My oldest started school this month. Apart from the obligatory first day pictures and updates on how well she’s settled in, this wouldn’t be a big thing, alas…
I never wanted it to happen this way. When we had her, we’d settled in nicely into our new home, had friends, work, and a nice flat. Life abroad didn’t seem half as challenging as people had made it out to be. There we were, having a baby in a foreign country! I felt all kinds of grown-up and brave. But even then I knew, and I told people that I didn’t want my kids to go to school in England; it was all too strange.
Firstly, the uniforms. I’m well aware that this will sound daft to most people, but this is a big issue for me. Germans don’t do the uniform thing anymore. We’ve all had enough of it ever since everyone started looking the same back in 1933. Germans who insist on wearing uniform are either part of the army (which has now abolished compulsory national service) or a traditional society, both of which are widely regarded with suspicion. Every now and then, someone suggests the introduction of school uniforms and they are quickly shot down. Nevermind peer pressure or establishing a sense of belonging: The Hitler Youth is still very much on everyone’s minds.
Secondly, school entrance age is very low in England. Although the compulsory school age is 5, a vast majority of children start full-time schooling at 4, since school places for a pre-school year are allocated at that age, and fear of losing out on a place in your chosen primary doesn’t leave parents much choice. Legally, nurseries must offer care for children up to the age of 5, but practically, very few do. Back in Germany, children don’t start school, and any structured learning, until they are 6, or even 7 if born in the summer months. This is my background, and although I was a curious child who loved primary school, I also enjoyed my time in nursery. We played and sang until we were 6, and then started a strict school regime that had taught us all to read and write by the time we were 7 or 8. I fail to see how learning to read two years earlier makes any difference to a child, other than robbing them of two years of playtime.
The plan was this: By the time our oldest had reached compulsory school age in Germany (having been born in late June, she was missing out on an extra year by a measly two days), we would be out of the country. I was going to home school her until then (something that is acceptable in England, but illegal in Germany — you can’t have it all!).
And then life got in the way. By the time we had our second, we had tentatively agreed to emigrate to Australia, given that I would manage to get a job there. I chickened out the minute I held my baby boy — I knew I wanted my three years at home with him, and did not want to leave him in daycare while I worked. Another three years with him meant staying put until the girl turned 6, and we quickly realised that time does go fast when you have children.
In the end, we bought a house in Liverpool and put the girl in a nursery that agreed to keep her until she turned 5. She was the first child ever to do that there. Although she saw all her friends leave for school after the first year, and I got asked why she wasn’t in school an awful lot of times, and we had a hard time getting a school place, I don’t regret it. She thrived in nursery, enjoyed being the oldest, and most importantly, I had both kids at home after lunch, ready to go to the park or for long walks. She was only 4, still needed help with an awful lot of things, and loved snuggling up to me — as 4-year-olds should!
Slowly and hesitantly, I tried to prepare myself for school — funnily enough, she couldn’t wait to go! I made sure to sound happy and exited every time we talked about it, although I wanted to scream inwardly. We got the place in our local primary, where she would join most of her friends, and everything went swimmingly. She loves going, loves the constant entertainment, and I would be the first to admit that she simply isn’t homeschooling material.
Why is this so hard on me then? I still want to scream. She looks cute in uniform, but I know she is the child who dressed herself in princess dresses every second day for nursery. I hate princess dresses, but she loves them, and she enjoyed showing them off to her nursery friends. She was happy. Now we have a choice of black or white socks with her uniform. I pick her up at 3.15, and by the time we reach home, there’s no time left for trips to the park or the library. She is tired. Worst of all, I have almost no part in her daily life anymore. Where I stopped and chatted with her nursery teachers every day, I now drop her off at the gate at 8.50, and I have no idea what she does all day. She won’t tell me — which 5-year-old would? — and all I can do is trust her teacher to look after her and her 27 classmates well enough. Most days I feel like someone has put my child into prison, and all I do is give her dinner and read her a bedtime story. I never wanted it to happen this way. I realise that we were lucky to get all the time we had together, and that she’s an easygoing child who makes new friends easily. I’m aware that I’m projecting my own childhood patterns onto her. But I can’t help but wonder about a system that takes our children from us at such a young age, and I’m not the only one, it seems.
Little brother is due to start nursery next September, and I want to be out of here more than ever. Our daughter will be 6 then, compulsory school age in Germany. We have one year to decide where we want to be, and I’ve started having sleepless nights already.