Are We There Yet? When Your Kids Finish School

Graduation DayMy eldest daughter, The Songbird,  finishes school this week, by which I mean she will have completed her ‘formal education’ to age 16.

From now on, it’s up to her whether she continues with her schooling or leaves. Today, she has her last ever PE lesson after which she intends to ignite a lycra/airtex bonfire and may well stick a rounders ball up her teacher’s unmentionables while tomorrow, Songbird will joyously attend her Last Ever Maths Lesson. My eldest daughter and maths have never really got on. It’s been a volatile 12 year relationship that began innocently with ‘sums’ and ended up in quadratic equations via lots of tantrums, tears and shouting. Other than her brief affair with algebra in Year 9, all 2,000 hours of Songbird’s maths education have been hell for all parties concerned. I do think it’s rather a shame that she has got through 12 years of education without ever learning to appreciate how magical numbers can be, but then they don’t teach sacred geometry or harmonic resonance at school. No, I should have taught her that. In fact, if you go the mainstream school route, all magical thinking remains the sole domain of you as a parent it would seem.

As my eldest crawls across the finishing line of ‘formal’ school, I have this awful feeling that there’s a lot more I ‘should’ have done along the way. We’ve kind of tolerated each other, me and school, eyeing each other suspiciously. It’s been an act of silent acquiescence like when you know you have to plant a kiss on a smelly uncle who you don’t really trust. I have danced with my daughter’s educational establishments as if they are an enemy I know I ought to keep close. I am one of those annoying liberal parents who doesn’t believe in homework or government targets, and as for  SAT’s, they can kiss my organically grown ass. Along the way, I often thought about home schooling, but my own brief childhood experience of it has always been a barrier (that’s a whole other blog post!). I also know that I am too selfish to home educate, and if I’m honest, not that brave.

I think perhaps I have an innate distrust of all institutions; school, churches, banks ~ they all make my skin crawl ever-so-slightly. Other than in bras, I just don’t do well with structure. In spite of my ability to sit on the fence of my own ideals, my daughter has carved out her own educational experience, and  has come through the whole thing relatively unscathed. When a school has not delivered what is right for her individually, we’ve moved on to the next one. Three years into her all-girls secondary, The Songbird had had enough, so she found out about another school that better suited her music needs and got herself into it. I’ve always taken her side when it comes to school stuff, confident that I understand my girl better than any teacher ever will, and I’ve always believed it’s about finding a place that suits her rather than trying to squeeze her into someone else’s idea of what constitutes an educated human being. State education in London is pretty much a mess as our schools are at the mercy of ever-changing government whims.  You really do have to hold firm so that your kids don’t become test guinea pigs in someone’s crazy experiment.

There have been terrible low points over the past ten years. There were lots of days when The Songbird begged me not to send her into school and she would clamp around my waist like a limpet and I would have to un-peel her from me with Medea-like coldness. There was a school trip to China that went terribly wrong and Songbird ended-up isolated, quarantined in Beijing for two weeks during the Swine Flu panic.  Then there was the letter she brought home aged 13, that suggested she go to her GP  to get the Pill  so she could organize not to have her period during a school camping trip (I kid you not). In Year 3, there was the boy who kept stabbing her leg with a compass and the school were so afraid of how the perpetrator’s  father might react if confronted that they never addressed the issue.

“He stabs you with a compass because he likes you,” she was told by way of a bizarre lesson in How Men Are.

“Er, NO! He’s a sociopath. When boys like you, they give you half their packed lunch, even the Penguin biscuit,” I countered wisely. Thank God she has me.

And that’s the thing about school, as well has providing all the magical thinking, there will be lots of “lessons” you then have to undo as a parent. If my experience is anything to go by, maths and nutrition are still taught appallingly, and girls are still not educated properly to respect their bodies, their cycles and their power. Plus, most music departments have simply not stood in enough muddy fields to really appreciate bass.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been spectacular school high points too, like meeting really special teachers whose dedication to their role and to my child was heart-warming. There was my daughter’s portrayal of Nancy in Oliver, where her rendition of “As Long as  ‘e Needs Me” was such an awe-inspiring cross between Babs Windsor and Barbara Streisand that she practically raised the asbestos-tiled roof. And there have been the countless times I have welled-up because Songbird has come home from school and done something I have no idea how to do and I have just thought, “Wow! She is so much better a version of a human-being than me”. I feel enormous gratitude to the incredible adults who have made it so.

One minute The Songbird was donning her first acrylic mix sweatshirt, and the next, well…she graduates this week. I can’t believe it’s nearly the end of this bit of my slapdash, let’s-hope-we-get-lucky parenting era. The thing that really gets me is that Songbird is not much younger than I was when I left home and I can already feel the aching chasm of her leaving not just school, but me. Ouch.

10 Truths About the Primary School Years**

We all know the school gates are more toxic than a post-curry air bagel. Here is my guide to surviving them…

1. Regarding looking knackered in the morning

Firstly, I advise trying to get your partner to do the school run. If this doesn’t work I suggest you take my lead and a) wear a poncho/cloak. (No one will ever know you’re still in your nightie, and it serves brilliantly as a cover for morning abdominal gas/bloating) or b) home school.

2. One sexy parent mum and one sexy parent dad

There is always one of each of these in every school and invariably it is neither you nor your partner.

If you’re lucky, your child will make friends with the offspring of sexy mum or dad and you will get to do lots of coffee/football/yoga mornings together whilst secretly checking out their house for signs of marital discontent.

