things i have learnt since sending my son to a school in special measures

This post, explaining why we were confident about sending our son to a school in special measures, provoked a big response this summer. If you didn’t get a chance to read it, why not have a look now? It will make more sense of the following!

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So we’re already half a term in to our son’s school career. Forget what he’s learnt – I feel like I’ve been on a hugely steep learning curve since term began. And already God has graciously affirmed the decision He led us to make regarding our son’s schooling – time and time again. Here are some of the things I’ve noticed. (Please forgive any unintended arrogance/offence/political incorrectness caused by the words I use, and instead remember that I come from a position of naivety, having been in a pretty middle-class bubble my whole life.)

Those from tougher backgrounds are often more open than those from more advantaged backgrounds. We who have been lucky enough to have more advantages in life do feel the need for a facade, don’t we? All through life – whether on UCAS forms, CVs, in job interviews, on dates, and in social situations – we learn (indeed, we’re conditioned) to hide our flaws and promote our positives. This term, I’ve had people I hardly know share pretty deep and personal things with me during a brief exchange in the playground. I’ve had to learn how to hide my shock at what I may have been told, and replace with sympathetic nods and words. There is no facade, no pretending that life is OK when it’s not. I find it refreshing. I’m learning how to be open about my weaknesses, my mess, my falling apart. As new friends start to enter my home, I’m remembering that mess and dirt are OK – they’re the reassurance that I don’t have it all sorted. And hospitality (search the blog for more on this!) is the ultimate display of our vulnerabilities.

I’m suddenly embarrassed by all the Stuff. Exacerbated by the onslaught of new Stuff from the kids’ birthdays, I’m seeing afresh just how much we have – not just the quantity, which we try and keep on top of, but the quality. I’ve never been one for designer brands, and mainly buy my clothes from charity shops, but walking through the playground in my Hunter wellies while my kids ride their expensive scooters does make me realise how privileged we are. I wouldn’t go back to leaky wellies, or heavy, hard-to-manoeuvre scooters – but where do I find a sensible balance?

Difference doesn’t matter – integrity does. There is no shying away from it: I look different to a lot of the other parents. On weekdays the ones who look like me trundle past our house to take their offspring to the More Middle Class School Down The Road. But perhaps I’m not so different to the other mums I’m meeting after all. I’m not going to dress differently, disguise my non-local accent or pretend I don’t live in the huge house opposite the school (although I will remind people, ad nauseum, that we don’t pay for it, it comes with the job). To do any of this would be ingenuine – it would be an insult to those I’m meeting, as if I were saying to them You couldn’t possibly want to be friends with someone like me. How arrogant and patronising. If I’m open to getting to know other mums, then they will want to get to know me too. We will find there’s more in common than we thought.

A simple greeting breaks the ice. I’ll be honest: there have been times when I’ve stood in the playground and felt like some weird social experiment – a misfit, an oddity. What am I doing here? I imagine the worst of those standing next to me: they’re looking at me weirdly, I’ve offended them, they hate me. If I’m brave enough to be the first to smile, the first to say hello, then I discover no such thing. In fact – perhaps they were thinking the same about me? We break the ice, we connect.

I can refer to Al as ‘my husband’, and not as ‘the kids’ dad’. This is actually a Thing. Our kids are so lucky to have an amazing dad who lives with them and is fully invested in every part of their lives. End of.

I bet your kids have been learning loads at school this half term – but what have you learnt? Do share your thoughts…I’d love to hear them 🙂

how to be a great school mum – from a teacher

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Well, the new school year is definitely underway (can you believe it’s nearly half term??) and I, particularly, am loving being on the other side of education for the first time.

Prior to having my kids, I was a teacher – but a teacher without her own kids. Now I’m enjoying being a parent who’s also a teacher. Maybe one day I’ll go back to my first career and be a teacher who’s also a parent.

Suffice to say there are advantages in seeing the other perspective – so that’s why I wanted to write this blog post: to encourage all you parents (especially those, like me, whose eldest has just started school) to be a blessing to your children’s schools. The title says ‘mum’ but really this is for dads as well – it just had a better ring with ‘mum’ than ‘parent’. Forgiven? Great, let’s move on.

Be a grateful parentWant to know what your child’s teacher does for them? They know exactly where your child’s strengths lie, and, as you read this, are probably constructing ways of moving them on to further learning.

They know where your child struggles, and will sit patiently with them for however long it takes, giving them one-to-one time whilst the rest of the class get on with an activity the teacher set especially so that they could give your child some individual time.

