Poundswick: 1985 City-wide Teacher’s Strike Provoked by Graffiti

An incident in 1985 of graffiti by a group of pupils and ex-pupils at Poundswick High School triggered a series of events leading to strike action in schools throughout Manchester. The school at the centre of these events was closed for a whole term and the pupils in the critical exam years lost a vital term of their education. The issue challenged the Left administration being on the opposite side of the negotiation table than they were used to, and left scars on the Education Committee councillors for many years.
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Graffiti Incident at Poundswick High School
In 1985, to add to the problems with the budget and the hostile press coverage of the Lord Mayor affair, a totally unexpected education issue hit the political agenda. It became known just as ‘Poundswick’.

It began innocuously enough on Tuesday 18 June 1985, when graffiti was seen on the walls of the lower school building of Poundswick High School in Wythenshawe by one of the senior teachers on his way to take assembly. This was described at the subsequent governors’ meeting as follows:

“The graffiti covered 44 panels, 21 windows, both entrance/exit doors, two downspouts, one vertical support beam and one tiled wall approximately 2m by 2m. It was in black and other coloured lettering – frequently capitals 6-9 inches high. There were written references to ten staff, a range of obscenities, racist comments and pupils’ names.”[1]

During the morning break, the graffiti was removed (after being recorded) and the pupils named in it were questioned by staff to ascertain who were the potential culprits.

The following day, eight suspected culprits were interviewed by staff and five year 10[2] boys were suspended. One version of the events records that the five were suspended ‘following admission of guilt’ and that three pupils were ‘exonerated’. The parents of the five suspended boys alleged that the other three were exonerated after implicating the five.

Over the next few days, the parents of the five boys were seen by the Headteacher, Keith Halstead. They subsequently claimed that the boys’ admissions were obtained under pressure. The parents lodged appeals against the suspensions to be heard by the school governors.

Chief Education Officer Intervention
A few days after the incident, the Chief Education Officer, Gordon Hainsworth, wrote to the Headteacher saying that he considered the punishment to be ‘out of proportion’ and ‘unduly severe’. The Head replied on 28 June, expressing his disagreement and saying that he had considered his personal and professional reaction very carefully. At the specially-convened governors’ meeting on 1 July, the parents’ appeals were rejected, and the governors recommended that the Council’s Education Committee should permanently exclude the five boys from the school.

Much later, it became known that the vote had only been five to four in favour of this action and that not all of the information about the incident had been put before the governors. In particular, there was no reference to the involvement of three ex-pupils and a further nine current pupils. It was also revealed that the Head had written to the chair of governors recommending the expulsion of all five boys before they had been interviewed and he had spoken to their parents.

Education Committee District Sub-committees
Unconnected to these events, the Education Committee’s policy was that its three district sub-committees should have delegated authority to determine cases of permanent exclusions from schools in their areas. This was endorsed by the City Council on 26 June 1985.

So it fell to the South District Sub-committee to determine the issue. It met on 13 September 1985. Its members comprised four female Labour councillors, all from the Wythenshawe constituency (the Education Committee Chair Val Dunn, Sub-committee Chair Ronni Myers, Winnie Smith and Margaret Ainsworth), one female Conservative councillor and the male representative of the teacher unions.

The hearing lasted for six and a half hours with the governors represented by their Chair, the Head and a teacher governor. The other side consisted of the five boys, their parents and a representative of the parents. Each side was given the opportunity to present evidence, both in writing and orally, and to cross-examine the other. The transcript of the meeting was confidential, but it subsequently became known that the only written evidence presented to the sub-committee (and the earlier governors’ meeting) was a hand-written note from the Head in which he said that the five boys admitted to the graffiti when he and other staff interviewed them. No written statements from the boys were presented. The Sub-committee noted the parents’ wish for the pupils to be reinstated and the strong views of the teaching staff and governors in seeking permanent exclusion.

Having heard all these representations, the Sub-committee decided not to permanently exclude the pupils. It was minuted

“that this sub-committee’s grave concern at the incident and its effect on the staff and pupils at the school be recorded; and all concerned be informed that this sub-committee would view most seriously any further incident involving any of the pupils which, in the governors’ view, would warrant consideration by this sub-committee.”

