No need to move to Finland

It’s easier to think that the solution lies in the external rather than realise that you create your environment. Many people think that if they move house, move neighbourhood or move country, they will be happier. I have known people who complain about their houses, their neighbourhoods and their countries of residence, who then move and find out that the land-of-milk-and-honey is not what it is all cracked out to be. The streets of London are not paved with gold. Happiness and contentment starts with YOU.

The news and articles that had been making its rounds in recent times is how Finland tops the Global Education Ranking (as the US declines) by its daring and innovative education policies. Oh, the number of parents who tag their partners with the comment, “Let’s move to Finland.”

Uhm, can you stand the long hours of dark in the winter or the high cost of living? I strongly believe that we do not have to move to Finland to give our children the benefits. After all, school is only half the story. What you create in the home is every bit as important, if not more. A teacher once said, “A child who gets his education only from school is not educated.”

o, what’s so special about Finland’s education system that gets so many parents dream of packing their bags and relocating?

No homework. Shortest school day (20 hours a week for younger children including lunch hour) and shortest school year. You learn more by going to school less because your brain has to relax to be more effective.



OK, you cannot dictate the school hour and the school year. But aren’t you adding on to your child’s burden by tuition?Our policy in our house is, no more than 1 hour a day during the week for homework, project work and studying. 2 hours maximum at the weekend. She has to learn to work efficiently. And here she is on a Sunday morning, making use of her 2 hours. You know what is the surprising thing? She has an exam on Monday and here she is, working on something else not related to her exam.

“Shouldn’t you be studying?” I asked, playing the devil’s advocate.

“Finished,” she said. So yes, 9 hours a week is plenty.

Another thing about the success of Finland’s education system: children are given a voice (yes, they learn respect too). The children help to design the school playgrounds with the architects who consult them. Wow, great! But your child’s school is not progressive, right? Well, neither is my child’s. But hey, you know what? You can foster that same accountability and creativity by allowing your child to choose his/her own wardrobe and bedroom design. Allow some freedom of choice, relax parental control-freak tendencies – your child goes a long way.

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Most of all, the implementors of Finland’s successful education system talked about happy, happy, happy. The Principal of my child’s school talks about happy, happy, happy, too. He said he told his staff to make sure that they have a good relationship with the students; learning comes second because a happy child learns more. So what does it take to make a child happy? I would say, it starts with happy parents and happy household. It’s not about moving but about you and what you create.

Mummy Army Rules!

When I was young, we had a collection of books called The Encyclopedia Britannica. I still remember the thick, leather-bound books that sat in the study in my parents’ house like stout pillars of knowledge. They contained everything in the universe that you could ever wish to know.

Now, the company is out of business.

Wikipedia is here. Hold up your hand if you use Wikipedia. I certainly do. I love it because it is the work of millions of people. Yes, we all contribute to this huge, living and growing Fact-Tree. No wonder Encyclopedia Britannica went out of business. There was no way expensive static books could compete with free, ever-growing tree of knowledge.

Wikipedia is the ultimate in collaboration. And collaboration is in the human spirit at its purest form. We want to reach out and pull each other up, it is natural.

Yesterday was the day I gave away free downloads of my parenting book. I did lots of preparation beforehand, from making video tutorials on how to download Kindle to where to find the book, but there was no foreseeing all the issues that will arise on the actual day. There were 639 questions coming in fast and furious, ranging from the highly technical to the “What is Kindle?” and “How do I find the Kindle Store button?”

If it had been a conventional business, I would have had to set up a call centre or annoy a lot of customers. But in this wonderful community that I have established through my tireless blogging and Facebook-ing, an army of mummies (my so-called Mummy Army) marched out in their numbers to help each other. They were patiently explaining the steps to each other, they were troubleshooting and posting screen shots, sharing and joking with each other like old friends. Something very beautiful was happening in our cyber world yesterday. I wish I could bottle the essence.

I was exhausted, jubilant and humbled at the end of the long day. And filled with ever so much gratitude for the beautiful spirit of collaboration I had witnessed. My daughter Georgina, the subject of my parenting book, was doing her exams all day – I would love for her to have been here to experience the beautiful solidarity and power of working together to realise a mutual goal. I believe it is a very important lesson to for children to learn. Collaboration is the lifeblood of many successful ventures. My son went to Royal Naval College Dartmouth and I believe he was taught that. I learned it sitting in my office which is a beach shack, courtesy of my Facebook friends and fellow bloggers.

Yesterday, we pulled off something amazing. My book got to #3 on Kindle Store in the parenting genre. Here’s a big thank you to my Mummy Army.

A day at the office

I spent six years at two top universities in the UK (Manchester and Oxford) but my workplace these days is a beach shack on Phuket island with superb internet connection. My poor parents. But hey, welcome to the new world.

