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Monthly Archives: November 2013

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So I am sitting in my office talking to a junior member of my team about his work record, which recently has not set the world on fire. Nigel has a string of woes: he doesn’t like where he lives, he finds the commute to work very tiring, and he has a perpetual cold. I feel quite sorry for him: Nigel should not be living alone really, he ought to be back at home with his mum.

In the middle of the conversation my mobile phone, which I have carefully placed on the desk beside me, rings. I apologise to Nigel and take the call briefly: it is my daughter Julie calling from hospital. Can she phone me back? I ask, I am in a meeting at the moment. I know that I can trust her to phone me back, I know that she is in safe hands, that the nurses will look after her. For a brief moment, the image of my daughter as I left her last night, lying in the hospital bed, looking quite green, having just thrown up violently into a little cardboard bowl, intrudes into my office life. I return to Nigel and his man-size box of tissues. Just for a moment I have the feeling that this is not quite the right thing to do, or the right place to be.

This must be Julie’s seventh or eighth overdose this year, I have lost count. This time she has ended up on a drip, meaning an overnight stay and vomiting. Sometimes it is a cut requiring stitches: recently it has often been both cuts and overdoses. Every now and then, someone in accident and emergency lovingly counts up the number of times she has attended, and sends them to her care coordinator. I am always astonished by the number of trips that she manages to clock up in a year.

It is nearly routine. She took this overdose at school so early that I had not even left for work: I was able to pick her up from school and drop her off at the hospital on my way in. For the rest of the day, I carried on almost as normal. Just a discrete call to her care coordinator from my car, and then putting her out of my mind, until I had time to deal with it later. Nobody at work had any idea that it was not simply another ordinary day.

But you never do really put it out of your mind. It is always with you. Every time it happens – and this is once every three or four weeks – your body has the same reaction. Both Joe and I have commented on it: that feeling of physical exhaustion, as if you were walking around with 10 kg weights suddenly strapped to both of your legs. This is even when there are no extra journeys to make, no wounds to bandage, no waiting rooms to endure, no phone calls to make. It is just a natural reaction: your body’s way of registering the blow.

Between incidents, she functions just fine. She is doing well at school, she has friends, she can take the bus into town on her own, she is talking about leaving home to go to university. Even while I was planning to visit her in hospital, a neighbour came in to tell me how wonderful it was to see Julie back to her old self. I could not bear to break the mood and tell my neighbour that I was packing her overnight bag because she would be spending the night in hospital. After all, she would be back again next day, and back to school again too. Nobody need even know. If you don’t look too hard, it looks as if nothing at all is wrong.

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When Julie started at sixth form, the very first thing the Maths department did was sit down the whole cohort of Maths students and give them an exam. They wanted to sort out who needed what help to get through the A level. Actually, I think that’s a very good idea: it focuses resources where they’re needed, and makes sure the students understand where they need to put in the extra work. It’s surely the opposite of one-size-fits-all.

But of course it all depends how you handle the kids who don’t do very well in your test. Can you resist the temptation to imply that they are defective? That, but for them, one size really would fit all?

On the basis of her mark in this exam, Julie was duly assigned to the remedial group, needing extra tuition, and given extra homework to complete. A letter was sent home explaining this and making it quite clear that if she didn’t pull her socks up and do better by the end of the first half-term, she might not be sitting her A level in Maths at all. It was one of those “must”, “should not” and “insist” type letters. The message was not “you have a problem and we can help”; the message was unequivocally “you have a problem and you are to blame”. The same message was given to the students in a meeting. Sheep and goats had been sorted, and they were the goats.

Julie was distraught. She had only just started sixth form, and she was struggling to negotiate the crowded classrooms and corridors of the school, after years of having to be taught in hospital, at home or in a separate unit. She was still ill, still heavily medicated, and still needing twelve hours sleep a night. She had done fairly well in Maths at previous levels, but she has no confidence at all. With her time severely curtailed by her need for sleep, the extra Maths classes ate into time needed for her other subjects, and it was impossible to see how she could meet these demands for extra homework. But without Maths at A level, she could say goodbye to her modest dreams of taking a technical degree.

I got in touch with the Maths teacher, and suggested that she give Julie a break. I explained the circumstances, and that testing Julie straight away was likely to give spurious results. But I was talking to a brick wall: it was obvious she had no real idea of the problems Julie had to overcome just to get to school at all. In the end, I told her that I would monitor Julie’s workload, and if there was no time to do the extra tuition or homework they were demanding, then I would instruct Julie to skip them. I told her that when she retested Julie it would have to be with extra conditions – with Julie supervised in a private room and given time for breaks – to cope with problems of concentration. And I told her that if she tried to take Julie off the A level course then she would have to fight me first. I have enough Maths of my own to know that any school should be able to get Julie through that exam reasonably well.

Julie was retested at the end of half term – in the revised conditions – and passed. Actually, not so much passed, as thrashed it: she got 100%. She no longer has to go to extra lessons or do extra homework or attend any more unpleasant meetings to be berated for poor performance. She was never in need of remedial Maths classes, she just needed someone to put more thought into assessing the performance of a student in her circumstances. She was really a sheep, and always a sheep. But in my view she was always really Julie, and nobody is a sheep or a goat.

Now we have a new problem; now she has been reclassified as a sheep, and a prize sheep, there is pressure on Julie to be “groomed” for Oxbridge application. This is no more appropriate than remedial classes were: she doesn’t need the stress of applying to Oxbridge. What she needs is someone to recognize what a fantastic achievement a place at any university will be – what a cause for celebration for a kid who has her illness – not a snobbish insistence that only a place at one unversity or another really “counts”.

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