2016 fun and 2017 hopes

downloadI noticed a few teacher tweeters blogging with the tag #nurture1617 on Twitter  which gave me the idea for this post.  I think the rules are that you blog about 5 good things that happened in 2016 and 5 plans for 2017. The number 5 has always been my favourite (long story…) I even used to blog about the number 5 (longer story…) which inspired me to give this blog review a go.

Clearly #nurture1617 is a teacher blog thing. This means I have a back-at-school feeling that someone will tell me off for stealing the post idea and using their #hashtag. At primary school Mr.Gravel once asked me a tricky maths question and I peed myself.  I’m a grown-up but I still fear upsetting teachers!

I thought about training to be a teacher this year, which is why I follow so many education people on Twitter and came across #nurture1617. I have a huge amount of respect for all teachers, so I do hope I’ll be forgiven for hijacking the post idea and tag.

2016 was certainly a weird year, there were far too many shocks and surprises, but some of the surprises in my personal life were good ones.

  1. I lost my job
PokerStars back in 2001. I joined the site as a beta tester on the second day it was open. This funny old online site was a huge part of my life for pleasure and then for my career.

I started work at PokerStars 13 long years ago. I was the first member of staff in the London office. It was my first full time job, after a sketchy ‘career’ as a self-employed web developer and hypnotherapist, but I was mostly a rich chap’s other-half. I took the job in an attempt to be independent, to my surprise I loved work and office life!


Life at PokerStars started out with me and a few poker-mad friends working in one room. I used to love being a poker detective, working on collusion cases in the evenings, just for fun.  I had a bit of a crush on the BBB (the Bearded Billionaire Boss*) and used to write a blog about work, my life, and the stickers I stuck beside tube station escalators on the way to work.

It was  a good job and I was promoted a few times over the years. I ended up in a fairly senior marketing role, but the company changed massively in the years I worked there. It used to be a family business, but it grew from one friendly room to a global-worldwide-corporate-beast with several offices and a staff of thousands. Late in 2014 the BBB sold the company for 4.1 billion. PokerStars was no longer a family business, it was run by Amaya and owned by shareholders.

I moved to Whitstable in 2008, my company let me work from home when my son was born; they were simply kind like that. But, in hindsight, perhaps working remote didn’t fit the new style of company? My role changed, new roles opened up, my work was always valued, but then a reorganisation came in August 2016…

The BBB told me years ago that he thought I was creative enough to work in marketing, but I didn’t have the heart to thrive as a gambling marketeer. Perhaps he was right..?

I worked 4 days a week for PokerStars, but in the last couple of years my 3 days outside work were starting to feel more fulfilling and challenging than my work. I set up the Museum of Fun community project, I created StoryPlanner.com… PokerStars had meant so much to me, I had enjoyed 13 brilliant years…. Yet when I was offered redundancy I felt mostly relief. I had loved my job, but it felt like an opportunity for a new start. I finished work in September 2016. It was a shock, a huge change, but a good thing.

*The BBB wasn’t a billionaire at the time, just  a millionaire. I discovered years later that he used to read my blog. I never worked it out at the time, not even when he sent me, a lowly support email answerer, to write the company’s blog in Barcelona. Durr..!

2. I wrote a novel (nearly) 

beach-hutsI love writing stories. I founded the Writers of Whitstable group 4 years ago, and this now meets twice-monthly. We have one group for novel writers and one group for short story writers. The group published the Beyond the Beach Huts anthology in May this year. This has now sold out of printed copies, though we will probably get some more. It was a blast organising the launch and getting the group’s stories into print. I think it was satisfying for everyone involved to create this book to share our stories with a proper audience.

I spent the first bit of the year working on a semi-autobiographical novel, but I got fed up of the dark bits and quit half-way through. I had no novel project for a few months of the year, but the WoW novel group keeps me on my toes. I found a new novel idea at the end of October, and I am now 75,000 words-ish in. I’m just a few pages short of finishing my first draft.

I said I’d get this novel done in 2016 so I will get back to it as soon as I finish writing this blog post…!

3. I set up KEN

kenMost of my non-work projects have been quirky, fun, creative projects, but the Kent Education Network is very different.

The Kent Education Network aims to end the 11+ test in Kent. This isn’t quirky at all, it is dull, serious, hard and it has changed my life.


