The kids have been in school for a few weeks now so I thought you’d probably be dying to know how it’s all working out.
First let me explain how we chose these particular schools. If you look online you can find league tables, school reviews, inspector’s reports and the like, all of which the responsible parent will use to evaluate, compare, and make an informed decision about the school most suited to the needs of the individual child.
My approach was to open the map book to page 60 (on which we live) and find the closest yellow square (indicating a school) to our house and ring them and say I had three primary-aged children and did they want them. The first one didn’t so I tried the next-closest yellow square and so on until one said yes. For Amy I did the same except I worked my way outwards from our house on the map until I found one that isn’t fee-paying and booked her in there.
Turns out my method works just fine.
Amy has an exam tomorrow and another on Friday and is then finished school for the year. She has three whole months off which seems a tad excessive for someone who’s not yet old enough to be made to get a job at the local supermarket. When I decided to put them in school for the final term I didn’t quite realise that for her it would be all of five weeks long. Educationally it probably wasn’t worth the hundreds of euro that I spent on her uniform but she has made friends to lurk around town with over the holidays and she will now go into Second Year rather than First in September which is a much better fit. In the five weeks she’s achieved a trip to the movies, an afternoon ten-pin bowling, a day at the Dublinia Medieval Musuem (if you scroll down to May 4th on the school’s Facebook page you can see her in the first photo on the far right looking embarrassed), a stop-off at McDonalds accompanying each of those and a visit to the ice cream parlour which was a reward for the Homework Club which she’s not even in. Oh, and because of being a Kiwi and therefore quite a bit more used to running and jumping than the locals she managed to get herself selected for an athletics rep team that spent the day at another school doing not schoolwork. So yeah, totally not worth buying the uniform if you go by hours actually spent in a classroom.
One of the differences here that became clear early on is that instead of having one large-ish school per suburb and one college per town there are tiny little schools scattered around everywhere. Within walking distance of our house there would be seven or eight primary schools and most only have one class at each year level. This is why we had to try several before finding one with space for three children. The first one we tried had waiting lists for every class and Cassia would have been number 21 in line for hers. Daniel was the closest at number four or five but each child has to get in separately – having a sibling accepted doesn’t help – so you could potentially end up with children at several different primary schools.
The next school we tried had the same problem. I wasn’t expecting this; coming from a system where the nearest school has to take your kids whether they want to or not I was all like ‘No?!? What do you mean, no?!?’ They were apologetic but unable to help.
When we tried number three and the principal said ‘Sure, come on in, you can start tomorrow if you like’ I was a bit suspicious. I thought I’d better sign them up anyway though because although I’d originally planned to keep them out of school until September I wasn’t keen on the idea of doing it forever, which suddenly seemed like a very real possibility short of some apocalyptic event or mass migration suddenly wiping out half of the local school-aged population.
As it turns out the primary school is lovely. The classes are small and each has a teacher aide as well as a teacher. The total roll over eight year-groups is around 160, which is typical around here. The principal is young and cheerful and friendly and is always around with the kids. In the last few days I’ve come across him on the roof throwing balls down and painting a wall along the playground so he’s all about being at the coal-face. All schools here are sort of locked-down and you can’t just wander in. During the school day the only entrance is through the office and you have to wait outside and buzz for the door to be opened. Before and after school there is a small gate that is unlocked then re-locked. When the bell goes for the end of the day every teacher brings their class in a neat line to go through the gate one-by-one shaking hands with the principal (unless he’s busy on the roof or with a paint roller). The Junior and Senior Infants, four- to six-year-olds, are handed over personally to a parent or other familiar face. You certainly feel that your kids are secure.
Daniel told me yesterday that one of the gates was broken and he and some of the others from the top class had to spend their lunchtime doing shifts preventing some of the little kids from escaping. As I was walking Cassia home I asked her, as always, what she did at lunchtime and she said that she’d had to choose between playing with Isabel who wanted to make daisy chains and playing with Jamie who wanted to try to ‘run away from school’. I’m not going to tell you what she decided but I’ll give you a hint: it was just bloody typical.
