The Class of Mum and Dad

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COMPARED with paying the mortgage and bringing up children, going to school is easy – right? After all, kids just do a few sums, a bit of reading, and hang out with their friends in the playground, right? Well, it turns out that school is actually pretty exhausting, stressful, and really hard work. That’s according to a group of parents who joined their kids at Blackrod Primary in Bolton for six weeks for a Channel 4 series, The Class of Mum and Dad, which started on Tuesday night.

The 17 volunteers – average age 40 – had to wear uniform, eat school dinners, and take part in all areas of academic life including the dreaded SAT tests. And the results are fascinating: some broke down under the pressure, others had flashbacks to their own traumatic schooldays. Here, we talk to some of them….

Imogen Harding, 29, is mum to Lamara, eight

I wanted to see how the school works and to pick up some education tips because I was struggling to help with Lamara’s homework. I wasn’t great during my own school days. I didn’t enjoy learning and I got distracted very easily. I was only really there to socialise with my friends! Going back to school, I found it difficult to concentrate even as an adult. I obviously don’t get distracted when I’m doing my job as a beauty therapist, but something about being in class, it just doesn’t sink in and I get bored very easily. I was 55 minutes late one day and then I got sent out for disturbing the class and being silly with Jonny as well. I didn’t do my homework either. I do think teaching methods have improved though. The way they taught us made it a bit more exciting and fun than when I was at school. And what’s interesting is that they treat every child as an individual with potential. I got in trouble when I was a kid for not being the brightest, but at Blackrod they don’t just put the cheeky ones to the back of the class and write them off. They find out what makes each child tick and encourage them. What I learned from this experience was just how intelligent Lamara is and how well she’s doing. She’s the opposite to me. She’s the star pupil and she’s mortified if she gets into trouble. You do think, as a parent, that going to school at that age is a doddle. But I came home and I was shattered! I do appreciate that a little bit more now. I used to get Lamara to do her homework straight away but now I let her chill out for half an hour first. I also try to make sure she’s on time for school every day because I don’t want her to get into trouble like I did. It’s not fair if she gets told off because of my laid-back ways.

Sarah Whittle, 34, is mum to Darcy, nine

I went to Blackrod myself and it was nice going back. Mr Dryburgh who was my headmaster was still there. He is fantastic. He can walk into a playground and raise a hand and everybody – teachers, parents, kids – will go silent. He commands total respect. So I knew it was a good school but taking part in the show has just given me that extra reassurance that Darcy’s being well looked after. We are like two peas in a pod. She’s brilliant when she puts her mind to it but she’s not bothered about maths and English. I was the same: I skived off quite a bit and didn’t really pay attention. Going back to Blackrod to film the show, I still enjoyed the social side more than the work, although it was good to challenge myself. I’ve got a calculator and a spell check in my job as an account assistant at a double glazing company, so it was good to jog my memory. I didn’t like the fact that the SATs were just maths and English because Darcy is more practical. I could see her flourishing with exams in subjects like Design Technology. It’s obviously important to learn those subjects but I think they are pushed a little bit too much. The SATs were proper test conditions and it was quite daunting. I feel sorry for the kids being put through those conditions at such a young age. There’s no need for it to be so intense. They’re still babies. Darcy’s not done them yet but when she’s in Year Six I’ll be petrified for her. It worries me that if she loses concentration for a few minutes, that’ll be crucial for her. It’s so much easier going to school than work, though. Your dinner’s made for you, you get to run around at playtime. I love my job but I loved every second of being back at school.

