Saturday, 19 November 2011

Failing Education & Rising Youth Unemployment. Who is To Blame?

So youth unemployment has increased by 67000 this summer and is now running at 1.02 million.

During the 1990's Youth unemployment steadily declined from 700000 to reach a low of 475000 in 1996/7. GCSE's and A Levels, back then, were the respected qualifications valued by employers and universities. From 1997 to 2006/7 Youth unemployment figures increased marginally from 475000 to 512000.

In 2003/2004 the government of the day began changing the education system producing a report entitled  Every Child Matters. A grand sounding strategy that never, in reality, produced any grand results and I know having struggled through those years with YoungNell,  fighting every inch of the way to get proper access to healthcare and education for her and having to pay for it out of our dwindling pension, when the NHS or the education system let us down, which it frequently did and still does,

During this time, NVQ's and BTEC's, previously only available to adults in the workplace who wanted to boost specific areas of work knowledge , were brought in for 14 years olds and between 2003/2006 the uptake on these qualifications by 14 to 18 year olds rocketed by 260% with a matching big reduction in GCSE's and A Levels being studied.

Children with these dumbed down qualifications, which they had been told were the equivalent of GCSE's and A Levels although they weren't , began to enter the workplace in 2007 to 2009. Employers began to complain that youth applicants for jobs had poor educational skills and unsurprisingly between 2007 and 2009, on Ed Balls watch as Secretary of State for Education, youth unemployment exploded upwards from 512000 to 775000.  In 2010 , just before the election , it was 800000 and rising.

Of course I wouldn't have known any of this , in line with most parents I suspect , but for YoungNell.

In Year 8, 2009/2010, her 2nd year of comprehensive, or Academy as it had then become, YoungNell had had a prolonged spell of illness and her school grades were falling. Worried, I took myself off to talk to her Head of Year.

  "Not to worry"  he said complacently  "in this day and age GCSE's aren't everything , plenty of vocational qualifications to be had".

I asked for an explanation never having heard of vocational qualifications.  I didn't like the answer. NVQ's in pedicures and manicures, BTEC's in personal development on why smoking and drugs are bad etc.  Did they sit exams in these subjects ? was my next question.

 "Well , largely tick box type tests"  came back the self satisfied reply "easy peasy, everybody gets a pass"  

I'm afraid the interview ended on a fraught note with me stating that I expected the school to educate YoungNell to GCSE A to C grade standard in the core subjects of Maths, English, the Sciences, History, Geography and French and ensure she was entered for the exams.  Head of House said that was a school matter and not for me, They would tell me what exams she would study for and take, not the other way around,    Hmmm. We parted with frosty politeness and I went away to plan my next battle move.

I researched the comments of children who had 'graduated' with BTEC's in 2009/2010 and found there was a lot of despair amongst students and parents as children coming out of school with these "GCSE equivalents" ,with plans for further education or jobs were going nowhere.  One of the comments made by a disappointed BTEC student published online on TES sticks in my mind :

"Don't do BTEC's or listen to anyone who tells you to take them up. They will tell you they are the equivalent to a GCSE.  They are worthless.  6th Forms do not value BTEC's whatsoever"       I could publish a hundred or more of these sad comments just like this one, about how neither colleges nor employers valued the wretched BTEC's,  but this one says it all.

Next step, interview with the Principal!

Nice man, not used to dealing with a grandparent with set opinions rather than a more easily influenced parent I suspect.  To break the ice he offered me a very decent cup of tea and biscuit and we sat and talked trivia for a few minutes. By the time we got to the nitty gritty he realised I'd done my research and my homework not to mention made my mind up.  I produced statistics for the failure of many BTEC's and statistics for the support of GCSE's , then I explained unequivocally that we had committed a fair portion of our annual pension for the foreseeable future and employed KS3 and would eventually employ KS4 tutors, privately,  in all the GCSE core subjects that we considered were important. If the school was not able to enter YoungNell in the GCSE exams when the time came then we would be finding another means by which to enter her. He smiled rather nicely, spoke enthusiastically about his school and conceded that of course the school would support us in our ambitions for YoungNell.  They would do everything possible to work with the tutors we were employing.  Oh and the school never meant to imply that our views would not be taken into account.  Ha! At least we parted with an amicable handshake.

