The Australian and British Education Systems

Three or four years ago, I had a teenage rant in response to something on some expat forums, and it became my most successful post. I’m constantly getting comments and questions from people who, for some reason, think I’m an expert on education system comparison and want advice.

Some of the information on that post is now outdated, and most of it was unclear to begin with. It wasn’t meant to be an informative post, just a rant! The main point of the post was that the Australian and English systems are really very similar. One is not really better than the other (although a couple of rankings would say that the Australian system is actually better.

If you want to find out about the education systems or how the curriculum compares, the best thing to do would be to look at the curriculums for yourself.

If you want to compare a couple of schools, contact those schools directly.

Here is a table comparing the three systems (Australia, England/Wales/NI, and Scotland) in terms of school years, curriculum phases, certificates, and so on:


Click to enlarge, of course. And here are links for the curriculums themselves:

Australian National Curriculum

British National Curriculum

Scottish Curriculum for Excellence

Here are the links for the overseeing institutions:

Education Scotland / Foghlam Alba

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA)

Here are some school comparison and finder sites:

The Good Schools Guide (UK)

The Good Schools Guide (Australia)

The Australian Schools Directory

My School (Australia)

And finally, here are the online educational games, support materials, and websites:

BBC Bitesize

Learning Scotland

ABC Splash

So, if you have a problem or a question:

Compare the curriculums, visit the school comparison sites, ask the schools.

If you really, for whatever strange reason, decide you want to ask my opinion on something I really have no right to have an opinion on, here’s what I’m going to say:

Australia, New Zealand, and all the UK are all well within the top 20 education systems in the world, and more than that, all the systems are fairly closely aligned from either years of contact or a similar origin.

In primary school, there’s really not going to be much difference between the countries – in fact, you’ll probably find more difference between two schools in the same country than between two schools in different countries. Your main problem’s probably going to be dealing with the different school years between the northern and southern hemispheres.

In high school or secondary school, it’s better to change sooner rather than later, so that you or your child can be settled into a school before beginning the leaving certificates, which do actually vary quite a bit in terms of composition and requirements between the three countries, and even within Australia.

In university, there’s more difference between Scotland and England than between either with Australia, but all three countries recognise high school qualifications from each of the others, and it really doesn’t matter if you’re a year or two older when you start.

And again, do your own research. Don’t rely on the opinion of a random not-still-a-teenager expat kid. Check with the curriculum authorities. Take a look at the curriculums yourself. Visit or phone the schools in question to get accurate information about that school. And use your own common sense.

Also, if you want to read about the problems of a bunch of other people who have considered moving from one system to another, as well as my replies to them, check out the original post.



Clearing Misconceptions: Christmas (Carols) Edition

This is a new genre of post I’ve just decided I’m going to do which aims to dispel certain misconceptions. Not just any misconceptions, but the ones which are so particularly ignorant that a little thought immediately before saying them might have caused them to be a tad less offensive to the hearer (that would be me). On the other hand, they might not seem immediately ignorant, but were definitely offensive in the way they were conveyed. This one, for example, has been stewing for months, and is therefore about a month late to join that flurry of Christmas-themed posts which hit the blogosphere in early December. It’s possible that these posts won’t end up just being rants.

Picture, if you will, the scene almost three months ago, when myself and the chaplain with whom I work were sitting down to nut out the details of Term 4. Given that, after working around all the various activities the school was holding for the end of the year, we only had about six or seven weeks in total with the kids, the choice of theme was obvious: Christmas.

The chaplain had decided to take it upon herself to educate the children in Christmas carols. “Australians don’t know their Christmas carols,” she told me, “Not like we do in England.”

She’s English, by the way. I wonder if being from Yorkshire is a stereotype of brusqueness, or whether it’s just her? I haven’t met many people from Yorkshire.

“I know Christmas carols!” I protested. “I sang Christmas carols as a kid!”

