This time of the year always fills me with dread. Holidays are almost over and the countdown to that day starts - the day that's ringed in red on the calendar. At the end of the summer term, it felt like the holidays stretched out endlessly ahead of me, but throughout those weeks, the first day back was a looming spectre and I would pester my mother to home-school me so I would never have to return! And then, as the big day approached, I would grow more and more anxious.
Thankfully there are no more 'back to school' moments for me but the ads for geometry sets and lunch boxes still send shivers down my spine. For many, going back to school after the long summer break is nothing but a joy - new beginnings, a fresh year, seeing friends again, sports and birthday parties. The only downside is the prospect of homework and preparing for exams. I was just the opposite. Studies were the only thing I looked forward to - a chance for me to bury myself in something that filled my anxious mind.
For me, the first day back was the ultimate test in confidence. Leaving my parents and the comfort of my home was the first wrench. Entering the playground felt more like walking into a battlefield. Seeing the different groups, the popular, the pretty, the sporty and then finally the geeks - where I usually ended up. The next obstacle was walking into class and praying someone would sit next to me. I was always in the front row, not because I wanted to be but because I hated my thick glasses and couldn't see the blackboard unless I was as close as possible.
Lunchtime was a field day for the sharks - the cool crowd would weave in and out checking who was new and, more importantly, who was easy prey! I vividly remember my first lunchtime at senior school, where there was a canteen with a range of meal choices. I had never taken a tray before, so quickly I spilt my glass of water all over my tray and into my lamb casserole, drawing more unwanted attention.
For me, the piece de resistance in the miserable new term was games lessons, especially that dreadful 'picking a team' moment. Dance and gymnastics were OK, but because of my height, netball was a no-no. I'd be relegated to Goal Keeper, always next to a towering, athletic attacker. I must have looked like a yappy dog jumping up, trying to swipe at the ball. And all day long, I would look forward to the moment I got home to the smell of cake or toast and could weep with relief.
All of that is behind me now, but there are children up and down the country that still feel today as I did then. School can be a very challenging place if you lack self-confidence. And a lack of confidence and self-esteem can have devastating consequences, as we see through the alarming rise in cases of disordered eating and self-harm in teens.
It can also be hard to spot the signs as a parent I didn't always want to admit to my family how miserable I was and how crushing I found the school day. I was lucky enough to have a stable family life and a safe haven of a bedroom for my story writing and imagination. Today that often doesn't exist, as social media invades every corner and digital communications continue round the clock, so the troubles of school day can follow you home.
It was for these reasons that I wrote a trilogy of books called The Ugly Little Girl, about a magical night school called Oddbods, for kids that feel that they don't fit in. At Oddbods, no one is bad at sport - everyone has their own unique way of passing the ball. In the canteen, you jump on a tummy-o-meter that reads what you'd like and makes it straight away. There are also classes in the Hall of Mirrors where you see the real you and shake off your negative preconceptions. I wanted to create a fun and safe place in the fictional world that hadn't existed for me through my school life.
I believe it is time for schools to make changes and adapt further to the challenges of our age. Our school system was designed for the industrial era. The studies and format are still based on old world principles gearing children for old world roles. So many jobs today are communications based - entrepreneur, digital strategist, life coach, pr consultant. Performance in these roles requires a true bedrock of self-belief. I found working in a big marketing corporation a very tough experience. I was never comfortable with pushing myself forward, speaking out in meetings and above all, dealing with work bullies. School didn't prepare me for any of this. University was the first time I felt I could breathe and be me.
The good news is that a lot of positive work is happening to make schools happier places. The Diana Foundation has developed an anti-bullying initiative that recruits ambassadors in schools around the country. Their theory is that the best way to solve bullying is through peer-to-peer work. Parents and teachers can unwittingly exacerbate the situation. Schools develop their own sets of initiatives but these include in-school clinics where anyone can go and talk about any problem. There are patrols of children in the areas where bullying occurs. And Fridays are dubbed 'compliment days' when any negative comment is unacceptable.
These days, much is made of the 'Back to School' period. It is signposted in the media and emblazoned on posters in our retail outlets, but it is important to acknowledge that it is a time that is fraught with worry for some young people. But there is support out there. The Girl Guides have this year introduced an active body confidence program for their members. Dove's self-esteem project runs free workshops for teachers around improving young people's body confidence and the Mighty Girl website, highlights a whole-section dedicated to Bullying Prevention Books. The Diana Award has established a suite of tools for schools, teachers and pupils. Resources specifically targeted at young people can be found here.
For my part, I found that getting school stuff ready at the start of the holidays was preferable, saving fun times until the end. I'd feel sick at the sight of a name label so it was important for me to get those triggers out of the way. It was great when my parents encouraged me to talk about my insecurities, rather them facing them alone. When I returned to school, my Mum would include loving notes and scribbles in my lunchbox to boost me and give me comfort during the school day. And if all else failed, she would be there at the end of the day with a slice of cake and a mug of hot chocolate, and the wise words that 'education is what remains after one has forgotten what one learnt at school'.