We've moved on a year since then and education between state and private tutors is going swimmingly for YoungNell.   Meantime Gove, the current Secretary of State for Education, commissioned the Wolf report into education which was published in June 2011.  It has completely vindicated my views on vocational qualifications in schools and I have to admit I had to strongly resist the urge to run off a copy and sent it to YoungNell's school with an 'I told you so' letter..

The Wolf Report said two things of great interest to parents & grandparents who are the primary carers of grandchildren .

1.  Perverse incentives for schools have encouraged the teaching of vocational subjects which attract most performance points for the schools but which do not provide the pupil with a qualification that offers a route into further education or employment.

2.  The report recommends that GCSE in English and Maths should be taught to all pupils and that the choice of courses should be what's best for the pupil not what boosts the school's performance tables.

Until I had read this report I had not understood that the performance indicators put in place for schools were also acting, detrimentally against pupils interests. How many parents have?

So who is to blame for the debacle of poor educational skills and rising youth unemployment?

Is it the fault of loony politicians who shamelessly experimented with our educational system without a care for what was likely to happen to childrens futures?

Is it the fault of teachers who must have known they were, and still are, turning children out of school with worthless qualifications that will not get them into further education or a job?

Or is it the fault of parents/grandparents who simply accepted the words of the other two and believed their children were being properly educated for a bright future?

Well I don't know.  But now that I do understand the tragedy that has unfolded I intend to stay closely engaged with YoungNell's education for the duration.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Miracle of the Humble Poppy.

The other day I read an article in the mainstream UK press that said the poppy was nothing more than a fashion icon worn by folks seeking attention. Then there was the protest group who said they would be burning poppies on the 11th because they symbolised a glorification of war. And to cap it all there was the insensitive, out of touch with reality, FIFA , who said it could not be worn by footballers because it was a political symbol!

How have we so lost touch with the origins of how the humble poppy came to be the miracle that gave hope to ex servicemen abandoned by their own government? Have we forgotten their sacrifice, the tragedy  of their suffering, their despair, heroism, laughter, humour and their compassion?  These were young men between the ages of 19 and 39,  who were conscripted on all sides of the conflict, forced by law to go and train for 10 weeks and then shipped out to fight in the trenches. 10million soldiers died in WW1 - most of those never found the comfort even of a grave. Although as I found touring the battlefields of Belgium, even today the bones of those men are still being discovered during autumn ploughing, when they are then given the respect of a proper burial .

A few years ago I went to Passchendaele where my Grandfather died on the night of 7th October 1917 , the Somme/Albert where an Uncle aged 19 died on 3rd September 1916 and Jussy in France where an Uncle died aged 23 as the Germans broke through the Canal in the dawn hours of the 23rd March 1918.   No bodies were ever found for these men - all that remains are carved names on memorials. The sisters, wives and mothers were left to just carry on with very little acknowledgement of their loss. Stoicism it was called at the time,. Doing your duty for your country and your family. Politicians weren't very caring. Someone wrote a book entitled Lions Led By Donkeys.  It was true then and it's true now.

Anyway I ended up in Ypres.  It had been flattened in the 1914-1918 conflict and was painstakngly rebuilt after WW1, in it's old image by locals, so that it looks exactly as it did before that War.  It is a beautiful place.    If it suffered any damage in WW2 that also has been rebuilt.

In the perfect replica of the original medieval Cloth Hall I found the amazing ' In Flanders Field' Museum that commemorates every nation that fought in World One on all sides.  I originally thought, no doubt because I was told it as a kid that the Germans over ran Belgium and fought the English and the French.

How wrong I was!  The Museum is a fantastic place . A real eye opener on truth.   Some sixty plus nationalities, all colours , all creeds, all religions, a myriad of languages, amazing customs, intriguing foods,  cooked and shared over the western front campfires, music and instruments from every continent.   Some fighting on one side, some fighting on the other. All suffering the same hopes and deprivations, the same desire to get the chance to go home alive.

Was there prejudice?  I expect so.But from the Museum I got the feeling there was more fellowship amongst the carnage and hardship, than prejudice.

Anyway that brings me to the Poppy and how out of this dreadful war it became a symbol of hope.

