25 Things from a Very 1980s Primary School Experience

With the end of the holidays fast approaching, school has been on my mind. As we’ve begun preparing Thomas for the new term, it’s given me cause to reflect on how different his school experience is from my own. There are a whole host of things we used to get up to back in the 1980s that simply wouldn’t be allowed these days, and we certainly lacked a lot of the technological advantages of current day school children (interactive whiteboards, the internet… even proper photocopiers!) But I’m a very nostalgic person, and can’t help but look back on my childhood era with immense fondness.  So here are 25 things that made up a very 1980s Primary School Experience:

1. Overhead Projectors. There were no computer projectors (there weren’t many computers) so we used these things instead. Especially for projecting….

2…. hymns in assembly. They were mostly taken from the “Come and Praise” book. Ones that particularly stick in mind include Autumn days (“So I mustn’t forgeeeeeeet, to say a great big thank you”) Cross Over the Road, When I Needed a Neighbour, The Whole World in his Hands and One More Step Along the World I Go.

3. The lack of a standard curriculum. Ah, it was a liberal time. There was no National Curriculum, and seemingly often little guidance on what we should actually be doing, with a lot of focus on creativity and “The 3Rs” (only one of which actually began with ‘R’, ironically enough!). It meant there was no levels, no SATs or formal testing. Of course it also meant that there was often no history, no geography and no science either! I remember my dad (in a science based career) coming in to do “experiments” with us once. He took small groups off to an office to show them things like vinegar volcanoes. The mum of one of my friends always came in to do “cooking” (which was always making scones anyway!)

4. On that note – whilst there was absolutely no problem with my dad – any old person could come in to the school to listen to reading, or even to teach! There were no DBS checks then and qualifications seemed to be an irrelevance. Same went for school trips. Anyone could help out and it often involved piling kids in your car with no thought to car seat or even seat belts in the back!

5. Learning to read was in an experimental phase too. Phonics was out but no one could really agree how we should learn. I fondly remember the Ginn 360 Reading scheme (more on this one soon), Bangers and Mash books, the Hummingbirds stories and Breakthrough to Literacy. The latter was responsible for the big orange “Sentence Maker” (a folder in to which you slotted pre printed cards to make stores before copying them in to your book).

6. We also had Look and Read. With classics such as Geordie Racer, Dark Towers and Badger Girl, plus the one no one seems to remember called Fairground. The TV shows had accompanying books and worksheets and we watched them on…

7…. The TV on a trolley. The TV was always strapped to a high trolley, with a video recorder underneath. We all got crick in the neck from looking up at it as we watched from a cross legged position on the floor (why was the trolley so high?!) Other TV classics included Words and Pictures (Magic E and the magic flashing pencil) and “How We Used to Live” – ha, the 80s could feature on there now!

8. SMP – The School Mathematics Project cards. Anyone remember those? The cards were grouped together by topic, and there was always a topic set everyone wanted to avoid. I remember one that was supposed to teach about negative numbers by talking about Damascus and Sea Level!

 

9. Lunchboxes. Remember these beauties?

10. Donut with a milkshake for pudding with school dinners. Usually a limited number available, so given to those who ate fastest, which meant the same kids had them every day whilst the rest of us pushed the soggy cabbage around the plate and then got given semolina or tapioca!

11. Shiny white “tracing paper” toilet paper. And the horrible smelling green sludge soap.

12. Teachers smoking in the staffroom.

13. There was possibly one computer. It was usually an Acorn or BBC Master. t was wheeled around on a trolley and you usually got to use it as a reward for being good. And then had to wait hours for a program to load from a cassette tape.

14. The school secretary had an actual typewriter.

15. There were no photocopies, only “duplicates” often made on a Banda machine and therefore purple. The copies were always a bit wonky and smelled funny!

16. As there were no photocopiers, the easiest way to draw maps in your Geography book was using a Map roller – like a rolling pin with the map of a continent embossed on it which was rolled in ink then transferred to the page.

16. Country dancing. And dancing around the maypole.

17. Being sent “to the wall” for being naughty, which involved standing with your nose pressed against the wall for a determined amount of time. If you fidgeted, it was extended. (This never happened to me, because I was an angel, natch!)

18. Blue Peter “Bring and Buy Sales” in the school hall.

19. Playing British Bulldog. And Kiss Chase.

20. Proper blackboards, that you could pull on a roller to move road. And the board rubbers that went with them with their tightly packed concentric rings of coloured felt.

