Sunday, 19 September 2010

How teaching went back to cool...

Hello. On Friday I had a piece in the Times about a remarkable woman called Kate Campion-Smith. She is a "Teach First" teacher (she came to the profession via the charity Teach First) so I also looked at that organisation.
You can see the piece (with a nice pic of Kate) on the Times website (subscription required).

Here is my original piece, which is a little longer.

By Sarah Ebner

Despite her modesty, charm and friendly manner, Kate Campion-Smith is clearly a winner. The 25-year-old science graduate, recently named best new teacher in London and the South East at the Teaching Awards, is now favourite to win the nationwide prize at the end of October. But she’s not just a poster girl for good teaching – Campion-Smith represents something new in the education world.
What’s particularly special about Campion-Smith is that she came to the profession via the education charity, Teach First. And she epitomises the organisation’s vision.
“I never intended to teach,” she says, “but I was looking for something I agreed with. The principles behind Teach First are fantastic. I wanted to be useful.”
Teach First was set up in 2002 by Brett Wigdortz, an American working in London for management consultant McKinsey’s. While looking at how business could help education, Wigdortz was struck by the idea that disadvantaged children might benefit by placing top graduates into their schools. He was told by that his plan would never work, but has proved the doubters wrong. Teach First had 5,000 applications for 560 positions this year and is now the biggest recruiter of Oxbridge graduates – around eight percent of final year students.
“I always thought it would be as successful as it is,” says Wigdortz nonchalantly. “People want to make an impact with their lives and we have a mission – to eradicate educational disadvantage.”
Campion-Smith is a typical recruit (although she balks a bit when it comes to talking about the very-American sounding “mission”). Unsure of what to do after university (a first in Natural Sciences from Cambridge), she was attracted by the charity’s uncompromising belief that graduates want to “make a difference.”
It’s not surprising that Campion-Smith was attracted by the idea of helping others. It may sound a little clich├ęd, but she comes across as a “good person. She is a regular Church-goer and even runs her own charity, Esuubi, which she set up after travelling to Uganda in her gap year. In fact, Campion-Smith even talks of emigrating to Uganda in the future.
“The girls I teach here aren’t starving” she says succinctly.
Campion-Smith grew up in Eastbourne and attended a local comprehensive where she was a star pupil. The school didn’t have a sixth form, so she joined the private Eastbourne College for her A levels. But her time at the college didn’t change her view that private education was “unfair”. Now Campion-Smith is determined that all children should have the same opportunities, and that educational achievements shouldn’t be dependent on parental income.
She joined Cator Park School in Bromley, Kent, three years ago. Meryl Davies, the head teacher of the 1200 strong comprehensive (all girls except for a mixed sixth form) is a big Teach First fan, but Campion-Smith made a particularly strong impression.
“Kate’s been outstanding since her first lesson,” says Davies enthusiastically. “Not all Teach First graduate have perfect classroom management skills when they arrive; that comes with experience. But Kate had it straight away. She’s gives the girls real self-belief.”
Campion-Smith would probably be embarrassed to hear her head teacher’s effusive endorsement, but seems to deserve it. She not only teaches science at the school (a petition was circulated by one GCSE group demanding that she should teach them), but runs the Gifted and Talented programme, Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, debating club as well as mentoring those looking to go to university.
“Kate’s enthusiasm led to the school’s largest ever uptake for triple science,” says Davies. “She even organised master-classes, involving exploding jelly babies, rocket launching and dissecting mice.”
But Campion-Smith arrived, as all Teach First graduates do, with little classroom experience. She had taken part in the organisation’s intensive six week summer scheme and was launched into the classroom soon afterwards.
“It was a baptism of fire,” she says with a smile. “A lot of people underestimate how hard teaching is, but you learn quickly and I was very fortunate in terms of the support I had.”
All Teach First graduates have mentors, both in school and outside, but it’s still a challenge.
“I knew I would have to find a way to teach the girls who don’t want to learn,” she says. “So I just thought about how I would want to be engaged. I tried to relate things to everyday life – to things they were interested in, such as make-up or fashion.”
Campion-Smith is the first Teach First “alumnus” to win a Teaching Award, but the organisation is hoping she’ll be the first of many. From just two staff in 2002, Brett Wigdortz’s organisation has grown to 140, and also become the darling of the Conservative party.
Michael Gove is a vocal supporter, and although there have been education cuts elsewhere, he recently announced a £4 million grant to expand Teach First recruitment to over 1,000 teachers across England.
It’s an interesting decision because it appears to show the government means business when it talks of addressing educational disadvantage and social mobility.
Wigdortz himself says that he wants to produce the “next generation of head teachers and leaders.”
But Teach First is not without its detractors, particularly from those who point out that academic excellence (around a quarter of this year’s intake graduated with firsts) doesn’t always result in outstanding teaching. Its training is also expensive, while many are unhappy that so many teachers leave after the initial two year programme finishes.
Anastasia de Waal, Head of Education at the think tank Civitas, is one sceptic.
“The very clear message is “teach first before getting a proper job’” she says. “It also assumes that any old graduate with a fairly good degree can teach and as importantly, no teaching practice or interaction with pupils is required before going into the classroom – never mind any pedagogical background. All of these things are terrible for the status of teaching as a profession, but even more importantly, misunderstand what makes a good teacher.”
Such concerns have long been heard across the Atlantic, where Teach For America is also a huge recruiter of top graduates. Teaching unions in the States are often less than complimentary about this scheme, while research seems to show that Teach for America teachers don’t achieve more impressive results than those trained conventionally.
However, Brett Wigdortz has heard these arguments before and is unimpressed. He’s keen to emphasise that Teach First isn’t connected with Teach for America, and convinced that his programme works – and works well.
He’s also not concerned that so many Teach First teachers – around 50 percent - leave the profession after two years.
“I never want anyone to leave our mission,” he says. “They are in education for the long-term, although they may not stay teachers. Our alumni may become businessmen, politicians or civil servants – that’s the way to create systemic change.”
However, Teach First’s biggest effect may not be in its graduates, but in altering the reputation of the profession. Might the charity be responsible for making the public think that teaching is a “good thing”?
“They’ve definitely made it a more glamorous option than it would have been otherwise,” says Campion-Smith, while Lily Eastwood, another Teach First teacher adds that it “does seem to have some kudos now.”
“I can’t think of a more exciting job to do,” adds Eastwood, “but it does make me a bit uncomfortable when people talk to me like I’m a saint.”
Eastwood also mentions the hit American television series, The Wire, which recently introduced a storyline involving an inner city teacher.
“I don’t think any teacher can watch that and not feel the pain,” she says with a laugh. “Maybe teaching is cool now, until you actually try it.”
Brett Wigdortz is not quite as sure about the “cool” tag.
“If people think teaching children from poorer backgrounds is cool – that’s not a bad thing,” he says after some thought. “But my long-term goal isn’t about that at all. What I want is for there to be no correlation between parental income and educational achievement. I’d like to see schools full of teachers with the Teach First ethos.”
Ends

The Teaching Awards national ceremony takes place on October 31st (http://www.teachingawards.com/)

For more on Teach First, http://www.teachfirst.org.uk/

For more information about Esuubi, visit http://www.esuubi.org.uk/ or contact Esuubi, 8 Overbrae, Beckenham, Kent BR3 1SX

Friday, 20 August 2010

Is the summer bad for your child's brain?

