School-run parents: be careful – very careful – what you wish for

Plans to group siblings together into the same schools may do wonders for the school run, but what about everything else?

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The Independent Online

Plans by the schools minister, Nick Gibb, to simplify the school run by making school places mandatory for siblings of current pupils seems eminently sensible to me. Not just sensible, in fact, merciful. I have observed over the past two decades the politics and pressures surrounding ferrying offspring to and from the school gate. The time constraints, the gossipy cliques, the parking woes, the faffing about with safety seats – and the joy of doing it all again tomorrow and on and on. One stop on the school run is bad enough, two or three is a human rights issue.

Gibb hopes to “ease the stresses families face in juggling childcare with work” – stress being the operative word. To my mind, any woman considering binning her contraception should be forced, 32 times in one month, to drive a clapped-out Nissan Micra full of discarded Robinsons Fruit Shoot cartons along a B road full of double-parked cars to assess her mental suitability for motherhood.

Perhaps, you’re the sort of woman, like me, who might explode in a flurry of teeth and claws on day three, like a demented rat in a trap. Perhaps you might potentially slap one of those mums who go on Mumsnet’s “Am I Being Unreasonable?” forum to say things like: “A mummy on my DD’s school run wears pink Boden kitten heels with indigo Mint Velvet skinny jeans to pick up her DD. I think she’s too tarty and other mums agree. Am I being unreasonable to suggest to her it isn’t a fashion show?” In this case – like me – it’s possibly best to stick with owning dogs.

Gibb’s concern about multiple school-run stops, however, is more of the financial and safety genre than mental health. How anyone holds down full-time employment while making a 25-mile round trip – plus their own commute – twice daily, constantly perplexes me. To confound matters, clashing timetables and rules at different schools mean that school gates sometimes remain locked until a set time, leaving parents with a few minutes to drive maniacally to the next school in time for registration. “You can’t leave a seven-year-old standing out on the street,” Gibb said. “And then you have to get to the other school before registration closes, so that could be a 15-minute window and it takes 20 or 30 minutes to travel.”

For what it’s worth, I’m not entirely sure allowing a seven-year-old to stand in the street – outside their own school – is truly a safety issue, but then this sort of statement causes wild disgruntlement among parents. I feel that, at least after the age of 11, all children should be travelling on public transport, not having their faces washed by mummy with a spitty-hanky in the front seat of a Volvo at going home time.

Obviously many parents (who will adore Gibb’s plans) would see this statement as ludicrous. Being able to round all of their children of varying ages into one neat easy-to-monitor bundle will be a godsend in these terrifying days when any unaccompanied child is – I’m led to believe – bound to be attacked by paedophiles, stabbed for their iPhone, radicalised by a cult, chewed by a devil dog, or – worse, much worse, than any of this – exposed to nuts or wheat, of which almost all of them are perilously intolerant.

Gibb’s guidelines, albeit well-meaning, will be a green light for helicopter parenting and this is slighty sad. By the time I was seven, I was regularly unsupervised, spending much of my summer holidays eating a self-made packed lunch of buttered bread in a tree, two miles from home, casually reading a discarded copy of Razzle. And look at me, I’m completely fine.

My other concern about Gibb’s plans is that it means all the ruthless, organised middle-class families with multiple kids can commandeer the best state schools by simply sharp-elbowing their firstborn in. What of the poor buggers with an only child? It’s stressful enough presently, having popped out one, lovely, perfect singular baby, to quickly learn that accepted mummy wisdom seems to be that unless you provide her or him a sibling there’s a strong chance you’ve produced a dysfunctional loner destined to have the social skills of a despot. And now, parents of an only child might have to cope with school-placement-time agony too: “Oh you must be worried about getting Joshua into Bumworts Brilliant-But-Free Academy?” Smug Mummy will say: “Of course, Cedrick is guaranteed a place, what with Fenella and Noah and Summer all being there already.” 

And what of the kids who would quite frankly love to be shot of their siblings between 8am and 4pm? I loved having my little brother about at infant school, when he was a subservient ball of blonde hair with saucer eyes, but by secondary school we were an embarrassment to each other. A mutually antagonistic mesh of hormones. Me: a natural learner, a moody Smiths fan, a slave to hair crimpers. Him: a charismatic football casual with a Sun-In rave bob and no real commitment to attendance. We went through our comp school days in a never-ending war, while, infuriatingly, being constantly compared. “Grace would know these French verb endings!” he’d be told, as he banged his head slowly on the desk. “But David is so good at sports,” my mother would hear at parents’ evening. “Why is Grace so averse to running?”

It’s hard for siblings to keep their distance when the school’s central corridor is only 200 metres long. It might make the school run easier but, parents of the school gate, be careful what you wish for.

Of course, not having children, and not being schools minister either, means that these changes aren’t really my problem. I’d would ask Mumsnet if that means I’m being “unreasonable”, but I expect I know what the answer is.