“Yes, but your father’s English. It’s part of your heritage.”

I should probably make some comment about the majority of the school populace being white and it therefore being their heritage, too, but in this area, it’s just as likely that they’re of German extraction. Perhaps not at an Anglican school, though.

But that was where the conversation was left, because I couldn’t think quick enough to think up a comeback. But it was also the bit that particularly stung me.

Because, what made her think that two Christmasses (one that I can remember) with my tone-deaf father’s side of the family had more influence on my musical heritage than every day with my mother’s?

My mother’s Cornish-Australian side of the family, at that, and Cornish-Australians were the ones who invented Carols by Candlelight, a tradition which the ever-reliable Wikipedia assures me doesn’t occur outside Australia.

My mother’s side of the family, with whom I heard and sang “The North Wind” and “The Three Drovers” and “Six White Boomers” and “Christmas in the Scrub”, and who I watched sing “Orana” in four-part harmony. (Or do I just imagine I watched that because Mum talks so much about how it used to happen before my grandmother’s lungs packed up?)

Because Australians do sing Christmas carols. Or, at least, they have songs which they sing at Christmas, because “Six White Boomers” and “Santa Wear Your Shorts” mightn’t be about the Christmas story, but there are carols in the mix, too.

And yes, maybe it’s not “Little Donkey” and “We Saw Three Ships” (both of which, incidentally, I find insufferably annoying), and maybe pop artists over here don’t release a pop Christmas song every year like they do over there, but Christmas carols are sung.

It might be that they’re sung more by some segments of the population than others. I know, for example, that the chaplain in question spent most of her time in Australia before moving to this area two years ago in a part of the city that the rest of us think of as – how shall I put it? – a bit bogan. I also know that it’s the area where most of the Ten-Pound Poms ended up, so if the kids in schools up there didn’t know their Christmas carols, it’s their English immigrant parents who are at fault, not their Australian-born identity.

So, I have to agree. Singing Christmas carols is part of my heritage. But it’s almost laughable to imagine that it’s part of the heritage given to me by my father, whom I’ve only ever heard sing a carol occasionally at a carol services. No, it’s part of the heritage given to me by my mother, who sings at the drop of a hat (or the verbalisation of something that resembles a song lyrics), whose family have been in this country for six or seven generations, and whose ancestors were part of the culture which made Australia’s carol tradition what it is today.

It’s that part of my heritage that walked along the main street of the village singing “The north wind is tossing the leaves, the red dust is over the town” with my friends as we walked through the sweltering midsummer heat to a picnic.

It’s that part of my heritage that spent long summer evenings sitting on the local school oval, getting rashes from the grass and bites from the mosquitoes but watching small children dressed in tinsel singing “Deck the shed with bits of wattle! Stick some gum leaves in a bottle!”, joining in on the chorus of “Six white boomers, snow white boomers, racing Santa Clause through the blazing sun!”, and waving the glow sticks which at some point during my childhood replaced the tea-candle-in-a-jar arrangement I can remember.

It’s that part of my heritage which, several years ago, posted a post with YouTube clips of some of my favourite carols you won’t find in any other country in the world.

It’s that part of my heritage which, a hundred years ago, held up its Christmas carol tradition as a political battering ram and then, twenty years later, shared it with the nation.

And it’s that part of my heritage which was upset and offended at the suggestion that my knowledge of carols has nothing to do with this continent at all.


Or, as said ancestors might have at one point said,


I should stop it there, but there was a similar sort of ignorant and rude comment from the same person a few weeks later. Christmas Day, actually, as we discussed the meal awaiting for us after church. We both had hot meals (which is something I will blame on my British heritage), and she said, “Oh, yes, I’m doing the full English thing: turkey and lots of Brussels sprouts!”

Seriously, what is the English obsession with Brussels sprouts at Christmas? Dad says it’s because they’re in season, which is fair enough, I suppose, but… They’re not in season over here! I haven’t seen them in the shops for months! Where does she even get them?

