Turn and face the strange

This week, we lost Ziggy Stardust and Severus Snape, both aged 69, to the ravages of cancer. It’s no age, really, is it?

I have been quite surprised at my own distress at both deaths. I was just a twinkle in my daddy’s eye when *that* Starman moment aired on Top of the Pops in 1972, after all. I can’t claim that David Bowie changed my life, as he did for so many others. I just thought he was an awesomely cool creative force (even if my favourite Bowie song is the super-cheesy Absolute Beginners). But I still cried.

As for Alan Rickman, he was in some of my very favourite movies. My first year at uni was more or less back-to-back viewings of Truly Madly Deeply. Plus he was Professor Snape, for goodness’ sake.

And you just feel that bit chillier when a star has gone out, even if it wasn’t shining directly on you.

There’s another obvious thing, of course. An awful lot of people die from some form of cancer every day. Those rogue cells are complete and utter bastards. And every time there is a high profile death from cancer, I do some kind of quasi-non-Catholic-sign-of-the-cross thing in my head.

There, but for the grace of the universe, go I.

It resonates, deeply.

During this very sad week for creativity and movies and music, though, I have been doing this mental manoeuvre without the added acrobatics of crossed fingers, because on November 5th 2015, I got my official five year sign off.

This was very much a WHOOP WHOOP! moment.

My oncology team are no longer interested in me. I don’t have breast cancer anymore.

There’s no such thing as being “cured”, of course, and disclaimers abound: there are no guarantees that there won’t be a repeat performance at some point in the future.

But my prospects are excellent: I’ve had amazing, pioneering surgery, a super-powerful chemo drugs trial, belt-and-braces radiotherapy, and I’ve got another five years of daily Tamoxifen tablets as an insurance policy. I also get annual mammograms until I’m 50, and an annual chat and check-up with the breast clinic. It’s all good.

I felt, yet again, like the luckiest girl in the whole world when the consultant stood and smiled and shook both our hands and said: “Well done. You did it”. Me and DH cried outside the hospital, with relief and happiness. It really did feel like we could exhale after holding our breath for five years.

Serendipitously, it was Fireworks Night, so obviously we had a handful of family members and close friends and excitable small people over for low-key sausages and fireworks and champagne. It was awesome to be able to say, out loud, that, as promised, I have well and truly fucked cancer. Pretty emotional, all round.

Life was good. We could all chill out and move on.

Well, for six days, anyway.

Because on the seventh day after my victorious sign off, DH got made redundant.

“FFS!!!” doesn’t really cover it.

I felt like we were bloody Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games. We’d just wiped out one deadly opponent when another poisoned arrow came hurtling out of the woods towards us.


Me and the boy, recently.

My mum said, sagely, that you expect things to calm down by your 40s, but actually it often ends up being the most life-changing decade. It’s true that almost everyone I know is going through, or has gone through, some sort of Major Thing in the past couple of years: separation, divorce, serious illness, parental illness, bereavement, redundancy, financial stress.

Your 40s, in other words, are when you have to finally, properly, grow up. We are the adults now. The shit is happening to us and no-one else is going to make it all better or write a sick note excusing us from responsibility. That’s pretty scary.

DH had had a crap year at work, to be fair. After nine years doing extremely well in the same company, there’s nothing quite like being wrong-footed by your new boss at every turn, so your confidence is utterly destroyed. If he were a different man, he might have seen the eventual departmental reorganisation and redundancy as a blessing.

It was nothing personal, but my boy took it deeply personally. He has always worked hard, and cares very much about doing the best job he can. He’s all about achievement, and problem-solving, and efficient processes and spreadsheets and excellent relationships with clients and colleagues.

He’s also got the risk profile of a 70-year-old, according to our IFA: security, stability, salary, savings are his watchwords. My frivolous spending habits (“Ooh! Look! I must get that resin cockatoo for the mantelpiece!) and freelance life drive him potty.

Redundancy was literally his worst nightmare. In the days after he was given the shocking news, I could see he was imagining, somehow, that being made redundant would inevitably lead to losing the house, me, and the kids, until he was destitute and homeless.

How to support someone you love, who has got into that state? I was still out of breath from completing my own long, dark marathon of the soul. I had to put something of a shield up, to protect myself and not get dragged into the slough of despond. No use two of us crumbling under the pressure. I could definitely have given him more cuddles and sympathy, but at the time my gut instinct was that there was nothing to be gained by indulging the catastrophising.

Instead, I automatically went into Coach Mode, and encouraged him to Take Massive Action. It’s the only way of regaining some sort of control when all seems lost, really, isn’t it?

Reach out. Zsush up that CV and LinkedIn profile. Email and call everyone who might have a job, or might know someone who did. Take people for coffee. Arrange meetings. Go to every interview. Keep an open mind.

Above all, do whatever you need to do to keep your head in the right place, darling. Accept all offers of professional, moral, medical and therapeutic support.

Chin up. Smile. Shiny shoes. GO GO GO!

As with all of life’s big landmarks and crises, one finds out who one’s friends are. The lawyer and the headhunter truly stepped up, using their skills and love to support and advise, on a daily basis, sometimes for hours on end. Many others chivvied and cheered and were generally in touch and checking in. And DH was truly humbled by the number of colleagues and contacts who were as shocked as he was, and said lovely things about him.

Of course, when you take massive action, good things cannot help but happen eventually. And so it was that just five weeks later, on the very last day of term, just as he was breaking up for Christmas before being redundant on 31 December, DH was sent a contract for a very exciting new job Up That London.

He was never out of work for one second, after all. And I could not be prouder of him.

Two weeks in, and he’s loving it. Great, interesting people who have made him feel very welcome and can’t do enough to help. A boss who already knew and liked and respected him. A huge and stimulating challenge. Lovely jubbly.

So we started the New Year with me being officially healthy for the first time since 2010, with a job I love, and DH enjoying a proper silver lining in his career. Our quite extraordinary small people (DD is nearly nine-and-a-half and DS is nearly seven-and-a-half) have settled beautifully into their new school, where we moved them at half term, after all that nonsense with the last place.

