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Archive for the ‘News/opinion’ Category

What’s the benefit for children?

with 11 comments

Child benefit is the sacred cow that has been slaughtered before our eyes.

I understand the need to make massive savings. The country is in the mire; we owe £900 billion and that is forecast to soar to £1.1 trillion by next year.

According to the UK Debt Bombshell , it is the equivalent of every man, woman and child paying back £15,213. UK pays £120 million debt interest every day to foreign governments.

That kind of debt is not sustainable. Everyone agrees that significant savings must be made across the board. Something has to give.

Getting rid of child benefit for high earners, those people earning over £44,000, is one idea.[picapp align=”right” wrap=”false” link=”term=george+osborne&iid=9913374″ src=”http://view2.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9913374/the-conservative-party/the-conservative-party.jpg?size=500&imageId=9913374″ width=”234″ height=”156″ /]

The Chancellor George Osborne, who before the election pledged to save child benefit, says it will save £1 billion a year.

While there are undoubtedly good arguments to scrapping a universal benefit for high earners – whatever they are (that depends, naturally, on whatever you earn. It’s probably £5,000-£10,000 more than what you are on) – the dichotomy comes with the mathematics.

In a one-income family, with the sole earner’s yearly salary at about £44,000, they lose their child benefit. For the oldest child in full-time education, that payment stands at £20.30 a week, with £13.40 a week subsequent youngsters. For that one-income family, it means losing £1,752.40 if there are two children in the family.

That’s a lot of money.

While some families may not even notice the money going into their bank accounts every month – see India Knight’s tweet about how she used her child benefit (she also tweeted that she didn’t claim it after 1998 when she returned to work) – for others, it is the difference between being able to keep the house warm in the winter; it is being able clothe their youngsters. It isn’t about paying for piano lessons.

But the real problem for the angry middle classes and Mumsnet and the like is the incredibly iniquitous decision to allow two parents who each earn just under the 40 per cent threshold (£40,000 each, say) to continue claiming child benefit.

How does that seem remotely reasonable? To many people, including Tory activists, high earners and those who will continue to receive child benefit when the changes come into effect in 2013, it is a monstrous policy.

Is the government sacrificing the simplicity of the system, by introducing a crude cut-off point without any regard for household income, for fairness?

All of this rather overshadowed Osborne’s next announcement to cap the amount of benefit any family can claim to £26,000. Of course, the comfy middle classes won’t be wringing their hands about that.

What next? What are the next elephants in the room to be sacrificed? Winter fuel allowance; pensioners’ bus passes; free TV licences for pensioners? More than likely. We are, as this government continues to say ad nauseam, all in this together. Unless you are super rich. Then that doesn’t apply, of course.


Written by CommonPeople

October 5, 2010 at 8:31 am

Email chaos for families waiting for school admissions news

with 3 comments

The date of March 1 was hovering over tens of thousands of families for months: it was National Offers Day, the day we would, at last, find out the future of our children’s secondary education.

After months of uncertainty – compounded by the problems many parents in Walsall experienced when the Schools Adjudicator changed the admissions criteria for one secondary school one week before the preference form deadline – we were ready for the outcome.

Serco, the organisation that runs education services in Walsall, had set up an email notification system for those parents who wanted to know as early as possible which secondary school their child would be attending.

There would, we were assured, an email dropping into the inbox at approximately 00.01 on Monday, March 1.

It beat waiting another day for the news, so I duly signed up.

Many parents kept themselves awake and sat at their computer at midnight, nervously waiting to open their email accounts. (I didn’t; I fell  asleep, despite efforts to stay awake.)

It was 00.01. Nothing. They waited and refreshed the incoming mail box. Nothing. 00.10; 00.15; 00.25; 00.45; 01.00. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

After a fitful night, I eventually reached for the laptop at 5am. Nothing? This can’t be right. There was a slight wave of panic: did I fill in the form correctly? Did I ask for email notification? I checked my print out. Yes, everything was in order.

So where was it? It was not until 7.30am that friends began to text each other. No one had received the promised email.

The children started to worry; we became anxious. It had worked last year, why not this?

It seems Walsall was not the only place to experience technical hitches.

In Northamptonshire, more than 5,000 parents hoping to be able to log onto the education website run by Capita on Monday morning found it had crashed and were unable to get the news they were after.

In Nottingham there were similar technical problems, which left parents chewing their nails until 3pm when the hitch was sorted out and emails were eventually sent.