 

21. No such thing as a PE kit for the girls – we did it in our vest and knickers.

22. Magic Steps Shoes…

Or before that these classic T-bar shoes from Clarks.

Or, if you were really cool, the ones where you could turn the strap to go around the back and thus make them in to slip-ons. All the boys seemed to wear those nylon parkas – Snorkels – with the furry hood and a bright orange quilted lining.

 

23. No water bottles. Just water fountains in the playground that you had to join a long queue to use.

24. The school dentist and eye checks – waiting to see if you were given “the letter” to take home. And the nit nurse, of course!

25. Bomb scares. Thankfully always a hoax, but it seemed at one point like we were herded away from the school every other week because someone had phoned in a message.

What else do you remember, fondly or otherwise, from your school days?

Cuddle Fairy

 

On the Day you Start School

Dear Thomas,

The time is here, kiddo. Tomorrow is the day that you start big school.

It’s a huge milestone. And a huge one for Mummy too. I stood hanging out your clothes to dry this weekend and I suddenly remembered doing exactly the same thing the weekend before you were born. I was so aware, then, that life was about to change in ways I couldn’t quite truly imagine. This might not be quite such a massive shift, but it’s a significant change nonetheless. No longer a baby, a toddler or even a preschooler. You’ll be a real-deal school boy.

I look at you, in your uniform and you at once look both so tiny – hands disappearing inside a blazer that slightly swamps you – but also so grown up. And I can’t help but wonder how exactly we got here. In some ways that weekend of hanging out tiny baby clothes feels like yesterday, but simultaneously the time that you were not in our lives feels a whole lifetime ago. Perhaps I feel that more acutely because this month marks four years of trying to give you a sibling. And those four years have been interminably long. (I’m sorry we haven’t succeeded on that one, but I know that you are going to be part of such a warm, friendly school and hopefully your friends will continue to be your surrogate siblings.)

I look back, too, at just how much you’ve learned in the last five years. From the scrunched up little boy with a mop of dark hair who knew only how to suck and to scream (oh, how you could scream) you’re now a little boy full of knowledge. And not just facts but ideas, imagination, opinions. Yes, plenty of those and you’re not afraid to share them. You’re a character with a personality to rival the size of your newborn screams.

It’s true that children are like sponges. You’ve proven that. You’ve learned to crawl, to walk and then to talk. You’ve learned shapes, colours and numbers. You’ve learned to read. The list goes on. And now you constantly surprise me by just how much you know about so many different subjects. Trains are still your top obsession, but space – the sun, the planets, asteroids and comets – comes a close second. One of you favourite games this summer has been “Give me a fact about…” where we have to ask you for a fact about a variety of given subjects. And the stuff you come out with when we ask for a fact about the sun, or trees, or insects, so often amazes me, if not for the fact itself, but where you get this stuff from. You just soak up information and bring it out again at will.

And that is why, my most favourite little boy, you are so, so ready for this next step. Life with you is filled with a never ending barrage of questions about what, when, why, how. You’re ready to learn more. And I know you will. Not just more facts and information, but skills too. (And some of those will be more challenging for you that the basics of letters and numbers. Learning to lose gracefully for starters!)

Of course I have my worries about you. It’s true that we send children to school here in the UK when you are all still so tiny and sometimes your anxieties and your behaviour give us a glimpse of the baby boy still inside.

But I have to let you go. It’s time.

You’re excited.

And I’m excited too. To watch you take this next step. I’m ready for there to be someone else to respond to all your many, many questions and to start to teach you the things I have no idea how to teach. I’ll miss you. Of course I will. Those two days a week that I don’t work have always been “Mummy and Thomas time”. And no matter how nice it might be to have a quiet cup of tea or do the shopping in peace, I’m going to really miss your company. The funny things you say and the adventures we have. I’m so glad that schools have holidays and that I get you back.

You know, it’s a real privilege to be your mum.

And that is why, amongst all the things that you learn at big school, I hope that you don’t unlearn the skill you’ve perfected of being the indescribable you.

I love you, always and unconditionally. But I hope you already know that.

Mummy xxx

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Seven Days: Musing on Starting School

Thomas and I have seven more days before he starts school.