Rick Hughes, 42, is dad to Ava, five

It was very surreal to go back to being ten years old again. I’m a percussion teacher and I thought that would give me a bit of a heads-up but it didn’t at all. It was still terrifying! It was a real eye opener to see what ten year olds need to learn. I was absolutely horrified how little I knew. I sucked at maths at school so I found that hard. The terminology has changed a lot, for the better. But the level they are doing at that age is quite amazing. The questions are off the scale – long division and problem solving. It brought back that horrible feeling of being in class and staring out the window and thinking, I’ve no idea what I’m doing. Mrs Mead was a cracking teacher. I only scraped through but I did pass thanks to her explanations! It’s a massive leap from when I was at school. You do read about things being easier now but I don’t think anything’s been dumbed down, I think teaching has just got much better so more kids are passing. For my generation, lessons were just sitting in front of a blackboard copying things down and memorising them. There wasn’t much discussion or explanation. I definitely feel reassured that Ava is at a great school, having gone there for six weeks. Ava can reel off names of famous artists or dates from history. I’m like, ‘What?’. It’s definitely easier to learn when you are a kid – their brains are like giant sponges, they soak it all up. And yes, they’re tested, but they don’t see it as being tested because of the new techniques. It’s more fun for them. The teachers call it a ‘quiz’. It’s learning by play. SATs aren’t going to go away, so you just have to find a way of managing it without putting too much pressure on the kids.

Jonny, 37, dad to Marley, 11

At first I thought it was just going to be a bit of a giggle and getting to spend time with my son. But it was a lot more serious than I thought. For the first few days I was messing around in class and being daft and arguing with the rules which is what I used to do when I was a kid. And I’ve worked for myself for years so you forget the discipline of school. There were more rules than prison! The amount of work they had to do, as well. I thought it was way too much. There is so much English and Maths at that age and that Maths is so advanced. That’s what shocked me. I think SATs should be banned. They’ll forget all that stuff after a year. Unless you want to be a mathematician, I think you should be given the choice to learn whatever interests you. Marley’s preparing for SATs at the moment and he’s been really stressed out by it. He stays on a Monday and Thursday night for extra cramming lessons. I’m 100 per cent behind him but I’m also saying, ‘Don’t worry, just do your best’. Life’s hard enough at 11 without getting stressed about exams. At secondary school I got put in a special needs set and it knocked my confidence a lot. I grew up thinking I couldn’t do things. After I left school, I started knuckling down and self-educating. Me and the lads would go around the mosques and churches and galleries and learn about things. It fascinates me. I love ancient history, I just didn’t connect with it at school. That’s why I think kids should be given more freedom to learn about the things that interest them. If it was up to me, I’d also introduce a morning session about confidence to teach them how to be motivated and inspired; and I’d teach them about mental health too. Blackrod teaches perfectly but if you ask most teachers, they didn’t go into education to prepare kids for SATs tests. After about three days at Blackrod, I had a word with myself and decided to stop messing about and taking it seriously. I realised that I was putting up a mask and being silly as a defensive action because my confidence had been knocked so badly at my own school. I was actually inspired by the show to quit my job as a painter and decorator, which I hated, and start my own business fitting feature walls in bars and restaurants. Doing this show opened my eyes to the fact I could do anything I wanted to do.

Julia Gaby, 48, is legal guardian to Asha, 11

I grew up in Hackney and Chingford. My school days were pretty horrendous. I was an overweight child, I wasn’t very pretty, not very academic, and I became a target. That stuck with me from primary school to the day I left. I had to leave five minutes early to get home safe. In those days they didn’t do anything about bullying and it just got worse. I’m so glad that kids these days have a different experience. As soon as you walk into Blackrod, you can feel the warmth. The teachers really care about the kids. I didn’t find the academic side of it easy, though. In our first week we had a maths test and when they put the paper in front of me, I could feel the anxiety building, and I ended up leaving the classroom and crying in the toilets. But by the end of the six weeks I learned enough to now help Asha with her homework. So that was very valuable. Another day, someone in Class 6M was saying that art wasn’t a proper subject. But Asha’s mother – my cousin – died when she was four years old and in those early days Asha used art to express her sadness and grief. She’d draw these terrible dark pictures full of black and monsters with big red eyes. After a few weeks, colour started to appear in her drawings again. It really helped her. I think whether it’s music or PE or cooking, it’s very important for children to express themselves in whichever subject they love. You’ve got to encourage everything. When Asha came to live with me, it was tough because I didn’t have her from a baby, and she already knew who she was. But we have worked through it and we have a great bond. It’s a work in progress for any parent but I probably had to work a bit harder at it because I’m not naturally maternal. Asha and I are definitely closer because of doing this show. She talks to me about teachers and kids in her class because I know who they are now. It’s been a brilliant experience.

The four-part series The Class of Mum and Dad is on Channel 4, Tuesdays at 8pm from April 10.