10 million soldiers may have died in the conflict but millions more were left, maimed, blinded, traumatised to find their way home to countries that had no plans for how to deal with them.    Returning American ex-servicemen adopted the red cornfield poppy , which had bloomed along the trenchlines snaking through Belgium and France to the borders if Switzerland, throughout the war, as their symbol.

Meanwhile millions of British ex- servicemen struggling home faced a grim task of no jobs, no medical care for their injuries and trauma, no homes in some cases.  The UK government was virtually blind and deaf to their problems and immense poverty and hardship followed.

In 1921, ex-servicemen's clubs across the UK, appalled at what their members were facing, united to form the British Legion to raise money and help those the government was not helping.   An American ex serviceman suggested the British Legion adopt their red cornfield poppy as their symbol and as a means of fund raising.    The British Legion went one better and set up factories in the UK to make the poppy and employ maimed and injured ex servicemen who could not find work anywhere else.

The first Poppy Day Appeal raised £100,000 plus in 1922 - a huge sum of money then.  In 2010 the Poppy Appeal raised £30million and the British Legion has gone from strength to strength now having four state of the art rehabilitation centres that deal with injured soldiers.

The British Legion still fulfils it's original goal which is ' to respect the dead and care for the living' and it is that sentiment that the poppy represents.

So No! it isn't a fashion statement, it isn't a symbol of warmongering and it isn't political. What it is, is the ultimate symbol in how ordinary men and women can create, from compassion, an enduring organisation that   is founded only to care, support and help.

So when you see them collecting for the Poppy Appeal , please give generously.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Bread and Exercise!

© Copyright Trish Steel and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

There's nothing like homemade bread. Our ancestors have been baking it for generations and I always feel bread baking puts me in touch with my historic roots and with nature.

One of my favourite stories about bread baking comes from Pliny the Elder who wrote that the Iberians (ancient spaniards) used the yeasty foam from beer to produce a good light bread.  I'd like to have tried that! Another medieval method for producing yeast was to mix wheat bran steeped in wine and then ferment. I think old breads made from these methods must have had amazing flavour.

For lots of years now I have been making my bread with a bread maker. 100's of recipes and endless varieties.    Lazy - but machines these days make great bread, even if they are noisy when you set the timer for kneading in the middle of the night and then forget to shut the kitchen door!

Anyway, when I decided 2011 was my year to get fit, I began to get a bit disillusioned with having to add fat and sugar and oil to bread recipes and started looking for another way to make bread the old fashioned way with just the four basic ingredients of yeast, water, flour and salt.

The following recipe is one I've tried and tested many times now and I think the quality of the loaf and it's flavour is far superior to anything I produced in my bread machine. The hand kneading also provides great exercise for the hand, arm and back muscles so benefits all round. It's actually really good for you if you have arthritic hands as I do , really exercises the hands and gets the blood flowing.

12 fluid ounces of tepid water
500 grams of strong white flour ( I prefer Allinsons or Doves Farm)
2 good teaspoons of Hovis Fast Action Bread Yeast ( I can't get any other to work as well for me)
1.5 teaspoons of fine salt ( I prefer sea salt)

1. Pour 3 to4 fluid ounces of the warmish water into a bowl and sprinkle the yeast on the top - give a brisk whisk and leave to froth for 5 minutes

2. Add 1/4 to 1/3 of the flour and mix to a paste . Cover, leave in warm place for 20/30 minutes where it will rise.

3. Add the rest of the flour and salt and enough of the remaining tepid water until you have a pliable but not sticky dough.

4. And this is the exercise bit!   Flour up a board, turn out the dough and knead for 10 minutes. Nothing complicated about it. Fold and squeeze or squeeze and fold then turn to left or right and do it again and again!

5. Place in bowl, cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place for a couple hours whilst it doubles in size. Time for housework and coffee now.

6. When risen, turn dough out onto floured board and knock the air out of it by folding and squeezing. Don't overdo it - it doesn't need kneading again.  Shape dough into oblong and place in a greased loaf tin ( the only fat that is used in the whole of the recipe!)

7. Let loaf tin stand, covered, for about an hour until well risen then place in an oven preheated to Gas mark 7 / 220C for 40/45 minutes.

8. Turn out and eat hot. Great!

To be extra healthy you could add a couple of dessert spoons of sunflower or poppy seeds.

I double up the quantity and make two loaves at a time. They freeze really well.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Of Grandparents, Fathers, Family and the Future.

