, most likely to get eaten by the majority of our family, and not too fussy (or, where they are, they can be easily simplified). So it was a joy to properly delve into a new (to me) book. We enjoyed her Chicken Traybake with Bitter Orange and Fennel, and Chicken and Wild Rice. The adults, not the kids (unpredictably), enjoyed the Sweet Potato Macaroni Cheese, but I was the only one who enjoyed the Cauliflower and Cashew Nut Curry.

Martha Collison’s Twist has just been brilliant. A Christmas present from my Mum (technically ‘+ Dad’ but, come on, we all know who actually chose it), this has been wonderful in leading me on from last year’s recipe desert to a place where I can take a recipe as a starting point, then add my own flavours and ‘twists’. OK, so I haven’t done that yet, but that’s largely because Martha’s own flavours are so damn enticing – and, as well, there’s 7-5-2-2 to consider. I’ve made the Route 66 Rocky Road (think rocky road made with popcorn, cranberries, peanuts and marshmallows), Bollywood Bars (white chocolate rocky road with cardamom and chilli) and the rather scrummy Carrot, Orange and Blueberry layer cake.

If you were reading desertmum in 2015 you may remember how brilliant Jo Pratt’s Madhouse Cookbook was – well, it still is, and I spent January trying to find the few recipes I haven’t already tried: only Corned Beef and Sweetcorn Hash, and Vegetable and Beany Gonzales Chilli were attempted – but, predictably, the latter was eaten by ALL 6 of my family, with one (fussy) child demolishing it in seconds!

Mince was great in reminding me about meatloaf – essentially meatballs (which I cook often) but in a different shape. Genius.

Articles

Here are some online articles I found particularly wonderful this month:

How to strengthen your child’s emotional intelligence  was an interesting and challenging read, especially the bit about not using screens to pacify small children. Ouch. But good ouch.

Dear Women’s Ministry, Stop telling us we’re beautiful I’m very grateful that the women’s ministry I enjoy locally doesn’t patronise our intelligence or our theology, but this was still an interesting read, and a warning too.

How to live under an unqualified president Of all the things I’ve read on Trump, this was the best by far…I either see incredible Trump-bashing, or (less often) right-wing Christians being sympathetic to him. All American citizens should read this. Honestly? It’s a brutal condemnation of all the ungodly, un-Biblical behaviour of America’s new president BUT it’s written with so much love and grace, and an unshakeable faith in God to work above and beyond world leaders, that the whole thing filled me with hope and assurance.

Anger and injustice My wonderful friends moved to rural Ethiopia last year, and I just love their blog, when there is time or Internet connection to update. In particular, this article was thought-provoking – some reflections of our friend as he looks back on the first few months teaching in an African theological college.

Doing Well Another friend writes so articulately about life as a bereaved parent with MS that I feel my understanding rockets in the few short minutes I take to read her blog. Please read this, it’s important.

Screentime

Image result for la la land picture

January was the month I decided I was fed up of making excuses why I never made it to the cinema, so when a friend recommended La La Land, I immediately made plans to see it with a different friend. I really enjoyed it – she wasn’t so sure. I think enjoyment involves, to some extent, lifting off any expectations based on the Rodgers & Hammerstein golden era of musicals – and also more recent offerings like Moulin Rouge and the various Disney musicals. This is definitely a musical for the 2010s. I didn’t find any of the songs memorable or catchy, but the feel of the whole thing is so glorious that it almost didn’t matter. Bizarrely, whilst I couldn’t hum any of the tunes after the film had ended, I had the general musical tempo/instrumentation/rhythms in my head for some weeks afterwards. So it does get under your skin.

I always enjoy spending January catching up with things I taped over Christmas when I was too busy to watch. One was The lady in the van, Alan Bennett’s fantastic re-telling of a rather eccentric woman in his life. Maggie Smith is so good that I forgot she was Maggie Smith until half way through. AND this film made it into the small overlap of films that both I and Desert Dad enjoy. No small feat. Saving Mr Banks didn’t quite make it into the centre of this Venn diagram, so the hubster trundled off to bed – but I found it so engaging that I watched into the wee hours, not daring to switch off.

I couldn’t get into Northern Soul, though, despite trying for the best part of an hour. One of the few films I haven’t finished.

