Living on the summit of an active volcano in rural England

Over the last three months, we have been the unwitting lab rats in an experiment to live on the summit of an active volcano, spewing dark ash over our home, every day. This volcano is young, geologically speaking, just nine years old in fact. This mountain of fire and brimstone, louder than a heavy metal concert turned to 11 on the amp, bears an uncanny resemblance to a primary school boy and, on a good day, our youngest son. The gentler slopes provide a safe harbour for animals, (two cats and a hamster to be specific) and a fertile land for creative ideas and questions. In contrast, the angry, gaping crater spits fire and leaves destruction in its wake. In this three month period, this force of nature has been excluded from two primary schools, once permanently, both illegally. At a temporary school, he has learned how to dangle a peperami between his legs and say “suck my d**k” and as a special highlight, we have been referred to social services in the belief that it is us who are failing him. So how did this three month nightmare journey to live at the mouth of hell start? Buckle up, it’s going to be a long and bumpy ride over this volcanic soil.

November 29th 2016, my 9 year old son, Connor, experiences a normal day at school: another child interrupts his ball game in the playground and the ground stirs………..

The volcano on which I live is hyperactive and impulsive, ADHD diagnosed hyperactive and impulsive; yet the ground miraculously stands still for a few minutes while the constant advice of his parents rings in his ears, “talk, tell or ignore”. Connor first talks to the child who annoyed him, politely, asking him to move. When this does not work, he then tells a nearby adult that he needs help as not one of his three normal Teaching Assistants is with him that day. When the adult approaches, the ground starts to vibrate, oh so gently, as the annoying child then lies and says that my son hurt him. A small vibration, perhaps only detectable by an expert with sophisticated equipment and training, but it is there. The adult, thinking he is on solid ground, believes the annoying child and forces my son to apologise. Immediately afterwards, the ground shifts, the vibration becomes a tangible rumble. The first, single, molten rock is thrown up, directed at the adult in the shape of the ball thrown at his chest. The adult responds with an angry shout at Connor, “That’s it!” So Connor flees, to his safe space, where a written agreement with the school states that he will (should) be left alone. Not this time. Connor is followed, watched, and he does not feel safe. Now there is adrenaline running like molten lava, bubbling up, needing somewhere to go. He tries to escape out of the school, to find a route for the heat inside him to flow out and away. This is forbidden though, and Connor is restrained by the same adult, pulled forcefully back into the space where fear has already fuelled his angry inferno. The lava has to go somewhere, and it explodes, hissing great gobs of fire at the adult and further, across the whole school. Staff look on in amazement at this natural disaster, unstoppable, loud and fuming.

Eventually the loud, violent explosions become a river of molten rock, flowing, oozing, still determined and enraged, and Connor finds his way through a gap in the football cage fence to a space just inside the school perimeter where he knows no adult can reach him. But anger is not unique to this volcano and while he cools, the headmistress is just getting fired up. She advances onto the scene and shouts at my son to “come back here or I will call the police“. By the time my son is a warm, smooth pebble in my arms at 3:15pm, there is no trace of the day’s eruption, no mention in his daily communication book, no-one greets me to tell me tales of fireworks. Like many days before, Connor tells me he has not had his best day and we hug before walking the 10 metres to our home. In the evening, the communication starts: an email from the headmistress, a five-day long exclusion starts the next day and perhaps she will make it permanent. The reasons cited are “assaulting a member of staff and leaving the school grounds”. I shout and cry simultaneously because I know this is the beginning of the end. Then I breathe calmly and start making notes………..how did we get from a bad day just like any other, where Connor’s learning disability is poorly supported and he is incapable of managing his emotional response, to this threat?

I look back to July, when the headmistress called an emergency meeting with the head of the local authority’s Special Education Needs (SEN) department, after giving Connor yet another fixed-term exclusion. We were all working together to get Connor temporarily into a special school. Since then his Statement of Educational Needs has been transferred to the infinitely better worded Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP) in a record matter of weeks. It lists on 10 pages all the strategies that should be in place to help Connor manage his diagnosed non-verbal learning difficulties and ADHD. It references reports from Speech and Language Therapy, Sensory Support Services, an Educational Psychologist and comments from his consultant paediatrician. The school is given “double funding” to pay for the additional support they say they need to keep Connor safe. I cannot fault the local authority for doing the right thing. However, the force for good is balanced by the dark side that is Connor’s primary school implementation of this EHCP from the first day back in September. At least half of the EHCP strategies are nowhere to be seen, despite the fact they are legally binding. The temporary special school will not be opening for the foreseeable future either. In this gap, the headmistress sees permanent exclusion as the only way out. She makes two calls to check she has the authority to end our son’s mainstream schooling and emails us to tell us she is doing this on December 1st. She can tell us no more than this as she does not know what the next steps are. Unfortunately, the next steps are hers to take, to get our smouldering volcano into “Alternative Provision” (AP) on the 6th day after he is permanently excluded. In her ignorance, no paperwork is filled out, no transport sorted and our volcano sits quietly at home, almost dormant in disbelief. I rush around, navigating new pathways through the landscape, to get a temporary place sorted. His classmates are told by the same headmistress that we are taking Connor out of his school. Well-meaning parents ask us what made us decide so close to Christmas to pull the ground out from beneath us.

December 8th, 2016 a side vent opens on our volcano, in a primary, AP classroom on the other side of town. It is small, just 5 kids sit in formal rows: “the marginalised, disenfranchised and forgotten children” that Jarlath O’Brien writes so eloquently about. This is where Connor learns a new vocabulary: short words, between 3 and 5 letters long and how to buy vaping equipment. Confused and disquieted by his new landscape, he asks me how it is possible that one of his classmates has a reward chart at the age of 10 that says “Don’t do drugs”. “But Mimi, he has all crosses on his reward chart, no ticks. Why would a 10 year old smoke?” I am at a loss to help, I can wrap my arms around this small trembling rock, but I cannot tell him that the current UK educational system knows only about “inclusion”, which really means “try to turn a volcano into England’s green and pleasant land so that it will fit in”. It is utterly meaningless to quote a senior member of staff at one of these units interviewed in a Radio 4 article to my son, to reassure him that “most students want to learn” in these pupil referral units. The statistics speak for themselves, only 1% of pupils in AP achieve 5 GCSEs compared to the 60% national average.

As the last week of term rolls by, ash clouds burn loudly through our house on a daily basis: a volcano of frustration and fear of the unknown. A disability marked by a rigid way of thinking, as deep as the magma chamber beneath, a child struggling with his new way of life. The arranged transport to take him to school arrives on time 50% of the time, sometimes it does not turn up at all. I call and complain and am told that the drivers are not allowed to leave the car to come to our door and no, they do not text (on a school run) to let us know they have arrived in our street. So on one occasion the car parks round the side of the volcano, invisible to me, waits five minutes and then drives off. My son’s whole life has been ploughed through the middle to make way for this?

December 23rd, 2016 and we are still waiting for the local authority to name a new school for Connor, so that he can put roots down somewhere new. We are offered a choice between two special schools, both an hour away, but no advice on whether they are suitable for Connor. One, seemingly, does not even reply to the request to review Connor’s EHCP to confirm if they can meet his emotional needs. We visit the other school, and are proudly shown the construction yard, the mechanic lab and the hospitality and catering kitchen. If our son is smart enough, he may eschew these vocational choices and take three GCSEs instead, at the age of 18. It is clear that this school cannot meet Connor’s stated need on his EHCP for him ” to achieve at school so that he can become a vet”. I look at the primary Nurture class which is wonderful. I see the small outside space, accessed through multiple locked doors, which is less wonderful. Volcanoes are not known for confining their explosions or operating swipe cards. I see the room with padded walls and floor and I want one. NOW. I want one so badly so that I can crawl in and shout and rage against the machine and cry and stamp my feet and hit the walls again and again and emerge when this is all over. I would probably change the colour scheme though, wall to wall bright blue is rarely a flattering light for anyone. But my battling has to be done over email in the real world, writing a lengthy statement to the local authority stating our clear preference for anywhere other than the daily commute to a place where we will watch our son fail year after year until all his fiery ambition is burned out.

We spend Christmas and New Year under the ash cloud, with daily, choking, dark periods where all we can hear is a lost child trying to find solid ground under his feet. “My group of 15 friends have lost one of their group, I have lost all 15 of my friends”. He longs to go back to his normal school but his disability means he cannot express this sadness with anything but rage. Even Christmas day is spent with an unexpected tremor on the mountain, a surprise explosion on the stairs to bed, rocks sent flying in all directions. As parents of this volcano, we group together, we huddle down, we cover our heads, we pick ourselves up, over and over again and try to share our time equally between three children who need us. We hold each other and hibernate. We want to count the days to calm weather again, but we don’t know when it will happen. Perhaps the next eruption will be the last we can stand, our family and home ripped up and swallowed up by this aggressive, relentless, searing heat. I book a summer family holiday for us all to define what calm weather will look like, even if I can’t see it yet.

On January 3rd, 2017, the headmistress’ decision to permanently exclude Connor is reviewed by the school Governors as part of the normal process. We are new to this process, but turn up anyway for giggles and because Connor wants his voice heard. He just wants the governors to know that the other child lied. A simple, “It wasn’t fair” backed by his rigid sense of fairness that exemplifies non-verbal learning difficulties. Multiple witness statements are produced by the headmistress, describing in detail what teachers saw as the crater exploded, sending heavy shards of ruin into his future. The headmistress also provides a document outlining why the school decided not to implement legally binding items on his EHCP because they were waiting to see when and how Connor would be helped by the temporary placement at a special school. She defends her shouting at Connor as she was “terrified” he would leave the school premises. We are allowed to ask questions:

  • Do you have a single witness statement that captured the onlooker’s description we were given, of the polite boy at the start, frustrated by his ball game interrupted?
  • Could you tell us why you decided not to implement many of the legally binding items on Connor’s EHCP from the start of term, just to see if they would help?
  • Could you remind us please, how Connor would have escaped from school by the football cage? Is this by climbing up and over the six foot tall, metal spiked perimeter fence?
  • Where would Connor have ended up if he had escaped school that was so “terrifying”, given that we live next door?

