He’s hungry but doesn’t want his lunch.
Getting your child into the right primary school is actually a bit of an adventure, and not in a good way. It’s a gamble, a game of risk and, in actual fact, no matter what we do, the outcome is not really in our control. Like all parents of four year olds, I spent the end of last year researching, visiting schools and submitting the application, then waiting the long four months for the verdict: which school would my Noah actually be going to?
I read all of the Ofsted reports, analysed the data and made arrangements to go and see seven local schools. The school visits set my mind whirling. At the first school I visited, I was informed along with the other parent being shown around, that if we didn’t put the school down as first choice, we stood no chance of getting in. Schools in our area are heavily oversubscribed. So if Noah didn’t get into his first choice, it was entirely possible he wouldn’t get into his second, third or even fourth choice?! It made me feel a bit sick.
Education is such a fundamental part of childhood. In the culture we live in – the culture of target setting and exams – primary school is not about cultivating a rounded human being, it’s about results. Sad but true. And Noah has to survive in this world so, of course, my husband and I wanted to do everything in our power to give him the best start.
Private v State
Having been to private school myself, and having worked in local state schools, I can conclude that I am a believer in the state. As far as I can see, there are two main differences which make private schools more successful than many state schools: funding and entrance exams. Private schools have more money. Pupils have their own text books – there is no one-between-two malarkey. Pupils have access to a wide range of equipment and facilities. If you go to a private secondary school, you have usually had to take an entrance exam to get in. You have been selected by your performance. You have been pitted against other eleven year olds and you came out in the top half. You are bright. When you go to a private school, everyone around you is bright. And that makes life easier.
Here is one thing I am 100% sure of: teachers in private schools are absolutely not any better than teachers in state schools. When I was at school, I had a lot of good teachers and one or two brilliant teachers. I also had a lot of awful teachers. I had teachers who could be bullied by twelve year olds. I had teachers who gave us the wrong information about what was in our GCSE exams. And that’s what really matters – who is standing in front of the class – isn’t it?
And so I am a believer in state education. So much so that it didn’t even cross my mind to put my Noah down for the local private school. I am not against private schools by any means. Private school stereotypes really wind me up. You know the ones about Mummy and Daddy owning ten acres of land with a swimming pool, tennis courts and stables as well as a property or two in the South of France? In reality, for over half of the people who went to my school, Mummy and Daddy had to work their little middle-class bottoms off to afford to send their children there. My school friends and I were not born with silver spoons in our mouths.
Truth be told, if our choice of local state schools had not been good, I would have sold my soul to send my Noah private. No question about that.
Church v Non-Church
I always had a vague notion that I would like my child to go to a church school. My husband and I both went to Christian schools. I wouldn’t say either of us are devout Christians. I can’t speak for my husband, but I don’t live by every word of the Bible. In my opinion, a lot of biblical ideas are outdated in the world we live in today. But I was in the church choir when I was a child. I went to church as a teenager although neither of my parents did (I dragged my sister with me). I do believe in God and I am supportive of the Church of England. Faith is a gift and I would at least like my Noah to have the choice to believe or not to believe. If you have no religion in the first place, it must be more difficult to acquire one when you are older.
The school I had always had in mind was the one attached to our parish church, but when I went to Noah’s catchment school, I really liked it. It is surrounded by lovely grounds, has a warm atmosphere and is multicultural and modern. But did I prefer it to the church school?
The Ofsted for the church school is outstanding whereas the Ofsted for the catchment school is good with outstanding behaviour. However, the Head at the catchment school has recently qualified as an Ofsted inspector and they are expecting an outstanding grade at their next inspection. As I said, my head was spinning. I am writing about this as if it was my decision. Of course, my husband had an opinion (or ten) but because he was in Vienna, I visited the schools on my own so, essentially, I was more in a position to compare them than he was.
In the end, the decision came down to two things. First of all, my heart leaned towards an Anglican school. Second of all, the Ofsted.
