The silly season never ends for schools

16th June 2006 at 01:00
The headteacher of Bonnyrigg primary must wonder what she can do to keep people happy. If she has been a headteacher for a while, she will know that the answer is a resounding "you can't" and she may not be surprised at how her handling of a trivial matter has led to her being splashed across the media, accused of "political correctness gone mad".

At least the head's local authority rode to her support in double-quick time and in exemplary fashion.

The headteacher's "crime" was to listen to a concern expressed by some parents, then realising that she could resolve the difficulty without causing another one, she made a minor administrative change. The two primary 1 classes had been labelled "1A" and "1B". Straightforward? Well, no. Some parents of "1B" children thought the label suggested the class was inferior to "1A", despite knowing that the classes had been divided only by date of birth.

Sensibly, the headteacher thought to avoid further complaints by naming each class after its teacher's surname. So she had "1R" and "1P". Easy? That's what you'd think. Except in school, anything that looks easy has a nasty habit of coming back to kick you in the teeth.

In Bonnyrigg, at least one "angry" parent accused the headteacher of bowing to the dark forces of political correctness, while a representative of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council weighed in saying that the affair "has left me flabbergasted".

The Bonnyrigg story rang bells. My former school changed the naming of classes for the same reason as Bonnyrigg, except it was years ago and before people started running to newspapers when they disagree with a school decision.

Using the teacher's name is sensible - although it does require creative thinking in a year when the teachers' surnames begin with the same letter - because it cuts out possible perceptions of inferiority by parents. It might seem daft, but some of them do think like that, despite being too young to have had personal experience of streaming in their own primary schools - just as they are too young to have had "places" in class, but some still ask if their child is at the "top" of the class.

But the Bonnyrigg story rang a louder bell, one which proclaimed: "It's that time of year again."

Across the land, there are primary parents enjoying an upset about next year's arrangements and, no matter how hard a headteacher has tried to cover all the possible complaints, someone always takes pride in finding a new angle.

The biggest bugbear is the separation of friends. This can be quoted at any stage from nursery into primary 1, whenever composite classes need to be constructed or deconstructed, or from primary 7 into S1. You would think the latter is the responsibility of the secondary school, but conspiracy theorists will blame you, especially since you are easier to reach than a secondary head.

Any change relating to friends highlights the children who hold special power over their parents. The child who, when informed of arrangements for the new year, leaves school at 3.30pm and returns with a parent intent on negotiation - or worse, at 3.32pm - is a powerful child indeed. Take care or you start to feel sorry for the parent.

If you have been so misguided as to have moved friends around and then placed some of the children in a composite class, it is advisable to dive for cover. You may have the best educational reasons in the world for your actions but no one is interested because, again, some parents will play the inferiority card.

Probably, the Bonnyrigg story is being stirred by one or two noisy individuals. They are mistaken but the headteacher is right to change the class labels. Her decision doesn't detract from any child's well-being and it's one less grievance at this time of year. She'll have others before the term's over.

Brian Toner is a former primary headteacher.

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