The Primary Days: The Germ Factory

As a self-confessed cleanliness freak (not that you would guess, from the state of my house), I have been having a bit of trouble coming to terms with the germ-fest that is my daughter's school.

Betty hasn't yet been there one year and she's already had sickness bugs, worms, head lice, flu and chicken pox.

Having worked in a school, I can see how these bugs spread like wild-fire - a bunch of five-year -olds spitting over each other, sharing each others bogeys, not washing their hands properly after using the loo, and then sticking their fingers in each others sandwiches – the whole place is like the reverse of a hospital.

My husband Tom, plus numerous un-neurotic friends, have all tried to persuade me that dirt is healthy and great for building up a thriving immune system.

And of course they are probably right, and if Betty didn't come home grubby and smelly it would be far more worrying. I know that the list of sicknesses that Betty has suffered is pretty typical for a primary age child.

However, none of these arguments stop my neurosis about the bacteria swarming around my daughter for eight hours each day.

Off she goes each morning, sparkly, pristine and odourless as she leaves the car, and somehow she returns home each day dirty and smelly and looking like she's had a fight with an octopus.

Whenever my phone rings and I see the school number flash up, I immediately worry, and take a deep breath before answering - has Betty picked up some more nits or worms? Or thrown up over her teacher again? 99 per cent of the time they are calling about a late return of a form but it doesn't stop the moment of panic.

What makes it all the worse is that Betty seemed to sail through pre-school fairly germ-free, and apart from a bout of swine flu (when the doctor turned up at our house in full biohazard gear), she was rarely unwell. I felt smug that I had spawned a bionic daughter, a girl who was immune to childhood illnesses, but it was not to be.

And so, after her first four or five periods off sick it began to get a bit embarrassing to phone the school office and inform the secretary yet again that Betty would not be coming in.

One time I actually burst into tears down the phone: "Betty was never ill before she started school," I sobbed. "Will she be black-listed by Ofsted?" I asked. I was severely sleep-deprived at that point.

My worry about all her illnesses has been magnified by all the letters that have been sent home to parents about the importance of attending school.

They even sent home individual charts recently, stating your child's attendance – Betty's chart showed that she had attended 87.5 per cent and that this score means 'less chance of success and makes steady progress harder'.

This chart really riled me. If Betty's absences had been down to lovely, relaxing holidays away, then fair enough that we get pulled into line, but she has been at home with a bug each time.

And at least her illnesses are genuine - I remember going to school in a home-made sling claiming that my mum had pushed me down the stairs (completely untrue) and that I needed at least two weeks off school.

Not long after the chart arrived home, Betty complained of a tummy ache one morning, but feeling under pressure about her attendance, I sent her to school anyway, hoping that she was making it up.

By 10.30am that morning I was feeling really guilty so phoned the school to check on her. Betty was back at home by 11am, and she went to great lengths to make me feel like a terrible mother.

My neurosis had reached boiling point by then and so I went to see Betty's headmistress to try and get to the bottom of it all, intending to suggest that the pupils could perhaps use those biohazard suits I'd seen during the swine flu epidemic.

The headmistress, a lovely and very level-headed lady, told me that the school has to send home the absence statistics by law, and that Betty's absences were nothing to worry about. This was reassuring, but it did nothing to resolve my neurosis about all the illnesses.

I heard of one family that skipped the country due to the sheer volume of germs circulating at school. I think I will see if I can convince Tom that we should move to Zurich.

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