Friday, October 16, 2009

The S word

When Oliver was born our lives changed forever. His arrival alone was cataclysmic enough to make every day feel like a journey in its own right, filled with joy, tears and just occasionally some sleep.

The adventure ahead was so huge that every milestone seemed far off. With a year before he would walk and longer still until he'd talk, other yet more far-flung mile-posts barely crossed our minds.

And yet one in particular has loomed ever larger in the intervening years. One that is almost impossible to avoid and anecdotally at least can be the source of great anguish.... albeit mostly for the parents. It's the S word: "school".

When Hayley was still pregnant an old school-friend of mine told me Hayley should make sure the baby was born ("squeeze the little bugger out" I believe was her exact turn of phrase) in August (noting that our bump was due on August 24th) and not let it drift into September, because that would mean our offspring would be at home another year, the clear implication being that they would cost us more money.

How naive I was to imagine this was a logical and perhaps sensible piece of advice. Today, with my son having just missed the cut (birthday on September 8th) and having just watched so many of his friends since birth go off to school for the first time, I am enormously grateful that he has another year with his Mum and his sister before starting school himself.

Don't get me wrong, he likes his nursery and we like him going there, but knowing he will have grown physically, mentally and emotionally for a whole year more gives me more confidence that he will adapt well to school. He is a sensitive soul, generous and kind-hearted. And innocent. As surely all four year olds be. But some are not so innocent and frankly a little more mean. Sure he'll come across that a little at nursery too, but I can't help feeling that being the oldest in his class will be better for him than had he been the youngest.

The thought of Lucy being the youngest in her class (as she will be) does not frighten me quite as much. It still frightens me, but she seems to me much more worldly wise and tough than Oliver was at the same age and that re-assures me somewhat. Even so, despite being 23 months younger than Oliver, she will start school exactly a year after him.

And so today we visited the school that both our children are most likely to attend and met with the headmaster who gave us a guided tour.

We've heard good things about the head and I made so bold as to tell him so, which he took in his stride. His enthusiasm, friends tell us, is behind much of the success of the school. And it does seem to be successful. We've never come across a parent of a pupil there who is unhappy with the school and its Ofsted reports are impressive.

The first thing that strikes you about the school is its size. It's big! It has 450 pupils and large grounds. And when you enter you are greeted by a corridor that stretches into the distance like something from Kafka's "The Trial". But the layout and location of the different classes seems to limit the impact of this hugeness, including two separate playgrounds based on age.

The facilities seem good (though I don't have much to compare with yet), there are large playing fields and the atmosphere is one in which all the kids seemed busy and happy. (The fact it was Friday and they were on Golden Time, enjoying activities of their own choosing, may have helped with this!) Several of the children spoke to the head unprompted about what they were doing and seemed at ease with him. It was generally just a really good atmosphere of busy learning.

While there Oliver kept his eyes peeled for some of his friends and sure enough we found half a dozen of them in one of the reception classes. One of them piped up that Lucy had called his house at 4am the previous morning. Slightly embarrassed, we explained this story to the head and moved swiftly on.

We were told about lots of things that the school does, something of an information overload to be honest, but also managed a few questions ourselves, including about bullying and the approach to religion. The latter was interesting to me as it fell somewhere between my own Church of England school upbringing and an entirely secular approach. Grace is said at meals and the school teaches Christian values but also teaches about other faiths. I like that.

We touched upon the age of the kids starting school. We had all heard about today's review of education in England which suggests kids should start school at 6 years old. The headmaster said that in effect they were already doing that at his school, as the first year is very much play-oriented learning and only in the following year does the focus shift to teaching the national curriculum in a more structured way. Again this felt right to me.

During our walk round the school, both Lucy and Oliver, who were both a bit tired, each managed to bump their head! Oliver wobbled backwards and hit his head on a sharp metal door-frame, while Lucy, apparently with too much to observe around her, walked straight into the corner of a book case with quite a whack! So it wasn't the ideal environment in which to conduct a considered and in-depth discussion of the direction of 21st century education, but it was enough to leave us impressed and quite happy at the thought of our kids beginning their school life the environment we had witnessed.

Now we have two other local schools to see. This school is our "catchment" school, so it is likely our children would end up there anyway, but we want to look at the two other local schools for comparison.

And though the journey through school starts a whole year from now, applications will have to be made this year. And anyway, that year's gonna fly. I just know it.


Jessi said...

Good luck choosing a school. It's funny how some kids were just born to be the youngest in their classes and some the oldest...

Steve said...

Jessi, I'm just glad they've turned out that way. The reverse would have been stressful, if only for the parents!

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