As I have written before, a huge factor in our wish to move to Spain was our daughters. Having spent years worrying about them growing up in London, shifting out to the suburbs of Surrey simply hadn’t done enough to counteract our anxieties. Between us we had mixed and different experiences to draw on from our own childhood, but knew that what we wanted for our girls was the best of everything, and we were dismayed at some aspects of life where they were born. Whilst we knew the move itself would be a massive upheaval in their life, and whilst we endured some resistance and complaints from the older one, we felt so strongly that it was in their interest to see it through we kept on going in pursuit of the different life we wanted them to have.
We had lived in a modest bit of Surrey, a little affordable corner slightly too far to walk to any train stations into London, and attracting a mixed community – lots of ex social housing, plenty of young families, good range of schools and near some beautiful natural areas and the river Thames. We’d found a school we were happy with very close to the house – not the ‘sought after’ school on the other side of the town which had the highest Ofsted results for achievement, but the one that had the best marks for improvement and inclusion, and where they made us very welcome. It was primary-only, but we were happy that our daughter could spend many important years of her education there, and her baby sister follow her through when the time came.
Lots of people would have been happy with this – it was a very different lifestyle to that which we had had in inner London, and a very reasonable lifestyle to aspire to. Indeed the town itself often ranked very highly in those Sunday supplement real estate surveys, about the best places to live and raise kids. I worked from home in an office in a proper garden rather than the concrete yard we had had before, the girls could play outside more than before at least on our own pocket-handkerchief lawn. We had the towpath, reservoirs and woods nearby. It should have felt like the perfect place to raise our girls – and in many ways it was.
A few things disturbed me though, as time went on, not so much about the school but what it represented about society as a whole. Things that on their own were minor but added up to a sense of our family life being controlled and curtailed by external factors in a way we weren’t entirely happy about, as well as to growing anxieties about the world our girls were growing up into.
I didn’t mind about the nut ban (although sending home snotty letters about lunchbox bars with seeds and fruit in, not nuts, seemed extreme. Vegetarians have to get protein from somewhere!) I was ok about complying with policies that could potentially affect the safety of other children, even though the regulations got pretty draconian as time went by. But other policies lead me to wonder who exactly was being protected by them – was it the children, or the institution?
For example, getting a letter home telling me that if our daughter didn’t have suncream on hot days, she would not be allowed out to play. When I questioned the value of putting sun cream on before 9am for playtime at lunchtime and could we not send it in with her in her bag, I was told that she was too young to do it herself (fair enough) and that no-one at the school was allowed to touch her face and forearms to help her apply it! We were talking about six and seven year olds, that responsible professional caring adults were afraid to touch in a completely safe and public way, to protect them from sunburn. What was going on here? Then another letter banned cameras and videocameras from class assemblies and school performances – “for everyone’s security and protection”.
The whole unspoken underlying implication seemed to be that generally adults – especially adults who chose careers that brought them anywhere near children – were presumed to be furtive paedophiles. Unless proven otherwise by a pretty meaningless piece of paper stating they had no relevant convictions of course – because as everyone knows, anyone who hurts or abuses children has a solid police record to prove it don’t they? Even famous authors who visited schools were suddenly threatened with having to prove their lack of criminality in this pointless way, that seemed designed not so much to protect children as to absolve those responsible for them from the vigilance and collective sound judgement that could really keep them safe.
At the same time people seemed increasingly to want protection from children themselves. A teacher I spoke to in a London senior school – not far from where we lived, and an affluent area – described his job as ‘mostly crowd control’, and talked about plans they were looking at to emulate schools in US cities by installing metal detectors at the entrances. The National Union of Teachers in 2009 described teaching as ‘the most stressful job in the UK’, with 41.5% of teachers reporting themselves as “highly stressed”. My memories of secondary schooling were far from positive believe me, but it seemed that even so things had clearly deteriorated considerably since that time, if the professionals involved were coming out and saying this so openly.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that I was genuinely fearful for my daughters entering secondary school. Everything was fine where they were across the road in the primary, but what happened after that? All I wanted was for them to be able to enjoy their childhood and being children… but even at the primary school the “Christmas disco” transformed these cute kids into high-heeled lip-glossed little monsters in crop tops and padded bras, it really scared me. Our daughter seemed to specifically reject this kind of Lolita look, and wanted to go to the disco in fancy dress instead – but we wondered how long her quirky individualism could last in the face of peer pressure and teasing even with such a young peer group, how long before she felt she had to opt in to this sexualisation of her appearance just to fit in and not get bullied? They were all so young…
2008, the year we were planning and managing our escape, was also a horrendous year for teenage deaths from violence in Greater London: over 70 children killed, often incredibly at the hands of other children. None of it seemed to be touching the quiet suburban area where we lived, but there was a sense of the menace getting closer all the time. These weren’t all kids from gangs or broken homes, living in the kind of estates I used to work at in London. They were increasingly just regular teenagers, with their hopes and dreams for their futures, obliterated in one horrific moment – often involving a knife that they or someone in their crowd had carried for their own ‘protection’. Every time we put the TV or radio on it seemed we heard about another brutal and senseless death, and we started to wonder if the metal detectors weren’t such a bad idea after all. How could school be such a threatening and dangerous place?
I don’t want to give the impression we were cowering under the bedclothes, scared to let our kids out of the house. It was more a sense of growing unease, and anxiety about what the future held – if it was like this now, what about when our girls were older, becoming teenagers themselves? Why weren’t other parents worried and talking about this, it was like we were in some kind of Surrey bubble of self-assured privilege – did no one else watch the news on TV…?
For all the positive factors that drew us towards our new life in Spain, it seems important to state and contextualise all that which we wanted to leave behind as well. We had, and have, no delusions about Spain being some crime-free child idyll, and indeed for some kinds of violent crime – especially domestic violence – Spain is statistically a worse place to be. But for us it was all entwined with the community environment we were seeking, where people felt collectively responsible toward the younger generation and looked out for everyone’s kids as well as their own. Our limited experience at that time of the Mediterranean way of parenting seemed closer to what we were looking for than the suburbs of Surrey.
So, did we find what we were looking for in Spain? Short of time travel to some kind of romanticised Swallows and Amazons kind of free-range childhood from several generations past, I think we have found the best of everything here. The combination of climate and space for kids to be out of doors in the first place, with the neighbourhood vigilance and knowing other parents in our community would be unafraid to help, comfort, chastise or protect our children, is a big help. Even though it’s meant adjusting some of our own English uptight-ness when a small child invites half the playground into the house to go to the bathroom and eat a weeks’ worth of snacks, we are learning to go with the flow.
Of course they face dangers here that they wouldn’t growing up in the UK. Statistically they are more likely to smoke as teenagers, and have a higher risk of death by drowning – that was definitely not something that troubled us greatly in Surrey, it has to be said. Embarking on the adventure of parenting teenagers as we are now, we know the future holds difficult decisions and conversations about mopeds, and continual adjustment of our old fashioned English notions regarding bedtimes and staying out, but we will keep crossing those bridges and negotiating as we go along, just as every parent of teenagers has done forever I expect. God only knows we don’t always get it right, but I am sure every parent who is honest with themselves can relate to that one too… all we can do is continue aiming to do the best for our kids at all times, and for us that’s simply easier here.