Here is something I know about Ofsted grades: they change all of the time. I have been a teacher for nine years and have worked in three schools. Not one of these schools has maintained a consistent Ofsted grade for the whole time. The Ofsted inspection criteria itself has changed at least three times in those nine years. Just because you send your child to an outstanding school, it doesn’t mean it will be outstanding for the whole time he/she is there. And the same applies to a good school or even an inadequate school. But the church school has always been outstanding. Even Ofsted couldn’t find any points for improvement on their last inspection. That counts for something. So first choice was church, second choice was catchment.
It was a long wait from when I submitted the application in November, to the 18th April when we’d find out the verdict. We stood a very good chance of Noah getting in to our first choice school. There was an eight point criteria for submissions and we should have been at number three seeing as we were regular church attenders in Vienna. Logic told me that Noah would get in. But you can never be sure.
The verdict would be published on the Essex schools website at midnight on the 18th. I had no intention of staying awake until midnight: I would find out in the morning as soon as I woke up. My subconscious obviously thought otherwise. I woke up five minutes before midnight. Naturally, I reached for my iPad to log on to the website. The room was lit up by the light from the screen. My husband stirred.
“What are you doing?” he growled.
“It’s five minutes to midnight. I’m logging on.”
He tutted and turned over.
I logged on and watched the time changing 11.56, 11.57…0.00 and nothing happened. I pressed refresh. Every other parent of a four-year-old in Essex obviously had the same idea. The page went blank and wouldn’t reload. After five minutes of pressing refresh, refresh, refresh, the page still wouldn’t load and my husband was getting annoyed.
“Leave it till the morning,” he said. “You’ll find out as soon as you wake up.”
I pressed refresh for a couple more minutes.
“This is not fair,” my husband protested. “You don’t have to go to work in the morning!”
“Yes, I do!” It gave me great satisfaction to inform him. Hahaha. He had forgotten that I am, in fact, a working woman now.
But I put the iPad down. My husband went back to sleep. I picked up my phone and checked my email under the covers so I wouldn’t disturb Sleeping Beauty. I did this several more times. There was absolutely no way I was going to be able to go to sleep until I found out what school Noah was going to.
At 12.50 a.m. Noah did me a favour and woke up. I went in and cuddled him (he was scared apparently) and then kissed him goodnight and left. I strode straight back into our room and picked up the iPad. This time the website let me log in.
The boy was in the school.
Even as I write this (four days later) I still feel emotional. The thing is, Noah would have been okay whatever school he got into. All the schools in this area are outstanding or good with outstanding behaviour. I told myself this at least a thousand times in the run up to the 18th April.
But Noah will be going to the best school in the area. He is lucky. We are lucky. And it does feel good.
This is what happens when your 4 year old goes to nursery, indulges in water play and is then encouraged to dress himself in his spare clothes. Yes, he looks like he is wearing some sort of trouser/skirt/cape combo, but, in fact, he is just wearing his joggers inside out.
P.S. My feet really shouldn’t be part of this photo but now that I have uploaded it, I cannot be bothered to go back and crop it and do it all again. I am comfortable enough with my feet and taste in socks to put them out there.
My Noah is four. Last week, he had a dinosaur-themed birthday party at the local park which consisted of an hour and a half of outdoor activities. From the moment I booked it, I worried it would rain on the day, but it didn’t. It was lovely. My dinosaur cake also turned out well (if I do say so myself) but there were a few hairy moments where I thought it was going to be a lost cause and I felt like throwing myself on the floor in a Noahesque tantrum.
As I watched him at his party, I couldn’t help but marvel at how much he has grown up since last year’s birthday. Rather than ignoring all of his guests, he revelled in being in the thick of it. Some things remain the same: the tendency to whinge, the emotional rollercoaster he rides every day, the unshakeable wilfulness. I had hoped the threenager would become a distant memory, but he has merely turned into a fournager. Oh, well.
But he is also a good boy.
“I’m not a baby,” he responds indignantly, when I call him such. “I’m big!”
