It's Friday. I'm waiting with the other parents outside the classroom when my five-year-old son comes out. At first glance, all looks as it should: coat on, blue book bag in one hand. But then I notice the wicker basket. Actually, it is the huge teddy bear sitting inside, ribbon around its neck, that catches my eye. "I've got the weekend bear!" my son says, filled with excitement and pride.
I have heard of him, this weekend bear. I know all about his insatiable appetite for exciting, intellectually stimulating activities, and his little book for documenting everything. The idea is that the bear (or giraffe, or fish, or one of the many other stuffed manifestations these tools of engagement take) acts as a catalyst to make parents active with their child at the weekend, promoting home-school links and getting parents involved in their child's school life. You take the bear out with you somewhere interesting, record the trip in the book and send it back to school on Monday. The children get quality time with their parents and the teacher gets (not entirely accurate) insights into the home lives of their students.
Walking through the playground, the other parents give me knowing looks and ask if we have any plans for the weekend.
"Not really. I suppose we'd better think of something!" I say, suspecting that I am already being judged as an unsuitable carer for the bear. My son, though, is proud and happily swings the basket.
Eventually, my nerves subside and I even start to think of having the bear (Lancelot is his name) as a pleasant activity for the weekend. But then I get caught in the trap these bears set for their human hosts: I find myself nosing through the book to see what Lancelot has been up to on previous weekends. And, like every other parent, I judge.
Of course, I hate myself as I do it. The competitive pressure that surrounds class bears is something I really don't like, and I'm not alone. A recent Mumsnet discussion on the topic was started by a woman who was in tears over having the bear and a broken printer to contend with - oh, and a newborn baby. How can she compete?
She raised an important point. Some parents work all weekend, while others struggle with the English language to the point that just writing the report becomes a stressful exercise. Should they be judged harshly as a result?
There are other concerns. My investigation into Lancelot's previous escapades gets off to an intimidating start when I discover that he spent his first weekend at an orchestra rehearsal. There are so many photographs of the bear playing instruments that I'm not sure my son even knows the names of that I wonder if the teacher picked that family first on purpose. Do teachers purposefully send weekend bears to good parents to set a precedent? Thankfully, as I read through the book, I am relieved to discover that Lancelot's weekends increasingly look more like our own.
Parents from other schools tell me amusing tales about their own bears. In one class, a kind of reverse one-upmanship resulted in a report including such gems as "the bear wandered aimlessly around Bamp;Q, looking at taps". But other anecdotes reveal that the process is not always taken so lightheartedly. One school doesn't use class bears anymore after it all "got a bit silly" - something involving a navy uniform and a big ship. I can see why the bear sometimes has to be taken out of action: if parents are piling the pressure on themselves to compete with each other, how long before the children join in?
But once I put my own competitiveness to one side, we carry on with a normal weekend (cheap cinema club, a walk in the countryside) and find writing the report an enjoyable activity. My son is really engaged with the task: he draws a picture for the book, and drawing (things other than Star Wars planets and characters) is something he has struggled to muster enthusiasm for. Away from the parent politics, the bear is a great tool and does what it is intended to do: engages parents with their child's education and encourages active, productive weekends.
How can teachers help?
What can teachers do to make the experience of having a class bear fair, low-pressure, but still engaging? For me, the following would do the trick:
- Random allocation.
- A little bit of warning and the chance to opt out.
- A clean bear.
- Irregular visits - once a year is plenty.
- A template to fill in, with questions and space for just one or two pictures.