There’s no way of knowing what 2016 will bring for us. But as Baz Luhrmann once wisely said: “Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind. The kind that blindsides you at 4 pm on some idle Tuesday.” True dat.

And, appropriately, in the words of the visionary Starman: “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring”.

PS – I wasn’t kidding about the cockatoo…









The one where Pinchy gets a proper job (sort of)

So I haven’t blogged for a while. I’m sure you’ve all been feeling terribly deprived of my wit, pathos and insight since November, but hey. I have been busy, people! Busy doing what, Pinchos? you may enquire. Busy getting an actual grown-up proper job, THAT’S WHAT!

My new walk to work :-)

My new walk to work :-)

Yup. This die-hard solitary writer now has a regular income for the first time since leaving my last salaried employment, 14 years ago. And actual colleagues! Since the start of January I have been working for one of the very biggest PR consultancies in the world, supporting the EMEA marketing team with copywriting, editing, editorial consultancy, social media content, training, and other word-related stuff.

Cool, huh?!

It’s been a very slow burner, but there was something inevitable about it. I’ve been working with this team since my earliest days freelancing: as soon as I resigned as features editor of trade mag PRWeek on a whim in 2001, my now-boss commissioned me to help her with some case studies, and to turn a couple of PR campaigns into entries for industry awards schemes. We discovered we worked well together. We became friends. Over the intervening years, our combined skills built an incredibly efficient, successful awards strategy, which has helped the consultancy become the most award-winning across Europe. I worked for her throughout both of my ‘maternity leave’ periods (which don’t really exist when you’re self-employed), and was even editing stuff to meet a looming deadline while strapped up to my drip on the chemo ward.

I also started doing award entry writing, editing and training for other agencies, of all sizes, around the world. I created a niche: there aren’t many former journalists who really get public relations and can do this sort of stuff well. My clients were often shortlisted and frequently won. But there was one problem. It was a rollercoaster. In the run up to awards entry deadlines, I was rushed off my feet, working for clients in several time zones, all charging PELL-MELL towards the same cut-off date. At peak times, midnight shifts (and beyond) were common. I was working while the children were at nursery, and then school, switching to mummy mode for a few hours, then back to my desk when they were in bed. I was frequently juggling dozens of pieces of work, including many first drafts written by people whose first language is not English, all of which had to tell an equally engaging story to convince the judges, all at the same time.

But then, the week after deadline: silence. I never quite worked out the trick of doing marketing and filling the pipeline with other non-time-sensitive stuff while you are rushed off your feet, so my working life was essentially manic peaks and then depressed troughs. I could have been writing my taking-bloody-forever novel during the down time, or spending hours in the gym, or decorating, but mostly I used to sit at my desk fretting. (And pissing about on Twitter, obviously.) Not having a deadline doesn’t really work for me: I descend into the slough of despond pretty bloody quickly if I haven’t got a pressing to-do list.

On paper, I had an amazing work-life balance. I worked school hours, was able to drop off the children and pick them up every day, and was there for every single school thing, while still earning a good living doing something I really like and am good at. In reality, I was stressed out and constantly worried about money – cash flow was ridiculous, as some months I’d be billing thousands and then other months, practically zero. And when you haven’t quite had the five-year sign off from your oncologist, this level of stress is probably a bad idea.

Something had to give.

Last summer, as I hit my 41st birthday (so much less dramatic than 40…) I took some time to reflect on what I had achieved with my career, and what I wanted my next decade to hold. As I pushed towards the 10th anniversary of starting my limited company, Besparkle, in August 2015, I knew I had two choices. The first was to change things dramatically to make it into a real business rather than a winging-it one-woman band. This would involve sorting out childcare, working pretty much full time, finding other contractors and partners, and investing in marketing. Maybe even writing an actual business plan for the first time! (Told you I was winging it…) The second option was to chuck it all in and find a job.

I dropped my biggest client a casual email, on a whim (this appears to be a pattern): if anything came up at her agency, job-wise, that she thought I might be a good fit for, would she let me know? She read between the lines (and presumably decided she didn’t want to lose me to a competitor) and within a couple of weeks had created a new job description, just for me.

At that point, obviously, I got cold feet. I felt utterly torn. One the one hand: oh my goodness, the bliss of never having to worry about whether I was earning enough again! And it wasn’t even that big a leap: I would still be doing a job I know and enjoy, with someone I work really well with. On the other hand: do I want to give up my independence, my flexibility, the children being my priority? Did I want to hand them over to a nanny? Do I want my days to be owned by someone else? Could I still go to all the school things? Aren’t I happy just working alone? Do I really want to do any commuting at all? Do I need colleagues? Do I want to say goodbye to my business? It’s only little, but it’s still mine, and I built it, and I’d just had my most successful year since having children.

Many of these points of resistance were incomprehensible to DH, who was just over the moon I was even considering it. He’d never really forgiven me for resigning without any discussion with him, and doesn’t exactly embrace financial insecurity. But he had another, more positive, reason for encouraging me, too: he reckoned that having colleagues and getting out of the home office would do me good personally, in terms of my happiness and emotional stability. Other high-flying (mostly male) friends also told me to basically ‘get over myself and get a job’.

Then HR got involved, and it became apparent that what they could offer me in terms of a full-time salary was below what I’d need to earn to factor in childcare and travel. The numbers weren’t adding up on either side. But we all persisted, going backwards and forward on possible scenarios: the will was there to make this work, somehow. Then I had a lightbulb moment: Option 3 – let’s stop talking about employment, just put me on a retainer contract for a few days a week instead. This was a win-win: they wouldn’t have all the overheads of a new employee but still had priority over my time, and I would get to stay in control and keep my independence. Essentially, this is the holy grail for a freelancer.

And so that’s what happened.

The logistics have sort of fallen into place. After a couple of false starts, we finally found a fabulous, cheerful, capable after-school nanny who does pick up, tea, homework and bathtime, enabling me to work two long days and spread my other hours out over the rest of the week. The smalls are in breakfast club a couple of days, too. And despite my worry about not being there for them, they are, of course, absolutely fine. They are eight-and-a-half and six-and-a-half this month, after all, rather than babies. I still mostly work at home, I can still do school stuff (though the school campaigning has had to go on the back burner) and still do some work for selected other clients, and still manage my own time.