Me enjoying the fun of being a grammar school campaigner. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian.

I used to be the sort of person who lived to stick bee stickers at tube stations and write about them on a site called Happy, Silly (magic) Fun. Now I’m someone who gets stuck into posts about the potential benefits of nationwide Fair Banding admissions, or an analysis of 11+ data. Look at me now,  grumpy in a field in a funless Guardian article about a grammar school annexe. I feel like I’ve grown up, but it is a good thing!


I don’t entirely understand how I got to this KEN thing, but I know that it fulfills me in ways that nothing else has done before. I try to understand why, and I think it might be something to do with a few of these things:

Justice matters. The flawed 11+ test, the divide of two tier education, the problems are all something to do with a lack of justice, which is the moral purpose that always gets me hot and bothered.

Communication is my thing. It is so darn difficult to communicate the problems with selective education. Communication has always been my thing and I care about getting it right.  I still haven’t found a simple easy-to-understand message to describe the problems of grammar school systems, but this challenge drives me on…

‘Be interesting and tell the truth’ is my marketing motto, but I haven’t been able to use this to come up with a simple message to make people understand the 11+ divide. Even my left-leaning caring friends mostly think it’s harmless to educate clever kids separately in their own school building.

If I’d gone for a campaign about saving endangered cheetahs there’d be no challenge at all. “Stop the lovely cheetah’s dying.” “Look at the poor dead cats!” That’s far too easy! I’ve gone for a campaign that has no neat or clear message to persuade people with an easy line. I’ve worked in marketing a long time. This campaign message is a huge challenge. It only makes me want to try harder to find it!

Explaining the problems of grammar schools is like shouting words into the wind, the messages will regularly bounce back unheard or misunderstood. It gets me nowhere. It is important to shout these words anyway.

It’s about learning and curiosity. There are so many new things to explore in all this. Did you know that Reading grammar schools standardise kid’s near-identical 11+ scores to two decimal places? They actually tie-break children who have scored practically the same points in the test with marks of 123.02 and 123.75. To me this is fascinating madness! (Is this just me!?) And did you know some grammar schools even give children their 11+ test rankings? So some poor child is told they were ranked 234th out of 234. Nuts, but interesting nuts. There is endless stuff to read and research around this subject. Clearly some of the research possibilities haven’t even been thought of yet. This thinking, learning, and doing side of my KEN work is a bit I love.

It’s impossible, so no one is doing anything. Yes, this is a reason I like this campaign. I admit that it is probably going to be impossible to end the 11+ in Kent in my lifetime. That doesn’t mean no one should try! In fact it gives me more reason to get stuck into this…

KCC would get away with this forever if everyone thought it was impossible to change things. If everyone thought like this it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. People in Kent need to shout about how awful our school system is. It might not change things fast, but it’s the only way to change things.

I am fine with the idea of doing something that builds a foundation for the future. If Kent abolishes the 11+ in 3005, partly because KEN started the ball rolling now, this is absolutely a good result.

It’s great to work with a brilliant team. I am so lucky that my work with KEN has put me in touch with so many inspiring people. The people who care about educational injustice are an amazing bunch.The KEN committee are smart and passionate, every single one of them. Kent is a huge county and many travel many miles to get to our meetings, they are so dedicated to this cause. I feel lucky to know them.

I’ve also met people who work on other selection campaigns like James Coombs and Becks Heckman, both are full of great ideas and put many hours into this work. I’ve also been lucky enough to meet one of my education and writing heroes, Laura McInerney. She is an education super star, she is so sharp and so regularly right! I’ve even met super-smart Rebecca Allen of Education Datalab. I’ve also enjoyed being part of the Comprehensive Future steering group, I really admire Melissa Benn, and Margaret Tulloch, the organisation has a whole team of talented campaigners.

I do also have enemies for the first time in my life. But that Churchill quote is a good one, “You have enemies? Good. That means you stood up for some thing, some time in your life.”

It’s making me a better me

KEN has led me to push myself. I was the little girl at school who was too shy to put her hand up, I was so terrified of being laughed at if I got a question wrong. Now I chair meetings that are full of tough confident heads  (like Mr.Gravel!) I’ve appeared on TV and radio. I’ve been in a live debate with my husband’s hero, Peter Hitchens. I’ve told the new head of Ofsted what I think of Kent grammar school ratings. I’ve apologised to an ex-education secretary. I’ve given speeches and written articles. All this stretches me, and I have done far more than I ever thought possible back when I was a shy little girl at school.