Well, obviously there are more days than that – four and a half weeks to be more exact. But for most of those Thomas will be at the “Holiday Club” at the school, and I’ll be working. There are weekends, of course, but those are “Family Days” for all of us to share. As are the days we’ll spend in Copenhagen at the end of the month.

What is left is seven days of uninterrupted “Mummy and Thomas Time”. (Yes, we really do call it this!)

Ever since I went back to work after maternity leave, and Thomas started nursery, we’ve had several days each week apart. And I’m firmly of the opinion that it made the solid days we had together even more special. I had the time and energy (and money!) to do all kinds of things, from exciting days out and theatre trips, to the more mundane park visits and days at home snuggled up with a book or playing endless train games. I planned and looked forward to that time.

And now, those days will be drastically cut down.

But…

Starting school is a massive milestone, right? It is its own thing to anticipate – for the good and the bad – right? Isn’t there is too much new in the adventure to think about to worry about the old and what might be missed?

Starting school is the moment when children start to take really independent strides away from their parents. It’s when they start to form friendships with children you’ve never met yourself. Start to spend days doing things they only share the merest glimpse of with you. And they seem to age immediately as they dress up in smart school uniform for the very first time. For parents it is a whole new routine. There is the anxiety of learning how the school works and meeting new parents, many of whom seem to know each other already.

How about if none of this is really true?

Thomas is staying at the same independent school where he has attended preschool for the last year. He is simply moving across the playground to the little reception block, complete with its outdoor learning area. A place where he has been visiting and “practising” for the last term.

He’s moving across with all of his well established friends. In his class there are just two girls who didn’t attend the preschool (both also have older siblings in the school already). His friends are children I already know well, and like. I also know many of the parents well, from the endless rounds of preschool birthday parties and events like the school nativity and the preschool “Moving Up” day. I know (as much as any parent ever does) how the school works and who most of the staff are. Thomas knows so many of the older children by name (and they him). He already plays in the playground with the older children, lines up with them in the mornings and eats lunch in the dining hall, sitting at a table that he sometimes help to lay correctly with cutlery. He wears a uniform too – that I’ve grown used to laundering constantly – and has been looking so almost like a school boy for the last year.

Even his routine will remain the same. With just one major exception, of course.

He’ll be going five days a week.

That, is the only difference.

We’ll be losing much of our treasured “Mummy and Thomas Time”. And I suppose that is the only thing that is really affecting me.

“Starting School” per se does not feel like a major change. It’s like we conquered that last year, with some tears and protests and initial reluctance. Now Thomas is so happy and settled he asked me a few months ago, with genuine worry, whether he would ever have to change school again.

Not having him all to myself for the two days that I don’t work is the only thing I’m struggling to wrap my head around. It’s true that in some ways I’m looking forward to some “me-time”. Some opportunities to do long neglected household tasks (clearing out my wardrobe, for starters!). An opportunity to get my hair cut without juggling childcare. To drink a cup of tea and read a book without interruption or guilt. Going for a swim or a run during the day, rather than in the dark evenings throughout the winter. Even scheduling medical appointments without having to take Thomas with me. I’ve not had such free time since… well ever before really. Having worked full time, like so many women, before having a child this will all be a new experience.

But at the same time, I’m really going to miss Thomas’s company. I’m going to miss his singing from the back seat of the car and his vociferous opinions on which songs he does and doesn’t like. His running commentary around the shops about what I mustn’t forget to buy. I’ll miss his music group and the genuine friends I’ve made there. I’ll miss our shared lunches and little coffee shop dates. I’ll miss park trips where there is no competition with much older children to use the best equipment. I’ll miss the freedom to take him to museums and child friendly events during the week and outside the school holidays where we don’t have to battle crowds of other children. I’ll even miss his trains constantly strewn across the house, packed up instead until he arrives home.

School uniform notwithstanding, he still looks so little. And whilst he is keen and excited about finally being in Reception (he’s been asking how many sleeps since before Christmas) and more than ready to satisfy his innate curiosity for learning in ways that I alone can’t, I’m not sure if I’m quite ready to accept it. I know that I need to focus on it as the adventure it is and the new it will bring. You can’t freeze time, nor continually look backward for that would be to miss so much more.

I doesn’t make it simple though.

Just over four weeks to go. Seven single days of one-on-one with my best boy.

I’m so glad I don’t have all the other changes to contend with too, and this one seems big enough on its own.

