Letter to Parents September 16

Dear Parents,

I have had some really brilliant times at Bridlewood, but after eight years I’ve decided that I have had enough. The government’s assessment system for both this year and last in year six is completely hopeless and is putting huge strain on children, parents, teachers and school leaders. The continual criticism of schools by the media and the government encourages a small minority to expect more that can possibly be given, particularly with the shrinking amount of money coming into the service. Children with special needs have to wait years to be diagnosed, putting unmanageable strain on teachers and their parents. Added to which the mental health and social care services for children are completely inadequate through underfunding.

Most of all I do not believe that the government have the correct curriculum. How can it be right in the twenty-first century that children are wasting time on Roman numerals, but are not able to use calculators? The National Curriculum is 50% English. I have two English degrees, but even I think that this cannot be considered broad and balanced. Added to this the interim assessment framework in year six is absurd and further narrowing the primary curriculum. Children have been used as guinea pigs by politicians, yet again, which could affect their life chances for the future. This is unforgivable. We have done our best and will continue to do so to provide a broad and balanced curriculum, but we are working against the government in this.

In our school, we were in the top 6% of the country for reading last year, yet this year only 50% of our children met the expected standard in reading. This is not because the children are not able or because our teaching was any less good, but because the government set a standard for tests which is completely unreasonable. In writing, there is no way that using hyphens, dashes and semi-colons should be more important than the actual content of the writing. I suspect than almost all great writers would fail the government’s standard.

I am conscious that we are expecting an Ofsted inspection; I would not let anyone in Bridlewood down, so I am happy to stay until April 2017. March will be five years from the last inspection so we should have been inspected by then.

I have always said that the children of Bridlewood are wonderful and I hope the school will allow me to see them in the future by volunteering with reading or in the library. Thank you for sharing them with me- they have been a complete pleasure. I would like to thank you all and the governors for your great support of the school. I have been exceptionally blessed in the chairs of governors at Bridlewood: Jayne Keen, Steve Bentley, Paul Russell and Mark Boffin. I am happy to support the school in any way possible in the transition to my successor.

Yours sincerely,

Jo Garton


Poor old Michael Douglas. Emotion got the better of him when talking about going back to work after cancer treatment. I have every sympathy. Of course I don’t have to get dressed up in extravagant wigs, sparkling costumes and snog Matt Damon as he does in the movie about Liberace. Although, if anyone had asked, I’d have been up for it.

Instead I drove into work yesterday and felt a little tearful as a 90s dance hit swelled into it’s bouncy beat. How fortunate that I didn’t have to do the assembly yesterday morning, otherwise perhaps I’d have had a Michael Douglas moment. The staff and parents have been very sweet, asking after my health and telling me how pleased to see me back. It’s quite touching, but it takes every ounce of cunning to change the subject.

Children are another matter. “I’m six now.” Said one, beaming his gappy-toothed grin. “I’ve left my cardigan in the hall, ” said another, whom (I’m reliably informed) leaves her cardigan in the hall most days. “I wasn’t the only one.” Protested a small boy on being told off for the second time that lunchtime. 

In terms of moving on, there’s something to be said for the children’s view. 

Hey ho silver lining

Today is the last day of my radiotherapy. I am choosing to think of this as my cancer treatment finishing- although I have years more of hormone therapy, taking a tablet is no big deal. This seemed like a good moment to write about the upside of having breast cancer. In writing this I recognise that I am incredibly lucky. Unlike many cancer patients I have no financial worries and I also caught my cancer early enough to have a very positive prognosis.

Ten Upsides to breast cancer

1)  Of all the forms of cancer, breast cancer has a really good survival rate. 

2) No matter what you say or do, people will forgive you- hey you have cancer!

3) You join a club with excellent company like Jennifer Saunders, Maggie Smith and Kylie Minogue.

4) You are entitled to five years of free prescriptions (thanks to the last Labour government).

5) You find out who your real friends and family are- there may be surprises!