They know how your child is doing in each of the curriculum areas, where they were last week, where they should be next week, and how to get them there.

They know your child’s interests, hobbies and quirks. They teach your child phonics via flashcards, building towers, or jumping in the sand pit – because they know how best to get through to your child.

Amazingly, at the end of this year, your child will do all sorts of crazy clever things that you tried in vain to teach them over the last four years – because their teacher is flippin’ awesome at knowing how to get your child on board. And then multiply this by 30, because they do all this for every single child in their class.

So – be grateful. Thank them. Regularly. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Just say thank you. If you can, write a card every so often – at half term, perhaps – to tell them you’re grateful for what they do.

Yes they get paid, but with what they do in evenings, weekends and holidays, I work it out to be around 24p an hour – and it’s always nice when people thank you. Make a point of doing this – write a reminder in your phone, week commencing 20th October. I don’t care how you remember – just remember. It might be in our heads that we’re grateful – but teachers, however fab they are, are not mind-readers. Get what you’re thinking out on paper.

Be an encouraging parent. When your teacher – or the school – does something great, tell them. Drop an email. Mention it verbally. Teachers – and especially senior management – get a lot of flack. Brighten up their inbox – your email may be the only positive one they receive that hour, that day, that week.

I went to assembly at my son’s school the other week. It was so positive, so affirming, so celebratory, and I loved how the children were rooting for each other, clearly pleased with each other’s success. I spent two minutes writing a quick email to the head – and, whilst I wasn’t expecting her to reply, got a lovely email in return. Who wouldn’t want to open up an encouraging email first thing on a Monday morning?

Don’t complain before you’ve praised. Teachers, particularly primary teachers, get to know you quicker than you think. Establish yourself as a Good Parent to have around. Make sure the teachers know you’re supportive. Being grateful and encouraging will definitely help to establish your ‘parent persona’ around the staff room.

If you ever need to complain about some aspect of school life (read below for how to do that!), at least the staff won’t be rolling their eyes when they read your letter or listen to your phone message. Honestly, when I was teaching, there were some parents who we just couldn’t take seriously because they were always being so negative – you start to become deaf to it. The school will take your concerns a lot more seriously if they know you’re generally supportive.

Sometimes you will have to apologise for your child. When I was a childless teacher, I couldn’t understand why so few parents ever seemed apologetic about their child’s effort/attendance/punctuality/behaviour/whatever.

Now I’m a parent, I get it. For 4+ years, you’ve defended your child, protected them from the world, cushioned them from pain and spoken up for them when they couldn’t speak for themselves. You’ve learned to put your child first above all else, even to the point of embarrassing yourself for their benefit. Quite rightly, you’ve learned how to ignore the critics and stand up for your child’s needs, whether that was breastfeeding in public or standing up to another child’s parent when that child hit yours in a toddler group.

Now, however, your child is going it alone. They don’t have you by their side, and they won’t always make the right decision.

Sometimes they will make a mistake by accident, unintentionally. Teach them that we apologise to others even when we didn’t mean to hurt them or disobey them.

Sometimes, they will make a mistake deliberately. This does not mean that your child is a horrible person. Quite the contrary: reassuringly, it means that your child is human. 

Apologising for them, or getting them to apologise (whichever is appropriate), is not losing faith in your child, yourself, or your ability to parent. Don’t be defensive about it. Just know that this is part of the process of letting your child go into the world and make their own mistakes. Teach them that mistakes have to be sorted out, and an apology is the best place to start.

When things go wrong – think carefully. Do you have a genuine concern? Is something worrying you? Don’t storm into school or write an angry letter. Give the situation a little while to settle – this might be a day, a few days, a week or a couple of weeks, depending on how urgently you feel it needs to be sorted out. But don’t attempt to try and sort it when you’re feeling emotional.

When you feel calm enough to approach your child’s teacher, first of all give them the benefit of the doubt. The story your child has told you may not be the whole story – don’t assume it is. Again, when teaching, I was surprised at the number of parents who would believe their child’s version of events before even asking us what had happened.

If, as you talk, you realise that the situation is just as you thought, then make your point firmly but kindly – remembering that the teacher is a human being too, possibly a parent just like you. How would you want to be spoken to? If the situation is not resolved, seek the perspective of others that you trust – fellow parents, friends who are teachers – before approaching the senior management or head.

Above all, aim for a good relationship with your child’s teacher. The success of a child’s education is largely dependent on the relationship between school and parents. Give your child the best possible start, and be a great parent to have around.