Some of the teachers later claimed that, as local councillors, Val, Ronni, Margaret and Winnie gave in to pressure from the parents and their friends, who were their constituents. Others felt that the councillors shared a working-class antipathy towards ‘middle-class’ teachers and were therefore more inclined to side with the pupils and parents. There is no doubt that the education officers would have been strongly urging the reinstatement of the pupils because of the difficulty in placing them elsewhere, and the councillors would have been reluctant to go against the officer recommendations.

Teachers Refused to Teach the Five Boys
The following Monday, the five boys reported to school (having been allowed back by the Head without advising the staff). The teachers decided to have no contact with them. At a full staff meeting on the Tuesday, they resolved to ask the Education Committee to make alternative off-site provision for the boys, saying that:

“We cannot accept a decision by which staff morale is affected. It puts us in an invidious position. It questions the authority of heads and teachers… [it] will have a detrimental effect on the other pupils in this school.”

All the three teacher unions (NASUWT, NUT and AMMA[3]) supported this action by the teachers. The Head wrote accordingly to the Chief Education Officer (CEO) and sent the boys home with a letter for their parents advising them to contact him.

The CEO wrote back to the Head pointing out that the school did not have the power to over-ride a decision of the Education Committee and strongly reminding him of his duty to admit pupils enrolled at the school. He recommended that the staff re-admit the pupils “pending urgent consultations” and undertook to meet with governors’ representatives. The Head gave in and indicated that he would meet parents and re-admit the pupils.

The teachers refused to teach them, though, so the CEO wrote to each of them individually warning them that such action was a breach of contract and that if they persisted they would be sent home without pay. On Wednesday 25 September, the Head asked three teachers if they were prepared to teach their classes, which included the five boys. They refused and were sent home. The following day the same procedure was followed with a further seven teachers refusing to teach them and being sent home. An additional 29 teachers then went on strike and left the school premises. One of the teachers, Andy Simpson, who was a Party activist at the time, says that two days after voting for the strike, he regretted doing so.

The militancy of the teachers has to be viewed in the context of the ongoing national dispute with the government at the time. All the teaching unions were in dispute over pay and workloads. There had been a year of strikes and rallies and teachers were fed up with the lack of progress.

The governors, two of whom, Tommy Farrell and Bill Jamieson, were right-wing Labour councillors, supported the teachers’ action. They wrote to the CEO on 26 September saying that they:

“… wish to place on record their total confidence in the head and teaching staff and their appreciation of the high standards of care, education and discipline which they have encouraged within the school and which has led to the high esteem in which the school is held by the community… The governors reaffirm their original decision to recommend the permanent exclusion of five pupils … request that the Education Committee review its decision … with a view to finding them alternative educational placements. In view of the above decision the governors call upon the Education Committee to reconsider their instruction that teachers refusing to teach the five pupils should be sent home without pay. The governors call for the immediate reinstatement of these teachers.”

On Friday 27 September, a further eight teachers refused to teach the boys and were sent home and then, on each of the following three days, another teacher did likewise. At this point there were 21 teachers who had been sent home without pay and 29 on strike, which meant that the school had to be closed.

Tony Burns, who was by this time the acting chair of the Education Committee[4], Nick Harris, who was the Chair of the Education Policy Sub-committee, and senior education officers met the secretaries of the main teacher unions. Then, on 3 October, the Education Chairs and Deputies Group (see chapter 4) met to discuss the situation. The teacher unions were in competition with each other and had to be seen to support their members, so the avenues for escape from the crisis quickly closed off.

Teachers Across Manchester Went On Strike
On Friday 4 October 1985, teachers from around 12 schools in the city went on unofficial strike in support of the Poundswick teachers, with rallies outside the education offices and Town Hall. The following Monday, the teacher unions began a vigil at the Town Hall and the Secondary Heads Association (SHA) announced strike action on 10 October:

[for the] first time in our history… in support of Poundswick head, staff and governors in their efforts to maintain high standards”.

They put a notice in the Manchester Evening News saying:

“No arrangements have been made for covering absence… [heads] cannot be held responsible for the health and safety of pupils in school on this occasion… Action starting at 12 noon and heads will not be available for lunch-time supervision.”