The best bit, though, is Wednesdays. My London day. My grown-up, proper job day. The day I get up early and put on a smart dress and get on a packed train and go to a big open-plan office and see my inspiring, clever, creative colleagues, new and old. I have a half-hour fast walk from Waterloo in my trainers, through a historic bit of London that is very easy to love (I only forgot shoes and had to buy a new pair of fierce heels once, honest), and get sushi for lunch, and have meetings in cool little break-out areas with some of the cream of the communications industry.

It’s the one day of the week where I’m a professional first, and mummy second. I leave before the kiddies are up, and DH does the morning routine and school run. I get back around 7.30pm to find tired, happy, freshly-bathed kiddies in their PJs watching the Simpsons with a glass of milk, with the nanny having handed over to daddy. That this is possible, and everyone is OK, is a revelation for me.

I know this is already a very long post but I have to make one final point: I could not have done this without DH. He has totally stepped up. He has a greater childcare role than ever before and has taken on more of the domestic burden without blinking. I feel like he takes my work really seriously for the first time in a long time, and he is doing his bit (thankfully with a pretty flexible employer himself) to make sure this new level of formality in my career works for all of us. We’ve always been a team, but now it feels more like we are equals again. It’s turning out to be good for us. And I have to admit that he and our friends, who are all a bit ‘I told you so’, were right all along, damn them: creative solitude is all very well, but sometimes you’ve just gotta put your lipstick on and get out there. Who knew it could be such fun?

Our Ofsted report: it’s a scandal

Here’s a joke for you: what do you get if you cross a ‘good’ school heading for outstanding status, with The Kemnal Academies Trust?

Give up? Well, I’ll tell you. The answer is a primary school in Special Measures! Boom boom!

Not funny? Too right it’s not. Our Ofsted report was finally published yesterday, exactly 28 working days after the no-notice inspection finished in September. And the findings are no laughing matter.

Sadly, this is no longer true.

Sadly, this is no longer true.

From being rated as ‘Good’ across the board in January 2013, when the school was described as ‘magical’ and its leadership as ‘inspiring’, we are now officially ‘inadequate’ in all areas: leadership and management, quality of teaching, behaviour and safety of pupils, achievement of pupils, and early years provision. TKAT took over the day after that last Ofsted, and look at what they’ve done. Becoming an academy is meant to improve schools. Now that’s a joke.

When I read the report, I was actually shaking. With upset, with anger, with disbelief. The rumours weren’t good – an Ofsted report is usually out within 15 working days and a delay usually means the school has asked for a negative judgement to be reviewed – but this is much worse than I feared. I was one of the parents who called for the school to be inspected, because it was obvious the previous report was no longer a true reflection of the school. But I wasn’t expecting this.

If we’d dropped one grade to ‘requires improvement’, we would have sucked it up: it’s been a tough, tumultuous year, after all, with the loss of our head, followed by the deputy, the rest of the leadership team and loads of other teachers. We’ve had an interim head, and now a part-time consultant head, who joined at Easter and promised us he would uphold ‘the Weyfield Way’ and told us he believed we were still a good school. We were hopeful that he could settle things down and take us forward, and a ‘requires improvement’ rating would be fair enough after all that upheaval. That would mean we’d slipped a bit, but things were moving in the right direction again. That, despite the fallout of our forced academisation, we were back on track.

But inadequate? Special measures? Seriously? Just how do you do that to a good school?! And so quickly? It absolutely beggars belief. That’s not even steadying the ship, for goodness’ sake. This is what being in special measures means: ‘this school…is failing to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education and the persons responsible for leading, managing or governing the school are not demonstrating the capacity to secure the necessary improvement in the school.’ Ouch.

The report is absolute proof that being forced into TKAT’s control has been to the detriment of the school. Every page is damning. ‘Pupils do not make enough progress’ and aren’t being challenged, especially the more able children. ‘The number of exclusions is much higher than most schools’. ‘Leaders’ views about the school’s performance are over generous’, and ‘the headteacher, other leaders and governors have not acted with sufficient urgency to bring about necessary improvements to pupil’s achievement and to the quality of learning’.

Expectations of pupils’ learning, achievement and behaviour are too low, especially when the 2013 report stated that ‘everyone shares the same high expectations. Pupils are challenged and expected to achieve their best at all times’. In the previous report, senior leaders and staff were praised for creating exciting and imaginative working spaces that foster pupils’ curiosity. Now ‘indoor and outdoor spaces do not stimulate children’s learning effectively’ and ‘classroom displays are not used consistently well…..at the time of the inspection many display boards were empty’. As anyone who visited our school when the entrance, corridors and every classroom made you exclaim ‘Wow!’ will agree, this is pretty sad.

Another painful contrast: from ‘pupils demonstrate high levels of respect for the headteacher, staff and each other’ (2013)  to ‘the behaviour of pupils is inadequate’ (2014). Children do not just suddenly shift their behaviour unless something dramatic happens that causes them to lose faith and trust. For this to have happened is an outrage.

Worryingly, the report also recommends two external reviews, looking at what the school is actually doing with the pupil premium – the extra funding it gets for our high number of disadvantaged children – and governance at the school.

Whatever your views and experiences of Weyfield, TKAT, Ofsted, inspections and reports, this is all we officially have to show the world what our school is like. Our public reputation, in Guildford and beyond, rests on this document. And, on the basis of the report, our reputation for being a creative, going-places school that totally engaged an often-challenging cohort has been shot to bits.

The reaction from the headteacher, the chair of governors and TKAT in the letter home is that they are ‘extremely disappointed’ with the report. I bet they are. I’m extremely disappointed too, that my children were at a good school, and are suddenly at an inadequate school. I’m a bit more than disappointed, actually. I’m hopping mad. I can only imagine how the team who achieved the opposite – taking us from ‘special measures’ to ‘good’ in just 12 months – must feel on reading the report. Gutted, probably. What a waste of all their hard work.