At least I have the holidays to look forward to.

So, how many sleeps until half term?

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Masquerading as a “School Mum”

The last week has been one of yet more change for our family. In fact, it’s been the final step in a gradual process which has spanned the summer, since Thomas left his previous preschool. This has been the week where everything has come together – the new preschool, wearing a uniform and dealing with full blown school-run traffic – and fixed new family routines that will persist in to the far foreseeable future. It’s easy to say that it’s been nothing like as momentous as the weeks of those who have four year olds, embarking on their first days in a formal education career that will span thirteen years or more. After all, Thomas hasn’t started school yet.

I feel like a fraud, with pictures of my small boy in his pristine, too-big uniform amongst the scores of photos of “real” school starters on Facebook and Instagram. I feel like a fraud writing about how big this all feels to us when it’s only a preschool rather than compulsory education. I feel a bit like people might think we’re pretending to be something that we’re not. Or making a mountain out of a molehill.

But then, when I stop and think about it properly, I see that there can be no denying that this week has been huge.

It may still only be preschool but he is now settled at what will become his actual school when he does make that transition this time next year. The only difference in the routine will be moving across the playground to a different building (and, of course, attending five days rather than three with none of our current flexibility to nip off on holiday for a week whenever we choose). He is wearing his first school uniform, slightly too big in all dimensions, but having that immediate effect of making him look taller, older, so much more grown up. And it’s pretty much the same uniform that he’ll wear next year too.

I suppose, the point is, Thomas’s new school has been a massive change in lots of ways. He starts earlier, we travel by car, he wears a uniform, plays in the playground with older children and eats lunch in the school dining hall. Next year, when he actually “starts school” the changes will be much smaller. To the point that I think Thomas will barely notice, certainly in the run up and until he fully experiences the differences in classroom routine, teaching and learning. He won’t be nervous about starting in a new environment where he doesn’t know many faces because he’ll already have done that; He’s doing that now.

So no, I’m not trying to jump ahead of where we’re at, or rush through milestones in anyway. But I cannot not celebrate this one. He may not have started primary school yet and I may not be a genuine “School Mum”, but everything we’ve done these last couple of weeks has felt exactly as though that is what is happening. Effectively, this week has been his “starting school week”. The start of eight years of attending the same place, wearing roughly the same clothes and seeing the same people.

It won’t feel like this next year. I’ve no doubt it will still feel huge, but it will already be comfortable by then. Familiar. Not such a leap in to the unknown for all of us.

Which is exactly what it has been right now. New people, new places, new systems, requirements and regulations. I’ve been overwhelmed with ensuring I know who is who, where to hang bags and coats and which email address to use for what. And I’m an adult, not a not-quite-four year old.

So no, there is no denying that this week has been huge. And I couldn’t be more proud with how my little man has handled being left for long days in an alien environment with strangers. The most we have had is the occasional lament that he misses his old school. What he gets up to whilst he’s there, who he plays with and what he eats may be closely guarded secrets (his word!) but the smiles on his face, and the utter engagement I glimpse when I slip in, unnoticed, to collect him, speak volumes.

He’s not a school boy yet, but in his uniform I can already see the school boy he will become. I’m allowed to be proud of that. And to want to remember how it feels right now, without waiting for the officially defined “starting school” milestone. If I don’t capture this one now, it might have slipped through my fingers by then.

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Moving On: Nursery Grad-u-lation

On our way out one afternoon earlier this month, we bumped in to a neighbour who asked Thomas how he was.

“I’m not all that good actually” he replied. “I’ve hurt both my knees.”

It was true. He had. Each leg sported an almost identical scrape right across the knee cap, still fairly fresh and most likely the result of launching at top speed into tarmac.

“Oh dear” our neighbour replied. “Did that happen in the garden?”

“No” Thomas shook his head firmly. “It was at school. At my new school” with all of the emphasis on new. I expected him to continue by saying, as he had so many times to us that week, that he missed his old school. But instead he thought for a moment, then looked up and said “Oooh, I’ve got to be on my way now [where he learned to speak like this is beyond me!] I’m on my way to a party.”

“Oh, that sounds exciting” our neighbour enthused, taking note of how much Thomas’s face had lit up.

“Yes. It’s my grad-u-lation party. With my old school. And my old friends. I’m going to gradu-late. Bye then.” And off he trotted, with hardly a thought more to his poorly knees.

