Back to School

You may have the app, the qualifications and the experience but the road back to the classroom seems an uncertain one

In two weeks I return to proper classroom teaching after a break of fourteen years. Yes. Fourteen years of working from home, writing teaching resources, running workshops, tutoring students and caring for my children. I’m easing myself in by covering some classes in Latin and Classics for a few weeks for a teacher who’s away. It wasn’t part of the plan but I’m rather enjoying the prospect. Maybe absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Stepping back from the ‘chalkface for such a long time has given me time to reflect on the reasons I became a teacher in the first place and the contribution I can make now, free from the stress and pressure which many teachers face every day. And free from all the management responsibilities around which I fitted my teaching timetable all those years ago. Interestingly, my friends who have given up teaching and escaped to other professions and those who never went away, think I’m bonkers.

Apparently “around 10,000 ex-teachers return to the profession each year, bringing with them valuable skills and experience”. I wanted to find out how they get on. The press and social media are full of stories of why teachers are leaving the profession in droves, yet, apart from a story about a recruitment agency (in Rochdale, I think) actively encouraging experienced teachers back into the classroom to fill vacancies I could find precious little from anyone willingly stepping back into the classroom. A thread on the TES website from someone wanting to return was a study in doom, telling the poor prospective returner that her knowledge was probably out of date, her child protection knowledge was certainly inadequate and she’d be lucky to get even a supply teaching contract. Very encouraging! And all this when some schools are desperately short of enthusiastic, experienced teachers.

It’s not much of an incentive to return. What are schools and individuals afraid of? Maybe teaching is akin to running a marathon when you’ve been a coach potato since you stopped playing hockey, aged 14. Clearly you have to be mad or very determined to do it. I am probably both. Tick.

I may not have stood in front of a class of teenagers for a few years but I haven’t forgotten how to do that. Teaching is about engaging with people, working in partnership towards a common goal. I do that every day. (What’s more, as well as the energy and enthusiasm that many of my colleagues who have remained on the treadmill don’t seem to have and a first class knowledge of my subject, I am now the mother of three teens/pre teens. My battle armour and tactics are in place, if indeed I need to do battle. Tick.

The other aspect that seems to trouble people is that my own children and husband will have to do more around the house (is this bad?) or I’ll never have a tidy house again and my social life will go into a downward vortex. Tick.

Maybe I should start blogging about my return to the classroom to redress the balance. Of course there will be terrible days. That’s life; but I think that the road back in, though it may not be paved with gold is not altogether bad.

Watch this space.

Io Saturnalia! Partying just like the Romans.

ready to party Roman style
ready to party Roman style

Io Saturnalia!

This is the traditional greeting for Romans at this time of year, (the Io pronounced Yo!) When it comes to partying, noone does it quite like the Romans. Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival honouring the god of agriculture Saturn, held on the 17th of December and continuing through to the winter solstice. In fact it’s still popular in Deva (Chester.) 

Saturnalia was celebrated with a public ceremony followed by private celebrations in the home, where the traditional roles were switched. A Lord of Misrule was chosen; masters waited upon their slaves (although the slaves had prepared the food, beforehand). Everyone got to wear colourful clothes and the red pilleus, or freedman’s hat; gambling was allowed and normal business was suspended during the holiday period. Elaborate feasts and banquets were held; candles were lit and it wasn’t unusual to exchange small gifts such as wax candles, oil lamps, small earthenware figures, small writing tablets, cups,spoons, items of clothing or food. Citizens decked their halls with green boughs, and even hung small tin ornaments on bushes and trees. Bands of revelers often roamed the streets, singing and carousing. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days.”

Thinking about the school Christmas dinner tradition this week, where everyone wears a hat and colourful clothes, teachers serve dinner to their students, the hall is decorated with greenery, ornaments hang from the tree and music plays, it’s not that far removed from Saturnalia.

Holding a Saturnalia party is a great way to round off the term with students studying Latin.  I have often helped local primary schools round off their topic work on the Romans at this time of year by teaching them a bit of Latin, making some Roman food and pilleus hats and recreating a carnival procession with singing. Obviously, we all dressed up and had a thoroughly good time.

I would urge all homeschoolers and primary teachers to do the same. Partying just like the Romans is a great way to reinforce learning. Preparations for the party involve research into Roman costume and hairstyles, worship of gods and goddesses, slavery, festivals, food, the role of women… And the sites and smells of Saturnalia will stay with your students long after the ink has dried on the page of their workbooks.