The headmistress’ answer to all of these questions is slightly less than satisfactory in terms of content. From an aesthetic point of view, I haven’t seen someone look so uncomfortable since the head spinning scene in The Exorcist.

We hear that when the headmistress made the two calls to check she was authorised to exclude Connor permanently, she did not pick up the phone to seek help from Social Services; child counselling services; the children’s service who visited the school just a fortnight earlier; the local authority Educational Psychologist; Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS); the SEN and Disability Partnership Service or AP emergency support to find an alternative solution. This is perhaps unsurprising as we also learn she doesn’t even have a policy document or process in place to describe under what circumstances the head would/could permanently exclude a child.

The governors do not uphold her decision. It is overturned. Just like that, our volcano is on home ground again. There is now no need to send him anywhere.

We should have been careful what we wished for. For now, his only option is to go back to the school that has documented so thoroughly how they have failed him. He can return to all of his classmates and half his EHCP in place. He can wait for the headmistress to write her new policy document and go through all of this again when something else breaks through to that chamber of heat and simmering anger below the surface. The SEN head at the local authority can no longer help us to find a different long term school for Connor, “her hands are tied”. The right to send your child to the mainstream school you choose is supported and enshrined in law, with a formal appeals process if for some reason it doesn’t happen. We were being given back that right. There is no protection, however, when every fibre of your being is repulsed by the idea of sending your bright son back into the mainstream school that has permanently excluded him, wrongfully. Our belief that Connor would be better supported outside mainstream schooling, a belief previously upheld by the local authority, has been overturned as rapidly as the headmistress’ ill thought out decision was made in the first place.

The statistics are not helpful either if you think we are alone here on the barren upper slopes of the volcano, staring into the abyss. Pupils with additional needs are 7 times more likely than their mentally able peers to be permanently excluded. They are more likely to end up in prison and, on average, die 15 years earlier than their peers. Connor still wants to go back.

The government has not stood around waiting for this to play out I am glad to say. Just 6 days after the governors’ meeting, Theresa May calls for “a revolution in child mental health care” and promises more funding for schools. I caught the headlines online and so was able to see the societal response to this national crisis with numerous comments posted in reply to the Times article I read. Example quotes are below in blue text, the spelling mistakes and grammar are all those of the authors.

 

CurrentBun Jan 9, 2017

What exactly is ‘mental illness’ these days?

feeling a bit worried?

feeling a bit down?

No wonder it’s so widespread!

Lady P Jan 9, 2017

It beggars belief that the solution is to chuck money at schools. If 10 percent of children have mental health issues, we have a national parenting crisis. But it is too controversial to discuss that. Instead we blame institutions and as usual the solution is money money money.

PHILLIP LEIGH Jan 9, 2017

The majority of parents suffering children with mental help problems are the architects of their own misfortune having contributed to the problem by providing a poor example of a settled home life. Teachers will confirm that the children suffering most are those either from a broken home or one that is breaking down. we must concentrate on identifying these situations at an early stage and give  support by providing alternative role models.

PHILLIP LEIGH continues
Following on from my previous comments regarding unhappy home life contributing to mental health problems affecting youth. I would draw your attention to the additional mental pressure experienced through the stress being placed upon them by parents and teachers in relation to the importance of academic achievement.This in my view could be considerably relieved by the re instatement of Technical Colleges which were abundantly available in the 1960’s and from which the likes of my good friend The Lord  Sugar evolved.

Prabhat Jan 9, 2017

Thank you, Times, well done.

That said, I am surprised that there is no provisions for assessment of the child’s affairs at home (and the stability of his/her parents) alongside the online bullying in assessing the mental health issues given that those play significant (if not the dominant) roles in a child’s slide into depression.

Jane C Jan 9, 2017

 “Schools could be judged by Ofsted inspectors over their level of mental health awareness.”

Great. Something else teachers are to be made responsible for. No mention of parents’ roles in their children’s health and well-being?

midlife mum Jan 9, 2017

@Silvia Le MARCHANT

Parents have to take responsibility for this I agree.

And the biggest problem? The internet.

Turning off the wifi would be the best start. Our kids are overwhelmed with social media/celebrity culture/porn freely available on the internet.

CM Jan 9, 2017

Meanwhile we can’t afford cancer drugs for people who have paid in all their lives. perhaps their parents can take their phones off them to stem the narcissism that is leading to their eating disorders. This country makes me sick. Heal the taxpayers before you worry about children who should be their parents concern. We got through the 2nd world war without worrying about child depression. This is pathetic. Heal the sick, not the spoiled.

Vive la Revolution.

In the past, I have been told to my face that my “seriously unhinged son’s” ADHD could be made better by me staying at home to work, rather than doing one business trip a year on average, and I thought that was ignorant. Since that time I have been unemployed and at home every day for 18 months and now work from home full time. Lo and behold, the volcano I live on still erupts, at predictable and unpredictable times, but it is certainly still active. Even if I wanted to change the numbers, it has been conclusively proven, hundreds of times over that only 26% of the variability in the extent to which my children are psychologically well balanced is down to how much my kids feel we love them as parents. I’ve done the validated tests and my son feels adored by both his parents. It’s pointless though, I cannot use logic to argue people out of discriminatory views that they didn’t use logic to believe in. I have never seen such discrimination and ignorance printed in black and white though, in a national newspaper; at least not before Brexit and the presidential campaign started on the other side of the pond. Had I only realised that Wi-Fi or mobile phones were in fact to blame for my son’s behavioural disability, perhaps I could have acted earlier? Was this in nursery when he was a small volcano but had no mobile phone or Wi-Fi I wonder? Perhaps I should embrace the lack of academic route that Phillip Leigh prescribes even in direct contradiction to the level of intelligence my son displays?  If our son was born deaf, would we be blamed for not teaching him to listen properly?

January 9th, 2017. Although the comments above do not exemplify common sense, on the same day that I had to walk calmly away from the comments I read above, common sense did prevail at our local authority. The SEN head calls me on the phone and announces a third option for us: a small special school with just 15 children in our home town. Dare we hope that this is the best of both worlds? Our volcano stays put, surrounded by his friends after school? He can continue to go to Cubs and Tae Kwon Do, while being supported effectively during the day at school to grow to his full potential? We meet the headmaster and head of the primary unit of this magical third option: two parents united to get the best we can for the volcano we call home. The headmaster tells us that in his opinion most of the issues with kids like our son arise as a result of poor parenting.

I want my padded cell again.

We smile, never able to convey to someone who does not have a child with special needs that we can no more resolve our son’s challenging behaviour and mental health issues through exemplary parenting skills than we can move mountains with our bare hands. We ask how an eruption would be dealt with, from the first rumblings onwards. The headmaster dismisses the usefulness of early detection equipment and states that punishment for an erupting volcano is key to driving good behaviour, with detentions and then fixed term exclusions being the best, and most frequently used weapons. Detentions are based on the principle of modelling desired behaviours: “if a child wastes our time, we waste theirs”. He proudly states that he has reduced the number of fixed term exclusions to thirty-two in the last academic year. The school’s most recent Ofsted report suggests a different opinion, requiring that the use of fixed term exclusions should be “rare”. Barnardo’s children’s charity describes fixed term exclusions as “an over-used and ineffective disciplinary measure“. The use of both disciplinary measures at this local special school is itemised on every weekly update letter home. Having attended two entire series of parenting classes led  by either the Family Support Services or CAMHS, I can certify that parenting a child with special needs takes Herculean mental and emotional strength and importantly, compassion. You see volcanoes do not erupt out of spite. They do not test boundaries and push others with hate and vengeance in their heart. You cannot start every day, anticipating the worst, hiding all the fragile items in your house from the explosions that slam doors and tear through the walls on a daily basis. You have to hope for the best, watch for the flowers coming up from the ground and nurture them, even if for weeks on end there is nothing to see but bare earth and black lava. You cannot punish something that was not a wrongdoing. Volcanic eruptions are a way for volcanoes to relieve pressure, it is a response to the environment around them. It is our society that defines them “socially unacceptable”.

We keep smiling on the guided tour of the third special school as we are shown the classroom for the youngest “anklebiters”. We have two key discussions with the head of the Primary Unit, who at least had the decency to roll her eyes too at the head’s use of the term “anklebiters”. Firstly, we are told that not even 1% of the pupils in this primary unit ever reach national age expectations in terms of academic ability. We are told this is a deliberate strategy to limit the academic challenge to “keeping numeracy and literacy ticking over” as it is all their little brains can do to learn how to manage their emotional response differently. Although AP schools do not have to teach the national curriculum, this is in direct contradiction to a Department for Education study that clearly states, “All children who are referred to AP should continue to receive appropriate and challenging English and Maths teaching.” This lack of academic challenge would be more pronounced for Connor as he would join the class with kids up to two years younger than him and there is nothing we can do about this, as the class with the older kids is full. We think of our lively little part of nature at home, forever pushing into new territory, constantly inquisitive; a kid who has reached national age expectations despite only being inside a classroom for half of each week on average. We firmly believe that if you stop this curiosity, you might has well put your hand over the summit of the volcano and stop the ensuing eruption with your bare hands too. When we voice this out loud, we are firmly told, “As a family, you need to sit down and reassess and reduce your focus on academic achievement”. Lord Sugar’s friend would no doubt be proud, but we find it genuinely hard to put one foot in front of the next, to walk round this low, swampy marsh of educational despair. But how do we know that this isn’t the best option for our son? What do I compare this to? There is no Sunday Times guide to the best special schools; they are hidden from public view. The second key discussion point is a recommendation to look at three more special schools within a 50 mile radius and we realise the hunt is on again.

