Jason from Year 6 came to my table with the baby in his arms

20th April 2001 at 01:00
'Sir,' he said unhappily,'a bloke's just given me this

'I haven't put a notice in the middle of my playground saying "No parents past this point", but just occasionally I feel like it. Don't get me wrong; most parents are supportive and value the school highly, like Siobhan's mum who runs a cafe and won't let truck drivers have their tea and two slices until they've bought five tickets for the Christmas raffle. Nevertheless, few weeks pass without an incident with a parent, and some are bizarre enough to be unbelievable to people who don't work in a school. Take last Monday, for instance.

The first port of call in a school is the secretary, and mine has a temperament serene enough to calm a tornado. Amidst the chaos of the dinner registers, parents wanting to buy school jumpers and the repairman dismantling the photocopier, a mother strode through the queue and demanded to know why her child had been refused a place in the reception class. The secretary led her to one side and patiently explained how we had to follow the local education authority's admission criteria, that there were three admission rules, that we were only allowed to put 45 children into the year group, that we had to measure distances and admit those living nearest, and that, if she was dissatisfied with our decision, she could appeal to the authority. The mother pulled herself up to her full height and looked angrily at my secretary.

"That's all very well," she said fiercely. "But I want to know why I can't get my boy into this school."

One parent did get his child into the school, but in a most unusual way. Last spring, a young father appeared in our doorway just before lunch with a baby in his arms, saying he wanted to register a child and he'd like her to start today. I asked how old the child was and which school she currently attended. He nodded at the baby he was carrying. "It's this one."

I took a deep breath and explained that educating children several months old wasn't within our brief, and although he could apply for a nursery place, she wouldn't be eligible until she was three. "That's no good," he said. "My wife's left me an I've got to go to work." Astonished, I explained that we didn't have child-minding facilities and he'd need to look for help elsewhere. Grumbling loudly, he hurried down the corridor, and I went off to have lunch with the children.

Five minutes later, Jason from Year 6 appeared from the playground and came to my table with the baby in his arms. "Sir," he said unhappily, "a bloke's just given me this." My stomach sank. I hurried outside to catch the father, but he'd gone. A helper took the baby, who gurgled happily, and I left my meal to ring for help. Eventually, a charming policewoman arrived, filled in lots of forms, and took the child away. I pondered at the sadness of the situation, but I was even more astonished when the father reappeared at hometime, asking for his daughter back. I pointed him in the direction of the police station and left them to deal with that one.

Mrs Hawthorn was quite the opposite. She couldn't bear to part with her child, and after reluctantly pushing her into the classroom when everybody else had already settled down, she'd stand outside the reception classroom in tears, waving at Jasmine through the window. Jasmine sat on the carpet sobbing too, until her teacher began to find the sobs tiresome. I cornered mum in the corridor and explained that if she didn't toughen up, Jasmine wouldn't settle at all.

"She can't get used to Mrs Hills," she said. "She spends all her time with me and her nan." We compromised: she'd bring Jasmine on time and then stay outside the room for a minute or two. She'd also try to radiate a little happiness. It didn't work. Worried about getting an inferiority complex, Mrs Hills asked if I'd do the registration and call her when things were quiet. I agreed, only to find that Jasmine howled twice as loud. In a panic, I put the register down and hurried out into the corridor to catch mum. "What on earth is the matter with her?" I asked. "Why is she so upset?" "It's obvious, isn't it?" said Mrs Hawthorn. "She's crying because Mrs Hills isn't there."

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary school, Camberwell, south London. E-mail: mikejkent@msn.com

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