Saturday, 29 October 2011

Reading between the lines

A few weeks ago I attended a ‘curriculum meeting’ at my daughter’s school, to find out what she will be doing during her year in Reception. One of the things we learned about was the ‘Phonics’ system of learning to read. This, as the name suggests, is all about concentrating on sounds, and from the way the teachers described it, I thought it was a sensible approach, as well as a fun way for kids to learn.

However, at a conference last week, ‘Reading Stories: Does it Make Sense?’, the approach was questioned. Michael Rosen, the former children’s laureate, pointed out that nowhere in an Ofsted report is reading, or a school’s possession of books, mentioned.

Furthermore, it has to be highlighted that Ruth Miskin, government advisor on education, and the keenest promoter of the phonics system around, is herself the author of a very popular phonics scheme.

I got the impression from the parents’ curriculum meeting, which only a handful of parents attended (it was held during working hours so obviously would’ve been impossible for working parents to attend),that with class sizes of almost 30, there is only so much reading the teachers can do with the kids individually. The teachers invited us parents to come in and sit with the children in the reading corner and help out when we can.

All of this points to the fact that switched-on parents are going to give their kids a head start, and that children from less privileged backgrounds will, from the outset, lag behind. The incredible levels of inequality are brought home by the fact that children from homes with 500 books or more receive, on average, three times as much ‘teaching’ at home. Another telling statistic: children from language-rich backgrounds have heard 32 million more words by the age of five than those from deprived backgrounds.

It is well known that by the age of eighteen months the kids from a nurturing home have leapt ahead of the children from deprived backgrounds, so by the time we get them into school the gap has already opened up, the danger being that it will never close, only widen. I’d like to see parenting classes as standard, rather than the education system trying to bridge the gap almost five years too late, with over-stretched teachers taking on a parenting role. I’d also recommend getting older people into our classrooms to give individual reading assistance. This would give possibly isolated seniors who want to keep their minds active a chance to use their knowledge and help instil the youngest members of society with a life-long love of books and learning.

I’d also like to see the government re-commit to Book Start, the scheme run in conjunction with Booktrust. This is a scheme which gives all babies and toddlers free books, regardless of their background. The coalition government have halved the funding they give to the scheme, though at present it is limping onwards. It would be a tragedy if this scheme fell by the wayside altogether, because, coupled with library closures – which writer Alan Bennett deemed ‘child abuse’, and rightly so – the end of this scheme would mean pre-schoolers from book-free households wouldn't get near a book until they go to school.

Just one of the delightful ways, then, that our present government are condemning more children to a life of underachievement and frustration, whilst also ensuring that social divisions and gaping inequality worsens by the year.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Apple Day 2011: a bumper crop

Another year, another crop of apples...and that can only mean one thing in Stroud Green: Apple Day! This annual fixture has fast become one of my highlights of the year, and Transition Crouch End should be congratulated - alongside the other groups who organise the event - for putting on a great range of stalls each year.

Chris has won the apple peeling competition for the last two years, and so the pressure was on for a hat trick. This year he managed 1 metre, 89 cm. "Disappointing," he mused, "though still enough for me to remain the champion." Indeed, he was crowned champ once again. Next year we really must get the people from the Guinness Book of Records along...

There was apple pressing (the juice was incredible), apple tasting (an apple called Opal was my favourite by far), plus lots of craft activities for the children.

In short, a glorious afternoon, and a great opportunity to catch up with some of my favourite Stroud Greenites. And many thanks to Haringey Green Party member Pamela Harling, who made me laugh when, standing behind a table of around 100 British apple varieties, she declared, "I don't even LIKE apples!" Oh the irony.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

A mine of midwifery misinformation...

On a day when it has been reported that standards of care in many hospitals are woefully inadequate, I had a midwife appointment at University College Hospital. I have so far thankfully found little to complain about in terms of the standard of care at the hospital, a far cry from my experiences at the Royal Free back in 2007. However, the midwife I saw today was an exception to the rule.

