A school trip to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra

Yesterday I accompanied my six year old son on a school trip to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. It was an experience. Let me share some of the highlights.

Five mums, including myself, had volunteered to join the class on this trip. Having gone on a school trip the previous year, I was not keen to volunteer again. My son, however, was rather persistent in his nagging. His burning wish to have his mum be one of the grown ups on the trip finally wore me down, together with a memory of something similar that happened to me when I was a child.

I remember that we were going on a school outing to Hyde Park and the teacher had asked for some parents to volunteer to come with us. Without my mother’s knowledge I put her name down as one of the volunteer parents. It had irked me for a long time that my parents did not conform to the norms of parenthood as exhibited by the others in my class. For starters, they never attended parents meetings. “Why should we?”, my dad would ask. “We know you are doing well”. It seemed to them that parents should only get involved if there were a problem and since end of term reports consistently showed me getting good grades and positive comments, they felt there was no need for them to traipse all the way over from Acton, where we lived, to South Kensington only be told what they already knew.

So when the teacher asked for parents to join us on the trip, something in me could not resist volunteering my own mother. But how to convince her to actually do it? I decided I would tell her that the teacher urgently needed to meet with her to discuss a problem I was having at school. “Problem? What kind of problem?” asked my mum. I would not say but kept insisting it was very important and urgent. My mum dutifully turned up at the appointed day for this urgent meeting. Being of diminutive stature, she was wearing high heels and looking smart, as she would for a meeting. Imagine her surprise when she realised she had been roped in to a school trip in wet and muddy weather! She gamely trooped along with her high heels in the mud, trying to ignore the bemused looks from others at her lack of sensible footwear. Poor mum!

Fast forward to this week and of course I gave in to my son and said I would go. Yesterday morning, we all trooped into the classroom and each parent was given a sheet with the names of the children assigned to their group. I was considered a novice (not having volunteered for previous expeditions this year) and was thus given an easy group of children including my son. That was a relief! There was a slight hiccup when the teacher realised that one extra parent had turned up and she had to diplomatically tell him that he couldn’t accompany us as there were not enough tickets. She escorted him out of the classroom and shortly after that, the school secretary came in and called the name of the boy whose father had just been ejected. It seemed the child would not be allowed to go on the trip if the father could not go too. What a shame, I thought, poor boy to be taken out of the class like that. Fortunately, someone must have spoken to the parents and convinced them to change their minds as the boy was returned to the classroom at the very last minute.

We had a quick briefing from the teacher. We would be going shortly, she explained, taking the train to Clapham Junction and then Waterloo. We would be having lunch as soon as we arrived at the Festival Hall, which seemed a bit early in my view. But I had underestimated how challenging it is to shepherd thirty children all the way to Waterloo.

We had barely got round the corner from the school before we stopped. A young girl at the front of our convoy was crying and saying she had hurt herself on her face though I could not see a single scratch on her. It took five minutes to get the Teaching Assistant (who was also the designated first aider) to come to the front and check her out. As I suspected, there was nothing wrong with her and, once she had calmed down a bit, we got going again. Stopping and starting, stopping and starting, we eventually made it to the Royal Festival Hall, by which time it was nearly midday. It really does take all morning to herd a classroom of children from West Norwood to Waterloo!

We sat down on the floor in a corner of the Royal Festival Hall and had our lunch. Having learned from previous experience, I had packed our own lunch rather than eat the school one. Who in their right minds thinks that six year old children, with their wobbly teeth, would enjoy eating baguette sandwiches? Crusty bread is quite a challenge for children of that age. One of my son’s friends lost a tooth biting into the baguette and then dropped the tooth over the banister down to the lower level. There followed a fruitless search for the missing tooth. Then of course, we had to do the various toilet expeditions in a theatre teeming with hundreds of other small children. Finally, after what seemed an age, we went into the auditorium and took our seats.

The performance, specially designed for Key Stage 1 children, was the story of Stan and Mabel, with a lovely score composed for it and easy songs for the children to participate in. I thought it was great. Well done to all who produced this show. Things have changed a lot since I was a child. Nothing like this was ever on offer in my day. All I remember is being trouped along to the French Institute to watch “Le Ballon Rouge” every year. But do these lucky children know how lucky they are? In the midst of the performance, I looked around to see how everyone else was enjoying it. Some children seemed to be happily singing along but quite a few looked distinctively bored and sleepy. The child in the row in front had fallen fast asleep and the mum whose group he was in was wondering whether or not to nudge him awake. I looked behind me to check on my friend’s daughter and found that she too was looking rather fatigued. On my right the TA was struggling to keep awake too. Perhaps the first day after half term was not the best day for a theatre trip. As for my son, he alternated between singing along and snuggling up to me, telling me I was the best mummy in the world and generally basking in my presence. What more could I ask for?