“You will always be my baby,” I tell him. This week, I got a tiny leaf, about the size of a grain of rice and showed it to him. “This was how big you were at first and then you grew into a baby in my tummy. That means you will always be my baby because I grew you.”
He contemplated the leaf for some time (at least five seconds) and then agreed that he would always be my baby and went back to eating his dinner.
But the truth is, he really isn’t my baby any more. He is a remarkable little person in his own right. Here are 10 things I love about Noah as he turns four:
- He is extraordinary at colouring in. He favours A3 colouring books and Crayola Supertips. Nothing else will do. And he is very possessive over them. He uses one colour at a time, forms an orderly line until he has used every colour and then goes back to the beginning. He often colours a tiny spec of the picture then abandons it, but occasionally he will persevere and finish one. Twice, he has finished one of these fantastic pieces of artwork, only to get angry at something and rip it up. Both times I was devastated. Everyone wants one of Noah’s colourings. He has a backlog of orders. Only very lucky souls will eventually get to own one.
- At least once a week he goes to nursery in one of his fancy dress costumes. This week, I went into nursery for his birthday walk, a little ceremony they have when it’s someone’s birthday. Noah had to wear a huge birthday cake hat. It even had candles on top. As if this wasn’t funny enough, he was also dressed as a Power Ranger.
- He speaks to his toys. When I am in another room and I overhear him having a conversation with his lion or one of his dinosaurs or Buzz Lightyear, I stop what I am doing, stand very still and listen. It never fails to bring a smile to my face.
- He knows all of the words to the introduction and song for P J Masks. The tempo is quite quick and he struggles to keep up, but this doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm for the task.
- He will sit and watch a film. Finally. I thought the day would never come. We can actually sit and watch a film together now. He won’t get fed up after twenty minutes and ask me to put a different DVD on. He won’t stand on the arm rest of the sofa and hurl himself at me. Over the Easter holidays, we watched lots of new films together: Brave, Inside Out (my favourite), The Good Dinosaur, Penguins of Madagascar, The Princess and the Frog, Dino Time (Noah’s favourite).
- He is ready to learn. I bought him a lift the flap Usborne book for his birthday about the human body. He is full of facts such as: “Mummy, did you know, that when we eat food, our tummies break it down into tiny pieces to give us energy?!” Or, “Mummy, did you know, that we could fill ten thousand balloons with the breaths we let out every day?!”
- He thinks Father Christmas is the most magical person in the world. I suppose he would be if he actually existed.
- He has mates. Proper little mates. As each friend arrived at his birthday party, he greeted them with a hug. Whenever we go to soft play, he always finds himself a friend. He makes friends easily. This is a gift and I hope he retains it throughout his adult life.
- He will speak to anyone: the postman, shop assistants, delivery men, old ladies walking down the street. I find delivery men are the least likely to want to engage with him. He often disappears to get a toy to show them only to find they have gone on his return. For some reason, this leaves him heartbroken. I truly think half of Essex must have known it was his birthday last week, because he told every single person who crossed his path.
- He is so much more confident and independent. Over the Easter holidays, I booked him into a “create and play” session at the local theatre. We went along and I imagined it was something we would be doing together, or I would at least be watching. When the woman running it asked me whether I intended to stay in the building whilst it was going on, I was taken aback. The children would be taken off upstairs to the session on their own?! I also felt a bit panicked as I didn’t know how Noah would react. A few months ago, I’d have had to play gooseberry and sit in or else he wouldn’t have taken part. But my Noah was happy to go off without me. After I watched him disappear up the stairs with the other kids, I hurriedly phoned my husband and my mum to share the momentous news. I was proud of him. And it was nice to sit there and read my book for a couple of hours. But I also felt a little bit lost. He really isn’t my baby any more. The world will have to be adapted accordingly.
I can’t help but wonder if all birthdays will be this way now. Every year he will get bigger and stronger. Every year he will need me less and less. It’s the way of the world and the way it should be. It means he is being raised properly. It means he will have the tools he needs to tackle the big wide world out there.
