Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Home-made winter soup

It's definitely soup weather, later than most years.  I love soup, and since my friend Jane gave me an amazing liquidizer, it's easier than ever to have smooth vegetable soup whenever I feel like it.

My method with soup is easy.  I usually use carrots and potatoes as a base for my soups, and I use onions or leeks (prefried) as flavouring, with garlic if I fancy it.  I add anything that comes to hand - parsnips, leftover vegetables, beans, spinach... though be aware that the colour turns from a lovely orange to a rather greeny brown on the addition of a lot of greenstuff. 

So... ingredients
6 carrots
2 or more potatoes
Any leftover vegetables or vegetables you'd like to add
2 onions (chopped and fried)
1 large tomato or a bunch of smaller ones
stock - either fresh or reconstituted pots or cubes - but watch out not to add too much salt if using commercial stock, lots of them already have a lot in.  I used to use chicken stock, but I have progressed to beef and I like that better although it doesn't smell as good when cooking, strangely.
butter/oil for frying
garlic (optional)
Worcerstershire sauce

Fry the onion and tomato and set aside.  If very fancy you may want to skin the tomato before chopping and frying.  Add garlic if wanted.

Roughly chop all the other vegetables, put in a pan and cover with stock.  Bring to the boil for 30-60 minutes, making sure the potatoes and carrots are cooked. 

Depending upon whether you have a plastic blender or a glass one, you may have to leave the soup to cool before blending.  My posh blender has a different problem altogether:  if you follow the instructions and tightly fit the lid onto the blender with hot ingredients, it fountains out of the top when you begin to blend.  I learned the hard way, with hot soup on my cupboards, toaster and myself, that one should leave off the stopper in the middle and cover it with a clean tea towel!

Blend until smooth.  Add in the fried onions at this point to blend them in too.  Return the blended ingredients to a clean pan.

Reheat and then test the soup, and add the extra ingredients like worcestershire sauce, seasoning, maybe a splash of balsamic vinegar, to get the soup to taste the way you like it.  Some soups with parsnip and carrot can be very sweet and need balancing with salt and pepper, others need a little sweetness to bring out the flavours.  Anything goes.  Play with the ingredients and note down if you like extra onion, or not so much onion etc, to help next time!

I like my soup hot in a bowl with a dollop of cream or creme fraiche or yoghurt in the middle.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Home Education under threat again

I've heard from several contacts now that Home Education is once again coming under the spotlight because the authorities, OFSTED and NSPCC believe that it is possible for home education to be used as a cover for abuse. 

Local authorities have been agitating for more control over home educated children for a long time, but the last time that the NSPCC proposed that there should be more controls, we successfully fought off but it seems that they are going to try again.

One of the first things any home educating family has to do when they start home education, is to decide upon their educational philosophy.  This is partly because case law has established that education is efficient if it achieves what it sets out to achieve, and it is pretty much impossible to work out if that is true withoutfirst deciding what you are setting out to do.  When I first thought about home education, that seemed like a simple prospect.  Of course, I wanted my children to be educated... didn't I?  But soon you realise that you have to sit down and work out what that actually means. 

Those of us who went to school were squeezed through a system which assumes all children have the same basic ability to learn how to read and calculate, and that if you only apply yourself, you can succeed.  Except this isn't true, as anyone who has been through school knows.  You have different levels of ability to concentrate on different things, you have different attitudes to sitting still, to being quiet, to learning about the Romans.  What inspires and excites one will bore another. 

The education system assumes that anyone will want to achieve five GCSEs, go on to A levels and then to university.  Indeed, as Sir Ken Robinson says, the ulitmate aim of the educational system seems to be to become a professor and remain forever trapped in the education system.  Success in the terms of school, is success at school, which is the achievement of exams.  But many children who pass through the school system fail to achieve exam success, and still go on to live useful lives.  Don't we also need people willng to work in shops and cleaning offices and hospitals? For some people their pleasure in is helping people, serving people, selling things - all things whih school measures very poorly.

More sadly, many children do succeed at exams, and have a bright future ahead of them but then become depressed and suicidal because of the risk of failure, or because they are unhappy people who happen to have succeeded at school stuff while feeling a failure at everything else.  Or have been bullied, or have been made to feel that their owly worth is their academic success. 

Education, in its purest sense of the word, I realised, is not about pushing in a lot of facts and figures and letting a child regurgitate them in an exam.  It is about drawing out of the child the potential that is there in the first place.  Which a school cannot know, because it is a psychopathic institution, as Peter Senge says.   He means by that, a school is not a learning institution, adapting its procedures to fit the pupils within its walls.  It is, like justice, blind to the people who are currently within it, and blind to the differences in those people, treating all the same.  This equality can be presented as a positive, but it can most surely be presented as a negative... especially if you are one of the people whose skills are not valued or tested by school.

