Monday, 27 July 2015

Things I Learnt About Primary School

Last day of term and there's a kid walking towards me, rucksack trailing papers and a years' worth of school books, knees peeping out from slightly too short shorts and wearing a polo shirt scrawled with multi-coloured signatures. There's still a hint of little boy in his gait as I look at him from a distance, but something's definitely changed; he looks a bit, well, big for his surroundings and a bit too knowing amid the younger children tumbling through the gates for the summer holidays. 

And that's because the kid now standing in front of me is my eldest son and he's just about to leave primary school for the last time.

The traditional leaver's hoody
If you have also stared with wonder at your child as they hover on the cusp of transition to big school, you'll know it's pretty difficult not to get just a tad melancholy about the situation. A LOT happens in the seven years they're at primary school and while your child will no doubt be pretty stoical about the whole moving on thing, it's a pretty hard parent who doesn't feel just the slightest clenching of the heart when they pick their child up on that very last day of term. You can't help but feel that the marching of time is perhaps just a bit too fast sometimes - how have they gone from being wide-eyed, occasionally teary and bemused 4-year-olds to independent, knowledgeable young people, complete with a sim card and better trainers than you? 

In the run-up to the end of term, I've done a bit of looking back over our first child's years at primary and - it has to be said - have felt a little twinge of regret at how I sometimes approached the school experience. If I knew then what I know now, I'd do some things a little differently; here are some of the things I've learnt over the past seven years...

1. Don't be reserved about making friends

The school playground was often a lonely place for me. As someone who doesn't make friends easily I found it difficult to integrate with the mums in our class, particularly as many of them were already established friends, having known each other since ante-natal group. I found this a little intimidating and rather than getting rebuffed, I was perhaps a little stand-offish myself. I realise now that I should have made more effort and struck up conversation more readily. In fact, I should have followed the advice we routinely give our children about making friends; how many times do we chide our kids for their shyness and reserve, only to be equally reluctant about approaching new people ourselves?

Having friends at school isn't essential but it sure as hell makes the experience more enjoyable. You may be connected to your child's classmates' parents for the whole of their school life, so make an effort. Go to class drinks, suggest a coffee after drop may find you make a friend for life.

2. Don't sweat the small stuff

What a pickle we got into over the years about academic achievement. It started in Year 2 when our child was deemed to be behind in reading and was put on the 'Reading Recovery' programme. I was distraught that his reading needed to be 'recovered' and felt that this was a huge failure on my part.

Of course, with a bit of support and a bit of maturity - yes, of course we all know that children mature at different times (but how easy it is to forget this crucial point) - his reading was 'recovered' in no time and he has left school with the dubious honour of being above 'national average'.

It's worth bearing in mind that schools are often given additional money for schemes like reading recovery and that if these funds are not used, the money is withdrawn. So schools need to use up their entitlements - remember that if you find yourself in a similar situation it doesn't necessarily mean your child is in dire need of help; it may be that your child might simply need an extra push and the facility is in place to do just that.

3.  Don't sweat the big stuff, either.

I'm talking about SATs, National Averages...all that terminology that can make your head swim and have you wondering how on earth you'll ever get your child - particularly if they don't give a hoot about national averages - to shape up to government expectation by the end of their primary school years. But it simply isn't worth losing sleep over, I realise now. Today's primary education system seems to foster the idea that academic achievement in literacy and numeracy is all the matters and if you don't get those Level 5s in the year six SATs there's really no hope for you. No matter if you just don't really like maths but you love looking at maps, can recount an in-depth biography of Brunel and create the most beautiful watercolour pictures. 

Unfortunately there's a bit of a 'one size fits all' approach in today's education system which doesn't really pay much heed to individuality and different rates of maturity. Try and remember this if you're worried about your child's abilities and celebrate in their other talents. They'll certainly catch up in the end.

4. Don't compete with other parents

Such easy advice to give, so difficult to follow. There were many times when my perception was that everyone else had given birth to a child genius. What was I doing wrong? Should we be doing homework every single night? In Year 1??? But I thought 5-year-olds were meant to play and hang out at the swings after school, not knuckle down to an hour or two of phonics! My panic about keeping up led to many a stressful night trying to do extra work with my son - tasks he found utterly pointless and exhausting. It just made us both unhappy and was most likely counter-productive. 