Hello

I had this article published in the Times earlier this week - it's about the so-called "summer slide" and what you can do about it.
You can see it on the Times site:

However, the article was cut somewhat, so I thought I'd put it on here in all its glory! I really think this is an interesting topic, that there's a danger some parents might try to stuff their children full of lessons all summer, while others (whose children really need to keep up with their reading, for example) do nothing.

Here you are:

By Sarah Ebner

School’s out. The holidays stretch before us and more learning is unlikely to be near the top of your children’s summer to-do list. Well, perhaps it’s time for them –and us - to think again. Don’t you know that the summer can damage your child’s brain?
I write the Times education blog, School Gate, and in the last few weeks I’ve been inundated with suggestions for ways to stop your child falling behind over the summer break. Carol Vorderman has launched her own online maths summer schools, recommending that children (aged five and over) “forge ahead with 15 minutes of fun practice a day”. She’s joined by Maths-Whizz, which offers a similar way to “beat summer learning loss” and education site MyChild, which has its own summer camp. It’s “packed with fun learning activities for each week of the summer holidays” as well as worksheets. It’s enough to make a parent paranoid.
“If you’re not being stimulated, you’re going to forget things,” says Amy Schofield, editor of MyChild. “You need to keep the brain active.”
Summer learning loss is something of a new phenomenon. It hit the headlines last year when Johns Hopkins University in America published research suggesting that schoolchildren lost an average of two months learning over the summer holidays. This was if parents failed to keep them “mentally active.”
Of course the issue does make some sense. If we adults didn’t work for six weeks, we would also probably fall behind. But we are talking about children here. Don’t they need some time off?
“My feeling is that kids do need occupying, but not like this,” says Annie Ashworth, co-author of the Madness of Modern Families. “They have a lot of intensive work throughout the year and I know that mine, for example, are exhausted by the time the summer comes. Perhaps they should read occasionally so they don’t forget how to do it. But I don’t think advanced maths is the way forward.”
Of course it was all very different in our day. Six weeks might have been filled with a short holiday, perhaps a summer camp, and lots of trips to the park and seeing friends. Now parents are being told sternly that this isn’t enough and that we’re failing our kids if we don’t keep the learning going. So should we worry? Annie Ashworth isn’t convinced.
“These stories of summer learning loss just add to parental guilt,” she says.
And even though she’s keen to promote her e-learning summer camp, Amy Schofield admits that the brain drain is new to her.
“We didn’t hear anything about it when we were kids”, she admits. “Now we’re all really child-centred and neurotic. There’s an emphasis on learning, learning, learning all the time.”
Dylan Wiliam [NB: correct spelling of Wiliam] is professor of educational assessment at the Institute of Education. He says that summer learning loss does exist, but that we need to keep it in perspective.
“There is no doubt that children learn stuff in school and forget it when they’re not in school,” he says. “There is a dip. But when it comes to seeing how serious that is and how quickly a child can make it up, then that’s a very difficult question to answer.”
Professor Wiliam also points out that most of the research on this issue is from the United States, where they have much longer summer holidays. “That definitely makes a difference,” he says.
The issue of “summer learning loss” began gathering momentum in 1992 when a group of students at Johns Hopkins tutored pupils from Baltimore public schools during the summer. The project was a great success and boosted the students’ reading scores.
At the same time, numerous academics were writing about the “summer slide” whereby academic skills dropped over the summer months. They discovered that this appeared to affect low-income students disproportionately, so widening the gap between richer and poorer.
“There are some people who allege that almost the entire difference between the performance of disadvantaged and advantaged children aged 18 is down to summer learning loss,” says Professor Wiliam. “But it also depends on the kind of curriculum you follow. If you’re talking about shallow learning, remembering facts and dates, then a child probably will forget those over a long break.”
However, what’s particularly interesting about the research is that reading aptitude seems to drop the most. This is, of course, something which parents could easily address themselves simply by encouraging their children to read over the summer or taking them to the library. It’s not really rocket science….
Tim Gill, author of No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society, agrees. He’s horrified by the idea of summer learning and also unhappy because he feels that the issue is tied up with merchandising (Carol Vorderman’s Summer School package, for example costs a minimum of £12,99).
“No one makes money if more kids go to the park and play with other kids,” says Gill. “Children need time for themselves over the summer and especially out of doors. This is just market opportunities – latching onto anxieties and amplifying them.
“I don’t want to tell other parents how to do their job,” adds Gill, “but I just wonder who’s fuelling this. Who is looking at our kids and saying ‘wow they need more worksheets?
“It’s unquestionable that some children need more support for the basics. But the irony is that these online summer schools or worksheets are going to be done by the sharp elbowed middle classes.”
In Newhaven on the South Coast, Christine Terrey [NB: correct spelling of Terrey] runs Grays Nursery and Infant School. It’s a school which has many pupils eligible for free school meals and a high number with special needs. There aren’t many sharp elbowed middle classes to be found here. And yet the school’s learning programme has been a big success.
“I think that most schools are aware that over the summer break, children slip back in their learning,” says Terrey, who’s been headteacher at Grays for the last five years. “We’d just never investigated how much.”
Two years ago, Terrey decided to look into the matter and assessed the children before the school broke up in July and again on their return in September. She was shocked by her findings - twenty two children had a summer learning loss in reading, sixteen in writing and twelve in maths.
Terrey and her staff realised that some children weren’t looking at a book for the entire summer. “We decided we weren’t giving parents enough guidance,” she says. “Things had to change.”
The first innovation was lending school library books over the holidays. The second was to set up the Summer Fun Learning Challenge. This involved putting special pages on the school’s internet learning platform, adding links to other useful sites and recommending that children make their own scrapbooks of what they’d got up to over the break.
“Every child who made a scrapbook got a certificate, as did everyone who logged on,” says Terrey. “I saw a lot of movement on the site in August, which was great. We had no sanctions for those who didn’t get involved, only rewards and praise for those who did.”
The results were impressive. Last September, only seven children had a summer learning loss in reading, eight in writing and five in maths. Terrey is hoping for even better results this year.
“There’s always been an issue with summer learning loss,” she says firmly. “Children fall behind when they’re not doing anything. The problem is that schools didn’t know how to measure it and haven’t always planned good ways of dealing with it.”
So parents, try to make sure your children pick up a book this summer or do something else to stimulate their brains. But don’t worry too much. They’re unlikely to fall disastrously behind if times tables aren’t practised daily.
“I’m very resistant to this idea that, as parents, our job is to expend every last sinew of sweat in getting that extra grade,” says Tim Gill. “Children need time and space on their own. That’s how they are given the chance to become real people.”