“We’ve got a duck,” I said, by way of return, “We haven’t enough people for a turkey.”

“A duck!” she said scornfully. “That’s not British!”

Since we were on the receiving line after the service, we had to move on fairly quickly, and I managed to get in, “Well, we wanted a goose,” as my sister and I went on in something of a huff.

That’s true – we had wanted a goose, which is something which my grandfather – who lived in Hampshire by the time I knew him – had most Christmasses. But geese cost about $150 apiece here, so that wasn’t happening and it’s at Hills tradition to have duck instead (according to the local shops, anyway), which are much more reasonably-priced around the Christmas season.

“A duck’s more British than a turkey!” I said to my sister. “Turkeys are American!”

I won’t say people should forget their background, heritage, and traditions when they immigrate to a new country, but… they should at least shed the idea that theirs are superior.

Don’t interact with the traditions of the locals of your new country in an, “Oh, you do that, do you, you ignorant savage? Let me tell you how it’s really done,” sort of way.

Instead, when one of the locals presents you with something you think is a bit odd, approach it in a more, “Oh, that’s interesting, I hadn’t thought it could be done like that. Here’s how we do it,” sort of way.

Mind you, I can say from my own experience that if an Australian went to the UK with the same sorts of attitudes about Australian Christmas traditions as the woman in question has about “British” ones, the response from the locals there definitely would be, “Oh, you do that, do you, you ignorant savage?”


Spawn of Roy (or, Spring Has Sprung)

Seven months ago, I talking about how I managed to come by a couple of Frizzle-crosses at a pet shop in the suburbs.

Well, half a year later, said Frizzle-crosses have begun their life of duty breeding pretty chickens for me, so I thought I’d share some pictures of the resultant troublemakers.

Roy is the father of all of the chicks pictured; Dorcha is the mother of one, while Popcorn is the mother of one and Charlotte Junior is the mother of two.


Charlotte Junior and Popcorn pictured here. Charlotte Junior’s grandmother was a bantam cross with some negligible Silkie blood somewhere – I don’t know who her other ancestors have been since I’m sure that line of hens has just been cloning itself from generation to generation, but her father must be either Graham (an Araucana cross) or George (3/4 barred Plymouth Rock, 1/4 Australorp). Popcorn had an Araucana grandmother, as well as some white Leghorn and ISA Brown ancestors along the way.

Here’s a picture of how Roy’s grown up:


Roy and Dorcha are much more bantam-sized than any other Sizzles/Frizzles I’ve had, so while Dorcha is the teensiest-tiniest little grown-up chook I’ve ever seen (seriously, she’s almost as small as a quail and lays eggs about that size, too), Roy is about the same size as his other wives. All his other girls are definitely on the smaller side of things, maybe a little smaller than a rescue ISA but definitely much smaller than my large-fowl girls.

Keep the picture of Roy in mind as you read, along with the phrase “spawn of Roy”.

So, first, Popcorn’s two children:

Lucky (on the left) and Surprise (in the foreground of the right, with Lucky in the back). Yes, there’s a story behind those names.

On the right, that’s Lucky at the top and Surprise at the bottom; on the left, it’s Lucky in the foreground and Surprise behind.

What did I say? Spawn of Roy.

Charlotte’s child:


Okay, so that’s Lucky in the foreground, and you can already see her wing-feathers coming in curly, but my sister’s holding Dimity in the background.

I’m not sure how we came up with the name “Dimity”. My sister was calling her “Don Gato” for a while (because she’s “a cat of sooty black”, apparently), but my mother came up with Dimity – I suspect as a back-spelling of “timid”, which she was. She was the scardiest chick I’ve ever known, although she’s grown out of that now. Because of the timidity and fluffiness, we suspected that she would be a Super-Frizzle (quick genetics lesson later), but her feathers have come in normal-Frizzle.


