Getting ready for big school

The children may breeze through, but for parents the first few weeks at secondary school are exhausting, writes Eileen Fursland.

This is an appeal to all those second-ary teachers who have the delightful job of settling in a new generation of 11-year-olds, with their wide eyes and spanking new uniforms. Spare a thought for their long-suffering parents.

In the run-up to the transfer to "big" school, we have to run a crash course in survival skills, teaching our children to find their way through unfamiliar territory: how to use a public phone box, trial runs on the bus, and exercises in how to become street-wise. I realise I still have a long way to go when my daughter asks: "But Mum, what does a suspicious character look like?"

When D-Day finally arrives, Romy eats a hearty breakfast. I am taking her to school, unlike my friend, whose daughter flatly refuses to let her anywhere near her new school, for fear of embarrassment. I try to chat on the bus but somehow can't think of much to say. We join the throng in the playground, find her name on the list, and she disappears through the door in a sea of strange children. There's a lump in my throat.

Later, I talk to another mother on the phone, and we agree that the day seems to be going on for ever. When I pick Romy up from school she is relieved, proud and mildly surprised - she's done it, conquered the great unknown and survived.

"How was it?" I ask.

"All right."

As the week passes, the children learn more about the new regime. "We have to stand up when a teacher comes into the room. But what if a teacher comes in and I don't see him?" wails one of Romy's friends.

Life changes for parents, too. For some, it means the end of seven years of twice-daily chats with other parents at the primary school gates. And it's funny how your own memories of secondary school can surface, prompted by the sight of the timetable, or the PE skirt, or something your child says. Desperate for some crumbs of information, one friend plagued her daughter with questions. "Why don't you just send me to school with a tape recorder?" cried the exasperated child, "Then you can listen to everything yourself?"

The week passes in a whirl.

There seems to be so much to remember, so much to organise. And Romy is making lots of demands when she gets home. "I've got to stick a picture of each member of the family in my German book - can you find some photos?" "I have to cover this book with sticky-backed plastic. Have we got any?" "Can you come to a cheese and wine party for Year 7 parents on Saturday?" "Our maths teacher is Welsh and he wants us to draw the Welsh flag on our maths books - what does it look like?" We parents are just as desperately keen to do the right thing as our children are - one mum admits to rooting around in the garden shed in the hope of finding an old sandcastle flag bearing the elusive Welsh emblem. Worst of all is a killer maths problem which is not only too hard for Romy - my husband and I can't do it either.

Life seems to revolve around school and homework. "Life was so much fun for them at primary school in Year 6, and now it's as though they have suddenly been grounded," says one friend. "Daniel has so much to do that I think he'll have to give up the Scouts. He hasn't watched any television all week, not even The Simpsons," says another.

Romy doesn't complain about the homework, but she does complain that her legs are aching. I wonder if it's the half-mile run she did in PE, the unaccustomed walk to the bus stop, or the school bag; she seems to buckle under its weight. Does she really need to carry so much to school and back? But then she is afraid to put anything in her locker in case it makes her late for lessons.

In week two we start to relax a bit. The bus has been arriving on time, Romy likes her teachers and the girls in her class, she's enjoying the lessons, and she's starting to find her way around.

Then, just as things seem to be going well, I get a tearful phone call from the phone box at the bus stop. She's forgotten her RE homework. "Please bring it, Mum, it's automatic detention if we forget our homework!" I seize the book, leap into the car and drive at high speed towards the bus stop. The double-decker is approaching, but I manage to turn the corner as it's stopped at the lights and reach the bus stop with seconds to spare, thrusting the RE book through the window at Romy, as a surprised bus queue looks on.

Later that morning, the telephone rings again. "Mum, it's me. Lucy has forgotten her trainers and she'll be in really big trouble. Her mum's at work today. Will you bring my spare ones to school for her?" Call me a sucker if you like, but I do the 50-minute round trip to deliver the trainers. Lucy's grateful mother phones that evening: "Am I speaking to a saint?"

I'm grateful for her thanks but warn Romy that next time she (or Lucy) forgets something is the day they'll find out whether the teacher's dire warnings are genuine or mere bluff.

Three weeks on, my conscientious daughter, who's so keen to get everything right, has had a detention for maths (she forgot her homework) and has twice arrived home late and fed up because the bus didn't come. It transpires that the driver is a new boy himself and he's promised to remember their stop in future.

Now Romy's anxiety - and ours - is giving way to a kind of exhilaration. She seems to have changed already. She is brighter, funnier, more confident. I am proud of her. And to the unknown teachers and new-found friends who have made her first weeks at secondary school so happy, I am more grateful than I can say.

Eileen Fursland is a mother of two, and a freelance journalist. She lives in the London Borough of Enfield

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