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

When should children learn to read?

This is a very controversial question - and there is so much to say about it!

I recently wrote about it for Times 2 and you can see that here, or the slightly longer version, below....
The one in the Times, also included two opinion pieces, one in favour of early reading and one against.

By Sarah Ebner

Over the border in Wales, young children are experiencing a different kind of education. Whilst experts here laud Scandinavia for their educational expertise, how many English parents know that in Wales, they are already following a play-based curriculum up until the age of seven? And there haven’t been any riots, yet.
“At the beginning there was a bit of distrust from the parents,” says Sarah Owen, a mother of three (and former teacher) from Welshpool. “We all knew that play was important, but I know that a lot of us were wondering how our children would learn to read if they were playing all the time. After all, it’s drilled into us that the sooner you learn to read, the better.”
Sarah has two children, Meg, 10 and Tom, 8, who are too old to have experienced the new Foundation Phase in Wales. Five-year-old Carys, however, is taking full advantage.
“I think it’s the right way to go,” says Sarah. “She is definitely stimulated, but also seems to have this more joyous feeling about school. They do a lot of outdoor play, but she is reading too – they introduce this at the child’s own level. As long as a child has access to books and enjoys them, reading will come naturally.”
Sarah’s views are relevant as they come in the middle of a heated debate about the value of early schooling and particularly when children should be taught to read. New research published this week was interpreted in two startlingly different ways. Some claimed it showed early teaching had no impact on children at the age of five; others said quite the opposite.
However, David Richardson, co-author of the new study, says it does show that children who attend pre-school before the age of three do better – both educationally and socially -at age five.
“Our evidence suggests that early years do have an impact,” he said.
So when should children learn to read? Can they be damaged (or put off reading) by starting too early or fall behind if they start too late? The problem is that there’s no definitive answer – even though educationalists have very strong opinions.
“Up to the age of six or seven, the true foundations of literacy are caught, not taught. We have to invest in training practitioners in how to help children catch them,” says Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood.
Palmer thinks there’s “no rush” to teach children to read, and is particularly unhappy about the targets set in the English early years curriculum. She points to Finland, with its very high literacy rates. Children there don’t start formal reading until they’re seven.
Palmer also emphasises new research by Sebastian Suggate (NB: see his opinion piece attached) which suggests that there’s no advantage at all in learning to read early.
However, although Palmer seems to be firmly on one side of the argument, much of what she says will ring true with those who support earlier education.
“I think there’s a set of bunker positions put into this,” says John Bangs, head of education for the National Union of Teachers. “It’s really an unfair polarity.
“No one is going to recommend forcing phonics on kids at a very early age, but having fun with words and phonics is exactly right. Picking up reading skills is part of child development, but the key is for the children to have fun.”
However, Bangs also adds:
“There’s this idea that kids are going to be polluted by teaching before a certain age. I don’t believe that. I don’t have a problem with age barriers.”
Those who argue that reading should be taught as early as possible often point to disadvantaged children to make their case. There is an increasing body of research which suggests that children with educated parents have an advantage. However, others can be helped by good pre-school care.
This is shown in particular by the landmark research being carried out by the EPPE (Effective Provision of Pre-school Education) project. It concludes that pre-school does have an impact - as long as it’s of good quality.
“Yes, it benefits children,” says Professor Pamela Sammons, from the Department of Education at Oxford University. “It provides them with a better start to school, with the biggest boost to language development at age five.”
And when it comes to reading, Professor Sammons says you simply need a light touch.
“There’s lot of evidence that if you don’t learn to read, you become demotivated later on,” she says. “But it doesn’t have to be at the expense of having fun. You can play with letter sounds, sing songs and nursery rhymes, at home and at pre-school. We’re not talking about formal teaching behind desks.”
Perhaps this point should be emphasised for those people without young children. The way schools teach their youngest pupils has changed in recent years, with much more of a stress on play. Widespread use of phonics has also made a real difference, and despite the sense of gloom and doom around literacy, England still performs well in international studies.
So there’s no quick answer to when a child should learn to read, except that there is no hard or fast rule! The quality of the teacher is vital as is the recognition that all children are different. Phonics appears to help, and over-prescription doesn’t. And above all, play is vital.

The Effective Pre-school and Primary Education (EPPE) project is the largest European study of the impact of early years education and care on children’s developmental outcomes. Early Childhood Matters, edited by Kathy Sylva, Edward Melhuish, Pam Sammons, Iram Siraj-Blatchford, Brenda Taggart has just been published by Routledge.

Horrible historians and writing the books - Terry Deary interview

I also did a lengthy Terry Deary interview - which you can read here or below....

Of horrid historians and terrible teachers

Terry Deary wishes he wasn't best known for writing the Horrible Histories series Sarah Ebner

Terry Deary hates publishing and historians — an interesting combination given that he owes his fame and fortune to both. But Deary, a self-described anarchist, is a rather unusual man.

He is best known as the author of the Horrible Histories series of books, which are much loved by children around the world. Yet the 64-year-old says that he wants to turn his back on writing for children, is hugely critical of publishing (calling it “the seediest profession I’ve worked in”) and reserves his bile for historians, whom he calls “seedy and devious”.

“They pick on a particular angle and they select their facts to prove their case and make a name for themselves,” he says angrily. “They don’t write straight history. They don’t write objective history. Obnoxious people such as Niall Ferguson write a book to prove that the British Empire was a good thing. They use history to make a political point.”