4th of May was not a typical office day. It was the day that my second parenting book, Easy Parenting For All Ages was made available for free download on Kindle. It all started in 2012. I wrote a parenting book called Barefoot In The City. It sold 5,000 copies in the traditional hard copy format and went down the route of conventional books with a book launch party (in the rainforest), book signings and book events. It became a much-loved book because I had successfully built a community around the Barefoot philosophy. The community is still going strong on Facebook and my blogs. In a sense, the followers had become real friends.

Four years down the road and the subject of the book, my youngest daughter Georgina, was about to turn 16. She said some scary, truthful things such as “You can’t stop teenagers doing what they want. We can always find a way if we want to.”

Fortunately for us, she does not want to party, do drugs, get high, sleep around….despite living in the party town of Patong. She wants to study, play football and occasionally eat junk food and veg out with Gray’s Anatomy. So I decided to write an updated version of Barefoot In The City. Georgina’s father thinks it is very easy to parent her (really?), so I decided to call the updated book Easy Parenting For All Ages. Yes, it has his perspectives too.


I did well financially out of Barefoot In The City but Georgina strongly suggested that the new book be released on Kindle. “Think about the trees and the ink, Mum!” Since when has she become an eco-warrior, or does she know something I don’t?

But I have to live by my parenting creed, which is allowing teenagers to take the lead. So dinosaur, un-techie mummy ventured into the world of Kindle, foolhardy and optimistic. Can’t be that difficult, right? Right? After all, I paid for a professional book interior designer to sort the techie stuff out.

I decided to give Barefoot In The City free with Easy Parenting For All Ages. At a measly $3.99 for both books, I should hopefully recoup what I paid my decorator. Er, I mean interior designer. Note: I didn’t want to charge more because it is a learning experience for me and in case it turned out to be a bad job. I just wanted to recoup the costs.

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I never went to one but I don’t suppose these were mentioned in MBA classes. Here they are, for what they are worth:

You can never be 100% prepared.

However much prep you do beforehand, there will be issues on the day. Easy Parenting was launched on 30th April, Georgina’s 16th birthday, with a list price of U$3.99. The Free Book Day was scheduled for 4th of May:

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I made a YouTube video and prepped followers on how to download the free Kindle app, where to find the book, etc.

Don’t assume

Global business does not mean global integration. Surprise, surprise, Kindle downloads based in and is not available for download in Asia. I cursed. Because despite all the checkboxes I ticked (WORLDWIDE), it seems that Asia is not part of the world in Amazon-speak.

You must learn to troubleshoot

On the morning of 4th of May, my messaging service, email account and Twitter were full with messages. All saying the same thing: CAN’T DOWNLOAD.

I knew I would be answering at least a hundred of these, so still in my pyjamas, I made another YouTube video. “Good morning, folks. It’s still very early. It’s still the 3rd of May in USA so please wait for Amazon US to wake up before you can get your free copy.”

Not that simple. There is no one solution for all. “I cannot see it on my iPhone”, “I can’t find your book on Amazon”, “Why do I have to pay $3.99?”

And therein lies the two most important lessons learned:

It’s the people that matters

Out of nowhere, the small army of tech-savvy mums began answering the “How do I switch on my computer” questions. They took screenshots, they advised, they encouraged. I was completely blown away, because as a one-woman-show, I could hardly keep up with the questions hitting me every few seconds. I din’t even have the time to pee because if I moved away from my laptop, there would be 30 messages on cue. Yes, at the end of the day, it is the people that matters. The teamwork. The human factor. Sod the book.

You must care about what you are doing

I made it a point to answer every question. Apart from Amazon, I cursed my daughter. She is incommunicado due to football practice and Biology exam. At one stage, I almost phoned the school to drag her out of the exam room to answer the “I can’t find your book on Amazon” questions.

Finally, the sun is setting and my day is coming to a close. And this is the grand total I have earned today, from the few generous who took pity on me and paid for the book that they could have downloaded for free.

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I am happy, because you can buy a lot of beer for that in Thailand. Now let’s just hope folks leave cheery reviews for me to wake up to tomorrow and no “I can’t download!” messages. Good evening, All. x

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Real-world stuff for teenagers with an inquiring mind

It takes a whole village to raise a child……I never doubted that after raising five children. My children’s father and I are fortunate in that we seem to have an endless stream of engaging, inspired adults who are willing to contribute to our children’s development from so many angles. For me, it is all about taking textbook learning into the context of the real world, so that my children are excited about learning which happens when they begin to see for themselves how the world actually works. The ultimate for me when it comes to educating children is to encourage them to think and connect the dots for themselves, rather than passing exams.The possibilities are endless, exciting.

