HEAD TEACHERS, be warned. The fact that every successful
Olympian dutifully paid tribute to parental support will inevitably
up the ante among parents. How many of us imagined what it must be
like to be the proud parents of Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee,
gold and bronze medallists respectively in the Olympic Triathlon
final? Competition among parents will be fierce: it is already. The
red-faced dad who hurls abuse at the ref on a Sunday-morning
under-8s footie match is but the tip of an iceberg.
Arriving at a primary school to deliver a morning assembly, I am
warned by the head teacher to "watch out for Mikey". This is
normally a signal to be on guard against some mischievous imp who
thinks it is funny to offer outrageous responses to perfectly
Eyes flick nervously round the room to identify the enemy, but
all is peace and good order. There is an angelic child on the front
row cuddling what looks like a cross between a monkey and an
octopus. This, it turns out, is Mikey. Mikey is a stuffed toy. But
Mikey is no ordinary stuffed toy. He has dug an allotment, been
seen in the window of the pub, and had to follow health-and-safety
guidelines and wear a hard hat to work at the quarry.
What started as an ingenious idea - the children should take
Mikey home for the weekend and write his diary - has become a
fiercely fought competition over which parents can give Mikey the
most original experience. He has now, I am informed, been to
Tenerife and photographed in the cockpit of the plane, apparently
flying it. No surprise, either, that Mikey got an Olympic ticket
when the rest of us failed.
The hapless head has gently reminded the parents: "We are
talking a stuffed toy here." To no avail. Mikey mania is
Then she tells me about Reading Bands, where children on the
path to being fluent readers are codified by colour. "Is Jimmy
still pink?" is a loaded question these days, especially when Jimmy
is ten years old. Jemima's mum reminds us that her offspring has
changed colour at least five times since she was pink.
NAÏVE parents believe that a fancy-dress competition is a
vehicle for a child's creativity. My daughter, in her mid-30s, has
never recovered from the last Jubilee celebration. The village
"Create a crown for a Queen" competition saw her labour long and
hard with a shoebox, tissue paper, and loo rolls. One look at the
multi-tiered, bejewelled tiaras in the opposition ranks, and we
knew were doomed.
It is much the same story with the PTA summer fair. Why the "T"
is still in the title is anyone's guess. No teacher, other than
those who have been bribed or bullied, would be seen dead at the
PTA. You could end up with some tricky decisions, worse than
Solomon slicing up babies. The cake stall, for instance - bun
fight, more like.
There are two categories of cake. Those that grace the cake
stall, and those good enough only to be sliced up and sent to
Refreshments. Imagine, in ignorance, condemning Mrs Miggins's
famous sponge to be sliced. Her cakes have graced the stall for
years. A teaching career could be wrecked with such a gaffe. The
Miggins offspring might even be transferred to another school.
Meanwhile, back at the cake stall, children and parents hover to
see which cakes are snapped up, and which are left looking forlorn
and unwanted. Parents have been known to buy back their own cakes
to avoid the humiliation of seeing them sold off for 50p.
Parents will stop at nothing to give their children a head
start, even when it is hopeless. And Jacob's French is beyond
hopeless. Arriving for for his first private lesson, he asks: "Will
it be long?" Arriving for his second lesson, a week later, he
announces his need to use the facilities. Clearly, his digestive
system is in chaos. Not until a full ten minutes later does he
emerge to face the music, as it were. On another occasion, he turns
up with his friends.
With all escape routes blocked, Jacob finally attempts a few
words in the language of Rousseau and Voltaire in such an appalling
accent that he leaves us all begging for mercy. A compromise deal
is called for. We end up watching the Tour de France, and honour is
saved. Bradley Wiggins speaks fluent French: it might rub off on
Jacob. At least, that is what I tell myself. And his parents. If he
starts growing the Wiggins sideburns instead, they will ask for
their money back.
IT IS not all bad. Teachers are doing very nicely thank you, a
recent survey conducted by Netmums suggests. Designer handbags,
expensive spa days, and giant bouquets are now being lavished on
them as end-of year gifts. It has gone up a gear from wine,
chocolates, and flowers. "The days of an apple for the teacher are
long gone. Now it's more likely to be an Apple iPod", the founder
of Netmums, Siobhan Freegard, says.
Since the most expensive, and somewhat pointed, gift I ever
received was some deodorant, it is a trend I am inclined to
encourage. Only one in 200 admitted giving so that a teacher would
look favourably on their child. Hmm, I wonder. . .
And clearly some parents get it very right. I love the image of
sports-mad children making a game out of anything. Cereal packets,
biscuit-tin lids, a breakfast table, and a ping-pong ball: that,
Andy Murray's mother says, was where the path to the gold medal
And there was the most memorable family moment of the Games,
when the judo silver-medallist Gemma Gibbons looked to the skies in
her moment of triumph, and said: "I love you, Mum", a message to
her mother who died of leukaemia in 2004 after setting her daughter
on the path to stardom.
It is said of us that we are truly grown up when we have ceased
to be embarrassed by our parents. There were some very grown-up
young people in the Olympics. And it is a Yorkshire secret that Mr
and Mrs Brownlee have a third son, Ed, who is still at school and
is a very promising athlete. I am looking forward to Rio already.
Families - don't you just love 'em?
Dennis Richards is a former headmaster of St Aidan's C of E
High School in Harrogate.