Wednesday, 6 November 2013

We don't need no education

The news that Ofsted is recommending that children should be able to start formal schooling aged 2 in an attempt to close the attainment gap between children from wealthier and poorer families caused me more than a little bit of a jaw drop.

It is true that there is a significant attainment gap between some children from poorer families and some children from wealthier families, which can lead to a difference of up to 18 months at age 5. Of course there are other factors that play into this, and I think the average gap is more like 9 months. However, it has been demonstrated that it's better for a child's educational success to be born rich than clever, as many intelligent children from poor families are overtaken by less intelligent children from rich families between ages 8 and 11.

This situation is shocking and totally unacceptable. It speaks of an unfair society where wealth determines educational levels and the one route out of poverty, education, effectively is not a route at all, but actually favours the wealthy.

In comes Ofsted and suggests that rather than tackling the causes of this sorry situation (poverty and inequality), the sticking plaster of sending kids to school early in the hope to make up for all the damage our unequal society does through a few hours of early education.

This is wrong for so many reasons. Baroness Morgan claims that many deprived children have “low social skills”, poor standards of reading and an inability to communicate adequately, which apparently translates to being “not ready to learn” when they start school.

1. Children are always ready to learn. Children are wired to learn. The reason they fall behind is that they do not have a wide range of learning environments and experiences which isn't going to be helped by sticking them into a classroom.

2. Children up to the age of 6 learn through play rather than formal education. They need free play, active play, develop motor skills, and play with other children and adults to develop their language and social skills. A classroom setting is not conducive to being the best environment to achieve this. I read somewhere that children need to learn to skip before they can learn to read, which summarises how motor skills come before language and literacy.

3. School readiness in the sense of ability to become literate depends on passive vocabulary. In fact, as a parent who raises her children bilingually, I've researched this a fair bit and I know that there's a critical number of words that children have to be able to use before they are able to learn how to read and write (which in our case made me decide to delay literacy development in the weaker language). There is no point in developing letter/word recognition or writing skills before this critical mass of words has been developed. Now one could say that this is to be done through the school setting, however:

4. Any schooling only accounts for a minor part of a child's life and the best case scenario is that schooling can influence between 10 and 25% of the total attainment difference between children (the rest is due to home learning environment, community environment, innate ability). This means that any effort to narrow the attainment gap between richer and poorer kids through formal education can at best be a sticking plaster but not make a real difference.

So what can make a difference? Well, ideally, and excuse me for being political, we need to reduce income inequalities, as these are the root causes for the attainment gap in a complex interplay of factors. Great wealth disparities in a rich nation leads to people feeling they have no control over their lives, people who don't feel they have control over their lives have low self esteem and are stressed in a existential kind of way, which in turn leads to poor health and having to focus on the day to day survival, making it much harder to plan ahead or even manage to move out of the low income bracket. Stress leads to family conflict, family conflict stresses the child, a stressed child cannot learn. Sending the stressed child to school is at best tokenistic and at worst futile (in fact, the attainment gap between rich and poor kids increases during the years of formal education, schooling does not narrow it!).

I'm a realist though and in the current political climate I don't see a change to a more equal society any time soon (although I'm still hoping/waiting for a little more outrage and anger by the general public about this ridiculous situation that the 5th richest country in the world is happy to be leading the way on income inequalities). In the short to medium term, we need to support parents to be their children's first educator, in an empowering way that is based on true partnership rather than the deficit model that some parenting programmes are happy to portray. Fact is that parents want the best for their child, but circumstances mean they are unable to be the parent they want to be (and that doesn't just apply to "poorer" families!)

But if we're really serious about our children's future, this isn't enough because the vicious cycle of poverty (or rather income inequality, because it's not the absolute income that matters but the relative status and difference between the richest and the poorest) undermines healthy child development in so many ways that even the parent with the best intentions and abilities will struggle to make up for the disastrous effects of poverty on child development.

All in all it's just another brick in the wall.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Goodbye Mimi

Any day now could be the last time I'll ever breastfeed. It's such a bittersweet time.
On the one hand, I've been looking forward to the last breastfeed for about a year, because it's just a bit uncomfortable feeding a growing toddler/pre-schooler. On the other hand it'll be the end of mothering small children, and in a way we're still hanging on there in that respect.

