When mum becomes miss

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Children can find it tough attending the same school as their brothers and sisters. But what about those who share a school with their teacher mum or dad? For parents it can be an ideal arrangement; for children it can be unbearably embarrassing. Wendy Wallace talks to the families who go to school together

Graham Greene, famously, hated it. Described variously as character-building, claustrophobic and irresistibly convenient, it is a proposition that most teachers with children will face at some point - whether to share a school. Many families decide that they will, but making the arrangement work depends on the other members of staff, the school, and the personality of the child.

After choosing Wallands County Primary, in East Sussex, for her daughter, Sandy Everett got a job there. "It was a coincidence, but amazing good luck," she says. "It has been very helpful to me to have her at the same school. We went to school together, so there was no child care necessary in the morning, then at the end of the day she would come and play in my classroom and we would leave together. It worked out very well for us both."

The convenience of having their children attend the school where they work is attractive to many working parents, particularly mothers. The logistical problems - and costs - of being a working parent are greatly reduced, and there are other advantages. Teacher-parents have insider information about both the school and the child's friends; they can monitor everything from what the child eats at lunchtime to the whereabouts of her lost sock; and for both parties there can be a comfort in the proximity, especially when the child is young.

Trish Jarvis is acting head of Benthal Junior School, in the London borough of Hackney. She has taught in the school, a popular one locally, for more than 20 years. When he was eight, her son Daniel tried another primary school, nearer the family's home in Essex, but came back to Benthal after being bullied at his new school.

"He came back in Year 5, and it was a huge relief," she says. "I'm a single parent, and I found leaving him and organising myself in the mornings very difficult. I also missed him. Daniel being here gave me an in-between of being working and being at home. It was like meeting him at the school gate."

Teachers' children get acquainted early on with their double life. In the holidays, they play on the classroom floor and eat sweets while dad sorts out his displays. At home, they may hear things that they're told sternly not to repeat at school.

And when mum metamorphoses into "Miss" at nine o'clock in the morning, she may seem even more inaccessible than parents who are beyond the school gates. "I set boundaries, and they had to be kept," says Trish Jarvis. "I explained that he couldn't come to me for every problem, and if he was involved in an incident the head would deal with it. You wouldn't have known that he was my son, really."

While both Trish Jarvis and her son were happy with the arrangement for a while, by the end of Year 6 Daniel had had enough. "I was acting head by then and if I made a decision and he didn't like it - for instance when I cut down on the number of days they were allowed to play football - we had a lot of arguments. He used to say, 'Don't do it, mum', and I had to say, 'Just because I'm your mother doesn't mean you can control me at school'."

While other children - and their parents - may feel jealous of the teacher's child, it is more likely that the child will be ostentatiously neglected. Teachers - and their children - speak of never selecting their own child's hand from the waving crowd, or passing over them for parts in school plays or places in sports teams. Trish Jarvis didn't go to parents' evenings, "because I knew how stretched they were". Daniel has now started secondary school, and she says: "I probably took more of a back seat in my son's education than I would have done otherwise."

Janine Dickson (not her real name) is a teacher at a small village primary in the Home Counties. The second of her two children has recently moved on from the same school to secondary school. She too kept a distance at school. "You simply don't allow any quarter," she says. "You can't be seen by children or parents not to be fair. So your children have to work harder and fight harder for any success they have."

Janine Dickson taught both her sons - as is often unavoidable in a small school - and her older child did not do well. "He refused to do any work, I think because I was there. I felt a terrific sense of inadequacy because here was this quite articulate child who wasn't doing much, so I felt I was doing something wrong. It did cause tension for me."

Other teachers have the opposite experience. Sue Wakeley teaches part-time in Yelvertoft County Primary School, Northamptonshire, which two of her three daughters attend. "Roberta, 10, always does what I say in school, within the classroom situation," says her mother. "But before five to nine it's 'Do I have to?' like she would at home."

Sue's youngest daughter, Charlotte, aged six, started at school when her mother was already working there, and has had to learn the difference between home and school. "In Reception and Year 1, even if I popped into the classroom for something she'd rush up for a quick cuddle. I've had to have a chat and say, 'Although you can acknowledge I'm there, you're still to carry on with your work'. I think she realises now that I'm part of the furniture. But I'm not keen to teach her, because I think she could be jealous of my relationships with other children."

