Ali’s Fruity Delight

My son Ali has created his first recipe! Here it is, without any tweaks from me.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 an apple
  • 1/2 a banana
  • 2 pots of fromage frais for children
  • 1 pouch of apple puree

Method:

Peel and slice half a banana. Cut apple in half, core it and slice into little cubes.

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Pour the fromage frais into a serving bowl.

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Add the apple puree and mix well.

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Now stir in the chopped fruit and serve. Voila!

When did school become so divisive?

Yesterday we braced ourselves for parents evening at our 6 year old son’s school. What should have been a straightforward, breezy discussion about what a good boy he is, how well he is doing, what small areas of improvement there might be for us to assist him with was marred by the big issue that has been concerning us all year: ability banding, otherwise known as streaming.

What happens is this. The children are divided into three ability groups (for convenience I will call them higher, middle and lower levels). In a classroom of 30 children they are divided into five tables, two at the higher ability level, two at the lower and one middle one. The children sit at their assigned table and are given work according to the ability level of their table. Their homework is also different according to their assigned ability level.

The idea behind this system is that it helps teachers to work more effectively with the children by tailoring lesson content to their ability. The children, supposedly, are not aware of this system as the tables they sit on tend to have cheery names of animals, flowers or trees. In reality, most children are well aware that there are tables for the clever ones and tables for the not so clever ones. According to recent research by the Institute of Education at the University of London, one in six primary school children in England are now “streamed” and this is a trend that is set to grow in the coming years as the streaming orthodoxy gains traction within decision making circles.

Yet the research by the Institute of Education found that while children placed in the top stream enjoyed significant positive benefit compared to those who had not been streamed, those in the middle and lower streams tended to do worse compared to children who were not streamed. In other words, this system benefits roughly a third of pupils but disadvantages the other two thirds. If you add to this equation the findings of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) which indicate that children from poorer backgrounds are found to be disproportionately placed in lower streams, then you begin to see that this educational system not only favours the brighter students, it also strongly favours children from wealthier households. Hardly a recipe for social cohesion! More importantly, this shows that it is not actual ability of the child that makes the difference at this stage but the parents’ ability to coach them.

Our son’s experience in the classroom mirrors these findings. The children who sit in the two lower ability tables in his class tend to be from poorer, more disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and the children in the two higher tables mostly have well educated parents. My son is stuck in limbo in the middle. He is a bright, inquisitive and quick-witted boy. He is also very reserved in front of people he is not familiar with. In the critical first few weeks of school, when the teacher gets to know the children and assesses them, he failed to make much of an impression.

I was blithely unaware of the situation as of course, the school does not make it a policy to inform parents that their children are being streamed. One day, walking home from school, he happened to mention that the work he got given in class was too easy for him and that the children sitting at two other tables were doing harder work. He had also noticed that there were other tables doing super easy work. He wanted to be on the tables where the more interesting and challenging work was being given. My first reaction was to tell him that he needed to work harder on his reading, which was a bit of a struggle, so that he could impress his teacher with his improvement and get moved up to the harder work table. To be honest, up until then, I had not been one of those parents that spent long hours hot-housing their child. I read him stories at night but that was about it. I assumed, wrongly, that a bright boy would thrive in an Ofsted Outstanding school, regardless of whether I spent hours coaching him at home or not. The mistake was quickly rectified and we upped our game, practising reading and writing at home whenever possible. Within a short space of time I detected a massive improvement but this didn’t translate into a “promotion” at school.

There seems to be a lack of fluidity in the way streaming works in British primary schools. Once placed in that middle ability table, my son has not been able to move up despite our many talks with the teacher and head. To promote him would mean the “demotion” of another child. There lies the problem. The system by its very nature puts children in competition with one another. The status afforded to the children on the “clever” tables means they will resist being moved down. My son tells me that this did in fact happen to one of the children who was struggling with the higher ability work and needed to be moved down. He cried and cried and refused to change table. I don’t blame him! In the great British tradition of things, the streaming system seems to be a first past the post system.

In our case, we were told there were no “vacancies” in the higher tables but as a palliative they promised to give my son the same hard work as the top streamed children while still sitting on the middle table. It came as no surprise to us that he quickly adapted to the harder work. We have also been assured that next year all children will start again on an even playing field. Needless to say, we will be more prepared and make sure he isn’t unfairly placed in the middle again. I do wonder what effect streaming at such a young age has on the self esteem of children and on the way they perceive themselves. I noticed my son saying on more than one occasion that he wasn’t clever. This may have been an excuse for not making enough of an effort on his homework but it worried me enough that I now make it a point everyday to praise his cleverness.

My son is one of the lucky ones. He has us fighting his corner. Not all children are so fortunate. How many primary school children are being left behind because of the socio-economic backgrounds of their parents not their lack of ability?

Stuffed Courgettes (Coussa Mehshi)

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Growing up Coussa Mehshi (stuffed courgettes) was one of my favourite dishes. I have not eaten it in ages though because it requires the special Arabic courgettes (the short pale green ones) which are only available in specialist shops here. The other day I wondered what it would be like to make this dish with ordinary courgettes from the supermarket. It turned out to be rather tasty. Not the real thing of course, but a close second. It takes a bit of effort but not too much to make. Here’s the recipe (makes enough for 4 people).

