The scent of lime tree blossom perfumes the surburban streets as I walk home from the primary school in the twilight, a breath of midsummer sighing in the heat-bound, populous town. No wonder that we speak of sanctity as having an odour – something invisible yet powerful, something which wafts over you in the cool of the evening or the dawn when you are more attuned to contemplation and to the lure of all that is most beautiful about being part of God’s creation.
I am returning from a meeting for new parents or, rather, prospective parents whose children will begin at the parish school in September. This seems in calendar terms like a long way off, but in fact will come soon at the rate this year seems to be flying by. From talking to some of the mothers afterwards, I suspect, it will come all too soon. The meeting is intended to allay the fears of anxious parents and to give a great deal of information about how the school operates. It is a big year for the school literally. Though there is something very intimate and special about having a one-form entry school, surveys of local baptism results have shown that there is need for extra provision of places and so three Catholic schools in neighbouring parishes are each taking what is called a “bulge class” over the next three years: that is, they add an extra form in the reception year which will progress throughout the school, so that one year alone will have two forms in it. This is a positive development and we are fortunate that the local authority has been prepared to fund it, but it seems odd that with such a healthy numbers of baptisms there is no such commensurate increase in Mass attendance.
The evening shows the amazing amount of care and detail that the school takes trying to welcome new pupils and their families. It’s a great deal more “user-friendly” than what I remember about starting school. The class teachers will visit each of the 60 new families in their homes over the next few weeks to meet the children and to familiarise themselves with the home circumstances. Parents will all be invited to be on “parent mail” – to have messages about school events sent to them electronically. Because orthodoxy about how maths and reading are taught has changed, the staff also invite parents to attend courses at school so that they can learn the methods used with their children so they can and reinforce what they learn. The meeting primes parents to be aware of the full range of “barriers to learning”, the kind of things that might mean their children have some special educational needs. This might be that their child is very gifted or talented; it might mean that their child has a specific problem like dyslexia. The alertness to the process whereby each child learns, rather than simply to the outcome, is very impressive. In our relatively leafy suburb, for example, there are 21 different languages spoken in the children’s parental homes. Staff have to monitor any difficulties this may cause – even down to being sensitive to the fact that many traditional fairy tales are culturally remote from the children. It is inspiring to see so much expertise and such effort to go the extra mile.
All the more reason for me to reflect on what an odd age we live in, though. At one point in the meeting the headteacher had to explain to parents in the strongest possible terms that her staff are unable by law to give children medication. If a child is on a course of antibiotics, for example, and needs to take a dose during the school day, a parent must come in to administer it. On school trips the staff may not apply sun cream to the children to stop them burning. Yet there are children arriving at school with all kinds of special needs, including issues about toileting which the staff are expected to deal with. They are required to encourage the children to drink water, eat healthily, recycle, walk to school. But if they fall over in the playground they may not put a sticking plaster on a cut and every year they must have training to make sure they can fire an adrenalin shot into a child who has a nut allergy.
My task at the meeting is to say a few words of welcome, to talk about how the school exists to support the parish in its mission and then to mingle and eat crisps. My fervent hope every year is that the new faces are not new, that they are people who really do belong to the parish as well.
What I want to say is, if you buy into the education here, you should be at Mass every Sunday – not because this is some kind of exercise in indoctrination but because this school is the happy, safe and loving community it is because everything it does is informed by the Faith and it is a fundamental error to think that you can buy into the bits of that you like and ignore the other bits without doing detriment to yourselves and your families and this community. You are not consumers of education, you are the originators and sponsors of it. It is not what your children become that matters, but who they become as children of God, each uniquely dignified and gifted and each made with a heart which reaches out towards the infinity of truth and love found only in the heart of the one who created and redeemed them. And never is that orientation more crucially nurtured or more crucially modelled for them than in those earliest years of learning.