I’m also astonished that the head, chair of governors and TKAT have the gall to try and spin the report as being somehow the fault of the previous leadership. As if the school was doing badly, and they have come to our rescue. As if they are doing all they can to improve it, and those pesky inspectors just can’t see it and haven’t given them enough time.

But that’s not the situation here. We were good. We became a TKAT academy. Now we’re in special measures. You do the math, as they say. In 19 months since taking over, they haven’t even managed to maintain our ‘good’ status. That’s the only story.

The obfuscation and dishonesty of the letter home makes my blood boil. It contradicts all previous public assertions that they wanted to continue ‘the Weyfield Way’ because it was clearly working for the children. You can twist the facts and not-so-subtly scapegoat all you want, but at some point, TKAT, you’re going to have to take responsibility for destroying the thriving school we were proud to be part of, and accept the consequences.

I am hoping that those consequences will take the form of the DfE intervening, to finally remove us from TKAT and placing us in the care of a more appropriate, local academy group. When we pressed for this at the start of the year, after the chain had somehow managed to lose yet another head teacher, the Department for Education’s response was that there was no mechanism for this, and that we were stuck in a seven-year contract. Since then, however, the DfE has had to invent a mechanism, since it has become inconveniently apparent that not all academy chains are improving the schools in their care: earlier this year 10 schools were removed from the E-Act chain after Ofsted raised concerns.

And if the DfE can find a way to void a contract when badly-performing schools continue to perform badly, it seems like a no-brainer that they should remove a previously-good school from an academy chain that has made it inadequate. After all, it’s absolutely clear that we slipped through a loophole. We were in special measures, the academisation process began, the new head turned the school around rapidly, but there was no way out at that stage. Good schools shouldn’t be forced into becoming sponsored academies, but we had no choice. It was all a bit ‘computer says no’. The DfE now has an opportunity to undo this terrible mistake, although by the look of this depressing report, it’s a bit late for the children of Weyfield.

There is a pattern here for TKAT. When Ofsted undertook a blitz inspection of six of its schools in the summer, the results were not impressive. And last week’s report from TKAT’s Thomas Bennett Academy in Crawley also shows a drop from ‘good’ to ‘requires improvement’. And they are still being allowed to take on new schools! When, exactly, are they going to be held to account? How much time and how many chances are we going to give them?

So, unlike the beginning of the year, when Weyfield parents overwhelmingly passed a vote of no-confidence in TKAT but were powerless to do more than make noise, we now have both precedent, and compelling proof that we’re not safe in their hands.

TKAT inherited a good school. All they had to do was keep it on the straight and level, and they haven’t even done that. Whatever ‘improvements’ they say they are starting to make this term are too little, too late. They have failed our school, failed our community, failed the teaching team, and, most importantly, failed Weyfield’s children. It’s simply not good enough, and it’s time for them to go. That’s the punchline.




Check your boobs, people!

So Breast Cancer Awareness Month rolls around again: yet another disease awareness campaign during which the women’s mags, weekend supplements, Twitter and Facebook feeds will be full of pink ribbons, real-life stories, tips for examining yourself and reminders of the importance of a Healthy Lifestyle. If you, or people you love, haven’t had a brush with cancer, it’s pretty easy to skip over those pages. I know I used to: those features and posts just didn’t seem relevant because young women don’t get breast cancer, right? And anyway, it’s too scary. And maybe even a bit too much information. And then, ironically, I was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer actually during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, four years ago. I’ve always had immaculate timing. breast_cancer_care_checklist_0

Funnily enough (not funny, obviously, but I’ve always needed to laugh blackly about this stuff – the alternative is dissolving into a soggy pile of woe, which is not really my style), the week I was diagnosed I had, in fact, just read one of those ‘real life experiences’ about a young woman with breast cancer in Grazia, about which I wrote a couple of years ago. I was 37 years old, with a four-year-old daughter who had just started school, and a two-year-old son. That month, everything changed.

Four years on from that surreal whirlwind – from discovery of lump to oncology department in a matter of days – Breast Cancer Awareness Month resonates rather more. But it’s complicated. I sort of glance at the features and the information sideways. I still can’t look at them head on. Even having gone through it – or perhaps because – it’s possible to have ‘cancer fatigue’. And it’s just too close to home – I have my Year 4 mammogram at the end of this month, won’t be officially in remission for another year, and my consultant is now making noises about me being a candidate for the new 10-year protocol of taking the crazy-making Tamoxifen instead of the standard five years. And even when I’ve got through all of that without so much as another twinge, cancer haunts.

People I know who are well past the five years, even ten, 15 years after diagnosis, still say they are not ‘over’ it. That it never really leaves you, having had cancer. That every year around the anniversary of diagnosis, even if it was decades ago, they still have a frisson of fear. The memory of that utterly life-changing, bowel-liquidising moment when they say ‘chemotherapy’ to you for the first time is too powerful to ever fade completely.

And then, inevitably, giving rising rates of all cancers, someone else you know is diagnosed and starts going through the exact same treatment pathway as you, and it brings it all back again. This happened recently to me – an old colleague posted her shocking news on Facebook and it knocked me sideways with nausea. She is handling the treatment with humour, eloquence, stoicism and immense calm, which I much admire. She says my blog posts when I went through it were inspiring, which is very kind, but I think it’s more that the human spirit is quite remarkable. Many, many people who have complete breakdowns at stuff like lost luggage or being hit up the arse by a man in a white van will end up dealing much better with a genuine, life-threatening crisis.

Nevertheless, reading her upbeat updates on her treatment was, I think, the reason why I found myself sobbing in the car park at Surrey Sports Park a couple of weeks ago. I was due to meet my best friend for a swim after dropping the children at school, and just as I parked the car, a propos of bugger all, I had a flashback. During which I was lying topless on the bed in the assessment room at the Royal Surrey County Hospital’s breast unit, with one arm in the air and the consultant taking a biopsy of the lymph lump under my armpit. On the computer, there was the mammogram of my right breast, the terrifying, obviously-not-good-news white mass of tumours shining out of the screen. It was a split-second memory, but it was very, very vivid, and I just burst into tears and sat in the car crying by myself, thinking ‘I am not in any way over this. I have not really dealt with the utter nightmare of what happened, and I am really scared of it happening again’.

