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Archive for February, 2010

What Should We Believe?

Did you hear about ‘tangerine gate’? Twitter is all a giggle about how a hoax call to a LBC radio show by Robert Popper, in which a factory worker recalls seeing  Gordon Brown throwing a tangerine into a laminating machine during a visit, was reported as serious news in the mainstream press (e.g. Daily Telegraph, The Sun). It was even, oh irony of ironies, mentioned (as fact) on the BBC news quiz ‘The Bubble’ in which the panel tries to figure out if news items are true or completely made up.

The call itself is hilarious and well worth a listen. And it is always amusing to see journalists with caught out in this way. I understand how these things happen, especially in this instant 24hr news culture where stories develop quickly and articles appear online within minutes of events happening. But come on! Journalists failed to check basic facts about the story, like when it happened and whether the Prime Minister ever visited the factory in question (which factory?!). the newspapers failed to mention that the information came from a phone in show. The Daily Telegraph even quotes its source as The Sun, just to cover its own backside. So yes, it’s lazy journalism and we can point and laugh at their stupidity.

But what alarms me is the tendency to just roll our eyes and say ‘well you can’t believe anything you read in the papers’ and move on. Why are we so resigned to being treated like this? Why is it acceptable to print misleading lies? The Daily Telegraph really takes the biscuit in this case for saying ‘one factory worker told The Sun….’ Er, no he didn’t. Even The Sun didn’t claim to have talked to anyone directly about the story. So it’s OK for The Telegraph journalist to just make that bit up to make his story sound more convincing?! It might seem a small thing, but how do we know what to believe? What about the other incidents of Gordon Brown’s bad behaviour? I complained in my earlier article about this of the impossibility of finding out the truth once spin doctors and journalists start in on a story and this just goes to show what lies the press feeds us. And this is the one we know about.

Of course, we must also worry about the truthiness of twitter and the interwebs. How do we know it was really a hoax? I haven’t seen any reports of tangerinegate on the news sites this weekend. Maybe journalists are busy carefully checking all sources before offering a retraction. Regardless, I doubt any of them are going to apologise to Gordon Brown. Or to tangerines.

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I read the harrowing case of Khyra Ishaq just before I cuddled my own daughter (3) to sleep last night.  As I wrestled my arms out from under her, I held my face next to her podgy cheek.  My thoughts turned to Khyra and, inevitably, food.  My daughter loves breakfast.  In the morning she takes herself off to the sofa and snuggles under a blanket while I make it for her.  She usually has two slices of buttered toast or porridge and a bowl of fruit.  Today she had mango and strawberries (sorry environmentalists) as a treat because it’s Saturday.  If she’s still hungry she’ll ask for a yogurt or maybe an extra slice of toast.

I’m not the perfect mother.  I shout, I tell her ‘in a minute’ too much, sometimes she has beans on toast more than once a week – I am positive that one day I’ll forget to pick her up from nursery.  But my daughter’s life could not be further removed from the life of Khyra who had to share a bowl of food with six siblings and would be caned if she ate too much.  I find the idea of not feeding a child in the western world totally unfathomable.  In fact it’s so unusual that experts had to look back to records of concentration camp victims to get a proper idea of what had happened to her.

Poor Khyra was taken out of school when staff there got concerned about her welfare.  Her parents said that they were home schooling her and both Social Services and the Local Education Authority were happy with the arrangements for her education at the time they visited.  In fact, Khyra was dead within 12 weeks.

While I think anything, anything, should be done to prevent this happening to even one more child, I am so sick of knee jerk reactions (and subsequent legislation) coming out of extreme cases.  Baby P – calls to sack ALL social workers in Haringey (because there are SO many waiting to take their place), Soham murders – calls to CRB check everyone who has to look at a child ever, MPs taking the mickey with their expenses – put them on bread and gruel.  Khyra’s legacy seems to be to make all parents who chose to educate their own children at home come under the spotlight.  What’s wrong with a considered approach, eh?