Whilst searching for a parking spot along Bondi Beach last Christmas, Georgina had a brilliant idea for an apps to solve a real-world problem. But how to take a brilliant idea off the drawing board into the real world? I have no idea. Fortunately, her stepfather has plenty of experience (as it is his work).

And the news for G is, it takes more than a brilliant idea to make something work business-wise. You need luck, commitment, some capital investment (she knows that), some legal stuff, some financial stuff and the know-how. Quite a lot for a 15 year old with so many interest to take onboard, but the conversation opened her eyes to the world of work. It also opened a lot of interesting discussions.

“She should go to Silicon Valley, get an internship with some innovative company like Google. Because developing an apps is not just about finding programmers. And she needs to have good relationship with the local council, who will be her partner for this venture.” All very sound advice for a teenager to think about – because it would probably costs only U$50k to develop this apps in Asia, but perhaps the U$50k would be better spent on airfare to San Francisco?

That’s his blog: light enough for a teenager with an inquiring mind to read 🙂

Why I advocate NO PLASTIC TOYS for children

I first became a mum at 17. Back in those days, I was fiery, idealistic and willing to fight till death for my ideals. When doting grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends bought plastic toys for our kids, I would politely return them and caused a lot of bad feelings.

At 47, I would probably do things differently these days.

However, I still feel the same aversion towards plastic toys from the numerous examples of tortoises and other sea creatures being poisoned to painful deaths by discarded plastic. I am also concerned about the environmental pollution that this plastic industry and its resultant mountain of plastic waste that chokes our planet.

I was concerned about the health aspects, too. Children put toys in their mouths, don’t they? We had a dog that suffered cancerous growth all over his body, because he ate plastic bags.

I also didn’t like the feel of plastics, and toys with flashing lights and electronic sounds were the ultimate nightmare for me.

But enforcing this tough policy has resulted in surprisingly pleasant outcomes. The main one is that my children learned to engage themselves actively, either with pen and paper, make-belief dolls from corn stalks, paper costumes, pet circus and a whole myriad of creative past times that became the hallmark of their materially poor but spiritually rich childhood. They never asked for Disney programmes or any TV programmes or merchandise associated with the ‘in’ movie or iPads. When we saved up and took our young children to Disneyland Paris, my youngest son Jack screamed in terror when Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck approached him. Because in his world, mice and ducks are not made of plastic and neither do they wear shoes.

My children learned to love being outdoors too, because the garden was a whole lot more interesting than sitting in a room devoid of electronic entertainment. They learned to climb trees, build tree houses and burrows, caught insects, drew leaves and grew things. Whatever the season, they would be out in the garden. I attribute their immunity to childhood diseases largely to their outdoors lifestyle, for those were the days before hand sanitisers and needless medication. Fever, coughs, colds and diarrhea were treated with lots of water, rest and fresh air rather than a trip to the doctor or medication.

Having no toys in the house also disciplined us parents. We had to make cars and cookers and dollhouses from discarded cardboard boxes. We had to get up early to take them out for walks. We had to think harder on how to engage them rather than letting them be passively entertained by the television. We had to incorporate them into our lives (shopping, cooking, reading), which brought us the precious closeness that we enjoy to this very day.

But thinking deeper beyond these points, I really do think that children’s playthings should be things that exist ‘naturally’ in real life, like pots and pans and wooden spoons. Why buy plastic tea sets when they can play with real freebies? It doesn’t make sense, right? By compelling our children to engage with their natural world also grounds them to this beautiful planet.

Yesterday, whilst walking with my partner along a breathtaking beach at sunset, I could not help but notice these tiny turquoise medallions in the sand. I could not resist investigating further, and was blown away by the delicacy and complexity that exists in the smallest, humblest organisms that escape the notice of the world at large.

What are those blue buttons? I emailed my father this photograph.

Blue button jellyfish, he replied, though they are really colonies of polyps, known as Chondrophores.

How so very lovely they are, dotting the beach like tiny turquoise orbs, making the sunset walk even more magical. I hope my children will find such enchantment in nature, as they walk the beaches and woodlands and roads of their adulthood, as I have, growing up with a toy-less childhood, which opened my eyes to the bountiful beautiful free things around me.

The Joy of Learning

The world is full of magic to be discovered, and it was my children’s library and laboratory during their childhood years.

I would like to begin by saying that I am not an educationalist, but my children’s father is. He has a Bachelor of Education degree from King Alfred’s College, Winchester, but the best of his education philosophy (in my humble belief) comes from his mother.

My mother-in-law was brought up in a poor part of South East London. Her mother was a Spanish immigrant who did not speak much English and went blind when my mother-in-law was 11. The war came soon after that, so my mother-in-law had a very low level of formal education. She worked as a cleaner, cleaning offices and schools. But she self-taught, despite her limited hours, to better herself. She finished her years of work as a clerk at London Electricity Board, a huge achievement for a girl who did not go to school and had a lot of responsibilities.