It’s over (probably forever), but it’s not ever going be be over, at the exact same time. You forget, and then you remember, and it’s like being winded all over again.

I love autumn. It’s my absolute favourite season. I love the colours and the leaves and the conkers and the low sun, and the return of my preferred uniform of opaque tights, short skirts and long boots. I love the ‘return to school’ feeling, the hard-wired desire to buy new stationery, the urge to make the home organised and cosy in preparation for winter nesting. I love the start of ‘roastie season’, where every Sunday involves friends, family, red wine, open fires, a sizzling joint (the meaty kind, obvs) and all the trimmings. But on top of that, autumn has become my most fearful season, and October is now the weirdest month. There are so many layers of reminders: every year it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, every year I am getting jittery as my annual mammogram approaches, every year I remember all over again those dates: the 6th, when I went to the doctor to report The Lumps; and the 13th, when I had the first mammogram and was immediately diagnosed. (October 6th is also the day we moved into our silver lining house three years ago, even more weirdly).

There is, though, the lightness and exhalation when the good news comes back from the radiography department: all-clear, I can relax and start planning Christmas. And the bigger picture stuff: I am so, so blessed. I had the most amazing treatment, from my incredible surgeon to my risk-taking oncologist and the lovely radiotherapy team. I am still well looked after, and in very good hands, and if I have any worries at all, I know I will be seen within days. I can tick off another year and am almost there, almost signed off! And then we can open the vintage Dom Perignon I have squirrelled away!

And, of course, I am still here, and well, and life is to be lived and enjoyed. I’m still around to see my babies grow up into wonderful, kind, funny, clever, dazzling young people and to hug them endlessly. Still here to laugh and cry and eat and drink and dance with my husband and my friends and my family, all of whom are so special and lovely and generally awesome, I must be the luckiest girl alive.

None of which would have been possible if I hadn’t known, via my flicking through all the features in women’s magazines over the years, what to look for, how to examine myself, and the importance of reporting anything that ‘just doesn’t seem right’ as soon as possible. Most breast lumps and bumps and pain are benign, and your mind will have been put at rest. If that’s not the case, and Stuff Needs Sorting Out, you’ll be whisked through our amazing healthcare system and have the best chance of effective treatment. So do give Breast Cancer Awareness Month a tiny bit of attention this October. It might just save your life.


Why I want Ofsted to inspect our school

Ofsted. Six little letters that strike fear into the heart of everyone working in education. My children’s school, Weyfield Primary Academy, was last inspected in January 2013 and was judged to be ‘Good’ across the board after a transformational year where our socks were well and truly pulled up from being ‘inadequate’. At the time, every parent, teacher and staff member was over the moon – hence this overexcited blog post at the time. (You can read the actual report here )

Most parents want their child to go to a ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ school, right? So why on Earth have I and several other parents written to Ofsted in the past couple of weeks asking them to reinspect the school with a view to downgrading our Good rating? I don’t know if there’s any precedent for this, it’s so counter-intuitive. So let me try and explain my personal thinking.

Sorry about the missed apostrophe...

Sorry about the missed apostrophe…

The fact is that our ‘current’ Ofsted report is a historical document. It is an account of our school at another time entirely and I believe – as do many other parents – that it is now seriously misleading for prospective parents. The day after we were inspected, the academy group TKAT took over our school, and it has gone into sharp decline. Schools can change frighteningly quickly – and not just for the better – when they become academies.

We now have concerns about all four areas covered in an Ofsted report:

  • The leadership and management. You know this already: just 18 months after that glowing report, the much-missed Simon Wood, our head who was so good that Ofsted’s lead inspector described the school as ‘magical’ left suddenly in January this year. We also lost our fab deputy, and many other senior teachers have since left or resigned. (TKAT, by all accounts, is not a favourite organisation of teachers and heads, who seem to leave in droves, often under mysterious circumstances, whenever the trust goes into a school). The new head Neil McDonough, who started at Easter, is a consultant who is  in school three days a week. He’s still settling in, and as I said in my last post we will fully support him and his team, but the fact is that the current Ofsted report is not about TKAT’s management or his leadership.
  • The behaviour and safety of pupils. A small but very disruptive group of children in Year 6 have been pretty much out of control since January. There have been worrying reports of bullying and appalling behaviour. Rules have been routinely broken and not enforced. Some challenging children are apparently no longer being properly supported.
  • The quality of teaching. The teachers who are still at the school and were part of the previous head’s team are great, but they are now being spread  thin on the ground and I gather there is over-reliance on temporary staff. I am not convinced that the most able children are being pushed or supported adequately, since so much time is taken up dealing with the more challenging children. I hear staff morale is still low.
  • The achievement of pupils. We were on track for significantly improved SATs this year, up from being officially ‘below floor’ – ie one of the worst in the country – but I would not be surprised if they end up not being quite as stellar as anticipated. A number of children in Year 6 were due to take the advanced Level 6 SATs papers – the first time in the school’s history that this would have happened – but in the end none of them sat the papers, without parents being informed or consulted. This does not seem to be serving the most able children in the school – what happened to our ‘reach for the stars’ ethos? I do wonder if this decision was taken to avoid the risk of the children taking the papers but not achieving this level after all the disruption at the school, as this would negatively impact our SATs and reflect badly on TKAT. This possibility is deeply worrying.

I know that being ‘Ofstedded’ is a hideous and deeply stressful experience for heads, deputies and teachers in schools. And because I think our remaining teaching team is fab and has been through an awful lot in the past six months, I kind of don’t want them to have to deal with inspectors again so soon. But I believe, in the end, it will be in the best interests of the school.

