Mental health dilemma of a snowflake

I was watching the beginning of the latest series of Big Little Lies. In it a young teen explains to her Mum why she doesn’t want to go to college: she wants to join a start up that is a for-profit organisation providing accommodation for the homeless.

Obviously this was an effort to create a scenario that showcases the millennial snowflake generation set of ideals against the traditional. I found my 47 year old self on the side of the teenager, and so the cognitive dissonance begins.

In my lifetime I have done two important things: 1. I had two daughters and raised them with awareness and 2. I set up a not-for-profit organisation: Young Rewired State in 2007, aimed at bringing together the naturally talented young programmers and engineers who were brilliant but failing at school and failing exams, with few work or learning options and no community. The second failed in 2016, a victim of its own success and lack of sustainable business model/scale which is a total personal failure as I should have listened and learned (in some instances) to those who had slightly different values to myself, but who could have kept this important work alive.

When my darling nephew died in 2017 at age 19 and broke the world, my passing interest in mental health became far more than that, it became my lifeline. Although he did take his own life, there is scant evidence that there were mental health problems in advance of this act, it is all too sadly likely that this was a rash drunken decision — but we will never know.

However, the groups in which I sought and found comfort opened my eyes to a world of crisis especially with our young people and their mental health. Too many young people, google the stats it will shock you, and changes for the worst on a month by month basis. A story that broke my heart even more was from a mother in a group I had been a part of for a few months after my nephew died, who joined us when her 16 year old son got up from the family sofa, made a cup of tea for his parents and siblings, went back into the kitchen to get his own cup, walked into the garden and hung himself. No sign, rhyme or reason.

For several years, even before my nephew took his life, I had been working on an idea for a ‘spa for teens’ based on my interest in the 97ers generation. This rapidly became an idea for a cool members club for kids aged 16–24 where every person they came in touch with in the club including baristas and security had mental health training, but we also ran fun stuff and events that helped address all of the challenges facing them. With parental sessions early in the day to help scared grown ups.

I have the business plan and the breakdown of what it will take but my one thing was: it cannot fail like Young Rewired State. This is even more important IT HAS TO HAVE a sustainable business model. I cannot swoon into my liberal snowflake brain and make this a not-for-profit that relies wholly on donations and has no (slightly unethical in my mind) business model. This has to speak to the rich kids and their money in order to meet some of the needs of those who cannot pay.

And so I have been paralysed, for years now. I want to do this, I know what is needed. I know there is a business model here that will make it self sustaining and bring rewards for investors. But I can’t take the first step as my cognitive dissonance is so massive I can’t even begin to take the necessary next steps… but I KNOW we need this and I know this will save lives.

What would you do?

Are the school fees worth it?

I have been meaning to write this post for a very long time, mainly because I get asked by so many friends with young children what my opinion is on state schools vs private schools. This is because as my finances have fluctuated and my moves around the country have demanded my children have spent time at both private and state schools in both junior and senior classes, and even a brief spell of being home-educated.

Tonight I am writing it because I read this article. This is the second suicide over school fees in the last year that I have heard of, the first was the mother of one of my daughter’s friends who threw herself under a train – these are not cries for help, these are definitive decisions to end life.

I am writing this post for those with young children looking ahead to their foray into education, rather than those freaking out about how they can continue to afford the fees and whether they should/could/can send their children to state school. (To the latter, I say do it, it is fine – really fine. Please don’t be so worried about how your children will cope, mine have coped with all manner of moves and are better children for it. You do need to take time over the transition and be interested and do your homework on all school availabilities. And if you can only get your child into the school you are least fond of immediately, well the education system splits neatly into chunks of 3-4 years for each important bit, so there will only be a limited period of time before you can make another choice. Also, whatever the school does not provide, you can – and should).

If you are here because you are feeling suicidal or desperate, please do think about seeking support from people like the Samaritans or a doctor – the words here will only calm fears about the future in state education (which really is fine).

The history, why I consider myself in a decent position to offer advice, skip this section if you don’t care and you just want the answer

I went to private school, and I lived in fear of being sent to state school – it was indeed a threat if I misbehaved. I hated school, I was an OK student and I can honestly say that those I met there have had no effect whatsoever on my employment since I left school – no old girl network here.

In my naivety, before I had children, I thought that my ideal scenario was to have my children educated in the state sector in junior school, then privately at senior level when they needed to knuckle down and pass exams – I was a bit concerned as I thought state schools would not have any sports (a myth) but that was OK.

Once I started breeding I worried more, and hell-bent on following my pre-motherhood commitment to my children and state school I did the terrible thing of hunting down the poshest one I could find and begged for them to accept my child. They did for nursery but not for reception, I put her in pretty certain that they would change their mind and let her into reception. They didn’t, so she had to move to a different school, new kids. It wasn’t posh but it was great, the Mums and kids were lovely, the teachers were fab, some a bit meh, but mainly good (same everywhere!). What was I playing at?

