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Time andterm wait for no one

Do you remember Erin? This might sound like the title of an Irish folksong, but it's a serious question. I spoke to the friendly five-year-old next door a couple of months back after she had tried out school out for a day. She loved it then, and this week she has started for real.

Erin and her pal Magnus are kitted out with the obligatory pencil-cases and elephant-shaped rubbers. They have new shoes as well, and everything is named. I did not ask if they have those embroidered name-tapes, but would love to know if my mother's trick is widespread. She found a special offer, where you could have your child's middle name included at no extra cost, and ordered a batch for Maggie Robertson (as I was then) John. Depending on which child's shoe bag needed a name, she would snip off the beginning of the tape for my brother's kit or the end for me. Smart woman, my mum.

Erin's and Magnus's parents have worked through all these ordering, buying and sewing stages and the preparations are complete. Now they must watch how things unfold. The children's viewpoints are bound to be quite different from those of their mums and dads; we quite rightly expect that. Where we tend to mess up is that their time-scales may be as well. Consider for a moment that for most new pupils, the concept of going to school is time-independent. No one is likely to explain that starting school means embarking on an experience which will last more than a decade, and even if they did, how could you understand the concept of 10 years, when you have only lived through five?

Nick had been excited about going to school too, and he loved his first day. When he got home, he relayed all the exciting things that had gone on; who he had met, what his teacher was like, which activities were his favourites, and what was served for lunch. After a great discussion on this rewarding day he asked, "What shall we do tomorrow, Mum?", and was surprised to learn he was going to school again. "Been there, done that, and even got the school sweatshirt to prove it," was the answer his little face gave. He was not at all chuffed to learn that school was an ongoing activity. The "When can I stop going?" question was not the slightest appeased by mentioning weekends, because he quickly quizzed me about the following Monday, and the same happened when I moved to terms. At the end of the conversation he had asked a direct question: "Do I really have to go most days until I am 16?" And that is when he started kicking.

Let's tell 'em straight. Instead of saying "You will go to school this week", we ought to be letting them know they are beginning a 12-year course of education. Would you advise anyone else to start a course without knowing its duration? Joel, our resident adolescent is cynical about time and school too. A sceptic as far as September adverts claiming that Christmas is nigh, and television commercials recommending the consumption of Easter eggs in January, he disregarded the media warnings of the start of the school term.

He argued that everyone knows that stationers and shoe shop chains put up garish "Back to School" signs as soon as terms ends and, as a matter of principle, he studiously ignored them. History and experience taught him that summer holidays stretched endlessly into the future, but unfortunately for him, he has had to concede that August 20 came round just as fast whether he had acknowledged the posters in Woolworths' windows or not.

The sound of time's winged chariot's cranking handle is making itself heard for him in other ways. His friend, having done exceedingly well in her Standard grades, responded to his congratulations with the worrying reply: "I'll look forward to celebrating your results next year." And he recognised that this particular year could pass in an instant. For Erin and Nick, the future stretches eternally, and for Joel, time either at school, or in the holidays just whizzes by.

That decade in education, from five to 15, has wrought the difference.

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