Deary’s grey hair and soft Sunderland accent give the impression that he’s mild-mannered. It’s deceptive. In reality, although he’s friendly and open, he has a huge number of bugbears, including politicians and fellow children’s authors.

But chief among these are historians. Deary says that they’re what stop him loving history and denies, indignantly, that his books are history books at all.“I write about people,” he says firmly. “And that’s the most fascinating subject in the world.”

However, Deary’s success is partly due to the historians he despises. The Horrible Histories, after all, retell historical facts collated from other books, rather than original sources. Deary doesn’t actually do any of the research himself — something I found a little disappointing. Instead, a team of researchers find the quirky facts, all those ancient swear words and toilet practices among them.

“My skill is retelling,” explains Deary, unapologetically. “I’m a writer, not a historian. My job is to re-present what the researchers find and make that information accessible to young readers.”

The books are incredibly popular, appealing to boys and girls, the holy grail of children’s publishing. They have been turned into stage plays, museum exhibitions (one of these, Terrible Trenches, is currently showing at the Imperial War Museum) and a very successful television series, which starts again today.

They are known for history with all the horrible bits left in — the gruesome and disgusting, including snot, bile and blood, wrapped up with cartoon-like illustrations and accurate historical information. Deary writes an introduction to each book, explaining that it will be “full of the sort of facts that teachers never bother to tell you”.

The books are not always objective — which is the exact criticism levelled by Deary against historians. The one on the British Empire, for example, is extremely biased against imperialism. But Deary says that this is deliberate. “I’m putting the weight on the other side of the balance, to counteract the lies teachers tell you when you’re at school,” he says gleefully. “Yes, I do write polemics. I write antiestablishment rants. I make no claim at all to be writing objective history. Why I object to history books for adults is that they do claim to be objective.

“Horrible Histories are, from start to finish, a rant against the privileged,” he continues, warming to his theme. “All the posh people, the lords and the nobles, and their lackies, the police, the army and the teachers who purvey what the lords want — they are the enemy. And what makes me especially angry, because I’m not a historian, is when I start to study history and I find out the way in which common people have been manipulated, beaten, bullied and abused down the ages. Someone needs to stand up for them.”

Despite the platform that Horrible Histories has given him, Deary is more than a little grumpy about his strong association with the books. Why? Because the books are more famous than he is. “Horrible Histories is of very little interest to me because I don’t own the brand,” he says, adding that while people have heard of the books, they often haven’t heard of him. “The brand is stronger than me.”

The series began back in the early 1990s when Deary, an actor who had moved into writing children’s books, was commissioned to write a Father Christmas joke book. It sold well, so the publisher (Scholastic) asked him to write a history joke book.

Scholastic then asked Deary to add some interesting facts to the jokes. “When I started to look at the facts, I realised that they were more interesting than the jokes. So instead of a joke book with facts, you had a fact book with jokes. Horrible Histories was born.”

The first two books, Terrible Tudors and Awesome Egyptians, were written to tie in with the National Curriculum (ironic, as Deary hates conventional education). They were moderately successful and more books were commissioned. But it wasn’t until 1995 that they really took off, with Blitzed Brits promoted to tie in with the anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

More than 20 million copies of the books have now been sold worldwide, and children (including my own) can’t get enough of them. Deary has become one of the most popular living authors in the UK and Scholastic is even planning a Horrible Histories virtual online world for next year.

But Deary seems quite under-whelmed by his achievements. “Children’s authors are held in such low esteem, it drags me down,” he says. “You meet strangers and they ask, ‘What do you do?’ You say ‘I’m a writer’ and they reply, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’. Then you tell them you’re a children’s writer — that’s way down the list. And you say ‘my best-known books are non-fiction’. Then you’re somewhere off the bottom of the scale!”

There’s more to Deary than Horrible Histories — which helps to explain the apparent chip on his shoulder. He clearly loved his acting career and has written more than 150 other books — their relatively low profile is an obvious irritation.

He’s also still angry about his education (he says that he hated school and “school hated me”) and resents that his talent as a writer wasn’t nurtured or encouraged. He didn’t go to university (one of the first things he says to me is that he doesn’t have a degree), instead spending a year working for the Electricity Board and then attending drama college. He still loves acting, but admits with a sigh: “I’m not as good an actor as I am a writer.”

Deary’s wife used to be a teacher, and before his writing career took off, he taught drama and English. So it may come as a surprise to find just how much he fumes at the thought that his books might now be recommended by educators. “If my books appear in schools, I get tainted,” he says passionately. “I don’t want to be tarred by schools. I want to be outside the system. I went to school. I was beaten, bullied and abused, by the teachers, not the pupils. I learnt nothing worth learning.”

He thinks that education should change radically, and schools should be closed down. “You give me the £50 billion that we put into the so-called education system and I will come up with an alternative.”

Deary now has a new agent and is keen to turn his back on Horrible Histories and other children’s books. He has already written a few more Horrible Histories (which are yet to be published), but has no plans for any more. His aim is to “diversify” and write adult fiction instead.

“I’m 64 years old. I don’t want to be 74 and still churning out the same thing. It’s time for a new career direction,” he says. “I never wanted to write any in the first place.”

Horrible histories and horrible historians!

I have been a bit lax about posting my articles on here - partly because I post so often on School Gate

But I have had a few pieces of interest in the paper recently....

Firstly, I had a news piece and interview with Terry Deary (author of Horrible Histories) which was great fun. I also did a live chat with him on the blog, which I really enjoyed, partly because so many children came along. You can read it again on the link I've just popped in.

Here's the news story - http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article7140660.ece

Or you can read it below....

Historians are seedy and horrible, says Terry Deary, children’s author

Sarah Ebner
He owes his success to history, but the author Terry Deary has described historians as “seedy and devious”.

The bestselling writer of the Horrible Histories series added that all historians were out to “make a name for themselves”, denied that his books were history books at all and even started a spat with Niall Ferguson, one of Britain’s best-known historians.

“Historians are nearly as seedy and devious as politicians,” Deary, 64, said. “They pick on a particular angle and select the facts to prove their case and make a name for themselves ... They don’t write objective history.”

Deary — whose books have sold more than 20 million copies — does not like any historians. “Eventually you can see through them all,” he said. “They all come with a twist.” However, he reserved his greatest ire for Ferguson, the former Oxford historian who now lectures at Harvard University.

“Obnoxious people like Niall Ferguson write a book to prove that the British Empire was a good thing,” Deary said. “He’s a deeply offensive right-wing man who uses history to get across a political point.”