Not even the arduous journey back to school could dim my glow at having made my child happy. And then home, to put my feet up and have nice cup of tea.

Peach Cobbler

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The sun is shining and Summer is in the air. Not for long I know –  this is England after all –  but the peaches in my fridge were beckoning and I thought I would try my hand at a peach cobbler. I only had three peaches left so I improvised and added a pear. Absolutely delicious!

Ingredients:

For the peach filling:

  • 4 peaches, peeled, stoned and sliced
  • 3 tbs sugar
  • 1/4 cup of water
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp cornflour
  • 1/2 tsp ginger (powder, not fresh)

For the cobbler:

  • 1 cup self raising flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 3 tbs unsalted butter

Method:

Preheat the oven to 180C. Place all the peach filling ingredients in a saucepan and cook for 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid it sticking at the bottom of the pan. Next put the butter in an oven proof dish (mine was 22x 15 cm but you could use a slightly bigger dish) and place it in the oven to melt. In a bowl, mix together the flour and sugar then whisk in the milk to make a smooth batter.

Remove the dish from the oven and pour the batter into it, without stirring. Pour the peach filling on top and place in the oven. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the batter is well risen and golden brown.

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Serve with single cream or vanilla ice cream.

Summer Salad with Peaches and Feta

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This is a salad bursting with flavour. The sweetness of the peaches married with the sharpness of the feta cheese sounds counter-intuitive but it works wonderfully well. You can of course save time and buy a ready prepared herb salad but I prefer to make it fresh myself.

Ingredients:

Salad:

  • Two handfuls of young leaf spinach
  • A handful of watercress
  • Three or four lettuce leaves, sliced
  • A handful of coriander, roughly chopped
  • One peach, sliced into 8 segments
  • 50 g of feta cheese

Dressing:

  • 3 tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbs cider vinegar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp honey

Method:

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan and add the peach segments, flesh side down. Fry gently until golden brown on each side. Set aside.

Place all the spinach, watercress, lettuce and coriander in a bowl. In a separate small bowl, mix the dressing ingredients together then toss with the salad leaves. Transfer the dressed salad leaves on to a plate, place the peaches on top and then crumble the feta on top. And that’s it really, very simple and easy to make. Enjoy!

It’s not easy being a Muslim these days

This morning I was reading the Independent online while sipping on a cappuccino and indulging in a croissant. I was feeling mellow after having dispatched my son to school and ready to enjoy some peace and quiet. The mellow feeling didn’t last – it has been replaced by depression underscored by a sense of disquiet. Why you may ask?

A cursory look at the dozen or so headline articles might provide an answer. Islam, Muslims, Isis, Israel all figure far too prominently. Let me start with the first depressing article. Canada plans to make boycotting Israel a “hate crime” and thus legitimate protest against Israel’s oppression of Palestinians is to be suppressed and labelled anti-semitic.

The next happy article informs us that there has been a massacre in Ramadi as Isis captures this city, the Iraqi forces proving too weak to stop the onslaught. The Iraqi government is to seek help from Iranian backed militias to try to take back the city despite fears this may fuel more sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites.

Next I read about Aldi apologising after selling black pudding containing pork labelled as “halal”. It seems some administrative mistake was to blame and the labelling is being corrected. Could anyone really have thought that black pudding could be halal? If so, there must me some very gullible people out there. Surely this story, in ordinary times, would not be worthy of such a prominent headline. But we live in an era where there is great fear of upsetting Muslim sensibilities.

In another headline, I read that Madonna is stoking controversy yet again, this time by posting an instagram photo of Jewish and Muslim men about to kiss. Do I care? No not really, but apparently a lot of people are up in arms about it.

Finally, I read : “Welcome to the worst job in French politics – Education minister” which describes how the Morrocan-born French education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkasem is facing very nasty criticisms of her planned reforms to French middle schools. Right-wing politicians are fear mongering about Islam yet again, making the emotive – and false – claim that teaching of the history of Islam is to be “made compulsory” and that the history of Christianity is to be “downgraded”.

That’s not the end of it of course. There are also articles about the LGBT community being oppressed in Egypt and Boris Johnson writing something to the effect that, if unchecked, Isis will blow up the pyramids. Sigh. It’s not easy being a Muslim these days. It may be hard for others to realise how wearing the constant barrage of mainly negative stories about Muslims and the Middle East can be. I long for the day when I can open the papers and not a single headline will be about us.

With a heavy heart I go upstairs to do some much needed cleaning of the house. I switch on the radio and catch the tail end of women’s hour. The interviewer is on the streets of Leeds, asking women questions about their lives. One lady, aged 98, is asked if she is happy. “Yes”, she says. What is the secret to her happy and long life? “Be kind”, she replies, “it doesn’t cost much”. And with that positive message, my heart lifts again ever so slightly.