Thousands of anxious parents in London and Surrey were left without the news they had been waiting for after Pan London Admission Systems, a website for the 33 London boroughs and Surrey, also suffered problems.

In the grand scale of things, these types of hitches might be considered small fry – and anyone who has not gone through the process might well scoff at parents over-reacting.

Believe me: once you are embroiled in the whole procedure, any delay is unbearable.

Perhaps a better way should be introduced. Instead of the piecemeal, drip-drip leak of information of who has a place where, perhaps letters should be sent to primary schools who should then distribute them to parents and carers on a single day at a given time.

I suspect there will never be an entirely fool-proof system, but this year has proven that technology isn’t the be-all and end-all.

Serco has yet to comment about its technology failure.

Written by CommonPeople

March 2, 2010 at 3:05 pm

How my son’s fundraiser was boosted by Twitter

with 4 comments

The power of Twitter, eh?

Those of us who subscribe to the 140-character-a-time micro blogging site know how useful and how much fun the site can be.

And we know it doesn’t matter how much we might bang on about it, those who have no interest are not going to sign up.

But I am not going to apologise for this short blog post, which sings the praises of Twitter. Again.

I’ve already written about how Twitter got me involved with a fundraising project for the victims of the Haiti earthquake.

But kind-hearted tweeters also helped my son last week when his efforts to help a school fundraiser were – ahem – less than successful.

Youngsters at his school made bookmarks, crafted Scoobies and other arty items. My eight-year-old wanted to do his bit. He drew 23 pictures – stick men scoring goals; stick men reading and walking into bookcases; stick men telling jokes – and said he’d sell them for 5p or 10p.

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”false” link=”term=children+drawing&iid=3119792″ src=”6/e/5/f/Drawing_Children_8292.jpg?adImageId=10169355&imageId=3119792″ width=”234″ height=”230″ /]

He sold one. And one, older, pupil who should know better, told him his pictures were stupid. He was devastated.

I posted a message on Twitter, saying he’d sold a single, solitary picture. Why? Because I follow – and am followed by – quite a few “mummy bloggers”. I thought they’d understand.

There were reactions, naturally, but three tweeters: @DanSlee, @Dovefarm (who retweeted the message to her followers) and @MillfieldLammie were so touched by the mini tale that they PLEDGED MONEY FOR ONE OF HIS PICTURES.

Isn’t that just wonderful?

Of course, they sent the money, too. I won’t embarrass them by divulging how much they posted to us for the school’s Haiti fundraiser, but needless to say that my son would have needed to sell significantly more than the 23 he originally drew.

He thought they were kind and was pleased that grown-ups had recognised that children’s efforts – however small – were worthy of attention.

After a few hours of being down about his little pictures being rejected by his contemporaries, he was buoyant again.

For him, the power of Twitter was real.

Thank you for helping Haiti.

Written by CommonPeople

February 11, 2010 at 11:02 pm

Woman returns to work seven hours after giving birth – but is that a good example for us?

with 12 comments

There have been innumerable studies over the past few years about women returning to work after having a baby.

Some focus on the guilt that many women with babies feel when they have to leave their precious bundle for the first time; others look at the support they receive in the workplace.

Then there are the surveys that examine the adequacy or otherwise of maternity/paternity leave; the issue of parental leave and parent-friendly hours when the babies start school.

So, how did it make you feel when you read that the headmistress of private school St Mary’s Calne School, Wiltshire, returned to her desk just SEVEN hours after she had given birth to her third child?

Dr Helen Wright tells The Daily Mail (February 7, 2010) that she believed she was setting a good example by taking her hours-old daughter Jessica to the office with her.

“Most mothers want their daughters to have the exhilarating excitement of a career they love and the joy of a family,” she tells the paper.

“I have that and I want to show the girls at St Mary’s that that is not an impossible dream.”

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”false” link=”term=newborn+baby+and+mother&iid=847135″ src=”2/b/5/d/FILE_Changes_Announced_f45f.jpg?adImageId=9999322&imageId=847135″ width=”234″ height=”326″ /]

But what example has she actually shown the girls, by returning to work so soon?

I have to admit to reading the report with a heavy heart, especially when she makes the remark: “Why can’t there be a third way – taking your baby to work with you?”

Now, I appreciate Dr Wright is cosseted in the world of private education, but is she honestly advocating that we all turn up to work with our babies, nappy bags and a truckload of toys?