I relaxed for a bit until I got wind of the fact that, as KS2 rolled in, lots of parents out there get tutors for their kids to give them an extra boost. I had thought tutoring was the preserve of secondary school, but alas it's an increasingly common occurrence at primary age. If everyone else was doing this, we should be too, right?

Well, yes, in our case we did get a tutor in the end, during years 5 and 6 when our son was really struggling with maths and his confidence had taken a nose-dive. I also found maths hard and spent years stumbling along, hating every moment of lessons and crying my way through my homework. It wasn't until my parents got me a tutor - a gentle, calm ex-headmistress - that numbers finally clicked for me. We found a similar tutor for our son - the polar opposite of the expensive, tutoring businesses that abound. Her calm, cat-filled house, free of annoying little brothers and noisy distractions, provided a much better environment than our chaotic home for him to get to grips with his numeracy, and he actually quite enjoyed his lessons with her. They were also vital in building up his dented confidence.

5. There's learning and there's learning

It's easy to think that 'learning' equates to a child hunched over a school book but learning takes many forms. I used to think that some type of 'formal' learning must take place each day, but that's simply exhausting. And quite boring. There are some perfectly useful ways to do learning that aren't strictly 'learning' - doing a crossword or sudoku puzzle, getting stuck into some computer coding or learning how to make a game, reading a newspaper, making a cake without supervision...all perhaps more useful exercises than getting in a tizzy over homework.

6. There's more to life than school sometimes

The 'system' can be draining. When you're busy at work or going through some personal stuff or health issues, keeping up with homework isn't always a priority. Teaching your child life skills - telling the time, counting money, tying their shoe-laces - as well as good manners and respect for others is just as, if not more, important in your role as a parent than getting them through their year 2 phonics test.

I'm not saying you should sit back and let the school do all the hard work, but it's important to enjoy these precious pre-teen years with your kids without being in a constant state of academic stress. Ditch the homework for the park on a sunny summer evening, take them out of school for a few days before the term ends if you all really need a holiday and you can't afford to travel at peak won't look back and think "I really wish we'd had less fun and done more homework".

As a mum standing on the precipice, preparing for a much more structured and intense regimen of homework and exams - with a healthy dose of pre-teen hormones thrown in for good measure - I really urge you to enjoy a happy and stress free time at primary school...they're precious years that really do pass in the blink of an eye. 


Monday, 20 July 2015

A Sunny Day in Southerndown

Can you believe it's the school summer holidays? Again? Seems only a moment ago that I was enduring enjoying, I mean, last summer's six week break, but yes, it's here and so you'll perhaps be looking for things to do with your young 'uns. This holiday will be a funny one for me as it's the first one I've spent as a properly 'working' mum - with just a few days off aside from our family holiday in a few weeks, I won't actually be straying that far during the working week so our bigger trips will be reserved for the weekend. There will be some Sheep spotting, naturally (if you live in Bristol you'll know what I'm talking about) a Friday in London and - weather permitting - a weekend under canvas. But we kicked the holidays off at one of my favourite places - the idyllic Southerndown Beach in Wales.

I've mentioned Southerndown before on the blog (in my piece on other favourite beaches) but I thought I'd devote a whole post to its beauty for those of you looking for places to visit that aren't too far from Bristol. Southerndown is about one hour twenty minutes from Bristol, in the Vale of Glamorgan just beyond Brigend. We discovered it about four years ago when we visited on a school trip and I was seriously blown away by it. Virtually deserted in the week it can get busy on a sunny weekend in the summer, but with its expansive sands it never feels overcrowded. 

Located on the region's Heritage Coast, the beach is nestled amid high, striated cliffs which offer spectacular views across the water. A little hairy to walk across with kids, the coastal paths here would make for pretty exhilarating walks without them (just don't go to close to the edge!) 

The beach itself is glorious - a wide expanse of clean sand looking out towards clear seas - the water quality here is rated as excellent and it is patrolled by a life guard in the summer should you be tempted to don your wetsuit and take the plunge. 

Southerndown is a west facing beach that gets completely covered at high tide - do be sure to check tide times before you go. We arrived just after high tide and within around an hour there was enough sand to set up camp on.

Another great draw for kids are the many rock pools on the right hand side of the beach - we spent ages trawling the water for crabs, limpets and other signs of life. 