Io Saturnalia!

Education, education, education….


I’m off to the Guildhall in Bath to take part in a debate on the Future of Teaching as part of the Bath Children’s Literature Festival and I can’t wait.

Today my Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of the latest initiative to drive up standards. There’s another pronouncement from Sir Michael Wilshaw, Head of OFSTED that children are losing valuable teaching time because the problems of low level disruptive behaviour in school is not being sorted out by Headteachers and teachers.We also hear that from 2016 a new GCSE in Cookery will be offered to help promote healthy eating amongst a generation who are reportedly going to cost the NHS billions in healthcare for obesity related illness.This comes hot on the heels of reports on the numbers of children leaving reception classes who are deemed unable to function in full time school, complaints from universities that students entering first year courses are ill-equipped for the rigour of degree study and changes to GCSE courses from 2017, which will mean that it will be much more difficult to gain a top grade.

Underlying all these initiatives and reported failings, do I detect a feeling that the future wellbeing of British society depends almost entirely on the teaching profession and that they are seen to be falling short? Certainly teachers have their part to play but I’m not sure that a profession who has little control over the quality of the raw material they have to work with (children) can be held responsible for all deficiencies. Don’t we all have a responsibility for educating the next generation?

My children had plenty to say on the subject at breakfast. I suppose it’s not surprising that they have views on something of which they have direct experience and in which they have a vested interest. What shone through from the discussion round our kitchen table, in between mouthfuls of toast, was a feeling that education is best carried out in partnership – where children, parents and teachers work together.

Lets take cooking as an example, seeing as it is in the news.

My middle child has cookery lessons in school for about an hour a week for part of the school year. Currently he is learning about foods which give energy, how they can be used as part of a balanced diet and how to make an array of biscuits and snack bars.

At home recently he has learnt to make omelettes, scrambled eggs, yorkshire pudding, pizza, pancakes, macaroni cheese and an array of salads. He can lay a table, load and unload a dishwasher and make a grocery shopping list.

As a result of watching The Great British Bake Off he can recognise what an over proved muffin looks like and what he could do to make a better one. (I ought to let him loose with a bag of flour at the weekend).

Teachers do not have time to take on the entire job of making him into a passable cook, who can fend for himself in a healthy way. That’s our job too. To borrow a phrase from Sir Michael Wilshaw….”it’s not rocket science.”

Whatever the ‘future of teaching’ is, I hope it allows an opportunity for parents and teachers to work together to educate the children in their care, where teachers feel valued and respected, where children feel engaged and parents feel involved.


Oxford Blues

views of Oxford
views of Oxford

I’ve just got back from a week in Oxford (re)learning a dead language and am missing it like crazy. A week of intensive study at St Catz, fab food, the company of enthusiastic teachers and an opportunity to wander around Oxford after dinner. Who wouldn’t have the Oxford blues when it’s all over?

The study week was organised by the Cambridge School Classics Project in conjunction with the Classics department of Oxford University and was funded by the Department for Education to encourage the teaching of Latin in state schools and help increase the number of qualified Classics teachers, of which there are increasingly few.

‘So what?’ some people may think. ‘Who needs to learn a dead language anyway?’ One of the most eloquent and sensible voices to answer that question is that of Charlotte Higgins, chief Arts editor of The Guardian. I had the pleasure of chatting to Charlotte on Thursday after her lecture at the Classics department, where she was talking about her latest book, in which she answers that famous Monty Python question ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’ by travelling around Britain in a camper van. Her enthusiasm for the subject  is infectious. You can read what she has to say here

Charlotte Higgins showing that the Romans may have discovered twerking.
Charlotte Higgins showing that the Romans may have discovered twerking.

I admit I enjoyed the week away from home rather too much and felt energised rather than worn down by intensive study from 9am  to 7pm. We covered a two year GCSE course in one week! Makes me think that university is wasted on the young. 🙂

Until recently the preserve of public schools, Latin is now beginning to make strides into the state sector after the absence of many years. Sadly my local comp prefers to turn out Mandarin speakers instead.  There’s room for both, as far as I’m concerned and those who know me will not be surprised that I have set up a ‘resistance movement’ and am teaching Latin to my own children (and some others) via the eminently accessible Cambridge Latin Course at home. I shall start by putting it in context, spending a rainy afternoon watching the Vesuvius episode of Dr Who, as recommended by one of the teachers I got to know last week. Ironically Caecilius, whose family are the main characters in the first part of the course, is played by Peter Capaldi!

