Facebook friends…with a 10 year old?

I had a surprise last week when I interviewed Facebook’s head of policy in Britain. In the week that the online social networking site floated on the stock market for £67 billion, Simon Milner said that the company wanted to start a debate about whether children under the age of 13 should be allowed to sign up.
“There is reputable evidence that there are kids under 13 who are lying about their age to get on to Facebook,” said Mr Milner. “Some seem to be doing it with their parents’ permission and help.”
Milner will launch a debate about the minimum age in Britain when he appears next month at The Sunday Times Festival of Education at Wellington college, Berkshire.
“We have a strict under-13 rule because of legal issues in America,” said Milner. “We apply the same rule all over the world. But a lot of parents are happy their kids are on it. We would like to hear from people what the answer might be.”
Supporters of the minimum age believe it helps shield children from cyberbullying and inappropriate contact with adults.

I’d love to know what you think. Do post with your views (here’s the full version of my interview if you want more background)

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Commando Dad and the newborn baby

As a commando serving in Iraq, Neil Sinclair dodged sniper bullets and cleared minefields, but nothing prepared him for the day, 10 years ago, when he brought his first baby home from hospital. “I put the car seat containing a two-day-old Samuel down on the floor and said to my wife, ‘What do we do now?’ ” Sinclair recalls.

“I have been in a lot of dangerous situations, done a lot of crazy things, but when I put that baby down it was like: oh my God, for the first time in my life I have really not got anything to fall back on. I have a tiny baby and he is crying. What does he want; what does he need?

“I did not know. It was one of the most daunting days of my life.”

Commando Dad Neil Sinclair with his troopers

Commando Dad Neil Sinclair with his troopers

It was at that moment Sinclair, a former Royal Engineer commando, now 41, had his brainwave: “I found myself thinking how much easier life would be if I had been issued with a basic training manual for my little baby trooper, like the manual you get when you join the army. ”

Today sees the publication of Commando Dad: Basic Training, a set of instructions written by Sinclair that details with military precision and diagrams how new fathers should approach the first three years of their child’s life to become a “first-rate father”.

Chapters include Preparing Base Camp (the baby’s bedroom), Welcome to the Thunderbox (toilet training) and An Army Marches on its Stomach. Newborns are “baby troopers”, the kitchen is a “cookhouse”, a “howitzer” is a stinker of a nappy and “negligent discharge” captures a baby’s ability to pee at will. Babies are taken “on manoeuvres” and there’s a warning: “Bored troopers can change from lovely little allies into the disgruntled enemy very quickly.”

Speaking from the family home in Staffordshire, Mumsnet blogger Neil Sinclair, who spent six years in the army, is quick to dispel any misconception that Commando Dad is about discipline.

“What commando training is really about,” he says, “is summed up in the phrase ‘Preparation and planning prevent poor performance’.” He tweaked the original army phrase, he confesses, amending the word “pisspoor”.

“In the army you have a standard operating procedure [SOP], which is the most effective way of doing a manoeuvre,” he explains.

“I invented an SOP for changing a nappy so I always did it in a certain sequence which was quick and efficient. That’s easier for you as a dad and it is easier for the baby. They are clean, they are dry, they are happy. Or at least you hope they are. Until the next time they cry.”

I love this idea, and hope that Neil’s manual helps lots of new dads become “first-rate fathers” just like him! Commando Dad will be published by Summersdale on Tuesday at £9.99 (This is an edited version of an interview I did with Neil which appeared in The Sunday Times this week.)

