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Expat Ramblings: Schooling

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.

By Karo

Schnazzy East German translator and cricket obsessive residing in England. I have other qualities, too.

7 replies on “Expat Ramblings: Schooling”

It’s been really interesting to see this coming up in the news and it’s also something I was reading about in the new (ish) Sue Palmer book, too.

We have a different system here in Scotland (I think it’s similar to NI and Wales) where it’s quite normal to hold children back so that instead of starting at 4.5 years old, they start at 5.5 years old. It’s what we’ll be doing with Little Juniper – there’s no way we could send him to school at four, I just don’t see how he would benefit from a year of “schooling” as opposed to another year of nursery. But then, Primary 1 here also seems to be easier on children than the second year of proper school for children down south. There’s very much still a focus on play.

As for uniform, it’s really interesting to see a different perspective on it. I have to admit, I like uniform for school children, it just somehow makes sense.

I mentioned my hatred of school uniform to my husband, and now he makes her change into her own clothes as soon as she’s home. I was very close to not bothering after the first few days, but this makes me feel understood (I have to ask him if he does this for my benefit or because he hates it too…)

In the US, it’s 5 years old to start kindergarten, but it depends on the school district whether or not it’s all day school, or even every day school.

When we still lived in Washington, Grace’s schedule was all day, but every other day, with alternating Fridays. So some weeks she would have 2 days of school, and some would have 3 days. It was a rural school district, so this kept all the buses on the same schedule.

Then we moved back to Montana, and the kindergarten is all day, every day. My son loved it, but I can see how it would be hard on some kids.

Neither place has uniforms, and I can’t think of any public schools in Montana that require them.

What is strange here is that there is the assumption that you will send you child to pre-school at the age of 3 or 4, but one has to pay for pre-school. Because of that, neither of mine went to pre-school. I just couldn’t afford it, so the assumption that kids should all go kind of irks me.

I imagine that some kids would benefit from that early learning and playtime, but mine adjusted to kindergarten just fine at 5 years old without going. It’s different for all kids, of course, but I think people perhaps fret too much about doing the “right” thing as soon as possible — as though their 3 year old will be forever hindered in life if they don’t go to the right pre-school! I find that a bit silly.

Pre-school is free here (at least for half days)! It’s amazing! For the girl, it was just the right thing, she was bored at home. We’ll see how bored the boy will be once he’s 3.
“Right” pre-schools… That is silly and unnecessarily competitive, and not helping parents or teachers.

I wish it were free! My kids would’ve had fun. I just wish that it wasn’t an assumed thing that kids do here because that also assumes that EVERYONE can go. There are certain programs one can sign up for that are income-based, but they involve a lot of headache/paperwork, and since I wasn’t trying to get them in so I could also go to work, I didn’t bother.

The only real benefit for most kids in most programs (there are certainly exceptions!) is peer socialization. But I assume you are doing that yourself or via community involvements or something? We are going to start taking my niece to an after school program at the community drop in even though she’s not school age so she can spend time playing with other little kids other than her best friend. (The best friend is the kid of one of my sister’s on again off again friends, and we think he has a developmental delay of some sort. Which pleases me, as an adult with a type of developmental delay, but that’s just me.) We tried headstart and the biggest thing she got out of that was, unfortunately, lice.

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