3. At some point, your child will embarrass you

Perhaps they will do a drawing of you naked or make a passing comment to their teacher about “mummy’s special grown-up juice” or about how your computer password is T**S.  Perhaps, they will have written a story  like the one my husband wrote, aged 7, about his mother’s trip to the doctor’s for a blood test which he entitled, “The Day Mummy Had A Little Prick” with accompanying graphics in crayon.

You may not be aware of said embarrassing reveal until Parent’s Evening when the teacher smirks as you sit down. If said smirk occurs, demand to see your child’s art folder and English book immediately and rip out all incriminating pages. (Not much damage can be done in maths).

4. Nits

Let me make it clear: you will see more nits during your child’s time at nursery/primary school than Kerry Katona has seen white powdery granules (allegedly). My theory is that nits don’t actually feed off the blood on your child’s scalp, but off YOUR frustration.  If you put a nit under a microscope you will see it clutching its little grey, opaque abdomen with its six little legs, laughing in the face of your nitty gritty comb.


They grow bigger from your loathing like Darth Vader off Luke Skywalker.

5. Cake/bake sales

I can’t be doing with this bit of motherhood. It was totally NOT in the manual. I can barely cook as it is (See touching slideshow below for examples):

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I’m hardly likely to suddenly come over all Jane Asher and deliver something edible anytime soon now am I?

However, I have seen the cupcakes at our local church school down the road and I can only conclude that angels, perhaps even the Lord himself, helps those mother’s bake overnight in some kind of heavenly version of Masterchef. It’s cheating.

6. There is always one teacher all the dads fancy (TILF)

“Ready for the parents race are we?” she (the TILF) will beam as she skips past you in her lycra shorts on Sport’s Day.  Then she will laugh and you’ll think, “Why is she laughing? Is it that obvious that I am absolutely NOT ready for the parent’s race for fear of knocking myself out with my own breasts? Is it that obvs that WHEN I RUN I WEE?”

Yes, she is hot and young and sort of ‘springy’ and your husband will definitely volunteer to do parents evening this year. But just think how foolish your husband will look trying to be cool, charming and sexy with his knees around his ears as he sits on one of those tiny chairs made for 4-year-olds. He will look like a sad, demented praying mantis ogling an untouchable bird of paradise while you are comfortably at home eating choccies with a George Clooney DVD.

7. PTA stands for Parent’s Torture Association

Don’t misunderstand me. Most members of most PTA’s are amazing people who work their butts off in a bottomless pit of indifference, malaise and apathy. Sadly however, PTA’s can be a little bit like Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven, embodying aspects of British culture that are embarrassingly anachronistic. Often run by a select group of posh people in corduroys who think selling lemonade at the school gates will transform an inner London State school into Bedales, some PTA’s are mind-bogglingly weird and also, scary.

The one time I was on a school PTA, I was in charge of the Christmas grotto with a fellow mum. We spent £300 building the most beautiful grotto you’ve ever seen; fairy lights, fake snow, we practically had LIVE reindeer I swear! Only to find we had misread our “PTA Grotto Instructions”. We were expected to RAISE £300 not spend £300.

But I tell you this, you cannot buy a memory … ah,  the looks of wonder on their little faces. And that was just the other PTA members before they booted us out. Demoted to ‘normal parent’ status me and the other mum were destined to walk the linoleum corridors of shame for all eternity.

(Note to any friends reading this who are on the PTA at my current school, you are clearly not any of the above and I love you all).

8. Christmas fair or no fair

You can try it all: Winter Wonderland, Ye Olde Fayre, Holiday Party, AN Other PC Name, but everyone just wants to see a fat bloke dressed as bloody Father Christmas at the flipping Christmas Fair during bloody, flipping Christmas time.

Everyone wants to pay £1 to sit on a sweaty man’s knee (the thing we’re told not to do every other day of the year) and receive a present worth 10p (ideally from Woolworths RIP) that has been wrapped in tissue-thin paper from the local street market.

All the parents want to drink mulled wine from the huge bubbling vat that normally contains (and still slightly tastes of) soup, and all the dads want to get hammered enough to chat up the TILF.

Everyone wants to pay 50p to win back the same bottle they contributed to the tombola, and EVERYONE and I mean EVERYONE loves a raffle. (Although if you do win First Prize, everyone will hate you).

9. From caterpillars to… big, sweary pupae

By the time your sproglet leaves primary school, they will have transformed from pant-wetting adorable into an incredible mini-adult aged 7 with an impressive repertory of swearwords at their disposal.

“Give me the child till the age of seven and I will show you the man,” said someone very clever who knew their organically-grown shallots as this is definitely true of boys who fight and wear their pants around their bum crack well into adulthood. By 7, girls have mastered the art of looking disdainful and will have experimented with sideways pony tails. So it’s not that they’ve learned nothing.

10. Relax

Think about it; unless you were the victim of serious bullying at primary school, the thing you probably remember most is the smells. The smell of lunches and disinfectant, the teacher’s coffee breath, the dinner ladies and their polyester-pungent lady bosoms of comfort, the headmistresses office (whiskey and paper). Ah, the stench of the communal mouthpieces on the recorders and the miraculous farts from the bottoms of babes… primary school is a veritable nasal tour de force.

We don’t remember if we had a heated, sprung-floor gym, an Iguana as a class pet or day trips to Venice. No, we remember if people were kind to us and whether our parents and carers picked us up on time. What remains of primary school is, well, a primary feeling summed up by a whiff. ‘Tis a mere base note in the great perfume of life. Or as my 6-year-old would say, “School stinks”.

 **By Primary School Years I mean roughly the journey from ages 4-7.