One of the three schools takes itself off the list as the SEN head at the local authority refuses to send children there as “she has concerns”. Another very polite headmaster talks to us on the phone, choosing his words oh so carefully. His school is a haven for children with autism. They shelter at his school from their own personal raging tornadoes. Their rigidity of thinking makes Connor look like a birch sapling in the wind. If a volcanic eruption meets these tornadoes, the tornadoes will keep blowing. They will be curious to understand why and how this mountain is exploding, sending deadly rocks hundreds of metres into the air, with deafening noise. There is no empathy to feel the ground beneath their feet shaking. Instead, the wind will keep blowing in and around these bolts of fire and the volcano will be relentless, pushing back, burning to find a way free from this intrusion into his own explosive embarrassment. We thank the headmaster for his time and move on to the third school. We are told that they take children with learning disabilities only, not behavioural difficulties. I can’t say I blame them.

So now we should wait, wait for the head of SEN at the local authority to tell us that our son will join the special school in our home town. I can’t wait though, I am the army behind a volcano. There is one school left, a school we had dismissed as it is a boarding school. I love my smallest son with a fierceness that I do not want to see broken. I want to hear his endless questions and give him squeezy hugs every day. This is not about me though, this is about what is best for taming a volcano. The headmaster of a school that holds 36 boys, all like Connor, is contacted and Connor and I move heaven and earth to visit. This school, seemingly located on the boundary of multiple tectonic plates an hour away, has a headmaster who declares that he can support Connor in any and every way he needs. He quotes the statistics that half of his children reach national age expectations in terms of academic ability and there is even an informal gifted and talented list. He describes his school as “a school filled with kind and gentle boys who often do not behave in kind and gentle ways”. He describes skilled, caring staff who are armed with expert, early detection tools. In 5 years, he has given out less than 5 fixed term exclusions. I cry.

I am sat in the headmaster’s office, unsuccessfully holding back tears, next to my son who is asking the headmaster whether he would move on from this school at the same time he would have normally gone to secondary school or not? We wander round the 17 acres of grounds and Connor is shown the trees he can climb and the spaces he can run to unhindered, inside and outside. On several walls are pieces of artwork that have been made jointly by the boys there. For the cost of sending one child to this school you can send two children to Eton. I am making notes again: there is work to be done to remind the SEN head at the local authority of the importance of parental choice in the naming of a school on a child’s EHCP.

January 16th, 2017, I am reminded that I am still living on a volcano and the honeymoon period is over. The volcano has mapped the land at the temporary school and has found the weakest spot. The ground heaves, ash clouds are interspersed with sparks of fire and then a giant belching eruption flings rocks and lava high into the sky. For four hours, lava spills over in the class, into the corridor, into the headmaster’s office and four staff are unable to prevent it. They hold back the lava temporarily through “team teaching“. This is a program that includes “positive handling strategies”. These are euphemisms for “when your son misbehaves, numerous adults will physically restrain him with his arms crossed across his chest until he becomes submissive through fear”. The same Radio 4 article cited earlier highlights the increasing frequency of restraint in AP units. An interview with an AP teacher shows that some staff believe this technique is as damaging as the physical abuse that many kids experienced early in their lives that contributed to them being permanently excluded in the first place. Before our crater collapses, Connor pulls the stitching off the back of a settee and his class teacher calls me at work. In the afternoon, the class will be going on an external trip, which means there are no staff to look after Connor, who is not safe enough to go on the trip. The teacher “needs parental responsibility to step in and collect Connor from school, now”. This is illegal. This is what is called an “informal exclusion”: the staff can’t cope with your child, for whatever reason, and so they ask you to take him home, but no-one mentions formal exclusion. I want school responsibility to kick in, but what choice do I have? I ask her if I can speak to my son, but he refuses. So I race to collect my son between meetings and shout at him all the way home.

I have a friend who told me recently that she is going yellibate. It’s like celibate, but you go without shouting at your kids. She has her own reward chart for it and is doing very well. I admire her enormously. There are times when my pressure gauge fails and in the car driving across town, racing to make my next meeting, there was nowhere for my anger to go but out and loud. My son tells me this is precisely why he wouldn’t speak to me on the phone, because he knew I would be angry. Two days later on January 18th, we receive a letter dated January 17th, telling us that our son is being excluded for a fixed term of the afternoon of January 16th. The informal exclusion is officially recorded and becomes a formal exclusion. Oh, I am angry all right. A week later Connor receives a detention for throwing tables around the class. In his words, he was bored because no-one gives him any tricky maths to do. When he asked for more tricky maths the teacher replied “no-one likes a smart kid”. No transport is provided when your kid is in detention: a cruel punishment for the parents, too, seems essential.  I am no longer angry, I am livid.

January 27th, 2017 after many late nights, glasses of wine and 4334 words later, I have written a letter to the SEN head at the local authority that in summary says that we will not stand by and watch our son fail again through the actions of the so-called responsible adults around him. We will not watch him fail academically at the next school that will destroy his love of learning. We will not let adults “model” the behaviour our son needs to mirror by wasting his time in detention over and over again. We do not want to see him punished for his inability to manage his emotional response by telling him he is unwanted at school for the rest of the day or the next day, or five or forever. We will not stand by if he is illegally excluded again, either informally or formally. We will not live on the summit of a volcano and hope for the best any longer. We will not wait for our volcano to become extinct because it has lost the will to live with all the vibrancy he has now. In no uncertain terms we want our son to have the education we all want for our kids: the right one. We want him to be in a place where he is supported, nurtured and taught how to manage his behaviour free from punishment. When at least four external agencies are involved in defining what support my son needs, we want the educational establishment he is at to use this information and help him.

February 3rd, 2017, after anxiously waiting a week, we are told that our son should get ready for boarding school, starting on March 1st. Our three month experiment will come to an end. We send the SEN head at the local authority a card, thanking her. I remark that the selection of thank you cards at leading high street retailers are truly inadequate for this particular kind of occasion.

So, I must turn my energy towards preparing Connor for 17 acres of space, a swimming pool on site and weeks without his parents tucking him into bed each night. I don’t know how to do this effectively. Hell I don’t even know how to live without constant stress every day and night. Facebook is awash with tales of boarding school syndrome and it’s not much prettier than an erupting volcano. Have I swapped a volcano for a barren island drifting away from the mainland too early? I don’t think we are making the wrong decision. Boarding school syndrome is characterised by kids being forced to comply in institutions that do not allow for individuality, devoid of close human relationships that abound within a family. This does not sound like the school Connor and I saw, where staff smile at each other and are respectful of the kids who are respectful of each other and the whole ethos is built around learning and enhancing social skills.

On February 3rd, 2017, for the first time in months, with a great weight lifted, we drink champagne. And the 4th. On the 10th February, when we receive written confirmation of our dreams come true, we get the first of two missed calls from the headmistress you already know so well dear reader. I decided I could live the rest of my life without knowing what she had to say, while my husband valiantly and politely tried to get back in touch with her. He didn’t manage to do this, so she wrote to tell us that she has referred us to Social Services. A parent has spoken to her staff about us locking Connor out of the house and shouting and swearing at our kids. So, now she is fulfilling her safeguarding duty.

Let’s take the first accusation and pretend I have to defend this. As we are all aware, volcanoes are very much an outdoor thing. Hyperactive volcanoes are not couch potatoes. Connor will play for hours in the garden with a lightsaber until his hands are blue with cold. I don’t want him to be freezing cold, but both his parents have grown up in the countryside and so we recognise at least part of this pathological behaviour as “the good old days”. You know, before it was socially acceptable to sit inside and stare at Wi-Fi enabled LEDs for 6 hours straight. If you give a 9 year old his own front door key and have a spare key outside the house it is humanly impossible to lock a child out of the house. So, if you see my volcano, squarely planted in the garden for the 6th hour in a row, it might not look normal to you, but it doesn’t have to.

On to the second unnecessary item to defend on the list. Thanks to the temporary school placement, I believe that not only can volcanic eruptions in our house be heard at least as far as next door, but they are also peppered with four letter c-bombs that Connor never knew before December last year. If I lived next door to a family where I could hear fire raging and swear words raining down on a daily basis, perhaps I would stop and think, “Mmm, I think I heard a mother calling her son a f***ing ugly bitch. That surprises me, she has both a PhD and MBA, as does her husband. Would they not be grammatically accurate and use bastard instead?”

Through the filter of “normal” it is easy to assume that the noise is bad parenting rather than the child themselves. After all, there are plenty of examples around us telling us, showing us that this is all the parents’ fault. It must be true, I read it online. So, you think you live next to the world’s worst parents? You have a choice, to talk to them to ask, “How are you doing?” or you can gossip in the playground under the pretence that you are safeguarding a child. Gossip and safeguarding are uneasy bedfellows I feel. So now we come to the point where despite hearing gossip second hand, the same headmistress who could not pick up the phone to call one additional support service at the point she was going to exclude Connor from her school forever, is now able to call social services within 48 hours for a kid who no longer attends her school. A headmistress who has known us for 10 years and seen both our older children go all the way through her school, under the banner of “safeguarding”, can drive a wedge into our family again just one month after being told that she wrongfully managed the last intervention. An intervention that included her standing 10 metres away from my frightened son, shouting and threatening to call the police if he did not come back to her side. That’s safeguarding!? Safeguarding who?