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And so it was that we found ourselves attending not a “Graduation” ceremony, but a “Grad-u-lation Party”. A mix between graduation and congratulation, I guess, but this is a Thomasism that will most likely stick (and that we’ll no doubt trot out – along with the photographs – much to his embarrassment if he ever goes to University and graduates for real!).

Of course Thomas isn’t actually “graduating” to anything. He’s left his old preschool to attend another, but unlike almost all the other grad-u-lation attendees, it’s still preschool rather than “big school”. But he’s been at the same nursery since he was six months old, growing from a baby who could barely sit up to a running, talking, reading, opinionated child absolutely bursting with character. I was really pleased that he was invited to graduate despite not leaving for school, in order to celebrate his time at that nursery with friends and staff alike. The idea of a ceremony for such young children may be seen by some as an unnecessary imported Americanism, but I disagree. Many of these kids have spent a huge chunk of time at this place, and I think it is fantastic to recognise and mark that.

I was also pleased because it helped us to draw a line under his time there. Generally he’s getting on well at his new school, but he’s having a hard time admitting that. He does, without a doubt, miss the security and familiarity of his old environment. (And I can’t blame him, because so do I, to a degree, and I just need to do drop off and pick up. I don’t have to stay there all day as well.) We’ve been seeing a lot of his bottom lip poking out. We’ve heard over and over again how he doesn’t want to leave his old school. How he misses his old school. It’s been a big change for all of us.

It was helpful to attend his grad-u-lation to point out to him just how many of his friends were also leaving. I think up until that point, having been one of the first to a actually leave, he really did believe everyone else was still there carrying on as before. It definitely helped to draw a line. To show him that everyone has to move on eventually.

It was an incredibly sweet ceremony. Some of the parents who have done this multiple times may roll their eyes, and maybe it is simply because I only have one child and will only get to do this once, but I did have a hard time not crying as the children filed in wearing their home made caps. The staff took turns to read out anecdotes about each child and they were presented with a certificate and teddy bear.

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Thomas being Thomas, of course, did not take long to start using his scroll first as a telescope (sadly no pictures due to privacy of other children) and then as a trumpet. By the time they filed back out of the hall he had several other boys trumpeting along with him. He may have been the youngest there, but he is by no stretch of the imagination the most quiet and retiring!

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As for me, I’m becoming more and more certain that we’ve made the move at the right time and that we’ve done the right thing. And watching him up there with is friends, in his cardboard cap, I felt incredibly proud of him and all that he is becoming. Making decisions on behalf of my child and dealing with all the associated worry and guilt is a big part of the parenting journey for me, but rolling with them and growing up is an infinitely more massive journey for Thomas.

And he’s doing it so well.

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Are we the Kind of Parents Who…

…Would send our child to a private school?

(tl;dr We’re sending our son to a private school. I hope that you won’t judge me for that, but I know many people will. Below lies an explanation for our choice, and why I feel that calling private education “unfair” is unfair in itself. We’re doing this because it is the right school for our son, and because we’re in the fortunate position – through hard work – to be able to make that choice. I don’t think private education is always “better” nor that there is necessarily anything wrong with a state education, this is just what is right for us.)

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I’ve known, ever since I first tried to write a post about school choices for Thomas, that I was going to find it hard. As hard as the decisions have been to make themselves. Yet whilst it’s obvious that deciding on what is best for at least seven years of our child’s life and their start in education is a tough parenting milestone, sharing those decisions should surely be easier, right?

Yet it turns out than in making choices that have turned out to be far from straightforward, I’ve had to examine myself and my personal beliefs and challenge the pre-determined assumptions I had about this stage of family life. And now I’m afraid to try and share all of that in a way that won’t make people judge me, or think badly of me, or – worst of all – make me doubt myself by challenging these hard thought out plans and my reasons for them. It turns out that whilst I’m very happy in life to be myself and do what I feel is right, I still have lingering issues with sharing the aspects of me and our life and beliefs that I feel may go against the grain, or invite questioning or criticism. I guess that I still, after all this time, care too much what other people think of me. Ironic, for a blogger, no?

