“The students at this school are excellent,’ says the Head, making very engaging eye contact. ‘We really do have excellent students at this school.’
I remember some advice I was once given for listening to politicians: say the direct opposite statement back to yourself. If that would sound ridiculous to everyone concerned then there is nothing of any substance being said.
If I was in the 1% of the population who doesn’t automatically conform in such situations, perhaps I might raise a hand:
Please Miss! Are the 4-year-olds at the school up the road not excellent? How does your selection process sort them out? (as far as I can see, the form only asks for their religion).
But I am one of the 99% so I look as though I’m paying attention, dismiss it as sales-gumph and move on.
Then I lie awake at night: excellent students? Has she thought about that statement? Is she thoughtless? Or is she patronising me?
And above all: How do I choose a primary school?
My teacher friends all advised that I follow my ‘gut instinct,’ but my gut instincts seems to be based on personal bias. The Head’s choice of rhetoric is just one example (and I didn’t meet any other Head Teachers – maybe theirs was worse). In the school with the excellent students, pupils automatically learn the clarinet; in another they learn brass. I was always most successful as a brass player which makes it almost obligatory to regard the clarinet as a fancy bit of firewood. But surely this is no sound basis for a choice involving your child’s whole education?
I have reasons for not trusting my gut. People follow their guts when they choose their vets. I have worked at multivet centres where the person we unanimously agreed was the best clinican was the person the fewest clients wanted to see. This could be down to something as simple as their accent. I have heard clients call vets ‘excellent’ who I wouldn’t want treating my pet, but luckily these are few and far between. More commonly, I have heard clients moaning about a vet who is actually doing a great job on their animals but is noticably less good at sucking up.
Of course, there are more concrete things to rely on – like Ofsted. Unreliable, say my teacher friends. Anyway, the schools are all “accademies” now so I can’t access recent enough reports.
I ask my daughter what she thinks, but her answers are inconsistent. Apart from that she wants to wear uniform, which is just as well: there’s uniform at all the state schools round here.
In the end we pick the school with the religious leaning that matches my husband’s and the kids’. My husband says church schools are very caring, which is nice.
Personally, I have always judged religious segregation to be a poor way to distribute pupils between schools. But it isn’t exclusively religious. And it is also nearby, friendly and lovely to stand inside. The pupils look happy and my gut feels content with that. The bemusing Head-teacher, I decide to overlook. Also, it appears that my husband is actually feeling really very strongly about the religious bit.
So three weeks into Primary School, how is Big Sprog? She still leaps out of bed, puts on her uniform, bounces out of the front door and is still bouncing when she hits the gates. It’s a very parent-friendly school and they invite me to ask questions and stay for coffee once a week. They sent me letters and newletters and communications and all the rest.
All the same, I haven’t a clue what she does there because she ‘can’t remember, Mummy.’ Today she presented me with a peice of paper decorated entirely with variously recognisable letter ‘m’s. Whether this was a writing exercise or an art project or just something she wanted to do herself, I can’t tell.
How I used to ridicule those scraps of paper detailing every poo, pee, mouthful of food and emotional change during the 6 hours she’d spent at nursery. What she’d played with. Who she’d played with. The only detail missing was the number of farts.
I miss it. Today I have gleaned the most information yet: Big Sprog drew Ms and apparently she ‘had an accident’. Why did she do that? She never does that. Was she frightened or worried about something, or was she just too engaged in drawing ‘M’s to go to the loo?
At any rate, the teacher stopped and asked me to impress unpon her that there was nothing to be worried about. That she mustn’t be scared to come and tell her next time. That’s a sign of a teacher with her interests at heart, I thought. My daughter says she’s ‘nice.’
I trust that she is. Sending my kids to school, I am finding, is an exercise in trust. Trust that they treat her well, feed her decent food and that she’d tell me if she were unhappy. Trust that they’ll support her and help her grow. Trust, indeed, that she remains the excellent wee soul, both when wetting her knickers and when writing her first sentence, that she is right now.
It doesn’t seem so strange any more that the head said they had excellent students at that school. Every school is full of excellent children, with parents just as worried as me. Maybe she wasn’t contrasting with other schools; maybe it was just her way of reassuring us that she’d noticed their excellence.
So, I am mollified. But I still can’t say I’m looking forward to hearing that clarinet.