Quam felix sum!


In the news today ….climate change, young horticulturists and Marks and Spencer

school flower patchYes. It is April 1st and the papers carry the odd joke story. Sadly a recent article in The Telegraph tweeted this morning, snortily comparing the new breed of ‘Young Horts’ who grow cucamelons on balconies in milk cartons, throw seedballs on waste ground and plant sunflowers at bus stops with ‘old school’ chemical squirting, double digging obsessed gardeners has all the hallmarks of a filler because the hack who was supposed to come up with the April Fool’s joke ran out of inspiration. The real story is that many young people are getting the growing bug in the way their parents haven’t. For the first time since the war I sense there is a feeling of growing with a real purpose amongst young and old alike. Community orchards are springing up, people are experimenting with exotic crops on many a kitchen windowsill and cut flower patches are de rigueur. In some cities municipal planting is edible. Vertical growing and roof gardens are not just for hardcore nerds. You don’t have to be young to be part of this growing evolution but the young in particular get the climate change message, the need to plant year round for pollinators and the positive effect that local, seasonal crops can bring. They can also harness the power of social media to work collaboratively and get ideas off the ground quickly. Growing To Young Horts is cutting edge, changing the world stuff. And so it should be. Clearly the Telegraph thought better of their snorting and have given the Young Horts better coverage today.

Climate change is still big news with a report published yesterday indicating that people are now beginning to feel the effects of climatic change  and the need to do something about it. Even Marks and Spencer are pushing their green credentials with a new way of water free, more compact distribution of flowers, thereby conserving water and requiring fewer lorries on the road. Now I wouldn’t want to diss good old M and S. They’ve provided generations of the female members of my family with robust underwear and stockings but fewer lorries and the need for less water is – pardon the pun – a drop in the ocean. We need to think bigger where crops are concerned. Listen to what Young Horts and their older supporters have to say.

Thanks to Our Flower Patch we have our own branch of Young Horts at school. They’ve started selling our home grown blooms on Friday afternoons – no miles, no chemicals, recycled packaging (in jam jars), beautiful, fragrant, seasonal and much appreciated by our customers. Our young horticulturists enjoy making people happy, making a noise about it on the school blog, Facebook and Twitter and making money. They’re doing what their grandparents did – using what they have to grow what they can. Maybe in a year or two some of them will be fully fledged members of the Young Horts. I do hope so.

And THIS is today’s real news.




Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…

autumn colour flowers
Keats was pretty observant, wasn’t he? Autumn days round here invariable start in a grey mizzle but by the middle of the afternoon, the sun’s out and I’m harvesting a crop of something from the plot. It’s been a good year for Autumn Bliss raspberries; but not as good as last year. It’s been a good year for apples; much better than last year. And it’s been a fantastic year for cut flowers.
You may recall that after last year’s garlic rust and pitiful supply of runner beans, I threw a hissy fit and turned the allotment over to cut flowers. I haven’t regretted it for one moment. I’m still cutting enough for three massive vases every week and my fresh veg comes from the local box scheme. My salads have survived quite happily in containers at home as described here.

Now I’m positively evangelical about the benefits of growing cut flowers. Whereas local seasonal food is the flavour of the month (quite literally) local, seasonal cut flowers are still out in the cold (usually in a large refridgerated container making its way into this country from the other side of the world). Brides still want roses in December and florists can buy cheaper stems from Kenya at the wholesalers than from the flower farm down the road. You can’t find a fragrant bunch of sweet peas for love nor money at the supermarket in July. This is wrong.

I’m told that if you cultivate less than an acre of land – and, let’s face it, most of us do – cut flowers is the most profitable crop. Moreover you can grow them cottage style in your herbaceous borders, chop away at them and they keep on coming. Grow them alongside your veggies and your edible crops will be healthier and more abundant, due to the increase in pollinator activity and better biodiversity of your plot. That’s the science bit.

The romantic bit is that you’ll be able to fill vase after vase with gorgeous blooms well into the Autumn and have enough to share them with all your family,friends and neighbours. I guarantee they’ll give you the kind of welcome you never get when you attempt to dump your courgette glut on them.