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A ticket to Hogwarts

Felt like an extra in a scene from Hogwarts on Saturday. Looking up from my top tier seat I could see naked cherubs swirling around the painted ceiling of Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. Looking down, the scene was a sea of  heads, fur trimmed gowns, mortar boards and silver maces. As the vice chancellor droned the Latin that admitted my daughter to her degree, I craned to photograph her amid a throng of new graduates, leaning over the balcony at a precarious angle that had the nearest usher, dressed all in black, sucking her teeth.
Later, at a fabulous three course lunch in a marquee in the grounds of her college, after a champagne reception in the quadrangle, I thought about how much had changed since I graduated, from the same college, more than two decades ago. The degree ceremony was the same, the pomp, the solemnity, the Latin, the fur trimmed robes. But, 25 years ago, we went for lunch to a restaurant in town. Of course we got squiffy, but not on university provided booze.
Graduation has become big business in the last decade. Universities charge their students – for the lunches (£35 a head last Saturday), for the robes (hired for the day), for the photos and the rooms. It’s the start of a pursuit of young graduates which will see the begging bowl held out throughout their lives by their colleges and which has netted some Oxford colleges millions of pounds in donations.
Of course some things don’t change. I loved my time at university and so did my daughter. It helped make me an independent and reasonably confident person, and the five years I spent there probably quadrupled my lifetime earning power. But I was struck by the remark of another guest at the lunch on Saturday – “Where,” he asked, “are the black and Asian faces? There are none in this marquee.” In fact there were, but amid the ranks of those serving the food rather than eating it. Having come from cosmopolitan London, where my other child is at university, the white middle class-ness of the college was noticeable.
So all in all, a day of mixed emotions – but the overwhelming one was nothing to do with Latin, or pomp, or fab food and fine wine. It was simply pride that my daughter had got her degree and made lots of friends and was happy and sociable and independent at the end of her four years. And for that I am truly thankful.
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Charlie Taylor and the truanting teens

Oh God, what to do if your kids truant? It’s something that every mum has to deal with at some point, whether it’s your kid bunking off for an afternoon with their mates or persistently, week after week in that way that makes your heart sink.

Last week I talked to Charlie Taylor, the government’s behaviour tsar for the Sunday Times – who has a big idea for stopping truanting. According to Taylor the way to stop kids skipping school is to dock child benefit from parents who refuse to pay the £50 fixed-penalty fine levied when their children repeatedly bunk off. It’s a controversial plan, outlined by Taylor in a report published last week. So far the government hasn’t decided whether to follow the advice.

To be fair Taylor understands misbehaving youngsters.

As the government’s behaviour czar, trying to tackle some of the problems that make children misbehave in class, Taylor can draw on six years’ experience at a special school in northwest London.

While headmaster at the Willows in Hillingdon, which takes in some of the most difficult children in the area, Taylor, 46, dealt with hundreds of angry, upset pupils. He has been spat at and punched, threatened with a potato peeler and had to have a hepatitis B jab because of “the biters”. His finger is still  bent after he dislocated it trying to stop a boy jumping from a window. T

His report on truancy is a mix of carrot and stick. On his child benefit proposal he insists: sometimes “a line has to be drawn in the sand”.

“Fifty to sixty per cent of fines, when they get given, don’t get paid. So the current system doesn’t have any teeth,” he says. “When cases get to court, many judges let parents off with a conditional discharge — only half end up with a sentence more severe than the original fine.

“You have to have a moment where you say, ‘Actually, this isn’t good enough’, because denying your child an education is a serious thing to do.”

He also advocates tackling the problem at primary school, where he suggests publishing the attendance rates of three and four-year-olds. Even at this age, says Taylor, children at risk are identifiable.

While researching his report, he came across Jubilee school in Sandwell, West Midlands, where Heidi Connor, the head teacher, “sees children who start school not even knowing their own name”. Such pupils often have patchy nursery attendance, yet they are the ones most in need of regular schooling to bridge the gap already opening between them and their peers.

He commends heads such as Connor, “an absolute star”, for knocking on parents’ doors to ask why their children are not at school, despite risking “a very nasty reaction”. When things get heated, says Taylor approvingly, she “will call the police if she has to”.

With two reports behind him in his role as behaviour czar — the first looked at ways of improving education for children expelled from school — what you sense from Taylor is sympathy for those too often dismissed as problem children.

“The children at the Willows are incredibly anxious,” he says warmly. “They unfortunately deal with their anxiety by throwing a chair across the room and telling me to ‘f*** off’ but underneath it all, they are just anxious.”

Why is this Old Etonian drawn to help misbehaving children? Might it be a reaction to his own adolescence?

“I was a bit of a naughty boy,” he admits. “The behaviour wasn’t that different, but the reasons for it were. I used to get up to teenage stuff, not doing work that was supposed to be done and so on.”