A new Ofsted inspection would draw a line under the past six months and give the new leadership team, and parents, a true picture of where we are now, and what our journey from here needs to look like. Coasting on an old report that reflects a completely different set of staff, ideas, values, actions and plans doesn’t do anyone any favours. Our previous head was first inspected two weeks after he arrived, and it was the best thing that could have happened, as the follow-up 12 months later, just before TKAT arrived, demonstrated just how far and fast we had come.

When any new leader comes into an organisation, there is fall-out among the current team, and people leave. Some people won’t like, accept or respect the new boss or their ideas or style; some will be loyal to the old regime; some will not meet the needs or standards of the new leader. For others, it’s simply an opportune time to move on. It’s hard to lead a team that isn’t ‘yours’. When our previous head arrived, a lot of people left by mutual consent and a lot of new faces arrived. The same is true now. We’re losing a worrying number of talented teachers, who will be missed, but our new head needs to build his own team to move the school forward according to his own vision. Whatever page we are on, all the staff need to be on the same one, for the sake of their own enthusiasm, commitment  and job satisfaction, and for the sake of the children.

Neil has already made at least one brilliant appointment: our deputy head Mei Lim. She arrived just over two weeks ago via the Teach First programme to get the highest-calibre graduates into education, and already it’s clear that she will be a significant factor in getting the school back on track. She’s super-bright, approachable, a great communicator and clearly knows her stuff. My kids are a bit in love her already – as DD said, ‘she’s just like Mr Wood – she is really strict when she needs to be, but the rest of the time she is really friendly’. She already seems to know the names of all the staff and children, and is highly visible on the front gate every morning and afternoon. And she has good shoes. We have high hopes of Mei: she may yet turn out to be our silver lining.

There’s some confusion over whether Ofsted still inspects individual schools once they become academies, if they are not in special measures, or if they only inspect all the schools in a chain. Our local MP is writing to Ofsted to find out under what circumstances Ofsted might be likely to inspect either just Weyfield or all TKAT’s 39 schools. Recent blitzes of the E-Act academy chain (where a number of failing schools were taken away from the trust) and the Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse’ schools  affair indicate that the way academy chains run their schools is certainly on the inspection agenda. There’s little evidence that parents can have enough influence to ‘trigger’ an inspection, but with all the bad press, I don’t think anyone would be surprised if one was on the cards anyway.

I have championed and defended Weyfield for a long time, and have no personal complaint against the school or anyone in it.  My smalls are fortunately still perfectly OK, happy, safe and engaged in their Year 1 and Year 3 classes. But my children are the most important things in the world to me, and there has been such a lot of upheaval that I am concerned that the school may not actually be currently delivering them a ‘Good’ education, or is a place where they can achieve their potential. Much as I love my kids being at an officially ‘Good’ school, if we’re honest, the current Ofsted report is not an accurate, up-to-date reflection of where we are today.

I would be absolutely delighted if Ofsted came in and confirmed we were still a different sort of Good. The new leadership team seems convinced that their  three-year plan and vision for the school, outlined last week and sent home today, means that we can still reach Outstanding. Although as one dad said last week, ‘I’d rather the school got back to Good and was still magical, than reached Outstanding and was dull’. Mei Lim responded confidently at a parents meeting last week that being creative and outstanding aren’t mutually exclusive. I really, really hope she’s right, and that we eventually get there after our major setback. In the meantime, I still think it’s time that an inspector called…

In which Pinchy swims for bloody hours

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to blog about this. I’ll probably work it out while I’m writing. Last month, I did my Biggest Ever physical challenge: I swam 5K for Sport Relief. Yes, I know! Me! The doyenne of exercise-avoidance!

Five kilometres, I can tell you, is a bloody long way. It is, in fact, 200 (count ’em) lengths of the Surrey Sports Park pool. It seems even longer when you can only do a ‘majestic’ (ahem) breast stroke and have never done more than happily bob around a holiday swimming pool for 40 years prior to taking on this challenge.

I’m being slightly disingenuous, of course: I didn’t just get in the pool on the day and hope for the best. I had been training for it since September, along with my two co-swimmers, my dear friend S and her oldest buddy A. Well, when I say training, it was more like swimming up and down for a bit twice a week, and then going for a natter, a cuppa and a panini because we were ‘famished’. At first, anyway. We were all comfortably swimming a mile – 64 lengths – by November, although that was taking me an hour. And then I sort of… stalled. I didn’t really get in the pool much during December and January. Or February. I started to seriously think about pulling out of the swim. I hadn’t started fundraising and was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task for a non-swimmer.

Come to think of it, I was overwhelmed by much over the winter. It’s true that you only realise when you emerge from a tunnel how dark and cold it was in there, and how long it has been since you felt the warm sun on your face. Sitting here now, feeling broadly OK, I can’t quite believe what a struggle those wet, overcast months were, in all ways. It was probably a combination of seasonal glumness, a stressful time re finances, my natural tendency towards depression, and big bad life-changing stuff going on for friends who I love fiercely. Plus I was working almost every evening to meet deadlines and very involved with our school campaign after our head teacher left suddenly. (See my previous five posts for the full story!)

This period of General Rubbishness, pre-swim, was topped off nicely by a week in Egypt. Our first family holiday abroad for three years, and the first since I finished my cancer treatment. We took the kids out of school for a week and could still only afford it by hiving off a bit of the money we’d borrowed for a basic refurb of our decrepit kitchen, combined with DH’s first bonus for a few years. In other words, we were quite desperate for a holiday. The kiddies were looking forward to it so hard I thought they would burst before we hit Sharm. We were going to have an amazing time!

There is a small but important life lesson here about ‘non-attachment to outcomes’: the more you want things to be a certain way, the less likely they are to meet your expectations.  I’m always quoting Alain de Botton on travel – something very true he once said along the lines of ‘the trouble with holidays is that you take yourself with you’. The trouble with Egypt was that I took my tearful, short-fused, exhausted self there and expected to be transformed instantly by the sunshine, sea views and all-inclusive package  into the easy-going, cheerful version of myself. What actually happened was that I sat on the lounger with cause-less tears running behind my shades while our delightful and beautiful children had an amazing week in the pool. My Kindle died, both our phones were stolen from our hotel room, necessitating far too much interaction for DH with hotel security and management, reps, and Egyptian police stations, plus there was the worst torrential rainstorm Sharm had seen for decades. My energy was in such a shit place, frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if I manifested all of the above, like a frickin’ witch.

