Sixteenth Day of Advent: The school Christmas Show

You can probably guess what I was doing this morning! I’m perhaps being a bit sneaky posting about the Christmas Show, as I guess it couldn’t really be said to be something that makes me happy all year round. However, it does make me very happy indeed to watch it, and it ties in with Anna and her school and our community, which are all ongoing sources of happiness.

We’d been a bit puzzled about the theme of the Christmas show, as all we knew was that Anna’s class were performing ‘Rock Around the Clock’, and I couldn’t quite see how it would all tie in. It turned out to be very cleverly done – some selfish, squabbling children who couldn’t share their toys one Christmas Eve were sent back in a time machine to visit various decades of the 20th century, and learn the true meaning of Christmas. Their final stop was to a certain famous stable in Bethlehem, where the traditional Nativity was performed and we got the full tear-jerking power of young children singing ‘Little Donkey’ and ‘Away in a Manger’. It was hugely enjoyable. Anna sung and danced her little heart out, and I also loved seeing the other children, her friends and classmates, the children of my friends and neighbours, who I am watching grow up and gain in confidence alongside her.

The children and their audience learnt that the true meaning of Christmas is Peace on Earth – be happy, try to make other people happy, share and don’t quarrel. Seems to sum up 2,000 years of theology, philosophy and ethics pretty effectively to me. images-6

I can’t believe it is possible to watch a show like this and not feel hope for the future. The school Anna goes to reflects the area we live in, and is very multi-cultural. These five, six and seven year olds are from all sorts of different backgrounds and religions. They speak many different languages at home, and celebrate different festivals with their families, but in school they play together, learn together, perform together, and discover the universal truth that they are all the same. When they argue it is not on racial, cultural or religious grounds, it is over which football team they support or whether Elsa or Anna is the best princess, or who took the last red Starburst.

I always find the teachers at Anna’s school incredibly inspirational as, day in, day out, they demonstrate such patience, creativity, determination and caring. They really excel themselves at this time of year though – I can’t imagine how much time and effort has gone into writing, choreographing, producing and rehearsing today’s show. And they still have the class parties tomorrow and Christmas Jumper Day on Friday to get through before their well-earned Christmas break. The children did them, and us their parents, proud today though.

And if only the little children of today, all over the world, can grow up disregarding superficial differences and responding only to each other’s fundamental humanity, while remembering to be happy, to try to make others happy, to share and to not quarrel, then the future is far, far brighter than it sometimes seems.

School’s (almost) out for the summer!

In just under an hour I’ll be collecting Anna from school for her six week holiday, and I Just. Can’t. Wait. This has been such a long half-term, at the end of the year which has seen the biggest change in her life, and she is exhausted. Absolutely on her knees. I’m longing to have her at home to cosset and cuddle and just hang out with. Six whole weeks when I don’t have to spend the first ninety minutes of the day barking instructions – “Eat your porridge, finish your milk, clear your dishes, clean your teeth, wash your face, get dressed, find your sunhat/bag/water bottle/hoodie/gloves/bookbag/homework folder, put your shoes on.” And, above all “Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up!”.

I’m quite proud of myself, though. A whole school year during which I have been at various points, heavily pregnant, recovering from a c-section, recovering from a broken foot and looking after a newborn baby, and Anna has only collected one late mark (caused by a last minute poonami from her sister which required a full change of clothes for me and her. Don’t ask.) The rest of the time, come hell or high water, we have screeched through the school gates at 8.50am. Other than the days when my parents have been here. “I don’t have to run the last bit when Grandad takes me to school, Mummy”, Anna informed me the other morning.

After our adventures last summer and at Easter we’re keeping things fairly low-key this summer. A trip up to Liverpool to stay with my parents next week, a week at my mother-in-law’s flat in Penzance later on in the summer, and then a couple of days in North Wales with my mum and dad again at the end of the summer. This is partly because my husband has a busy autumn coming up at work and so can’t take much time off, and partly because Sophia is seven months, eating solids and desperate to crawl, and therefore not a particularly rewarding travelling companion at present. I think it also works out really well for Anna, though, as she needs some time to just be.

