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It was my birthday on Thursday and so I celebrated with a trip to sixth form parents’ evening. It has to be said that I was accompanied by the very lovely daughter one, who was feeling slightly under the weather with a bad cold. My partner drew the short straw and remained at home with only son and the gang, learning about minecraft. I was in a way looking forward to parents’ evening, which shows the depleted state of my social life. Plus it’s always good to have some time alone with daughter one to debate philosophy, the meaning of life and 80’s music. Earlier in the evening all the kids gave me home-made birthday cards. Only son’s was a lift the flap and find a birthday cake card. All the others did cards based on politics. I realise I may have been talking slightly too much about politics recently. Daughter three’s card said “cheer up, you’re white” [my kids are mixed race].
We arrived at the secondary school to find the head of sixth form extolling the importance of an international perspective. An hour and a half later we emerged. Basically, it appears that sixth form is no different from the rest of school with the main features being stress and hitting targets. The head of sixth form showed us a sample timetable. On Mondays, students had time allocated to study more or less from 5pm up until 11pm. From Tuesday to Friday they could relax – they only had to study till 10pm. There was a gap between 4 and 5pm, presumably for travel home, but there was no break for dinner as far as I could see – unless they are supposed to eat while travelling home. Saturday mornings were all study and then they had the afternoon off. Do they understand teenagers at all? We do not even glimpse them until around noon on a Saturday. Sundays was full of work. The main message seemed to be ‘don’t let them get distracted by any semblance of fun’. We were informed that only if they were highly contagious should they stay off school sick.
On our return home daughter one was feeling worse. “I’d better take some paracetamol because, obviously, I won’t be able to stay off tomorrow,” she said. She wasn’t even gloomy about it. Just resigned to two more years of slogging her guts out and feeling like a potential failure.
Fortunately, some of her teachers sound like they understand the importance of fun, but the system itself does not seem to consider it. And if not at 16, 17 and 18, then when? When they’re at university worried about never getting a secure job or ever being able to move out of home? When they start work when they will be expected to work all hours and to never be sick? Or when they have children – if they can afford them – are doing three jobs and are way too knackered to have any kind of social life?
The education system is clearly just a reflection of modern life and modern life is increasingly competitive. Daughter one and I were warned of the dangers of being “vanilla” at the parents’ evening. Universities would look unkindly on “vanilla” people, we were told. Not being “vanilla” seemed to boil down to doing lots of extra curricular activities, particularly trips abroad to far-flung destinations. I’m all for having a broader outlook, but does this mean that the only people who can escape the terrible fate of “vanilla-ness” are the wealthy? There are many things that contribute to making us who we are, each of us individuals and multi-flavoured [if we’re talking ice cream analogies]. When did some people become more unique than others simply by dint of being able to fork out for a trip to China?
*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.