The great thing about my mother-in-law is, she did not harangue her blue-eyed boy to study, study, study. And so, my children’s father grew up cycling round the Kent countryside from the age of 4, played with the family pets, and later on, jammed away in a rock band in some mate’s garage. He is the most balanced, happiest person I know, and he learned a lot and earned enough to buy us a magical life.

When my kids were young, we did not have enough money to keep up with what other families were doing. Thus, my kids grew up without electronic toys or even a colour television. We had to ‘make do’. Pots, pans, wooden spoons when they were young, and later, family games of Pictionary and Charades. We built forts from blankets and sheets, collected interesting things from our walks for our Seasonal Nature Table, and from this way, we all learned about ourselves, the natural world, family values and the beginnings of language, literature, the sciences.

Later, when iPads became the rage, we could have afforded it but somehow never got around to buying it for our youngest child. Her former school had made it mandatory for each student to have an iPad, the much touted learning tool, but she did not do too badly without ever having owned an iPad.

We had to work harder as parents because we did not have the whizzy gizmos to educate our children. We don’t use the internet to babysit them either, so much as the temptation was there to allow them to passively learn from the ‘Net, we taught them the old fashioned way, namely by experiences in the real world.

My second son built a real-life go-kart with his father in the garden shed. He raced the go-kart, became quite good at racing, and then sold it for profit. He wasn’t an academic child, and he certainly did not leave school with a string of A’s, yet he managed to win a scholarship to study Mechanical Engineering & Electronics at Southampton University, and in a time where there are many unemployed graduates, he is second in command of all the weapons on a Royal Navy warship. He is 27, exuberant, boisterous, balanced, loves life.

His younger sister is enjoying the closing years of her very magical childhood, living in a land of aquamarine oceans, blue skies, winding island roads. She rides shotgun to school everyday with her father, chatting away happily, and often, with her mother too. She talks about her day, uncensored, with passion and heat. The teachers were sometimes unfair, there were bitches in her school and dumb boys. History and English Literature are confusing, Maths is boring, and the Sciences are easy. As for English Language… “don’t get me started” with a roll of her eyes.

Unbeknownst to her, as we soothed her, answered her, rebuked her, we are teaching her. Not only about the syllabus, but our family values, the ways of the world, humanity.

And because we limit the time she is allowed to spend studying, she dives on her books with great gusto. And because she is only allowed limited time on her subjects, she on her own accord brings them into her real world, in our car conversations and whenever she makes the connection with the real world. And her eyes and quicksilver brain are always searching to make the connection, sometimes between the most innocuous events and objects. A casual conversation about “those shoes” became the laws of Spanish grammar and ultimately, the trivium. She argues heatedly, sticking her head between her parents’, intent on getting her point across.

We see the joy of learning awakens in her, and it is a great feeling.

Six Ways of Raising Employable Kids

My mother didn’t do one part of parenting that well: she treated me as if I were too important for ‘real’ life. I never had to do any housework and she never brought me down a peg or two, which I sorely needed. She gave me the impression that jobs are something that shouldn’t concern me, on the grand scheme of things.

Fortunately, after flunking out of my private school with three measly O levels (in English, French and Maths), I continued my studies at my local community college. As it turned out, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

It gave me the much-needed reality check.

First of all, I had to learn typing. Yes, freaking typing. But hey, I met my children’s father in Mrs. Jean Bushby’s typing class, when he wandered in, looking lost, needing someone to help him type something. Of course I volunteered, he was this Adonis-looking male in tiny football shorts and blazing blue eyes and impressive muscles. The rest, as they say, is history.

And then there was a Mr. Jim Crow. I was on the track to study Medicine at university, so Mr. Crow arranged for me to work once a week at St. Mary’s Hospital, Portsmouth. He and Sister Ayling at St. Mary’s became my torturers of sorts. I didn’t want to go back, after senile patients expected me to clean their bums and junior doctors treated me like an annoying kid that they were forced to babysit. The nurses, who were supposed to be angels, weren’t too kind with me either: I was told on many occasions that like all doctors, I was as thick as two short planks, just because I couldn’t find things and didn’t know what NG tubes were. I could sense Mr. Crow’s lips twitching under his bushy moustache as I retold my woes to him week after week, but he and Sister Ayling did not let up. The Princess had to relinquish her crown before either of them would endorse my university application.

But much as I hated the weekly come-down-to-earth sessions that lasted for the best part of two years, I must have known subconsciously, that the tough love is representative of the real world: my first job was at St Mary’s Hospital, and I still have my first paycheck framed up.