I was planning to swim loads while we were there. I didn’t. I did snorkel on a coral reef with beautiful fish, like Actual Finding Nemo, though, and that lifted my spirits a little. When we returned, it was only a fortnight to the Big Swim and I had only covered less than a third of the distance in my training sessions. So I went Forrest Gump. I got in the pool and just swam, for 80 lengths. Then a couple of days later I swam 100. Then 120. And finally, on the Monday before Sport Relief Swimathon Saturday, I ringfenced three hours and swam 180 lengths. At that point, and not at any point before, I knew I could do it. S mentioned that last year’s Swimathon times were on the website. I made the mistake of looking and realised that I really was going to be one of the slowest in the entire country – no-one in my age group had done 5k nearly as slowly as my predicted time of 3hrs 20 minutes. The only women who had done that sort of time were (I kid you not) called things like Doris and Ethel, which I pejoratively assumed meant that I was as slow as a Very Old Lady.

That week, as I wondered again why I was doing this, the Sport Relief programme about Davina McCall’s far more crazy challenge to cycle, run and swim 500 miles from Edinburgh to London, was on telly. The documentary followed Davina on her trip to Africa before taking on the challenge. As she sat with the little girl whose days consisted not of school and games and fun with friends but the monotony of breaking rocks and breathing dust with her mother, hour after hour after hour, for pennies, I cried. I realised that the money I had already raised at that point would send two little girls like her to school for a year. THAT was the point. And I cried again the next morning when I tried to explain to DD when she asked why I was swimming so far. There was my motivation. To give little girls, just like my bright and funny and precious seven year old daughter, a chance at a better life.

Nevertheless, I still had to do the damn thing. I didn’t sleep the night before the swim. I woke up in a terrible mood, really jittery and anxious. S had an upset tummy and A had her back strapped up. It was not looking good. The worst thing was waiting all day: the event wasn’t due to start until 6pm after the  start time moved from 5pm. I went slightly ballistic, and pointed out to the organiser that this would mean I would be in the pool until nearly 9.30pm, meaning my children couldn’t be there at the finish line and our plans for a takeaway and champagne with my M&D, who were up for the weekend to cheer me on, would be buggered. After she realised quite how slow I was (and that she’d probably need to give me the keys to lock up…) she asked if I’d like to start an hour early, in my own special lane. Like a special person. FFS. My sister texted, accurately: ‘We are not a family of athletes, Pinch’. I graciously accepted, of course.

So we arrived at the pool. DD and DS had secretly made me a poster saying ‘Go Mummy Go!’ I got into my cossie. Put my goggles on. Still shaking. My lovely friend B arrived en route to her date night just to see me off. Good luck countdown texts arrived from other dear friends. Team Pinchy was cheering on the sidelines. I got into the water, put my bottles of sporty drink stuff raided from DH’s cycling larder on the edge, and started. I was not entirely in a lane of my own – there was also a small child, who swam the entire 200 lengths in less than two hours, and a series of elderly gentlemen doing the 5k as a relay, who also finished well ahead of me. It took me a good 40 lengths to get into any sort of stride. If one can be shaking while ploughing up and down a pool, that was I. I stopped briefly every 20 lengths for a quick gulp of drink, and to check in with the very patient lady counting for me. Every length took one minute, for the first couple of hours. Then, as everyone else in my lane finished and I had it to myself, I actually got quicker. I was coming in under target! photo 2

My family and S’s arrived to cheer us all on for the finish. The last 20 lengths were punishing: I was breaking new ground, and by that time my right arm was very painful. It’s the one that I had all the lymph nodes removed from; my movement is slightly limited on that side and it does get very uncomfortable at the top and in the armpit if I overdo it, risking lymphodoema and cellulitis ( I’ve only had this once, and it was royally crap).

Then, suddenly, it was the two hundredth length. My darling husband and babies stood at the end of the pool shouting ‘COME ON PINCHY!’, and I was trying to swim 25 metres while doing an odd mixture of sobbing and laughing. And then it was over. My official time was 3hrs 8mins. I’ve just checked and I was the 3,680th person to finish in the country. Whoop! Because I had started an hour early, I was actually out of the pool a few minutes before my much speedier swimming buddies, and was able to cheer them on at the finish. We had done it! Between the three of us we’ve raised a couple of grand so far, I think – you can still donate on my page at https://my.sportrelief.com/sponsor/majapawinskasims – I’m a few quid shy of £700 so all donations very welcome!

There was elation and achiness and lots of hugs. And we all got a medal, much to the smalls’ delight. Then champagne and a massive fat well-deserved Thai takeaway at home, followed by a bath in oil provided in my lovely school mum friend E’s ‘survival pack’ (along with bananas and jelly babies).

I woke up the next morning, terribly glad it was all over (although slightly surprised I had not turned into a size 6 sylph overnight). And at that moment, I began to feel better. Lighter and brighter. I had a health kinesiology session with my very dear friend Magic Emily, which helped shift things further and sorted out the achy lymph-free arm. And I have felt a little bit more myself every day since. I haven’t completely shaken off the Gloom, but I’m getting there. And that’s prolly why it took me so long to blog.

I’m never, ever swimming 5K again. But I quite fancy a different sort of physical fundraising challenge. I’m thinking trekking Peru for Breast Cancer Care next. Machu Picchu, anyone?


New head teacher, new chapter?

There are few things more awe-inspiring than a trot round the Houses of Parliament. The oldest parliament in the world! Stunning ‘perpendicular gothic’ architecture! All the pomp and ceremony and hush and history and whispers in paneled corridors! I know there’s a good argument for the country to be run from a more modern, accessible, functional, light and open building, but I have to say, I love the place. And last week I was lucky enough to be invited to a meeting in the Commons which may turn out to be a pivotal moment in the twisty-turny story of our primary school.