Just as most people who send their children to school are not abusing them, most people who are educating their children at home are not abusing them. From what I can gather, the existing legislation for parents of home educated children was not followed through.  Should two education welfare officers have accepted that they couldn’t see Khyra when they visited – especially bearing in mind that the Deputy Head of her previous school had expressed grave concerns for her welfare?  Similarly, should a social worker carry out an assessment of a child’s welfare on the doorstep of their home?

In the judge’s words: “On the evidence before the court I can only conclude that in all probability, had there been an adequate initial assessment and proper adherence by the educational welfare services to its guidance, Khyra would not have died.”  That doesn’t sound to me like we need new legislation, it sounds like we need the existing legislation to be implemented properly.  Instead of spending time and money on new legislation, attract good social workers and education welfare officers to the professions, make their case loads manageable so that children and vulnerable adults don’t slip through the net like this and then see what tweaks or overhauls need to be made.

Perhaps the saddest thing of all about the Khyra Ishaq case is the fact that the police investigation identified at least 30 witnesses who could have intervened on Khyra’s behalf.  Many people living in her community had concerns for her, but didn’t share them with agencies who were there to protect her.  None of us want to live in a nanny state, so why don’t we look out for each other, and especially for the children living in our communities?  We all know, really, don’t we, when we see children who are happy and well looked after and when we see ones that aren’t being cared for?

I’m as guilty of this as anyone.  I lived in a downstairs flat years ago and above us lived a couple with a baby.  Did I hear the baby screaming for hours at the same time as his mother begged her partner not to hit her?  Yes.  Did I notice that after these episodes there were always piles of empty cans of extra strong cider next to the communal bin?  Yes. Did I worry about it?  Yes.  Did I do anything about it?  No.  Why?  I didn’t want to put extra stress on the poor mother.  Do I worry about how that baby is now?  Yes.

Part of the problem of the individualistic culture that we find ourselves living in now, is that we end up with more state interference and become over-reliant on statutory agencies to do the things we should be doing ourselves.  If we’re not keeping an eye on our own communities, then the state will have to do it for us and they tend to do this by rushing out legislation to cover all eventualities.

Please, let’s try and learn from this case, because how many more can there be before someone spots the bleeding obvious and sorts out morale and workloads for those paid to protect our children?  We need existing legislation to be implemented properly by people who have the time to do their jobs properly and we need (yes, that’s you and me) to keep our eyes open and take some responsibility for the well being of the children around us before it’s too late.

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Just let teachers do their jobs!

Finally! Thank you OFSTED.  It’s about time someone spoke out against the constant changing of policies in schools in a drive to improve standards. Maybe the government will finally start to trust schools to get on with things without bombarding them incessantly with new ‘initiatives’ (aka more bloody paperwork and targets).

The constant chopping and changing is confusing for pupils too. Just as my son had got the hang of one way of doing joined up writing, the school implemented a new handwriting policy and he had to learn to do lots of the letters completely differently. Does it really matter? it looked fine to me the first way.

If only they would let the dust settle and give schools a chance to implement things, then teachers might stand a chance of delivering the curriculum well without suffering nervous breakdowns and putting new pressure on our children in the process. I hope the government take note of OFSTED’s recommendations.

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The International Monetary Fund yesterday said that our economy is too fragile to cut public spending.  Quite significant news, I believe, given that the economy is the central issue in this election campaign.  I’ve read about it only in the Guardian and the Mirror.  It seems the Daily Mail think maternity leave is more important, the BBC are running yet another day of bullying coverage and seem to have ignored this.  I’ve complained to the BBC about the easy ride they are giving Cameron – because this shoots his plans to pieces – and whatever your political persuasion, you deserve to know the facts.  What do you think?