I was also fortunate that my mother-in-law came into my life when I was still a teen and thus still not too late to be reformed. I was pregnant with her precious son’s child. She was tough on me, in the way that my mother never was. And oh woes, we had to live with my in-laws when we were saving for the deposit for our first home.

“Why are you still in bed?” my mother-in-law would demand.

“I was up late last night studying,” I would bleat. My mum would have soothed my hair and run off to get me anything I wanted. Not so my mother-in-law.

“But you are not sick, are you,” she countered. “There’s nothing wrong with you at all, just lazy.”

I learned one very important thing about myself: that though I was smart and have a bright future, I was not very likeable.

I was arrogant and imperious. I had the entitlement mentality. In later years, I look back and count my blessings that I had come face to face with real life, though it was painful at that time. I am especially grateful that my children have never been anything like me, thanks to their down-to-earth father. My kids had always been ordinary, likeable folks, and this had served them well, and without all the heartache that I had to go through, without my baptism of fire into the real world.

What I have written here relates to something I have been reading about lately, namely the number of unemployed young people.

These unemployed youngsters often have the much-coveted, sometimes expensive degrees, yet employers are not beating a path to their front door trying to hire them. I am not an economist, so I cannot make pronouncements about government policies, the economy and other factors that may cause the situation.

But I want to put this to parents: are you raising employable kids?

Unless you have a business empire for your child to walk straight into immediately after graduation (is a degree that important, by the way), your child needs to get a job.

  1. The likeability factor

First of all, that means he has to be likeable. And I mean likeable to the outside world and not just to you and his grandparents. I read somewhere that the impression is made in the first few seconds after meeting someone: the following minutes and hours only serve to build evidence for or against the first impression.

  1. The art of conversation

Many over-schooled children cannot hold a conversation. Because believe it or not, children need to be taught how to verbally engage with others. And that, I mean ask relevant questions politely, listen to the answers, process the information, form own opinion, and discuss topics eloquently, in context, and in an age-appropriate fashion (a child discussing heavy topics that he or she does not have deep real knowledge of is like listening to a performing monkey parroting rubbish). 

I once asked a seven year old little girl in my yoga class, “What shall we order? A cheeseburger or a toffee ice cream?”

Her reply, “I got to ask my marder first.”

Yet this girl knew – or should I say, could parrot – the most impressive book knowledge ever.

  1. Service with a smile

Does your child have the right attitude? What I have learned, through my own experience, is that in the real world, everyone needs to start from the bottom rung. How does your Little Emperor / Little Princess cope with being an office junior? My mother didn’t do this part of raising me too well – I was so shocked that even after my degree from Oxford, I was expected to do menial tasks for my boss. Whaaat? Moi? Be your bag carrier? Are you serious? But that’s real life. Carry your boss’s bag, sharpen his pencil, bring him coffee and do it with a smile.


  1. It hurts but that’s life

Perhaps most important factor of all, can your child cope with criticisms? You spend his early years telling him that he is wonderful. What happens when someone out there in the world disagrees? You can bet your last dollar that someone out there will, and how then will he react?

I met a boy a few years back, who had a massive meltdown in public (he was about ten at that time) because a mother told him not to touch a display stand at a science exhibition. He screamed and pinched the lady who told him off, and his own mother’s rationale was, “All gifted children have some degree of social problems.” Well, Little Einstein is going to come in for a big shock, because like it or not, he has to be likeable enough, to be able to be social enough, to get a research post at some university, however gifted he is.

  1. Be alive

Is your child inspired? Does he have the fire within that makes him want to make something out of his life? Does his CV show initiative? I think my second son has one of the most interesting CVs for a schoolboy: he built and sold his racing go-kart for profit, he organised illegal boxing matches and he worked as a furniture removal man in a rough part of London during his summer holidays. And somehow, I wasn’t too surprised that it was this child of mine, the least academic one, who won a prestigious sponsorship for his bachelor and masters degrees, and a job immediately after graduation when many of his more academic peers were struggling to find jobs.

I didn’t have the best academic record, yet I was given a full scholarship for my second degree at Oxford. At the interview, I was asked about my terrible grades. My (truthful) answer: it was a beautiful spring that year, and I was sleeping on the beach with my children’s father on most nights, including the nights before my exams.

  1. Show commitment

Start something, stick to it, finish it. Chasing for bigger and brighter things every few months does not look good on the CV. A good way for small children to develop this quality is the humble jigsaw puzzle….and no moving on until the piece is finished.

Note: my four adult children are all gainfully employed: an investment banker, a naval officer, an interior designer and a property developer. I, however, am currently unemployed. I blame my mother for growing me with the belief that all a girl needs to get by is fresh air, sunshine and love.