I wouldn’t even dare ask the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, Chambers of Commerce – or the HSE for that matter – for their opinion on this nugget of wishful thinking.

Women have a difficult enough time anyway when it comes to returning to work after a few months’ away from the office.

A survey by The National Childbirth Trust in November last year revealed that 39 per cent of those questioned admitted they found going back to work after having a baby “difficult” or “very difficult”; 31 per cent claimed their relationship with their manager had deteriorated once their pregnancy had become known.

There is a raft of legislation and policies that protect women back into the workplace, but many of the 1,500 mothers who were surveyed said they still did not receive the support they needed.

There is no easy solution to this: many women are happy to return to work full-time after having a child, while others may want to reduce their office hours or become a stay-at-home mother.

But Dr Wright has done nothing for women who are wracked with guilt over returning to work. We can’t all be super mums. Many of us are torn daily as we drop off our children at the schoolgate or nursery as we troop off to work, relying on others to pick them up at 3pm.

We might want our careers, but many of us (me included) have realised we cannot have it all. Something has to give for a while.

Written by CommonPeople

February 7, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Does your child’s lunch pack a nutritional punch?

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There was quite a bit of hoo-ha this week about the state of children’s packed lunches.

Apparently, just one per cent of those surveyed were considered to be “healthy”.

About one-quarter of the 1,300 lunches taken to school by eight and nine-year-olds examined by researchers at the University of Leeds contained sweets, savoury snacks and sugary drinks.

These food items were banned by the government in 2006 when it introduced new rules on prepared meals for local authority schools in England.

Healthy school lunches caused much hand-wringing. Chips and turkey twizzlers might have gone, but the sticky problem of the packed lunch remains.

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=packed+lunch&iid=3600249″ src=”3/2/f/5/Packed_Lunch_f8eb.jpg?adImageId=8992534&imageId=3600249″ width=”234″ height=”183″ /]

The study, which was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, found that:

  • Few contained all the nutrients needed to consider it a balanced meal (starch, vegetables, protein, dairy and fruit);
  • Few had foods containing vitamin A, zinc, folate, iron;
  • Many contained sugary drinks and sweets;
  • Many lunches were low in fibre;
  • Many had high salt.

What should happen to the “persistent offenders” who repeatedly foist packets of crisps, cartons of squash and sweets on their offspring?

Should schools intervene? Would headteachers be accused of imposing some kind of nanny state?

It is a thorny subject – and very difficult to get right. Many schools have signed up to the Healthy Schools campaign, so anything that compromises it should be tackled. Head on.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=sandwiches&iid=6037602″ src=”c/7/d/6/KIDSLUNCH_bc1b.JPG?adImageId=8992608&imageId=6037602″ width=”234″ height=”239″ /]Parents, however, don’t like to be dictated to. Especially those who don’t care what food they provide for their families.

Schools have a duty of care, but many headteachers are nervous of telling parents off about the content of their darlings’ Spongebob and Barbie boxes. Offering advice on where to find help on healthy packed lunches is all very well, but what do you say to the parents who believe a strawberry lollypop comprises one of your five-a-day?

At some schools I have visited, lunchtime supervisors do keep a close eye on the packed lunches that are brought in.

If they spot a child whose meal consists of a bit of processed slimy ham and crackers, a packet of sweets and a pack of crisps, they report to the headteacher. If it is a regular occurrence, he/she is likely to write to the parents about the inadequacy of its contents.

Is that a good thing to do? I’d love to know what you think.

The problem is that those who do try to offer a balanced lunch are also being labelled as bad for including the odd nutritionally-dubious snack.

A 25g bag of salt and vinegar crisps contains 131 calories (74.7 from fat) and 8g of fat. There is a whopping 200mg of sodium (salt), carbs account for 12.5g and protein 1.6g.

(source: http://fatsecret.com/calories-nutrition/walkers/salt-and-vinegar-crisps)

By comparison, a 102g serving of roast potatoes, made according to the recipe provided by the Schools Food Trust, contains 132 calories and has 7.1g fat. Carbs come in at 16.2g and sodium 7mg. There is 1.7g of protein.

(source: http://www.schoolfoodtrust.org.uk/UploadDocs/Contents/Documents/george_dixon_primary_example_compliant_menu.pdf)

Is sodium is the issue here because calorie/fat/carbs-wise, there isn’t that much in it?

