What they really want from a school

15th June 2001 at 01:00
I RECOLLECT as a young child complaining to my late father about an injustice dealt to me at primary school. He wanted an explanation for my alleged misdemeanour. When I protested my innocence, he adopted a new approach. Life wasn't fair and learning that sooner rather than later was no bad thing.

When I mention this anecdote to my children they frown in puzzlement - their primary school days were free of such unfairness. What they remembered was warm and delightful - how the primary 1 pupils fought to hold the teacher's hand and how the teacher's Magic Finger miraculously heeled torn knees.

As a parent too it was a time remembered for its highs. What remains with me is the dedication beyond the line of duty. The teacher who thoughtfully accepted my youngster's invitation to her swimming pool party despite my reassurances that no one would think of any less of her if she chose not to be a mermaid in the presence of all those doting little fans.

So, how is it now for parents of primary school children? My younger daughter is 16 so I can no longer speak with first-hand knowledge. So who better to turn to than an articulate journalist with four children all under the age of 10.

What does she expect from her school? Her immediate response was that she would like the school to treat her children as individuals. Yes, she acknowledges, it isn't easy but otherwise children will not progress to their full potential. Her primary school has contacted her to discuss one child's insatiable reading appetite and to offer support and advice. An impressive course of action when so much time is spent helping the less able child.

A major concern is bullying. I was told about the ongoing and systeatic persecution of a young victim. This child was receiving threatening e-mails and her persecutors had even set up a group in the primary school called the Hate Lucy Club. Worse, the school refused to accept the extent of the bullying, maintaining that it could not possibly be happening.

Huh! Who are they trying to fool? To my shame bullying has happened in my classroom under my nose so devious and surreptitious is its path. Ignoring it does not make it go away and parents have to feel that the primary school their child attends is a safe place.

And that, said my helpful interviewee, brought her on to her expectations for the secondary school her eldest child will be attending very soon. She's looking for a school which will treat her child with dignity. Allow her democratic channels through which she can express her opinions. Protect her from harm in a caring environment. Surround her with adults who will not use sarcasm when they speak to her or use their position to wield power over her.

Primary schools seem to do these things fairly well on the whole. But the eyes of too many secondary teachers glaze over when the soft human issues are flipped on to the big screen. The defensive jab is all too often at the ready when a question turns out to be a little needling.

But many secondaries are empathetically wired into a child's feelings and concerns. These will be the ones with effective pupil councils and clearly defined democratic channels which allow pupils a voice in decision-making. And that's just for starters.

Memories are fascinating though and when daughter number two safely leaves secondary school, there will be further interesting observations from me.


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