But with change so imminently on the horizon – next week to be exact – it’s time I was honest. I know there will be judgement both of me but also, probably throughout his life, of Thomas because of the decision we have made for him. I know that when it comes to private education there are the supporters, the people who are doing the same and will get where I’m coming from plus the ones who will tell me they wish they could do the same, but circumstances prevent it. Then there are the haters. The ones who believe that everyone should have an equal opportunity in education, that it’s elitist, exclusive and detracts from opportunity for all (and that that is just for starters).

But it is the choice we have made for our only son.

I understand so many of the arguments against private education, but I believe that our choice, in our circumstance, is solid. And given that we will likely face ongoing questioning for it, now is the time to try and get comfortable with that.

Believe me, I never saw this coming. I’m from a decidedly middle class background, but I did not go to a prep school despite the availability of good ones locally. I didn’t imagine that we would send a child to a private school. I certainly never saw private education as “better” because I flourished in the state education system. Ian, on the other hand, attended a private school which he did not enjoy and which did not particularly support his natural aptitudes. Hardly a glowing endorsement. Add to that the fact that I’ve been exposed to plenty of the very worst that public schools can turn out and it’s not much wonder I never had a particular burning desire to put my own children in to the system. And “children” it would have been, had life dealt us a different hand. We’re financially secure thanks to hard work, but that almost certainly wouldn’t have stretched to three concurrent sets of school fees per year.

I can’t quite remember now exactly when we began to re-evaluate. I’m sure that it was during our infertility struggles when we began to realise that life was going to look quite different to how we had hoped. That, and the issues with availability of school places in our town being a constant topic of conversation amongst local parents – from the maternity ward onwards – it was hard not to give it some serious thought.

One of the chief arguments that comes up against private education is that it’s wrong to remove your child from the state system just because you don’t like it. It is more politically correct to remain within the system and change it from the inside out whilst preserving its funding. And I can see that can be quite true for areas with poor educational provision and undersubscribed schools whose funding is dependent on getting as many bums on seats as possible.

But what about areas like ours? We live a few hundred yards from a very good primary school and well under half a mile from another outstanding one. Both are horrendously oversubscribed. So let me make it clear that I have absolutely no issue with the schools that are potentially available to us, or with state education in general, it’s just that in all likelihood those schools won’t be available to us. Obviously things change from year to year, but two years ago we would have secured neither of our closest two schools, and this year we would have secured one by virtue of the local authority forcing them to take a “bulge” year – another issue in itself!

I don’t want to be the parent scrabbling around for a place at the last minute, or facing putting my child in a council-funded taxi to go to one of the outlying village schools which has a place. Nor do I want to be the parent that rushes in to a private school place simply because I don’t like what we are allocated. I wanted to go in to this calmly, with eyes wide open. I wanted to feel I was actually making a decision, not having my hand forced.

The bottom line is that removing my child from the state education system will have absolutely no effect on the funding available to any of those schools (because they will be full anyway) and, best case, it may release a place to someone who is not so fortunate to have alternative options. It may prevent one other person having to travel miles to the nearest available school and actually make a positive impact on that child’s, and family’s experience of primary education.

That last point sits at odds with what a lot of people feel about private education. They think that paying for an education is an unfair advantage because it’s not available to all, rather than seeing it as potentially opening up better opportunities for those without a choice. Development in our town continues apace, and alongside a baby-boom, the squeeze in school places shows no signs of abating. I can say in good conscience that not requiring a state funded school place can only be a helpful thing to the overall situation.

But yes, I have to agree that a private education may present advantages over a state education – although, not always, as it didn’t for my husband. It will almost certainly be better resourced with smaller classes and different opportunities, perhaps most importantly free from the rigidity of a government imposed curriculum and incessant assessment. But is it really “unfair” that we can access that?

We’re fortunate that we can afford it because we’ve worked bloody hard ourselves, all of our lives. I find the notion of it being unfair that some children gain advantages simply by virtue of their birth frankly absurd, as well as insulting. What have I been working hard for all this time of not to give my family the best that I can? Why do we talk of social mobility and closing inequality if not for that very reason – to help more people achieve just that. See, it’s not as selfish as it sounds. It’s not about “buying” the best for my child and sod everyone else. A good, appropriate and personalised education sets a person up to potentially contribute well to the world for the rest of their life. Isn’t that what we all want?