Ingredients:

  • 4 courgettes
  • 250g lamb mince
  • 1 cup pudding or other short grain rice
  • 2 tins of peeled plum tomatoes (or a bottle of passata)
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1/2 tsp tamarind concentrate
  • 2 tsp baharat spice mix (or make your own by combining cumin, coriander, allspice, black pepper & cinnamon)
  • 1/2 tsp dried mint

Method:

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First wash the courgettes, slice of the stalk and trim off ever so slightly the coarse bit at the bottom. Slice the courgettes in two and then hollow out the inside from one end using an apple corer. Don’t throw away the inside bits, these can be used to make a courgette cake or fried courgette patties.

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Once done hollowing out the courgettes, set them aside and make the stuffing. Place the rice in a bowl and wash it a few times in water then drain. It’s alright if there is a bit of residual water left in the bowl – this will assist the rice to cook. Now add the mince meat, a teaspoon of salt and the spices. Mix it all up with your hands until everything is combined.

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Stuff the courgettes with this meat mixture but make sure you leave a centimetre gap a the top to allow for the expansion of the stuffing during cooking.

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Pour the passata into a large saucepan (or if you are using tinned tomato, whizz it up in the processor first ). Add the crushed garlic cloves, the tamarind paste and salt and pepper to taste. Bring the tomato to a simmer then drop in the stuffed courgettes. Make sure the courgettes are well submerged in the tomato sauce. Add a bit of water to it if necessary.

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Cover and simmer gently for approximately 40 minutes, until the stuffing is cooked. You can test this by taking out a piece and slicing it in half on a plate. If the rice still looks a bit al dente, you may wish to cook for a bit longer. When the courgettes are cooked sprinkle the dried mint on top and mix it into the sauce gently. To serve, place two halves of a courgette on a plate and pour a generous amount of tomato sauce on top.

Overcoming Childhood Myths and Conditioning is not Easy

This week I have been reflecting on the Islamic traditions that have been bred into me from childhood and how my adult self can see logically that some of these rituals are myths but still finds it hard to shake off the conditioning.

I didn’t have a very traditional Muslim upbringing as both of my parents stood out from their community in being forward thinking and questioning about all aspects of life. Yet even within this progressive environment some dogma was passed on which stays with me to this day. I wonder what it must be like for children growing up in more conservative households, where their faith is set out for them with certainty without any room for debate. Could this be one of the factors that render young men and women vulnerable to radicalisation?

The media is in meltdown at the moment trying to analyse what could have turned Mohammed Emwazi into the monstrous “Jihadi John” we have seen in the appalling ISIS beheading videos, or what could have compelled young teenage girls to leave their families and head for Syria. Personally, I think you have to have a screw loose somewhere to enjoy slitting another person’s throat so perhaps we are all wasting our time trying to understand Emwazi’s motivation. Let’s not give this fanatic any more publicity than he already has.

However, the numbers of Muslims living in the west who have left the comfort of their homes to join the fight in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East is significant enough for questions to be asked about what makes them want to do it. They can’t all be psychopaths or thugs. Many come from stable family backgrounds and are grade “A” students. While there are no easy answers to this question one common thread seems to be that at one point or another these people have come under the influence of charismatic preachers, whether in mosques or online through social media. I am struck by the very dogmatic language used by the jihadis that have posted videos and messages online. It feels almost like they are parroting what has been preached to them.

Could it be that people who from childhood are taught religion in certainties rather than in shades of grey are more susceptible to the influence of others? Obviously many other factors would have to come into play to bring about radicalisation. I am certainly not putting forward the idea that a conservative upbringing is to blame for all this. I am just trying to address one of the factors which I think does make a difference. And that is the lack of development of independent thinking. Young people need to learn not to accept things just because they are told but to make their own journey and reach their own conclusions. Their faith will be the better for it.

I have lost count of the times people have said to me that I am not learned enough to make a judgement, that I have to trust what the religious scholars tell me. They have spent years reading all the religious texts whereas I only know a dozen or so surahs of the Qur’an by heart. If they say so then it must be true.

So they tell me I must always eat and drink with my right hand, not my left. When I cleanse myself before prayer, I must always follow the ritual of washing my limbs three times on each side (starting with the right of course). When I pray in the privacy of my home I must cover every single hair on my head although it’s alright for my brother to show God his hair.

Now I am a grown up and can think for myself. I sometimes drink with my left hand if it is more convenient but I always get a little frisson of doing something naughty. I try not to be too dogmatic about the Wudu’ ritual but somehow can’t stop myself from washing my arm three times on the right then doing the same on the left. I have tried to pray in my bedroom without a headscarf but each time I have felt very awkward so I have reverted to the traditional head covering when I pray even though both my heart and my head tell me that God does not care about these trivialities only that I approach my prayer with pure intentions. Conditioning is hard to overcome.