PARENTS

The Reluctant House Dad: It's Never Too Early To Vet Secondary Schools For Your Kids

14/08/2014 16:54 | Updated 22 May 2015

Two children using a computer at a school open day, Hackney Town Hall, London, UK.

One of the downsides of being a house dad is that it can make you rather obsessive about parenting.

Before I was made redundant, I didn't have time to worry about homework and class sizes and bullying and school trips and playdate politics, let alone literacy and mathematics.

My kids went to school and I went to work. End of.

But being omni-available at the school for everything from parent consultations to class teas to school fairs has turned me into something of a helicopter parent, fussing and fretting over every aspect of my children's schooling, worrying if they're doing enough, worrying if they're keeping up, obsessing about their future.

It doesn't matter that both my sons received glowing early-days reports from their primary school teachers this month ('hard working'; 'pays attention'; 'very polite'; 'lovely to teach'), I'm always over-thinking the next move – an anxiety that manifested itself over the last couple of weeks.

As any parent with a Year 6 pupil will know, this is School Open Day time.

Secondary schools throw open their doors to entice the next wave of pupils and their parents with presentations and tours to showcase the best that their schools have to offer.

Which is all well and good – except for the fact that my sons are in Years 4 and 2. Yes, a tad premature. But when your entire world exists entirely between two places – home and school – there is a tendency towards obsessing about these things, as if to attempt to exert some kind of control over the only domains you have.

Where my wife concerns herself with sales targets, budgets, personnel and office politics, I have only my children's future to worry about.

And it's better to worry sooner than later, that's my motto!

My 11-year-old stepdaughter moved up to (an all-girls) secondary school a few weeks ago, and although the transition has had its ups and downs, she has settled in and is making new friends – and, more importantly, is coping with the heavier workload.

I want the same for my sons. And so, onto the treadmill we went, and arranged visits to our two most local state schools.

We know parents with kids at both these schools and they both had interesting things to say about them.

School 1 was described as having 'state of the art drama facilities' and had a 'very creative approach to teaching'. No, I had no idea what this meant, either.

School 2 was described as 'being turned around by a new head after a few years of revolving doors'.

Further investigation showed that Ofsted rated School 1 as 'Requires Improvement' and School 2 as 'Good'. And so off we trudged, my wife and I, to see them for ourselves.

As we arrived at School 1, our first impression was one of disorganised chaos: children seemed to be wandering in whenever they felt like, there were no uniforms and the pupils seemed to be more interested in chatting about what they'd seen on the internet than knuckling down to learning.

The Head Teacher had an impressive vision and, of course, it's her job and her staff's to create an environment where kids want to learn, but everything about the school seemed to present an obstacle, from its higgledy-piggledy layout, to its run-down décor, to the casual way the students called teachers by their first names.

The emphasis was on creativity through drama and art, but with little mention of maths and science.

But then something happened which stuck with me more than any other experience of our tour.

We were being led on our tour by a school 'ambassador' – a girl of about 14 who had all the personality of a wooden bench. As she passed some boys on the stairs, one started mouthing off to his friends. "F****g c***s," he said, though I have no idea who he was referring to.

I saw red, staring at the boy, as I said: "Do you talk like that at home? Does your head teacher know you talk like that?"

The boy's friends did the rest by mocking him, and the boy sheepishly apologised, but that was my mind made up: if these pupils couldn't be on their best behaviour on this day of all days, then what on earth were they like when the school wasn't on show?

As we left, I recalled something the Head Teacher saying in her presentation to us parents: "You have to feel that this school is a good fit for your child."

I said to my wife" "I don't think this school fits, does it?"

"The children seemed more interested in socialising than learning," she replied.

"It felt like it wasn't cool to be clever. Our sons would be eaten alive."

Which left us with School 2.

We approached with a certain amount of both trepidation and scepticism, expecting a similar experience to the last.

In fact, it was the polar opposite. We were greeted by smartly uniformed pupils and addressed as 'Sir' and 'Madam'.

We were led on a tour by two pupils who were both chatty and knowledgable. The building had a low hum about it, which turned out to be the sound of children with their heads down, cracking on with their work.

When the bell rang, the transition from classroom to classroom was quiet and orderly, with pupils – get this – opening doors for us as we wandered through the corridors.

During his presentation, the Head Teacher talked about mathematics, science, ICT, English and sport. Drama and art were secondary.

He talked about the school having a code of conduct that was drummed into the pupils at every assembly.

And then a selection of pupils, some of whom had just started the school and others who were approaching sixth form, talked about their own experiences. They were bright, personable, enthusiastic.

Yes, yes, I'm sure they were hand-picked for those qualities, but the point is, they were given the chance to say their piece. They were articulate. They had something about them. They thought it was cool to learn.

All of this, of course, is premature. School 1 could improve; our sons will grow and change and we might feel they need more freedom to be expressive than bogged down with rules and discipline. School 2 might slide; its well-behaved pupils might rebel.

But at least we know, now. Instead of knowing about the schools by reputation, we've seen them for ourselves now. We can keep an eye on them over the next couple of years.

Although our visits were two years' premature, I'm glad we took the time to make them – and I would implore any other parent to do the same.

The sooner, the better – because, for the helicopter parent, knowledge is power.

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