Games

We’re big fans of games in our household, particularly strategy ones for the adults. My Christmas present from DD was Splendour, which we’ve enjoyed countless times this month. Its advantages are: you can play with just two (but we have had a few games of four with friends, and it works equally well), the games are short for this genre (half an hour or less), it’s simple to pick up – but, like the best strategy games, has a vast number of different strategies you can use to win. Also – strategy game fans will know I’m not being shallow here – the game is made so nicely! Beautiful pictures, proper, weighty coins, and the box fits everything perfectly. Nice!

jacket, Dobble

With the kids, we’ve enjoyed much Dobble, and a new one for Christmas: Blink (readily available on eBay, once that link expires). If you have primary-aged children in your home, or you buy presents for some, I highly recommend both of these.

In other news…

I managed to keep the downstairs tidy (by my standards, i.e. a little lower than average) for an entire month! Woohoo!

I think I saw the bottom of a laundry basket at some point, but the memory quickly faded.

The kiddoes, as usual, went to more parties than I did.

We caught up with American friends we hadn’t seen in 3.5 years, a British friend we hadn’t seen in over a year, a cousin we see intermittently, and made a trip to the in-laws for a special birthday.

I enjoyed an afternoon’s training in Dalcroze Eurythmics, knowing this means nothing to about 99% of my readers, but throwing it in there anyway as a proud moment.

Oh…and our school which was in Special Measures? It got a GOOD from Ofsted! Just about our proudest moment for the month, and possibly the year!

…and that’s about it for January. What have you been into?

 

Posted in adoption, family, parenting

adoption: fourteen months on

img_20170105_112556It should say enough about our experience of adoption that this blog post was supposed to be titled ‘adoption: six months on’. Being around eight months late with everything has become a feature of the past fourteen months.

There you go, enough said. We’ve adopted kids, and now we have no time. Job done.

The end.

***

What? You want a refund? Blog not long enough? Oh go on then, ye of much time to spare.

Actually, unplanned though it was, the timing of this blog post is apt. Monkey and Meerkat were fourteen months when we brought them home – and it’s now been another fourteen months. This feels significant to us: they’ve been with us as long as anywhere else.

The main challenge for us has been the increase in family size – not the adoption. Did I mention that tasks run just a little bit overdue nowadays? That we have zero time for anything we need, or want, to get done, other than just keeping going from day to day? I’m sure the sadder sides of adoption will rear their multiple heads many times over the coming years – but during this last year-and-a-bit, it’s mainly been about just coping with two more kids, not to mention learning how to parent toddlers again. I mean, it had been a whole THREE YEARS since we had a 1-year-old and, you know, parent amnesia and all that. You remember the first steps, the cute giggles, the trips to the park and the holidays. Funnily enough, our brains are wired to forget about the crayon graffiti, the electronic gadgets destroyed, the items you always thought were too big to be flushed down the toilet. So we’ve been re-learning all those useful things like the lengths a 2 year old will go to in order to obtain some E numbers, or how to re-set your laptop screen when it’s been rotated 90 degrees.

The four kids thing has been massive. I both love it and feel ill-suited to it – in equal measure. “How do you do it?” people ask. I either shrug my shoulders and say, in a resigned sort of way, “I have no choice” or answer, matter-of-factly, “Well, I don’t iron and I don’t sleep”. People think I’m joking.

Of course, adoption has been a subtext of the last fourteen months. Things happen, and you ask “Is this because of the change in carer?”, “Is this because they know I didn’t birth them?” “Is this an effect of their experience in utero?”. We’re not totally oblivious to this. But, largely, the year has been about the usual sorts of parenting things: nurturing, loving, setting boundaries and expectations, planning, and trying to do the best for each of the four tiny individuals in our care.

img_20161124_130401The fine line between empathy and boundaries has been a tricky one to navigate. To start with, I think my approach to any difficult behaviours or stubborn refusals was empathy. Then it became short-tempered impatience. Then the guilt came, then I did a combination, then I didn’t know what to do.

I still don’t get it right each time – who does? But as I’ve got to know my boys better, I’ve been better able to sense when a cuddle or some reassuring words are needed, and when a firm re-iteration of the expected behaviour (and/or consequence) is needed. It took a wise friend to remind me that kids need a consistent approach. Yes, they’re adopted, but they’re also 2 years old, with all the important boundary-pushing behaviour that comes with this age. They need to know where they stand, what’s acceptable and what’s not – and perhaps I’ve shied away from this in the past year, not knowing quite when to parent them according to my adoption training, and when to parent them according to my experience with the older two.

