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, 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.

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


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 ( 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.

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?


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.”