I heard staff talking about how short-staffed they were today due to midwives having called in sick, and saw one midwife trying to deal with a long line of patients. When the time came for me to see the midwife (and by this point it was twenty minutes or so after the scheduled appointment time) she apologised for the delay.

I was feeling both anxious and somewhat unwell, and was interested to see what my blood pressure would be today. Surprise, surprise, it was low (70/44). The following exchange then ensued:

Me: It’s quite low, isn’t it?

Midwife: That’s good.

Me: Well…yes, I know it’s safer that it’s low rather than high-

Midwife: That’s right.

Me: - but actually it’s not all that good feeling faint a lot of the time…

Midwife: You’re very anxious, aren’t you?(Laughs)

Me: Yes, I am. I’ve been seeing the psychiatrist here because of the traumatic time I had last time I gave birth. I am feeling very anxious at the moment...not sleeping...

Midwife: Are you taking anything for it?

Me: No…I haven’t been offered anything.

Midwife: Then you must have a very supportive partner. Did you get post-natal depression last time?

Me: No.

Midwife: Well then. And was your baby alright?

Me: She had some trouble breathing…she had a suspected GBS infection and was taken to the Special Care Baby Unit…

Midwife: No. I mean now. Is she okay now?

Me: Yes, oh yes.

Midwife: So you’re booked for a C-section on 31st October. Is your partner planning to stay?

Me: Stay? When?

Midwife: Overnight.

Me: Can you do that?

Midwife: Yes, in a side room with you and the baby.

Me: But I was told I can’t have a side room because I’m having a Caesarean and they have to keep an eye on me…

Midwife: For the first 24 hours, but after that you can.

Me: Oh! I will book one then.

Midwife: You can’t book them.

Me: There’s a sign out there (pointing to the waiting room) about how to book one, though…

Midwife: How would you book one? Think about it!

Me: So why does it say you can on the sign?

Midwife: Well you can, but only once you’re on the post-natal ward. And if you book you have to pay for it.

Me: I am willing to pay for it!

Midwife: I know you are but you can’t book in advance.

WHAAAAT? You get the picture. You know that feeling you get when you’re talking to someone who doesn't know what they’re on about, and so just bullshit you and change the story with every statement they make? Well, that was one of those situations – not at all reassuring in a clinical setting, especially when you’re already feeling anxious!

After palpating my abdomen and declaring the baby’s head is down, I retorted “Are you sure?” I went on to explain that I was told this last time, but after 48 hours in labour, a scanner was wheeled in and the suspicion I had held for weeks was confirmed: the baby was breeched and suddenly it was all systems go for an emergency c-section. The midwife today was most put-out that I doubted her word and uttered the classic “I have been a midwife for a long time, I do know what I’m talking about!”

In short, I left today’s appointment feeling more insecure about my care and how I’ll be treated once I am admitted on 31st October. Yes, the midwife was under pressure due to the short-staffing, but her adversarial, defensive and patronising manner made the exchange unpleasant for the pair of us.

Oh, and the nonsense about the side room? I telephoned the hospital once I got home, and once I had navigated the dodgy 'phone system (this involved being cut off twice...), I was told that I wouldn’t be allowed one if I’d had a c-section, just as I had been told before. I explained that a midwife told me that wasn’t the case after the first 24 hours, and so I was then allowed to book a room. Who knows who has it right and what will happen? As for partners being allowed to stay overnight, it was the first the woman I spoke to on the ‘phone had heard of it.

One last confused note: the midwife bluntly told me that I was 'lucky' to be granted a c-section as I live ‘out of the area’, and it is now policy to only let women have c-sections at their ‘local’ hospitals (in my case that would be the Whittington). If this is correct (and remember, it came from that mine of midwifery misinformation!) then that’s appalling; so much for patient choice.