The CEO believed the action to be legally challengeable by parents. Two voluntary aided schools (Loretto Sixth Form College and Our Lady’s Roman Catholic High School) decided to close for the day with the approval of their governors (and with SHA advice that they had to authority to do this). The CEO did not sanction the closures. The next day, the Labour Group had its first formal discussion of the situation following representations from John Watters, General Secretary of the NUT.

Over the next eleven days there was frenetic activity with meetings between education officers and elected members, parents, the CEO and the chair of governors; strike action and mass rallies; TV and press coverage; and threats of court action – culminating on 21 October with all five teaching unions taking half-day strike action across the whole city.

By 23 October, when the dispute was into its fourth week, Nick Harris and Tony Burns wrote to all Labour Group members and City Party representatives summarising the events and pointing out that all the correct procedures had been followed and that numerous discussions and negotiations had been held to try to resolve the situation.

After four meetings with the teaching unions, it was clear that the teachers were not prepared to compromise. While recognising the legitimacy of the sub-committee’s decision, they felt the Education Committee could pressurise the parents into removing the pupils from the school. The councillors believed that a compromise was possible, involving on-site and off-site provision for the pupils with some or all of the ten teachers named in the graffiti being released from their contractual obligation to teach them.

While all this was going on, the Tories and others were using the dispute to whip up support for a return to corporal punishment in schools. A Parents Action Group, supported by Tory councillor John Kershaw and £1,000 funding from the Freedom Association, announced it would be taking Labour councillors to court.

An Extraordinary Council meeting was convened by the Liberals on 25 October 1985 to discuss Poundswick. Nick Harris was quoted as saying that “[there is] no direct proof that the five accused boys were responsible for the graffiti”. An amendment proposing support for the teachers and the Head was defeated by 53 to 26. As well as the Liberals and Tories, seven Labour right-wingers (Ken Collis, Pat Conquest, Bill Jamieson, Hugh Lee, Derek Shaw, Michael Taylor, Cliff Tomlinson) backed the amendment. The rest of the Labour Right abstained.

A second Extraordinary Council meeting was convened by the Tories on the same day to discuss a motion of no confidence in Val Dunn and the left-wing Labour members. This time the motion was defeated by 54 to 18 with the Labour Right abstaining. It was agreed that the Education Committee should make a submission to the Secretary of State for Education to intervene under Section 68 of the Education Act. According to Tony Burns, he refused to become involved because he had no jurisdiction, and this caused a new clause to be inserted into the new Education Act.

The Issue Became a National Interest
On 30 October 1985, the issue gained national prominence with an article in the Daily Telegraph. Meanwhile, the independent Manchester publication City Life carried an extensive article by local journalist Ed Glinert that was critical of the Head and the governors and supported the parents of the excluded boys:

“More than a simple industrial dispute … More than a conflict over lack of discipline in Manchester schools … More than a breakdown in the fragile relationship between teachers and education officials…

“Now emerged as the one political crisis which has set the city buzzing…

“A motley crew of Tories, Liberals, some Labour Party members, parents, disciplinarians, journalists and barrack-room lawyers have clubbed together to attack the council’s handling of the dispute and the ‘suspension’ of the teachers for refusing to teach the so-called ‘dirty five’… united under the banner of ‘Save our Schools’…

“Remarkable sight of anti-strike, anti-trade union groups rallying round the industrial action of the teaching unions…

“The issue has been hijacked by disparate groups whose only common thread is their desire to bring back the good old days of corporal punishment.”

Ed Glinert was also critical of the Headteacher for involving nine lower school pupils in cleaning off the graffiti, given its obscene nature. He concluded the article with the assertion that:

“Poundswick has the second highest suspension rate in the city. The teachers could have dealt with this in many other ways. They could have made the offenders wash it off and that would have been the end of it.”

On 12 November 1985, a summary of the two sides’ positions was produced by Nick Harris for the City Party and the Labour Group and it was decided to seek conciliation via the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). Meanwhile, with the school having been closed for nine weeks, the Dean of Manchester, Robert Waddington, made an attempt to mediate. He held four meetings totalling 12 hours and involving parents of four of the boys, six teachers from the school, including Andy Simpson, and reps from the NUT and AMMA. According to Andy, the fact that the parents and some of the teachers were non-political and inexperienced in negotiating made it impossible to achieve a compromise. Political activists and trade unionists are familiar with the ‘rules of negotiation’ and the need eventually to reach a ‘deal’.