We haven't nursed in public for a long time now, and only very occasionally in the presence of good friends. That's ok, I appreciate that it's not the norm to nurse beyond a year, and the few negative comments I got did hurt so we kept it hidden. But I'm too defiant to keep it hidden good and proper, after all, I'm not a blogger if it wasn't for a certain happiness to share what matters to me.

All in all I breastfed just over 5 years, and considering the rubbish start to it I had, when I literally kept going just for one other feed, and repeat, I am happy and somewhat proud of this achievement. Not in a way that should make anyone feel less than good about themselves, but there's no harm in feeling good about something.

Snowflake sure was attached to her mimi, This recommended weaning approach of "don't offer, don't refuse" would probably mean she'd still be exclusively breastfed. I had secretly hoped for self weaning but it became pretty clear that this child won't self wean. We've been trying seriously to fully wean for about a year (a process that took a month with Cubling). This is what she says about mimi: "It's so yummy, it tastes like chocolate, cheese, yoghurt and strawberries". Tonight, for the last time ever, I fed her to sleep. This magic moment when you watch your baby relax all muscles and surrender to sleep.The calmness, oneness, the being in the moment of it.

She hadn't asked for mimi in 4 days but I needed at least one last feed that was a proper closure, rather than the reluctant, half asleep 4am one that was the previous potentially last feed. Of course I don't know if this was it for good, but we're not far off.

While I'm a bit nostalgic about moving on, it's the right time too. This child of mine is growing up, she is independent and really doesn't need this particular comfort anymore.

I'm holding on to the memories, lest I forget, recalling them in these last suckles.
Syringe feeding her colostrum in hospital, my mucussy c-section baby.
The frst proper milk feed, still in hospital, and her milk drunk face captured on my phone.
The amazement when I realised that breastfeeding could be pain free. The anger when I realised that something could have been done about the pain I'd experienced 3 1/2 years earlier and that it was only now that I found out about tongue tie and lip tie.
Waking up due to fullness and this tiny moany cry right beside me, instead of sleeping through and possibly waking up to her never waking up again.
Feeding her through her illness, keeping her nil by mouth twice pre-op, and the comfort that those hospital feeds brought us both. When it seemed that her health is outwith my control, it gave me something I felt I could do for her.
Feeding her in almost every place imaginable.
Feeding her through smaller illnesses, when she regularly refused all other food, she never refused this, which was reassuring.
Walking out of the GP surgery after a tirade of how I should stop breastfeeding instantly (she was 10 months), without a word because I knew there was just no point in arguing.
That first feed to reconnect after nursery pick up when I returned to work. That last feed before leaving her, in the nursery chair (she never took the formula offered, and opted to wait for my milk on my work days)
Being confused by people saying how it's so hard for me to be still breastfeeding when actually, it's Breastfeeding was never a sacrifice I made, and somehow people still saw it as such.
Being amused at my beloved Mr Cartside telling everyone who cared to listen, regardless of how well we knew the person, how she's still breastfeeding, at 1,2 and then 3 years of age, and secretly enjoying how uncomfortable this disclosure made some people (and understanding their discomfort).
Far too many breastfeeding discussions initiated by me in the office (although I really didn't mean to)
Learning so much about the politics of breastfeeding and infant nutrition and how we as a society are being conned for profit.
Developing and expanding an interest in infant nutrition, and realising how critical an area this is for the nation's health.
The delight when Save the Children took up the importance of breastfeeding in the first hour after a baby's birth and took on Danone and Nestle. And developed a proper breastfeeding policy (too late for my babies but it's there for those soon to be born).
The chuckles had when my request for a room suitable for private expressing in the new office was passed on to the project manager responsible for setting up the new office. It was clear she (!) had never considered the idea of expressing milk and that someone would do this at work (surely, working mums don't breastfeed? They do? Really? How bizarre)
And of course the endless cuddles while feeding, the smiles while feeding, the relaxation and time out it gave me, the excuse to sit down and stop and admire my miracle baby.
The pride when my then 3 year old told the nursery that while the baby they were role playing with had a bottle, her own baby drank mimi. Even a 3 year old can challenge the normalisation of bottle feeding.
And here's hoping that my youngest, who won't see me nurse another baby, may remember in some way how nice mimi was and pass it on to the next generation.

And that's only the memories of my youngest's breastfeeding journey.



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