February 14th, 2017, on Valentine’s day, I have a lovely call with a duty social worker. She called me back personally the next day to tell me that there was no role for Social Services in our family currently and followed up with this in writing. I resisted the temptation to list any number of roles I can think of that we could do with in our family. Cleaner would be my preference: it’s weeks since the shower was cleaned thoroughly. However, we already have an EHCP for our son and we have seen CAMHS twice (a service our local GP has accurately described as “not good”), so she was disappointed to tell me that we did not meet the criteria for the only other support she could offer: the disabled children’s service. Don’t worry, dear social worker, I will live.

I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, so I can’t say the story is over, even if the three month experiment is. The night before last, at supper time, my son sat, screaming, on the lawn, in the dark, in mud covered clothes, for 40 minutes, banging his fists on the ground, refusing to come inside the house to get warm and fed. I had told him to get changed at lunch time and to have some lunch, but he had refused to do both. Even the babysitter couldn’t get the mountain to move on those requests. He had had nothing to eat for 12 hours apart from a bowl of cereal. As per all good parenting manuals, he had had a countdown to when supper would be ready. I can see your quizzical eyebrows from here dear reader. I know. Many parents and non-parents would say, “Does it really matter? Does it matter what he is wearing or eating for one day?” The problem though, is that for some kids with additional needs, their emotional intelligence is “blocked” at the age of a toddler. My volcano does not care about taking nutrients in, and is immutable about the surrounding temperature too. However, being safe in your own skin is an important thing for a toddler to learn. Part of growing up, is knowing how it feels to be being warm and fed so that you can recognise the signs in your own body when you are not. That way, you can ask for food and help to put a coat on when you are very young and do it yourself as you get older. We have been taught by an excellent agency who have helped Connor in the past, that in these circumstances we have to be firm with Connor. We have to explain that it is our job as his parents to keep him warm and clean and healthy and we will not stop doing this. This is “bucket A” in the CAMHS parenting class tutorial, otherwise entitled “choose your battles”. It is a battle from which we cannot back down. So, the night before last I had to pick my son up and carry him inside, hugging and kissing him as he kicked and screamed, “This is not my choice, I am being abused, I want to stay outside, I’m not hungry”. I could see the car belonging to our neighbours just three doors down, stopped by our garden wall, hearing every one of Connor’s shouts, but none of my calm imploring. Once inside, Connor ate more pasta in the next 10 minutes than he has ever eaten before in his life.

There are brighter moments when we glimpse the bluest of skies between ash clouds. Just yesterday, a friend of Connor’s called round to see if he could come out and play. He told Connor that he would need his wellies as they were going to build a bridge over the nearby brook. Connor looked at me and immediately promised that he wasn’t going to stand in the brook. The other kid confirmed that all they were going to do is chop down logs and throw them into the brook to make the bridge. I asked how they were going to chop logs. “With an axe. My friend has an axe, but only he is allowed to use it.” “That’s good.” I reply, and then on second thoughts, “How old is your friend?” “I don’t know, I know he is in year 4”. So he’s 8 years old then. Connor pipes up, “Well, that’s not a brilliant idea”.

Looking forward, the future is still unclear. We have already been told that in September we will not be provided with transport to Connor’s new school, despite being entitled to it as a result of the distance from our home  and having no other way of getting him there. The school is an hour and £85 taxi cost away and he will be the only kid from our home town going to this school. From the start of the new school year only shared taxis will be funded. The irony of being the only kid in town sent to an extremely expensive school where the first argument is the additional 10% cost to get him there is not lost on us. I will also be checking the legality of forcing the parents to pay for transport after writing to them to tell them that this is provided for them. I am convinced the settling in period at another new school will push us to the edge of the crater to stare into that red maw again. I also know we will come back from the edge as strong as we always are. I know my husband and I will still smile together and we will remain the most incredible, in love team you can sickeningly imagine. All of the above has not happened in a void. Over the last three months my husband has additionally managed a massive career change into a PGCE course and has secured his first Maths and Science teaching job starting in a secondary school in September. While one misguided headmistress has been so keen to ridicule our skills in looking after one child, another head teacher and a whole army of staff in two departments have been clamouring to get my husband’s skills to guide hundreds of pupils.

So, what are the publishable results of this experiment…….. I know that I don’t want to live on the summit of a volcano. To be absolutely clear, I hate it. There is a reason routine is so important for kids with mental health issues and throwing that to the wolves for the last three months has not helped our family. So much for the stuff that doesn’t kill you but makes you stronger. I can also confirm that there is seemingly no end to the discrimination parents with children with challenging behaviours can experience. Ignorance and prejudice live within shouting distance of my front door and they have no courage to face me personally. So, I would ask you that if today you see a parent struggling with a kid who is seemingly suffering from “little shit syndrome”, stop.  If you can, ask if you can help. You may even be thanked. If you cannot help, you still have no idea what their version of normal is and you do not have the right to judge, only question. School heads should not be allowed to exclude a child with additional educational needs, illegally, without impunity, or at least further training, only to repeat the exercise by wasting social services resources as well. These black marks stay on our son’s and our record. What happens to the next volcano or tornado that lands in that school?  This is a social experiment being played out all over the UK, today.

This has certainly been an experiment that demonstrates that when you need your friends most, this is when you are least equipped to ask for help. There have been several occasions over the last three months where I have wanted to take a deep breath in the oxygen deprived summit to thank someone who has been there for us. Perhaps it was a Christmas present received that we never had time or energy to thank you for as we sat down every night to craft another email. Perhaps you were there at the end of a text message/Facebook messenger with a “bloody hell” when you saw the sparks fly or you sent us links, information, hugs. Perhaps it was as simple as a “Hi” on Facebook or a request over email to review your CV, a reminder that life goes on outside this experimental lab. If you were here in my house, ignoring the un-mopped floors while you sat and watched Star Wars with both my boys, unjudging, you were a lifesaver. If you were here at the last minute, covering for me to visit a mentor for the last time after he was diagnosed with rapid onset Alzheimers during one of those hateful exclusions, again, we could not have lived without you. If you were one of many at my workplace who took the time to ask how I was, how my son was getting on, when you’ve only known me for just over six months, I applaud and thank you.

This experiment has also made me want to start another one. Not like this again, oh no. In contrast to Lady P’s comments in the Times, I do think funding can partly solve the issues that schools face with volcanoes on their land. I would like to see an experiment in every school: a grant that can only be used for the installation of a padded cell. There would be no restrictions on who can use it, and no checking of who is doing so either. My key performance metric to see if this is a success is the length of the queue to use it. I also want every headteacher to attend not just training in how to restrain children, but the same series of parenting classes I did. It may or may not improve their own parenting skills, I don’t care about that. I want them to hear the pain and struggle of parents trying to do their best at the summit of volcanoes or swept away by tornadoes or whatever natural disaster they are trying to survive on a daily basis. Perhaps they will think twice before assuming that every piece of gossip is a safeguarding concern.

In the absence of a padded room at home, part of my survival tactics over the last three months has been to muse over that summer holiday in Vietnam and Cambodia for the whole family. It costs the same as two weeks in a water park in Egypt. It feels great to know we will run away together for two weeks to somewhere so incredible. I have wonderful conversations with Connor about the new places we will see every day and how I can’t wait for us to fish for squid together on the flat, calm waters of Halong bay.  I am reliably assured we have no chance of catching anything other than the sun and each other’s smiles.

When you are used to being smothered by volcanic ash, becoming a phoenix is no trouble at all.

How’s our technological world working for you today?

So, I can sit in my living room and as soon as I hit “publish” this article will go live, reaching…. ooh, tens of people I imagine. My blog will be global though, instantly, amazing. However, having spent an hour at a primary school e-Safety meeting tonight, I’m beginning to think that might be where my internet savvy skills end. The presenter spoke extremely knowledgeably about a previous, similar evening where a seven year old boy told him he had watched someone hang themselves, live, (absolutely no pun intended) online. He was worried he might now get in trouble. How do we live in a world where technology has enabled this to happen? Everyone my age has “Googled” the words ‘bum’ and ‘sex’ when they were younger, only our “Google” was the paper version of the Oxford English Dictionary. Kids now really can use Google and the number 1 hit from the magazine Cosmopolitan will certainly dispel 10 myths they never thought they knew about bum and sex. So how do you stop this? Well, knowing how the technology works in your house helps but having real offline conversations with your kids works better, unsurprisingly and internetmatters.org can help with both.

Phew, so now I can put the internet back in its place and get on with life then?

Well, no. I can’t. Let’s start with Facebook, that repository of truthiness. Yes, it can deliver a kitten shooting fireballs from its mouth upon request and it’s where a grumpy puppy can amass 54,896 followers. It’s also where I am reminded of my friend who blogs the most amazing, delicious vegan recipes interspersed with chilled out stories of her life. I encourage you to have a look at abitofthegoodstuff.com and applaud this use of the internet enormously. Facebook is also where I discovered today that a friend has had a really rough day. Unlike many others, I like even posts like this. They are real. They hopefully provide a genuine means to vent frustrations and connect with supporting friends, easily, when health issues prevent people from doing so offline. What was my friend’s particularly issue today? She was on the receiving end of a particularly vicious civil servant, defending her right to receive disability living allowance when her ignorance of aids that could help her was dismissed with one word: “Amazon”.

