When you have decided where to live, the next step is to decide on the school. The system is very similar to the UK; School Districts control the catchment areas, and they will tell you which is your designated school for your address. You can visit a number of schools, request another school, or choose to go private, but we were mostly met with bemused expressions when we suggested we might have some say in where our children went. We didn’t have too much of a problem as we loved our local school from the moment we saw it, but we know many families who have moved their children from school to school. There are lots of schools to choose from – 5 elementaries within walking distance of our house, and probably another 5 within a short cycle ride. This keeps overall numbers down, although class sizes are probably similar to the UK.
Private schools and some public schools have uniform – there is a gathering movement to introduce uniform across the board, which we will fight. In our experience at Elementary level, the lack of uniform generates such a relaxed, low stress atmosphere, from the moment the kids wake up and don’t have to panic about the fact that their uniform isn’t clean, to the moment they get out of school and start digging in the mud in the playpark – no need to scream “You’ll get your uniform dirty!” I suppose as the girls get older we might face the “labels” issue, but as all the clothes are great quality and value, there is not the huge divide between the have and the have-nots we saw in the UK. On my commute last week I saw a group of high school kids on their way to school in the rain – boys and girls all sensibly dressed in hoodies, jeans, trainers (called runners here), and carrying umbrellas. Later, I saw a girl on her way to school in uniform – standard tiny skirt, no tights or leggings, tiny shoes, no coat, just like the girls I berated at the secondary school I worked at in Bournemouth. Maybe it was just her, but I really believe uniform leads to some very poor decisions!
Anyway, off my soapbox and back to school. Kindergarten starts at 5 years old and school years are assigned from January (so your child with the November birthday was one of the oldest in the year in England and will be one of the youngest over here). That meant that poor Lily, who had started Reception in September, arrived in Vancouver to be told she was too young for school; more sympathy for poor Dad who had been celebrating finally getting all 3 into school and enjoying his free days, only to find he had one of them back again! All day Kindergarten has recently been introduced throughout the Province, although just in a few schools this year – more to follow.
The curriculum is much more basic, there is less homework until Grade 6 or 7 and there is lots of teamwork, leadership and citizenship. Parental involvement at our school is not just encouraged, it’s almost demanded!
Now the big shock for us – School Supplies. During the last week of the summer holidays we take ourselves and our 3 lists into Staples, and we buy most of the store. Then we take it all into school to restock their cupboards. Why? Because that is the way it is done. Pencils, paper, folders, paint, and even boxes of tissues for snotty little noses.
We live in Coquitlam, where they have the 3-level system (Primary, Middle and High). The girls go to school in Burnaby, because that’s where we moved to first and the system is Elementary to Grade 7 (12 years) and then to High or Secondary. No-one seems particularly passionate about one system over another, but there is a certain kudos associated with going to French Immersion schools. One of our local schools has introduced Mandarin Immersion, but that seems like a desperate gimmick.
School grounds are usually unfenced, unless they border a road, and have great play equipment and sports fields. At weekends, in the evenings and during the holidays, you can walk your dog, play tennis or soccer or basketball, or just play on the swings. Our local school even has a spray park! Of course, the open grounds also means that the children must be trained in “Bear Drill” – what to do when a bear wanders into the grounds, but the other side of that argument is the easy access to the stream around the school, where salmon return each October to spawn.
Without the locked gates and the high fences, we sometimes worry about nutters and crazies, but the children are taught stranger-danger, and the schools are so small, a stranger is quickly spotted. We occasionally discuss the need for visitors to wear id cards, but nothing has come of it so far, and parents and visitors drift in and out of school all day; people seem to know the etiquette of keeping out of the grounds during school hours if they have no business being there. Perhaps the time will come when a terrible tragedy will change all this, but for now, we enjoy feeling welcome in the school and we love the trust placed in our children.
Next year, High School beckons for Laurel, and we shall see how different that is. I might write more on what we have seen of teenagers on another page.