People that feel private education is fundamentally unfair are usually those who believe that education should be an absolutely level playing field for all. And in theory, I agree with that too. Everyone should be able to access a good quality education. It would aid social mobility and potentially help end so many inequalities. I know all these things. But sadly we do need to accept that education will never be a level playing field, no matter what we can achieve with “the system”. Because even if all schools were identical, and all lessons taught by clones with outstanding passion and ability there are many things that can never be the same. Most importantly children are not the same. So what suits one will not suit another. And everything that happens outside the door of the classroom is not level. If you hate the idea of variation in education, or streaming or anything that supposedly gives your child an “advantage” then I hope you don’t read with them at home. Or discuss their homework with them. Or support them by taking them to the library. Or on days out to bring their history lessons alive. Because millions of children don’t have that advantage of a supportive environment at home. They can’t get help with their homework. Yes, that’s a tragedy, but I don’t believe for a second that it means we should stop helping our own kids, otherwise who will be there to be the supporters of the next generation? Who will be the thought leaders who just might be able to get us out of the mess we’re currently in? Because if we try to level the playing field, inevitably it will fall to the lowest common denominator, and that does absolutely everybody a disservice, now and in the future.

Of course, you don’t have to go to a private school to end up being a strong contributor to society. Indeed It can be argued that many who go to “public” schools or independent secondaries aren’t the best contributors at all (see also: what got this country into such a mess in the first place). This isn’t as simple as private vs state education. What I’m getting at, and what really, really matters is that kids get the education that is right for them. It won’t – can’t – be the same for every child. And this is actually the single most important factor in our decision to send Thomas where he is going.

It’s also my biggest single criticism of the current state education system in this country. It often tries too hard to make things too level. There is too little room for manoeuvre and individualised targets or even differing learning styles. Children are too often seem as commodities to be pushed through, not as individuals. Living in Kent, a spiritual home of the Grammar School, and having attended one myself, I’m intimately familiar with how devisive their presence can be. And I agree that in the current set up they tend to be elitist and create unnecessary division, but that is simply because it’s a bit of an all-or-nothing affair. The alternatives, if you don’t go to grammar, are often not brilliant. But unlike a lot of detractors, I don’t think this is an argument against selective education. I think it’s an argument against the current system. Grammar schools are absolutely right and appropriate for a sub-section of the population who are academically oriented. What is needed is not “comprehensive” education for all, but selective education for all. There needs to be a variety of different types of schools that are properly focused on the wide variety of children that pass through them, catering for the creative as well as the academic, and for different types of learning style. I firmly believe that no one school can do it all, but each child has a right to attend a school that can cater for them (in order to curb length here, we’ll leave aside the difficult practicalities of such an approach for now, it’s simply a philosophy.)

With all of that in mind, we’ve chosen a school that we believe will suit Thomas. We haven’t picked a private school, as some people do (and others believe everyone does), in order to increase Thomas’s chances of gaining a grammar school place. In fact, we deliberately discounted any schools that assessed three year olds prior to entry. We picked our chosen school partly because it doesn’t enter every child for the 11+ (or Common Entrance). In fact, it’s a school that lost favour with some local parents in recent years because it doesn’t have a 100% 11+ pass rate. I see that as a good thing. It means I can be confident that they will suggest what is actually best for my child, not what is good for their figures (the same cannot be said for certain local state schools!)

We’ve also chosen the school because it’s small, with a real family feel that will absolutely suit him. Thomas is a typical young boy. He is hopeless in large groups, where he runs around and becomes the class clown, preferring to attract attention and laughs rather than concentrate. In a small group he is a different boy. Focused, determined, interested, curious and inquisitive. He seeks out one-to-one interaction however he can. He is a boy that could so easily be lost in a class of thirty children. He could so easily be labelled as a troublemaker or a joker, and slip between the cracks. The environment of his school will – hopefully – guard against that.

The fact that we can move him now, in to their preschool, is also a huge advantage. Thomas is already very ready for the learning aspects of school, despite not being old enough to start reception until next September. He can already read, races through simple mathematical problems and most of all wants to find out about things. He’s eager to learn and excited by it. But socially, and emotionally, he has a way to go. Normal, of course, for a year away from school start, but spending the next year in what will become his school environment will be an enormous help. Playtime will be shared with older children, and lunch will be eaten in the dinner hall. They “borrow” classrooms when older children are away swimming, in order to really get a feel for what “big school” is about and ease that transition. Why would I not want that for my child?

So this is where we are.