In response, Ferguson admitted to surprise that Deary was commenting on his work. “It’s a little like asking Rory Bremner for his opinion on George Osborne’s spending cuts or Sacha Baron Cohen to review Simon Schama’s forthcoming history of the Jews,” he said. “I have read some of the Horrible Histories to my children, along with Harry Potter, The Hobbit and many other children’s books. They’re quite funny. And so is this.”

“You say that Terry Deary thinks my book Empire had ‘a political point’. I am not sure what that means. The book argued that there were benefits as well as costs to the British Empire, which is not a political point but a historical judgment. Terry Deary says that he ‘wants to be anti-Establishment’. That sounds more like someone who is trying to get across a political point.”

The Horrible Histories series relates historical events in a way that attracts children — with blood and gore. However, Deary (who got a D in his history A level) said he did not write “history books”, but “about people”. He added that his aim was to “counteract the lies” told by teachers.

“For example, when I went to school, I was told Henry VIII was a bit cruel but that he was a good king because he was strong. That’s what I believed but it’s utter, utter evil to promote that idea. He was a psychopath who should never have been able to rule the country. And that is what the system allows.”

Historians cannot decide whether to be grateful that Deary has attracted more children to the study of history, or angry at his attitude towards them.

“Does this man go to the archive, or is he just a parasite on historians?” asked David Starkey, an expert on Henry VIII. “He does make a real point about a certain type of history, which is designed to put forward a case, but what on earth does ‘objective’ mean? In the reign of Henry VIII, for example, the main archive alone is 244 volumes of about 800 closely written pages each. That’s three million facts, and the historian has to select from them.”

Paula Kitching, of the Historical Association, said: “We don’t want to throw insults backwards and forwards. But I’m surprised that he wants to attack history. There are many different kinds of historians out there and, whether he likes it or not, he’s falling into that category himself now.”

Meanwhile, Catharine Edwards, Professor of Ancient History at Birkbeck, University of London, said that children “absolutely loved” the books. “If it takes toilets to get them interested in history, that’s fine. It’s the most gruesome side of things which attracts the young.”

Deary admitted that he was disappointed to be so closely linked to the Horrible Histories series, because he does not own the brand. He is also keen to turn his back on children’s books and move on to adult fiction. “It’s time for a new career direction,” he said.

Terry Deary will be taking part in a live chat on the Times education blog, School Gate, on Tuesday June 1 at noon.

Horrible histories tour

· During Roman feasts, guests could eat so much that they had to be sick, and a special room was set aside for them called a vomitorium. They would then go back into the dining room to continue eating

· Cures for the plague included shaving a chicken’s bottom and strapping it to the plague sore

· Elizabeth I did not want to have her rotten teeth removed. To show her how easy and painless it was, the Bishop of London had one of his own teeth taken out while she watched

· James I picked his nose and never washed his hands

· Queen Victoria’s son-in-law would have his collection of glass eyes delivered to him at dinner parties

· In the First World War soldiers were told to urinate on a handkerchief and tie it round their face to protect them from a gas attack

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Starting school - advice for all..

In my guise as editor of School Gate, I wrote a piece for the Times Body and Soul section on starting school

You can read it by clicking on this link or by reading on.....(the one below has a little bit more detail)

What you need to know before starting Reception
By Sarah Ebner.

Julia Stokes has spent much of the summer preparing her son, Oliver, for school. He doesn’t know his letters, nor is he already taking lessons in Kumon maths. Instead, Oliver Stokes has been practising putting on and taking off his plimsolls and learning to wipe his own bottom.

“Because I’m a teacher I know about the practicalities of school,” says Julia, 39. “He’ll soon learn his letters, I’m not bothered about that. I’m worried that he’ll get stuck getting changed for PE or that going to the toilet will be an awful experience for him because he’s so used to me helping him out.”

Over the next few weeks, tens of thousands of four (and a few five) year olds will start school for the first time. It’s a nerve-racking time for them – research from the Economic and Social Research Council suggests that children show signs of stress for three to six months before they actually start Reception - and also for their parents. Many a mother or father has needed a tissue after dropping their child off for the first time.

But is there anything parents can do to best prepare their children – and themselves – for school? The answer, fortunately is yes. And these tips can range from buying shoes with easy fastening (your child will need to get them on and off himself) to preparing yourself for no news (young children are absolutely brilliant at not giving information. “I don’t know” appears to be the stock answer to the question “What did you do today?”).

Anju Chauhan has been the Reception teacher at Dane Royd school in Wakefield, Yorkshire, for 13 years. She thinks that parents have a practical, as well as emotional role to play, and agrees with Julia Stokes that helping a child develop some independence can definitely help.

“Try to work on things like helping your child get dressed on their own, put their coat on and learn to use a zip,” she says. “It’s also helpful if they have learnt to tidy up games and toys at home and if they can write their name. That gives the child ownership.”

Anju’s also convinced that getting children involved – in shopping trips for uniform and bags – helps build up their excitement and motivation. “You must talk to them about it,” she adds, apparently stating the obvious, until she explains that some parents don’t do this. Their offspring can be somewhat shellshocked on the first day!

Catherine Hanley, editor of Raising Kids.co.uk, agrees that preparation is important. And like Julia Stokes, she flags up toilets as a key issue.

“Children don’t necessarily verbalise it, but they really worry about this,” says Catherine. “Find out where the toilets are, and if there is a class policy on when to go. You don’t want them coming home cross-legged.”

“Kids are very anxious to fit in,” adds Catherine. “So you can also help them by finding out about school policies, such as what is and isn’t allowed in lunchboxes. If you give children something particularly unusual, they won’t eat it.”

Mother of three Paula Collar will soon be settling her middle son, Thomas, into Primary One (the Scottish equivalent of Reception) in Stewart Melville school in Edinburgh. However, she feels better prepared this time - having gone through the experience once before with Jonathan, now six and a half.

“Parents worry about how their children will manage,” she says. “But I would flag up one thing in particular – how absolutely exhausted the kids will be at the end of the school day.

“Don’t bother planning loads of after-school activities,” adds Paula, 37. “It’ll be too much for them – and you. So hold off on those Mandarin classes or face their wrath!”

Dealing with very tired children is just one consequence of their starting school. Another is competition with other parents and children, whether intended or not. You’ll soon spot this type of parent, as they’re the ones who ask you lots of questions, such as what level of reading book your child is on. But you need to remain stoic in the face of pressure. Reception class is not a race.