But this isn’t the only kind of fruitfulness I’ve been the grateful recipient of this Autumn. Over the past few weeks I’ve been given plants on Freecycle, fruit from neighbours and swapped seeds and cuttings with friends. I’ve received a good few dollops of advice and a packet of red hollyhock seeds from gardening Twitter chums and we have foraged the lanes and woods for blackberries, elderberries, conkers and acorns. Our kitchen windowsill resembles the nature table at my primary school, back in the day.

The most exciting ‘fruiting’ at school has been that my half an hour of ‘extreme’ gardening with a small group of children at lunchtime has become an hour and a quarter of gardening every week with an entire class. I can’t stop smiling about the endless projects and possibilities this opens up. The garden has been resited due to building work and we’re starting from scratch with beds full of nettles and an empty poytunnel. We’ll be blogging about our progress here so if you run a gardening club or class at school and want to join us, you can see what we’re up to and get in touch. It’s a work in progress so bear with us for a week or two and I hope you’ll find it helpful. Sharing ideas and experiences week by week might bear fruit.

There’s still a few days left in September to sow some hardy annuals, start planting your daffodils and enjoy the fruits of the season. The youngest apprentice has been cultivating her photography skills and snapping a few shots. I’ve been posting them up on Twitter as #Septemberviews. We’ll make an album in due course.  Why not have a look at what we’ve spotted this month. Join in with your own if you like.

I’m rather partial to Autumn.

Hetty Hyssop and the Case of the Missing Bouquet Garni

The Courts_July2011 003
Thanks to all the lovely children, parents and grandparents who came to dabble in a bit of herblore at The Courts in Holt today. Professor Rosemary Spongle had plenty of help to find the missing herbs and the Orchard Room was a truly relaxing place on probably the hottest day of the year so far.
I promised to post up the recipes for lavender bath milk and lavender bath bombs so that anyone can dabble and experiment over the holidays.These recipes will work just as well with other fragrant plants. Chamomile or jasmine works well in the bath bombs or try rose petals in the milk. And if you’re feeling adventurous, try adding some food colouring.

Bath Bombs
300g bicarbonate of soda
150g powdered citric acid
5 tablespoons dried lavender (or alternative)
12 drops lavender essential oil (or alternative)
witch hazel

Sift together the bicarb and citric acid until well blended. Mix in the oil and dried flowers.
Spray or squirt on some witch hazel. You’re aiming for a mixture which is wet enough to stick together but not so much that it starts to fizz.
Press the damp mixture into silicon moulds, bun tins or large ice cube trays. Small is good for little hands and silicon is great because you can turn the contents out easily.
Leave to harden for up to an hour. Ours took 15 minutes today.Then turn out onto greaseproof paper and allow to harden further.
When fully set, pack up into paper and tie with raffia or store in an airtight glass jar. Great for you or to give away as presents to your friends.

Bath Milk
200g powdered milk
120g Epsom salts
12 drops essential oil (rose or lavender)
a handful of dried rose petals or dried lavender flowers

Mix together the milk and salts. Add the oil and dried flowers/petals and give it a gentle stir. Store in an airtight jar where it will keep for up to a year.
Scatter a handful of the mixture under running water for a lovely relaxing bath.

And for those of you who like to eat your lavender, there’s a knock out recipe for lavender scones here

And finally a little request….if any parents took pics of their children getting stuck in and are prepared to let me have one or two for my records, I’d be really grateful. Perhaps in exchange for a free place on one of Forest School workshops I’m running at Hartley Farm in August. Email me at if interested.

I’ll be back at the Courts on Thursday August 15th following in the footsteps of the great Victorian Plant hunters and making wild art on the 22nd. Hope to see you there.

Postcards from the plot #7 *End of term gifts*

It’s that time of year when children countrywide  troop into primary school clutching a present for the teacher as they wave good bye to one school year  and look forward to six weeks of free-range life. Mine are no different – and thus far we’ve  always managed to make it ourselves. That’s part of the fun. In the recent past we have stashed chutneys, jams, lavender sugar, homemade lemonade, and homemade fudge into the basket on the last day but this year we’ve plumped for something homegrown instead – due mostly to a distinct lack of time

Gladiolus callianthus  or Acidanthera (peacock orchids are what my granny called them) are elegant,  late Summer flowering beauties. with an alluring scent. I have to thank  Laetitia Maklouf for reminding me about them in her latest book *Sweetpeas for Summer*. – and also for the generous use of the picture. There was usually a pot hanging around our house in the Summer but I have to admit to labelling anything with the name gladiolus as not for me and orchid as too much faff. These couldn’t be further from the truth. Here’s how….