Education for Tomorrow

People are often confused about my education philosophies.  My children’s father and I are both unapologetic beach bums living on the paradise island of Phuket, with no ambition beyond walking the beach each day. Our older children have all grown and flown the nest, back to our home country (UK) and making strides in their adult lives. Now, there is only Georgina left. She is our last child, and her father and I are living the last years of our parenting journey with her (or should I say, through her).

We both have seen a lot, as one does with over a decade of travelling, living in foreign lands, meeting unusual people and raising five kids. Oh, the wisdom we have acquired from the road, it is nothing like what the books tell you. Of course, as parents, we want to impart the real-life wisdom to her – after all, what parents don’t.

A couple of the important things that we have learned: happiness is internal (therefore don’t go chasing big job titles) and in a world that has become increasingly fast-paced, we have to hold on to good old-fashioned values. And thus, we tell our child, you get the best learning at home (well, on the beach) and in church.

But here’s our dilemma – we have a child who is gifted (I hate the word) and who storms ahead, propelled by her curiosity of the world around her, her impatience at not knowing answers, and her desire to rule the world and see her name in lights.

With the benefit of hindsight, experience and years on the road, we want to tell her this:  a lot of what you obsess about is not important, anymore than exam grades are.

Fortunately, we live on a holiday island and she attends a progressive British international school, so the focus on exams is missing from her psyche. Thank goodness.  I could not have coped with exam stress for the second time in my life (coping with my own was bad enough), and exams say nothing about a person’s capabilities anyway.  I give you an example: despite her tender years, Georgina is one of the most erudite, vocal and critical thinkers I know, and English is her mother tongue. Yet English Language is one of the subjects that she consistently scores lowest in exams.

But dear parents, it does not mean that we just let our child’s fertile brain just rot. We teach her. Teach as in giving her the building blocks to build her own framework, rather than telling her what she has to know. Because a lot of what we know is rubbish anyway, come tomorrow, but the learning process remains and paves the way for future, yet-to-be-known experiences.

Here’s what I mean: whilst I was at Oxford, the superstar of the Astrophysics department was a young scientist called George Efstathiou, who was heavily lauded for discovering cold dark matter. A few years later, his theory was found to be flawed and cold dark matter was dead. And then, it revived again….it goes to show that nobody really knows The Truth, not even parents.

Georgina’s father has a Bachelor in Education degree, so I derive some degree of comfort in the fact that at least one of us know what he/she is doing when it comes to educating this child. We want to educate her for a better world (she, and all the other youngsters, are our world). It sounds rather pompous, so in company, I always say, “Education for tomorrow”.

And this is it about education for the new world: our children are going to grow up to be someone’s husband/wife, parent, employee, employer, leader, friend, helper, and a whole gamut of unofficial occupations. Look around you at these people in your life – what do you love and cherish about them? What do you admire about them? What is it about that special person that makes the world better?

Now turn the mirror inwards to your parenting self. Are you raising that wonderful person, or are you too obsessed trying to create a genius out of a moderately clever child?

I often post on social media about the challenges of raising a child who does not want to follow her parents’ footsteps and live on the beach, existing solely on love, fresh air and sunshine.  I post about her asking questions on isotopes, grammar rules, marine plywood, universal proof and a whole lot of other things that are quite frankly beyond my rusted brain. I often struggle to find the answers and have invested hours rereading my old books and doctoral thesis to bring myself up to date.

However, my intention is not to create a monster – sorry, I mean genius. I have no ambition whatsoever of raising a scholarship student either. And there is nothing I find more irritating than a precocious child spouting rubbish that he/she had picked up from the Internet or from reading unsuitable books – the saying ‘empty vessel makes the most noise’ springs immediately to mind.

No, we teach our child to learn. Relativity, Quantum Theory and other big-ticket topics that fire the imagination are merely tools for learning, and not the actual Holy Grail. These subjects teach a child that the world is not known, much as we like to think it is, and orders are rapidly changing.  This is why Ptolemy is proven wrong, whilst Einstein’s legacies are work in progress. Learning how to think is expansionist and cannot be converted from textbook learning.  It is from a different branch all together.

For background, Claudius Ptolemy was an influential mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, geographer and poet. Ptolemy was famous for a number of discoveries, out of which the most famous was a theory that expounded that the earth was the centre of the universe (though some might argue that Ptolemic system holds true for some isolated cases). We now know that the earth is not at the centre of the universe, and nor is the universe the centre of other universes. There is no centre, though no one knows for sure, not even the ‘experts’ with their space-age, multi-billion dollar toys. And this is what I answered to a mother today who suggested that I seek experts to help my daughter with her maths: there is no expert, and the best teacher for a 15 year old child is her parents. Maths knowledge – or any non-contextual knowledge for that matter – will not make her a better person, or a happier one, or a successful one, if your definition of success is a balanced, productive adult with a fulfilling personal life.

