There’s a thread on Mumsnet which asks something like “Do you know a school rated Outstanding that isn’t?” It’s a timely reminder that Ofsted reports are not gospel and should never be treated as such; barely “satisfactory” schools can suit an individual child far better than an “outstanding” one. I had my own experience of this kind with my child’s pre-school; I opted for one, not the nearest, but from which I’d already met some nice members of staff, which offered good after-hours and holiday provision, and had an absolutely rave OFSTED. Local middle-class parents and other nursery staff spoke of it in tones of awe, though still didn’t often send their children there.
The reasons for that, I dismissed at the time, must be entirely snobbish; it was Sure Start centre, free, and the intake predominantly non-white, non-English speaking. They also took a high number of SEN children, for which they had received special commendation. All this, I reasoned, was actually in my child’s favour; he’s non-white himself, for all I know could have some kind of SEN, and anyway, a place with a reputation for serving its most challenging children well will be a place which serves all its children well. Surely.
Well, it looked nice, I liked my child’s keyworker, and he seemed content enough at first. I was struck, though, by the differences to the private baby nursery he’d spent a couple of mornings a week in before. No longer did the staff bend over backwards to accommodate my capricious wishes regarding hours; nor were they eager, constantly, to shower me with proof of my baby’s progress in their care. On the contrary, the staff had a tendency to discuss parents in less than glowing terms, in the presence of Other Parents (unthinkable at a private nursery) as a kind of bonding mechanism: ridiculing one mother’s footwear, in one case, in another eyes rolling at a parent’s apparent injunction to her rather boisterous son to “hit back”. Here I encountered for the first time a fairly pervasive staff belief in “parents as the problem.” This exists in subdued form anywhere, no doubt, where parent-substitutes take over. And no doubt parents who instruct their children to hit back when crossed are a problem; as are parents who watch TV all the time, or who beat each other up. But this seems to me to be one of those blanket human reactions, which professional carers, in particular, need to moderate and call in to constant question. In the interests of diplomacy, democracy and the kids’ progress.
My son ended up hating the place. More than that, it scared him, so that he was prepared to put up with anything – being ignored by me, left alone in his room all day – rather than a brief morning there. It was too noisy, he said, one child was hitting him, it was making him sick. Don’t worry, I said, we’ll report it and the staff and your key worker will look after you. No they won’t, he protested, they won’t. I don’t do anything there, he said, I just wait for you to come and get me.
And I spotted him once, my usually quite voluble, definitely sociable child, standing withdrawn and oblivious while thirty three and four year olds screeched round the playground around him.
Deeply reluctant to dispense with my only free time, I allowed him to stay at home, on condition he play quietly all day, and not bother me more than necessary. The pre-school’s head teacher called me in for a chat. In the nicest possible way, all sorts of pressures were applied. Real school will not tolerate this level of absenteeism. It will have to go down on his record, which, in turn, will be passed on to his new school. I agreed to make a final effort to force him to go. He went – for one more day. The staff said he was absolutely fine. He demurred in the strongest terms. I gave up.
The trouble, I think, with all nurseries or pre-schools, is that staff for all their dedication are never as well-trained as real school teachers, and even worse paid, though their charges are more vulnerable. So they do not have the skills to adapt to a child who is out of the range of their immediate experience or training. Wittingly or not, they all specialise according to their usual intake – in white-middle-class children, in poor SEN, in wealthy SEN, or foreign language speaking. I have absolutely no doubt that my son’s pre-school did, as its OFSTED reviewers claimed, an absolutely fantastic job with its core clientele. But it failed my shy, sensitive, affectionate mixed-race boy, who finds cartoons scary and is not much interested in guns or airplanes or superheroes. The little girls and the couple of well-spoken white boys dismissed him, clearly not one of them, and he could not connect with the remainder. All the staff had to say, regarding his isolation, was “He’s still so young. He’s not there yet,” meaning, he still just wants to play on his own. I knew this wasn’t the case, and tried to say so, but what the heck!? I was only another stupid parent.