But it hurts just a teeny, tiny, eeny, weeny, minuscule, little bit because I know that the day will come when my Noah no longer needs his mummy at all. By then, of course, I won’t even be Mummy any more: I’ll just be Mum.
I find myself compelled to jump on the breastfeeding debate bandwagon.
According to the NHS website “more than 73% of women in the UK start breastfeeding and 17% of babies are still being breastfed at 3 months.” The question shouldn’t be why do 27% of women choose not to breastfeed their babies in the first place, it should be why do 56% of women stop breastfeeding within 3 months?
Noah was breastfed exclusively until he was five months old, when I started weaning him. I continued to breastfeed him until his first birthday. When I was in the postnatal ward after Noah was born, I was in a room with three other women who, like me, had not been able to go home soon after giving birth. I had to stay in hospital because I had surgery to manually remove pieces of my ruptured placenta. The woman in the bed diagonally opposite mine had to stay in hospital because she had given birth at 31 weeks and her baby was in Intensive Care. The other two women had to stay in hospital because they had not yet been able to successfully breastfeed their baby. I listened to the midwives trying to support these two women when their babies were crying out for milk and I could hear the desperation in the mothers’ voices. I felt relieved that although I was bruised, torn, scraped out, broken, weak and completely unable to walk across the room, my Noah was what my midwife had called a “breastfeeding superstar”.
So imagine my dismay when, less than two weeks later, the Health Visitor rocked up at my house, weighed him and dropped the bombshell that he had lost a pound and two ounces, going from the 75th to the 9th percentile in ten short days.
“Have you thought about topping up with a bottle?” she asked.
“I don’t want to give him a bottle,” I insisted.
She looked concerned. She asked me to feed him so she could see if he was latching on properly. Although the prospect horrified me, I obediently bared my boob in front of her and fed him.
“He seems to be latching on okay,” she said after she had peered at my boob from several different angles. She still looked concerned. “I want to see you again tomorrow,” she said.
“Tomorrow?” Tomorrow seemed urgent, drastic.
“Bring him to the hospital and I’ll squeeze you in. I want to make sure he doesn’t lose any weight overnight.”
What had happened? I hadn’t had much of an appetite since giving birth. I had barely slept: not only was Noah awake most of the night, but every time I closed my eyes I re-lived my labour experience. I was taking (or rather forgetting to take) four different types of tablets. And I had been told that babies fed every three hours, so I hadn’t believed that Noah was really hungry every time he was screaming his little head off and therefore, possibly, hadn’t been feeding him enough.
Between the moment the HV left and the moment I saw her again the next day, I fed Noah constantly. When she weighed him the next day, he had put on three ounces. The HV was pleased. “There’s nothing wrong with your breast milk,” she said. Then she smiled and said it again: “There is nothing wrong with your breast milk.”
I had a reprieve.
From then on, I fed him whenever he screamed. He’d feed for about an hour every other hour so pretty much all I did was feed him. At about six o’clock he went into a zone of constant screaming. Up to this point, my husband and I had spent our evenings passing him back and forth like a hot potato, frantically trying to distract him from whatever was bothering him. But now I just fed him. I sat on the sofa and fed him for three hours until he eventually went to into a milk coma. I ate my dinner, feeding him with a tea towel draped over his head.
But he stayed in the 9th percentile. Every time I took him to be weighed, I felt like I was sitting an exam and I was terrified I would fail – actually fail at motherhood. Because he stayed in the ninth percentile and didn’t drop any further down the scale, the health visitors weren’t concerned.
But to keep him in the ninth percentile, I had to accept that my life was now just about breastfeeding. If I had to go out, I would feed him before I left home to try and avoid him screaming in the back of the car ten minutes later. I frequently had to pull over when I was driving and feed him. My Mum was troubled. Apparently, breastfeeding me had been a breeze: I was one of those babies who fed every three hours. Well-meaning friends and relatives (mostly relatives as I was avoiding my friends, worried about what they would think of my constant feeding) told me to “put him on the bottle”.
Never, ever, ever tell a breastfeeding woman to give her child formula. Let her make that decision for herself.
