I became one of those parents I used to read about and snigger

Getting a school place was a cinch. We just unrolled our sleeping bags and queued outside at dawn


I have done some things since becoming a parent that would have made the toenails of my past, pre-children self curl in horror.

When my first child was born, I created a slideshow of baby photos to the soundtrack of Roberta Flack’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face , and sent it to everyone in my email address book. (Amazingly, some of them still talk to me.)

Later, I wrote long essays about her sleep patterns and digestive habits and posted them anonymously on internet fora, so that strangers could write back to tell me I was doing everything wrong. Since becoming a mother, I have even learned to find fart jokes funny.

But all of this pales beside the alarming lengths to which I have gone in order to secure my children a place in primary school.

My pre-children self had imagined finding a school for my putative future offspring would be a straightforward matter. It would involve, at most, rocking up to the establishment of my choice a week or two before they were due to start and putting their names down.

I chugged along in this state of blissful ignorance for about a year after I became a mother. As other, more clued-in parents uttered things about “waiting lists” and “expressions of interest”, I felt my eyes glaze over, as they do whenever someone tries to explain how to programme the timer on the washing machine.

When one child was 17 months and the second was on the way, we moved to a new house in a faraway part of Dublin. Only then did I finally get around to calling the local primary and secondary schools. I didn’t want anything fee-paying or fancy – I wasn’t looking for them to study Mandarin or how to design iPhone apps. I just wanted somewhere they could learn sums and English and how not to poke one another in the eye with crayons.

Most of the schools told me I was much too late. Others promised, in exchange for a modest donation of €100, to take my child’s name and call me back in a decade. Some just laughed.

In desperation, I began prowling playgrounds in my area, badgering the mothers of uniform-wearing children for clues about the system. The key to the system, it turned out, is that there is no system.

Some schools run a first-come, first-served basis and fill up years in advance. Others give preference to the sons and daughters of past pupils, siblings or children in the catchment area. Many charge non-refundable deposits.

I got wind of one local school, a gaelscoil, that takes the names of all the children interested in a place at a single meeting on a preordained date in February and then assigns places according to a bafflingly complex system. I wrote the date on the kitchen calendar and resolved to be there.

In the interim, my son arrived six weeks early, which – I reckoned – gave him a headstart on all the other eejits who waited until they were fully gestated to be born. A few weeks after his birth, we got a call to say he was finally ready to come home from hospital. The date for his release coincided with the meeting at the gaelscoil. Naturally, there was no contest over which event I’d attend.

At the meeting, I explained to the headmaster that I was putting my son’s name down three weeks in advance of his due date, and that I had even delayed picking him up from hospital to be there. He looked at me with pity – or maybe it was fear – and said he couldn’t make any promises.

That’s when I realised it: I had become one of those parents I used to read about and snigger. The ones who camp out all night at schools; who walk around desperately murmuring things about “PEL numbers” and “catchment areas”.

My son didn’t get a place in the gaelscoil. We did eventually manage to get both children into an excellent nearby national school – in the end, it was a cinch. All we had to do was unroll our sleeping bags and queue outside the school at dawn, on three separate occasions in the depths of winter, and pay a non-refundable deposit for schoolbooks. Easy.

Admissions overhaul

I read in this newspaper last week that Minister for Education and Skills

Ruairi Quinn has “radical plans” to overhaul school-admissions policies. I rarely cheer when I read anything that this Government intends to do, but I may have let out a modest whoop at this news.

Quinn said he intends to ban application fees and the “insidious” practice of schools interviewing parents, which will hopefully mean an end to children being expected to answer questions no prospective employer would dare ask – including queries about their religion, parents’ schools and occupations.

The first-come, first-served model used by the Educate Together schools is also up for review. Although ostensibly fairer, it still favours the children of parents who are sufficiently focused on their offspring’s education to put their names down the moment they are conceived. In other words, pushy, middle-class parents.

Having navigated the bewildering alternative, I like the sound of the system in operation in Limerick, which is currently being mooted as a model for the rest of the country.

Schools co-ordinate their enrollments under a common application system and parents apply on a single form, listing their preferences from one to nine. Ninety one per cent of them get their first choice, and no one has to queue at dawn, hand over large sums of money, or even recite Humpty Dumpty in Cyrillic while juggling Rubik’s cubes.

Now is not the time for a Thatcher hagiography
I always thought the Irish were world leaders at the practice of not speaking ill of the dead – a well- intentioned piece of hypocrisy rooted in religious superstition and a horror of offending.

Not so, judging by the dewy-eyed reaction around the world to the death of Margaret Thatcher. This gushing tribute from US President Barack Obama was typical: “The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend.”

The notion that the recently dead are immune from the kind of reasoned analysis to which we subject the still-living and the long-dead is a silly conceit and a dangerous one – it is at least one factor in the confluence of events that prevented the allegations about Jimmy Savile from emerging sooner.

The occasion of the death of a powerful figure such as Thatcher is precisely the moment for cool-headed, objective appraisals of her life and legacy. Holding back from honest analysis is not a mark of respect to her family – rather, it’s a mark of disrespect to a woman who was as well able to take it as she was to dish it out.

joconnell@irishtimes, @jenoconnell

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