“All children are different,” agrees Paula Collar. “So don’t worry if yours is not immediately holding a pen properly, or if their cutting out takes a while longer than the other kids. They are still growing and developing at a phenomenal rate; you’ll be amazed by what they can do at the end of the year.”

In other words, everything is transitory. Your child may not be able to read in September, but hopefully by July, he will (if not, then perhaps you should flag this up). She or he may cry when you drop him off in the mornings or find it difficult to make friends, but all these are stages. Starting school is a big change and your child may well need support and comfort. But the stress and the tears will (or at least should) pass.

However, school is still a complicated place. It’s somewhere children go to learn, but also to socialise, to develop and make friends. With up to 30 children in a class, you need to warn yours that he or she will have to wait for a teacher to answer a query.

When they start school, children also enter a different world of play dates, which you, as their parent have to negotiate. Remember, you can’t choose your child’s friends. If they make friends with someone who you don’t warm to, then you’ll just have to make more of an effort!

In other words, starting school can be hard for parents too. Not only do we lose a lot of control over our child’s life, but we too have to make new friends - or at least acquaintances – amongst the parents. This can be hard if you’re shy and is harder if you work and aren’t at school drop off or pick up. Try, if possible, to be there sometimes. It will probably make life much easier and help you and your child.

Probably the most important thing to remember is that Reception or Primary One lasts a year, not a day or week. So focus on settling in your own child, and don’t worry about how everyone else is doing. And keep those tissues handy.

Five practical tips for settling in:

1) Label everything
- your child is sure to lose almost every part of his uniform. If it is labelled, you at least have a chance of getting it back. Include shoes!
2) Make sure bedtime is not too late on school nights
- otherwise your child will be even more exhausted and ratty, so finding it hard to make friends and enjoy their new school.
3) If the school has a uniform warn your child
- lots of parents forget to do this, and find that their daughters won’t wear trousers or their sons won’t wear a particular colour.
4) Don’t buy all your uniform in one go
- Children grow. If you buy a summer dress now, the chances are that it won’t fit your daughter next May.
5) Check your child’s book bag for any school correspondence
- letters are often popped in here, but children usually forget to tell you


Sarah Ebner edits School Gate, the Times education blog. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/schoolgate

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Does the princess stereotype harm our daughters?

I wrote this piece for The Times last week, and it's worth taking a peek at the original for the gorgeous picture of little Lizzie Gorham. This is a great topic, on which people have very divergent opinions! I initially wrote it to tie in with the news that a new princess, Tiana, is soon to hit out cinema screens.

Is the Princess stereotype harming our daughters?

Being on an exam paper

Hello

Delayed reaction on this one. A while ago I found out that an old comment piece I had written for the Guardian had surfaced on an A level exam paper. I began to get emails asking me for my motivation and decided to put pen to paper and write a piece about the experience for The Times.

You can read my article here or you can just read it below:

Now I'm an A-level question. But do I have to help with the answers?
Sarah Ebner

I’ve finally made it. I should be flattered to be included among the greats — John Milton, David Hare and, er, Gary Rhodes — and I am. But I’m also a little surprised to find out that I’m on an A-level examination paper with these luminaries, especially as the exam isn’t until next week.

Yes, you read that right. An article I wrote three years ago (ahem, for The Guardian) has been resurrected. It’s part of AQA’s English language and literature exam, which takes place on Wednesday. And I know about it because the exam board has already printed “Pre-release material” for the 6,600 students taking the paper. Oh yes, and because students have contacted me to ask questions about it.

“I wondered if you could help me by letting me know things such as why you wrote the article, who it was aimed at and what was going on in your life when you wrote it,” asked one e-mail, trying to cover all bases.

A 12-page booklet, issued to candidates last Wednesday, suggests that students should “use the time between receiving the material and the examination to familiarise yourself with its contents”. Brief annotations (the word “brief” is in bold) are allowed, as are highlighting and underlining, but annotations beyond this are not. I guess the examiners don’t want too much feedback from the authors.

The theme of the exam is clearly food and none of the extracts is very long. In the exam, the pre-release examples will be compared with two “unseen” pieces of text. I’m intrigued to know what they are — will Willy Wonka or Gordon Ramsay make a surprise entry?

The booklet says clearly that teachers are “not permitted” to discuss material before the examination. Well, teachers may not be allowed to discuss it, but students can do so with each other — and with the authors if they want to. The democratic nature of the internet does not seem to have been taken into account here, as a quick online trawl shows. A busy discussion on this very subject is taking place at the moment on the Student Room website (www.studentroom.co.uk). And of course, I’m receiving e-mails.

If I’m honest, I’m surprised that there haven’t been more students with the nous to contact me directly and ask questions. Perhaps they’ve been thrown by the old Guardian e-mail address at the end of the piece and not popped my name into Google to find that I now work at The Times. I wonder: should the initiative of some be rewarded with an A* grade?

“Students are encouraged to research them [the pre-release materials] independently,” says Catherine McCabe from AQA, who admits that contacting the author is not something she has ever heard of before.

I was amused by the e-mails, even though I balk at doing someone’s work for them. However, I don’t have enough time to reply separately, so will tell my new friends — and you — why I wrote the piece.

The article was entitled “Why real food isn’t real life” and was about children being given healthy, home-cooked meals. I particularly remember it because of the vitriolic comments the piece received. People seemed desperate to criticise me because I pointed out that cooking takes time, and that it’s difficult to fit everything in when you’re a mother and trying to work.

I wrote the piece when my children were then aged 4 and 16 months, and I was trying to balance being the best mother I could be with trying to get work. As I had a toddler, cooking for a long time in the kitchen was not practical. The difficulties of that balancing act was what was on my mind, and the people commenting just didn’t get it. So much criticism was a real shock; how ironic that this article should end up being picked up at such a different time of my life. Students, does that help?

But back to the exam. Ms McCabe says that pre-release materials are “by no means new” and that those who set the papers look for “good examples of use of language” (more flattery).

Students are allowed to contact authors of the articles. “This does not, however, mean that you are obliged to answer them and you would not be putting them at any disadvantage if you didn’t wish to respond,” says Ms McCabe, putting my (admittedly not overly concerned) mind at rest.

“If, however, you are happy to respond, then rest assured that neither you nor the students are breaking any rules.”

Sarah Ebner is editor of School Gate — the Times Online blog guiding you through the maze of education.

timesonline.co.uk/schoolgate

The whole experience was a strange one as I received many abusive emails from A level candidates claiming that I was arguing that their exam was easy. I never wrote that. I also got abuse from people who argued that my piece was pure comment, with few facts to back my statements up. That infuriated me too - it was a comment piece! I always pride myself on writing with facts and backing things up, but this piece was not a feature or news article.