On 25 November, Graham Stringer wrote a letter to the Labour Group explaining that the Liberals had requested another Extraordinary Council meeting to discuss Poundswick. He said that although the group officers wouldn’t normally agree to this (given that it would do little to resolve the problems), they wanted to avoid the Liberals calling one on their own initiative, as they had done previously, and capitalising on the publicity in the week of the Levenshulme by-election. Graham referred to key meetings being held during the following week and hoped these would bring a resolution nearer.

The Council meeting was held on 29 November, with the Labour Group meeting for an hour beforehand. Nick Harris gave an update on possible compromise proposals to be put to the governors on 2 December. These were being put forward by two parents at the school, supported by the Parents’ Association, and were not dissimilar to those arising from the Dean of Manchester’s initiative. The proposals were supported by the Labour Group, but it was agreed that they would not be made public and that no members of the public would be allowed to speak at the Council meeting.

The first meeting with ACAS took place on 4 December with Tony Burns, Nick Harris, the CEO Gordon Hainsworth and his deputy representing the Council. They put forward the parents’ compromise proposals, as agreed by the Labour Group. But the teacher unions were not prepared to commit themselves to an agreement and later publicly attacked the proposals as not providing a basis for a settlement. They asked for an adjournment until 10 December. The Council side agreed, but protested at the delays and made it clear that they were prepared to meet at any time, day or night, including weekends.

At ACAS, both sides were asked to make no public statements, but the Council side said that if ACAS wouldn’t publicly state their concerns over the delays, then they would publicise them. They agreed, however, that they wouldn’t say anything else to the press unless the unions did first. After the meeting, they found that the unions had spoken to the press (in breach of the agreement) claiming that no proposals had come forward, so the Council responded by making the proposals public.

The following day, Nick Harris wrote to all councillors explaining the situation and including the two proposals from the Council and the Dean. These were that from 6 January 1986 there would be part on-site, part off-site teaching and tuition by volunteer teachers or within Poundswick on a ‘restricted movement’ basis, provided that the teacher unions called off the strike and gave written assurances of no victimisation of the five boys.

On 19 December agreement was finally reached with the NUT and AMMA, but the NASUWT stuck to a hard line and didn’t co-operate. NASUWT members remained on strike for the rest of the year, losing their annual pay increment because of it. Their union compensated them for this for the rest of their working lives.

The NUT and AMMA agreed to end their strike action, however, and the City Council lifted the suspension of teachers who refused to teach the five pupils. With effect from 6 January 1986, it was agreed that individual AMMA and NUT members would withdraw their services only on those occasions when they were due to teach classes that would normally contain any of the five pupils (unless it was known beforehand that they wouldn’t be present). The Council agreed to provide a tutor for the five pupils. Compensatory education was to be provided for the rest of the pupils (particularly those in year 11[5] taking GCE and CSE examinations) who had missed a whole term of schooling.

On Reflection
Looking back, it seems incredible that this became such a major issue, but it is difficult to see how things could have been done differently. For the Left, having been supportive of the teachers in their dispute with the government and campaigned with the teacher unions, it was a shock to be faced with such strong opposition on this issue. Councillors failed to recognise the depth of feeling of the teachers struggling to deal with disruptive pupils and increasing workloads, and their feeling of their interests being trampled underfoot by the Tory government, while Nick Harris was said to have made some injudicious comments that inflamed the situation.

With hindsight, the school senior management seems to have handled the initial incidents badly (see Appendix 9A below). Andy Simpson says that there were transcripts of the graffiti circulating around the school; some even appeared on staff noticeboards alongside jokes about whether some of the comments were true. He himself was referred to as ‘barmcake’ in the graffiti and this nickname stuck for a while. So not all the teachers regarded the issue with the same degree of seriousness.

The District Sub-committee members perhaps should have recognised the explosive potential of the situation. If they had been more experienced, perhaps they would have made a different decision and recommended sending the boys to another school. Val Dunn’s background as a shop steward in the bakery industry was no preparation for dealing with teacher trade unions. There might also have been a different outcome if the councillors on the District Sub-committee had not been the ward councillors serving the school.