Dodgy lighting – sorry. She’s developing a rather fetching gold lacing around the neck and chest area, though, which you can sort of see in this photo.

And, of course, Dorcha’s child:


We have no idea where all that white’s come from, given her parents; but then, both of them are only first-generation ours, so we don’t know what any of her further-back ancestors looked like. She looks almost barred; she was a pure-black chick, with grey legs, and then suddenly in the last few days, it’s pink legs and white spots. Go figure.


She’s almost certainly a Sizzle, though – just look at those corkscrew feathers! On the other hand, she might be a Super-Frizzle, although her feathers don’t seem ringleted enough for that. Here’s the Punnet Square:


This is for the breeding together of two Frizzles, where F is the dominant frizzle gene and n is the recessive normal-feather gene. 50% will be Frizzles, 25% will be normal, and 25% will be Super-Frizzles, which is generally regarded as a bad idea because they’d usually very timid and may have other medical issues (we had one a number of years ago which honestly did die of fright; but the medical issues aren’t as dangerous as, for example, two genes for head-puffs in ducks). Frizzle-breeders usually breed them to normal-feathered birds, both to increase size and laying capacity and because the percentage of Frizzled chicks will be the same. Because of this, Frizzle is really more of a genetic trait than an actual breed, since there are no hard-and-fast breed characteristics other than curled feathers (e.g. comb, colour, &c.).


This is the punnet square we’ve hypothesised for Squeaky, since Dorcha also has the very soft, fairly tightly-curled feathers of a Sizzle. Again, F is the dominant frizzle gene, n is the recessive normal-feather gene, and S is the dominant Silkie gene. According to this diagramme, 25% each should be Super-Frizzle, Sizzle, Frizzle, and Silkie, although Super-Frizzle and Sizzle phenotypes are very similar in appearance. Actually, it’s amazing that all four of Roy’s children are frizzled since technically it should only be 50%. But then, it’s not a very large sample sizes.

Not many aspects of chicken genetics are as straightforward as the feather type – I have no idea how the number of toes is determined, for example. Lucky has half a fifth toe (separate only at the last joint) on one foot, while neither of her parents have Silkie toes and her aunt had even less of a fifth toe, again on only one foot.

She’s also tiny.

With Dimity on the left and on the top right, and with Surprise on the bottom right. She’s the same age as Dimity and a day younger than Surprise. Considering the size of the eggs they hatched from, as well as the size of Squeaky’s mother, it’s not surprising that she’s so tiny!

Dimity and Lucky are beginning to look a bit like boys around the combe, but it’s too early to really tell.

Oh, and just for interest, compare Lucky, Surprise and Dimity to this picture of Roy, Dorcha, and Nora at seven weeks:

Small Chicks 03


Minority Languages, Dying Languages, and Learning Them

Huh? Why? Why would you do that?

When I first started learning Gaelic, that was the reaction from speakers and people with some connection to the language alike. “It’s a dead language. There are too many dialects, you won’t be able to talk to anyone, whichever you learn. It’s not a real language. It’s useless, there’s no point to it. Everyone speaks English – that’s a good language. Gaelic’s dying. It’s not fit for the modern world.”

Okay, probably you don’t care about that, and I never got all of those arguments from the same person at one time. But Loving Languages posted today about endangered languages, about why we don’t care about them, not really, and about a Bashkir woman he met who is resigned to the language not being passed on. He also linked two articles others have written about why we should just let languages die quietly.

In Malik’s post, in the very first paragraph, he said:

“When Ned Madrell died on the Isle of Man in 1974, he also took the ancient Manx language to the grave.”

What’s interesting to me about that statement is that, by the time Ned Madrell died, there were already significant numbers of non-native speakers and in fact, just ten months after Malik wrote that article in late 2000, the Manx-medium primary school was opened, and today there are around a hundred children and young people who are regarded as native speakers.