Before I had Noah, I had heard of babies who would not breastfeed. My sister, born three years after me, wouldn’t take to the breast. I had heard of women expressing all the milk for their baby because the baby wouldn’t breastfeed and they didn’t want to give it formula. Before I had Noah, I had no understanding of the physical, mental and emotional agony some women (lots of women) go through because they cannot breastfeed.
When Noah was three months old, I took him to an osteopath and discovered that his jaw was out of line. A few presses from the osteopath’s magic fingers and had Noah shot back up to the 75th percentile by the time he started weaning at five months old. There really was nothing wrong with my breast milk. I felt vindicated.
People told me that Noah was small because of my breastfeeding. People told me Noah didn’t sleep because of my breastfeeding. I breastfed him anyway. This friendly advice didn’t change my mind, but it did make the whole experience more stressful than it already was.
The truth is, I didn’t stop breastfeeding because I didn’t really have to – I didn’t have mastitis; I didn’t have particularly sore and cracked nipples; my son’s weight gain was “satisfactory”; I didn’t have blocked milk ducts. Breastfeeding was demanding. It was one of the most stressful experiences of my life. But it wasn’t impossible. For some women, it really is impossible and it breaks these women’s hearts that they can’t feed their baby.
I often see things on Facebook from pro-breastfeeding sites which list the benefits of breastfeeding. These health benefits may have been in the back of my mind, but they weren’t the reason I wanted to feed Noah this way. For me, my body was producing milk for my son and I wanted to feed it to him. Pro-breastfeeding propaganda really annoys me because the focus is wrong. I wish someone – an NCT rep, a midwife, a health visitor, a nurse, absolutely anyone – had told me before I had Noah that breastfeeding would be hard. I wish someone had prepared me for the fact that some babies nurse all the time. I wish someone had told me that for breastfed babies, their mother’s milk is their comfort and their sleep prop as well as their food. I wish someone had told me how difficult it is to leave the house without your breastfeeding baby.
I have issues with some of the claims made about breastfed babies. First of all, if you were breastfed as a baby, you are apparently less likely to be obese. This claim mystifies me. Of course, some people put weight on easier than others. Some people have bigger frames than others. Some people genetically have big thighs or tend to carry more fat around their middles. Is this because they were not breastfed as babies? Or is it because all of our bodies are different, just like our hair colour and eye colour are different? I am not a medical expert, but to me it is blindingly obvious that people become obese because of their relationship with food. End of.
Another claim that is well bashed about is that a breastfeeding woman burns 500 calories more than a non-breastfeeding woman. That may be true but, in my experience, this extra burn of 500 calories doesn’t make you lose any more weight. Maybe breastfeeding makes you hold on to your fat more because it is needed to produce the milk. All I can say for sure is that my extra weight didn’t start to shift until Noah started weaning.
If you are breastfed, you are likely to have a higher IQ, you are likely to suffer less from colds and infections, eczema and childhood illnesses. So if you choose to feed your child formula milk, you are putting your child at risk of being less intelligent and more ill? Isn’t that like saying that we should all live in bungalows because your child has more chance of falling out of an upstairs window if you live in a house?
And here is my main point.
This is a picture of the most brilliant person I know:
This is my sister. She was formula-fed. She left school with only As and A*s on her CV. She has a first in English and in French from Warwick University. She did a Masters in Education and got the highest mark. She was made Head of English in her third year of teaching. My sister has the Midas touch. Is she sickly? No. Was she a sickly child? Not at all. It was me (the breastfed one) who suffered with constant ear and throat infections as a child, until my tonsils were taken out when I was six. I am the one with eczema. If there was a runt of the pack, it would be me. Not that I am a runt, of course.
I am not a medical expert. But for what it’s worth, this is my opinion. We know breastmilk is good and what nature intended. What we don’t know is why something that is so natural is so hard. Jamie Oliver (although I love you my Essex homie) don’t focus on the 27% of women who choose for their own personal and justified reasons not to breastfeed at all. Focus on the 56% who have to give up.