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Which school?

Education, education, education. It’s the new Holy Grail, the Promised Land, the Elixir of Life that will cure every ill. I’m a teacher, always have been and I do honestly believe that good education is the key to a civilised society, along with a couple of other things. But your child’s school can’t automatically grant them the secret to the meaning of life, or even just  guarantee them their place at a top University. It’s their own outlook and their own hard work  that will do that for them.

There’s a lot of  mythology and hysteria surrounding schools that I think could do with being dusted off and popped back on the shelf labelled ‘Fables and Yarns.’ If you are a mother of a child in the last two years of primary or junior school you will know what I mean: it’s a jungle in that school playground and that’s just for the mums. Some see the ‘elite’ school as a trophy for their own hard won efforts and all that tutoring; others wear the local comp like a badge of honour. Some make an undiplomatic display of running down the schools that others are obliged to attend; others deliberately rubbish the school they’d really like, in a tactical ploy to put off the competition. It all goes on, trust me. And the truth is that there are many complex and varied reasons why one school is ‘good’ and another ‘bad’: it will often have more to do with post code and social aspiration than quality of teaching.

So here is my message, as a teacher of twenty years in state, private, mixed gender, single gender, failing and award winning schools. And a mum of thirteen (years, not kids!):

It will probably all be OK.

It will probably all be OK because a ‘bad’ school won’t crush and destroy your child while you take time to seek a solution either with the school or away from it, in the same way a ‘good’ school won’t grant your child superpowers just for being there. Your child is lucky enough to have a responsible, caring adult to oversee his or her development and that is you. You’re obviously not going to hand that duty over wholesale to an institution as soon as your kid hits double figures. If you are a big reader, then your child is more likely to be one; if you take an interest in the world around you then your child will learn that from you too.

If you are lucky enough to have a choice though, here are a few suggestions that might be a bit different from the norm:

First off, get off the parenting social network sites.  The people who know what they are talking about here are cut adrift in a sea crowded with mythology and rumour. It’s too difficult to pick them out. Stay away from it for the whole of the year preceding your child’s transition and then get back on at Christmas of the first senior year.

Are the teachers looking cheerful? This was influential in the choice of my daughter’s secondary school. Every teacher who passed me while I was waiting grinned cheerfully and greeted me. This suggested to me that these teachers were not ground down by relentless, disrespectful behaviour from every class, and that they were not exhausted by a punitive management regime. They looked a bit tired, yes, but so will all teachers, knee deep in the Autumn term

Know exactly what you want from a school. I’m pretty sure that we are unique as a country in expecting our schools to provide an effective social, spiritual, moral, physical, intellectual, sexual and civil education. That is a big ask, you know. If you really want your school to deliver the whole of that with equal brilliance, then I’d suggest you save up and go to a private school: they’ll have the resources to at least attempt it, and the patience to listen to you when you complain that you’re not getting it. And let’s face it: the friendships formed by your child at school are going to be a lot more influential than any teacher led assembly or PSHE day. Teachers are trained to teach their subjects and usually do love them with genuine passion. But a PSHE day about sexual or social relations or civic duty will almost certainly prompt a flurry of anxiety in some teachers, and the production of sick notes in others.  My daughter’s form tutor is a nice lad and I’m sure he knows lots about Chemistry but I’m not relying on him for any area of my daughter’s development outside of the periodic table. That’s my job. But if a programme of social development is important to you, then you might have to compromise on other areas.

Nip in the children’s loos. (just pretend you didn’t know they weren’t for grown-ups.) They’ll tell you most of what you need to know about what happens when the teacher isn’t looking.

If you get the chance, look at the books. No teacher should need to write the equivalent of ‘War and Peace’ in response to a child’s efforts, but there should be a little bit of praise and a strong indication of what they could do for better marks next time.  There should also be a pupil response: has the child been asked to respond with comments there and then? Have they been told to do further research or develop their answer later?  Have they done it? Books with no marking are a real red lightl, but maybe check there isn’t some online system of communication instead.

Are there after school activities? Do these actually happen? These are usually run by the goodwill of the staff, and they do demonstrate just that: goodwill.  A school with goodwill is always a good place for everyone.

Can you hear a lot of shouting? If you can, be compassionate- some classes, on some days are enough to rock anyone’s equilibrium.  But keep an eye on it: a shouty school is not a good place to be.
Do the staff seem to like each other and chat with respectful friendliness? School politics are always gruesome and best kept hidden from pupils and parents.

Find out what the rules are and make sure you are able to respect them, consistently and without excuse. If hoodies are banned, and your child is likely to be given a detention for wearing one, be prepared to make them do it, and not to try and make excuses because it was cold or he/she couldn’t find their sweatshirt or he/she is traumatised by the punishment because they are sensitive or usually an angel.   The detention won’t kill them and it will send a clear message to everyone that the school is in control. If you disagree with the hoody ban, or whatever it is, pick another school. Or grit your teeth and look like you agree.

And lastly, know that the school cannot by itself turn your child into a glittering success in any area they choose. Relentless hard work,exposure to culture, intellectual curiosity, persistence and a smidgen of good fortune might though. And you are probably the best person to help them with that.

And remember – it will probably all be ok!

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