David Norgrove has just published recommendations on Justice and the Family that are generating some debate.  The most controversial elements of his report are that " father's should have no legal right to shared time with their children following separation" despite the law demanding that they make maintenance payments, and his dismissive attitude towards the value of grandparents in their grandchildren's lives to the point where he also decrees that they too have no legal rights, that they may be potentially damaging to grandchildren during divorces if they take sides and that they must seek expensive processes through a Family Court if they want access to their grandchildren when it is denied.

Much has been written about the desperate need for a male role model in the lives of boys being raised by single Mums and how this would prevent the spread of gang culture so prevalent in some parts of the country.  I'm no social worker and wouldn't know if this is so, but I do know that girls too need contact with their fathers as well as their mothers and I speak from the experience of raising a grandchild and watching that child grow happily into her relationship with her father as they spend quality time with each other every other week.

Every child deserves the right of easy access to both of their parents if it is possible.  Of course one has to add the caveat that the safety of the child is paramount and it is sometimes in their best interests that parental access is denied but that can be true of mothers as well as fathers and the law should not differentiate, as David Norgrove is proposing, between them on any basis other than safety .  Shared access should be the starting point of any law protecting children's and parent's rights.

This brings me to David Norgrove's attitude to the  value of grandparents in all of this. He has dismissed us as 'potentially damaging' and left us with the need to pursue expensive litigation through the courts should we want access to grandchildren if it is denied us. Grandparents he says' should have no rights in law'

He has completely ignored the valuable role many grandparents play in the lives of their grandchildren, a role that impacts significantly upon the economics of this country and that nurtures children and the values of family life on a large scale.

Approximately 150,000 children are being raised in Britain today by their grandparents. If those children were in care the cost to the state would be about £5.5billion annually. The majority of grandparents who have taken on this parenting role get absolutely no support or help whatever from the state and neither do they ask for it.  This despite the fact that many are pensioners on straightened means and about 10% have failing health or suffer serious chronic health conditions.

There is a further issue here about which I have first hand knowledge and that is that about 50% of those children being raised by grandparents are disabled or suffering from serious ongoing health conditions.  I'll save the stories of our struggles to get fair access to healthcare and education for our grandchild and how we have had, on occasion, to resort to using our retirement fund to buy such care when the NHS or education system has failed us, as it regularly does, for another blog post sometime.

Meantime however , it seems to me that grandparents are saving the state £billions by shouldering the responsibility of parenthood a second time around and that it's little enough to ask that in return the state should acknowledge our valuable contribution and grant us proper legal rights.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Golden Glory of Lemons to Ward off Winter Blues.

Having spent much of last winter laid up with pleurisy I have spent the last nine months exploring ways of getting fit like eating  5 a day fruit, exercising with 20 minutes yoga each morning, walking 3 miles briskly
2 /3 times a week and swimming when I can fit it in.

To start off the day I take a daily dose of fresh lemon juice and honey in a little boiled water. (Juice of 1 lemon, 1 teaspoon of honey and 2 tablespoons of boiled warm water). The first of my 5 a day and really wakes you up at 6.30am!

Lemon Juice is a powerful antibacterial. Lemons are rich in Vitamin A, Vitamin C,
Vitamin P ( bioflavonoids),Niacin, Thiamin but low in sugar.

It is a great cleanser for the body!   It is said that lemon juice taken regularly helps control palpitations and high blood pressure possibly because of the presence of bioflavonoids.  It helps to quench thirst in diabetics, relieves abdominal disorders, wards off colds (Vitamin C) and eases coughs and chest infection. 

A book entitled The Lemon Juice Diet by Theresa Cheung suggests that adding lemons to the diet encourages weight loss because it balances the digestive system and lowers the impact of food on blood sugar.

A fun way to get the kids to benefit from lemon juice and increase their 5 a day is by making homemade lemonade with honey NOT with sugar!

Healthy Perfect Lemonade

The juice of 4/6 Lemons
4 Desert Spoons of Honey 
1 1/2 pints of Water

In a pan gently heat the honey with a cup of the water until melded together - don't boil.

Pour into jug with remaining water and the lemon juice.  Stir briskly.

Chill in Fridge before serving. 

You can adjust the quantities of lemon juice and honey to suit your own taste.