It is 6.12 am and I am cleaning our filthy bathroom. My oldest child walks in just as I am yanking a stubborn ball of hair from the plughole. "Mummy mummy," he says pleadingly, pulling on my sleeve to get my attention, “we have to go to school today dressed as a mathematical concept.”
I am used to bizarre requests in the early mornings, but this is a new one. Does he even know what a concept is?
"Are you sure the Year 1s are included in this?” I ask. “Yes, Miss reminded us yesterday, and if we can’t think of anything we can go as a number”, he adds, helpfully. "We’ll think of something," I say, as I start pulling on my work clothes whilst simultaneously brushing the teeth of the middle child.
We did think of something: Pi is a gift to hard-pressed parents called upon to express a mathematical idea by means of their own child. After rummaging for the safety pins and extracting a crayon from under the sofa, I crudely attach a drawing of a pie to his school uniform jumper. We stumble out into the still-dark street towards the school breakfast club.
This was a fairly typical last-minute request from my sons’ school. Other variations include: bring in home-made cakes with no nuts or gelatine; build an Egyptian pyramid; devise a mathematical board game suitable for a four-year-old; provide children with spending money for the school enterprise fair.
We hear so much about exam factory schools that I realise I am very lucky that my kids belong to a dynamic primary school where the staff have a sense of fun. Considering the pressures they are under from Sats and Ofsted, it’s a lovely place for my children to learn. But the list of things we are asked to do as working parents, to support school activities, is getting out of hand.
Where there was once Pudsey Bear, we now have Comic Relief, Sport Relief and World Book Day. And all this seems to be based on a presumption that parents - and especially mothers - are always on hand to help out, just as they might have been in the 1950s.
I would love to be poised with the baking ingredients and the sewing machine at all times; personally, I love a little creative endeavour. But the ever-increasing demands of work, on top of parenting, are more pressing than ever. With the cost of living now requiring two average incomes to make ends meet, the majority of parents simply have to work to pay the bills, however much they might want to spend the day rustling up a dinosaur costume for the school play instead. When will teachers realise we just don't have the time or the energy?
Primary schools need to move with the times and think about how much pressure these constant requests put on already hard-pressed parents. Give us a term’s notice and we might just pull off that art project to build a Roman garrison, but a themed costume with only two evenings to plan simply isn't possible. Schools, my child's included, rarely demand that fancy dress or other extra-curricular activities are compulsory, but the pressure is still there: We feel like awful parents if we fail to do it all, and worry that our children feel left out.
My message to schools is this: Please don't rely on parents to provide the arts, crafts and design technology curriculum. Don’t make us your unpaid home economics teachers. Why not sod the maths and English for five minutes and get the little critters to make their own Triceratops papier mache masks instead?
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