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A weepy end to primary school... and that was just me

Laura Kenworthy – The end of primary school

I was always going to be one of the weepers. As the end of my daughter’s primary school years rolled around, the warnings from friends intensified.

“Just make sure you bring tissues,” said my teacher sister. “My Year 6s and their parents were an embarrassing snotty mess.”

Laura Kenworthy with her daughter. Picture: David Johnson
Laura Kenworthy with her daughter. Picture: David Johnson

Having sobbed my way through seven years of school plays, carol services and harvest festivals, and as someone who admitted to shedding a tear when, at six weeks old, my daughter finally grew out of Tiny Baby clothing and into Newborn, I had high hopes for the Leavers’ Assembly. This, the public acknowledgement of how wonderful our children are as the school waves them off into the big bad world, would surely be the cathartic cry to end all cathartic cries.

Barely a sniffle. Sure, the individual memories shared, with heavy over-representation from “falling in the lake on the Year 6 residential” were funny and touching. The presentation to each child by the headteacher of their ‘Special Books’ of notable work from over the years, accompanied by a round-up of their achievements was sweet and affectionate. But a timid, lacklustre rendition of Lukas Graham’s Seven Years Old set the tone for an event which somehow, without falling flat, never quite grabbed me by the heartstrings in the way I’d anticipated.

But then came the disco. Having dropped off my daughter in a village hall filled with boys hitting each other with balloons and inflatable instruments, while the girls held strategic conferences in separate corners, I returned for the final half hour thinking that three hours had probably been a little too long; that they would all by now be bored, sugar high and fractious. Instead, I walked in to find her singing every word to Bohemian Rhapsody. I watched as the class, divisions of gender and friendship group long since dissolved, danced together, sang together, laughed together, hugged. And, as that same Seven Years Old track reached the top of the DJ’s playlist and they came together hand in hand in a circle, the tears hit me. Hard.

“Laura! Are you ok?! You realise you’re not leaving?!” said incredulous friends. I could barely reply. Condensed in this hall were seven years of watching my daughter grow with and from this gorgeous group of 25 others, children I had witnessed transform from tiny four-year-olds to eleven-year-olds rapidly overtaking their parents. The whole-class parties in Reception giving way to small groups for cinema visits, bowling, climbing walls. The class magazine, comics, dance competitions and rock bands they had created together. The fallings out and the reconnections. The coffee mornings with fellow parents progressing to nights in the pub as we returned to work.

We live in a village. This one-form entry primary school feeds into a secondary in the next village between us and Cambridge. All but three of these children will continue to be at school together until sixth form, although their class of 26 will be scattered and diluted within a year group of 240. They will continue to live within a mile of each other, to run in and out of each other’s homes. Their parents will continue to be my friends. My daughter is ready for and excited by the next stage. I have a son with two years still to go, so even my own connection with the primary years is not yet ending. So why did I suddenly feel so bereft?

Some of it has, of course, to do with wistfulness that a simple, happy, sheltered stage of my daughter’s life is over – that new independence and complexities lie ahead.

Some of it is also wrapped in my own school experiences. By the time I was nine I had been to four different schools in two different countries. At the last of these, a boarding school to which I was send to mitigate the impact of further inevitable moves owing to my parents’ careers, I was wretchedly unhappy and left a year early. So until my A levels, I had never left a school at the end, never been part of the bittersweet goodbyes to people with whom you have shared a chunk of your life, as that connection continues but changes.

The school which my daughter has just left was not the one into which she was originally accepted. In 2016, when we applied for her primary school place, we were living in Sussex and secured a place in our local school. When my husband got a new job, we told our four-year-old that she would not be going to the school we had visited, with her friends from preschool. Instead, we would have to find a new house, at the mercy of the Cambridge housing market, and cross our fingers that there would be a reasonable school nearby with space for her. She joined at the beginning of Reception knowing no one, but has just completed seven years in the same primary – a consistency which, after my own peripatetic childhood, I was desperate to achieve but doubted we would manage.

They have not been an easy seven years for education. Schools closed the day after my daughter’s eighth birthday in March 2020, cancelling her party and heralding two years of disrupted learning and interrupted friendships. Ever-tightening budgets have seen the loss of activities and extras, as well as, in small schools like ours, classes mixed across year groups to reduce staffing. Standardised testing means that much of Year 6 is devoted to preparation for SATs and the understanding of the fronted adverbial. Unless schools are lucky enough to have teachers with talents for music or drama, then what they are able to offer in these areas can be minimal – our last musically confident teacher left four years ago, ending the choir. Industrial action has seen children across the country lose more school days this term.

On top of these national challenges, our school suffered a disastrous fire in the summer of 2020. Key Stage One has spent three years in portable cabins after their classrooms were destroyed, and Zoom assemblies have continued for three years owing to lack of hall space.

It would be easy to look at the past seven over-tested and under-resourced years and wonder how fortunate our children have really been.

And yet. That would be to ignore the yearbooks painstakingly filled with photos, memories and comment boxes by my daughter’s phenomenal class teacher. The Tuesday morning cricket club offered free of charge and in his own time by the Year 3 teacher. The individual postcards, shining with pride and affection, written to each child in my son’s Year 4 class by his wonderful newly qualified teacher this week. The loving one-to-one support provided to a friend’s son with autism. The extraordinary film a friend’s parents, who work in television, made at the end of the Reception year. The trips. The jokes. The friendships.

Recent conversations with friends and colleagues with experiences of other school systems stand out in my head. A colleague from Baltimore whose daughter transferred from an American elementary school is delighted by the British culture of special cards and awards. American schools, she says, avoid prizes that cannot be given to all, for fear of leaving anyone out. British schools, by contrast, find a way of fitting the award to the child.

“When my daughter first started school in England she was given a special card for settling in so well,” she says. “I just thought that was so lovely.”

A friend, who grew up in France, recently attended an end of year assembly with his son, who has just completed Reception.

“We were in a church with three Reception classes, so 90 four and five year old children, and I just kept looking at the teachers,’ he said. “They were so affectionate, so calm, so attentive. It was really touching, watching them with the children.”

Another friend, also from France, commented on the constant cheerful colour on the walls of British primary classrooms. The rooms may need a lick of paint, but they are full of activity, celebrations of the children’s achievements, and efforts to engage them and help them feel at home.

It’s easy to assume that British primary schools, seen through an international prism, appear austere, full of uniform-clad automatons learning unnecessary grammatical rules. The curriculum can be too rigid, and budgets are indisputably too tight. But schools are also full of joy, of attention to the needs of individual children and appreciation for their achievements, of teachers who care, and of children who make each other laugh and look out for each other. And that’s why, like parents of eleven-year-olds across the country, I’ve spent most of this week in tears.

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