The sibling attachment took much longer than the attachment to us – but oh gosh, when it finally arrived it took my breath away! From the start, the boys attached well to us, their parents – of course attachment is a gradual process and, month-by-month it got stronger, but we certainly don’t feel the boys have had any issues here. And I’m sure it was a gradual thing with Mister and Missy too – the boys never disliked them, and the older ones always doted on their younger siblings – but Monkey and Meerkat didn’t instantly attach to their big brother and sister. If physical affection was refused then the older ones either didn’t notice, or were too patient with their new brothers to get upset.

But in the last few months, there has been a noticeable change. Monkey and Meerkat now take the initiative in giving physical affection to their older siblings. They are keen to say long, effusive goodbyes when Mister and Missy head off to school in the morning, they chat about them all day long, and get excited to go and pick them up each afternoon. The amount of wrestling, chasing, role-play and general trailing them round the house has been so fun to watch. At least for the moment, genes don’t matter one bit to any of them. They’re three brothers and one sister, having fun growing up together.

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Because this is what happens when you have a big sister.

It’s not just us who adopted. I’m so grateful that our friends and families have welcomed our boys into their lives on the same basis as Mister and Missy. I wish I could put into words how amazing it’s been to witness the bond developing, for example, between Meerkat and his Nanny – no words for why or how the two of them click, they just do. It’s like the boys have come into their new extended family just expecting to be loved – they’ve given out love, and been richly loved in return. Why would they expect anything else?

The boys are not just our sons, they’re grandsons, nephews, cousins, godsons and friends to a much bigger group of people. Perhaps, like us, our families never thought it was possible to develop a family bond with people who didn’t share the same gene pool. Well, I think we’ve all learnt something. Some day, I guess, the boys may suffer identity issues relating to their adoption. They will want to know more details about, and maybe meet, their birth family. We’ll support them wholeheartedly, but it’s good to know that however this turns out, they’ll always have a wide and supportive base in this family.

img_20170130_085416Love doesn’t stem from pregnancy, labour or breastfeeding. On a basis which is so regular I feel almost ashamed to admit it, I stare at Mister, all 7 years of him, and can’t believe he’s the same Mister as the big red baby I held in my arms after my first labour, laughing in disbelief that this tiny being could now exist outside of me. When Missy is bossing her brothers around or articulately disagreeing with some aspect of my parenting, I can’t believe she’s the same Missy as the screaming missile who flew out of me five years ago, and took some calming down from the shock…so much so that I thought I’d never be able to calm my own baby.

But when I look at Monkey or Meerkat, I don’t tend to think of their entry into this world – not that I don’t ever think of this, the bits I know, of course I do. But that part of their existence belongs to someone else, and I would never take it from her. No, I think of the day we met them, how curious Monkey commando-shuffled through to the hall of his foster home to see who was at the door (is it the postman? or my new parents?). How Meerkat was content to sit and play and wait for us to come and join in. How they both belly-laughed when their new dad put a toy on his head and made it fall off. I think of them then, and I see them now, and I feel equally proud of how far they’ve come, how confidently they walk and run, talk and listen, sing and dance. I didn’t carry them, birth them or breastfeed them. It doesn’t matter. It actually doesn’t matter. They are loved.

When I first felt God’s prompting on adoption I blurted out, “But I can’t do it, I don’t have that much love”, to which the answer came frustratingly clearly, so clearly I didn’t have an excuse. “But I do. And I will give you all the love you need.” And He has done.

They are loved. So loved. And I know this hasn’t come from me. I’m weak and powerless, and my own ability to love is so flawed and self-centred. No – this love has to have come from a Higher Being, the One who created love and is love, the One whose own beautiful love story centres around adoption, the only One whose love is entirely and unreservedly self-sacrificing. What a privilege to receive and give this love.

Posted in me, parenting

what we want for our kids (surely just health and happiness, right?)

Going through the adoption process was a massively reflective time for us as a family, and one discussion which I find myself mulling over even now, two years on, is that of parental expectations. Of course when you have a birth child, you can think what you like about that child. You can dream away, and have high expectations, and no one’s going to stop you.