According to the analysis done by one of the Assistant Chief Education Officers, Andrew Cant, at least three of the five expelled boys seemed to be innocent of the more serious charges (see Appendix 9A below). But, according to one former teacher at the school, the five had records of misbehaviour and one of them “had a history over four years of beating up other kids and had then gone on TV and said the teachers were ‘spoiling his education’”.

I find it hard to understand why the parents of the five were so adamant that they wouldn’t seek places at other schools, and I wonder what eventually happened to them. There is no doubt that the whole fiasco, and the loss of a whole term’s schooling, must have adversely affected the educational outcomes for all the other year 10 and year 11 pupils at the school. The Poundswick issue certainly left scars on the Education Committee councillors for many years.

Appendix 9A : Assistant Chief Education Officer Andrew Cant’s Summary and Analysis 24/10/85
(Teachers’ names have been redacted with *****)

Head wrote to chair of governors recommending expulsion of all five boys before they had been interviewed and before he’d spoken to parents.

Governors were not presented with all the information. There was no reference to the involvement of ex-pupils. Inconsistencies in statements from pupils (see below).

  • 17 pupils in total known to have had some involvement.
  • Graffiti consisted of 14 obscene/racist items not admitted to and not proven [to be by the five accused], five offensive items, 11 schoolboy stuff.
  • JK – written statement in two different handwritings.
  • CF – no written admission. JK said CF had written “Mr F*****’s beard is daft”. At the Education Sub-committee, CF admitted it.
  • PL – admitted to writing his own name and “[Mrs] D***** has been fucked by [Mr] A*****”. He said that MP wrote “Mr H***** is a saggy cloth cat bagpuss”.
  • MP – no written admission. At Education Sub-committee admitted to writing “A***** is a big fat shit”. All the others corroborated that MP was a bystander or at worst wrote his own nickname.
  • EP – no written admission. JK alleged that he wrote “Vinny; Wythenshawe rule; Shanks” and the following obscene ones: “I’ve fucked H*****’s wife; H*****’s wife’s been shagged by Mr S*****; H*****’s wife gobbles niggers”.

Not admitted to by anybody:

  • H***** is a silly slag; F***** is a scruffy smelly mother-fucker; Miss P***** is a slag … is a whore; F***** stinks of shit … is a mother-fucker; C***** is an ostrich; G***** is a shit bag.

A reminder of the quote from the governors’ meeting mentioned early in the chapter:

“The graffiti covered 44 panels, 21 windows, both entrance/exit doors, two downspouts, one vertical support beam and one tiled wall approximately 2m by 2m. It was in black and other coloured lettering – frequently capitals 6-9 inches high. There were written references to ten staff, a range of obscenities, racist comments and pupils’ names.”[1]

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Editor’s Comments

The editing has involved adding sub-headings, minor typographical and layout amendments. I have struggled to understand why this incident has been given a chapter of its own and why it is in the section ‘Putting Policies into Practice’. I see that it was a matter of considerable time and effort and stress and has merit to be included because of the very matter of the Left being the employer and being on the other side of strike action. I wonder if it was of greater significance to Kath because of her Education interest. With my 2016 viewpoint, I can’t help agreeing with the quote from Ed Glinert that the Headteacher should have made the offenders wash the graffiti off and that would have been the end of it. Clearly there were other forces at play.


[1] See Appendix 9A for more detail – names redacted.

[2] Age 14-15 years old.

[3] National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), National Union of Teachers (NUT), Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association (AMMA)

[4] Val Dunn was on sick leave. In getting off a train, she had slipped through the gap between the platform and the train and broken her leg.

[5] Aged 15-16 years old.

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10 Responses

  1. So the teachers sho were involved were “paid for the rest of their working lives”?…. My fellow pupils and I lost a whole valuable year of education but,those teachers who decided on not committing to they’re jobs still got paid ?…

    • karencropper says:

      It must have been a big disruption for you.

    • karencropper says:

      I’m just coming back to this to clarify what the bit you are referring to in the section ‘The Issue Became a National Interest’ says:

      “NASUWT members remained on strike for the rest of the year, losing their annual pay increment because of it. Their union compensated them for this for the rest of their working lives.”

