Ordeal by school: memories of that terrifying first day

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Imagine that you have scarcely stumbled across the concept of work – and then suddenly you are conscripted into an incomprehensible job in which most people are bigger and more clued-up than you.

Some of them hit you. Then, after several years of getting the hang of it, you are whisked off to another place of employment where the people are even bigger and brainier, and possibly hit you even harder. And of course there is no question of resignation or a union you can take your concerns to.

Substitute "school" for "work" and you understand why our children may wonder why we conscript them to the primary and secondary school of our (not their) choice. That first day in a new school – an ordeal which will be experienced by hundreds of thousands of young people this week – can be incredibly daunting.

The good news is that, just as many of us find fulfilling jobs, a healthy proportion of us still retain happy memories of our school days. Joan Bakewell once said she loved collecting gold stars. Philip Pullman never forgot how to do a drawing: start at the top left-hand corner of the paper and progress to the bottom-right, so you don't smudge the work of art.

Even so, we should not forget how confusing everything is in those early days. Coming from a home where cooking was pretty basic, the children's author Jacqueline Wilson was reduced to tears by her school dinners: she'd never come across anything as sophisticated as stew or mince.

Lord Winston, who is one of Britain's leading scientists, won a scholarship aged seven to the preparatory school for St Paul's public school in west London. He admitted to his mother after his first few weeks that he was not doing very well, since his marks in four key subjects, pinned up in the Great Hall, were a derisory "1, 1, 1, 1". The poor chap didn't realise for ages that he was in fact coming first: they were not his marks but his position in class.

Duncan Bannatyne, Entrepreneur

When I started at Clydebank High School, it was immediately obvious that I was going to find it tough. There were 600 children at "posh school" and on the day I started, 598 of them had a school uniform. I was one of the other two. Uniforms were expensive and my mum had trouble getting the right clothes. I think she'd borrowed a blazer and made some trousers herself, but it wasn't a proper uniform. She told me to tell the teachers that I would have my proper uniform for the second week of term but everybody knew I was poor and teased me about it.

Toyah Wilcox, Singer and actress

When I was four-and-a-half I went to Edgbaston Church of England College for Girls and it was possibly the worst day of my life. My mother dressed me in this excruciatingly uncomfortable uniform which I detested for the whole 14 years, and drove me to school. I just screamed and screamed and she had to come back. I remember clinging to her. The spinster who was our teacher was lacking in warmth. When my mother came back to pick me up on that first day, I thought that was it, that there was no more school.

Pam Ayres, Writer

One of my earliest memories at my primary school in Stanford-in-the-Vale in Berkshire was of being bullied by Phillip, a big boy at the top of the school. He said, "I'm going to poke fun at you," emphasising each syllable with a jab in my bony chest. I was scared stiff. Why he picked on me, I don't know. I must've looked particularly twerpish. Eventually, my mother must have been down to the school and he left me alone.

Diana Melly, Former model and novelist

At about five, I was sent to the Convent of Marie Auxiliatrice in Finchley, north London. When my mother took me on my first day, one nun said, "She's very small for her age." And the next nun said, "She's very tall for her age."

Dr David Starkey, Historian and broadcaster

I was a very difficult child. I had been born with two club feet and began school in a pushchair.

I bitterly resented going and can still hear my screams. I also found the process of adaptation to grammar school quite difficult; I had what would now be called a nervous breakdown and pulled out for three or four months.

I wore a surgical boot until I was 13, which made me a target for mockery. Fortunately, I was unusually tall for my age and even then had a sharp tongue.

Pat Cash, Former Wimbledon champion

I ran away on my first day at Our Lady of Good Counsel Primary School in Melbourne. My mum had to chase me down the street.

Then the teacher put me by the window so that I could look out of it, but I crawled out and ran away again. My mum said she would belt me within an inch of my life! Then I got the hang of school and liked it.

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