Alternative advice

Helen Pike | Magdalen College School, Oxford | Autumn 2017
Helen Pike shares some tips on decoding school life: an Alternative Parent Handbook.

When I arrived at my new school, one of my tasks was to write a foreword to our Junior School handbook. Here I reveal what I would have said, had our Head of Juniors asked me to do something for the back page: the Alternative Parent Handbook – your key to decoding school life.

Schools produce a lot of information.  We are trying to be helpful, we really are. Don’t be surprised if you find it easier to log on to online banking than it is to get into the sports fixtures website. Whether or not the U9Bs are playing at home or away is more important than the protection of your assets, after all. You might think this is a frivolous comment, but when you turn up at school to drop Amelia off for hockey, only to find that the coach left an hour ago, you will not be laughing, because she won’t be.

I have reassured parents that although the handbook might look eerily like one of their older children’s revision guides, they won’t be tested on it.  There will however be many rainy mornings in February during which this will not feel true.  You should also consult the fine print: the school’s sanctions policy. If failure to bring kit results in a punishment, then the school will indeed visit the sins of the fathers on the sons – and of mothers on daughters where appropriate, too.

You might be given a snapshot of the curriculum. We call this a Scheme of Work. Again, it will remind you of an A Level revision guide or even a postgraduate prospectus, crossed with the Horrible Histories. Expect elementary Sanskrit on a termly carousel with Cantonese and Arabic. (After all, nothing is examined at this stage, so we can dabble in the intellectual sandpit.) The creative curriculum encourages the forging of links across subjects and activities, so expect these languages to be supported by abacus building and sarcophagus construction in DT, a visiting Chinese calligrapher in Art, and food technology hosted by a Michelin-starred Indian chef. Volcanoes are on every school curriculum, so look out for Aztecs and fireworks.

Reports are bespoke to each pupil and should give salient advice on progress, areas on which to focus and, we hope, recognition of pupils’ hard work. Should you come across words you need to google to find out their meaning, or else arcane Star Wars references, you should suspect that there is an in-house competition running among staff as to who can write the most ‘interesting’ report. Feel free therefore to ignore those comments, or else to save them for your speech at your son or daughter’s eighteenth birthday party.

Most schools, with your consent, publish a class list with contact details for parents with the hope that it will be used to organise playdates and parties. In reality we recognise this is more likely to be used to raise concerns over team selections, the nutritional quality of school lunches and to share intelligence on the various nooks and crannies in any school where children can misplace items of school uniform.

Which brings us to lost property. Schools can run an efficient lost property system as long as two fundamental rules are followed. The first of these is that everything is clearly labelled, and the second is that children misplace their property in a place where we can easily find it. The former is relatively straightforward, but the latter is more complicated. We ask that parents recognise the innate ingenuity of children in ferreting away their expensive new tracksuit tops. After all, it is likely that they inherited this from you.

Your child’s school might have a School Council. We like to call this form of representation ‘pupil voice.’  This is not to be confused with choir practice or shouting. If there is a School Council, encourage your child to get involved. And if he or she does, encourage them to talk about important things at school other than food.  One school in which I worked had a separate food council in order to deal with this tendency, though the proceedings of those meetings were dominated in their turn by discussion of doughnuts. (We resisted demands to set up a separate Doughnut Council.) If however your child cannot think of anything to talk about other than food, this might mean that your child is very happy and in the perfect school. It might also mean that their school’s food needs improving. In your day the maxim was: the posher the school, the grimmer the food. Now the landscape is more complicated.

There will be a Parents' Association, and possibly class representatives. For further information on these I refer you to Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which I am told is now a box set. Heads do not have time to watch these – they are too busy writing handbooks.

And finally, the most serious point of all: school should be fun. That schools are so much better in letting you (and your child) know where to turn if you (or they) are upset or worried is a sign that schools take infinitely more care than they did when we were your children’s age to ensure that they are not upset and worried. Of course, your children won’t be happy every moment of every day, but they should enjoy their childhood. That long parent handbook is there to help you navigate those years alongside them.

And who knows? You might actually find it useful.

Helen Pike is the Master of Magdalen College School, Oxford.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2017 issue of Attain.

About The Author

Helen Pike

Helen Pike is the Master of Magdalen College School, Oxford, a day school for boys aged 7 to 18 and girls aged 16 to 18. Founded in 1480, MCS offers a transformative education in the heart of the university city.

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