6) Everyone thinks, from time to time, that they will stop and take stock of their lives. Hardly anyone ever does. With cancer, you will. 

7) If people know you have cancer, you may experience an outpouring of affection, which is quite overwhelming. I have never felt so loved or appreciated as in the past five months.

8) Unless or until you have chemotherapy, people will keep telling you how good you look. This is presumably because they expect you to look awful. Very little effort is required to look marginally better than awful.

9) Regardless of how you feel, kind friends will keep telling you that you are strong.

10) Have you been struggling to lose that 7lbs/ three stone/ four dress sizes? You can legitimately forget it until your treatment is over.

When a friend, who had recovered, told me things would change, but it wouldn’t all be bad, I thought she was mad. Actually she was right.


Moving On Up

One of the comforting things about having breast cancer (and I’m aware that that sounds odd) is that it isn’t an exclusive club. All things considered, Kylie, has done pretty well post breast cancer, Jennifer Saunders and Maggie Smith have also managed to move on with their lives. It only takes a moment of googling to discover more women in the public eye who have managed to beat breast cancer and move on.

No-one would talk about Kylie as, “that tiny Australian who beat breast cancer.”  The official media title is for Kylie appears to be, “pop princess.” She isn’t defined by cancer. I have some sympathy with Tricia Goddard who said, “I just want to be Tricia, not a survivor of anything.” Especially now that I’m getting to the end of this journey of what my friend Lea calls “ratshitness.”

Staring at the blue sky this morning, it is impossible not to feel lucky. I found a tumour early. The National Health Service pulled a blinder and got rid of it in three weeks and I had no cells in my lymph system. Added to which I could afford a genetic test which shows the risk of the cancer returning is very low. So I don’t have to go through chemotherapy, which, oddly, caused more fear than the cancer itself.

So five more sessions of radiotherapy (OK and years of Tamoxifen) and I’m done. I’ve organised a party to thank all those who have supported me because I couldn’t have asked for better support. So that’s it. Done.

And yet…

I didn’t hesitate when I was asked to do an interview about Swindon’s Mad March Hare, which raises money for Breakthrough Breast Cancer. The course on that freezing day was a sea of yellow T-shirts (provided free from the lovely David at Trutex) of children and adults from the school where I am head teacher. It was only by an exceptional show of bravado that I didn’t cry when a child said he did it for me. The irony is that I did it for them. Research is making small steps every day; maybe the children I teach won’t have to worry about breast or even any cancer.

This week a friend wondered if she could put my name on a letter about another cancer fundraiser and I said no. Is that awful? I want to move on. Like Tricia, I don’t want to be a survivor, I want to be Jo. 


Superstition ain’t the way

The nature/nurture debate rages daily in our house. Two teenage children; one obsessive compulsive argumentative and one budding geneticist ensure there’s never a dull moment. Rationalism is all. But somehow I can’t escape the nurtured superstition. It’s completely irrational to nod three times when you see a magpie, as the father of my children told me. At least until a trailer of rowing boats reversed into his car. He still nods three times when he sees a magpie.

Another bird-related superstition that I cannot escape, was instilled into my sixteen-year old brain when studying for O levels. 

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements.
So says Lady Macbeth- dooming my mind to a lifetime of associating ravens with death.
Some years ago I taught a lovely little girl, whose father came and told me his cancer was inoperable and he would die in the next few weeks. One morning I came in early and there was a single raven on the playground. I felt cold. The child’s father had died in the early hours. So much for the rational mind.
Earlier this year, I too was diagnosed with cancer. Irrationally I railed that I couldn’t have cancer because I have two teenage children. The educationalist in me was furious that I had got it just at the time when my health could completely screw up one child’s GCSEs and the other’s A levels. 
The first day I went into my school after my diagnosis, there was a raven on the playground. There was a stillness that I have never felt before or since. 
So with as much fury and bluster as I could mange, I chased the bugger away.