I was once asked, when I was giving a talk at the Science Museum London, what I thought about Einstein’s Relativity equations.  Thinking on my feet, I responded immediately, “They kind of work, because Einstein left gaps in it for things that he did not yet know.” I was terrified of being misquoted afterwards, as it was a high profile event and I shared the stage with Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson and A.S. Byatt. To compound my worries over my unscripted grandiose statement, the ultimate head of my department at that time was Professor Christopher Llewellyn Smith, who was the Director General of CERN, the European multi-billion pound research facility in Geneva. The dressing down never came (maybe I was correct, but who knows), and a few weeks later, I won the Department of Trade & Industry’s SMART Award.

I don’t use any of it. Except maybe to win arguments with my child.

But this is the important lesson I learned from Einstein: as time passes, we will continue to grow and gain a deeper understanding of things, and we will see things differently. We must allow for the empty spaces in the present.

As my child succinctly summarises, “Oh, the textbooks are not always right then.” And neither are parents.

Real knowledge has to be discovered, either in the real world or within the unplumbed depths of your mind. It does not come spoon-fed to you, either in books or the Internet. And that is what we are teaching our child: to think critically, to question relevantly, to search effectively, to create workable frameworks, and most of all, to find joy in the living and meaning in the caring.

I dedicate this article to my dear friend Richard Boyle, who understands what I am trying to teach my child, keeps me inspired and gives me much joy.

Education: What Are We Paying For?

My youngest child attends the British International School, Phuket. I must admit, I gulped a bit when I paid the school fees. But so far, I am fine with what I am paying for. It costs a lot to run this little piece of Great Britain in the tropical paradise of Phuket, and the money has to come from somewhere. Simple economics. It makes me feel better that it is a trust school, meaning that there are no greedy shareholders trying to fleece parents through turning education into a big money-spinner, putting profit before altruistic goals. My elder daughter attended a trust school as well, and yes, I did balked then when the invoices from Portsmouth High School arrived with ominous regularity.

But what exactly are we, the parents, paying for?

I had an unsuccessful academic career in private schools. I left with four mediocre ‘O’ levels instead of the standard seven that most half-wits in most half-decent non fee-paying schools can aspire to. Perhaps I was too excited about riding horses on the beach in the mornings to get rid of the hangovers obtained the night before than I was about getting the grades. I doodled during prep, dreamed about flying hovercrafts, greasy food at Trevor’s Caff and Snakebites at Smugglers’ Inn.

I applied to Havant Sixth Form College because I did not have that many options. The then Principal decided to give me a chance, despite my dismal ‘O’ level grades. And so I began my ‘A’ levels in this non fee-paying school.

I succeeded.

In the second year of my ‘A’ levels, I received an unconditional offer from Southampton, my home university, to read Medicine. I also received an offer from Cambridge.

Thus I must state the obvious: Havant Sixth Form College was the making of me. Somehow, this little school had everything just right. I will attempt to list down what I think the key success factors were:

(1) A proactive and ‘real’ careers guidance department
Secondary students need personal guidance, because the adult world with its seemingly infinite number of choices is a baffling place. Moreover, how could one possibly know at 17 what one will be at 27, 37, 47, 57? Throw in parental pressure and false representations from the media, and the poor students are lost in the uncharted waters.

The careers guidance department at Havant worked well for its students, because it was located on the corridor that all students had to walk past at some stage of the day. There were big posters to attract the eye, and over-zealous staff were always on the quick to pull unsuspecting students in.

Even the teachers got proactively involved. Mr. Jim Crow, in my case. I had a lot to thank (and blame) him for. He got me work experience at St Mary’s Hospital. I thought it was for a week when I signed up, but it turned out to be longer than I feared. For two days a week for a whole year, I had to show up at the hospital to do menial jobs, get insulted by patients and run foul of the matron. I vomited on my first day. Straight into the laundry basket. Things got progressively worse. I complained to Mr. Crow and told him that I no longer wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to study nuclear physics instead and be an astronaut. I could still remember his moustache twitching in amusement as he admonished me with a straight face.

But my work experience meant that I leap-frogged past the dreamers and fantasists and predicted grade A swots. Because I proved that I could hack working as an unpaid lackey in a busy hospital for one whole year. If members of the selection committee at Southampton University were privy to the tearful rants I had with Mr. Crow, life could have been very different for me indeed.

(2) Useful subjects
I did Mathematics, Chemistry and Biology. I loved Mathematics with Mrs. Balthazar because I found Mathematics easy; I enjoyed Chemistry with Mr. Haskins because he was not fazed out when we exploded things in the lab (I think he was secretly a bigger pyromaniac than all of us put together); I tolerated Biology with Mrs. Woods because she was sweet.