Both of the articles seemed to be saying, “Well the culture argument is defunct because keeping a language alive artificially doesn’t preserve the culture – the closest thing is going to be the culture of similar groups.”

Richard’s point, on the other hand, is not necessarily that the culture is preserved pristinely by learning a language, but that one’s view of the world is widened by knowing these languages, and one’s ability to connect with others is the likewise expanded.

The idea of keeping “Gaelic culture” intact as if it were pre-Clearances is clearly ridiculous. The world isn’t the same as it was in the 17th century – and the fact that there are words in Gaelic for “global warming” and “spoilers” doesn’t mean that “Gaelic culture” is dead – quite the opposite, in fact.

Actually, there are neopagans who try to “revive” “Gaelic culture” from ancient texts and remnant traditions, and it gets a bit strange when you consider that they’re trying to revive a religion that hasn’t been practiced for 1500 years, sometimes without much care for the living culture. But more on that later.

But knowing the language can change how I see things. As an English-speaker, you have clear ideas about colours. There’s blue and there’s green. There’s red and there’s pink, there’s orange and yellow. In Gaelic, it’s different. There’s blue-green, and green-grey; pink doesn’t exist, because it’s obviously just “light red”, and orange and yellow are the same colour. There’s a word for orange-red, as well.

One can understand how the Gaels of the past saw the world, because of what there is in the language. There are a couple of ways of saying “I hope”, but none are quite so clear-cut. My favourite, and the main one used in parts of Ireland, is “le cobhar Dè” – “with the help of God”. In Gaelic, you don’t have a “lightbulb moment”, you have a “mionaid rathad Dhamascuis”, a “Damascus Road moment”. Wednesday and Friday aren’t just sounds to denote days, they’re “the first fast” and “the fast”, and Thursday is “the day between the fast”, because Christian observance pervaded the culture for so many years.

Languages aren’t something you speak, to a Gael, they’re something you have – inasmuch as a Gael ever “has” anything, considering the closest he can come is to have something at him, or with him, or to him. An older Gael I know, let’s call her Sìne, replied once when someone asked her, “A bheil Gàidhlig agaibh?” (“Do you speak Gaelic?”; or rather, “Is Gaelic at you?”), “Chan eil – is Gàidhlig a th’ unnam”. No, the Gaelic is in her. To her, the language is deeper than just something she speaks, it’s in her and part of her. The phrase she used to describe the language is the same phrase used to describe nationality or life calling.

“Why would you learn Gaelic? It’s a pointless language.”

Sìne sometimes shares memories of her childhood, with Gaelic pervading everything. But at the same time, she also recalls how she had to speak English at school, from the moment she started at the age of four without a word of it. Gaelic was frowned-upon. It wasn’t until after she graduated that it became an option as a Highers subject, but it still wasn’t to be spoken in any of the other classes.

There’s an elderly man, let’s call him Donnchadh, who rang in while I was presenting a programme for Scottish Radio, very excited about hearing me speaking some Gaelic on-air. “Cha do chuala mi a’ Ghàidhlig ‘o chionn fhad’ – ‘o chionn ‘s marbh mo mhathair!” He hadn’t heard Gaelic in such a long time, since his mother died. “Tha mi an dòchas gun cluinnidh mi mòran Gàidhlig ‘n uair a bhitheas tu ann,” he told me earnestly, before clamming up. He was reluctant to speak any more Gaelic with me, because he didn’t think he knew it well enough. His parents were foster-parents when he was a child, and the government had paid them extra to not use Gaelic in the house, let they taint the foster children, who had come from the Lowlands.

I think it’s probably rare for languages to just die by chance. Perhaps there are some out there that where honestly let go by their speakers because they preferred another. Majority languages can be pushy, offer a better life, and the speakers of those majority languages don’t do it maliciously.