Before I’m accused of cherry picking my potato recipe, I will say that the Schools Food Trust’s nutritional standards include other starch-based foods that have lower fat/calories etc – including the dreaded potato waffle that I have bemoaned the return of in Walsall.

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=sandwiches&iid=1276263″ src=”f/a/9/6/Parents_Call_For_d97b.jpg?adImageId=8992944&imageId=1276263″ width=”234″ height=”156″ /]

I can’t honestly see a problem with including a cake or treat (not a packet of sweets or a bar of chocolate) if the rest of the meal is balanced.

My children often find a chocolate biscuit, a slice of cake (homemade or shop bought) or half a bag of crisps in their lunch. But they have fruit and/or vegetables, sometimes a yoghurt, as well as sandwiches. If they leave the fruit, they don’t get a treat the next day and get double fruit. This is also flawed: I’m using fruit as a punishment, aren’t I?

If schools are cooking delicious-sounding puddings such as flapjacks (which has sugar and golden syrup) and chocolate cracknell – made with cocoa, golden syrup and sugar – then I refuse to be the villain of the piece.

But, then, I’m not the one being targeted here. Am I? I might be surprised …

Photographs from PicApp

Written by CommonPeople

January 14, 2010 at 10:24 pm

Please, sir, I don’t want anymore…return of the junk in school dinners

with 8 comments

Today is Christmas lunch day at schools in Walsall. Tuck into turkey and trimmings (including sprout purée, although I’m fairly certain it isn’t meant to be puréed) and Christmas pud.

Unless you happen to be veggie (and not really vegetarian, either). For today, your Christmas meal will be the delightfully unfestive breaded small fry.

Merry bloomin’ Christmas to you, too.

A bit of effort would have been nice. Even a Quorn fillet as “pretend” turkey would have been good. After all, the authority uses the mycoprotein in other dishes for non-meat eaters throughout the year.

What would Jamie Oliver think?[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=school+dinner&iid=3407920″ src=”b/3/8/c/Awards_Room_At_d08a.jpg?adImageId=8340050&imageId=3407920″ width=”234″ height=”343″ /]

He spent months campaigning to get local authorities to ditch the junk – the turkey twizzlers, the smiley faces, the processed rubbish that required heating up and no skills.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=school+dinner&iid=1333634″ src=”9/7/4/4/Pupils_Make_The_e5b2.jpg?adImageId=8339988&imageId=1333634″ width=”234″ height=”162″ /]

Instead, he called for wholesome dishes: more meat and two veg; more pasta with homemade sauces; risotto; homemade burgers with salad. It was as cheap to produce as the junk, but better for the children – and for the cooks who could use their aptitude in the kitchen once more.

Out with junk

Walsall embraced this in September 2008. Out went the pressed-into-shapes cheap meats, the chips, the waffles and smileys. It blazed a trail. Approximately 15 per cent of youngsters in the borough are overweight, of whom four per cent are obese.

Something had to be done – and schools were in a good position to contributing towards a healthier borough.

Salad bars started to appear in schools, menus were devised that were not only healthier, but looked good and tasted good (nutritious vegetable curries; spag bol with hidden veg; pizza with homemade tomato sauce and more hidden veg).

In with junk?

But, a few weeks ago I spotted something: what was this? Waffles? Smiley faces? Sausage rolls? Back on the menu? Why would this happen?

The number of free school meals is rising in the town – there are now 4,620 children receiving free meals.

According to the report, Walsall Council Leader, Councillor Mike Bird said: “As a borough we have been particularly hard hit by the recession. A good nutritious meal at school is sometimes the only warm meal some children will have.”

That’s right, Mike. The only warm meal some children will have.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=gruel&iid=2544682″ src=”4/a/3/d/Gruel_Rations_95f3.jpg?adImageId=8340112&imageId=2544682″ width=”234″ height=”165″ /]

The authority serves about 7,000-8,000 meals a day. Isn’t it important, therefore, that the authority ensures the maximum nutrients per school meal? Wholewheat pasta bake? Good quality meat and well cooked vegetables? Filling rice dishes? Warming baked potatoes and a filling?

I was given a list of stats that showed the analysis of a three-week menu cycle, showing the proportion of key nutrients. It appeared to show that iron, vitamin A, fibre, protein, folic acid levels exceeded recommended guidelines over the three-week cycle.

I’m not a nutritionist,  but I did wonder why the analysis was not per meal, rather than an overarching view over three weeks. And does the nutritional value depend on what a child has chosen from that day’s particular menu?