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We had announcements on labours education policy this week, their big idea being parental ability to sack heads. We’ve heard lots about the Tories plans for swedish schools. But what are the big ideas of the lib dems? Although they’re less effective at dominating the headlines, there are actually some really interesting ideas in the lib dems policy. And they’re easy to find from their website, which is always a bonus.
One of the key ideas is a pupil premium. Children on free school lunches, with SEN, in local authority care, or with english as a second language will attract extra funding – up to £1,000 per pupil. this will act as incentive to schools to take these children, and allow the targetting of resources specifically where they are needed. Importantly, schools will be at liberty to spend the money as they will – the pupil premium will not be ringfenced. This money will come from cuts to the tax credit system – which may not be popular with the lower end of middle income families.
The lib dems are the only party talking about increasing funding for schools. Some of this will come from slashing the Department for schools, children & families – they’re going to halve this government department. And they’re going to pass law forbidding government from meddling in the detail of teaching.
Another key element is the abolition of the national curriculum – instead there will be a minumum curriculum.
Overall, the lib dem policy is about reducing educational disadvantage by targetting resources effectively. Its about more freedom for schools, and removing inherant unfairnesses in the current system (why do FE colleges get less funding than school 6th forms?).
There was very little in the policy I didn’t like – its just a shame they’re not doing a better job of shouting about it!

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Parent Power

Have you ever been involved with your children’s school PTA? Have you experienced cliques of parents in the school playground? Have you felt marginalised or even…dare I say it?…bullied by other parents?? I bet the answer in many cases is ‘yes’.

We often experience political machinations amongst parents concerning many issues ranging from whether the school should run a Halloween disco to whether the new drop off arrangements are rubbish. Playground gossip, email campaigns, petitions, the works. Imagine now, if you will, this kind of behaviour extended to also cover the fundamentals of how your child’s school is funded and run. What happens if a group of particularly persuasive parents decide that the new Headteacher is too progressive? Or not progressive enough? Or that their child’s education is being damaged by the inclusion of too many SEN children in the school. You don’t agree with them, but by putting pressure in the playground and other underhand means, they manage to cajole a ‘significant majority’ of parents to back their stance.

In proposals announced by Labour today, such groups of parents would be able to force a vote to decide for a ‘change of school leadership’ with a list of approved organisations that could take over the school. They are all about ‘parent power’, apparently. The theory is that control of ‘failing schools’ (as determined by parents) could be wrested away from Local Authority control and put into the hands of ‘kitemarked’ organisations such as successful state schools, universities and academy sponsors. Or  ‘The tycoon owner of a carpet company’. Right.

While I understand that all political parties are desperately searching for ‘radical’ ideas on how to raise academic standards (this latest seems to be in response to the Tory idea of having new schools opt out of LEA funding altogether), I find this proposal shockingly ill conceived. Yes, if you sent your child to a dreadful school it would be nice to think there was something you could do about it, but are parents really qualified to determine if their child’s school is ‘failing’? And by what criteria? Already unpopular SATS and league tables? Inclusion of too many SEN children?!  As another union representative said: ‘What is the point of having education professionals and volunteer governors trained to manage schools if their expertise and work is to be disregarded? It is right that parents should have a view on the education of their children, but they have neither the knowledge, expertise nor responsibility to organise and deliver it’

It’s all too easy to imagine a scenario where over involved parents who take a dislike to something that is happening to their special snowflake could mount a campaign against a school. I agree with the Teacher’s Union NASWAT who warned of ‘”unintended consequences of parental ballots” – saying they would “create unnecessary turbulence” and that teachers would be “working with the ‘gun’ of a parental ballot at their heads”‘. As both a parent and a teacher, I can’t think of anything worse.

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Accessing fertility treatment on the NHS is a question of ticking the right boxes.  We haven’t been able to have a second child, despite trying for the last three years.  I have had to go through undignified testing, including a laparoctomy and I have been diagnosed with ‘unexplained infertility’ which effects around 10% of couples who have been trying for a baby for more than a year.  The recommended action for this is In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF), only I’m not entitled to funding for this because we already have a child together. 

NHS resources are finite, and I’m not complaining that we’re not entitled.  It is disappointing, and it’s hard to decide whether to pay for private treatment.  It costs around £5,000 with a 1 in 3 chance of success.  Should we spend this on trying to give our daughter a brother or sister, or should we keep hold of the money to make sure she is financially secure in later life?  Of course, we are extremely fortunate to be able to make this choice – £5,000  is out of the range of many couples I know.