In the case of Gaelic, that wasn’t the case. I’m more proficient in it now than I was when I got those comments with which I opened the post, and my ability to speak Gaelic isn’t so obviously a decision (you must bear in mind that it’s a language with a lot of native partial-speakers, so not being fluent doesn’t preclude having spoken it from childhood). The reactions I get now are different. The older Gaels I meet are usually sort of pleased that someone young speaks the language, particularly as it’s so rare for that to be the case outside Scotland.

But I still get a lot of “But how? But why?” The older native demographic have a very hard time understanding why anyone would learn a language they were conditioned from their childhood to believe was backwards and dying… even if it’s so deeply a part of them and they love it for the memories in it.

Things are swinging around now. The language hasn’t been actively suppressed for several generations. My parents’ generation are ambivalent. They aren’t against the language, as so many in my grandparents’ generation are. They just don’t really care. It doesn’t affect them. Their parents spoke it – they don’t. My father remembers hearing it from children at the village school, but the response he heard when it was mentioned was, “Oh, that? No, it’s a dying language.” It’s not as important as French or German.

And now, the government is supporting the language. People are for it. Not everyone – there’s still a lot of the anti-Gaelic sentiment going around, as those conversations when I first started learning the language will show. But, by and large, it isn’t a dying language, it isn’t a useless language, it’s part of us, and we can bring it with us into the modern world.

Not all endangered languages have that support, or even that mentality. It’s sad that Aboriginal languages are dead, you see, but they’re stone age languages (even if we won’t say that out loud) – they can’t cope with the modern world. Better for the Aboriginals to learn English.

Well, that’s the same sort of rhetoric that went down about Gaelic not so long ago. Actually, I’ve been interested recently in an article I found from Scotland in the 1850s about Gaels and “the slovenly and stupid Celtic race” and how everyone would be better off without them. What struck me was that, if “Celt” and “Gael” had been replaced by “Aborigine” and “Black”, it could so easily have been published in Australia at the same time.

“Bashkir is a village language”, I imagine the woman Richard spoke to thinking. “It’s dying anyway. It’s my language, but I speak Russian – what do I care if my children speak only Russian and not Bashkir? That’s just the way things are.”

Maybe. Should we care if languages die? Languages die all the time, and we can’t do much to stop it. Great and mighty languages have died – Demotic, Phoenecian, Latin. If we can’t stop languages so big as those dying, why should we care about the village languages? It would probably make things easier if everyone spoke the same language, anyway.

I could go on about how diversity is good – that seems to be a word bandied about a lot. We’re enriched by the sum of our parts, and all that. I’ve already said that different languages have different ways of seeing the world. I could have proved that with a major language, like German perhaps. But when it comes down to it… why?

Why would you do that? Why would you learn Gaelic?

Why would you learn any endangered or dying language?

Sometimes there’s no sensible answer. I never really had a sensible reason for learning Gaelic. I still don’t, not really. Paul from LangFocus talks about being “bitten by a love for a language” and I suppose that’s the best explanation I have.

No language doesn’t mean something to someone. And no language has nothing to offer.


Preamble (written weeks later):

Has anyone else heard the phrase “first-world problems”? It exists to describe the trivial problems people in the developed world encounter, such as a phone being an older model, or not knowing whether to choose between lamb and beef at a meal. Things like that that don’t even hit the radar of people living in a developing nation, struggling to go to school and eat once a day whilst working a full-time job for $1 a day.

Well, here’s my “first-world problem”, and I don’t think it should be. Because, you know, I do live in the first world. I live in an incredibly rich nation which is at the cutting edge of technology and highly-ranked worldwide in wages and education.

Why, then, is my “first-world problem” something that sounds like it should be part of the life of my friend’s great-aunt living in rural Zimbabwe? Four days or a week without electricity, water, sewage, or telephones sounds like something one should experience under Taliban occupation or Nazi blitz, not in peaceful modern Australia.

