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19 December 2013

Squeezed Middle: mind-mapping at the community school

Islington in the 1980s was the zenith of liberal-lefty education: now it's all too technical for me.

By Alice O'keeffe

‘‘Could you tell us about your approach to the early-years curriculum?” asks a mother with a definite air of being better informed than I am. I stifle a yawn and try to distract Moe, who is determined to clonk another baby over the head with a toy dinosaur.

I’ve been at the primary academy open day for 15 minutes and I’m already wishing I were anywhere else. There must be over 100 parents crammed into the canteen. The head teacher is rather softly spoken (is that a good sign?) and I can hardly hear her above the noise of her prospective students. They are on the verge of being bored to tears and yet the question-and-answer session shows no sign of abating. Parental anxiety levels – and let’s be honest, they rarely bother the bottom of the chart – are palpably high.

Thus far, I have assumed a position of lofty indifference where schools are concerned. I am not going to be one of those parents who get all het up about it. Our local community school is just round the corner. It’s a nice, old-fashioned red-brick building – a little overcrowded, sure, but it will do just fine for Larry, who will start school next September.

Just when it looked as though things would be that simple, the primary academy came along and complicated things. It has just opened, an offshoot of an existing school elsewhere in the borough. The sponsor academy has an “outstanding” Ofsted rating, and the gleaming, brand-new site is five minutes’ walk away. I couldn’t resist coming along to have a look, just out of curiosity.

During a brief pause in her interrogation, the head teacher suggests we might want to have a look around. A long caravan of parents and buggies moves slowly out of the canteen and into the reception classrooms. There is no denying it looks great. The walls are newly painted a fresh mint green. Cute drawings by children adorn every surface. The best features are the giant glass doors, which look right out on to the park. By London standards, it is idyllic.

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I stop for a moment to listen in on a Year One class. The teacher is talking about “mind maps”. I’m not sure what she’s on about and judging by the kids’ blank expressions I’d say neither are they. It’s all much more technical than anything I did at primary school. Islington in the 1980s was the zenith of liberal-lefty education: we spent a lot of time doing African dancing and celebrating Diwali. I loved it but admittedly still don’t know my times tables, or what exactly happened in British history and when. Walking through Trafalgar Square the other week, I loudly and confidently recounted to Larry the story of how Nelson beat the Spanish Armada.

I wonder if they spend much time mind-mapping at the community school. Somehow I doubt it. At their open day, the headmaster struck me as an admirably practical person. He told us what we needed to know and kept the question-and-answer session short. A man after my own heart.

That evening, Curly and I weigh up the options.

“The academy was very nice,” he says.

“Very clean.

“Almost surgical.”

“Hmm.” That settles it. It’s not our kind of place at all.

4 December 2013

Squeezed Middle: you need to get out of London regularly to stay whole

Forget chickens, what about battery children?

By Alice O'keeffe

Across the wide stretch of shingle, Larry crouches with his fishing net. It is a strange warm and sunny winter’s afternoon and we are on an out-of-season holiday in Dorset. Larry is wearing just his wellies and a jumper, his trousers having met with a rock pool earlier. 

He looks like Christopher Robin, all ruddy-cheeked and wholesome. 

I sit on a rock, warming my hands on a polystyrene cup of tea. It’s a novelty to observe Larry at a distance. In London, he is constantly under my feet. He trips me up in the kitchen; watches me intently as I sit on the loo; wakes me up by shouting “porridgetime!” just millimetres from my ear. When I think of him, it is always in close-up, like my own hand or foot. 

Now, right over there on the other side of the beach, he could almost be somebody else’s child. He is content and absorbed. He looks like his own person. I take in a deep breath of salty air and sigh it out again. 

I feel like my own person, too.

We hadn’t got out of London in ages. Every time we do, I swear to myself that we won’t leave it so long next time, but then once we’re back it all feels like too much effort and expense, and I forget why I ever felt the need to get away from the concrete and fumes and rubbish and hordes upon hordes of grey shuffling people. I only remember again once we have turned off the M25, leaving the skyscrapers behind on the horizon like a row of cracked teeth, and the sky reveals its true hugeness and I feel a physical sensation of relief, as if I can stretch out to my full height and stop holding my breath. 

It seems almost obscene how much space there is in the countryside. On the journey here I watched mile after mile of empty green fields reel by through the car window. There aren’t even any animals in them. It just doesn’t make sense that so many families are stuck in the city, crammed into tiny flats with no outdoor space at all. People make such a fuss about battery chickens. What about battery children? 

“I’ve got one!” Larry is waving. He has caught a tiny fish. I go over to look at it for a moment and then we put it back in its rock pool. When the tide comes in, it will be able to swim wherever it wants, the whole sea will be its playground. That’s a nice thought. As we walk back along the beach Larry slips his hand into mine. 

“I like the countryside,” he says. “I want to stay here all the time.” Larry always says this when we go on holiday. His face even looks different when we are not in the city; more open, happier. He likes the cottage we are staying in, too, especially the kitchen with a nice big table in it. “It’s so huge you can run around indoors!”  

“I know, darling. Maybe one day.” I never thought I would entertain this idea. I am a Londoner born and bred. Could I possibly cope without 24-hour Turkish grocers? Without even the remotest possibility of securing that elusive high-profile, lucrative, family-friendly job? Without Mum, without my sister? Just for a moment, it seems to me that maybe I could.