So I decided when I came to think about my educational philosophy,  that first, I wanted my children to be happy, secure in themselves, not bullied (as bullying had been a feature of my son's school days) and able to know themselves, and grounded in a life where they weren't coerced into doing English when they longed to run around the park, or made to do Maths when they longed to play football.  Responding to their interests, accessing maths through daily life, shopping for food, English through the spoken word, leaving them free to learn at their own paces, was my aim.

Of course, this presents the authorities with a problem.  They are not empowered to test a home educator in the way that they can test a school against the national curriculum, because home educators are not obliged to follow the national curriculum, any more than private schools are.  Without their tick boxes and national curriculum they feel lost, and so a lot of local authorities use the same tick boxes they use in schools, to establish that parents are teaching their children more or less the same curriculum they'd be learning in school.  Except, they don't have to. 

I had an inspection once.  I'd been lied to and told that I had to have one, which I did not.  I was completely and utterly honest with the inspectors.  When they asked me about maths I said I didn't teach the children in that sense at all.  We did maths when it came up in everyday life, counting change and calculating weights and measure for cookery.  The fact that my daughter outperformed her peers when helping out at a jumble sale, showed that her mental arithmetic was far better at five and six than those who had been subjected to maths lessons each week was irrelevant, apparently.

I learned from the inspectors that they had no knowledge of home education at all.  They weren't even interested in it - the differences, the benefits, the drawbacks.  They hadn't read any of the authors which home educators are directed to when they begin to home educate - John Taylor Gatto, John Holt ("Oh I might have read something by him in college..."said our inspector), Roland Meighan and Alan Thomas.  They were ignorant of the differences between a teacher and thirty pupils and a parent and three.  They not only didn't know, they didn't want to know.  A more perfect example of a non-learning organization it would be hard to imagine.  And their business is assessing education.  It's a nice irony.

Ordinary people, the ones who have gone to school and now put their own children through school are nearly always highly critical of the idea of home education, and see it as a slur on their parenting that you have chosen to home educate your children.  But if you can talk to them about their own school days - the teacher they hated, the subjects they hated, the bullying, the feeling of not fitting in - it seems these are universal experiences and then, people begin to understand and see the situation rather more openly and less critically.

If you look at the history of state education, you will find that it was never the aim of it to educate the masses to the best of their ability.  It was to get the urchins off the streets, and to educate the masses to be useful to the industrial machine, that's all.  And although it has only been about a numder and forty years out of the length of human history, the authorities have been pretty damne successful at persuading the people that school is best and that it is dangerous or difficult to educate your own children unless you have a degree in education... and sometimes, even when you do, given that I have supported a number of qualified teachers also having problems with local authorities.

Those same people can immediately see, as the NSPCC and the inspectors can see, how it would be possible to neglect or abuse your children if you withdraw them from the public eye.  And of course, that *is* possible - in fact it is happening in every town in the country, after school.  Most abused children are attending school, and the fact that they are seen by teachers and other pupils may mean that their abuse is picked up... but for many it doesn't.  If being in the public eye was an antidote to abuse, then no school children would be abused.  Sadly, that's not the case.

There have indeed been some cases where children who were allegedly being home educated were abused and in some cases murdered by their parents or carers.  But if you look into the detail of those cases, most of the children abused and murdered by their children while "home educating" were already known to the authorities before they began to home educate.  The authorities have the ability to go into a home where they suspect a child is abused, whether that fmily is schooling or home educating their child.  They don't need new powers to do that, they already have them.  The problem is not that parents use home education as cover for abuse.  The problem is that even when concerns have been expressed about a child, the authorities do not use their powers to protect children.

It's possible to shoplift when you go into a shop, but I don't do that and I'm sure you don't either.  We'd be pretty annoyed if all shops insisted on searching our bags and turning out our pockets on the off-chance we might have done.   It's possible to drop your wife off the cross channel ferry in the middle of the journey because she insists on clearing away your meals befre you're ready, but most of us will put up with the annoyance and not murder our spouses... not because we are watched or checked up on, but because we're nice people.  Most people are nice, love their children, want what's best for them.  Which isn't regular inspections by strangers who don't understand how their intervention may change the dynamic in the family.

The NSPCC is talking about welfare inspections to ensure a parent has not been abusing a child out of school.  The inspections the local authorities are talking about are inspections to ensure a child is being educated, in line with the education act.  They're different things.  Do we send inspectors in to check that parents with children under five are not abusing them?  No, not unless concerns have been expressed by someone that the children may not be OK.  Why should children in home education be different from that?  If we spend all our money in checking up on all the parents who are not abusing their children, how much money will be left for checking up on those who *do*.