Asked for his A-level results, he responds: “I think I got Cs, a D, I can’t remember. But back then,” he jokes, “A-levels were very difficult.”

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Catch a tiger by the tongue… and learn Mandarin Chinese

Forget ‘bonjour’ – if your child is really ahead of the curve, then ‘ni hao’ is the foreign language phrase that will be tripping off their tongue.

Pupils learn Mandarin Chinese at Brighton college

Pupils learn Mandarin at Brighton college, which pioneered its teaching in the UK (Andrew Hasson)

Across Britain, FGS – French, German and Spanish, the traditional trinity of school languages – is being supplanted by a new acronym – HAM, Hindi, Arabic and Mandarin, considered the languages aspiring entrepreneurs will need to do business with the emerging economic giants of the 21st century.

Last week I talked to Felix Fowler, 17, about getting lost in Tianjin, the Chinese city he has been living in since last autumn. Felix is a pupil at Wellington College International in Tianjin. It’s the second of two schools set up in China as offshoots of Wellington college, the Berkshire boarding school founded in the 19th century by Queen Victoria. British pupils at Wellington are now able to get first hand experience of Chinese language and culture by studying at one of the college’s two associated Chinese schools for a term or longer.

Wellington’s headmaster Dr Anthony Seldon is so passionate about his pupils learning Mandarin that next month he is opening a centre for Mandarin at the college, complete with garden for meditation and three Mandarin teachers. He himself is setting an example by learning Mandarin and hopes to sit his GCSE in the subject next year.

But he has one plea – make the GCSE easier for British teenagers. Mandarin is a fiendishly difficult language, he says, and at the moment the bar is set too high for anyone other than native speakers to score an A or A* grade at GCSE without a disproportionate amount of effort. Unless the exams change there will be a real disincentive for British youngsters to study the subject.

As for Dr Seldon himself – he can count up to 100 in Mandarin – though not always when put on the spot.

Take a free Mandarin lesson at the Sunday Times Festival of Education, Wellington college, Berkshire, which takes place on June 23 and 24. For tickets see www.festivalofeducation.org.uk 

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Are we nuts about allergies?

Is it OK to ban everyone’s peanut butter sandwiches because one child has a nut allergy? That was the question one vexed mum asked The Sunday Times earlier this month. 200 parents at her child’s school were being asked to do just this. Was this fair or reasonable?

No, replied Chris Woodhead, the Sunday Times’s education columnist, it wasn’t reasonable at all. “The motives are good but, like you, I think the result is nonsensical. The rights of more than 200 children to eat the lunch their parents want them to eat should not be sacrificed because of the risk to one pupil” opined Chris.

Cue a deluge of angry letters, like the one from Jenny Savage, who as a child had to eat her lunch with childminders because of her peanut allergy. Ms Savage wrote to tell Chris she “went from being a pretty sociable little girl to feeling like an outcast — all because of the rights of others to bring in their peanut butter sandwiches”.
So Chris apologised – sparking another flood of letters the following week – all, this time, supporting his original view.

So who’s right?

Are schools right to tell parents they cannot provide their children with packed lunches that contain nuts in order to protect children who suffer from nut allergies?


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Karren Brady gives the lowdown on entrepreneurship and London schools

karren brady, the apprentice

Karren Brady

Karren Brady, Sir Alan Sugar’s right-hand woman on the TV show The Apprentice, became the first woman to run a football club when, at the age of 23, she became MD at Birmingham City FC. Now vice chairman at West Ham football club, she told me last week that she is keen to try to help teenage girls from the East End of London follow in her footsteps and carve out a career in the lucrative world of top class footie.

Brady is investigating the possibility of West Ham working with a school in London to turn it into an academy which would help youngsters learn all the skills they needed to work in football. As she points out clubs need finance, marketing, nutrition, sports science, human resources skills and many others. At least 50% of the pupils at the proposed academy would be girls, says Brady, who left school at 18 and sees the academy as a route to a first class career without necessarily going to university.

Find out more about Karren Brady in the Times (£).

Karen’s supporting the Sunday Times’s campaign to find Britain’s top social entrepreneur of the year. Enter the competition (closing date this Wednesday).

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