No doubt a lot of her time is going to be spent reading. About two months ago, she suddenly ‘got’ it, and went almost over night from painstakingly sounding out the fascinating (ahem) adventures of Chip, Kipper and Biff in the school reading books to devouring chapter books as quickly as she can get her hands on them. Roald Dahl, Francesca Simon’s ‘Horrid Henry’ books, the Worst Witch, My Naughty Little Sister, Enid Blyton – her tastes are pleasingly eclectic, and, like mother like daughter, she is more often than not to be found with her head in a book. I’m loving re-visting my own childhood favourites with her. At the moment we’re reading the Ramona books, by American author Beverley Cleary, together, and I think I might almost be enjoying them more as an adult than I did as a child.

Anna journalWriting is still more of a challenge for Anna, although she is making good progress. We were chatting to her teacher about how we could encourage her to keep writing in a fun and enjoyable way over the summer so that she doesn’t lose her mojo, and she suggested we got her to keep a diary. Next thing I know, yesterday morning Miss M handed me a beautifully wrapped parcel. When Anna opened it, inside was a personalised decoupaged journal for her to use over the summer. Anna is so thrilled and excited, and I am incredibly touched and impressed. One of my closest friends is a teacher, and I know from her how difficult and stressful and exhausting the summer term is for teachers. Yet in the midst of organising school trips and sports days, and writing reports, she has found the time to do this because she wants to encourage Anna to keep up with her newly developing skill. Teachers are amazing.

I’m not sure how much time I’ll get to blog over the next few weeks, but hopefully I’ll have my girl’s diary to look back on as a record of our summer.

Nit a problem

Another parenting milestone reached yesterday. The invasion of daughter’s head by tiny, bloodsucking parasites. Her school was closed due to the teaching strike, and although I was panicking slightly at a day lost to short story writing, I had plans for a lovely Mummy and Anna day instead.

It started well. We’d been asked to take cake contributions for the eagerly anticipated Parents’ Strawberry tea this afternoon, so we spent the morning happily making and decorating butterfly cakes. Anna was also full of chat and information about ‘Going Up Day’ the day before, when they’d been into their new classroom to meet their Year One teacher. It was brilliant to be able to spend the time properly listening to her, without feeling that we had to rush to be somewhere else.

I’d then booked a hair appointment to try and deal with the Boris-Johnson-crossed-with-haystack situation which had arisen since her last haircut in the Easter holidays. That was where the problems started. The lovely hairdressers we use have a standard policy of checking children for unwanted visitors before they cut. We’ve never had a problem, but yesterday, as I was chatting away to the hairdresser saying “Oh, I do check her hair, but she’s never had them, so I’m not really sure what I’m looking for”, when he pointed and said “That’s what you’re looking for”, as a small brown sesame seed crawled across the nape of Anna’s neck. I have a serious parasite phobia, so started majorly freaking out, while trying (and probably failing) to maintain calm and dignified demeanour for the sake of Anna and the hairdresser.

Having had my own hair checked (so beyond the call of hairdresser duty, but I think they were fearing for my mental health), and been declared clear, we set off to wage war on the minibeasts. Via a stop for lunch in the cafe. I felt slightly guilty, but reasoned that a) they are only spread by direct head to head contact, b) she’d probably had them for weeks, so another 30 mins wouldn’t make that much difference, and c) It was bad enough having to give up our plans for the afternoon to trek to Boots in the pouring rain without doing it hungry as well. I ordered sausage and mash for two – comfort food seemed to be in order, and all was going well until one of Anna’s classmates turned up with her mum.

“LILY! I’ve got NITS!!!” Anna bellowed across the crowded cafe. People began looking askance, whilst edging their chairs away and simultaneously scratching their heads. Public humiliation aside, we had a very nice lunch, and were suitably fortified for the trip to buy super toxic killer lotion which I could proceed to smother my firstborn’s innocent head with. Kind of undermines buying organic milk really.