What is horrifying though is how eligibility criteria varies throughout the country.  Tory MP Grant Shapps has 3 children thanks to IVF and he contacted every single PCT in the country in June last year to find out their policy.  He found that two PCTs were refusing to offer IVF at all. 80% of PCTs aren’t providing the three IVF cycles set out in NICE guidance in 2004.

Shapps found that in one area, a woman would be too young to be considered, and in others the same woman would be too old.   For instance, in Lincolnshire, IVF is funded if the mother is aged under 35, in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, it is only funded to women aged over 36 (despite the fact that IVF is significantly less effective each year after a woman turns 35).  In Wiltshire, there was a very narrow window for having fertility problems – you had to be aged 31-35 to be offered assistance.

More than half of trusts wouldn’t fund IVF to people who had previously had treatment and 1 in 6 wouldn’t offer it to people who’d had privately funded IVF before.  These inconsistencies mean that as well as the added trauma of not being able to plan your family in the way you assume you will, you are also at the mercy of rules seemingly made up at random with no medical thought put into them.  The full report is available here  if you want to read up further.

This isn’t the first time we’ve experienced fertility woes. When my husband and I first decided to have a family, I assumed I’d be pregnant within a couple of months.  All the other women in my family had got pregnant straight away – sometimes without meaning to – and I’d never had any reason to suspect I’d be any different. You could set your calendar by my periods and I was starting reasonably young, at 28.

I did get pregnant quite quickly, but sadly lost the pregnancy at nine weeks.  I was still optimistic, I read all about miscarriage and I knew that first pregnancies carried a higher risk of miscarriage than subsequent pregnancies. As four more early miscarriages followed, each taking their own emotional toll, I tried to ignore that the chances of never having a baby were increasing.  I eventually went to my GP and was referred to a miscarriage specialist.  I was so lucky, he was an amazing man.  Unlike many of the consultants I read about on fertility forums, he had a genuine interest in keeping pregnancies going and didn’t just fob me off to try again.

After a battery of tests, he deduced that the likeliest reason for my pregnancies failing was that the placenta didn’t form properly and needed drugs to improve the conditions.  When I got pregnant again, I was closely monitored and with the help of progesterone and heparin I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl exactly three years after I first started trying and two weeks shy of my husband’s 40th birthday.  Nothing prepared me for the joy of watching her sleeping face and the feel of her skin against mine.

I was so lucky to live near to a leading fertility hospital and that my PCT paid for this.  I have no doubt that without this help I would have gone on to have further miscarriages and it’s very possible that my little girl wouldn’t be sitting next to me now eating her breakfast.

I have heard it said, in real life and reading the comments on the bottom of newspaper articles, that fertility treatment shouldn’t be funded by the NHS at all.  Leaving aside the moral question of whether children are a right or a privilege, the emotional impact of infertility can not and should not be underestimated.

I grew up in a big family and pictured myself as the mother of a big brood; laughing and joking on days out, serving long breakfasts at the weekends and my husband and I holding hands and watching proudly as our children left home and it was extremely difficult to come to terms with none of this happening. Looking to a future with no children seemed so bleak.

Comments from friends and relatives that couples with no children had the happiest marriages, that God would give us a child when the time was right and that if all else failed we could always adopt, were really not helpful, no matter how good the intention behind them.

It was after the last miscarriage that things got very dark.  I’m sure it was partly hormones, I was bursting into tears all the time, I lost interest in a job I’d previously enjoyed and had all the guilt that entailed, I couldn’t hear about anyone else getting pregnant without thinking ‘What about mmmmmmmeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee?’ .  I know from talking to other couples with fertility problems that I am not the only one who begged her partner to leave her so he could have children with someone else.

In fact, it’s only recently that I was able to tell my husband that during a mad moment, I considered throwing myself in front of the train I was waiting for on the way to work.  It wasn’t thinking about him or my family that stopped me doing it either, it was the fact the train was coming in too slowly and I didn’t think it would kill me.  At that moment life seemed so futile and I seemed so pointless.

I think it’s irrelevant that in the past people have had to get on with it if they couldn’t have children.  We have made medical advances that mean that no one should have to feel like I did.  If you can’t offer IVF to every childless couple, at least make the system fair!

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