To give them their due, the assumptions you make may well be based on genetic evidence. If you and your partner both went to University, for example, then chances are that your child will do also. If you’re particularly sporty, or musical, or dramatic, or business-minded, then it’s not entirely out of the question to expect that your child might have these traits as well.

As we were preparing to adopt, however, we were challenged to dissolve any expectations we might have about the sort of child or children we might parent. They would not share our genes. They might struggle academically, they might suffer from mental health issues which hindered them in life, or in their career, and they might not meet our expectations. So, the conclusion was: drop those expectations!

Er…easier said than done.

I go through life believing that if I say “I love my kids just as they are” loudly and often enough, then that will quell any sky-high expectations for them or their futures. But then I realise that, deep-down, some of these expectations are so entrenched that they’re near impossible to shift, much as I want to.

Cue a shiny new series for this blog in 2017: “What we want for our kids”, where I want to continue this discussion, attempting to remove the blinkers from my own fuzzy parenting, and hear from you fantastic lot on your experiences too. Some of the areas I hope to cover are: financial security, marriage and kids and a good education. It’s all very well saying we just want our kids to be happy and healthy – but do we mean that? Wouldn’t a small part of us be just a little disappointed if they flunked their GCSEs, or never met The One, or didn’t have kids?

I find this all really challenging stuff, and it won’t be easy to write – or read, for that matter, so if you want to stop following me right now, here’s your get-out clause. But I know it’s important to start the conversation, to say these hard words, to feel God’s gentle nudge as I’m reminded, once again, of my own selfish tendencies in parenting.

I’m aiming to start in the next few days with the first installment. Please comment – here or on Facebook – I’d love to know it’s not just me who struggles with these things.

(Oh, and I’ll try and do Funny, to save it all getting a bit heavy. This post hasn’t had any Funny, and I apologise. Praying friends may wish to intercede on my behalf for the Funny to return. Thank you.)

 

Posted in celebration, change, family, me, parenting

hello shiny new year…i think you’re going to be The One

Oh dear.

I feel there’s a regular pattern with this blog. Periods of high level activity, followed by months of neglect, followed by an apologetic blog post such as this one, where I attempt to confess my negligence enough to sound contrite, but not so much that it sounds as if large sections of society aren’t able to function properly without my writing.

So – I’m sorry for the lack of blogging recently – but I also realise this blog isn’t essential to your life. Enough? Great. Let’s move on.

Of course regular readers will know WHY 2016 saw me publish fewer than one blog post per month. Adjusting to being a family of 6 has taken…well, 13 months and counting. It’s been wonderful and joyful in so many ways – possibly the best year of my life – but also the hardest. I’ve never worked so hard. When you feel like you’re on the go from 7am to midnight, and are still going to bed with dishes in the sink, laundry in the machine, emails unsent, and texts unreplied to, you wonder how you’re ever going to do anything else with your life ever again. DesertDad and I spent 2015 defending ourselves to a variety of adoption professionals, optimistically proclaiming, time and time over, how we did have room in our lives for an extra child or two – and, consequently, spent 2016 cringeing at our own smugness, the metaphorical banner of “I told you so” flying high above our home.

But here’s the irony. In a year which rarely provided me the time or the energy to write, came a call to work on my writing more strongly than ever before. I was stuck. I felt I had to write, that I needed to prioritise it more highly, and yet I couldn’t. Not that there wasn’t inspiration – I wrote thousands of blog posts in my head, whilst cleaning my toddlers’ teeth, or listening to my older kids read, or wiping tables, or tidying (non-stop tidying) – but the moment I found time to sit down and type, the words would disappear. All the clever ways I’d rearranged words in my head to create something witty and wonderful seemed to vanish. I was left with mundane, and I’ve never wanted to write that.

So now we enter 2017 and, as usual, I feel stupidly optimistic about the coming year. I always do, in January. Suddenly, without changing anything about my life, I’m going to be tidier, thinner, fitter, more organised, with a well-coordinated dress sense, perfect hair and a constant stream of home-made goodies making their way into the hands of friends and family – as if my current commitments are just going to magically disappear. What is it about a new year that does this to us?

Anyway, let’s see where this goes. I would love to prioritise this blog highly – and, to help me along, I’m planning to kick off a little series very soon. What we want for our kids will be a discussion of our expectations, our practice and our motives when it comes to raising our kids. I hope it will be thought-provoking – and would love your prayers that I can muster the energy to write something half-decent.