Actually applying the lotion was relatively painless, and then, arrayed in this season’s must-have look of insecticide mousse with close-fitting hat we sallied forth to an angelic friend’s house for a playdate. She plied me with sympathy and homemade lemon cake, fed the children, and provided me with ingredients for my own dinner, as in all the nit-kerfuffle I’d forgotten I needed to do some food shopping.

The lotion was to be left in overnight, and washing it out and then nit combing her hair through this morning was much less pleasant. Anna was not a fan of the proceedings, and was fairly vocal in expressing her dissatisfaction. She also repeatedly declared “I want my Daddy” – presumably, although this wasn’t specifically articulated, to protect her from the maternal torturer. We have to repeat the treatment in a week’s time, and I can’t decide whether to make my husband do it, in order to salvage something of Mummy’s reputation and prove it’s not just something I’ve callously taken it into my head to do for my own amusement, or whether to preserve her psychological health and not feel that both parents are out to get her and she’s left without a support in the world, by doing it myself.

Our morning didn’t get much better. I coaxed a semi-hysterical child to get dressed and out of the house with the enticement of the Strawberry Tea party this afternoon. Only to arrive at school and find it has been cancelled due to the bad weather. Anna really was inconsolable this time, and I left her crying, but valiantly trying to compose herself. I was overwrought and hormonal, torn between feeling so sad for Anna’s disappointment and furiously angry with the school, the weather, the gods, whatever forces had conspired to upset my precious girl. I didn’t think I’d get any decent work done until I’d calmed down, so decided to make good use of the time by going to the EE shop to try and find out why my phone isn’t working properly. Only to discover a handwritten notice saying it was closed ‘due to staff sickness’. I mean, come on! It’s a multi-national chain with thousands of employees, surely it’s not beyond expectations that they actually manage to open their shops at the published hours?  I consoled myself with a little retail therapy – possibly my least exciting purchases ever – some new tennis shorts for husband, and Vosene tea tree nit prevention shampoo for Anna. Yay.

Finally I got to the cafe to do some work, but in reality spent the morning posting my woes on Facebook to elicit some cyber-sympathy. It actually worked a treat, and, although social media gets a bad press very often, I can’t think of another source of so much instant warm sympathy, sage advice and witty replies to cheer and console. I feel loads better already, and, when I’ve put another friend’s ‘eat Dairy Milk’ advice into action, I’m sure I’ll be back to my normal self.

Holiday time

It’s coming up to the end of the first week of the Easter holidays, and I’m loving it. It’s funny, but as soon as school breaks up I instantly feel that I’m on holiday too, even though arguably I’m busier than I am during the school week. It’s so lovely, though, not starting each day with an increasingly shrill and frantic monologue of “Come on Anna, hurry up sweetheart, we’ll be late. No, don’t play with that/read that/get that out now we need to get dressed/clean teeth/eat breakfast. Put your shoes on, put your coat on, where’s your cardie? Where’s your book bag? Where’s your hat? Where are my keys? Don’t let the cat drink your milk. Finish your toast. No, we haven’t got time for a story. HURRY UP! Come on! No, you can’t take Rosie/Teddy/Chloe to school with you. ANNA, will you just please put your shoes on NOW!” etc etc etc. I hate that most of the time we’re both stressed out before we even leave the house. And that’s just with one child when I work from home. My hat comes off and my heart goes out to parents with multiple children and/or parents who have to get themselves into work as well as children to school on time. Every Sunday evening I vow that this week will be different, I will be calm and organised, serene and efficient…by 8.30am on Monday I’m inevitably screeching again.

It’s the same after school. I go to pick up Anna every day feeling genuinely excited. I miss her hugely when she’s at school, and I’m desperate to see her, hug her, spend some quality time with her (NB, one of my failings is that I can’t say ‘quality time’ without putting on a cheesy fake American accent. Don’t know why.). Of course it rarely works out like that. She is absolutely exhausted by school, and more often than not this takes the form of being something of, not to put too fine a point on it, a whingey, whiney brat. By 4pm I’m counting the hours ’til bedtime, and still have the school reading book gauntlet to run.