That’s my second gripe about the internet. Because it is online, or on Amazon, we can assume it is part of our social consciousness, automatically? Estimates of the size of the internet in 2013 suggest that there is more data online than there have been words spoken by the human race so far. This friend is recovering from cancer and chemotherapy and has been thrown head long into a world of other health issues that virtually all of us have never even heard of; and I hope we will never suffer from them. Yet this friend has effectively been told that she should, indeed must, live a significant part of her life online to be cognoscent of all potential support. Maybe the fireball shooting kitten or grumpy puppy would have cheered her up. Perhaps the vegan recipes, cooked by a helping friend with higher energy than she has, would replenish key nutrients. But SHOULD she know the precise nature of all possible aids simply because they are neatly described on one of the more than 14 trillion live web pages out there? Have we forgotten that we are people first and internet users second? For many parts of the world, particularly those without any support for disability issues, the internet doesn’t exist. Presuming that the internet is so pervasive in our lives filters our experiences to those of the developed world only. Ironically, this shrinks the global village inaccurately, to include only those areas lit by technology.

geovideo

Animated image of internet use by the hour courtesy of the Huffington Post

I recently had an interesting conversation which feels relevant here, about how the world is basically designed for the healthy. In fact the not so healthy world is also designed by the healthy. The example given to me was a hearing impaired old lady, living at home on her own who is offered a button on her phone that can turn the volume up for her. The reasoning is quite simple: it’s a well meaning “that’s what I would want, if I lost my hearing”. But an old lady living on her own at home is more likely to want the phone to be loud ALL the time. It’s her phone after all. How frequently are normal hearing people making calls on her phone? Why do these rare visitors deserve the phone in its default “healthy” setting? What her phone needs is a button that quietens it, for these rare occasions.

When I think about it, I’m not sure the internet is a place for the fit and well either, most of the time. I’ve used the internet on my phone to upload my CV repeatedly to jobsinlifesciences.com and been told that my CV.docx file is not acceptable, because it doesn’t have a .docx extension. The internet does not intrinsically do sarcasm. I have tried to kill OPPRTUNITY on LinkedIn and failed there as well. This app is a virus of the recruiting world and is busy spamming my connections online despite my many murderous attempts.

The internet will, however, allow my husband to check work emails on a Saturday; respond to the urgent meeting request by booking a trans-atlantic flight, hotel, hire car and train; book two babysitters and a school breakfast club to support the single parent left at home; cancel all UK based meetings for the week and reschedule a call with an Indian based colleague for the train journey on the way to the airport all within 36 hours of the email arriving. Should we be able to use the internet like this? There is some backlash to this, with companies like Basecamp providing their employees with a holiday catalogue to choose from rather than cold, hard cash as a bonus. They have realised that life is about real experiences not online ones and people work better when they have real experiences. That article may have been online, but unfortunately the message clearly hasn’t gone viral yet.

So I’ve browsed the internet furiously in the last few days to book a real life experience: SCUBA diving in the Red Sea this summer. I am going to slide down over 30 water slides with my kids, behave like a kid myself and eat nothing but donuts, pizza and hideously cheap white wine all week, all inclusive. However, right now, I am going to go to bed. I sincerely hope that after you read this, you put down the piece of technology on which you are reading it and have a real experience somewhere. Enjoy it, post photos, I can’t wait to see them.

It’s been a mixed* start to the New Year

If this is how we mean to go on, 2016, I’m going to have to have stern words. Actually, stern words didn’t seem to work with Connor on January 4th as he climbed out of a school window to avoid the headmistress on the other side of the door, and ran out of the school gate and back home after hitting his friend “because he deserved it”. So how I think it will work on a whole year is anyone’s guess. The actual start to the New Year – the bit before and around the stroke of midnight – was excellent. A friend turned 50 on the night, so celebrations started in the self-built pub in the garage of a mutual friend. New Year’s Eve was our first chance to admire his Golden Cock. It was quite splendid with very drinkable home-brewed cider. We threatened to start a Tripadvisor page for it before going into town for more food, drinks and celebrations. As is traditional, my husband saw most of the festivity after midnight through resting eyelids, so we taxi-ed back home to discover the babysitter had washed up all of the dishes from the three course meal I cooked her and her husband while they made sure our kids were safe. There, that bit was all excellent and I really feel like I have been hibernating since then.

So, on Jan 4th, as my husband flew to the states for yet another week long business trip, as his plane rose into the air, I anticipated that only the traditional chaos would ensue. I expected the temperature of at least one kid to rise to the biological equivalent of 30,000 feet, matched only by the internet connection plummeting as far downwards. Surprisingly though, the first day of term was greeted by my youngest son climbing through a window and running at speed out of school.

The day (year?) didn’t start well for me to be honest, as I checked the alarm clock at 00:58 on January 4th and my watch long after that. My brain had decided to spend the entire night mulling over job interviews, tax issues and whether Connor would cause chaos on Wednesday at after school club, while I was in London being interviewed. Since the alarm went off at 4:15 in preparation for the trans-atlantic flight, I’d only had approximately 3 hours sleep before seeing my daughter off to school, loud and excited at 7:12. I then had breakfast with both sons and read lots AND LOTS of Facebook posts bemoaning how shit it is to go back to work after two weeks off. After 58 weeks “off” I can assure you all that NOT going back to work on January 4th feels a hell of a lot worse. So, just to cheer myself up I decided to run 10K through the puddles along the canal, figuring that the day couldn’t get any worse anyway. It was an impossibly beautiful and impossibly difficult run, no personal bests were threatened that morning.

canal run

After a shower, my next exciting bit of news came in. I’m supposed to be meeting an Oxford professor on January 26th, an appointment that has been made for two months now, given the busy diaries these guys keep. Only now the 26th is cancelled and it will be a longer wait to see if I can do some work for him. Never mind, worse things happen at sea, they say, but presumably sailors didn’t spend much time in our local primary school.

I then had a quick lunch of leftovers: avocado and hot smoked salmon open sandwich, dressed with horseradish cream; it was Christmas leftovers after all. I declined stilton, panettone, Christmas cake, lemon tart, Gu puds, Lindt pralines, Christmas pudding and chocolates off the tree all calling me to indulge from various locations around the kitchen. This was an unnecessary choice to be honest, stress alone has lost me 10kg in weight over 2015. I am probably the only person to have gained no more than 100g over the whole festive period. After the healthy choice I pretty much moped and slept in the afternoon. I’m still calling it hibernating. I did call a bookkeeper with a desperate tone of voice (me not him) for help with my first corporate tax return due in on January 9th. This would cost me £450 with a really professional company or £20 with the local bookkeeper. Given the lack of complexity in my accounts for 2014-2105 which are basically, money out: IKEA cupboards; money in: none, I’m going for the local guy.

So, then I thought I’d got through the first day of single parenting for 2016, unscathed. I checked email and realised that I was going to have to go to a supermarket as soon as possible as a cheerily annoying message reminded me that Newt had a school trip the next day: packed lunch required. That’s no biggy though; being given no notice for this sort of thing, positively business as usual. I went over to school early and confirmed the time of the meeting to discuss Connor’s appalling behaviour last term so that the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) can attend and then I relaxed to see how my sons had got on during their first day back at school. Newt had of course had an awesome day, and Connor had of course shut himself in the music room after an entire afternoon of kicking an apparently annoying kid in his class. After Connor’s teaching assistant had given me enough bare details, the headmistress greeted me and remarked that I looked “thin and tired”. It’s rare that I agree with her but on this occasion she was spot on. As we walked around the school grounds together, alternately following and then searching for Connor, she very politely used phrases like “managed move”. This is educational speak for “we’re out of ideas here, there’s a class of 29 other kids with whom we’re able to cope, but your kid is seriously pissing them off and so we want him out of our school”. Ironically, at that very moment as four adults were looking for him in various classrooms, he had left the school, and was back home watching Top Gear with his brother.

I ended the day scraping a flat dead rat out of the loft, which at least has dramatically reduced the number of flies in Connor’s room.

So where do we go from here? As I cast my eyes back over the holiday period there are some familiar emotions and unfamiliar scenarios. The festive season, for me, starts every year with the feeling that the mountain of wrapped presents under the tree is an indulgence we can ill afford particularly when there are no material goods we really need at all. One top from Long Tall Sally and I am a happy girl. In advance, I always imagine the Christmas break to be days and nights spent eating lots of quality food in exquisite company both of which I expect to appear by magic. In reality my time is spent eating mounds of chocolate in multiple forms and spending endless hours in the kitchen, realising I have forgotten some key ingredient and all the shops are shut. Our two fussy kids have survived on Jacobs Cream Crackers and refused to eat anything else for many meals. We have spent quality time with one set of grandparents, which was a perfect, idyllic time, with excited children surrounded by wrapping paper constantly wafting around their heads. As soon as we returned, and the New Year loomed, the weather worsened and overnight, social media, Good Food Magazine and TV programs are urging me to eat less than half the calories per day I have been used to for a fortnight, with all the support of a recipe card. We’ve also met with the school to discuss Connor’s management, which in practical terms has been a discussion of resource limitation and disciplinary policies. I’m prepared to bet Connor doesn’t care about either of these, nothing new there either.