Be sure to bring a picnic with you as the beauty of this place is its lack of commercialisation - there are loos and a small shack selling beach necessities (ice creams, fishing nets, buckets and spades, and hot drinks) but that's it. There is a nice-looking pub on the way into Southerndown and we saw a sign for cream teas, but do come with a hamper if you don't want to tear yourself away from the beach.

Before you reach Sountherndown you can visit the Norman ruins of Ogmore Castle, set in a pretty spot surrounded by tranquil fields, and you can also go for a walk along the neighbouring Ogmore Beach, which leads to the castle along a pretty coastal pathway. 

Read more tips on Southerndown here. More photos here:


Thursday, 2 July 2015

A Weekend in a Yurt

You know that thing where modern life gets you down and you just really need to check out for a few days? After a couple of worry-filled weeks, including several hospital visits, one MRI scan and a failed secondary school appeal it's fair to say I was more than ready to do just that and deposit myself in a field in the countryside, well away from the aforementioned troubles. And, conveniently, within just a few moments of scanning Airbnb - a site I'd never used before - I managed to not only find the sort of place that looked just right for requirements, but which was also free at short notice. This sort of thing never happens to me - I took it as a good omen...

A pretty perfect home for the weekend

Unlike me, you've probably used Airbnb before so I won't go into too much detail about how it all works but my main observation was that it's a revelation if you're not one for booking your weekends away a year in advance and like to be a little more spontaneous. Finding nice places to stay in the South West at short notice has always eluded me so being able to book somewhere with a two week lead time was a nice surprise. 

We chose a retro yurt in Dorset for our stay - you can check out all the details here. Our host, Bryony, was great and the setting of her yurt is just lovely. We arrived in a haze of late evening sun and found ourselves in a small, tranquil field that houses just two other properties - a charming gypsy caravan and a shepherd's hut. With these being just single or double occupancy, this is a patch that would never get too busy. That's one of the things we loved most about staying here - pretty much having the place all to ourselves. As city dwellers who sometimes get a little weary of the noise and bustle of the urban landscape, I would have happily paid more for the privilege of enjoying this luxurious sense of space and serenity.

Fires, flowers, sunsets

The yurt itself had everything I'd imagined a yurt should have - a cosy ambience, a wood burner, rugs on the floor and a general vintage-y vibe. It sleeps four (one double, two singles) and feels plenty spacious. Luckily the weather was on our side so we didn't spend much time inside, but I don't think you'd feel too cooped up if bad weather should strike. Toilets are of the compost variety and there's a hot - and surprisingly efficient - shower on site too.

Words of advice in the loo

Outside you have access to a fire pit and plenty of seating. We made some good family memories round that fire; so few campsites allow fires these days that we took full advantage of it, staying up till way past bedtime to toast marshmallows, drink wine and play charades. I found this an utterly idyllic experience and a real balm for the soul - watching the embers glow as your children skip about in the half light has greatly restorative powers for anxious minds. 

We took our camping stove along for the essential campers' fry up the next day - there's a farm shop just minutes from the site where you can pick up the necessary local bacon, sausages and eggs. You'll find all the crockery and cutlery you need provided in the yurt. 

Nice waking up to this

While I could happily have hung out yurt-side, eating marshmallows, drinking cups of tea and reading my book, the sea was calling so we headed out to one of the nearest beaches, Charmouth, via a stop at Bridport, a bustling, characterful town where you'll find quirky second-hand bookshops, bric-a-brac stalls and independent cafes. On Bryony's recommendation we headed to Soul Shine Cafe for brunch - unsurprisingly popular, it has a lovely courtyard where you can enjoy your wheatgrass smoothie and eggs Benedict under colourful Indian parasols. 

Soul Shine Cafe

The other big draw in this part of Dorset is, of course, Lyme Regis, but we're regulars to this resort, so we decided to head a little further afield on our second day to Chesil Beach, followed by a lunch date with one of the most stunning places in the region - Durdle Door. Unbelievably spectacular. 

Dorset's amazing beaches

I've loved Dorset since childhood but this visit made me fall in love with it just a little bit more. Perhaps the stars aligned on this trip (there were no cross moments, no whining from the kids, no bad traffic to contend with) and the yurt experience suits us. I have a strong feeling we won't wait long until we return...

More photos

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