Weekends are lovely, of course, but there’s so much to cram in. Anna’s social life. Our social life (definitely a poor second place). Homework. (Yes, I know she’s only 5…). Gardening. Household chores. (We don’t actually do these, by the way, but there’s that niggling sense we perhaps should.). It’s easy for just spending time together hanging out, either at home or in some of our favourite spots around London, to get squeezed. The last few days have been so much fun because they’ve reminded me how much fun Anna is, of how much I enjoy her company. I’ve never for a single  moment doubted that I love my daughter to the ends of the earth, but I can occasionally forget how much I like her too.

Before last September the idea of home schooling was completely alien to me. I couldn’t for the life of me see why parents would choose to do that, or how children could possibly benefit. I now think very differently. I’m not planning on home schooling Anna – I’m too impatient, too selfish and too mathematically incompetent, but I now understand exactly why some people make that choice, and how it could be an amazing thing for the whole family. We’re lucky that Anna goes to a fantastic school. Her class teacher is everything I could possibly wish her to be – kind, funny, bright, patient, warm. Anna’s settled in pretty well, and seems to have lots of friends. However…I just can’t shake my conviction that 4.5 was too young to be placed on a conveyer belt which probably won’t end until she is 21 – older if, as is not unlikely, she then goes on to further study or a graduate scheme.

This week we have spotted different kinds of trains at Stratford station, baked Easter nest cakes, planted seeds, weeded the garden, gone shopping, built a Lego model, made finger print fairies and witches, had lunch with friends, created a tent out of sheets, read a LOT of stories, hung up washing on the line, reorganised the craft drawer, held a teddy bears’ picnic, chatted to Grandad on the phone, gone for a picnic tea on Walthamstow Marshes and, yes, watched some TV. This morning we went with some friends of Anna’s to Sun Trap activity centre in Epping Forest where the girls completed a nature trail through the woods. To be honest it was a little bit sketchy on the nature, and they reacted with abject horror to the suggestion of staying silent for 20 seconds to hear different varieties of bird song, but there was lots of jumping in muddy puddles, climbing on logs and wading through streams, followed by a picnic lunch in the sunshine. This afternoon she’s spending a couple of hours with Granny in Central London. On Saturday we’re off to Brugge for a few days, and my husband has been teaching Anna a few words of Flemish in preparation. We have pom-pom bunnies, courtesy of Auntie Esther, to make on the train, the prospect of eating our own body weight in mussels, chips and chocolate in the name of cultural exchange, and then we’re going to round the holidays off with a visit to Nanna and Grandad where, rumour has it, the Easter Bunny may be planning a visit.

It seems to me that this is how someone just turned five should be spending their time, and that this is how they might learn best, rather than cooped up in a classroom. The Foundation Stage curriculum is play based, so the children do have a lot of ‘free’ time, and a fair amount of time outdoors this Reception year. But it is still an inescapably rigid structure. Anna is shattered by the end of the day, on her knees by the end of the week and pretty much catatonic by the end of term, and many of her friends seem to be in a similar state. It’s only seeing her during the holidays that I realise just what a strain she’s under during the week, even though she enjoys school most of the time.

Of course the modern world in this country isn’t set up for formal schooling to begin only at the age of seven or eight. One thing on which all political parties seem to agree is the need to get parents back to work as soon as possible; they just disagree on the details of how this should be achieved – childcare vouchers, free nursery places or whatever else. And some families undoubtedly thrive on this. I just wish there could be a little more flexibility and choice.

For me, the ideal would be for Anna to have continued at Nursery, every weekday morning and one afternoon a week, following a play based curriculum, until the age of six or seven. She would have the benefits of socialising with her peers and a little bit of structured learning in the morning, but one-on-one time and freedom to follow her own interests in the afternoon. I would have mornings to pursue my own career and interests, and afternoons to enjoy my lovely girl.