In amongst all this familiarity, have been some unfamiliar experiences. We’ve had two visits with CAMHS, in the hope they could help Connor cope better at school. We discovered that all they can offer us is more parenting classes. Anyone who’s read my previous blogs will know how much I’d look forward to more of those. We’ve also, unusually, avoided the other grandparent. This has been a welcome change. No fourth kid to feed and wait on. We’ve been charged £130 by BT to mend the bodged job the previous engineer did. On a slightly more positive note, the New Year has dawned with job interviews: I’m now waiting on a company about a potential job offer. The role is amazing, two levels up from where I used to be, but the salary offered is the same as I used to earn. I am trying very hard to retain the self-dignity that says this isn’t what I’m worth. Unfortunately, I have VERY recently (less than an hour ago) been turned down for a freelance role, despite the fact that my soft skills are outstanding, as I don’t have the hard skills. This is evident from my CV, so it is more than a tad frustrating to go through the rigmarole of two interviews (and associated train fares) with four people for them to realise what they knew when I emailed my CV and application before Christmas.

So as Blue Monday rears its depressing head in January, I am reminded that so often it is our expectations that let us down. As a New Year starts we resolve to do better/more despite the evidence that nothing has really changed. Day has turned to night and day again, just as it did in 2015. My expectations that agencies work, professionally, be it recruitment, education, telecommunications or mental health are just that – my expectations. I am discovering, this a massively overoptimistic view. So, if anyone wants to employ a massively qualified optimist in 2016, who is capable of learning many, many hard skills you know where to find me.

*unprintably bad

 

10 steps to entrepreneurial success in Uganda!

It sounds like one of those dreadful self-help books doesn’t it? As it turns out, I have helped myself a great deal with my 10 steps, but that’s not the point. This post is a brief story recounting my 10 steps with the Grow Movement as a volunteer consultant for Uganda600 and the point was to help Sulaina Nantale. Through this process we have become friends, but that’s the least of the story of how a modest scientist in the UK and a wonderful business woman in Kampala have, together, increased the turnover of her business five-fold using nothing more technical than Skype and Whatsapp.

Don’t worry, despite the Happy Christmas-ish theme and the appearance of this blog on Facebook, at no point will you be asked to say Amen or donate to charity to save anyone.

The Grow Movement tries to match clients to consultants as closely as possible in terms of industry, but I admit to feeling out of my depth when Sulaina’s hairdressing salon fell into my inbox. Reviewing my experience of the hairdressing business as “having hair” I was very tempted to back out. However, the Uganda600 project is backed by the London Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business to evaluate the impact of virtual consultancy on entrepreneur performance in Uganda. Backing out of such a high profile project and turning it into the Uganda599 project, didn’t feel like an option.

So, Sulaina and I took our first step together in July, assisted by the amazing country manager Emmanuel, who provided Skype on his laptop. Having volunteered for the Grow Movement before, I knew that the first sessions are all about relationship building, so I started with questions about family rather than finance. Sulaina informed me that she is the mother of four children, and her husband is dead. She then asked when we were going to start talking business. Sulaina clearly wasn’t interested in small talk and wanted results. Results for her meant increasing her income so that she could extend her salon. It was clear to me that she needed to improve her marketing, starting with building her brand. Once again I reviewed my experience of strategic marketing and brand management and came up with the answer “two MBA modules”. Admittedly, the brand management module was totally brilliant, for anyone who knows Professor Mike Beverland, but with a background as a PhD scientist, marketing is not my strong point.

Session 2 was upon us though, with the shiny new Project Management System up and running to report progress. So I discussed with Sulaina what she has that her customers absolutely love. Here’s where the cultural divide became obvious. One of the things that Sulaina’s customers love, apart from her wealth of experience and friendly nature is the fact that she has clean water. This isn’t always available from hairdressers who work out of their homes. It’s certainly a benefit, but I couldn’t quite see the business cards with “Clean Water” emblazoned across them as the key to Sulaina’s future success. Sulaina’s concerns were at the front of her mind at this early stage: client-friends who don’t pay and a salon that is too small to work in effectively. When she talked about the cost to extend her premises it was in the same breath as she mentioned school fees and it was clear that with around 5 paying customers a week who nearly all turn up at the weekend, an extension was out of the question for a while yet. However, as Uganda’s inflation rate has recently hit 16% I feared that Sulaina will be forever chasing her tail, saving up for an extension that becomes more costly almost daily.

Baby steps were made between sessions 3 and 6, which was not surprising. It’s hard to trust a stranger in a very different world from your  own, who calls you up, once a week, pretending not only to understand your business concerns, but also telling you what to do to fix them. Sessions were frequently rescheduled and when they did happen, Sulaina’s conversation was dominated by ongoing, daily problems. The problem of working in your business rather than on your business is clearly universal. Printing her new business cards was also taking time, delaying the point when she could send these out to targeted groups such as local businesses from where clients could come during the week.  Sulaina was also still selling handbags in a somewhat confused attempt to increase the income from women who came to her premises. It was so obvious from the pictures of stunning brides that she sent me on Whatsapp that her passion and exceptional skill is in the hairdressing. It can take many, many hours to create the incredible styles she does, this is not the UK high street world of hairdressing. I asked her to ditch the bags, to remove a source of income from her salon, and she did it. Make up now occupies the space as she vertically integrates her services to include beauty as well as hairdressing.

Eventually, seven steps in, I had the inevitable breakthrough and the words that made me smile and cry at the same time, “I want to set up a training school”. After session five I had logged a very different story onto the Project Management System to indicate progress to “Stage 2”. We had been discussing how to move clients from Saturday to mid-week appointments; nothing about training. My data was now likely to be “scattered” to say the least. Well, that’s for the business schools to worry about, I was smiling that Sulaina had let me in on her dreams. No going back. She took her newly printed business cards to local schools to advertise scholarships and in the process got more customers. They came to her small salon, with no bags in the way, and they paid.

For sessions 8-10 we consolidated the topics we had discussed, but always only once we had asked each other how our kids were doing. Family is very important in Uganda. Sulaina also told me about the impact I had had on Nantale Beauty Salon, “Your ideas are working for me. I put the ideas into practice and I get more customers”. It’s as simple as that. When I presented my work to the Grow Movement at the Ugandan Embassy in London, I was advised that this fluffy “I’m so grateful” crap won’t wash with my fellow business consultant audience though. We want numbers, and for Sulaina the numbers include around 25 paying customers per week now. Word of mouth will no doubt increase that soon.

The impact on my business is as significant. I have a CV that says I can increase the turnover of a business five-fold, over the phone. I have branding and marketing skills that are not reflected in my marketing assignment grade, but I know they work. I have huge admiration for Sulaina and an increased awareness of her culture and the harsh Ugandan environment in which she works.

Now I will let you in on a secret. The Grow Movement asks all its consultants to do 12 sessions, not the 10 steps I alluded to. So what did we do for the last two sessions, apart from swap the Christmas lists that our kids are forever extending? Well, I couldn’t let the business advice drop by the wayside completely. When Sulaina extends her salon, which is now just a matter of time, I advised her to have a massive re-launch party, at which she should start a loyalty card scheme. Sulaina’s ambition is to be known throughout Uganda for her hairdressing. She deserves this, and in my dreams, representatives from magazines such as Bride and Groom attend her party and write an article on her success and involvement with the Grow Movement. For now, she has all her children at home until after the national elections in February. The country is longing for a new leader after nearly 30 years of the existing regime. It is not just Sulaina who is restless for change for the better.

Finally, I have an invite to a salon re-launch party next year in Kampala, and what a celebration that will be.

If you’d like more information on the Grow Movement, check out their website www.growmovement.org and perhaps it will be your turn to spread some Christmas cheer across Uganda, Rwanda or Malawi next year.

 

iChina and why 30 million boys ARE wrong

Today’s much delayed addition to my blog comes to you as a result of a trip abroad WITHOUT KIDS. So, no parenting tips or woes this time, instead I raise my tea cup to you all (fingers fanned, ceremoniously, like a peacock) and say “nihao” from China. Why China I hear you ask? Well, as the theme for the 20th wedding anniversary is china, I used a small ‘c’ on July 1st this year and a bought my husband a witty mug, given my current unpaid status. My husband on the other hand, went for China with a capital C and bought us a 10 day tour from Beijing to Shanghai via the terracotta warriors. Now who feels like a mug?

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Although we took the British weather with us, we had a very French start to the trip with a complimentary bottle of champagne from BA. Stewardess friend of mine, you know who you are, thank you, this was a lovely touch. Ironically, this aspirational, status filled product set the tone for the next 10 days, reflecting one aspect of our experience of the Chinese culture perfectly.

The Chinese are competitive, it’s the GREAT wall, remember. Everything is ranked and our Beijing and Shanghai tour guides both claim their city is the largest, with approximately 30 million residents in each city. In terms of population density though, life gets more interesting. Imagine a couple living in London. In Shanghai, in the same amount of space occupied by our British couple, there would be three people. Cosy, I wonder who’s the gooseberry. In Beijing there would be five and now we’re talking claustrophobic. Our house has five people in it, it is never quiet and you’re never alone, and it was designed to hold a lot more than two people. This intense social situation manifests itself in many ways.

Practically, the standard speed on the roads downtown is 10km per hour as business men demand the status of their own car to take them from office to office. This is my running pace and I’m a very amateurish runner. In the centre of London at 5pm the roads now look positively sparse to me; there is physical space between cars. In Beijing and Shanghai, one household in 5 can afford a car, so it’s no wonder that the underground systems in both cities are so well developed, extending some 30kms out from the city. Our brand new guide book for Beijing was not able to keep up with the rate at which new lines are being added. However, if you imagine half the population of the UK all trying to make it out of London in time for dinner, you get some idea of the length of the queues at rush hour.