      NASUWT is the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. This was one of 3 unions that were on strike and in the negotiation. The other two unions reached an agreement, but the NASUWT didn’t at that point. The increment referred to is an annual increase in salary that is awarded based on length of service, so by being on strike those union members will have not received their increment, and that would have affected them for each subsequent year that they were still in teaching (or wider than that perhaps while in local authority employment?). The compensation would have been for the difference between what they were paid compared to what they would have been paid if they hadn’t been on strike. It would have been paid from the union funds contributed to by the other union members. Other than that difference, they would have simply been paid their salaries direct by their employers for the work that they did. Except, from my knowledge of local government pay structures, I think that would not have been for the whole of their working lives, since there comes a point with annual increments that you hit a ceiling on your grade and then you only get inflationary increases. So thanks to your comment, I am now pondering whether the statement “Their union compensated them for this for the rest of their working lives” is actually correct, but I can’t think of a way of checking. And it doesn’t mean they were paid for not working for the rest of their working age lives, if that is what you maybe thought.

      I’m not involved in any union or left-wing politics, so I don’t know all the nuances of this dispute and what was going on at the time. I wonder how the effect upon the pupils would have been justified in the discussions that happened? From what I know of the catchment area of Poundswick, I think there was a large council house estate in Wythenshawe that a proportion of pupils lived. It seems to me that this left-wing struggle actually disadvantaged a group of people who were supposedly those the Left wanted to support. I feel it seems to have escalated out of all proportion.

  2. Jason Talbot says:

    Same here went from studying English Language and literature, maths and 5 options in my 4th year to coming back almost a year later struggling to study and completely disinterested in school

  3. Alison Dickinson was Cussell says:

    My education was affected not only during the year of disruption but the following year and beyond, to be honest. To my recollection, not all teachers went on strike, as it depended on which union they were with. I, in fact, had a handful of subjects that continued to be taught and the teachers who were still working through the strike gave the kids, who bothered to turn up to school, loads of additional support. I believe that there was some deal struck with the exam boards too, and whereas originally we would have had to provide 10 Eng Lit essays, we were able to present just 5, for example. I worked my backside off and came away with 6 O Levels/16+(remember them?!) qualifications, went on to college but had a complete meltdown with regards further education and quit after 6 months. Found a job and continued to move around various fields of work and industries, never really settling. Ended up in the travel industry for the best part of 16 years, which gave me the opportunity to travel and eventually gain some promotion. I’m convinced though, that if my year 10/11 had not been disrupted my career path and life would have turned out very differently…

    • karencropper says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Alison. Well done on working so hard and getting the qualifications that you did. I did a few 16+ exams too where you got an O level and CSE certificate. I often wish if only we could go back and find out how life would have been if a particular incident hadn’t happened or a decision hadn’t been made. Only in the movies, alas! I wondered if because of losing that time of school any of your peers gained an enthusiasm for education, valued it more than they would have done if it had just been the normal situation? I know of two people from my school who had problems at school but caught up later in life, one of them getting a degree in Physics. I think recording what happened to the people affected is an important part of the history of it.

  4. Nikola Pancaro says:

    I was just moving into the upper school when all this happened. At 46 now I’m really lucky to be in a position where I’ve had a good career ! NO thanks to the people who signed up to educate me! Thanks for that!
    I remember feeling punished for things that we hadn’t done! And if the punctuation isn’t correct we can blame the missing English Teacher lol!

  5. steven duffy says:

    just talking to my nephew about school and googled what happened, good to see old acquaintances feel the same way. it didn’t bother me at the time but..anyone know a good lawyer..ha ha.

  6. Ali D says:

    I’ve always valued education. Now, as a mum, I am very involved with my kids’ schooling and even became a School Governor for 4 years and worked in their primary school for 3 years. Throughout my adult life I have strived to develop and learn through professional avenues, including self funding some training. I strongly believe in CPD – continued professional development – and want to set a good example to my kids who, thankfully, are excelling in school, which makes me so proud. I do feel that I would probably have followed a higher education pathway, but as a consequence of the events of the Graffiti Strike my confidence was seriously battered and I could not take on that challenge back then. As you say, Karen, perhaps once the kids are more independent I might feel able and have more time available to contemplate a degree

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