Take three children on a rainy day at the end of May with a small budget, little time and a ready-made supply of compost and terracotta pots.

Add in an ability to search on ebay for corms and a mum with a paypal account. Ask Mum to complete the transaction.

Wait for the postman to deliver.

Open up the parcel. Plant corms in pots in the usual way. You can pack  7 corms into a 25cm pot. Water well and place in a warm, sheltered spot outside. Allow the rain to water naturally over the next few weeks.

During the last week of term bring inside. Wrap pots with hessian and string. Write a special message for your teacher on the label and deliver to school.

Guaranteed to cheer up a hardworking teacher when they bloom just as the ‘back to work blues’ set in at the end of the Summer hols – perfect in every way.

Salad days

Yes . It has been a while since I last blogged. Not that I have been idle. Quite the opposite, in fact. The thing is we’ve been having a bit of an overhaul of the Country Gate plot and garden. Plants have come – and some have gone in an effort to create a thing of beauty which is also tasty AND useful. I believe the term is an ‘edible landscape’. It’s a work in progress.

We’ve always grown a lot of perennial herbs – and fruit – and vegetables so it isn’t much of a sea change. All we’re really doing is abandoning any bedding plants and shrubs with no added value as edibles, companion, medicinal or dyeing plants in favour of those which are uber-useful. Beauty is no longer enough!

And so the pots and windowboxes which over the years have housed annual bedding plants have been redeployed to grow salads. I imagine I’m not the only mother who wishes her children would eat a bit more of the green stuff.  Presenting them with a bowl of lettuce, however lovely has never REALLY ticked all their boxes. On the other hand, take them to a Harvester (or similar) and let them choose their own and it becomes  a pleasure and delight. Lightbulb moment! Create a home salad bar.

 So now we have a veritable cornucopia of leafy containers from which they can  choose their own quirky combo. There is the peashoot barrow by the back door, the wine box of ‘cut and come again’, the ‘rocket’ pot, the sorrel boot, the large windowbox crammed with ‘four seasons’….the list is endless.. Job done…or at least until it’s time to sow some more.

Little Green Fingers, shepherd’s huts and William Morris.

Look what landed on my doormat recently. Now –  there is no shortage of gardening books for children in my house. We have the lot – presents  from maiden aunts; picked up at jumble sales or in charity shops. We may even have bought the odd one. But I must admit to being quite excited about Dawn Isaac’s book.

Dawn is one of my *Twitter mates*and I dip into her blog on a fairly regular basis. Over the months I’ve shared in the re-roofing of the playshed, the construction of the cold frame and the open-air cinema project. So the announcement that she’d been commissioned to write a book of garden projects for children was greeted with high expectations. The day when she drilled her thigh inadvertantly whilst working on one of the projects merely created an added buzz.

Dawn is a garden designer with three young children of her own. She has a rather lovely family garden – so lovely that my own children would be more than happy to live there. In fact, if it weren’t that I’d promised myself to a shepherd’s hut in Monty Don’s garden, I’d move in myself. This is good. What shouts out from the pages is that here is a mother who knows about designing family gardens and how to get little people growing things.

Dawn clearly subscribes to the William Morris approach  – “have nothing that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. I fear like me she has experienced  the problems of housing huge (often ugly) craft  and soggy toilet roll growing projects. Every project here is beautiful to look at  and  helps to instil a love of gardening. I am prepared to forgive the inclusion of the eggbox cress caterpillar – every child should make one, even if they do have a nasty habit of dissolving into a soggy mess on your windowsill due to overkeen watering.

This book would work particularly well for parents , teachers or nursery staff who are fairly new to gardening. The projects themselves are perfect as workshops for nurseries or at primary school.There’s a useful introduction covering the basics of how to start and the projects themselves are helpfully organised into sections – ranging from manageable windowsill projects to larger scale and more permanent constructions. The ‘Scented Hopscotch’ idea was a particular favourite with one of my children. Even if you are an old hand there are one or two items to  get your mojo going again if you’ve run out of ideas..

Thanks Dawn. I love it. But I was bound to love a book written by a woman who scours charity shops for containers, gives gardening kit in party bags and encourages her children to spend their pocket money on seeds in Wilkinsons – wasn’t I?

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