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The aspirational goals for transport in China have left the bicycle standing long ago. The unbelievably smooth Maglev train in Shanghai will take you to the airport, 30kms away in 8 minutes, reaching a speed of 431 km/hour (267 mph). The same distance by Heathrow express takes 15-20 minutes, on a juddery, swaying train that induces nausea after a long flight. As an aside, the tickets for the Maglev train at only £4 also do a lot better in the wash than Heathrow Express version.

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Shanghai has gone from rice fields to metropolis within a hundred years, and this progress has resulted in every building shorter than a high rise block of flats being demolished to make way for yet more imposing blocks of flats. This is a harsh world for those numerous communities, built up over decades, who are forced to sell up and relocate their lives. I cannot imagine a similar policy working in London: Made in Chelsea doesn’t work if your accommodation bears more similarity to Tower Hamlets. So there are considerable social consequences to housing 30 million people in each city as well.

Everyone lives their life very publically. At least we can choose how much of our lives to expose on Facebook and rarely is that balance correct. In Shanghai as our guide pointed out, your life decisions are continuously in the spotlight. “50% of people follow the traditional expectations of looking after their parents in their old age, often by continuing to live in the same house. The other 50% are made to regret their less traditional decision as they are looked down upon by  the former group”. Perhaps the ever pressing need to express some individuality goes some way to explaining the incidence of selfie sticks. I use the term incidence, more commonly associated with disease, deliberately. It is impossible to go anywhere where there is something worth seeing, and in China this includes large rocks with holes in, without a rash of selfie sticks around you, all wrapped around an iPhone. iPhones are the compulsory status symbol, despite their price and the fact that a living wage in China is one sixth that of the UK. Sure, selfie sticks are loathed in the west as well, but I wonder whether an escape to the countryside in Southern China is an opportunity finally to be yourself, with photographic proof of space to breath. Here, “small towns” are still the same size as London, but they have the population of Leicester, rather than Afghanistan. The pace of life here provides time, literally, to reflect.

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The “single child family” policy – not law – may have been the only practical solution to the these issues. In the countryside, the need for men to work as farmers means that families can have as many children as they like. In the city, a second child just means higher taxes. I cannot help but think that practically, although certainly not emotionally, this situation is not so different to our London-centric view at home. How many young families with their first child in London berate the extortionate cost of a two bedroom flat and eventually leave the singletons to their wine bars and Tinder in favour of the cotswolds when a second pregnancy forces the issue?

As our Guilin guide points out, there have been consequences of the single child policy. In the first instance, “Parents prefer boys, to continue the family name, therefore, we have 30 million more boys than girls now”. We couldn’t help thinking that there was at least one step missing from that chain of logic. I shudder to think of the impact of this on the already fragile gender equality in the future. The other consequence of this imbalance was the response from the government to raise the legal age at which men can marry from 20 to 22. Coincidentally, on the day we returned from China, the single child policy was abolished. That is of little help to those 30 million unmarried men of the future, all tasked with looking after their elderly relatives single handed. For many, a life in the army is an attractive proposition, providing an education as well as military training. This is particularly valuable for those rural dwellers unable to reach a university through either geographic or educational reasons. However, here again, status is everything, as our Shanghai guide stated, “your country boy is not getting into the army without good connections.”

To power the growth of a nation of this size, with a GDP that has increased exponentially for over a decade, requires energy; a LOT of energy. China burns two thirds of the world’s coal and this is reflected in pollution levels reaching dangerous levels in the mega cities of Beijing and Shanghai. The World Health Organisation recently published information showing that every year 2.2 million people die of cancer in China. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-04/cancer-rates-in-china-rising/6068954 That’s the population of Las Vegas. Whilst I could make a good argument for wiping the materialistic and flashy Las Vegas from the face of the earth, that’s a lot of people dying each year in one country. Some of this could be prevented by changing the laws on smoking, but much of it, particularly the paediatric cases, is attributed to pollution. We asked our guide how the government is dealing with this problem, what was the investment in renewable fuels like? With a knowing smile, we were informed that natural gas was the solution, the only issue being how to pipe it from vast reserves in western China. We didn’t press the issue further, but felt that perhaps this wasn’t a perfect solution.

As a citizen of this planet, China is going to have to find a way of reducing its reliance on fossil fuels. However, this too provides an interesting thought experiment as to how much China values its role as a member of this planet’s community. The striking foreign-ness of China is its seclusion from the social connections that could link it to the rest of the world. Aside from the insatiable consumption of Apple’s products, China’s communist doors are firmly closed to Western tools of daily life such as Google and Facebook. As our Guilin guide put it, “We don’t know how China is perceived in the west. We can only learn more about ourselves when we view our country from a different perspective”. That perspective is firmly disallowed currently.

WeChat replaces Facebook in China and somewhere on WeChat is a photo of two English tourists in the back of a buick, posted by a Shanghai guide amazed at the height of his western tourists. With a population of nearly 1.4 billion, I’m not worried about lack of exposure of our plane weary faces, but no-one outside China can see that post (probably thankfully in this case). With Mark Zuckerberg’s recent visit to China with his wife, Priscilla Chan, there are rumours that Facebook will eventually come to China, possibly next year. I hope this achieves very meaningful social connections across China’s borders, rather than just an explosion of selfies posed with authentic chinese takeaway for dinner.

China is a vast country that cannot be explored or understood in only 10 days. I hope we return one day, with our children to explore again. Perhaps by the time we return, our children will be visiting friends they have met on social media, living in cities that do not threaten their health. It doesn’t feel like too much to hope for. I hope that the guides will then talk to us about the value of international connections, and the variety of innovative solutions to their population crisis. I hope the emphasis on selfie will have shifted to an emphasis on social connections between cultures that can only enrich the lives of the people on both sides.

PS For those of you dying to know how our kids survived without us: one of their grandmothers looked after them for 4 days, during which time she became so frustrated with our boys, that she smacked Connor on two successive days. Our status as best parents in the world, in the eyes of our kids now, is brighter and higher than the Shanghai skyline.

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No. 1 for school holiday childcare in the UK: professional camp, or the guy fishing in the canal?

So, my dear reader I must apologise for leaving such a long gap between blogs, but I have been a full time parent for a while, as in all day every day, as a result of my charming son being permanently excluded from a less than super holiday camp. Within 5 days of attending this year he had started bed wetting again and on the 7th glorious day in, he managed to do the following (quoting from the head office’s sales manager emails):

  1. hit a child in the face and used a large stick as a weapon to threaten other children in his group.
  2. received a warning for this however the team took the stick from him and he then ran away to the bottom of the field out of sight.
  3. The camp manager followed him when he ran away to make sure he was safe however he got angrier and ran further and further away.
  4. threw rocks, stones, mud, bottles and a brush at the camp manager, all of which could have caused injury had the staff member not managed to dodge these items.
  5. refused to return to the school when asked and instead ran further away.
  6. The camp manager had to physically stop him getting to the main road by putting himself between him and the road.
  7. kicked, punched, scratched and pinched the camp manager.
  8. continued to throw items at the camp manager and repeatedly kicked the school lockers as hard as he could.

This is the point at which the camp manager called me in the middle of a professional presentation to take him off site forever.

I propose a solution for any unlucky adult who finds themselves in a similar situation. After number 2 happens, and pardon the pun, before the shit hits the fan; you have a situation where an 8 year old child is a long way away from other children and is no longer holding a big stick. He is however, scared and very, very angry, having exercised both fight and flight as hormonal options. The huge rush of adrenaline in his system is going to take an hour to drop back to normal, which is how long it will take before you can have any kind of rational interaction with him. This would be the same for an adult. So just leave him alone. Back off. In fact, a better solution would be to manage a holiday camp for kids where there are not large sticks lying around that can be used as weapons and you wouldn’t even get as far as number 1.

However on the subject of camp management, I wonder if our experience would have been different had our son had a physical disability? Let’s imagine he is poorly sighted and only uses one eye, so has no stereoscopic vision – just like his brother in fact. Imagine he doesn’t cope as well as his brother, and he bumps into doorways, trips over steps and is injuring himself so often that the holiday camp have to exclude him permanently without 1:1 support, as they don’t feel equipped to look after him safely. He twists his ankle one too many times and with the ratios of staff to kids that they operate no-one is there to see the incident, but it’s the final straw. Would we have had four separate emails, containing 1070 words (2/3 the length of this blog post) outlining how rubbish Connor was at walking through doors, going down steps and staying upright? Would we have been asked to take our son home with a warning that unless he could stay out of harm’s way he wasn’t welcome back unless he had 1:1 support with him? Would they have declined multiple requests for a refund of the remaining days booked but not taken?

I imagine they might have been mortified at not being able to keep our child safe.

Bad behaviour is not an acceptable face of disability, so it is socially acceptable to shut it out. You’re allowed to have a behavioural policy at a childcare facility, but you’re not supposed to discriminate on the grounds of disability. That’s not working for me, when the disability is behavioural in manifestation. How about talking to the other kids about how Connor is different and how everyone might be able to help him, just as they might help a visually impaired kid? How about talking to us about how to help him; as their terms and conditions state should happen? How about embracing diversity and bringing it in to the camp with sensitivity, rather than pretending it doesn’t happen on their watch.

I realise this dream isn’t going to happen, this is the camp that can’t keep left over lunch pasta and yoghurt drinks off the floor.

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Instead, the staff give kids constant attention with the often heard phrase, “don’t do that”; training them that attention is received for doing things they shouldn’t, right from the start of the day. It’s staffed by young teachers, probably newly qualified, underpaid and exhausted at the end of a long summer term. Hardly the motivated group you want looking after the most precious elements in your life. Connor says it’s easy to misbehave here because the staff members don’t watch the kids very well at all, so even if you tell a staff member that someone has hurt you, no-one does anything. They’re certainly not busy writing incident reports for twisted ankles or nose-bleeds both of which went unnoticed in my other two kids.