Pinchy woz ere

Pinchy woz ere

The academy chain that took over our school in February 2013,  TKAT,  had requested a meeting with Guildford’s MP, Anne Milton:  unwavering supporter of the school, writer of many, many letters asking awkward questions about what exactly TKAT were doing at the school and how they managed to lose an outstanding head teacher, and total laser brain. Anne Milton’s office called and asked if I’d like to come along, as a representative of the Weyfield Primary Academy parents. Ooh, this’ll be fun, I thought. I’d never met TKAT’s CEO Karen Roberts and was interested to hear what she had to say.

Cue slightly awkward moment at Portcullis House last Thursday when TKAT’s communications director Amanda Godfrey spotted me in reception and came over to say hello. I don’t think they were expecting me to be there. We were all – including a guy from the Department for Education invited by TKAT – taken down the underground passage to the Commons, through the various imposing halls and lobbies to a packed tea room where our little party arranged itself around a small table and took tea. All terribly civilised.

I don’t think I’m breaking any confidences to say that the meeting was focused on how we – as a school and a community – move forward from here, and how TKAT can try to put right the breakdown in trust between them and us as parents and staff. The DfE guy told Anne, when she asked how Weyfield could get out of TKAT, that there’s no way out of an academy funding agreement unless by mutual consent.

The main discussion, however, was how crucial the new senior leadership team will be in getting the school back on track. Because despite having no applications for the post when it was advertised in February, TKAT have managed to find us a new head teacher, Neil McDonough, who starts work after Easter.

The letter home from our new chair of governors, fellow blogger Clare Collins said:

‘Neil is a hugely experienced head and is also an Ofsted lead inspector. He is currently an executive head for three primary schools in Kent; prior to this he undertook an interim headship of a school in special measures and saw it removed from this category within a year, with leadership being judged as ‘good’… As governors we are clear that our vision for Weyfield is to foster the “Weyfield Way”, ensuring that high standards are achieved and maintained, and that this must be supported by top quality provision for both the children and the staff. Neil knows Weyfield as, over the last two terms, he has carried out some consultancy work in the school, and we are delighted that this introduction to the school has led to this appointment.’

We’ve since asked TKAT some more detailed questions about his appointment. It turns out he will only be working three days a week in the summer term as he has other commitments (he is currently running a consultancy, Make My School Better), and four days a week from September. How you can effectively run a very challenging school and not be there full-time, I don’t know, but there you are. Welcome to Gove’s brave new world of education.

He’s got a challenge on his hands: staff morale is extremely low, a whole sheaf of senior staff are leaving at Easter, and there’s no deputy yet in post. Some of the anonymous testimonials we have gathered from staff tell a very sorry tale of the current state of affairs at the school, with a rapid decline in behaviour and a perturbing lack of leadership and direction. Most urgently, some of the Year 6 children appear to be out of control. I am hearing stories of toilets being deliberately blocked, walking out of classrooms, graffiti, disrupting lessons, swearing at and threatening staff, and the reintroduction of an exclusion room. Back to the bad old days of two years ago, in other words. Not good for a cohort under great pressure to perform in their upcoming SATs.

The tea party at the House of Commons concluded with Anne Milton (who chaired the meeting quite beautifully) saying she’d be keen to meet the new head before he takes up post, and Karen Roberts looking me in the eye and promising me that TKAT really did want to keep Weyfield and was absolutely committed to putting things right and being more transparent and open and communicating better with us.

Only time will tell, obviously. I am still of the view – as is our MP – that Weyfield should have been allowed to join a local academy partner, the Guildford Education Partnership led by George Abbot secondary school. It will take a lot of evidence in the months ahead to convince us TKAT are in any way good for our school rather than actively damaging it.

But during the meeting – and this is why I said at the start that it might have been a crucial moment – I began to suspect Anne is also right about something else. Namely that now, with the appointment of our new head, is an appropriate time for Weyfield to try and move forward from the past three months of shock and grieving the loss of our tiny-bit-special former head, Simon Wood.

We’re no longer on that particular giddy and joyous journey from failing to Outstanding, and the children, staff and parents all miss him. But I fervently hope that after this significant stumble, we will soon be striding along another road that leads to the same end. I have no choice but to hope, and to try and make a positive contribution to that process: at least one of my children will be at the school for another five years.

There’s little point being obstructive, shouty and militant for the sake of it, since we’re never getting Simon back. (He starts work for another academy chain, Reach2, next month and we wish him the best of luck in his new role.) Equally, of course, we will not simply lie down quietly and be passive when dealing with an academy chain that still has huge question marks over aspects of its processes, transparency, management style, values, accountability and governance.

As parents, I believe we need to walk the only sensible line between the two extremes: acceptance that we are where we are, it is what it is, and while we will give the new head all our support in his endeavours to get the school back on track, we will continue to keep a very close eye on developments, and won’t hesitate to speak up if we feel our children’s education is being compromised in any way.

Because the purpose of education isn’t achieving good SATS results, Ofsted ratings, and gathering data: it’s all about the kids. About their aspirations and progress and happiness. About them deserving to have an education that enables each and every child, regardless of background and circumstance, to fulfil their potential. About them feeling respected and cared for so they respect and care in turn. If our new head truly gets that, and TKAT start understanding it too, we might just have a chance. I am an eternal optimist… I’ll look forward to meeting Neil McDonough soon, and hearing his plans to make our school sparkle again.

Oh, I almost forgot: the BEST bit of my trip to the Palace of Westminster was actually after the meeting. Anne Milton very kindly signed me in to the public gallery – the cool open bit over the Labour benches, not the bit behind a glass wall – and I sat there very happily, in proper awe of my surroundings, trying not to look at Nick Clegg’s crotch as he slouched on the Conservative front bench (I was surprised how many of them were tapping away on phones and tablets. I swear I saw one of them playing Candy Crush). Sat on the iconic green leather benches, I was lucky enough to hear most of the MPs’ wonderful tributes to the last great socialist, Tony Benn. Now there was a man who unfailingly spoke up for what he believed to be right, and those without a voice, and yet worked within the system without compromising his principles. Whatever your politics, he was an example to us all.