If I had to describe the atmosphere at school in one word I’d say ‘gentle’. It feels small and kind and calm and lovely. There isn’t any feeling of pressure, of unrealistic expectations, of having to cram too much into every day. They do plenty. Daniel has been rock-climbing at the local quarry, bush-walking (not that they call it that) complete with exploring a disused mine haunted by children who perished while working there (of course), he’s participated in an inter-school science fair, had rugby coaching from a real New Zealander and is going on a camp next week, among other things. Noah’s class is visited every fortnight by a man named Mouse who brings things like newts and tadpoles which they learn about, handle and sometimes keep until his next visit. There’s been a Grandparents’ Day, a Garden Party, a Book Fair, an afternoon of painting commemorative First Communion glass candle-holders (the Catholics had to do crosses with their name and Communion date but Noah was told he could paint whatever he liked so he did a classic Protestant symbol: a hedgehog) and there’s a Fun Day coming up featuring giant Jenga and a bouncy castle obstacle course. So there’s lots going on but it doesn’t feel too busy. It feels just right. I don’t know how to describe it exactly but it’s good.
One reason for the calm smooth-running atmosphere is, I believe, the home-school co-ordinator. Most schools here have one of these and ours is a lovely lady called Angela. I’ve mentioned her before as the organiser of the parents’ bus trips to historical places. Angela is a teacher but her job now is to liase between the school and the community. She is responsible for parent support such as the bus trips and various learn-how-to-do-things sessions that are run every now and then. When teachers want parent help or want to invite parents in as the audience for something Angela is the one who arranges it all. She also arranges and sits in on meetings between parents and teachers and can access various resources when a child needs extra help. I’ve seen her doing a lot of fun stuff but I’m sure the job has its challenges too because she would also be the one who deals with social workers, truancy officers and the like when it becomes necessary.
Can you imagine the burden this takes off the teachers? For example when I got the notice asking for parent help with the Communion candle-holders my first response as a (sometimes) teacher myself was deep sympathy for the classroom teacher trying to deal with twenty eight-year-olds wielding paint of the type that is made to not be removable and a glass each. But when I got there it wasn’t like that at all. Angela was running things in the Parents’ Room (we’ll get to that shortly) and it was all very calm and civilised. She was even handing around cups of tea and biscuits.
There were five or six parent helpers so Angela would go and get a few kids at a time and we’d help with their Celtic Crosses and Protestant Hedgehogs. Then they’d go back and Angela would fetch a few more. No glass was broken and no indelible paint ended up on the floor/curtains/ceiling. The classroom teacher just kept teaching the rest of the class and didn’t have to lift a finger. Score! Then there was the Garden Party. Someone has been coming in to do gardening with the Sixth Class, Daniel’s class. They’ve made a beautiful little seating area with baby apple trees, hedging and vege gardens. Yesterday the Sixth Class parents were invited to come for afternoon tea in this garden and Angela organised it all. The classroom teacher didn’t have to do it because there’s someone else there to take care of glass-painting and cake-eating so that the teachers can concentrate on teaching. How brilliant is that?
Back to the Parents’ Room which may well be one of the best school-related ideas ever. It’s a room for the use of parents whenever they want. Parents did the painting and beautifying of what was probably a classroom at some point and now it’s lovely. There are couches, tables and chairs, books and DVDs that you can take and swap, toys and a big blackboard for keeping little ones entertained, pamphlets and information about support services, children’s health, local attractions etc, toilets and a kitchen with tea, coffee, biscuits and usually some juice or milk boxes left over from Breakfast Club which you’re welcome to.