Which leaves me with my fiery youngest son at home now. More precisely, he is cycling with me as I run 10K along the canal tow path, splashing through puddles and playing eye spy with me. This is where we find the guy fishing.

Mr Rugby tots, http://www.rugbytots.co.uk/ as his sweatshirt embroidery says, asks Connor if he is already bored of the summer holidays as though this is a perfectly natural response to Connor marching up and talking to him out of the blue, disturbing his fishing peace and quiet. I explain the circumstances that have induced the look of panic on Connor’s face at having to tell him why he is not in a holiday camp right now.

He then turns to Connor and talks to him knowledgeably about how you have to make good choices when you’re in danger of getting in trouble. He treats him intelligently and warns him, that like his son 7 years ago who was also excluded from primary school, if you are always the kid causing trouble, you will get blamed for it even when it’s not your fault. “You don’t want to go through life like that, believe me”, he says. “You want to be a shepherd, not a sheep, doing the stupid things that some people, the “salads”, ask you to do. Connor is rapt and so when Mr Rugby Tots picks up his fishing rod, he does a deal with him. If Mr Rugby Tots can get a fish at the end of the line in under two minutes, Connor has to behave well for the day. The canal is apparently overrun with perch and in under two minutes there is a wriggling fish at the end of the line with a really spiky dorsal fin and orange ventral fins to delight my son with. Connor now has to be good for the day. As an extra bonus, Mr Rugby Tots then teaches Connor how to catch his own fish and he is ecstatic.

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He jumps up and down and says that it is his birthday soon so he now wants a fishing rod as a present. Mr Rugby Tots pulls him up and says “if you want something, you have to work for it. If your mum is OK with it, and you behave for the whole of the summer holiday I will give you this fishing rod”. After Connor gives him a huge hug and I shake him by the hand, Connor spends the whole of the rest of the week checking daily that he is being well behaved enough to get a fishing rod.

This brief exchange has left Connor with a sense of achievement; a genuinely new skill, which we now have to try again on holiday in Pembrokeshire; a goal to work for with a reward that he really wants, rather than points for having fruit in his lunchbox and a new friend that he wants to show his lego to sometime.

There are some people on this planet who “get” kids. They should run holiday camps, and I’m glad to say that Skoolkidz is one such company http://www.skoolkidz.co.uk/ – Connor is loving it there this week. The manager is not 70 miles away, dick swinging over emails to distraught parents but instead is at the camp laughing with the kids, looking out for and stopping teasing before it becomes an issue.

As many parents struggle to balance family and work for 6 long weeks this summer, choose your childcare cover carefully. I’ll write to Ofsted for you for the first camp, the guy fishing by the canal may be your best start.

“Mimi, I’ve sucked up a Spiderman glove”

This is a good thing. An excellent thing. This means my charming youngest son is not hitting someone, pinching someone, or killing a tree with a big stick. That’s been the catalogue of events last week, but a Spiderman glove sucked into the inside of a Miele cat and dog vacuum cleaner? Walk in the park……………

Last Tuesday my attention was caught by another woman at school pick up time, who asks me if I am Connor’s mother. This happens quite often and it never ends well. A long time ago, I should have learned to say “no, my son is Tarquin, over there” and randomly wave a limp wrist in the direction of some well-behaved angelic looking kid. Instead, I confess and have the usual story recounted to me of Connor repeatedly hitting some other kid even younger than him on the back until the poor kid had to be taken home. I mentally rewind to Monday and realise that this event was orchestrated by my son within 35 minutes of entering the park. For an over-excited 7 year old to get angry enough to hit someone else within half an hour of entering a park, in the sun, with lots of things to play on and a brook to lose your shoes in takes focus and energy. How does he do it? The parent of Monday’s target is very understanding, as I play the ADHD card and mentally seethe and despair. I promise to speak to my son, apologise profusely to her son (against all special needs parenting advice) and skulk away.

ADHD, however, doesn’t skulk. Thinking that I was safe to get on with some work and networking later that week, Thursday strikes………….A perfect storm of events has resulted in Connor being suspended for the rest of the day and I am called by the school at lunchtime to pick him up as he has “reached stage 4”. Unlike the DEFCON system, the stage severity increases as the numbers increase. So stage 4 is not like DEFCON 4 which is “above normal readiness”, or what we term “standard Connor management”, but rather more like DEFCON 2 “Armed forces ready to deploy and engage in less than 6 hours”. The preceding events to the phone call are explained to me as I drop the Sainsburys shopping and head to school rather than my desk:

It’s nearly the end of term and Connor’s tired, and he has had a head full of snot for a month now after an ear infection at the start of June. This means he can’t hear very well, which isn’t helping. Element number 1. However, the incident on Thursday started with his class going to lunch TWO MINUTES EARLY. This was the next element of the perfect storm. Bad move. This meant his assistant wasn’t with him. According to Connor, EVERY DAY, he is allowed to choose who he has lunch with and he stands in front of them in the queue so that he gets to choose the table they sit at. Today he chose Caleb and the lunch assistant pointed out to Connor that “as Caleb is already at the front of the queue, perhaps you’d like to stand behind Caleb?” BAD MOVE. We are now at DEFCON 3: “Increase in force readiness above that required for normal readiness: Air Force ready to mobilize in 15 minutes”. Connor hears “No, you can’t stand by Caleb” and this causes a very rapid exit, this time to decapitate flowers in the beautifully manicured school garden. No, I don’t know why they have a garden that has been designed, planted and maintained at above Chelsea flower show standards when they teach kids like Connor either….

Anyway, at this point, informed of the outburst, both his support assistants rush over to stop him, so he grabs a large stick and starts felling a small tree. He does this successfully, earning him the stage 4. The two assistants try and physically remove him from the garden as another adult arrives to “help”, suggesting to Connor that “perhaps you’d like to kill plants in the meadow near school instead with the big stick?” VERY BAD MOVE. The red mist has descended and Connor is quite happy destroying things where he is. Three staff members physically move him to the breakfast club room and so he deliberately pinches one his assistants. We are now officially at DEFCON 1: “nuclear war is imminent” and a stage 5 is issued (glad to see the communication between the staff and the woman who picked up the phone to me is working so well). As I turn up, four adults (the head has joined in) are standing and watching helplessly as Connor shouts and screams while throwing two tables, several chairs, and hundreds of books and pencils on to the floor.

However, they’ve called the big guns in and that’s what they get. I’m more than a little peeved that the expectations for that afternoon featured getting some paid work done in my office and I’m not afraid to show it. I ask for everyone to leave and march over to Connor. I drop to the floor and give my son a hug. He is hot, sweaty and broken. It takes another hour for his sense of fairness to subside to the point where he can leave his assistants to clear up the remaining two pencils and a phone he has left on the floor for them to put away. At home he eats a roast dinner and gives me many, many hugs and apologies. On Friday, the GP pulls a lump of green goo, faintly resembling plasticene out of his right ear; so at least his hearing has improved slightly.

I see the monster that ADHD can turn my child into, daily. We get the tantrums, the NO, NO, NOs when you’ve just asked him if he would like to eat his favourite food. Apparently, non-compliance in kids is a good thing. The argument goes: if you get a massive strop by asking your son to eat pasta, the chances he says yes to snorting cocaine later on in life are pretty slim. It does not take four grown adults to pull him out of of these strops though. It only takes four adults to intimidate him, to remind him when he knows he is behaving at his very worst that he has an audience, an audience that includes the head of the school. I wonder how many adults would behave if all their worst sins were laid bare on Facebook, secure in the knowledge their boss was watching? This is how headlines are made.

This same child went to bed tonight asking me, “How hot do you need to get metal before it melts?” When I gave the desperately vague answer “it depends which metal it is”, he pointed to the metal struts on his bed, and clarified, “well, just this metal then”. When I couldn’t give him an answer he went for an easier question: “how long can an astronaut breathe in their suit when they go out of their spaceship?” I didn’t know that one either, so he gave up asking. One night a couple of weeks ago we managed to get much further down his list of questions:

– if you could spin something round really fast would it get hot?  If it was made of wood would it burn? If it was made of metal would it melt?

– I really like rockets because when they go up in the sky three bits come off them as they go up really high.

– if you had billions of spider webs all together,  would you be able to hang on them? That would be really cool but I don’t think we have enough spiders.

– what’s the rarest metal, I think it’s platinium, something like that? It’s green.

– If I melted a whole load of metals all together, would the mixture be really super rare?

– If you squashed sand together really hard with a bit of heat, would you get sandrock? I think sand is just tiny, tiny bits of rock that don’t hurt you.

– how are rocks made?

This is when I gave up that night as the history of the whole universe was going to take a while. I’ve done the biological history, I’m going to have to leave the more physical world to my engineering husband. Connor sits at breakfast now, disappointed that he can’t remember being a dinosaur “back in evolution”.

Imagine your brain, that active, every night when everyone else is thinking of sleep. One day, I know my son will try and set light to his bed to see if he can melt the metal. He will try heating sand until you get glass and then spin it round really fast to see if he can make it even hotter. He will end up with a first degree somewhere, I’m hoping physics at Oxford rather than the burns unit. One day he will change the world, and it will never take more than 2 adults to support him to do it.

In the meantime, he is thrilled to hear the change in the noise of the vacuum cleaner motor as you suck up a Spiderman glove, and even more excited to see that you can get it back, together with one of his brother’s socks. So, this Thursday we are going to put a clean bag in the vacuum cleaner and suck up lots of stuff to see what happens to it. I’m looking forward to it.