I hope it’s a lesson for my kids, especially my quiet daughter. They know I was scared the first time I did a live broadcast, but now I quite look forward to it.

Of course grammar schools are in the news as Theresa May (and Nick Timothy) want to expand selective education. My KEN friends were shouting about how bad grammar schools were, now everyone in education is shouting the same. I don’t know if this will make a difference. I only hope. It is KEN’s job to press for changes in Kent, and my new role as secretary of Comprehensive Future is bound to mean more anti-selection work.

I’m training to be a Children’s Counsellor

place2be-logoI have wanted to do something practical involving work with children, or working in schools, for a long time. I loved the workshops I organised for Museum of Fun, especially bringing an event to the children at a council estate community centre.

When one of the Museum of Fun volunteers told me working at the event had made her decide to become a teacher I was so happy. Then I went home and cried. I’d been thinking exactly the same but I decided it wasn’t possible.

I dismissed teaching because I was in a well paid marketing  job. I have no job now but I have still reluctantly ruled out teaching. The exact moment that wrecked my chances was when a career teacher gave me a daft test and told me I should be a nurse. I was so pissed off with this stupid test and the lame unwanted version of my future* that I left school at 16. So I have no A levels.  I do have a degree (Screenwriting for Film & TV) but my subject knowledge is hopeless. I don’t think I have the skills to work in a secondary school, and primary teaching is not my thing.

I do now volunteer at a church homework club, and work with secondary school children as a Mosaic mentor. In September this year I saw an ad for a subsidized training course with Place2Be in Margate. I wasn’t sure that children’s counselling would suit me, but the taster day convinced me. Place2Be are a wonderful organisation and the training is amazing.

I like that children’s counselling fits my analytical side but uses my playful side too, and it even involves story telling. I got two books about therapeutic storytelling as Christmas presents and I’d read them both by Boxing Day!

I hope to start working with children as a Place2Be  volunteer counsellor in the spring. I’m not sure where this will lead… There is of course no money in children’s counselling. I don’t care, I still want to do it.

* Nurses are of course great. Sadly I have no bedside manner and loathe blood. I also feel aggrieved that I was pigeon-holed as a quiet caring child of average academic ability. Grrr!  I have thought of becoming a career counsellor in schools, maybe I can track down the idiot who said ‘nurse’? Or at least check no one still messes with kids heads like this.


5. Love, family, and the church

justin_welbyMy son and daughter are growing to be amazing little people. My daughter has the best work ethic. She got straight As at GCSE (what does the 11+ know?) and she hopes to study Computer Science at university. My son is top of the class and loves computer games, writing, drawing and making YouTube videos. (Our 11+ decision looms, I’m putting off thinking about it.)

My husband has been great about the small matter of me losing half the family income. Possibly the wodge of redundancy cash helped?! He is generally amazing, understanding, caring, funny and quietly clever. (Perhaps he should be a nurse?) I am very lucky with my wonderful family.

My husband and I got confirmed this year. Joining the church probably deserve an entry on its own, but a) I can only have 5 things and b) it fits with love. Family is love.

The confirmation classes with my husband and our wonderful but slightly mad vicar were very important to me this year. My husband is a Councillor which means we occasionally get to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury. We’ve enjoyed chats about marriage, poker and the 11+. His words about marriage are very personal, but will always stay with me. And the Archbishop shook my hand warmly when I told him about KEN. He won’t be able to join the campaign, I think he might just give us a little prayer.

What do I plan in 2017?

Here’s my 5 hopes for the new year. They’re short, well done if you got this far with reading this guff!

  1. Work!!!!!

I need to find a fulfilling paid job. I have a few ideas and plans, but no actual pay cheque yet…

2. Counselling and therapeutic story ideas

I’d like to extend my counselling studies, but the next stage of training is 2 years of part time study. Eek!

I will at least get to use my newly learned skills as a Place2Be volunteer.At least I will if I pass my Level 3 in March. This means lots of homework and tough training sessions for the next few months… But did I say how much I love this?