I’m not sure who I thought were the “type” of parents to send their children to private schools. I guess I was guilty of stereotyping, assuming it was “rich” people or simply people who are not like us, although I’m not sure why. The impression that I now have is that a huge variety of people make this choice for a huge variety of reasons. I don’t necessarily identify with all the reasons people have, but I’m totally comfortable with ours.

We have, and will only have one child. I want what is right for him. It won’t make him better than anyone else, but hopefully it will help him be the best version of himself that he can. I simply can’t apologise for that.

And so, I guess, it turns out that we are the type of parents who send their child to a private school.

Everything Changes (But You)

Dear Thomas,

I’ve been putting off writing this letter, in much the same way that I’ve kept dithering over talking to you in depth about the changes we’re about to inflict upon your life and your routine. But now, it’s just weeks away and there is no more escaping it.

In a few weeks we’ll be moving you from the only nursery and preschool that you’ve ever known. You’ve been there since a few days shy of six months. When you started you could only just sit up. You couldn’t crawl, let alone stand. You were just days in to your weaning journey and I still had to visit you each day to feed you your milk because you never did get the hang of taking it from a bottle, stubborn as you are. You’ve moved through the rooms there, forming attachments to the staff, who all know you and your (huge) personality now, making friends and making yourself thoroughly at home.

You really are at home there. Confident, sociable, outgoing. You chatter about your days and you friends. You have favourite places, from the window where you wave to me in the morning, to the book corner and the playhouse in the garden. By now you can, of course, run, jump, skip, hop, talk nineteen-to-the-dozen and even read and write, and so many of these developments have been aided by your fantastic nursery and the people there who have watched you grow. People who really know you and genuinely care about you.

So making the decision to move you has been one of the hardest choices we’ve had to make as parents so far. It’s hard, this aspect of parenting: making decisions on behalf of your child, trying to decide what is best for them when you can’t really know how it will all turn out, and all the while being aware that it could have far reaching consequences. We talked for so many hours about the pros and cons. We looked at the option of moving you after another term. We looked at the option of leaving you where you are for one day a week and moving you for two. Believe me when I say, we really thought this through. But in the end, the choice was made.

In my heart, I know this is right. We’re moving you to the preschool at what, all being well, will be your “big school” and where you’ll be until you’re eleven. Eleven! Imagine that? (I can’t.)

No matter how much your current preschool has helped you flourish, I know you are ready for some new challenges. Being an older child in your school year, you’ve already done three terms of “official preschool”. And before that you always moved up a room every few months. I know that staying in the same place again may make you stagnate. You might lose your currently seemingly infinite passion for learning and exploring. And the very last thing I want to do is switch you off education before you’ve even had a chance to properly begin. I firmly believe that you’re someone who benefits from change, and variety. And I want to encourage that.

I know that you will miss your friends. But we picked the timing carefully. So many of your friends are already four, and they’re all off to school in September anyway. It makes sense for you to move at the same time. In fact, I sort of thought you’d think everyone was leaving, but for just a moment I forgot how smart you are. As you told me “I’m too small to go to school”.

Yes, you are kiddo. But then, I’ll probably always think you’re too small to be such a grown up boy. I think we’ve overcome the confusion that panicked me for a while, where I think you believed we were packing you off to “big school” early. You know that this is still preschool. Just different preschool.

So, yes, this is happening. You’ve visited your new preschool over and over. You’ve told us how much you like it there. In three weeks it will be where you go three days a week. It will be a big change. You’ll wear a uniform. We’ll have to leave earlier in the mornings because instead of dropping you off on my walk to work, I’ll have to drive you to the top of town, before turning round, driving home and then walking to work alone. That drive will mean your pick up is a little later too. The routine will be different. And because the preschool is attached to a school, you’ll go from being one of the biggest fish to being one of the teeny tiniest, as you mix with the reception children during playtime.

Such a big change for you, because you know nothing different to what you do now.

But everything changes.

Everything except you. Because no matter what, I know that you’ll still be my bright, bubbly and confident boy. At least, I hope you will. I hope that I’ve made the right decision on your behalf and that this move will help you soar, rather than hold you back.

Everything changes. But you’ll always be my best boy.

IMG_4426(Despite the fact that you’re not going to “big school” just yet, your current nursery are letting you “graduate” with your friends. You look a bit like you’re off to Hogwarts!)

All my love, always

Mummy