Permission to be ill, please, Miss

All over the country, school years have just ended. The morning roads are suddenly quieter and the 3pm traffic carnage has gone until September. The streets have emptied of school uniforms and the shops have filled up with them, every child’s delight at school closing instantly tempered by the flurry of signs announcing ‘Back to School’ that spring up as soon as July ends.


Along with the mysteriously missing PE kit that’s been replaced twice, stray socks, extra jumpers you didn’t know they had, children will have been arriving home laden down with craft projects, paintings and armfuls of prizes and certificates for all sorts of things they’ve earned over the past year. Many of them may have been for 100% attendance, something schools have been rewarding certainly since my grandparents’ days – I have a book with a commemorative plate in the front to prove it. But why do we do this, when it is something children have no control over, and the children who fail to achieve it do so through no fault of their own?


There have been recent stories about classes giving those children with full attendance treats in front of their classmates, classes competing against each other on a weekly basis to improve their attendance percentages, prizes of gift cards and trips to theme parks for pupils with 100% attendance, but its important to bear in mind what we’re actually looking at here – penalising children for being ill. Parents often end up in a Catch 22 situation; if they keep their child away from school they may well get a phone call about their child’s attendance falling below acceptable levels, if they send their child into school they may get a phone call at work demanding to know why they’ve sent a sick child into class.


The school are caught in a similar trap, of course. They are also being judged by their attendance figures. An absent child obviously counts against them, but an unwell child in school runs the risk of making other children ill and spreading sickness, creating more absences, and so any unwell child must stay away from school for the optimum time. Schools have no control over the health of their pupils, just as children have no control over their own health, so how are schools expected to tackle attendance when things like outbreaks of slapped cheek or chickenpox or simple sickness bugs can happen at any time?


Any schools greatest responsibility is to the health and wellbeing of its pupils, not its attendance percentages. A good school should be sending unwell pupils home and ensuring that they stay home rather than risk the health of other pupils, particularly if there are any pupils present with compromised immune systems or other health conditions. A school that has SEN pupils, for instance, or pupils with health needs or disabilities may well have higher percentages of absences than other schools for this reason. This should not count against it, and those absences are necessary absences, and do not affect the learning or teaching of other pupils in any negative way.


When pupils have medical or dental appointments, social care meetings or other pre-arranged reasons to be away from school, these are entered in the register as authorised absences. This is obvious, as these are necessary and unavoidable reasons for a child to miss a session of the school day. But surely so is a broken arm or a bout of vomiting? And surely so is a child going into hospital for an operation and their time away from school afterwards for recovery, or time spent in hospital for chemotherapy. If the school is happy that a child was genuinely ill, then the school already authorises those absences, so why do we let them count against the child or the school?


If a child is absent, and there is no reason given and no contact from the parent, then, yes that is an unauthorised absence and it should be followed up and flagged as an issue. But that is the ONLY kind of absence to be watched. I cannot believe that this is so obvious, and yet is not policy in every school. (Tho, goodness knows, if it’s Capita that still maintains the SIMS system, then god help us for any sweeping change with how the electronic registers store and list data.) Take all authorised absence data out of the percentages, and let the school have a true picture of the absences schools, parents and pupils have some control over, can improve and work towards raising. But don’t let it be a matter of judgement or pride, even when it comes to unauthorised absences. Don’t publish the percentages at all. Don’t find any reason to single out or other those children. Because whatever the reasons children are missing school, it should never be something to shame or judge them for to even the slightest extent, and doing so is never going to make them more willing to attend school.


There is also a greater, more insidious issue underlying this, however. When we reward children for not being ill all year, or for the last two years, or three or five, we associate good health with hard work. We then, in the process, associate ill health with laziness, with not really trying hard enough. We then carry that message through into adulthood, and a society that looks at those Daily Mail headlines about scroungers on disability allowances, and think, well, you know, they could get jobs if they really wanted to, couldn’t they? They’re just lazy, aren’t they? Or even, they become people who don’t claim because they don’t feel they’re entitled to, because this is the mindset we’ve created since they were five years old – sick people don’t win prizes.