I then moved and had a second child and sent them both to the local, local school having learned my lesson. It was fine, they taught the children and both my children thrived. Then some worrying things happened, they stopped teaching maths for two terms – I am not sure why, and I received a letter from the school with photos of the parents who were banned from the playground. Worrying, I thought, and moved them both to another state school, a little further away. They were both supremely happy there and learned well, associated well with other children, loved their teachers and so on and so forth.

Then we moved again – out of London this time and mid-way through the academic year. I could get one child into the local state school but not the other. Bearing in mind I was working in London every day at that time, I couldn’t cope with this, so I found them both a place at the local Private school. A small thing with reasonably low fees – fees in junior school are affordable (if you work a bit extra or take the job you don’t like but has a higher income, or you forego holidays, or whatever). It was very nice, although I was not comfortable in the playground really, as people far more wealthy than me really belonged there and I was a working Mum so not at the gym or coffee mornings – but the children were very happy and the teachers were great. The state school they had been at previously was better, better headmaster, better care for the children – but the education was good and they learned Latin, Rah!

Then senior school loomed for my eldest, and my silly brain still fixated on the importance of private senior school and the headmaster recommended a school for us. We went to see it and fell in love with it. The grounds, the building, the stuff on offer. The tea and champagne. The marketing events the school put on for us prospective parents was impressive. I would do anything to send my child there. Anything! Sell my soul if I had to, starve – nothing mattered more than my daughter being able to experience this education. We signed up, she went.

From the day she stepped into that school all marketing efforts ended abruptly. There was silence. I had to really struggle to find out what she was doing during her lessons, how she was faring at school. Her pals argued over what flooring they had on their respective tennis courts. The japanese lessons turned out to be one a term. The smiling head mistress vanished. She was in some sort of system, one I did not understand and I felt like I had lost her – but I knew she was having the best education ever, so I had to put up with it.

She seemed happy enough and so I was devastated when I lost one of my jobs and I knew I would not be able to boost my income in the current climate in order to pay school fees. These school fees had dominated my life, every single minute of every single day I was worried about school fees – where the next ones were coming from. I spoke to the school who seemed sympathetic and asked me to go and see them just before the beginning of the following academic year where we would work out a good plan.

Two days before school was due to begin I attended the meeting. Gone was the glorious reception, the tea and biscuits, the attentive staff – instead I sat outside the bursar’s office in a cold, drafty area of the school I had never seen. When invited in the conversation was short: full fees by the first day of term (the following Monday) or she would not be allowed on the premises.

This was her second year of senior school, I had less than a week to get her into a school and to explain to her that she was not going back.

Fretting and actually shaking I drove to the nearest school and begged them. They have no control over applications, the council do that and so I began the process of getting her into a local school to me – easier when I was not trying to find a place for two, but impossible at the very end of the Summer holidays, days before terms were due to begin in schools across the country.

I had no choice but to keep her at home. My Mum is a teacher and she tutored her for a while, keeping her at her house, I did my best to ensure she was happy and healthy – she was absolutely delirious with happiness. Had really hated her private senior school but not said anything as I was so delighted with it, and as a result being freed was the best thing that could have happened to her.

Eventually she got a place in a school quite far away from us, but I took her there most days until a place came up more locally. Two terms later she was offered a place in another school much closer to us, we moved her and she is unspeakably happy. The school is absolutely brilliant. A couple of dodgy teachers but that is OK, I help her with those subject areas. Communication between me and them is open and perfect. She has great friends, is hugely comfortable and self-assured having been to SO many schools, with SO many people! And she is doing well. The best she can in subjects she loves, and that is good enough for me.

My youngest meanwhile stayed in the other junior private school, with affordable fees (still wincey but there was little reason to move her) until she started being bullied – badly. The school’s attitude was not awesome and I hated dropping her at school, feeling like I was delivering her into the hands of hell – and paying for the privilege. So I took her out and put her into the local school that has many children who will be going to her sister’s school (and where she is registered to go, fingers crossed she gets in!). Again, same thing, she transitioned beautifully, the state school welcomed her so fully, communication is constant and they even ran an assembly and awareness session for the children on bullying. She has been there for just over 1/2 a term now, this is her second and she moved half way through last term, and you would not know the difference. Except that she is smiling, bouncy, happy and relaxed. The homework has eased up and she adores her teachers and new friends.

Why did I do it? All those years… all that money – because I believed a myth.

Skip to here if you just want the answer

PS My eldest is also often asked by worried parents of young babies. She says this (ish, this is me summarising her words): Going to private junior school for a bit taught me how to work hard, we had so much homework, lessons and the day was crammed. But definitely not at senior school. For her? She would never send her children to private school, ever. The second one feels the same.

Myth busting:

No sports in state schools – not true

No clubs in state schools – not true and they are often free/low cost

No exciting school trips in state school – not true, youngest is off skiing next week and eldest is off to Paris fashion week next year

State school children are rude – not true, indeed I find them often more polite than their privately educated peers

They don’t have a varied curriculum in state school – not true, but some of the options are optional and extra to the school hours

For more myth-busting, see my recent post that expands on this list