The consensus among primary school teachers seems to be that by Years 5 and 6 the kids have had enough of having mum or dad in school. Their growing need for independence makes a school-based parent at best redundant, at worst excruciatingly embarrassing. But how do older pupils fare with a parent lurking in the staffroom or patrolling the corridors?

Jenny Thornton, 20, is a third-year student at Edinburgh University. Her father, Peter Thornton, is head of sixth form at Mirfield Free Grammar School in west Yorkshire where Jenny was until recently a pupil. Having a high-profile parent in school was not a guarantee of social success, Jenny found. "In the sixth form, I didn't really have friends. I didn't hang about in the common room, like most people do. At the time, I was very miserable." "Friends tend not to visit," concedes Peter Thornton, who teaches classics, French and history. "They can be a bit intimidated."

Understanding the teachers' perspective put Jenny Thornton in an uneasy halfway house. "If I knew some girls were planning to start drinking on a school trip, or nip out of a class, I'd know that some teacher was going to feel terrible telling their parents about it," she says. "It bothered me even more if they were having a go at my father." But while the sensitive child is likely to feel the situation keenly, more extrovert types fare better. "My sister's in that position now, and she doesn't have social problems at all," Jenny says.

At secondary level, children's interests may conflict with the school's. "In recruiting terms, if parents are local, it's extremely damaging in terms of publicity if the child doesn't attend," says Mel Woodcock, head of North Manchester High School for Boys. "It sends a very bad message. On the other hand, it's not good for children to be under the pressure of having their parents in school, so there's nowhere to get away from them and develop personality. I would desperately want them to send the child here - but I could understand why they mightn't want to."

But teachers who have tried it agree that it can work. The dream parentchild team would be the paragon of a parent who is simultaneously immensely popular and almost invisible, and a child prodigy who is diligent and perfectly behaved but immune to peer opinion.

Teachers' children are particularly visible in the independent sector, fee discounts of up to 75 per cent for children of staff being one major perk offered by private schools. Patrick Tobin is principal of the Mary Erskine School in Edinburgh and its twin boys' school. Four of his children have been pupils at schools he has taught at, and the youngest, Sophie, attends Mary Erskine. He too is aware of the potential difficulties for children. "Certainly you should stop and think, particularly if you're a head," he says. "It imposes a lot on your child, and they feel very much in the front line if anything goes wrong."

While reduced fees are seen in the independent sector as a means of recruiting teachers, the financial incentive can also stop them in their tracks. "It's a means of attracting good teachers," says Patrick Tobin, who is chairman-elect of the Headmasters' Conference. "But it can also be the death-knell of ambition. You can retain staff for the wrong reasons."

One of his daughters, who initially found it "crucifying" to be associated with him, was eventually made deputy head of school (by other members of staff). "It was slightly awkward," her father says. "It was difficult to forget she was my daughter, or to remember that she was. Probably my idea of being relaxed was agonising for her, but she developed a strong character."

Jackie Lang, president of the Girls' Schools Association, says that sharing a school does not usually pose professional difficulties for heads or teachers. "The teachers are very, very conscious that it could be awkward, and careful to preserve professional relationships with their daughters. If a girl transgressed, her parents would only be involved as far as any other parent would be involved. A child mustn't feel there are spies all round her in school."


"If I shouted in my class next door and he heard, he'd say 'Please don't shout mum. It's so embarrassing'. That's what I became: an embarrassment."

Primary head

"I think children are quite private. You send them off to this world, and when they come home they don't really want to tell you about it. If you're there, they know their every movement is watched."

Primary teacher

"I won a prize both years and the general consensus was I'd won it because my dad was head of sixth form. For all I know it could have been true."

University student

"In the past we have had teachers' children threatening to grow horns during adolescence. I was always struck by how compassionate staff were to colleagues. "

Independent sector head

"It can cause problems if they come to the school, and it certainly creates an image problem if they don't."

Secondary head

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