Update, 01.01.2017: There are still several hundred houses, primarily in the Adelaide Hills as well as in Onkaparinga, which went into the New Year without power, #90hoursandcounting

Update, 10.01.2017: There are still some towns in the Adelaide Hills which remain without power, #2weeksandcounting, #330hoursandcountingHello! Is there anyone out there?

Hello! Is there anyone out there?

“Where have you been?” You might ask me.

Well, I’ve been right here. Yes, it’s true that I haven’t posted anything in quite a while. Well, I’ve been very busy. But I’m posting something now, because, while I’ve been here, I’ve had no electricity.

For forty-three and a half hours.

That’s right, almost two full days.

And ordinarily I wouldn’t mention it on my blog – after all, I didn’t mention it when we had no electricity for around thirty hours, a few months ago – except that it seems that no-one noticed it this time.

At least, last time, the other states were looking at us and going, “Backward hellhole. Can’t even get electricity. The scandal!”

This time, the three suburbs of Adelaide that still had power had no idea that the rest of the state was without. We know this, because after the food in the house went off, we went and ate out, and no-one we mentioned it to had any idea. And also because we listened to a couple of radio newses, and it wasn’t mentioned there at all, either.

So I feel like I should let someone know. Or everyone. Or something.

Because, forty-four hours. No electricity. In the middle of summer.

At least when it happened in winter, it was cold enough that the food didn’t go off.

And yes, it was cool, only around thirty degrees, but that’s twenty-five degrees too high for the fridge (we lost everything, included the lamb and duck carcasses from Christmas which were due to be turned into stock yesterday), much too high for the freezer (we lost a lot), and eight degrees too low for the incubator (they’re ALL DEAD).

It’s not that we can’t live without electricity. I mean, people did it for thousands of years. Some people still do it. But, you know, with a few days’ warning, so we can set up a Coolgardie for the food, and make sure we have gas for the camping stove…

… And to fill up the bath and every other available container with water.

Because, that’s right. We’re on rain water, with an electric pump. If we have no electricity, we have no water. No taps. No showers. Nothing.

No telephones. No way of contacting anyone.

So that’s where I’ve been.

That’s where most of South Australia’s been for the last two days.

And no-one knows about it.


10 Things Not to Say to Me when You Find Out My Mother has MS

But I saw her the other day; she was walking and she looked healthy.

Yes. Yes, she can walk. Currently her maximum distance is about 50 metres, and she does it quite slowly and touching any passing wall or object for balance, but you’re right, she can walk, so obviously she doesn’t have MS. We’ve been wrong all these years!

Oh, you’re very brave and strong! It must be so hard for you.

No, not really. It’s just sort of one of those facts of life, one that’s been there all of my life. I’m not telling you because I want sympathy. I just mentioned it because it is part of my life; take it or leave it but don’t change how you speak to either of us.

But I saw her here with you the other day: she seemed healthy and happy.

The thing with MS is that there are good days and bad days. If you saw her, then probably that was one of her good days. On the other hand, it could have been one of her really bad head days, and I asked her to come with me because I didn’t want to leave her alone. In that case, she’s quite good at putting on a happy act for people.

Also, in what situation did you see her? Were you sitting down, or was she? Oh, you saw her walk from the door to the couch? Evidence of perfect health! She can obviously run a marathon!

Well, at least she’s still walking; you can be happy about that, at least.

I just don’t know how to respond. Yes, she’s still walking. Not as far, fast or easily as two or five or ten years ago. That’s the nature of the disease. Yes, we’re very lucky that her MS has progressed as slowly as it has. We’re aware of that. But don’t diminish all the other struggles we have by telling us we should be happy about the ones we don’t.

I just heard the other day about this new cure they have for that!

If it’s a diet, shut up and go away. There was a diet fad people were convinced about a few years ago that supposedly cured MS that involved only eating starch and fat. We took one look at that and know of course that it would just make her sicker, and not from the MS! Be realistic!