What do you think? Does school start too early? Is homeschooling the best option? Should parents be given more freedom to choose what works for their child? Or is the structure we have actually a reasonable one which works for the majority of people?

School Admissions (or My Nervous Breakdown)

I have heard that traumatic experiences can be exorcised by writing about them, so following the process of applying for a primary school place for my daughter I have decided to give it a go and share my pain with you.

Many years ago, when I was a childless young whippersnapper, and even when I had a small baby, I thought that people who made a fuss about the difficulty of getting their child into the ‘right’ primary school were idiots with no life. For heaven’s sake, I thought, they’re five years old, just send them to your local school and have done with it. We bought our first house 15 months before we had Anna, knowing that we intended to have a baby in the near future. It didn’t occur to either of us even to check where the nearest school was, let alone check out its Ofsted report.

However, we got lucky. It turned out that there was a primary school on the very next street, rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted. A Toy Library runs there every week, and I started taking Anna when she was about 1, and then when the time came for her to go to nursery we applied for, and got, a place. I’m still slightly sceptical about how much attention should be paid to the snapshot view of an Ofsted report, but this is a lovely school. Warm and friendly, engaged and engaging staff, nothing but good reports from friends with older children in the school. Goodness, we felt smug. My attitude of just sending your child to the nearest school was being totally vindicated.

Then round about this time last year we decided to move house. Our little 2 bedroomed terrace was starting to feel rather too small for Anna’s ever-expanding collection of toys, and I was fed-up with the non-existent storage meaning that I had to hide the hoover behind the sofa and lift it over and out every time it was needed. We love the area though, and didn’t want to move far, so when we found a charming and vaguely affordable three-bedroomed house for sale on the adjoining road to ours we were thrilled. Things went as smoothly as they can when you’re in a house-buying chain, and a few months later we moved in. At some point during the process, more in a spirit of idle curiosity than anything else, we checked that we would still be in the catchment area for our preferred school. It seemed self-evident that we would be as it was still the nearest by far, and, sure enough, the data for the last three years showed that our new house would always have fallen within the catchment.

Our laissez-faire attitude continued until October last year when Anna came out of nursery clutching the Waltham Forest School Admissions Booklet. Instantly the atmosphere at the school gates was tense, verging on paranoid. Parents whose nursery child had an older sibling already in the school were hated and revered in equal measure – they didn’t have to share our pain, but they were gurus who had Got Their Child In. I tried to rise above all this, confident in my statistics, and my conviction that common sense would prevail, but it was difficult. Little tendrils of panic started to creep in around the edges. Then, one day, a friend, who lives a similar distance to us from the school, appeared at picking up time ashen-faced and shaking. I asked what the problem was, expecting the answer to be bankruptcy or a death in the family at the very least. But no. “I’ve been to the first of the Open Days for prospective parents.” she replied. “One of the teachers said that they expect the catchment area to HALVE this year, there’s no way we’ll get in.”

I felt the colour drain from my own face. I rushed home, opened Google Maps, and began feverishly measuring distances. It was no good. However optimistic my measurements, if the catchment area halved then there was no way Anna would get in.

I should probably explain, for readers who haven’t been afflicted by this process, the way it works. Over-subscribed schools (which, in London, means any ‘Outstanding’ or ‘Good’ rated school) prioritise places according the following criteria:

1) Any children who are in care.

2) Any children with Statements of Special Educational Needs.

3) Any children with siblings in the school.

The remaining places are allocated according to distance away from the school. The difficulty with this system is that there is no such thing as a fixed catchment area, and no way of saying in any given year whether or not you live near enough to get in. Theoretically all the places could be taken by children from the first three groups, leaving a child living literally next door to the school without a place.