The inspections the local authorities talk about, are the impossible inspection of a child against an unknown aim selected by the parent - for that is, literally what the authorities have to inspect against.  It is perfectly OK in home education for a child to aim to be a horse rider, an astronomer, a dentist or an artist at the end of their education, and if they can be shown to have talent and to have ability in that area, it would be hard for the authorities to argue that a child wasn't being educated according to their age, ability and aptitude, but at the same time, very difficult for an inspector to assess.  They usually fall back nowadays on looking at the core subjects of the national curriculum and trying to check that the education a child is receiving is covering that. Which it may not be, even though absolutely compliant with the education act.  Most children pursuing their dream will learn the core subjects simply because they are needed to fully understand nearly everything in our informational age.  But not necessarily because the parents have been offering lessons in it.

That's without the additional problems that some inspectors don't know the law, and try to exceed their powers.  One told me that maybe the local education authority was allowed to "vary" the law, as they are able to do in housing law.  I pointed out that this housing variation is actually written into the law, which it is not in the case of education.

Periodically, it seems, the NSPCC decides to stir up trouble by suggesting that home education is a cover for abuse, and periodically we all have to cease what we are doing and fight that idea, to retain the freedoms which have made home education such a joy in England, and such a pain in many other European and Scandinavian countries.  So here we go again....

Tell us about you

I've been compiling a blog about Methylisothiazolinone and other related chemicals, as I have become more and more sensitive to its use in washing up liquids and other products, more and more of which are containing these chemicals.

In the course of compiling lists of those products containing MI and those which do not, I have been visiting a lot of company websites, which has started to make me very critical of the way that they use the "about us" page on their sites.  So often, companies use it to blow their own trumpet about their products, their ethical behaviour, their reason for making the product, without telling you a single thing about the people behind the company.

Quite often, you have to dig to discover whether a company is in the UK or not.  Having been stung by customs duty on a number of purchases abroad, and not wanting to waste a lot of money on postage and packing, I try to buy British where at all possible.  For others with the same problem, the contact us page usually - but not always - gives the company address.  Often it is a webform to allow one to ask questions.  I'm presuming that legally they need to give a company address somewhere on the website, but I'm not sure that this has been legislated about in the way that paper literature has been.

It's most frustrating when the companies put a picture of their people, or CEO or founder, and still tell you nothing about them.  The trouble is, descriptions of a company's ethical policy or philanthropic record is so much less interesting without the people.

Sometime people tell you almost too much.  Being a member of the Facebook group on MI allergy, I received a linkto a company selling products, in which the salesperson said more or less that selling the products was going to be her way to a life of luxury as it is a low risk high rewards business.  Making it sound like a pyramid scheme which overprices the products, it told me far more than she would have liked us to know, it seemed to me. 

Transport of despair

The government announces a 15 billion pound investment in roads.  Roads, people.  Not public transport, which would be the greenest way of bringing the most happiness to most people, but roads.  The bloated fat cats in Westminster need their transport, and hopefully the changes to that dreadful road down to Cornwall will cut the time it takes for them to get to their holoiday cottage in the back of beyond, don't you know?  /end sarcasm.

One of the commenters on the Guardian story suggested that people being able to drive out of Cornwall for a variety of reasons might also be important.  I'm not denying that Devon and Cornwall have been badly served for public transport and road infrastructure for a long time, and that probably does deserve investment.  But if the government has money sloshing around for transport, it seems to me that they should use some of it to improve public transport before they start making the roads shiny.

This area of Lincolnshire still has people in the signal boxes!  Although we have a journey of only 19 minutes to our county town, Lincoln, it is made very difficult to commute there for work. as I said in the Guardian comments myself "...It seems that the powers that be in this area expect you to drive and have a car, and if you don't, screw you. There are trains which thunder through Market Rasen station all the time on their way to Lincoln, but only two stop at the station in the morning - one at 6.22 am and the other at 7.39 am. As it takes 19 minutes to get to Lincoln, our nearest large town and employment centre, this means that you can get to town for 6.40am or 8 am roughly... if you can get on the second train at all, which is not infrequently impossible as it is a single carriage cattle truck. If you can't get on that train, you are stuck for two and a half hours before the next train stops.
We are killing our planet with our reliance on fossil fuels and cars. Our grandchildren and great grandchildren would rather like some of that money spent on improving public transport so that they can still breathe in 2050 - and I'd like some of it spent now so that commuting 19 minutes to town isn't an impossible dream."

And it's true.  The public transport system available in the capital is decades ahead of the system I have access to in Lincolnshire.  And it isn't good enough.

I am wondering how it is that the government justified the nationalization of the railways.  The East Coast line, which was taken back into public ownership, made £225 million in profit last year, and people were very pleased with the services it offered, but they went ahead and reprivatised it big fat anyway. so now the profits will go to the shareholders and not to the public purse.  It's no wonder at all that the governments books aren't balancing, with the income and possible profits going to private firms and the costs of transport infrastructure all being paid for by the public purse - and that includes train infrastructure - it's only the profitable parts that are in private ownership.  We own the costly bit.