I wrote a tie-in post on School Gate, entitled: Being on an exam paper, the texts included and how it makes me feel.... Please do take a look at it, as I couldn't fit in everything I wanted to say in the piece!

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The trouble with Boys

I recently read a fascinating book by Peg Tyre called The Trouble with Boys. It's all about boys and education, how boys are different from girls and having real problems with education because of the way it's set up.

I wrote about this for The Times, and you can see the piece here or below.

I also wrote a blog post on this topic for School Gate. It's called Do Boys need Boys' Schools?

All work and no play is bad for boys
Boys are falling behind at school, and many believe that the teaching methods used favour girls. What can be done?


Elaine McDowall is worried about her six-year-old son, Harry. “He's always getting told off at school,” she says. “But I know he's not naughty. He's just being a boy. He's loud and boisterous, but loud doesn't always equal bad. His teacher just wants him to be quiet, to sit and concentrate for long periods of time. I think teachers want boys to be like girls, and it's turning my son off school.”

Boys are having a hard time, whether they are 6 or 16. And the situation appears to be getting worse. Within the past few weeks it has been reported that 53 per cent of girls receive five A* to C grade GCSEs including English and Maths, compared with 44 per cent of male pupils. Fourteen girls' schools are in the top 20 listed on the basis of A-level results, while more girls take A levels than boys. Other research suggests that girls are more likely to go to university (the most recent statistics reveal a 7 per cent gap, which is expected to widen), and that 79 per cent of the children excluded from school are boys.

What has caused this downward spiral of underachievement for boys from nursery to university? The blame, says Peg Tyre, the American author of a new book, The Trouble With Boys, and the former education reporter for Newsweek, lies squarely with the school system.

An “unashamed feminist”, Tyre was brought up to worry about the achievement of girls. She was astonished to discover that it is now boys who are falling behind. “Evidence of this trend is everywhere,” she says. “People think there's something wrong with boys, but I'd say that's not necessarily true: it's what we expect of them instead.

“When you talk to boys about school, they say it's girly, that it's lots of ladies talking,” says Tyre. She argues that boys are badly served from pre-school onwards. They are not allowed to run around and not taught by enough male teachers. There has also been an educational shift away from play towards learning and targets at an earlier age.

She is convinced that reading and writing skills are the key to life and educational achievements, but says that boys are falling way behind in these skills. This is partly because they start to read later than girls, and never recover from that earlier deficit. But it is also, Tyre argues, because boys are given the wrong books to read.

“If you don't read well, you don't succeed in school,” she says. “Teachers need to be aware of the different kinds of books there are out there, and not assume that boys and girls want the same things.”

This argument has been well rehearsed in the UK. Recent research revealed that almost 50 per cent of nine-year-old boys read only “if they had to”. “Boys need to be given a reason to read,” says Sophie Quarterman of Oxford University Press, which has just brought out a “reading tree” (a scheme to help teach children to read) aimed specially at boys. “They need to feel that they will get something out of it,” she says.

Jonny Zucker, the author of the Max Flash series, which boasts a 90 per cent male readership, agrees. “Girls have a massive number of tried and tested writers,” he says. “There are not enough of these for boys.”

But like Tyre, Zucker, a father of three young sons and a former primary school teacher, says that the problem is not just with reading. It is with schools. “Up to a certain age, school is completely wrong for boys,” he says. “Because of the demands of the national curriculum, far too long is spent sitting down, whereas boys need to move around - something that isn't physically possible in classrooms.

“It's also important to get on the boys' level. If you haven't got sons or don't know boys very well, boys can be an irritant in the classroom. They make poo jokes; they try to make their friends laugh; they get more tired and are more difficult to teach. You need to allow them to let off steam.”

As Tyre says, not catering to boys' needs could have huge ramifications: “In some ways it's nice to see women on top. But we have to ask who is going to bring up the children and who are these educated women going to marry? In America there are 2.5 million more girls than boys in college, and women tend to marry men of the same level of educational attainment.” Experts appear united that something needs to be done, but recent changes have not helped boys. Children are now taught “to the test” to keep up with the national curriculum. This often means less time for PE or creative subjects, as well as cuts in playtime. More coursework instead of multiple-choice questions has also affected boys.

And despite a push to attract more men to the profession, figures from the Training and Development Agency for Schools found that half of all children between 5 and 11 have no contact with male teachers - a problem in inner cities where single-parent families are more common.

Dr Tony Sewell is chief executive of the London-based charity Generating Genius, and is trying to re-engage boys with learning. The charity was set up to help boys from underprivileged backgrounds to learn about science, and Sewell feels that it is desperately needed.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, people in education wanted to help girls to change, to get rid of the overt sexism around. That has paid off, and girls feel that the world is their oyster,” he says.

“But we've seen a parallel downturn with boys. The curriculum doesn't really meet their needs. If we look at science, it's now being taught in such a theoretical way that boys are being turned off. They need it to be much more practical, more hands-on.”

“Girls are more focused,” says Zaibien Hunter, 15, who has attended summer schools at Generating Genius. “But boys are catching up at our school because there are more male teachers and role models to encourage them.

“I know that people have a stereotype about people like me,” he adds. “They expect me to be disruptive and not to pay attention. They're shocked that I am a young black boy who is intelligent and can achieve.”

For Angela Phillips, who created a storm with her 1993 book The Trouble With Boys: A Wise and Sympathetic Guide to the Risky Business of Raising Sons, this is nothing new. But she's glad that educators and parents are finally starting to notice, and says that one solution would be for children to start school at the age of 5 or 6 as they do in other countries. “Boys mature later than girls,” she says. “Girls will shoot ahead if children start at 4. If boys fall behind at a young age, it will be very difficult for them to catch up.” Others believe that the answer lies in single-sex education, despite the so-called “social disadvantages”.

For Elaine McDowall and her son, the answer is simple. “People need to change their expectations of boys,” she says. “They need to stop assuming that boys will produce beautiful pieces of work or be interested in the same things as girls. All children have got abilities. Why should boys lose out?”

Monday, 19 January 2009

What is the perfect age gap between children?

Hello

I have a piece in the Times, Body and Soul section, on that thorny topic, age-gaps. You can read it here.

For some reason, the piece online, unlike the published newspaper piece, doesn't include the case study.