I’ve heard “gluten only”, “no gluten”, “no meat”, “fruit only”, “no fruit or sugar”… just about everything you can think of has been suggested to us as a miracle diet cure for MS.

If it’s that stem cell treatment, then that’s ridiculously expensive, not available in Australia, and only works on people with Relapsing Remitting MS. While my mother’s official diagnosis is still RRMS, the neuro has labelled her as transitioning to Secondary Progressive, which means that the disease is now beginning to function in a different way, and the stem cell treatment either won’t work or won’t work as well. Of course, the amount of money it will cost will probably give her a heart attack, and then the MS would be the least of our worries.

She should move to the Northern Territory/ Queensland. Hardly anyone has MS there.

Hmm. I know. I also know that heat and humidity are hell for someone with MS. If you’ve ever seen an MSer with heat paralysis, you wouldn’t suggest that. You know why I think there are fewer people in the NT with MS? Because they’ve all moved south!

Also, there’s only one neurologist in the Northern Territory.

The doctors told me/ my relative s/he had that, but then s/he ate nothing but raw vegetables for a year and exercised for an hour every day, and now s/he doesn’t have it any more.

There’s a man we know who honestly did this, but he looks like a warmed-up corpse. Seriously, every time I see him he looks sicker and sicker, but not MS-type “sicker”. He’s convinced that the doctors got the diagnosis wrong and that he’s cured himself. He doesn’t know thing one about MS, because he didn’t bother listening or researching in the first place, and didn’t know the answer when I asked, upon our first meeting, “Relapsing-Remitting or Primary Progressive?”

I suspect he has Relapsing-Remitting and that one day he’s going to have a relapse and realise that he was wrong. The thing with RRMS is that you do have worse spells, and then it remisses and you can be perfectly healthy and forgiven for thinking you’re cured or it’s gone away. It’s common for people after their first relapse to think that, and it can be years until the next one.

Just because you or your relative had one horrific MS spell during which you were diagnosed, and then “got better” doesn’t mean you don’t still have MS.

Oh, that’s what Stephen Hawking has, right?

Close but not quite. That’s MND, or Motor-Neuron Disease, also known as ALS or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. They’re both neurodegenerative diseases of the central nervous system, and a lot of the visible symptoms can be the same. However, ALS attacks the neurons themselves, while MS attacks the coating on the neurons. The end result is the same: non-functioning or non-existent neurons.

But, broadly-speaking people with ALS have more physical problems while people with MS have more mental problems. In other words, people with ALS are more likely to become paralysed, while people with MS are more likely to have dizzy spells, blurred vision, phantom pain, and memory issues. That’s why Stephen Hawking is still writing scientific papers, but my mother’s forgotten several recipes she used to know inside-out and back-to-front.

Muscular Dystrophy? Are you sure?

Yes, I’m sure… that it’s not. It’s MS, not MD – multiple sclerosis. Her brain cells and/or myelin sheath have grown scales.

But she’s walking.

True. But MS is a neurological disease, so it affects other bits of the body than just the legs. She has trouble walking, but she has more trouble with optic neuritis (blurred and dimmed vision), nerve-misfire pain, spasms/spasticity, numbness and fine-motor activities. And that’s just the physical problems.

If I mention my mother’s MS to you, I’m not doing it because I’m looking for sympathy. It’s true, I go through her good days and bad days with her, and there are some times when you might just need to let me vent for a few minutes. Sometimes I do need someone to talk to who understands (at least in some way) the situation. At other times, I won’t want to talk about it or hear about it at all.

I didn’t bring the topic up now to get your sympathy or because I want a long conversation about it, her, me, or any of it. Probably I just mentioned it in passing because it was relevant to whatever we were talking about, or necessary information for understanding an anecdote. Or possibly because it’s part of my life, and has been for all my life, and that makes it part of me and the things I say and do and talk about. Not because it’s weird or unusual or necessary of comment, but because it’s normal and unremarkable.

So don’t you get weird about it!