I also have vague ideas for a therapeutic story web app, not quite like Story Planner, but picture based maybe? The idea is at a very early stage… Perhaps there is some way to combine my interests in web app development, counselling, and story structure..? Or maybe not. I like ideas, I’ll have a think.

3. Writing

I need to get a second draft of my novel sorted and send it to agents. I might go to Winchester Writing Festival in June. I took an early draft of my last novel there in 2015. Three agents wanted to read more, but I didn’t send them anything… Some people might think that’s nuts, but I just wasn’t satisfied with the second half of the last novel. It’s the one I abandoned as it was personal and dark. This new novel is certainly much better and as I have a screenwriting background I wrote it with an eye to the film potential.

It’s a futuristic YA thriller with *ahem* themes that fit the selection debate. My pro-grammar friends at writing group are getting a few things to think about… I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to mix up my obsessions!

I won’t mind one bit if this novel is never published. I’ll write until the day I die just because I love stories. I think I get better with every story I write, maybe I’ll eventually get published at 80?

4. Grammar school campaigning

Campaign goals for 2017? Err… Hmm…I need to find an anti-selection message that works for the Average Person On The Street. Perhaps I also need a proper long term plan for abolishing the 11+ in Kent..? Oh, and it would be nice to stop the government expanding selection.

Clearly this needs more focus! I have a lot of ideas, plus I work with a lot of bright people who have even more good ideas.  I need to pin this down to a few key aims. Ending the 11+ might be a near-impossible goal, but even near-impossible goals need clear-headed plans.

5. Serendipity & bees

beeOk, this one is a bit odd. I used to have depression long ago. I have also suffered from PTSD  (bad stuff I don’t write about.) One thing that I am sure helped me to get better was to organise my life to make it fuller.

I just love learning new stuff and I thrive on a challenge. There is something about trying new and difficult things that gives me a buzz; this makes me feel alive. I rarely get down when I’m busy. In fact, it feels a bit odd to admit it, my black dog has not been a nuisance for many years now.

My low mood cure is to do with being fulfilled, connected to people who share a common purpose, and using my talents. I think these things make me proud to be me. I am lucky to have found things that work like that in recent years. I have not always had it that way.

The unlikely start of my ‘cure’ was getting an office job, writing a blog and sticking stickers in tube stations, back in the old BBB days. My daughter bought a blue plastic sticker machine from Woolworths, and the first sticker I stuck was a badly drawn bee. This will sound totally random, sorry… I have spent many years wondering about the significance of bees in my life. Really!

All because of a few bad bee drawings on the side of the Tooting Bec tube station escalator…

Yes, it is odd being me.

I think bees really have no meaning at all. The thing about my bee thing, is that the joy of my bee thing is to do with trying to work out the meaning of bees… The meaning of bees is actually impossible, the bee thing is completely meaningless. The fun is always in thinking bees might just have some meaning…

I was writing notes for this post in a car on the way to a shopping centre. We got stuck in a traffic queue. I was stuck at number 4 on my 2017 goals list. I was wondering what number 5 might be. I looked up and I saw a bee toy dangling from the car aerial on the car in front ours.

img_8799A bee, hmm…?

I need to mention the thing with the number 5. After a while my bee stickers used to have 5 legs. Number 5 was my favourite number, as I explained at length on my long ago blog. There was some kind of magic to the number 5, and the number 2 too, only with the 2 it was not quite as much magic.

So anyway, in the traffic queue, there was a bee on the car in front of our car.

So then I looked to the side, and the road sign beside us said B255.


I know that all this is just random nonsense. I hadn’t much thought about bees or the number 5 for years.

Nonetheless, my point 5 in my 2017 plan is going to be to look out for bees! It might be utter nonsense but when I see bees I always smile. Isn’t that enough of a reason to like silly stripey insects?

If I look out for bees I could see one in Place2Be… I might see  one in marrying Mr.B… I might remember there’s one stuck on the wall in the homework club hall…

Too much of the time I get busy (like a bee?) and forget to enjoy simple things, like family & friends, having a laugh, enjoying bad TV on the sofa with my husband, drawing with my kids, or singing to King & I songs in the car.

Happiness is fragile, little things make a difference. I think the bee thing is something about serendipity. However full my life is, however much I know productivity is good for my mood, I should not be afraid to just bee. 🙂



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