Here is my original:

By Sarah Ebner

What is the optimum age gap between children? Will a short gap incite furious sibling rivalry, or a long gap risk your children never becoming friends? It’s one of the more frustrating parental conundrums – and one where people are apparently happy to offer opinions, but not absolutes.
“We know the general effect of age gaps, but family dynamics change, so there are no guarantees,” says Dr Richard Woolfson, child psychologist and author of Understanding Children. “However, sibling rivalry tends to be at its strongest when the age gap is around two years. It’s less intense at 18 months or younger because they don’t have a fully developed sense of identity, while after three years, it’s also lessened because the older child will have more of a sense of independence, and feel more secure in their own life.”
Sibling rivalry is certainly one of the first things parents consider when they’re deciding whether to have a second or third baby. But there are also many other issues. Careers, finances and even accommodation all have their parts to play, and so, of course, does simple biology. Many women may hope for a particular age gap between their children, but find that they can’t make that happen. Others become pregnant more easily than they expected.
“I thought it would be nice to have the children growing up together, but never thought I would get pregnant so quickly a second time,” says Janine Neye, who has a 13 month gap between Jake, 13, and Maddi, 12. “It was tough physically, but in some ways that small gap was easier – it got the nappies out of the way all at once. At the same time, it was a bit like having twins but scarier. I remember Jake running in one direction and Maddi lying in his way dangerously in the other.”
But are there any clues to what is the “right” gap? According to the Office of National Statistics, the median interval between births (for married women in England and Wales) is 35 months, a sensible interval if you’re trying to minimise sibling rivalry. This almost three-year gap could also be wise when it comes to maternal health - research by the Catalyst Consortium, which covers family planning and reproduction, suggests that it is near to optimum for health reasons. Much of their data was based on the developing world, which has much higher rates of infant and maternal mortality, but experts here agree that it makes sense to let the body recover from one gruelling pregnancy and childbirth before moving onto another one.
A further study from the Centre of Population Studies at the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in London, supports this. It discovered that women who wait less than 18 months between having children are more likely to die young than those who have a bigger gap. By the age of 50, the death rate for those women in their study was 20 percent higher than those with a larger sibling gap.
Shelley Lief and her husband Kevin have a seemingly perfect gap between their two sons, Alex, who’s nearly 6 and Jacob, who’s coming up to 3. Another baby is due in February.
“We didn’t think we could cope!” says Lief, 37, as she explains why they went for that interval between the boys. “We didn’t sit down and plan a three year gap, and there was definite peer pressure to go for two or two and a half years, but I didn’t want a toddler and a baby. I wanted an older child who was a bit more independent, but not so much older that he wouldn’t be friends with his new sibling. I knew I didn’t want a tiny gap; that’s very hard on the parents.
“The two boys are very close and play together all the time,” she adds. “I don’t know if it’s an optimum gap, but it works for us.”
Professor Judy Dunn, a developmental psychologist and expert in child development, agrees that this three year interval may be a good one.
“It’s true that there are big differences in how a first born reacts to the arrival and upheaval of a new baby, depending on how old they are,” she says. “A two year old will show upset in a very different way to a five year old, and if a child can talk, lots of things are different. You can amuse and distract a verbally precocious three year old when you’re with a young baby. That’s harder with an 18 month old.
“By three, most first-born children are amenable to parental pressure not to beat up the baby. But how well siblings get along with each other is very dependent on the older child’s temperament.”
Lief also believes that gender made a positive difference.
“I knew nothing about boys before,” she says. “But they have got so much in common, from superheroes to play fighting. I’m sure it makes them closer.”
Gender may well play a part, but it’s debatable whether this is good or bad. Many women who get along just perfectly with their little sisters as babies (all that sharing of pink tutus) find that this sharing turns into competitiveness as they grow up and are compared more easily than siblings of opposite sexes. The same goes for those Spider-Man playing brothers.
“Everyone’s experience is different” says Dr Woolfson. “The kids may get along fine when they are 4 and 2 or 8 and 6, but the gap can seem vast when they reach 13 and 11, whatever their gender. Social interests may not start to level out until they are much older.”
“If you’re interested in a child’s wellbeing, then they can do very well with a five or six year gap, or a year between them,” adds Professor Dunn. “If you’re worried about the quality of the relationship between your children, you’re right, it will be very different depending on whether the gap is small or big, but there’s no simple equation.”
Janine Neye agrees with that. She claims that her children’s age gaps are far from optimum, but that it works in practice.
“We’ve got the worst case scenario,” says Neye, 43. “We’ve got too small a gap at one end – just 13 months – and too big a gap at the other!”
Neye was horrified when she first found out that she was pregnant for the third time. Her two children, Jake and Maddi were 9 and 8, and she thought her new baby days were over.
“It nearly finished us off,” says Neye, who’s now 43. “The older two were devastated because it signified such a change in our lives, and obviously we weren’t expecting it. It’s definitely affected the family dynamic.”
But while Neye is a real life example of a small and large age gap, she can see the benefits of both. This was also true of her own upbringing - she gets on especially well with her youngest sister (a 12 year age gap).
“It has been nice having a large gap and it’s lovely having a small one around - Spike’s a great asset. But it has changed our lives on a complicated level. When we went on holiday to Cornwall, the older two surfed with their dad and I had to stay with Spike. These days I don’t get to do as many things with the older two, and we aren’t quite as complete.”
For some people, a small age gap makes perfect sense: like Janine Neye (with numbers one and two!) they want two children who will grow up together, have much in common and be close. For others, it makes no sense at all. Why, they wonder, would you want to go back to sleepless nights and breastfeeding just when you’ve finished them? Doesn’t it make sense to spend time with the first child, and not share him or her with a tiny, screaming number two? Even Neye feels her first son missed out on her attention. “He was tiny when I got pregnant again,” she says.
There’s also the question of intellectual development, as it’s suggested that this is helped by a larger gap. Language development in particular improves when a child spends more time with adults rather than similarly aged siblings. However, once again, there are many other factors at play when it comes to intelligence.
“Every age gap brings strengths and weaknesses,” says Dr Woolfson. “I would strongly discourage any parents from choosing an age gap on the basis of reducing tension between children or how intelligent they want their child to be.”
And whatever the age gap, parents need to prepare children carefully for any new arrivals, or face dire consequences. How siblings get on may owe more to personality than age, but parents can make a real difference.
“If it’s not resolved in childhood, then the impact of age gaps will continue into adulthood,” warns Dr Woolfson. “Parents need to be aware of this and make every effort to work at it with the children, encourage them to get on and make each of them feel special.”
Ends