But I had to do Typing. I mean, come on! Mrs. Jean Bushby with her stiff grey helmet for hair took no hostages. She shot from the hip. Fearfully, I learned to type.

It served me well when I went up to Oxford and had copious amount of data to process. And hey, I have written four books to date without the help of any professional typist.

(3) Real people
There was a large population of ex private school students like my brother and I. There was also a big group of students who came from state school backgrounds. Folks who lived in council estates, who wanted to do well, and children of liberals who did not subscribe to private school elitism. It wasn’t all rich kids, but a mix that worked well, not only academically but preparation for life in the real world.
I had a fabulous two years at Havant. Among some of my most precious memories is taking the train to school every morning with my brother Al. There was always enough going on in school to occupy us, or we would hang out either in the town centre or on the beach near my house. Yes, we drank and partied, but never with the frenetic debauchery of my private school years. I skipped school often (for good reasons), and my three A level teachers helped, rather than hindered, my progress.

It is a testament to their abilities as teachers and to the school for its ethos that I managed to do passably well for my A levels, despite sleeping on the beach at the end of Woodgason Lane with the father of my children right up to the night before my exams.

So in conclusion, there is such a thing as free lunch, and free (high quality) education. I am the proof of that, and I guess this is why I wrote this article.

Slow down, my child, and enjoy today


Dear G, you never listen to us, because you think you have incompetent, irresponsible, bungling beach bums for parents. Crazy people who preach alternative philosophies and live life as if everyday is their last. You are probably right, but hear us out before you rush off to do the ten thousand and one things in your busy life.

Life is not a race but a journey. Don’t be in a rush to get on the superhighway. Because you will lose out on lots of beautiful things that you will never be able to find again, however long and hard you search for them in the future. Things of real value, things of today, that will never come your way in this lifetime again.

Your father had voluntarily left his well-paid job to live on an island in a country he has never lived in before, simply to give you magical and memorable final years of your childhood, and to give you the best opportunities possible of achieving your dream to be England’s football captain. Dreams should be achieved, but never at the expense of the things that really matter in life.

We never saw giving up our careers as a sacrifice for you.  In fact, it is a privilege. You are only lent to us for a very short while. 18 years, to be exact. Or maybe only 16. We intend to use those precious years to give you a long, happy and idyllic childhood so that you have a strong base to build your future successes on.  There is no substituting these strong foundations. They are what that make you strong on the inside. Believe me, I know all about it. I still run home to Portsmouth, to my parents’ home, when the going gets tough. I still call on my brothers. And most of all, I only have to close my eyes to see my young happy self again, walking on the beaches of Southern England, going on the slow train to school with my brother or sitting in my mother’s sunny kitchen. I know I am safe, so long as I have a mind to remember those beautiful memories of that part of my life, a time of innocence, carefreeness and untrammelled faith. Days before the harshness of the adult world took away my kaleidoscope eyes. Days that will never come this way again. It’s not an age thing, but cynicism, a certain weariness, a hardened shell, that prevent those layers ever to be accessed again.

Several years ago, walking with my father on the deserted  Southsea seafront on Christmas night through the closed up fairground, I thought wistfully, “I wish I had not grown up so quickly.” Because my father, with his head full of white hair, arthritic knees, high prostate count and two major heart attacks, will not be here forever.  Just as yours won’t be, G.

Have you noticed why he is so whole-heartedly embracing all the time he has with you, the way he jumps in at the first opportunity, a stalker almost? Because he knows. Because he knows that our time with you is finite.

Like your brothers and sister, you all are the most precious gifts that God and Life gave us.  We often talk in awe (still!) about how and why we had been chosen to parent these beautiful beings. After all, we were just two ordinary people who went to the pub one evening, sat on the beach, and accidentally made a baby. We didn’t have a clue how to be a parent, how to be responsible parents, how to be ‘good’ parents. All we know – and we know that deeply – is that we must give you all a good happy home and a magical childhood, so that you always know that you are safe, and that life is good on the whole, no matter how dark the present is.

So G, this is what we are giving you.  Pieces of ourselves. So that however long you may live, you carry our love with you always, and the deep knowing that there is a happy place in the world for you. You have been to that happy place: it’s called your childhood. This type of transmission cannot be hurried, it is in the life we give you everyday. And so, your father and I would like to say this to you: successes in the outside world can wait, there is a time and place for everything. But something infinitely more important is happening at home right now, in the moments we walk by the sea, in the picnics on the beach, in the evenings we sit at home quietly reading, in our long drives in the car, in the conversations and in the everyday life with your parents who are dedicating their every waking hour to making the last years of your childhood magical. Don’t rush life, slow down, and enjoy today.