 

Posted in adoption, christmas

adoption and advent: coming home

img_20161130_212013Advent, for our family, is a season full of traditions. I’d love to say that it was a time for increased spiritual growth, as I lead our young family in meaningful Bible reflections every morning – but, in reality, I love present-wrapping, Christmas markets and Slade just as much as carol services, lighting our Advent candle and sharing the Christmas story together. For all of December our house is full of mess and creativity: mince pies, boxes of decorations, 100 Carols for Choirs, wreaths, Nativity figures, Lebkuchen (is there anything better?), glitter, paint, wrapping paper and ribbon. There is nothing about either the secular or religious versions of Advent that I don’t embrace with arms open wide.

But this year, we have a new tradition. You see, last year’s Advent was rather different. The presents had been chosen, bought, wrapped and sent by mid-November. On 1st December 2015, our two youngest boys came home, and thus our Advent was taken up with learning how to care for toddlers again, whilst working out how to meet the needs of – no longer two, but – four children.

It was a magical time in many ways. My husband spent most of December off work or working largely reduced hours. Kind friends provided evening meals for us right through the month. The excitement of Christmas kept cranking up for our older two, whilst our younger two gradually got used to their new environment, exploring and playing with increased confidence. And all four children enjoyed the novelty of having each other around for the first time, after months of waiting. I figured that January would bring more challenges (it did), but we enjoyed December while it lasted.

So this Advent, and every Advent, we will add a new celebration to our traditions. Advent means ‘coming’ and we will always remember our boys ‘coming home’ at this time of year. It reminds us that Advent is not merely about the anticipation of Christmas, the first coming, but the anticipation of the second coming – when Jesus will come again, and we, like our boys last year, will also come home – to our rightful home, in God’s kingdom, with God forever, never to be separated again.

Advent, like adoption, opens our eyes to a new place, a better place, where the sin and suffering of the last place are no more. Advent, like adoption, reminds us not to cling to our old home, not to get too settled here, as it’s not where we belong. Advent, like adoption, tells us that the tragedies of life are not supposed to bring us down, but to cause us even more to look upwards, waiting and hoping more desperately for a future in which destruction, lies, corruption, ill-health and death don’t exist. Advent, like adoption, brings hope and a new start and a secure future. Advent, like adoption, prepares us for that glorious day when we will be with our true, heavenly Father.

Advent will never be the same, now that I have a special anniversary to remember, one which reminds me what Advent is all about. Fixing my eyes upwards, my December of roasted chestnuts, hot chocolate, hampers and tinsel has become the celebration which will one day be surpassed by an infinitely grander celebration: that when all God’s children come home.

“In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” Ephesians 1:4-6

Posted in adoption

adoption: what is a sibling?

I’ve been mulling this over for a little while now. Sibling relationships vary so much – and that’s without bringing adoption into the equation. For example, I have two brothers that I basically didn’t grow up with – the large age gap meant they were away at school and university, and then moved out, while I was going through childhood. We are still siblings, despite not having shared memories of beach holidays, den building, exploring and ganging up on parents together.

Some people cemented their sibling relationship with late-night chats, clothes-swapping, advice-asking. Others established their relationship with arguing, fighting, snapping. We are all so different.

For some of us, a sibling is someone you share genes with, someone who has the same number of siblings as you. But that isn’t true for my four children. Each of them shares genes with just one of their three active siblings. Two of my children have three siblings. The other two have six – technically. The younger two children spent the first year of their lives in another family. Confused?

Missy, 5, gives the best, no-nonsense response to all of this. Explaining to her that we’re all going to court to celebrate the fact that Monkey and Meerkat are now legally adopted, and therefore officially her brothers, she replies, “But they’ve always been our brothers”.

You see, my children have fathomed the secret of being a sibling much quicker than I have, with all my weeks and months of reflection. It is this: to be a sibling is to choose to be a sibling. It is choosing to refer to ‘my brothers’, even though you’re just getting to know them. It is choosing to play with them, entertain them, make them laugh, care for them, even though they’re still learning to trust you. It is choosing to love them even when their cuddles aren’t directed at you.

AND. It is shouting, fighting, yelling, arguing. But it is the choice to do these things, knowing that the sibling relationship is secure.

