Back in the good ole days, ‘choosing’ a school meant checking out the one in your catchment had nothing more sinister than the odd off-the-rails glue sniffer and a dinner lady with a moustache but for Claire Bates, like thousands of other mummies, these days it’s all a lot tougher.
We’ve followed our diarist through tears, tantrums and toilet training. Now it’s the turn of teachers.
It was all so much easier with Number One. He goes to a special school so there were only two choices.
The first one smelt of broccoli and the lady head teacher clearly hated me, whereas the second one whiffed of cleaning fluid and the man head teacher thought I was “hysterical”. In a funny ha, ha way, I think, not in a strait-jacket, just-coming-off-the-Prozac way.
Anyway, he and his clean-smelling establishment satisfied both my slight OCD leanings and my son’s needs, so he bagged not binned my germ-free application form and Number One couldn’t be happier.
But, here I was with Number Two, and a gatrillion different mainstream school choices – well, four..
Having waded through spreadsheets of Ofsteds, poured over miles-to-and-from-home-and-to-other-school map plottings and, of course, tuned into the all-important where-the-posh-Mummies-were-sending their-kids intelligence, I was faced with:
a) The one in our catchment
b) The one with posh caps, tartan and a huge monthly bill
c) The average one in the wrong direction to nursery
d) The one the posh mummies would rather miss Botox than send their Orlandos and Jemimas to.
I’d annoyed the posh pack for years by sending my three boys to local (ie, not eye-wincingly expensive) nurseries and loved seeing their X5s speed off half an hour before my battered double buggy pulled leisurely out of the drive for our short stroll to the perfectly wonderful pre-school nearby.
But this was school and well, I’d heard the local one was more Harrowing than Harrow. So ‘D’ was out.
And so it began – the five long weeks of judging and being judged.
Deciding what to wear was tricky.
Did I want to come across all Boden, home-baking and capable, or left-wing, multi-cultural and clever?
Not sure I could pull off either, I opted for skirt (to the knee), shirt, pumps and trendy-ish beads.
For the first secretary, it was clearly all wrong.
“My daughter has that necklace you muttony old loser” she said as I arrived. Well, the muttony bit wasn’t actually out loud, but it was said clearly with her perfectly plucked, raised eyebrows.
Apparently the head was “waiting for me”. Bugger, was I late? I reached in for my mobile to check the time, just as it started playing the hysterical (see, Number One’s head was right, I am funny) Jedward version of Ice Ice Baby. Music gold…..and also my funny ringtone.
“Oh, my GRANDDAUGHTERS love those twins,” chimed Scary Sec.
She hated me. It was obvious.
But the school was a perfectly good whirlwind of navy blue little people mostly quiet, mostly noisy, mostly happy, mostly listening, mostly daydreaming, ordinary-looking children. ‘C’ went into the “maybe” spreadsheet column.
And so to the tartan cap brigade.
I’d known many a Mummy enroll their child here, without even looking around, simply because of those Andy capps.
It took me all of a minute to realise it wasn’t the school for Number Two.
It may’ve shone academically, but there was something not quite right about the rows of shiny-faced children. Now, what was it? What was that curious thing I couldn’t quite put my finger on?
Ah. That was it. Silence.
The last time there was silence in our house was 0945hrs, July 10 2005. Fifteen minutes before we moved in.
If our three boys aren’t howling, the dog is. Or I am.
The rather clipped headmistress proudly showed us the prospectus, which had two pictures of boys on the front, one of a ruddy group gardening and oddly all smiling, and one of a class (in those rows again) wearing tall, white chef’s hats, baking quiches. Now, Bloke is a new man – he does nappies, agrees that salad is a meal, and has even got over being rude to vegetarians, but does he want his boys to spend their school days preparing the perfect quiche? Not as such.
Classroom one was a hive of (silent) activity. As we turned to leave, Clipped suddenly pointed at a girl sitting on a beanbag.
“She’s got special needs,” she informs me, quietly, almost conspiratorily. “Like, your boy..
“You’d never be able to spot her would you? Most people don’t even know we have one in this class..”
Now, with our eldest totally brain-damaged, quadriplegic, blind and epileptic, we always win Disabled Top Trumps, and are used to stares, pointing and sympathetic smiling and over the years we’ve been able to giggle at some of it, but this took me aback a little.
Could I spot “the one”?
Taxi for dinoheadasaurus…. straight to the 21st century please.
Posh school also had pristine library books (bad), no competitive sports (mad) and, Lord help me, “a medley of vegetables” on the lunch menu (sad). It went into the “no” spreadsheet column (glad).
So that just left “A,” the one in our catchment area.
The head teacher was an enthusiastic late thirties-something man with slightly too long hair, no wedding ring and wearing an elbow-patch jacket, ironically, not teacherly.
But most importantly, when Jedward struck up, he dissolved into a belly laugh.
This was my kinda head.
The school had that indefinable something that I liked – not too silent, but no embryonic signs of anarchy, photo’s of sports days on the walls with – shock, horror – WINNERS lifting trophies and a dinner lady with only a wee five o’clock shadow. No Salvador Dali facial artistry here.
Good old shepherd’s pie was on the menu and the vegetables? Not so much a medley, more a mush. But hey, that’s what school veg is supposed to be like.
As I left, shaking the head’s hand warmly, an older gentleman came through the school gates.
He was a governor and told me had been so for the past 11 years.
He’d been on the board at the posh school but had “various differences” with Clipped that inexplicably involved “some nastiness over the school lawnmower”. I was too baffled – and terrified – to ask more.
He told me this school was a nice, warm, happy place and it looked like me and Number Two would fit right in.
We walked to the car park hand-in-hand me and my gorgeous Number Two and I asked him what he thought of the latest school.
A pause, a sigh and another pause.
“Mummy,” he finally said. “Your skirt is tucked in your tights.
“You look weird.”
We’re checking out choice “E” on Friday.