Writing Won’t Let Go

I was in an interesting place for most of last summer. Aftet my father died, I spent a lot of time at my mother’s house on Anglesey, and the fact I was already off work was something of a godsend. To be honest, there were just lots of days, one after another, with me and my mum just getting on with living, watching tv, cooking food, idly chatting about something and nothing.

There was something of a distraction in the middle, with our wedding – which would never have happened if not for some of the best friends a person could ever wish for – but I was very much a bystander in my own life for quite a while.

But the world, ignorant bastard that it is, keeps on turning. Shit keeps happening. People live and die without so much as a by your leave. The pictures of the two little brothers washed up on a Turkish beach did send a spark of reality into my wooly haze. The reactions of the press and social media actually impacted on my thinking, and I started talking to people about it, especially on facebook. I undertstood the effectiveness of shocking images in creating a real public outcry, but that didn’t mean that all and sundry should share those pictures in their statuses like random clickbait. We couldn’t do much for those children, I couldn’t do much, but I could ask people sharing the pictures why they were, and if they would consider using another image, because maybe the one thing we could do was try to give them some dignity in death.

I had some really interesting, thoughtful discussions with people I hadn’t spoken to for a long time, and actually felt like I was starting to think again, in some small way. I lay in bed, still thinking over what had happened, and how people were responding to it, and also, the awful, horrible reality of what had happened to that family. I had an odd, recurrent image of an illustration from Charles Kingley’s book, The Waterbabies, of a small, cherubic child sinking down through the depths of the sea, and it wouldn’t leave me. More than the image, the words, ‘Oh my babies, my poor waterbabies…’ kept running through my head, and it took me a little while to recognise the process; I was writing. Writing like I used to. Writing a poem, by repeating and repeating word and rhythms until it would take shape. Part of me was watching myself do this, fascinated, as it had been so long since I wrote anything like poetry.

So, I wrote a few lines, slept a while, dropped them onto facebook for want of anywhere else to put them, and that was that.

I had some really nice responses and a few shares over the next few days, which was lovely. But much more importantly, I felt like I had something of myself back that I had been missing. Times have been up and down since then, but that part of me that wants to craft words into a shape and share them with other people is still there. I’ve written a few things since then, and I’ll share them here with a little bit of context around each one, as suits.

But here is that first one. It’s not perfect, and I think the rhythm isn’t ideal, but it’s the one that my mind wanted, and so it’s the one it has.




I was once told a story about Waterbabies,
And how they were lost, unloved and alone.
Til at last they found sanctuary under the waters
And were taught of the kindness from which love is grown.

But oh my babies, my new Waterbabies,
You were loved so much more than comfort and home.
But you have learned nothing but ruthless exclusion,
And how crocodile tears swell the morning tide’s foam.

Catch Up

There’s been a small gap in my bloggery.

Ok, a fucking huge, yawning abyss of a gap, and, by Christ, this one did stare right back at me.

First, I was busy. Then I was tired. Then, I was ill.

Labyrinthitis is a very odd condition, and more common than you might assume. Turns out I know a few who’ve had it, and several who’ve had it since. Every single experience varies, in pretty much every way. It leaves you feeling sick, dizzy and uncoordinated, and even shifting position in bed can be like a rollercoaster ride – and not in the good way.

Luckily, my experience only lasted around three months, during which I saw two different consultants, had an MRI, hearing checks, physio… God bless the NHS. But as those symptoms faded, I acquired a whole new set to replace them. At first, it seemed that they might be just the result withdrawing too fast from the prochlorperazine that had been so helpful. Sometimes, coming off it makes people anxious. But I got worse and worse, and ended up with a whole new diagnosis of anxiety and depression, the severity of which might have at last started to decrease, nearly 18 months later.

This all in the year that not only did we get married at last, but also my father died.

In amongst all this, work went from being unexpectedly supportive, to less so, to unsupportive, to firing me.

I’m sure I may get some further mileage out of several aspects of this, in time to come. I’ve moved slowly back towards writing over the last year, and feel more and more able to do so. I will start by making a few posts out of the things I’ve written in the interim, and then get back to posting properly, I hope.

There are plenty of things to post about, after all.