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memoirs of a preschool mum (or: letter to a new mum)

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Tomorrow, the boy in my belly in this photo starts school. I’m not anxious for him – he’ll be fine. It’s me who has to adapt.

You see – my baby boy, who was born approximately 5 minutes ago, is starting school. He’s got a uniform and everything. He’ll be learning important, grown-up things – and relating to people for several hours each day without any intervention from me. He’ll even have to wipe his own bum.

What do you do with a 3-day-old? Why, take him to a wedding of course! Friends, I am not lying when I tell you I knew ZILCH about babies
What do you do with a 3-day-old? Why, take him to a wedding of course! Friends, I am not lying when I tell you that I knew ZILCH about babies.

I don’t feel old enough to be a mum, let alone a mum of a school-age child. Several of my friends have become mums recently, or are shortly to become mums. They are just starting out on the journey. But despite the fact that I don’t feel very far along the road myself, I need to man up and realise that the preschool days (for Mister, at least) are over. So, to mark this transition, here are a few thoughts on the last few years.

Joel's dedication. We didn't only spend our preschool years in churches, I promise you.
Mister’s dedication. We didn’t only spend our preschool years in churches, I promise you.

I had no idea what I was doing with baby Mister. Not much of a clue when it came to baby Missy either, to be honest. But they’re still alive. Let that be an encouragement to you as you read this at some stupid hour of the morning, nursing your child whilst keeping your brain alert with a small smartphone screen and some little ramblings from a friend.

I watch you with your babes, you new mum friends, and you are utterly fantastic. You rock them with confidence. You know all their different cries, and where to pat when they have wind. You’re in tune with their rhythm. I had no.frigging.idea. God’s grace, folks. That is all.

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Mister’s first birthday. Still loves a slide!

Then there are the Baby Groups. You need and fear these in equal measure. You need mum friends who understand and nod sympathetically and empathise and share tips and encouragements – you need to find your tribe with whom you will navigate these important early years as you raise your kids together. But you also fear becoming someone you are not. You fear only ever having conversations about nappy rash and weaning, not knowing what’s happening in the Real World, memorising breastfeeding stats, learning which Tweenie is which. You fear that you will not fit in. And I understand. I’ve been there. I arrived in a new city, had a baby, and had no choice but to frequent these groups in order to find my tribe. I found it – and breathed a huge sigh of relief. These were not ‘mumsy’ mums, with nothing to speak about but the length of time it took them to conceive – but real people, like me, flung into motherhood in a variety of situations, none of us prepared, none of us experts. Some of these early friends have become very close – and I now count it as a privilege to have a group of people around me who I can chat to about anything. You stick at it, new-mum-friend, and the tribe will come. Not quickly or immediately, but you persist and it will come.

I loved babyhood so much I did it again. Note the sarcasm.
I loved babyhood so much I did it again. Note the sarcasm.

Moving from a very structured job, with every hour marked by a bell, into the most unstructured job ever, I was determined to fill our week with activities: regular events with a start-time to aim towards – milestones, if you like, in our week. Friend, hear this: these groups rarely create community. We enjoyed baby yoga, baby signing, Tumbletots, music classes and more. Did we make long-lasting friendships in these groups? No, we did not. We turned up, did the thing, then left. Did we fork out a small mortgage? Pretty much. Do I regret it? No – I was aware of not over-filling our week, and these groups do give amazing opportunities to babies and toddlers. But we made our friendships at the children’s centre, at church toddler groups, at the spaces which were designed for us to simply sit and chat and play. Understand the difference, and you’ll be a happier mum.

I’m massively grateful for being able to have stayed at home with Mister. We’re not all in this position – but, whatever your situation, don’t fret. My friends have done a variety of different things – some at home full-time, others working part-time, others working near full-time, others taking a bit of time off then returning to work after two or three years. Don’t regret the time you can’t spend with your child – but do make the most of all the time you can.

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Another church shot. We really are obsessed with the place.

I never expected to feel guilty as a stay-at-home mum – but yes, guilt seems to just come as part of the parenthood package. Whatever you choose, whatever you do, there will always be some guilt attached. For me, it comes every time I fail to give the kids my full attention, any time I play half-heartedly (or not at all), any time I whack the telly on, any time I read some super-duper, arty-crafty parenting blog. The voices come thick and fast: “But you’re a stay-at-home mum! You have no excuse! You don’t have a job to fit in! You’re not juggling enough! You’re lazy!” These voices aren’t helpful. They’re from a greater force who wants to tear down every last bit of confidence we have in raising our kids. Friends, recognise that you will feel guilty at some point (maybe at lots of points) – but remember that Jesus takes it all. It is not God’s plan for you to live in guilt, because it’s not God’s plan that you shoulder the weight of parental responsibility yourself.