In case many of you haven’t noticed, a general election is on the way…

Yesterday several election leaflets came through my letter box. Let me share two seemingly conflicting graphics.

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Hmmm, who should I believe? According to the Lib Dems, this is a two-horse race between them and Labour, the Tories and other parties “can’t win here”. According to the Conservatives, this is a two horse race between them and Labour, the Lib Dems and “Others” have “no chance in this area”.

On closer inspection, the difference in the statistics can be explained quite easily. One shows results of the last general election whilst the other is actually results for the last mayoral election. In reality, whichever statistic you choose to believe in the most, the one common thread in both graphics is that Labour is by far the biggest party in this area. This is going to be a one-horse race and if I were a betting person my money would be on Labour winning fairly comfortably here in May.

Still, there is something about being told that a party “can’t win here” or has “no chance here” that I find particularly galling. Surely anyone whose name is on the ballot paper has a chance of winning if enough people vote for them? In the privacy of the ballot box, voters can mark their “X” wherever they choose. Yet such is the nature of tribal politics in this country that a large proportion of votes get taken for granted. Elections are decided by the floating voters not by the loyal party members.

Something about this status quo irritates me greatly and makes me wish I had the nerve to run as an independent candidate in order to upset the apple cart. But of course that is not likely to happen – I am not made for politics. There is something quite deflating about living in a “safe” constituency, no matter what ilk it is. Why bother to vote? It won’t make much of a difference to the result. I’m sure a certain amount of voter apathy – not all – is due to people feeling that their vote won’t influence the result. I am half tempted to not turn up at all on 7th May. Not a single party appeals to me and besides, it’s going to be a slam dunk isn’t it? But my British citizenship and with it the right to vote, obtained with some difficulty less than ten years ago, means that at the age of 44 I will have the opportunity to vote in a general election for only the second time in my life. I cannot waste that hard won opportunity.

As someone who has come to party politics (not general or international politics) rather late in life, I have never felt that belonging to or supporting a particular party was part of my identity. Yet I know many staunch Labour and Conservative supporters who would never consider voting anything else because it is so much part of their identity, almost a religion. I saw this during the Blair years, when he took us into what many saw as an illegal war – one for which we are all paying a heavy price today. People were fiercely critical but when it came to the ensuing election still voted in their familiar way. The ballot box was not used to punish politicians for wrong decisions but to reinforce the status quo. People say they are disenchanted with politicians, with their expenses scandals and so on, but few stop to think about what makes politicians accountable to the public.

Let’s imagine for a minute or two what would happen if voters in a safe Conservative seat voted anything other than Conservative and voters in a safe Labour seat voted anything other than Labour, just to show the parties that no vote should be taken for granted. Wouldn’t that shake up the political system!

To a certain extent, that is exactly what is happening in Scotland at the moment. There is no such thing as a safe Labour seat there anymore because voters are fed up with being taken for granted. The referendum last year invigorated the electorate into believing that their vote can actually make a difference. The SNP should tread carefully though. Whatever wave of enthusiasm is causing them to surge at the moment could also cause them to crash next time around if they do not actually deliver on their promises. That’s democracy for you.

So as a floating voter myself, I would ask any of you out there who are planning to vote Conservative because they come from true blue stock and for those who are planning to vote Labour because they and their family have always done so, to stop and reconsider. Tribal loyalties only entrench power and block any real change from happening.

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.

Pasta with lamb and yoghurt (macarona bil laban)

macaronabilabanI thought I would share this simple but tasty Arabic dish which makes for a quick and easy lunch. I am not going to be bogged down by measures here as this is really so simple. This makes enough for two hungry people. All you need are:

  • a 250g pack of mince (preferably lamb)
  • a 500g pot of plain yoghurt
  • 1 garlic clove
  • a handful of pine nuts
  • pasta of your choice (this works well with penne)

First of all, fry the mince in a saucepan and season with salt, pepper and bharat (Arabic spice) or failing that, garam masala will do. Once the mince is cooked, set aside but keep it warm. Cook your pasta according to the instructions on the pack.

While the pasta is cooking, empty the yoghurt pot into a serving bowl. Crush the garlic clove (if you really like your garlic crush two cloves instead of one) and mix it into the yoghurt. Season well with salt and white pepper. Now saute your pine nuts in a non stick frying pan until they turn golden brown. Once the pasta is cooked, drain and mix into the yoghurt in the bowl. Add the mince meat on top and then sprinkle with the toasted pine nuts.

Serve immediately with a salad on the side. Word of warning: make sure you don’t add the yoghurt to the pasta in the saucepan as you don’t want the yoghurt to cook and go lumpy.