You know how you sometimes end up with an extra half hour and it’s just not worth going home? You’ve finished your shopping a bit early or your hair appointment’s not until 9:30 or the toddler playgroup doesn’t start until half an hour after school drop-off. Or you’ve bumped into a friend at the school gate and you feel like a chat and a cup of tea but you don’t have time for a cafe. Well, here’s the answer. You go and relax in the Parent’s Room. The Junior and Senior Infants finish school at 1:30 every day which is an hour earlier than everyone else. Noah and Daniel bring themselves home so I only pick Cassia up but imagine what a godsend the Parents’ Room is to those who have a 1:30 and a 2:30 pick-up every day. Imagine doing that with a baby who wants to sleep. This way parents can pick up their Infant and take them to the Parents’ Room where they can do their homework, play with the toys and have a snack while mum or dad puts their feet up on the couch. Excellent.
The highlight of Cassia’s week is her Hula Hooping class on Thursdays. This extremely energetic woman named Ashlinn turns up with music, rainbow hula hoops and a variety of other equipment – ribbons, bean bags, disc things that spin around on top of long sticks, all sorts – and they do all manner of rambunctiousness. It doesn’t start until 2:30 so Cassia and I spend the hour in the Parents’ Room which she loves because there’s a little boy called Jamie there every week with his father waiting for his big brother to finish school. Cassia and Jamie have a great time together and she looks forward to that almost as much as the hula hooping itself. If I didn’t have that option I’m not sure that she could do hula hooping because if we came home we’d have to go back about fifteen minutes later and Cassia would be worn out, and there’s nowhere else that we could fill in an hour.
Amy’s school is also, by our standards, small and cosy. The roll is under 300 I believe. Both schools seem very well-resourced in terms of support staff and adult-child ratios although the physical environments aren’t big and bright in the way we’re used to. The primary school doesn’t have a playground for example and it would be unusual if it did. No swimming pools, tennis courts or rugby fields here. The college has a big indoor gym which is probably a lot more use when you take the climate into account.
There is very little use of technology compared to what we’re used to. Amy doesn’t use computers at school for anything. She complains of hand cramp because she’s not used to writing that much. When I tell her that her father and I had to do that ALL THE TIME, barefoot in the snow for fourteen miles each way, she just rolls her eyes. Because I have Daniel I understand that technology in the classroom can be a very handy thing but our last few years of schooling in NZ included quite a lot of debate and controversy about BYOD and other use of computers in schools and frankly I’m glad to be here and have that genie back in the bottle for a while. It all took off with a hiss and a roar and there are certainly children who are enabled in ways they never could be without it but for the bulk of kids the research doesn’t back up widespread use of technology in classrooms. Amy just has to suck it up.
Something else I really like is the way these schools share my belief that you can teach children all they need to know without requiring their parents to buy whiteboard pens in twelve different colours and new scissors every year. They don’t ask you to buy scissors at all. Or Vivids or highlighters or felt pens or the most obscure and expensive exercise books known to man. The ridiculous and expensive stationery list has always been a source of great annoyance to me and now I’m free, free, free. The three at primary school were all given a combination of workbooks and little teeny exercise books and nobody asked me for any money. I’m not sure whether there’s some fee I’ll need to pay at the start of next year or if, like the Monday lunches, they’re supplied free. I’ve seen the exercise books (‘copies’, they call them) at the supermarket and a ten-pack costs the same as a big bottle of milk so I’m not too worried.
On the whole it’s all tootling along beautifully. Amy had no trouble joining in having missed all but the last five weeks and she made some friends. Cassia bounces in and out of school every day perfectly happily and looks forward each week to free lunch Monday, library day on Wednesday, Hula Hooping and Jamie on Thursday and treat-in-your-lunchbox Friday (no biscuits, cupcakes or anything remotely sugary allowed at any other time). Noah has been slow to make friends but he’s okay and likes the schoolwork. Daniel loves the tight little group of 13 in his class, likes getting home at 2:45 rather than 4:20, enjoys having gardening and outdoors skills that the others only dream of and for the first time in many years is happy to go to school. And that, my friends, is well worth crossing the world for.