If adoption has taught me anything, it is the incredible depths that children will go to in order to choose to love a sibling. They do it so naturally and with so little fuss. And it makes me wonder why we grown-ups make it so difficult.

Posted in school

five questions to ask a prospective school

IMG_0029[1]This Autumn, many of you will be visiting primary schools, trying to fathom where to send your little person next September. Maybe you’ve already been. Maybe it’s an easy choice or maybe there are several options. Maybe there are factors which make it an incredibly hard decision.

I’m struggling to believe that it was three whole years ago that my husband and I did the school trail. For us, it was an easy decision, but the school we chose for our son was one which others were rejecting. I’ve rattled on enough times about why we chose this school, but today I thought it’d be helpful to provide some questions which you can ask when viewing schools.

Disclaimer: these are not the only questions you should ask, and I wouldn’t suggest asking all of them – unless you want to have the poor Headteacher reaching for her hip-flask once you’ve left – but picking a couple of them to raise during your visit will help you to see past the surface of how the school is presenting itself, and start to give you a feel for its actual identity. What’s at the core of this school? Hopefully these questions will help you scratch beneath the shiny veneer being presented to you (and yes, schools can be pretty good at masking the cracks).

school1. What’s your pastoral support like? You want to know whether there’s one or more members of staff whose job it is to support pupils – and families – with non-academic issues. Does the school have a well-thought-out system for dealing with pupils who are undergoing stress? You may think your family life is pretty stable, but unemployment, bereavement or ill health could hit at any time, and you need to be as sure as you can that this school will support your child through any difficulties they might be facing out of school, thus reducing the negative impact on your child’s education. Contrary to what many people think, it’s just not possible to separate academic learning from pastoral well-being.

2. What’s your behaviour management strategy? Many schools will have a clear-cut strategy for the classroom, and will often speak to the children in terms of making ‘choices’, rather than behaving well or badly. Are you making good choices? Are you thinking about your choices? Have you made a bad choice? But you want to know that there is a system like this which is consistent throughout the school. If every teacher has a different way of doing things, this will unsettle most children for the first few weeks of every academic year, disrupting learning as well as their own sense of security. You also need to know what happens beyond the classroom – what are the sanctions for bad choices? What will happen when your child excels in behaviour or effort? Is the school doing anything to preempt negative behaviour and respond to the stimuli before a child makes those bad choices? Is the school educating children on behaviour, or simply dealing with it when it happens? Prevention or cure? There should be both in evidence.

3. Where will the school be in five years’ time? Remember, you’re not signing up for this year alone (unless you have a planned relocation next summer, of course!). You want to know that this school will still be the right choice for your child in Year 2, Year 4, Year 6. Is there a clear vision for the future? Where is the school hoping to develop/improve? There’s no shame in having weaknesses (whether that be a behaviour strategy, pastoral support, academic achievement, staff deployment, or outdoor facilities), as long as there’s a plan to improve them. Listen hard – is the head committed to the ongoing development of the school?

IMG_4659[1]4. How has the school changed in the last five years? Similar to the last question, but for those who like evidence. If the school hasn’t really developed that much in the last few years, it’s unlikely to develop in the next few – unless the school leadership has changed recently. Where has the school developed? What’s happening now which wasn’t five years ago? I’ll never forget the very perceptive question my husband asked when we looked round the school our kids now go to. The school had recently changed leadership, and he asked “What changes have you noticed in the last half term, since the new head arrived?” The school secretary who was showing us round was enthusiastic in her response: “I’ve been working here for 20 years, and already it’s a much nicer place to work than it was before.” It made such an impact on us that I can’t remember much else from the visit! This was the sort of school we wanted for our children.

5. How do you protect children from the changing expectations coming from the Department of Education? OK, so maybe don’t phrase it quite like that! But with this question we’re getting at whether the school are able to shield their children from unnecessary stress. Or do they see this as a priority at all? The DofE loves to impose stress on Headteachers, and – if they’re not careful – this stress passes on through staff to children. Childhood depression and anxiety are on the increase, and one factor is increased academic pressure. Is the school actively trying to reduce stress for pupils? SATs results may seem important, but in the grand scheme of things our children’s mental health is far more of a concern. SATs last only to predict GCSE grades – whereas poor mental health in childhood will likely last through adulthood also. Make sure your child’s future school has their priorities the right way round.

All the best as you look round schools this Autumn!