Plastic chairs of diminutive proportions. Displays of wilting, random bits of the forest entitled ‘Our nature walk’. A group of parents all looking slightly like they would much, much rather be somewhere else. Ah, the prospective school visit, it is a true joy.
Whilst parents of small children are still reeling from the fact that three days or two millennia ago, depending on your mood, you were holding your child in a small white blanket in the hospital bed, it is now time for them to go to primary school. And Christ on a bike (or a Micro scooter, given the three score of them that were lined up outside one school), what a Pandora’s box of unmitigated horror it is.
I start the process with some research online, looking at distance, Ofsted, and the statements on the schools’ websites. Which is a bit like listening to potential Miss Worlds. They all say they love animals and work with charities, but you have the sneaking suspicion that at least three of them eat kitten hearts for breakfast and steal pocket money from children wearing callipers.
I phoned one of the local schools to book an appointment and thought the person who answered was drunk. Now, I am as happy as the next person for the receptionist to feel relaxed and at home in her work, but even I thought this was taking it a little far. However, it turned out to be one of the kids. I wasn’t sure if this was a punishment or reward, or a simple cost-cutting exercise, but I asked her a series of very difficult questions just in case she had done something naughty and was now paying the price for drawing a willy on the toilet wall.
At our first tour, I took it all very seriously, asking questions and looking hard at the kids to see if I could glean how their intellectual and emotional welfare was being tended to. But the kids just stared back and freaked me out a bit, so I quickly began summing up the school by a slightly less rigorous assessment: ‘Ooh, I like those chairs’ and ‘well, they’ve pinned up those pictures nice and straight’. I became ridiculously impressed by things like laptops that were not so old that they had to be lifted by two fully grown men, and tables that could fit together into a nice octagon. The more I looked, the less I knew. There was talk of interleaving – or intertwining or inter-bloody-something -years, which sounded suspiciously like an idea dreamt up to alleviate overcrowding, but no one was going to admit that.
One headmaster went to great pains to tell us how overcrowded the school was, how there were not enough chairs to go round and how his beleaguered school was going to hell in a hand cart marked ‘The State of Education’. I was waiting for him to break down in front of us, sobbing and wailing and scratching feverishly at his leather elbow patches, but he managed to hold it together long enough to make an unconvincing sales pitch about the mobile classroom perched on a bit of grass as being a great educational environment in a fleeting moment of rare positivity.
We were told by one head not, under any circumstances, to listen to what the mothers on the gate say, because she doesn’t. Well indeed, why the hell would you listen to your customers? What kind of new-fangled folly is that, for chrissakes? How on earth would the people that actually use your service have anything enlightening to say about it? A little piece of my soul broke off on hearing her utter those words, and was carried away by the fairy of shit headmistresses to be added to the other little pieces of parents’ souls which fragmented when they heard her say that once a child is put in the lower or upper ability class, they would be not reviewed for an entire year. I was actually quite surprised that they had phones and computers, and were not using abacuses and writing slates, given the general eighteenth century approach to education they seemed to have adopted.
The more schools we looked round, the more I got School Blindness – there I was, poking my head into yet another classroom filled with kids, looking suspiciously like the last one we had just visited, wondering if this was of any help whatsoever. In fact, I actually think they were showing us the same bloody classroom, but using a different door.
‘Which classes shall we show the parents today, Head?’
‘Oh Christ. Well not Year 5. We’re on our third supply teacher and the last one isn’t out of hospital yet.’
‘Good God, no. Are you mad? They’re doing painting this morning, we don’t want to get stung with another load of dry cleaning bills. Tell you what, show them Year 6 four times. You know, the old four-door trick. Get the kids to swap seats, they’ll never know.’
Round and round we went, meeting other parents who we had met that morning at a different school. At least I think it was a different school. To be fair, there is not a lot of distinguishing features to most of them. Magnolia walls? Check. Kids drawings in the corridor? Check. An enormous mound of coats and bags, sprinkled with single gloves and trampled scarves, threatening to topple at any moment and under which there was probably a row of pegs? Check.
I found it more than a tad bizarre and it started to seem a little like a charade. After all, every school in our area is over subscribed, so as the Heads took pains to do a good sell-in job on their school (well, most of them) for over an hour, it struck me that actually, it was pointless. We don’t have a choice. We simply have an illusion of choice. E will go to the school that the authority chooses for him, which will be the closest, or the emptiest, or whatever else the criteria is when they wake up that day. So in fact, the Heads could have just saved everyone a whole load of time by saying: ‘Listen. Our school is bloody great. But if you live more than half a mile away, you are basically fucked. So by all means come and stroke our laminate flooring and sniff our What I Want to Be display, but know that this will be the last time you will ever get to be this close.’
During the school tours, I began to have repeated out-of-body experiences – where my body was there, looking round with all the other parents (an anxiety of parents, perhaps?), but my mind was in the pub with a bottle of wine going ‘la la la la la la’ repeatedly and pretending that we weren’t about to make a monumental decision that may or may not be roundly ignored about the future of my son’s primary education. I began to ponder the alternatives… and came up with only one. Home schooling. Christ, pass me that fucking application form right now…
Not got your copy of Womb with a View yet, the new book from the Mothering Frights writer? Well head on over to www.jodienewman.co.uk right now, or you’ll be in detention.