But why processed smileys? Why processed waffles? Aren’t we reversing the good work of the past 18 months?

Apparently it is because pupils from ten schools were invited to suggest which food they would like to see on the menu. And – guess what? Smileys and waffles were requested.

The man who says “yes”

Guess what? The council said yes.

Chris Holliday, head of leisure and culture for Walsall Council said: “We’re always looking at ways of making school menus more appealing and nutritious. The menus for schools in Walsall meet all of the 14 nutrient standards for an average school lunch.

“We approached the manufacturers who were able to produce a waffle which is not flash-fried and can be served in compliance with the nutritional based standards. The smiley faces are flash-fried but we’re allowed within the standards to serve two flash fried items per week.

“Both items are oven baked with no additional fat. Waffles appear once and smiley faces twice in a three week cycle but children are offered a potato and bread option.

“We have at least two choices of vegetables that are provided each day and children can eat as many portions of vegetables and salad as they wish.”

Headteachers and cabinet members, however, were not consulted. I was told this was because the authority used a recognised nutritional programme and is guided by the School Food Trust.

One school cook I spoke to was concerned about the number of pastry dishes on the menus and the odd combinations of foods that are considered “balanced” by the authority.

Carb-busting cheese and potato pie and smiley faces anyone? Pizza and roast potatoes? Where’s the balance in that? (And why, while we are at it, are spaghetti hoops and beans – both carbs – considered to be be vegetables?)

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=gruel&iid=2544608″ src=”9/a/3/f/fe.jpg?adImageId=8340193&imageId=2544608″ width=”234″ height=”158″ /]

Can I have more? No thanks.

We have a duty to offer the best food we can afford to our children in the borough. If it is the only hot meal they are having a day, then for goodness sake make it wholesome tasting and looking. And get rid of the junk once and for all.

Written by CommonPeople

December 16, 2009 at 12:41 am

A polished performance? Fingers crossed

with 12 comments

It’s over and it couldn’t have come a day too soon.

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=sitting+exams&iid=7029050″ src=”a/7/a/e/South_Korean_Students_8eb1.jpg?adImageId=7996220&imageId=7029050″ width=”234″ height=”157″ /]

All we have to do now is wait. And wait. And wait.

Yesterday, after months of preparation, my daughter actually sat the entrance exam for the grammar school she wants to attend.

She has worked hard for it, too. Since August, she has been seeing a tutor so she could get to grips with the verbal and non verbal reasoning questions that these school tests ask.

Starting from a low-ish base, the trajectory of her understanding has been steadily rising until – at last – she really felt she could tackle most of the questions.

My friend, whose son sat the exam and managed to attain a coveted place at the boys’ school a few years back, warned me how I would feel on the day of the test.

“You will feel dreadful,” she said.

I laughed. “Of course not,” I replied. “It’s just a test.”

She was right.

Yesterday morning I sat at home with the sickest of feelings. My guts lurched when I thought of it, even though I knew – deep down – that my feelings were faintly ridiculous.

My daughter was allowed the morning off school and didn’t see my wan face. Thankfully didn’t suspect my nerves and had no inkling that my stomach was doing a darned fine impression of a washing machine.

She didn’t even click when I asked her in a wobbly voice – an hour before we were due to leave the house to find a car parking space in town – if she was OK.

As cool as a cucumber, she turned away from the Nickelodeon channel and said yes. And carried on painting her nails (she wanted to look good for the test).

Painting her nails!

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=painting+nails&iid=4268397″ src=”7/4/b/7/RAFW_SS_200708_ab39.jpg?adImageId=7996187&imageId=4268397″ width=”234″ height=”175″ /]

Thank goodness she had that attitude.

I’ve heard horror stories of girls and boys being harangued by their parents about the importance of the grammar school tests and how they are EXPECTED to pass – or else.

My daughter reported that there were a handful of girls weeping as they sat the test, most probably because the formula had changed and the questions were nothing like they had seen or practised before.

She and her friends were all worried about their performance because of the surprise change in questions, but we parents reassured them that all 800+ girls who were competing for the 96 places would have had the same concerns.

So, it’s done. Over. The £26 a week tutoring is finished with (thank heavens). Results are out on March 1.

To celebrate the end of this stressful three-month chapter we ordered pizza. It was pulled at delicately, though: she didn’t want to spoil her French polish…

Written by CommonPeople

December 3, 2009 at 5:05 am