March – Homework and other issues


Last month I embarked on a Chinese New Year spring clean. It’s surprising what you unearth from the depths of drawers and cupboards when you put your mind to it. We’ve only lived in this house for five years or so, but it’s incredible the amount of crap we’ve collected in that time.

The most interesting item I discovered was my primary school yearbook, dated 1981. I have no idea how it ended up in my desk drawer, nor how it survived the move from the UK to Sydney and from there to Hong Kong. Anyway, the point is it did and I spent a happy hour on the sofa reminiscing about being eight-years-old and attending a 150-year-old Church of England primary school in the English countryside. There were lovely black-and-white pictures of me and my chums at Country Dance Club, playing netball in our polyester navy blue shorts, and running the length of the school field on Sports Day. The mothers in the background are all appropriately dressed in Laura Ashley florals – not a lycra activewear ensemble in site.

It turns out that in 1981 we visited the Natural History Museum and London Zoo, the church Harvest Festival raised an impressive 54 pounds (about HK$500) for the local Meals on Wheels charity, and Blackberry the school rabbit sadly passed away.

The school staff role included several teachers, a handful of dinner ladies, a cook and assistant cook, the scary old caretaker and Mr Hazard the school crossing man (that name is not made up, he helped us cross busy Church Road every day with his ‘lollipop’ and was seriously called Mr Hazard – the school nurse was rather fabulously named ‘Mrs Paine’).

Anyway, my own children found the whole thing utterly hilarious – especially when they found out that Country Dance Club involved prancing around a maypole with coloured ribbons, Mrs Griffiths imploring us to ‘smile nicely girls!’ (my daughters are all no-nonsense full tackle rugby players and to be honest slightly scare even me these days). They were also fairly incredulous that school camp involved staying in the same country (Antibes for the Teen Child this year, Chiang Mai for the Tween Child and Beijing for the Blonde Child). Actually not just the same country, it was also in the same county, but I didn’t dare admit that bit.

They were simple times. We had no homework, spent a lot of time painting or in the ‘Wendy’ house (I’m still not absolutely sure if the infant teachers were even professionally trained), and some of the older school buildings had no heating. No parent ever turned up to school assembly (even, or perhaps especially, when we were giving a recorder recital), and we weren’t allowed snacks at break-time. Amazingly we all survived and mostly went on to university and successful careers.

Which is why the enforced school closure by the Hong Kong Education Bureau just prior to Chinese New Year was such an eye opener for me. The children had work set online every morning and we ploughed a churning maelstrom of challenges for English, Maths and Integrated (I think that means ‘project work’, although my last school project involved making a castle out of cornflake packets and toilet roll tubes, not researching the history of the Korean peninsula), covering areas including synonyms, antonyms, communism, biodiversity in mangrove swamps, plus a mind-boggling list of other topics that I won’t go into here. I’m still struggling to work out what a homophone is.

But the main thing is, like me, they are all very happy. They skip off every morning and return with a smile every evening, and to be honest that makes the fees (sort of) worthwhile. They seem to be taking everything in their stride, even the biodiverse mangrove swamps. And maybe one day their own children will unearth a Hong Kong school year book and chuckle over Integrated and homophones and think it all wildly old fashioned. The other day a friend asked what I hoped for my children in the long-term. “My main aim,” I confided, “Is for them to get a job.” Which sounds a bit harsh but really I just want them to enjoy an interesting and fulfilling life.

Although of course the thought of an uncluttered, low rent, two-bed apartment in Midlevels is not unappealing…