New-mum-friend, take heart. This is not your show. You’re in it, for sure, shaping and influencing your little person to become a great player themselves – but leave the directing to the One who knows your baby more than you ever could. Who has known them since the beginning of time. Who loves them even more than you do. When I drop my baby off at his Reception class tomorrow morning, I’ll be doing just that.

With my boy this summer. He's not a baby. Sniff.
With my boy this summer. He’s not a baby. Sniff.

why i’m sending my kid to a school in special measures

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It was never meant to be the case.

The kids and I often walked past the fag-smoking, obscenity-shrieking parents at drop-off or pick-up time, but I knew we’d not be living here when the time came to make a Decision. As a teacher, the school did provoke my curiosity – but there was no point wasting time or energy finding out about it.

And then, gradually, as God revealed plans for us to stay exactly where we are, ministering in this area and living in this Vicarage, the Hypothetical turned to Actual. We were Actually going to have to make a decision – and this establishment, with its poor test results and shocking attendance figures, was our catchment school. The head of Mister’s preschool had warned us of the ‘rough families’ it attracted, and advised not to go near it with a barge pole. Our next-door-neighbour’s daughter, having spent a few weeks in the school, was told by one of the teachers that there was a “much better school down the road”, with the implication that this intelligent young girl would be better catered for there. She promptly moved school.

With these less-than-savoury second-hand impressions, you might have wondered why two Oxbridge-educated, qualified-teacher parents didn’t consider the ‘better school down the road’ – after all, the ‘better’ school is less than ten minutes’ walk away. Hardly unjustifiable in terms of the whole Sending-Your-Child-To-The-Local-School ethic. But, as we found ourselves falling more and more for this area, so we found ourselves falling more and more for the school over the road. Going into special measures last year (the lowest rating given by Ofsted, the national inspectors for schools) was the best thing for the place. There’s a new headteacher, new staff, new equipment, and stacks of funding for improving just about everything. The school has an optimistic feel. The children we’ve seen have been on task, polite and friendly. This is one of the reasons we’re entrusting our son to the school for the next few years. Another is because, as a teacher, I want to see this school improve, and know that it can only go so far unless it has a majority of parents who are committed to the place. We’re hooking up to this increasing mass of supportive families, and can’t wait.

But that’s only a fraction of it.

For each loud-mouthed mum screaming at her many, many kids outside the school gates, there are ten others who we don’t see because we don’t hear. They support education. They support the school. They want to do what’s right for their child. Actually, they’re not too dissimilar to me.

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And the loud-mouths and the invisible ones – well, that’s just surface stuff. Underneath, there are a lot of hurting families living in poverty or chaos or both. I know this because all Reception kids are given breakfast during the first part of the school day. This is not a Breakfast Club for rich, working parents – this is because not every child will get breakfast at home. Also, we were told that it would be really good  if we could label all our kids’ clothes – but not to worry if we didn’t manage to do it, as the Reception staff would do it for us. In my sheltered Home-Counties upbringing, I never had to worry about my clothes being unnamed – but if you’re attempting to raise your family in the midst of abuse, debt, relational breakdown or whatever, whether to go iron-on or permanent marker is the least of your worries.

We need to be in this place. We need to learn that privilege is the exception, not the rule. We need to get to know families who can educate us about what life is like for them. We need to develop empathy, and discover how we can best serve those who struggle. We need to be here because Jesus would be here. It’s time to stop ignoring the poor.

Now please understand that I’m not criticising anyone who, in the same position, would have made a different decision. We each have different and complex criteria surrounding the decision-making process when it comes to our children’s education, and I’m not the one to judge. All I know is that when Jesus returns, we will need to account for the decisions we made – and, on this occasion, we feel convicted that this is the choice God is calling us to make.

Am I concerned for my son? That he will learn to swear? That he will follow the wrong ringleader? That he will be bullied? Yes – but no more than I would were he going to any other school. In fact, the environment he’ll be going into has made me pray all the harder for Mister: that he would be a leader, not a follower. That he would stand up for good. That he would be kind to others. That the prophetic word given at his dedication service – “touched by the hand of God for his generation” – would start to bear fruit.

God is in this school – and, we believe, wants to bring many of its students, parents and staff to know Him.

Sending Mister to this school was never supposed to happen – but, actually, it’s no mistake.

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