Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Traffic Wardens and School: A Different World

Walking to school to pick up my sons, and I pass a traffic warden, waving a piece of paper and arguing with a mother. Nothing odd in that, the ticket-crazy habits of traffic wardens are enough to raise fury in anyone, in any culture, I think. The argument is loud, and it is about the precise point at which the pavement becomes a drop-down kerb. My sympathies lie with the harassed mum, until the traffic warden says, wearily and loudly, "Look, will you just move your car, because otherwise I will have to GIVE YOU A TICKET, do you understand?"
I do a double-take. Fuck me, this traffic warden is offering her the chance to avoid a ticket? Is this country for real? Did I miss New Zealand and arrive in Fairyland by mistake?

It is all the weirder, because I have just had a school meeting at which I was yet again bowled over by the sensible, proactive and helpful approach of the school staff. Not so much by the woman from the Ministry, who was EXACTLY like one of the bureaucratic nonentities in Harry Potter, the ones who lack the will to fight Voldemort. She sat dourly in a corner saying "You know your son won't get a statement in New Zealand, you know" like a sort of bureacratic Cassandra. She tried to talk us out of applying for any funding for my middle son, saying that he didn't sound as if he needed it. I asked politely who in that case would change his nappies when he started school in July, and the school SENCO and Head backed me up very forcefully, so that she had to admit that there was a case for High Health Needs funding. Then she suggested we didn't really need to apply yet, as the situation might change, and anyway it would all be arranged very quickly in due course, and besides, we couldn't apply even if we wanted to because he wasn't enrolled at the school yet. I asked "When can we enrol him?" and the Head said "Now." "Let's do it, then," I said. The Ministry woman looked glum, possibly wondering what spell she could use to shut me up. After the meeting I emailed the Head to suggest that just possibly we ought to get on with an application, in case it was refused, because in the UK appeals always took a long time...she agreed.
So all of that, obviously, was exactly like being in the UK, playing shadow-boxing politics with the local authority, doing dodgy deals behind closed doors.
But what was different, and spell-binding in a different way, was how much the school were doing already, and the excitement and readiness with which they discussed strategies and support. Sometimes enthusiasm is the opposite of helpful. When it replaces expertise and hard-thought-out strategies, it is blinking awful, the "oh but isn't he LOVERLY!" approach to school support. It can even be used as an excuse to avoid helping a child "aah, but he's doing SO WELL..." But this seemed to be well-grounded, sensible enthusiasm. I found that they had already taken on board the fact that my son was wandering off - he'd been lost, three times, in four days - he'd also not been going straight into his classroom in the mornings - and we were able to sit down and plan a strategy to help. I thought it was going to be "just" a strategy, but then afterwards I found that the same TA who helps him at the beginning of the school day has been seconded to spend some time with him at the end, making sure that he gets out of the class safely and into Mummy's care. Phew. And now I can sleep again.
New Zealand has this laidback reputation: on an educational level I find the opposite, I find it is incredibly hands-on and enthusiastic. It wasn't so much Harry Potter as Enid Blyton: everything was awfully jolly and I kind of wondered if they would produce ginger beer and suggest we all set out on our bikes for a picnic. Obviously this can-do attitude is great when you are attending a meeting to arrange support for your child, but when I went to PTA tonight I found exactly the same wide-eyed, laughing, enthusiastic happiness and I'm embarrassed to say that on some level it was a bit disconcerting.
I mean, where were the complaints about apathetic parents, the memories of how the PTA used to do great things, back in the days when people bothered about their community, oh and could someone please remember to bring biscuits and milk next time, because staff were complaining that the PTA were swiping stuff from their fridge for meetings.
This was all wholehearted support and "how can we make this even better" and "did you hear how much X school made last year, can we go and ask them how they did it?" "Yeah, that is a great idea, everyone looking forward to the AGM? Yeah, we are a great PTA to be involved with." Nods of agreement around the room. And they even served chocolate at regular intervals. It was like being at a party with Noddy and BigEars. I thought that being a PTA member was all about sitting in a room surrounded by deep gloom and unwanted tombola prizes, arguing angrily about the rights and wrongs of spending the last tenner in the kitty on a pack of tennis balls. Here the enthusiasm and sense of community spirit was so dazzling you needed sunglasses. Gingerbeer and adventures all round.

I do find that people are less - reserved? unhappy? suspicious? - Even the rather uninspiring Ministry woman unbent when we discussed my middle son's kindergarten, and I mentioned that my youngest son wouldn't be going there. "Why not?" I explained haltingly about the encounter with the teacher, carefully leaving her nameless. "Ooh, WHO WAS IT?" she said immediately. "That is TERRIBLE, that is a terrible thing to say for you." Getting into the Enid Blyton spirit, I resisted the temptation to be a sneak and declined to name names. "Ooh, ooh, was it X?" I admitted that it was. "Oh how awful for you, no of course you mustn't send him there, we've had very good relationships with a couple of other kindergartens." She named them, so I have somewhere else to try.

All of this is obviously great (except the fact that I am going to have to fight a battle about High Health needs it appears). I was on a high, until I went to the Work and Income office to apply for Disability Allowance. It was DREADFUL. But not in a UK way. In an oddly specifically New Zealand sort of way. Rather like crossing Enid Blyton with Voldemort. I'll wait to describe it till tomorrow, when I've had some sleep. It is TIRING, being surrounded by all this extrovert enthusiasm...


  1. ooooh I've been waiting on tenderhooks for your first encounter with a Kiwi PTA. Looking forward to hearing more. Love the spellcasting LOL (I really must watch the HP movies sometime). Boo at the Work and Income office.

  2. NZ PTA sounds a bit like US PTA - my experience, anyway. But it might just be that one school, not the whole country. Apparently some PTAs here are v. cliquey, whereas I think ours is fairly welcoming. Nothing wrong with a bit of positivity every now & then, and somehow it seems to be more endemic in the New World countries than the motherland.