Suddenly my common sense conviction that Anna would go to the nearest school, and weren’t we lucky that it was such a good one fell spectacularly apart. I started researching other schools in the area, and it was far from encouraging. The two next-nearest schools are both religious, one Catholic and one C of E. We are not churchgoers, and Anna has not been baptised, so I knew that our chances with them were slim to non-existent. I did consider a Damascene family conversion, but then learnt that admissions were based on church attendances over the last two years, so quickly abandoned that plan. The two next-nearest schools were nice enough, but not only were they each a good twenty-minute walk away, which I felt would be quite a big ask for a 4.5 year-old in her first term at school, but they were also over-subscribed, and so we would have zero chance of actually getting into them anyway. So, what would happen?

Basically the current system means that you end up with sink schools – schools which are not over-subscribed, very frequently because they have not got a good Ofsted report, and so have spare place. Children who have not been allocated a place at one of their chosen schools are sent to one of these, which can be anywhere in their host borough. My research showed that the nearest school which looked likely to have spaces was not only a 30-40 minute walk away, but had only recently come out of the sinisterly termed ‘Special Measures’.

To say that we regretted moving house at this point would be something of an understatement. Not that we would have been guaranteed a place in the old house, but we would have been considerably nearer. I was also regretting my lack of religious conviction, and more than ready to abandon my principled objections to private education and somehow raise the money to send Anna to a local Montessori, only to find that I should have had her name down for at least three years for that.

The last few months have been somewhat challenging. Every week or two a new rumour would spring up – actually the catchment won’t change much, yes it will, this school is better than it seems, you don’t actually need to be a Christian to get a place at the C of E school etc etc etc. Getting straight answers to questions from the privately contracted Admissions Service was not easy, and there were quirkily Byzantine elements to the system, which under other circumstances I might have found rather amusing. For example, the C of E school is moving buildings in September 2013, and another school taking over their old site, yet the distance criteria used was for their old site. Another school has two sites, and chose the site housing its Year 5 and 6 pupils as the place to be measured from, despite the fact that no reception children would ever be taught there. And so on.

Last Wednesday was D-Day at last. We’d applied on-line, seduced by the promise of finding out by email a day before the postal notification arrived. The first thing I did on waking up was check my emails, but nothing was there. I spent a lot of the morning clicking ‘refresh’ on my browser, but then noticed that, on a local parents forum I’m part of, the cognoscenti (people who applied last year) were saying that you didn’t find out until 6pm. I tried to put it out of my mind until then, and at 6.01pm was back at my laptop. Nothing. Nor at 6.05, 6.10, 6.15 etc. By 7pm I decided that I would log on to the School Admissions system and see if there was any information there. Their homepage warned people not to try logging on until you had had your email, which would arrived ‘during the evening’. I tried logging on anyway, but the system was not allowing it. Over the next few hours my husband and I sat glued to laptop and i-pad, alternating between my email account and trying to log on to the admissions system. Still nothing. By 10pm we were exhausted, and I at least was convinced I’d somehow messed up the form and failed to apply at all. My mood wasn’t helped by cheery texts either from friends who HAD got their choice of school, or from friends or family wondering why we hadn’t been in touch to tell them yet. My husband finally wrested the laptop from me and declared that we should go to bed and phone the technical support line (not, of course, open at the time thousands of parents are trying to use the system) first thing in the morning, as we clearly weren’t going to hear anything that night. I absolutely agreed with him, in theory, but still found myself sneaking back to the laptop while he was in the bathroom.

Miraculously I could suddenly log on, and see that the information was there. At this point the nervous breakdown which had been pending for months finally erupted, and I couldn’t make myself click on it. I yelled for my husband, and he, demonstrating the iron will and manly courage for which I married him, clicked on the file and informed me that…<Trumpet Fanfare> Anna had got her first choice, the school we had wanted her to go to all along. I do realise that there is no way of that not sounding bathetic to the reader, but you will just have to trust me and say that it put the intense relief I felt when I opened my A-level results into a very poor second place.

So there we are. The postal offer arrived the next day, and is pinned in pride of place on our kitchen notice board. I may well get it framed. My sister-in-law, who was staying with us, was very amused to come into the kitchen to find my husband and I standing side by side gazing lovingly at this piece of paper, in much the same way, she informed us, as we used to gaze at a sleeping baby Anna.